It’s another cold Saturday morning and I’m running slowly across a muddy sports field.
A faster runner passes me. Large clumps of dirt fly up from the back of his heels as he sprints through, one almost colliding with my face. Soon the other runner is not much more than a speck in the distance.
As I turn a sharp corner one of the volunteers wearing a fluorescent jacket yells encouragement. ‘Come on! It’s all downhill from here!’
A tall runner beside me manages to utter some words of comfort in my direction.
‘Well, that’s good to know at least.’
About thirty seconds later we hit a sharp incline. It’s short, but makes the muscles in my calves burn.
As I amble towards the finish line there are various thoughts in my head. Why do I do this? Why the feck do I do this? Jesus, I really wish I was dead.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is what I do for fun and relaxation.
I cross the line and another volunteer hands me a little plastic token and some words of congratulation.
It’s another cold Saturday morning and I’m at another Parkrun.
Today I’m doing the Queen’s Parkrun in Belfast. I’ve actually done this run before but they’ve recently changed the course so I wanted to have another look.
I trudge towards the pavilion and hand my barcode and token to yet another volunteer who records my place.
She smiles warmly and says: ‘Well, what did you make of that then Jonathan?’
I’m briefly stunned that this complete stranger knows my name. For the smallest of moments a pleasing thought runs through my mind that my fame as a Parkrunner carries all before me.
Then I realise that she is just reading my name off my barcode and trying to be nice.
Then I remember that I really ought to say something in response. That’s how it works.
I try to say ‘It was very hard. Too many bends.’
But what actually comes out between gasps is ‘Hardmanybendy.’
She smiles again as she hands back my barcode. I swipe sweat away from my face.
The greatest attraction of Queen’s as a Parkrun venue is the facilities. At most other Parkruns you have to gather in a park, exposed to the elements. At Queen’s there is a large, modern and bright pavilion so you can delay going out to run in the rain until the latest possible moment.
The pavilion also serves as the spot for a post run coffee and chat. Dozens gather there to compare times or catch up on their anecdotes from the office during the past week. There’s a warm buzz of good-natured conversation, well earned after a hard run.
I take a cup of cold water from a table. There are maybe fifty people gathered in the room. I move away from them all to a bench at the far wall and take a seat.
I watch the other runners come in and leave. Groups are forming and I’m content to watch rather than participate. I’m overcome with that familiar feeling, one that has been with me throughout my life, that every person in the room knows each other, apart from me.
Then a man walks towards me. I pretend to be staring at my cup and take a couple of sips. He stands close by.
‘Good to get the run out of the way early in the day.’
‘Aye’, I respond, deploying the full scale of my raconteurial talents.
The man sits beside me now. He is older than me, perhaps by twenty years. His hair is white but his body wiry. He has serious eyes. While I am breathless he is completely measured.
And then he begins to talk to me about the run. I tell him that Wallace Parkrun is my home course and he is familiar with it. In fact, he is familiar with all the Parkruns in Northern Ireland, having completed every single course. This gives me the opportunity to tell him about my current challenge to run all the Parkruns and he listens with patient interest.
Then we compare notes on some of the courses we have both completed, which ones are the fastest, the hilliest, the most picturesque.
Today I’m wearing a Belfast Marathon T-shirt. I got it when I finished the marathon in 2016. Perhaps I’m hoping that my new companion will notice it and realise that I was once a decent runner.
‘Do you do any other running?’ I ask. ‘Anything long distance?’
‘I like to do ultra marathons. Doing 150 mile runs is a good challenge for me.’
‘Oh,’ I say.
We talk like this for a few more minutes. I don’t know what my new friend’s name is, or even what he does for a living but it was pleasant just to connect over a chat about running.
That’s one of the many benefits of the Parkrun. You always meet someone to have a chat to. Yes, even someone as antisocial as me.
Soon it’s time for me to leave the pavilion and I say goodbye to my new friend. He offers me his hand.
‘Are you running back to Lisburn now?’ he asks.
‘Uh no, I think I’ll just take the car.’
‘Right, well maybe I’ll see you at Wallace Parkrun sometime.’
Yes, maybe you will.