I’m a relative newbie to parkrun and this spring retired to Penrith in Cumbria. While taking part in Penrith parkrun, my new home event, and thinking about how friendly people were, just like at my former home parkrun in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, I remembered that an influential American therapist listed three qualities that are essential if people are to feel listened to and valued.
It struck me that all these qualities are bouncing around in abundance at parkrun. Along with those addictive running endorphins, maybe this might help explain something of the parkrun feel-good factor?
The three qualities were listed in the 1950s by psychologist Carl Rogers. He believed people need to experience these qualities to feel comfortable in a difficult undertaking such as therapy, and that the atmosphere they create help people grow. Well, in that running 5k can also be quite a challenging undertaking, I do think there’s a parallel with the atmosphere created by the parkrun ethos.
The first quality Rogers highlighted was empathy. That feeling that someone is prepared to understand you, and really feel for you, and not from a place of being sorry for you. Like when a marshal cheers you on, wherever you are in the field, or when another runner lapping me (or even leaving the course!) offers a few words of support as they pass. That’s happened to me several times and is so appreciated.
Secondly, Rogers coined a phrase, ‘unconditional positive regard’, meaning when someone demonstrates that they accept us automatically as being okay, without judging us, and that there are no strings attached. We are fine just to be ourselves. I think we all recognise when someone behaves like that to us, when we don’t have to prove anything. And that’s the bedrock of parkrun – the repeated, clear message that whether you walk, jog or run, you’ve shown up and are taking part, and that’s worth celebrating! I love it that I can happily exchange cheery hellos and smiles with complete strangers and not be thought odd. Where else does that happen these days?
Recently, a parkrunner I didn’t know started chatting by the scanners, and ended up telling me about run-walk-run training and suggested what to search for on the internet. It was great to be offered this nugget, treated as an equal by, it turned out, a marathon runner (who was there gently ‘stretching their legs’ as part of training). I felt extra buoyed up.
Lastly, Rogers said authenticity was vital to being heard and understood. I really like that at parkrun there is no pretence. Your finish time is your finish time, and everyone is congratulated. It doesn’t matter how you look – exhausted, sweaty, whatever, that’s just how you are (maybe actually that’s a badge of honour!). Everyone taking part is given warm, genuine encouragement. In today’s image-focused world I find this so reassuring. I accept that other sports may be the same… but I don’t know, I’ve never been sporty!
I started the Couch to 5k running programme in January after my daughter Catherine gave me parkrun tags as part of my Christmas present. Her original idea was that I might begin walking the local course (where I was already volunteering, with absolutely no intention of running), plus the odd bit of jogging. At first I felt deeply self conscious about taking part, but was spurred on not just by Catherine, but also by a wonderfully supportive volunteer Tail Walker and other volunteer marshals, all of whom were keen runners. To my amazement I can now (sometimes) run the whole of a parkrun and in 13 runs I’ve managed five locations. I’ve discovered being a tourist is a lot of fun, and the welcome is always, unfailingly, the same.
Thank you, parkrun, for being there.
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