Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Standing among people at a local parkrun I looked at the huddle around the week’s leader. There were the tall’s, the short’s, the women with prams, the grey-haired, the no-haired, the dog owners. And I began to think there must be more to this than just fitness.

Still, it was a warm mid-summer’s day and we were far from the noise and fumes of nearby traffic, there are worse places to be. Parkruns are fantastic events, just long enough to stretch you without competing with the other parts of the day.

If you could see my efforts you might think run might be overstretching the definition of the word, but hey…we’re off.

If ever you do any running you know that burning feeling when a part of your body starts complaining. Maybe it’s the knees, hips or lungs. Maybe all at the same time. Then it builds and builds to the point when your body screams. Stop!

How do you keep going? One of the oldest tricks in the book is to distract yourself. Forget the gurus of the sport who say-embrace the pain. Go through the barrier, the mind is stronger than you think they say.

My strategy was to pick someone who was moving a little faster than me and just hangs on to them. The old pacemaker trick. Focus on the back of their head the Youtuber said, get your rhythm in time with theirs and you’re cool.

So that morning I picked a young lady whose T-shirt had 100 across the back. This meant she had completed 100 of these events vs my 3. But no problem we’ll see how it goes. A little bit of optimism on a Saturday morning can’t be a bad thing.

She was moving slow enough to start with but I was waiting on the burst of speed that meant I’d have to find another person’s back-of-the-head to focus on. Two kilometres into the run and I could still see the back of her head as the crowd thinned out. I must be getting faster. I was amazed.

I was amazed that we were doing at the same pace. I was even more amazed by the words that came out of her mouth as she went past the volunteer stewards. ‘Thanks for your encouragement’ she said as they clapped us round. ‘Thanks for your support. Thank you.’

Once is a fluke, twice a double fluke. But every time we went past a steward it was the same. A big smile and a wave with a thank you sandwiched between them.

I thought the stewards were there to encourage the runners. And they did with shouts of well done, keep going, halfway now, or almost there. Followed by a clapping of hands. But to see this little figure with a big 100 on her T-shirt and a bigger heart than radiated gratitude towards others was an eye-opener. Suddenly it wasn’t about her as a pacemaker but seeing her as a larger, longer-lasting source of inspiration.

At the halfway mark she pointed her smile towards me as I caught up and ran alongside for a minute. ‘I think we’ve been here before she said. In an attempt at the polite conversation, I answered with “You must be nearing your 120th parkrun”. It was like trying to guess somebody’s age and trying not to offend but at the same time being very nosey.
‘I’ve got 3 more runs to get to 150′ came the reply. Wow!

So, doing the maths meant that this person has been doing park run for at least 5 years minus of course the Covid gap. Only later Suki as she was called, told me about still running in lockdown. That regular habit takes some doing.
At the other end of the finish line I caught up with her again (of course she left me behind and finished ahead of me) and I asked her why she kept turning up for the Saturday morning jaunt given that there must be other things she could be doing.

Suki told me a story of once running in Paris some years before. It was a winter’s day. When icicles and frozen rain hung on her skin like jewellery. The opposite is extreme to this day. On that day she wasn’t sure of being able to finish. She was the last to cross the line by a long way, but as she turned the corner there erupted a cheer from the crowd of fellow runners. People, some of whom had finished much earlier before. People who stood shivering and risking hypothermia to ensure that the slowest and the last felt appreciated and valued. ‘Not many places where people treat you like that.’

That’s why she kept turning up week after week. It may have started with a desire to improve something personal: mental or physical health. But it turned into something more. Saturday mornings were more about being an encouragement to people like me and spreading genuine gratitude to the people who volunteered to make such events possible.

When I saw my scorecard later that morning I saw Suki’s name in front of mine and next to it were the letters PB-personal best. That day is a constant reminder that PB is not a measure of your finish time but being your best person for a given space and place. When you do so consistently then you go beyond fitness. It is more than fitness.