Oh Mr Wilson, Mr Dave Wilson, or “the man who has ruined parkrun” as he was once jokingly call on the With Me Now podcast; what have you done? Once upon a time, my choice of parkrun was merely based on location, being the nearest to wherever I happened to be on parkrunday. All this was changed with the introduction of the wilson index and now my choice of parkrun is often dictated by its event number.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain. For some time, I have been aware of a brilliant unofficial extension to your parkrun profile called Running Challenges. Simply download the Running Challenges extension on google chrome (or Firefox on android phones), add your parkrun barcode number and you can then see a whole host of completely useless but fascinating (well to me, and all other parkrun nerds) stats such as your total parkrun distance run, your average parkrun location and your NENDY (nearest event not done yet). It also has a number of sections based on unofficial parkrun challenges such as the alphabet challenge (running a parkrun beginning with each letter of the alphabet), stopwatch bingo (collect all the seconds in your finish times from :00 to :59), and a load of crazy challenges such as the Compass Club (run at a parkrun with north, south, east and west in its name), pirates (seven seas (Cs) and an aaaarrrrr (R)), or Stayin’ Alive (3 x BeeGees: 3 parkruns beginning with B and 3 beginning with G). As you complete each parkrun, the site automatically updates with the latest info and when you complete a challenge you get a virtual badge that appears on the top of your profile. Some people have even gone as far as getting the virtual badges made up into real badges – I haven’t gone this far yet!
One of the things I love about the Running Challenges is that they’re achievable by anyone who is prepared to put the time and effort in, they give you goals to aim for, and is not based on running ability. I am a slow runner, and I will never be able to finish first, or get a high age-grade, and even getting a PB seems a bit impossible now as I get older. Yet I can get the Christmas Day and New Year’s Day Double badges just by turning up on those days! Attend a particular parkrun 100 times and you get a ‘singleton’ badge, even if you walk it every time. And there’s great fun to be had in planning where I’m going to go to get my J or Q letters for the alphabeteer challenge, or looking for parkruns that contain one of the compass points, like Lowestoft for example.
At the top of the Running Challenges profile there is a section for your wilson-index number, named after its creator Dave Wilson. For a long time my wilson-index number was 0, and to be honest I didn’t really understand what it meant. Hover over the words ‘wilson-index’ and you get an explanation: “The maximum contiguous series of parkrun event numbers you have attended (at any event), starting at 1.” Nope, still didn’t make sense to me. Never mind, I didn’t understand it and therefore just ignored it. Until over the last year, it suddenly seemed as if everyone was talking about it. Well, everyone on the various parkrun facebook groups I belong to, that is. And Danny and Nicola on the With Me Now podcast kept discussing it too, with a friendly rivalry to see whose wilson index was the highest and discussing each week whether they needed the event number of the parkrun they were going to attend the following week for their wilson index score. Gradually I made sense of it: each parkrun has a number, being the number of times that particular parkrun has taken place. So when a new parkrun starts up, its first week will be event number 1, the next week will be 2, and so on. My home parkrun of Walthamstow has run 336 times, so next week will be run number 337.
But because the wilson-index starts at 1, until you have run an inaugural parkrun your wilson-index remains at 0, even if you have run a parkrun with every number from 2-500. When I ran my first parkrun back in 2014, my home event was already on event number 79. And other parkruns near me were on numbers in the hundreds. The lowest event number I had ever run at was #12, when I ran at Salisbury’s 12th event when staying in Salisbury for the weekend. So to get my wilson-index kick-started and off zero seemed nigh-on impossible to me. At first this didn’t bother me; it wasn’t something I was going to be able to achieve so I ignored it. And yet the more that it was mentioned on With Me Now, and in the facebook groups, the more left out I felt. This was a game that everyone seemed to be playing, and I couldn’t join in. I started to become a little bit resentful of those people who had discovered parkrun in its early days, and who were able to run at parkruns with low event numbers before they became established. I had a feeling that I had missed the boat on this one, and I was never going to be able to catch up and join in.
Then there was an announcement that parkrun UK was going to be starting up 200 new events. With lots of new events starting, there would surely be the opportunity to run at events with low numbers as surely some of them wouldn’t be too far away from me. But then another moral dilemma struck me. Along with awareness of wilson-index event number chasing, I had become increasingly aware of another issue that was a stumbling block in my desire to get started with the index – in that going to inaugural events was now heavily frowned upon. Listening to old episodes of the parkrun show podcast (the forerunner to With Me Now) it seemed that going to inaugurals used to be a ‘thing’. In fact, to get on the global ‘Most Events’ table and be declared an uber-tourist, you had to attend 30 different events and 10 inaugurals. When a new parkrun was starting up, it would be announced on the podcast and in other places, and lots of parkrun tourists would turn up from across the country to support the parkrun. It was felt that the best people to have at an inaugural were experienced parkrunners, as they knew how it worked and needed minimal explanations of the scanning system, wouldn’t forget their barcodes or go home with the finish tokens (hopefully!) and could step in and help the volunteers out if needed. It became a friendly thing too – the same tourists would turn up at a new parkrun and friendships were made and re-kindled and these tourists would look out for each other at the next inaugural they went to.
However, over time it became such a thing that new parkruns found that they were inundated with hundreds of tourists turning up to their first parkrun, and volunteers became overwhelmed. And it may be an urban myth, but I heard that one parkrun event had to close after its first week due to complaints from local residents. I can certainly see how this might be a problem; if local residents are used to walking their dogs or taking their toddler for a walk in their local park on a Saturday morning and they may be a bit disgruntled to find that their park is now overrun with 500 lycra-clad runners, the car park is full and they have to wait half an hour in their local park café as it’s full of parkrunners wanting their post-parkrun coffee fix. Also, the volunteer team, who may be completely new to parkrun, and who may have been expecting 50-100 runners could be completely overwhelmed if 5-10 times that number turn up and may be less willing to volunteer in the future. So new events stopped being promoted, were kept hush-hush, and if the word did get out there would sometimes be an impassioned plea from the Event Director asking tourists to stay away for the first few weeks at least, until the event had become established.
From being a thing that was actively encouraged, going to inaugurals quickly became so discouraged that anyone even making a gentle enquiry about a new parkrun starting up or saying that they were going to an inaugural in one of the facebook groups would be roundly set upon and made to feel like they were doing a really bad thing. It became the unofficial ‘rule’ that it was only ok to go to an inaugural if it was your ‘local’ parkrun. But what constitutes ‘local’? In Scotland or Cornwall or Wales it may be that a new parkrun setting up 15 miles from your home is the nearest parkrun to you, whereas in London, there may be 5 or 6 parkruns that are nearer than a parkrun 15 miles away. And then even going to the second or third event of a new parkrun started to be discouraged, so that the event could become properly established before tourists started to go to it.
As interest in the wilson index increased, and inaugural-chasing was increasingly actively frowned upon, there was an inevitable tension that was established. There were a number of discussion threads on social media with people saying that the wilson index encouraged people to go to inaugurals as you ‘needed’ to attend inaugural in order to get your wilson index score off zero. I remember listening to one With Me Now episode where Danny poured scorn on this, saying that no-one ‘needed’ to attend an inaugural; that you could still play the wilson index game by working your way through all the other numbers and then if an inaugural started up near you, you could attend that one and your wilson index number would shoot up. Also, if you attended an inaugural in order to kick-start your wilson index you only needed to do so once and could then give inaugurals a wide berth.
And so on a visit to my brother in Leeds, I noticed that there was a new parkrun that had started up – Storthes Hall – which was on its 5th event that weekend. Shortly after that, I was staying in Devon for the weekend and saw another new parkrun – Haldon Forest – which was on event number 3.
And then one of my colleagues, who regularly goes to Oak Hill parkrun, told me that they had announced at Oak Hill that they were setting up a new parkrun in Hendon, called Sunny Hill. She is not a member of any parkrun facebook groups and doesn’t listen to parkrun podcasts so she was unaware that going to an inaugural was frowned upon. She said that a number of people from Oak Hill parkrun were going to go along to the inaugural to support them, and asked if I wanted to come along too. Sunny Hill was about 13 miles from my house, but I probably pass around 6-10 parkruns on the way there, so could I count it as local?
In the end I decided to go, on the premise that I would never attend an inaugural again once this one was done. And I am so glad I did – there were 140 parkrunners at the inaugural, and everyone was incredibly friendly and encouraging, and the volunteers made me feel extremely welcome and thanked me for attending. The local mayor was there and gave a lovely speech, and the RD gave a great run briefing, which started off with 3 questions which we had to answer either yes or no to, which from memory went as follows:
RD: Is there anyone here who is running Sunny Hill for the first time?
RD: Are you excited and looking forward to running Sunny Hill parkrun?
Everyone: YES! (big cheer)
RD: Are you ready to run Sunny Hill parkrun?
RD: WRONG ANSWER! No, you’re not… you haven’t listened to the run briefing yet…
As we got underway, I found myself running behind a woman who became my ‘carrot’ to chase – sometimes she was in front of me, sometimes the other way round. At the end I had a quick chat with her, and was surprised to find that she had come down to London from Bristol, and felt a bit better about my inaugural qualms, only to discover that her son was on the core team and he had asked his parents to come to the inaugural and so they had come to support him.
Afterwards, I joined my colleague and her friends for coffee in the lovely café in the park, which seemed to cope admirably with all the extra people. It felt really special to have been there at the start, and every time I see or hear a mention of Sunny Hill I feel a little nostalgic; it was special to have taken part in the very first Sunny Hill parkrun. I would love to run in another inaugural but have promised that I won’t, and will stick to my promise.
And shortly after this, I was able to run in Kingdom event #2, and then Uckfield #4, so my wilson index is now on 5. I then discovered some more new parkruns that were accessible, and started planning when I was going to be able to run them, starting with Cyclopark which I planned to do on it’s 6th event. But then disaster struck, and I had a sudden unexpected illness which meant that I haven’t been able to parkrun for a month, and may not be able to parkrun for some time to come. So I’m massively suffering from FOMO at the moment (Fear Of Missing OUt!) I guess that’s the problem with the wilson-index; you only get one chance to take part in a particular event and if things don’t go to plan, you will miss it. And who knows if there will be another new parkrun that is accessible so that I can go to event number 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11… etc.? Oh, Mr Wilson, you have so much to answer for!