It all started with an Instagram post. A friend announced she was doing the ‘parkrun alphabet’ and had just completed her tenth letter. I was intrigued.
A month earlier, I’d run an ultramarathon – an amazing experience but one that left me nursing a fairly significant hip injury. I had removed all races from my calendar and was bored of repetitive physio exercises. I missed having a purpose.
It was this, combined with the fact I certainly didn’t want to make my injury worse, that made the parkrun alphabet so attractive. The challenge can be done at your own pace and requires no more than a 5km run on a Saturday.
For those who aren’t familiar, the parkrun alphabet is an unofficial challenge that sees runners complete a parkrun at locations starting with each letter of the English alphabet. There’s no set list of parkruns (so you can do any A, B, C you like), no time limit and no need to do it in a particular order.
I decided I wanted to complete my alphabet before I turned 30 – giving me 25 weeks to complete 20 letters. Over the next six months, I travelled from Poland to Portobello, Wimbledon to Maidstone. I crossed finish lines in fields and woods, on football pitches – and even at a racecourse.
What struck me is that while I met plenty of people completing their alphabets, there is hardly anything written about it. So, if you’re keen on becoming the latest alphabeteer, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it – you’ll be banking your Z in no time!
If you already like a bit of parkrun tourism, you may have more letters under your belt than you think. Log into your account using your parkrun ID to look at your history and see how far you’ve got to go. Hopefully you’ll be luckier than me and my three Bs!
You can skip this step if you’d like. I wanted a time limit because I know I need a bit of pressure to complete a challenge. If you need the same motivation, common aims are to complete it within a year or before a big milestone.
There will be weekends when you have to do a particular parkrun because you’re away for work, on holiday or travelling for something important like a wedding. Find out what letters you need to save so you can bank them while you’re away – otherwise you’ll end up missing weeks or repeating letters unnecessarily.
There are a few pesky letters that are more difficult than the others. The obvious ones are:
Depending on where you live, there might be others that require a drive or train journey. J, U and I were all around an hour from me, however, it’s worth it when you get to see new places.
parkruns come in all shapes and sizes. Some are dead flat with great PB potential (York and Victoria Dock are two great examples). Others are more like your school cross-country course where you end up ankle deep in mud (thanks Wimbledon and Uckfield).
I also had no idea how hilly a parkrun could be before this challenge – Queen Elizabeth, East Grinstead and Kingdom (my favourite) had more than 250ft (76m) of elevation over 5km. Make sure you have a look at the relevant course page before you travel so you have the right kit on you. If you haven’t got them already, a decent pair of trail shoes will be invaluable.
I hope this blog is a helpful start. But you should also get friendly with the parkrun events and cancellation pages. Most courses have their own Facebook page too; use these to check any last minute changes to courses, events or parking. Plus there’s the Running Challenges extension, which allows you to collect an alphabeteer running badge. Make sure you look out for when your name is added to parkrun’s ‘most events’ page.
Always ask people for advice – even if you don’t think you need it. The running community is a brilliant one and every person I spoke to was willing to give time and energy to help. I only found out Yeovil parkrun (my planned Y) had been cancelled indefinitely through a chance conversation with a couple at Jersey Farm.
I have always loved parkrun. I love it when I’m on my way on a Saturday and I see other runners going in the same direction. I love celebrating others’ achievements – whether they are volunteering or completing a milestone. I love bumping into people I don’t really know but who I recognise because we’re part of the same community.
The alphabet challenge taught me that you don’t have to do the biggest, the fastest or the longest event to feel like you have achieved something. So my final tip is this: smile, relax and ask strangers to take your picture. Then you’ll be able to look back to see how far you’ve really come.