I had a great day yesterday. Every year my husband organises a national secondary school relay race, which about 450 young runners attend: boys and girls who regularly compete in cross country representing their schools, their clubs, their county and even their country. And some who simply attend because they want to try, to have a go, to make up a team, and do their best.
All of these children, mostly in their late teens, have already discovered something it took me nearly forty years to learn: running isn’t about going faster than everyone else. It’s going as fast as you can. Turning up every time there’s a practice. Limbering up in freezing temperatures. Cheering on your team mates. Doing the best you can do – which sometimes means smashing a personal record, and other times means falling over in the mud.
I had the privilege of spending yesterday’s Relay Race afternoon keeping our guest speaker company. Paul Sinton-Hewitt, founder of parkrun, generously travelled over 1oo miles to watch the race and give the competitors some encouragement as he awarded trophies and shields for fastest time, most improved performance, and overall winners.
Chatting with him (as we jogged on the spot trackside, trying to keep warm!) it became clear that parkrun was built on a very clear set of personal values and vision – ones which resonate with many runners. The determination I see in the faces of those young men and women as they grab their baton and race off uphill, around the first corner of a two mile track of churned up grass and mud, and then a few minutes later as they push onwards towards their team mate, doggedly pursuing those in front, feverishly pushing to elude the competitor chasing them – it’s that same persistence, developed over many miles, which drives us on to build other areas of our lives into something special.
parkrun was established out of the love of running, and of the running community, and the desire to make a gift of it to everybody. There’s no owning of athletes here; no obligation. Running is the ultimate physical freedom, and that’s expressed perfectly in the accessibility of the parkrun community.
Later, as we gathered in the hall of King Henry VIII School (the host school for this brilliant event) to celebrate the achievements of the teams, I thought of many similar moments in the life of school halls: exams, prizegivings, leavers’ assemblies. As these particular children move into adulthood, regardless of academic ability or even sporting prowess, they go with something very significant built into their operating systems. They have a way to find success – they know that they can work hard, they can improve, and they can enjoy their ability to run. And that gives them something to contribute in return, whatever path of life they choose to take.
Paul Sinton-Hewitt perhaps never expected to have the massive impact on grass roots sport that he has so far made, but actually, it’s far from surprising. When you continually practice the disclipine of a runner, your internal pursuit and your delight in the process mean you are most likely to succeed.