In May this year my son Reece (11 at the time) decided to run and raise money for a defibrillator for our local parkrun in Sittingbourne, Kent.
Reece was diagnosed with high functioning autism (Asperger’s syndrome), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and developmental co-ordination problems when he was nine, after many years struggling at school with paying attention, impulsivity, social skills, clumsiness and defiance. When he was given the support and medication he thrived and became a much happier, less anxious boy who no longer had rages in the classroom and had better control of his emotions. He still had problems with his peers and some teachers were more understanding than others but on the whole it was a relief for him to finally know the reasons why he felt that he didn’t fit in and we worked on helping him feel proud of who he was and that being different was not a bad thing. It is a relief for me as his mum to know that he has knowledge of his conditions and doesn’t think he is any less of a person.
Around this time, Sittingbourne parkrun had been appealing for donations to buy a defibrillator and I had been trying to think of ways to help. I suggested to Reece that maybe he could ask for sponsorship for completing a Couch to 5k and do his final run at parkrun. He thought it was a good idea, so we contacted the Event Director at Sittingbourne parkrun to see if this would be okay and she thought it was a brilliant idea too. The local paper got in touch and ran a story to highlight Reece’s fundraising. We had a brilliant response from family, friends, work colleagues and even complete strangers which really gave Reece a boost.
He started the couch to 5k straight away as he was really keen, so we ran together three times a week, sometimes my partner Ollie came with us or they would go on their own. At first he was really enthusiastic and enjoyed it, but as the running time increased it became difficult to motivate him. It was often a struggle to get him to leave the house and keep going so I had to really encourage and remind him why he was doing it and what an awesome achievement it would be for him to contribute to something that could potentially save someone’s life. He couldn’t see how well he was doing as there was no immediate reward or results which is something that affects those with ADHD. There were times when I thought he might not see it through but he did not want to give up, and for him the extra effort he had to put in when he made himself believe that he couldn’t do it was immense. Reece is quite a perfectionist and gives up on things easily if he thinks he can’t do it to a certain standard, so it was a real test for him.
The couch to 5k took a little longer than expected to complete due to holidays and other commitments, but two weeks after his 12th birthday he ran Sittingbourne parkrun with me non-stop, only pausing for a drink when he needed to. On the final straight Ollie joined us after finishing his run while Reece’s grandad was the run photographer for that day and his nan joined in the support and cheering with all the other runners and volunteers. It was a great run from Reece and during the run brief beforehand everyone was encouraged to cheer Reece on and give him lots of support which really helped. He had become a bit of a parkrun celebrity with regular mentions in the run brief, run report and on their Facebook page. It gave him a massive sense of achievement to finally finish what he had started and we were all very proud.
During the following weeks, we collected the sponsor money and was amazed that the final total was just over £500. The Sittingbourne parkrun community had already raised about £500 so this meant that they were able to buy the highest specification defibrillator available with some money left over to buy new equipment. Jackie Wells was so grateful to Reece for being the main fundraiser and so asked if he would like to present the defibrillator to parkrun one Saturday before the run; he was honoured to be asked.
I know that autism and ADHD cover a wide spectrum of impairments and rarely are there two children the same but from my experience I would say that parkrun gave my son something to work towards and feel a part of something important. I know that many will find it difficult to keep going like Reece did and may refuse to go or participate once there, I had to offer incentives for Reece so that there was something to look forward to like his favourite meal for example, and had to give lots of encouragement and praise.
Volunteering really gave him a sense of importance even though there was no reward; it helped him to understand that not everything he does has something in it for him and that doing things for other people can make you feel good. To say I feel proud of him is an understatement, for all that he has been through from bullying to coming to terms with his disabilities I sometimes wonder how he does it. I know that he has the potential to do many great things and this will always be one of the highlights of his life, a positive in his world of many negatives.
The impact parkrun has had on me has been life changing. I have been running as a way to keep fit for many years but never really enjoyed it as much as I do now. In 2015 I had a ballot place in the London Marathon but didn’t finish on the day due to injury, which I later discovered was a fractured femur. I was devastated. A few days before that I had been officially diagnosed with ADHD, depression and anxiety. At this time I was determined to do everything I could to turn my life around, finally knowing what I was dealing with. It was a relief but also a very difficult time for me because all my life I thought I was stupid, lazy and weird which was hard to come to terms with. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, especially blaming myself for not finishing the marathon.
I had brilliant support around me and I took everything on board the specialist had said especially that exercise has powerful benefits for people with ADHD and can also act as a natural anti-depressant. It took a few months for the leg to heal but I began swimming and going to the gym as soon as I was able, and I began running again in March 2016. I realised I had really missed running and being outside. I went to my first parkrun in June 2016 after hearing about it through friends on Facebook. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I found the people really friendly and couldn’t believe I hadn’t been sooner. Since then I have been nearly every week and earned my 50 milestone t-shirt, taken five minutes off of my time and lost more than two stone.
parkrun has helped boost my self esteem and I no longer feel like I’m not good enough. I have no problem with missing a Saturday lie in as I know it’s the best way to start the day. Also my social anxiety has improved and I find I can talk to other parkrunners and not feel embarrassed that I might say the wrong thing as we are all there for the same reason, I have met lots of new people which is something I used to find terrifying.
My partner Ollie is also a keen runner, he runs to parkrun from our house two miles away then runs home afterwards. He has run two marathons and came first place in his first duathlon this weekend. He aims to run 1,000 miles before the end of the year and it’s all thanks to parkrun keeping him motivated.
I truly believe that parkrun has had a very large role to play in treating my depression and anxiety. I take medication for ADHD and have had some counselling which both really help but I think without running I would be struggling. It is still a battle and I know it will always be a part of my life but running keeps my mind focused on something to look forward to, and the addictiveness of parkrun is something I’m always trying to advocate to anyone who will listen. I really do get a buzz from it, that is something that people with ADHD need as there is a lack of dopamine in the brain and the natural high I get from running, especially getting a PB, is better than any drug.
On Saturday we welcomed back Cape Pembroke Lighthouse parkrun, in the Falkland Islands, and all three events in Australia’s Northern Territory, representing another positive moment in the gradual return of parkrun events around the world. It was great to see the unofficial parkrun podcast, With Me Now, live-streaming from Nightcliff and Palmerston parkruns. If…
There are just a few days to go before this Saturday’s reopening of Cape Pembroke Lighthouse parkrun on the Falkland Islands, as well as all three events in Australia’s Northern Territory. It’s an incredibly exciting time for all of us and I’m sure I can speak on behalf of the entire parkrun family when I…