Alan's Journey to his 50th parkrun

The Joy of the Run

 Alan Robinson  Biographically  September 2, 2017 6 Minutes

There’s nothing remarkable about this post. There’s no twist, no surprise ending, no amazing discovery. But what there is, is progression and joy; and that’s worth bottling. Here’s a glass; have a drink with me.

Take a time train back to 1983 and meet me at school during an outdoor PE lesson. It’s raining, and I’m miserable. I’m miserable because rain means cold, and rain means I can’t even take some comfort from the mental challenges of a team game; rain means cross-country running. In 1983, at least at my school, no-one taught you to run; no-one taught you that slowing down just a little bit will allow you to develop, no-one coached you on your posture, and no-one cared either. I lost count of the number of times I got lost in cross-country running simply because I couldn’t keep up with anyone who knew the route and I fell to the back of the pack with my lungs burning as if I’d just spent an hour breathing in glass dust taken straight from the freezer. I lost count of the times that I plodded back to school finding the best route that I could, arriving halfway into the next lesson exhausted, embarrassed and anxious.

If you’re listening, 1980s PE teachers, J’accuse. I accuse you of focussing your attention only on the winners; the ones who made you and the school look good, and the ones who didn’t need your attention. You understood physiology and psychology, and you could have used that knowledge to boost the fitness and mental health of my generation, but you didn’t. You left us behind, and you literally left us out in the cold. You sent us away thinking that exercise was only practiced by those who are already fit and only fun for those who are already fit; you could have shown us that exercise could make us fit too, and that we could enjoy it too. Worse than that, each and every time that you left us behind you took a bite out of our self esteem; for all you knew you were condemning us to decades of struggle, failing confidence, unexplained and unresolved anger, and potentially fatal depression.

Fast forward through two decades of life devoid of exercise; two decades where I was only too relieved to leave behind the compulsory humiliation of PE and only occasionally wonder why other people went to gyms and did hobbies like jogging and cycling.

Fast forward to the happenstance of someone on our road giving away a bicycle, and it arriving in our garage. Somehow we acquired more bicycles, the kids grew to ages where they could be left in the home or had gone to their dad’s for the weekend, and Lynn and I went out cycling. As we gingerly crunched our wheels over the sunlit gravel paths around Cams Hall Golf Course, something awakened. A feeling of freedom and joy flashed across two decades, connecting the heart beating in my chest with that beating in the chest of the ‘me’ aged 15, back when I used a bicycle as my first means of independent transport to escape the family home and meet with friends. Lynn and I arrived home happier than when we had set out.

Cycling became our thing for a few years, and gradually we progressed from feeling pleased with a gentle 5 miles to joining in the fun of charity rides of 30 miles around Portsmouth and Portsdown Hill. We got a taste of the camaraderie of being active in a group.

In 2014 our daughter got a job with a sales team at a local gym, and Lynn (who had started going to the gym at work) got a free membership. Somehow I ended up joining too, and for a while hitting the gym took over from cycling. It didn’t last long, and we didn’t achieve much other than lose a couple of kilos of fat and gain a kilo or two of muscle, but there were treadmills there. Don’t go leaping ahead; I did not fall in lovewith the treadmills. The treadmills were simply obstacles to be cleared before I could get to the weights, as I had been told to do a 10 minute cardio before doing resistance. But I learned that I could run, and I remember the feeling of celebration I got when I realised that I could run for a whole minute. One time, I even ran a mile without stopping; a whole mile.

It was around this time that Lynn downloaded an app for her phone called “Couch to 5k”.  Lynn was aiming at taking part in a Parkrun, a free 5k organised run held at thousands of places around the world each weekend. She kept on at me to do the same, to get the app, and follow. I didn’t, because I’ve been told over and over that men don’t need maps, advice or instructions. But, eventually, I joined her, in my decade-old trainers, and we run-walked the 5k together. Fifty metres from the finish, Lynn sprinted away unexpectedly and left me for dead in the run up to the funnel.

We’re now well into 2015, we’ve moved house and acquired a couple of labradors and somehow we have taken our eyes, and feet and bottoms, off cycling. But Lynn is running, until one day disaster strikes as she steps awkwardly off a kerb and she slips a disk in her back. It takes nearly 2 years for Lynn to be able to run again. But when she does start, we find a Parkrun at Fareham, and on one of these, she gets chatting to the owner of Run Verity, a local coached running club with the strap-line “Let’s run together”. Lynn signs up for the Run Verity Beginners course.

Over the next few weeks, Lynn starts to rave about Run Verity, and I start to hear a phrase that will become very familiar to me; “Verity says…….”. It’s a short step from here to Christmas 2017, where Lynn, fed up with my offering my own opinions and thoughts, bought me an RV Beginners course of my own, so that I could experience “Verity says……” first hand.

So on a literally freezing cold January evening, I turned up for my first RV Beginners session. I remember feeling quite shy, but I wasn’t feeling much need to talk anyway and it was dark in any case! Here we go again, running for a whole minute. Awesome.

The RV Beginners course flashed by, creating fond memories of gradually pushing the time spent running whilst being quite captivated by how pretty the lake at Whiteley Business Park is when it’s lit up in the dark and you can see the lights reflected in its frozen surface.

In March 2017 I ran my first Parkrun after finishing the RV Beginners course, and I experienced my first taste of the magic of running in a club. Since joining RV Beginners I had started running Parkruns whenever I could, and I had been gradually pushing out the distance I could run without dropping back to a walk. On the “graduation” Parkrun I was determined to use the extra boost of the sense of occasion and run the whole 5k, and I did. It took me about 40 minutes to do the run, but it was an awesome feeling.

It’s now the 2nd September 2017; roughly nine months since I pitched up at RV Beginners unable to run more than 2 minutes reliably without getting sore legs and feeling out of breath. Since the early summer, we’ve been adding in 10k runs between our regular 5k Parkruns, and I can now safely say that I can run 10k without stopping or walking. I can do 10k in about 90 minutes, and that makes me happy enough. Today I got another Personal Best in our local Parkrun; just over 35 minutes. Nothing to “write home” about by most runners’ standards, but awesomely pleasing for a 50 year old man who has only been running in a committed way (meaning I’m averaging a relatively modest 10k of running per week) for 9 months, and who has nothing but sadness for the missed opportunities of school PE lessons.

I said there was no twist or surprise ending. But there is this; the discovery that, actually, the reason that I go running is because I enjoy it, and I enjoy the company of my fellow runners – particularly my fellow Run Verity pals. Only occasionally do I think about the health benefits, and when this comes to mind it hits me in the stomach like a swarm of supercharged butterflies; I’m doing something that I enjoy, and its bloody good for me! Almost without exception, all of my previous hobbies, the things I’ve done to treat myself, have been harmful in one way or another. Running is now primarily for fun, the health benefits both incredible and incidental, and that’s beyond awesome for someone who was taught as a youngster that running was simply pain in the rain.