New Year’s Day 2019. The clock showed 0700 as I drove with two other parkrun tourists, Amanda and Nigel, on the M40 motorway just past Oxford Services en route to Bushy Park in South West London. The home of parkrun was to be the first of two that day as part of parkrun’s New Year’s Day Double, the second being Upton Court in Slough at 1030.
The first rays of sunlight partially illuminated the nearby Chiltern Hills and I couldn’t help but contemplate New Year’s Day 2012. Back then I was unfit, unhealthy, overweight and stressed with work but about to embark on something that would change my life.
At high school I’d been physically active. I had no ‘first touch’ so veered away from football and focused my efforts on rugby union. I played for my school team on Saturdays and Sedgley Park Rugby Club on Sundays. It kept me reasonably fit and also provided an avenue for controlled (for the most part) aggression. I was also a decent sprinter on the school athletics team and a numbermakeruperer on the basketball team getting the ball at every opportunity to Jason and Big John Mac, the only two good players.
At sixteen I got a job working weekends at a local supermarket and pretty much gave up sports-based physical activity. I tried out Gaelic football at university but the Irish lads with GAA coursing through their veins just ran rings around me. Other than that then nothing for the next fifteen years.
By that stage my much better half and I started our own temporary recruitment business. Although it was good financially the stress got to me, badly. I was irritable and thought continually about work. The 24 hour nature of the business didn’t help. The sedentary office environment together with a dubious diet led to me becoming overweight. I needed a productive avenue to take care of both issues.
In October 2011 I visited my cousin Genie in Atlanta, Georgia as the first part a three state tour visiting American family. Genie owns an independent running store called West Stride and she gave me some West Stride branded gear. When I returned to Blighty however I put it in a drawer and forgot about it.
On New Year’s Eve 2011 I endeavoured to do something about my physical and mental wellbeing. I’d read that physical exercise was good for relieving stress and, of course, weight loss so I decided to take up running the following day. A New Year’s Resolution was made.
At 0700 on New Year’s Day I went to the drawer took out the running gear that Genie had given me, put on some old trainers and headed out the front door. I got as far as the local park, about 400m away, and questioned my decision. My legs ached, my heart beat so hard it felt like it was going to explode out of my rib cage, my lungs felt like they were internally combusting and I was dizzy. I reached the nearest post box and sought sanctuary on it like a drowning man would do with flotsam. I felt horrible, like I was dying. Once I’d recovered I walked back home.
I didn’t give up on my resolution though like so many of the past. The next morning I went out the front door and set out for the post box. I again felt terrible but once I recovered I ran back home rather than walk. The next day I cut the recovery shorter, the following day even shorter. By day six I needed no recovery whatsoever and ran to the post box and back. I ran every single day of January (before RED January was a thing) with each time stretching the distance out a little more until I could run 2.5km without needing to stop by the end of the month. I started to notice my stress levels changing slightly. The best tonic to a shit day at work became a run as soon as I got home. It took troubles away for a short time and my outlook just became putting one foot in front of the other. I used to return from a run feeling tired yes but paradoxically feeling refreshed and relaxed. As February moved in to March with my distance increasing I signed up to my first race, the Great Manchester 10k, and also discovered Heaton parkrun that gave me a weekly focus.
There’s been ups and downs along the way but two hundred and fifty three parkruns and countless races of varying distance later, including five marathons, have proved that the decision not to give up when I walked home from the post box a physical wreck to be one of the best I ever made. I’m physical fit (Tom Tom Sports says I have a fitness age of twenty, hopefully not when I was twenty), I feel good and manage stress reasonably well. I’ve gained a whole raft of friends that share my running passion and I have achieved goals I never believed possible.
I still run past the post box quite a bit and every time that I do I look at it, smile and think about where I was seven years ago and how far I’ve come.