Category Archives: Oxford Stuff

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.

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A Taste Of China – Authentic Chinese Dishes In Oxford’s Covered Market

Let me tell you a story. A story of discovery. A story of love. A story of heartbreak, redemption, and a story of Dave spending £5 a day eating the same goddamn delicious noodles for the rest of my life.

There’s a brilliant open-air market in Oxford on Wednesdays and Thursdays. A bunch of food stands serve up a whole variety of international food, most hit, some miss. Vendors change from time to time, but typically it’s pretty stable. Some months ago, I was doing my usual aimless stumble around , trying to decide what to go for. A place that I’d gone to on an alarmingly-regular basis was no longer there. That was OK, sometimes vendors don’t show up for whatever reason. The next week, they still weren’t there. I was a little more concerned that they’d gone forever, but hoped they were just taking a long holiday. A few weeks go by, and still no sign of them. It got to the stage of being like the classic Futurama dog episode, where after Fry is cryogenically frozen, his dog keeps showing up at the pizza parlour where he worked, hoping to see him return. Time goes by, and eventually the dog dies without re-uniting with Fry.

Well, lucky for me, this story has a happier ending. One day they magically appeared, in a permanent location inside Oxford’s Covered Market. Trading under the name Taste of China, they are serving up some of Oxford’s most authentic and tasty Chinese food.

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Pre-mixed Dry Noodles

The dish that first got me hooked were their hot and dry noodles. The internet tells me this is a regional dish originally from Wuhan. It’s certainly a dish I’d never seen before, let alone tried (even while in China), but it’s ridiculously delicious. It’s a noodle dish made with sesame paste, various pickled vegetables, as much chili as you can handle, and plenty of coriander. It sounds simple enough, but it’s so addictive. The sesame paste is the magic ingredient here – it gives the dish that Unami flavour that makes it a winner.

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The challenge I often face is trying to convince myself to have something else from the menu, and sometimes I manage to convince myself….but only sometimes.

Of course, they do have a lot of other great things to try. Another favourite of mine is the biangbiang noodles, a thick and long homemade noodle served cold with greens and a simple sauce. Another good choice shown below is the hot and sour noodles with spare rib. It’s a warming, fresh and authentic tasting pot of deliciousness.

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There are lots of other great dishes on their menu that I’m trying to work my way around to having, but that’s largely dependent on me not just lumping for the hot and dry noodles EVERY TIME I GO. I can’t promise, but I’ll do my best to mix it up a little in the future.

You can find Taste of China here, and here’s their menu to see some mildly better photographs of food than my own!

 

Rachel’s Café Oxford – Asian Bakery with great Char Siu buns!

I’m living a cursed life. I ate my first ever Asian bun (bao) in China. I followed that by eating about 100 more, still in China. I spent three weeks there when I was 20, and discovered that you were never more than 400 metres away from someone selling something delicious. Most of the time, I’d go for a char siu bun, which is a delicious BBQ pork variety, often made with something along the lines of soy sauce, honey, brown sugar, rice wine, hoisin sauce, and Chinese five-spice.

I came home depressed, thinking that now I was 4,000 miles from a good char siu bun. If I’m ever in London, and anywhere remotely close to Chinatown, I’ll always make a sharp b-line toward one of the Asian bakeries there. The great irony is that the bus stop I wait at to get a bus from Oxford to London is in St Clements, literally outside of Rachel’s Café, a nice looking Asian bakery.

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Occasionally I would actually look inside through the window, and could see buns 10 feet away from me. Somehow, whenever I thought about going inside to get something, the bus would always arrive, right on cue. It’s like the bus drivers of Oxford don’t want me to be happy, although that’s probably how everyone in Oxford feels generally.

One day fairly recently I just missed the bus I wanted, so I actually had 20 minutes to kill. I stepped inside Rachel’s Café, and now I’m happy, because I know I’m 400 metres away from a good Asian bun, at least when I’m at home.

First up, the important stuff. The place is independent, so that makes hipsters like me happy. Second, everything is home-made, so you know it’s good. So much of my bao disappointment in the UK has come from eating what’s clearly mass-produced stuff, which always lacks a little something.

3Let’s start with the char siu bun. When i was younger, and flying on a plane, I always wanted to open the window, and grab a passing cloud. Of course, that would have been the last thing I ever did if that actually happened, besides falling to my untimely death. But a good bun to me makes me think about eating clouds. They have this part-baked, light quality that just makes me want to bake one into the shape of a hammock and lie in it. And then eat my way out. But as well as having the right texture and flavour to the bun itself, the filling needs to be generous, and delicious too. Fortunately, the buns at Rachael’s are. The pork is super-tender, the sauce has the right level of sweetness and flavour, and the volume of filling is great.

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1On another visit, I also tried the pastry version of the char siu. With the same filling, you can’t really fail, but you have the added benefit of a little more crunch if that’s your thing. I also tried their coffee, and that in of itself is worth a visit. Plenty of places in Oxford do pretty average coffee, so it’s something easy to phone in, but they get it right here.

They also do plenty of sweet pastries, and Bánh mì baguettes. I’m working up the courage to trying something else, but I can’t stop myself from ordering as many char siu buns as I possibly can every time.

You can find Rachel’s online here, and in the real world here: 55 St Clement’s St, Oxford OX4 1AG. Important note – It’s a cash only place, so be sure to bring some!