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.
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.