Parkrun has been one of the social phenomena of the 21st century. Starting with a few mates, looking to escape marathon madness with a shorter run, it has graduated from a dozen participants in a west London park in 2004, to hundreds of 5k runs every Saturday morning (at 9am) at parks throughout the UK and abroad nowadays. On a topical note, there was an announcement today that legislation would prevent local authorities charging the entirely voluntary parkrun movement to use local parks.
On a personal note, parkrun got me back into racing, however slowly, five years ago, at a relatively advanced age, over whose exact figure we must draw a discreet veil, if only to save shocking our younger readers. Speaking of whom, what is a good age to introduce youngsters to running; and how far and how fast?
Since I am neither a parent nor a coach (thank the lord, I hear in chorus), I do not have immediate experience in such matters, but, as they say, it is not rocket science; it is what we choose to call common sense. The most extreme examples I know of abusive parents in the world wide running community are the cases of Zhang Huimin and Budhia Singh.
In the run-up, so to speak, to the Beijing Olympic Games 2008, Zhang’s father, Jianmin came up with the insane idea of his then eight-year old daughter running from their home on the tropical island of Hainan, south of mainland China, to Bejing. Huimin ran 3,560 kilometres in 55 days (only 65k a day) with dad trolling alongside on a motorised bike. Interviewed at the culmination of the run, in Tiananmen Square in midsummer 2007, dad told Reuter, ‘I don’t care what the experts say. Although they accuse me of being cruel or abusive, I think I’m right…. I have never worried about her future health. As she was able to endure the long distance running and has grown up healthily from the year three to eight, which are the weakest ages, there’s no reason she could not endure this in the next years’. According to China Daily, Huimin started running three kilometres a day when she was three and was hitting 23k per day by the time she was seven.
A couple of years prior to that, in Odisha, eastern India, three year old Budhia’s penurious mother sold him to a travelling salesman for 800 rupees. He was sold on to the care of a judo coach, Biranchi Das who, having told him to run as punishment for a misdemeanour, then forgot and found the boy still running hours later. Sensing an opportunity, Das had Budhia run 48 marathons before he was five! Das was arrested and accused of torture, but charges were dropped. Das was later killed in an unrelated shooting; by which time Budhia had been taken to a state-sponsored sports school, where he was weaned off marathons and into a variety of sports.
I can find no evidence that either is still running in their teens. And it is perhaps no accident that these instances occurred in countries where child labour is either still prevalent (India) or has only recently diminished/disappeared (China).
However, to get to the point of this concern, I went to one of my local parkruns this morning, to find out exactly how badly my form had suffered after an enforced lay-off, followed by a decision to start running again through a thus far incurable ailment (sciatic nerve tethering, since you ask – yes, I’d never hear of it either). It could have been worse; I just managed to break 26 minutes. But during the course of the run (shame prevents me from writing ‘race’), I was passed by a father and son, the latter being around ten years old. As is usual in such cases, I said, ‘Go on son, you can beat that old geezer’. The fact that dad ignored this sage advice whereas others have joined in the fun, did not bode well; but he did seem simply to be cajoling the son to run faster, dispensing advice on the trot.
But when I passed them another kilometre along, the kid was clearly distressed and crying. Dad was still cajoling rather than criticising. But when we finished, I could not contain myself, and despite the military haircut and tattoos, I went to have a word with a clearly very fit dad, who was by then wearing his club tracksuit. I asked him aside from the rest of the family (mother and daughter had run too, which in itself is terrific), and said I intended no insult to his motivation, but that I had been running for more than 50 years (see above), so I knew what I was talking about, and that he should consider the possibility that he was ruining any chance of son still being a runner by the time he was 16 let alone 60.
He eyed me suspiciously, thanked me curtly and turned away, and that was that. I’d done my bit, and maybe he’ll do his too. Ten minutes later, we passed each other warming down, and he didn’t even acknowledge me, so, who knows?
A lot of ten year olds participate in parkruns, too many of them far faster than me; and 5k is not going to kill them. But when your kid is in tears halfway round, it’s surely time for a re-think.