Runners take the final bend of the three-lap Tooting parkrun route

I found myself spending the early part of both Saturday and Sunday appreciating the effect running can have on a community. On Saturday I did my first volunteering stint at the Tooting parkrun. It was not an onerous task, acting as one of the marshals for the run. I took my son and we had a great time encouraging and congratulating runners and offering high fives to all those that needed them.

A few weeks into Wandsworth’s first parkrun it’s clear it’s generating a sense of community around the event and, to a degree, helping strengthen the community attached to the Common. Part of the marshalling job involved warning regular users of the Common about the runners (not that you can miss them) and not too inconvenienced.

I’d expected some annoyance or irritation, but all the non-parkrun users I spoke to were positive. Even those with no interest in taking part themselves seemed to appreciate the positive atmosphere. I can’t see how I’ll ever tire of seeing the magic that comes from the main pack of runners. There are, to be sure, some fast times recorded and I envy the speed and grace of those faster runners. But seeing those who come later, for whom parkrun provides that crucial opportunity for social exercise really highlights what a positive initiative it is.

My Sunday running, taking part in the North London Half Marathon, provided a slightly different perspective. The run, from Wembley Stadium to Allianz Park and back, goes through a lot of residential streets in Brent and Barnet. It must cause some inconvenience for residents, and I’m sure there are those that feel put out. But despite that it seems every road had groups of residents on the pavements, cheering runners on, offering jelly babies to give a bit of energy and, yes, giving plenty of high fives to the runners.

It’s too early to suggest a Wandsworth 10k or half-marathon—though the borough’s landmarks, parks and riverside would create an incredible route. I have broached similar events before, but the council is very resistant to close roads and levies big charges for doing so (the only time I’ve ever known the council willingly close roads was when the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment planned to parade in Battersea, presumably because they had tanks).

But while the Wandsworth half-marathon may be a pipe-dream, I can’t help thinking that even only a few months into the Tooting Common parkrun trial that it should only be the start, and not the extent, of such open sporting events in the borough.

The parkrun logo

Earlier this week saw the launch of a petition to bring a weekly parkrun to Wandsworth, and having written a blog post disagreeing with the Formula E proposals I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb and say this is another bit of council policy with which I disagree.

Parkrun is a weekly five kilometre run, measured, timed and run by local volunteers so it is free to enter. There are currently 289 weekly parkrun events around the country.

I did try to help a few people (including those behind the petition) who wanted a parkrun in the borough. Unfortunately I drew the same blank as they did, the council would not allow an event without payment of a licence fee. I did wonder if there might be a creative way around the fee issue, perhaps finding someone who could fund it. Unfortunately parkrun themselves were opposed to this, a similar situation happens elsewhere and is often cited to them as a precedent. Their fear (a reasonable one, based on experience) is that aside from the sustainability of a parkrun that needs annual funding, is that extending the precedent reduces the chances of new parkruns being established and could jeopardise those already in place.

My intervention, therefore, only resulted in the continuation of a stalemate. Both sides were probably better informed, but it was a stalemate nonetheless.

The petition, then, can be seen as a last attempt to persuade the council of the demand for an event in the borough. Yet even without that I think there are compelling reasons for a parkrun.

You might think parkrun is something of an exclusive event, a freebie for runners who, frankly, don’t really need an organised run to go out and do a 5k. In fact parkrun is attractive to non-runners and helps increase overall levels of activity, a study in the Journal of Public Health found the majority of registrants were not regular runners, a third were overweight or obese and that it attracts more people from older age groups who, generally, are less active. The study also found participants reported positive outcomes to their physical and mental health, weight loss and sense of community.

I know the council needs to maximise revenue and minimise its expenditure. As a councillor it’s impossible to avoid the simple fact that there isn’t as much money as there was. I’m also fully aware that one of Wandsworth’s strongest features is the rigour it brings to financial management: it watches every penny.

But sometimes that means the balance sheet wins because it’s hard to put a price tag on common sense. I think this is one of those occasions. The council may forgo a £600 or so a year in licensing fees (though I’m not aware of any other event like parkrun who would pay it), but the benefits to the wider community far outweigh £600.

I’d love to see a parkrun in Wandsworth. If you’re a Wandsworth resident (the organisers are keen to keep the signatures local, they’ve turned down celebrity endorsements to do that) please consider signing too.

After the run, with medal in place.
Looking undeservedly smug and a little stupid

Invoking the rule that this is a personal blog (and not a councillor blog) I come to the belated boastfulness of my performance in the Royal Parks Half Marathon. Some of the boastfulness comes in just completing it. Some in completing it in a fairly decent time, 1:36:06 (those six seconds are important).

Of course, the time isn’t exceptional: I still crossed the line nearly half-an-hour after the winner and in 942nd place on chip time. But as a chubby runner, who’d had a bad time in training, I think it’s something of an accomplishment.

Most of all, however, I was astounded at how much I enjoyed it. Having convinced myself that I was an anti-social runner, who liked to run in relative solitude, it turned out running with thousands of others along a course partly lined with friends, family, volunteers and charities was something very special indeed. I have no doubt that some of my run was powered by high fives from various children along the way.

My conversion was such that I had a short bout of post-race depression (which is actually a thing) and found myself searching for other runs I could pencil into the diary.

Of course, the personal blog façade was not going to last forever, and I think it’s worth highlighting some Wandsworth connection.

First is a personal one. Runners Need in St John’s Road did me an excellent deal on a new watch when my old one died two days before the run and I was paranoid that my pacing would fail me totally without the assistance of gadgetry. I sometimes worry that a developing narrative of independent-good, chain-bad means we overlook the value of the many great shops that are firmly rooted in their community despite being part of a much bigger business. Runners Need is one example, and I’d highly recommend their Wednesday night running club (which I attend when the diary allows).

Second is for a Putney business, Crewroom who provide the shirts the Royal Park Foundation give to runners. I only realised they were a Putney business when I met their founder at a business event the week before the run. But it is another example of a business firmly rooted in the local (rowing) community developing their product and creating an exceptionally good shirt that I know I’ll still be wearing on runs for years to come. Or, at the very least, until I get a new Royal Parks shirt next year (ballot permitting).

That really looks like fun, doesn't it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)
That really looks like fun, doesn’t it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)

I’m running the Royal Parks Half Marathon on Sunday. Not, I add, for any charity, but purely for the dubious fun of going for a run without the freedom to choose your own route and having thousands of other people in the way.

And, now I think about it, with added guilt for not having any fundraising element to it while many of the others will be doing it to raise cash for good causes.

I really have no idea how I will do. My training suffered towards the end–partly self-inflicted through an over-indulgent holiday and partly unlucky with some calf niggles–which has resulted in a real loss of form. I’m hoping for a decent-ish run, but certainly nothing close to my hopes of just a few weeks ago.

If you are at all interested in how I do then you can track me on the Royal Parks Half Marathon app, my bib number is 2632 (at least, I that’s the number I’m wearing, the organisers had a mix-up with bins and I’m in the app as 2633, I’ve no idea which is actually me). And if you are running it yourself, then good luck.

That really looks like fun, doesn't it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)
That really looks like fun, doesn’t it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)

I was lucky enough to get a ballot place for this year’s Royal Parks Half Marathon and, at the risk of annoying those who failed to get a place, am feeling strangely ambivalent about it.

I entered the ballot largely on a whim having been told it was open by a friend who ran it last year. And I entered fully expecting I wouldn’t get a place. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve failed to get a spot in the London Marathon (something I really do want to run at least once) and imagined my record of losing the random lottery and then being bombarded with offers to get a place by raising a huge amount of cash for charity would continue.

The problem is not because I have any problem with the distance. For a large part of last year my weekly long run exceeded the 13.1 mile half marathon distance. Nor am I concerned about the training, although I can’t help but wonder how on earth I will fit it in.

Instead I am troubled by the knowledge I’m an incredibly anti-social runner.

As an adult I have only run with other people on three occasions. Once in the Roehampton 10k, once with the Nike Run Club when they had the FuelStation on Clapham Common (and I do think its a shame it was removed, though recognise it was not universally popular) and once with my wife. I am an anti-social runner; the prospect of sharing a few miles with several thousand other people does not appeal.

While I found Haruki Murakami’s part-memoir, part-running diary What I Talk About When I Talk About Running slightly disappointing (perhaps because my expectations were not well-managed) his view of running as a solo challenge did resonate. I care little about my performance compared to other runners, but I care deeply about my performance compared to my past efforts. It is deeply troubling if my pace and stamina are not steadily improving. And my current form, suffering the impact of a bad chest infection at the beginning of the year is downright depressing, however much I tell myself it’s an understandable blip.

In addition the almost meditative nature of running provides an appeal. Murakami comments “Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I agree … No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.” I can see how exercise, or at least running, is often cited as beneficial to mental health. And I can even see the attraction of running to the likes of Sri Chinmoy devotees (even if my lack of spirituality leaves me viewing such groups with suspicion).

But how does that work in a large organised run? How can your performance be your own when pace will often be dictated more by the size of the pack and the road they are trying to fit? Or inner peace sought among the hubbub of runners and supporters?

So, I have eight months to prepare physically – and I have no concerns about that at all – but also mentally. I hope to divine some meaning to the undertaking of collective exercise, but I’m terrified that eight months just isn’t enough.

A borough rarely evokes the civic pride it deserves; the areas you identify with rarely have coterminous borders with a local authority. Indeed, I’d probably say I’m from Battersea before I’d say I was from Wandsworth.

And while I can think of any number of points of pride I have when comparing Wandsworth and others boroughs, I suspect most only appeal to me as a local government anorak. When I try to think of comparisons or competitions that might have wider appeal I run out of ideas after the London Youth Games (we came second this year) and It’s a Knockout (I don’t know if there was ever a Wandsworth team, but did once notice that Sandwell, in the West Midlands, still display their 1978 Heat 4 winner’s plaque in their Mayoral offices).

However, we have hammered the rest of London in a Nike+ running challenge this year. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned running on the blog (although I sometimes do on Twitter, and until recently auto-tweeted my runs) but couldn’t help pointing this one out.

Technically, it’s not finished, so yes, someone could beat us. But just over a week to go, and look at that lead!

If you fancy helping to dole out a similar drubbing to the rest of London next year and use Nike+ then join the challenge.

(I publish this hoping we do cling on to the lead, since I’m not intending to post again until next year when the challenge is over. Have a great Christmas and new year.)

After writing about the selection of a Lib Dem candidate earlier this week I’ve since discovered that there’s also a Green candidate selected for Battersea, Guy Evans. Interestingly, he’s either so confident of victory (or possibly so confident of defeat) he’s heading off mid-campaign to take part in the gruelling Marathon des Sables. I can’t help but admire his dedication and determination – as an occasional runner I fantasise about a single marathon, but even then realise I’m nothing like fit or dedicated enough – to tackle the equivalent of 5½ in the Sahara takes some grit.

I wish him luck, but do have to question his commitment to the constituency and his campaign if he’s not even here for a good chunk of it.