Loneliness and the long distance runner

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Discovering the joys of running has been a bit of a revelation.

One minute you can be lying in bed after a restless night and the next you have pulled on some shorts, a shirt and your old running shoes and you are out across the fields in the fresh air feeling great.

Back in May 2011 a colleague encouraged me to enter the Birmingham Great Run. The first, very short, run that I did nearly killed me. But once I bought some proper running shoes…..read that it was Ok to walk a bit every now and then…and discovered running socks….I started to get quite into it.

One of the great things about running is that you really don’t need loads of expensive gear. You can run pretty much anywhere and it’s easy enough to squeeze in to almost any lifestyle. I usually wake up early so over that first summer I got into the habit of going for a 30 minute run before breakfast…before the rest of the house creaked into life.

That first Great Birmingham Run was a revelation. I’d always thought of running as a solitary activity. The first time I ran with someone else I’d chosen to run with 15,000 people along streets packed with crowds of well wishers. It was an altogether different experience running as part of a team to raise money for a good cause.

I went back to running on my own, usually listening to music and always first thing in the morning.

Then two years ago I was introduced to parkrun by a friend.

I started going to Leamington parkrun in December 2013.

Parkrun is a timed 5k run, always at 9am, always on a Saturday and always free. There is a modest amount of organisation and marshalling (to get access to the parks where the 500 or so runs take place) but all the jobs (of time keeper, barcode scanner and tea maker) are done by runners who give up their run to make it happen for others.

It took a few weeks to get used to running with 300 others on a set route but the social nature of the run and the friendliness of all those involved soon got me hooked. I’ve made lots of friends through parkrun and have encouraged other friends and neighbours to get involved. A group of us are about to launch a new parkrun nearer home in Stratford.

On a recent mid week run, in the early evening, without music and chatting with my co-runner, I realised just how much my running habits had changed since I started parkrun. I do mainly grab a run inbetween other commitments and it is usually on my own. But given the choice I’d rather run cross country and definitely with others.

I love this little film about running.

It was made by Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley. Ivo is the founder of the social enterprise GoodGym.

GoodGym obviously love their running. They’ve also noticed that many runners are, despite their reputation, very sociable people. Like me, many people often took their first foray into running to support a charity or good cause.

So GoodGym thought they’d have a go at putting these two things together.

GoodGym has two ideas.

One matches a runner to an older person who is isolated or lonely. The runner spends time chatting with their ‘coach’. The runner has an added motivation to run because they don’t want to let down their coach. The coach sees atleast one friendly face every week and feels good about helping their runner stick with their running.

The other idea sees a group of runners head across town to a project that needs some labour – to clear rubbish, paint a wall or tidy a green space. They spend some time doing good then finish their run.

What’s not to like? GoodGym has certainly attracted lots of media interest. This piece in The Guardian is typical.

But a couple of things bother me about GoodGym.

Like a lot of well meaning initiatives it does rather assume that certain individuals and communities need mending; they are viewed in terms of their deficits; in need of a outsiders to come in and bring them salvation.

And like many fledgling social enterprises, it is formalising, professionalising, and monetising something that could take place through more natural, organic human relationships…..and for free.

With the best of intentions Bromford has tried similar ideas.

We used to hold clean up events where a group of back office colleagues and managers would spend a day on an estate painting fences, clearing away overgrown hedges and maybe planting some flowers. A few of the local residents would peek out at us through half open doors and at the end of the day, feeling rather pleased with ourselves we’d load up our vans and head for home.

We recently used some funding from a CCG to try out a new volunteering service called Winter Buddies. Volunteers were recruited, trained, DBS checked and then matched with an older person who had been identified as lonely or vulnerable. At the end of the pilot there was very positive feedback from the older people about how good it was to have a regular visitor…someone to talk to. But they also reported feeling even more lonely now that their Buddy had gone back to their busy life on the other side of town!

So a few final reflections.

1. Small is beautiful. A group of people coming together to do something they love or to make something happen is the best way to do things. If an organisation does get involved then it should step back and only do those things that only it can do. It is best to keep costs to a minimum and for the activity to be free whenever possible.

2. Friends are best. Human interaction is generally a great thing and helps us feel better. But the relationships we forge with those who live on our street or go to the same places as us are more lasting and ultimately more rewarding. Volunteers are great but it’s much better if they come from within a circle of shared interest.

3. A run in the park. If you like running and you want to do some good then my advice would be to look up your local parkrun. You’ll probably get to know a bunch of people who live on your street. And when you’ve finished your run and you are drenched in sweat; instead of plonking yourself down on someone else’s sofa and eating their biscuits you can chat with some of the new friends you’ve made and you’ll probably find out about lots of other things going on in your community that you could get involved with too. Oh and then go home and have a nice shower.

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