Parkrun may well have saved my life

I’m also documenting my recovery journey on Instagram – head over to @flatcapspraggs

I’m going to assume lots of you already know what parkrun is. A free, weekly, 5 kilometer run/walk on a Saturday morning, at 9AM. There are hundreds in the UK – most likely one very near you. Anyone can go. You don’t need to have any experience, or fancy kit. There is no time limit, and no one finishes last.

I’ve been a ‘parkrunner’ for quite a while – I’ve done 290 now. I started way back in 2014, nearly 10 years ago. I remember being absolutely terrified, the thought of going along to this organised event, with loads of people – really intimidating. I learned so, so quickly that my fears were completely misplaced. The atmosphere and community vibe was fantastic, and I immediately felt at ease and loved going every week.

I could bore everyone with my entire parkrun history, but no one wants to hear about that, apart from maybe my Mum. What I want to focus in on is the last year of my life. People familiar to these pages will know the last 12 months have been absolute hell for me. I’ve been really, really ill – never 100% diagnosed, but most similar to either Long Covid, Chronic Fatigue or some other kind of severe post-viral fatigue. A full list of symptoms and testing done is included in that linked post.

There were months on end where I was barely able to move, leave the house, or communicate properly with other human beings. My symptoms were so severe at times, that it seemed impossible that my body would ever start to recover. As you can imagine, these physical symptoms brought with them severe mental implications, and took me to the darkest of dark places.

My entire life had been ripped up, with absolutely everything taken away from me. Everything I loved to do – exercise, socialising, work, going to the pub, out for dinner, holidays, TV, reading, walking the dog, hoping, dreaming, life. All gone. But I decided one thing wasn’t going to be taken – Parkrun.

It holds a really special place in my heart, with so many memories created there with friends and family, at different venues up and down the country. Before this turbulent time of my life, I used to be a very good runner (not that this matters one iota when it comes to parkrun, it’s just good to give context), with a parkrun PB (personal best) of 16:57. But I knew I could go along to parkrun, even if it took me 7 days to get around the course – thankfully for the volunteers and organisers, it never did.

With my complete lack of social interaction whilst ill, I knew it was important to find something to help me cling to reality, and the real world outside of these four walls I now found myself trapped in. I couldn’t think of a better place with a sense of community and togetherness than parkrun.

We moved to Dorking after the first wave of the dreaded COVID pandemic, and now my local event is Mole Valley, nestled in the Surrey Hills at Denbies vineyard. Before this nightmare began, I’d already been running there and volunteering regularly, building friendships with other like-minded people and getting familiar with one of the more ‘testing’ courses on the circuit. It’s not flat.

When this horrible illness initially hit, I did take a short break from parkrun. I had a two month hiatus, where I was really, really poorly, and leaving the house was just too much. This eventually eased enough to enable me to start volunteering again, so I could still be involved. As chance was have it, I was stuck on 249 runs, just one away from the 250 milestone – regular attendees will know that 250 runs qualifies you for the magical green t-shirt.

At the beginning of April I deemed myself well enough to at least get around the course, and loads of friends joined me on Wimbledon Common to celebrate the milestone together. This was an extremely hard morning for me, as I still had some horrible symptoms and I’d developed high levels of anxiety having been unable to be out and about for so long. But parkrun was the perfect environment to reintegrate into, where there’s no judgement, no expectation and nothing but positive atmosphere.

From this point onward, I was determined to be present every week in some form, to give me something to cling on to through the hardest times. I had a bizarre period between April and May, where my physical condition improved remarkably and it seemed like the illness was gone for good, but unfortunately at the start of June, it came back with a vengeance, much worse than before and seemingly here to stay. Darkness descended.

I needed help, badly. My life was in tatters, I could barely move and I couldn’t find any joy anywhere. I subconsciously decided that parkrun would be a constant, whatever happened and however bad things were. So I kept going, despite my condition deteriorating. I decided that this disease could take absolutely everything away from me, but it wasn’t taking this.

I spent most weeks across the summer going to Mole Valley, where I knew there would be familiar faces and comfort. I was already friendly with the run directors Jo, Steve and Rob, as well as many of the core volunteer team, so each visit offered me an opportunity to stay attached to reality and feel like I was a part of something.

There were many occasions when the effort of just driving 5 minutes from my house to the start left me feeling exhausted and on the verge of collapsing, so I’d just hang around at the start, staring into space and watching the event site slowly coming alive with atmosphere and excitement. I found it so, so hard to relate to all these people, happy and carefree, while I was seemingly knocking on deaths door. But if there’s one thing this last year has taught me, it’s that everyone’s going through something, and you have no idea how they are feeling on the inside.

I’m naturally very loud and sociable – good at hiding my true feelings once autopilot kicks in and I start chatting to people. Most people glancing around would probably look at me and see a happy, content young man, healthy and focused on living life to the max. They’d have no idea the horrors I was going through on a minute by minute basis when my face wasn’t in the spotlight and I went home to crash on the sofa for the following 6 days straight. You should never judge a book by it’s cover.

I spent many of those summer mornings crying my way around the course, still so troubled by my situation and the horrible symptoms I was constantly experiencing. I hid it as best I could, not wanting to ruin the morning or experience for others, but sometimes a random volunteer or fellow walker was on hand to provide some comfort and positivity.

There have been so many negatives over the last year, but the one thing I look back on with fondness is parkrun. I’ve met so many amazing people, who I wouldn’t have met if I was just focused on me and trying to get to the finish as quickly as physically possible. It’s allowed me to interact with people and offer encouragement and advice, and sometimes it’s just been a vehicle to vent to the world and anyone that will listen.

There was the charming Sri Lankan, Umashankar, at Mole Valley. We chatted our way around, talking about cricket, sports and he told me all about his family. He’d never run in his life up until this point, and was using parkrun as a way to start getting fitter and living a healthier lifestyle.

I can’t drag all my mates around the London Marathon (or myself anymore, for that matter), but I can convince them all to descend on a random parkrun with me whilst on my stag do, with a few too many shandies popped the previous evening.

At Summerdale Pavillion, I got to walk around with two of my groomsmen, on a crazy course that allows you to spot other runners at various other points during each lap. We laughed as members of the stag party slowly went from grinning and smiling to looking like they wished they stayed in bed like 2 of the 25 others opted to do (I thought this was a really impressive turnout ratio!) I finished ‘last’, but no one finishes last at parkrun because there’s always a tail walker behind you.

On my wedding morning, I activated the strategy of ‘pretend you’re not chronically ill for 24 hours’, and the ‘Groom Gang’ went around Reigate Priory together whilst Katie and her hens headed to Mole Valley – we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

At Riddlesdown, I met and learned the story of Keith, a chap in his 70’s. He didn’t start running until his mid-60’s, and now he’s done over 300 parkruns. Not only that, but he contracted Luekemia during this time, and had to undergo rounds of chemotherapy. Throughout his treatment, he continued to turn up and parkrun every week and get around the course as best he could. Surely this shows that no matter how much you think you can’t do something, or that it’s too late to start now – it never is. Keith is living and breathing proof of that.

At Tilgate, I traveled along with two junior runners, Mervyn and Vishwa. I often try and take on the role of protective big brother in this situation, either offering plenty of encouragement, trying to crack a joke, or chatting with them to keep their minds off feeling tired. It turned out the Mervyn was a budding rugby player and runner, who’d only really just started out with both. I shared what advice I had, and left hoping that some of the points would hit home, and the meeting would be mutually beneficial for both of us.

Down by the coast at Worthing, I met two ladies, one of which had just been told she would be a grandmother for the second time, the joy etched on her face plain for everyone to see. They would finish and head straight to the sea for a quick dip (this was in November!) – utterly bonkers.

On Christmas Eve at Abingdon, I found myself side by side with little Eliana (10) and her mum Ruth. She was taking some gentle ‘persuading’ by mum to get around the 5km course, and I stepped in to help, offering myself up as a ‘rabbit’ to catch before the finish line. Safe to say she stormed past all of us at the end, showing a clean pair of heels. She got a puppy for Christmas as well. I’m jealous.

I met 75+ year old ‘Bazza’ at Fulbourn Hospital (the parkrun, not the patients ward..) on New Year’s Eve, proudly sporting his Norwich City shirt with his name on the back. Fulbourn was a classic example of a community parkrun. 4 laps, where you see runners coming the other way, and everyone is so nice, lovely and supportive to each other. I chatted to so many people on the way round, whilst also getting to shout for Katie and my mum who were also running.

Many of the events I’ve been to this year have involved my Mum, where parkrun has turned into a lovely, shared experience. She started as a very, very nervous parkrun, worried that she would stick out, or not be able to do it. But over the months as we’ve visited different courses together as a way to stay in touch and give me something to look forward to, she’s developed so much more confidence, so much so that she’s now going to a different one every week and turned into an official parkun tourist!

Naturally, she now beats me every single time, but that doesn’t matter – we share the experience together and we’re there for each other. I’ve come to cherish those mornings together so much.

Junior parkrun has also become a huge part of my coping and recovery process. These take place on a Sunday, again at 9AM, for kids aged between 4 and 14, where they cover a distance of 2 kilometers. I’m always been keen to help out wherever I can in the running community, and going to juniors weekly was a perfect opportunity to continue doing that, as well as give me another tiny bit of purpose on an otherwise completely empty and miserable weekend.

Leatherhead is the closest event to me, so I’ve mainly been going there, where I’ve got to know some of the wonderful core team over the months. Their passion and enthusiasm for health and exercise is infectious, and it’s so amazing to see all the kids completing the course with a smile on their face. There are 100’s of these events, up and down the country – a perfect springboard to try and encourage kids into an active and healthy lifestyle.

I haven’t really opened up to many of the team about my life struggles, but it’s nice to see the same faces every week, have a chat and help out for 20 minutes or so. In the height of my sickness, this was just about all I could manage, and I’d spend the rest of the day in bed, but at least knowing I’d contributed something positive to the world that day.

So, circling back around to the title of this blog. Has parkrun saved my life? I’m lucky enough to have so many amazing friends and family around me for support through this horrible, horrible period of time. But there were points during the summer where I really didn’t know if I’d see the New Year. Parkrun gave me something to aim for each week, one tiny bit of normality in a sea of suffering.

I don’t champion many causes, or initiatives, but to me parkrun is the very ethos of community and togetherness. You can go there, whatever your situation, and find a place. There are so many reasons people go, but a constant that I see wherever I go is that people are there to help each other, which our society could use a lot more of these days.

I want to thank the teams at Mole Valley, Leatherhead juniors, and all the other courses I’ve been to in the last 12 months. Everyone I’ve spent time with along the way has been amazing and so supporting, and without knowing it, you might have given a young (ish!) lad a second chance.



2 thoughts on “Parkrun may well have saved my life

  1. Joe- so enjoyed reading that. Have been incredibly worried about you for the last year and you really deserve to now start enjoying your life with Katie and stan again. You have so much to look forward to in life, and to achieve. Love always – Nan


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