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.

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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.