Category Archives: Everything Else

Parkrunnin’ USA

I’m a latecomer to Parkrun. Like ordering a salad at a restaurant, I was aware that it was a thing that you could do, but never did. I started running 10ks, half marathons and full-blown marathons back in 2010, but never “Parkran”.

One of my favourite things about running races is the feeling of camaraderie with other runners. I ran through a constant torrential downpour in the Oxford Half Marathon in 2013 with an army of equally foolish people. I ran the Edinburgh Marathon in May 2012 on one of the hottest days of the year, with residents utilising garden hoses and Super Soakers to hose down runners as they passed by. There’s a certain spirit that is borne from these events. You cross the line and pat the runner beside you on the back, complain in unison about those brutal hills, or ask if they also saw someone dressed as King Kong sprint past you or if it was a figment of your imagination. But then you go your separate ways, and never see that person again. And that feels a little bit sad.

I “committed” to going to Parkrun in Oxford toward the end of 2017. By that point I’d been a couple of times after getting a ride from my old housemate Holly, but many weekends I would just sleep instead. For some reason, it wasn’t until she moved out and I had to cycle the 3 miles each way in rain or shine that I became a regular.

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A volunteer view of Oxford Parkrun start last summer

At this point, Oxford’s Parkrun is well established, so between 300-450 people show up each week. You start to feel that sense of camaraderie as you find yourself running alongside the same people most weeks. You feel a sense of community as you volunteer from time to time to help the event take place. A small part of me always wondered what it was like at the beginning as they slowly built up Oxford’s event, with fewer people in attendance, and everyone running and volunteering knowing each other. But that’s just my inner hipster talking.

At 8:55am on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I found myself in bed in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a work trip. I’d been there a few months earlier too, and had rather-optimistically searched for a local Parkrun, with no luck. To put this into some kind of context, Ann Arbor is the 230th most populous city in the US, and to date there are only 27 US parkrun events. So the odds were not in my favour.

But rather than get out of bed and eat Mac ‘n Cheese for breakfast that Saturday morning (which is something I definitely didn’t do, wink wink), I did another cursory search. Of course, I found that Ann Arbor’s FIRST EVER Parkrun was about to start in 5 minutes. Perhaps my superpower is being able to sense Parkruns nearby. After being mad about missing it for a minute, I set about figuring ou how to cycle the 3-4 miles to get there next Saturday.

For some reason I decided to write on their Facebook Page just to say hey! I’m here! I’m hoping to come! I think the real reason I did it was because I half-expected them to call it off with snow and freezing temperatures forecast, and if they knew some foolish tourist was planning to come, they could at least spare me a grizzly death by letting me know it was cancelled.

Instead, I ended up getting to experience what’s probably the most quintessential Parkrun experience: A new Parkrun finding its feet, and an incredibly welcoming set of race directors, runners and volunteers spread out across three different events that I got to attend.

After writing on their Facebook page, the founder of this new Parkrun, Stephanie Evans, reached out and offered to give me a ride. Steph might say she was just paying it forward after another Parkrunner did the same for her when she arrived in the US, but it just goes to show how far people go to help each other out as part of this community. It certainly sounded a million times more appealing than cycling in sub-zero conditions. So on the Saturday Steph and her husband Richard picked me up for Ann Arbor’s second ever Parkrun.

Steph and Rich hail from Leeds, and as with so many Parkruns overseas, this was another case of Brits moving abroad and wanting to bring that Parkrun experience with them. If there’s one thing I learned about them above all, it’s that they miss having access to good Indian food. And for that, I truly felt their pain, despite only being away from the UK for three weeks on this trip. It was literally the first thing I did when I got back.

We arrived at the park on that first Saturday, set up the course and started talking to those getting ready to take part in spite of the freezing temperatures. Watching Americans try to take in a run briefing done in a Leeds accent was a joy to behold. I’m secretly hoping by the time I get to return that everyone who attends is also speaking in a Leeds accent as a result of spending Saturday mornings with Steph and Rich.

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The course itself is pretty special. Three laps of a wooded trail around a lake, and a pretty stunning lake crossing. That first time I attended there were 26 runners, and the following week 48, the majority of which headed down the road for coffee afterwards along with the volunteers. Although this was only the second and third official events, I discovered that new Parkruns hold a number of test events before launching. This meant there was already a real sense of togetherness among volunteers and runners which is what helps make Parkrun to be such a success.

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There was also a Thanksgiving day Parkun in ‘nearby’ Livonia, a 30 minute drive away that Stephanie and Richard also let me tag along for. Livonia was the first ever US Parkrun established way back in 2012, so for Parkrun nerds it’s almost as cool as going to Bushy Park in London, home of the first ever Parkrun. Temperatures were absolutely freezing for the Thanksgiving run, and being the plucky / stupid Brit, I only had shorts to run in, with only one other runner wearing shorts…….who was of course also a Brit. The event was full of another bunch of super-friendly volunteers and runners, and the course was flat and quick so I was just 15 seconds off my P.B., despite having spent three weeks eating and drinking EVERYTHING in Ann Arbor.

Livonia ColdSuddenly my trip was over. It’s now a week since I got back to the UK and I still have this fuzzy warm feeling. It’s either from that Parkrun experience or a Mac n’ Cheese breakfast doing strange things to my internal chemistry.

I’ve always felt a kind of community from running my local Parkrun, which is what I always felt was missing after finishing those one-off races in the past. However the nature of my US Parkrun experiences really brought home the fact that it takes a huge crew of passionate and dedicated people to help make these free, timed 5k runs happen every week across the world. I want to run them all and tell every race director and volunteer what a difference they make. A small part of me wishes I could stay in Ann Arbor and get more people running that Parkrun every week. But I think I’d miss good Indian food too much.

Dear Esther – Xbox 1 Edition

dear estherI’ve been playing far too much Fortnite recently. Or to be more accurate, I’ve only been playing Fortnite. For about 6 months or so, I haven’t played any other game. I usually only have 30 minutes or so to play something, so it fits so readily into that space. However, in recent weeks, it has left me feeling a little cold. It’s a game that you can never get lost in, or immersed for hours. I played Breath of the Wild earlier this year, and it did exactly that. So I started looking for some games to give me that feeling of escapism.

After reading through a few best-of game lists, Dear Esther (first released in 2012) kept appearing. Even after buying the game (for about £7 from the Xbox store) and starting to play, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Even now after finishing the game, I’m not entirely sure what happened.

There’s a lot of talk in business these days about ‘experiences’. And yes, I use the italicisation with sarcastic relish. At its simplest,  it’s a way to help build brand identity and advocacy. For me, it’s just one of those terms that gets used way too often, to describe something that isn’t all that different from whatever it was that preceded it. However, playing Dear Esther was like no other game that I’ve played before. I didn’t feel as if I was playing it, I felt like I was experiencing it.

The game starts with no intro. No half-hour cut scenes giving you more exposition that you can shake a stick at. No demo levels helping to explain the controls. It just starts. You’re on a craggy, wild-looking island, walking. You can stop and look at things. Turns out every button on your controller is a zoom button, but that’s it. As you get to certain points, a narration kicks in. At first, there’s a lot of subtext and context in the narration that makes little sense. The island is covered in markings and drawings from white paint. And all you do is walk. No running. For anyone who has ever said “The Lord of the Rings movies were just 9 hours of people walking,” this game is not for you.

But something strange happens over time. You begin to enjoy this landscape. And it is beautiful; wild and untamed. You start to piece together some of the information you are receiving from the narration, coupled with well timed and fiitting musical pieces. You start to feel immersed. And then things get a little weird.

For all intensive purposes, you are alone on this island. However, this game reminded me of the brilliant Firewatch game, where you start to see figures and faces in the landscape. A part of me wants to pin that on just how immersive this game is. It’s not designed to make you jump, but it had my hairs on end numerous times.

There are two more acts in the game as you first pass through the underground centre of the island, and then come out on the other side. The caves of the underground look fantastical, with thousands of years of water passing through them helping to build stunning features. Whereas earlier in the game you had a feeling of aimless wondering, as time progresses you start to feel you are on a defined path with a clear destination in mind.

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Doing my best to leave this review spoiler-free, I’ll leave the description of the game  there. But let me come back to this theme of experience. It was so refreshing to play through a game with zero cut scenes. It helped to keep you as a player so immersed in what was actually in front of you. I felt as if I was living and breathing this game, and was actually in this place. As VR gaming develops, this feels like a perfect example of the type of game that could work so well in this format. Sometimes games help to provide a perfect dose of escapism from every day life. Being transported to this island using VR would help to add that additional level of immersion, and add to that feeling of Dear Esther, or games of its ilk, being experiences. And look, no sarky italicisation that time.

Favourite Podcasts of 2017

As a resident of Oxford, I cycle. A lot. It takes me about 7 minutes to cycle to work. If there’s traffic, well, it’ll be a tortuously slow 8 minutes. If I hit every green light, I can be there in 6 minutes. As great as that is, it still means I get to work feeling like I’ve only just woken up. If only I had a long commute.

A couple of months ago, my dreams came true. I had a couple of issues with my bike that I was slow to fix. That meant walking to and from work. I discovered that this gave me regular time to listen to podcasts, instead of just listening as-and-when I had the chance. That and the fact I finally started using a podcast client (that downloads new episodes of podcasts you’re subscribed to) meant that I found myself wilfully not fixing my bike, because I wanted to keep my daily podcast itch scratched.

I have since fixed my bike, and resentfully ride the 6-8 minute journey to and from work. But as I usually do a Top 10 albums of the year thing for fun, I figured it’d be fun to do something similar for podcasts. So here it is.

Harmontown

ht3.jpgI was a big fan of the show Community that ran for six seasons. Netflix’s clever little algorithm put me onto Harmontown – the documentary which is where I first discovered the existence of the podcast. Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, and more recently, 50% of the creators behind  Rick & Morty gets on stage on a Sunday evening in L.A. alongside Jeff Davis, a regular on Whose Line Is It Anyway, and Spencer Crittenden, their dungeonmaster (let’s put a pin in that). There’s never much of a plan for shows. It largely consists of Harmon monologuing his way through whatever is on his mind at the time, with Jeff and Spencer either supporting or antagonising Dan. Occasionally things descend into farcical improv, or Dan raps; sometimes there’s guests, sometimes audience members are brought up. Spencer’s story is great though. He attended his first Harmontown as an audience member when Dan decided he wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons on the podcast. Spencer became their dungeonmaster, and is now an integral part of the show, as well as ultimately getting to DM on a D&D TV show – Harmonquest.

As well as the podcast version, if you pay $5 a month you can watch the show live as it’s recorded. I’m a freeloader, so I don’t subscribe, but the upshot of them filming it means end up seeing videos on YouTube of various chunks of the show. Below is a Dan rap from when a thousand people a day were asking him when Rick & Morty Season 3 was coming out. By the end of the rap, he talks about how Superman is susceptible to gout. That’s a pretty good indicator of how the show goes.

 

Pod Save America

PodsaveIf there ever was a time to get more interested in American politics, now is probably that time. For one thing, it can help you feel better about the momentous shitshow that is Brexit, due to the fact other countries can be equally self-sabotaging, so that’s nice. I’m used to having a superficial understanding of what’s going on in the US, based on whatever news makes it across the ocean. The joy of listening to Pod Save America is that you get much more of a dissection of what Trump and in particular the GOP are doing to the US. You get some honest criticism of Democrats. And you get some laughs too.  The show is run by Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Daniel Pfieffer, who all had various roles within the Obama administration. Jan Favreau was Obama’s chief speechwriter during his 2008 election campaign and for several years while he was president, while Jon Lovett worked as a speechwriter for both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. That expertise in communications is probably one of the big reasons why they have managed to create something that’s in-depth and analytical, but at the same time accessible and funny.

They frequently have guests on, and are doing their best to encourage grassroots Democrat activism, which will be super-important to help potentially flip the Senate in 2018. And if you want to know why that’s important, then it’s probably worth listening.

This American Life

talThis American Life is the king of podcasts, so if you haven’t heard of it, and you’re into podcasts, you’re doing something wrong. Even before I get into This American Life, the fact that they are the producers behind two monster podcast hits (Serial and S-town) should tell you what you need to know. These guys are experts at telling real-life stories. This American Life is a weekly podcast that typically has an overarching theme each week, with 3 or 4 short pieces related to that theme, although occasionally they’ll dedicate an entire episode to one story. One of my recent favourites was where they followed the story of a car dealership for a month. Every month, the dealership is set a sales target for the month by the car manufacturer. If they make the target, they get a big bonus. If they are short of that target, even by one sale, they get no bonus. A handful of different salesmen are followed for the month, each fulfilling different roles. One is the all-star salesman, who frequently has more than double the sales of anyone else. One is one of the worst performing salesmen. One is the boss of the chain. One employs a strategy of saying yes to whatever offer a customer lays down regarding what they want to pay, although often then gets them to change it down the line. All the parts come together right at the end of the month as they battle to make it to the sales target, even selling cars at a loss just so they can try to make the target. This American Life are just so good at telling stories, you can’t help but become instantly captivated by whatever story it is that they are telling.

Criminal

CriminalCriminal is a short, bi-weekly show. All stories are based on true crime stories, but take on much more of a broader scope than a lot of true crime shows do, and often go for more surreal stories. For example, one episode interviewed a botanist on how she randomly ended up becoming the go-to person for government agencies wanting to analyse people’s stomach contents, to help determine time of death. Another detailed the story of Carrie Nation, who strongly opposed the sale of alcohol in the late 1800’s. She did this by smashing up taverns with a hatchet she carried around. All stories are brilliantly told by host Phoebe Judge, who has one of those perfect radio voices. I just listened to an episode this morning called ‘Unexpected Guests’ that was created after the show asked listeners to email them with stories similar to a story they told some months ago, about a woman discovering after several months that someone was living in her attic crawl space. As with This American Life, there’s two aspects that make this a great show. First, that they are real stories, typically told by the people who have experienced them. Second, the way the show is produced is spot on. Phoebe Judge is a very natural interviewer, who seems to have a knack for getting the most out of people that she interviews.

My Favourite Murder

MFMAnother true crime podcast, this one hosted by two L.A. based hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. 50% of the show is just the two of them talking about everything and nothing in between, like how much they love Del Taco, or talking about other shows or podcasts they have been into that week. Then each take their turn telling a true crime story. The show leans heavily on support for victims, rather than attempting to glorify the bad guys. One of the catchphrases is “fuck politeness” as so many stories come about as a result of people just being too trusting of strangers. While the stories they discuss are at times quite dark, they often find humour in those dark places, which is what makes the show so great.

Spontaneonation

SPTThe first thing to love is the host of Spontaneonation, Paul F. Tompkins. He’s the voice of Mr Peanut Butter in Bojack Horseman, so it’s like listening to a podcast made by Mr Peanut Butter, which is probably my #1 dream. Plus he’s effortlessly and endlessly hilarious throughout. The show starts with him interviewing a guest, starting with a question asked by the previous week’s guests. Recent guests included Ira Glass (of This American Life fame) and Ted Leo (of one of my favourite album’s ever fame). Then they have a different set of improvisers on each week, and they will create around half an hour of improv from a suggested location, and typically weave in points from the interview that week. One of my favourite episodes has to be “a deliberation room” where four improvisers ultimately tried to play the role of 12 jury members AND an orderly, which ended up being just as chaotic as it sounds. This is just an endlessly funny show.

The Bugle

BugleI first listened to this satirical news podcast back when John Oliver was a part of it, along with Andy Zaltzman. Now that Oliver (AKA Jonny Showbusiness, according to The Bugle Wiki page….no really) no longer does the show, a rotating set of hosts take part alongside Zaltzman. I started listening again recently, and heard a live show where he was joined by Nish Kumar and Alice Fraser. It’s the kind of show that will actually make you laugh out loud in public, making you look insane to strangers. A highlight from that recent live show was Nish Kumar talking about how he accidentally encouraged Buglers (the term given to fans of the show) to edit his Wikipedia page, with some very high concept results. Some of that spillover is quite possibly the reason for John Oliver’s nomenclature listed above!

Off Book

OBI started listening to Off Book after I heard Paul F. Tompkins (of Spontaneonation / Bojack fame) was the guest on their first ever episode. The show is another improv show, but this one is an improvised musical. Hosts Jess McKenna and Zack Reino host each week with a random guest, and I’m continually amazed by their ability to improvise hilarious songs, and to make them rhyme. All the stories are typically as surreal and ludicrous as Spontaneonation. During an episode where one character was following their dream of becoming the person who demos shamwows in malls, one character goes to buy a pretzel, and I think it’s my favourite song they’ve done so far. The highlight has to be Zack Reino just nailing the improvisation of the song, but then struggling to do maths under pressure. You can listen to it below!