My Journey to a sub 20 5k

No doubt you have seen in the media the amazing running barrier that was broken recently. What are you talking about the marathon!? I mean about how I ran 5k in under 20 minutes!

When I started running I had a goal that was so high I was unsure if it would be possible. Recently I achieved that goal, to run a 5k in less than 20 minutes.

When I started couch to 5k in 2016 I could barely run for a minute, handy because the first week of Couch to 5k (C25K) you only run a minute at a time. The first time I ran 20 minutes non stop was the last run in week 5 (yes couch to 5k is magic). I got just over 3k in that time and collapsed in an elated and exhausted heap.

My first 5k took me over 30 minutes and that was after weeks of training. The speed I would need to run a sub 20 was a dead out sprint, you can see why I thought it might never happen.

I remember getting under 30 minutes on the treadmill for the first time. My first parkrun took me 28:14 and I was done for.

I was still quite confidant though, and threw myself into training. I improved very quickly through a lot of hard work but the returns started to diminish. My 5k times started to plateau.

In fact, my 5k Personal Best (PB) of 20:34 would stand for almost a year.

I wasn’t too worried about this though. At the time I got the PB I hadn’t done much in terms of long distance running. I was thinking of doing a marathon and increasing my mileage rather than focusing on 5k and over this time big improvements happened in my 10k and half marathon times. I was gaining endurance.

My next 5k PB was exactly 20 minutes in august last year (2018). This was my first sale sizzler, and I really enjoyed it. I was super happy getting a 20 minute 5k, still it left me with just 1 second to knock off for a sub 20.

Not long after this I did the Great North run, one month later the great Manchester half marathon, then a month after the Bolton abbey half marathon, then soon after that got a place at the 2019 London Marathon so again my focus was pulled away from 5k.

So it was another year went by without getting under 20 minutes.

This year after doing the London Marathon I wanted to focus on 5k. I signed up for all 4 of the Sale Sizzlers. They are held 2 weeks apart, the same course in the summer and usually live up to their name of being sizzlers.

The first one was my benchmark, I hadn’t really tried speedy stuff at a parkrun but I thought I could get under 20 minutes.

Sizzler 1: 20:15

Not too bad, I wasn’t worried, it was about 22 degrees, one of the first hot days of the year and I was close. I also forgot that I had entered as a non binary runner, it was the first time they had included this category and I am proud to be the first runner to finish sale sizzler in the non-binary category.

I put in my notes that this was the hardest I had run a race, I remember feeling like I was too deep into oxygen debt at 3k and somehow just kept going, no doubt because of the marathon endurance. Different distances are painful in different ways, this was a lung buster and lactic acid nightmare.

Sizzler 2: 20:12

I wrote in my notes “Nearly 2 years training my 5k hasn’t improved”.
So you can probably see I wasn’t happy with the performance at the time! I couldn’t believe that after 2 years I hadn’t improved much. And all the marathon training hadn’t seemed to speed my 5k up. The London Marathon did have an effect though. Despite not being as fast as I was the distance felt like I had barely started and I was 3k in.

I felt extremely demoralised. I could sulk about it or I could throw even more at it and beat it. I sulked. But only for 12 hours then I joined the gym and threw everything I had at it. Used the frustration as fuel. I vowed to get under 20min at the sizzlers and under 19 this year….

Here are my strava notes from the next day after joining the gym and doing 1 hour on the crosstrainer.

Yesterday was the most demoralised I have ever been with my running. Joined gym again, sub 20 at sale sizzlers and sub 19 this year, fuck you 5k
New goals are sub 20 at sale sizzlers and under 19 by end of year. Image of my park-running shows why I am pretty upset. I went from 27:45 to 20:34 in 6 and a half months in 2017, getting 9 PBs in a row at parkrun at one point. All the running between now and then and I haven’t removed the 35 seconds? I was doing more back then as I was losing 2kg a week, so I am starting the cardio up again and doing more running. Sorry for the bad language BUT!….. FUCK YOU 5K!!! Its a war!

The war was on. The engine that had been idling since I lost weight was switched back on. I had 4kg to lose and a sub 20 and 4 weeks to train and all this is getting rather dramatic!

My friends interjected at this point to remind me that running isn’t all about speed and times, it’s about enjoying it first. And that is true! There are 2 ways running rewards you, the most common for me is the sheer joy of being able to do it. I couldn’t run for a bus – LITERALLY – a few years ago. I love running, it gave me the confidence to transition.

The other way though is the injection of adrenaline and reward for getting a PB. I wasn’t in a place where I would give up running, but I wanted to kick my own arse.

Looking back, what had happened was I had transitioned and it started to feel unsafe to go outside. I feel fine when I am running but my huge long walks had stopped and I barely even left to do shopping. I was running a lot up to 60k per week but other than that I was sat down. The increased mileage was good for the London Marathon, I am very happy with that. It wasn’t doing my speed any good though because I spent a disproportionate amount of time sat down.

I put on a small bit of weight which wasn’t a problem, it was just there to lose. Another way of getting faster.

Over the next 2 weeks I lost 2kg spending an hour a day on the crosstrainer, as well as running normally and walking a lot. When I focus on losing weight I am focused. 2 weeks had passed, it was time to try again.

Sale sizzler 3: 20:45

What happened?

It was 30C. It was the hottest day of the year. It was one of those hot days where its like youve stepped off a plane in a hot country and you immediately thing, oh blimey the plane is hot, before quickly realising that is just the temperature now.
The organisers of the sizzler said anyone who drops out gets 2 free flapjacks.
I channelled Blue and I went for a sub 20 minute 5k.

Here is Blue. He was once caught pretending to be a surgeon at Airedale hospital, he had done 7 open heart surgeries before they caught on to him. He was my inspiration.

So I didn’t do it, third time unlucky. I bloody enjoyed it though. The heat slows me down but I will take it over cold.

2 more weeks, the training continued, I lost another 2kg and had my last chance at the sale sizzlers.

Sale Sizzler 4: ????

I was lucky Nick Taylor was able to get a photo of me on this one. I was super happy and exhausted, this is about 3-4k in. I was enjoying it.

Keeping the suspense.

Well, I needed a bigger improvement than just a little under 20:00 and I smashed the bugger!


I really felt like I had a super power! I still do, it hasn’t worn off much. When I started running this goal was absurd. This was faster than my sprinting pace.

The challenge over the winter will be to keep going outside despite the cold. The hardest bit for me is how cold it is in my flat. It makes it hard to just get changed in order to go out. I am hoping to get that sub 19 this year, I need to target a saturday and go for it at parkrun. I feel like me speed has increased since the sizzler, I’ve continued training hard and even after 10 miles I seem to be able to hit sub 20 pace.

Hope everyone is OK, it’s good to be back. My next race is going to be the Bolton Abbey Half Marathon on 10/11/19. It is super hilly and muddy so wish me luck. Maybe I will get some video of that one.