"There is something for everybody, and everybody will cheer you on"
What Steven asked Richard Pemberton, running coach at Medway Fit
Editor’s note: I hope you’ve had a lovely Christmas break however you chose to spend it. Our first interview of the year is today rather than our usual Sunday slot. It felt appropriate that we got to speak with Richard Pemberton of Medway Fit at a time when many might be considering getting fit. As usual, our interviews are paywalled about halfway through. There’s a lot to get stuck into even for free readers, but if you want to keep going and support our work, please consider upgrading your subscription. For the first week of the year, it costs only £40 for a full year.
To kick off our 2024 series of interviews, it seemed like a great time to look at the idea of getting fit, so Steven sat down with the man who helped him run 5k. They talk about runner’s euphoria, the need for toilet access, running with your dog, and lots more.
Where were you born?
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My dad was in the merchant navy, and then he was an engineer at GC Marconi. My mum was a journalist.
How did you find school and university?
School, not a huge fan. I did stay on for A-levels, but I didn’t go on to higher education until I was an adult.
Where did you go to university?
I did distance learning in Librarianship at Aberystwyth, and I’ve just done a Chartered Management degree apprenticeship at Canterbury Christ Church. I am going to be doing a Senior Leaders degree apprenticeship at Canterbury Christ Church now, which is through the apprenticeship levy. The older I get, the more I like learning.
What was your first full-time job?
It was as an office junior in a manufacturing company in Rainham, called P&J Dust Extraction, which has now moved to the Isle of Sheppey somewhere. It was a really good start in work life though. I know a lot about Excel from that job.
What is your official occupation?
I am a knowledge and library services strategic manager.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
I am a volunteer coach with a local running club called Medway Fit. I am qualified with England Athletics as a coach and running fitness and I’ve done a few other coaching qualifications alongside that. Medway Fit is a huge local running club, with well over 400 local running members. It’s all free to the end user.
What does the average day entail?
I wake up early to take the dog for a walk. It’s a 400m commute for me from my home to my office at Medway Hospital. At work, everything that the world knows about medicine doubles every couple of months. You don’t want clinical teams treating you based on old information, so we make sure that the clinical teams have access to the latest information and research to give the best possible care. It makes a real difference to patients and their families to get up-to-date care. It’s a busy day, and I manage a team with six people to deliver that service. No day is the same, because enquiries are always different. We use our search skills as librarians to find that information quicker than a doctor would be able to find it and allow them more time to be a doctor, which is valuable. Then in my evenings, I run the running club. We train a couple of times a week. Usually, there are a hundred people for a group run. Sometimes they are structured, sometimes we just go for a run, warm up and cool down. Then I get to the administration work that goes with that, and then I get to go to sleep.
This interview will be available at the beginning of the year, a time when people look at their fitness and try to make goals. What advice would you have for someone looking to get fit?
I would say, first of all, make sure you are in nice comfortable clothes, and not too many of them when you start running because you will get hot quickly, even when running outside. Dress for 10 degrees warmer than it actually is, if you are going to run. Join a club, there’s lots of clubs in Medway, not just Medway Fit. There are also Rebel Runners Medway, Medway Runners, Medway & Maidstone Athletics Club, Parkrun itself, plus lots of other smaller groups. I’d love for people to join Medway Fit but have a look at other options as well. I know Rebel Runners are running a Coach to 5k in January, and we will be running one in the spring. Come and get involved. Group running will support you through it.
When did you first run 5k?
I did Couch to 5k in 2013 and ran 5k that year, and got heavily involved in leading the running club straight after. That was at Great Lines Parkrun, which I am a big supporter of. I really recommend anybody that is interested in starting a fitness journey, Great Lines Parkrun is a great place to start that.
What is the Couch to 5k programme?
It’s an 8/9-week programme, depending on which version you use. There’s one on the NHS website, and there are various apps you can use yourself. I personally feel it’s better to follow it as part of a group because you get the added motivation. It’s a way of training your body to steadily increase the amount of running and reduce the amount of walking over 5k. It’s usually time-based and it’s achievable for just about anybody. I’ve coached hundreds of people through this course, including people who really didn’t think they would be able to do it.
What was your motivation to get fit?
In 2010, when I hit 30, I realised I was a large man, and I really would like to see my daughter grow up and have a fitter healthier lifestyle. I joined the local gym, one thing led to another and running seemed to be the next obvious step. I really wanted to run a Tough Mudder. I’ve since done five Tough Mudders and many other similar and even worse challenges.
What are the factors that can disrupt or stop someone from achieving it?
I think that outside factors, such as other commitments. You really do need to be able to run three times a week to make it work, that’s how it is set up. Occasionally someone may pick up an injury. If you are doing it on your own, then the weather can put you off. If you are doing it as part of a group, then you are more likely to turn up and not miss those sessions.
How important is footwear?
Footwear is really important. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on running shoes, but I would always recommend keeping your running shoes for running, because when you walk you put your foot down differently to when you run, and you cause different damage to the cushioning and to the soles of the shoe. You can buy a reasonably priced pair of running shoes but keep them for running.
What is the significance of the 5k element, as a distance?
I think it’s just that Parkrun is 5k, and it’s a nice goal to have a set number, and there are various 5 and 10k races that you can enter afterwards. It gives people a target, and you need a consistent measure to measure your improvements, so you can see yourself getting quicker and quicker over the same distance. It doesn’t really matter if you have chosen to run 800m on a track, 5k, or a marathon, as long as you are being consistent, you can see your own progress.
Why has Parkrun become such a phenomenon?
I think it’s because it’s so inclusive, whether you want to walk it in an hour, or if you are an elite runner who will complete it in 15 minutes. There is something for everybody, and everybody will cheer you on. The amount of support I have had, from all walks of life, that I have met through Parkrun, has just been mind-blowing. I’m a larger runner, I am never going to be right near the front. That doesn’t stop an elite runner from congratulating me, or even running around with me to get me the best time I want at that time.