Durham Parkrun: the place to be

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There are many routes on which to stretch your legs and run within the time-battered corners of Durham. Among its dew-dripping hills and leaf-stained lanes, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to discovering your favourite jog.

However, there is one place and route like no other on offer under the ancient eyes of the cathedral: Durham Parkrun.

Having enjoyed 489 weekly events (at the time of writing) in its growing history, this simple 5km run is fast becoming a concrete institution for those seeking a leisurely jog alongside friends and family. Utterly free-of-charge and situated beside the gushing currents of the River Wear, on paper it is only meekly challenging to recognise the attraction of the occasion.

Nevertheless, with a dodgy knee and sleep-filled eyes, I recently decided to embark on my own experience of this affair and see what all the fuss is about. There are many regrets associated with this participation, but my attendance isn’t one.

How it went

If three years living in Durham has taught me anything, it is that waking oneself up before 9am is a challenge beyond identifiable comparison. The willpower required for such an effort consists only of awesome strength and some other element deep within that eludes recognition.

Yet, I had a duty to perform. So, with a hard-faced grimace and a gritting of my teeth, I hunted down my running gear whilst throwing my waking carcass out of bed. Upon completion of those menial tasks, I proceeded to breach my front door to a brave, new morning. How different the world is at that time of day.

Now, before continuing, it is necessary that I provide some form of clarification in relation to certain, relevant details. The first is that I have been going to Parkrun intermittently for the last five years. The second is that I have attended Durham Parkrun on several occasions in my former role as Castle Running Society’s esteemed president.

Thus, it is obvious that this experience was anything but my first rodeo. Nonetheless, a challenge for myself was still afoot: I am presently recovering from a rather mean injury to my knee, with my ligament slowly rebuilding to its past strength. Therefore, a redemption story was underway on that dim Saturday morning, and I was determined to secure a happy ending.

A mushy trek to Maiden Castle ensued my departure and, before I was aware of my most integral of senses, I found myself within a gathering of around 300 participants. Whilst performing the energising stretches that have gradually become the most demeaning of duties before my running activities, I dared to take stock of those surrounding me.

The initial stage of the run consisted of a grassy bottleneck, with leftover twigs and freshly formed mudheaps posing the greatest challenge

Upon the mound devised as an impromptu announcement stage was gathered a huddle of beaming event organisers, all adorned with hi-vis jackets and consumed by an irrepressible aroma of morning coffee.

With a swift glance of my eyes, I saw that below these willing volunteers was situated an array of faces and figures who had arrived from far and wide. Sports clubs, spaniels, Simons and Sarahs made up this mass of eagerness and determination, and I soon developed the sensation that I had walked into a welcoming family affair, with everyone gathered possessing one simple aim: to have fun, and lots of it at that.

Eventually, 9am rolled its unfamiliar presence onto the fore and with it came the call outs and speech necessary before any Parkrun across the world.

“Quiet down, quiet down please!” The chief organiser beckoned as the casual humming of conversation dulled into relaxed obedience. Names and claps followed, as those achieving Parkrun milestones received their due congratulations.

A round of applause was also reserved for one volunteer whose sixth birthday was on the horizon. At that moment after dawn, I could only envy his fervent energy.

After all the fun stuff, some safety protocols were read. We were to give way to any pedestrians and ensure that those under the age of eleven were kept by our sides at all times. Fortunately, I was without such an accomplice.

Instead, I had my music. Sometimes a hint of external motivation is required to get those muscles twitching.

Suddenly, it was high time to gather at the start line. The winds of the weekend bustled upon its propped-up mark, and electronic watches sprung themselves into well-paid for action. I must admit that such moments never fail to make my nerves jingle slightly. The mud faced me on the grass-devoid ground. I was ready, regardless.

Three. Two. One. And with the straightforward blast of a whistle, we were off.

With devout immediacy, I sought to prance my way through the pacing crowd. The initial stage of the run consisted of a grassy bottleneck, with leftover twigs and freshly formed mudheaps posing the greatest challenge.

My breath tried pathetically to develop some sort of rhythm, and I was left cursing the socials of the week just past. Regrets hit hard at all the wrong moments.

Soon enough, however, I found my way as our train of fluorescent shirts powered its way onto the Maiden Castle’s very own (and very boggy) grass pitches. Who truly likes rugby, anyway?

Pictured: The finish line always brings about a breath-taking experience. (Image: )

And that was when my knee began to falter. All the stretches, lunges and NHS appointed physiotherapists had seemingly proved pointless. That knobbly Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of flesh and bone had twisted out of shape, with my cadence and potency quickly waning under the pressure of my curry-filled belly from the night before. Another regret hit its own sucker punch.

Yet, I refused to pause for cartilage-motivated adjustments and plodded on across the unexpected marshland. Being overtaken is never a pretty moment to witness, but there are sometimes bigger battles to fight. My own body was evidently one in itself.

After a while of plodding and panting, I entered the still-autumnal and remarkably narrow concourse presiding before Hild Bede. Some form of consistent pace was beginning to impose itself upon my being now, and I quickly recognised just how early it was in the morning. Why do we enforce such suffering on ourselves? What was the point in embracing my alarm? Is the snooze button really all that bad?

Despite these invasive and self-flagellating thoughts, I continued to dodge and weave through the sand and sludge spit up by the ever-flowing River Wear. The end was in sight, if only I could keep going.

But I couldn’t. The pain was too much. In that moment, sweat and tears of pain rolled into one messy picture. I had even managed to halt before the day’s specially appointed cameraman. My face flushed with embarrassment and despair.

A flutter of smiling and encouraging faces flashed by and over the ridiculously arched bridge. Had I failed? Was this it?

Somehow, some way, I found a glowing remnant of long-utilised energy. My mother has always said that this hint of second wind is every runner’s trick, and I was glad it refused to give up on me just yet.

So, with shaking legs and worn arms, I stumbled to a light jog. The bandstand was there before me; only a long stretch of brick and mortar divided our union.

The faces stayed encouraging and supportive, genuinely glad to see me back on my feet

The jog, brilliantly, inevitably, grew into a steady sprint. Every muscle could be felt now – every verve, twinge and flex were my own. I was in control and took flight. One, two, three and I had suddenly recovered lost ground.

The faces stayed encouraging and supportive, genuinely glad to see me back on my feet. Spit and windy tears ran across my cheeks as I brashly staggered over the finish line.

My mind immediately turned to next Saturday. I could not wait to embark on this odyssey again. I had won the battle with my knee miraculously still intact. Regret? There was no such thing.

What I learnt

9am on a Saturday is, naturally, an impossibility for most students. How can one fit in a college bar crawl (preferably on the Bailey), a night in one of Klute, Jimmy’s or Osbourne’s, as well as this silly jog by the Racecourse? What is even enjoyable about running at that time?

All such objections and suggestions are valid and understandable. There has been many an occasion when I have simply refused to drag myself out of bed and into some soggy trainers. The rain, mud, implicit competitiveness, and journey to Maiden Castle are often insurmountable deterrents.

Nevertheless, there is a lingering sentiment of achievement that lies in participating in Parkrun. There may be several routes to choose in and around this grand, old city. However, none quite possess the camaraderie of suffering with others on a damp Saturday morning, nor do they provide the chance of attaining self-improvement alongside a community of friends and soon-to-be mates.

Sometimes, when running alone, it is hard to garner self-support. Sometimes, one plainly needs a smiling face or a clap of encouragement.

Would it have been possible for me to carry on after my brief but bruising battle with my knee? I highly doubt it. But it was those beaming smiles and brilliant shirts that carried me up and towards the finish line. That is what I learnt about Parkrun, and it is a lesson I shall hold in high regard into the future and beyond.

Message from the Durham University Parkrun Tourist Society:

The Durham University Parkrun Tourist Society officially started this year and has had a hugely successful first term. The society travels to a different parkrun each Saturday across the North East (and hopefully even beyond!), exploring new locations and meeting new people while kicking off the weekend with a great workout.

The society prides itself on being inclusive of all abilities and creating a friendly atmosphere as a part of the fantastic Parkrun community. If running is not for you, but you want to get outside, meet new people, or visit new places, then the Parkrun Tourist Society provides a terrific opportunity for that too. It is also important to note that we are planning on some exciting Parkrun-themed socials this term, which won’t disappoint!

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email parkrun.tourists@durham.ac.uk and join the Facebook group Durham Parkrun Tourists Society 2022/23 for more information.

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