What makes a man jump out of bed at the same time he should have left the house, throw on the nearest running gear, justify a lack of breakfast by “it’s just going to be a fasted run,” abandon the car in the first space he finds, hop out with one hand locking the car, the other starting the tracking app and the legs starting running, jacket unzipped, hoping to not be that late? Parkrun, that’s what. When my body woke me up on Saturday I had a clear choice: stay in bed and run later or Parkrun.
Parkrun is a weekly, free and timed 5k hosted by volunteers all around the world. And yes, I am verbing the noun. Saturday’s decision was an easy one. But I realise it sounds ridiculous to go through all that stress to run 5K at a free run (it would make sense if I was about to lose an entry fee!) when I could have just calmly stepped out of the house at a time that suited. I guess it comes down to the fact that I friggin love parkrun in a way I don’t love any other 5k training run.
It’s sociable, but anonymous
I would love to be a member of a club, but the times just don’t suit because of my working pattern and other commitments. As an introvert it takes time to build relationships, even with people who have shared interests. Some Parkruns are huge – the busiest I’ve seen Edinburgh is 600 people – which can make it daunting. But the sheer scale has an advantage – it’s a crowd, which means you still have the benefit of being with people, but can do so without actually talking to people. Everyone is really focused or chatting with the people they came with.
Yet I have found myself making conversations with people, like I’m doing in this photo from Saturday. I’ve not seen those folk again, but it doesn’t matter because for those moments we are chums. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had were with people I will never see again. This has given me confidence in the whole ‘being personable’ area of life, which I often struggle with. The last couple of times I have bumped into people I know, which is cool. It’s a chance to catch up with them after we’ve gotten our breath back. That human connection, no matter how small, is an important boost to a person.
It’s a marked out course, but it’s not a race.
My Parkrun registration email is dated January 2013. Yet I never actually took part until January this year. This was mostly a confidence issue: I’m not incredibly fast, I have terrible form, and never really felt I could call myself a runner (still don’t sometimes feel that way). Sometimes when I run in my local haunts strangers laugh at me.
Parkrunners are some of the loveliest people, and no-one really cares about form or pace. When someone slower gets a PB, we praise ’em! In Edinburgh some people have to walk back along the route to get to their car. Those fast runners are always humble enough to cheer us slow ones on. If I had known that I would have gone when I first registered. There’s a reason this photo of Dawn Nisbitt is so powerful.
It’s like any other running event that you pay for, except it’s free. There’s the same buzz of people cheering you on. The marshals keep everyone safe, and there is a tail-runner to make sure everyone gets to the finish safely. You can walk. Some people aim to run the whole thing without stopping; some people make Parkrun their final run in the couch-to-5K program. I really regret not doing this, as it would have made my first 5k actually memorable.
There are kilometer markers every km. This is horrible if it’s your first run in a while as you really feel you’ve done twenty by the time you see the 1km marker. But it means you can do some funky speed work with the run. Run the first couple of minutes at each km faster, then recover. I’m trying to do the 2nd and 4th km’s in 5 minutes to train myself to run at that pace.
The crowd also means you can practice race strategy. It’s easy to be caught up in the crowds at the start and let them take you faster than you should be going. So the day before Stirling I specifically did the whole thing as if I were doing the first 5k of the marathon, reminding my body what that pace really felt like (it was in some ways tougher than blitzing it out). On a day you arrive late and have to play catch-up (I’ve done this three times now…) the timing doesn’t matter so much to me as being able to get into the body of the kirk. One day I arrived about 4 minutes after the gun and felt I would never catch them. That run became purely psychological.
It’s a change of scenery
14 of my 15 Parkruns have been at Crammond, which is a back and forth. I generally prefer circles, and I really thought I would get bored of doing the same route week in week out. I would look at the locations of other parkruns and wonder how long it would take me before I went to those instead. But it’s been fun to watch see how the promenade and the Firth of Forth change during the seasons. As you do the route once a only once a week this is easier to appreciate, a bit like a granny remarking each Christmas “my, how you’ve grown!” In the heavy training seasons when you’re pounding your local routes over and over, your mind and legs can get bored, which is demotivating. On this note, doing a parkrun while on holiday (as many people do), gives an opportunity to see a non-touristy part of town and meet some locals.
One run and you’re done
After 15 Parkruns I still want to sing “all the people, so many people – and they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through there: parkrun! … it’s all about the joggers, who go round and round…”
I know, Albarn called them joggers. We’re runners, and we despise it when anyone calls us a jogger! But there’s truth in the song. It’s catchy, not just because the two syllables mean you can easily swap ‘parklife’ with ‘parkrun.’ There’s something more to it.
“I sometimes feed the sparras too. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being.”
The song is really about having time to watch all the people in the park. The line about feeding the sparrows says to me a lot about Albarn’s state of mind. Sometimes the small things give us the greatest sense of achievement. Regardless of the timestamp my Parkrun stays with me the rest of the day. I find it hard to get-up and go at the weekends, especially when I am by myself! Parkrun means I have already gotten up, and went, and did by 10.30, which is a pretty big kick in the face to the part of me which calls me lazy and a thinker not a doer.
Parkrun is almost a non-negotiable (we skipped Inverness on the basis it was blattering, which would have made running on grass in road trainers somewhat treacherous). Having Parkrun as a ‘thing’ helps me get out the house and achieve at least one quality run a week. This makes it perfect for when you’re in maintenance mode or just too dang busy. And it doesn’t take all morning, which means you can look still look forward to your chores with the joy they deserve.