When I showed up to Springburn parkrun on the 19th of August, I wasn’t planning on attempting to run my best time. My fuelling the evening before was hardly ideal: fish and chips chased down with a bottle of Lomond Gold. Despite that, I felt surprisingly sprightly at the starting line. When Bobby did the countdown and shouted “Go!” I found myself running nearer the front of the pack than usual. My GPS watch beeped at the first kilometre. I glanced down and was surprised to see 4:06… it hit me that if I kept up this pace, I’d run well under not only my PB for this course, but my 5k PB as well. I was surprised because, at this point, that pace was feeling more comfortable than it usually does.
One of my running goals for this year was to run under 22 minutes at my lovely local parkrun in Springburn. It’s a fairly modest goal. Achievable, but one that I thought would push me a bit. I know that I can run 5k in under 22 minutes on a track, but Springburn’s undulating course with its turns and 53m of gain adds a bit of bite to the challenge. I also view Springburn parkrun as one of the pivotal things that got me running in the first place, so it has always felt like a good place to mark my progress.
In 2015, I struggled to beat 24min. In 2016, just nipping in under 23 minutes felt impossible (I remember being totally gutted after pushing as hard as I could and getting a soul destroying 23:01!). Even though my 22min goal means that I would only sneak slightly above 60% in the WMA age grading, I’ve been fairly surprised by my own progress: dropping about a minute off my 5k time every year. I have the luxury of being an average athlete, so my goals will always be purely personal. My 22min 5k will not turn any heads. That said, going for a personal goal within a supportive community like parkrun adds some extra motivation. The goals vary widely, but we’re all part of a similar process. I’m as equally stoked for my friend breaks 18min as he is for me when I get a PB; even better is the huge accomplishment of those who manage to run their first 5k.
Around the second kilometre, my pace started to slip, but I kept it together. As it always is, the third and fourth kilometres were the killers. I saw my PB slipping away. I was probably looking at my watch too much, wondering why my perceived effort was dropping below the reality of my average pace.
Here’s one of the many great things about Springburn parkrun: as you pass the 4k mark, you reach the top of the penultimate hill and there’s a speedy downhill section. I glanced at my watch again and knew that if I pushed it, the PB was still on despite my poor pacing on the previous two kilometers. I picked up the pace downhill trying to psych myself up for the final push. Notice I said “penultimate hill” earlier. There’s this long and burning hill that you have to run up three times at Springburn. Totally runnable, but an energy-sapper. I tried to focus on my form, not the hill, keeping my legs going at a decent cadence. Then I went all out on the final sprint. At this stage, I wasn’t sure if the PB was still on, I was too tried to look at my watch and aware that a glance could rob me of precious second or two (that 23:01 still haunting me).
My running watch doesn’t always correspond with my “official” parkrun time. But it’s usually accurate within a few seconds. As I grabbed my finish token, through hyperventilated gasps, I looked down at my watch. Thankfully, there was no doubt. I had reached my goal of running under 22 minutes by at least 10 seconds. It was well within the margin of error! I went to ring Springburn’s PB bell, hammed it up for a photo, and got high-fives. It was even more fun to share the moment with my family. My son was the first to greet me, hilariously only wearing one shoe. He had lost it while playing in the mud and made the decision that retrieving it was too much of a distraction from whatever mad game he was playing.
I was absolutely delighted to have achieved my goal, even though in reality, the 22 minute mark is nothing more than an arbitrary number and not — in any objective sense — an impressive or fast time.
Reaching my sub-22 goal early in the year felt great. I’m in no hurry to set another benchmark. That can wait until 2018. Without the self-imposed pressure of an sub-22 minute PB at Springburn, I’ve been enjoying other great aspects of my “free, timed, local run”. Things like working on pacing negative splits or incorporating parkrun into the middle of a Saturday morning longrun.
Still, even better than all that is seeing parkrun overlap with “real life.” I’m a refugee support worker. Some of my new Syrian friends asked me what “all these brightly dressed running people” were doing across the street every Saturday morning. I helped them register (the process is straightforward, but less so if you’re struggling with written English) and then paced them around the course. Because of the problems back home, the joy of simply going for a run in safety is something these guys haven’t had the luxury to do for a long time. They loved the atmosphere at parkrun. They appreciated how everybody was so supportive even when they couldn’t understand everything that’s being said. They’ve become regulars and I’m sure these guys will be lapping me by the end of the year. The guys have told me that parkrun is “the best start to the weekend ever… and we get to do it every week!” parkrun was a first step to getting more active, which they say has also improved their mental health. Life is still difficult, but since getting out for runs, they’ve told me that they now feel a bit more hopeful and able to confront the inevitable difficulties that arise. Getting around the course becomes a metaphor for life – “if I can keep myself running up that stupid hill three times, I can push through any problem!” They also now feel part of a community in a place where they didn’t know anyone. On top of all that parkrun is free (the cost of sport is a huge barrier for many on extremely limited budgets, parkrun removes that at the outset) and provides a great variety of volunteering opportunities.
I’ll admit that I’m already a big fan of parkrun because of what it has done for me personally. In seeing some of my refugee friends get involved, I’ve become an even bigger fan of it’s ingeniously simple way of promoting health and fostering community.
Getting a PB at parkrun felt great. But even better than that has been helping others get involved in parkrun. Especially seeing how it can be a springboard to steps toward an all-around healthier and happier life. Pacing my new friends around the course is a genuine joy. It’s amazing how something as simple as a weekly run, where it’s more about community than egos, can make such a positive impact in people’s lives.