The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked.
`Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, `and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'
If only my first Parkrun had gone like that! But Lewis Carroll was talking about story telling. So I’ll start...three quarters of the way through what I will loosely refer to as my "run".
This is where the rear walker introduces me to the marshall on the corner who, since the previous soul passed this way, has collected in all the markers from his section of track; written his memoirs; done both of the Times crosswords; popped to the shop for some milk; grown a beard and is now wondering out loud why on earth I chose "possibly the hardest Parkrun in the country” as my first.
But I don’t want to spoil the end. Rewind and we find our hero preparing for a quest.
Son, Saul, arrives about 8am in need of coffee. We shoot the breeze (the breeze shooting season started yesterday) and generally pretend to each other that we are absolutely fine with what is about to happen. He hasn’t run at all for a month and it was a few months before that since he has run regularly. But we are going to be okay because I know everything because I’ve just graduated Couch to 5k, dontchya know?
So we leave it as late as we dare and head up to Lyme Park - about 15 mins drive from mine to their car park. Still 10 minutes early. We lurk. We linger. We see people warming up in ways I find frankly terrifying.
It is very humid - 92%, way the highest I have ever run in - but only 15 deg C and there is a really nice breeze.
Reaches almost 9am and we drag ourselves towards the gate which is the start line for the run. We lurk at the rear. Someone with a megaphone on silent tells us stuff that I can’t hear but which provokes applause and cheers at various points. Dogs barking are the real reason I can’t hear anything. And although I certainly don’t dislike dogs, they make me nervous. (Frankly, Jay, what doesn’t?)
The thing I do hear is "and our volunteer tail walker is Mr Daniel Something". Ah, Daniel. Danny boy. Dan. Daniel and I got on good terms by the end. A potential bestie. We talked. A lot.
So it is that magic time. Someone shouts go and Saul and I seem to have the park to ourselves again.
At the end of this post will be a link to a speeded up YouTube video of the course. The start is a long drag uphill. We agreed to stick to my routine - 5 minute brisk walk, 30 minute run, 5 minute walk, then, depending how we feel, walk/jog to the finish. Oh how I’m chuckling reading that now!
Now the problem with two blokes who haven’t done this together before is getting the speed right. We were both so eager to keep up with each other that we walked uphill faster than I walk on the flat. The 5 minutes take in a 40 meter elevation gain and I did 0.41km (usually managing 0.39km on the flat pavement).
But Daniel's impressed. He is clearly struggling to make it up the hill at this speed. I later realise it is because we are too slow! And ahead of us there is no one in sight.
Terrain was rubbly but dry. If you wanted to find a place to twist your ankles, you could choose worse. Anyway, we aren’t here to walk. We are men! We come, build fire, steal women, drink beer, forget to wash up.
So off we pop for some gentle running. Now the upside of the briskness of the walk is that we got to the top of the first hill. Sadly, it was only the first of many. Off we run along a nice flat bit. Then the path starts to climb. About 6 minutes in to the running and my legs and lungs are exploding. This hurts. It’s not just the usual doubt kicking in.
What with the uneven terrain, the steep hill (I swear we went up 80 degree inclines, no, really!) and the humidity I know this is too much. All of my running so far has been on the flat - my usual run has a 2 meter gain. So I tell Saul I am going to have to walk the hills, sorry.
He has that angry look that only a very relieved man can imitate and says, for my sake, he will deign to walk the hills too. But next time, you know, try harder.
We slow to walking pace and find Daniel is already on our shoulder, offering words of advice. "Is this your first time doing this Parkrun?" No, it’s my first ever Parkrun. "Ah. Umm. Done much running before?" Nope, just graduated Couch to 5k. But there are 5ks and there are 5ks.
Daniel looks a little concerned. I’m guessing he realises the coffee shop will have sold out of his favourite by the time we get back. Even lunch might need pushing back.
On we walk up and up - an 81 meter gain on top of the 40 meters in what I am laughingly calling the warm up walk. Daniel tells me he’s worried we won’t get a decent view today due to the haze. Blinded by sweat I can’t tell.
We reach The Cage, and the descent starts. No excuse now. Gravity will do about a third of the work at this gradient. Ooh, a herd of deer pass by and Daniel suggests we try and get a ride back. I think it was a joke. The stag looked far too horny for me to approach.
So, running now, down a long descent on rubbly ground again. Yeah, not as easy as you’d think, is it? Trying my best not to go base over tip whilst Saul is just ahead trying to stay out of the splash zone if I do go down. Love does not extended to being flattened by your step-dad.
My breath is good, my legs are ok. Aware of a niggle just below the right knee that I’ve had grumbling away the past week or so. We come to the end of the descent and we pick up the marshal I introduced you to at the beginning of this. He folds up his paper, gets his shopping bags, and starts to trudge behind us as we head left...to another uphill section.
Determined to prove what goes down can go up I continue running. For a full three minutes. Then my lungs are exploding, as are my legs. As I slow to walking pace Daniel and his friend are already alongside me, slowly walking along, and we discuss the relative merits of other Parkruns which are flatter. Bramhall and Poynton get mentions in despatches. They don’t marshal there and I may be happier without so many hills.
"Only the last mile to go" says Daniel, cheerily over the sound of his rumbling stomach.
We walk at a brisk pace and my lungs are still wanting to explode. I ask Saul if he thinks they ever stretcher anyone off the course. Daniel and his buddy look concerned. I am guessing the task would fall to them.
The path flattens out again and I’m determined to cross the finish running, so I run again. Big sign "nearly there, keep going" or similar. Long flat path, running, running, this is fantastic, I can do this.
And then we round a bend and the finish line is ahead...up another steep effing hill! Whoever designed this course has a real sense of humour. I keep going but only make it two thirds of the way to the line before my legs just wont do this anymore (my lungs and heart are completely happy to go on, but my rib cage had other plans).
I walk to the line. Crowd control barriers seem a bit much for the two of us. Saul hasn’t brought his barcode (wise move given how slow we were) so I am the last of (I think) 98 runners, and by some distance from anyone who might have been running ahead.
Really friendly group at the end, all wanting to look at my adjustable Parkrun band.
By my timekeeping, we started at 0903 and I crossed the line, faffed, remembered my timer was still running at 0954. So my pb is 51 minutes, unofficial. [Edit: my official time is a hilarious 36:51. The tail runner was 49:47 and I was a few seconds ahead of him. I’ll take sub-50 mins for that route all day long.]
So, after that I am demoralised, considering myself a failure, giving up on this running lark, right? Wrong. I just had a great experience.
That is the hardest thing I can remember doing since telling my youngest about Santa (and we threw in the Tooth Fairy and the characters at Disney World for good measure - probably the worst 18th birthday present ever). I have only ever run on flat pavement before and never run in that humidity.
Doing C25K has given me the confidence to go and give that a go. To feel worthy of being there. To not feel embarrassed about my limitations - I’m new, for goodness sake, what do you expect?
I bit off more than I could chew. I need the reinforcement of the consolidation runs. I need to introduce some (reasonable) hills into my routine.
And I’ve characatured the marshals purely for comic effect (waddya mean it wasn’t funny?!) - they were fantastic with me. But we did get to chat. A lot.
Will I go back and do this Parkrun anytime soon? Hell no.
Would I research the courses a bit better and do a flat one? Yep, perhaps even next weekend (except they are celebrating the anniversary of the NHS so they are all going to be bonkers busy).
Lots of lessons. The voice in my head saying "stop running" is sometimes right, but only if there is a steep hill involved. I am still a puppy at this. But I absolutely love running, even when it’s too challenging for my ability yet. And I have gained a lot of confidence and resilience from this programme, borne out from rejecting my usual approach to hard things - try, fail, stop.
Sorry this turned into a story as long as my run. As promised earlier, here is the sped-up version of the run. I hope you don’t feel I was exaggerating the difficulty. [Note, this is not me doing the run!]
Whatever run you have next, enjoy it x