I am a reluctant runner. At school I once ‘forgot’ my PE kit to avoid having to take part in the annual cross-country run. My PE teacher was wise to schoolgirls’ excuses and made me walk the distance in my sensible Clark’s school shoes and uniform. And this is pretty much where running and I parted company.
Until last year. One thing I didn’t know about cancer and chemotherapy is that it can increase your weight. Truly, the disease that keeps on giving. So, not only was I trying to rebuild my life and fitness after treatment, I was also dealing with a me that was larger than it had been and a wardrobe of clothes that mocked me from the coat hangers. After one dismal afternoon of trying on clothes, I gazed at the streets near my house and hatched a plan. I plotted a circular route, laced up my trainers and left the house. It was early. The only witnesses to my trotting were dog walkers and bin men. After a few weeks we graduated to nods, waves, and greetings. Always encouraging and supportive. I began to collect gadgets, gather tips, and increase my distance. I did a 5k, a 10k (twice), registered for one half-marathon (and another).
When I’m out training for the half-marathon(s), I circle a running track. I eye it nervously and suspect if I tried to run on it the track would know I’m ‘not a runner’ and somehow manage to trip me up. But I knew I’d have to find a way of completing 5000m and 10000m. One morning as the track and I edged past each other, I did a (for me) complicated equation and realised I’d already run 5000m more than once and could, if the mood took me, run 5000m every Saturday morning. The answer to my 5000m dilemma: ParkRun.
I signed up and a few weeks later found myself huddling in Hilly Fields (my local ParkRun) in SE London. I confided to one runner it was my first ParkRun. She said ’It’s hard,’ and looked harder at me. It was too late to back out.
The runners and me were ushered to the start line and our huddle became a pack. The race marshal welcomed new runners (‘and trotters’ I thought) and visiting runners, described the route (three laps around and across Hilly Fields), and we were off.
The pack surged and parkrunners streamed past me: parents pushing prams or running with children, couples and groups running together, some running fiercely to improve their times, others just wanting to finish. I’m in the just-wanting-to-finish group, built for endurance not speed, and leading from the back of the pack suits me fine. I never have to worry about the route, just make sure I can see a few runners ahead of me.
The route lived up to its name, winding up and down the hilly fields, and I began to think cycling to the start hadn’t been my smartest idea. The volunteers along the route called out encouragement and gave me a time-check – so I knew how much longer I’d have to run for. I was lapped and, as they passed, a few runners urged me on. I marvelled at those who had the breath to form sentences as they ran past me UP-HILL while I puffed and plodded along.
Because I head out most mornings at about 6am, I’m used to cool, wet, cold weather – even snow. And that’s how I like it. But ParkRun starts at 9am, and 9am on a July morning can be warm. Warm enough for me to need sunblock and discover sunblock melting into your eyes can sting. I made a mental note to do further research. I started to notice runners were leaving, having completed their ParkRun, and tried to increase my stride as all the books and blogs had told me. If anyone spotted I was moving faster they spotted more than I did. I trotted on.
And then it was over. The volunteers clapped and cheered as I made the final turn and made my way along the top of the hill. I crossed the finish line, collected my time chip, and had my bar code swiped. Chatting to the Hilly Fields race director Adele, I heard volunteers clapping and realised parkrunners were still finishing. I felt robbed. I’d been proud to finish in last place, but suddenly I wasn’t the last.
I unlocked my bike, cycled home, and consoled myself with a bagel and a banana. The breakfast of champions for a trotter not a runner and a first-time-almost-last-parkrunner. I’ll be back at ParkRun – as a volunteer and a parkrunner.
Athletics. 5000 metres. 18 July 2015