As part of my ongoing Fat to Fit programme, I set myself the goal of running the entire 5km of our local Parkrun, which takes place at the old US Air Force base at Greenham Common.
And so that’s where Isaac and I were on Saturday morning. It was distinctly chilly. There were 530-odd other runners there, many of whom looked like proper athletes. And us: a bemused, overweight father and his son, who looked more like they had taken a wrong turn on their way to Tesco.
But there we were. And, a couple of minutes after 9am, off we set.
A slow start
I know I can run 5km – just – but this was the first time I had ever participated in a mass event. In the past I’ve run on my own, with Isaac for occasional company. I was wary about setting off too fast. Or the effect of running on gravel paths on my knees. Or tripping over and being trampled to death by a lycra-clad stampede. In addition, I had had all kinds of little niggles for the previous 24 hours. And a terrible pain in all the diodes down my left hand side. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference there.) Just psychosomatic stuff, I know, but even so it’s fair to say I was a tad worried.
To begin with, my concerns felt valid. The first kilometre was a sobering experience as practically everybody overtook me. The serious runners. Small kids. Parents with buggies (although I strongly suspect some of these had hidden motors). Isaac, who had paused to re-tie his shoelaces. At one stage I think a 2,000-year-old Greek statue passed me too.
Of course, that was no surprise. If there’s one thing I have come to terms with over the last three months, it’s that when it comes to running I’m less Linford Christie and more Agatha Christie.
Hitting my stride
But what was a surprise was that, once I’d passed the 1km mark, I realised I was starting to catch up with a few people. And then I actually overtook someone.
This was virgin territory for me. It was like Galileo discovering the Sun doesn’t actually rotate around the Earth. Or realising you’ve won the Euromillions jackpot.
That one simple act got my competitive juices going. I soon latched on to another runner and for the next 20 minutes we relayed each other. I would follow five metres behind her for a while. Then I’d push ahead and she would tuck in behind me. Between us we slowly reeled in and passed people in front of us. Not many – maybe one every couple of minutes or so – but enough to motivate us both to push that tiny bit harder.
When I ran the course with Isaac earlier in the week, I had started to struggle quite early on. This time, however, with my temporary buddy’s unspoken support, I trundled smoothly past 2km and then 3km with legs that were, if not exactly springy, at least not feeling like they were eating themselves.
In fact, just after 3km I spotted a familiar blue top in the distance: Isaac. He had slowed and was alternating running and walking. I set about chasing him down, knowing that he would appreciate the moral support.
Do you remember O J Simpson and the slowest car chase in TV history? Well, compared to that my pursuit of Isaac made that look like the Indy 500. It took me five minutes to close the 100-metre gap. But when I did we had a quick pep talk and kept going together.
Crossing the line
The final kilometre of the course is tough. It’s arrow-straight: a steady rise followed by a brief flat bit followed by another rise. The total elevation gain is at most ten metres. It’s essentially a long wheelchair ramp but it feels like climbing Kilimanjaro; a psychological barrier more than a physical one.
At this point, lactic acid was starting to win the battle over adrenaline but we kept going. Isaac mustered a final sprint; I, er, didn’t.
We registered at the finish – Parkruns are run with great efficiency by volunteer teams (to whom, many thanks) – and headed home. A couple of hours later, an email arrived with our official times. 36:55 for Isaac, 37:10 for me, more than 1½ minutes under my personal best. We were in the final 50 of the 530-odd participants but achieved our goal of being ‘not last’. And I beat both my overall target (sub-40:00) and the stretch goal of 37:30 I had all but given up on when my knee started playing up last month.
I have now upgraded my status from ‘practically stationary’ to ‘merely very slow’. Yay me.
This goes to show what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. Three months ago I started the Couch to 5K programme, having never run more than 1km before. And now I’ve run the full distance, faster than I thought was possible and knowing I can do better.
Isaac and I have already decided we want to try to do one Parkrun a month. (We’ve pencilled in May 11th for our next one.) And I’m already discussing doing one in Wokingham with a friend who was also inspired to do her first ever Parkrun last weekend too.
The funny thing is this: I still don’t like running. I get bored and it hurts my bad knee. But I enjoyed Parkrun. And that’s the point of the event. I’ve now ticked off one of my big fitness goals for the year. So when I do the next one, it will be because I want to, not because I have to.