Armley parkrun: the one on Christmas Day

I’m not sure if it is a sign of getting older, but preparations for the celebration of Christmas seem to get earlier and earlier each year, and more and more hyped up and commercial. This year I saw my first ‘Christmas’-themed items for sale in a supermarket in August, and when one radio station announced that it wasn’t going to start playing Christmas songs until the 1st December this seemed extraordinarily late as I was already sick of hearing the Pogues and Slade on the various other radio stations I flick between when I’m driving. One of the main “water-cooler” topics at work in November was about the latest John Lewis advert featuring Elton John, and every supermarket was selling novelty Christmas jumpers or other festive wear, some at quite high prices, as wearing a Christmas jumper in December seems to have become a “thing”. In the running world, there were so many ‘Santa Dash’ runs, especially in London, that they almost seemed to be the norm rather than a novelty.

Now I’m a sucker for a bit of festive nostalgia as much as the next person, can watch rubbish Christmas films like “The Holiday” even though I’ve seen it about 5 times before, and I do own a Christmas jumper. But running through all the Christmas ads and hype is the implied acknowledgement that ‘Christmas’ is all about being together with families and ‘loved ones’, and that it has to be done one way. Even the ad for a certain supermarket that showed how different people’s preferences were for food and drink at Christmas, this still showed living rooms and tables full of happy smiling people, spending time together and enjoying each other’s company.  Of course, if commercial ads had shown a single person, on their couch in a onesie watching telly on Christmas Day eating beans on toast and being perfectly happy relaxing in the knowledge that they have a couple of days off work and can spend it how they like, this wouldn’t sell – and that’s what the ads are all about. The shops need to perpetuate the myth that in order to be happy at Christmas we need to buy as much ‘stuff’ as we can, whether that be presents, groceries or even Christmas jumpers. And this puts an implicit pressure upon us; those of us who are single, whose parents have passed away, who don’t have children and who don’t have the huge family gatherings to go to, start to wonder where we’ve gone wrong in life and this can easily slide into depression.  I started to realise the effect this subliminal pressure was having when a successful and generally positive friend of mine who stopped drinking alcohol a few years ago posted on facebook messages this Christmas including “Turns out being single and sober at Christmas is sometimes a bit hard. Who knew?” and “892 days of sobriety will not be broken by BLOODY Christmas”.  Another single friend who has faced a number of problems this year decided the only way to cope was to leave the country, and packed herself off to a yoga retreat in Thailand.

Last year, the founder of parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, posted a blog post on the parkrun UK site suggesting that people invite anyone who might be spending Christmas alone to come and join them at a Christmas Day parkrun.  I have a slight issue with the second sentence in the blog – “Sadly, we know that too many people will spend the festive period alone this year” – which puts “being alone” as being a bad thing and something to be sad about, whereas some people may relish the idea of being alone and therefore being able to be blessedly selfish about how they spend their Christmas days without the demands of family or spouses. However, the idea of an alternative way of spending time on Christmas morning to the traditional present-opening/eating/drinking frenzy, and opening that activity up to anyone regardless of who they are or who they know, was attractive. Last year, when this blog post came out, I was working on Christmas day and so couldn’t attend parkrun; the year before I wasn’t quite as parkrun-addicted as I am now, and so the idea of going out on Christmas morning and exercising seemed completely bonkers! But this year my parkrun habit has become well and truly established, and listening to the unofficial parkrun podcast With Me Now discuss the extra parkrun on Christmas Day that a number of parkruns put on and how amazing they were, made me really want to go to one. Parkrunning on Christmas Day seemed to be a real alternative to the hype and commercialism of modern-day Christmas, and one that anyone could participate in, regardless of your religion/faith or lack of religion/faith.

But where to go? I was spending Christmas in Leeds and the nearest parkrun that I knew that was putting on an extra Christmas Day event seemed to be Dewsbury. However, discussing this with my ‘home’ parkrun friends, two of whom are from Yorkshire and have done a lot of parkruns in the area, made me question this idea as they said that it was hilly, with a very steep hill in it. I really don’t like running up hills – I know, I know, it’s good for you – so I started looking around for an alternative. The Leeds area seems to have had a number of new parkruns that have started up in the last year or so, and looking at the Christmas Compendium of extra parkruns, one stood out – Armley – as I remembered Nicola Forwood discussing it very positively on the With Me Now podcast. I looked it up and it was about 20 minutes away from where I was staying, which was the same time it would have taken me to get to Dewsbury. Even better, the course directions stated that it was “flat”. (Reader – they lied!) I only had to explain to the extended family that I was staying with on Christmas morning that I was going to desert them and go off for “a run in the park” (as one of them called it, expressing incredulity that I would want to do such a crazy thing) and I was all set. As I left the rest of the family opening their presents I was aware of how lucky I was that I could just take myself off to run a parkrun, as I’m sure many people would not be able to do so for a number of reasons, such as having to get the Christmas dinner prepped and cooked, or not having the transport to get to a parkrun. I had noticed a number of posts on facebook with kind family members giving presents of a home-made ‘parkrun pass’ voucher such as the one originally created by the parkrun show podcast, effectively excusing them from family duties and giving them permission to go and parkrun on Christmas day. And I also saw on the parkrun UK’s facebook page following Christmas the cutest Christmas card from a child giving the ‘present’ of running parkrun as a family!

I arrived in Armley Park Road at around 8.30am, following the Sat Nav directions given on the website, and found that Armley Park seemed to be quite extensive with what would have been a great view over Leeds as it is quite high up, although it was also quite misty on Christmas day morning so I couldn’t see much. I couldn’t see anyone else around that looked as if they were going to parkrun, and wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. Driving around for a bit I saw some cones and tape which is where the finish funnel was, so knew I was in the right place, although I couldn’t see how to get into the park from where I was. So I drove back to the entrance at the end of Armley Park Road and parked, and pulling up just after me was a woman wearing the familiar tourist cow cowl. She turned out to be a parkrun Yorkshire Regionnaire and so was an excellent person to meet on the way in as she knew just where to go, and where the toilets were – which I was amazed to find were open on Christmas Day! After dropping my bag on the tarpaulin which was laid out for people to leave their belongings on, I noticed that people were steadily turning up, many dressed in festive fancy dress that put my token Santa hat to shame. There were people dressed as elves, reindeer, a brussel sprout, a snowman, Father Christmas and Mrs Christmas, and even a Christmas tree or two!

As over half of parkrun courses in the UK don’t host an extra Christmas Day parkrun, attendances for those that do tend to be higher as people travel to take part, and quite a few people that I chatted to whilst waiting for the off had not visited Armley before. They seemed to be mostly local to the Leeds area though, with a number of people I spoke to being from Oakwell Hall or Bradford parkruns. There were a significant number of people who were at their home parkrun though, and as people greeted each other and caught up with old friends, it occurred to me that in many ways this new tradition of going for a Christmas Day parkrun was very similar to the traditional Christmas Day of my childhood, when we would go to church and greet our friends, all dressed up in our finest clothes, and before and after the service would chat about what presents we had had for Christmas and what we were going to do in the afternoon. There was an article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper some six months or so ago that called parkrun “the new church” and it struck me on Christmas Day as how apt that was. It didn’t matter whether you were on your own, or with friends and family, everyone was welcome and greeted by the smiling volunteers and made to feel part of the community – the parkrun ‘family’.  Some volunteers had hung Christmas decorations on a tree by the start sign, which itself was decorated with tinsel, and everyone was calling out “Merry Christmas” to each other.

After attending the first-timers’ briefing, and then the run briefing, we were off – before I was ready and had set my Garmin! The course is three laps of the park, with some sections on the tarmac path but some sections on grass which was a bit muddy in places, and one area had been coned off because it was icy. I was glad I had brought trail shoes! And despite being described as ‘flat’ it is definitely ‘Yorkshire flat’ or undulating, with the route starting and finishing uphill! All parkruns are welcoming and cheery, and the marshals encouraging, but this day seemed to be extra cheery as many of the marshals wished us a merry Christmas as we went around. I particularly liked the disco-dancing marshal in disco corner who continued dancing throughout the run! There were also people in the park who I have no idea whether they were connected with parkrun or not, or who just happened to go out for a walk in the park only to find over 150 Santas, elves, turkies and trees running around the park. Two of these made an impression with me; a smiley Asian man who stood a little away from the start line at the bottom of the park on his own and who clapped and wished us all a happy Christmas as we ran by, and a family with a small child playing in the children’s playground. This toddler waved at everyone running by and had clear delight in watching us and shouting out “happy Christmas” to us. I later saw a photo of a woman dressed as a Christmas tree who stopped on her way round to greet this child – again, I don’t know if they knew each other but I like to think that they were unconnected and that the spirit of Christmas parkrun infected these spectators as it had done to us participants. Who knows if they might be encouraged to join in in the future? I love this photo as it seems to encapsulate the spirit of Christmas Day parkrun.

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Personally, my parkrun was not great in terms of speed, as I didn’t manage to finish in under 40 minutes, but it didn’t matter at all – it was great in terms of general bonhomie! And going around I reflected on my running and vowed to lose weight and try to get fitter and improve my speed in 2019 – a vow that I immediately forgot after crossing the finish line as I was greeted by a volunteer with a tin of Quality Streets and a table bearing goodies in the form of Christmas cake and yule log to share! Oh well, it was Christmas! But it was also cause for an arbitrary celebration for me personally, as by running this parkrun I managed to get:

a) an “A” for my alphabet challenge

b) my 20th different parkrun and therefore onto the ‘most events’ table and permission to join the parkrun tourists facebook group

c) my Christmas day parkrun badge (on the Google chrome running challenges extension)

d) the corner parkrun (#63) on my analogue tracker and hence turning the corner towards my 100th parkrun!

Driving away afterwards, I was full of the usual ‘feel-good’ feeling that I always have after running parkrun, but with an extra special top-up which I can only put down to being the Christmas Day special parkrun factor! Later on that day when the results came out I saw that there were 151 people who ran, jogged or walked the course, including 40 first-timers, aided by 28 volunteers. One of these volunteers was the photographer Stephen Holt who took some really excellent photos of the event, some of which are reproduced here. Take a look at the others on the Armley parkrun facebook page for a better idea of the amazing costumes on the day.

In the following days I looked up the stats for the extra Christmas Day parkruns in the UK, and saw that there were new attendance records set at 27 parkruns, including Dewsbury where I was going to go before switching to Armley. But the most amazing result has to be the new record set at Bushey parkrun, where it all began, and where they had an amazing 2011 participants this year! Danny Norman was one of those 2011 and did some live recording for his With Me Now podcast at the Bushy Christmas Day parkrun, and you get a feel for what an amazing occasion it was as the parkrun ‘family’ (including Paul Sinton-Hewitt who founded parkrun) got together for this special run. And across the UK there were an incredible 67,810 parkrunners and 3,088 volunteers participating in 231 special Christmas Day parkruns. With this number rising year on year, who knows, maybe next year there will be over a million people parkrunning on Christmas Day in the UK!

Thank you to all the volunteers at Armley who made my first Christmas Day parkrun such a delight – I hope to be back when visiting family in Leeds on another occasion. And I hope that attending a Christmas Day parkrun will become a new tradition for me, and that I manage to make it again in future years.

 

 

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Lincoln parkrun: the one with the jelly-bean man!

“If you’re going to Lincoln next weekend, don’t forget your thermals!” So said my friend Steph, whilst we sat on the pier in Portsmouth in t-shirts in the unseasonably warm sunshine after running the Great South Run.  Steph is a musician who had given concerts in Lincoln in the past and said that she had always been freezing cold when playing there, yet I didn’t take her seriously as it was so warm. But a week later I came to regret ignoring her wise words when I turned up at Lincoln parkrun in the freezing cold, regretting not having packed gloves, a scarf and a long-sleeved top, and feeling like a right Southern Softie!

I was in Lincoln in order to sing at the cathedral as part of a visiting choir whilst the cathedral choir was away for half term. When I saw the schedule for the weekend, which started with a rehearsal at 10:30am I realised that I might be able to get a cheeky parkrun in before the rehearsal, providing the parkrun course was not too far from the cathedral. Looking at the course page I could see that the venue was Boultham park, which was about 2 miles south of Lincoln Cathedral, so I reckoned I could do it, and I became more excited when I realised I might be able to bag an ‘L’ on my alphabet challenge! The weekend I was there was also going to be their Halloween parkrun, and as partial as I am to a bit of parkrun-fancy dress, I sadly had no time to source a costume or put on Halloween make-up which would take time to remove and make me late for the rehearsal.

On the day itself (27th October) I set off rather early. I have found in the past when touristing that postcodes given on the course pages are not entirely accurate, and so I arrived in a fairly deserted residential street (Hall Drive) and I couldn’t even see the park. But then I saw a group of volunteers carrying the familiar yellow/green parkrun signs, and so flagged them down and asked them if I was in the right area for the car park. One of them kindly offered to show me the car park and then to escort me to the park. When I declined saying that I was going to wait in the car for a bit as it was so cold, he told me to look out for him on the course, saying that they called him the “jelly-bean man”.

After waiting in the car for a bit, I reluctantly left the warm interior and braved the cold -regretting my choice of a short-sleeved apricot t-shirt and capri running pants. I made my way towards the park which was not far away, and found toilets near the main gate to the park. By this time other runners had started to arrive, and everyone was congregating near the bandstand, where you could leave your belongings under safely under cover and not worry about them getting wet if it rained – which it did! I took a moment to admire the effort that some people had gone to with their Halloween outfits, and it is the only time I have envied a person wearing a furry monster costume to run in, as they looked toasty-warm compared with the shivering masses!

After a good newcomers briefing, and then the main briefing, there was just time for a few photos to be taken of the costumes, plus people celebrating milestones and a birthday, before we made our way to the start and the off. My home parkrun – Walthamstow – is a 3-lap course, so Lincoln felt like a home away from home. The route was picturesque, going around a lake and through trees, and along the way the various marshals had gone to some effort with their costumes, including the wicked witch presiding over Sandra’s Corner and a young masked marshal hiding in the undergrowth ready to jump out and scare the runners. And there on the route was the jelly-bean man, complete with scary mask, and who now held out a tub of jelly-beans on laps 2 and 3 for people to help themselves to, and who shouted “Go, girl” as I ran past!

After the run I understand that people go for a coffee in the local bowling club, but I had to rush back to my rehearsal so had to forego that pleasure. Lincoln was a lovely, friendly parkrun (aren’t they all?) and I was pleased to count it as my 19th different venue and my alphabeteer “L” but then delighted when the results came in to find that I had added another second on my stopwatch bingo challenge as well!

The parkrun itself is flat as a pancake, and with sufficient turns to make it interesting all the way round. There is free parking in the small car park but also in local residential streets and the bowling club, and toilets at the main entrance to the park. There is a children’s playground for small non-running family members, and also a café in the park. I’m sure it’s not always so cold – or is Lincoln just a freakishly cold place as my friend had warned me? I’ll just have to go back another time to find out! Thank you to the Run Director and all the wonderful volunteers and runners for the warm welcome – but especially to the jelly-bean man!

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Gunnersbury parkrun: the one that has everything!

One of the problems about my growing parkrun addiction is that I have to be careful not to become a crashing bore about parkrun, and I’m not sure I always succeed! I have to constantly check myself when I’m talking to someone who doesn’t parkrun and make sure their eyes aren’t glazing over as I wax lyrically about PBs, parkrun tourism, alphabet challenges, stopwatch bingo, #DFYB etc. And the relief when you find someone equally as addicted that you can share experiences with and chatter away with parkrunchat galore! About a year ago I was chatting to a friend who is not a parkrunner, and I mentioned the alphabet challenge whilst trying to explain my dilemma in deciding which parkrun to go to on a weekend away. Surprisingly, the concept appealed to her, and so we then went through the alphabet discussing the letters I had ‘got’ and the ones I had left to get. When we got to the letter G, which I didn’t have, she declared “Gunnersbury… you have to come to Gunnersbury if there’s a parkrun there”. She lived in Acton, West London, whereas I live in Walthamstow, East London, and I have to admit my knowledge of West London is somewhat lacking, but looking it up on the map I saw that there was indeed a parkrun in Gunnersbury, and it was about a twenty minute walk from my friend’s flat. So a plan was hatched that at some stage in the future when we were both free, I would go and stay with her on the Friday night so that I could run Gunnersbury parkrun in the morning.

Unfortunately, our diaries didn’t co-incide until the weekend of 28 July 2018 when we both found ourselves free. Having got my first ‘B’ at Boston the month before, I was also excited to get my first ‘G’ and therefore my first BeeGee in the Stayin’ Alive challenge! After a nice evening catching up on Friday evening, and drinking too much wine – never a good preparation for a parkrun – I found myself setting off to walk to parkrun. This would be my 55th parkrun and 17th different event, and yet it was actually the first time that I had stayed somewhere the night before that was within walking distance of a parkrun. As I walked past Acton Town tube and then crossed the South Circular I realised how ideally placed Gunnersbury parkrun is. Situated in Gunnersbury Park, South Ealing, it is within 20 minutes walk from three tube stations (Acton Town, South Ealing and Gunnersbury), 15 minutes walk from Kew Bridge overground station, and with three bus routes going right next to or very close to the park. And the South Circular arterial road runs alongside the park, although I’m not sure about the parking situation. But there can’t be many other parkruns that are so well served by public transport routes.

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On my parkrun tourism journey I have visited all sorts of different kinds of parkruns, from seaside ones where you run on a pebble beach (Seaton), to one set in the National Forest (Rosliston), but when running my first – and only – Scottish parkrun at Portobollo in May 2017, I was so impressed I declared it to be nearly perfect. The only thing it really lacked was a loo – see my run report here: Portobello parkrun which I entitled “If Carlsberg did parkruns… So I was pleased, on entering Gunnersbury park, to find a large café with loos that were open at that time in the morning, and that even had a few parkrunners in there having a pre-parkrun coffee – ooh, the novelty! I asked them for directions to the start, which they gave and asked me if I would be at the front or the back. When I said I would be at the back, they said “Great… see you there then!” I was wearing my parkrun apricot, so on the way out of the café I was then greeted by a lady with a lovely soft Irish accent who assumed I was a local and asked me where the start line was. I discovered her name was Marion McElligott and she was touristing from Tralee in South Western Ireland, visiting family nearby. She was another first timer at Gunnersbury, but an experienced parkrunner, and we had a lovely chat about what a marvellous thing parkrun is. It turned out she had tried to run at Gunnersbury a few weeks’ before on another visit, but turned up only to find the parkrun had been cancelled due to an event on in the park. A timely reminder that when doing a spot of parkrun tourism it’s always best to check the website and their facebook page to check that the run is still on, especially if you’re making a special effort to travel there. I thought that Marion might have travelled the furthest to get there, but discovered in the main briefing that there were tourists visiting from Cape Town and from Sydney, making my trip from East London seem trifling!

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Despite being in the middle of a heatwave, we had actually had some rare rain the night before, so I was pleased to see that they put a large tarpaulin down on which people put their bags. I had a quick look at a very appetising cake that had been brought by someone to celebrate their 100th parkrun, before I went to join a small crowd gathering around a lady who was holding up an intriguing sign saying “First time at Gunnersbury? Let me explain”. Sadly, she didn’t explain the meaning of life, or why Gunnersbury is named Gunnersbury, but she did give a very good new runners’ briefing in which I learned that the route was a slightly altered route to their normal one, and the finish line was not in the same place as the start line. This did lead me to wonder about the safety of my bag placed on the tarpaulin, but then I noticed as I ran around that they had a marshal on bag-guard duty – they’ve thought of everything! This marshal was also guarding a baby in a pram – not sure if it was his baby or if he had just offered to look after the baby as well as the bags to allow the mum to run – it was her first time back at parkrun after having the baby!

Anyway, after the main briefing which was delivered excellently by the RD standing on a small crate so the 419 runners there could see – and hear – him, we moved to the start which the RD requested should be a wide start line so we all fanned out in the wide space. This was a novel approach to me, but was refreshing as I normally find that at the larger parkruns if I start at the back it can take me 20 or 30 seconds just to get to the start line, whereas here no-one was that far back with such a wide startline. The course is two slightly undulating laps of the park which is amazingly scenic and with a variety of different terrains. There were so many interesting features along the route: a lake with an 18th century temple built for Princess Amelia, the daughter of George II, a large country house, a museum, some wooden animal sculptures, a cricket field, lots of lovely trees and various signs that I vowed I would go back and read after the run. There was so much to see that before I knew it I had finished! There were even lots of things to do for non-running parkrun families, including a children’s playground next to the start. And then there was the lovely café for the post-parkrun coffee and cake. In fact, the only very slight downside was that on one section of the course, the path had deteriorated quite a bit and was in need of re-surfacing so was a bit of a trip hazard. But Gunnersbury park was quite a revalation; I must have driven past it along the South Circular thousands of times, yet had no idea it was there or how nice it was, as it’s hidden behind a high wall and I had no reason to go there before now. That’s another thing that I love about parkrun; it introduces me to new places and hidden corners of London and the rest of the country that I had no idea even existed.

Both Rosliston and Portobello are hard to beat as parkruns; lovely, scenic routes full of lots of interesting features, friendly volunteers, nice café for post-parkrun coffee… But having now run Gunnersbury I think it might just have pipped both of these as it really does have everything you would want in a parkrun. So the Carlsberg epithet has to be re-awarded to Gunnersbury! Having bagged my “G” and my first BeeGee, I don’t have any reason to go back, but I’m sure I will as it was just so nice. It would be interesting to run it in different weather and see if I can get a PB. And as an Arsenal fan, any parkrun with the word “Gunners” in its name has got to be a good thing in my book!

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Kesgrave parkrun: the one in the heatwave

Only a few weekends after running at Boston on a weekend away to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I found myself on another weekend away celebrating another friend’s birthday –  this time in Suffolk. Now despite living in East London so not a million miles away, I’ve never actually run a parkrun in the East of England region.  So I was keen to see if I could fit in a bit of parkrun tourism into the weekend and get my first parkrun in the region. A quick look at the map made me more excited as I realised that this might be a chance to nab an elusive ‘I’ in my parkrun alphabet challenge by running Ipswich. I’ve not checked fully but I think the only other parkrun beginning with I in the UK is Inverness which is quite a long way from East London, and Inch in Ireland is even further.

So I packed my running kit and mentioned to the friends I was staying with that I would be disappearing before they were out of bed on the Saturday morning to go and run parkrun. Whilst most of them thought I was mad, one friend (who I have previously dragged to Seaton parkrun whilst we were away to do her first parkrun) said that she would bring her kit too. The night before we looked up Ipswich parkrun to find out what time we would have to leave, and found that it would take about 50 minutes to get there from where we were staying, whereas there was another option which was only 40 minutes away – Kesgrave. I’d never heard of Kesgrave before, but realised it afforded me the opportunity to get a ‘K’ in my alphabet challenge with an extra 10 minutes in bed! Looking at the two courses clinched it; Ispwich was very wiggly-piggly whereas Kesgrave appeared to be an almost straight line according to the website. My friend worries about getting lost on the course (I know, I know, I’ve told her about the brilliant parkrun marshals) and the simpler route of Kesgrave appealed to her, so the decision was made.

The morning came and we set off for Kesgrave in the car, arriving pretty early to find that there was plenty of parking. The parkrun takes place on the Millennium Jubilee Field in front of the Millennium Jubilee Hall which was resplendent with bunting. It got another tick in the box for me as there was a toilet – just the one but one is better than none! We’ve been having crazily hot weather across the UK over the summer and the grass on the Millennium Field looked scorched – almost like sand on a beach. I had had a really bad running experience a couple of weeks before when I became really dehydrated, so I started to worry about the lack of shade and getting dehydrated again, but before I could worry too much the new runners and tourists were gathered together for the New Runners’ briefing which was carried out by the enthusiastic and exuberant Tim. Then after the RD’s briefing held in front of the hall, and we lined up at the start ready for the off.

The route is very straightforward, starting with two laps of the Millennium Field, then off down a long path to a turnaround point, then back down the long path before the final 1k which loops around in the wood next to the field. I was pleased to find a little  shade in a hedge that runs the length of the long path, but you only get it on the way back, and so I was grateful to reach the shade of the woods at the last 1k which was very welcome. I use the word “straightforward” to describe the course over the ‘B’ word (boring!) as another blogger described my home parkrun as ‘boring’ which has caused such a furore and has got many people hot under the collar if not apoplectic with rage! Kesgrave is not blessed with a lot of interesting features that some other parkruns have, like lakes or sculptures. But it is flat as a pancake (hurrah – I hate hills!) so I’m sure is fast if you are a fast runner (I’m not!) and what it lacks in features, it makes up for with fantastic marshals and volunteers, like the wonderful young lady handing out high-fives at the “high-five corner” of the field. In fact, this young lady was highlighted for some well-deserved kudos by Nicola Forwood on the pilot episode of the With Me Now parkrun podcast, so having listened to it I looked up the results and found that we were at Kesgrave in the same week. With Me Now is the new podcast by Danny Norman and Nicola Forwood who used to produce the parkrun show podcast three and a bit years ago, and is well worth a listen whether you’re a parkrun geek or just an occasional parkrunner. Weirdly I had met Danny at Boston three weeks before I ran at Kesgrave the same week as Nicola – I’m not secretly stalking you, Danny and Nicola, I promise!

I did enjoy the woods section of the course the most, not just for the interest but also for the shade since it was such a hot day, although I imagine it could get muddy in the winter. After the run there was tea and coffee and a great selection of cakes and biscuits, so no need to retire to a nearby café. And the friendly barcode scanners had their own gazebo – how luxurious! One of the things I love about touristing is seeing all the innovations and nice little touches that other parkruns come up with, and then shamelessly nabbing the idea and introducing them at my home parkrun! At Kesgrave I particularly liked the welcome board, and the bucket on the chair for people who were in too much of a hurry to get their tokens scanned – who are these people, by the way? Half the fun of parkrun is to hang around afterwards chatting to other parkrunners!

So all in all I would heartedly recommend Kesgrave, and I was very glad to get my ‘K’ and my first East of England parkrun under my belt. It’s a nice, friendly parkrun – nothing flashy, no complicated route, just a straightforward, well-run 5k with cheery and welcoming volunteers. And I’ll just have to return to Suffolk on another weekend to bag my ‘I’ at Ipswich!

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Boston parkrun: the one with the podcasters and uber-tourists

When I was invited to spend a weekend in Lincolnshire at the rather splendid Skendleby Hall to celebrate a friend’s birthday, my first thought was “how lovely” and to check that I was free and able to go. But my second thought was “I wonder if there’s a parkrun near there?” A quick check on the tourist tool website and I found out that Boston parkrun was about 40 minutes away by car. I knew very little about Boston, Lincolnshire, other than that the other Boston – the one in the US – was named by a group of Puritans who left Boston, Linconlnshire, for America in the 1630s and founded a settlement in Massachusetts which they then named after their home town. Driving through Boston the connection between the two Bostons is highlighted with road names like the John Adams Way, Pilgrim Road and the hospital being called the Pilgrim Hospital.

Boston would be my 15th different parkrun, and my first beginning with “B” for my alphabet challenge! I’ve also recently discovered the parkrun “Running Challenges” on Google Chrome, which adds different badges to your parkrun profile and sets out a number of quirky challenges. One of these is the “Stayin’ Alive” challenge, for which you have to run at three parkruns beginning with “B” and three beginning with “G” to get the badge – for the BeeGees, geddit?! As I hadn’t run a single parkrun beginning with either B or G before, it gave me another reason to attend!

Before packing to go away for the weekend, I posted a question on a parkrun group on facebook, about whether to pack trail or road shoes, which was answered by the helpful Kerry McCrainor and also by Steve Langford who was doing the first timers’ briefing – thank you both. (The answer was that although it is on a mix of tarmac and trail paths that I guess could get very muddy in winter, it had been so dry over the previous weeks that road shoes were fine.)

The day came and I turned up at the Witham Way Country park ready to run my first Boston parkrun. I was one of 13 first timers there and found myself amongst other tourists from Wimbledon, Bushey, Sheffield, Leeds and Wormwood as well as the locals with a respectable field of 152 runners.  Also present on the same day were some parkrun legends, one of these being uber tourist Louise Ayling who jointly presents the parkrun podcast Free Weekly Timed and who was running her 351st parkrun. Also at Boston on Saturday was another uber tourist, Danny Norman, who, incredibly, was running his 250th different parkrun at Boston, out of a whopping total of 594 parkruns, making my 15 different events seem like very small fry indeed. Danny is also a parkrun podcaster; having previously presented the parkrun show podcast, Danny has now launched another parkrun podcast called With Me Now.  He also  proved to have superb selfie-taking skills with his long arms being a bonus!

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But there were also some superb home-grown milestones to celebrate, with Neil Goodwin and Susan Seal both running their 50th, and the amazing Andy Bailey swapping his Run Director’s jacket for a specially adapted hi-viz jacket as he was running his 250th parkrun. Parkrun is so close to Andy’s heart that he even has a parkrun tattoo – I’m pretty sure he never forgets his barcode! #DFYB  Afterwards I worked out that Louise, Danny, Neil, Susan and Andy together have run an incredible 1,295 parkruns or a total of 6,475 km – which is further than the distance between Boston in Lincolnshire and Boston in the USA, a mere 5,223 km!

It was very hot on the day that I attended, and there were lots of little flying bugs around but I had got there early so had some time to spend spraying insect repellent and applying sun cream which I was very glad I had brought. As I did so, I noticed a group of people gathering around a woman who was holding a large board. I went over to investigate, and found that it was a board with the future volunteer roster on it, with spaces for people to sign up to the volunteer role of their choice for the next three weeks. The woman holding it explained that they often had a problem getting volunteers to sign up and found that by the Thursday or Friday before parkrunday they often had no volunteers before they introduced the board, but now they’ve found that people are happy to sign up. This is one of the things I love about touristing; you can see innovations that other parkruns have come up with and take them back to your home parkrun. I guess if you’re a regular parkrunner and you see that there are no volunteers for the next few weeks it gives you a very visible reminder of the need for volunteers, as well as ‘pester-power’ working to full effect!  

Onto the first-timers’ briefing given by Steve Langford, followed by the main briefing given by Run Director Bob Bailey, and then we were off. The route runs along the towpath of the River Witham, and in the distance at one point you can see the top of the “Boston Stump” – the 272 feet tower of St Botolph’s Church in the centre of Boston.  At places the route was very narrow and quite congested. I didn’t mind that, as it gave me a break – I’m slow and at the back anyway – but I guess if you are a gazelle and chasing fast times it might be annoying. There were also quite a lot of overgrown nettles and brambles along the route making me regret my choice of shorts over longer leggings that would have afforded me some protection against getting scratched or stung. It’s as flat as a pancake though which was a bonus in my book (I hate hills!). There are also times on the route where you can see people ahead of you and behind you as the route loops around, which is another feature I like, especially if you know other people who are running as you can look out for them and give them a wave at the passing places. 

At the finish line I noticed there were quite a few kids helping out – always good to see children getting involved and volunteering. And then there was a table laden with goodies to celebrate the milestones and people standing around chatting, with a good atmosphere. All the volunteers were super-friendly and encouraging as well, although I’m not sure how I ended up agreeing to write the run report! 

One downside to the event is that they don’t have any toilets in the park, which is a bit of a problem if, like me, you’d had to drive for 40 minutes before getting to the park, before running for another 40 minutes, as well as hanging around time. The website says that there are limited toilets available at Boston Town FC only after the run, but when I asked for direction to these I was told that they didn’t like the parkrunners using them. I was directed instead to a nearby supermarket, which was only about 5 minutes away by car so I guess if you were in the know you could go there beforehand. They also don’t have a café in the park, so the post-parkrun coffee and social takes place a short drive away in the Burton House Brewers Fayre where I guess there are toilets!  I’m not sure how easy the event would be to get to by public transport – the website says that there are no buses that serve the Country Park and the centre of Boston, where there is a train station, is just over a mile away. For those attending by car though, there is plenty of parking.

But these small niggles aside, Boston was a nice parkrun to do; a flat, pleasant scenic route, and lovely volunteers. And it’ll give you one of your BeeGees – altogether now: “Ha..ha..ha..ha..stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive”! #loveparkrun 

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50 parkruns

This morning I ran my 50th parkrun, joining the parkrun 50 club which entitles you to a free red 50 t-shirt and a red t-shirt badge on the results page. It’s taken me nearly 4 years to reach this milestone; little did I realise when I ran my first parkrun at Walthamstow on 9th August 2014 that I was embarking on a journey that would change my life – for the better.

I wrote about my introduction to parkrun in this blog post in 2016: #loveparkrun When I first found out about parkrun I was in the Wadi Rum in Jordan (you’ll have to read the post to find out more!), I was overweight, with high blood-pressure and on the pre-diabetic scale. I had back pain, most probably exacerbated by the extra weight I was carrying, and I couldn’t run for a bus let alone run 5k. I was ashamed at how unfit I was, fed up with my lack of fitness hindering the activities I wanted to do – like going trekking – and yet found it all too easy to come up with excuses as to why I wasn’t fit. And yet Martin in that one moment in Jordan gave me a glimpse of what might be possible – if he in his late 70s could be so fit, why couldn’t I?

I won’t repeat the story behind the lead-up to my first parkrun, but what I didn’t explain in that first parkrun post was that after running that first time in 2014 I went home and went to bed, exhausted. When I got up a couple of hours later I had a nagging pain in the heel of my foot which got worse and worse until it was agony and I was limping around, not able to put any weight on my foot. I realised that I had run my first run before I was ready, in unsuitable shoes for the terrain, and having only got up to week 6 of the NHS couch-to-5k programme I was following. I had also never run outside, as I had been training on a treadmill in the gym, and I soon discovered that running outside on grass and with a hill that had to be traversed 3 times was a very different kettle of fish! Carried away by everyone racing off at the start I tried to keep up and went way too fast for my first run, and then paid the price as I developed plantar fasciitis. It was 11 months before I was able to complete my second parkrun, this time with proper running shoes and having completed the couch-to-5k programme running outside.

Since then I haven’t looked back, and very quickly developed a parkrun habit, also introducing parkrun to a number of friends who have developed their own parkrun habit. No longer are Saturday mornings for lounging around in bed, or watching Saturday Kitchen on the TV, and after discovering parkrun tourism I even find that I can keep up the habit when I’m away.  Previously if I was away on holiday it would be a holiday from fitness as well, as being away from my gym and not knowing the area or where to run provided yet another excuse. Now if I’m going away I look up where the nearest parkrun is, and know that I can get a 5k run in without having to work out routes. I have run at 15 different parkruns across the UK, from Exeter to Edinburgh, and although I have yet to run an event outside the UK I’m sure it won’t be too long before I rectify this! I’ve run wearing scary spider’s web make-up for Halloween, wearing a Santa hat at Christmas or in fancy dress like last week when I wore a doctor’s outfit for parkrun’s celebration of 70 years of the NHS. I’ve embraced the alphabet challenge, and the time bingo challenge although I have quite some way to go before I’ve completed both of these challenges. I have yet to run the extra Christmas Day run that some parkruns manage to put on, or done the “double” by running two parkruns on New Year’s Day, but again I hope to manage to do these in the next year or so. I’ve lost two stone in weight, and got my high blood pressure under control. Yes, I’m still very slow but working on it! And away from the parkrun course, I’ve volunteered with my Walthamstow parkrun friends for the last two years at the London Marathon, as we have undertaken to manage one of the baggage trucks at the start, alongside other London parkruns. (Volunteering at the London Marathon)

Another way in which parkrun has changed my life is socially. My “parkrun family” are the – hopefully – lifelong friends I have made at Walthamstow parkrun who I look forward to seeing when I turn up at parkrun, who provide support and encouragement through strava and other social media, and with whom I can socialise with away from the course. But also without parkrun I would never have had the courage to join a running club, thinking that they were more for hares than tortoises like me. But after a couple of years of running at parkrun I joined Eton Manor AC which has opened up a whole new avenue of both running and social opportunities. I joined, and completed, their 5-10k training programme, called Still Love 2 Run, and since then I have taken part in a number of races with them. I’m still getting used to people shouting “Up The Manor” at me as I run in the blue and white club colours, and coming to terms with a new vocabulary – including the common noun “Manorites”! From time to time my running worlds collide when the club holds a “parkrun flashmob” where we all attend a local parkrun, or go to an Eton Manor Ladies’ Breakfast parkrun, which does what it says on the tin – the ladies of the club attend a local parkrun and then go for breakfast together afterwards providing another lovely social occasion. The evening before my 50th parkrun the club held its annual “Pubs On The Run” evening – a run to 5 different pubs with a drink consumed at each one, and allegedly chips also consumed between pubs! Unfortunately I couldn’t make the evening this year but was amazed to see a number of Manorites who did attend and yet still managed to make it out of the door nursing their hangovers to come and support me for my 50th run, three of them getting PBs too!

And so to this morning, where I was touched by the warmth of the support from not only the Eton Manor crew but also by the Core Team at Walthamstow parkrun, and all the regular runners. I had brought along a fantastic cake that was made by the sister of one of my colleagues which was complete with a little mini-me figure made of icing, but the core team had brought drinks, baked another cake, brought amazing cup cakes with a picture of me in icing on the top, and had party poppers for when I crossed the finish line. Regular Walthamstow runners Steve and Louise ran alongside me and encouraged me all the way round, and then Gerry, the event director, presented me with a certificate with a photo of me running at parkrun in the past. It was just a shame that Sharron who founded Walthamstow parkrun and who encouraged me to start running, couldn’t be there this morning, but she was very much missed, and it was lovely to have so many friends there cheering me on and joining the celebration.

So joining the parkrun 50 club has given me so much more than just a free t-shirt. It’s given me a new lease of life, a new social circle, new opportunities and in fact, a whole new lifestyle.  So thank you, parkrun, and especially to Walthamstow parkrun – my parkrun family. Maybe I’ll make it to 100 parkruns in less than 4 years! #loveparkrun 

 

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Running on Lundy Island

Lundy. For many people the word is merely one in a list of places mentioned in the shipping forecast, perhaps in drowsiness as they drift off to sleep with Radio 4 on in the background. But for some, myself included, Lundy is a place to go for holidays; a haven of peace and tranquillity, wildlife, daytime walks followed by socialising, food and drink in the Marisco Tavern, the only pub on the island. Having first visited only 5 years ago, I fell in love with the island on my first visit and have returned many times since and it holds a very special place in my heart. Back in January 2016 I wrote about a peculiar pastime that takes place on the island: Lundy Letterboxing

Although I have returned to the island on many occasions, I have never run on the island, or indeed even thought of running on the island until recently. When I took up running as a hobby it was very reluctantly, and I thought of it as a boring necessity to get fit and try to put a halt to my expanding waistline. I certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of going for a run on holiday – I was on holiday to relax and have fun, not put myself through the hell of going for a run! Although my attitude to running has changed over the last few years, and now I – dare I say it – do find myself actually enjoying running and miss it when I don’t manage to get out for a run, it is still not something I would readily consider doing on holiday.

I was aware, however, that other people did not have this attitude and did run on the island. Having visited for New Year a few times, I was aware of one fellow visitor who would change into running gear almost as soon as he stepped out of the helicopter that provides the winter service to the island, and go off for a run. In conversation with him later in the pub he said that it has become a bit of a tradition with him; he runs from the village up to the North Light, then back down to the jetty before returning to the village. He records his time in a log-book for runners that lives in the Tavern, and tries to beat the times of other people who record their runs in this book.

So when I visited this New Year, I was intrigued to hear from the Assistant Warden, Sian Scott, that on Sunday 8th July the island is going to be the venue for the inaugural “Lundy Race”, a 14-mile(ish) trail race that loops around the entire island. I was slightly amazed that you could devise a 14 mile run on an island that is only 3 miles long and just over half a mile wide, but looking at the proposed route I could see the distance was gained by the route looping around and using the coastal trails on the west and east sides of the island. This sounded like a fantastic opportunity to combine my new-found hobby of running with my favourite island, so on my return to the mainland I immediately looked up the race to see if I could enter. I had never run further than 10k, so I realised it would be a challenge, but I thought if I trained for it I might be able to achieve it. The race is run by a trail running company called Puretrail UK, and I could see that they had chartered the island supply boat, the MS Oldenburg, to take race participants to the island and back. The Oldenburg usually only travels to the island on 3 days a week (4 in summer months) and not on Sundays, so this special crossing on a Sunday is especially for the runners participating in the race. However, in January it was already fully sold-out, and the website stated that the only way to participate was to go on one of the scheduled crossings and stay on the island in one of the 23 self-catering properties. But on checking this, all 23 properties were booked, so the only possible option if I was to compete in this race would be to go on the scheduled sailing on the Saturday and camp until the next scheduled sailing back on Tuesday. Weighing it up, I thought that it would be a hard enough challenge as it was to run the race, but not having a nice comfy bed to collapse into that night made it seem too much of a challenge for me so I decided to give it a miss this year.

In March, on the spur of the moment, I booked a short stay on the island for some much needed rest and relaxation. As I was training for the London 10 Miles race taking place in May and was trying to increase the length of my runs, I was conscious that it would not be a good idea to have a 6-day break from my training schedule, and so I packed my running kit and decided to try to go for a couple of runs on Lundy. After recovering from a fairly awful crossing on the MS Oldenburg, as soon as I had booked into my property (The Old School) I changed into my kit and set off for a run. I had planned to just run up the path that runs along the centre of the island which I had remembered from previous visits as being flat and fairly featureless – I call it the A1! I pretty soon discovered that it is NOT flat; not at all! And I also discovered that running on Lundy is a lot harder than I had envisaged. For a start, it’s made of granite. I hadn’t realise what a difference this makes to the effort required for running; the ground is very hard underfoot and there are also lots of small, hard, loose stones that make trip hazards and certainly not the springy surface I am used to running on. Also the island has pretty extreme weather; often there is a ‘hoolie’ blowing that makes it difficult to stand up, let alone run, and when I was running although it wasn’t hoolie weather, it was certainly hard going running against the wind. There had also been some heavy rainfall in the days prior to my visit, and so the ground was also a quagmire in places and I found myself walking quite a bit and trying to avoid the huge muddy puddles. Finally, there was another hazard that I don’t often encounter when running in East London – wildlife like the wonderful Lundy ponies blocking my way, and then Soay sheep and feral goats that roam the island!

I just stuck to the A1 for my run which was challenging enough for me – I would certainly worry that if I was to run on the Eastern or Western slopes that I would trip and fall. I can’t envisage how they are going to cope with 250 runners on these precipitous tracks, and hope that no damage is caused either to the trails or to runners.

In the end, I only made it out for one run during my stay in March. And during that run I summarised 7 things I had discovered about running on Lundy:

1. It’s bloody hard
2. It’s NOT flat at all – even the places I thought were flat
3. It’s granite so extremely hard underfoot and with loose pebbles and lots of rock trip hazards
4. It’s also extremely muddy with squelching mud slowing progress
5. Wildlife blocks your way – feral goats, ponies, soay sheep etc.
6. Running on top of the island is difficult when it’s windy (always)
7. It’s bloody hard!

I hope the inaugural Lundy Race is a great success, and wish all the runners the best of luck, particularly to the runners I know who are taking part: Sian, Rachel, Alice and Bex. And you never know, perhaps if it’s run again another year, I may challenge myself to take part if I find out about it in time before it’s all sold out!

http://www.puretrail.uk/lundy/

Lundy Island

 

 

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