Outrunning Time: Attempting to Break 20 Minutes in the 5K at 44

Fastest 5K 20:27

I am rapidly closing in on 45 years old, but I’ve only be running for the last 7 years. As my more experienced peers struggle to defy age and maintain their speed, I worry that the years will soon catch up to me and halt my seemingly age-defying pace improvements.

I don’t have records that go all the way back to my early 5K training runs, but I’m sure my first was in the 35-40 minute range. It didn’t take long to break 30 minutes by improving my fitness with some consistency, but 25 minutes was a huge barrier. Running 3 miles at 8 minute pace seemed incredibly daunting at the time, and most of my attempts weren’t on the friendliest elevation profile. After 8 fell, though, 7 wasn’t far behind.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been experimenting with breaking 20 minutes in the 5K. I have made 2 formal attempts and a few informal attempts, but each time, I’ve come up short. In my first attempt, I was training for a marathon and noticed my top speed improving somewhat effortlessly before entering a local 5K with my family. That race was probably the closest I’ve come to 20 minutes, but I’ll never know how close as a course mistake had us running almost 3.5 miles. The data for the run shows me at 19:46 after 3 miles. That is basically in line with my current 5K record of 20:20, achieved at the same 5K race exactly a year later.

In both of those attempts and some training run attempts, I’ve found myself gasping for air during mile 2. I’ll then pull my foot off of the gas a bit to catch my breath, and by the time I’m ready to go again, it’s mile 3 and my average pace has slipped too far to recover. 6:26 minute per mile pace. For someone who started in the 12’s, it’s a huge mental barrier. For a soon to be a 45 year old man who is not in perfect health, it’s just as big a physical barrier.

In my 7 years of running, I have never trained specifically for a 5K. I’ve run 5K’s more for fun in the midst of 15K, 25K, half marathon, or marathon training programs. So my question now is whether I have a 20 minute 5K in me, or if I’ve run out of time and the long, slow age-driven pace decline has begun. To answer that question, I decided to dive into the Hal Higdon Advanced 5K training plan.

As of this blog post, I’ve completed Week #3 of the training plan, and I’m definitely noticing some improvements, even if they may not be showing up in the paces on my training runs. Here’s a quick run-down of my workouts so far:

  • 11/20/2017: 3.1 miles @ 7:56/mile
  • 11/21/2017: 5×400 intervals alternating 6:00/mile and walking
  • 11/23/2017: 4.24 miles @ 7:35/mile
  • 11/26/2017: 4 miles @7:12/mile
  • 11/27/2017: 3.66 miles @ 7:44/mile
  • 11/29/2017: 8×200 intervals alternating 6:00/mile and 10:00/mile with a final interval of 5:00/mile
  • 11/30/2017: 3.88 miles @ 7:49/mile
  • 12/02/2017: 4 miles @ 6:58/mile
  • 12/03/2017: 7.25 miles @ 9:00/mile
  • 12/04/2017: 3 miles @ 8:22/mile
  • 12/06/2017: 6×400 intervals alternating 6:00/mile and 10:00/mile with a final interval of 5:00/mile
  • 12/07/2017: 4.31 miles @ 8:07/mile (tempo run with 12 min. @ 20 min 5k pace)
  • 12/09/2017: 5 miles @ 7:11/mile (crashed and burned)
  • 12/10/2016: 7.55 miles @ 8:43/mile

This is all new territory to me. I’ve done very little speed work, and the times I have done speed work, it was extremely informal. Tempo runs are also new, at least at this pace. I’ve done them for marathons, but in those cases, I was running 7:45-8:00 pace, not 6:25 pace. It’s a significant difference for my lungs and legs. I’m also using the treadmill a lot, both due to the weather and because the treadmill can force a specific pace. That means I may struggle some on the days I go outside, but it also means some of these paces above are off by a bit due to the variance in tracking those runs solely from a watch.

This next week will be very telling as there is a 5K test race scheduled for Saturday. I came into this training plan knowing I could easily get under 21 minutes in the 5K so I expect to break my 5K record of 20:20 and give 20 minutes a good scare.

And if I break 20 minutes on Saturday? Then it’s over. I quit this 5K silliness and go back to running distances I find much more enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong. I love running 5K’s…for training. I just don’t like racing 5K’s. That said, 18 minutes would be kind of interesting, but it’s that kind of crazy thinking that got me into this 20 minute mess in the first place.




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