Given the notoriety of the Little Stoke parkrun where the local council decided to start charging participants a fee, going against the free-to-participate ethos of the event, parkruns may have been on quite a lot of people’s minds, not just runners. However, if you missed the debate, parkrun is a volunteer-led 5k event which takes place every Saturday at 9a.m. in parks all over the world. Personally, parkrun holds a special place in my personal life and to some extent, professional life as well and has been a key part of my post-PhD life.
I started running over five years ago, shortly after finishing my PhD as part of an effort to get in shape and recover from the cumulative stresses of preparing for a viva alongside getting used to a new job. I started out quite conservatively, with a “Couch to 5k” programme and little did I think that I’d end up falling in love with ultra running and the idea of going really long distance, 50 kilometres and way above, but that is another story. I discovered parkrun three years ago, at recommendation of a running coach and decided to give it ago. I didn’t become a regular until a couple of months later when I decidedly caught the bug and started working towards my milestone T-Shirts, now over a hundred parkruns and counting.
What does parkrun have to do with post-PhD life, though? First and foremost, parkrun taught me about the value of community, whether in the context of running or job hunting. Around the time I became a regular parkrunner, I was getting increasingly disillusioned with my precarious status as a fixed-term project manager and the commute, which meant living apart from my partner during the week. As I wrote in a different post, I was really petrified of going on the job market and really struggled with interviews and so felt completely stuck. At my lowest times, parkrun was something positive I had to look forward to and even if I was exhausted from the double whammy of commuting and job hunting, I knew going round the park at a brisk pace in company of similarly minded individuals would do me good.
Parkrun taught me about appreciating the process and not just overemphasising the outcome. My job search felt never-ending and I would often compare myself with others who only needed one or two interviews to secure the roles they wanted. With every passing month, I was getting increasingly stressed as I kept missing my self-imposed and was getting closer to missing the external deadline in the form of redundancy. One way of coping with the frustration was to remember the finish line at parkrun where it doesn’t really matter uf somebody comes in at 17 or 47 minutes, the effort and determination will often be at the same level and so I was trying to tell myself that as long as I remained in the race, I was still doing my best even if things took longer than planned.
Parkrun taught me the skill of chunking projects up into small manageable tasks also known as the art of eating the elephant one bite at a time. During long races, I will often think to myself, there’s only a parkrun to go (or five, or ten…) rather than think about the entire length of the race which can be quite intimidating. Initially, the task of job hunting felt unsurmountable and at times I didn’t know where to start and even after I figured out an approach, things didn’t necessarily get easier either, especially when it came to dealing with the stress of interviews and various job-related assessments. I still remember telling myself as I was trying to survive a day filled with group interviews and in-tray tasks, all I need to do is to survive the next five minutes and to focus on the assignment right in front of me rather than think about the job presentation and the panel interview that will come immediately afterwards.
Last but not least, parkrun gave me a space to engage in an activity which had nothing to do with job hunting and where I could feel successful, even if success meant covering three laps of the park and saying hello to fellow runners. So I would encourage others to find a similar outlet on their post-PhD journeys, whether it is running, book clubs or embroidery – although I would obviously encourage them to check out their local parkrun in the first instance!