I hear it all time time at packet pick up for races or running groups on Facebook: "I'm only running the 5k." As if the only thing that mattered in running was the distance you're capable of enduring. As if someone who can "only" run as far as 3.1 miles is not a "real" runner.
I, too, was guilty of this when I started running. Running even a 10k distance seemed completely unimaginable to me, though I knew others could do it. I never thought I'd run a half marathon, let alone complete a full marathon distance. I knew I was the bottom of the barrel, distance-wise. "I'm not that kind of runner," I'd think, "I'll never be the person that can go so very far." It was all I could manage to pull off my 3 mile training runs a few times a week. I remember making the decision to run a half marathon and wondering whether I'd ever really be able to make it that far.
That far. That's what entered my head. Speed wasn't my goal, though I liked the idea of it. I had a tendency to obsess over the numbers and find where I ranked among other runners after a race. I loved hitting those PR goals. But instead of pushing for personal speed records, I pushed for distance records. How far is my body capable of going? Ten miles? Twenty miles? Fifty miles? I still don't know. I have yet to find that limit and it's still very interesting to me to go the distance.
A 5k race is a very different beast, however. It's not the long, slow endurance of discomfort, but the short, fast endurance of as much pain as you can manage. Contrary to the attitude of most beginner runners, who treat it as if it's just a stepping stone, the 5k is it's own entity. It's its own race. It's worthy of respect, in its own right. How many Olympic 5000 meter runners say "oh, I'm only running a 5k" on race day? My guess is not a single one in the history of the games. The 5k is a difficult race - not quite a sprint, but still short enough to push yourself extremely hard.
Now I find myself in the position of being close to really competing against the top athletes in my area in a 5k. I was never a runner, I started running at 30 years old after having 3 babies and years of neglecting my body. I began running just to add some interest to my life and hopefully, finally, lose the last of the baby weight. Those local elite athletes were placed on a pedestal that I never expected to approach, yet now, several years and thousands of miles later, I find myself nearing their pace, slowly but steadily. The pedestal I placed them on in my head is now completely intimidating to me when I consider racing them. I'm inexperienced in racing, anyway, having tried many different distances but no single distance frequently.
Now, however, I've landed in a place where I'm approaching the runners I idolized. It's exciting and terrifying all at once. I keep thinking "how did I get here? I'm not a 'real' runner." I feel like I don't deserve to reap the benefits of all the work I've done. I feel like I'm not worthy. But the reality is, I am worthy, and I am ready to take that step.
This evening, I'll be running my first 5k in more than two years. "Only" a 5k, but I find my heart racing and panic building every time I think of it. I know I can run the distance, but the speed is a completely different question in my head, let alone the pain involved in pushing myself as hard as I possibly can for 3.1 miles. I realize now that it wasn't a pedestal that I've put them on, but rather a stepping stone. And today, I'm taking a deep breath, swallowing my panic, and taking that terrifying step up to that stone.