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…’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.


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……


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, 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.

The Work-Related Running Jinx

Tonight I made my third attempt to take part in a race organised by my workplace and it was almost the third time I Did Not Start.

Two years ago, I’d signed up to do a 5K somewhere near Wormwood Scrubs, befriended a group of previously unknown work colleagues waiting at the bus stop in running gear and then proceeded to get hopelessly lost after a very long ride on one of London’s more scenic bus routes. We arrived 30 minutes after the Mayor had handed out prizes to the winners. Two of us were so desperate to get our hands on the worst designed race t-shirt I’ve ever seen that we just had to complete the two lap course anyway.

Last year I signed up for the same event and had to pull out after getting the dates mixed up and deciding I’d rather not upset my piano teacher by cancelling yet another lesson (yes I do have piano lessons. Yes, at my age).

This year I signed up for 5K Your Way, a race designed to get local authority employees up and active while fostering a bit of friendly competition between London’s boroughs. The race took place on Hackney Marshes in East London. I work in West London. Determined to get there with a bit of time to spare, I had to slope off from a meeting and get changed in the toilets. It was then that I noticed a huge red gash in my left thigh. Amazingly there was no pain, probably because it was the result of a red biro which had emptied it’s ink in my pocket. I never use red pens. I think it could have been an omen.

I then got the Underground train across London, all was going swimmingly. Until the train came to a halt about a quarter of the way into my journey. There were ” signal problems” and we sat in complete silence for about 15 minutes. Complete silence apart from my exaggerated sighing every time I checked my watch. At times like this my sighs tend to start with an “F” rather than an “H” and have three syllables.

Eventually we set off again and trundled across London on what has to be its slowest Underground Line. Just as I thought I might make it in the nick of time, we stopped at a station for what felt like a couple of days. The driver told us they were “regulating the service” (it’s a given that whenever you’re running late in London, the tube service will be “regulated”. I have no idea what it means).

Again we set off. My heart rate was sky high, I was sweating. It was the perfect warm up without even needing to stand up. At one stage I think I had 20 minutes to go through two more stations, negotiate the two mile walk to Hackney Marshes, find my t-shirt and chip timing, safety pin my race number on (this is already a time consuming challenge for me when I’m not trembling with anxiety and adrenaline). I knew I’d have to get a taxi which was the one part of the journey that went without glitch. The driver even claimed to be related to Mo Farah, although unfortunately I don’t think any of the Farah family magic rubbed off on me.

When I slammed the taxi door, a few hundred runners were on the start line, all in coordinated t-shirts denoting their teams. I located my “team table” only to be told the rather fetching fuchsia t-shirts had run out. After a PB time for attaching a race number (achieved while listening to a man shout “On your marks, get set go!” over the PA), I jogged over to join the back of the queue of people who had decided it would best if they walked the route.

And I ran a 5K. It took a while to get going, negotiating my way past the big groups of people who were taking it easy and chatting with their colleagues. But I think the non-stop hassle of my third-time-“lucky” attempt to take part in a work-related running event contributed to what might have been my fastest 5K in 2013. Thank you Bic Biros. Thank you Transport for London. Thank you the person who invented chip-timing.

Mad Dogs and English Man running under the Jamaican sun

A two week sabbatical from running came to a brutal end on the morning of 16th August. Despite eight days of sterling support from my unofficial Jamaican sponsors, Wray and Nephew and Appleton, some particularly noisy neighbours roused me early from a night of fitful sleep. After accidentally thinking it was a cloudy start to the day, as well as hoping that the Caribbean sun was slightly less harsh as 7:30 in the morning, before I knew it, the smuggled-in running shoes were on my feet and raring to go.

Visions of fartlek between palm trees, dodging falling coconuts were wide of the mark. Instead it was east along the busy A1 from Salem, getting that inevitable run directly into the recently risen sun out of the way first. There were people everywhere, making early starts to their long working days. I was conscious of all the horns being sounded as cars sped past me, thinking this was the Jamaican drivers having a good laugh at the only person on the island foolish enough to be out running in such conditions. In fact they were communicating with their waiting passengers and each other as they passed me by. Everyone might have been laughing, but if they did so it was too subtle for me to notice as the sweat poured down my face.

    Highlights of My Jamaican Run:

1. Approximately 0.75 miles: three yard dogs spot me entering their territory and run barking after me down the street. Fortunately their inability to run in a straight line gives me the edge and I leave them in the dust.

2. Approximately 0.9 miles: Two small children coming back from the shops stop to interview me: “Are you trying to run a mile?” Me: “Yes, more than a mile – watch out Usain.”

3. Approximately 1.5 miles: I spot a massive Ackee tree which gives me three seconds of much needed shade.

4. Approximately 2.0 miles: Three men in a bar at 7:45 a.m. marvel at my sweaty apparition: “Look at the white man!”

5. Approximately 1.0 miles to finish: More running directly into the Caribbean sun with my 5K finish line coming in and out of focus through the haze as the Toyotas, minibuses and huge trucks zoom past.

Running through that heat was like running through treacle, but I’d done it: 5K in a tropical climate at a not too bad pace. The plan was to repeat the ritual a couple of days later but then I happened upon my best excuse not to run in a long time: sea urchin spikes lodged in the ball of my right foot.


5Ks vs Me – the battle continues

20130807-095755.jpgA few weeks ago I registered my slowest ever 5K time on a hot Sunday morning in East London. Chastened, I resolved to learn to love the distance using aversion therapy, turning up at races at a moment’s notice and trying to find a strategy to enjoy what thousands of others do every Saturday at their local Parkrun. As a little incentive, I stashed away the bottle of beer I received for finishing the 5K on that fateful day, not to open it until I I improved upon the best time I’d set in April 2013.
Since then it’s been a matter of two mid foot struck steps forward, three heel struck steps back with two local Parkruns completed in quick succession. My nearest Parkrun is a comparative toughy, three laps around a grassy playing field with a moderate hill on each lap. I figured that if I could slowly improve my times there, I could then show up at an otherwise “easier” course, smash that PB and open that beer bottle.

After a saintly Friday night with plenty of “helpful” rather than “ironic” hydration, I decided to cycle the couple of miles to the park in an attempt to warm up those weakened weekend limbs. I also tried the last minute caffeine hit tactic, downing a double espresso an hour before the start following the wholemeal toast and honey strategy an hour before that. It was a warm summer’s morning but not as hot as it had been a fortnight before so conditions were ok but not perfect. And progress was made – 20 seconds faster than the “personal worst”!

With the target just a little closer, I had to capitalise so last Saturday I returned to the starting line, making it two consecutive Parkruns in a fortnight. I’d even done some tfast intervals on the preceding Monday and a challenging club run on the Wednesday. However, the night before, I allowed some complacency to creep in, fuelling up on Nando’s and craft beer followed by a late night sleeping on a sofa bed with what felt like an iron bar sticking into my back.

Otherwise the preparation was the same: toast, caffeine, bike, gentle start, “sprint” finish. The result? 9 seconds slower than my personal worst. Back to the drawing board.

I think I need a new strategy and have been dipping into a comprehensive list of ideas on the 5krunner blog which could have been written especially for me. After a couple of weeks of taking it easy I’m going to launch into half marathon training, following a programme rather than the makingitupasIgoalong approach of the past few months. This will mean regular speedwork rather than the less reliable “do a bit of panting a few days before, that’s bound to make me faster” approach. I’m also going to try to keep turning up at random Parkruns but also trying some of the following to see if they help me to get that beer bottle open before its sell-by date:

– Mini-tapers
– Proper warming up
– Pay more attention to what my Garmin is telling me
– Get some lighter shoes
– Get to a race on a cooler day
– Beetroot shots?

Watch this space

Rollercoaster Running Week

Last week I reported on my exertions at the Eton Manor 5K where the only positives were that a) I finished and b) the lovely running club that organised the race gave me a very tempting bottle of specially brewed beer as part of an unexpected finishers’ goody bag.

The only negative feedback I’d have given the race organisers was that it took something like 4 days to publish the results. However, when I finally discovered my time I wondered if they’d just felt a little awkward, wondering how to break it to me. For last Sunday it turns out that I did my slowest 5K. Ever. 2 seconds slower than the time I’d hurtled off around London’s Hyde Park in 2009, trying to keep up with the speedy boys and girls and nearly being put off running races for the rest of my life.

Last week there were mitigating circumstances. It was bloody hot and although I have recently been running 2-3 times a week, I’d been doing too many “junk miles” rather than following a plan.

So lesson learnt, I decided I should find a nice couple of 10Ks for late summer and follow a proper plan to return to the world of half marathons in the Autumn. There was just the small matter of the Olympic Park Anniversary Run the following Sunday I’d spent a huge sum of money signing up for several months earlier.

I felt even less prepared for this one – a haphazard 5 mile slow run on the Friday before with lots of hills, lots of water (and a cheeky glass of wine the night before), couscous instead of the usual pasta. I also had the new experience of running in the same race as Mrs Run Don’t Run, although fortunately she was in a different wave to me so there would be no need for mid-race Relate counselling should one of us have succeeded in pulling away to victory.

There are already lots of good accounts of this huge event by people who are better at quickly getting their thoughts together and published than I am. The consensus was that the course was a little underwhelming. A year after the London Olympics, there’s still a lot of clearing up and landscaping to do and I suspect we were routed through the parts of the Park where they still had the most work outstanding. There were complaints about overcrowded sections although I was never made to feel hemmed in. My main beef was the number of people who seemed to have signed up as an opportunity to take photos of their mates around the Olympic Park, not worrying about hindering the efforts of people like myself who thought they might have been issued with chip-timing for a reason.

Getting in touch with my Inner Usain

Getting in touch with my Inner Usain

As with last year’s run, whatever we felt about the first four miles was eclipsed as we were guided into a tunnel that hugged the edge of the stadium and were “treated” once again to the theme music from Chariots of Fire. A sudden turn to the right and suddenly we were in the stadium where all those unforgettable events had taken place just a year earlier. Most runners saw this as an opportunity to up their game in front of the few thousand spectators and regardless of how little was left in the tank managed to affect a sprint finish, particularly after they’d spotted the “100 metres to go” sign. That was apart from the couple who saw this as the perfect opportunity to stop and take a photo of themselves causing myself and a few other wannabe Usains to swerve to a halt and have to start their final effort from a sudden standstill.

So why was it a rollercoaster week? Well, not only did I run my slowest ever 5K, I also ran my fastest ever 5 miles, 10 seconds faster than my time in the Olympic Park in 2012, when I was in the middle of some diligent marathon preparation and when it was 10°C cooler. I clearly did something right between the 14th and 21st of July 2013, I just wish I knew what it was…