Want to Run a Marathon? Don’t Start With a 5k
I had heard of a 5K before I ever entered the running world. It was some elusive distance that people talked about.
“Oh, I’m training for a 5K.”
So many of my friends who were not particularly athletic would talk about this magical distance of endurance, and because I was also not athletic, I didn’t really ask them about it. I just heard the word “5K” tossed around in conversation a lot and thought “that must mean something.”
I started running on the treadmill when I was 27 as a way to shed a few pounds. The monotony and motion came easily to me, and within a month or two, I could run for about an hour at a 10:00 minute mile pace without stopping. I never usually ran more than that, because the treadmills at Planet Fitness cut you off after 60 mins back then. I felt really accomplished to get those 6 miles in.
It was not long after I achieved this goal that one of my friends mentioned the idea of us running a 5K together.
“What is a 5K,” I finally asked. I didn’t know. I was just a Planet Fitness treadmill runner.
“It’s 3.1 miles.”
“3.1 miles!? That is what people have been talking about this entire time?”
I was shocked. That was something I could easily do, it seemed. Why did people make such a huge deal of it?
We never ended up running the 5K. I had some imposter syndrome and anxiety. A few months later, I experienced a minor upset in my life which led me to stop running. Following that, I got into a relationship and gained about 40 lbs.
When I stopped recognizing the person I saw in the mirror, I picked running back up. Another friend told me she was training for a half marathon. Remembering the days when I could run six miles at Planet Fitness, I asked her if I could join her.
I’d never run a race before. I didn’t even know how to register for a race, or how it worked. “Where will I put my stuff?” “Where do I give them my money?” “What kind of clothes will I wear?” “What do I do about the chafing?”
I had so many questions, and a seemingly non-existent level of fitness when I started training for the Staten Island Half Marathon. All I had was a JPEG with a training schedule on it that someone sent me in a Facebook message and a solid, unbreakable belief that I would finish.
My mother told me not to run it. She said that because I was a cigarette smoker, I “would die.” I ignored her. Even some of my friends seemed skeptical, but in my mind, I always believed that I could do it.
When race day came, I entered my first start corral, ready to take on what would be one of the more miserable races I’ve run. It poured rain for the first three miles and drizzled the rest of the time. With will and determination, my 5’3”, 189 pound, cigarette smoking ass finished in 2:32:19.
Why am I telling you this?
It hasn’t even been three years, and I’ve run dozens of races since that day, and three full marathons. I was registered for three additional marathons this fall, two of them being Abbott World Majors before COVID-19 foiled my plans.
Oh, and I ran the Staten Island Half again the following year and took 41 minutes off my time.
Many of my friends looked at me in utter amazement. They would tell me that they “never could attempt that,” and “they’re training to be able to manage a 5K.”
While I think that any mileage goal is admirable, I also believe that the word 5K holds some serious clout in the general non-running population.
The “5K” is such a common distance, and for non-runners, it’s a fitness milestone. How did the 5K get this much leverage? Well, people talk about it a lot. A lot of people run 5K’s. Only 1% of the population has run a marathon.
I have a story about this that pisses me off, actually. My last job was in Times Square, and one day, I was wearing my Washington Heights 5K shirt while walking through a crowd on 42nd street. Some guy said to me “great job in the 5K!” His was the second of two “compliments” I received that day about the 5K. I have never once gotten a compliment while wearing one of my three marathon shirts.
The 5K, and the attachment to it from non-runners, creates a limiting belief in the beginning runner’s mind.
If you go into running mentally believing that 3.1 miles is a crazy, super hard distance to manage, your body is going to react as though it is. However, if you just start running, completely unaware of a certain distance being this coveted running milestone, I bet you’d be surprised at how far you can run, and for how long.
I’ve seen dozens of friends work for years to try to work their way up to a 10K. Yes, certain bodies are more well-suited for running, but if you read The Daniels’ Running Formula, you know that natural ability is only part of what makes a great runner.
The other part is about what you believe you can achieve at the outset, and how much work you put into that goal. You have to believe that you can achieve it, however, before you get the opportunity to prove it to yourself.
So much of running success is about letting go of your limiting beliefs and breaking psychological barriers.
When COVID-19 started, I ran for 118 straight days before I acquired a small injury running on an uneven stretch of road that took me out for about three weeks. I’ve since resumed my streak, which is somewhere in the high-30’s at the time I write this. My plans are to run every day until the virus is gone.
I’ve also upped my mileage quite a bit during these last few months. A comfortable week, for me, is somewhere in the mid-’50s now.
I’ve discovered the secret to being able to achieve all of this, and most of it has to do with eliminating limiting beliefs.
Limiting beliefs are the very things that keep a runner from running the extra mile. The human body is designed to run; we are made for it. Ultrarunners have embraced this with high levels of mastery. What keeps you from being able to go the distance is your belief that you can’t.
Think about it — when you first started running, did you always get tired right at the same point in your run?
When you “picked a distance,” why was the last half or quarter of a mile the hardest part? If it was a five-mile run, was mile 4.7 the most miserable part of it? I bet it was.
Unless you’re completely out of glycogen, which you most likely wouldn’t be in either of these instances, the cause for your body to want to suddenly cease the activity lies completely in your thoughts.
And this is why I’m picking on the 5K as a starting distance when you have marathon dreams.
OK — being totally honest with you, the 5K is my least favorite distance to race. Why? Because now I run a 5K as it was designed to be run, which is as a sprint. I’m not really a sprinter.
There is a real, valuable place in the running world for the 5K, but if you want to be a marathon runner, the 5K is not the place to start.
Starting with the 5K is really setting your standards low. If you’re telling your brain that 3.1 miles is something you have to train excessively for and that it’s a huge milestone, you’re placing yourself far away psychologically from 26.2. Your body can handle it. Your mind is the asshole.
Society has told you that the 5K is an enormous accomplishment because it’s a common term in the non-running world, but if your goals are to run a full marathon, you should believe you are more capable than that. Guess what? You are.
For runners who don’t really want to run incredibly long distances, the 5K is an amazing goal, and they should rightfully be proud of that 3.1! For sprinters who do endless track intervals to shave off 3 seconds, the 5K also has its very important place. However, if your goal is to run a marathon, you’ve got to believe that you can tackle that distance before you even cross the start line.
Starting with a half marathon made things a lot easier for me. I ran my first 26.2 almost exactly a year from the day of my first race. My friends and I have very ambitious running goals for the future, but I know I can achieve all of them simply by believing I can, showing up every day, and putting in the work.