Monday, 16 January 2012

...and they're off!

On 12 February 2011, wearing a pair of clapped-out trainers, a matching set of 'holiday' shorts and t-shirt and some 'sports' socks I presented myself at Oldham parkrun...

...and much to my dismay, the place was deserted! Hmm - well it was still quite early (around 8am), so I decided to have a walk round the park. Strange how hills don't seem all that bad when you are strolling along!

On my second lap of the park, I noticed a guy in a tracksuit carrying some sort of equipment heading for the band stand area known locally as the Lion's Den (probably something to do with the stone lions on either side of the structure!) and headed towards him.

"Parkrun?", I asked (in those days I didn't realise it was pronounced with a small 'p')

"Yeah, we start at 9", came the reply. "I'm Mark. I'm the Race Director."

A couple of minutes later, a couple arrived, picked up one of the bags Mark had brought, said "Good Morning" and set off up the path to the side of the Den. This was my introduction to the world of parkrun volunteering - although it was quite a while before I actually put my name forward for duties. Tony and Angie have been involved with Oldham parkrun since the early days and continue (whenever possible) to arrive early and put out the signs.

As the time approached 08:45, I mentioned that it seemed a bit quiet. Mark assured me that there wasn't any reason to worry and that people usually start arriving 'any minute now'. As if they had been waiting in the wings for the cue, half a dozen people seemed to appear from out of nowhere. Then a few more arrived, and a couple here and there and in next to no time there were about 25 of us (most of whom had either nodded my way or introduced themselves) and a few minutes later, we all started to line up at the start.

Mark read out the day's notices and then explained the course in detail. He explained that we only had a couple of marshalls and so there wouldn't be one at the second point and to be sure to follow the signs. With the sponsor notifications and future local events out of the way, it was time to run! I must admit, I had 'butterflies' - something I hadn't experienced since my schooldays (more years ago than I care to admit!)

As we set off, I decided that somewhere not too far from the front would be OK...and ran the first couple of hundred metres at a comfortable pace. Following the lead runners up a sharp chicane-like incline first to the left and veering to the right, we reach a steady climb. And I didn't even make it to the first park bench before I had slowed to walking pace. Not the ideal start to my new running career but one that soon taught me to respect the course and learn how to run it. As we reach the top of the first climb, the signs send us right and onto the long, sweeping downhill stretch. This was more like it! By the time it levelled out a little, I was fighting for breath and had to slow right down - repeat lesson about knowing the course etc. The course was well sign-posted and taking the right-angled left onto a short downhill, I could already see we were turning right at the bottom and positioned myself accordingly. Rounding the turn and crossing the bridge, we start to ascend...quite gently at first but gradually getting steeper. About halfway up the hill, I'm back to walking and beginning to question my sanity! But, I can see the nice flat bit coming up and put on a bit of an effort, only to discover they hid another little hill behind some bushes! And finally, I'm on the 'flat'. Oh, yeah? Ya think? It turns out that even though it is relatively flat, there is a slight incline which is quite unforgiving to those struggling to get round. As we approach the Lion's Den to complete the first lap, the rest of the volunteers are all shouting their encouragement and the spring comes back into your step. Knowing what to expect on the second lap at least allows you to form some sort of plan, though I swear that the hills were steeper this time round! Even worse, half way up the long sweeping hill, I was 'lapped'.

I was seriously considering calling it quits as I approached the Lion's Den for the second time but the finishing funnel was out and the volunteers were again out in force, cheering the stragglers (for by now, that is what I'd become!) and coming the other way to complete the run was Tony who'd put out the signs earlier. I dug in and set off for the final lap. This was just as punishing but as we reach the top of the sweep, and about half way up the 'hidden' hill, the marshal directed me up a small pathway - Woodland Walk. I had no hesitation interpretting this as an instruction and slowed my pace accordingly! The marshall shouted something to the effect that this was the last bit and I responded by breaking into a trot again. By this time, my legs were the consistency of warm jelly and I was back to walking. It took me several weeks before I ever managed to run that last little trail and I still don't look forward to it even after 40 odd times! Coming off the trail, we run around to the right, downhill all the way and as you hit the 'home straight' you can't help but try and raise a bit of a sprint finish. To be honest, there wasn't much difference between my sprint and the rest of the run but I felt I had made the effort. I finished the course in 31:02 and was 16th home of 21 participants.

I'm not saying that I was immediately transformed by my experiences - I didn't even learn my lesson as the following week, I ended up going even slower! What I did discover was a group of like-minded people, all willing to help out in making Saturday parkrun an enjoyable experience for the fit and not-so-fit alike. I made several new friends that day...not least of which was parkrun!


  1. Hi Simon. I enjoyed your piece. It's a good insight into what us everyday runners go through. Maximum respect for getting there at 8am, that is an achievement in itself. Even if I were sleeping in the park I doubt I'd be up and ready for 8pm.


  2. great stuff simon!
    fantastic description of the pain dished out by the oldham parkrun killer hills :-)
    see you on saturday mate...


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