[Written as part of Time to Talk Day, part of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. As part of this, England Athletics have worked on #runandtalk, which seemed apt given the content of this blog. A friend from Southwark parkrun asked if I had anything suitable to share for the occasion. “No,” I said “But I’ll write something”]
One in four people will experience a mental health problem this year. Four in four people have mental health. Just like physical health, we all vary in how “well” we are and that wellness varies dependent on more factors than I can list. Sometimes you’re the picture of health. Sometimes you feel fine but problems are lurking, the mental equivalent of bad cholesterol. Sometimes you’re aware of a niggle, the emotional version of a bad knee or a slight cold. Once in a while, the devastating life changing illness or injury comes along. That’s exactly like a physical devastating life changing illness or injury except nobody can see it and nobody offers tests or scans that prove “You’re Sick”.
I’ve spent most of the past 10 years with a mixture of anxiety and depression, dancing back and forth over the line of niggly problems and devastating illness. Just as it improves physical fitness, running has done wonders for my mental health. We don’t wait to need a filling before we head to the dentist (not strictly true, I do); we shouldn’t wait for a problem before considering our mental health. So this post is for the four in four.
At 9am on a Saturday, in various parks, you will find hundreds of people running a 5km course. Across the country this number adds up to several tens of thousands. Welcome to parkrun. Your Saturday mornings just changed forever.
For the uninitiated, parkrun is a free, weekly, timed 5km run that happens at venues primarily in the UK but across the globe. All you need is a pair of trainers, to sign up on a website and print off a barcode that’s used to help determine your time. No further cost, no need for fancy gear. It’s a phenomenon and those of us who participate regularly can verge on evangelical about it. For the four in four, here are ways that parkrun has contributed to improving my mental health:
The benefits of exercise to your mental health are well publicised, although nobody seems quite sure of the exact science behind it. When I first began running, I lost a little weight although I didn’t have much that I needed to lose. It improved my posture. It forced me to reassess my diet. I drank more water. I drank less alcohol and caffeine. I started sleeping better. My skin, hair and nails suddenly all looked healthier. It was the first step in completely overhauling my physical health and that has impacted on my mental health in an extreme way.
The key thing that exercise has granted me however, is confidence. As a 26 year old woman, I finally really like my body. That’s sadly, quite unusual. I’ve slimmed down and I eat whatever I like without (much) guilt. I have legs that are now strong enough to carry me for 10 miles at a reasonable speed and they’re about to make it to 13.1 miles. The best thing of all is seeing photos both during and after any run. My hair will be scraped back, I’ll be devoid of makeup, I’ll be exhausted, I’ll be decked head to toe in clashing neon. Despite all of that, I think some of these photos are the absolute best photos taken of me because it’s when you really see pure bright-eyed happiness in my face.
Sense of purpose
This came in two stages. First, the ability to run 5km. I could (just about) do this when I started attending parkrun but it was a bit of a struggle. Being able to run the full 5km without stopping was a massive achievement, as it is for a huge number of parkrunners. Parkrun is not just for “runners”, it’s for everyone. Sure, some people go sprinting round the course in an agonisingly fast time but there also plenty of people who walk/run it.
Once I could run that 5km, then came the relentless quest for PBs (personal bests). At the end of each parkrun, you receive a text with your timed result. Here begins a maddening relationship of trying to improve your PB. Every week you wait for that text; some weeks it disappoints you, some weeks it elates you. If it elates you, then you just try to beat it again the following week. It’s strangely futile because although you’re incredibly happy, you’re never quite happy enough. There’s always a new goal in mind, the next barrier to break through.
It’s interesting that no matter my lack of motivation or enthusiasm in other aspects of my life, the drive to be a better runner doesn’t fade. I don’t necessarily always back it up with the motivation to train enough to get there but the goal remains. Sometimes the only thing in my life I’m striving towards is a new PB. But that’s something at least. It’s a spark in the darkness.
Loneliness is a routine issue that’s brought up in connection with mental illness. It’s isolating. Loneliness extends well beyond that of course; to the old – as we all know from John Lewis’ Christmas advert in conjunction with Age UK, to parents who feel their life now revolves solely around their child, to young people surrounded by friends in the greatest cities on Earth. I never felt so lonely as when I moved to London. Strange, to feel alone with 8 million people around you.
The parkrun community is a) massive, b) wide ranging and c) welcoming. Constantly on the lookout for new participants, each parkrun begins with a new runner briefing where all new runners to that course have the concept and the route explained to them. No shame here in being the new kid. There is also no one demographic to parkrun. Children run it with their parents (and indeed it has proven so popular that there are number of junior parkruns springing up), parents run it pushing buggies with sleeping babies inside, the young and old alike run it. From people embarking on their first runs, to those who have run ultramarathons, they all flock to parkrun and that’s part of what makes it so great. Wherever you are in the pack, you’ll be cheered over the line. Fellow runners offer their support and advice. Eventually (and surprisingly quickly) you make friends. Recently, when some drama in my personal life made me nervous and reluctant to attend, it was that community who supported me and coaxed me back.
The community is such that no matter where I am in the country, I can turn up at the local parkrun and be welcomed readily as a parkrun “tourist”. I seem to pack my running shoes no matter where I am for the weekend and end up chatting to strangers about running and the other parkruns I’ve attended.
It’s also very easy to be involved through Twitter and Facebook. So many individual parkruns now engage through social media that there’s an extra layer of participation. Even outside the hour on Saturday mornings, the connection to the various parkruns I attend lingers on throughout the week because I continue talking to the people involved and the organisers. I see photos of friends and people I recognise, I see increasingly brilliant statistics about the number of participants and volunteers and PBs set that week. It’s a little like a club, that will have anyone as a member and that I’m incredibly proud to be part of.
There’s a lot to be said for routine, it brings some structure when perhaps the rest of your life feels like it’s crumbling away and being swallowed by a sinkhole. Personally, I am not a morning person and so really, parkrun is a fresh type of hell. Being somewhere by 9am? On a Saturday? Madness. Most weeks see me complaining about how early it is, especially on the weeks when I volunteer and I have to be there even earlier. As I pointed out in my most recent tweet on the subject, I actually get up earlier to volunteer at parkrun than I do for work. Arguably that’s because I have a dreamy commute but hush.
When ballerinas pirouette, they focus on a fixed point to fend off dizziness. That’s what parkrun has become to me, my fixed point and my anchor. No matter how bad work is going, no matter how much I’ve dreaded social commitments, no matter the other things falling apart, I know that 9am on a Saturday is there. The worst case scenario is that I have to get through 6 days until then. It’s amazing how much that can help, knowing there’s a glimmer of positivity on the horizon.
What’s more is that there is so much Saturday left afterwards. Did you know Saturday existed before midday? I didn’t. A day that was often previously lost to feeling sorry for myself is now wide open because I’m awake and I’ve conquered the hard part of getting out of bed and then out of the house.
It’s easy to feel like a burden when you struggle with mental health. People tiptoe around you. You screw up a lot. It gets tiring. You offer very little back to anyone in return. I know in my heart that I’m one of the most loving, supportive people available to the people I truly adore, I really am. It doesn’t stop me feeling like a leech every time I ask for help.
Parkrun is organised by volunteers, that’s one of the ways that it remains free. Every week, people drag themselves out of their warm beds to shiver on part of the course wearing hi-vis. Hi-vis is cool. Thank the volunteers when you run past them because they have no chance of a PB that week and a tiny bit of them is dying inside. Also they’re wearing hi-vis and it looks really stupid.
Without the volunteers, parkrun couldn’t happen and all things considered, it really is a staggering effort that is put in by people up and down the country to put on these events every single week, come rain or shine.
The idea is that for every five or so parkruns you participate in, you volunteer for one, giving back to the community that you’re now part of. There’s a wide range of roles available, from marshalling, to handing out finish tokens, to acting as a tail runner making sure there’s no man left behind. I do genuinely believe I get as much, if not more enjoyment out of volunteering as I do running. I have made friends through it but most importantly for me, I get a sense of self-worth. I know that parkrun needs my efforts to exist and seeing the huge amount of enjoyment it provides to literally hundreds of people running past me results in so much satisfaction.
After a long week of feeling useless, I can stand about on a drizzly Saturday morning and know that in that moment, I’m doing something on behalf of 300 other people. That has to make you feel a little better about yourself.
I’m sure there are more ways that parkrun has helped me feel “normal” again but I could lovingly ramble on forever. I encourage anyone, from any walk of life to attend your local parkrun which you can find here. I’ve never come across anything so welcoming and that provides so much benefit to so many people. Anyone in south/central London who would like to attend but is nervous about trying something new, give me a shout and I’m more than happy to come along with you some Saturday morning, I’m a very friendly creature and not all that fast so I’m the ideal running mate for newbies.
With thanks to all the parkruns who have hosted me, but mostly to Lee on the Solent, Wimbledon and finally Southwark, for providing inspiration. The nicest bunch of people you’d ever want to meet.
Time To Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org/