Running, it’s good for your mental health

 

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Thank you to Lizzie Coombes for the photo

 

Today is World Mental Health Day.  It’s a day to focus on what’s making us tick, and whether that ticking is working properly, or maybe it needs a bit of adjustment. It’s a powerful thing, the mind, great when it’s working well, debilitating when it’s not.

I love the NHS, I’ve worked in it for many years, I’ve been a patient all my life, it serves us well, particularly in emergencies and when there’s serious physical illness. But, and you know what they say, ignore everything before the ‘but’, when it comes to mental health services, the NHS is playing catch-up.

According to the Kings Fund, an excellent heath and social care think tank, three in four people with a mental health problem receive little or no treatment for their problem. If they are severely affected, they die up to 20 years before their time. Its report says mental health problems account for 23 per cent of the burden of disease in the UK, yet spending on mental health services is just 11 per cent of the NHS budget. Now there’s lots of caveats to those statements, the NHS, its funding and commissioning is complex, more layers than a very large onion, and peeling it can definitely bring tears to your eyes. I know I have worked in commissioning for many years and shed many a tear. But it is a fact that NHS support for mental well-being is severely under-resourced and under-funded.

The onus is therefore on individuals, where they are able, to help themselves as much as they can and for others to be in a position to provide that help. It’s what we do as humans, we try and look out for each other.

Top of my list for mental wellbeing is exercise, whether it’s running, skiing, climbing, hiking, yoga, circuit training or whatever else gets me a sweat on and the endorphins going. Then there’s talking, I have a lovely husband and friends who give me a good listening to.

But if I was to name just one activity that has made me smile when I felt like crying, held my hand when I felt lonely, opened up a whole new world of friendship and given me the chance to help others when they are going through bad times, its parkrun. The weekend just gone was International parkrun Day and at Woodhouse Moor,  we celebrated our tenth birthday, there were more than 600 runners and volunteers enjoying a 5km run, jog or walk. If I could capture and bottle the joy and camaraderie of that day, or indeed any Saturday morning, I would give it to the NHS to distribute free to everyone. Wouldn’t that be great?

It’s Mrs parkrun!

 

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Me being a Mrs parkrun. Thanks to Stephen Morris for the photo

There I was, minding everybody’s business. Well, I was marshalling at a particularly muddy section of my club’s popular trail run and had to make sure no-one went the wrong way, not on my watch anyway, when a little pack of runners gave me a big smile, massive wave and called out ‘It’s Mrs parkrun!’

It’s amazing how people label you, especially when the meeting is out of context. I’ve done the same myself when meeting fellow runners. Before I know it, I’ve proclaimed that I didn’t recognise them with their clothes on. In the cold light of day, I appreciate how bad this may sound to everyone else.

Working in NHS management, I’ve been called a bureaucrat, usually with an inappropriate adjective, and much more, some of it not repeatable in this family-friendly blog. I can’t even begin to tell you the expletives that accompanied some of the journalist sobriquets that came my way, though to be fair, there were some kind ones too. Journalism is, after all, a noble calling, which always had a major supporting role in league tables of the most trusted professions. Supporting because, being near the bottom, they hold everyone else up.

I’ve been parkrunning since 2011, completing 225 in all weathers and have nearly as many stints at volunteering. I find it almost impossible to believe, but some people don’t know what parkrun is. Good grief, where have you been for the past 13 years? Briefly, parkrun is a free 5km timed run, in one of 1000 or so locations throughout the world.

Woodhouse Moor in Leeds, where I’m Event Director, was the first to start outside London ten years ago and will be holding a cakey celebration in October. We’re now one of six parkruns in Leeds, each week, we get up to 500 people, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me too much that people make the connection.

With all the parkruns around, though, I can only lay claim to being one of hundreds of Mrs parkruns. But I’ll definitely take that. Thank you!

 

Don’t I know you?

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Two parkrun celebrities

Noel is a super-recogniser, he only needs to see a face once and he can identify that person again. He could be a spy, seriously, except he’s married to Mrs Chatty, spies can’t be married to chatty people. At least that’s what he tells me, maybe he’s double-bluffing.

He confesses his gift can sometimes be a curse, especially when he picks out famous people. The last time it happened was a couple of weeks ago when we were enjoying our mid-morning caffeine break to gee us up for another few more hours skiing. I was proudly wearing my Yorkshireman Half Marathon tee-shirt (they don’t do a Yorkshirewoman version, thank goodness, it would probably be pink, pink, I ask you). An English voice chirped up from a group of cheerful chappies who were probably not drinking coffee.

“Yorrrrrk-shiiiiiiire!,” I heard in a southern accent. I took it as a compliment, it’s always a compliment. Noel scrutinised the Yorkshire shouter, before he could stop himself, he blurted out ‘don’t I know you?’. The shouter looked bashful, ‘Yes, he said, probably from television, or the movies..’. “Are you a runner?” I asked him. I am not a super-recogniser.

For the rest of the afternoon, Noel was processing his vast internal data files, he finally found him. Our Yorkshire shouter was Neil Stuke, best known for his role in the TV dramas Game On and Silk.  He was a little embarrassed, not every celebrity wants their fame exclaimed in a French bar, you never know where autograph hunters are lurking, so he tweeted him to apologise. The apology was quickly accepted, what did we do before social media, eh?

I have had those recognition moments, though it tended to be in my reporting days when I was covering court cases. I had a canny way of clocking the accused, though of course I said nothing, well, it would have been rude, and some of them had been convicted of being very naughty indeed, which I would have featured in newspaper columns in a way which would not really have shown them in a very good light. They may not have liked that.

This week at parkrun I had more of a ‘shouldn’t I know you?’ moment. It turns out Peanut, the keyboard player with local popular beat combo The Kaiser Chiefs is a keen parkrunner. Being more from the Abba and Police generation, I of course failed to recognise him, but he was gracious and let me take his photo with George, who of course as far as Woodhouse Moor parkrun is concern is an even bigger celebrity.   I wonder if he asked for George’s autograph…..

 

 

#loveparkrun – the little idea

 

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There’s no such thing as The Big Idea™, maintains a friend of mine. Rather, there’s lots of little ideas that look like one big one, and I totally agree.

With our 500th parkrun approaching at Woodhouse Moor, we wanted to do something a bit different, a bit special and, us being Yorkshire, something that would cost us nowt. The Ideas Team was self-selecting, effectively anyone who joined in the post-parkrun coffee chat.

Now the thing about generating ideas is that when you start off, nothing is too daft, everything can be considered, no-one’s judging, well, not out loud. A ragtime band leading the runners to the start playing ‘Oh when the saints go marching in’ would certainly get people moving, as would a troupe of acrobats back-flipping down the finishing strait waving banners saying ‘500 and counting’. A huge cake with parkrun celebrity Jaz springing out, resplendent in her apricot tee-shirt would work, as would a mountain of cupcakes arranged to spell #loveparkrun, though the chances of getting those for free was pretty slim. Plus I’m still doing sugar-free February, even though it’s March.

So the ideas had to be refined a little. One thing we were all agreed on was that everyone had something good to say about parkrun. Each week, as Run Directors, we hear how people love parkrun, I’ve seen numbers double since I started seven years ago and have been heartened by the heartwarming stories of those who have found friendship, fought off mental illness, or just enjoyed running in a lovely park with no-one to beat but themselves.

Rhona came up with the idea of making labels for people to write #loveparkrun messages. Debbie battled with three huge 5, 0 and 0 balloons, with Steve holding her legs to make sure she didn’t take off. Curtis grapped with a giant selfie frame and Frank came up with some mini awards for star volunteers and runners.

The labels definitely caught people’s imaginations. By the time we were clearing away after a record-breaking turn-out, there were hundreds of labels fluttering in the breeze. Some were funny #loveparkrun because of the cake, they said, or so they could consume guilt-free calories in the form of beer on a Friday night. Some enjoyed running and running fast, but many said they had made friends, found partners or, most movingly, overcome mental health problems.

parkrun wasn’t a big idea when it started 13 years ago down in that there London, it was a time trial which grew. Leeds was the fourth parkrun, now there are more than a thousand, five of them in our fair city, I’m honoured to be Event Director at Woodhouse Moor, I get to shout a lot, I’m good at that.

So why do I #loveparkrun? Because I can run in the park with my mates, then drink coffee and talk rubbish afterwards. It’s a little idea that became a big one.

 

 

 

 

200 parkruns and counting

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parkrun #200 for me, #50 for my mate Jill (on the ground, recovering) 

There’s a little piece of a Leeds park that has a little piece of me. Well when I say of me, I mean a few millimetres of rubber from my running shoes, along with a bit of scraped skin and quite a lot of my heart.

It’s just under five years ago that I trotted along to Hyde Park, that’s the Green Lungs of Leeds park, not the London pretender of the same name, and joined 270 others who had got out of bed on a Saturday morning to run the 5km parkrun.

What madness was this? Running around a park at the start of the weekend in the cold and wet, with a bunch of strangers when I could be reading the Guardian, drinking coffee and chewing on croissants? Noel was away and I was at a loose end, so I thought, hey, why not? I get these mad urges from time to time.

I turned up, massively over-dressed and jogged round with a sense of wonder. First of all that I had actually got out of bed to do this crazy thing, not being a particularly regular runner, but secondly that there were people of all shapes, sizes and speeds. I finished with my jacket and jumper tied around my waist, sweating for my country and on quite a high. This was a good idea, a damned good idea, even at such an ungodly hour, I decided I’d do more of this parkrunning thing, though without so many layers.

Not only have I done more of this parkrunning thing, I’ve got myself involved in running the running and am now Event Director at Woodhouse Moor parkrun which means I get up even earlier on a Saturday to help set up, sort out or, as with this week, move fallen branches away from the course. I also get to do shouting, which I’m rather good at.

This week was very special, though. Not because of moving the fallen branches, or scraping the ice away from the finish line so there was no comedy sliding into the funnel, but because it marked my 200th parkrun, and nearly as many times volunteering in one way or another. I don’t get a tee-shirt, a medal or anything, I don’t want them, just being their with friends and other parkrunners is a reward in itself. Seriously.

Without gushing too much, I have to say that parkrun has been one of those movements that has brought about massive change for good. There were 170,000 people all over the world parkrunning on Saturday, more than three million people are registered runners, blimey, we’re bigger than Albania!

I have made so many friends, from so many countries, including Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia, though unfortunately not Albania, yet. I’ve watched people go from walking to running, I’ve seen lonely hearts join together to become happy couples, I’ve seen depressions lift and I’ve seen some rather amazing running. I’ve also eaten a lot of cake and drunk a lot of coffee, so it’s just as well I run off the calories.

So I’m going to carry on parkrunning until I can run no more, and when I can’t run, I’ll walk, and when I can’t walk, I’ll shuffle.

The poetry of parkrun

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I swear it, this autumn day was so beautiful, I wanted to cry with joy. The early start to prepare for parkrun o’clock meant we saw the post-dawn mists rising from the Aire Valley and the leaves swirling across the empty roads, blown by the north wind.

The park itself was eerily quiet. Thousands of people were there the previous night for the annual bonfire. In an hour, hundreds would be turning up to run the 5km parkrun. For the time being it was just us, the council guys doing a pretty fantastic job of making the aftermath of the bonfire disappear, and more gorgeous light and colours than you could shake a poetry book at.

The paths around the park are lined with trees, all of them letting go of their leaves ready for winter. But today, today was stunning. It was like running on different shades of gold, from pale yellow through rose to brash orange, all glowing in the sun. If I could write poetry, I would have penned a verse immediately, but I’m not inclined to rhyme – see what I mean? Instead, I just wanted to stop and shout out ‘isn’t this the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?’. I did in my head, the shouting, not the stopping. I was doing what passes for running after all, and while I wasn’t going to be breaking any records, I wasn’t going to stop, for a start, the folk behind would fall over me like dominoes, and that’s not poetic at all, though the language may have been fruity.

It wasn’t just the colours and the crunching of the leaves under foot, it was being with so many people out in the park for a run with their mates. That’s poetry too, so many lovely folk, such a beautiful day, then coffee and chatting afterwards. I’ll be back next week. Of course.

“It dun’t get any easier, does it?”

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A hug from Pete – thanks to AiLyn Tan for the photo

It’s usually around the end of the first lap that Pete chugs past me, we’re both huffing and puffing. ‘It dun’t get any easier, does it?’ he says as he heads on his way, not to be seen again until the finish. No, it doesn’t, this running lark, but I love it all the same.

Pete and I have a thing going at parkrun, a mutual encouragement thing, a ‘we’re not going to win it, but we’ll get there’ thing. He’s had a bad year, personal stuff, but has kept up that cheery cheekiness as he plods past me every week. That’s why I nominated him for an award at our parkrun birthday celebrations. That and the fact that he’s an all-round trooper, running, supporting, volunteering, with the odd falling-over incident, but, hey, we’ve all done that!

I’m one of the team of run directors at Woodhouse Moor parkrun (note the lower case ‘p’ – it goes against all my journalistic training, but it’s our trade name, so there’s no arguing!) We work together to sort out the volunteer roles, trundle the trolley of stakes and cart the carrier bags full of high-viz jackets, tape and various bits of lost property, ready for the weekly run. I also get to do a lot of shouting and general bossing around, which I’m rather good at.

Our parkrun birthday celebration brought a surprise this year. Each run director had their own nominations, and Event Director Sam was telling us all about his. This was someone who had run their first parkrun back in 2011, had stepped forward to volunteer when numbers were short….This was starting to sound a bit familiar, as I ran my first parkrun in 2011 and done a fair bit of volunteering (well, running IS hard!) then when he got on to the bit about his nomination being a rather enthusiastic (for that, read noisy and in-your-face) member of the run director team, I knew it was time to blush.  This was a complete surprise, and I was humbled.

At the same time, he handed me the Event Director’s metaphoric mantle, which wasn’t a surprise as he’d asked me the previous week, but sworn me to secrecy. And yes, I can keep many secrets!

So here begins a new lap on my #loveparkrun journey. The event directing I can handle, especially with the help of the wonderful team at Woodhouse Moor. But the running? As Pete will continue to observe, it dun’t get any easier. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.