Thursday, 26 April 2012

Maiden parkrun win with exhaustive tactical analysis

I remember the first time I got a glimpse of a parkrun victory.  About a year ago at Finsbury Park, I was astonished to find myself in the lead after about 60 yards.

Wahey, I'm winning!  I thought.  Ok, keep calm, there's a long way to go...

At this point, one of the other runners came past me as if I was standing still.  I watched calmly - if a little resentfully - as he vanished into the distance, taking with him my hopes of a maiden parkrun win.  I hung on for a stoical second place.  The runner in question had never visited the Finsbury parkrun before and never has since; I'm not bitter - I'm just saying.

My second shot at a win came over Easter weekend at Hampstead Heath.  The field was a fair bit smaller than the first time I ran there and, because of the Easter fair on the Heath, they were running the 'B' course, which I was informed, ended with a hill which was 'like climbing a flight of stairs'.

I quite liked the look of the field: there were no club vests on show (I had a briefly satisfying image of the entire Highgate Harriers cross country team milling around at the usual start point wondering where everybody was).  On the other hand, I was feeling a bit leggy after a four-mile bike ride to the Heath.

My cautious optimism looked well founded as I hung on behind the leader through the start of the race and the first negotiation of the big hill, well clear of third place.  Having determined that I was in with a decent shout of a win, it occurred to me that some sort of strategy might come in handy.  I had a few considerations:

1. Legs feeling a bit wobbly.  Not a good idea to go too early
2. Course very hilly.  Uphill not too bad, but I tend to go downhill with all the grace and assurance of a tranquilised animal
3. Uphill finish (like going up a flight of stairs, apparently)

All of this added up to an infallible solution: sit tight until the bottom of the staircase, then run like stink and hope you're the one with more left.

Here's what my strategy looked like in my head:

In my imagination, you'll notice, my opponent looked a lot like the person out of Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Coming back to the real world, I realised that while I'd been hatching my direful plot, the guy in first place had hit a bit of a flat spot and I was suddenly a few yards clear.  Oh well, I thought ruefully, tearing up my mental notes.  Time for Plan B.

Plan B: You're in the lead. Make it stick.

Plan B had one pretty major flaw: I wasn't all that clear on the route.  However, on the one occasion I nearly went wrong, a shouted word of warning from the runner behind me set me right.  It also cost him a lungful of oxygen so I'll put it down as part of my masterplan.

The much-anticipated staircase was a great deal longer than I'd anticipated, but I came to the top with a healthy lead and romped through the line in 19:25, the fifth-slowest winning time in the history of Hampstead Heath.  (Also, one of the slower winning times is from the occasion the entire field dead-heated on 59:59, which I presume was down to a timing problem rather than an excessively tactical race.)

So, I scratched my one-year itch and scored a maiden parkrun win.  For anyone wondering how to emulate these debatable heroics, here's my breakdown of the important factors and how they relate:

A busy cross-country season, followed by three months of marathon training: 2%
Diamond-tipped tactical genius: 1%
Hot cross buns for breakfast instead of muesli: 2%
Who turns up on the day: 95%

In other words, put in the parkruns and the time will come.  Of course, a touch of Machiavellianism doesn't hurt: I made sure to attend the offroad Scrubs parkrun on Saturday after a week of torrential rain and with quite a few of the regulars resting up for the London Marathon.  Result: a PB and two wins from two parkruns this month!  I think I'd have got shorter odds against being hit by lightning on the 32nd of July.  It just goes to show, show up!  You never can tell.


Hampstead Heath course description
Wormwood Scrubs course description
Competitive Running Strategy and Tactics on
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
How to Take Over the World on


  1. Thank you for a brilliantly entertaining post and incredible artwork! Alas, I turn up every week and, as I once remarked in a blog, my chances of winning a parkrun lie somewhere between bugger all and none.(Oh, hang on, we're not allowed to say 'win' because it's not a race - it's a timed run! lol) Anyway, well done, on your first position! May you have many more.

    1. Never give up on the dream! Just hit the treadmill and keep checking the travel news updates for which parkruns are completely inaccessible and isolated this weekend, then cycle there. TfL is brilliant in this respect as everything is always cancelled all the time.

      Also aim for any scandal-hit parkruns as attendances tend to be down. Popular scandals include misappropriation of hi-viz, misdirecting runners through duck ponds for a laugh and instances of excessive dog-kicking.

  2. I'm with Jimmy Connors on the subject of winning (not that I will ever be first person or even first lady home), he said 'I hate losing more than I love winning!'

    1. I'll see Connors and raise you Attila the Hun, who (reportedly) said: "It is not enough that I succeed. Everyone else must fail."

  3. Brilliant stuff Dan. Glad to see you register those wins. And as usual your pictures are amazingly descriptive! See you at Cov parkrun sometime soon I hope.

  4. LOL Daniel! Not that I am at all competitive, but the family moto is 'It isn't playing the game that counts, it is beating the living cr@p out of the opposition!' My children are getting to the age when they will soon be running faster than me. Not quite sure how I am going to cope with that one. Will have to be thrilled for them and try not to mind the losing bit!


We would love to hear from you and welcome all comments.