Shoot the Runner: Concrete Collar does a parkrun

Concrete Collar’s Karter decided to try out his local parkrun, and now he won’t shut up about it…

It’s 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Normally, I’ll be in my pit, trying to sleep off a #MADNIGHTOUT (3 Shandy Bass’s, 2 WKD’s and 1 Sourz shot).

However, today is different. I’m waking up early, dusting off my running shoes and going for a jog… and not just any old jog.
Parkrun is a weekly series of timed 5 km runs which, in just 11 years, has grown from 13 runners at a single event in south-west London, into a community of over 1.3 million runners at nearly 90000 events around the world. It is open to all, regardless of age, fitness levels and experience.
Mary Ross is the event director for the Birmingham Cannon Hill event, one of the biggest events in the country.

“We started in August 2010 with 34 runners and 10 volunteers, and we now regularly have over 500 runners and 20 volunteers each week. We have put on the run nearly 300 times over the last few years and very rarely cancel, only when the park has other events or the weather is too dangerous.”

Armed with my printed barcode (how they’re able to time you; it’s scanned after the race), I arrive at my local park. There is a big crowd; admittedly not as big as the peak attendance at Cannon Hill (“we had 780 last year in May, and I do expect we will get to that number again in the summer”), but it’s a crowd that includes a wide cross-section of people. Those that have clearly never gone for a run in their life are talking to Lycra-clad club runners wearing their team vests with pride.
This encourages me to get speaking to people. Joe has been taking part in parkruns for a year now and tells me he’s made a lot of friends from it. Needless to say, his enthusiasm knows no bounds.

“I love the community feel of the event, like there’s people here of all ages, all backgrounds…some will finish the course in 15 minutes, some in 40, but it’s a great atmosphere and everyone’s just here to have a really good time.”

After listening to the pre-race briefing, we’re ready to go. There’s a veritable mass of people up ahead, and behind the visible determination on their faces, they all look genuinely happy. It’s 9am on a Saturday morning; I’m usually either fast asleep, hungover or worse at this point. I suddenly feel a slight pang of shame, as if this is the sort of thing I should be doing every week.
Joe’s certainly seen a positive change in his life since he started taking part, and one reason stands out in particular.

“It’s definitely made me more motivated to get fitter and exercise more, because I really want to beat my personal best. The thing that I love about parkrun is that you’re being timed, and all the information’s emailed to you the very same day, so it’s easy to keep track of it all.”

There’s a sea of Lycra-clad runners ahead of me as the race begins. The pace is high; I look behind and some are falling away already. But regardless of their pace, everyone’s being cheered on and encouraged by the many marshals that line the route. They’re all volunteers; no-one makes any money from parkrun. They’re all just doing it for the love of it.
Eventually, the pack I’m in starts to disintegrate. The club runners are sprinting away; their long gaits reminding me of gazelles. But with some anonymous house music in my ear, I settle right bang in the middle, and keep a fairly steady pace for the next few kilometres.

Credit: Alexander Kerensky V
Credit: Alexander Kerensky

But about two thirds of the way in, I begin to tire. I definitely went out too quick. I want to stop and walk. Others behind me have. But the encouragement from the marshals is actually spurring me on. It somehow sounds genuine as well, like they really want you to finish the race (although of course I’m not in too much of a position to debate the validity of it). Either way, there definitely is something special about the atmosphere here.
Joe certainly thinks so anyway.

“There’s just so much positive energy at parkruns, and everyone’s so full of encouragement. When you’re struggling, there’s loads of marshals cheering you on, and it actually helps, even though they’re doing it for everyone.”

Urged on by the marshals, I keep going, and about 500 metres from the end, all the positive energy starts doing funny things to my head, and I somehow manage to convince myself I’m having a second wind. In my head, this is Mo Farah in the Olympic Stadium; lights flashing, crowds cheering, the PR guy for Quorn on the line to my agent…
But before I get too used to the idea of posing with (but never actually being pictured eating) some meat-free chicken pieces, reality sets in; my legs start to give way, my breathing gets heavier and heavier and the pain gets more and more unbearable. It takes every last ounce of energy to haul myself to the finish, but I somehow manage it. And although I feel so bad when I stumble across the line, it feels so good.

The email came through a few hours later with the results. I came 65th out of 122, with a time of 27:26. Average. I could see why Joe was so enthusiastic about it being timed now, because I really wanted to go again and beat that time. In fact, I could see why he was so enthusiastic period.
Beforehand, I’d read about parkrun in articles like this with a degree of suspicion. I mean, it can’t be that good, can it?

But after taking part in one, I completely got it. To me, parkrun felt like a judgement-free zone; one where, regardless of who you are, why you’re there and how fast you can run, you’ll be welcomed into a community with open arms. Everyone gets on, everyone talks, no one’s taking it too seriously, and there isn’t the stuffiness you’d associate with the running scene. Granted, there’s still a vast amount of Lycra on show, but I don’t know… it just feels different (the atmosphere, not the Lycra. The Lycra’s still the same.).
I’ll certainly be going down again, and I wouldn’t bet against plenty more people printing out their barcodes, dusting off the running shoes and thinking they’re Mo Farah with 200 metres to go. You never know, some of them may pull it off better than I did.

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