People don’t always seem to fully appreciate just how much time went into getting my body into the state it is right now. I’ve been in possession of most of it for more than fifty years (teeth a bit less) and so that’s five decades of succumbing to the temptation of cake and not voluntarily engaging in exercise because it looks like it might drizzle later and I wouldn’t want to be caught out by that. It does seem that, regrettably, you reap what you sow health wise, so now I’m trying to remedy things with embarking on this new-fangled running craze and other fitness experiments. I do want to lose weight and improve stamina, but sadly lack will power to spontaneously exercise as often as I should and what’s more I am easily distracted by delights like last night’s packet of McCoy crisps with a tub of houmous, yum. (What do you mean a tub isn’t a portion size? That’s ridiculous!) Hence, progress is slow, and a boost is sometimes needed. Some opt for detox fasts and other such extreme measures, I prefer a less punishing approach. What I felt was needed was a pilgrimage. A reconnection with my inner runner. The moral and spiritual home of parkrun was calling out to me. I would journey to the shrine that is spoken of in a reverential hush by serious parkrunners, I would get myself to Bushy Parkrun where it all began.
So, dear reader, last Saturday found me joining the throngs at Bushy parkrun. Well, it was a bit like that. Actually, I was in the area anyway so thought I’d trot round, and I have been a fair few times before, but I like to big it up a bit. After all, Bushy parkrun does have a particular significance in the history of the phenomenon that is parkrun, it is where it all began and if there were any justice in the world then those of us who have made the effort to incorporate this destination into our parkrun Progresses Tourism trips ought to get some sort of indulgence for having done so. Something modest would suffice. I don’t know, maybe a few seconds shaved off your personal best say, a couple of pounds off the midriff (or body part of your choosing) and at the very least a bit more respect from your home Parkrun buddies on your return. That seems only reasonable. Otherwise something that marks you out as having made the pilgrimage might suffice like, erm, a facial tattoo That would work. And providing the tattooing service at the finish would make a welcome change from scanning all those barcodes for the volunteers. How hard could it be?
Personally though, I was thinking along the lines of some reverential recognition that I have seen sights of which others have only dreamt, and experienced first hand the hallowed ground of Bushy Park. In joining the throng of nigh on a thousand other runners I have after all been temporarily within the beating heart which is the origin of Parkrun. – even inhaled the sweat of those for whom Bushy is their home patch – surely a higher order of beings? I have passed through the mysterious ‘double funnel’ that is unique to Bushy, emerging the other end inevitably changed by the experience as if reborn. Taking part is surely like undergoing some sort of rite of passage, right up there with getting a parkrun milestone T-shirt? Engagement with parkrun can no longer be characterised as a whim or a crush, oh no, by pounding the trails at Bushy Park at 9.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I have demonstrated this is for real. A little kudos by association is all I’m asking for, Bushy parkrun stardust brushing off on me, I’ll never wash my running top again…. Well, that’s how it should be in my parallel universe at least, the reality hasn’t so far borne this expectation out to be honest. Maybe people are just to too much in awe of my voyage of literal and metaphorical self-discovery they don’t like to mention it? I myself have been known to clam up on meeting my idols – remind me to tell you about when I met Tony Benn sometime. You will weep at the tale.
So, here’s what it was actually like. A lovely day, bit nippy, so I headed out early to walk to the park. It is in all seriousness a stunning location. The Royal Parks are gorgeous as the trees are turning into the full spectrum of autumn colours, and it is amazing the wildlife you see. There are ENORMOUS stags with full antlers on patrol. These creatures are massive, and not to be messed with in the rutting season. They have been known to stray onto the double funnel tracks at the finish, though as far as I know the one pictured below hadn’t got a barcode so probably didn’t get a time on this occasion. (Staggering that some still haven’t grasped that ‘no barcode no official time’ really is non-negotiable no matter the size of your antlers…)
The walk through the park to the start is lovely, but it is also a bit surreal. Have you ever seen the opening sequence of the Americanised version of 101 Dalmatians? You know the one, it’s set in London but there are skunks and raccoons cavorting about. Well, Bushy Park has an element of that. You see and hear large numbers of screeching bright green parakeets. They are so ubiquitous and naturalised they are just part of the landscape here now, but they are still incongruous. squawking tropical birds flying overhead. The other sight that is bizarre, are the huge motionless carp in the waterways that hang suspended in the shallow water visible from one particular bridge I cross en route to the start. They are a legacy from the days when you won goldfish as prizes at fairs. There used to be one held regularly at Hampton Court Green nearby, children returning home through Bushy Park would often be clutching a veritable shoal of goldfish gasping in little plastic bags. Not sure quite what to do with them, they would sometimes liberate the poor creatures in the waterways of the park. Most presumably perished, but a few hardy specimens not only survived but flourished. They are massive torpedo like creatures, pretty uniform in size, easily over a foot and a half long, and grey and weathered rather than bright gold, but still impressive. It’s weird with non-native species, they shouldn’t be there, and they will play havoc with natural ecosystems, but these have survived against the odds, and I admit I do like to see them. They must be pretty ancient now.
So after taking in nature’s bounty on my way, the next hazard was to make sure I wasn’t swept up inadvertently in one of the many British Military Fitness (other outdoor boot camps are available) sessions that were about to commence. Running is bad enough, I didn’t want to be made to do press-ups and burpees in a tabard as well. Bushy Park on a Saturday morning seems to be not only a mecca for Parkrunners, but for any other manifestation of violent physical exercise you can imagine. I have said before that the arrival of people for a parkrun always makes me think of that scene in Close Encounters where silently people assemble at a particular time and place as if compelled to do so by an invisible force. Whilst this is true of all parkruns I think, it is especially noticeable at Bushy Park. Hundreds of people emerge from the trees and mist and start to gather, it’s very weird. Part of the gathering is by the loos.
I am a bit of a pro where the precautionary pee is concerned, so head straight to the ladies. My prior knowledge of this location really comes into its own here. Whilst the facilities are really good, an actual building with lots of cubicles near to the start, you still have to take care. There is one particular cubical at the end that is missing a panel at the side. This isn’t obvious until you are in situ so to speak, and it can have an arresting affect on your rate of flow when you are positioned in all your glory and suddenly feel like you are on display to the world. In fact, people queuing directly outside can’t really see in, because the missing panel is quite low, but when you are stiing down you can see everyone outside so it really does feel exposed. I prefer to avoid it. So that’s a top tip for you if you are heading off to Bushy parkrun for yourself. There is probably similar insider information available regarding etiquette in the gents, but I didn’t check that out, you’ll have to make that voyage of discovery for yourself!
So, eventually, I made it to the start line. It is like being at a proper organised race here, there are serious logistics in operation. An army of hi-viz marshalls, and the race director gives an address with a microphone, speakers held aloft by volunteers elsewhere. It has the feel of a cross between a school assembly and an open air political rally. A community coming together for a common cause. Because I’m short, and placed myself towards the back, I couldn’t make out entirely what was going on. Despite the size of the crowd, it was a fairly personal introduction. People were congratulated on the previous week’s milestones; some of that days runners were picked out for applause. Volunteers thanked – I think there was probably a mention of the Alzheimers ‘Donate your time’ project, which is an ace initiative. I clapped when it felt appropriate. Which wasn’t always correct. There was one point when the race director asked for the following people to come forward to collect something, and assuming it was some sort of local prize giving I clapped dutifully – only to subsequently realise that this wasn’t people being awarded trophies, but rather miscreants, who had carelessly lost their barcodes on previous runs being reunited with them. Oh well, you live and learn.
After the speeches, the stampede. It was a bit of a free for all, you start on even grass, between a wide avenue of trees, but quite quickly you converge on a narrower path. You have to either risk the scrum of the bottle neck, or bound across the multitude of mole hills – strictly speaking I think they are ant hills, they are, solid, ancient, and everywhere, and pretty challenging. I opted for the latter, it takes a good kilometre to even out the field, but I quite like the uneven terrain, it feels like you are in the great outdoors and it’s a sort of mini-adventure. The event was well marshalled, no pacers this week, but they do have them with some frequency. Here though I noticed there were a lot more runners with dogs on those waist leads – you know the ones, they drag the runner along at phenomenal speeds. There are also a large number of what I term ‘Thunder Buggies’ all – terrain two seaters which you can hear bearing down on you from metres behind, sometimes with a small child inside shouting encouragement (instruction) to their pushers ‘faster, faster!’ I did my best to keep out of the way of them. The one thing that Bushy parkrun has that seems a less desirable anomaly, is that there are also a fair few very small kids on bikes. They seem to whizz about rather randomly. You know what happens to a balloon if you blow it up and then let it go without tying the end? How they shoot off at speed in unpredictable ways, well it was a bit like that. Still, good for the reflexes I suppose.
This route suits me, not for speed – it’s a slow one because of the crowds, and in my case because I don’t run very fast anyway, but I really like that you go through such lovely parkland and can take in the deer, and trees and everything else that surrounds you. It is also just one loop, which I find much easier than being ‘made to do it all again’ like failed homework, which is how I sometimes feel on my two laps home run. The conversations around me are quality. People chatting about future running plans, hilariously (to me) moans at ‘the hill’! There really isn’t a hill, I’m not sure there’s even a slope, a teensy weensy incline maybe, but that would be pushing it. These people will be in a shock if they ever come to Sheffield. city of hills and pathological friendliness.
I felt like part of an in-crowd when I recognised one of the marshals, and was recognised back getting a special wave and shout of encouragement. I make a point of always thanking marshals, generally runners do I think, but I like that if you make a point of saying ‘Thank you marshal’ loudly enough, you trigger a chorus of other ‘thank yous’ in your wake. It is very pleasing, if a bit goody two-shoes for some. As an aside, I’ve heard tell that Richmond parkrun doesn’t have (any?) or at any rate many marshals for some reason. I heard from someone who did volunteer as a marshal there, that he didn’t get much acknowledgement at all. This seems very wrong to me. Runners out there, hail your marshals, (and whilst I’m about it, cough up donations in lieu of free photos for the TenTenTen and think about donating your time for Alzheimer’s too, it’s a way of paying back for the gratis pleasure of Parkrun week after week.) I was shocked by the Richmond tale if true. Those people would struggle in Sheffield where you can be tutted off a bus if you fail to thank the driver on disembarking. I guess it’s the anonymity of city living made manifest in the park… Culture shock is inevitable if you travel I suppose. On the other hand, in the interests of balance, I have also heard that Richmond parkrun is organised a bit differently from other runs, everyone follows behind a bike, so there isn’t the same culture of marshals around. This being so, perhaps the runners are a bit confused when they see them. Much like if you were to spot a unicorn or a leprechaun out running, you might be quite chuffed and delighted to see such a precious rarity, but you wouldn’t necessarily know immediately what to say (see Tony Benn reference above), so let’s give them all the benefit of the doubt. I’ll go and see for myself one day.
So back to Bushy parkrun. Favourite overheard conversation today was when I found myself amongst a group of people who were running together. One was obviously more serious than the others, kitted out with a Garmin (or whatever) and telling tales of races and duathlons and triathlons past and pending. With him was a guy of similar age who at a guess was doing his first parkrun. I strongly suspect he’d underestimated how hard it would be and he was definitely struggling to maintain a conversation whilst his mate chatted away companionably (or in this case possibly competitively), but he wasn’t going to back down and slacken his pace. There were some others in the gang too, it all looked good-humoured and bonding. Then, at the 4 km mark (a particular big tree is a clue, that and the chorus of mechanical beeps ticking off the route on other runners various gizmos as they go by). The ‘serious’ runner, began to say ‘Right 4 km, our exact time is and our kph rate is ..’ he was cut dead by a chorus of ‘nos’! ‘we don’t want to hear!’ For me this sort of encapsulates the continuum of parkrun participants, the puffing rounders, the statisticians, and the ‘I’ll just do my own thing’ runners – there is room for us all! The statistician and the human interest runners perhaps represent the yin and yan of the parkrun community.
So course completed, through a crowded finish line and in to the double funnel, which I find unfathomable still, even after nearly a dozen outings to Bushy. You just have to trust it. It is perhaps the eighth wonder of the world – or in any event it ought to be. I was quickly scanned and that’s was that for another morning. I passed the finish on my way out of the park, and clapped a few returners back. I felt a pang of conscience for my mean-spiritedness about the kids on trikes. An exhausted looking woman pushing a double buggy with one occupant, had another small child on a bike at her side, and they were hammering towards the finish, she calling encouragement to them both. It was truly inspirational. Of course parkrun should be as inclusive as it can – lawks a lordy, it’s made room for me after all!
I love parkrun, I really do. Even better when combined with stag sightings, it’s like an urban safari, you should see the packs of photographers with their telephoto lenses queuing up to get shots of the really majestic males posing in the bracken. They are a sight to behold as much as their quarry. Got to be worth the effort of getting up on a Saturday morning to take in all that. Thank you Bushy parkrun for your hospitality. You may be the Mecca of the parkrun community, but you have retained your integrity, inclusiveness and ability to extend a welcome to tourists and regulars alike!
So til next time, wonder where parkrun tourism will take me next…
Oh, and as to whether or not this parkrun pilgrimage has delivered up fitness benefits through my reconnecting with my inner runner, well it remains to be seen. It was great to be there, and would be something to tell wide-eyed off-spring one day if I actually had any issue to inflict such stories on, never mind, I’ll have to settle with accosting random strangers like that ancient mariner – worked for him – or maybe I should I keep a running blog! That might work…