Parklife!

Well, I finally did it – my first ever organised run. Still loath to use the term “race” as that suggests I’d actually be trying to win. I’m still firmly at the stage where “winning” takes a back seat in my list of priorities to other more pressing goals such as “stagger across the finishing line without my lungs having turned themselves inside out”. What the hell, I’ll stick with “race” for now as it trips of the tongue a little more easily.

But anyway, today saw the first ever Bedford Parkrun. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Parkrun is an organisation that sets up weekly 5k runs at various locations around the country (and a few overseas I think). The runs are free to enter and are aimed at all levels of ability, from the lightning-fast seasoned club runner to, well, me.

So, my first ever race, and Bedford’s first ever Parkrun. We were like a wide-eyed young couple on their wedding night, stepping forth into strange and uncharted territory. I could really stretch the whole honeymoon metaphor by talking about how much puffing and panting would doubtless be involved, along with the likelihood of quite a bit of laundry the following day. To be fair I’d probably struggle to justify describing how a dozen or so marshals in high-visibility tabards might fit into the consumatory night of the average newlyweds, so I’ll leave it there and back away with my credibility intact(ish).

As I made my way towards the main entrance to the park I noticed an ambulance across the road, with a paramedic standing nearby. I don’t think they were there for anything to do with the run, but part of me was sure that as I walked by in my running kit, the paramedic was mentally sizing me up, trying to work out if he had enough short-wide-waddly-unfit-runner resuscitation kit on board or whether he’d need to call for extra supplies just to be on the safe side. The part where he took out his phone and, in a hushed but irritated tone, said “Sorry dear, looks like I won’t be able to make little Bianca’s piano recital after all – I’ve just seen a Code Purple walk past so I’d better follow him round with the defibrillator all morning” was almost definitely imagined.

But anyway, I got to the starting area in plenty of time and started to warm up, trying my very hardest to give the impression that I knew what I was doing. Okay, so I may have overdone it with all the star jumps, and the same could be said for the bit where I started slapping myself in the face while shouting “You’re a winner!” at the top of my voice. Again, that might not have happened, but I did warm up a bit, and as I did so I started looking around at my fellow runners. As I said at the top of this post, Parkrun is an event for all abilities, from the slowest sloth to the fastest cheetah and all animals inbetween*, but as I scanned the crowd I struggled to find anyone who looked even remotely like a beginner. I was hoping to spot at least a few fellow ungainly plodders, maybe even two or three who’d turned up in their pyjamas, but it wasn’t to be. To me, each and every one of them appeared to be brimming with confidence, the running experience radiating from every pore of their sleek physiques. None of them were even smoking! Everywhere I looked I saw people in club vests, Garmins seemingly strapped to every wrist**. Luckily, after a few moments I realised that this was just me being me again, and I decided to stop winding myself up and enjoy the race. As I looked more carefully I saw that the majority of the crowd did in fact look as apprehensive as me, but this was tempered with a good-natured camaraderie and there seemed to be a real buzz in the air as everyone chatted amongst themselves while the start time drew closer.

After a while I was pleased to spot a few people I knew, fellow runners from work who are as hooked on this running lark as I am. For the purpose of this blog post I will refer to them by pseudonyms; not to protect their identity, but because I think it’s funny.

So a few short minutes later, we took our place behind the starting line. Quite a bit behind, as it happens, and I felt comforted by the fact that Drusilla, Hank and Blodwyn all seemed to share my level of confidence.

This was my first ever race, and I’d like to say that I have a vivid enduring memory of the moment it started, but I don’t. One minute I was standing still and the next I was surging forward with the crowd. I couldn’t tell you if the start was signalled by a klaxon, a whistle or a Prussian Flugelhorn, but what I can say is that it felt great. This was starkly different to my solo runs, another beast entirely, and I found myself settling into a steady pace much more quickly than usual. Starting near to the back meant that I was able to pull off a few cheeky overtakes quite early on. Previously, whenever I thought about this type of event, I always assumed that I’d feel a competitive buzz every time I passed someone, a moment where I’d be obliged to shout “Ha! In your face! I’m beating you!” either out loud or, more likely, in the safe confines of my own inner monologue. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that this feeling didn’t come, and instead I was just filled with a cheerfully benign “we’re all in this together” vibe that stuck with me throughout the race and for quite a while after.

So anyway, the run itself…

The race consisted of three(ish) laps of Bedford Park, so it’s probably easiest if I break down my random thoughts and experiences lap by lap.

Lap one:

I decided to set off at a slightly slower pace than usual. I’d set my Garmin to the “virtual running partner” thingy, aiming as usual for a (seemingly unattainable) sub-30-minute time. For the entire first lap I reined myself in and stayed neck-and-neck with the evil little pixelated bastard, rather than my usual trick of getting ahead of pace early doors, only to lose momentum as gravity, wind resistance and pies take effect towards the latter part of the run.

As I plodded happily to the first kilometre marker I looked across the park and saw waaaaaaay in the distance a cluster of yellow-vested blurs. I idly wondered if the reason that running clubs all wear the same kit isn’t because of a sense of team-spirit, but rather a way to make it more seamlessly convincing when they sneakily duck into a bush after the first hundred metres at the very same moment their identical twin pops out of another bush further along the course. Surely that could be the only explanation for their insane pace, rather than the more unpalatable truth that while I was spending years eating curly-wurlies for breakfast and avoiding exercise like the plague, these guys and girls were getting out there and racking up the miles come rain or shine. I like my version better.

One of the people ahead of me at the early stages of the race (and even further ahead of me in the later stages) was a person who’s name I don’t know, but who I will refer to as Buggymum. I called her that because I assumed that she was the mother of whoever was in the buggy. I could have been wrong – for all I know she might have just nicked an empty one from Mothercare, which would have explained why she was running so fast. I decided that I had to keep up with Buggymum, not because of any sort of macho pride about being beaten by someone pushing a buggy, but more to do with the fact that I’d more than likely need to cadge a lift at some point in the race.

Lap two:

Still managed to maintain a nice even pace, but by now I was starting to remember that 5k is quite a long way to run, for me at least, and I was starting to feel it. Saw a squirrel, which cheered me up enormously.

Around halfway round this time I was lapped by a handful of yellow-shirts and other similarly fast runners. They all looked like that they were finding it as hard as the rest of us, the only difference being that they were powering along at a tremendous pace as if slowing down wasn’t in their vocabulary***. This was another thing that surprised me about the event – I’d fully expected to see these experienced runners and be filled with envy, to the point where I’d give serious consideration to deftly nudging them into the duck pond as they passed me. But once again I found myself enjoying the atmosphere of the race, and the only emotion I felt as they passed was aspiration, the realisation that since starting this running lark I’d become fitter and faster and that with determination and commitment this would likely continue.

Note to self: Wearing a bandana and wraparound sunglasses makes you look like a badass ultra-marathoner.

Lap three:

As I started the final lap I glanced over at the area next to the finishing line and saw loads of runners milling about there looking exhausted and I allowed myself a smug thought. “I may be slow, but look at how many have dropped out of the race. Dropped out and… um… all have really triumphant looks on their faces… erm… almost as if they’d actually just finished the race in a ridiculously fast time. Oh bugger”.

Halfway around the final lap I once again encountered a hilly bit, just steep enough to be felt, especially in my now fatigued state. As I trudged up it for the final time it occurred to me that this particular part of the course had sloped upwards on every single lap, which seemed a bit unfair.

Anyway, spurred on by encouragement from the excellent marshals and from Mr Blodwyn who was cheering us on from the sidelines I kept up my pace throughout the final lap. As I neared the end I developed a fantastic strategy which I feel confident will earn me a top place at every single race I run from now on. Quite simply (and forgive me if this is already a standard running tactic) I imagined that I was the protagonist in the film 28 Days Later, and that every time I heard footsteps gaining speed behind me it meant that I was seconds away from being torn apart by zombies. Okay, so now in hindsight that does seem a little stupid, but I think I was dehydrated at the time so may have been in a bit of a random mood, even by my standards.

I managed to dig deep enough to pull off a clumsy sprint finish, and a quick glance at my wrist**** told me that I’d done the 5k in 00:29:21. Those of you who’ve read my previous blog posts will know that a sub-30 time has been my nemesis for a while now, but to be honest I was more happy that I’d taken part in my first race and the PB was just the icing on the cake.

All that and I’d not been eaten by zombies.

www.parkrun.com – go on, you know you want to.

* Not actual animals though – that would be carnage. If you’ve ever tried to explain the importance of not taking more than your fair share of the complementary lucozade to a thirsty baboon you’ll know what I’m talking about.

** Yes, I know I’ve got a Garmin. But that’s not because I’m a serious runner, it’s because it’s orange.

***Maybe it wasn’t – they might have been Norwegian. I never got close enough to ask.

**** More accurately, I glanced at my Garmin. I don’t have magic wrists.

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Nipples: aerodynamic.

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