Eimear Ryan: Running’s unique community spirit goes hand in hand with parklife

On a balmy Friday evening, not too long ago, I find myself out in Courtmacsherry for a 10k race. This is a ‘fun run’, a phrase that until quite recently I dismissed as oxymoronic, writes Eimear Ryan.

 Now, however, I do Google searches to find out when these events are taking place around the county, writing them down in my weekly planner aspirationally. I don’t make it to most of them, but I’m always glad when I do.

I’m not even running on this blustery evening. I hoped to, but a mild quad strain in a camogie match the previous evening put paid to that. I’m just tagging along to support my friends. As soon as I’ve parked the car, though, I wish I was running: It’s a nice flat course along the water, out the road to Timoleague and back again. I’ve been sitting in front of a computer all day and the sea air clears my head of screen-fug right away.

The main reason I love these runs, however, is the crowd you get. They’re the most all-embracing sporting events I’ve ever been to, and there’s a real community here. The participants range from college students all the way up to pensioners. The spouses and kids of the athletes line the road for the final stretch to shout them on. Most of the runners are in their 30s and 40s — that age when playing a team sport starts to become less viable, but the need to sweat out the stress (career, mortgages, parent-hood) becomes more pressing than ever. These are the participants that love it the most, that are evangelical about the benefits of running. They have Fitbits and NutriBullets. They’re training for half-marathons.

The runners line up outside the Lifeboat pub, which serves as start and finish-line. Oul fellas holding inky pints come out for a gawk. One of the race organisers is on the megaphone with thorough instructions: No cutting corners. Be aware of traffic. Free refreshments in the hotel afterwards. We’re in that tense last few minutes before the race starts: everyone chatting, limbering up, trying to get in a few more stretches.

The whistle blows, and they’re off towards Timoleague to the cheers of the small crowd. I join the oul fellas in the Lifeboat for a glass of beer and a read, and then I start walking out the course to catch the runners on their way back on the loop. Personally I’d be happy to run 10km in about an hour, but the first runner returns in just over 32 minutes. The first female runner arrives soon after in under 40. Everyone bursting a gut in the late June heat.

I’m watching for my friends to clap them on to the finish line, but you end up clapping everyone. You shout mundane phrases like ‘Good stuff lads!’ or ‘Nearly there now!’ Some of the runners smile back at you or flash a quick thumbs-up. After the race, I overhear two young fellas talking. ‘You really need that,’ one of them says. ‘You need the bit of encouragement to get over the line.’

Afterwards, there’s sandwiches, cake, tea, and coffee out on the picnic tables in front of the hotel. A few well-deserved pints are drank. There’s a wonderful buzz and sense of camaraderie around the place. Even though it’s a race, the competition isn’t as personal as in other sports. Really you’re only racing the clock. Really you’re only racing yourself.

It heartens me to see these outlets for older athletes. For me, sport is an invaluable means of expression at any stage in life. When I was a kid playing club camogie, I wore an oversized jersey with sleeves that came almost to my wrists; I needed safety pins to secure my skort. Back then, sport was a way to step into the world of adults.

But the door works both ways. At this stage of my life, sport is a way to keep in touch with childhood play and creativity.

And clearly, there are hordes who feel the same way. In the last few years, Parkrun has become a national pastime. An organisation with a simple goal, Parkrun organises free Saturday morning 5k runs in parks all over the world.

In Ireland alone there are 63 Parkrun events with over 100,000 participants to date. The events are organised by volunteers, and any runner of any age can take part. People run with dogs on leashes in tow; mothers run while pushing buggies. And you can come up against anyone, as the weekly results sheet demonstrates. All participants carry a barcode that’s scanned at the finish line to record your time; later that day, a results sheet is emailed out. Stats listed for every participant include time, age category, personal best, number of runs, and so on.

At one recent Parkrun, I was feeling good and knew I was on track to get a personal best. In the final straight, I saw a tall man ahead of me. I know I said there isn’t much competition at these races, but sometimes, to spur yourself on, you play games with yourself. You say, I’ll chase the girl in the green top, or I’ll pick off that fella with the beanie hat. I set my sights on the tall man.

When he noticed I was trying to get past him, he responded with a burst of speed. I quickened my pace.

We had a fine old battle on the run-in, but in the end I triumphantly nipped in ahead of him.

Later that day, when the results were emailed to me, I scanned down through the names until I found myself. Eimear Ryan, age group: 30-35, new personal best.

I was delighted with myself. My self-satisfaction evaporated, however, when I noticed the details of the runner directly below me, the guy I’d had such an epic duel with.

Age group: 70-75. And it wasn’t even his personal best.


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