I used to hate runners. I used to hate running. Those virtuous, red-faced, puffing pavement pounders in their lurid Lycra offending my eyes as I sped by in my car on my way to Macdonald’s. It was all about them. Their own self-improvement. The rest of us could go to hell in a cholesterol-coated handcart.
That was PPR (Pre-Park Run). In what has become a well-established pattern for Park Run converts, I expressed extreme reluctance, when staying with my brother, he suggested I might like to take part in a three-mile run in his local park at 9am that coming Saturday. Would I? Would I heck! The smile fixed to my face may have looked vaguely encouraging but the thought in the brain that lay behind that grinning veneer was ‘never in a month of Sundays’ or Saturday mornings for that matter. If I looked like I was humouring him, perhaps he’d forget all about it?
Next morning at 8.50, in knackered, unsuitable tennis trainers and saggy shorts that by rights belonged in the textile recycling bin, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, as my family and I (if I was going to suffer, why shouldn’t they?) lined up to listen to our first ever Park Run briefing. I was impressed by the happy, positive, go-ahead, inclusive spirit of the Park Run team. This warmth was far from the austere, strained face presented by the pavement pounders. You could almost touch the camaraderie.
Despite the smiling faces, flexing lower limbs, the smell of freshly applied anti-perspirant and the pre-run ripple of excitement, I was nervous. I shifted awkwardly from toe to toe. A man smiled at me benignly. I had read the medical advice on the Park Run website the night before, that said you shouldn’t just do a Park Run cold but build up to it slowly. A lifelong Saturday lie-in-until-11-read-the-papers-toast-and-latte merchant, this 14-and-a-half-stone 47-year-old was going in, not just cold, but absolutely freezing. When I last exercised properly, Stegosauruses had still stalked the earth. Would I collapse? Would I have a heart attack? Worst of all, would I have to walk most of the way?
I did walk. Just a little bit. But I did complete my first Park Run, despite engaging in an ill-advised lung-busting home straight tussle with a rather large gentleman who had the temerity to overtake me, which resulted in me having to slow down to a humiliating crawl, to resist the urge to vomit as he frolicked away from me to the line.
But what I did get was the buzz. The buzz of mutual achievement. The buzz of encouragement. Of moving freely through the fresh morning air. The adrenaline. The endorphins. My time. My position. The fact that I didn’t finish last. (It was third from last if you must know!)
Now three years on I have done 150 Park Runs and counting – yes, of course, I’m counting! Mainly at my local Park Run. I’ve shaved ten minutes off that first time (36.12 to 26.11. You twisted my arm, so I’ll tell you). Lost a stone-and-a-half. Seen many friends who gave me that same initial reluctant smile when I invited them to join me, as I gave my brother, become resolute Park Runners. We have our own little group, we compare times and always chat long after the Park Run gazebo and scanning table have been taken down. At barbecues and dinner parties we can’t stop talking about it. I’ve run in the snow. Splashed through the Autumn puddles and on sun-hardened ground. I still get overtaken my prams and dogs on bad days, but who cares?
Park Run has become my new Saturday ritual. It gets into your blood. Up early. Banana, nuts and cuppa. Energy tablet. Swig of water. Run. Chat. Home. Brekkie. Coffee. Check the website for your and your friends’ times. I don’t know what I would do without it now. That glow of achievement all before 9.30am which guarantees your croissant takes twice as good and guilt-free. I’m looser-limbed, feeling younger and sinking into the sofa post-run feels like a real treat, well-earned.
They say Park Run is a run not a race and that’s true, but what it is, is a perfect blend of co-operation and competition – co-operation with others and competition with yourself. Bagging that long-dreamt-of PB can put you on a week-long high, but if you fancy a cruise round instead looking at the scenery after a hard week, that’s okay too. (But let’s be honest, we do all enjoy beating our regular rivals just a little bit too.)
The downside. There isn’t one. Well, okay, I’m not getting quite as much DIY done as I used to, as it can take it out of you, but that’s a small price to pay for good health. Those shelves can wait.
PS. I recycled my knackered trainers after ten runs and on my first run in my new asics Cumulus running shoes from Sporting Feet I knocked a minute off my PB!
(The picture above shows the author, Martin Williams, and his family after that ground-breaking first Park Run!)
If this post has inspired you to take part, you can find your local Park Run here: www.parkrun.org.uk. Go on, give it a try. You won’t look back.