I have been in prison for many years now. I had never heard of parkrun until our Recreation Officer showed us a TV clip about the first women’s prison in the world to host a parkrun (in Western Australia). I saw women happily walking and talking on an oval. They looked normal and almost free.
We (Tarrengower women) were asked to raise our hands if we would like to become the second women’s prison in Australia to take part in parkrun. It looked like a bit of fun, something different perhaps, so we raised our hands confidently. It was unanimous.
I should mention that when I was transferred to Tarrengower Prison a year ago I had to get on the scales and I was quite ashamed of what I saw. I was the heaviest I had ever been; even when I was pregnant with my son I weighed less than that. I noticed I was recorded on the medical system as ‘overweight’! I’m not saying I was huge or obese, however I am a small framed woman and I looked out of proportion. I guess nearly four years of jail, nowhere to go and eating my feelings had slowly started to catch up with me.
I felt uncomfortable and insecure. I had back pain from two bulged discs but the more medication I took for it the more weight I put on. I was in a bad way and I did not know how or where to even start to get fit and healthy. So I struggled and a good six months passed by and I was miserable. However when I heard about parkrun I thought maybe, just maybe, that could be what I needed to get started.
Organising something such as parkrun in a prison takes a lot of coordination and time but eventually the launch of Tarrengower parkrun arrived on 19 October 2019. Coincidentally it was my birthday so I took this as a positive sign and I convinced a friend to walk the 5km with me on my special day. At 8am, like every other parkrunner out there in the community, we were eagerly set off on our first parkrun experience.
The 5km distance equals 14 laps of our moderately small prison compound. The first two or three laps were okay as I was used to doing that amount of walking when I was walking my dog twice a day. However, as I started my fifth lap my calves started to burn and I began to question whether I could complete the full 5km. Then my friend started to complain! I won’t lie – the laps and complaints seemed to go on for ages.
Then I looked around and saw other women were still walking and I said to myself ‘if they can do it then so can I.’ In a strange way my friend complaining actually helped me. I stopped thinking about my legs and started being stronger for her and I both. It was tough physically and mentally but finally we made it! I had achieved something for the day, even if it was literally only walking around in circles. I did it and it did not kill me. Maybe I could do this again. I made a decision there and then that I would commit to walking parkrun every Saturday. It had taken a lot of organising so it was the least that I could do especially considering other women were volunteering their time to keep parkrun going at Tarrengower.
The first few weeks were tough for me mentally but I knew that I had done it once before therefore I could do it again. Along the way I found a few different people to walk and talk with at all different levels of fitness. I have tried to encourage all women with some officers included to just give it a go, and I know a lot of women have actually surprised themselves by finishing parkrun, especially the ones who thought they wouldn’t even make it halfway.
parkrun has become easier for me each week both physically and mentally. After a month or so I noticed that I had even lost a bit of weight, which inspired me to keep going and try a bit harder. I started paying attention to what I was eating and by Christmas I had lost five kilos. Really all I had done was parkrun each Saturday with the odd walk or two in between. I noticed that if I made the little changes I could get big results. Plus parkrun was getting easier each week and I was feeling great. I had always been told that physical activity was great for your mental health but I had never believed it until then. I felt healthier and happier.
In January, a woman who works for Corrections Victoria started coming to do parkrun at Tarrengower with us. She told me about a phone app called ‘couch to five’ that slowly trains your mind and body to learn how to run. At first I just laughed at her – I have never been able to run, not even as a child. She told me she had done ‘couch to five’ previously and she would show me how to do it too.
It is based on interval training, so over nine weeks you slowly increase your running time while decreasing your walking time. As we do not have phones or apps in prison she printed out the training information for us. We had to commit to an extra two training sessions during the week on the treadmill for approximately 20 minutes each and I am now proud to say we are up to five weeks. I can actually run on and off for multiple minutes at a time. Hopefully in another four weeks I will be able to run the whole 5km non-stop and actually run parkrun! I am no sprinter and I might look uncoordinated as anything but I enjoy it and I feel great, plus I have lost more than 10 kilos. Now that I am moving, my weight just seems to fall off.
I honestly feel stronger and happier than I have felt in years. I may literally just be walking and running around in circles but it is actually getting me somewhere as I am miles ahead of where I was four months ago in many ways. I have more focus and determination than ever before.
“I know I can achieve again and for me that is massive.”
With advice from my doctor I have been able to reduce the amount of medication I take for my back pain and it feels great. Plus each week I finish parkrun just a little bit sooner and I beat my personal best which is exciting and inspiring me to keep going.
If anyone is thinking that they need to make a change but do not know where to start, my advice is to give parkrun a try. It does not matter who or where you are, everyone can be part of the parkrun community on Saturday morning somewhere in the world. If you’re not up to walking 5km then you can be part of it as a volunteer – it’s just nice to feel part of the community.
And who knows. You might surprise yourself, and others. I know I have.
Steph (parkrunner A6283771)
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