The core elements of distance running have changed little in my lifetime, but the ambience has changed dramatically. When I competed in school, and later in club athletics, in the 1950’s and 60’s, the ethos was dominate by amateurism. Now it is not unknown for UK athletes to live in Monaco to avoid paying UK tax on their earnings. Meanwhile an era that had been dominated by Europeans and a few antipodeans has given way to one almost total dominated by Africans. But if one looks below the elite international stage there have been other changes that run almost counter to these trends. Perhaps the most visible change has been the transformation of marathon running from the preserve of a few very hardy individuals to a spectacular gala that transforms major cities, London, New York or more than a dozen others worldwide, for one day of the year, as thousands of runners of all shapes, sizes and ages, test themselves over the 26.2 mile distance.
However, a little below the horizon scanned by the national newspapers, there has been what seems to me, an even more amazing transformation. In the 1950’s and 60’s the newspaper headlines focussed on the exploits of legendary figures who were household names. In Australia, where I grew up, our parochial heroes were John Landy, and then Herb Elliot and later Ron Clark. Across the Tasman Sea there was Peter Snell, while the names of the great European middle and long distance runners, Bannister, of course, but also Zatopek and a long list of others, were household names even in Australia. In contrast, club athletics earned only a few column inches in local newspapers. Nonetheless, even at this more modest level, athletes were mostly a dedicated band of fit young men and women. I ran for a D grade club. My memory of finishing times from 45 years ago is hazy, but as far as I remember, even at D grade level, the entire field in a 5000m typically crossed the line within the span from 16 to 18 minutes. I doubt that I would have recognized 20 minutes as a meaningful time for 5000m. Even at this level, running was not a sport for individuals without at least a modest talent for athletics. Despite the apparent decline in distance running in Europe and the Anglophone world, in my eyes, the really dramatic development over the past half century has been the transformation of distance running from the sport of a few dedicated fit young men and woman to something that might almost be called a mass participation sport, occurring far away from the hubbub of the big city marathons.
In England, and to a less extent, in many countries world-wide, this transformation is illustrated most clearly by the phenomenon of Parkrun. Parkrun grew out the Bushy Park time trials, initiated by Paul Sinton-Hewitt in 2004. At the beginning, a handful of runners from local clubs in southwest London met on Saturday mornings to run a timed 5Km along the paths of Bushy Park in Teddington. In large part due to the dedication and creativity of Paul, but also of course, due to the input from many volunteers, and eventually, funding from commercial sponsors, Parkruns occur every Saturday morning in hundreds of sites, in Britain and other countries, extending from Denmark to Australia.
Perhaps least typical is the Parkrun at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. I know little about that particular Parkrun, but suspect that the event often occurs in circumstances of duress. I doubt the atmosphere is quite like the Christmas truce on the Western front in 1914, when British and German troops put down their weapons and played football together in the snow. Camp Bastion perhaps demonstrates the far reach of Parkrun, but more typical Parkruns occur in relaxed and sociable circumstances in the congenial surroundings of leafy city parks. The runners span the range from world class athletes such as Mo Farah and Craig Mottram to individuals for whom merely completing 5 Km is a triumph.
A few months ago, a weekly Parkrun was established at Colwick Park, a delightful space of grassy banks and woodland surrounding two small lakes beside the River Trent on the outskirts of Nottingham. This morning, I decided that Colwick Parkrun offered me a good opportunity to make an attempt at my short term goal of running 5Km in 25 minutes. So I arrived shortly before 9am on a cool Autumn Saturday morning to find that the park was alive with runners warming up. There had been quite a lot of rain in the past few days, and there were a few extensive puddles on the paths. In other places, soggy wet autumn leaves covered the paths as they meandered through the trees, but on the whole, the surface was not bad, and it was an ideal day for running.
I have not actually raced a 5Km (or a 5000m) since the 1960’s so I was not sure how to fine tune my pace, but as my primary goal was to break 25 minutes, I set-off at a pace little faster than 5 min/Km. I covered the first Km in 4:50. However it was already clear that it would be a struggle to sustain that pace for another 4 Km, so I eased back a little, and 20 or 30 runners passed by. Despite the large field, in the second Km I was largely on my own. As I approached the one very minor ascent on the otherwise completely flat course, about 50 metres ahead of me was a youngster who had clearly misjudged the early pace and was now struggling. This gave me the opportunity to claw back one of the places I had lost while being overtaken by so many at the end of the first Km. However, I suspect that the 50 year age gap between us was much more a handicap to him than to me, so overtaking him could scarcely be regarded as an achievement. A further 100 metres ahead was a group of three men and a young woman, and as they climbed the minor ascent, the young woman had dropped back a few metres. I thought that here was a quarry worth pursuing. There is no cause for mock gallantry in these mixed age and mixed gender races: it seemed to me that in this instance, the thirty five year age gap separating us was certainly to her advantage rather than mine and more than compensated for any effects of gender difference, so the race was on. However, I could not summon the power to make any inroads into the gap. In fact, the gap widened as the second Km went by in 4:58. During the third Km the young woman was still in psychological contact with the group ahead of her, and I was falling yet further behind. In the 3rd Km my pace had slipped to 5:02 and in the 4th Km slipped even further to 5:05. By this stage it was clear that the group ahead were out of reach, and even my 25 minute target was in jeopardy. I was interested to note at the finish that the young woman had not only maintained contact with the group of three men, but had overtaken all of them.
Meanwhile, from midway through the fourth Km, I could hear feet behind me. I didn’t look around but estimated that there were probably three runners rapidly closing the gap. Now I was the quarry and the task was not only to make sure I didn’t drop any further behind my 5 min/Km target schedule, but to avoid being overtaken in the run to the finish. I held out until 150 metres from the end when one of the three men sprinted past. I did however hold off the other two, covering the final Km in 4:54, giving me a finishing time of 24:49. So I achieved my primary goal, but it had been a considerable effort. I was 56th in a field of 121, and thirteenth on age grading. I still have a long way to go to get back to my fitness of two years ago. But it is delight to have at last joined the Parkrun community.