The second of our positive parkrun stories series. Here is one of our regular runner's journey...
I’ll start with a small confession - I used to do a bit of running. In fact, fifteen years ago, in my mid-twenties, I signed up for the Edinburgh Marathon, despite the fact I hadn’t so much as run for a bus since my school days. I remember sticking a beginners training plan to the fridge and ticking off each run as I completed it. All went well for a while but about two thirds of the way through my training, I developed a hip injury along with shin splints and was not able to complete most of my longer training runs in the weeks leading up to the marathon.
Stubbornly resolved to complete the challenge I had set myself, I duly hobbled round the marathon course when the big day arrived, in pain from mile six onwards. My family were incredibly supportive, cheering me on at various stages around the route and I do remember an incredible sense of achievement when I finally made it over the finish line some five and a half hours later. The next weekend (still very sore) I dragged myself round a charity 5k I had signed up for many months earlier and then, after that, nothing, nada, zilch – I quite literally never put my trainers back on or ran another single step for many many years.
I don’t really know what happened and why I let all that fitness just slip away - I guess training had taken up too much of my free time and, in all honesty, I think I found the pressure (totally self-imposed) of training for a marathon quite traumatic. I certainly hadn’t come to love the feeling of running and it hadn’t made me a happier person.
Fast forward 15 years to January 2019, now aged 41, feeling the excesses of the Christmas revelries and more than three stone overweight, I knew I needed to make some changes to my lifestyle and resolved it was time to have another go at a bit of running. So I downloaded the Couch to 5k app, headed out on to the canal towpath and started running for 60 seconds and walking for 90 seconds alternately.
I felt a small sense of achievement after that first run and quietly committed to myself to keep going with the programme. In Week 5, delighted to now be running for 5 minutes at a time, I bumped into a neighbour who said; ‘You should go to Parkrun – they’ve just started a new one in Todmorden!’ ‘Sounds great’ I replied breezily, internally telling myself there’s no way I could ever be ‘good enough’ to run with other people.
But this word ‘Parkrun’ kept popping back into my head and when I found myself googling it a few days later, there it was, Centre Vale Park Run, only a few weeks old and right on my doorstep! So I made a commitment to myself that when I completed the Couch to 5k programme I would go and try a Parkrun and, sure enough, on 6 April 2019, I turned up on my own and completed my first ever parkrun in 36 minutes and 1 second!
I found it really tough but I definitely experienced the runners high that day and what I remember most was how encouraging the marshals were as I ran round and how many runners came up and made the effort to say ‘Well Done’ as I finished, gasping for air and legs like jelly. As I recovered, I remember thinking what a lovely buzzing atmosphere there was and how happy everyone seemed – and all this in my local park at 9am on a Saturday morning!
So that was me hooked and I was back again at Parkrun the following weekend, this time completing the course 90 seconds faster. I didn’t know anyone but I got chatting to friendly folk at the finish line who told me about a Beginners running group which meets on a Monday night, organised by Todmorden Harriers.
It took another eight weeks (and a few more Parkruns under my belt) before I was brave enough to turn up on my own to the ‘Monday Runday’ Beginners group but I’m proud to say I’ve been to nearly every session since. And, of course, I had nothing to worry about – this group is also full of friendly, welcoming folk and caters for all abilities, including those right at the beginning of their Couch to 5k journey. By December 2019 I was a fully-fledged member of Todmorden Harriers and was very proud to wear my Harriers running vest for the first time this weekend at Todmorden’s very own annual 10k Road Race – the Red Hot Toddy!
It’s been just over a year since I ventured out on the towpath for that first painful session of one-minute runs and I can now run comfortably for an hour or more. Since April last year I’ve done 29 Parkruns and my current PB is 27 minutes & 38 seconds, more than eight minutes faster than my first Parkrun. It’s such a great way to start the weekend and has become a kind of anchor in my week, something I try to prioritise and plan other things around. If I’m away for the weekend, I’ll look up the closest Parkrun to where I’m visiting and try and build it into the plans. More important than any of the above though, is the fact I can now genuinely say I love the feeling of running and I am a much happier person than I was a year ago!
So what’s been different this time around? I am absolutely convinced Parkrun has made all the difference. To become part of such an inclusive running community where everyone is encouraged to take part, no matter where they are at on their own personal journey, was absolutely invaluable, especially in those early days when I was running very slowly and feeling very self-conscious. Fifteen years ago when I was marathon training, I never met anyone else who ran and would never have dreamt of being ‘good enough’ to join an athletic running group. This time around, all my mini Parkrun ‘victories’ have bridged that gap for me and helped me become someone now confident enough to proudly call myself a runner.
Parkrun is also where I met my new running buddies and found out about the Beginners group and the Harriers. I still like running on my own sometimes but running with other people is always great fun and means I always make the effort to be there when I can, even in bad weather or dark winter nights when I would be very unlikely to go out alone. I’m sure running with others has helped build my fitness faster too; sometimes I’ll push myself hard to keep up with the quicker runners in front and we’ll run up hills I would never choose to run up alone, whilst other times I’ll run at a much more relaxed pace and chat with others, quietly celebrating the fact I can now run and hold a conversation at the same time. Like many people, I’m sure, my work does not connect me to my immediate community and so Parkrun and the running groups also help me feel more connected to my local community and other people who live here.
The other lesson I’ve learned this time around is that I don’t need to have a ‘marathon sized goal’ in mind for running to feel worthwhile or purposeful. It’s absolutely more than enough just to keep showing up for Parkrun, week after week, slowly and steadily getting fitter and stronger and chipping away at my PB (but without any of that self-imposed pressure). This time around I am running because I love the feeling and freedom of running, and I have discovered that running really does make me happy.
What else has changed since I started Parkrun? Well that three and a half stone I needed to lose has disappeared, I’m addicted to Strava rather than wine (who wants to get up and do Parkrun after sinking a bottle of wine on a Friday night?!), I feel a lot more confident in myself and, most of all, I feel a renewed energy and desire to make the most of life and all the opportunities that come my way.
I’m also delighted that my nine-year-old son has begun showing an interest and we’ve been using the school run to leave the car at home and work our way through the Couch to 5k app. He’s done three Parkruns so far and he’s been a real support to me so I look forward to seeing where his journey takes him this year too.
And what’s next for my Parkrun journey in 2020? I have a few mini goals in mind; I’d like to reach my 50th parkrun milestone by the end of 2020 and I’d like to edge closer to a PB somewhere around the 25-minute mark. I want to volunteer at Parkrun at least once a month too; I’ve been tail walker a couple of times and have really enjoyed meeting people just starting out on their own fitness journeys. I wish I’d been brave enough to show up a bit earlier and would urge anyone reading this who’s worried about fitting in or about being fast enough just to come along and have a go – I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
So Happy First Anniversary to Centre Vale Parkrun – you’ve made a massive difference to my life this year and I’d like to say a huge thank you to Will and all the volunteers who make Parkrun possible, week after week, in all weather conditions! I’m sure you will continue to make a hugely positive impact on many more lives in your second year and beyond … in the meantime, did someone say there might be cake this Saturday?!