More than PBs at parkrun


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.



running on holiday & parkrun tourism


No matter where you go, you can always run.  One of the many great things about running is that once you start, there’s always something to do wherever you might find yourself.  It’s a great way to explore a new place, or just appreciate a place in a different way.  Or if it’s a boring place (here’s looking at you, suburban Chicagoland), running can make the stay a bit more interesting.

Our annual family holiday to Northern Ireland is now full of running.  I love it.

I used to live in Belfast and had a brief flirtation with running during that time.  My wife started running and I would accompany her on some runs, not particularly enjoying it.  But not unlike kale, I knew it was good for me and hoped that I would acquire a taste for it.  We walk-ran until we could run a whole 5k loop without stopping.  At the time, it felt like a massive distance.  And, looking back, it was an achievement.  But I didn’t keep with it.  Studies, work, and moving to Greece to work with an NGO got in the way (I did try running in Athens, but that was horrible misadventure… more on that another time).  Running, not unlike my current car, started okay then sputtered out.

Now when we return to Northern Ireland, I love running there. Especially on the stunning north coast.  I somehow feel closer to everything while running.  The wind, constantly changing weather, amazing views… it’s an exhilarating way to experience and already beautiful place.  The Causeway Coast Way and the endless golden sand and dunes of Portstewart Strand are highlights.  Oh, and the “edge of the world” feeling you get on Ramore Head.



I also enjoyed a bit of parkrun tourism.  I’ve done a couple in NI: the undulations of Wallace Park in Lisburn and the pancake loops at Victoria Park. This time I was able to make it to Portrush, which is a unique in being the only parkrun on a beach.

Portrush is a stunning course that goes along the “blue flagged” East Strand out to Whiterocks and back.  It’s an out-n-back, but a lovely one.  I had a fairly quick time (for me) with a 22:23.  We had lovely firm sand to run on because the tide was out, but I bet this is a dozy when it’s high tide and runners have go on the soft sand.  Must be a quad killer!

[Image credit to the Portrush parkrun FB page]
I also had anther go at Wallace Park parkrun and scored a course PB.  One of the tougher parkrun courses I’ve done.  Think I did a bit better at pacing myself this time, with the exception of going out to fast and fooling myself that I could maintain the sub-22 pace!

I also did two junior parkruns with my daughter — Ormeau and Portrush.  Both events were well organised with an infectious enthusiasm.  My daughter loved getting applause when she stuck her hand up when the RD asked, “Any visitors today?”  All the way from glam Glasgow!  Even though we didn’t know anybody, everyone was friendly and made the tourists feel welcome at both events.  Great craic.


[Image credit to the RD at Ormeau Jr parkrun]
It was all great fun.  Running only enriches what was already great holiday.  On my fortnight away, I clocked up 75km.  If anything, it means that I feel a bit less guilty about eating all those Tayto crisps by the bucket-load and over indigence in the Hilden Brewery’s many delights… I’m sure that I read somewhere that beer is a good recovery drink, right?


rebuilding to 50k

I’ve been encouraged by my running the past couple weeks.  Though my legs felt leaden and my lung capacity well short of 100%, I still got out for a couple social runs with the Carron Valley Trail Runners and (just about) kept up.  Each run felt better than the previous one.  It was a satisfyingly progressive recovery arc and I feel pretty lucky that this all coincided with these rare and amazing long spring days with bluebird skies.

At parkrun last Saturday, the weather resumed its normal service and the familiar puddles were returning to the Springburn course (though it wasn’t at full steeplechase level yet).  That said, I don’t mind a run in the rain.  And if you have to run in the rain, it’s more fun if there’s loads of people sharing in the almost perverse joy of it.


As per usual, I forgot to turn off my watch when I crossed the finish line, so I didn’t know what my time was. After I got the text from parkrun, I was pleased to learn I ran the 5k route in 22:46.  Considering that I spend most of 2016 just trying to break 23:00, I’m happy that I’m getting back to my normal speed (or lack thereof, ‘speed’ is a purely personal thing, right?).  That 5k felt tougher than it usually does, but… feel like I’m getting there.

I’m off to run the ATRX tonight — that is, the Antonine Trail 10k Race.  I’ll put up a race report once that’s done and dusted.  Then it’s off to Inversnaid to run the 50k Great Tartan Skidaddle route as a solo effort this coming Saturday.  I trained for that thing for so long, I feel like it’s something I need to do.  Maybe I’m just stubborn?

It’s great to have my health back, even if I feel a bit more sluggish than usual, but I don’t want to complain.  Having been in hospital and then being sedentary for weeks really makes one appreciate how brilliant it is to be, literally, up and running.