Update on my 800m training – Jan 2023

I feel like I’m in wash-rinse-repeat with my training at the moment. I keep cycling through the right training sessions yet the race results keep coming out the same. I can see some improvement in the stats and speed, yet when I race it is no faster. But this really is the secret to coaching – figuring out where to apply effort.

Coming into January I was working on top-end speed using short intervals lasting around a minute. The pace was intended to be at my calculated 3K-pace broken into sets. The sessions I did were made harder by high winds and I ran my 300s along a section of road which caught the brunt of it along with a gradual hill in the first/last 100 metres depending on which direction I was headed.

Illness strikes …

I had done two sessions at the end of December then my Sunday run went backwards. I wasn’t too concerned as a VO2 lull usually happens at the start of a new training block. But there was a concern – my sister brought a hacking cough to visit over the Christmas period and I fell under its spell. I wasn’t terrible but I was struggling. Yet after a couple of days, I felt slightly better and mistakenly did a 3rd session which, while generally close to target, led me to scale back training as the coughing got worse. I missed the next session of 300s and focused on getting healthy, but was still running each day. By the following Monday it had gone. My mother is still coughing all these weeks later whereas mine was gone in ten days. This is why I believe in keeping fit and healthy especially as you get older. With a good aerobic system your body’s immune system can fight stuff.

Race taper

With only two weeks left to the rescheduled Christchurch Christmas 10K, I knew I needed to taper so I did one more session of 300s and then an even sharper session of 10x100m with 30s standing recovery aiming for 5:30/mile. I found them really easy which probably aligns with why I’m better suited to short distance than long.

A week ahead of the 10K, I went to Poole parkrun on what was an atrocious day. Very high winds and rain. It was absolutely pelting down as I arrived but had eased off by the start. Once again my speed seemed lacking as the first kilometre only came in at 4mins. Along the windiest stretch I ran a 4:20km – at 6’2” and broad I’ve got a large frontal surface area to be blown back. The finishing stretch headed into the wind a second time and having passed them earlier, five men now passed me as my pace dropped to 8min/mile and I felt like I was barely moving. My finish time of 21:02 was good enough to place 19th. I’d guess it’s a long time since Poole parkrun’s 19th finisher ran over twenty-one minutes. While I could make excuses for the wind and rain, the fact is my opening kilometre of 4-mins was fresh-legged and running with the wind; however much others may suggest a sub-20 was on the cards; it wasn’t.


Christchurch 10K itself reinforced this analysis. The run was another cold morning and it was a shame to see the race not as well attended as it would have been before Christmas – less than 200 runners. Many of the others had deferred their places until next December because they’ve started marathon training or other races were taking place on the same day.

I set off quickly not holding back, but again my kilometres were all over four minutes. I reached 5K in 20:38 and then held on for the second half to finish in 42min08. I was somewhat disappointed as it was only fifteen seconds or so faster than last year. All my efforts from a year’s training had added barely anything. However my heart-rate monitor told a different story. Last year my average heart-rate was 159, on this day it was only 152. That’s incredibly low for me on any race. I’d expect it to be up around 161bpm. What it suggests is my fuel source is mostly aerobic but something is blocking me from running faster. When I look at the final miles the pace is consistently 7min/mile.

Finding the problem

On the Tuesday before the race I did a 7-8 mile Steady run averaging 7:17/mile. I felt blocked to run any faster, when I arrived home I realised I had put in more effort than I should have. On the Friday following the race, I did a Steady run at the beach – just letting my body pick up speed and it settled around 7:35-40/mile with heart-rate hitting 150ish. It was a completely comfortable run but slower than I expected.

The day after the Steady run at the beach I went to Upton House parkrun and ran 21:58 averaging only 149bpm. I started slowly and picked up pace as the run went on. But again, it was a big effort to get any much quicker than 7min/mile on tired legs.

A quick look at my old favourite, the Jack Daniels’ tables shows a VDOT of 49 results in a 20:18 5K and 42:04 10K. My Christmas Day parkrun was 20:27 so matches up quite nicely to this. Jack’s tables give a Threshold of 6:55, a Marathon pace of 7:24 and Easy run pace of 8:40. Each of these matches with what I’ve found in training.

Fixing the problem

All these facts – speed of steady runs, not being able to run quicker at parkrun or 10Ks, lower heart-rate when racing, feeling the pace at which I have to put effort in to go faster suggest my aerobic system is clogged and causing the anaerobic system to kick in too early.

In all my years I’ve learned that you have to trust the results from races, especially longer ones where speed counts less. However good things may feel in training or what the heart-rate monitor may suggest, race results are the best guide to what needs to be done.

I could probably just get faster doing Steady runs twice per week with easy runs or recoveries on other days but I want to experiment a little. I want to see whether I can do the same set of Threshold intervals I did this time last year but with more control. I’m going to stay at around 7min/mile as VDOT suggests it’s my Threshold and see if that filters things down.

The block of training I did last year through February and March went well and began with intervals at 6:50 pace and by the end I was closing in on 6:30; but when I arrived at April’s half marathon my legs had nothing. I’d overcooked it. This time I’m going to make sure I don’t exceed Threshold by focusing on my breathing. That will be my guide. Last year, I was pushing efforts to hit a target and it didn’t work.

I did my first session on Tuesday and having warmed up for two easy miles averaging 7:20/mile – not that far off the repeats pace – I began the session.  I accelerated just past 7min/mile and the mile repeats then felt limited at around 6:55 – in line with Jack’s prediction. But, unlike last year, it never felt too taxing and I never had to push harder to hit similar numbers. I’m going to give it three weeks of these and see how things are progressing. If it isn’t going to plan then I’ll drop back to doing the Steady runs instead.

Meeting PSH – parkrun founder

Last Saturday morning I arrived at Upton House parkrun a little earlier than usual and, given I was only doing a recovery run, I wasn’t too interested in doing too much of a warm-up beyond running from the car to the start line. For some reason, it was one of those Saturdays where I couldn’t help but bump into friends (Helen, Jason, Andy, Greg, Michelle, Rob and Phil but not Rory).

On hearing the Run Director’s speech begin, I wandered through the pack towards the start line and then noticed a familiar face. It was Paul Sinton-Hewitt – the founder of parkrun. I tapped him on the shoulder, said “Hello” and he then called to his wife, Jo; but with the announcements continuing it didn’t seem right to encourage the founder to talk through the speeches!

At the Start sign, I observed the Britishness of the other runners standing two metres behind it, and then we were off. About a kilometre in, I caught up with Greg and babbled on at him about how to run distance, being competitive and all manner of other things. With half a kilometre left, I became aware we were hogging the path and a faster runner was stuck behind us. I half-turned and signalled for them to come through and the familiar accent of PSH replied “It’s okay I’m happy to let you take the wind”.

Running with Paul Sinton-Hewitt

I first met Paul and Jo when I was part of the core team setting up Poole parkrun in 2011. He came down to show us the ropes and look over the course. I’ve since met him a few more times at various parkruns and he’s always very friendly.

The story of how he came to start parkrun is well documented and begins when he was in a “dark place” in his life: “I got fired from my job, I lost my girlfriend, I got injured running.”  The knock-on of the injury was he was missing his running friends so he decided to start a weekly time trial on Saturday mornings with coffee afterwards. This became known as Bushy Park Time Trial for which he built his own database and published the results. Having started with thirteen runners it grew slowly over the next year to almost a hundred. It continued to grow by word of mouth with extra events opening slowly over the next five years and they eventually rebranded to parkrun and went worldwide.

What intrigues me is where this idea came from? Paul has always said his dream is for everybody to have a parkrun at the end of their road if they want one. Interviewed in 2016 he said “”Parkrun’s simple concept should – and really can – exist in every town in the world. No-one should ever have to pay to go running in their community regularly, safely and for fun”.

When I’ve talked to Paul, I can’t help but notice he speaks with a distinct accent which I think is South African. I may be wrong about this, it may be from one of the neighbouring countries or somewhere completely different. If he is from South Africa then it would tie up with something I read some years ago about their running culture.

When I first explored the science of training to go quicker, I spent hours poring over Stephen Seiler’s now-defunct MAPP website. Under the Running section he had filed a series of articles by Steve Couper of the Dead Runners Society. I can’t find anything of Couper now so I can give no more credit than was provided on Seiler’s website. Couper wrote:

Mention “time trial” to a South African runner and he/she will immediately think of a low-key weekly race organized by a running club. These are held on weekday evenings starting between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the city (to compensate for the country not having time zones). There is no entry fee and anyone is welcome – not just members of the organizing club. There is no formal sign-up procedure. One just shows up and runs. I’ve run time trials where just one other person has turned up and I’ve run others which draw well over 100 runners each week. The depth of the competition is also highly variable.

Doesn’t that just sound like parkrun as we know it. He continues:

At some time trials the results of all finishers are recorded and the first few places even reported in the mainstream daily newspapers. At others times may just be called out as each runner crosses the finish line.

Twenty years ago time trials were all 8K or 5 miles in length. Now there is much more variation. Many offer a choice of two distances, typically 4K and 8K. Because the time trials are run in the dark (at least in winter), during the tail end of the evening rush “hour” and without marshals or police assistance, laying out a course can be quite challenging. Most 8K courses will be over two laps and will cross a few quiet residential streets but no major intersections. The course will usually be measured very accurately.

Living in Cape Town in the late 1970s, I used to run time trials regularly – often doing 2 per week. This was the only regular speedwork I was doing but it was sufficient to enable me to race often and relatively well. When I first moved to Pretoria in 1980 there was just one regular time trial – over a hilly 6.6K route. In order to do tempo runs at a standard distance I eventually laid out and organized an 8K time trial. When we returned to Pretoria for 8 months in 1993/4 there were at least 5 weekly time trials within an easy warmup jog of our house.

The bold parts are my emphasis but I’m pretty sure this is where the inspiration for parkrun came from. In running there are few new ideas just a reinvention or updating of existing ones. Sometimes the time is right to bring an old idea back into the foreground as it was in October 2004 when Paul started Bushy Park Time Trial.

Positive and wishful thinking

At Christmas Day parkrun in Poole, I arrived unsure of what to expect. I’d run 20:26 at The Great Field a month before and 21:01 at Upton House more recently. With Poole being notably faster there was a glimmer of hope I might squeeze under twenty minutes. But I knew I’d run 5x1K intervals earlier in the week so my legs could still be tired. I was happy when I recorded 20:11.

What’s always intrigued me are the runners who can’t be happy with the time they get. My 20:11 on Christmas Day was my fastest parkrun in four years. Yet I know some runners who wouldn’t be happy with that. In response to a time of 20:11 they’d say something like “I wish I could have got under twenty minutes”. Instead of being happy with their fastest time in years they manage to diminish the achievement.

This is wishful thinking in all its glory. Their minds are off somewhere else wishing for what they want, not what’s actually happened. If they could live in the moment they’d savour that time.

– If they ran hard from start to end, giving their absolute best, then there is nothing more they could have done. So what’s to be unhappy about?

– If for some reason, they know didn’t put in full effort then they got the result they deserved. They can’t be unhappy with the time, they need to be unhappy with themselves and their approach. They need to hold themselves accountable, learn the lesson and adjust in the future. With running times, you get out whatever you put in.

People often talk about needing to develop positive thinking or optimism, this is different to wishful thinking. When I run a time of 20:11, it gives me confidence that I will be able to break twenty minutes. I think of all the things I haven’t yet worked on in training. All the sessions of speedwork, tempo running, base-building and pace development that are there to be worked on. On top of that there’s all the potential supplemental stuff like shoes, nutrition, compression socks that might shave seconds off. That’s my version of positive thinking. The only time I ever got downhearted and lost my optimism was a period when I couldn’t see any new openings to try. Even when I’m running badly – it is what it is. Having a plan for how I’m going to work my way out of the slump keeps me positive.

The interesting thing about the wishful thinkers is they call themselves realists yet they don’t live in reality. The truth is they’re pessimists – they can’t even be honest with themselves about what to call themselves. They never dare to dream big or set challenging goals, trying everything they can in pursuit of achieving them. They don’t take responsibility for their training, they don’t try new things or different approaches they keep it as safe as possible. When they run out of their limited array of options, all they can do is wish they could have been faster.

Review of the year – 2021

I’m not sure what to make of 2021 as a running year. My goal at the start of the year was to train for the 800m and improve on the 2:58 time I recorded in December 2020. I’m under no illusions that this is not a particularly good time even for a fifty year old. I religiously followed Jack Daniels’ training plan and when I next time trialled in April, I’d only improved to 2:55. Another time trial in early June was 2:53 and after another round of following the training plan I was only down to 2:49 in October. It really hasn’t been very satisfying progress from a results perspective.

Final sprint to the line at Christchurch 10K in 2021

From a process perspective, much seems to have happened. I’ve generally got fitter. At start of year I was running some of my recovery miles as slow as ten minutes; by year end I was feeling comfortable at eight minute miles. My general training speed has improved and there was a notable difference in how I felt on my 800 time trial. Last December I was absolutely gasping by the end of it with the lactate build-up leaving me coughing for the next hour. Each of this year’s time trials has felt progressively better, less hard breathing, even if I’ve not been significantly faster. All of this summarises to having built a better aerobic system.

Over the year, I’ve lost a stone in weight. I started the year at 188lbs (13st 6lbs) and am now below 175lbs. I’ve never been this light or chiselled in my life. Half the weight loss happened in the early months when I geared up and did the tough interval training; the other half when I started doing a low volume of press-ups and bicep curls daily. On that front, I’ve at least doubled my capacity for doing press-ups in six months.

While endurance has improved. I’ve been wondering about my top-end speed. At year start, I knew I was struggling there as I couldn’t even hit a peak speed of five minute per mile pace running flat out. Now, I will say this is to be treated with a little scepticism because the accuracy of my GPS watch is not quick to lock in. It takes fifteen seconds but even so, by year end I’ve seen myself hit 4:13/mile on it. Again I’m aware this is not a great top end speed, given that Olympic distance runners do whole races at this pace.

Digging back through my records, I found myself hitting 3:38/mile when I was younger at the end of parkruns. Again I treat this with some scepticism as GPS can be wonky but I also suspect it’s relatively accurate. Ultimately the best 800m runners in the world are averaging a 3:20/mile pace for the men and 3:50/mile for the women. They can run fast over short distances – I can’t even hit these paces yet.

Throughout 2021 I’ve been exploring ways to improve my top end speed. This has ranged from looking at cadence and trying step-over drills; thinking about form generally; to doing twice-weekly sessions of sprint drills which really seem to be making a difference. As I exited 2021, my running form had begun to feel different in a positive way. I finally feel like I’ve got a back kick and the trail leg is shortening when I try to run quickly. I’m becoming glute-powered rather than quad-powered.

What I haven’t done to improve my speed, for deliberate reasons, is any hill work. I tried that in 2020 and within two weeks, I’d blown my aerobic base as the fast-twitch muscle began to overpower it. While it would be useful to get the fast-twitch speed back, I need to do it in a controlled manner, waiting until base is bigger and capable of handling high levels of anaerobic work.

From a racing perspective there hasn’t been much. The big positive was the return of parkrun in July. At my fiftieth birthday, I managed a 21:20 Upton House Personal Best. Then over the last few months I’ve been reducing that with runs of 20:55 there again, 20:26 at The Great Field parkrun and a touching distance of sub-twenty – 20:11 at Poole on Christmas Day.

The great thing about running 20:11 on Christmas Day is it’s not notably worse than ten years ago when I was forty and running 20:00 on Christmas Eve 2011. This is also true of my 10K.  At Christchurch in 2011 I ran 42:23; this year I was one second slower at 42:24 !!

Ten years ago, I was on my way up with my run training and I didn’t have any understanding of the interaction of speed, endurance and recovery; and how to bring them together to perform at your best. I had much more speed then because it’s all I tried to do, whereas now I’m coming at running from the endurance end. I’m hopeful I’ll be adding aerobic speed this winter that will see me surpassing all previous bests. I don’t like to rely on luck or hope but … fingers crossed!

This reflects the negative about Jack’s plan. I don’t feel it’s helped me improve at the top-end speed as there’s nothing in the schedule dedicated to building it in the first place. The best 800m runners are often coming to the event capable of running 400m in less than fifty seconds (as young adults) and then building the endurance to hang on. For this reason, I’m going to reintroduce my own ideas about the things that helped me to get fast when I was young – which mostly involve more standing recoveries and interval work done in sets to allow lactate to clear. I just need to make sure I don’t undermine the aerobic base by doing too much.

So that’s been my 2021. I’ve enjoyed the year’s running – there’s no way I could have got out every day if I didn’t. I covered about 100 miles more than in 2020 and that has been down to a consistent schedule. I usually run around six hours per week training and that’s led to more miles as I’ve speeded up. Of course the schedule flexed through the year depending on where I was at with Jack’s plan but generally speaking it’s been a consistent outlay of six to six-and-a-half hours each week resulting in 40-50 miles.

Update on my 800m training – Nov-Dec 2021

Traditional winter training for middle-distance runners is a combination of building endurance and running cross-country. In my case, I’ve replaced cross-country with an all-out parkrun effort every couple of weeks.

After my last 800m time trial (2:49) in October, I took a recovery week and then began the endurance work. Using a fortnightly cycle the plan was to do two Steady runs (Tuesday and Friday) and a long run on Sunday on week one; a Steady run on the Tuesday and a faster-than-Recovery paced run on Thursday with the fast parkrun on Saturday. It worked quite well and my first three parkruns came in at 21:20 (Oct 23rd) and 20:55 (Nov 6th) at Upton House then a road trip to The Great Field parkrun (Nov 20th) where I ran 20:26.

With Christchurch 10K on December 12th I wasn’t planning to do specific training other than to taper and run on fresh legs. I’d planned to run one more fast parkrun between Dorchester and the race but Storm Arwen hit so I replaced it with some cruise intervals.

The 10K was a little disappointing as I went in expecting to be somewhere in the 41-42min range and ended up clocking 42:25. Not a terrible time by any means but my legs never felt good. I have a feeling I killed them in the preceding week by running a low volume of 200s and 400s. On the Friday (3x400m), Tuesday (2x400m) and Thursday (2x200m). That really is a low volume but perhaps I ran them too fast as I originally was aiming to hit 5-10K pace and the 200s came in at 37s which is faster than my 800 pace. That was a fun session as I ran it at the cricket pitch. Groups of college sixth formers on their lunch breaks were dotted around and they began heckling and cheering me on!

Since the 10K, I ran another 21:01 at Upton House and then on Christmas Day on the flats of Poole, I was among 798 runners as I ripped round to finish in 20:11. Touching distance of being back under twenty minutes.

After giving the legs a week to recover from the 10K, I decided I’m lacking decent aerobic capacity. On the parkruns and race I’ve barely been able to run quicker than 3:55 for a km. In 2020 I could run 3:48, two years ago I was hitting 3:45 and five years ago I was close to 3:30. The endurance training has been good but it’s been to the detriment of my aerobic speed. Even my top-end speed isn’t great and I believe this has contributed to the disappointing 800m time trials this year. I’ve noticed as my leg speed has disappeared so has the size of my quads – at least a couple of inches smaller than they were.

The consequence is I’ve begun running my old favourite session – 5x1K with 3-min recovery. It’s a great combination of distance, pushing the aerobic capacity and improving lactate clearance and tolerance.

The endurance training itself has begun to look great. I’m running twelve mile Sunday runs at sub-8 pace – close to 1hr30 most weeks. But also my recovery runs have got faster despite me keeping them easy wherever possible. This has really set me in position to build the speed side with the kilometre intervals and I’m hopeful this will have me close to nineteen minutes at parkrun by end of January.

Supplemental to the running, I’ve been finding sprint drills and strength work have been highly beneficial. The drills have been great in identifying inefficient running form and after two weekly sessions for two months, I’m finding the improved posture and muscle activation are beginning to bleed into my runs. Most significantly I’m start to get the feel for how to sprint and this can only be a good thing for my 800m time.

The squat work has strengthened up my legs but also the muscles in the hips and glutes. It highlighted a weakness in the left glute on the outside which was clearly not contributing to my running. As it strengthened up, it began to fire during runs and, in the long term, I’m expecting it to make a difference. On the negative side, I did too much squatting too soon and after about three weeks began to find my legs were getting sore so I stopped to let them recover for a week.

It’s been a useful two months, especially as I’ve taken over a minute off my parkrun time with my best time in four years at 20:11. I’m intending to stay with this plan through early 2022 and maybe run Bournemouth Bay half marathon in the spring. I’m sure a big part of improving my 800m time is going to be improving my aerobic capacity with the 5x1K intervals – I’ve really allowed my leg strength to drop in favour of efficiency the past few years.

What to do when Storm Arwen hit

Storm Arwen, the first storm of this winter hit the British Isles on Friday night. While the North was battered by 100mph winds, the South coast got off lighter with winds of only 30mph and gusts of 44mph. I wasn’t surprised to hear that three of the local parkruns cancelled including Upton House. Poole parkrun went ahead and the turnout was down on recent weeks. Again no surprises there.

It had been my intention to do one more fast parkrun in the lead-up to Christchurch 10K (two weeks away) but I didn’t fancy dragging to Poole on a cold, windy day, just like many others didn’t. So I ran from home and did an interval session – 6x1km with 200m jog recovery aiming for 10K intensity. This is one of my favourite sessions for preparing for a 10K so I’d had it in mind to do this week.

I wasn’t sure how it would go with the conditions. I ummed and ahhed about routes but went for the one where I usually do this session to give me consistency for comparing where I’m at with my training and also I know all my waypoints for the interval lengths. The only doubt I had was whether there’d be trees down on route as there have been in the past. As it turned out there weren’t any other than a few small branches / twigs that I was able to high step over without issue.

The wind, on the other hand, was quite brutal. I resorted to leggings, long sleeve top, gloves and hat for the first time this year. It kept me warm and because I wasn’t aiming for top speed, only 10K intensity, the headwind was rarely problematic.

A good session and I jogged home at a decent warmdown pace to complete an hour’s running. No parkrun this week but so what? There are multiple ways to achieve your running goals and there’s no rule which says you can’t do an interval or speedwork session on a Saturday morning.

The VO2 lull

I’m currently going through what I term a “VO2 lull”. It’s something I’ve encountered across my running years but taken a long time to understand, and even longer to recognise when it’s happening. Last Saturday I ran a good, hard parkrun at Upton House. Combining efforts up the hills with surges to try and catch runners ahead of me, as well as bursts to stay in front of those behind me, it was an all-out effort. With fresh legs going into it, from three days of easy running, I found an extra gear whenever I needed it. While I felt fairly good immediately afterwards, my legs have had nothing all week. I’ve lost a good minute off my easy run pace and this is what I’m calling the VO2 lull.

First off I need to explain the V02 part. Exercise physiologists like putting runners on treadmills and measuring the effects of running at ever-increasing speeds. One of the key measurements they take is the amount of oxygen breathed in, as well as carbon dioxide breathed out and heart-rate. When they measure the oxygen (O2) intake and utilisation it is correctly termed V̇O2 with a little dot over the V indicating it’s a rate but most people refer to it as VO2 partly because how do you pronounce a dot? It’s partly because it’s too onerous for them to figure out how to get the dotted V̇ on a word processor!

In chapter 8 of Build Your Running Body, Pete Magill details the growth cycle of mitochondria which are fundamental to producing aerobic energy. Mitochondria are often described as the powerhouses of the cell as they convert oxygen to energy which then powers your exercise. The importance of mitochondria to any distance runner cannot be overstated enough – they are the source of your aerobic ability which itself is key to distance running success.

Magill explains that it takes 4-5 weeks for mitochondria to fully grow but there’s a problem. “When mitochondria first begin adapting, they can’t contribute to aerobic energy production … this phase lasts from ten to thirteen days and creates an “oxygen utilistation problem” … you can expect to feel sluggish doing workouts that were easy the previous week” (p.142)

That’s exactly where I’ve been this week. Last week I was running a 20:55 parkrun at 6:45/mile pace; the next day my legs could barely achieve eight minute miles on my long run. This might have been due to recovery factors but it’s continued on through the week. My Tuesday Steady run which I was running at an average of 7:20/mile last week came in at 8:10/mile this week. Wednesday’s recovery run averaged 9:10/mile; today’s, five days after parkrun, came in at 8:44/mile. My legs have got nothing – no bounce, oomph or power. I’m barely getting out of the fat-burning zone on these runs.

So I now just have to wait for the mitochondrial adaptation to take place and in the meantime, plod along. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here but this phenomena is so poorly known that, in the past, I would start to take action to try and get back ontrack. I might rest (not a bad option if it’s only a day or two), do some strides (poor option as legs are already tired), do less mileage (not great as you won’t necessarily reinforce the growth), or try to continue doing what I usually do at the usual paces (effectively overtraining which usually led to injury). When it happened to me after marathons, it usually led me to quit running for six months or more. It’s only now I realise you just have to jog until the legs splutter back into life as they eventually will. It’s quite a remarkable experience because one day running feels awful, the next it’s like you’re running on bedsprings as the adaptations finally kick in.

Return to parkrun

Even overnight rain and thunderstorms couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the return of parkrun. I was up at 6:15am for breakfast and headed out to Upton House parkrun a couple of hours later. As I parked the car, just a warm-up jog away, I saw familiar faces who I’d parked by so long ago.

Since I was last at the country park it’s undergone some renovations with bushes around the tea rooms being cleared and the children’s play area refurbished. Consequently the parkrunners have been shoved out through the gate to a new start line and the course revised. I quite like the new route as it’s more open although the uphill finish is going to be taxing when I get up to speed.

The Run Director struggled through the opening speeches because the PA system’s battery wouldn’t recharge after not being used in eighteen months but unusually all the runners stayed quiet so that was good. New parkrun protocols instruct the pre-start speeches to be over quickly and a prompt start at 9am to avoid runners gathering together too long. I was pleased we still had time to clap the one new First Timer who’d turned up, as well as the four runners who were about to complete their 250th run. Imagine being stuck on two hundred and forty-nine all that time.  For me, it was number three hundred and twenty-five – but no t-shirts for that!

It’s like Where’s Wally – I’m somewhere in there with the red headband!

With runners expected to seed themselves according to time, I positioned myself just level with the 25-min marker and it didn’t seem like there were too many ahead of me. I ran with Rob for the first 2K and it was nice to run unhindered, able to pass others easily whenever we needed to. At the start of the mini-loop, I left Rob as I took the brakes off and went with the downhill. Despite a light rain, it was all rather enjoyable and I gradually eased past some of the fast starters; always keeping my breathing easy. First mile 7:56, second 7:40, third in 7:26 to finish 49th in a time of 23:57.

Collecting my finish token there was lots of space past the funnel to go and get my token scanned. I then returned to the finish line, chatted to a friend and cheered runners in. The tailwalker came round in just over an hour to complete the field of 295. Elsewhere Poole had 565 and Bournemouth 529 which were the 3rd and 5th biggest attendances in the country, then add in Blandford 133 for a total of over 1,500 local runners out at 9am on a Saturday morning. A successful return for parkrun and I even had my result before midday. Admittedly it was 11:58am but it’s still impressive.

Return of parkrun

It’s been a long time since I ran a parkrun. Some countries and areas have been reopening sooner than others but finally England is ready to allow them again. Just one week to go and I’m wondering what the response will be.

Parkrun HQ have spent the past year figuring out the logistics to make parkrun Covid safe. Start speeches will be kept brief to avoid people gathering together for too long. A new app has been developed to allow volunteers to do the barcode scanning and timing from their phones rather than using shared equipment. The finish position tokens are to be washed or quarantined every week. Academic research supports the idea that gathering on a start line within close proximity of other runners is safe.

I’m guessing it will all work out as parkrun has been going ahead around the world with (I assume) the same changes in place and things haven’t collapsed there or needed a rethink. But different cultures have different attitudes and that’s the thing I’m wondering about. How will Englanders respond to the return of parkrun? Will we accept the changes? Will we believe the science? Do we care enough to get back out running on a Saturday morning?

My last parkrun was in early January 2020. I stopped going two months before the pandemic put them on pause. This wasn’t some prescient act of foreboding, it was my choice.

With New Year’s weight-loss and fitness resolutions kicking in, attendances swelled. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the average attendance at Upton House parkrun had been about 300; in the New Year it was closer to 500. It’s great to see all those new participants but I was getting trapped among them. I was running heavy mileage on Fridays and could only manage a recovery run on Saturdays. The narrow paths of Upton Country Park allow little room for manoeuvre past runners who’ve started off too quick and who then stop or walk to avoid stepping in the winter puddles. I found it hard to enjoy myself when my rhythm and flow were constantly being broken up.

New Year resolutions never last for everybody but parkrun was always a gamechanger and a high percentage of the newbies continued to come back. But more than a year on, will they? The not-parkrun stopgap that Headquarters tried to promote never took off. For whatever reason, people are only interested in going for a free, timed 5K when it’s part of something bigger. Their own volition and fitness weren’t enough for many people. Maybe it was really the coffee and cake afterwards.

In deciding whether to attend, will people accept the science that says standing on a parkrun startline is safe?  My initial instinct, knowing how close we stand to each other, is that they could become super-spreader events. Parkrun’s academic research says it’ll be safe but I have some reservations because it’s modelled on an attendance of 263 participants and March Covid levels that were much lower than they are now. Our parkruns are much bigger than that.

The reality of the situation is with about 2,000 runners attending our local parkruns, the current case rate of 250 per 100,000 suggests five infected people will turn up. My odds on actually standing next to one of the five seem little worse than I could achieve in the aisles of the supermarket.

The parkrun Covid Code asks runners not to attend if they’ve got any signs of it present e.g. positive test, high temperature etc. Generally speaking the parkrun community is good at looking after one another so there’s a good chance they’ll comply. Most people wouldn’t want to run if they’re feeling under the weather anyway.

I know the local parkruns have been doing trial events to familiarise with new processes and these events have been well-attended by members of local running clubs. That’s no surprise, they were invited and they are regular runners but what about the ‘ordinary’ runners who were parkrunning as something to do once a week? My guess is it’ll be a tentative return to action by those who aren’t regular runners.

While about 95% of England’s parkruns are set to return, Moors Valley and Brockenhurst are among those without permission – yet. That will probably push some of their regulars to Bournemouth and maybe further afield to places like Salisbury, Blandford or wherever.

As the restart coincides with the beginnings of the school holidays they may not be the only visitors to other areas. In the past, we usually saw an influx of visitors to our local parkruns either on their way to or from a holiday in the South-west. I assume that will still be the case as more families are choosing to holiday in Britain this year but of course some of our local families will also be going off to visit elsewhere so the net effect is likely the same. Nonetheless with family routines broken up and school out, I don’t think numbers will settle down to their regular levels until September. By then, we’ll know the new processes and have a true picture of whether parkrunning is viable in the new normal.

Ultimately I’m a believer in trusting that life will all work out in the end. Committed parkrunners will be back quickly, the more tentative will take time to return. It will be a while before it settles down but we’ll get there and adapt to whatever challenges come up. It’s quite possible there’ll be more hiatuses along the way.

Finally to say, if you’re not in England or your parkrun hasn’t been given permission to return, then stay strong, it’ll be back eventually. We’ve been through the worst of this and life is gradually returning to old activities.