A Love Letter to Parkrun

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I ran 10k to get that hat so you’re damn right I’m gonna wear it.

Saturday. 8am. My alarm, that dreadful marimba tone, interrupts a deep and all-too-brief slumber with determined persistence. It’s almost like it doesn’t turn off unless I wake up and manually swipe it away. In fact, that’s exactly how it is. But usually, somewhere between the eyes opening and the finger swiping, I’ve remembered it’s Parkrun day: my time to shine, or, at the very least, listen to the Hamilton soundtrack for twenty-some minutes without feeling guilty I’m not doing something more productive. My favourite!

I have lived this routine 73 times now (stat courtesy of my Parkrun email alert). Three of those times have been on Christmas Day. I’m still not sick of it.

I distinctly remember one morning when I rather sleepily told my mum I was having a lie-in. It was okay to have a week off, I kept telling myself as I desperately tried to get back to sleep. Then 8:30 rolled around and she went to drive off. I suddenly shot out of my warm, cosy bed and ran out to the driveway in my pyjamas to yell, “Give me two minutes!” Precisely two minutes later, I came back in full kit, still plaiting my hair as I got into the car.

Whenever I travel to East Anglia to visit my best friend, instead of using it as excuse to have a week off, I jog over to the gorgeous Eton Park and do Norwich Parkrun. I can tell she’s always thrilled by me setting an alarm on her morning off.

For running newbies, Parkruns will become your best friend. Other races will come and go but Parkruns are every week at 9am, Poole Park, by the cricket pavillion.

Despite my own abiding love for the 5k, I find that other runners have a tendency to belittle it as no biggie. It’s dismissed as, “Oh, anyone can do it.” But that’s exactly the point. It’s the race distance that’s open to everyone and poses a unique challenge to each individual. For marathon veterans, it’s an opportunity to improve their leg speed. For the kids, it’s an opportunity to go further and perhaps discover a talent for endurance running. For the casual runner, it’s an opportunity to work on their PB without too great an interruption to the weekend.

I don’t run five kilometres every Saturday morning to gloat about it. Most of the time, it doesn’t earn so much as a tweet. It’s for me. I value opportunities to test my limits every now and again, to try new things – longer distances, cross country, track racing – but I always love my Saturday morning Parkruns most of all. A PB feels like magic. After 73 goes at it, to know that I can still achieve the best one yet is a special feeling.

I often hear about people getting into running after setting their sights on a massive challenge. Usually the marathon. But the majority of those who take up the sport purely to train for a single, big race seem to completely stop once it’s over. The buildup is so great, the pressure so immense that when it’s done, they’re relieved. They stop almost entirely. All the fitness that they’ve built up slowly falls away. Given how challenging the beginning is, those first baby steps where you’re trying to drag your arse around a couple of miles, I am strongly in favour of clinging to every bit of fitness I can muster and never letting it go.

Surely a better challenge for someone who is turning to running in an effort to improve their fitness would be to set a goal number of Parkruns for the year? Consistency over bragging rights? Yes, you’re not going to be the guy in the office who did the sub-whatever London Marathon, but doing a Parkrun a week for a year is surely a pretty sizeable personal achievement? If you can run marathon after marathon then more power to you, but really I’m talking about those of us mere mortals who just want to keep in shape. The number of times I’ve been asked, “So, when are you going to do a marathon then?” makes me want to throw my trainers into an incinerator.

Wanting to run and wanting to run a marathon are two different things. I like running. The experience of running. I feel as though there’s a misconception out in the world that it’s not running if it doesn’t hurt so much you hate it, if it doesn’t make your calves scream and your nipples bleed. To quote the great philosopher Shania Twain: “Nah!” It doesn’t have to be about testing the physical limits of your body. It can simply be about fitness. Do what you can do. Do you what you’ll enjoy.

Parkruns aren’t about who’s the toughest; they’re about going out there each week and doing your best. Was that too soppy? I don’t care.

Never Seen Star Wars

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*whispering* There has been an awakening.

Quite a few years ago, there was a television series on the BBC that I remember my dad watching called “I’ve Never Seen Star Wars“. Celebrity guests would go on it with a list of experiences they’d never had, but these would all be things everyone has done. For example, were my friend Laura to go on it, she could put forward never having played Monopoly. The point, really, is that the epitome of these kinds of near-universal cultural experiences was considered to be Star Wars – hence the show’s title. Everybody’s seen a Star War, right?

Well, no. Not me. Or at least not until, at the ripe old age of 23, I finally relented. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed recently might find this hard to believe but, well, you know me: when I fall in love, it’s swift, wholehearted and usually with a heavily merchandised episodic narrative of some kind. In many ways, this was inevitable. Classic Jess.

My best friend Hannah and I were both unacquainted with the Star Wars universe, somehow reaching our twenties without ever having been indoctrinated. The two other friends who make up our friendship circle (or “squad”, as the kids are saying – and also us, to be fair, because that’s definitely our thread title) were Star Wars fans. Big ones. They were relentlessly shooting all kinds of alien terminology over our heads in fervent anticipation of The Force Awakens. When I say alien, I mean that literally – do you know what a tauntaun is?! And this was only a microcosm of the wider world. Everyone seemed to speak a language that we hadn’t yet learned. After endless indecipherable texts about The Force in our four-way group text, Hannah and I decided that we had to give it a go for the sake of our sanity.

Now, I can’t overstate how little I knew about Star Wars. You might assume that I went in with some base-level knowledge thanks to its ubiquity within popular culture, but let me review the entirety of my pre-viewing Star Wars knowledge:

  1. Leia’s cinnamon roll hair
  2. Darth Vader, iconic bad guy with voice-changer
  3. Gold bikini Leia (from that episode of Friends)
  4. “I am your father” and Luke’s eventual handlessness (remember the Toy Story parody?)
  5. Anakin hates sand (my friend Emma can’t get through 24 hours without doing her impression of Anakin Skywalker hating sand)
  6. Yoda-speak (because of Michael Scott)

This was the sum total of my Star Wars knowledge. When one of six things you know about a film is that the single female character is enslaved and forced to wear a bikini, I think it’s reasonable not to hold a whole lot of faith in said film. (Yes, in true Star Wars fashion, I had a bad feeling about this.)

As a woman, I struggle to enjoy narratives that don’t provide me with compelling, three-dimensional female characters. I don’t find it true of my world experience; therefore, it creates a barrier between the story and me. I want to feel excited and represented and emotionally invested. That’s why loving Leia was crucial for me. In A New Hope, rather than making doe-eyes at her rescuers, she is far more concerned with leading their escape and giving almost audible eye-rolls. The precise moment I knew she had won me over was, “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” Leia is a straight-up badass, and yet the popular culture I’ve been exposed to had me imagining some helpless, sexualised damsel with pastry hair. I’m so frustrated and dismayed that the gold bikini was one of so few details I had known about this resilient, funny, resourceful character. Thankfully, I know better now.

I feel compelled to mention that my admiration for the princess-cum-general translates to real life. One of the best things to come out of this sudden Star Wars mania has been discovering the sharp, eccentric, emoji-filled mind of Carrie Fisher and her achingly short memoirs. If nothing else, it was worth discovering this long ago, far away galaxy for Carrie alone.

As for the boys… well, they are similarly delightful. Luke is as far from the antihero as you could likely get, and how refreshing! In an age where antiheroes have become so tediously de rigueur, I find myself desperate to root for any good, pure protagonists I can find. “Gritty” narratives make me weary. My heart leans towards the idealism of The West Wing, not the cynicism of House of Cards. I’m more Snow White than Walter White. And, predictably, a girl living on the light side, not the dark. A male lead with none of the machismo of your archetypal action hero, and possessing qualities more typically aligned with femininity, Luke is breath of fresh air.

And then there’s Han. My friends have admitted to me that they thought I wouldn’t like Han. …Is that possible? Who couldn’t love this hot mess? (Emphasis on the hot.) I mean, really, a total boob. Remember that scene in Jedi where he taps a Stormtrooper on the shoulder and then legs it? I’m in love. Given that, mostly to rankle my mother, I have exclusively referred to Harrison Ford as “Grumpy Curmudgeon Harrison Ford” for the last twenty years, discovering his infinite comedic talents was quite a revelation. I once nicknamed Hannah, my best friend, “Han Solo” and then worried it might be insulting, he might be a bad guy. What a fool I’ve been! Could anything be less insulting than being compared to Han Solo? Aside from the fact that young Harrison Ford is truly the peak of male attractiveness, Han is in every way – how shall I put this? – A MEGA BABE. And now those same friends who thought I’d hate him have to put up with a constant flurry of cute Han pictures in their inbox, making them wish I did. Poetic.

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Same, girl, same.

Once done with the Machete Order (IV, V, II, III, VI – I promise it works!), Hannah and I opted to see The Force Awakens the following day. I shan’t indulge in a dissertation-length love letter to The Force Awakens (I promise I could), but we loved it. The kind of love that they write musicals about. We left the cinema that day feeling giddy and energised. The biggest film in the world, by a thousand different measures, is also good. Good in terms of narrative, but also good in the plainest of terms: in the message it sends. The diversity of the new casting feels incredibly powerful given the film’s overwhelming financial success globally. Dare I begin to hope that other film franchises take note?

Though I can’t even begin to cover all of Episode VII’s many virtues (e.g. Finn’s everything; don’t even get me started), I was most profoundly moved by the presence of women, in major and minor roles, throughout the story. The scene between Leia and Rey, in particular, felt so unique, I found myself in shock. Surely a moment of pause to allow two women to embrace each other is unheard of in this genre? I can’t remember ever seeing it. And yet, there it was. A mother’s embrace. I’ve seen bro hugs aplenty in my time but this, this was something entirely new – and special.

In Rey, young girls finally have an action heroine deserving of their worship and it’s her movie. It’s Rey using the Force. It’s Rey’s story. Don’t let anyone convince you that these movies aren’t for girls. They are. Now more than ever.

Thank goodness the Force finally caught up with me.