I would guess that most parkrun tourism happens either by accident, or by a combination of restlessness and an interest in exploring your wider circumstances. The former is usually when you’re going on holiday, to a family gathering, a wedding etc. Is there a parkrun?
The second is probably where I started. Living in London at the time, I was spoilt for choice. Within an hour from my home, I had a myriad of options accessible by Tube. Even with the slightly earlier start time of 9am, it still meant I rarely had to leave the flat much before 8am, and I could see all sorts of bits of London. I met a boxer in Barking who was that day pacing a weirdly specific time, something like 23.42. (I think he was pretty much spot on as well). I asked some ladies in Southwark where the toilets were, only to be told in a thick south London drawl that I could ‘whop me chopper aht in the bushes’ followed by the sort of throaty cackle I’ve never heard anywhere else. I saw a man pushing a regular pram up a muddy slope at Alexandra Palace that I was struggling with running on at all.
What if parkrun became the reason to go somewhere?
Shortly after landing at Sumburgh, looking around I wondered if I had been miniaturised. The landscape seemed to tower above us, jagged and wild in every direction. As we drove out of the airport in our hire car, and straight across the runway, I started to wonder how deep the rabbit hole went.
Currently I’m in the midst of a ‘training plan’ for a half marathon. I’ve been running for a few years. I’ve done loads of races, from cross country to a full marathon. I’ve never actually ever followed a proper training plan before. I’ve always just ran when I felt like it, turned up for club training most weeks and done the odd long run at the weekend. I then just sign up to races on a haphazard basis of what vaguely appeals, or what friends / club mates are doing, and turn up at the start line usually safe in the knowledge that I can probably make it to the finish line. I had started to wonder last year what would happen if I took a slightly more organised approach.
During the week we spent in Shetland, I was therefore going to have to tick a few runs off the plan. This led me to start exploring roundabout our accommodation. The main thing I learned is that if you see a tantalising trail disappearing off somewhere in Shetland, then it invariably leads to that house you can see and no further. As testament to that, I ended up chatting to a farmer about jumping his gate and continuing over his field. He was very kind, if perplexed as to why this idiot wanted to do this, and pointed me in the right direction to head to get back to the road. Over the fence I went, through a field of sheep (a recurring theme) and off along the Tingwall valley. It was spectacular.
Before heading off to Shetland, I had done only the smallest amount of research. Restaurants seemed to be quite thin on the ground, but wildlife would be abundant. I had stumbled across warnings about a bird called the great skua, known to locals as bonxies. These birds are around the same size as a large seagull, and are known to be pretty aggressive should you happen to go near their nesting sites. There are numerous quite amusing clips on YouTube of hapless people being dive bombed, and I was quite keen to avoid this. No one said anything about Arctic Terns though.
We’d seen a nice looking bay on the map at Dale of Walls and decided to have a little look. We parked the car up, and started to follow the path down toward the sea. Not another soul in sight as we meandered down with the bay coming into view. At this point, the odd few birds flying over us, nothing unusual there. Some shrill cries from above, but still nothing really registered. Then the shrieks started to get closer, and closer. The birds starting to get a bit closer, are they doing that on purpose? By now quite close to the bay we saw another couple of people down there, and at this point we could see the birds were actually swooping straight at them. What did we do to upset them?! I’d like to say that I toughed it out, but in all honesty I got completely freaked out and pretty much ran away. I love nature, I love the outdoors, apparently I also love it being at a safe distance.
Thankfully not all of the wildlife in Shetland wanted to scare the pants off me. In fairness as well to the Arctic Terns, I’ve since learned that these birds nest on rocky beaches just like the above, and are basically just protective of their young. A quick Google image search for their chicks as well will tell you just why they’re so protective. Whilst there we saw dozens of seals whose gentle inquisitive faces I fell in love with. We saw a pod of orcas race by in the blink of an eye, we sat to have lunch with some puffins, we saw a huge colony of gannets. We even found a beach which came equipped with a friendly cat who welcomes tourists.
The morning after we’d arrived in Shetland it was time to go to parkrun. I’ve never been to a parkrun before that involved taking a ferry to the start line. The day was looking perfect as a motley crew in polyester started to form at the ferry terminal. The ferry ride is a few minutes and leaves at 9am. Tickets are bought on the boat, and since the crossing is less than 10 minutes, hats off to the ticket seller who has a lot to do in those few minutes.
It’s a short walk from the terminal at Bressay to the start line, so we have a few minutes to mill around in the glorious Shetland sunshine and get warmed up. I decide to go for a quick recce up the road and get warmed up. I head back to the start, and our rabble is gathered in a sort of holding pen at the back of a house.
Off we go up down a narrow path arching gradually right. We join the main road turning left and we’re heading gently downhill. To the bottom to a right turn and off we go along the road. It’s unusual for a parkrun to be on a public road, however, since the only traffic in Bressay is when there is a ferry due and since we have just got off that ferry, we’re sure to be fine for a little while yet. A bay stretches out to my right, fields to the left and we’re heading toward a pretty big hill in the distance. I see some Shetland ponies in the field, brilliant! This was before I saw one kick its friend in the face a few days later. Actually, years ago a Shetland pony bit me when I went to stroke it, are they quite bad tempered?
Past the 1km sign installed by the event team and I just love how much a part of the community this event is. A voice from behinds exclaims that that’s the fastest first km in a parkrun he’s done for a long time. No problem I tell him, that’s something I’ve done loads of times and it’s never once bitten me on the arse. Honest.
Through some houses to the right, then the left before civilisation again finishes and we’re back with the landscape going off in every direction forever. That voice from behind again, we’re going up that hill, right? I hope so! The road snakes left, then a good right turn at the cross roads and off we go to the hill. Mile #1: 6.37. Cripes, that was a bit quick… probably the downhill start. Everything will be fine…
Up at the front of the race is a guy of some advanced years. I must confess when he tore off the front I had wondered if he would keep it up, but he’s now long out of sight. This is like cross country all over again. Top tip for those thinking of cross country for the first time this winter, those gnarly old runners who look to be just grey hair and sinew are probably faster than you. Don’t get upset when you can’t keep up with them.
Civilisation is now a distant memory, the road is now narrower and gently we’re going uphill. I’ve so far been amazed at just how flat this course is given how flat Shetland isn’t, but attempting to keep up my earlier pace is now proving quite tough with a bit of incline. That gradient inches up a notch and we grind our way up and around to the right as the road finally flattens out as we pass through another tiny pocket of humanity. This soon passes, and the sea is now visible again to my right. Into view comes a marshal turning us right toward a place called Ham. I wonder if any vegetarians live here. Mile #2: 7.02
It’s not a long way down this road before we’re turned around and sent back the way we came. This short descent gave a brief respite which is quickly taken back. I now see my fellow parkrunners coming back at me and I decide it’s a good day to be given out high fives. This goes down well, and I’m chuffed to hear this then continuing behind me. At the junction and left and we’re heading for home. At this stage I’m now pleased of the gradual climb from earlier which has now returned to sing us home, since I’m otherwise burst. More high fives, so many happy faces heading back toward me, grimace, dig in we’re nearly there! The road stretching out in front of me with no end in sight, but the clock is ticking down and that gentle downhill is helping a lot. Mile#3: 6.58
We’re back at the junction and this time head straight on up a small street. There’s a small gradient here again. I wouldn’t call it a hill as such, but certainly a sting in the tail, serves me right for being able to coast the last mile I guess.
I am a firm believer in the post-parkrun cafe. Here at Bressay since it’s a while till the next ferry, and since the course ends here it’s basically mandatory. Why wouldn’t it be as well, when the baking is this good? We get some absolutely brilliant food, cups of tea and sit outside in the sun discussing what a brilliant thing this parkrun is. There is a pin board map in the cafe where you can mark where you come from. One colour if you are a parkrunner, another for tourists. It’s inspiring how far people have come to visit, and with a journey this far, maybe people are coming because there is a parkrun.
Scores! 7th place, 21.43