For many compulsive parkrun tourists, becoming an “alphabeteer” (visiting a parkrun beginning with every letter of the alphabet, except X, because there isn’t one starting with X… yet) is a top priority. It’s an enjoyable challenge which requires one to be a little creative. Some letters are easy (I’ve lost count of my Bs, Hs and Ss) and others are surprisingly difficult (my L is Lee on the Solent and my T is Teignmouth, the initial letter being a factor in the choice though I was in the vague area anyway and it helps that both are lovely promenade runs). Some letters are very limited indeed which is why the little known Polish town of Zielona Gora has an influx of mad British runners every weekend and everyone was extremely upset when Yeovil Montacute closed down. For a long time the only UK options for a J were Jersey and Jersey Farm, the former being a plane trip away and the latter being a grassy hill-less course that did not meet my course suitability criteria. Thankfully, in 2019 some more options emerged, including Jesmond Dene in Newcastle. The RunThrough organised Gateshead 10k/Half Marathon seemed like a good idea for Team Idiot to traipse up to the deep north and earn their J, and it also happened to fall on the weekend of my 45th (“new age category” as Rob keeps reminding me, as if I have any more chance of beating 50 year olds than 44 year olds) birthday so there was an excuse for me to get plastered in The Alchemist the same weekend.
Jesmond Dene isn’t just an ordinary park. It’s an artificially created area of natural beauty, where the smooth tarmac paths swoop alongside a flowing river and one can glimpse waterfalls, stepping stones, nuthatches singing in the trees and the sunlight filtering through the trees. It is not the sort of parkrun which you would want to run too fast because you might miss the sights, so it is a good thing that it is too hilly to run fast anyway. The volunteers kindly write “look” on the ground in chalk at the best viewpoint, the highest point of the course where you can look out over the valley. I am glad I don’t run with my phone as I would have been tempted to stop and take photos and that would not have helped my performance at all. The first 2k are mainly uphill. At first the gradients are not too challenging, but they soon pick up, culminating with a set of 21 steps (yes, steps) and then a nasty, steep, endless hill that forced me into a walk (much to my annoyance). Your reward for reaching the top of this hill (you will, eventually) is a couple of laps of a flattish, ordinary park. Although this bit was easier I didn’t like it as much, mainly because I found it a bit disorienting and had a growing unease that I had somehow cut the course because I was being overtaken by a bunch of people who were faster than me but not fast enough to lap me. In fact this is exactly what is meant to happen and a function of the slightly odd lap system and it is best not to try to work it out and just keep your eyes on the chalk markings and trust that in time all will become clear (with a “finish this way, second lap that way”). The second time you pass this marking you will be at about 4k and the remaining 1k is a bit like going down a bumpy water slide to the finish. There is one bit so steep that I felt my legs gathering speed uncontrollably and became worried that I was going to plunge into the two girls in front of me and knock them over like a bowling ball. You are pretty much guaranteed a huge negative split at this parkrun.
I crashed over the finish line in 36:42 which I thought was quite a good performance given the difficulty of the course.
In summary, I would highly recommend this parkrun to anyone (unless you have a phobia of stairs). The “J” may be the obvious draw but there is so much more to it than that. It would be worth visiting even if it started with a B.