Parkrun Big Year: No Parkruns!

St Peters Parkrun

I ran in the St Peters Parkrun last Saturday. I’m accustomed to finishing in the top half of the participants, only because many walk part of the way. At Sydney Park, my heart sank when I saw how young and fit the 280 runners were. They’re a different demographic, the citizens of Newtown, near a major university. I ran steadily, that adjective denoting slowly, a tad faster than 7:00 mins/km, and I only beat 20 home. But I grinned.

That Parkrun was the tenth in 2020. I’ve missed three of them, once due to travel, once due to Extinction Rebellion, once due to smoke haze cancellation. This morning, Parkrun Australia took the sane action of suspending events as part of the Covid-19 lockdown. At least the next three events are kaput, but I’d guess more, so my Big Year resolve of running 52 events could soon be 50% under target.

I’m not feeling faster but general fitness is picking up and at last I’m getting the weight down, so I’ll honor this Big Year over the next couple of months by attempting 5 km runs on Saturdays with some speed in mind. I’ll court injury or puffed-out disappointment, but on the upside, hey, I might find myself shouting, “I’m improving!”

Easing off at Parkrun

Darwin Parkrun

Nine days ago I experienced Parkrun in the soupy heat of the Wet season in Darwin. Nightcliff is a superb Parkrun by the bay but I was deep inside myself, so immersed in keeping going that I ran past my daughter and granddaughter without noticing them. I walked/ran from 4 kms, a deeply disappointing outcome (a pace of 6:56/km, nearly as slow as walking), but felt great afterwards. So a couple of days ago, back at Gardiners Creek in eastern Melbourne, for the first time this year I made myself run slowly, to plod behind runners who looked like they’d just soldier on. I ended up passing a few of them and crossed the line very content in myself. My pace of 6:52 was the slowest non-stop effort I’ve ever made but I didn’t care. Since then, I’ve felt comfortable taking a couple of days off from running, gym, or cycling, and I know I’m gradually putting on weight, but the pressure of expectations at the beginning of the year was too intense. Tomorrow I’ll renew my routines and aspire to more.

Parkrun joy

Gardiners Creek Parkrun

The limpy knee from the previous Parkrun fixed itself (which might indicate I’m getting fitter) and my physio has me strengthening muscles around the knees and by last Thursday I was up and running again. Rain was forecast last Saturday but stayed away and when the mass of aspirants surged off the starting line, I felt, for the first time this year, optimistic and joyous. I didn’t push the pace, so my pace was not marvellous, but I felt light and capable and happy to be there amongst a few hundred strivers. I walked towards my tram with bounce in my steps.

Parkrun Big Year: Wrecked

Sore left knee

I’d begun to feel stronger and fitter but my left knee still “caught” every now and then, chiefly while walking, and a strange intermittent “weakness” in that knee was even more troubling. So I went to the physio three days ago and he assured me my knee was probably structurally fine but that I wasn’t utilising the left inner quadricep muscle properly (the right leg’s actions are fine). I came away with mild strengthening exercises to train the left leg to be a good boy.

All well and fine until Parkrun this morning. I caught the tram to Gardiners Creek and got there just in time. A huge crowd of nearly 400 took off at the signal. Worried that I’d burn out like I did the previous Saturday, I kept a slow, steady pace, and settled in behind a mother and her teenage boy. I finished with a slow pace of 7 mins/km, 138th in the field and 6th in my age group (which is small, just 8 mad old men). I’d been nervous and finished on an adrenaline high. The future beckoned … until I began walking the kilometre back to the tram stop and discovered the left knee was sore as heck.

I’m now a limping wreck and am icing the offending bone every couple of hours. It may well recover but if it doesn’t, what’s to become of this Big Year? If running is the cause, will I be able to cycle enough to compensate for the lack of two hours of strenuous exercise a week? Parkrun seemed such a hopeful new start. What now?

Parkrun Feb 1

Parkrun

Four full weeks into the new decade, this Parkrun Big Year is a hard slogging letdown. On Saturday, I lined up with 245 other runners/walkers at Gardiners Creek. I haven’t made any friends there yet, so I was nervous. When the mass surged off, I ran my first two kilometers at faster paces than the week before, and was feeling confident, then experienced a sudden drop of resolve and energy. I stopped and walked/ran the rest for a time of 37:29, by far my worst effort ever. I was gutted and spent the rest of the morning and the entire afternoon working hard at my desk in order to restore a sense of self worth.

Yesterday, jogging up steep Scotch Hill, I stopped again. What is going on? Tomorrow’s run had better be encouraging or I reckon I need a new coach.

Although I was upset, physically so, at these poor performances, I like to think I’m retaining a sense of perspective. On the plus side, last week was the first 2020 week in which I completed all ten programmed exercise sessions (smoke haze and forgetfulness marred the other three weeks). Perhaps I’m about to come good…

Parkrun and gloom

Parkrun

A pastel blue sky. The weekend. I stroll down to my tram stop for the Number 75 heading east. A perilously low hot-air balloon, “Eastland” garish round its girth, flares orange. A raven, seven peewees circling it, feeds off a discarded junk food tray in the middle of my street. No matter how I push at my mind, gloom – a mix of existential dread and personal haplessness – pervades. Sunrise glistening off apartment blocks. Yesterday I forgot to cycle in the afternoon, simply forgot: so much for my Big Year disciplines, I bitch. Work is crushng me. Everyone in my circle talks of domestic chores. And eating and drinking, which also obsess me. I’m two or three kilograms above fitness, which preys on me when I alight the tram and walk the kilometre along the edge of the university to Parkrun’s asembly point. I should go home.

I stay. A great crowd amasses and the scrum at the back blights my first km to 7:03. Next is 6:25 and I resolve to run within myself. Parkrun always brims with enthusiasm and I get caught up, but can’t summon a smile for the photographer. I pass some runners. I’m pipped at the post. 6:43, slower than I’ve run all week, but leaking onto a towel on the tram, blue sky, sunlight, shadows, life returns somewhere inside me. Drained. Back amongst the maelstrom of life.

Parkrun Big Year: The role of gym

Visions Gym

If you’re a gym frequenter, you understand (unless you’re that rare beast, the gym junkie) that time spent there mostly feels like time wasted. Gym time is either tough and unenjoyable, or manageable and boring. How then should I prioritise gym during a year centered around regular running plus some cycling? Well, for years I’ve had an understanding that a runner who neglects the gym ends up stunted, all leg and no body. And experts tell me that gym work helps older people stave off soft bones. So I’ve decided to keep up the good pressure and insist on gym’ing three times a week. Why three? Because twice a week never permits any improvement, a source of frustration. Can I fit in three gym sessions a week? This means ten exercise outings weekly (four runs, three rides, three gym trips), a relentless burden, but somehow, for this year of vaulting ambitions, the steadiness of a rich diet of bodily effort appeals. So, rather than deemphasizing gym, this year will hopefully witness modest improvement in strength, accompanied, again hopefully, by actual enjoyment. We shall see.

First Parkrun

Gardiners Creek Parkrun

Gardiners Creek Parkrun has been held 103 times. Next week is its two-year anniversary. The photo shows runners amassing last Saturday, fifteen minutes before the 8 AM start, but it doesn’t do justice to the sheer numbers involved. 249 people of all shapes and sizes took part. It’s a stunning example of volunteer-led excellence.

Of course last Saturday wasn’t the first Saturday of 2020. On the 4th, I caught a tram and walked to the Gardiners Creek assembly point, only to discover it had been called off due to smoke haze. How frustrating! To leach out my frustration, I ran the Parkrun distance, 5 kms, back towards home.

On the 11th, I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been. 5 kms is short. But 5 kms is my current maximum, and there were 248 other aspirants surrounding me, and this Big Year is important to me and … I was anxious. When the start instruction was issued, dozens swarmed past me, and after a kilometre I felt truly weary and out of breath, although I was below my current top speed. My first kilometre was slow but then I sped up a little and by the time the superstars at the front of the pack stormed towards me in the reverse direction, I felt comfortable but slow. I puffed the final kilometre and ended up with just over 6:30 per kilometre. I was beaten by kids, overweight lurchers, and weedy-looking 20-somethings. I ended up placed 165th, 7th out of the 11 in my age bracket.

The goal is to run this Parkrun consistently (it’s a Big Year, right, so that means every Saturday, no ifs or buts) and, consistent with injury caution, to improve my speed to 6:00 per km. It’s a big ask.

Parkrun Big Year: The role of cycling

New Year's Day cycling

Three years ago, the plan was to ramp up cycling to the point that it could take over as my dominant mode of exercise. This year the focus is back on running. What then of the bike? Well, my podiatrist recommends pedalling work to strengthen different leg muscles. My flat feet and wonky ankles and knees worry him. One day running might not be an option, he says. So my plan this year is to continue last year’s cycling routine: an easy, short (10 kms) route down by the river, focusing on easy rhythm. Three times a week is the target. So here I am, on New Year’s Day, smiling at the prospect of heading off on a perfect Melbourne summer’s day.

PS – I had a great ride, clocking up 21 kms/hour, the first time I’ve been faster than 20 kms/hour in a year or two!