Let me tell you about the Saturday morning ritual that is parkrun (www.parkrun.org). A free event, parkruns are staged all over the country (and now, internationally) at 9am every Saturday. With only three paid employees, it is a remarkable story of how a wad of enthusiasm, a pinch of technology and a sprinking of social media has created a truly game-changing experience for thousands of people. If I was so minded, I’d call it the Big Society at work. It all starts with the race briefing. Newcomers, the week’s volunteers and those winning trophy shirts for completing lots of runs are all applauded, the sponsors are thanked and the details of any post race cakes are spelt out. There is a vital unstuffiness about the whole thing which results in many people attending who would otherwise be put off by too much sinewy lycra and bustling (but well meaning) officials.
Whilst all parkruns are 5K long, of course, each parkrun is different: in our time, Karen and I have run round sports pitches, an old airbase from the Cold War, parks and a steam railway. However varied the surroundings are, each parkrun has the same effect on me. The start hooter goes, and I’m away in a joyous whooosh, thrilled to be gambolling in the countryside and not cooped up in the office. A swift realisation that I am 46, not 26 quickly brings about some sanity, my pace dropping to something manageable. A third of the way in, my early discipline leads to fatal over confidence: this is the week that I break out of my mediocre boundaries and, miraculously without actually doing any training, leap to another level. This feeling tends to last about another third of the race, before I get the creeping sense that I am, in fact, going to die.
One-and-a-half-kilometres, something that felt like a trifling bagatelle at the gambolling stage, now goes around my head like “hamburger” must have done for poor old Captain Oates. I feel the hot breath of those I breezed past getting closer, “I told you so” seemingly on their lips. The line drifts into view, prompting a final desperate dash to salvage my time. I collapse into the tunnel, clutching my position token, vowing never to do it again. Queuing to have my time recorded (they use an elegantly simple system of barcodes) the first tendrils of endorphins creep in, lending my hopelessly misjudged efforts a heroic hue. I am now convinced of the rightness of my cause, like an evangelical being born again.
The religious analogy works more generally with parkrun: every week, congregations join together in their struggle to better themselves, leaving refreshed and renewed. No doubt many will recoil at such a trite link, but I could think of worse ways to get together.