I ran my first 5k when I was 16. I had been playing all kinds of sport up to that point, but long-distance running had never appealed to me. My parents were involved in a mental health charity event so I ran, finishing 3rd in my age group (probably out of 3!). That is actually the only reason it stands out in my mind. I still have the plaque.
After that, I saw no need to go back running and I continued with my life without it. In my 20s, I drifted away from organised sport. I moved to Ireland after college and led an increasingly sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. I eventually returned to sport, 5-a-side soccer once a week, progressing to a point where I joined the GAA to push myself from a fitness point of view. It was fun and social, but it wasn’t going to stick. I passed 40 and, while I was still playing the odd match in various sports, I wasn’t maintaining a level of fitness throughout the year.
RUNNING FOR WELLBEING
Each December, while I was having my annual feelings of winter gloom, my wife and sisters-in-law were organising a 5k charity run in our village (Ballyduff). It was started in memory of their mother who had died from cancer. I found it extremely therapeutic and surprisingly important in my calendar. Amidst all of the darkness, both literal and metaphorical, there was a blow-out event that allowed me to get out, meet others, and feel an instant physical and psychological boost. One year, I decided I needed to use this event as a Springboard to improve my life. I resolved to run a 5k every week for the following year.
As fate would have it, that was the January that Tralee launched the first parkrun in Kerry. I went to the inaugural event. The weather that winter was good and I quickly overshot my weekly targets. By April, I had entered myself into a half marathon and I was becoming a real runner, whatever that means!
As the months passed, I had my ups and downs. I was tracking my miles using an app and I mostly kept it up, but a lot of it relied on a treadmill and solo runs. Tralee parkrun was an exception and I started to meet more and more people there, especially over coffee afterwards or when I volunteered.
I found myself becoming one of those people who tells everyone how great running is, but I knew how that sounded from the other side so I decided to change my approach. I started a couch-to-5k programme for others. I had a Facebook page and printed flyers with the 10-week programme on it. About 20 people took it on and, while they didn’t all finish, I pushed on with the training nights and got a few to the end. It was all a bit of fun so I did it again later in the year.
PARK RUN LISTOWEL
Then, one day, I saw an ad on Facebook looking for people to help set up another parkrun in Listowel. I was already becoming part of the Listowel community through involvement with the soccer club and it was a bit closer to home than Tralee so I went along to the meeting. During that meeting, I think everyone heard how enthusiastic I was about the parkrun idea. I also had the experience of running at another parkrun and with leading other runners so within a few weeks, I had basically become the appointed event director for the new event.
Together with a team of locals with their own motivating back stories, we set out to merge the parkrun idea with the Listowel community spirit. From the start, we found that we were going to be unique among parkruns. Listowel is small so everyone knows each other. It is also a busy place. I was amazed at how many organisations exist in the town and how strong they all are. There are sports teams, community groups and major festival organisers. It is an enthusiastic town full of volunteers, but also full of volunteer opportunities.
Luckily, people warmed to parkrun. From the start, we received huge support from the other organisations. I had the chance to interact with some great people in the Kerry County Council, the Local Sports Partnership and the Community Centre as well. With that core of support, I just had to deal with the day-to-day stuff and parkrun was always going to be a success.
The two and a half years since that launch have been a real journey. Obviously, there has been a lot of work from a lot of good people which have kept it going. But the real journey has been personal. The real test for me has been to keep focussed on parkrun even when it is not easy. In that way it is similar to the actual running of the event.
Like the hill on our 3-lap course that keeps coming back to test you, parkrun must go on even when volunteers are hard to find, or when participant numbers are low, or when the weather is poor, or when I am busy or when I just don’t have the energy. It tests me. I don’t always respond well, but that’s life.
Some of the best friends I have ever had are the people I get to meet every week at parkrun. That is not why I started with parkrun, but it turns out it is by far the most important part. I think they feel the same way. I no longer run alone as much, though I enjoy the headspace I get from a solo run too. I no longer suffer as much from winter blues. I still have to push myself to keep moving forward, to power through the task at hand and to remember to help others who might benefit like I have. But at least I have parkrun every week when I need it. And so does everyone else, which to me is the best part!