Rising at 7.00 to run round a muddy field on a Saturday morning has as much appeal as sticking pins in my eyes. But shamed by my expanding midriff and spurred on by my alternative New Year’s resolutions, parkrun was calling. Enticed by the tidal wave of rave reviews, I dragged myself kicking and screaming out of bed to find out what all the fuss was about.
Originating in Bushy Park, London in 2004, Parkrun has grown from a local run between a few mates to a global running phenomenon. The weekly, free, 5k- winning formula now generates over 70,000 runners worldwide. And it’s not just your Mo Farah wannabes. A legion of pram pushing, dog walking converts are now joining the throng. But if 70.000 can’t be wrong, what exactly was the appeal? I was about to find out.
Rocking up at Watford’s Cassiobury Park, a sea of neon Lycra greets me through the Saturday morning gloom. Clutching my bar codes (essential for getting your time at the end), I nervously slide to the back of the pack with the toddlers and terriers. Not being a fan of mud, I’m relieved to note that we’ll be following a paved pathway for the full duration of the run.
An air of nervous anticipation hangs in the air. Were we up to the challenge? Behind me, I hear someone sheepishly confess to having two glasses of wine last night. Don’t be in any doubt – parkrun is taken VERY seriously. Suddenly, we’re off. A vapour trail of laboured breath clouds the air as the ground shakes under the thunder of pounding feet. In pole position are the athletics club stars – leaving us lesser mortals labouring in their wake.
My sole aim is to make it round in one piece. Sticking to what barely qualifies as a slow jog, I pace myself for the punishment to come. “Well done – twenty minutes” nods one of the Parkrun volunteers as I plod round the first bend. Could it really have taken that long? I take comfort in the fact that while I may be struggling so is everyone else around me. At parkrun, there’s real solidarity in suffering. Had I been on my tod, there’s no doubt I would be walking by now.
Reaching the first lap stage is a bit of a crisis point – already knackered but knowing I still have nearly twice the distance to go. Lapped by the neon flash of Mo Farah on his home circuit, I start to despair. But there’s no choice but to keep calm and carry on despite the ache of a stitch and legs that feel like lead.
Sticking resolutely to my snail’s pace, twenty minutes later, the finishing line’s within reach. I make a last gasp sprint to thunderous applause from the volunteers. Euphoric and relieved in equal measure, I join the queue of grinning, gasping counterparts to get our bar codes scanned for our times. (E-mailed to you after the run.)
Finished by 10.00, I feel smugly virtuous with a whole weekend of entirely justified indulgence ahead of me. A celebratory cup of ginger tea ensues with my fellow runners. Now that it’s over, I finally get the overwhelming thrill of achievement that drives people to repeat this madness every week. Despite coming 283rd out of 320 runners, I feel on top of the world and the feeling stays all weekend. Will I be back next weekend? Nothing could keep me away.
Top tips: Come dressed ready to run. There are no changing facilities or lockers. Valuables are deposited on a strip of tarpaulin, supervised by one of parkrun’s volunteers.
Don’t forget to bring your bar codes with you. You will receive an e-mail after the race detailing your place, time and even how you rank in terms of your age.
Tell all your colleagues on Friday you’re doing parkrun at the weekend. The inevitable interrogation on Monday morning will make it harder to stay in bed when the alarm goes off.
To help you prepare, try out a lunch break run during the week.
Have you tried parkrun? How did you find it?