From parkrun to ultras

Mark O’Sullivan tells us how parkrun has changed not only his life, but also that of his family – all six of them.

“If it hadn’t been for parkrun I’d still be 120kg and on the couch.

“I’ve been to places I’ve never been to before.

“Last year I competed in the New Zealand track champs and I managed to get a bronze medal. I’ve also run all three of the Tarawera Miler races.”

You could say that parkrun has changed Mark O’Sullivan’s life. That would probably be an understatement.

The 48-year-old from Lower Hutt got into parkrun after his older brother Martin suggested it.

“He’d just started going and was talking about it and trying to encourage us to get out of the door and get a bit fit.

“At the time my son Noah had started playing rugby. He was really good at it and was doing well but what was holding him back was hit fitness. He was pretty solid and I could see my own life being relived by my child.

“When I was at school I was the fat kid, the slow kid and unfit. As an adult that had got even worse.”

“When you see that in your children…”

Their first event

Martin encouraged him to give Lower Hutt parkrun a go and on September 22, 2012, he finished in 45:26.

“In 2012 I was fat and 40. I didn’t do it for me but to stop my children from becoming me.”

They lived 1.5km from the parkrun, and because he “didn’t have a clue” about what to expect, the family walked the 1.5km to the start.

“I didn’t want to drive down in case we couldn’t find a park, so we walked down, which wasn’t appreciated.

“Me and Noah weren’t the fastest [they finished in 80 and 81 out of 81 finishers] but we had fun. That was the start of it.

“Using parkrun we all got ourselves a lot fitter. Michael set his pb at 24:55 and I couldn’t keep up with him. Then I thought if I wanted to run with my fastest son I’d better get my act together and get faster myself.

“If I do something and don’t perform what I expect of myself I want to do better. When you’re fat and 40 and can’t run the whole way then I needed to fix that.”

Somewhere along the way he decided to run further.

From 5km to 160km

He ran three half marathons in the same year, all in 2:28, “which was really odd”.

Then he found out about the Tarawera Trail Marathon and 50km. It took runners from geysers at Te Puia in Rotorua, to Hot Water Beach on Lake Tarawera.

“I went along to an info evening and that’s where I came across Squadrun. I ended up sending them an email saying something about I don’t know now if I can do it but I want to do this event.”

That was 2015. Since then he’s run, by his reckoning, 19 ultras, half of which are 100km or more. He’s the only person to have run all three of the Tarawera Miler events (160km) and he’s signed up again for the 2021 event.

“It’s my happy place. It’s like the most epic adventure and all because of parkrun. If it hadn’t been for parkrun I’d still be 120kg and on the couch.”

parkrun has taken him and his family to places they would never have imagined they’d visit, thanks to parkrun tourism.

He’s also participated in events he’d never have considered, like the 24 hour track championships where he completed 428 laps, 171km, and won a New Zealand Athletics bronze medal.

“parkrun is a family thing now. I don’t often run fast, I usually run it hand in hand with Rebecca (8). For almost all the 5km she’s attached to me like a limpet.

“I don’t make the children run, quite often my boys will walk. The only family rule is, and it’s not really a rule, we don’t mind how you get to the end but we’re all doing parkrun.

“Sometimes we vote on where we’re going to go.”

Family adventures

Two years ago it was a choice of attending the Tauranga parkrun inaugural, or running at the Waitomo Caves Trail Run.

“We figured out we could fit both in but we took it to a family vote – they all said they wanted to run parkrun and then go and run the 11km.”

There’s also been the Blue Lake 24 Hour event, where participants complete laps of Tikitapu (5.5km).

The specific event Mark entered there was a lap an hour, every hour for 24 hours.

“You have to be pretty stubborn and when things go wrong you have to keep on going. There was no way I was going to turn up and not do it. The last person with me left at hour 14 and I was on my own for the rest of the event. But I don’t quit.

“I’d set the kids a challenge, if you want to run a 50k ultra you can, if you can stay with me and do a lap an hour for 10 hours, that’s 55km, nine laps is only 49.5k, and although it’s close, it’s not 50. After four laps three out of the four kids had to stop for various reasons but I had to follow the rules to finish.

“Noah was in charge of the other two who needed to stop, and Daniel hung in with me every single lap. He did 10 laps with me, that’s 55km in 9:55, at 9-years-old.

“In the meantime, the other three kids, just like their Dad, weren’t going to give up. They couldn’t keep up with me and Daniel, (Rebecca was only 6), but they all did their 55km.”

This also gave Daniel the fastest kid ultra, so a short time later, the first chance he got, Noah set out on the Taupo 50km to take the title back with 8:42.

Michael then took this over at Taupo with a 7:51 last year.

The kids

More about the kids.

Rebecca was the youngest in New Zealand to get her 100 shirt, aged 6.

Michael was the youngest to get to 250.

Then when Daniel achieved his 250 he took that mantle.

Rebecca will take that title when she reaches 250, at the time of writing she’s on 198.

“Rebecca’s probably done another 100 in the pushchair, which don’t count.

“All her life we’ve been running. She wanted to run but you have to be four to have a barcode.

“The weekend after she turned four she said she wasn’t going to go in the pushchair, she wanted to run. We were under an hour, which for a four-year-old is really good.”

Memorable runs

“At Lower Hutt me and Allan Hartley were about the same pace for a wee while and he’d often beat me.

“I finished quite fast but I breathe really loud when I’m running fast and tired.

“I knew he would hear me coming and he would beat me to the finish. I held my breath for the last 50m and passed him on the line.”

“Another time Joce Jones had asked me to pace her to try to beat 29 minutes.

“She ran really well, the pacing was on point. We were on track to break 29 but it was just a little bit too much and she was slowing down towards the finish.

“We got to the line and just as we crossed the line she fainted into my arms – talk about giving it everything she had. It was a heroic run. When she got her result it was 29 flat. It was fantastic.

“Another run that’s memorable is when I ran at Pegasus parkrun with Martin. We went down with Chrissy.

“I was running pretty quick. There’s some great photos of us running together. I led the way then started to slow down.

Mark leading Martin at the Pegasus inaugural. Photo: Nneka Okonta

“Martin was prodding me along. Then we got to the last kilometre and I found my legs again. I managed to finish with a PB of 22:17 and beat Martin home as well.

“The highlight wasn’t so much the time, it was running with my brother, not beating him.”

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