Tag Archives: Parkrun

All the People, So many People

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parkrun

Saturday, for those of you who have run it (if not, why not?) was the tenth anniversary of the founding of Parkrun. Not so much an athletics event, as a social movement, Parkun is an idea and a website. At about 290 locations in the UK it is possible to run a timed 5k in company, without charge, each Saturday, starting at 9am. Volunteers collect the runners’ times and enter them on a huge database. When I say “huge”, I do mean it: the last time I looked it the number of runners whose times had been logged was a staggering 549,859.

Between us the UK parkrunners have run 5.2 million times, at a total running time of 267 years, and 211 days. We have covered, give or take, 26 million kilometres.

Parkrun has also spread to about 200 locations outside the UK.

The 5k format turns out to be surprisingly fluid: whether that is the London parkrun which cuts through a marsh and is rumoured to be 50 metres under distance (making it ideal for personal bests) or the ones around it, on roads or parks, offering a variable mix of hills and flat. I have run at events in rural southern England where there were more people parkrunning on Saturday at 9 than could be found in the town centre 2 hours later.

There are events in London where barely one in fifteen participants is a child, and events in Manchester where adults running with children are a clear majority and parkrun has become essentially a family affair.

Parkrun is not advertised but spread by word of mouth. Extensive volunteering keeps the costs low. Being free to enter, it has something of the feel of the internet where, in general, the provider of free content “wins”.

Occasionally, the local sports shop owner may come down and bid the runners welcome, but apart from that there is zero business involvement, no marketing, no message from the sponsors; in fact, it is hard to discern any sponsors at all.

It is a superbly contemporary phenomenon – the Syriza or Podemos of participation sport.

 

Running in the cold

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Still held back by my weakened calf, I keep to a “comfort” distance (3 miles per run) and try to strengthen my leg by building up the frequency of my running. I run in a sweater and running trousers, with a hat and scarf but no gloves. I trust the principle that as I run my body will warm up naturally.

After a week or two of stiffness, but without pain, I allow myself the luxury of a parkrun. By a pleasing coincidence, a friend Ben, 18 years my junior, is there also. His recent times over 800m or 5k are little different from mine.  He sets off hard, and at one mile is at least 200 metres ahead. By the start of the second lap, he is so far ahead that I can barely squint at him in the distance.

I up my tempo, desperate to catch up with him. He stops momentarily at the start of the final hill. Running as hard as my body will allow I close on him until, with a bend to go, I can almost touch him. “Ben!”, I shout. Hearing me, he hares off again. I end the race eleven seconds behind.

Running the Bramhall Parkrun

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Inspired by Boff Whalley, I spent my August holiday running with my boys in the hills of the Lake district and west Wales. Actually, “running” makes the activity sound rather more athletic than it was. My calf still sore, I hobbled more than I ran. Meanwhile, my eldest boy, whose running is definitely hampered by the near-total absence of aerobic exercise at his school (things may improve in year 3, where the curriculum includes swimming) decided that what he really enjoyed was running downhill (see above) rather than up. We must have been an odd sight: ascending slate hills, the stone stacked together in layers, we would take as much as half an hour to walk to the top, then just three or four minutes to run back down to where we had begun.

Finding myself in Stockport on a Saturday, I signed up for the local parkrun, two laps of Bramhall house each with an ascent and then a drop of about 80 metres. It was pleasantly different from parkrunning in London.

At both locations, the demographic is chiefly runners in their thirties and thereabouts. (Most parkruns have only been set up in the last 3-4 years; longer-established races have a richer sprinkling of runners in their 50s and up). In Bramhall, there were many more children under 10 running with their parents, and more teenagers. More families walk in the hills, and the parkrun just felt like a natural extension of what people would be doing anyway. Quite a few of the six or seven year olds were running pretty fast too – 5k in 26 or 27 minutes. This image from the Parkrun website, shows the race in winter; but gives you a sense of the route:

The course follows a path track, around a metre wide, and the ground to each side of the path was too damp in places, or too densely-wooded, to allow much overtaking. I ran in laps of about 15 and about 10 minutes, a ridicuously unbalanced split, motivated in part by a desire to protect my injury, and in part by a sheer inability to move forwards in the race until the running group had stretched out a little and there was space for me to overtake.

One or two of the runners displayed the introversion that I associate with the sport; although no-one expressed it more clearly than the man in his 50s, bald and shaven on top, who I watched running closer and closer towards a young mother with her buggy out for a morning stroll. Not looking where he was going, he eventually ran straight – bang – into the pram. He was also, I must add, absolutely mortified and thoroughly apologetic afterwards.

Thanks are owed, as ever, to the organisers.

Parkrunning

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Saturday was my first Parkrun; for those who have never done one, it is a series of 5k races run at (give or take) 164 separate venues all around the country (and in 7 other countries round the world). There is no entry fee; all you have to do is sign up on the website, and print off your own barcode. The organisers time everybody and send you an email letting you know how you got on within a few hours of the race. Each Saturday 80,000 people take part, 3,000 of them for the first time. The phenomenon even has its own weekly radio show.

I was running at Finsbury Park in a race led off by ultra-runner Michael Wardian, who between 2007 and 2009 held the world record for running a marathon while pushing a baby in a buggy (in case you’re wondering, his time was 2hrs 42, which would be pretty decent even without the buggy).

I ran with a man called Adam. He told me how he’d started running: in Switzerland, on garden leave for a few months, he needed something to pass the time, and started up running less than a year ago. Having caught the bug, he is now in England, and has his sights set on a half marathon in the autumn.

The route itself took us twice round the eastern side of the park, up and down a gentle hill, and past the running track and the lake. Even before we had started, I could feel the calf tear which has weighed on my running all through the summer. I tried to compensate for it by keeping my feet low and my tread gentle on the ground.

Adam had one of those fantastic watches which you can use to give you a clear time for each kilometre, and from early on I could tell that we were running at only around 25-26 minute pace. I thought of running a little faster, but I preferred to finish without injury rather than risk a worse tear.

The day was bright, and all around I could sense the gentle cascade of the wind blowing through so many leaves.

I kept up with Adam to the last 300 metres, confident by then that he would break his own PB of 26 minutes (which he did) and kicked on for about the last minute, running it in about the same sort of pace that I had run the 800 metres on Monday. If anyone had been watching I’m sure they would have teased my “Hollywood finish”. In truth, when my legs are as week as they have been, I can’t run properly for more than a few hundred metres.

The race leaves me to reflect on why I run. I have plenty of friends who are capable of maintaining a competitive speed for far longer than I can. They make decent road runners. I know of others, even if I don’t count them in my immediate acquaintance, who see running as a chance to explore wild places, previously unknown to them. I lack the stamina or the opportunity (being London-based) to run like them.

What I enjoy best are those few seconds at the end where my body “clicks”, and I race at anything like my top speed.