I recently reached a goal that, for a long time, I never knew existed, and never imagined I'd care about. I’ve made it to 50 Parkruns. I’ve been there, and done that, although I haven't got the T-shirt yet. In the 2 years it's taken me, I’ve gone from a committed non-runner to something of an evangelist, persuading family, friends and colleagues to join the cult of Parkrun. So what has it taught me?
Starting is difficult
There are a million excuses you can give for not running, a million reasons to give up before you've even started. But most of those reasons probably don't hold water, and it's not as difficult as you might imagine.
We need to watch out for other people around us
Once you’ve actually started running, it can be messy - it takes a while for people to find their rhythm. Until they do, you'll be boxed in and you need to be careful not to trip over other people. In Parkrun, just as in life, we all share a space. You can't just do your own thing and forget about everyone else. Knocking a few seconds off your personal best is not as important as behaving like a decent human being.
It gets easier, but it’s never easy
Once you’ve formed a habit, putting one foot in front of the other becomes almost automatic. Having said that, I may have run up the same hill plenty of times, and now I don’t need to stop for a rest halfway up, but it's still an effort.
Some days are harder than others
There are mornings that, for no particular reason, I just don’t feel like it. Sometimes it feels like too much effort - I’d rather stay in bed, and it’s a struggle to persuade myself to lace up my shoes and get out the door, but I'm always glad that I have done. The benefits to my mental health afterwards makes it worthwhile.
You can't do it on your own
If it wasn't for the volunteers, the whole thing couldn't happen. I’m hesitant to invoke the spectre of the big society, but Parkrun does seem to be a pretty good example of people getting together around a common goal, and making a good thing happen.
I think that a lot of us like to draw comfort or validation from where we stand in relation to others, but it isn’t healthy to compare yourself with other people - far better to just run your own race. Being faster than someone doesn't make you a better person, any more than being slower is a sign of moral failings or character deficiency. You don't know how difficult it is for other people. You have no idea what challenges they have overcome, or what others they still face.
Besides, there's always someone faster and someone slower than you. Even if you come dead last in an event, you’ve done better than all those people who didn’t even run. Even if you win, there are people somewhere else doing more impressive things. As my friend Ollie put it, part way round his mission to do every Parkrun in Scotland, “the problem with exercise is whatever you do, there’s someone out there doing something even more bonkers”.
Milestones are arbitrary
There isn't anything magical about having done a certain number of events. You don't suddenly turn into a better runner, or get access to some secret club. You just carry on dragging yourself up and down the same hill. Having said that, just like birthdays, milestones do prompt a moment of celebration and reflection (which is why I’m writing this).
There's no great fanfare when you get your half century, although maybe 50 isn’t such a big deal - a few weeks after I got to 50, one of the regular runners at my new local Parkrun reached her 250th, which really is an achievement.
The best way to keep going is to give yourself a reason not to stop
When I'm running on my own, the only thing stopping me from giving up and going home is my own willpower. When there are 200 other people going round with me, there’s a powerful social force helping me to not quit. Milestones, placings, and personal bests may be meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but for a lot of us, they’re an effective motivator. Having someone or something to chase really helps you to push yourself beyond what you might have thought were your limits, to achieve something bigger and better than you’d thought was possible.
So how long will it take me to get to 100? Probably longer than the 50 took me. Like Ollie when he finished his Parkrun tour, now that I’ve ticked this particular box, I want to do more volunteering, and my next milestone to aim for is the 25 volunteer shirt.