The whole point of this venture would be totally wasted if I didn’t continue with it. My holiday (see part three of part two…) allowed me to recover some energy and give me a little time to work out a strategy. Everybody is different and everybody’s body works in a unique fashion so, valuable as the advice I was given was, I decided on a suck it and see stratagem. If I wasn’t comfortable then try something else. As a seasoned bloke who abhors shopping trips and thus generally buys the first thing I see then it is no surprise to report that the first idea I had has been the one which I’ve stuck with ever since. Five kilometres three times a week didn’t over stretch my ability and varying the pace didn’t destroy my confidence. So how to measure the distance properly without having to rely on getting my phone out regularly? Added to that how would I know what the pace was without having to rely on my unreliable body; heavy breathing and heavy legs aside? After a little research I found that the Garmin Forerunner range ticked the relevant boxes and had generally favourable reviews. I found a basic model ‘Forerunner 10’ on ebay for fifty quid and armed with my new technology I headed out at five am on a warm late August morning for my first five km attempt.
Five kilometres on the face of it appears to be quite an arbitrary distance. There doesn’t appear to be any perceived wisdom as to why that distance causes people to use it as a benchmark. In old money it is three point two miles so pretty pointless I would, controversially, contend. However, it is what it is so I have rather manically made it my goal to run that distance as a minimum.
With the distance comfortably achieved and a regular route around Beccles sorted I felt that I needed to connect with other runners again, I had used the HealthUnlocked forum during my Couch to five k adventure to gain advice and share my journey with likeminded ‘runners’ (pseudo running partners essentially), and see what else was available to allow me to challenge myself further. I’m all for statistics (you wait until I get writing about cricket…) so just plodding five km around town, although very good for me, was likely to test my resolve. One word (well two but always assumed to be one) kept leaping out at me – Parkrun.
Parkrun is a weekly timed five km race held at a huge number of venues all over the world. After a little research I found that, luckily, my part of the world included an event in Lowestoft, the course being only a fifteen minute drive from my house, so it wouldn’t be a dispiriting long drive home if it turned out to be an overblown and crap event (spoiler alert: It is far from being those things!). The Parkrun website gives an insight into the course, the facilities, previous results, names of the volunteers (more about them later) and general information about what you need to do to have a great time at the event. I was frankly amazed at the number of people taking part, over three hundred regularly at Lowestoft so having never (physically) run with anybody else at all let alone so many other people i felt entirely out of my comfort zone and immediately thought about chickening out. Well Huggy being Huggy I wasn’t going to let that get the better of me so, armed with the necessary printed bar code required to qualify for an ‘official’ time I made the short trip to the coast and the beginning of what has become a weekly obsession.
The HealthUnlocked forum mentioned Parkrun frequently but with an almost hushed tone which made me believe that this was some kind of rite of passage into a secret underbelly world of running from which I would emerge with an elitist attitude. Once I’d run it once I would believe I was some sort of running demi God who had seen a whole new world which mere mortals were not privy to or worthy of. Well here’s a little analogy for you. Go to a beach and stare out to sea, that far off point which connects the sky to the sea’s surface is the horizon. The curvature of the Earth prevents you from seeing any further (unless you’re from Discworld or have other ‘interesting’ beliefs…) and that is the point of this ramble. That point beyond sight is the distance between my earlier belief and what the point of Parkrun is. As I nervously approached a couple of official looking people on that overcast Saturday morning (2nd September 2017) I still had an idea that this was going to lead to my humiliation in front of a group of Mo Farah wannabes. I parked up and walked over to the Claremont Pier entrance on Lowestoft’s south beach with my bar code in hand. I was politely greeted and advised that I wouldn’t need that until I had finished and that the starting point was around half a kilometre further up the Esplanade at East Coast Pavilion. The people walking up to that area appeared to be similar to me, no real stick thin bean poles with elitist running vests, just regular looking folks who were out for a little 5km canter at the seafront. A chap with a megaphone made an announcement, “This is the first shout out for Parkrun tourists and Parkrun debutants…” Rob, the ‘race director’ as it turned out, warmly greeted me and a few others, gave a briefing about the rules and regulations, the route and asked where we were from. After 4 shout outs in a similar vein he moved over to the side of the course by the start line and gave a general briefing which included rounds of applause for everybody taking part, all debutants, tourists (meaning Parkrun tourists, people who run parkrun events elsewhere but happen to be at an ‘away course’ on the day) with a listing of where they were from and finally special mentions for people who were celebrating something, particularly a Parkrun milestone such as their 50th, 100th, 250th event. Another brief run through of the rules and then it was a call for everybody to give the person to their left and right and big high five and wish them luck. At 9am(ish) it was 3,2,1 and a klaxon signalling the start of the race.
Up to the point when the klaxon sounded I had only ever run on my own before, on this day the field was 269. When you run on your own the pace is as comfortable as you want it to be, when you’re in a group for the first time the pace is rather dictated to you, well in your mind at any rate. Of course you can go at your own pace but it is incredibly difficult not to get carried away with the occasion and so I quickly gained an important piece of knowledge, you can’t win a 5000 metre race in the first kilometre but you can certainly lose one. The first 1000 metres proved to be a new personal best, as were the first mile and two miles. After that the old well-worn phrase that I was “breathing out of my arse” came into play. The last 2 kilometres were torture with the twice negotiated steep hill at the far end of the course proving to be a particular nemesis on the second occasion but the constant encouragement of the volunteers (people dotted around the course wearing ‘hi vis’ vests giving up their Saturday morning to help, regardless of the weather, including the earlier mentioned ‘official looking people’) and other participants whipped up my determination and it was what I needed to find an extra ounce energy to mount a sprint finish, well It felt like a sprint to me anyway. Panting somewhat and sweating profusely I crossed the finish line and was handed a small token with the number 204 and a bar code on it. Now was the time for me to whip out the bar code I’d brought with me and take that and my finishing token to the scanning zone, a text and email later told me that my time was 33 minutes 25 seconds, the finishing token was kept by the scanning volunteer who cheerily congratulated me on my first parkrun and hoped I would be back again…
At the time of writing the worldwide Parkrun community is under suspension with the ban on mass public gatherings taking its toll. When the UK suspension was announced on March the 19th I was preparing for my 122nd event. My average time for the 121 events to date, all at Lowestoft, is around 28 minutes, my best 25:31 set in September 2018 at my 51st event.
The camaraderie of the participants, the volunteers and spectators is the reason that Parkrun is such a phenomenal success. I’ve made many friends through it and met up with them before and after runs for a chinwag as well as meeting up at other running events. A few people, I’m delighted to say, have been inspired enough by my running journey and tales to come along and have a go themselves, in some cases they’ve encouraged more people.
Part 4 of this exciting ramble will follow in the not too distant future, expect half marathons, 10km races and (almost) a marathon…