Remember, Sully, when I said I would write about Sufferfest next? I lied!
Yes, I have changed my plan slightly, but not without good reason which become clear soon enough, because now is as good a time as ever to talk about Parkrun. For those of you less familiar, Parkrun is a not-for-profit organisation who arrange… well runs in parks. From fairly humble beginnings in London back in 2004, they now host over 400 weekly events in the UK for over 1,000,000 registered runners, with even more events going on across a dozen other countries worldwide.
The premise is simple, a 5 km timed run, which kicks off at 9 am on Saturday morning. The event is free to enter, all you need to do is register on their website beforehand and print off a unique barcode, which you then take with you to the run. When you finish you are given a timing chip on the finish line, which you take to a marshal who scans it with your barcode, and like magic, an hour or so later you get an email telling you how you have done!
Despite being around a fair while, Parkrun seems to have raised its profile a lot in the last few years, partly assisted by the running boom going on at the moment (I feel like something of a veteran having been doing triathlons for around 7 years now) and partly because of the publicity around the proposed charges for using the ground in one of the events around Bristol earlier this year.
But why it is so popular – after all, anyone can run in the park in their own time, and many of us have been doing it for years? I guess it must come down down to the camaraderie and motivation you get from regular group exercise – the same reason I end up doing so much of of my training in Les Mills classes – having a set time to start and knowing other people there takes away some of that ‘I can’t be bothered’ feeling us non-professional athletes encounter all too regularly. Plus with the timing system, it is easy to set targets to improve week-on-week, as well as the fact the emails tell you how you compare to others taking part in your event, your age group, and so on.
I am trying to avoid using the word racing, as they really try not to make too competitive – although of course not everyone taking part feels that way – but it really is very no pressure. People of all shapes and sizes take part, adults, kids, families. A fair few people even take their dogs along for the run.
Basically, it is a great concept, but enough of the ad-campaign stuff and onto the reason for writing. First up, a confession. I actually registered for Parkrun about 5 years ago, but did not take part in my first one until a few months ago. I know. Plenty of excuses why, but it was just one of those things I heard of through work, signed up, and then never got around to actually doing. The main reason though was that when I had signed up, the nearest one to me was around 30 mins away which seemed a bit of an effort on Saturday morning, as in the time it would take me to get there and back alone, I could run twice the distance.
But everything changed when, shortly after completing Ironman Staffs last year, I came across a blog on this site (https://swimsweatandgears.com/2015/07/28/isoman-the-equaliser-triathlon/) reviewing a new type of triathlon: The Isoman. Unique (that I know of) within the racing world, it is based around a more balanced race, where the swim, bike & run are much more equal in importance instead of weighted towards the latter two. Given that swimming is the element I am least crap at, this seemed to suit me well, and fooled as usual by an early bird discount I found myself signed up a few minutes later.
During my research I also realised that not only was this going to be in one of my local parks – Arrow Valley in Redditch – where I had been at least half a dozen times in the previous 12 months, but they had their own Parkrun, which at a drive of just over 10 minutes finally made things fall into place.
My final excuse taken away I decided to give the run a try, as after all, it should be a good recce for the half-marathon element of the triathlon. So five years after first registering (and accompanied by my better half who rather more sensibly had signed up online just 24 hours earlier to get in a bit of training for Rough Runner) we were at the 8.45 am newbies briefing. The park is based around a large lake, and the run was about as simple as it gets, two laps around, starting and finishing in around the same place.
The start was fairly busy, with a bit of mud from the previous evening’s rain herding everyone close together on the path. We did not actually hear the klaxon go off bang on 9 am, but more felt the volume of people start to shift around us. As mentioned it is not supposed to be a race, but try telling that to those involved, particularly when you find yourselves bunched up and stuck behind some ‘Parkwalkers’ who must have turnd up having misunderstood the name and decided to stand right at the front of the pack.
We ran together, maintaining a slow but steady pace around the track, definitely keeping it on the easy side. I put on a bit of a sprint at the end to stretch my legs, but overall did not really break too much of a sweat, and was not hugely surprised (particularly as I had already timed it on my watch) to get a time of 34.20, which placed me 263/360 runners and 9th in my age group.
The finish was a bit of an anticlimax, again as someone who is used to a bit of a party after racing, but again this is not a race, so after handing in your timing chip it is just back to the cars, with a bit a cheering for those still getting around. I got the impression that some regulars probably hung out together and so on, but given it was 9.30 in the morning it was not really one to go for a drink after (for us at least).
A few weeks later I decided to head back again on my own for a rematch while my wife was getting drunk on a hen do. I felt a lot more competitive second time around, and noticed this time they also had some people wearing pacer t-shirts based on planned finish times: 28 mins, 30 mins, etc, which apparently happens once per month. I had also seen a fair few people wearing headphones before, something of a novelty for us triathletes where personal music players are not allowed in races, so I brought along a few power tunes to really get in the zone.
After a fair bit of overtaking I finished up this time in 26.07, possibly one of the largest improvements between race one and two they must have ever seen, putting me 132 out of 360 runners (really the exact same number…?!) which I was fairly pleased with. I had been pushing at the end to beat 26 mins (by my watch it was 26.01), although having initially planned on a time of around 27.30 I was still dead chuffed- something to aim for next time I guess.
So that is Parkrun, an admirable concept which adds a bit of variety to my normal lone training. I will at some stage get around to trying some others (there are a few more now within 30 mins or so from home) and maybe even at some stage beating that 25 minute mark. But in the meantime it is not just a few days until the Isoman Cometh…