5K's are hard.
I've been following the running adventures of Jenn over at Runs with Pugs for a while now. Incidentally, she is the inspiration for this post so thanks Jenn! Anyway, Jenn ran the Walt Disney World in January and immediately afterwards (Actually, I'm pretty sure it was well before that) made the decision to not run marathons and focus on other things; specifically work on her 5K times. Something she has accomplished successfully by the way. She has already managed to go sub- 30 minutes in training and is about to do so in a race pretty soon I'm sure. You go, girl!
Jenn's journey this year has gotten me thinking about how we set goals and how we, and others view those goals. While it is certainly different for everyone, when runners gather together (whether in person or online) and talk, we can sometimes make it seem like running a marathon is the ultimate goal for every runner. It almost feels like finishing a marathon is the core requirement before you can consider yourself a runner. If Runnerville is the place where all runners live, then the marathon is the gate you have to go through.
Of course, this is totally untrue and not only that, I have personally never heard any runner actually stating something like that (thank goodness, I know some have) but again, when you gather runners in a discussion, invariably some will be marathoners. They will begin talking about how rewarding it is and how challenging. They will talk about how it was probably their greatest running accomplishment (guilty!) and of course this creates unconscious peer pressure. You want to be one of the cool kids. You want to be a marathoner.
It also doesn't help that many people look at 5K's as a "first step" and therefore an easy one as you develop your ability to go farther. We make it look sometimes as if a 5K or even a 10K is just something you do on your way to running Half and Full Marathons. Again, this is totally untrue. I will argue in fact, that training for a 5K is one of the hardest things you can do.
Marathons are in essence, a test of patience. Especially to us slower folks. You train your body to keep moving for hours and hours until you reach the finish. In many ways, it's a grind which is probably why the Disney marathon is so popular: it actually gives you stuff to see and do while you grind your miles for hours and hours. You do something other than running with your time.
Time, on the other hand, is what you don't have on a 5K. It is a mad dash to the finish. It doesn't matter if you are a 20 minute finisher or an hour finisher. A time improvement at this distance requires a gargantuan effort, mainly because regardless of your fitness level, a 5K is a sprint. Sprinting is hard. Have you ever tried to sprint for 30 minutes? You have if you have run a 5K.
Exhibit A: Yours Truly. In the course of a year, I improved my Half Marathon time by a half hour. That is a HUGE PR. (and you will recall, a very memorable moment for me) On the other hand, my quest to run a sub-40 minute 5K was... well, difficult. I finally managed to pull it off in November 2013 and to this day, I have not been able to improve that time despite many efforts to do so. Sure, when I train I don't focus on that distance. I have spent the last 2 years working on Halves and Fulls but it goes to show you: A 5K PR is not something you wake up one morning and simply do. It takes a lot of hard work. Just as hard as training for a marathon. Don't think so? Ask anyone who trains for 5 and 10K's for the Olympics and such to see if it is any less hard.