The Memoirs of a Reluctant Athlete

BY GUY JONES

Copyright 2021 Guy Jones. All rights reserved.

Long, long ago. When social distancing was what you did when your mate, who had had tripe for lunch, dropped a 'silent but deadly', in the crowded carriage of the 5:32 p.m. from Manchester Piccadilly.

In those days, when the world was a little younger, we did things together. In those days we had a social life and it wasn’t at all distanced. In those days, some of us ... though it seems strange to say to now ... some of us went running ... at organised events ... yes some of us ran races. And we did it of our own free will, though at times reluctantly, all over the country.

This memoir is a record of that distant time, in the hope that it will return ... before too long.

Part 2

Newent Parkrun

It was on the occasion of our 12th wedding anniversary that my wife and I decided to celebrate with a couple of friends, by going camping in Newent for a long weekend. For those of you who don’t know Newent, it is a nice quiet town, sort of on the edge of the Forest of Dean, just inside Gloucestershire, not far from Hereford. Newent is not famous for much. It does boast Britain’s one and only Onion Fayre*. Although it can hardly be said that the town is famous for that since no one, outside the environs of Newent itself, has ever even heard of it. I will leave you to imagine what an Onion Fayre might have to offer, because when we were there, it wasn’t on, it being summer at the time and the Onion Farye happens in autumn, in line with the life cycle and therefore the traditional harvesting time, of the humble bulb vegetable.

Newent is a pleasant town with a series of nice pubs, a very nice butchers that does excellent sausage rolls and there is a lovely old Market Hall, a half timbered building on stilts with a market area underneath. It is a rather sleepy backwater. I’m sure it all comes to life when the great onion from the sky descends in September and thoughts turn to all things Allium cepa (onion’s scientific name).

At the time I had only just started running and hadn’t actually ever done a parkrun^. In fact I had no intention of ever doing a parkrun at that stage. Running was for me a solitary activity . It was all about the loneliness of the long distance runner and running on mass just didn’t float my boat. After all, what is the point of entering a race that you have no hope of winning, that you have a evens chance of coming last in, that isn’t even a proper race.

I am pretty sure our guests had a similar attitude to Newent parkrun. Similar if a little different. Their approach was more like, ‘never run in our lives, apart from occasionally to catch last orders and then only from the comfortable seat by the window, to the bar, via the toilet, between the first ‘last orders’ bell and the last ‘last order’ bell. Why on Earth would we suddenly decided to do a 5k?'

Well one drink led to another, as it has a wont to of a Friday night and the gauntlet was laid down. It was probably my wife, a keen parkrunner, who did most of the initial laying down, though history doesn’t adequately record this part of the occasion. "Why don't you join us at parkrun in the morning?" was probably how the gauntlet was presented.

Once broached, it was a gauntlet that showed no signs of putting itself to bed, if you will pardon the mixing of a metaphor cocktail.

Another drink led to another. After more than one ‘go on I dare you’ looks across the table, followed by an ‘I double dare you’ look or two just for good measure, very much by yours truly (history does record this, or to be more precise, I have just recorded it), the gauntlet was manfully taken up by my mate. He did this manly ‘taking up’ while his better half was indisposed being sick in the toilet, which raises questions about just how manly his gauntlet up taking really was.

His acceptance of the challenge, it has to be said, involved something of a grimace or two. The more emotionally aware may have suggested that it all happened under duress. A case of politeness championing over desire and good sense. But the night had moved on to that twilight period when reason gives way to bravado and so it was agreed, parkrun in the morning and we opened another bottle to seal the deal and as a form of liquid training for the big event.

Newent parkrun is one those parkruns that makes the most of a limited area. It is basically 2 laps of the grounds of Newent Community School. It runs round the edge of the playing fields, in and out of some woodland, has a few gentle inclines with the corresponding declines and a dog leg to the finish where, as I remember, chocolates and drinks awaited the gallant finishers. Very pleasant. Not too challenging and rather friendly.

The run went very much to plan. I, with my usual mature approach to this kind of thing, kept pace with my wife, even stopping with her when she had to stretch a couple of muscles, so I could keep on her shoulder throughout the race (yes I know parkrun is not a race, but run 3 miles in my shoes and you will know what I mean) ready to pounce on the home straight, a la Steve Ovett ... only to confound her by acting completely out of character, picking her up and carrying her over the line, thereby giving us exactly the same time, meaning I didn’t lose, and giving me a whole load of much needed brownie points that would see me safely through the rest of the day. All very romantic and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I’m sure you will agree.

In the event the powers that be, for reasons that I must now accept as lost in the ether, making any further attempt to challenge the decision futile, managed to put my wife down as ‘winning’ by a whole second! There is no justice!! We crossed the line very much together!!! If anyone should have got a time penalty, it was clearly my wife!!!! She didn’t even run the last 3 yards!!!!!

As for our gallant friends. It is difficult to say whether or not their race went to plan at all, since they had no plan to even run it in the first place. They too finished together. Less, I suspect, as a romantic gesture and more as a health and safety precaution. In the event of one of them passing out it was sensible for the other to be there to give first aid, take last wishes, administer last rights etc.

When they finally crawled over the line, very much at the back, gasping for breath, legs aching and pride bruised, the last of the chocolates had gone, as had half the competitors and the less keen of the stewards. It was not so much a look of relief that greeted me as they stood there hunched, hands on knees, trying to get back to something resembling normal breathing. The look was more of ‘I’ll get you for this’ thrown in my direction.

Afterwards it was back to the campsite for a Champaign breakfast with full fry up. It is surprising how much bad stuff one manages to justify off the back of a bit of Saturday morning exercise. Parkrun has a lot to answer for, in that respect. “What an excellent way to start the day,” I casually remarked as the glasses clinked for the second round of fizz and I spread far too much butter on my last round of toast.

There was a brief silence. During which the male half of our guest couple saw - somewhere between my wife’s desire for a civilised day of gentle celebration and my desire to carry on as the day had started, by eating and drinking till I take no more - the chance to get his own back.

“We could go onto the whisky next,” he challenged.

“You can’t do that,” came the not unreasonable reply from our respective partners.

My guest stopped and looked at me with a ‘go on I dare you’ stare across the table, followed by an ‘I double dare you’ look or two just for good measure.

The gauntlet was down.

I looked at my wife.

She looked at me, more in hope than expectation.

I looked at my mate.

Then, manfully, I picked up the gauntlet and watched my well earned brownie point slip through my hands as I went into the caravan to dig out a single malt appropriate for a post breakfast tipple.

Our wives rolled their eyes and went off to do the dishes and to plan an interesting day out for 2, leaving us to resolve our differences over a morning glass or so of Talisker, an early afternoon snooze, a groggy head throughout the evening followed by an early night and that nagging wondering why it is that our anniversary celebrations never seemed to satisfy my better half.

*It turns out that Newent is not the only place to have an Onion Fair ... though it is the only one to use the ‘fayre’ spelling that Word doesn’t like one bit. It was originally Noent’s (Domeday Book spelling) September Fair where sheep were sold. By the C18th there was a growth in the popularity of onions and I suppose a corresponding drop in the popularity of sheep. Consequently the fair or rather fayre developed a leaning towards the teary vegetable, to such a extent that the price of onions as far a field as ... Hereford ... was set at Newent market every year, making it the centre of local folklore relating to the onion.

^For those in the running scene, take yourself back to those innocent days before you had done your first 5k. When the thought of lining up with loads of other ‘runners’ on the start line of your first parkrun, was really quite nerve racking.

For those of you not au fait with running culture, who might even debate that there is such a thing and who wonder if there aren’t actually laws against combining, in one sentence, the words ‘culture’ and ‘running’, parkrun is that irritating hour on a Saturday morning, when you avoid walking your dog because the local park is filled with hundreds of people wearing out the paths, that you pay for with your Council Tax, by using the bloody things and having fun exercising with total strangers, in public into the bargain.

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