Conquering the 10km
Updated: Jan 10
Sport fans are probably all aware of their team’s bogey opponent; the team they probably should always beat but never seem to.
If runners have a bogey distance, mine would be the 10km.
It wasn’t always the case.
Rewind to a few years ago, 10km was my distance. I don’t remember exactly when I ran my first one. Having done cross country and a few fun runs during school, I had done a lot of different distances, 4km, 8km and the 14km city2surf. I can’t remember if I ran 10km as a teenager, but there is probably a good chance I did.
When I joined Woodstock Runners in 2008, I ran a few 10km events – Canberra, Bridge to Bridge in Gladesville, Fisher’s Ghost and the Striders 10km at Homebush. I was also introduced to the Sydney Marathon Clinic races (SMC), which became a monthly ritual in the 2008/2009 series when I ran six of the nine 10km events.
My results in those events weren’t always what I hoped for, I struggled with the hills at Bridge to Bridge, the heat at Fisher’s Ghost, and in Canberra I just felt flat. But the good and the bad balanced each other out, and I didn’t consider 10km to be a hard distance.
Even when my focus started to switch from running to travel, I still turned up to some SMC events to run the 10km. Whether or not I would be able to manage it wasn’t even a question.
So when did the 10km become so hard?!
The first one I remember being painful was the 2013 Cooks River Fun Run, where I tried to run around 40 minutes. It was a bit ambitious on relatively light training, and I went out too hard and had an uncomfortable second half. Then there was the Central Coast 10km later that year. I had only been back running for five weeks after fracturing my foot, so I should have known my fitness was a bit down. But I had been running well at parkrun, and I went out too hard again.
My next attempt was the Striders 10km at Homebush in 2014 when I was more confident of breaking 40 minutes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back at it now, this run was the first time I experienced why the 10km is so tough. At the time, my 5km PB pace was 3:49 per km. To run sub 40, I would have had to run almost as fast as my 5km pace, and hold it for twice as long!
Somewhere during the time I was struggling with the 10km, I read an article that seemed to really sum up why I found it so hard. It said that to run a good 10km, you had to be prepared to be uncomfortable at the end of the run. No matter how fit you are, when you are pushing yourself to your limit for 10km, the end is always going to hurt.
It’s not like parkrun where I only had to hang on for a hard last kilometre. And it’s not like a half marathon where I might ease into it during the first few kilometres. To run a good 10km, I had to be prepared to run hard, hurt and win the mental battle. While I might have known what was required, it was a long time before I was actually able to achieve it.
That day at Striders, I wasn’t quite there. I started well, got tired around the seventh kilometre, and my pace dropped off slightly.
The next time I ran 10km was the 2014 Sydney:10, and I finally broke the 40 minute barrier! It was three weeks after my first marathon, and I’d had a relatively light few weeks of running. My legs were jelly at the end of it, but I managed to hang in there and run 38:41 (8 seconds per km slower than my 5km pace at the time).
My next three 10km races were the hilly Heart of the Lake, which is hard to compare, the Cooks River Fun Run and the Sydney Harbour 10km. At the Cooks River Fun Run, I started well, but again faded after 7km. The Sydney Harbour 10km was the week after the Gold Coast Half Marathon. The familiar feeling of jelly legs was there towards the end, but I managed to hang on and run a time that remained by PB for quite awhile, 37:54 (7 seconds per km slower than my 5km pace at the time).
Then, in a few weeks in August 2014, I ran a much faster than anticipated city2surf and a big 5km PB. All of a sudden, my 10km pace was 13 seconds per kilometre slower than my 5km pace, and only 2 seconds per kilometre faster than my city2surf pace. That definitely didn’t seem to line up!
I decided to give the 10km at the Central Coast another go, hoping to bring my time more in line with the other distances. It ended up being a bigger struggle than the previous year! The recurring theme of getting to about 7km, then feeling like I had nothing left in my legs had struck again.
A few months later, I ran a hilly 10km in Orange. It probably wasn’t too bad of a run, but it was so far off my other results, that I couldn’t help but be a little bit disappointed. I was in a little bit of a running rut, and I was definitely convinced that I just wasn’t a good 10km runner. The thought of running anywhere near my 5km pace for 10 seemed impossible. I decided that I didn’t like the distance and would stick to running half or parkruns, which I seemed to be a lot better at. I could tough out a hard finish in a parkrun, but I was lacking the mental strength to hold on for the last 3km of a 10km.
After that, I didn’t race another 10km for the rest of the year, and for a long time stuck to my feeling that 10km was horrible and shouldn’t be run.
That was, until someone told me that you need to run a good 10km to be able to run a good marathon. At the time, I had the Berlin marathon looming in the distant horizon, and after blowing up in my last two marathons, I knew I needed to improve if I was going to nail it.
I started to think that maybe, if I could learn to tough out the last 3km of a 10km, I’d be a stronger mental position to deal with the last part of a marathon.
At the start of 2016, I decided it was time to stop being scared of the 10km! I made it one of my goals to race three 10km events (and hopefully run a PB in the process).
Canberra would be the first one, then the Sydney 10, and the third was TBC. I found a program online that looked like a good base for the way I wanted to train – going back to basics.
With about ten weeks to get ready, I thought if things went well, I might be able to run close to a PB in Canberra. Once I started to get some consistent training in, my form started to improve and I had some good parkrun results.
Race day in Canberra was a chilly morning and I remember feeling cold for the first few kilometres. Despite that, I started at a good pace and felt comfortable going through about 4km. As we started to climb, things naturally got a bit harder but I still felt good at the turnaround.
Approaching the turnaround was downhill, and all we could see on the other side was how hard the speedy guys at the front of the race were working come back up it! I was actually relatively familiar with the hill – it falls at around 38km of the (old) Canberra Marathon, and I have struggled up it before.
It was a lot easier to get up in a 10km than marathon, but I started to feel the fatigue set in going back down the other side. I could feel myself slowing down, and after a hard last few kilometres, I finished about 15 seconds outside of my PB.
I was pretty happy with the run, knowing that I re-building my training, and still had three weeks to develop the strength to finish off the last part of the run.
The morning of the Sydney:10 was a smokey one with backburning happening in the mountains. I felt good in my warm up, and really wanted to run a PB!
The race started fast, and I tried to hold myself back to avoid going out too fast. I felt good on the first lap, including going up the long incline of Olympic Boulevard, so I wasn’t really expecting to feel like my legs weren’t moving when we came back down it a few minutes later! At that point, a few people went past me, and some doubt started to creep in. The mind games continued as I got closer to the turnaround at 7km, my head started negotiating with itself.
“If you get the turnaround, you can stop for a drink.”
“Maybe just walk for a little bit, it’s okay if you walk with purpose.”
“How about just slow down, the pace doesn’t matter as long as you keep running.”
“If you can’t manage this, how are you going to handle it when it starts to hurt in the marathon.”
By the time each of those thoughts had been through my head, I had made it past the turnaround and was heading back towards the finish. The runners in front of me didn’t seem to be pulling further ahead, and I knew that I would be really disappointed with myself if I gave up.
All of sudden, I was making the turn back onto Olympic Boulevard, which I got up okay. Running into the stadium was another story, I’m not sure how I was still putting one foot in front of the other. I heard an announcement that the first girls had finished a short time ago and a countdown to get the people currently in home stretch in under 36 minutes. My mind was really too tired to be doing maths, but I decided that meant I had two minutes to finish to run a PB. It seemed impossible, but I ran as hard as I could around the stadium, through the marathon tunnel and onto the track.
Coming into the home straight, I thought I read 37:50 on the clock, and it was a nice surprise to realise it was actually 37:10 when I crossed the line – a PB by about 45 seconds!
I was satisfied, I had FINALLY run a good 10km, that was more in line with my other results. I felt there was probably still a bit more in it, and was probably still my weakest distance, but I had improved. I ran two more 10km races in the lead up to the Berlin marathon last year, neither as fast, but one with a strong finish that I was proud of. Of course, just so there is always something to hunt for, I also ran half marathon and 5km PBs, that once again made my 10km look a bit soft.
The Sydney:10 was my target 10km race again this year (2017), and despite a few niggles and a half marathon the week before, I wanted to race hard. I was finally ready to embrace the uncomfortable feeling and hopefully push through. When I finished in 36:30, I thought that surely this time I had run to my potential over 10km. That was until a month later, when I surprised myself with another sub 37 on a harder course. And a month after that, a sub 80 half.
The cycles continues, and while I still seem to be stronger at the 5km and half marathon, I’m looking forward to trying to run a faster 10km. I may not ever completely conquer it, but I can finally say I’m not afraid to try!