I’ll start by saying a little bit about parkrun. parkrun is an wonderful institution which began in 2004 as a bunch of friends having a little organised time trial in Bushy Park, and which has grown and grown until it reached nearly a thousand different events in eighteen different countries. People get very obsessive about it. There is a hilarious unofficial group on Facebook where people constantly talk about PBs and argue about headphones/dogs/children/fast runners/slow runners/the correct capitalisation of “parkrun”/cake. This is nearly as addictive as parkrun itself. Every parkrun takes place on a Saturday morning and is 5km long and totally free to join in. The parkrun website keeps a record of your times and locations, which is very appealing to someone like me who loves to collect things and document their every move, and there are rewards – t-shirts and unofficial cow-print cowls – for certain milestones. Since parkrun is Not A Race (as they keep telling you), the rewards are not for being fast but for taking part in a number of events, either as a volunteer or a runner. It is a great thing that has made a lot of difference to people’s lives and is the highlight of the week for many.
Parkrun make a big song and dance about being inclusive, welcoming and open to walkers and novices, which is not untrue, but not the whole picture either. When I went to my first parkrun earlier this year, still in the midst of the Bad Leg Episode, I plodded the first kilometre or so at my usual 7:30/km speed, turned a corner and noticed there was absolutely no-one behind me. I was so horrified at the prospect of being last that I bolted up the hill, finally overtook a couple of children and pensioners, and finished seventh from last. The thing is that parkrun, by its very nature, is always going to be full of the sort of people who get up early on a cold Saturday morning to go running in a park. And those people are fast. “It’s not a race”. Too right it’s not a race – if you were doing a race there would be loads of people who signed up to raise money for charity, or who fancied the big event but couldn’t be bothered with the training. If you want slow people – go to a race! When I finally crossed the line in 38 minutes something the friendly, welcoming, fast people all clapped me like I was a complete novice and I wanted to protest that I was actually a proper runner and look at my marathon shirt and blah blah mitigating circumstances. But I didn’t say any of that, I just thought to myself that I needed to do more parkruns and fix my leg and then maybe I could overtake these people and be at the end to congratulate them instead.
Eight months later, and things have been going a bit better for me lately. I can now run 5km in 35 minutes something, which of course still puts me miles behind most of the parkrun brigade, but at least I can see them in the distance now. A few weeks ago, my home parkrun (Finsbury Park) was cancelled, and I planned to go to the parkrun in nearly Ilford instead (Valentines), but somehow ended up in A+E with a sewing needle in my foot instead. (A subject for another post). Now fully recovered from Needlegate, I decided to give Valentines another go. I think it might be cursed, though, as on the way there my bus driver somehow got lost and ended up going the wrong way on the North Circular, meaning I had to whip my tracksuit off on the bus and sprint to the start line in order to make it on time. It wasn’t the best of weather, but Valentines is quite a pretty park with a couple of lakes, hygienic toilets and a decent looking cafe. The bag drop appears to be in some kind of wishing well, so as I dropped my bag I wished for a faster time than my last 5km (35:24, at RunThrough Chase the Moon at the Olympic Park, three days ago).
Then we were off. I was quite pleased to note than I had been unnecessarily harsh on myself by starting right at the back and that I actually overtook more people than I was overtaken by. I set off at roughly the same pace that I ran on Wednesday, but I didn’t feel I was working quite so hard. There’s not a lot of note on the route: some hazards in the form of speed bumps, a pretty little bridge, lots of trees, a tennis court. The park is very nearly flat but not quite – it’s one of those deceptive parks where you can’t work out why you’re running slower in one direction than the other until you look at Strava. It doesn’t undulate at all, which is a bit of a shame. I should mention now that I’m a lover of hills, particularly the short, steep up and down type. (I like rollercoasters too.)
I was particularly proud to only get lapped by one person. (After years of slow running, my expectations are low.) As much as I know that there are runners out there that are twice as fast as I am, it always spoils my little “I am Paula Radcliffe” fantasy as someone plunders past me like a high speed train, looking like they aren’t even out of breath. Sometimes, in a longer race, you can even get lapped by the same person twice. Had I been about twenty seconds quicker, I wouldn’t have been lapped at all. Next time! I was very pleased to be averaging about 7:00/km – the exact sort of pace I need to hit my targets, according to various running calculators!
Disaster, however, on the final lap! I somehow managed to miss the turn off to the finish – I was assuming there would be a marshall to point me home, but there was just a little yellow arrow, which I totally missed in favour of the other little yellow arrow telling runners on their first lap to go straight on. It was only when I came to a junction and saw no runners, arrows or marshalls I realised something was up. Thankfully, another runner came after me and pointed me back where I’d came from. I’m really sorry, that runner, that I didn’t thank you for putting me right – I was momentarily really annoyed that I’d ruined the PB that I was on for by going wrong. I’m also really sorry to the girl who followed me up the wrong path – I hope she wasn’t on for a PB too. My pace chart is quite amusing as it shows the exact point where I reached a standstill, followed by a big peak as I sprinted back the way I came. I did have a word with the run director afterwards and he explained they were short of a marshall, so I guess this emphasises the importance of volunteers. I think they’re the sort of parkrun who get a lot of regulars and not many tourists (when the director asked if there were any tourists at the beginning, there was only me and some chap from St Albans), so most runners would be familiar with the layout of the park. Also I am just an idiot who gets lost in a small park. Let’s face it.
When I finally reached the finish, I couldn’t decide if I was pleased or annoyed to have come in at 38:06, my best ever time at a parkrun, but about three minutes short of the time I would have got if I’d not taken a 0.4km detour! Fortunately, Strava calculated for me that my “real” time would have been 35:11, so an improvement on Wednesday’s effort. I decided to chalk it down to experience and be grateful for a little bit of extra exercise! Now I have to decide which parkrun to try next. I am thinking of Barking, it appears to be a very straightforward route with no chance of getting lost.