My word, Hillyfields parkrun, how you’ve grown

Hillyfields parkrun birthday funnel

That finish funnel


When it was born, in 2004, it wasn’t called parkrun. It was the Bushy Park Time Trial (BPTT), a 5km race against the clock. I used to see it listed in Runner’s World and vowed one day to give it a go.

What I did not realise is that this time trial was becoming so popular that runners were fetching up from all over the place to gauge their 5k times. In the end, BPTT’s founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt, had the idea of staging other time trials in parks across the country. The rest, as he says, has made running history (and earned him a CBE for his services to grass roots sports participation):

‘The parkrun brand was conceived late 2009. We then formed the not-for-profit company – parkrun UK limited – which allowed all the events at the time to be rebranded as parkruns.’

It wasn’t until the summer of 2012 that a determined little band of Lewisham folk, who were fed up with having to toil all the way to Bromley for their free Saturday 5k fix, decided to apply to the council for permission to establish parkrun in their local park.

I can’t remember how I learned about these plans afoot, but I was in on the route testing, and came along for a trial run with the Hillyfields parkrun founders one summer evening. That gentle run, with people who would become friends, sticks in my memory for all kinds of reasons, the most significant being the fact that I brought my then 14-year-old daughter with me. She’d spent the past eight months in hospital, but by that time was well enough to come out for home visits. She wasn’t really allowed to exercise, but I sneakily brought her along and she loved it. Five years on, she has her own barcode, a clean bill of health and an ambition to join the runners at Forest Rec, or Beeston, or wherever the closest parkrun to Nottingham University may be when she starts studying there at the end of the month.

That first Hillyfields parkrun comprised about 40 runners. These days about 250 people of all ages, shapes, speeds join the merry throng. It’s not a race. Some people prefer to walk. It’s only nerdy obsessives like me who dream of a miraculous personal best, despite injury, hangover, lack of sleep or all three.

Today there were cakes aplenty and a party atmosphere to celebrate five years of Hillyfields parkrun. I wore my 100-parkrun T-shirt, jogged up the hill with my tin of flapjacks and once again coveted the green 250-parkrun T-shirt modelled so elegantly by one of the founders, Siggy.

Siggy (who shares a birthday with me), her husband Stephen, Sarah, Adele, Eric, Margaret, Andrew, Laura, David, Janette, John, Jen…

…the list goes on – are all friends I’ve made in the past five years, because of Hillyfields parkrun. Before I started jogging up the hill with my barcode every Saturday at 8.45am I had precious few local friends and a solitary weekend running habit. Now, whatever my mood on a Saturday morning, I know I’m going to be a beaming, sweaty bundle of bonhomie by the time I’ve had my barcode scanned.

And that one frabjous day (callooh! callay!) when I thundered down that finishing funnel to earn my (now two-year-old) Hillyfields parkrun PB? Euphoria.

The best thing about Hillyfields parkrun? There’s always next Saturday, and it may be the Saturday when my emailed result includes the longed-for words ‘New PB!’



Nothing like the Dame

Refuelling Gravesend Pier

Half a beer, by the pier. My body being a temple and all


We have this land of plenty to blame for the fact that disordered eating is taking on ever more bizarre and exotic guises. From the now much vilified ‘clean eating’ craze to the sort of food fetishising that has people going into orgasms over a cheese board, the idea of a ‘balanced diet’ seems ever more difficult to pin down.

The running community does not always help matters when it comes to being rational about food. The whole ‘run for cake’ business sweeps away all the joy runners derive from their sport and replaces it with a need for greed, rather than speed.

It may well be that the thickening of girth that occurs after the age of 40 has led many a midlifer (myself included) to try jogging before breakfast. But it takes more than spare-tyre loathing to lead you to join a club, revel in parkrun, exalt in cross country and go all starry eyed wondering if maybe, just maybe, you could run a marathon one day. That’s true love, and has nothing to do with cake.

Cake was an option after last Sunday’s long run, but it wasn’t my choice when it came to the brunch.

For a few weeks now, a few members of our club’s What’s App group have been discussing either cycling or running to Dame Kelly Holmes’s Café 1809 in Gravesend, Kent. Actually that’s what I was discussing. It turns out the other two that agreed to cycle over to join me there were talking about the one in Tonbridge.

And so it was that I ran a surprisingly scenic 19.5 miles from my house to Cyclopark, which takes up 43 hectares of Kentish greensward not far from the thundering A2. There’s a BMX track, mountain biking trails, a road track and all kinds of fitness related activities.

Then there’s the café. Perusing the menu as I waited for the cyclists to arrive (hang on a minute, isn’t a bike supposed to get you there quicker than Shanks’s Pony?) I decided that this was the day to get serious about my blameless runner’s diet, and plumped for the Dame’s Healthy Breakfast.

A few WhatsApp exchanges later, when it transpired I’d be eating alone, I settled down to my healthy option.

The Dame’s Healthy Breakfast (no, I did not photograph it. The reason why is in first paragraph) consists of four egg whites, scrambled with spring onions and chilli, served with griddled field mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Toast is optional (I opted in). It sounds virtuous, and tastes delicious.

Would Dame Kelly, double Olympic gold medal winner over 800m and 2500m (2004) and 3hours 11 minutes marathoner (2016), have chosen toast? Please let her have chosen toast. I’ve met her on a couple of occasions: she’s radiant, slight and sinewy and looks like a sportswear model. It’s not a body you’d associate with the sort of toast-and-peanut-butter habit I swear I need for fuel.

In any case, it’s not the body shape but the marathon time I’m really interested in. Kelly trained properly for her race, and probably had access to all the physiotherapists and nutritionists she needed, but in the run up to that impressive marathon result she was typically self-deprecating ‘I’m not a marathon runner’ and certainly sends out the message that, yes, she would have chosen toast.

That piece she wrote for The Guardian was a joy to read, and the woman, in the flesh, is a joy to meet. She turns out in all weathers to support runners, particularly charity runners. She gives motivational addresses before firing the starter klaxon at races all over her manor (Kent, Sussex) and is always generous with her time.

After my Dame-inspired brunch there was a walk of a mile or so to the town to catch a train home (no ultra runner, me) so I indulged in a couple of hours’ sightseeing in downtown Gravesend. I had a butcher’s at the pier, the art gallery and the Pocahontas statue, and a beer in the town’s oldest pub, The Three Daws, which, according to the Daily Telegraph ‘conforms to all the requirements of a Proper Pub’. The delighted reviewer goes on in praise of the ‘belly busting Sunday lunch’ served here.

I witnessed the good burghers of Gravesend busting out their bellies and was struck by the contrast between Kelly’s sportive café and this gravy-scented hostelry. It wasn’t just the menu. At both ends of the town on this sweltering late summer Sunday, sweaty folk were refuelling, but almost every pub luncher in the Three Daws was at least twice the size of the handful of lean brunchers I saw in Café 1809. Strolling through the town, it was all too easy to conclude that the default body shape in this land of plenty is, increasingly, obese.

‘Inspirational’ is an adjective often applied to Dame Kelly Holmes, and for good reason, but it seems to me that The Dame is going to have to muster every drop of that famous, infectious enthusiasm to get Gravesend cycling for its supper.

Weekend Worrier

Berlin 2013

Berlin Marathon 2013. Happy days.

Various members of my wider family are fond of yoga and pretty good at it. I sometimes go to a class at the local leisure centre on a rest day, like today. After the weekend’s running it’s all my legs can face. Today, the left one complained bitterly, as it was in a bad way after the long slow run, just like last week. The swelling at the Achilles insertion on the heel makes walking around and down the stairs painful, and that yogi way of sitting down on your heels with the toes curled under you can only be described as excruciating.

While striking a powerful pose in today’s class, trying to free my brain of the shrieking protests of my left ankle and calf I thought about the card I’d sent my yogaphile niece for her last birthday. It pictured a frowning woman in active wear, striking the same pose, with thought bubbles all around her head: ‘did I leave the gas on?’; ‘what did she mean when she said I looked well?’; ‘can I afford to go part time?’…words to that effect.

The title was ‘The worrier position’.

There was plenty to worry about this week: from the sucking of teeth by the sports massage therapist who poked my Haglund’s Deformity (see blogs passim) and advised a few weeks off running, only to be informed I’d no intention of doing any such thing until AFTER 24 September. She also said, interestingly, that the fascia under my foot were very tight and needed kneading with a tennis ball. That very tightness was confirmed when trying to make feet bend in yoga today.

So that was a worry, and then there was Sunday’s long run: 6 miles in the park, slowly. Then six miles on the elliptical cross trainer (I defy anyone to get anywhere near marathon pace on that). Then six miles back in the park, also slowly. So that’s 18 long, slow miles. Better than sitting around weeping over my deformity, but only just.

They felt like the dreaded junk miles, the jogging, slogging nod to training that beginners, who ‘just want to get round’ do. I fear that will be my fate, too. Just getting round, when my heart is set to sub 3:40.

My coach says I should be practising marathon pace on tired legs. So those last six should have been 8:22 m/m, but I could hardly haul my carcass around. It has been thus every time I try to practise that pace. I can just about last through the Tuesday track sessions (fast intervals). I can box and cox the long slow run, but those midweek tempo runs? Too much.

And with just five weeks to go, there’s not much I can do to remedy the situation.

On the bright side, I found kinesiology tape in Aldi for just £2.49, so I’ve been having fun adorning my ankle and calf with vivid blue tape and convincing myself that the injury feels better.

And, I keep reminding myself, although my main purpose for the September Berlin trip is the 26.2 mile run on the Sunday, there’s also the little matter of the two-year-old grandson who’s looking forward to cheering on his ‘Londomi’, personlicher Rekord oder keine personlicher Rekord.

So there’s really no need to worry. Is there?

Deformed and belligerent

Poole promenade

Promenade performance

Today seems as good a day as any to reflect on a rather chequered weekend’s running. Outside, there’s a typically British August deluge. Inside, the atmosphere is studious, if vaguely morose.

I’ve been studying my marathon training schedule. Last weekend I did the mileage it dictated, but have been suffering for it ever since. I did not manage the dictated speed.

The good news is that at Hillyfields parkrun I managed to improve on my time (by a measly 20 seconds), but, psychologically, it does me good to see 23 instead of 24. I am still way off my 2015 PB, but I am heading in the right direction.

On Sunday I donned new trainers, convincing myself that brand new cushioning would banish all pain from niggling Achilles and bulgy heel, or what I can now refer to as Haglund’s Deformity, having done a bit of swotting up on the subject. (I think I prefer bulgy heel, and who was Haglund?). I jogged the couple of miles from my sister’s home to the promenade at Sandbanks, and ran a further eight all along the promenade to Christchurch and beyond. Then I ran back.

This neck of the woods is perfect for the long low run. It’s a flat, long, car-free thoroughfare populated only by runners, cyclists and dogwalkers at this time of the morning. There’s the sea for dipping inflamed bulgy deformities (ooer missus) and drinking water taps and loos all the way along for the many tourists and beach-hut tenants.

Runners training for a big race can keep an even pace, and check, nervily, on just how comfortable one’s chosen speed feels (ok, it’s easy to run 8:22 for a few miles, but can I really imagine running a perfect set of 26?)

The answer, as things stand, is big, bleak, NO. The bulgy deformity of which I have spoken made its presence felt big time, necessitating weepy stops at miles 5, 10 and 15 and a face contorted with pain and misery until mile 20. After that, I spend a lot of time with various items from the freezer tied to my heel, swallow some ibuprofen, elevate the offending foot and, in the afternoon, brave the wind-whipped briny with my rather hardier sister.

Bulgy deformity then proceeded to preclude speed session yesterday, so I spent some time on the cross trainer, sweatily.

And today I did pool running.

But hey! It’s ok, because guess what “Researchers have shown” (as they frequently do) that just a teeny tiny minute of exerting yourself is indeed the elixir of life.

Sigh. This turned up on my Twitter feed:

‘Scientists found that women who did “brief bursts” of high-intensity, weight-bearing activity – like a medium-paced run for pre-menopausal women, or a slow jog for post-menopausal women – had better bone health. Good bone health has a number of important health perks, including a reduced risk of osteoporosis and fractures in older age.

Using the national and international health resource, UK Biobank, the University of Exeter and University of Leicester researchers looked at data on more than 2,500 women. They concluded that women who did 60 to 120 seconds of high-intensity, weight-bearing activity per day had 4 percent better bone health than those who did less than a minute.’

[it’s from Treehugger daily news]

Well that’s just dandy. However, a minute a day is hardly going to help this old bird in thrall to her sub 3:40 schedule. And another reason it makes me so cross is the implicit suggestion that a woman no longer in need of her monthly box of Tampax must needs only jog, and slowly at that. As I have written with some warmth before, there is no need to imply that post menopausal means feeble.

I know that I will get slower with age, and this current injury is not helping my speed, but my days of only needing a minute of slow jogging are, I hope, I some way away.

We all scream

blog ice cream

Coffee with, er, extra cream and sugar



‘I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream’

Ancient Dinka proverb.


That’s a coffee ice cream in the picture. I ate it on the run, when I’d severely miscalculated how long it would take me to get to my free sports massage at my current happy place, the North London School of Massage and hadn’t left enough time to have the coffee and bagel I promised myself in Dalston. It was a sanity-saver and no mistake, as after 14 miles on a measly bowl of Crunchy Nut I was beginning to feel wobbly.

Lapping up my overpriced cornet (this was bought from a posh gelateria – I expect it calls itself artisan, although I was too faint with hunger to check – in Stoke Newington) and continuing on my way I pondered all the times ice cream has cheered, sustained, energised and generally made life look better. And then I remembered what a useless vegan I am.

If there’s one thing that keeps me out of Vegan Runners it’s my weakness for ice cream. That’s quite childish, isn’t it? Most failed vegans bang on about missing cheese, then talk themselves into very rare goat’s varieties or obscure types like Cornish Yarg, because the milk that goes to make them (we all persuade ourselves) is freely given with pleasure by cheerful beasts with pretty names.

For me, it’s the ice cream. I love it, and though I stick with Swedish Glace and Alpro dairy-free varieties at home, my resolve collapses like a 99 cornet left out in the sun at the prospect of a lovely overpriced Loseley tub at the theatre, or a gorgeous, melting New Forest cone at the beach hut.

On one 20-miler, during which I’d arranged to take a lunch break at a friend’s house and she, on some kind of diet (yeah, not a runner) fed me pea soup and NO bread, I had to make an emergency refuel at McDonalds…

…then found I only had a pound coin on me. I bought a very synthetic ice-cream cornet for 79p and enjoyed it immensely.

When I worked for a year in Sudan, I used to go to the market and take refreshment at the ‘Scream’ stall. That’s what the chaps who manned the blenders called their concoction, a whizz-up of whatever fruit was to hand (often bananas), ice and dried milk. Great drums of dried milk and energy biscuits were often delivered to our village as part of foreign aid packages …they found their way onto the sparsely stocked market stalls, but the Scream merchants made great use of the freeze-dried white stuff. The resultant frothy, fruity, ice-cold blender goblet of goodness would have been a massive boon if I’d been a runner in Sudan. As it was, I moved pretty slowly in those days, on a big clunky bicycle or in my big clunky Birkenstocks. I was too weakened by heat and ever-present dysentery to do much else.

These days my ice-cream habit make me feel guilty, especially when, like last week, I find myself in the company of an ice-cream refusenik, whose body is a temple. This woman, one of the better athletes in my running club, has been off sugar for a month and looks radiant. She runs fast (eats cheese) and lifts weights. She’s often first woman in my local parkrun and, yes, I am quite jealous of her.

I’m thinking about forgoing sugar in the weeks up to the Berlin Marathon (24 September), when a sentence in Runner’s World speaks to me.

‘Aim to eat healthily 90% of the time it says….whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats…The other 10% of the time? Enjoy your favourite treats.’

So an ice-cream Sundays, after The Long Run? That might just work. Apart from feeling guilty about the cows.

Oh, and no more Crunchy Nut. There’s no way I can justify that addiction.

Farmer’s Walk, or Pick the Ruddy Thing Up!


Assembly League July…running a little easier


Like many urban runners, I try to avoid busy pavements, crowded concourses or wherever I am likely to irritate other pedestrians. But even when I’m not running, my own irritation levels reach crisis point when, hurrying through city streets, I get stuck behind meanderers. In my head, I’m screeching at the slow moving wall of humanity in front of me:

‘Don’t stroll three abreast at snail’s pace!’


‘Stop looking at your sodding phone!’

and, lastly, and perhaps most harshly

‘Pick the ruddy thing up!’

That last imperative is what this blog’s all about. Wheelie suitcases. The kind that are, apparently, compulsory on ‘The Apprentice’ and, increasingly in all walks of real life. I’d have them banned. Unless the user can cite an actual injury, old age or illness that necessitates their having their luggage trundling along behind them. Then they’d have to have a special licence that they show the inspectors I have just dreamed up.

Obviously this will never happen, and obviously I am intolerant and quite possibly unhinged. But everyone who has ever fallen headlong over a wheelie while trying to run for a train might have a shred of sympathy for my cause. Why are able-bodied people now incapable of picking up their cases?

What makes this sudden universal inability to lift weights in normal life I even more laughable when you consider the posturing that goes on in the gym, where people are apparently proud to show the world what heavy things they can lift.

There’s even a weight training exercise called the Farmer’s Walk, which, in fact, I was advised to practise years ago when I consulted trainer to the stars Rob Blair for some help with the pain I was suffering from a herniated disk. It’s all fine now, the back. I think it’s because I carry my own suitcases.

The Farmer’s Walk is a fine exercise for engaging many different muscle groups. It helps to stabilise your core as you work to stay erect while being pulled down by the heavy weights you’re carrying. You’re improving your grip strength in wrists and hands (and after 50, you need to work on this). Your upper back helps the shoulders and chest stop sagging, the legs are propelling you forward with the weight and your heart beats faster with all the effort. That’s ‘cardio’ to people who think that ‘exercise’ is somehow unrelated to daily life. A full workout! You can either do this with a couple of 10kg dumbbells in the gym….

Or you can pick up a couple of suitcases and walk across the airport arrival/departure lounge.

Or you can carry full shopping bags from a local store.

Or you can use your body to transport sacks loaded up for the charity shop.

Last week I was contacted by a new MeetUp group called The Carry Crew. They told me:

‘We’re not a running club. We aren’t training for a 5k, 10k or marathon. We don’t know our PB times. We love carrying heavy objects for distance. It makes us stronger! What does The Carry Crew do? We meet at Firs Farm N21 on Saturday mornings at 08:30 and walk a lap (roughly 1 mile) while carrying weights and other random objects. Simple not easy.’

I do hope members of this crew also pick up their own sodding suitcases.

Today I learned Giles Coren is man after my own heart – in this respect at least. In his Times column he redefined a few well-known terms for those readers who are sceptical about Wikipedia. Here’s his definition of ‘suitcase’; it was a bit sexist so I changed it where I could:

‘A box with handles for transporting clothes, which an adult with any sense of personal dignity carries in [his or her] hand, rather than wheeling along like a little old [lady/man] on [her/his] way to the pound shop.’


The future of work

Ronnie runs June 2017


Can it be that my regular dose of the much-vaunted runner’s high makes me believe in a green-tinted utopia?

Possibly, but in these scary and frankly unstable (whatever Mrs May say) days leading up to the election I would rather be researching modern utopias than impending dystopia, which is why the Green Party manifesto is the only one I really want to read and believe.

The case for a universal basic income, which Caroline Lucas explained neatly a year or so ago, makes a welcome second appearance in the manifesto, and would suit me down to the ground.

As a self-employed writer and editor, my career hit the buffers during the credit crunch, when the work dried up, and the little work I could find was paying me roughly 60% less (sometimes I was offered no money at all, just expenses) than I was paid pre-crunch.

So I did that retraining thing, working as an assistant in a school sixth form for a few years, while keeping on writing about running and fitness, then took the plunge and secured myself a (very mature) student loan to qualify as a personal trainer. I reckoned that working to inspire people to love what you love would be a job made in heaven.

(although some people really HATE running, and come to me for personal training with nebulous goals to lose a bit of weight and become ‘more toned’ while insisting they don’t want to use the most obvious means to do so, but that’s another story).

My coaches on the personal training course told me I could earn fantastic money as a personal trainer – particularly if I trained rich people for seven hours a day and charged them the going central London rate of £50/hour.

The only problem being I’m not very good at asking people for money, and I cannot charge Lewisham folk that much, and training others for seven hours a day means I can’t do much of my own training.

So I work far less often, charge less, but still pay the bills with my coaching work and a little bit of writing and reviewing and ducking and diving. And it’s do-able, provided my trips to Berlin to see grandson Charlie Catford (and the odd overseas marathon!) are my only luxury.

If I were paid the basic income, though, I would train people and charge nothing. I would volunteer more for my athletics club. I would work at FoodCycle and other local community concerns, like the people who wander the River Ravensbourne in waders pulling out shopping trolleys and old computers. And I would lead more walking/running/fitness groups to improve participants’ mental health. In short, I would make sure I really earned my basic wage.

Yes, I suppose it is all a bit idealistic. And a superannuated Pollyanna like me probably has no business greenwashing in her blog like this, when so many young people cannot get on the housing ladder and feel obliged to work as account managers for ghastly big corporations for £40k/year so that they can save for a deposit. I would love to see a pilot scheme for the universal basic income launch in this country, though (there’s one ongoing in Finland, I believe), and see if it would reduce the stress borne of applying for benefits and justifying your need to do so. Would carers feel better able to care? Would charitable organisations benefit from a new influx of volunteers keen to do something worthwhile, not just toiling for a wage packet?

It would be fascinating to see outdated attitudes to work/life balance and the toll such attitudes take on mental health be properly addressed by a political party, but I live in a safe Labour seat, and though the Labour party considered the universal basic income, they didn’t run with it.

I’m happy to report though, that our Labour candidate Heidi Alexander, does run with us, giving up half an hour of her precious time to Hillyfields parkrun once in a while, and I can only hope she feels the runner’s high when she does so.

My own last brush with that high came at last Thursday’s Assembly League 5k in Battersea Park, which I enjoyed greatly (as is evident from the picture), even though my time suggested rather more leisurely running than the energy I expended.

It was a cheap night out: cycled there, cycled back, paid £1 for my race entry and dined on a pint of ale and a packet of ready salted. My basic income can definitely cover a great night out like that.