Over the last four years as my parkrun habit has developed, I have visited a number of different parkruns across the UK, from Barnstaple to Portobello in Edinburgh. I am quite often away at the weekend, visiting friends or family, or for other reasons, and as soon as I know where I am staying I look to see where the nearest parkrun is and work out if I can fit a parkrun into my weekend schedule. But I have never travelled away at the weekend with the sole purpose of visiting a particular parkrun – until now!
I have also enjoyed taking part in the various unofficial Running Challenges, and adding virtual badges to my parkrun profile on the Chrome Extension when I achieve these challenges. One of these is the Alphabet Challenge. This does what it says on the tin; to become a parkrun Alphabeteer you have to run at a parkrun beginning with every letter of the alphabet (except X as currently there are no parkruns beginning with the letter X and eXeter doesn’t count!). At first, I didn’t plan to get specific letters but just mentally ticked them off as I did them. So when I was staying in Lincoln for the weekend whilst singing at the cathedral, I was pleased to find I could get to Lincoln parkrun and back in time for a rehearsal, bagging an ‘L’ in the bargain, which I needed. Clearly some letters are easier to get than others, and it is amazing how the letters ‘S’ and ‘W’ seem to appear in parkruns near to wherever I was staying. As my alphabet started to fill up, it was obvious that some letters were a lot rarer than others – such as I, J, Q, U, Y and Z. At the moment there are no parkruns in the UK beginning with Z and so hard core wannabe Alphabeteers make special trips to Poland to bag the nearest Z, the others being in South Africa or Australia. If Zennor in Cornwall ever starts up a parkrun it had better be in a huge park that can cope with hundreds of runners as it is sure to be swamped with alphabet chasers! It became apparent that if I was to stand a chance of completing the alphabet challenge, I was going to have to make some journeys and do some tourism specifically at those coveted, rare-letter parkruns.
Just after New Year, a budget hotel advertised a sale with rooms from £29 up until the end of March. I thought that this might be my chance to bag one of these rare letter parkruns, and so I started to do some research. Until recently, the only parkruns beginning with the letter I in the UK were Inverness in Scotland and Ipswich in England, with Inch in Ireland being a long way to get to, however desirable. I very nearly made it to Ipswich last year when I was staying with friends in Suffolk, but then in the end did Kesgrave as it was nearer to where I was staying. But then in December 2018 a new parkrun started in central Stafford with the fabulous name of Isabel Trail parkrun, and so I booked a room in the budget hotel sale on a spare weekend in March and got set to bag my ‘I’.
I was interested in why the path the course is run on was named the “Isabel Trail”. I didn’t notice any signage referring to the Isabel Trail whilst I was there, and so was none the wiser even after visiting. A quick internet search shed no further light either – googling for “Isabel Trail Stafford” brought up the following entry on Wikipedia: “In December 2018, a parkrun (a free weekly timed 5k run/walk) was launched in Stafford for the first time, on the Isabel Trail, a public foot/cycle path which follows part of the course of the former Stafford-Uttoxeter railway. The run/walk takes place every Saturday morning at 9.00am, and starts at the southern end of the Isabel Trail, by Sainsbury’s supermarket.” Which told me about the parkrun, but not why it was so named. Another entry on the Stafford Forum website asked why the trail was called the Isabel Trail, prompting one answer which said “It might be named after Lady Isabel who was the last inhabitant of Stafford Castle before it was destroyed in the Civil War. Or it might not – I don’t really know”. This lead me down an internet wormhole as I then looked up Lady Isabel and found the following: “In 1643, Lady Isabel Stafford briefly held her ground at Stafford Castle against the be-sieging Parliamentary forces, but upon falling the destruction of the then ruined castle was ordered.” All very romantic, and I half expected to see knights and jousting along the route!
As I drove up the M1 and M6 from London on a Friday night after work, I did slightly question my sanity. And I also had a bit of an ethical environmental crisis about driving for 3 hours merely to run a parkrun, especially as I passed so many other parkruns along the route. I didn’t get to the hotel until gone 9.30pm and too late to see if there were any other tourists around, so I settled down for an early night.
On Saturday morning I woke to find that it was rather windy outside, and as I opened my curtains I saw two squirrels who were very nearly blown off a tree branch outside the window! Storm Gareth, which had been raging for the previous 3 days across the UK but which had died down on Friday, seemed to have been replaced by a new storm – Storm Hannah. I anxiously checked the list of parkrun cancellations on the website, which had reached 50 parkruns, and checked the event’s facebook page, very relieved to see that it was still going ahead.
The hotel was only 1.5 miles from the start, and I left far too early. In the car park of the hotel I met a cow-cowl-wearing tourist who I shall call She Who Does Not Want To Be Named who had also travelled to Stafford specifically to do Isabel Trail. SWDNWTBN told me that parkrun had been an absolute godsend to her since she lost her husband. Saturdays were always family time for her, and since discovering parkrun she had found a whole new purpose to Saturday mornings, and since starting to tourist she had met loads of people, bumping into them at different parkruns. This is one of the things I love about parkrun tourism; meeting lovely people and swapping tales of our parkrun obsessions!
I had seen on various social media posts that you could park in Sainsbury’s car park and if you spent £5 in the store they would refund the cost of parkrun, easily done if visiting the café afterwards. However, when I got there I couldn’t see where the Sainsbury’s car park was and so ended up parking in the long stay and paying £4.20 only to find after paying that it was directly opposite the Sainsbury’s car park!
I walked to what I thought was the start where a huddle of volunteers were having pre-run doughnuts – a great innovation! I was impressed with volunteer Vicky’s tent which was erected to host people’s bags/belongings in the dry – a great idea. Although I do realise this relies on the parkrun having a “Vicky” who is prepared to turn up early and put up the tent as part of set-up each week.
I then realised the start was a bit further along, so walked along to where a number of runners were gathering. The first timer’s briefing was excellently delivered by Lee Barnard – as this was only the 15th event about a quarter of the field were first timers, although with a good smattering of parkrun tourists there and a very straightforward out-and-back route, it was quickly done.
And then onto the main run briefing. This was my 25th different event, and 71st parkrun overall, so I have attended many run briefs in the past as well as delivering them as an RD. But this was the first time I have experienced so many people repeatedly talking through the run briefing. Even though David, the RD, was using a megaphone, I couldn’t hear a thing as people around me talked throughout it. I said “shhhhh…” and asked people near me to be quiet for the briefing, and they apologised and stopped talking for about 3 seconds before starting again.
And then we were off. The course is a flat as a pancake out-and-back route along a tarmac path. I thought with the numbers of runners there that this might cause a problem as the faster runners coming back were running on the same path as the slower ones going out, but it didn’t as it was very well organised. There were signs along the route telling runners to keep left, and ‘caution runners’ and lots of cheery marshals along the route. They also had some km markers showing how far you had to go. I particularly liked one mini-marshal called Lily with very cool wellies who was high-fiving everyone on the way back. I do like a course where you can see the faster runners coming back, and if you are running with friends/family who run at different paces you can wave to or high-five each other along the route. At the turnaround point there was a marshal standing right in the middle of the path at the end of a line of cones, so no way that you could miss him and go too far, like I’ve done on other out-and-back routes! The route also goes over one bridge and under a number of others, some with some interesting graffiti on!
I was pleased with my time which was faster than I’d run in two months, due to the fast, flat course. One of the benefits of touring is that I often see innovations that I can take back to my home parkrun – in this case it was the nifty baskets for putting finish tokens in after they had been scanned.
Afterwards I had time to go to the café which was in Sainsbury’s, which also has toilets, and had time to chat with other tourists and also the volunteer team who were gathered whilst the results processing was being done. Isabel Trail parkrun is a lovely event with a very friendly and welcoming community – I’d heartedly recommend it. And if you want to tie it in with something else to make a weekend of it, the National Trust’s Shugborough Hall and Estate is only about 5 miles away.
Thank you David Panton and his team of trusty volunteers for a lovely parkrun.