Shama Meghjee-Caine and Ali Momin of Cassiobury and Canons Park parkruns have experienced first-hand the benefits of regular physical activity with others in a welcoming, supportive environment.
They tell us all about how they are encouraging others from their Stanmore Mosque community to join them.
Shama: I used to run on and off and enjoyed it, finding it lifted my spirits and made me feel better. I’d say I am a ‘social runner’ and enjoy it more when I have company.
Around seven years ago, I read in the newspaper that parkrun was starting at Cassiobury Park which was close to my home, so I decided I would give it a go. I asked a few family members to come and try it out with me. We were all excited to experience this new event.
We turned up early, not sure what to expect. The Run Director and other volunteers made us feel so welcome and any first time nerves were quickly forgotten. We had a great morning and knew that we would be returning the following week. I even updated my social media status to, ‘A free, family friendly, fun, no fuss event. Who is joining us next week?’ I kept turning up every week and telling everyone about it, non-stop.
It’s the inclusiveness of parkrun that I enjoy the most. It doesn’t matter what your pace is, whether you are a very fast runner, a social runner who loves to chat as you go or someone who enjoys walking, everyone is welcome.
With the regular parkrunning, my fitness was improving and I also felt much happier. I also found I got immense satisfaction from volunteering. I began to really look forward to Saturday mornings and seeing the many friends I had made. I wanted to share that experience with anyone and everyone who would listen.
When Canons Park parkrun started, around five years ago, I was torn between going to Cassiobury where I’d made so many friends or supporting the new, more local parkrun. I decided I would alternate between them.
My enthusiasm for parkrun, or my loud voice, must have been heard as the Event Director at Canons Park asked if I would like to join the Core Team. I was thrilled at that opportunity and have never looked back, getting involved in Kenton Rec junior parkrun with my daughters too.
Ali: I played football regularly which is great fun but, as I got older and started to take a more proactive interest in my health, I wanted to find an additional activity that I could do in my own time, that needed no equipment. One day, my wife suggested I go for a run. I popped on my football boots and went for a 2k jog. It was tough! I realised I needed to gradually build up my fitness level, so that I would be able to increase the distance I could run comfortably.
I had heard about parkrun but the timings weren’t ideal for me at that time due to having three young children, and then lockdown hit. Once parkrun returned I wanted to get along to an event to give it a go. My first event was at Cassiobury parkrun.
The experience of being among 200 or so people all walking, jogging or running around the course, supporting and cheering each other on, combined with the strong sense of community spirit really stood out for me. In a world that often divides us, you feel entire communities come together at 9am on Saturday mornings to simply support and motivate each other.
For many people, the pandemic was a bit of a watershed moment. South Asians were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and even before this I was aware that our genes and our diet mean we are highly predisposed to certain conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure.
Having discovered a simple activity, that I was finding hugely beneficial to my health and well-being, that could similarly benefit vast numbers within our community, I decided it was time to encourage others to give running a try and to experience what I had in terms of the health benefits.
Shama: After discovering parkrun for myself I enthused about it to anyone who would listen, knowing they could reap the same benefits as me if they gave it a try. A couple of people from our mosque asked me why I wasn’t starting a similar event for ladies only. My first reaction was that there is no need for a separate event, there is already a brilliant, inclusive, local event every week at parkrun. Why start something similar and reinvent the wheel?
Then, talking to a few more people within our mosque community, ladies in particular, I realised that for some who are not confident in large crowds, it can be difficult to start walking, jogging or running with other people not already known to them. They needed something smaller with less people and maybe people they knew and could relate to, just to get them started. They could then build their confidence and graduate to parkrun.
I started the ladies SundayFunRun (SunFunRun) with a similar ethos to parkrun, welcoming to all abilities. I undertook the Leadership in Running Fitness (LIRF) course with England Athletics, which gave me great ideas on how to lead a running group and other practical advice.
SunFunRun is now in its fifth year and going strong. We meet every Sunday and one week meet outdoors and run, the other week we do indoor strength work. We have also started a monthly 10k event. Some ladies do a shorter distance but we all turn up with lots of smiles and we walk, jog or run and are buzzing for the rest of the day.
What has impressed me most about the SunFunRun is the age group of the ladies, the majority are aged over 60 years which is great to see.
Ali: Over the last two years, I have been involved with others in setting up a running club for our mosque community. There are many other sports that the community were already partaking in, but running had not been one of them up until that point.
We aim to overcome the barriers which have held people back from giving running and parkrunning a try, which tend to be a lack of support combined with common negative misconceptions, like running is bad for your knees.
We provide the support for anyone who wants to get started, making it fun, sociable, taking the focus away from their performance. One of the things we pride ourselves on is keeping all our runners and potential runners engaged and motivated.
We’ve written numerous articles on how to get started, mistakes to avoid, seasonal tips, how to train and correct any misconceptions that pop up along the way. We also have a podcast series where we invite and interview guests from our mosque running community to talk about a related topic, in a light hearted manner.
As with many minority communities, when the information and engagement comes from people within your own community, then people listen and take note. We are a sociable community so if people see others doing things, then they will want to join in.
Shama: I’ve found the best way to encourage people from our community to try running and parkrunning is by example. We turn up week in week out and when people see us getting fitter, they are encouraged by it. I think I have made a difference because I am not a typical athlete, I have a desk job during the week, I have a family and household to look after, just like everyone else, and if I can make the time to exercise so can others. People in our community can relate to that.
One particular story stands out for me and this is my friend Rupa, who was the most inactive person I knew. I nagged and encouraged her to try her local parkrun. She has now completed 100 parkruns, helps to organise events with other local running groups and has completed two half marathons. She says to me, “It’s all your fault!” My reply every time is, “I am so proud of that fault!”
Ali: We have many examples of members of our mosque community who had never considered parkrunning or running previously but are now absolutely loving it and reaping the benefits.
Much of this success, I believe, has been due to making our training sessions about spending great sociable time together, rather than the physical exercise, and combining this with one to one support, making people feel special about their first training session, checking up on them after their walk, jog or run, asking them to come and join a session. Building a sense of being connected to a movement and part of an active, supportive group means they’re more likely to come back over and over again.
There are many Stanmore Mosque members, both men and women and across a wide age range, who have achieved their parkrun milestones for both parkrunning and volunteering with Shama leading the way!
For me parkrun offers the space and a dedicated weekly time slot for people to undertake regular physical activity. Then, just as importantly, there is also the mental health benefit. The ability to come together, talk, laugh, share a conversation with friends and strangers alike is just as powerful in affecting our wellbeing as looking after our physical health.
Shama: The biggest benefit that parkrun brings in our area, I believe, is one of community spirit. Through parkrun, people from across many different communities have made so many friends within our local area. Pre-pandemic, we used to have free teas and coffees after parkrunning at Canons Park (we hope this can return soon) and it was lovely to see everyone hanging around after the event, chatting. It really sets you up well for the rest of the weekend.
Thank you parkrun!
Shama Meghjee-Caine and Ali Momin
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