Thousands of tiny triumphs, thousands of tiny tragedies

When I woke up this morning, I had only one goal for the bank holiday weekend – to beat my personal best in my local Saturday morning Parkrun.  I’ve been working hard on my running over the last month – focusing on my technique and training three times a week on top of my normal swimming and cycling. I was pretty sure that my running form and my general fitness had improved, I’d had a good night’s sleep, and I’d only had one drink when I was out on Friday night. I was feeling pretty confident that I could take a chunk off my previous best 5km time, and I was imagining how happy I’d feel after I’d done it.

I was one of thousands of people getting ready to do the same thing up and down the country. While I was drinking my coffee and putting on my trainers, I was looking at everyone else’s tweets about getting geared up to run. When I got to Mile End, on a scrubby patch of grass between a football pitch and a road, scores of people were preparing, jogging and stretching. The same scene must have been replicated at every one of the hundreds of other 5km Parkruns that happen every weekend in the UK.

There isn’t much ceremony to the whole thing – it’s completely free and organised by volunteers, and the runners range from teenagers to pensioners, club athletes to people interspersing jogging with walking. You just have to register online and print out a barcode if you want to get your time, but there’s nothing to stop you from just turning up and joining in.  It isn’t a race, and it doesn’t feel like one – some people are jockeying with others for position, but basically everyone’s there to do their own run. At Mile End, everyone gathers between two lamp-posts, someone shouts go, and everyone goes. As you finish your time is recorded. Everyone drifts off to get on with their weekends. Times are published on the Parkrun website a few hours later.

I tried as hard as I could this morning. The run is two laps of the same course on footpaths through the park, and while no one could call it properly hilly, it isn’t flat. I tried to remember what I’d been told about picking up my knees, keeping my shoulders relaxed, lifting up my heels, maintaining my form on the upwards slopes and recovering on the way down. I tried to strike the right balance between pushing myself and staying composed enough to keep going. But I couldn’t do it. Judging by my own watch, I was at least ten seconds off my previous best, and the official times confirmed it when they came out a couple of hours later.

And you know what? I was gutted. I really wanted it. I would have been so proud of myself if I’d done better than I ever had before, and I would have felt glad for all the effort I’d put in over the last month. I would have really enjoyed telling my coach and my triathlon club friends about it.

But also, at exactly the same time, I didn’t mind at all. No one is going to love me more, respect me more, pay me more when I can run faster. I’m active enough that I don’t need to get any fitter to ward off health problems. I’ll never be a great runner. I doubt I’ll ever even be a good one – I’m too late starting, there are too many other things I want to do, and I don’t think I’m physiologically made for it.

And I think that’s part of what I have come to love so much about doing it. Objectively speaking, for me and the thousands of others who pulled on our trainers this Saturday morning, the whole thing was completely pointless. Being ten seconds faster or slower makes no real difference to anything else. But at the same time, we genuinely care and we really try. Looking through the Mile End results from this morning, the fastest person set a new personal best of 16:50, on his 8th Parkrun. So did the person who came 76th, edging just under 25 minutes on his 85th Parkrun. I wonder which was prouder or more satisfied. And I wonder who of the majority of people who didn’t set new PBs was as disappointed as me, or more so. All over the country, thousands upon thousands of people are thinking about what they did or didn’t manage this morning, and feeling real emotion about it.

For me, that thought is very moving in itself. Like watching the tens of thousands of people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of in the London Marathon last month, streaming past for hours after the elite, professional runners were already recovering in their ice-baths. Or seeing Hackney Marshes full of Sunday League football teams genuinely doing their best to win games which no one except the participants will ever pay attention to the results of, before going to the pub to watch a Premiership match.

Just like children and baby animals need to play in order to learn how to do the things they’ll have to do for real when they’re grown, maybe sport is an outlet for the emotion that’s harder to cope with in situations that objectively matter. I can safely feel a bit sad about this morning’s run, and admit that I tried and I failed. It’s harder to do that over a failed job interview or relationship, an exam or a funding pitch, where there are so many complicating factors, so many other things to blame than yourself, and so many consequences of things going well or badly.

And it’s also safe and easy, with running, to tell myself that if I keep training, keep caring, keep pushing myself, then over time I will get incrementally better. And perhaps by the end of the year, I’ll get to the goal I’ve set myself. And if I don’t, then maybe next year. And if never, then I’ll have given it the best go I could have. And if that’s true for running, then perhaps also it’s true for the other things I do, which are harder and which matter more.

But I might let myself have a lie-in next Saturday morning and a couple more drinks next Friday night instead of battling those ten seconds again just yet.

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