I have recently completed my 50th parkrun.
I have blogged about parkrun a few times. Once, I wrote about my 10th parkrun, which didn’t officially count because I forgot my barcode.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a bee in my bonnet ever since. It’s true that parkrun is not supposed to be competitive. But it does make a big deal about milestones. Passing certain milestones gets you a potential shoutout from the run director, a special logo on your profile, and access to buy particular merch.
In the interim period, I think I have forgotten my barcode one other time. This means I have really run 52, or a year’s worth of parkruns. (Another way of reaching 52 is to count the two I have volunteered at, but that counts towards a separate tally.)
But to achieve that year’s worth of parkruns has taken me over 5 years. Sure, a lot of that time was wiped out by covid. Even so, my parkrun career has been a stop–start affair.
Last time I wrote about it, I had returned to parkrun exactly one year on from breaking my ankle. Coincidentally it was the first ever parkrun at Holyrood, now the closest venue to my home.
It is borderline perverse to run that course every week. It involves an elevation gain of 88 metres, almost all of which happens in the first 1½km.
But it has become part of our regular Saturday morning routine. Izzy goes for swimming lessons first thing in the morning. When that’s over, we rush to Holyrood Park. Then I race to set up the running buggy, so that I can push Izzy up the hill, so that I can be dragged back down it again.
I don’t always make the start in time. If that’s the case, I have to run from the car park and try to catch up with the crowd. This means running something more like 5½km.
Touring courses since my return last year
If we have other Saturday plans, that is an opportunity to try out other parkrun venues. Since I started again last year, I have visited 10 new venues.
I don’t always take the buggy. Some courses don’t suit it anyway. So my times vary wildly from course to course and week to week.
After running the first two Holyrood parkruns, the following weekend we stayed at Alex’s parents’ house, who lived in north east Fife at the time. I worked in St Andrews for 6 years, but had never been to Craigtoun Country Park where parkrun takes place there.
I felt very sluggish that day, and I was disappointed in my time of 27:07, which was much slower than the times I had set at hilly Holyrood.
A few weeks later we visited Northern Ireland for a friend’s wedding. This is a beautiful course round a lake, and I felt a bit better about my time of 26:13.
University of Stirling
On our way up north for a day trip, we stopped off at the University of Stirling en route to do parkrun. We should have arrived in plenty of time, but we simply could not find where the start was meant to be. I was also absolutely desperate to pee.
As it was, we arrived just in time for me to see some volunteers looking a bit like they had just overseen the start. All the runners had already left, I estimate about a minute earlier. So I jumped out of the car and started running, full bladdered.
A volunteer encouraged me to catch up with the group. Which I did! I saw the same volunteer the next lap who seemed surprised by my progress. I came 60th out of 173. I think it was mostly because I wanted to get to the loo as quickly as possible.
We were visiting friends who live about a 5 minute walk from their local park in Crystal Palace — incredibly handy for parkrun.
This is a hilly course, which made it a busman’s holiday for a Holyrood regular. It was the morning after I had seen Autechre perform late at night at the Barbican, and didn’t get to bed until 2am.
While staying with friends in the Borders where we were attending a wedding, I drove to the nearest parkrun at Wallaceneuk. I had seen on the website that not many people run it. So as I left our rental cottage, I declared to everyone that I would finish in the top ten. This was met with laughter. I finished 10th.
For Christmas, we stayed with Alex’s parents, who by that time had moved to mid Wales. Their closest parkrun is in Aberystwyth, which we ran on Christmas Eve.
It takes place on a rather featureless and flat park. It has a maddening layout: out-and-back, turn around, do a headstand, flip the variable, and then do three more laps, then run up the middle again.
Negotiating so many right angled corners and the odd 180° turn with the buggy was particularly irritating. During the race, Izzy was just as grumpy as me, and no amount of snacks would placate her. This was not the most fun I have had at a run.
Alex’s dad, who was keen to pursue physical activities despite his self-avowed frailty, wanted to do parkrun with me. He completed the course in 1 hour, 13 minutes and 34 seconds, and I think he enjoyed the chat with the tailwalkers.
While we waited for him to finish, Izzy and I had great fun in the adjacent playpark.
Two months later, in my absence, he improved his time by 6 minutes.
The next day was Christmas Day and we drove the opposite direction to Dolgellau where I donned a Santa hat and beard. As we arrived at the town, a biblical downpour began. It was so bad we questioned whether the parkrun could possibly take place, which was disappointing considered we’d driven for 45 minutes on Christmas morning to get there.
But when we got out and spoke to a volunteer, they told us that this was typical weather for the area and nothing would stop them from holding parkrun.
Only 25 people were perverse enough to spend their Christmas morning running 5k in a downpour. So my 8th place finish there remains my best finishing position, and probably will be forever.
At the end, we enjoyed home-made mince pies being handed out by a kind volunteer.
On our way up north again, this time we stopped off in Dunfermline to run at Pittencrieff Park. The course meanders its way around the park for 3 laps, including a short-but-brutal uphill section.
This was another downpour, one of the wettest parkruns I have ever done. It was plenty of incentive for me to finish at a relatively fast 25:51.
But the majority of my runs have been at Holyrood.
Each parkrun has its own character. I have seen Holyrood’s evolve from having a slightly awkward atmosphere in the early days, to the one that now feels the most like home.
Having achieved my goal of running a 5k within a year of breaking my ankle, I wrote:
My ankle is still a bit swollen, and stiffer than my left ankle. So I’m not sure if I’ll ever be as fast as I was before I broke my ankle. But I’d love to be doing 5ks in the 23 minute range again.
I began to feel really comfortable running almost straight away. In September last year, I ran Holyrood at an incredible 24:34. I realised that if I wasn’t on a hilly course, I would certainly be running in that 23 minute range I aspired to.
It was a damp day on a muddy course. Preparations weren’t great because the start was delayed due to someone forgetting to bring the defibrillator. I definitely slipped a few times in the mud.
I surprised myself with a time of 24:08. This was one of the signs that encouraged me to take things a bit more seriously.
Hatching a plan
From time to time I have wondered: how fast could I be if I actually trained? As I became more and more comfortable with running regularly, I hatched a new plan: to break my parkrun personal best time before the two-year anniversary of my ankle break.
So in the wake of Vogrie, I started a training plan that came with my smartwatch, and I went for it.
Setting my personal best
The following weekend, I smashed my overall parkrun personal best by running the University of Stirling course in 22:59. I wasn’t even really trying, which made me want to do the training even more.
It was also sweet redemption for missing the start the first time I ran the course.
Figuring out a target time
I have to point out at this stage that my 5k personal best is not the same as my parkrun personal best, even though I set my fastest 5k time at a parkrun.
It happened when I ran my 5th parkrun, at Highbury Fields. According to Strava, the route was actually 5.2km long. So although my official parkrun time was 23:53, my Strava records say I ran 5k at 22:10. This was my real target.
I pushed myself, and soon enough I was finding it quite effortless to run longer distances at a fast pace. A month on from my University of Stirling triumph, and as my training programme continued, I set a new personal best at Holyrood of 24:27.
Too good to be true
At one point in the programme, I accidentally broke my 10k personal best on a training run. I hadn’t even run 10k, so this time included part of my warm-up walk! I reckon around two minutes of my record-breaking time was set at walking pace.
My target date loomed, and I reached the final week of my training programme.
The only problem was, I had got injured. At first I thought maybe it was just sore muscles, so I kept to my programme. But it didn’t get any better.
It was a strange-feeling injury that didn’t cause me any problems while I was running, but caused me lots of problems if I wanted to get out of a chair. Soon enough I was limping quite badly while walking. Perhaps I had been over-training.
So I decided to stop running just days before I was going to go for my big attempt.
I was kicking myself slightly. Because my best parkrun times were before I was really getting into the running programme, which was seeing me doing runs of more than 10k at quite a fast pace, presumably the idea being that 5k would then become easy-peasy. In hindsight, I now wonder if I’d maybe gone for my big attempt a week or so before it all would have been fine. As it was, I pushed myself too much.
Back to running… once again
A few months on, and we have got to the bottom of the problem. But I need to moderate how much I run.
As I reflect on my stop–start running career over the past 10 or so years, it does seem to be that pushing myself has led to me having to take a break from time to time.
This is probably the real answer to my question about what I could achieve if I trained: not much. My body isn’t quite cut out for it.
I do enjoy it a lot though. So I will keep running, but I’ll make sure not to push myself too hard.
Izzy missed parkrun as well. She has really enjoyed coming with me in the buggy on these past few runs. So once again it will become part of our regular routine.
My time at my 50th parkrun was a moderately respectable 28:58. Last weekend I improved further to 26:31. Not bad considering I was pushing a toddler up a hill.
As for any future record-breaking attempts, I will let it come to me rather than pushing for it. I do feel like this was my last attempt. I’m getting older and my body is complaining more. Mentally, I’m feeling the difference between being a thirty-something runner and a thirty-seven-year-old runner.
I heard on a recent episode of More or Less that most people set their parkrun personal bests within 4 years of their first event. I have already bucked that trend by setting mine in year 5. So I can’t be too downbeat about my progress.