Sonia O’Sullivan: Quickly closing in on a century of parkruns

‘It’s only taken me close to 13 years but each run has a different story, a different memory’

 Sonia O’Sullivan: “These days a parkrun is a novel attraction when visiting an unfamiliar city. You’re never too far away from the Saturday morning 5km endorphin fix.” Photograph:  Julian Finney/Getty Images

Sonia O’Sullivan: “These days a parkrun is a novel attraction when visiting an unfamiliar city. You’re never too far away from the Saturday morning 5km endorphin fix.” Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

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Everyone has their own familiar traditions on St Patrick’s Day and for me it always includes going for a run.

Only this year I found myself taking an Uber taxi to a parkrun last Saturday morning. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, let alone do it.

I tend to walk or cycle or run everywhere, especially when I’m away from home and without a car.

It was familiar ground too, being back in Sydney, once again attending the Australian Junior Athletics Championships. That means four days of back and forth trips to the athletics stadium, sometimes twice in one day. It can start to wear you down a little, and that’s just sitting in the stands watching.

The original plan was to source one of the ‘free’ bikes you can pick up along the road, once you’ve set up an account and downloaded the App: OBikes, OFO bikes, red bikes, orange bikes. I had all the Apps, the only problem being there were no bikes to be found anywhere. Maybe some of them had been thrown into the river, or else up in a tree, as revealed in a recent TV investigation in Melbourne.

Another mother of one of the athletes and I had the genius idea to bring our bike helmets. That way we could send the girls off on the train each day, and we could cycle along the Parramatta river and get to the Olympic park in no time at all. And also get our exercise fix for the day.

It was also my idea to get to the closest parkrun at George Kendall riverside park, just 8kms away up on a hill overlooking the river and across to the Olympic Stadium. This is the view which always takes me back to the Sydney Olympics, nearly 18 years ago already, when my only focus of the day was to run 5,000m around the track as fast as possible.

The fact that it was St Patrick’s Day didn’t seem to register with too many of the Parramatta park runners. A few years ago I joined in an Irish themed parkrun at Westerfolds Park, where the first runners home were awarded a potato on a green ribbon. All part of the Australian St Patrick’s Day tradition.

Then another flashback in time for me, as I looked across the river after the run, at that point still a few hours before Irish sports most memorable St Patrick’s Day ever beating England at Twickenham and securing their most dominant rugby Grand Slam ever.

These days a parkrun is a novel attraction when visiting an unfamiliar city. You’re never too far away from the Saturday morning 5km endorphin fix.

My first parkrun was back in 2005, in Bushy Park, in Teddington on the outskirts of London, the birthplace of parkrun. That was just after I ran the London marathon in my best time 2:29.01, not knowing back then how the weekly parkrun would follow me around the world and remain one of the constants in my life.

Most people like to keep track of the number of parkruns, as they are all recorded on your special barcode. I am now up to 96 parkruns and closing in on a parkrun milestone of 100. It’s only taken me close to 13 years but each run has a different story, a different memory, meeting so many interesting people along the way.

Different story

In the countdown to 100, which I hope to run in Ireland at the end of April, I’ve to pick out four more Saturdays, fit it in with travel and other commitments. There is no doubt each one will tell a different story.

In recent weeks my Saturday mornings were committed to cycling but now I’m back on the running trail and pencilling in the final four with just five weeks to play with.

Still, the Saturday morning parkrun was just one activity on my Sydney agenda. There’s always some time to fill before and after races, so on day one of the Junior Championships, once I dropped my daughter Sophie off at the track with time to warm up and check in for the 800m heats, I took the opportunity to call into the headquarters of the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

This is the central set up for GWS men’s and women’s AFL teams and also a professional netball team. I was invited along to attend the last game of the season on the Friday night, and the last chance for Cora Staunton’s team to get to the Grand Final.

The headquarters at No. 1 Olympic Boulevard in Sydney Olympic Park, just a short walk away. The bright orange building stood out as I walked up the ramp, still on the lookout for a bike, but no such luck as I passed the Olympic Stadium, aquatic centre and the tennis centre.

I was already aware of the professional set-up within the women’s AFL, but on entering the training centre I was hugely impressed by the facilities. For starters, the building opens out onto a full-sized AFL training field.

Just one day before the last chance game their coach Al McConnell came to meet me and give me a quick tour of the facilities; the recovery rooms with ice baths and hot tubs, the relaxation zones and a communal kitchen with fruit and snacks and drinks all set up .

And of course a state-of-the-art gym with every possible piece of equipment that you could imagine, plenty of space to stretch out and feel at home.

The players are encouraged to come early, prepare for training and recover after. There are also meeting rooms and a special area for washing and cleaning the gear after training and games.

It makes me realise how much harder sports like athletics have to work to keep their athletes involved in the sport. When team sports have such professional set-ups it’s a very attractive option now available for aspiring young girls .

Lost opportunity

There was a brand new shower and changing area for the girls, who’ve just been in operation for two years, everything else on the facility is for use of the men’s and women’s teams. Maybe the US scholarship system is the most comparable set-up available to those that choose athletics, but otherwise I’ve never seen anything else like it.

Unfortunately the recent run of wins ended for the Giants on Friday night, beaten by the Brisbane Lions, who had all the momentum in the first quarter and made it an impossible task for the Giants to chase.

Devastated with the loss, there was no hiding from the lost opportunity in the dressing room. Hard truths were pointed out on the white board, the end of a season a suddenly unwelcome realisation.

Lessons learned, but maybe also opportunities for young Irish women footballers to now consider that Cora has opened the door into the women’s AFL, and that they can start to look further afield, and to explore a possible professional football career at the highest level in Australia. It may soon become a more familiar tradition.

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