So You Want to Try Parkrun?

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If relentless endorsements of my favourite Saturday morning event have finally worn you down and you’re considering joining the lovely Parkrun community, at the request of my good friend Louise, I bring you every piece of advice that my months of weekly runs have taught me. From what you’ll need to bring along, to what you should expect, allow me to be your Obi Wan…

All You Need Is…

YOUR BARCODE. When you sign up for Parkrun on the website, you’ll get your own personal barcode to print off. Print it. Take it. You’re all set. This is the only absolute necessity.

I choose to also run with my Fitbit, my iPod (in an oh-so-chic bum bag) and a water bottle. England Athletics have become much tighter on headphone restrictions at road races so bear this in mind when entering other events, but at my time of writing you are still allowed headphones at Parkrun.

Start Line Protocol

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Poole Parkrun start line

Because Parkrun events attract a lot of newbies, the start lines can be a little more chaotic than your typical road race owing to the lower level of experience.

For those less versed in start line protocol, the front of the pack will likely be your sub-18 minute runners. Chances are, if it’s your first time, you’ll be closer to the back. At my Parkrun, there are often over 600 runners, and if a 35-minute runner plonked themselves in with the frontrunners, they would get swallowed as soon as the whistle went – or they’d go off too fast in a misguided attempt to keep up. That’s not fun for you or the runners attempting to get past you. But you do also want to avoid going too far back as it can then be hard to get through the crowd. It’s about figuring out your sweet spot. Basically, don’t be afraid to assert yourself but also be considerate to other runners. If you aren’t sure where you should be, talk to the people around you and ask about their goal times – if it matches up to yours, you’re probably in the right place.

#goals

Set goals. Go out with an agenda and push to achieve whatever goal you have set yourself – whether that be long-term or short-term. It will give you a focus. And when you succeed, it feels damn good. If you’re starting from a low level of fitness, the Couch to 5k app might be the perfect way to build up to a Parkrun. You can then set out with the goal of running the whole route without stopping, and then perhaps attempt to better your own Personal Best each week.

Reward yourself with PBPs. My friend Jen introduced me to the concept of Personal Best Presents. The goals we just talked about? Once you achieve ‘em, treat yo self ™. You’ll know you’re hooked when your PBPs end up being new running gloves or a high vis jacket. Reward systems work (I’m pretty sure Supernanny will back me up here), from big treats for major breakthroughs to celebrating sticking to your training plan with a favourite meal. After a few 5ks, you will start craving the achievement of a Personal Best time – and what do Personal Bests mean? Presents!

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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.

A Christmas Day in the Life

IMG_177208:00 – My alarm. Pavlovian instinct dictates that if I hear the Marimba tone in any other context, it induces violent rage. I’m so angry at Marimba. The worst thing is I can’t change it because I once set my alarm to my favourite song for about a week and then realised that it was the quickest way to turn love to hate, so changed it back to Marimba. I will live the rest of my mornings in this Marimba hell.

08:06 – Oh, actually… is it Christmas? I could be into that.

08:10 – My dad knocks to check for signs of life. “On for Parkrun?” he asks. I say yes but it goes against every instinct. (It was my idea but 9.2k two days earlier had unexpectedly done me in a bit.)

08:30 – My mum persuades me to wear a Santa hat. I’m skeptical. Festive cheer still buffering.

08:50 – My dad, who is usually unable to do Parkruns due to coaching commitments, has arrived at Poole Park and runs away from my mum, my brother and I. He proceeds to skip and jog and do other charmingly bizarre warm-up exercises. He’s making no bones about how seriously this is being taken. The three of us watch, a little entertained and a little embarrassed. Bless.

09:00 – WHY AM I DOING THIS?

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09:10 – (Louder this time.) WHY AM I DOING THIS?

09:20 – I feel very aware of every ache and pain in my body. The sensation runs head-to-toe. Particularly toe. However, it also makes me feel like a brilliant, powerful musk ox.

09:24 – Nearly over. Nearly over. Nearly over.

09:27 – Over.

10:30 – Back at home, I’m feeling too lazy to shower. It’s just so much effort. It’s 15 minutes of heaven followed by an hour of pulling my hair out. I begin to wonder if I should cut my long hair off and return to the unflattering bob that carried me through high school. Maybe it would do for me what it’s done for Taylor Swift. No, I decide. I have to be game ready if ever HAIM need a stand-in.

10:40 – I should move.

11:00 – I am overwhelmed with the biggest wave of cba and look for ways to stall drying my very wet hair and putting my makeup on and, you know, generally turning myself into a human.

12:00 – My self-esteem has sky-rocketed since I last checked in. It’s at least 47% because of the fact that I’m wearing red lipstick.

12:03 – No one, other than my immediate family, will get to appreciate the effort I just went to. The only pictures taken of me today will be makeup-less, running shots. I open Photobooth with shameless urgency. THIS EFFORT MUST BE DOCUMENTED.

Documentation of effort.

Documentation of effort.

12:04 – I post my Photobooth picture. I have now balanced out the makeup-less pictures of me running. The internet has found equilibrium once again. Praise you, Photobooth.

12:10 – I go downstairs to show off the masterpiece I just painted onto my face. My dad doesn’t look up from his guitar as I pass him in the living room. My mum turns around, amidst her deluge of roasting and boiling and chopping, to comment, “Oh, you look lovely.”

12:15 – I’m beginning to wonder if the time I spent perfecting my red lipstick was worth it for, “Oh, you look lovely.” I’m forced to face the harsh reality that Christmas dinner will undoubtedly ruin the aesthetic. I should care about something more important.

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13:00 – The dinner isn’t ready but no one told my stomach. I am now loitering with intent. I sense my mother wants more space than I’m giving.

13:25 – There’s no sign of dinner yet but I’m sat at the table in a hope that this will adequately convey my eagerness and hurry things up. My stomach is making noises.

13:30 – I gobble up the starter like I just came off a detox or something. Prawn cocktail hits the very 70s spot. 10/10, would recommend to friend. Solid start.

13:45 – There is a painful wait between courses but I try to keep my urgent appetite under wraps. My brother and I end up in a discussion about the family hierarchy, in which my brother gets placed fifth. He questions why he is fifth in a family of four, to which I reply, “You’re fifth, Dad’s fourth, Mum’s third and the hypothetical family dog is second. The dog loses first place on the basis that it’s only a potentiality. If the dog was real it would be first, second, third and fourth.” He accepts this.

14:00 – We begin our main.

14:15 – Mum, Dad and I finish our Christmas dinner. Callum soldiers on.

14:20 – Callum’s still eating. We wait patiently, all stuffed.

14:35 – He’s still chewing on his beef. (We don’t eat turkey.)

14:40 – I suggest that when my brother eventually finishes eating, we relocate to the lounge to let our main course go down before dessert. My body does not respond well to being tested. Even the most delicious dessert fails to appeal when you’re full to capacity. I think any further information on this topic might be considered, in some cultures, “too much information”. You can expect many essays on this subject in my upcoming non-fiction book, ‘I Wish I Hadn’t Said Anything’.

14:53 – Nearly three o’clock. We begin unwrapping presents. I think we all feel a little bit smug about our restraint. I certainly feel smug. That’s not unusual.

14:55 – My dad selects my first present as I say, “Make it a good’un!” He goes for the one that is most obviously a box of chocolates. I must remind myself of the true meaning of Christmas, which, as an atheist, ambiguously resembles the American’s Thanksgiving tradition from what I can tell (turkey, more people than the dinner table can fit, etc.). I am feeling particularly guilty about my atheism during the Christmas period, not least because I ate a month’s worth of advent chocolate from a ‘Real Advent’ advent calendar detailing the ‘Story of Christmas’. (If I’m honest, the story hasn’t been updated since last year so it wasn’t really a page-turner. If you’re looking for twists, stick to Gone Girl.)

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My brother chose this necklace for me because “it looks like Twitter and you’re obsessed with Twitter.”

15:05 – My brother surprises everybody with the unprecedented amount of effort gone into his presents (though, not his wrapping). My mum, dad and I are all as much shocked as grateful. Probably more shocked. Callum really stepped up his Christmas game this year. Such moments in my younger brother’s life tend to live on forever, so we will probably still be talking about Callum’s Big Christmas in the year 2053. I’m okay with that, though. So long as we also remember how bloody slowly he ate his dinner. I mean, really! (When reached for comment, Callum had this to say: “The beef was chewy.”)

15:12 – I unwrap BJ Novak’s One More Thing. Everybody asks me who BJ Novak is.

15:23 – My mum unwraps the new Take That album – a gift from me. She remarks on the backwards nature of the exchange given the many Christmases that I had Take That albums and concert tickets bestowed on me. “How the turntables…” I say in response. It falls flat. After a pause, my dad quietly tells me, “It’s, ‘How the tables have turned’, Jess.” I may have over-Gilmored.

15:35 – I unwrap a Parks and Recreation boxset, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy and gladly thank my mother for generously giving me all of Chris Pratt’s 2014 filmography. Sorry Jesus, it was Pratt who put the Chris into Christmas this year, buddy.

15:50 – We bask in the glow of Christmas lights and unwrapped presents.

16:10 – Dessert. My mum asks if I want my chocolate brownie gateaux heated up a little. I say yes. Heated up is always better.

16:12 – No, it’s not. The cake seems to have shrunk and liquified. We’ve made a strategic error.

16:13 – Tastes okay, though.

16:14 – My brother smugly savours his chocolate cheesecake, undamaged from microwave misadventures, as he looks on from the other end of the dinner table. Damn you, demon boy.

16:20 – We watch The Lego Movie together, at my suggestion. Even my brother is in for a viewing party. My dad is confused within about 20 seconds. No one attempts to help him. We all know it’d be fruitless.

16:25 – EVERYTHING IS AWESOME. EVERYTHING IS COOL WHEN YOU’RE PART OF A TEAM.

18:15 – I go next door to visit my nan, who is particularly taken with my nail polish. This has long been my biggest talking point with family members outside of the Kennedy core four. It’s a relief. It’s infinitely preferable to university- or career-related questions. Yes, let’s talk about the manicure I gave myself. My granddad is forcibly pulled into the conversation and nods his befuddled approval.

19:15 – I head back to the house for the Miranda Christmas special, ready to curl up with comedy. Soon, I realise that it’s rather light on the funnies but stick with it out of curiosity.

19:45 – They’re crying and I’m confused about it.

19:50Call The Midwife comes on as I attempt to piece together what just happened on Miranda. Given that I rather enjoyed the last Call The Midwife Christmas episode, I indulge myself. Also, I once met the nun-cum-not-a-nun-anymore on a tube so I feel some degree of loyalty towards this show.

20:00Call The Midwife is tedious so I opt to look over my presents more thoroughly. Picking up Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, I begin to thumb through it, eventually reading the preface casually and then all of a sudden it’s…

22:37 – …and I’m 150 pages in. Downton is on in the background (equally tedious, even longer running time). Amy’s so hilarious, I think to myself with a sigh of admiration. Oh, Amy, you poetic, noble land mermaid.

22:40 – My mum tells me she loves me and remarks upon what a nice day it’s been. We are all impressed by my brother’s sunny disposition.

22:42 – My mum repeats that she loves us. I think my dad is asleep. Either that or there’s a pneumatic drill nearby.

22:43 – Gushing continues. My mum notices the chapter title, “Humping Justin Timberlake” but says nothing.

22:48 – Poehler’s still hilarious. It feels ever so slightly weird to be reading her sex advice chapter while sat next to my mother while she watches Downton Abbey, but I work through it.

22:51 – I momentarily stop reading because Carson proposes to Mrs Hughes. I don’t care about Downton, but I think everyone can agree they were the real love story of that show. Maybe it’ll be like Moonlighting, I muse; now they’re together, the show will lose all its appeal. Then I remember it’s been terrible for years.

22:52 – Maybe it was never good.

23:45 – It has come time for bed. I attempt to gather my presents but, delightfully, there are too many to take in one load. My dad helps out and I’m soon arranging my newly unwrapped presents on my bedroom floor like I’m keeping them there on display. I am like a six-year-old child, standing over my haul of gifts. I feel mighty.

00:00 – I think it might have been my favourite Christmas yet. Casual and quiet with the core four. In the words of Amy Poehler, YES PLEASE THANK YOU.

Winning

photoWhen you heard (because it was all over the news) that I won an award on Saturday, I imagine your first thought was that it must be Glamour’s Woman of the Year. A reasonable assumption, and you can send your complaints accordingly, but no. I won the award for Best Improved Runner at my club. Equally prestigious. Not counting third place in an Irish dance recital when I was seven years old (which may have been more of a pity prize than anything, since I was struck with terrible stage fright and burst into tears), this is the first award I’ve ever won.

On Saturday morning I did what I do every week and forced myself out of bed at 8am, shivering my little butt off, to go and do Poole Parkrun. This particular week marked my 34th 5k since Christmas Day last year. The pacers were out for the occasion so I was feeling particularly motivated, especially after a promising training session on Thursday, and decided to make Mr 26 my mark – lucky man. Before Saturday, my PB was 26:34 and I was ready to beat it – it had been a whole two weeks, after all. Armed with my trusty playlist and my luminous Boscombe 10k woolly hat, I gave the 26 minute man a good chase for those three-and-a-bit miles. Sadly, he still beat me.

While I was feeling a little downbeat about how the run went, I wasn’t too far off the elusive Mr 26. Turns out, and I don’t want to break a scandal (except I kinda do), Mr 26 was actually more like Mr 25:40. My time was 25:55! New PB and I’m into the 25s. Success. It was a lovely way to begin a big ego trip of a day, really.

photoAt the awards bash in the evening, I was given my prize alongside my fellow award-winning Kennedy, the Roadmaster of 2014 (and, let’s face it, every year), my mum. People very kindly made a nice little fuss, though all it did was remind me that my mortification over public attention has not lessened since my jigging days. Best Improved Runner was based on runbritain handicap points, comparing the start of the year to the end. In my case, I had a handicap improvement of 8.4 points before the mid-November deadline.

Since my dad will read this more times than anyone else, I feel I should cater to my audience a little bit and quickly add that I’d still be the couch potato of yesterday were it not for the patience and encouragement of my mum and dad (also, the music of Taylor Swift). My mum was the one who put up with me when it was all new and I just whined incessantly throughout our 2 mile walk-runs, and has since come with me to every Parkrun. While I’ve been ticking off the 5ks with my mum, Thursday sessions on the track with my dad (and an enthusiastic crowd of other lovely people) have completely upped the game when it comes to my speed – having taken me from a 31-minute 5k to a sub-26er in only three months.

I’m thrilled to end the year with this small but rather validating achievement. It’s been a year’s worth of fighting against every natural instinct, ignoring all of the blisters and chasing humans half my size around a 400m track that’s got me to here. I’m excited to push myself even further in 2015, with my eyes on a few more races and, hopefully, a few more PBs. I’m not a natural athlete by any stretch of the imagination but man, I love it. If you’re not a runner and are thinking about potential new year’s resolutions, it’s time to lace up those trainers and hit the road.

My First Race

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a Parkrun for some time. If you aren’t aware of the Parkrun event, it’s a free weekly 5k run and many are organised all over the place. I was hoping simply to be fit enough to get around the course without walking. On the Saturday prior to Christmas Day, I declared – I’m very dramatic, you see – that I felt ready up to the challenge.

“And when was the next Parkrun?” I hear you cry. Well, it was Wednesday morning – when I usually train with my dad. In case you’re not good with days, and let’s face it no one is at Christmas, the other thing that not-so-coincidentally fell on that Wednesday was Christmas Day. We quickly decided that this was the perfect opportunity for me to run my first race. I really can’t stress enough just how quickly this decision was made. Almost too quickly. Had I run at the same pace as I made this decision, I’d have been setting records.

Aside from a weird dream I’d had about getting on a bus mid-race, I was really excited for the run. I was ready to do it. I knew I could finish. It was time. An added bonus of the timing of the Parkrun was that my dad, who’s usually training some far more talented athletes than I on a Saturday morning, was able to be there. Given that my dad set this whole snowball in motion as the first runner in the family, it felt only right that he be there for my first race, relaxed as it was. In the end, the whole family came out. Mum decided last minute that she was going to run too, meaning that I ended up with what appeared to be two bodyguards, and my younger brother just came for the entertainment.

It went pretty well really. I didn’t come close to walking or falling over. That was my primary mission. The hailstones provided an unwelcome little treat but besides that all went smoothly. I finished in 34:41. I was happy enough with that for a first time. It was a lovely way to start Christmas Day. And, let me tell you, I’d never deserved my Christmas dinner more!

I’m pleased to report that I’ve since run another of the Parkrun 5ks. This time even my brother ran, so we had family results ranging from 5th place to 415th. I lost 154 seconds on my previous time on the Saturday. My brother took pains to warn me not to ever expect such an improvement again. For a second there I was thinking, “Wow, at this rate, I’ll be winning in a month.” Maybe not.

At the Saturday race, there was a huge turnout of runners we knew. There was no training that morning so everyone was using the Parkrun as a substitute for the training session by doing what they call “tempo runs”. What may have started out as a training run quickly seemed to turn into race mode. Those rebels! Callum, my brother, seemed very pleased with himself as he lapped me (just in time, might I add). One thing I did rather enjoy was that a lot of my parents’ runner friends who were there did a double take as they spotted me running. It warms my heart to know that the lazy reputation that I’d effortlessly cultivated for years has been so hastily undermined. Ah, Christmas.

From now on, I’ll be making the Parkruns a weekly appointment. And, thanks to some helpful Christmas gifts, I’ve got all the right kit for it now too! My next goal? A sub-30 5k, and 50% on the age-graded Parkrun scoring percentage.