No time … for a change?

Saturday 7 March 2020

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and, in celebration, Parkrun are on the radio this morning, encouraging women to join them this weekend. It is true that this national running organisation does attract female members, indeed they make up 52% of the registration. The sadder statistic however is that, whilst they constitute over half of those who have signed up, women make up only 44% of actual participants in the weekly 5K. Of the 1.8 million registered on Parkrun, 650 000 women have yet to take part. I wonder how many men too have signed up but not taken that significant step of actually standing on the starting line. It seems such a shame, because running can be wonderful for the heart and soul. There will doubtless be many reasons behind this but one issue I have pondered recently is the value of the timing chip. Do we really need to record times and ranks and aim to ‘beat personal bests’ every time we pull on our running shoes? Does competition actually motivate people to take part in sport and exercise or does it just put up more barriers? Does a list just reinforce the fear that you are ‘not as good’ as everyone else? Is it time to ditch the Garmin and try ‘no times’ for a change?

I am no anti-competition zealot, in fact I am quite the opposite at a personal level. I recall coming ‘second in category‘ once in a Parkrun and immediately spending the next few weeks running to the point of vomiting, in an attempt to come ‘first’. On one 10K, I broke the 55 minute barrier and was so thrilled that I worked my finishing time into the next computer password-change at work! My worry however is that I am not the target audience for the latest national fitness campaign. I have always been pretty active: a child gymnast, a school long jump champion, a uni netball player, a regular (before I became a single parent) at aerobics, yoga and even adult ballet! I don’t need running to get active. I choose my trainers to keep up a decent level of fitness because running is friendly, free, flexible… and has never involved childcare .

The people the government needs to reach are the half of women and the third of men who are not active enough for good health. In their 2020 report, Health Matters, Public Health England outline the significant benefits of exercise for our physical and mental well-being. They also explore the difficulties for adults not engaged in sport and activity. These are varied and, in some cases, complex but most barriers are internal ones and I find their fear that exercise is ‘not for people like me‘ a little heart breaking. Would those battling to find the confidence to move to a more active life really be helped by a timing chip? Competition, yes it is great if you are a competitor. But if you’re not? If you are the name at the foot of the list how does that feel?

I once took the kids to Parkrun. Two were fine, but Prom-dress daughter got in a panic about the number of people in front of us compared to the dwindling amount behind.

What if I am last?” she whispered tearfully.

I really don’t care if we are last ” I encouraged her in reply “In fact I will be proud. We are out here running and keeping fit and that’s what really matters.”

But it wasn’t what really mattered to my daughter that day and she refused to finish. The same child ran happily around the laid back and festival feel of the Race for Life 5K and has recently completed a 6 hour Duke of Edinburgh hike. Her fear was the list and the label. Because for every top 10, others must be condemned to be in the bottom 10.

I may have stumbled across running because of single parent circumstances but now I love it. Love the oxygen in my lungs. Love the freshness in my face. Love the strength in my legs Love the calmness in my mind and lightness in my soul. Love the feeling of life and vitality. I claim there’s a ‘runner’s glow’, a joy that comes from just being out there and feeling your body move. And, whereas I have long since lost any of the toy medals you get given at the end of a ‘race’, this feeling stays for ever! And I would love to empower more people to experience it.

I did once post on a Parkrun forum the notion that this event could become the one timing-free race in the running calendar. It went down like a lead balloon (I still quake at the memory!) And probably rightly so. One very valid point, in a tide of perplexed pb-obsessed outrage, was with over 2 million runners Parkrun have clearly found a winning formula so why meddle with it. And they are right, I have absolutely no right to hi-jack their event. So perhaps instead, when I have retired and have some time, I’ll set up my own event. A strava-free zone, where ranks, times and judgement are vetoed. It’s our pace, our distance, our minds and bodies growing stronger with every step and we just ‘run because we love it’.

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