Can parkrun be my religion?

20140201-233306.jpgI’ve resisted organised religion for many years, but towards the end of 2013 I decided that parkrun is the closest I’ve come to filling my spiritual void. I’ve recently found myself heading off for the same natural high at 9 a.m. every Saturday morning for 9 consecutive weeks.

I’ve got some friends who are committed followers of a more commonly accepted religion. Sometimes when we’ve gone away with them for the weekend, they’ve sought out the local church to go to a Sunday morning service. I used to find this odd, but one Saturday last December, I found myself 200 miles away from home and similarly seeking out the local parkrun. It then felt totally right to find myself doing three laps of an unfamiliar park with 280 people I did not know but with whom I shared a common bond.

Most Saturdays I meet the rest of the regular local “congregation”, a hard core who come every week along with the parkrun-curious and the recent converts. Parkrun is a highly inclusive religion. The only types of people not represented are those who will never quite be able to imagine themselves being up and out at such a ridiculous time on the first morning of the weekend. There are no expectations that people wear their “Saturday best”. Some are kitted out in state of the art gear but others wear whatever they’ve got to hand. I’ve seen one man photographed finishing a South London parkrun wearing stiff leather shoes and the kind of clothes that gave no indication whatsoever of someone planning to go out for a run.

So how does parkrun measure up when compared to the other great religions?:

Formal ceremonies: Registering and printing out your barcode is the first sign that you are considering heeding the call of parkrun. Then there’s the stages of confirmation that include the award of the 50 run red shirt or even the hallowed 100 run black shirt and jacket. Otherwise it’s all pretty informal.

A recognised leader: Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun is the closest we have to this. His first event in 2004 included 13 runners. He seems oddly overlooked and low profile given that his initial idea has inspired what is expected to be up to 60,000 people running a UK parkrun every single week by the end of 2014. If he turned up at my local parkrun I doubt anyone would recognise him.

The network of Race Directors are the closest we get to “clergy”. They are distinguished by hi-viz jackets, but this is not usually in recognition of the many sacrifices made in their years of training. You or I could get to wear the garments of the “inner sanctum” just by emailing a race director and offering to scan a few barcodes.

A holy book I don’t believe there is such a thing when it comes to parkrun. No doubt one of the obsessive band of “parkrun tourists” (or should that read “pilgrims”?) who try to visit and run every one of the 200 plus events has something in the pipeline, but the weekly newsletter will have to suffice for now.

Sensitivity to blasphemy: One of the things I like about parkrun is its tolerance. We tolerate the quirky behaviour of other non-parkrunning park-users, even the ones who are clearly outraged that we dare to run in their park. The man who kicked a football smack between my legs during my first ever parkrun was only sworn at and wrestled to the ground in my imagination. The man who insisted on walking very slowly slap bang in the middle of the narrow path at last Saturday’s parkrun was not barged out of the way but politely negotiated by 180 runners wanting to get past him. In fact it’s very hard to upset the parkrun faithful, so long as you don’t ever claim to “win” an event or take to Twitter to berate the race director if the results are taking too long to get published.

Hymns: There is no rousing parkrun song of praise, although this one’s crying out for a rework:

Next Saturday I expect to find myself waking up in a hotel miles away from home after a going to a wedding on Friday (along with all the unathletic activity that’s likely to include). The one bit I was apprehensive about was having to miss my Saturday morning “enrichment”. However, after a quick check of the parkrun website, I was amazed to find out the hotel was 1.7 km away from a…..you’ve guessed it. As well as packing my suit and tie, my running shoes will be in my bag. It would be rude not to.

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Are you a Run-Faffer?

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Cap/image from zazzle.co.uk

I lay in bed early this morning, trying to sleep through Mrs Run Don’t Run making heavy weather about whether to go on her usual Sunday morning bike ride or not. It involved a lot of text messages, peaking outside to check on the iciness of the roads, and then, once the decision had been made to get the bike out, a lot of careful weighing up and mind changing about food, drink and the most ideal kit selection. As soon as she returns, I’m planning on immediately heading out on my long run, but you can be fairly certain that it won’t be the smooth handover of a carefully drilled triathlon relay team. For I am a run faffer. To faff is “to muck about, wasting time doing something not necessary.” It’s a real word and a genuine affliction- it must be because it’s in the Urban Dictionary!

The thing is, you might be one too, especially at this time of year. Check out the tell-tale signs:

1. Over-careful route planning – you want a route with no hills, which you’re not bored of, which needs to be familiar enough to avoid getting lost, with no likely puddles to mess up your box fresh new trainers, and it has to end outside your house after exactly 9.5 miles because that’s what your programme says. Cue consulting of maps, cutting bits of thread to measure distances.
Potential Faff-Factor: 60 minutes

2. Deciding the kit you wear has to match, or at the very least, doesn’t clash. This informs the perfect choice of socks. However, you can only find one.
Potential Faff-Factor: 20 minutes

3. Taking extra care over your hydration needs, especially before a 3 mile recovery run. Insisting on filtered water, from the fridge, in your favourite “lucky” bottle which is nowhere to be found, although other vessels are available.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

4. Killing the time waiting for your breakfast to go down by snacking.
Potential Faff-Factor: 180 minutes

5. Easily locating your iPod, but then having a last minute wish for a new playlist (cue switching on of creaky old computer, loading up of massive music library, hand-picking of new tunes, sorting into gradually increasing BPMs with a nice bit of slowing down towards the end for your warm-down)
Potential Faff-Factor: 60 minutes

6. Announcing every run, no matter how trivial, on a range of social media.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

7. Last minute clothing shuffle when the promised “mild conditions” turn out to be permafrost.
Potential Faff-Factor: 15 minutes

8. Watch-fiddling – entering a new work-out, switching from imperial to metric “for a bit of variety” then spending 10 minutes stood outside, losing the benefits of tell-tale sign 9.
Potential Faff-Factor: 20 minutes

9. Doing a thorough warm-up (the most beneficial faff, and naturally the one I’m least guilty of).
Potential Faff-Factor: 15 minutes

10. Reading running blogs about faffing, thinking “Yes, I do some of those, but he’s missed out the most important faff which is…..” then not being able to remember your log on name or password to add it as a comment under said blog.
Potential Faff-Factor: 10 minutes

So are you a run-faffer? Can you suggest even more ways I can take even longer to get out of the house?

5Ks vs Me – An Update

I droned on about running 5Ks over the summer, how much I hated the distance, how little improvement I made, how I’d just run a personal worst, because it was “too hot”. So I resolved to learn to love them, using aversion therapy, otherwise known as doing more of them, more often. And as a bit of a motivator, anyone who’s read this blog before might remember the bottle of beer I was presented with, which I managed to restrain myself from drinking and promised to leave it unopened until I got a new 5k PB.

Two weeks after my personal worst, the new regime kicked in, with a visit to my local Parkrun, a couple of miles downhill bike ride away from home. Since then I’ve done 11 local Parkruns and it’s been a bit of a “journey” (well a 65 km journey if you include the other 2 races I’ve done for a bit of variety). As is the way with Parkrun, I’ve made friends of all ages and abilities and developed a few secret animosities, as people I thought I was on a par with got better and better, while I plateaued and then actually got worse.

Yes, for a period from September to November, my times got slower. The course was mildly challenging and got a bit tougher with the Autumn weather but I think it was reasonable to have assumed that I would slowly get stronger and faster over time.

When I used to get the bus to school, we often used to pass a physics teacher who was an early adopter, a trendsetter, one of the first ever “run-commuters”. At the time we thought he was deeply uncool and the fact he wore a rucksack on his back, with bricks in it, made us conclude he was probably bordering on insanity. I thought of this teacher from time to time as I toiled up the muddy Parkrun hill for the third and final time each Saturday morning. His logic was that if he learnt to cope while carrying a heavy weight, imagine how fleet footed he’d be when he got to run brick-free. My logic was that if I could gradually learn to cope with this course, then imagine how awesome I’d be when I tackled a flat, paved version.

And yesterday (spurred on by the fact that my unopened beer was “best before 31/12/13) was when I finally put my theory to the test. Putting aside the guilt I felt about “playing away” behind the back of my regular Parkrun, I strayed over to a different park, famous for its flatness. I’d been visualising this run regularly on the days leading up to it. I saw myself unhampered by hills or mud, running with ease, almost flying, with my feet barely touching the ground. In reality it was the usual slog, although a different kind of slog, probably because I assumed I could go just a little bit faster. I set my “virtual partner” on my Garmin to do 5K in the time it would take to equal my PB and although I felt I was giving it my all, it kept showing me tailing the bastard little digital stickman. The last mile was really heavy going, not only was I panting, I was audibly groaning with every breath. Fortunately I wasn’t drafting behind any real runners because they could justifiably have turned around to either check I wasn’t about to keel over and die or simply tell me to shut up.

I have to say that the finish line came into view a little earlier than I was used to but I wasn’t confident I’d made up for the deficit as I stumbled over it. As the faster runners stood around chatting casually as though they’d spectated rather than participated in a timed run, I vaguely remember stopping my watch, then grabbing a bollard to hold me up while I slowly returned to normality. When I thought to check my time, my watch showed 24:37, probably my fastest 5K this year but not the PB I craved. A few minutes later I checked my watch again and the time was now even worse – I clearly hadn’t stopped it properly.

When I got home, the official results were already on the website, and I’ll leave it to you to work out whether or not I’d finally smashed that PB……

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My Fantasy Race

Yes, a bit like fantasy football, if you could specify the ingredients for your perfect race day, what would it look like?

1. I wouldn’t have to spend months planning for it, just keep those running legs ticking over every week and one Saturday, after say, a big glass if red wine, I’d say to myself and anyone else in earshot “That 10K I was half thinking about doing. It’s tomorrow morning, and you know what, I think I’ll do it.”

2. I wake up, in winter, in daylight. It’s just before 9 a.m. and I have still have time to get some porridge down me and fire up the espresso machine. Then spend an hour “pre-race faffing” – getting kit ready, changing my mind, losing stuff and finding it again.

3. In a last minute change of plan, I decide to drive there, risking spending too long trying to find a parking space in a busy part of London. I arrive and find a perfect spot, right next to the gates of the park.

4. I walk the 20 metres or so to the race HQ, wait in a line of one to sign up and get my race number. I pick up my free race t-shirt and am advised to “try it on, if it doesn’t fit, bring it back and I’ll get you a medium”. Passing on the free pre-race massage, I’m ushered into the baggage drop area, ask if I can drop my baggage later and then brace myself for the pre-race toilet stop turmoil. There is a queue of one person to join. Later on I see someone else waiting in a queue of one. Someone from the running club apologises and points out there’s a second toilet around the corner. This is 20 minutes before the race starts.

5. I pass on the plates full of home baked cakes, the tea, coffee and water and head for the start. It’s a dry, cool, autumnal day and after a surprisingly effective group warm-up, we’re off. Four laps around a flat park. My watch is set to a target time I know I could achieve on a good day. Every time I check it, it tells me I’m ahead of schedule.

6. There are 12 marshalls stationed around the 2.5 mile laps. Once I get over the shock I experience in every race (“yes, it’s me, I used to avoid running with a passion, and now I’m running. Outside. In a race! And I’m not last!”) I notice that the marshalls are holding placards with little messages for us runners. Usually I’m cynical about motivational messages, but today some of them make me smile and, how should I put this, motivated?

7. I also imagine that the course must have some hills somewhere, but they’re too subtle to notice. We must be going uphill at some point because there’s a nice long incline towards the end of each lap. I give up checking my watch. I’ve still got time to spare. I’m soon on the fourth and final lap. I overtake a couple of people who’d overtaken me on the third. My energy’s running low but I have enough to step up the pace a lot sooner than I’d usually entertain.

8. Then all too soon, it’s over. There’s a little machine into which I type my race number and get my time on a slip of paper. I’ve done lots of races before but I’ve never got to use a gadget like that before! (It was like the first time I used a Dyson hand-dryer) Almost three minutes faster than my target time. My second PB of the year. I’m beaming.

9. I’m back in the clubhouse. The massages are still free, the chocolate brownies have gone but there are still cakes. Apple and cinnamon or banana and ginger, I’m on such a high that I choose the banana one, the devil’s fruit. And I like it. I pick up a certificate, an Oyster card holder and some more water. I head home – it takes 20 minutes.

That would be my fantasy race. Only I actually did it this morning. I’m going to think long and hard before I let anyone know which race this was and where it took place. In case it was all a dream.

Alternative Running Role Models #6 – Joe Strummer out of The Clash

20131203-231758.jpgWalking up London’s Edgware Road yesterday, I spotted that somebody had decided to name a suitably urban subway after the late, great Joe Strummer, lead singer of 1970s/80s punk icons The Clash. As my daydreaming shifted back to thoughts of what running I might be doing later that day, I suddenly remembered a story I’d otherwise forgotten. In 1982, after poor ticket sales for the band’s Combat Rock Tour, their manager hatched a plot for Joe to suddenly go missing to generate a bit of publicity.

The plan was for him to fly off to America but I guess that as the band were “so bored with the USA”, Joe ignored instructions and hot-footed it to Paris. While hiding out in the French capital, Strummer claimed to have got around to running the “French Marathon” which later turned out to be the one in Paris. Joe’s training for this iconic event? A 16 week Runner’s World “Sub 4:00” plan with lots of cross training and carefully scheduled rest days? No, the Strummer Strategy was:

You really shouldn’t ask me about my training, regime, you know….Okay, you want it, here it is: Drink 10 pints of beer the night before the race. Ya got that? And don’t run a single step at least four weeks before the race … But make sure you put a warning in this article, ‘Do not try this at home.’ I mean, it works for me and Hunter Thompson, but it might not work for others. I can only tell you what I do.

imageSo are these the key elements of the perfect if radical marathon training schedule? Extreme hydration following an extreme taper? The jury’s out because there’s an element of doubt over whether Joe actually completed the 26.2 miles. In pre-internet days I guess you might have been lucky to track down your results in a local newspaper, none of this permanent record on the website business we take for granted today. Unfortunately neither Joe’s stage or real name appear in any official results.

However, presumably buoyed up by his Parisian challenge, there are photos of Joe taking part in the 1983 London Marathon with an actual race number. Although you shouldn’t believe everything you read in newspapers, it seems that Joe was somehow sponsored by The Sun who claim he completed the course in 4 hours and 13 minutes (nice vest by the way).

Anyhow, it goes without saying that Joe Strummer, spokesperson of a generation and alleged marathon-man, we salute you!

For a comprehensive analysis of Joe Strummer’s running career, check out this site.

The Runners (Film Review)

Earlier last week, the better connected people on my Twitter feed were starting to talk about a film called The Runners which was due to be previewed on Thursday. As someone who’s really only seen films featuring animated characters over the past 12 years or so (thanks kids, thanks Pixar), I filed The Runners under the heading of “one of those films which sound interesting and maybe eventually I’ll buy on DVD and never get around to getting out of the shrink wrap”

However, it’s 2013 and artists are bypassing tired old cinemas and putting their films out for all to see as soon as they can.The Runners is already online and I first watched it on a propped up phone while ironing a shirt early on Friday morning. You can watch it right now:

The ten minute film really grabbed me for a couple of reasons. First of all it’s set in Victoria Park, not a million miles away from where I live. The park hosted a huge Rock Against Racism festival in 1978 which I read about longingly from my teenage bedroom. When I eventually got to London myself, I went to numerous festivals there.

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The Clash onstage in Victoria Park in 1978. Probably not too many runners in the park on that day

Since discovering running, I’ve run around those concrete tracks a few times, and it’s a bit of a runner-magnet, with people of all ages, shapes and sizes making their way around the perimeter most hours of every day.

The film seems to have been shot over a long period of time, capturing shorts and t-shirt runners in the sun while others are trudging their way through a bleak snowy park in the depths of winter. But what’s really remarkable about the film is how candid people are when in the middle of a run. Two strangers, one on a bike, pulling another on a little trailer with a camera, approach all kinds of runners and ask them increasingly probing questions about their lives. I’m sure many were edited out after waving the film makers away, but what we’re left with is 10 minutes of complete strangers sharing intimate details of their lives with complete strangers.

Some runners just have opinions they want to share, others open up with sometimes painful feelings about mental health, relationships and worries about their loved ones. Some of the facial expressions when they realise what they’ve said, or the gestures and upping of pace as they become increasingly passionate tell their own stories. The overall effect is highly moving and I doubt there are many people who won’t find something they can relate to in the feelings at least one of these real life characters share.

I like to think we become capable of thinking slightly differently when out running. Sometimes I’m better able to think through solutions to those little problems that keep me awake at night. On other days I can clear my mind of all that clutter and just enjoy the freedom of being outside, testing myself a little or a lot. This short film gives us a privileged glimpse of what might happen if someone else gets involved in these inner conversations or lack of them, with fascinating results.

Running Slow (on purpose)

imageToday I went running slowly on purpose. By slowly I don’t mean at a pace that many of us might call “easy”. This was on the borderline between “jogging” and “walking”. I was inspired by an article in this month’s Runner’s World, which can also be found at fetcheveryone.com, about training in different heart rate zones and had been planning to give this a try for the past week.

Part One

This took place on Saturday morning when I planned to measure my resting heart rate by firing up the Garmin as soon as I woke up. I’d toyed with putting my heart rate monitor on before going to bed, but decided that despite 16 years of marriage, wearing an elastic strap around my chest under the duvet would take just a little too much explaining.

I think the lowest I managed to get my heart rate down to was about 39bpm but that took some doing after the excitement of the alarm clock going off mixed with the anxiety caused by the prospect of the morning’s Parkrun. I hadn’t worn the HRM for some time and doing it up and adjusting it suddenly put me in mind of Pat Wright and Dave Arrowsmith:

Once I’d finished amusing myself by talking in a poor Middlesborough accent about my “bra”, the next stage was to find out my maximum heart rate. With my 5K complete, as I clung on to a tree trunk until I was able to stand without support (that’s how we all recover from Parkruns right? Right?), I discovered that today’s effort had led to a maximum heart rate of 189bpm. Later on I programmed the Garmin with my personal heart rate zones in anticipation of the fun-packed geeky running activities that lay ahead.

Part Two

Various domestic and work related stresses got in the way of trying my Slow Run until six days later, when working from home gave me the opportunity to do a cheeky lunchtime run in the style of Leonard from Butterflies. Despite the fact it was nearly dark at 2pm and pouring with November rain, I made it out of the door and set out to do about 4 miles in “Zone 2”, which in my case was 110-130 BPM. The point of running at this speed is that apparently you will be fuelling your muscles with fat and oxygen. Therefore you’re tuning up your aerobic system, it improves endurance and uses very little glycogen. Whatever that means.

The kind of speed I think I go when recovering from fast intervals turned out to be too fast. The Garmin kept shrieking at me: “Heart Rate Too High”, making the blood pump around my veins even faster with irritation. I started to run almost as if in slow motion. After about a mile I finally got into the Zone 2 Groove, possibly because I was now more relaxed and breathing more efficiently in classic, slow running style.

However this was soon undermined by a very gentle hill which got the heart rate up and my Garmin wailing again. Crossing the road, being close to lots of traffic, the sight of other human beings, wiping the rain drops off the end of my nose all seemed to increase the BPMs. Runners of various speeds overtook me, probably wondering why someone going so slowly could be so interested in his Garmin. Every time this happened I unconsciously sped up to try and catch them, only to be chastised by the “Heart Rate Too High” alarm.

I felt like I could have kept going all day but it all felt a bit pointless and the scenery wasn’t changing fast enough. I’d run at my slowest speed ever and it hadn’t been slow enough. My average BPM was 10 beats above target. What a failure!

After 3.5 miles I’d had enough. I pressed “Stop” and ran the mile or so back home at a “normal” speed, oblivious to what my heart was up to. A “junk mile” that felt so much better.