In the interests of maintaining a truthful and authentic voice, I will admit I wasn’t bowled over with enthusiasm at the prospect of heading off to Hillsborough parkrun this morning. The problem was that foregoing an outing at my home parkrun (Sheffield Hallam) on today of all days, meant missing out on the prospect of a fancy dress parkrun. Some sort of fundraising (unspecified) by some sort of students (of what unspecified) was taking place there today. I consoled myself with the thought that they might have been fundraising for some cause I do not support, like, oh I don’t know, The Foundation for the Flat Earth, honorary chair that rapper guy B.o.B. On the other hand, in the interests of gaining Smiletastic bonus points (the running challenge for Smiley Paces club members for the first thee months of the year) necessitated the Fighting Feathers spreading their proverbial wings, and taking on different parkruns. Tough call. Anyway, the die had already been cast, Hillsborough here we come.
I was marginally cheered by a quick sneak at Hillborough parkrun’s facebook page – it seems an active site, and a welcoming tone. Also, and especially helpful when facing a multi-lap course, I was taken with a post about Tanzanian John Akhwari (who I’d never heard of before) who completed a race at the Olympics with a dislocated knee because “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.” I don’t feel quite that level of commitment to running to be honest, but I do think if he could do that, I should be able to drag my weary carcass round Hillsborough Park three times to do my bit for my Smiley Paces Fighting Feathers Smiletastic team. Let it be.
Hence, as is increasingly usual, I shamelessly exploited the goodwill and mechanical carriage assets of my fellow Smileys to cadge a lift to said event. We headed off pretty early, causing me almost to leave my house without tomtom and barcode (double jeopardy) but mercifully I realised in time and retrieved both before jumping into the car. Four of us today. Hillsborough really isn’t that far to get to, and it was lucky we did arrive early, because we found the promised car park to be inexplicably shut. We were able to park on the road adjacent to the park by hoiking car up onto the pavement (not by literally carrying it, our designated driver simply mounted the kerb). It was however a bit of a squash, and there was nearly an ‘oops, there goes the wing mirror‘ moment when a large truck came past perilously close with barely a cigarette paper’s width clearance between their vehicle and our car as they breezed by. It was all very strange, and somewhat frustrating. Apparently the car park is usually open, so if you are planning a trip yourself you’ll probably be fine. For us it did look like it might be a deal breaker at one point, as whilst I’m sure there is parking elsewhere, you’d miss the start of parkrun hunting for it, parking and then jogging back. To illustrate the challenge, here is a photo of an empty car park in case you don’t know what that looks like, together with a photo of us looking a bit sad and bemused at its apparent shut-edness, together with one of a very parked up road adjacent to it, I did feel for the local residents, it was all a bit unnecessary. Also, couldn’t help noticing the parking meter had been removed. Surely they hadn’t shut it just because they couldn’t take payment today?
So, not the most auspicious of starts. Hillsborough park looked a bit stark the way we approached it, surrounded on all sounds by a rather urban infrastructure, the dank weather and icy wind didn’t help. However, as we made our way to the start I have to concede my first impressions were a bit unfair, it is a lot greener than you might think from looking in from the outside. It has its own pond – resplendent with ducks, and regular readers will know I always think ducks provide added value to any water feature. There was also the familiar rousing sight of runners jogging to the start. I find this assembling of the parkrun faithful uplifting. It always amazes me the way people gather as if from nowhere. Five minutes before you’d happily have bet your shirt on the certainty that this time, no-one’s coming, but then quite suddenly they always do. Like vultures gathering round a dead camel in the desert, they start circling inwards on their target as soon as the first volunteer hi-viz jackets are donned and the start line marker up. Keep the faith, build it and they will come!
So we joined the start. Bag lady, Cheetah Buddy provided plastic bags in which we could deposit our fleeces which showed excellence in the field of planning and forethought. Even better, they were plastic bags from a running shop (Up and Running) so extra kudos there. The Hillsborough parkrun organising committee had helpfully laid on iron railings around the children’s play area at the start, which were very handy for the hanging of bags. These run directors think of everything! The good news was we also bumped into other Smiley Paces people who were similarly on migration to different parkruns in pursuit of the Smiletastic bonus points. That was companionable. However, this is also the bad news from a competitive angle, as effectively all our extra bonus points for our respective teams effectively cancelled each other out. Oh well, it’s still fun to be Smiley Paces on tour. Also, you have to admire the commitment of some of those other Smilies, who not only had made the run out in pursuit of a point, they had quite literally ‘run out’ to do so, and what’s more, were running back. I think they earned their points today! I still think our preferred option of following parkrun with breakfast at The Depot, was a better call than the option of running back to Endcliffe Park from Hillsborough, still each to their own. We all run for our own reasons, as we all know…
There seemed to be lots of friendly marshals, and a reasonable field gathered, couple of hundred I’d say, though I didn’t actually count. The statisticians amongst you can check the Hillsborough parkrun results page for yourself in due course.
There was the usual Run Director’s briefing. Pleasingly, this was given from the vantage point of the top of a children’s climbing frame. One amongst our number was of the view that this was a deliberate strategic choice, to increase the audibility of the pre-run instructions. I beg to differ. Of course I completely accept that a side-benefit of this location was that it would be easier for the speaker to project their voice, but really, isn’t it obvious? What adult doesn’t secretly long to ascend the glorious heights of a climbing frame as soon as it looms into view? If giving an event briefing brings the opportunity to offer some basically spurious, but also vaguely plausible cover for this activity, then that’s great! I bet there is a veritable stampede each week amongst the volunteers to take on this role, and I also bet the speaker always stays longer atop that frame than is strictly necessary.
So the briefing included what seemed like an astonishingly complex description of the course. For those of you who like to have the official blah de blah, the course is described on the official Hillsborough parkrun page thus:
The three lap clockwise course begins with a 150m flat fast start, a right turn downhill section and then around the main event square, a left turn around the tennis courts and then the fun starts. A gradual incline past the duck pond to the top of the park before a slight sting in the tail. Its then along the top of the park, past the library and a quick short descent to the next of the 3 laps. Challenging, fast & fun.
As is my want, I just gazed about during this part, as I tend to mindlessly follow the people ahead of me when running, and hope they are indeed parkrunners not random others trying to get a bus, I’d got the ‘three laps’ bit, and was resigned to finding it a bit of a slog round. I started right at the back of the field, and was a bit startled when suddenly the shout went up for ‘go’! From the back, I don’t think it is accurate to describe it as a fast start. I got pretty boxed in, the tarmac paths are narrow, and there was a bit of jostling to get into some sort of semblance of order. You do a couple of turns fairly quickly, and although I suppose I could have over-taken other runners by venturing onto the grass alongside, it looked distinctly on the skiddy side, so I just sort of stayed where I was. This was a mistake really, because I never felt like I could get into my stride. Once I did get the confidence to make a move to overtake I kept getting leap-frogged by some runners who would sprint for a bit and then stop and walk directly in front of me. It wasn’t really working for me today.
On a more positive note, running through the park was a lot nicer than you might expect from looking at it through the railings from the outside. It must be a slightly strange shape, as there was more of it than first appeared. The course I’d call undulating, not really hilly by Sheffield standards, though there was a bit of an incline towards the end of each lap. There were friendly marshals at strategic points. Some disguised in mufty, (i.e. no hi-viz) I didn’t immediately recognise as part of parkrun, but then them calling out lap times as we passed offered a clue to the wise that mayhaps they were! Donned in my Smiley top, I also got a couple of extra marshal cheers ‘come on Smiley‘ as I limped by. I do always thank marshals as I pass, because they deserve to be thanked of course – but it is also nice that it almost always triggers some sort of interaction and response, which makes the course pass more quickly.
In terms of other runners, folk from Steel City Striders lapped me just after the half-way point on my second lap, this is another harsh home truth of a three – lap course, which is hard on morale, i.e. you are much more likely to be comprehensively lapped than on a two-lap course. On the plus side, you do get to see the faster runners whiz by, and fair play to them, they are really fighting inner demons to achieve those times, I wasn’t sweating to anything like the extent they were. I also had some fun exchanging brief comments with other participants. I could hear one guy puffing up the hill behind me, and as he summitted (is there such a word? Sorry grammar police.) I glanced across to see he’d achieved this run up the hill carrying his child on his shoulders – I asked if there was room for one more, and he went a bit ashen at the very thought. As the incline shifted back down hill, he lifted the child off his shoulders and the infant sprinted off, wearing a superman beanie hat. His dad (I presume it was his dad) looked distinctly knackered – ‘he’s getting heavier‘ he gasped, and then ran off to try and catch up with his progeny, who looked like the whole enterprise was entirely effortless, which to be fair it probably is if someone carries you on their shoulders during all the hard bits!
Also out and about today was a hen party in surgical scrubs. Very impressive fancy dress, imaginative use of an old CD to act as a surgical head torch for example. One of them I ended up running alongside of for quite a bit of the course. It was reassuring, as I felt sure I would be in need of medical assistance at some point. As we commenced the third circuit, my new companion shouted across ‘come on, this is the last lap!’ I think this was intended as companionable encouragement rather than a medical diagnosis of my projected lifespan, but the way I was feeling frankly either was possible. I was a bit of a grump today, running just wasn’t working for me. I don’t mean about being slow particularly, that is always how running is for me, I mean more that my legs felt like lead and I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I spent the last lap thinking ‘breakfast better be good and the endorphins even better, or I’m never doing this parkrun malarkey again’ which is essentially a not-very-good hobbit runner muttering ‘hurrumph’ a lot.
Eventually, final lap sorted, I could follow the discrete little arrow that pointed in the direction of the finish. The finish was a sneaky further 26 metres or so uphill, but a friendly marshal urged you on to the time keeper, who shouted your finish token number as you went by. (By the way, the ’26’ is a typo for ’25’, which was my initial guestimate of the number of metres to the finish. I decided to leave it in though, so you dear reader might initially be bemused/impressed at/ misled by my measuring precision. The thought of this subterfuge makes me smile, and I wasn’t smiling as much as I ought wearing my Smiley Vest today, so indulge me please with that simple pleasure…) Two marshals were giving out finish tokens, and scanning was pretty instantaneous, it all went like clockwork, operationally speaking. I found two Smileys at the finish, one had finished quite a way ahead, and one a bit behind. I took a couple of finish shots, and even plucked up courage to ask the hen do for a snap of them all together. Get that ring. I said I was not a stalker, but clearly immediately created that possibility in their mind. Sorry about that. The endorphins tried to put in an appearance, and the prospect of breakfast and sun peeping through the trees cheered my flagging spirits by degrees.
So there we go, job done. We thanked the nice Hillsborough parkrun people, and wished them well for next week. It is their birthday next week, which means fancy dress and cake in prospect. Also, prizes for points AND they get to run the course in reverse. Whizzing down that incline the other way around sounds like a lot of fun (Brain off, brakes off remember guys!) Surely an extra incentive to turn out and help them celebrate if any is needed. Volunteers required also… However, I suspect our Smiley tour will take us to another venue next time out.
So here’s my strava of the route for information. I’d say it was a pretty flat route in the grand scheme of things, and a tarmac surface throughout. If you want to go for a faster time, you really do need to put yourself towards the front of the pack at the outset, or get your act together and do some proactive overtaking on the grass. If you don’t care about speed, then be like me, Hobbit Hasher and hide towards the rear, pleading ‘blocking’ or ‘tapering’ in defence of your times in the unlikely event you feel called to account for them.
The park itself is loads nicer than I imagined, a lovely library building within it, and a nice duck pond too. You can’t escape altogether the urban location, the dual carriageway along one side is a dead give away. The park though is a little oasis within it, and well used. A bootcamp of sorts was taking place on a cricket or netball court or whatever it was that we went by en route. I heard the instructor shout ‘this is your last 30 seconds, make it count‘ as I passed during the final lap. Honestly, I felt like I was pursued by the grim reaper on a personalised countdown for me at today’s run – what are all these people trying to tell me?
There was an unfortunate triangular green which appeared to be the unofficial universal dog loo when I passed. There must have been half a dozen pooches pooping as I ran by, almost synchronised. Each had an attentive owner standing by with a black bag in readiness, but it wasn’t the most scenic of sights. I suppose I could have looked the other way, instead of rubber necking, but like staring inappropriately at an accident my eyes were irresistibly drawn to their- er hem – respective performances. I really am my own worst enemy at times. Don’t judge the park by that detail of observation, it was a timing issue on my part, nothing more.
As we gathered at the finish area, the sun came out. We had a bit of run de-brief with other Smilies, then waved goodbye to the Smiley pair who were running back to the other side of Sheffield whilst the rest of us went in convoy in search of breakfast. We were back to The Depot, which was quite busy this week. They have changed their menu and so I branched out with mushrooms on toast, which was fantastically good (comes with a dollop of cheese and some chutney, plus different types of yummy mushrooms). Others had variously, eggs on toast and raspberry pancakes. This is fast becoming my favourite breakfast venue that I know of in Sheffield, shame it isn’t realistically in walking distance from where I live. Though on reflection, that’s probably just as well…. I’d explode.
So that was that, job done. Hillsborough parkrun, tick. Thank you nice Hillsborough marshals, runners and supporters for the warm welcome to these Smiley Hallam migrants. Thank you too for the inspirational updates on your Facebook page, they really help! Happy Birthday for next week! May you celebrate in style. May you eat cake!
I feel compelled to note – as one wag on their Facebook page has already observed ahead of me, that Hillsborough parkrun has not suddenly revised their course. The picture illustrating this motivational sentiment, though posted by Hillsborough parkrun, doesn’t use a photo taken there – though I guess on a cold day running into a head wind it might feel that way at times… go run it for yourself and see!