Some background: I’m almost 51 years old and have only been at this running thing for 10 years. While I did eventually become fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I have never broken 20 minutes in a 5K road race. I came oh-so-close in 2016 with a 20:03. In January of 2018, I ran a 21:16 5K on a sore hamstring, which, a month later, completely pulled and ruined my Boston Marathon training.
I’ve worked hard since May to strengthen and rehab the hamstring and in November ran a 21:14 5K, my second fastest ever, and coming up just short of my goal of a sub-21 time for that race. Since that 5K in November, I have been heavy into training for a March 2019 marathon. Speed work hasn’t been on the agenda much, but my fitness level is really strong right now. A few weeks ago, my son/coach commented “I bet you could break 21 now”, and some of my marathon workouts did seem to indicate that.
So, for a change of pace, I signed up for a 5K this week. I didn’t take a break from marathon training but this week has been a recovery week after a couple of higher-mileage intense weeks. I’ve still run over 30 miles this week, but they’ve been easy miles. Also, I’ve only had one strength workout this week, instead of two. Finally, with nine weeks until marathon day, there’s plenty of time to recover from a hard 5K. I’d never run a 5K within a month of a marathon.
I was all set to be content with busting 21 for this late-year 5K. Then, Christmas happened. My son/coach received his gift: Nike Vaporfly 4% shoes. These are the shoes designed by Nike as part of their Breaking2 project.
Breaking2 is/was an effort by Nike to speed up the process of one of the marathon elites breaking two hours in a marathon in a controlled environment. These shoes have a carbon fiber plate (currently legal for competition, by-the-way) and supposedly improve speed by 4% (for the elites, anyway).
On May 6, 2017, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran a 2:00:25 in the first Breaking2 attempt in one of the first versions of the shoe. In September of 2018, Kipchoge ended up setting the official competition world record marathon in 2:01:39 in Berlin. Again, he and many of the elites used this shoe. They’re now commercially available and a pair ended up under our tree.
Assuming that I was in shape to bust 21, could it be that using the 4%’s would improve me enough to break that elusive 20 mark? Some math showed that it would be close – a 4% improvement on 21 minutes is around 20:10. With that in mind, I put my son’s new shoes to the test in the Cold Winters Day 5K in Columbia, SC on December 29th. Here’s how it went.
For a race plan, I decided to target a 6:20 pace for my first two miles and then hold on through the inevitable last mile of suffering. This completely ignored the fact I’d never run back to back 6:20’s. Ever. Unfortunately, the first quarter-mile of this course goes uphill, with about a forty feet of climb, but I managed to hit 6:21 for the first-mile split. Recent hill repeats workouts were paying off.
Mile two started with a steep downhill that let me keep a sub-6:00 pace briefly, but a half-mile incline slowed me again, and I only managed 6:24 for the second mile. OK, not bad, I thought, as I braced for what was coming. This is the point where the hero needs to recognize glory is within reach and power through the rising pain wall.
I did my best, but rolling hills and another seemingly never-ending hill from about 2.75 miles to the 3.0-mile mark did me in. My third-mile split was 6:39, and despite an all-out downhill sprint for the last few yards, I crossed the finish line officially in 20:08.
My Garmin stats
This was my second best 5K road race ever, and I took home first place in the Grand Masters (over 50) category. Could I have gone that low without these shoes? I don’t think so. Improving over a minute in seven weeks while doing no 5K specific training is highly unlikely. But, maybe my body responds better to higher mileage marathon training. I do believe these shoes helped by at least 30 seconds overall.
Will I buy my own pair? Not anytime soon. While I enjoyed their light weight, these shoes feel weird to me. I would probably grow accustomed to it, but right now I’m not a big fan of the way the ground feels in these. Or rather, lack of ground feel. It felt like being on springs, a very artificial feeling.
I also don’t think these would do well for me right now in a marathon. They support my feet differently, and I’d be concerned about resurrecting my currently extinct arch-nemesis, the plantar fasciitis dragon. I did have a bit of arch pain during warm-up today, but it went away.
Finally, for me, the cost wouldn’t be worth it. I think my son will see the gains he is looking for, though, and if so, Santa and Mrs. Claus will be very happy. At least I broke them in properly with a trophy.
Thanks for reading,