Parklife (part deux), or; Now I’m ready to start

Do you remember the time I achieved some limited blog notoriety by writing about how parkrun was a great initiative for mental health? I had already been planning a follow up, and then Stoke Gifford Parish Council ignorantly decided they should charge for Little Stoke parkrun. Twitter is abuzz and the running community is quite rightly outraged.

Let us forget for a moment, that parkrun manages to successfully organise 850 events, across 12 countries without a single one charging anything. Actually, no. Let’s remember that. 850 parkruns. 12 countries. 932,917 runners. Truly staggering statistics and nobody pays to participate. Yet Stoke Gifford Parish Council say it is “unfair” to expect non-running residents to pay for path maintenance. There has been discussion about how fair this is – whether the park is already being subsidised by council tax, whether the runners are (not) so local that it’s (not) their taxes contributing etc. Ultimately, that’s not how tax works. Whilst I love to believe my taxes solely fund libraries, I suspect large amounts of it goes towards all sorts of unsavoury things I dislike and have no need for.

So let us turn our attention to a more pertinent issue, the rather dodgy accounting skills and lack of common sense of Stoke Gifford Parish Council. Little Stoke Parkrun has been running (no pun intended) for over 3 years and given the parish council’s position, you would expect that a lot of maintenance must have occurred in that time. Here is Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s expenditure for the FY2015/16. This is public information, freely available on their website; you can easily find it for yourself by visiting their homepage. Go nose through the month-by-month itemised account of the parish council’s expenditure. No really, go ahead. I’ll wait, I’m not even really here. Take your time.

Back? Stoke Gifford Parish Council initially proposed that each adult runner pay £1. I can’t find details of the proposal but if anyone has a link, please drop it in the comments or let me know on Twitter, and I’ll update this. The BBC article says that there are “about 300” runners at Little Stoke parkrun each weekend. If the council planned to charge 300 runners, £1/week, that would amount to a grand total of £15,600 each year in the parish council coffers. Let’s be benevolent and say half those runners are at junior parkrun on Sunday and exempt from the charge on account of being 6 years old. That’s still a total of £7,800. How much did Stoke Gifford Parish Council spend on “path maintenance” at Little Stoke in FY2015/6? £0. Nothing at all. Presumably thousands of pounds of damage is being done to the paths to justify this course of action and yet the parish council have spent nothing. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions and return to why I originally planned this follow-up.

Not long after my original post, I ended up talking to Mind about their Get Set to Go campaign, focusing on the (perceived) barriers that those experiencing mental illness may feel prevent them from taking part in activity. They were already speaking to a number of runners but read the parkrun blog and asked how I would feel about them coming to film me running one Saturday morning and taking part in a short interview.

I messaged Mike, the event director at Southwark parkrun who partially prompted me to write that first post and is an all-round good egg, as the whole team at Southwark are. He liaised at length with both the team at Mind and with parkrun HQ to get the approval we needed. This wasn’t a straightforward task and I’m immensely grateful to all at Southwark who have been so very supportive of me and this blog.

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Southwark. ❤ (Photo credit to whoever I nabbed this from!!)

On a chilly, grey March morning, I was the tailrunner at Southwark parkrun. I caught up with a few people, had a delightful leisurely run (after too much tequila the night before) and met the lovely Louise Jones at her first ever parkrun (she is now a convert) who was also filming, about her experience of the Couch to 5k app. Filming the run was surprisingly fun with a member of the Mind team repeatedly whizzing past me on roller blades. Filming the interview was less so because an awful lot of helicopters fly over SE London which meant standing about waiting for noise levels to drop every few minutes.

You can watch the finished product below, or on the Get Set to Go mini-site. I am assured, unprompted, by friends that the camera has added at least 10lbs and that I don’t actually sound like that in real life. I haven’t actually watched it the final version as yet because ironically I think it may bring on a bout of anxiety and self-loathing.

It’s truly sad that Stoke Gifford Parish Council feel they can put a price on the life-changing effects that parkrun can have on their community. I’m proud of the stance that parkrun have taken and sorry for all those at Little Stoke who have lost their parkrun home. I’m sure they will find a new home soon enough and they will all remain a much-loved part of the greater parkrun family regardless.

 

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It is the hollow month of March now sweeping in

March is sweeping out, actually. But I don’t write the lyrics, I just pilfer them for blog titles. When I wrote my round up of February, I ended by saying it would be a big month. It was, but in ways I never expected.

I started the month by turning 27 on the 2nd. Birthdays are ace; I don’t usually like mine much but this year I was truly happy and calm on it for the first time in a few years. The problem with birthdays is that there’s a lot of eat/drink/be merry which doesn’t leave much time for running. Ho hum, I don’t pretend to be a paragon of virtue, running or otherwise. The night before my birthday, I went out for (many) drinks and some dinner with a friend. Wine, whisky and I think 12798908_10154028832863307_1160822745085107067_n.jpgthere was a meat board at some point. The next day was my birthday and so I went out and did it all again, having dim sum and large amounts of prosecco with some of my nearest and dearest in London and a super time was had by all. London gets so lonely at times and it really helps to have memories like this, knowing that people are around. I’ve been more cautious about drinking the past few months; I’m aware of the effect that both being drunk, and being hungover has on my anxiety levels so I’m really glad that I had a few days of having fun and not worrying about repercussions, and there being no repercussions.

That week was a write off for running for obvious reasons. On the Saturday I was back at home for birthday CcxmmPxWwAApKhkcelebrations with the parents, and dragged myself down to Lee-on-the-Solent parkrun. Yay! Parkrun! Yay! The seaside! I wasn’t trying to push it too hard with only a week left until the Bath Half but ended up with a time of 28:04 which while not a PB isn’t too shabby a time for me. I also pleasingly managed almost perfect splits. As pacing has been a bugbear for me, this was huge for me and I was on a real high, feeling like my running was finally progressing. My heart rate had been reasonably good, the whole run hadn’t felt too bad until I started my sprint finish too early; I think if I hadn’t mistimed that it would have easily been in the 27:5xs. Everything was good.

Then everything went wrong. So wrong.

On the Monday, I lost my job. I won’t rehash it all here but it was unexpected and dramatic. I phoned my mama and asked her to come to London, I phoned recruiters en route to the train station, I phoned a couple of friends to try and stay level while I awaited my mama’s arrival. Packed some bags. Came home to the coast for sea air and home cooking and awaited my inevitable meltdown. Except it never happened. Tears and panic attacks have come so easily, over the tiniest inconsequential things but in a real crisis, it seems I cope. I was stressed and sad but I coped. That’s worth knowing. If I can get through this, then that strength is also there to be utilised in my sillier moments.

I had grand plans for rest and running. This was going to be my highest mileage month ever! (Un)fortunately, the phone started ringing very quickly and my first two weeks at home were actually spent on trains to/from London, attending interviews. Thankfully, I received an offer a mere nine working days after losing my job.

The Bath Half came at the end of my first week of unemployment. 10169185_10154070677308307_5339933511251828_nIn hindsight, I suspect the stress I was under probably played its part in it being a bad race for me. I thought I was just thrown off track by the unexpectedly nice conditions but looking back at the data from my Garmin, it seems to have been the start of some heart rate issues that I’ve been having ever since. I had no motivation to run after Bath; disheartened by a truly miserable race and a lack of routine without work meant a lot of napping and Netflix. When I did get back out there after 10 days or so without a proper run, my heart and lungs felt like they would explode. I chalked it up as a bad run and tried again a few days later but to no avail. My heart rate was way up near its max despite running significantly slower than my usual 5k pace. I rested some more, kept an eye on my resting heart rate and stared mournfully at the data. Following those bad runs my resting heart rate was high 70s/low 80s for a couple of days before returning to its normal level of high 50s/low 60s. I’ll see how things are when I get back to work and having routine and a normal life – impossible to know if this problem is physical or mental as the two are so closely linked for me.

The other run of note this month was at Southwark Parkrun. I know, those babes again. If you’re ever in south London, Southwark is a particularly wonderful parkrun and I can’t recommend it enough. This month, they very graciously agreed for a team from Mind to come and film me (tail)running as part of an upcoming campaign about exercise and mental health. Expect a more detailed post when the campaign launches. I had a delightful morning leisurely running at the back of the pack while a cameraman on inline skates whizzed past me before I stood in the park repeatedly waiting for helicopters to pass over and spoke about why parkrun is a great way to get into sport and its many benefits. I also got to meet the very lovely Louise and her boyfriend Ryan who experienced my near-evangelical ranting about why parkrun is the best but hey, we follow each other on Twitter now so I can’t have seemed too mad. Or maybe they enjoy madness. Thank you so much to the ever-wonderful team at Southwark for agreeing to the filming, and especially their event director Mike who was instrumental in making it happen. You are all stars. Finished product coming soon; expect repeated wails of “am I really that ginger?” (yes), “am  I really that pale?” (also yes), and “do I really make those faces when I run/speak?” (another yes).

April. The return to the London. A new job, again. Cheering as part of Team Mind at the London Marathon. (N.B. If you’re running the London Marathon, I’ll be the ginger one wearing a VERY fetching Mind t-shirt at Mile 25 at Embankment, send me your race number, I’ll track you and then high 5 you because you’ll be so close to finishing). Lighter evenings. Putting my life back together again.

 

It’s February again, we must get older

It’s time for the month in review! What’s been going on inside my head and where have my feet been taking me this month?

The month began on a serious high with my Time To Talk post going the smalltime blogger version of viral. I was asked in advance by the event director at Southwark parkrun if I had anything suitable for them to share as part of the day. I didn’t, but they’re good people so I wrote a piece on how parkrun has been more than just running to me. It ended up being retweeted a ridiculous number of times and being shared by so many parkruns, by parkrunners and by the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt. A bizarre day of people sending screenshots of my face as it popped up in their Facebook feeds via parkruns across the country.

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Sporting my parkrun performance shirt. A ginger in apricot. Bold.

That post has now been viewed well over 5000 times, in over 40 countries. Thank you to all who supported, shared and talked about mental health on that day. You know how much the cause means to me and to have had even the tiniest impact was fantastic. The blog will probably never reach such lofty heights again!

Running has been a mixed bag. Again, the month started well. I managed a couple of post-work 5 milers, as opposed to my usual 5km. I’m slowly trying to up my overall mileage and it’s reassuring to have broken the mental block I had of doing more than 5km on a school night. This will seem such a tiny breakthrough to so many of you but my running is plagued with arbitrary and nonsensical negative mental blocks of my own forming and it’s taking a lot of resolve to dismantle them.

The first weekend in February I once again smashed my longest run, taking the distance to 17.1km/10.6 miles. With 5 weeks to go until Bath Half, this was hugely reassuring. Thank you to everyone at #ukrunchat that evening who confirmed that yes, that was indeed completely on track when I was having a wobble! The other bonus of that run was my pacing was almost spot on; a little slower than usual but that led to consistency with a couple of (actually very small) blips that I think correlate to where I paused to stretch my niggling calves.

But then came the dreaded lurgy. Classic February cold/flu/misery had been doing the rounds at the office and I finally succumbed in the second week of February. Coincidentally, also set up to be the toughest week I’ve had at this job yet. Life, oh life.  A week of feeling terrible both physically and mentally and not being able to run at all, so once again a month where my mileage is nowhere near as high as I had hoped. I’ve actually only run about 50km all month which is appalling. I’m frustrated but I know how dangerous for my emotional resilience it is to push myself too hard. A lot of rest, a lot of cups of tea and watching Netflix in leggings and ratty old jumpers, a lot of envying everyone talking about their running. I attempted a long slow run exactly one week after having run 17km. I made it through 3km with legs and a stomach feeling like lead, went home and was promptly sick. Another attempt at 5km in the week was cut short at around the 3km mark again with burning lungs. Super disheartening.

The following weekend I made it out for my long run with minimal confidence after almost 2 weeks off. I put myself through 16km, although with a few short walks thrown in there (at 3km, 10km, 14km). I’ve already written about how negative I felt after that run. I’m trying to be objective about it and be a lot kinder to myself. I was on course to be only about 2-3 minutes slower than my 17km run 2 weeks earlier. Considering that there was a good 5+ minutes of walking involved, I was just coming back from illness, I’d had some time off and it was horrendously windy out there, that’s not at all bad going. Pain and Panic are whispering that I’m making excuses but they can hush. I ran 16km when I wasn’t at my best, having expected to struggle to hit 10km, and I didn’t run them that badly. I didn’t run them anywhere near as well as I would have liked but you can’t always get what you want.

Given the setback of illness, I now won’t run the full half marathon distance until race day but I’ve now comfortably hit 15km+ on several occasions in the past 6 weeks without any real ill effect and I think I could probably have kept going. I think the adrenaline and atmosphere on the day will carry me through without too much fuss. It’s “less than a parkrun” (a well-established unit of distance!) to be added on my longest run and that’s not too terrifying. I’ve just hit the initial fundraising target I set when I signed up for Bath but as I’ve now planned an entire year of running for Mind, I’m hoping to absolutely smash that amount. Anyone feeling kind and inclined to donate, you can do so here and it means the world to me.

I went back to work and had a panicked couple of days trying to progress various matters before putting the out of office on and heading to Iceland.

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Iceland was like Narnia

This actually prompted the biggest meltdown of the month, a severe 2 hour panic attack the night before my holiday and the first serious one I’ve had in a while. I can’t explain the terror that I experience knowing that emails are flooding into my inbox and not being able to deal with them. Holidays are more stress than they’re worth really. Anyway, Iceland. The highlight of my month and you can read about it in a lot more detail here. After recently wondering where I’m going in life, I’ve realised that maybe this is where I’m supposed to be right now, booking holidays on a near-whim with one of my best friends. Now we are home and I am planning our trip to Japan next year.

This morning I turned my work phone back on to be greeted with over 300 emails. I was only out the office for 3 days…A moment of inner panic, a couple of whiny messages to people, a tube journey spent sifting through the noise. By the time I stepped into the office, I knew where I stood, a huge number of emails had been deleted, more had been filed and I could start prioritising the relatively few that required any level of attention. That’s real progress. Once that scenario would have resulted in so much panic that I wouldn’t have made it to the office.

I’d hoped to pick the running back up tonight but leaving at gone 7pm and having to be back in for 7.30am is making that seem unlikely. Law is all kinds of fun.

That’s February done. On we march to March. In 2 days, I will be 27. In 13 days, I will be running my first half marathon for Mind. Work is set to be very busy (when is it not?). I have two incredibly exciting projects relating to this blog that I’m hoping to announce soon, I’m just waiting for confirmation on some details. It’s going to be a big month.

Parklife

[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.

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The view from Lee on Solent parkrun

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:

Exercise

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.

 Community

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The start line at Southwark parkrun

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.

Routine

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.

Volunteering

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.

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Hi-vis is cool; I look exceptionally glamorous in it & I will not be told otherwise.

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.

Links:

Time To Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org/

Parkrun: http://www.parkrun.org.uk/

Southwark Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Wimbledon Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Lee on the Solent Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter