Are you thinking of taking up exercise as a new year’s resolution? As regular readers know, I love a bit of exercise. I thought I’d share with you my story of how I fell in love with, then out of love with, then back in love with, running.
Back in January of 2013 I was fed up. A couple of things going on in my life were scaring me, and the winter was ghastly. A combination of the freezing conditions and my own anxiety had also put me off running, which is normally one of my favourite ways to shrug off any blues.
One morning that freezing month, as I was walking through a local park, I noticed a few people running along what seemed a defined route. Then I noticed a few more. Then I noticed there were cones along the route.
That’s funny, I thought, I hadn’t heard of an official run being held in the park. So I wondered what it was all about. I decided to look into it online when I got home. Then I sank back into my thoughts and forgot all about it for months.
I love the feeling of freedom it gives me, and the glow of wellbeing that stays with me afterwards. The fact it keeps me physically fit and healthy is obviously a plus point, but it’s the sense of freedom and wellbeing that keeps me slipping my trainers on.
None of us want to feel encaged and we all find out own way to feel free. Never do I feel more liberated than as I run alone through the greenery of Berkshire.
But as I trained for this year’s Windsor Half Marathon, I began to feel imprisoned by my running. Perhaps it’s just getting older but the training began to increasingly eat into my life. I wouldn’t want to do anything strenuous the day before my weekly long training run so I could preserve energy. The day of the long run itself was more or less a washout socially, as I would either be running or resting. And as I’ve got older it has taken me up to 48 hours to fully recover afterwards. That was four days out of every week dictated by just one of my training runs.
I stuck with the training but by the time I ran the half marathon at the end of September, I had already resolved that I would only run short distances in the future. As if to underscore this resolution, in the immediate aftermath of the half marathon I suffered a memorable humiliation.
As I hobbled away from the finishing line, Chris, who was waiting for me nearby, mentioned that he had seen countless men and women who were several decades older than me finish some time ahead of me. “They were just walking home normally,” he said. He’s always supported me in my running and in everything I do, so I knew he was making the point lovingly.
A few minutes later I collapsed with the most excruciating cramp. I’ve never had cramp like it: when I looked down the muscles in my legs were so twisted they looked like fusilli. As I writhed around in agony, I looked up and saw some of the aforementioned silver-haired runners, strolling past with their medals. Message received and understood.
I needed a new start to get me passionate about running again. A few days later, I remembered about the run I had seen in my local park in January. I looked into it online. I was thrilled to discover it is actually a weekly 5K event called Parkrun.
Parkruns, I discovered, are free, weekly, timed 5km runs which take place around the country (and beyond) every Saturday. Anyone can take part. Within a few hours of each Parkrun finishing, the results are posted online. Dozens of photographs are then also published, followed by a warm and witty run report. There are extensive results tables which list runners by position, time, age category and all manner of other criteria. Maths is not my strong point so I don’t understand all the data, but I’m pretty glad it is there.
My local Parkrun is in Upton Court Park. I decided to go and see what it was all about. I remember the Saturday in November when I arrived for my first run. I was all bashful grins and overly-elaborate warm-ups, the better to avoid eye contact with the strangers I secretly wanted to chat to but felt too shy to approach.
But we soon all got talking and I found the organisers and runners were the friendliest bunch of people you could hope to meet. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Thanks to modern technology it is simple to time your own 5km run around your local park. So we join our local Parkrun not just to be timed, but to create between us something bigger.
Every Saturday we gather, all ages, abilities, sizes and backgrounds. Some more or less sprint, others more or less walk. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Everyone is friendly and the energy is so much more than physical. Between the runners and the volunteers, we do indeed create something bigger.
I can be very competitive but only against myself. Since I joined Parkrun I’ve become hopelessly obsessed with my finish time and aiming for ever faster personal bests (PBs). For two spooky consecutive weeks I ran an aesthetically-pleasing PB of 22:22. Then I smashed that with a finish time of 21:49, which remains my record as I write this. The closest to the front I’ve finished is 10th place (in a race that typically draws around 50 people) and last weekend I finished 2nd in my age category.
But it’s really that something bigger that keeps me going back. If you want a weekly reminder that world is a lovely place, Parkrun is your friend. I’d recommend it to anyone from serious runners to bewildered beginners. It’s made me fall in love with running all over again. It’s made me fall a little more in love with life, too.