I didn’t start out as a parkrunner. In fact, I didn’t even think of myself as a runner until my mid-twenties. I am now 55.
Words by Paul Sinton-Hewitt. Photograph by Paul Duke.
I was fortunate to grow up in South Africa, where sport is almost as important as an education – some might say more important. Circumstances meant that my path into adulthood was driven by teachers and coaches as I boarded at school from the age of five. Playing sport was a daily ritual and I definitely preferred sport to being in the classroom or doing homework. I tried out for every team and discipline going; at one point I was a gymnast. I represented my house and eventually my school on the athletics track, in cross-country, in the swimming pool and at some point I represented my province (Western Transvaal) in the duathlon – I was so proud of that tracksuit. I played cricket until I was 15 and captained the second XV rugby team at the end of my schooldays. During this time, though, I never considered myself particularly good at any sport.
While at university in Durban, a friend of the family asked if I would run with them while they made their first attempt at the Comrades Marathon, the gruelling 90km race between two cities in Natal. I agreed to help out without giving it a second thought. I didn’t do any training and was ill-prepared on the day – so much for the ignorance of youth.
On that day, I ran 70 of the 90km in a pair of broken tennis shoes.
It wasn’t until several years later that I “discovered” running for the first time. Working at one of South Africa’s finest financial institutions and privileged to have all its facilities at my disposal, I decided to go jogging at lunchtime. It didn’t take long before I noticed a group of three individuals doing the same thing. There was something pretty classy about these guys. They talked about running with confidence and experience and when they passed me while I was out running they seemed to glide past with ease, chatting easily among themselves. And so the journey began: I wanted to run with these guys.
Months, possibly a year, passed before I felt confident enough to approach them. I remember that moment as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I was doing my usual 6km lunch run and as the kilometres passed I noted I was running constantly under the 4min/km barrier. On concluding the run I confirmed my achievement: 23m30s(ish). And in that instant I knew I could approach this group and ask if I could run with them. There was no turning back.
Looking back now, two of this group, Noel and Brian, became my lifelong friends. Noel and his wife Lian are the driving force behind parkrun New Zealand and I will be running Two Oceans Ultra Marathon (in South Africa) with Brian in March. Almost everything I learned about running came from these two guys. One was the SA Marathon champion during the 1970s and won the Two Oceans Marathon race two years in a row while the other has several silver Comrades medals, plus a couple of Ironman triathlons and many marathons to his name. Under their guidance and tutelage, I learned to run.
What they never taught me and what I feel I’ve only recently discovered is what I call “the joy of running”. Yes, I know; there are many books that explain this phenomenon. But to be truthful you can’t assimilate this feeling until you have experienced it yourself. Running is hard. It’s a sport that challenges everyone and the more you do it, the better you are at understanding how to beat the difficulties associated with it.
That just sounds like the mumbo-jumbo speaks of a crazed-up runner. I’ll try to explain.
When I was running at my best, achieving my best times etc., the “joy” I experienced was that of accomplishment. During the effort I would scream with pain and fatigue from the inside, never showing this weakness to my competitors and drive myself beyond what I thought was possible. There was no joy during the effort. The “joy” that followed was the joy of accomplishment, which comes when you achieve something like a new PB or a year’s best or beating your nemesis. But that’s not the “joy” I talk of now.
Now I am filled with a completely different kind of “joy”. This joy comes with regular exercise and the knowledge that if I pace myself right that I will complete my task well and without injury. It’s the understanding that if I want to run 10 miles then I can. And the joy is often experienced when I am outdoors, communing with nature and sharing the experience with other people, even when I am running alone. Even where I previously ran in some of the world’s most beautiful places, I was usually striving for a goal whereas now I am having a conversation with the world – and I am loving every moment of it. I want more. Joy!
Paul Sinton-Hewitt was born, grew up, ran, had a family, ran, went to work, ran some more. Eventually decided he liked running more than anything else.
www.parkrun.com – @paulsintonhewit
Paul Duke is a fanatical parkrun runner and an equally committed photographer. Though rarely at the same time.