The joy of the 5K


Five kilometres is a beautiful distance. Small enough that most people can attempt to run it. Big enough that it’s hard to run it fast.

Every Saturday at 9am, you’ll find hordes of people running five kilometres in parks around the UK. Founded in 2004, parkrun is now a weekend staple, staffed by over 350,000 volunteers. Why do they do it? So that thousands of bleary-eyed runners can barrel around a field as fast as they can – with dogs and kids in tow – before retreating home for breakfast and a cuppa.

At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s best athletes gather every four years to run 12.5 laps of a 400 metre track at the Olympics. While most parkrunners would be ecstatic to finish the distance in under 20 minutes, Olympians are looking to go a little quicker. The men’s record currently stands at 12:37. For women, it’s 14:11. Just thinking about those times is enough to make your legs ache.

In the middle, there’s a group of runners who love their craft, but probably aren’t going to make it to the Olympics just yet. By day, they sit in an office or make coffee. But by night, they race. Sometimes, they’re weaving in and out of the public as they career around a park. Sometimes, they’re getting caked in mud as they blaze around a waterlogged trail. Wherever it is, they always finish exhausted. Because 5K is always longer than you think.

Running five kilometres is an enigma. It’s accessible – especially now that there’s a never-ending supply of couch to 5K apps to get you started – but it’s always challenging. When I’m preparing to race 5K, I always manage to convince myself that it’s not going to be that bad. It’s only 5K, after all – hardly a marathon. In some ways, I’m right. It’s never as bad as a marathon. But 20 minutes later, I’m always a shell of the man that I was before the starting gun went off. 

However, through the pain, we keep coming back for more. 5K is addictive. And it’s short. There’s something magical about the fact that so many people can all get something out of this distance. Whether you’re tackling it for the first time, and just hoping to God you finish. Or whether you’re trying to shave off ten seconds so that you finally sneak in under 18 minutes. Whether you’re trying to claim a place on the podium at your club. Or whether you’re shooting for gold while the world watches at the Olympics.

We all find 5K hard. But we’ll probably be back for more.