Time gentlemen – An Irishman’s Diary about parkruns and marathons

‘As the thousands passed Kilmainham Gaol, near my house (and the marathon’s 12-mile mark), I made as much noise for them as possible.’ Photograph:  David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

‘As the thousands passed Kilmainham Gaol, near my house (and the marathon’s 12-mile mark), I made as much noise for them as possible.’ Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

 

While 20,000 people were taking on a more heroic distance at the weekend, I ran a rather modest race myself, a mere 5km.

But at least it was in a good cause: this newspaper’s annual fundraiser for Féileacáin (a stillbirth and neonatal bereavement charity) and Women’s Aid. And as a subset of the weekly parkrun in Raheny, in Dublin, it was also part of a phenomenon that now dwarfs even the biggest city marathons.

Founded in London in 2004, the parkrun movement now features in 17 countries on four continents. It reached Ireland only in 2012, but has already expanded to 70 venues here, with at least one in most counties (only Wicklow and Leitrim remain immune).

According to the latest figures, 108,678 different competitors have entered at least one race. But the average is 7.4. That means the total of individual Irish parkrun 5km entries is now more than 800,000 and heading for a million.The concept is universal. Events are always free and always on Saturdays at 9.30am. They take place on accurately measured courses in public parks, with every finisher timed and PBs – “Personal Bests” – noted in the archive.

But courses are not cordoned off. So participants have to share space with regular park users, who on Saturday mornings seem to be mostly dogs and their owners. Somehow, this mass cohabitation has been peaceful. I haven’t heard of any runners (or dogs) being bitten yet.

Entering a few of the early Dublin parkruns five years ago, I ran what was then my 21st-century PB for the distance. Yes, I’ve had better centuries. Even so, I seemed for a while to be closing in on a sub-20 minute time: borderline respectable for a man of my great age.

A dip in form

Since then, there has been what I’m still calling a “dip in form”. The possibility of it being another kind of dip – the one you experience when over the hill – remains a vista too appalling to contemplate. In any case, the promise of a sub-20 time has vanished for now. So has sub-21, followed quickly, like a receding hairline, by sub-22.

On recent outings, even 23 minutes has been a struggle. It got to the point where, for a while, in desperate pursuit of athletic excellence, I seriously considered giving up drink: one of the few training techniques I haven’t yet tried. Then I went with the “dip in form” theory instead.

So I was very grateful when the St Anne’s organisers provided a 23-minute pacemaker on Saturday. And that, by the way, is another part of the parkrun phenomenon. In an age when community spirit is supposed dead, the movement is staffed by volunteers.

These don’t usually include pace-makers but in Raheny they did. And after hitching a lift with the 23-minute man most of the way (thanks Colm), I was still feeling pretty good on the run-in. So for the first time in a while, I pressed the “Chariots of Fire” button on my internal jukebox, hit the overtaking lane, and sprinted home in a blaze of imagined glory. The dream is not dead yet, maybe.

Marathon masterclass

Twenty-four hours later, however, at the weekend’s main event, I was happy to be a mere spectator. As the thousands passed Kilmainham Gaol, near my house (and the marathon’s 12-mile mark), I made as much noise for them as possible. But even as a race supporter, I soon found myself outpaced by a man opposite, who was giving a masterclass in vocal encouragement.

Like all the best supporters, he had a motivational mantra. Any competitor who caught his eye was assured that he or she was running a “Great time!”, as if he was a coach keeping personal track. And when the first people passed, their times were certainly impressive. But over the next hour and half, he must have used the phrase 300 times, never sounding anything less than sincere.

He faltered only a little as the event progressed, and participants slowed dramatically. That in general is where short motivational mantras get found out. They work well when people are zipping past. Later, the risk is that you launch your phrase too early, and then have to pad it out with small talk as the target continues to approach.

Sometimes, the “Great time!” mantra was followed by uncomfortably prolonged eye contact, dissolving into mutual smiles, sympathetic or ironic. Even in Kilmainham, you could see competitors whose race was already an ordeal. In keeping with the backdrop of a prison wall, they weren’t so much running time as serving it.

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