Running Repairs

A stroll in the park

Nick Cohen loves the weekly run that insists it’s not a race

Abuse is the common experience of journalists. First in below-the-line comments on news sites, then on Twitter, the type of men who keep Pornhub in business have hidden in their basements and whacked out their hatreds. I have moved so far beyond caring, I now feel I have failed if an article does not provoke their screams.

There are exceptions: heart-stopping moments when criticism shames you into wishing that a time machine might take you back and allow you to rewrite your accursed words. The only moment in the 2010s when mortification overwhelmed me was when, in my first article on running, I called Parkrun a “race”. If you don’t know the severity of my transgression, the good and selfless volunteers, who have allowed millions of runners to visit one of 714 courses around the world and race a 5k (three-mile) circuit, are ready to put you right.

The experience of running with others is wholly different from running alone

Parkrun is not a “race,” they complained to the Observer. It is a “timed run”. To call it a“race”puts off the people Parkrun wants to encourage to take up running, a prospective clientele that is expanding so fast it will soon include the whole of humanity.

“It’s for joggers and walkers, or any combination that gets you round the course in anything from 15 minutes to over an hour. There is a tail walker at every event whose job is to be last, no matter how long that takes.” Everyone is celebrated. Everyone is welcome. I would say “all must have prizes”, except that there are no prizes, just a results page produced at the end of each “timed run”, giving the ranking of every participant.

To be upbraided by Parkrun is like hearing the vexation of a mother or teacher who has shown you nothing but kindness. The shame at their quiet disappointment is too much to bear. As punishment, I will explain what Parkrun is and why you should run it and love it.

In the nineteenth century, the British invented or codified nearly every sport. Parkrun is, to the best of my knowledge, the only sporting event the British have invented in the twenty-first that has gone on to sweep the world. At 8.45 am on 2 October 2004, Paul Sinton-Hewitt persuaded 13 people to congregate in south-west London to run what he called the Bushy Park time trial.

He didn’t want to compete with organised races or established running clubs. Parkruns would be open to all free of charge. They spread across London and then Britain and then the world. People have made friends for life on Parkruns, fallen in love on Parkruns, or sworn that the weekly determination to go out at 9am every Saturday and complete a Parkrun has saved them from obesity and thus saved their lives.

T.S.Eliot’s Prufrock may have “measured out my life with coffee spoons”. We measure out ours with Parkruns. Parkrun head office put Eliud Kipchoge’s sub two-hour marathon into perspective by saying that only five of the 51,363,611 Parkruns completed over 5kms had been faster than the pace Kipchoge sustained over 42.2.

The costs are met by sponsorship, but volunteers do the bulk of the work. I volunteered myself for a children’s Parkrun the other week. I was given the awesome responsibility of being “deputy funnel manager”, ensuring that children went down the finishing straight in the right order. As mere words cannot express the satisfaction I found in helping others, I will confine myself to saying I was insufferable for days.

All you need to do is go online and register. Then — and I admit this is a little odd — you must print out a sheet of barcodes, cut one off and take it with you. After lapping the park, the funnel managers give you a token. You present token and barcode to a volunteer who records your name, place and speed.

The experience of running with others is wholly different from running alone. The advice given to all racers is “don’t start too fast, you’ll suffer later”. Inevitably, you ignore it. The adrenaline takes over and the excitement of being in the middle of hundreds of runners drives you on.

I think I speak for many when I say that the only person I compete against is myself, and my sole concern is my speed. Three miles is a serious distance, whatever marathon runners say. You must retain the strength to keep challenging your body without pushing it too far once the excitement of the start has worn off.

I have yet to finish a Parkrun without being, exhausted, elated and certain that I have run a real race — or “a real timed run”, as we must all now say.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover