Digested read: I like parkrun. It is the gateway drug to all that is great about running, be it badly or brilliantly. Thus Mr S-H is my hero. I have now met him. I am happy. The end.
Is it ethical to take a DNA sample without express consent? I’m just putting it out there, I’m not talking about shoving a cotton bud up someone’s nostril say, that could get messy. More how about if the DNA capture was more sort of inadvertent? Then once this hypothetical sample had come into your hypothetical possession who does it belong to really? What is the most responsible way to handle it? So many questions to ponder, you can see why I have to seek guidance from the online running community for this…. I don’t think it’s entirely straightforward. You might think you know absolutely which way your principles would direct you to behave in a whole range of circumstances, but unless you’ve been in that situation can you honestly say? I mean really, hand on heart? Have you never found yourself in a new situation where your previously heart-felt definitive ‘what I’d do’ assumptions just aren’t enough to navigate the new reality? It can’t just be me left waivering about what to do! I’m not accepting that!
I accept that you are thinking re this ‘getting a DNA sample without consent’ broadly speaking it is probably not OK, but, well you know. You don’t know the full story. What about if I came by it as the product of a happy accident. The acquisition being inadvertent rather than the outcome of malice and forethought it can’t be that bad surely? So now I’m in possession of this prized and rare resource (it’s high quality superhero DNA), it would therefore surely be criminal to simply chuck it in on a 30 degree economy wash cycle and so consign it to history. It would be as if it had never existed, it is socially responsible therefore to at least think through the consequences of what might otherwise be idle irreversible destruction. The upshot is, that right now I’m thinking I’m never washing again. Probably not anyway. I mean truthfully I suppose I might yet care and have a shower one day myself as a nod to personal hygiene and an expression of good – manners to my fellow parkrunners on a Saturday morning, but my running top? Nope. Never. That’s where the DNA lies and that becomes a site of special scientific interest and I need to preserve it. There are other options though. I’m considering possibly getting it framed – but then the picture framer might contaminate it with their own DNA, which would be catastrophic (they can be funny about being asked to wear latex gloves when working, I know from experience, whatever happened to ‘the customer is always right’?) – so the other obvious option is cryogenically freezing in a vault somewhere. I’ve not researched the financial implications of that, but I’m sure that’s what crowdsourcing was made for. I’m personally a bit skint now what with the flat tyre on the motorway coming back to Sheffield. We’ll have to wait and see.
So what’s brought all this on? I hear you chorus. Well, it was my unexpected brush with parkrun royalty at Bushy parkrun earlier on today. Not just a metaphorical brush, but a literal, actual one, you know, physical contact with the living deity himself, parkrun creator, our esteemed founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt! I know! I’ve previously marvelled at the unicorns and rainbows at Bushy parkrun, I didn’t think they’d be able to top that. But today? Well, today was transformational for me…. I know, extreme joy, I will try to share the love, but you will have to wait a bit for it. Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start as Maria would say….
So I heave ho-ed myself to Bushy park first thing. I’d had to come to London anyway, and as I was staying locally it would be rude not to. I wasn’t entirely in the mood though to be honest. I appreciate that statement seems borderline sacrilegious now, but as my regular reader knows I do battle with my running motivation all the time. Being conscientious but not keen is what gets me out there. I am a parkrunner, therefore I attend parkrun, decision-making doesn’t really come into, it’s just what Saturdays were made for.
I arrived ridiculously early because I was in the car. You can park for free if you time it right, but there is quite a bit of pressure on parking spaces and I usually walk, sorry, ‘jog’, obviously if I can. I found a spot next to a gnarled old tree, which turned out to be a great move as I could watch a mini-colony of jackdaws hopping about and checking out the nest-building options. They are truly amazing birds, smart, and I love the way they sort of flop about, they don’t look like they are natural fliers. Though to be fair, one of them didn’t help this impression by trying to take off carrying a twig practically the size of a branch. Credit where credit is due, after a few aborted attempts it did eventually leave the ground and headed to a hole in said tree. The twig/branch was too wide to fit in the space, but unlike YouTube dogs thwarted by stick size and gaps, the bird worked out how to tilt it to fit it through. Smart things jackdaws I love them. Hang on, I don’t have a camera any more, I’ll find a shot from google..
Got to love a jackdaw, in my world anyway.
It was a bit nippy, so I didn’t venture out straight away, I briefly entertained the idea of getting out and going for a warm up, but well, you know. Eventually I did emerge, and went on a quest to find another runner who was supposed to be there. I couldn’t. I did mistakenly proposition quite a few random people who fitted his description though, and then gave up. You can only take so much rejection on a Saturday morning I find Precautionary pee – great loos at Bushy parkrun, though not great supplies of toilet paper. Worth noting for future reference. I strolled up to the start, taking in the morning chill and brilliant sunshine, and looking on in admiration at the co-ordination of the first-timers briefing. They have their own sign and everything! I love this photo, I didn’t take it, but acquired it from the Bushy parkrun run report, love all the stretching and silhouetted figures milling about in the background, makes me think of a Lowry painting – does that sound pretentious, or just accurate. Oh well…
Then I joined the run director’s briefing. apparently it was his debut performance, well it seemed pretty proficient and expertly executed to me.
Bushy parkrun is huge. There was a lot of chit-chat going on during the briefing that really irritates me. I was near a couple of teenagers who were noisily slagging off a mutual acquaintance throughout which put me in a bad mood. I did my passive aggressive thing of ineffectually glaring at them, and then felt a bit stupid. I mean, is annoying, but hey ho, it will happen when you get a crowd that big, and I probably did more thoughtless things as a teenager. Then something happened that completely changed my mood. An adult and child – his son I think, were discussing shared tactics. An under 11 for sure as they were running together. ‘What time are you going for today, 24 minutes?’ (Needless to say I didn’t see them again after the awf) they debated it a bit. Then, and this is what filled my heart with joy, after the toing and froing about times had been concluded the parent said to the child ‘I don’t mind what time you get at all, just as long as at the end of the run you give me a big thumbs up!’ Heart warming indeed, surely that captures in essence what parkrun is all about. It brought perspective to the occasion, parkrun is supposed to be fun. It’s a run not a race after all. That is all.
So then, after the usual bouts of applause for volunteers, milestones, and I know not what else, we were on our way, on the bushy parkrun course, which is indeed a particularly glorious one. The park was looking absolutely stunning, mist clearing, and trees bursting with life. Well, for the most part they were, some of those big chestnuts are looking a bit poorly, but it was still gorgeous. This venue is rightly iconic. Not only because it is for parkrunners the sacred site where it all began, but also because of its inherent loveliness. Call me unnecessarily sceptical by all means, but I have harboured the secret thought that parkrun might not have evolved as it has if the pioneers had gone for circuits of Bentalls multi-storey car park for their first time trial rather than the Royal Park.
This is a photo of the parkrun briefing which I have lifted from Bushy parkrun run report. Hope you don’t mind Duncan Scoble, lovely shot 🙂
On cue, the stampede of runners took off like startled herd animals, some more gazelle like than others, I was probably more on the lumbering bison end of the continuum to be honest, but you get better value for money that way don’t you? Longer out enjoying your run, whereas those speedy ones at the front are all done and dusted in 16 minutes and some have even been known to throw up at the end from all the effort. Where’s the fun in that?
As I settled in to my pace I was vaguely aware of others around me. There was another interaction between an adult and child. This was initially less uplifting. The girl was tearful and profoundly upset, berating her mum over something. I was listening in, I’m always alert for bullying parents at parkrun, it’s something I’ve seen only very rarely but I have once intervened when an adult ran off and left his distraught child behind because they couldn’t keep up. To be fair, just by my stopping the adult was mortified and the situation resolved, but it wasn’t OK. I had an awful feeling this might be a repeat. How wrong was I. This was not an infant compelled to run, oh no, this was a girl distraught because ‘I’ll never get a PB if I have to run with you!’ Harsh, but true, and for me, whilst you couldn’t not feel the girl’s agony of frustration, hardly an indictment of the parkrun spirit! Life just isn’t always as we might wish it, can’t blame parkrun for that. I don’t think she was ever going to buy the ‘it’s a run not a race’ mantra today. I though, could jog on heartened.
You see all sorts at parkrun, I love that. I saw the best behaved cani-cross dog ever. No idea what breed it was, but it was poetry in motion, constantly looking over its shoulder to make sure that it’s owner and s/he were still perfectly synchronised. I googled afterwards, and I think it might have been a Weimaraner, because google never lies. No fake news there. I’m usually a bit cautious around big dogs, they can be intimidating, but this was extraordinary teamwork. Extremely impressive to behold, quite a partnership.
There were quite a few dogs about, not all on leads, but all unusually well-behaved. One shot off, at a fair old lick, only to then take a detour to splash about in one of the waterways that criss-cross the park. Well, you need a cool down after all that running around and water is fun as any Trunce runner will tell you. The jury is out on whether or not having a dog offers an unfair advantage at parkrun – I think you can list it as an ‘assisted’ run, and Lily the Wonder Dog at Graves parkrun in Sheffield definitely confers a PB on all that are honoured enough to escort her, other dogs not so much I’m guessing. Cani cross is one thing, the Sheffield Inaugural Doggy Dash quite another! Just saying…
It was the usual pick’n’mix fest of all shapes, paces and sizes. One curiosity that seems unique to Bushy Park parkrun, is the number of small children weaving through the course route on bikes. I don’t know if it is official policy to allow this at Bushy Park or whether it’s a question of turning a blind eye, but they are always there. Some months ago I did see one pile up at Bushy parkrun as a child wobbled off their bike taking out assorted surrounding runners as they did so. Personally I gave them a wide berth, I’m quite relieved that hasn’t been an issue at my home parkrun as yet. Tricky one, you want the event to be inclusive, but I don’t think runners and bikes mix. Buggies are different, there is an adult in control of that, very small children on bikes I find less predictable. Still, they were having fun, and every parkrun can have its unique variations. We at Hallam now have a four-funnel finish for instance. Suddenly the two-funnel innovation at Bushy parkrun is a lot less scary and unfathomable – though it remains phenomenally impressive!
So I ran round, thanking the abundant and cheery marshals en route, squinting into the sunshine, and like Orpheus, trying to exercise quite a bit of willpower and not to turn my head and glance across at the front runners who were visible looping towards the finish as I was puffing out barely half way round. Not so much that I was scared of consigning others to Hades, or being pillars of salt or whatever, more that it can be bad for morale. However, I failed, and watched them streaming ahead, like prayer flags colourful and moving in the distance. If parkrun isn’t your thing, you won’t get how uplifting it all is. Being part of a sea of people in sweaty lycra running round in a big circle ending up pretty much where you started. I do concede it’s not an easy sell from the outside. If parkrun is your thing, you will smile even now as you recall the memory of your last run and look forward to your next. If parkrun is not, your eyes will glaze over and you will be at best politely non-plussed and at worst mocking with incomprehension the very idea of it all – particularly first thing on a Saturday morning.
Then almost suddenly the end is in sight. The person I’d been looking for at the start had finished ages before and come to cheer me and other runners in, which is always great. It’s great both to be cheered and to cheer others in. When I’m particularly hormonal I can actually get quite tearful at my home run seeing the final finishers come in. Sometimes it’s a newbie runner, maybe someone returning from injury, often small children determined to battle round that whole 5k. It is always glorious, everyone has their own story to tell.
Personally, I always like to go for a sprint finish. Well, my idea of a sprint finish, objectively it’s not all that impressive, but I do try. It has occurred to me that the fact I almost always have the energy for this suggests I don’t try hard enough on the way round, but who cares it’s a run not a race after all. You shoot past the timer and are swallowed up into the double funnel which is rightly the stuff of myth and legend. Here are some runners captured on film speeding into it. This happens at Bushy parkrun at the finish. You are suddenly back-lit by glorious sunshine and morph into superhuman as you hear the click of the time-keeper snapping you in.
The archway of rainbows come later, you can’t see them in this photo, but if you’ve seen the video clip of that final finisher at the Rotterdam Marathon the other day you’ll get the idea. This is certainly what it feels like at parkrun mecca! Every time. Whatever position you end up in.
Once in the funnel, you are encouraged to squash up with unexpected intimacy to other runners as you need to make space to accommodate other runners still coming in. It’s not like United Airlines I mean, the funnel managers won’t start dragging you out and breaking your nose or anything, but they do like you to do your best to keep on moving through when space is at a premium, fair enough. I got chatting with a fellow runner – I love the randomness of how you make parkrun acquaintances and evolve into friends. I still don’t think of myself at all as a runner, however you do get to know the regulars who run around at your speed at your local. For me, a pivotal moment in my parkrun journey was going back to my local parkrun after some weeks absence following a difficult bereavement and being welcomed back by ‘strangers’ who had noticed my absence. ‘Where’ve you been?’ It was the first time I identified as being part of a ‘running community’ I wasn’t invisible. It was incredibly supportive, even though it was just a seemingly little thing.
So we struck up a chat and she was telling me about her half-marathon adventures leading to an accidental entry into the London Marathon, and successful completion too. Such accidents are more common than you might think, only recently I heard of a Sheffield local who accidentally ran the whole thing in a Ghillie suit, gaining a Guinness World Record in the process. I know, who’d have thought it! This shot is from the Sheffield Half 2016 but it does show a ghillie suit, and I had no idea that’s what it was called until quite recently, so maybe you don’t either…
My own effort to take place in 2018 is similarly inadvertent. I got lucky with a ballot place for 2017 but have had to defer. Bring it on for 2018 though. It’s reassuring to hear from others who have already achieved that seemingly impossible feat. I overheard someone at this year’s Sheffield Half saying to another runner apropos of the London Marathon ‘I cried all the way round, it was brilliant!‘ I’m scared. I still want to do it though. If it weren’t for parkrun I’d never had done the Sheffield Half-Marathon and that was just brilliant. Yeah, yeah, my time was nothing to write home about, but I had a ball, and at the end of it I felt super-human. I could do that, I could do anything…. admittedly the feeling does wear off more quickly than I’d have liked, but you still have a glimpse of a potential new reality, that’s powerful stuff! Oh, and that’s Roger. He’s a great running buddy.
So the reason I digress is because parkrun has done so much for me on every level. It has in fact been the gateway drug to the whole parallel universe of a life enriched by running. I’ve crossed into a community defined by running related fun. Yes there is the running bit, which can seem like a shame before you start but is always brilliant retrospectively. But, in return you get parkrun breakfasts, parkrun fancy dress, parkrun milestone celebrations, parkrun cake eating opportunities (your body-weight in cake before you know it or your money back! Oh hang on… ) parkrun volunteering, parkrun vocabulary (isn’t your life enriched now you know what a funnel-ducker is as well?). Then through parkrun I found Smiley Paces which just happens to be the most awesome women’s running club in all of Sheffield. Through that ‘what the hell’ entries to off road runs like the Round Sheffield Run (which I entered by accident the first year but have never looked back). The joy of being cheered home as final finisher in fell races. Top tip, if you panic the organisers enough by coming in behind the tail runner due to getting lost you will get an even bigger crowd looking out for you in the finish funnel. Plus, as no-one else is about it will actually look like you are winning in the photo if you want to impress your non-running friends and acquaintances.
I might be guilty of the ‘seen a photographer’ syndrome, but I’m not alone with that… we all know who we are.
Obviously this recommendation comes with a warning. As with any drug there are sometimes unwanted side effects. Not just the obvious ones like chaffing and missing Saturday Live** but more subtle ones like, in my case hanging out almost exclusively with ‘proper’ runners so finding myself forever destined to be the fat friend in photographs. It’s the yin and yan of it all.
Basically though, parkrun has been great for me. It helps you see the good in the world, it has made me feel part of a community, it reminds me that what we share is more important than what we disagree on. By providing a constant familiar place of sanctuary it has helped me and others too through multiple life crises. Be it bereavement, illness, redundancy – anything… It spreads the joy too. parkrun birthday celebrations; running routes backwards; any excuse for a pop-up party at the Sheffield parkruns for sure. I’ve made new friends and rediscovered old ones. Three decades it took me to bump into an old school friend in a new city and yet we did. I’ve commenced my radio career (OK that’s tenuous, but it was on my bucket list) and even started a running blog. I’d never have got a National Trust pink bobble hat if it were not for that. So basically, there is much to be said in Praise of parkrun. It is true to say it has changed my life (though I know that sounds really pretentious to the uninitiated). As surely as the sun rises in the East and the world turns around come Saturday parkrun will burst into life all over the world. That’s awesome. Hence, the only time I was homesick when working in Cambodia recently, was when I discovered I had missed seeing Jess and Paul at a Sheffield Hallam parkrun. Two great icons. What was I thinking missing out on that Saturday gathering just because of teaching overseas. Gutted doesn’t cover it.
You will understand therefore why it was I was so excited when my new funnel friend commented ‘oh look, I see we have parkrun royalty here today.’ Oh. My. God. Could this be it? Was it possible that I wasn’t just running the sacred ground of the inaugural parkrun, but actually in the vicinity of the great man himself? I turned to look behind me, and there he was! It was as if time stood still. A great shaft of sunlight breaking through the sky to illuminate him like he was standing in a spotlight all of his own. Chatting to other parkrunners with his dog (or at any rate a dog) at his feet. What to do?
I was torn. I mean on the one hand the poor guy has just been doing his local parkrun, maybe the last thing he wants is some giddy star-struck groupie stalking him. On the other, who wouldn’t like to be told that they have done an awesome thing. I might regret it if I didn’t say anything and let this chance to say thank you to him pass me by. I pondered as I gathered up my finish token and got my barcode scanned. I wasn’t that starstruck, unless you forget your barcode it would take nothing less than complete collapse to stop me getting it scanned once I was over the finish, and even then I’d count on fellow parkrunners to ensure it was anyway. To be fair, plenty of runners have documented their thanks to other runners for ensuring this happened after their own inopportunely timed collapses. I remember one guy in particular posting on a forum somewhere his thanks to a fellow runner for ensuring his barcode and finish token got scanned after he fell and broke a hip I think in the finish funnel. Still, all’s well that ends well eh?
Scanning completed I sidled over to where our founder was standing, lurking and eavesdropping on the ongoing conversation. I did consider aborting my mission, as it sounded like a ‘proper’ conversation about maybe setting up another parkrun somewhere, and I was losing my nerve about lingering just to be pointlessly effusive. I mean, every parkrunner worth talking to will be wanting to get to their post parkrun breakfast rendezvous I wouldn’t want to come between P S-H and that. Maybe he’d done enough fraternising for one day? The conversation ended, as he said he was off for coffee. It was now or never! Seize the moment or endure a lifetime of regret (yep, I am a bit prone to melodramatic over-statement, so what, sue me). I stepped forward, and I realised belatedly I hadn’t really thought the subsequent interaction through at all. I just blurted out ‘I know you are off for coffee, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for parkrun it has changed my life!’ Because I am grateful and it has. So it was true.
You know what he smiled broadly and… gave me a hug (DNA transfer moment)! and beaming broadly said something like ‘that’s wonderful, how has it changed your life?’ Which was a reasonable enough question in the circumstances, but not one I was able to articulate a response to in the moment. It was like that episode in Father Ted, where Dougal for the first and probably only time, inadvertently has a brilliant idea. However, asked to follow-up with how to implement it, he is thrown into panic, so he stomps off instead. Thus it was with me, I was completely tongue-tied. There was so much I could have said, all of the above just for starters. I didn’t though, I just gushed incoherently for a bit and staggered away feeling both joyful at the encounter and furious at my awkwardness. Aaargh. Still, on the plus side, at least he didn’t disappoint, he actually looked genuinely pleased by my self-conscious outpouring of goodwill. Well, I like to think so anyway.
So afterwards I was trying to think what I could have said. I found myself thinking back to the man and boy at the start. All the stuff that happens on a parkrun, irrespective of the time you make, the adventures you have, the camaraderie, it all just boils down to this, a thumbs up at the end. Every time. Simples. That’s what I should have said.
Essentially I’m just putting it out there that for me and for many others parkrun is a precious thing. In the circumstances, given that we can’t condone a captive breeding programme of community focused runners recruited from parkrun (though to be fair I think some of that has evolved organically if the number or wedding themed parkruns is anything to go by), I think you’ll understand why I will nevertheless treasure my DNA harvest. I’m not so creepy I’m actually going to arrange to clone it, but you know what, we live in uncertain times. It wouldn’t harm to preserve it for a bit just in case. Bragging rights at least in the interim. I might have texted some friends to tell them what had just happened too. Shallow me? Guilty as charged.
So you see parkrun dreams can come true. I got to meet my hero. Even if I hadn’t I’d still get to go to parkrun every week. So thank you Mr Sinton-Hewitt. You have done a great thing with parkrun. That’s some legacy in your wake. I salute you.*
*Oh, and I have washed my top now. You are quite safe! 🙂
Thanks Bushy parkrun for the use of your photos, and to lovely George Carman for the many and varied Sheffield snaps.
For all my parkrun blog posts see here – you’ll need to scroll down beyond this one to get to the others.
For all my Bushy parkrun blog posts see here – scroll through for the historic ones. Enjoy, or not, reading is not compulsory.
** and Runderwear will help with the chaffing and I understand Saturday Live is available on podcast, so be gone with your exercise avoidance strategies!