Shortly after my first parkrun (last March), I happened to be in Chelmsford for my Other Hobby and took a walk through Central Park. I was struck by what a lovely park is was and was very jealous of the people of Chelmsford having it as their home run. I wondered if it would be overkill to travel all the way from Walthamstow to Chelmsford (30 miles) for a parkrun. Clearly, I was a completely newbie to parkrun at the time, because I didn’t realise that parkrunners actually made a deliberate point of travelling miles to visit different parkruns, and that for some of them, 30 miles was absolutely nothing at all.
Fortunately, I am now wise to the ways of parkrun tourism, and when I heard that this weekend was the 5th anniversary of Chelmsford Central parkrun, it seemed like a good time to make my debut. Unfortunately, some time between booking my train ticket and Saturday morning, the weather changed from dry and cloudy to utterly pissing with rain and freezing cold. I think if I hadn’t booked the ticket, I might have stuck to Finsbury Park, but as I was committed, I got up at 5am and boarded the train in the driving drizzle. I arrived much too early (8am) at Central Park but found the volunteers were already setting up the massivest funnel I have ever seen and that a banana and several Where’s Wallies were already warming up in the park. The café (“Cake on the Lake”) was not open yet, but its toilets were. The sanitary conditions in the toilets left something to be desired; two girls in front of me who were seasoned ultra runners remarked that they’d seen a lot of horrendous toilets in their running careers but even they were not going to set foot in the second cubicle.
The beginning of the parkrun was pretty chaotic. There was a large crowd (645 people) and the start is a mad dash across grass with everyone grappling for position before they reach the narrower path. If, like me, you start from the back and get stuck behind some slower people, there is not much you can do to get in front of them for the next half kilometre. It’s not as much of a bottleneck as Maidstone, but if you’re going for a PB here, you do need to position yourself correctly. Some people started taking detours through the mud to get ahead but I decided I’d rather take the tarmac and a slower start, since I was going to lose time in the grass section anyway.
Chelmsford is quite an unusual parkrun in that is it not a lapped course. It is kind of a “lollipop” route, an out and back section followed by a random wiggle around a field, then back the way you came. This means it was the first parkrun that I have ever taken part in where I was not lapped and did not encounter any runners coming back the other way for the entire route. (Some people would say this is a bad thing, because they like to see the other runners. I quite like it, it’s nice not to be reminded of how slow you are occasionally). The whole of the “out and back” section is on tarmac, and it’s the kind of very gentle undulations that I like best, with a couple of bridges and an underpass under a main road to negotiate. The lollipop section is mainly grass, with a small hill in the middle, and in the current conditions it had got rather muddy. I hate running on grass with a passion and had decided that if I needed to walk it, so be it – I wouldn’t worry about getting a good time today, so long as I kept a decent pace on the tarmac and didn’t disgrace myself. I had visions of being overtaken by hundreds of runners whilst I squelched through the mud, Pieathlon style. In actual fact, I surprised myself. I was a lot slower on the grass but I kept running. I nearly lost my balance on the downhill but managed to keep up with my legs and steer them back towards where they were meant to be. I also felt Chelmsford had more of a race like vibe to it – in a good way (I think the whole “parkrun is not a race” thing is a bit unfair on races. There are plenty of inclusive, non-competitive races out there.) There were kilometre markers (very accurate, too), loads of marshals and quite a big gaggle of spectators. I half expected to handed a medal at the end.
It seemed like the run was over very quickly – I guess the excitement of the new place and the lack of laps will do that. Before I knew it, I was back where I started. This is the only place where there is any potential for taking a wrong turn as you loop around the back of the start/finish area instead of going back the way you came. But there was a well placed marshal, and plenty of runners to follow, so I soon realised where I was meant to be going.
By the time I reached the finish, the rain was coming down very hard and there was a long wait in the funnel as everyone got their barcodes scanned. This was new to me as I’m normally slow enough to miss the rush and go straight through! I was absolutely drenched, but through the shivering and dripping I was very pleased to discover that I’d finished in 36:44, only a minute and a half slower than when I’d run flat out on a perfectly smooth tarmac path at Dulwich!
I would definitely return to Chelmsford Central – in fact if it wasn’t for the grass I would have gone as far to say it was my favourite ever parkrun. I definitely won’t be venturing so far from home on a rainy day again though. It took me all of Saturday to stop complaining about being cold.