I am, never have been and never will be a ‘proper’ runner. But I have grown to love doing my local Parkrun.
Does that seem odd? Or a bit contradictory? Maybe. But that’s part of the beauty of Parkrun. You may be more Mo Mowlam than Mo Farah, but Parkrun is a safe haven and community for even the least athletic of runners. Like me.
What is Parkrun?
Parkrun is a collection of over 700 weekly 5km timed runs. These take place all over the world, although they originated in the UK, which is where most events are held. They’re typically run in parkland surroundings (hence the name). And they’re open for anyone of all ages and abilities to participate in. Parkrunners range from pre-teens to octogenarians, and from marathon runners to Marathon (okay, okay, Snickers) eaters. Most people run; some walk. It’s not a race, even though it is a timed event. The whole point is to get out there, get some exercise and be healthy.
Thanks to a support network of sponsors and volunteers, Parkruns are also free of charge. There’s no crossing roads or dodging traffic, although you will encounter dog-runners and baby buggy-pushers – most of whom, sadly, are much faster than me.
I run at my local event at Greenham Common in Newbury. My first Parkrun was last April; last weekend was my seventh, although I’m hoping to do them more often going forward.
But what made me start doing Parkrun in the first place?
I’ve never been much of a runner. Even when I was regularly doing sport at university and in my twenties, I used to dread doing warm-up laps. The suggestion of joining a running club or training to do even a 10km race was something I would have, well, run a mile from – if I had actually been capable of running that far.
I cannot stress this enough: I hate running. It hurts. It makes my bad knee ache. I find it boring. And I’m rubbish at it.
But as part of my ‘Fat to Fit’ drive last year, I started doing the Couch to 5K programme. Once I’d set off on that journey, running a timed event appealed to my competitive nature. Set a target. Achieve the target. Keep improving.
I know myself well enough to know I won’t stick at something just because it’s good for me. I need a goal. Running Parkruns gave me that.
It started with a simple aim: run the full distance of a Parkrun, no walking. That done, the focus shifted towards doing it faster. I had completed my first event in a little over 37 minutes. So I set myself the goal of beating 30 minutes by the end of the year.
A combination of injuries and terrible weather meant I finished 2019 just the wrong side of 33 minutes, but less than a month into 2020 I’m already running sub-32.
I’m not racing other people. But every time I go out on the course, I am racing the clock. And every time I set a new personal best, it feels good. No, scratch that. It feels great.
And that’s why I do Parkrun. It gives me the impetus to keep pushing myself hard. And it gives me that sense of achievement and satisfaction every time I improve. I very much doubt I would have progressed as far as fast if I was just running in the gym or out on the road without a definite goal.
My Parkrun experience
Parkrun is very much a shared community experience. Our next-door neighbour runs every week. A couple of my friends are also semi-regulars. Another, who is in a similar place to where I was a year ago, is hoping to start. Now that I’ve been a few times, I’m starting to recognise some faces, even if I don’t know their names.
Having said that, in my usual introverted way, Parkrun is very much an individual thing for me. I actually quite like running in a large group like this – Newbury has over 600 runners every week – but it’s very much a solo rather than a social experience for me.
I’ve developed my own little ritual. I arrive half an hour before the start so I can walk both start and the end of the course, running the last 200 metres so I can visualise the finish in my head. Stretch out my calves and quads in particular, set my watch and Runkeeper on my phone so I can monitor my split times, and I’m ready to go.
Even the way I run the course has a familiar rhythm and pattern, that splits neatly into five kilometre-long sections.
Kilometre one: start near the front, then ease into a comfortable pace as faster runners speed past me.
The second kilometre is about listening to what my now aching legs are telling me. Too fast? Too slow? Use the feedback to find similar runners I can pace myself against.
Kilometre three: I’ll be huffing and puffing a bit now but I know from experience it will pass – or, at least, not get worse. By this point, I’m starting to overtake more people than I’m being passed by. That feels good.
The penultimate kilometre is about battling myself. I’ll feel like I’m slowing down because of my aching legs and deteriorating form. But usually it’s hurting because I’m speeding up, buoyed by the knowledge that the finish is nearer than the start.
Kilometre five is about conquering the two small ‘hills’ – each about 200-250 metres and 2-3% gradient. On a bad day, I’ll slow right down and lose 30 seconds or more. On a good day, with a personal best in sight, I’ll grind it out and sprint(-ish) the final flat section.
Completing my seventh Parkrun on Saturday, there’s no question I was fitter and faster than when I did my first nine months ago. It didn’t hurt any less, though. I’m always trying to run to my maximum potential, so while the pace increases the level of pain is constant. While I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the entire run itself, the sense of achievement that comes from finishing it and being able to measure my improvement is considerable.
The average finishing time at Newbury Parkrun is around 29 minutes. My best is currently 31:54; I barely make it into the third quartile. But what matters to me is that I’ve improved from 37 to sub-32 minutes in nine months. That’s the only ‘race’ that matters to me. It’s a mass event, but it’s a personal yardstick.
And that’s the joy of Parkrun. Different people get different things from it. And what I get is perfect for my needs. Dare I say it, it’s even something I’ve started to look forward to. Who’d have thunk it?
To find out more about Parkrun and where your nearest event is, visit the website at parkrun.org.uk. I was not paid or incentivised in any way to write this post.