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In Praise of the 10-K

by Hal Higdon

In a scenario no longer possible, my first 10,000 meters race was at the 1952 Olympic Trials. Forty or more of us ran. If lapped, we left the track until fifteen remained. I ran with the leaders for two miles, then faded to fifteenth. Last place! Not a great start for a 10-K runner.

Still, 10,000 meters--road and track--has remained one of my favorite distances, despite its recent fade in popularity. In an article titled "Running the 10-K" in the May 1983 issue of Outside magazine, I wrote that 49 out of the 100 biggest races were that distance. That compared to five listings for the 5-K.

But life changes. By 1993, the 5-K had caught and passed the 10-K in top-100 listings: 19 to 16, according to figures from the USATF Road Running Information Center. Last year, 40 of the top-100 were 5-Ks vs. seven 10-Ks. Of the 7,600,000 who finished road races in 2001, 2,939,000 (38.5%) were in 5-K races compared to 1,068,000 (14%) in 10-Ks.

Spreading like Wildfire

"The sport has evolved," explains the Information Center's Ryan Lamppa. "Numbers of race finishers have more than doubled in the last two decades. Once the 5-K caught on, it spread like wildfire."

Lamppa cites several factors for the 5-Ks popularity. The 5-K is shorter, thus more accessible for beginners. The distance covers less city space, reducing overall race logistics. Race directors responded to demand by improving existing 5-Ks or creating new ones. "The biggest factor has been the Race for the Cure 5-K Series," says Lamppa. Started in 1983 in Dallas, it grew from one race to more than 100.

Fair enough, but I felt like I was running beyond the pale, when I entered a series of 10-K races this summer sponsored by Standard Federal Banks in Michigan. With events in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and suburban Detroit, not only was the chosen distance longer than the trendier 5-K, but the courses featured hills, steep and rolling. New runners might have paused at that challenge, but isn't challenge what running is all about? Why do we run marathons?

A familiar distance

My participation in the SFB 10-K Series offered me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with a familiar distance. Focusing my training, I improved my time by four minutes over the course of the series. Last year I ran seven marathons in seven months to celebrate my 70th birthday; this year I was happy to run four 10-Ks in four months with no particular motivation other than I wanted to.

Running those 10-K races brought me back to that time a half century ago at the 1952 Olympic Trials, my first 10,000 meters. My debut was hardly auspicious, but I have lasted the distance. A half century later, I'm closer to the back of the pack than the front, but I hope to have many more 10-Ks in my future.

This article originally appeared as a Bell Lap column for Runner's World Online. Copyright 2002 by Hal Higdon, all rights reserved.