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!

Announcing: 2020 Parkrun Big Year

My Parkrun barcode

At my age, I think I have one final opportunity to become slightly faster and stronger at running. Accordingly, in 2020, I’m going to run a Parkrun every Saturday. For those unfamiliar with this, Parkrun offers an 8 AM 5-kilometre run every Saturday, in many locations worldwide. My aim is to break 30 minutes, that is, hit a speed of 6 kms/hour. Now, 6 kms/hour is slow, slow, slow, but I’ve only managed it a few times, back in 2016, and over the last couple of years my pace has been 6:30 or 6:45 or even 7:00. Faster is better!

That’s not all. I also commit to a daily exercise regime – no ifs or buts – that results in me jogging four times each week, plus doing three bike rides (just short ones for leg conditioning, I’m de-emphasizing cycling in 2020) and three gym sessions. Ten exercise stints per week means I’ll be a busy boy, but I’m convinced this will deliver a stronger me.

Many other notions swirl around in my head. I will try and lengthen my runs, back towards the 10 kilometres I ran with such regularity in 2016 and into 2017. I’ll look at doing some fun runs and might even tackle a cross country season.

Monitoring progress will be key and I’ll refine a feedback loop over the first few weeks of 2020. I’ll also consider doing some formal speed and strength training, either in a local running group or by using a Strava-compatible training app.

I find it hard to describe how exciting this seems right now, five days before New Years Day. No doubt the novelty will wear off quickly and I’ll revert to grumbling about the daily effort, but this sense of thrilling possibility is real.