Saturday June 21, 2014 – that’s two years ago today, anniversary fans! – was a pretty significant day in my running progression. It was the day my running kick began to turn from merely a way of getting fit and losing weight into something bigger – something that would lead me to completing this year’s London Marathon.
Some brief background: I started running in March, 2014. Initially it was slow and painful (really it was, read my flashback account of my first run here). But within a few months I’d lost enough weight that I’d had to ‘admit’ to friends and family that I was going running.
A couple of my friends and work colleagues began to encourage me to do my local parkrun. Initially I was reluctant: I was trying to keep my running low-key, so was unsure about taking part in a sort-of-race with a group of other people. Plus, I’d never really measured how far I’d run. I didn’t know if I could actually run 5k…
Eventually my friends persuaded me to join them for an evening run on the Bushy Park parkrun course (that’s the original one, as parkrun fans will know). I survived, so I signed up for parkrun and printed out my barcode. And that takes me to Saturday June 21, 2014, and Kingston parkrun number 222.
Looking back, I was comedically over-prepared. I’d looked up the course on the internet and worked out roughly where the kilometre splits were so I’d know how far into the run I was (at that point I was timing myself with a £7.99 Casio, not my Garmin GPS watch). I carb-loaded on pasta the night before, and went to bed early so I was well-rested.
I woke up early – well before my seven am alarm early – due to nerves. I was amusingly nervous. I was also anxious not to be late. So I had breakfast early, and got changed early (this was the clearly the start of my obsession with a pre-race routine). Well, I didn’t want to be late, and I wanted time to recover from a gentle warm-up jog there. I double-checked I had my barcode and set off.
I reached the start at around 0830hrs. I was the first person there. By a big margin. Big enough to make me worry I was in the wrong place, and to feel very self-conscious standing there. Conversely, I was too worried I’d wear myself out to jog around in a bid to look less conspicuous.
Eventually other runners arrived. I was in the right place! The vibe was good. I kept myself to myself, but it was a nice vibe, with a bunch of generally friendly seeming people.
Next awkward social challenge for me: working out where to go at the start. I definitely didn’t want to be at the front, but I also knew I didn’t want to be too far back. So I stuck myself firmly, and hopefully anonymously, mid-pack.
The actual run? It was sort of uneventful. I spent much of it desperately confused as to how well I was pacing myself. I reckoned I could do it in sometime around 25 minutes, so tried to reach each of my approximated kilometre splits every five minutes or so.
The bit I remember best was the final half-kilometre or so. I’d been controlling myself quite well, and realised I still had plenty of energy. Confident I could make the finish, I sped up, overtaking several people in the final few hundred metres. I had way more energy than I should have – I already knew I’d been far too conservative.
I crossed the finish line after 24m 44s of running, in 48th place out of 87 entrants.
For the first time, I experienced the bizarrely conflicting, seemingly contradictory emotions that make races so addictive: a real sense of achievement of finishing within my target time, mixed with the realisation I could have gone faster if I’d just had the confidence to start out a bit faster.
So, of course, I returned the following week, determined to improve on my previous effort. I knocked 92 seconds off my time. I returned the week after that, and knocked another 25 seconds off my time. And so began the eternal, never-ending quest to chase a PB.
I’ve kept on returning. My Saturday mornings have been transformed. And my enjoyment of parkrun has directly led me to entering ‘proper’ races. Yup, my life has changed quite dramatically since that first uncertain parkrun.
In the two years since June 21, 2014, I’ve now completed 80 parkruns – a pretty good number given, by my reckoning, the Kingston parkrun has run 104 times in the same period. Those 80 runs have come on five different courses: 73 on Kingston, two on Richmond Park, two on Burnham and Highbridge, two on Panshanger and one at Basingstoke.
My fastest time on the Kingston course is now 19m 41s, while my fastest ever 5k time is now 19m 35s (set on the Burnham and Highbridge course on October 31, 2015). I’m now slightly disappointed if I don’t complete the run in around 20 minutes or under.
To date, 24m 44s remains my slowest-ever parkrun…
Sample usage: “I do my local parkrun every Saturday morning”
Alternate sample usage: “Those pesky park runners, coming round here and wearing down the concrete paths with their stampeding approach and abrasive running shoes”
Parkrun is a phenomenon – and one that’s undeniably changed running. For the uninitiated (you never know, someone out there might not have heard of it…), parkruns are free 5k runs held around the world at 9am on a Saturday morning.
The first parkrun was held in Bushy Park, Teddington on October 2004. Less than 11 years later, there are around 850 events in 12 countries around the world. In the UK alone, somewhere around 85,000 people take park in 396 parkrun events every Saturday. Nearly 950,000 people have completed a parkrun. It’s an incredible growth story – and one that deserves to be celebrated.
What has made parkrun such a success is that it’s inclusive. Parkrun events aren’t races – they’re communal runs where everyone is welcome, no matter how fast or experienced they are at running.
The events aren’t races, but they are timed: participants register on the parkrun website, and can then print a barcode that details their registration details. At the end of a run, participants are handed a finish token on based on their position – that is scanned along with their barcode, and used to produce the results. Brilliantly, once you’ve registered, you can turn up at any parkrun anywhere in the world and run.
Because the events are timed, if you are a bit serious about your running you can push for a time or position (it’s like a race, but… not a race). But it’s not really about competition. Timing the events each week allows runners to chart their improvement and fitness. Mostly, it’s just a great way to start the weekend.
Oh, and parkrun events are free. Thanks to an incredible group of volunteers who organise every run, they cost nothing to take part in. That’s pretty key to their growth and success. And plenty of people have used parkrun as a starting point to break into the world of running. I’m one example.
From the point I started running, it took around three months before my friends could convince me that I should do a parkrun. I first tackled my local event, Kingston Parkrun, on June 21, 2014. Since then I’ve completed 72 parkruns – and my experience and enjoyment of those free events was key to guiding me into entering paid-for races. Without parkrun I probably wouldn’t be competed on the London Marathon this weekend.
Parkrun works. Which explains the incredibly passionate global response to a decision by a small parish council near Bristol to charge the organisers of Little Stoke Parkrun for the use of park roads on a Saturday morning. It seems the council is facing a bill of £60,000 to resurface the paths of Little Stoke Park, and it’s decided much of the path damage has been caused by the 300 or so people who tackle the parkrun once-a-week. The parish councillors argue that Parkrun is a group with paid directors, and that other similar event organisers are charged to use council facilities.
And so did a movement that has resulted in thousands of people taking up running and getting fit come up against local politics.
I do have some sympathy for the parish councillors, really I do. I also have sympathy with other park users who might be upset at having the park dominated by runners for all of one hour a week (although it should be noted that, on every parkrun I’ve done, those runners are generally polite, courteous and go out of their way to make room for non-running park users).
But the decision to charge the Little Stoke Parkrun organisers demonstrates, to me, an inability to see the bigger issue. It’s… incredibly parochial in a way only parish council politics can be.
The Little Stoke Parkrun isn’t an event on the scale of the London Marathon for super quick professional athletes. Parkrun really is about providing everyone with an affordable (i.e. free) way to go running, surrounded by help and support. At a time when rising obesity and falling fitness levels are a cause of real concern, such initiatives should surely be encouraged, not penalised.
Hopefully common sense will eventually prevail. Because parkrun is the sort of success story that should be celebrated – not threatened.
Previously on running jargon busting…
Forgive me for getting a bit nostalgic and self-indulgent for a moment. But it’s for a pretty good reason: today is March 23, 2016 (well, it was when I wrote this…). And thats a significant date for me: it marks two years to the day since I took up running, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear.
I’ve previously written about that first, faltering, painful run – which lasted 12 excruciating minutes and covered half-a-kilometre. If, after that run, you’d asked the 15-stone, limping and drenched in sweat version of me if I’d stick at this running thing for more than a week, I’d have said no.
If you’d told me that, less than two years later, I’d be able to run a half-marathon in 1h 27m 54s, finishing 78th (78th!) out of 3039 runners, I’d have laughed in your face. A lot. And then I’d have laughed some more. Heck, even now I’ve actually done that, I still find it difficult to fathom.
That’s not some form of #humblebrag (as I believe the kids call it), by the way. I’m hugely proud of what I’ve achieved in the last two years, and it’s take a lot of hard work, stubborn determination, substantial diet change and effort.
That said, it does raise one interesting question.
I took up running a few months before my 35th birthday, and over the first nine months of my efforts I managed to shed five stone of chunky fat I’d built up over a decade or so of not exercising enough and eating badly. As a result, a few months before my 37th birthday I’m fitter than I’ve ever been. And I’ve discovered what is clearly some form of inherent natural ability to run around quite quickly. So how quick could I have been had I taken up running and lost this weight, say, ten years ago?
I’ve mulled the question over a bit, and come to a simple conclusion: it doesn’t matter.
Why? Because I wouldn’t have taken up running ten years ago. I know I wouldn’t, because I tried. Several times. And it never lasted more than a day or two. I just didn’t have the motivation needed to do it.
It was only being in the unhealthy, overweight state I was on March 23, 2014, and at the age I was, that made me realise something needed to change. That was my motivation – and that’s what’s pushed me along over the last two years.
Since then, I’ve made a lot of promises to myself about what I’d do and achieve through running. And I’m happy to say I’ve kept all of those promises.
All… except one. I promised to myself that I’d never, ever, ever sign up to run a marathon. Ever.
Yet in 31 days time, all being well, I’ll be lining up ready to start the London Marathon.
Well, if you’re going to break a promise to yourself, make it a good one.
Besides, no matter how long the 26.2 miles ahead of me sounds, it doesn’t feel like it’s as far as I’ve come in the past two years.
I’m running the 2016 London Marathon to raise money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle – a group that helped care for me when I underwent heart surgery. Any donations would be greatly received, and support a tremendous cause. Click the ‘Just Giving’ button for details on how to donate. Thanks!
Well, this isn’t a flashback to my first run ever, because that would be silly. I can’t remember that. I was probably very young. But now that I’m gearing up for a marathon it’s insightful to look back on the run – a short, sweaty, unsteady outing – that somehow set me on a path to moderate running success.
I can even tell you the date: March 23, 2014. That’s not some incredible power of recall, by the way: my first run was, in part, to test out the Fitbit Flex I’d been bought for Christmas (and yes, it date take three months for me to take it out of the box…), and my Fitbit profile has the date recorded.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning, but I had little to do and was a bit bored. So I decided to head out for some cycling, partly for fitness and partly to test out my Fitbit – only to plug it all in and realise that it didn’t actually record fitness date for cycling.
So, on a complete whim, I decided to go for a run instead.
I found some shorts suitable for running (I don’t really do shorts, so it took a while…), stuck on an old T-shirt, strapped on my Fitbit, laced up my new trainers and set off, eager to take in an epic quest of fitness.
My path took me from my house down to the river, a largely straight footpath than went slightly downhill.
This is how my inner monologue charted the run:
0 minutes: I’m out my front door. I’m going running. I’m actually going running! I’m running!
1 minute: This feels great! I can do this. Look at me, I’m running. I’m running!
2 minutes: I’m running fast now. I’m really running fast. I think. Do I look quick? I must look quick. I make running look cool.
3 minutes: How fast am I running? Am I going too fast, or too slow? I have no idea.
4 minutes: I must be running fast, this is already hurting. I’m sweating too. I look stupid. Hope nobody sees me.
5 minutes: This is definitely hurting now, how far have I run? It must be a long way.
6 minutes: Struggling now, struggling. I’m going to turn round, start heading home.
7 minutes: Wow, it hurts more going uphill. This must be steep. Really steep. [It wasn’t steep. It’s not really a hill. It barely qualifies as a slope…]
8 minutes: My legs are burning now. How long have I been running? I reckon 15 minutes…
9 minutes: I don’t like running.
10 minutes: Ouch.
11 minutes: Okay, I’m nearly home. I should sprint the rest of the way, see what I’ve got… [Breaks into something resembling a sprint]
11 minutes, 10 seconds: I’m done sprinting.
12 minutes: I’m going to walk the rest of the way home. Still, that must have been 20 minutes or exercise, right?
It wasn’t. I was back in my house within 14 minutes of leaving it. Only this time my legs were aching, my T-shirt was soaked with sweat and I was shattered. Still, I must have run a long way, right? I fired up the Fitbit app, to see how far I’d run…
0.5 kilometres. Damn.
So that was run number one: 12 minutes, 0.5km. That’s… not good.
But I kept at it. The next day I went running again. It still hurt, I was still slow. But I went a bit further. The next day I went a bit further again.
And so it began…