During the Christmas period I was lucky enough to be invited to an impromptu dinner party. It was really rather good with a delicious chilli and some rather posh and pleasant mince pies. Of course there was terribly grown up and civilized conversation with no swearing or toilet humour involved… erm well not much… er… OK hands up, there was one topic devoid of flatulence and fannies that got me thinking. Unsurprisingly for people I spend most of my time with we spoke about runners and running. All of us regularly Parkrun and love the sociability of the weekly gathering, and at the same time concede that runners are on the whole focused on themselves. So we seem to have a contradiction, one I resolved quite brilliantly I thought with the concept of emergent behaviour. Although I couched it in rather more poetic terms than that.
Parkrun is probably the thing that turned me from somebody who ran a half marathon as a personal challenge, to a runner. There was something good about meeting a load of like minded people every week who simultaneously made you feel like you belonged and also didn’t give a crap about what you were up to. I saw the same people each week and gradually
made friends who would encourage each other, but at the same time didn’t pressurize anyone to belong. Hands up I have never been interested in team sports, I think school killed that for me, all those jock types who wanted you to be just like them to be on the winning team. Sod that, I am a product of the intrinsically selfish 80’s so whatever my social conscience is like I will only ever be part of a team as long as it fits me, and Parkrun fits that like a glove.
I realised quickly that the addictive thing about running is the PB. I always believe that with a bit more work and a bit more effort I can go that bit quicker. Winning a race is fine but if it isn’t a PB then it’s not really good enough. I know some very quick runners nowadays who regularly come in first at Parkrun but what is really important to them is the time they do it in. I also know some very slow runners, but they don’t give a shit how far down the field they are, if they were quicker than last time they are a winner. It should be of no surprise that I have never seen a winners Klaxon on social media, but the virtual sound of the PB klaxon can send shivers down my spine. What’s worse is that there can be quite specific targets that give that thrill. My fastest Parkrun is 22:25 and I am proud of that, I will quietly relish the 22:15 or the 22:05 but the next time I really get sticky knickers will be the first time I get in the 21 minute bracket, and the sound of the PB Klaxon will be loud and proud. Yes I am self obsessed, but hey I am a runner what else did you expect. This self obsession points to that seeming contradiction, most runners I have met are incredibly supportive of each other. The simple fact is that the only real competition is against myself so your success will never devalue mine.
Right so how does all this relate to emergent behaviour and my poetic tendencies? Let me explain. At Parkrun every single runner is there competing with themselves, they have laid on for them an easy way to chart their progress. It is timed, it is a regular route, and they have some support which rightly recognizes that their PB and their time is the most important thing to them. After the run they stand around discussing what their targets are and if they got a PB. OK so they are pleased for others and what they have accomplished that morning, they commiserate when things have not gone right and congratulate when it all went well, but ultimately every Parkrunner is doing their own thing. From this emerges a beautiful fellowship, a whole group of people all gathering together for their individual reasons, which by coincidence all happen to be the same. Just run faster!
Where else do we see this kind of thing? I am sure you have seen those impressive videos where a whole flock of birds shoots up into the sky making incredible patterns. All the individual birds wheeling about the sky seemingly just enjoying the flight. Not one of them has a plan as to what pictures they are going to collectively paint across the heavens, but from their individual flight plans emerges something pleasing to behold. In the same way all the parkrunners individually turn up to run around the park along the same route and, this group of self obsessed ego maniacs creates one of the wonders of nature, a genuinely supportive community of like minded individuals all acting as one.
So there I was at the dinner table during this discussion when the insight came to me and I piped up.
“We’re a bunch of flocking runners!”
I think some at the table may have misheard. I haven’t been invited back!