What is the power of parkrun?

When I first heard about parkrun I thought it was a great idea – a local, free and inclusive run. As a runner that sounded fantastic, but I never stopped to think about the true power of parkrun, about how it’s much more than just a run in the park.

This is Roy Hale. Roy is 77 years young and a lovely bloke. His dog is called Cooper and a lovely dog.

Roy is one of the regular marshals at Pomphrey Hill where I am a run director. He turns up almost every week regardless and gives out encouragement to everyone running past him, doing the diligent job a marshal should. He never asks for anything in return nor has a negative word to say.

After first coming along to watch his grandchildren run, Roy found out his neighbours were keen parkrunners and asked them to register him so he could keep coming back and helping out. As much as anything it gave him something to do on a Saturday morning.

Roy is one of the many people I see and talk to most weekends at parkrun. I always thank him for volunteering, I talk to him about the weather; about parkrun; about Cooper, and I thank him every time I run past him, but until recently I didn’t really know much about him.

I knew he was friendlier with some of our regulars than others, but didn’t know why, and generally being busy directing or running I never found out why.

But a couple weeks ago something happened. After twenty-one weeks volunteering, Roy decided to run – all three laps of Pomphrey Hill. He ran the whole thing from “it’s a run not a race”, right up to “well done, here’s your finish token.” It took me by surprise as Roy didn’t strike me as a runner, but who does?

That is part of the power of parkrun – that people who aren’t regular runners and don’t care about splits or GPS watches can turn up on a Saturday at their local parkrun and be a part of it. Whatever their age, fitness, or ability they are welcomed with open arms and supported from start to finish.

But that isn’t even its true power. The real power comes from the meeting of people. The sheer genius of one simple statement – “parkrun is a run not a race”, makes it welcoming and inviting to everybody. At its heart parkrun is about community.

For whatever reason, Roy Hale decided he was going to run 5K at Pomphrey Hill. Why? Well, only Roy can answer that. But as I watched him finish his first ever parkrun it reminded me why I love it so much.

He smiled the whole way around and was still grinning when I caught up with him later. People supported him; cheered him on; and spoke to him about it after. For a recent widower like Roy that is the power of parkrun. It’s the bringing together of people.

Gun-Running

When I was twenty-one years old I went on my first trip abroad. After spending years having caravan holidays in Weymouth as a child I’d never even been on a plane, so the very idea of jetting off to a foreign land was super exiting. With two friends I went to California for a couple of weeks, enticed by seeing Venice Beach after watching the film Breakdance too many times.

I had been brainwashed by Hollywood. It was the only place I had ever wanted to go and subsequently had built the magic of the place up in my head. When I got there Venice was actually a bit of a dive and something of a let-down. Then we went on a trip to Hollywood Boulevard and things dropped even further.

After checking out the walk of fame and reading some of the stars, I found myself at the opening to a small dark alley, ironically much like you stereotypically see in a film. Just a few feet into the alley was a guy looking at me whilst lifting his sweatshirt to reveal a gun tucked in his trousers. Making sure I saw the gun he beckoned to me to come into the alley. Now it might have been my first time in America, but I wasn’t a complete idiot, so I turned and bolted back to the safety of the tourist crowds.

This not being an action film nobody chased me, the guy was clearly a chancer looking to rob some wet-behind-the-ears tourist, much like me. That day it wasn’t me, but it certainly opened my eyes to the gun culture that pervades American society.

The thing is I’ve never been in the armed forces or anything like that, and with the exception of my dad’s old .22 air rifle I’d never even seen a real gun. Call me naive but I was happy to keep it that way. The one in the alley and the one a police officer waved at my friend for taking a piss down a lane near Newport Beach the next day were two guns too many in one trip for me.

For many Americans however guns really are a matter of daily life. The right to own a gun is written into the very constitution of the country – the second amendment. In fact for many boys growing up, certainly in the UK, one of the first tastes of American culture they experience is playing at being a cowboy and having a gun.

I’ve been to America many times since that first trip and have been lucky enough to stay with people all over the country, all of whom were fantastic and lovely people, even if some of them were gun owners. It’s a great country in so many aspects, but you have to accept that owning a gun in America is normal, like the rest of the world owning a dog. It’s a constitutional right. However despite being far from the only country where its population can freely own a gun, America really does have a gun problem.

America has pretty unique gun laws. Federal law says almost anyone can buy a gun, provided they are of age, the gun is not an assault rifle or machine gun, and they are not a felon, fugitive, or non-citizen.

It’s estimated that this year more people will be killed in America by guns than they are by cars, and this is in a country that has around 253 million cars and 320 million people. It also has an estimated 270 million guns (there is no central register).

None of this is however is new and it’s certainly not going to change anytime soon, but I stumbled across a tweet today that actually made me stop and gasp. It was from an account called RunHaven related to running and was simply a picture of a handgun and the words Why I Run With a Gun. I’m sorry? What now?

In the tweet was a link to an article by a lady who explains why she feels the need to run with a handgun. I read it with some disbelief, thinking it was a parody, but sadly it wasn’t.

The article is written by a cardiology nurse from Detroit who is also a licensed minister. She’s is clearly an educated and intelligent woman.

She has been running for a couple of years and has recently decided that to ensure she stays safe, she needs to carry a gun with her.

In the article she states that many people questioned her choice, which at first made me think that she was an isolated case, but perform a cursory search around the internet and you will see that it is in fact more common that a Brit could ever imagine. Sure not every runner in America packs a piece, but it’s clearly not a random act of safety by a scared few.

Within my first search I also came across this article, Why I Jog With A Gun And Why I Want You To Get One, Too which makes for scary reading, and this one giving tips for runners looking to carry Holster and Carrying Tips for Runners and Athletes. Incredible.

Now obviously I’m not saying the world is a happy-go-lucky place when men, women and children can roam the streets and trails free of fear and safe from harm, that clearly isn’t the world we live in and it can be a dangerous place, but to feel the need to have to carry a gun while you go out for a simple run is quite frankly tragic. I would argue that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society where such thinking is the norm.

You have to question why somebody honestly doesn’t feel safe out on the streets on their own without a lethal weapon for protection. Is it that their levels of fear are so elevated that everyone is a potential threat waiting to rob/rape/kill you when they see you out running alone? Or is it that in reality parts of America are actually closer to the anarchic world of Death Wish portrayed by Charles Bronson?

On the face of it the United States of America is a modern, moral and civilised country, but perhaps that’s nothing more than a Hollywood facade for the benefit of the rest of the world. I’d like to think that isn’t the case but I’m not entirely convinced.

Running whilst carrying a gun is common enough for companies to make holsters and in fact even sports clothing to cater for it, just as these compression shorts demonstrate. Not the sort of item you would see in Sports Direct for sure.

As our minister nurse explains, carrying a gun is a pre-emptive precaution that makes her feel safer, saying “Running with a weapon takes my fear away. Even running in a gated community, I’m always aware of any danger. Predators wait for the right opportunity before they strike.”

If people feel safer by carrying a weapon, and they are by law allowed to do so, then none of us have any say in the matter. But you have to step back and ask if more people carry guns then are you not ironically only elevating the danger? I’m no genius, but more guns on the streets can only mean a higher chance of somebody getting shot with one. That’s basic math(s).

Whether or not the actual threat is as high as the perceived one and so merits such a thing is another entirely. It strikes me that if it is then gun control isn’t the only thing that American society needs to worry about.

It’s like being a cowboy as a kid only finding out when you’ve grown up that the wild west was never actually tamed at all. I’ll stick to the UK thanks where all I have to worry about is a manky badger with a touch of TB.

Review: The Way of the Runner

If there’s a man who likes an adventure it’s Adharanand Finn. Curious to find out how one small region of Kenya produces so many quality runners he somehow convinced his wife to pack up the kids and move to Africa so he could learn their secrets and train alongside them. The resulting story, Running With the Kenyans, is a great read and one of the best-selling running books of recent years. Six months in Iten however clearly didn’t settle Finn’s curiosity.

The Way of the Runner opens with a younger, jet-lagged and hungover Finn trying to make sense of the ekiden race his brother was taking part in. Unsure of quite what was going on, he stood by and watched the long-distance relay race unfold on the wet streets of western Honshu, Japan. He might not have known it then, but it was a part of Japanese culture that he would become very familiar with in years to come.

Whilst many people are aware of the long-distance running pedigree of a number of African countries, the quality of competitive runners in Japan is largely unknown outside the small island.

It’s a country where companies employ teams of runners and where university students regularly run half marathon times most professional athletes would be over the moon with. In 2013 alone fifty-two Japanese men ran a marathon in under 2 hours 15 minutes, while not one single British runner managed it.

Why is this? What are the secrets behind the Japanese style of training? What exactly is ekiden and what does the Japanese obsession with it do to its runners? These are just some of the questions Finn wanted answers to.

So using powers of persuasion that appear to dwarf even those of Derren Brown he pulled a familiar card, moving his family overseas for a six month adventure in language and culture while he dug around in the somewhat closed world of Japanese running.

Easy to read and detailed at the same time, The Way of the Runner feels like a new chapter of an old friend’s diary – full of promise and endeavour yet tempered in a comforting and familiar voice.

His quest to understand quite how and why ekiden is so important to the Japanese and how it shapes the future (sometimes for the worse) of so many talented runners takes him on a fascinating journey through a running culture so dissimilar to that which western society is familiar with it can at times seem a different sport.

As with his previous book, the juxtaposition of family life in a place so wildly at odds with Devon is weaved throughout the story and conveys nicely just how disparate the two countries are, both culturally and sportingly. Moreover it clearly highlights the difficulties associated with moving a young family to a foreign land where even communication is troublesome.

It’s a great read, giving a rare insight into a sporting world rich in heritage, but also one that is in flux. For as much as Japanese running has been shaped by ekiden for generations, outside influences are slowly starting to break down long standing traditions. But is it for the better?

I heard NASA are planning on starting a running group with their next mission to Mars. For the sake of his poor wife and kids nobody tell Adharanand.

Footloose Syndrome

Sat trepidatiously in Agaete awaiting the start of TransGrancanaria 2015

As I jogged casually in work shoes across the main road in a vain attempt to not still be in the line of traffic as the lights switched slowly back to green, I glanced sideways up the street towards the clock tower checking the time – ensuring I wasn’t too late for the bus.

Being winter still it’s a fairly cold morning and I’m glad to get on board when it eventually pulls up to the stop. As the doors open and I step inside a strong smell of cider wafts into my nostrils and I hope it isn’t coming from the driver.

Welcome to Kingswood. This is the small working-class town in which I live and have done for more years than I care to remember. It’s far from the nicest place in the world, it’s not even the nicest part around Bristol.

I grew up here as a child, my parents still live here, and now so do I again. On a map, and to the Post Office, it may appear simply to be an annex or suburb of Bristol, but it is in fact a town in its own right, falling under the jurisdiction of South Gloucestershire Council in the South West of England.

The Clock Tower circa 1920

The clock tower, like that famously of Hill Valley, California, has been a stalwart of the town for more years than even I’ve lived here and appears in practically every old photo of the town you see. It’s a constant reminder of where I am, of my roots, in the same way as the WHSmith in Kings Chase Precinct in which I used to buy comics as a child and now take my own children there to buy theirs is.

It’s not that I haven’t ever moved away from Kingswood, I have, yet somehow I find myself having moved back.

Sometimes that simple fact bothers me. It feels like I’m a small town kid who just can’t break free from the grip of the place that has seen so many of my years, in the same way that the kids banned from dancing in Bomont lived their lives in a restrictive nowheresville. I call it Footloose Syndrome.

I’m not sure why it bothers me so much. Maybe it’s the fact that with the world being such a big place, why do I still find myself here? Obviously family, familiarity and comfort play a sizable part, but I’ve travelled the world, I’ve been to great places and seen incredible things. I know there’s more out there, but at the heart of it we do all love a bit of comfort.

The kids of Bomont were of course rockingly awoken with the rebellion of Ren McCormack from Chicago (in the shape of Kevin Bacon – ignore the shit 2011 remake) after he arrives in town and kicks dance booty. He rocked the comfort zone of the town.

We all have a comfort zone and it’s easy to live within it. Whether that is the location in which we live, the way we carry out our lives, or even the things we do on a day to day basis. Being comfy is nice. It’s safe. It is by the very definition of the word, comfortable.

But I think to live a purposeful life we all need a metaphorical Ren McCormack to kick us out of that comfort zone every now and then. For me, Ren is running. The one thing that makes me step outside of that safe bubble; that asks me to push myself; that takes me away from the familiarity of the clock tower.

Excited before the start

Excited before the start

This is how I found myself in Gran Canaria at the start of March with the prospect of running the 78 mile TransGrancanaria Ultramarathon from one end of the island to the other (with a lot of twists and turns along the way).

As a challenge it would certainly be classified as a McCormack. It was further than I had ever run before, with more elevation to climb and in a hotter climate to boot. As far as comfort zones go this race used mine to mop the floor of the toilet.

The thing is as I always say, I am an optimist in life. Delusionally so, but as I’ve started to run longer and tougher races I am realistic to what I can achieve. I may be deluded but I’m not a complete idiot.

I entered this race on the premise that I knew it would be tough. I’d run up to 53 miles before in the Highland Fling – this was “only” a marathon more than that. There’s the natural step up. The fling wasn’t flat either, with a total elevation of something like 7500ft of climbing.

TransGrancanaria took things to a whole new level though with a total elevation gain of 28,000ft over the whole race. That’s the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.

Anyone with any sense would be able to tell you there is a big difference between 7500ft and 28,000ft and by looking at the race profile you can see that the climbs aren’t gradual either. My problem however is that numbers tend to jump about on the page or screen like dyscalculia and I find it difficult to relate them to anything.

In my head I knew that 28,000ft would be a tough amount of climbing, but I didn’t really appreciate just how tough. I’ve seen videos of the race and looked at loads of great photos of the trail running masters in the office and they make it look easy. I learnt just how much it really isn’t.

My race number and elevation profile

My race number and elevation profile

I wasn’t going into this blind though. I’d done my training over the winter months and by and large it had gone very well. I’d run lots of long miles; I’d climbed lots of hills; and generally thought I was in as fit a state as I have been for quite some time. There hadn’t been any mountains in my training though, they’re kind of in short supply around Kingswood, but I made do with what I had to work with.

The race started at 23:00 in the north of the island and after catching the bus from Maspalomas we all sat around in Agaete watching the clock until the start. You could see nerves touching the people who were thinking too much about the upcoming challenge, you could see it in their eyes as they sheltered from the wind. The very idea of running for up to 30 hours through the night, up mountains, and through the heat of the Canarian day was enough to make any sane person question themselves.

The race is ready to start in Agaete

I spoke to some guys who were taking on this as their first ultra event. Whether they fully knew what they were letting themselves in for I didn’t know, but they certainly seemed trepedatious.

Once all the runners had arrived the small town in the north west of the island took on something of a party atmosphere. Crowds of cheering supporters and a loud drumming band made certain of the fact that nobody was asleep in bed. As the clock struck 23:00 the horde of runners chasing their own Ren McCormack set off into the night. I was one of them, both excited and nervous at the same time.

Once the first short section of road had been covered, we began our first climb. In the dark of the night the train of both red and white lights formed a chain of slow moving effort up and down the mountain. Whilst we might not have been able to see the tops of climbs through the night sky it was just possible to make out the trail of lights fade up into the distance for almost as far up as you could see. Suddenly the elevation wasn’t just a number on a computer screen, it was in front of us and it was brutal.

Up and down mountains and rocky technical terrain, we slowly followed the incredibly well marked out route, trying to run as much downhill as we could (there wasn’t really any flat). The downhill sections themselves were tricky. As well as the switchback nature of the trails the gravel and scree underfoot made it cautious going so as to not fall off the trail and down into the dark void.

As the time and miles slowly passed, the field became more thinly spread out. Every now and then I would come across a runner sat, looking broken, on a rock in the middle of the woods. Mentally as well as physically people around me were taking a beating. As I passed the 100km to go sign I myself began to question how far into that I could get.

608 runners stood toe-to-toe on the start line that night, and before the cut-off had passed just 349 had finished. I was one of the ones who didn’t.

Along with 259 others I became a DNF statistic – my second ever in around 15 years of running. After a touch over 8 hours in the mountains I had only covered just over 20 miles. As I arrived into the third checkpoint at Artenara as the sun and temperature began to rise, I was only within 15 minutes of the checkpoint closing. At that point I knew that the likelihood of reaching Maspalomas before the 05:00 cut-off was extremely slim, so along with my running buddy Paul we took the tough but reasoned decision to drop out.

We had completed two out of the three toughest climbs and no doubt we could have carried on a bit further, likely even making it as far as halfway, but we were pretty far back already and moving slow enough to realise that we were going to get timed out at some point. Better to drop now and live to fight another day. Sometimes it’s a case of knowing which battles to pick.

I’ve done lots of trail running over the years, and I’m certainly not afraid of some rough terrain and a bit of climbing, but for me the experience of running on single track trails up a mountain through the night wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I had envisaged the terrain to be more runnable than it was. Sure, the big boys and girls at the front ran one hell of a lot more than I did, but even for them many of the ascents were hikes at best. Poles were essential equipment.

You could argue that it was naïve of me to expect to be able to run as well as I had hoped on that kind of terrain which I don’t have much experience of. Maybe that is the case, but I’m a firm believer that you’ll never find out where your limits are if you don’t go out there and push yourself to find them.

Was this race a push too far perhaps? Was it too far outside of my comfort zone? I don’t think so. It just wasn’t quite as I expected it to be. I don’t see it as a failure, sure we didn’t finish, but from the start at Agaete to where we dropped out at Artenara we were on our feet for 8 hours, covered a total of 20.75 miles in distance and climbed 11,204ft.

The live tracking progress

I have nothing by the utmost respect for anyone who completed the event, and for anyone who even tried. I learnt a lot from the event and it will certainly help shape the race choices I make in the future. Full credit to Arista for putting on an incredible event. The organisation was certainly pretty slick.

After a couple of days basking in the sun following the race, I returned home to Kingswood and its clock tower. I may have returned once more to Bomont, and in some senses my comfort zone, but Ren is already planning his next trip to the South Downs Way 100 in June.

There were no medals, but the prize for DNF was welcome

There were no medals, but the prize for DNF was welcome