I did my 50th parkrun on Saturday 20th July 2019, and I wanted to reflect on the impact parkrun has had on my life. This isn’t a run report. Or even all that much about running. It’s a bit of an incoherent ramble about my transition from a reluctant runner and exercise class aficionado to someone who is completely enamoured with running. If you’ve read previous race reports of mine then I’m probably preaching to the converted about running. But if you’re someone who thinks “running isn’t really for me”, maybe this will persuade you that running is worth persevering with. And if not, that parkrun is worth getting involved with in some capacity even if you never intend to run.
I’ve written standard race report style posts for every tourist parkrun I’ve been to, but I’ve never written a race report for my local parkrun, which is Montrose. It’s kind of hard to do that, because I’ve run it so many times (40 officially, and I occasionally train there too) and am there roughly every other week if you include volunteering. I know the route like the back of my hand. Although what does that even mean? How often do you look at the back of your hand? I have run it at various paces from 21:36 (I couldn’t manage that in current form) to 31:52 (the week after Loch Ness Marathon where I volunteered as 32-minute pacer). I’ve considered writing a run report for it before, but haven’t been able to, as memories merge together in my brain. My run report from Montrose would have all the coherence of a five year old describing a dream she’d forgotten.
Montrose parkrun is a single loop, free, weekly, timed 5km run which happens every Saturday morning at Broomfield. It’s multi-terrain (a mix of concrete, tarmac, gravel, stony trail and grass, with a few rabbit holes to avoid) but very flat. It has PB potential. But to me it’s much more than that.
More than anything it’s the centre of a fantastic community. It was the catalyst that transformed my relationship with running from an occasional indulgence to it being my main hobby. Montrose parkrun is the reason I went from having some free time to no free time!
Free time is over-rated anyway!
My First Parkrun
I did my first parkrun at Montrose on July 15th 2017.
I’m quite shy. I can find large groups of people a little intimidating or overwhelming. I’m not sure I would have gone along to the run by myself. Thankfully, a couple of friends from Brechin, who I actually knew from climbing in Dundee, said they’d be going to parkrun for the 2nd event and I had the offer of a lift through. A few Hatton boxing friends were also heading along, so I wasn’t worried about having nobody to talk to. The first timers briefing was presumably a lot quieter than it was for the inaugural event, and the whole thing seemed fairly straightforward. I picked a spot around the middle of the group to start with, listened to the pre-race briefing with warnings of rabbit holes, and then we were off.
I still remember it quite well.
I got caught up in the initial rush at the start, and headed out far too fast down the gravel path and round to the right along the grassy section with the rabbit holes. By the time we turned left onto the concrete aerodrome path I was already slowing down and realising there was a long way left to go. I adjusted my pace a little, got my breathing under control, and managed an 8-minute first mile. Lots of people seemed to have done the same thing. I was overtaking more people than were going past me as we headed left along the concrete, then right onto trail, then right again onto another trail leading to Kinnaber car park. On this section, my hips started feeling a bit sore, and I realised we weren’t quite halfway round.
At the car park you turn right onto a short tarmac section which was great except it was a little uneven and ever so slightly uphill. You then turn right again and through two gates onto another tarmac section. That’s probably the fastest section of the route. Unfortunately on this occasion my lack of stamina and poor choice of footwear (2-year-old CrossFit Nanos with no cushioning) was starting to haunt me, and I continued slowing down slightly.
By the time we turned right again onto the stony path referred to on Strava as ‘pebble dash’ , I was really struggling with both tiredness and niggles. The path is really uneven here, and with the wrong shoes on it’s pretty uncomfortable on the soles of your feet. However, you do hit the two-mile point less than halfway along it so I knew I was going to be able to get to the finish.
The second mile was 8:08, which wasn’t too much of a slow-down, but the pebble dash and inability to know how to pace the distance meant I ran a massive positive split. We had to slow down for the kissing gate and then it was over another short grassy section before turning left to re-join the concrete section and retrace the first 1400 metres or so back to the start. The third mile was a much slower 8:36, and though I did a bit of a kick on the gravel for the final 50 metres it wasn’t close to the 10 mph I’d been doing on the treadmill.
I was very happy to see the finish, and forgot to turn my watch off. I was pretty sure it was probably sub 26, but it had been a case of going out too fast and grimly hanging on for the final half. Clearly, I needed to work out how to do this more optimally. I was at the Harley Davidson Festival with a couple of friends and their kids when I got a text message confirming my time (25:37). So now I had my baseline.
Initial Focus on Performance
I turned up the following week determined to do better. I had learned from the previous pacing errors. I managed a negative split (8:16, 8:10, 8:09), a slightly faster final sprint, and an 8 second PB. I still hadn’t got proper running shoes though. Over August and September a few friends decided running wasn’t for them and stopped going. I was still doing most of my running at parkrun, and maybe a few miles on a treadmill once a week. I hadn’t really got the bug yet.
I was though getting more comfortable showing up to this event, and started searching the internet to see what running clubs there were locally. St Cyrus Solos were handing out leaflets one week after the parkrun (they may have done a volunteer takeover). A few of them are in the core team and they all seemed really nice, but it was just a bit too far from where I live and where I work (three separate places) for it to work out for me.
I did my first volunteering stint – as a barcode scanner – after doing five or six runs. One of my boxing friends had volunteered previously and made the argument that it was good to give something back. Parkrun is completely free, and relies on community spirit and volunteers to make it happen. I was getting a lot of benefit from this event, so it seemed fair to help make it happen at least a few times a year. And you get to see a different side to the event when you’re volunteering.
I was lucky enough to be on scanning duties with the lovely Wendy, who hadn’t been able to participate in the parkrun yet due to a prolonged injury. She and Andy asked about my training, and thought it odd when I said that running was boring and I only really did parkrun. The two people from Brechin that I had been going to parkrun with, and one of my Montrose friends, had given up or moved away by this point. I had nobody to go running outside with, and I wasn’t keen to do this alone. I worried about getting lost. I have a poor sense of direction, which Keith and Ian can testify to. I worried about getting tired and not being able to make it home. I could of course always call my other half to pick me up if I took my phone with me, but I’m not 100% sure he wouldn’t just change the locks and leave me in the wilderness.
Getting Serious about Running
I’d thought I wasn’t a serious enough runner to join a running club, and as such was hesitant to do so. The Arbroath Footers did a volunteer takeover at Montrose parkrun in early October and I chatted to a couple of them about the Club training and requirements. I knew their easier paced night was a Wednesday, but that didn’t work for me due to it clashing with both Indoor Climbing and Hatton boxing. Based on my parkrun times I was told I should be able to keep up with the Tuesday session. I decided to give that a go.
The first run with them was really hard – not pace-wise, but because of the distance. It was around 6 miles – nearly double the distance I had run on any occasion in the past decade. Even though I was getting a little better at pacing parkrun, I still didn’t understand how much you needed to slow down in order to make big jumps forward in distance running. They all looked after me though, and I made it back to the Arbroath Sports Centre in one piece. My reward for this was setting a new record for longest run on my smartwatch.
My plan was just to go to the Club once a week then do parkrun most Saturdays. I wanted to see how soon I could get sub 24. I’d already gone sub 25 after getting sick of my hips hurting and getting fitted in Run4It for new running shoes. That happened sooner than expected when I ran a 23:37 the following week. Mary said it was because I had joined the Footers. Realistically, one session with them wouldn’t have been enough to take a whopping 37 seconds off my PB, but my continued involvement with them has definitely helped me run both faster and further.
I still wasn’t keen to do solo runs. One of the Footers said “Surely there must be folk who run in Brechin.” This seemed likely, but I asked in the Brechin Community Facebook group and there was no official club. I didn’t find a club but I did find a couple of ladies who wanted to go to parkrun. One never made it along to parkrun, but I had found one new parkrun buddy. She came along some Saturdays when other stuff didn’t get in the way.
I’d also been convinced to volunteer again. This time on Timekeeping. That was alongside Run Director David Wilson. He’s also from Brechin, but said he was training for a 3:15 marathon. As such I guessed he was far too fast for me to run with. This is still probably true, but I’ve probably been on close to 100 runs with him over the past couple of years and he’s been really encouraging. I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world and set up a public event on Facebook for a run on 22nd October meeting at Brechin Library. Half a dozen people turned up. Stuart McConnachie also said he’d set up an Intervals session on a Friday evening if people were interested, and so now I had found some folk to run with both where I worked and where I lived.
In August and September 2017, when I was just getting into parkrun, I logged 39 and 32 kilometres respectively. In October, between joining the Footers and reaching out to Brechin runners on social media, my mileage jumped by around 300% to 111 kilometres. On 30th October I also finally went for a solo run outdoors: a whole 10k. I still hadn’t quite got the hang of slowing down to go further so had to have a couple of short stops, but I managed the 10k in just under 51 minutes – over 3 minutes faster than my 10k race PB from 2004. I hadn’t done any races so far. Just parkrun. As such I decided to sign up for the 10k race Charlotte was doing in February. That was in Livingston. Unfortunately that turned out to be a massive personal worst due to the icy conditions. I shrugged it off and went out that afternoon and ran a 48-minute 10k to prove I was capable of it.
I was still really focused on performance though. Running is great because it’s very easy to see improvement. You can measure your improvements in pace, in split times, in distance, in finishing position. You can measure it in Strava segment cups and crowns. It’s pretty addictive for a certain kind of personality. I’m really competitive, though mostly with myself, so running was ideal for me. I was also making noticeable improvements now that I’d increased from 3 or 6 to averaging 20+ miles per week. I managed a 23:06 at a parkrun in November and was first female across the line. I was really pleased with this, but not satisfied. Immediately I wanted to know what I had to do to get sub 23.
Embracing the parkrun spirit
After a few months of parkrun, running had gone from something I did occasionally to something that I did at least three times a week. I was now a Footers Club member and trying to help build a sustainable group in Brechin. I joked that there was no better way to make you stick with a hobby than by trying to set up a club for it! It made me turn up to sessions even if I didn’t always feel like it, and that consistency got me massive improvements in stamina, speed and running efficiency.
As I got drawn more and more into running I realised that I’d not had quite the right attitude towards parkrun. Parkrun is fantastic because it can be so many different things to people. To start with, I’d been using it as a weekly time trial to assess my improvements – or lack of progress depending how I did that day. I used to check my stats and wanted my average time to continue decreasing. Slowly, I realised that there’s always another one next week, and sometimes it’s nice to just run around at a more leisurely pace. The more I went to parkrun, the more fellow participants I got to know. Sometimes it was just nice to jog round and shoot the breeze with one of them. Some mornings I’ll just start chatting to someone I don’t know (or vice versa) and I’ll run around with them.
Montrose parkrun also introduced pacer week on the last Saturday of every month, and I really enjoy that. I look at my watch habitually to check my pace anyway, so I might as well try and help people reach a time goal once in a while. It’s lovely when someone gets a PB and thanks you for it. Though when I paced 32 minutes I helped a few people I knew because they all ran away when they saw me approaching! I pride myself on being fairly accurate at timekeeping, but Barrie Munro takes his timekeeping duties even more seriously, and is the 28-minute metronome.
Where everybody knows your name
We’re in an age marked by declines in church attendance, local politics, pub-going and even local shopping. There is a lot written about the demise of communal activities in modern society. There are a lot of factors but really it’s all about what we owe to each other in our communities. Parkrun filled an absence for me. If you want to feel rooted in your community then this is a great way to do so.
It used to be that people had their local pub where they could go and not worry about which of their friends might be going as they knew all the regulars. That’s how I feel about Montrose parkrun now, and going for a 5k run is much healthier than going to a pub. It’s not that everyone knows me, but I do know a fair number of regular attendees, most of the regular volunteers, and even if I turn up solo and don’t see anyone I know it’s friendly enough that I’m not intimidated.
If you’ve been considering parkrun but are scared to take that first step – don’t be. I’ve been to ten different parkruns and they’re all very friendly. I even went to one in Sweden by myself and it was a great way to meet some locals (and fellow Brits!) whilst on vacation. You can even post on the Facebook page and you might be able to arrange to meet someone so you have a familiar face to meet you when you arrive. If you’re thinking of attending Montrose parkrun then tag me in a message on the Facebook page or Running Friends Scotland and if I’m going to be there I’ll look out for you. (Though I do tend to be a bit last-minute or in the queue for the loo for most of the pre-parkrun time so you’re more likely to see me after the run.)
My 50th parkrun was a great experience. I got to run around wearing a cape, chatting to my friend Kate who I never knew before I started running. I got a hug from Wendy, several congratulations from fellow runners and marshals on the way around, and photos in the parkrun frame afterwards. I didn’t know any of these people before I went to parkrun, and I’m so glad I’ve become a part of this community.
If you haven’t tried it, you should definitely give it a go. Even if you’re not that keen on running, you might find the community draws you in and gets you hooked on it as a sport. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s nice to do a fairly relaxed jog/ walk combo or walk around the route with a friend or two. Volunteering is also more rewarding than I had imagined. Parkrun is a fantastic way to start the weekend, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning.