parkrun: 'Well done, keep going!'
"Well done, keep going!" is a phrase you will hear a lot of when you do a parkrun. This is offered up brightly by the stewards posted at various points on the 5k run happening all across the country in various parks, in their different guises; from around lakes to inner-city parks amongst colourful flowerbeds. All with the rude start at 9am on Saturday mornings.
People of all different shapes and sizes, old and young, pushchairs and dogs, meet to run around altogether. A friendly accepting atmosphere, a non-race race.
parkrun: what lessons can you learn?
parkrun has taught me a lot. I was never a sporty person; always the last to be picked for a team at school. P.E holds humiliating memories of fumbled missed catches, a gasping red face and feeling like I belonged to a different tribe. What made me start parkrun? There are lots of reasons.
The main one was 'use it or lose it'. I am fully middle-aged. Aware that I have more of my life behind me than in front. I mostly enjoy my life and want to keep the feeling of having energy and being mobile. I want to give myself the best possible chance of keeping that going. Like most people, I struggle a bit with anxiety. Exercise really helps sort out your head. It works a kind of magic where the rhythmic steps lead to balancing perspective and deep breathing can pump out all the tension. Leaving you with a feeling of peace and exhilaration. This is a big part of what running has given me.
It was horrible when I started; truly trying. I felt sick and dizzy, I thought I could not breathe properly, that I would have a panic attack. Plus those feelings of humiliation from my internal critic. I was not only red-faced at the end, but purple. An old woman with a wonky hip and a three-year-old were way ahead of me. It took the rest of the day to recover! I wanted to cry with deep grief at my rubbish attempt. However, there was something about it that made me keep trying. I knew I could only get better, that logically 'fitness' was something I could not make worse by doing more of. The prune act of doing - - it was a positive act in itself. This is one of the biggest lessons in life. We can have all the dreams in the world and all the fancy kit, but it only really happens if you actually take action and do it. It does not matter what the quality is; that's a process. It is a happening, an action, that you are present and doing. Hurrah! You're alive! How often we sabotage ourselves from actualising. The putting off; the risks can seem high of failure and the lack of permission that it's not for us. Better the devil you know. Change can be so scary. As what would we be expecting from ourselves and others if we were that different 'self'?
Another big lesson that parkruns have taught me is not to compare to others. Doing this only led me to bad feelings. High expectation; low gains. As the pack set off, at the front are all the fast runners that speed away and lap you. That's OK though, as you know that you're not in the same category as them. Then the middle lot: that's fine as I still did not expect to keep up with them either. Ahh - then there are the ones at the back of the field. I think it's a natural part of being human to want to gauge your level, to find an edge to rub against. So you pick people just in front of you to 'pick off' and aim to overtake. Now, this mostly does not go to plan, as there will be some you will overtake and others you just will not catch (especially the old woman with the wonky hip - she is deceptively fast). At this point, you have a choice to beat yourself up at how bad you are at this running thing, or to let it go and know that this has nothing to do with anyone else but your relationship with yourself. It's mighty freeing to let go. To know we are part of something and that we all have our own time, our own process. That it all matters - and at the same time it does not matter at all.
One of the best things about parkrun is the steward's support and the "Well done, keep going". Where else in life do you have another adult clapping, praising and willing you on? Acknowledging your effort, your strife, your courage. I take this simple phrase and keep it close to my heart, not just for the run itself, but for my effort in life that week. Well done, keep going. Everyone is treated equally, the fast and the slow. It's recognised that we are all trying our best, making our way. We all have our own struggles, our own race to run. What is most important to recognise is that we do need other people to see our effort, our impact and struggle, that they know it too (or their own version of it). That we are not alone. We are all in it together with the highs and lows.
I have been running for a couple of years now. I am still slow and that's ok. But I can now run all the way around the Barnstaple Rock Park without stopping. I do not feel sick or dizzy (that only lasted for the first few times) - I feel stronger and fitter. My mental health has improved. In fact, I wish I had not listened to that young part of me for all those years that thought running was not for her. I do wish I had been running in my life for longer, as it's given me so much. If you fancy starting running there is help out there. There are various apps available to help you start running from zero to 5k. Or, just go along to your local parkrun on a Saturday and walk/run it at your current fitness level.
Of course, many different forms of exercise can really help with your mental health. If running isn't your thing, find something you think you might enjoy and take the first small step towards it. The key is: don't think about it - just do it!
So from me to you; "Well done, keep going!"