Sunday 8 November 2015
“Why don’t you do a Parkrun?” says my friend Richard to me in an email. “What’s that?” I email back – no need really, as the moment after I reply to to him I am already searching the phrase online and find the website straight away, where the first thing I do is try and work out where my nearest one is. Wormwood? Possibly! Richmond? Yes, that’s close. Hang on … Gunnersbury, that’s that park just down the road from me, right? It is! I click on it, go to the course details page and come the day – the last Saturday of October 2011 I am forever sucked into a world that I had no idea just how involved I would get into at the time.
Richard had been with me on a couple of Tube Challenge attempts, and up until that point my own effort into getting fitter to be faster – and hopefully a World Record Holder again – was to use the Couch to 5Km App on my iPhone, and run around the local streets of Ealing. But Richard told me that I might enjoy runner longer distances, on a regular course where they time you and give you your result for you so you could measure your improvement. I thought I’d give it a go.
I clicked around on the Gunnersbury Parkrun page for a bit, and was rather worried to notice that there weren’t any previous results. I figured this was just a glitch and that I would go along anyway and see what happened. So on Saturday October 29th, I rocked up to Gunnersbury park at 08.45 in the morning, and joined a small group of people that progressively grew larger. A very boisterous and chatty girl told me that yes – I was in the right place, and when I told her that it was my first ever parkrun, she then told me that this was Gunnerbury’s first ever parkrun too. By utter chance, I’d completely managed to stumble upon the inaugural event of the Gunnersbury parkrun the same week that I had chosen to do my first ever run. I loved the serendipity of that.
I got round in 31 minutes that day – 31 minutes, and 0 seconds exactly – and was the 151st person out of 163 runners. I know that, because I’ve still got the text on my mobile phone when the result came though (I could never delete them), oh and because it’s listed in my spreadsheet of every parkrun I’ve ever done – but more on that later.
I remember I walked part of the course that week. Somewhere around the 3Km mark I stopped running – catching my breath – before running again and walked again for a bit around the 4Km mark too. I went again the following week and improved my time, the third week I went I couldn’t run at all past the halfway mark and got angry with myself and gave up and went home – I still can’t believe I did that – but I was back for five more runs before the end of the year was out, improving my time in six of them, and on my fifth attempt was the one that I first managed to get all the way without stopping. My average time for 2011 was 28m and 44s.
And so it evolved. We were focused on the Tube Challenge, and everytime I went out running I told myself (when it got hard) that I was doing it for my fitness – and possibly the Tube Record, and that’s what kept me going. That’s what kept me motivated on those cold February mornings, when I had friends emailing me saying “You’re mad!”, and the sensible option did seem to be to stay in a nice warm bed at home.
Richard took me in early 2012 for my first ever spot of tourism – we went to his local parkrun at Bedfont Lakes, and I realised that not every Parkrun was done in a park. This also instilled the idea in me that of course – visiting other courses could be a more frequent possibility.
During 2012, I visited five other courses, mainly with my new friend Mark who I always chatted to at Gunnersbury every week, and as he had a car he could give me a lift. I started a spreadsheet on my computer of my run times, I liked having a graph to see how I was slowly improving every week, I made a note of my halfway times (Gunnersbury is still one of the few parkruns where they shout out your halfway time which is a really nice touch) it turned out that Arlene the event organiser (and the chatty girl that I met on the very first one!) told me that she got the idea from Wimbledon where they also do it.
And then I discovered that other friends of mine were also running their local parkruns. We would text each other and compare times. Start to meet up at other friends local events, and then I’d come back to Gunnersbury the following week and people would say “Ooh, we missed you last week”, and it was nice realising that that there was a friendly bunch of people there to socialise with beforehand – and more importantly over a cup of tea in the cafe every week after the run.
I went running midweek a lot in 2012 to improve my time. I went running a lot really. I learned that to get good at running 5Km if helps to run futher during the week. Or do some hill running. A longer-than-5K-hilly-run midweek, then makes a relatively 5Km flat run on a Saturday a lot easier and my parkrun times improved. I also felt like it helped ease my natural anxiety which I suffer from, and also because because back in 2011 and 2012, I was technically unemployed.
You don’t get a lot of freelance work when you’re starting from scratch when you don’t have a portfolio to fall back on, so parkrun was something that I really looked forward to as a highlight of my week, something that I could focus on. It was great to have a purpose to get out of the house, talk to people, and when you don’t have a lot of money either – it was amazing that it was free.
Some people at Gunnersbury (I’m looking at you, Kelvin) often tried to get me to sign up for the local running club. “No thanks”, I would always say “As it costs to join, and the moment I’m paying for something, I feel obliged to go”. Which is totally true because I know how I work – if I ever had to pay to going to parkrun, I would never have been as much as I have. Going along under no pressure, going at my own speed and it not being a race with anyone (expect, maybe your own time!) is what makes it brilliant. People get cheered over the finish line when they complete in 20 minutes. People get cheered over the finish line when they complete in 40 minutes. No one judges you. Add on top of that that it’s run by volunteers who just give up their time and it’s brilliant. It didn’t take me long either o get on board with volunteering, and over the course of four years have done most roles, including the prestige of being Run Director a few times too.
I also get a kick out of being up out and early on a Saturday too. It’s still one of my favourite times of the week, being out of the house before 8am, where the streets are still quiet and you know that around the country, hundreds of thousands of people are still in bed, most likely sleeping off the night before, but here I was – crossing the main road devoid of traffic on the way to park, out in the fresh air, and the getting the blood pumping around my body and the air in my lungs, and I bloody loved it.
Yes some weeks you do question yourself. Getting up at 7am when it’s still dark and there’s snow on the ground outside, and you HAVE to wear a hat and gloves or you will just be so cold is not easy, but by 2Km you’ve warmed up, and often by 4Km, I was stuffing the hat and gloves into my pockets as I ran having got too warm.
I loved my local parkrun so much that I made a video for them about it, you can see it here. Some weeks I would also take along my video camera to allow us to have a ‘video finish’ too as people crossed the line. I’ve put a couple of those online here too.
I kept a log of all my times in a spreadsheets – quite obsessively so. If you’re not into running but you’re a bit OCD (as I am) about numbers and data, then … well maybe you should get into running. It got even more extreme when my girlfriend bought me a GPS watch one Christmas which logs every run you take along with times, elevation, a plotted route, and generally more data than you could ever possibly want.
I have every date, time, age-grade percentage, position, halfway split, averages and graphs of my run as I went. I know that in 2012, my average 5Km time went down to 28m 23s, but in 2013 it went up to 28:38. No worries in 2014, it came down to 28:00 and currently down in 2015 I’ve got it down to 26:58. Four years into running and I am the fittest I have ever been, despite the fact that I am obviously older than when I started!
My time on that first run was 31 minutes exactly, my PB now (at Burgess Park, not Gunnersbury!) is 25 minutes and 9 seconds, almost 6 minutes faster than what I first ran which I love.
We eventually got the Tube World record back in 2013, but I kept on going to parkrun. I kept updating my spreadsheet, and I started to venture out more and do more and more of the London parkruns. Currently, I’ve done 24 of the 43 in London, it was when I had done about 15 of them that I realised obviously that I was going to have to be able to say that I’d done ALL the London ones, so am now trying to get round them all – something I hope to have done by the end of next year. I’m also trying to take just 9 seconds off my PB and get that ‘magic’ sub-25 minute time.
Parkrun has been brilliant. I’ve met a load of lovely people … too many to name here, but I’d like to name some of them, I met up with an old colleague Stuart that I used to work with at the BBC that I hadn’t seen in years. Likewise a former colleague Bob who I didn’t recognise until he overtook me one morning and shouted “Come on Geoff!” at me, as he sped past. Every week a lovely lady called Pam would say to me “Ooh, I was out last night, going to take it easy today Geoff I think”, and despite being older than me, would then run round much faster than me and always ‘beat’ me. (She is the ‘The disingenuous dasher‘ on the amusingly brilliant list of Different Types of Parkrunners). I would be amazed at how Kirsten would continually beat her PB, a few seconds every week in a constant fashion. I loved Kevin for being encouraging to me in a non-patronising way. Paul for recommending that I go track running (even though track running is not for me), and to the lovely Roger for pacing me around on numerous occasions helping me to get better times. There are many others, sorry If I’ve missed your name out, I could list loads.
It’s still hard some weeks, and I’ve been injured a couple of times too. But there’s always a moment where I tell myself that the half an hour of running that I’m doing is damn good for my health and will ultimately prolong my life. I’ve genuinely felt healthier since I’ve started it and feel now that if I get ill with a cold or something trivial then I get over quicker that I used to be, because my whole body feels fitter and healthier that at any other point in my entire life.
There’s also a lovely gentleman at Gunnersbury who I can’t not mention called Alan, who is amazing as he’s done over 300 runs, and he’s now 80 years old. I look at my stats now (at the age of 43) and think “If I average 36 runs per year” (which is what I do) … “Can I still be running at the age of 80?”. I damn well hope so, I’ve worked out that I can get up to just over 1,400 5Km runs in my life if I do that. They’ll have to come up with a new colour for a ‘1000 shirt’ by that time I would have thought.
Oh, and we lost the Tube World Record by the way. We held it for a year and a half, but at the beginning of 2015 someone went just a little bit faster. But that’s Ok – my latest parkrun was Gunnerbury’s 4th anniversary run. And at about the 4Km mark when I was feeling it and starting to wonder why I was doing it … I remembered the mantra I needed to maintain my fitness to most likely have another attempt in the future, and it spurred me on.
But mostly what spurs you is the huge friendly crowd, feeling like you’ve started your weekend doing something positive, being part of something that is non-committal and free, which is what makes me want to do it more.
So thanks parkrun. And thanks Gunnersbury. Thanks for putting up with my oddness ‘Oh you’re the tube train guy, right?’ (If I had a penny…) and thanks to everyone there that it was lovely to go back and see today for the 4th anniversary run.
I’ll pop back again at somepoint – I’ve just got 19 other parkruns in London to go and tick off my list. I hope you understand, I’m a bit obsessive like that you see …
My favourite parkrun memories from the last four years:
- The week I set a new PB at Gunnersbury of 25m 36s, I was so exhausted I collapsed onto the ground whilst still in the in the finishing funnel, and my token had to be ‘set aside’ for me to collect and get scanned.
- The time a paralympic athlete came down (complete with Olympic torch that you could have your photo taken with) and he ran faster than me with his false leg, than I was able to with two actual legs!
- The week I followed Arlene all the way round, but in the last 100 metres I sped up and over took her to the finish line … except actually, she’d sped up too, and I slowed too early and she beat me right on the line and finished just in front of me!
- When I did my first parkrun in Scotland – Edinburgh – and I had no idea that parkruns there start half an hour later at 09.30, so I turned up at 08.30 when there was no one there an hour before it started! (But by 9.25pm, over 600 people had showed up)
- When my friend Mike told me to go to Lloyd Park parkrun in Croydon. He made me think it was fast and flat – it’s not. It’s the hilliest and hardest parkrun in the whole of London, and is where I recorded my slowest ever time. Thanks Mike.
- The week I went to Fulham parkrun and I found myself for a lap running alongside Sophie Raworth – the BBC Newsreader – and I did a classic ‘double take’ when I realised who it was. I then slowed, and she finished before me …
- The week someone spotted me as I was running round. “Aren’t you the guy that does the Tube Challenge?” asked a young kid. “Yes!” I panted “But talk to me about it at the end please, not whilst we’re running round!”