Across the UK, in fact now across the world, every Saturday morning a quiet revolution takes place. Over 100,000 people of all shapes, sizes and ages get out of their beds and go to a nearby park or playing fields, some to then run 5k, others to volunteer in a variety of roles. And they don’t jut do it on one Saturday, but many do it every Saturday, or as often as they can, as it very quickly becomes a habit that is hard to break.
I’m talking, of course, about parkrun. Started in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt with a handful of friends in Bushy park, Teddingon, parkrun has grown to become a global phenomenon. Part of its success is that it has stuck to its original principles: that it is a free, weekly, timed run in the park. Much emphasis is put on the word “run” – it is most definitely a run not a race. Although it is timed, with many people chasing PBs (personal bests), there are also local points awarded for attendance and a yearly prize ceremony that rewards loyalty rather than speed. Although such a huge weekly event requires organisation so that parkrun HQ now employs paid staff, the on-the-ground organisation is carried out week-in-week-out by volunteers. Runners who are injured, or resting their legs before a big race, or friends and family of runners, all step in to act as timekeepers or marshals or other roles, so that the parkrun can take place. The volunteers and runners combined make up the parkrun “family”, with many people finding companionship and a social aspect to the weekly run. And with the emphasis also being on the fact that it is free, there are no bars to participation – all are welcome in the parkrun family. This last point has become the source of much controversy and media attention recently with the Stoke Gifford Parish Council becoming the first local council to vote to charge parkrun to use a public park as the venue of the Little Stoke parkrun, on the grounds that it costs them to maintain the pathways that the runners run on. The result was that the Little Stoke parkrun was then cancelled, provoking a storm on social media using the hashtags #lovelittlestoke and #loveparkrun.
My own parkrun habit began thousands of miles away from the UK, in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. And no, before you rush to the website to check, there is not a Wadi Rum parkrun – not yet, anyway! I was on a group adventure holiday, travelling around Jordan visiting the various sites such as Petra and Jerash. For one night we got to camp out in a Berber Bedouin tent in the desert. The communal tent was very hot, so many of the group opted to sleep outside, gazing up at the stars. In the morning the outside group assumed that any people not rolling up their sleeping bags outside were inside the tent, and vice versa with the inside people. So it took quite a while to realise that one of our number was missing; Martin, an academic who was in his late 70s. As we were starting to worry, Martin came running across the desert to be quite surprised at our concern. A lifelong runner who had completed many marathons, Martin had woken up early and gone for an early morning run amongst the sandstone pillars. He was probably the fittest person in the group and fitter than people half his age. Talking to him later about his running, I expressed my admiration as I couldn’t run for a bus! I had been thinking for some time that I needed to do something to combat the weight that I had put on, and the realisation that I was pretty unfit, and it came as a shock to be so shown up as unfit by a man in his 70s. The problem was that I have never been a “sporty” person; I hated PE at school, and have never found a sport that I actually enjoyed. Martin told me about parkrun and suggested that I look it up when we got back to the UK to see if there was a parkrun near me.
I did as he suggested and found Walthamstow parkrun that was easy for me to get to. At this point I couldn’t run for a minute so there was no way I was going to be able to run it, but I saw that they were looking for volunteers and so I put my name down. That first time I was given the task of handing out the finish tokens to the runners at the finish line – these tokens have a barcode on them, and the runners take them to a barcode scanner who scans them alongside the runner’s unique barcode so that the runner’s finishing time and position can then be worked out. It wasn’t a particularly arduous job, just standing handing out the little finish tokens in the right order, but it was a great introduction to parkrun. After the start, the volunteers have a good 15 minutes before having to get ready for the first finisher to come sprinting towards the finish line, and so time for a good chat! Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I found I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I got home I put my name down for the next week. Very soon I found that I was volunteering whenever I was free at the weekend, doing whatever role was needed, including barcode scanning and timekeeping. I was starting to get to know the regulars – one of the advantages of barcode scanning is that you get to see everyone’s name on their own barcodes, and I was also amazed at how many people would thank me for volunteering. But when chatting to people before the start and after the run, several people started asking when I was going to run it. When I responded saying that I couldn’t run that far, people were encouraging and suggested that I gave it a go, that I could run and walk and it didn’t matter how fast or slow I took.
Various people also told me about the NHS Couch-to-5k plan which takes complete beginners through to being able to run 5km in 9 weeks. I downloaded the app onto my phone, and set off to a nearby park to start the process of learning how to run. That first week consisted of three runs of alternate periods of 60 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking. It brought me up short as I realised just how unfit I was and what a long way I had to go. Just running for 60 seconds exhausted me, and the thought of running for 30 minutes continuously seemed impossible. But I kept at it, helped enormously when I found a friend who was at the same stage of running and we started running together. I still hated every run, but somehow something was changing, and I soon found that although I hated going out for run, I started to enjoy the feeling I got at the end of the run as the endorphins kicked in. And then much to my amazement, by the time I got towards the end of the training programme, I started to actually want to go out for a run – and realised that I had become a runner!
The first time I turned up at parkrun to actually run it was great – everyone was so encouraging, and cheered me in as I finished. Yes, I had to mix running and walking, and I had a very slow time, but it didn’t matter – I had done it! Since then I have taken part 16 times – I have had setbacks with injuries and many weeks when I have been away or not able to run for various reasons. But it had become such a habit that when I am away at the weekend now, the first thing I do is look to see if there is a nearby parkrun that I can go to. I’ve taken part in 5 different parkruns so far, from Salisbury to Yorkshire, and although they are all very different, they are all very welcoming and friendly. However, like any family member I still feel like I have come home to my parkrun family home of Walthamstow whenever I run there! I am still very slow, and haven’t yet managed to run it without stopping to walk and catch my breath, but it gives me goals to work towards, and I always eagerly wait for the results to come out to see if I’ve got a PB and feel on top of the world when I have. Although I grumble about having to get up early on a Saturday morning instead of having a lie-in, once out I enjoy the fact that I’m up and about before most people have got up and feel incredibly virtuous – it’s a great way to start the weekend. And it’s amazing how many times we can find something to celebrate with cake at the end, with some great cake-bakers that would rival Mary Berry with their creations!
Parkrun is so much more than a run in the park though. It’s also an incredible force for community good. At Walthamstow, one week one of the regular runners organised a clean-up after parkrun, and everyone was encouraged to stay behind and go litter-picking to clean up the playing field producing huge bags of litter:
Then there are the charity initiatives, such as the month in which we were encouraged to donate our “time” to Alzheimer’s UK – a link from the parkrun website converted the finishing time into pounds and pence, or when the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt ran the London Marathon last weekend and encouraged every parkrunner to sponsor him just £1, raising over £20,000 for Alzheimer’s UK. Every Friday the parkrun newsletter pops into my email, containing inspirational stories of ordinary people who have discovered parkrun and in getting the parkrun habit have managed to lose weight, or beat depression, or fight cancer or diabetes or other diseases. Or just simply have found it to be a great thing to do with family members or who have found friends and even partners through parkrun.
So if, like me, you never thought that you would be able to run for 5km, think again! To get involved and get your own parkrun habit, you just have to register on the parkrun website to get your own unique runner number and barcode. Then look up to find your nearest parkrun and simply turn up at the parkrun for a 9am start. You’ll soon find it’s a habit that you don’t want to break!