I got very excited this week when parkrun founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, liked a tweet I wrote about how perfect Germany is for parkrun. I’d read the blogposts by parkrun’s Global COO, Tom Williams, about their tour of German cities and intention to set up there and found it hard to believe the phenomenon hadn’t made it there, when it’s the kind of active community initiative you’d be forgiven for thinking was pretty German. In his final blogpost of the week, he summed up their travels, “We were reminded that parkrun was all about community, family, society, accessibility, friendship, acceptance, and above all … health & happiness.” With 39 runs now under my apricot belt, and the magical 50 goal in sight, something about each part of this comment really struck me, so here I’m sharing what those things mean to me:
- Community – it can be hard to feel part of a neighbourhood (for want of a better word), especially living in a city. Belfast is unusual in that it’s a small city, but you can be on a farm in five minutes, people think nothing of driving into, and parking in, the city centre with relative ease and a beach – even if it’s on the shores of Belfast Lough – isn’t far away either. Still, people live their lives, work, come home and close their doors and go about their own business. It can be hard to get to know your neighbours. We were lucky when we moved into our current home that despite it being on a busy main road, our doorbell still rang with neighbours welcoming us and introducing themselves. It’s nice to have an idea who is living around you, but reaching out beyond the immediate next-door can be tricky. Every Saturday(ish) I see the new and familiar faces; people I recognise just from parkrun mingled with parents I see on the school run, people I pass on the street, at the library, doctor’s surgery, local shops…you get the gist. Even if I don’t recognise them when they’re not at parkrun (I’m really bad at that, ask my dentist – I had no. clue.), we smile and nod or acknowledge a hello in some way. Sometimes I’m still a ball of nerves before, but chatting about nothing to someone on the way up to the start takes that down a notch. Sometimes volunteering or helping set up refreshments before the run means you talk to another person you didn’t know about the weather or a milestone or whatever – it doesn’t really matter – it’s all connecting, being part of something, the ‘parkrun family’…which I wouldn’t have otherwise and leads me nicely onto the next one…
- Family – when I started parkrun in October last year, Mr T and the boys came to support me most weeks, going to the park and cheering me on as I passed, limping up that hill faster with them watching. As the winter loomed, cold, wet and withering Saturday mornings became less inviting and they stayed at home when it was too chilly, preferring sausages and the stove to shivering conditions. Then along came judo for number one son and Saturday mornings got busier for everyone. Now I run and join them when I’ve finished, but when I see any little people in the playpark I imagine it’s them watching and it pushes me up that incline when my legs don’t like it. An unexpected bonus has been my older (and only) brother running with me – not alongside me, almost always in front. He ran his first parkrun on Christmas Eve last year and while I can’t speak for his motivations, it gives me a support I didn’t know I needed. He’s gone from, “I’m going to aim for one a month,” to bringing refreshments and it being rarer for him to miss a run than to take part. You wouldn’t think seeing your sibling once a week for probably only 15 minutes before and after a run (I mainly see his heels during) would make much of a difference, but it’s actually really nice to know I’ll see him and take that time to catch up on what’s happening with each other, however insignificant our chat might be. An unexpected bonus, definitely.
- Society – on a wider scale, I have become a bit of a parkrun bore. I don’t run much otherwise – every week I say I’ll do more – twice a week is probably the best I can manage. I am, however, annoyingly evangelical about the benefits of parkrun. I hear myself doing it and I try to stop waxing just so lyrical but honestly I’m still so excited about how good it is I’m not even sorry.
- Accessibility – one of my favourite things about the different faces I see every week is seeing how parkrun welcomes everyone, young or old, fit or unfit, professional or first-timer. In my few turns at tailwalker I’ve been behind a mum and her 5 year old son who ran the whole distance without complaint and a 70+ lady who is giving me new goals on what I want my fitness to look like at that age. Both equally awesome and inspiring.
- Friendship – I don’t have any friends that solely came from parkrun, but for me the spirit of friendship is more important. It’s the pro runners who line up with me at the finishing tokens and say, “It never gets any easier,” and the tap on my shoulder and onward point from a stranger on my first run. A solidarity and empathy and a sense of goodwill. I try to pass it on whatever way I can; the parkrun smile goes a long way.
- Acceptance – there’s a lot I can think of here; accepting your limits, accepting that not every run will be a PB, accepting some pain and gritting your teeth. Accepting that it’s ok to be almost last (thanks tailwalker) because you’re not on your sofa anymore and that’s got to be so much better for your…
- Health – I’m not a runner, I’ve never been particularly athletic and I’m reminded of being made to feel that way when it came to PE at school. Being told at an early age that you’re not something, especially by a grown-up in authority – I’m looking at you, PE teacher – you let me down, can set you up for a lifetime of shoulder chips. I’m not fast, my legs are short, I probably breathe all wrong, swing my arms too much, but I run, I tell my body I’m in charge and I push my brain past the point where it tells me to run out the front gate of Stormont (every time). I’m lucky to have good health and be able to run; something I’m reminded of when I read some of the parkrun stories on that Friday email. As I run round the forest paths, up the hills and sprint down the stony slopes in an effort to pick up some speed, I think of those who would love to be able to do so, and those who run despite illness or poor health and I will my legs to try harder. So whether it’s physical or mental health we’re talking about here, both have been tested and improved.
- Happiness – if you’ve made it this far and can’t see how happy parkrun makes me then I’ve not done such a great job. It’s given me a lot in less than a year, but there are times when I haven’t enjoyed it; when my nerves have advanced into Friday night, when I felt like I didn’t want to be there, or couldn’t do it. Or when the email has come through and I’ve been disappointed with my time and let it upset my day. As we say in Northern Ireland, I really had to catch myself on. I stopped focusing on times and putting pressure on myself and started smiling, looking round at how beautiful Stormont estate is, being grateful for the run and how the rain always clears for Saturday morning at 9.30am. And that definitely makes me happier and, funnily enough, has taken more than a minute off my time. Which makes me happy. I’m ridiculous, I know.