As is traditional for the “festive” season, I have come down with a hacking cough that has hampered my marathon training a bit over the last week. I have carefully researched whether you should run if you are ill, and the answer seems to be that a little bit of running makes you feel better and a lot makes you feel worse. Apparently some scientists got some mice, gave them all the flu, then made some run a mouse equivalent of a marathon, others the mouse equivalent of a parkrun, and the rest the mouse equivalent of staying in bed watching Jeremy Kyle. The parkrun group recovered better than the Jeremy group but the marathon group all dropped dead. So with this in mind, I went to Maidstone parkrun on Saturday as planned, but am sitting here typing this post and will be having half an hour on the turbo trainer afterwards, rather than running for two hours in the pouring rain as planned.
I was in Maidstone because my beloved Leyton Orient (a team about as good at football as I am at running) were playing Maidstone FC, and I also needed to go to the Kent Archives to look at some microfilms for my other big hobby (genealogy), so decided to make a weekend of it and visit Maidstone parkrun. I stayed at the Sandling Premier Inn which is right next to the start of the parkrun. It is a pleasant 3km walk along the river Medway (along the parkrun route, in fact) to get there from Maidstone East station, though if you arrive after dark you will need to get the 155 bus from outside the station, as the river path is not lit.
Apparently Maidstone council were big spoilsports and did not allow the parkrunners to use the more obvious venue of Mote Park, and thus Maidstone parkrun is not actually in a park but along a towpath with a small section in the Kent Life Centre (an outdoorsy farm museum/activity centre, and yes, it has a toilet). This means that out of the six different parkruns I have done, two are not actually in parks (the other non-park-run I have done being Hove Promenade, which you can probably work out is along the seafront promenade. Actually, does Hackney Marshes count as a park? What defines a park anyway?)
The start is just inside the Kent Life centre (so you have ponies and chickens as spectators), then down a little road (with a very treacherous ditch on the right – watch where you put your feet) on to the towpath. From here it’s about two kilometres down the towpath, over a bridge into Whatman Park, a small loop in the park and then back the way you came. The finish is a little bit beyond the start in the Kent Life centre, near Dotty’s Tea Rooms, where the parkrunners enjoy post run refreshments.
Because it was the Saturday before Christmas and also Maidstone’s 250th run, it was a bit of a special event for them with runners invited to wear fancy dress. Hence, instead of seeing a gaggle of people in running clothes congregating like at a normal parkrun, I saw the Three Wise Men talking to a bunch of elves and a penguin. I knew they must be the parkrun volunteers because one had a loudhailer and they were all wearing trainers but otherwise I could have just walked into a Christmas pantomime. Anyone in fancy dress (or “anything Christmassy”) was invited to take part in a group photo. I decided that having a piece of tinsel in my hair qualified me for this and here is the result:
Unfortunately, the large turn out was rather more than the route could cope with. 400 people on a towpath aren’t going to get anywhere fast on the best of days, and it really doesn’t help when some of them are dressed as Christmas puddings. I was completely stationary for a full twenty seconds after the official start, and the first half kilometre was a rather frustrating shuffle/walk/run/bottleneck cycle. I expect it’s not so bad if you are a fast runner and position yourself at the front, or come on a quieter day, but it was immediately apparent there was going to be no PB for me that day. But never mind, it’s a run not a race, times don’t matter, etc blah.
The scenery of the towpath was lovely – boats, swans, a little swamp to your left (don’t fall in), hanging trees. There was a little mud in places but I coped. After the annoying first half kilometre the pack had thinned out enough for me to run at my own pace. Overtaking was quite difficult as the fast runners were coming back the other way and I had to time it just right to avoid going full pelt into a returning Mo Farah-a-like. I was, however, overtaken by all three Wise Men and their mates who were mysteriously dressed as Centurions. The bridge into Whatman Park was a bit of a shock – I was expecting a low bridge, like the ones I run over on the River Lea, then looked up and saw runners way above my head on a motorway footbridge type affair, but it’s reached by a fairly gentle zigzag path which wasn’t steep enough to cause a lot of bother, so it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
The end of this course is quite mean – not only is it on a muddy path up a hill (Howard’s Hill – who is Howard?) – it’s a hill that you never got to run down, so the course has more UP than it does DOWN. I feel like this violates some fundamental rule of the universe.
My time was 36:06, with the Garmin clocking the route as being a little bit short of 5k, so nothing to write home about, but today was more about the tourism opportunity than the time.