In the Autumn of 2018, I decided to try my first Parkrun. I’ll be honest though: I only planned to go the once. I had an upcoming stint on BBC Radio Scotland to discuss outdoor activities for families and I thought the free, 5km running event happening weekly at our local riverside might make for a good content idea. Beyond that I wasn’t particularly interested: I’d run years ago, at the gym and on a treadmill at home and all it gave me were sore knees and a general sense of boredom. I would go once, do my bit around the course, and never darken the Parkrun start -or finish- line again.
I enlisted my eldest son as running mate, telling him not to worry, we’d walk it. When we got there at 9.30am on a crisp Autumn morning though, we found ourselves carried away in a rather enthusiastic throng. We ended up jogging the whole way – partly because it actually looked quite fun, and partly, I admit, because I recognised most of the other runners and wanted to make a half-decent show of myself (never underestimate the power of saving face in a very small community). We managed the course in a semi-respectable manner, though, aided by a number of other runners offering encouragement (mostly while overtaking us). There were volunteers too, peppering the route with kind words and congratulating people at the finish line.
This was surprising.
I had been running, and it was actually quite nice.
Over the next few weeks, my son and I became regular Saturday-at-nine-thirty Parkrun devotees. And despite my early reservations, I found myself enjoying the experience more with every passing week. Parkrun wasn’t the competitive, shaming environment I’d come to associate with sporting events (an association forged through years of waiting to be reluctantly picked for school P.E. teams). It was friendly, supportive and encouraging – almost the exact opposite of everything ‘being sporty’ had led me to expect.
These days, Parkrun is part of the fabric of our family weekend. My son and I have completed 25 Parkruns in total, coming home to join the rest of the family in a leisurely brunch of egg rolls and coffee once it’s done. At our best, we can do the course in under 27 minutes, but to be honest that’s happened infrequently (alright, once then). More important is the rush of post-run endorphins that gives a sense of buoyancy to the rest of our weekend. For me, an anxious person by nature, that’s been the biggest revelation – and one that I’ve been able to harness outside of Saturday morning Parkrun, too.
I now run a couple of times a week, completing my first (unofficial) 10k, and taking my (equally anxious) dog out on a running lead. My husband often joins us, kids in tow – my youngest (who is not a fan of running) usually pedalling on his bike. The puzzle as to why I enjoy running so much more now probably lies in nature and odd things called fractals. These geometric shapes found only in nature have been shown to lower the stress hormone, cortisol, while exercising outdoors has also been shown to amplify the production of endorphins* – the mental health pay-off for all the running effort you’ve put in.
And the success of Parkrun, of course, may lie somewhere in that crossover. It also has a super-power – building community at a time where millions of people in the UK alone report to feeling lonely often, or sadly, all the time **. ‘Social exercise’ initiatives like Parkrun offer people not just the chance to get fit, but to serve that hard-wired need for connection, belonging and being part of something.
So here’s to Saturday morning rituals.
And to hoping your knees don’t fail you now.
*Feel Better, Live More podcast, episode 57, Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
**Report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, 2017.