Running on MC – how Athletics’ second wind has got college running back on track

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As a basic human function, running will always hold a special place amongst sports. However, the elite athletic performance seems such a far cry from what the average runner can achieve, it is easy to be discouraged from participation.

Lockdown unlocked a new generation of casual runners, with people restricted to very few forms of exercise. Overall outdoor miles increased by 34% just across 2020, meaning many more people gained a taste of what running can offer. At Durham University, the last couple of years have also seen a massive boom in participation, in the wake of wider popularisation of running.

Durham’s college running co-ordinator, Morgan Kendall, has been a large part of the growth in college running. ‘My role is that I am in charge of overseeing the college running clubs and trying to promote all of the college running clubs’.

College running clubs offer a much more casual route into athletic participation than Durham University Athletics and Cross Country, commonly known as DUAXC. Participation in Durham’s parkrun will earn points for your college towards a yearly competition, as will success in the inter-college relays.

College running is a relatively new phenomenon in Durham. Even just last year, only Van Mildert and St Mary’s College were competitive at the top of the leaderboard, and multiple clubs were only set up during the academic year, such as South. Many clubs have become much more competitive this year – a special shout out to Hild Bede.

At Durham University, the last couple of years have also seen a massive boom in participation, in the wake of wider popularisation of running

College running has given opportunities to colleges that wouldn’t usually compete for sporting accolades. At the time of writing, St Mary’s have twice as many points as anyone else from park runs this year, while Collingwood lie in eleventh place, having only recently been set up.

Such is the rapid rise, the college running bingo is almost complete. ‘At the moment we’re still missing Ustinov and Aidan’s, but we’ll try and get them going’. If there are any runners from those two colleges, this may be your call to action.

The parkrun scoring system has had a reboot this year. ‘It doesn’t matter what ability you are – you can score points for your college. Last year’s system was you got two points for taking part and the top ten runners got points. I’ve kept that but decided to add some new incentives. If you do your first parkrun of the season, you get three bonus points, and you also get three bonus points for getting a personal best’.

The new incentives certainly seem to be working. ‘This year is so much better already, there are about seven or eight colleges who are really keen on it, which is great to see. 180 unique runners have submitted a time this year. Last year it was only really Mildert and Mary’s competing, maybe St Cuths sometimes.’

When Palatinate doesn’t get in the way, I have massively enjoyed my time spent down at Maiden Castle on a Saturday morning. Parkrun is a fantastically invigorating way to start your weekend, whether it’s for a pleasant jog or a week-defining race against friends (guilty).

Parkrun is a fantastically invigorating way to start your weekend

Inter-college relays have proved popular this year. Kendall notes ‘last year we had eight teams – this year we had 24 over about ten different colleges. Even later into the term, when you would expect numbers to drop off, we had 20 teams still competing.’

So, what is it that draws people into running? Well, for Kendall, the key word seems to be happiness. ‘It’s provided me with so much happiness socially, so much happiness within myself – I’ve met so many amazing people through the sport.’

As club college membership has increased, club socials are a natural progression. Such is the solitary nature of running as a sport, this more social side has a lot of ground to make up to reach the social popularity of major sports such as running or football.

DUAXC has also benefited from the rise in running numbers. ‘I feel like it’s a lot more inclusive than a lot of other DU clubs because generally you have to be at the top end of your sport. In DUAXC, so long as you’re above average, maybe be able to run a below 25 minute parkrun, you’d be able to fit in very comfortably to the DUAXC fold. I have seen popularity increase, but the numbers are definitely growing much faster on the college side.’

A couch to 5k initiative has also been set up, with the intention of encouraging those who aren’t active to be able to complete a park run at the end of the eight week course, starting in week twelve of the academic year.

But of course, it’s not just about the University. The majority of park runners are locals, the best of whom will run for Durham City Harriers, one of the most successful clubs in the North East and currently placed third in the top division following promotion last year. ‘Being integrated into the university community is great but it is a bubble sometimes – it’s nice to be part of something local. They have an agreement with DUAXC to supply coaching and equipment, and in return the university allows them to use the track for free. It’s encouraging people into the sport locally.’

There are strong ties to the University. Kendall explains ‘Cian [Rynne], my coach in DUAXC, is the chairman of Durham City Harriers and is honestly one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever met. I can guarantee if you’re training, he’ll know exactly who you are and exactly what you’re training towards.’

Speaking to Cian Rynne, it was clear how passionate he was about the sport. He told Palatinate, ‘I am a full-time employee of the university working in research, it is not my job to do this, I do it as part of a community partnership so that my local athletics club can gain access to the universities sports facilities at no additional cost.’

It is pleasing to see how the running community has expanded even just in my four terms in Durham

‘I would consider my sports group one of the most inclusive in the entire university – nobody is turned away for not being good enough because I believe cross country is a mass participation sport and everyone can benefit and improve from taking part in it.’

Despite positives within the group, DUAXC have had a few obstacles to overcome this term. Only last week they were told they were not allowed to run on the Maiden Castle grass due to concerns over frequent rain turning the fields into a mudbath. This restricted them to a solitary track session a week and has forced the group the group to find new areas, such as the Maths and Computer Science car park.

The final piece of the Durham running puzzle is the parkrun tourism society, a club which travels to various park runs around the North East every weekend. ‘It’s a nice way to explore the North East and I’ve seen some amazing new places from it. Fountains Abbey was my favourite, and cliffside runs such as Peterlee and Whitley Bay are highlights too.’

One of the more common regrets I hear amongst Durham students is their lack of engagement with the wider North East. Despite the early rises, parkrun tourism may be the structured exploration these students are craving. Places such as Morpeth, Darlington, and Hexham have been visited by the society. Everyone knows Durham is a bubble. Escaping it every so often, especially for such a beneficial pastime as running, is a healthy change.

It is pleasing to see how the running community has expanded even just in my four terms in Durham. Many of my friends run casually now and a good number are willing to drag themselves out of bed on a Saturday morning for park run. I would encourage the reader, should they have the time, to give running a try. It seems like almost everyone else is.

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