Parkrun: The remarkable rise of the running phenomenon

Whitstable parkrun Whitstable parkrun

Saturday, September 21, 2013
9:17 AM

How Kent is joining the nation in strapping on its trainers

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Whitstable parkrunWhitstable parkrun

It’s 8.50am on a cool, dank, autumnal Saturday morning on a quiet seafront. And something is afoot.

Look towards the horizon and the swirling waters of the North Sea converge with those of the Thames Estuary; a dense mist perched upon the grey waves lapping against the shore.

On land, the wind seems to scoop up the relentless drizzle to gently pepper the faces which appear to be converging on the green slopes which slide towards the shingle beach below.

There are flashes of florescent pinks, yellows and oranges. And they keep coming. Some walking, others trotting.

Whitstable parkrunWhitstable parkrun

Within minutes, where once there were just a few brave dog walkers with heads bowed, more than 150 hardy souls are ready to battle both the elements and themselves in a 5km run which offers no reward or medal.

Yet despite the weather, and the seductive attractions of a warm duvet at home, the mood is purely convivial. Old friends catch up and new ones introduced.

What’s more, they are of all shapes and sizes – children to pensioners, people with dogs, some with pushchairs, all ready to clear the cobwebs in an event where the sense of celebration is generated purely by taking part, not by the time you achieve.

It is an addictive and potent blend of friendliness and encouragement. And, perhaps best of all, it’s completely free.

Because this is parkrun – a phenomenon growing so fast it can perhaps be forgiven for flouting grammar’s rules and scrapping capital letters in its all lower-case name.

And if it’s not already in a town near you, the chances are it will be soon.

The concept is simple – a 5km timed run taking place each Saturday morning at 9am – designed to start yet not intrude on your weekend - and manned by volunteers.

After an event on the London borders in Bromley, this seaside run at Whitstable - two laps of a circuit which takes in both the promenade past the picturesque beach huts and up and along the green splendour of Tankerton Slopes – launched back in 2010.

Last weekend saw it stage its 150th race. The week before, when the weather was a little kinder, saw more than 180 turn out – its biggest so far.

In April of this year, races launched in Gravesend, Maidstone and Margate. A month later, Pegwell Bay in Sandwich began, Gillingham begins next weekend and Tonbridge and Ashford in October; Canterbury early in 2014.

Nationwide, there are 213 each week; a number which increases week-on-week. It has even spilled out abroad, with Australia, the US, South Africa, Poland and Denmark now following the UK’s lead.

The number of people who have taken part, in total, is now nearing the half a million mark. Not bad for an event born in 2004 when its founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, first invited 13 of his pals to join him for a run around Bushy Park, in Teddington, Richmond.

Less than 10 years later, that same event regularly attracts over 1,000 runners each weekend.

“This time last year,” explains parkrun’s managing director for the UK Tom Williams, “we had around 120-130 events. By the end of 2012 we had 158; this year we’ve started nearly 50.”

And there’s no sign of slowing either. Especially when at the very core of its ethos is a powerful all-inclusive approach. It’s not a ‘race’ but a run and the winner is better known as the ‘first finisher’.

Mr Williams, who organised the first parkrun outside of London, explains: “Parkrun has always been for everyone; this ideal that it was whatever you wanted it to be. It might be for non-runners who just want to volunteer and be part of the community, or it may be for complete beginners or those who want to just walk it.

“Or it could be for the elite – anything from an Olympic athlete to a complete non-runner.”

Among the top level athletes who have taken part in events around the country are the likes of Mo Farah and triathlon stars Alistair and Jonny Brownlee. The majority, though, are those just seeking a challenge amid a community gathering.

Mr Williams adds: “Most of what parkrun is about is social cohesion – the run is almost secondary to bringing communities together and doing something positive on a weekly basis.

“The fact we’re a not-for-profit social enterprise means it does breed massive loyalty and we need that. This year we’ll need 30,000 volunteers. Without that loyalty these races wouldn’t be taking part.”

Jacky MacDonald is parkrun ambassador for Kent – one of the many volunteers. After making a five-hour round trip to take part in the Bromley event back in 2009, she was so impressed she set about establishing an event in her Whitstable home town.

“The distance of 5km is just perfect for this kind of event,” she explains. “It is ideal for somebody just starting out in running. Equally, the distance is long enough to encourage more serious runners as part of their regular training.

“Most parkruns are two laps over the 5km course thereby allowing beginners and youngsters to complete one lap in the beginning until they get more confident on two laps.”

Chris Thomson only recently started attending the races but is already hooked. He explained: “My assumption was that any organised race would see me, as a beginner, left long behind, but parkrun isn’t like that.

“As I plod along volunteers clap and shout encouragement. My whole family have got involved and it’s a great way to start the weekend in a really healthy way. Plus the desire to better your time each week becomes rather addictive.

“The fact it’s free is remarkable.”

Its success is very much rooted in its simplicity and accessibility. To enter you simply go online, register, print out a barcode and turn up in time for a 9am start.

You run as quickly, or slowly, as your legs will carry you and at the end your barcode is scanned and your race position and time entered.

Later that day a text message and email is sent to you with your official timing and position. What’s more, each event has a dedicated website which includes the full results and event photographs.

In these austere times, such a cash-free offering is difficult to argue with.

Explains Tom Williams: “Running is a particularly good sport right now – you only need a pair of trainers, and it’s one of the most accessible, cheapest sports you can get involved in.”

To set up a parkrun event costs £6,000 – a one-off fee half met by the event’s sponsors, which include the likes of adidas, Lucozade and Sweatshop.

The other half the community has to find itself.

Lucy Tomlinson is Kent running activator for Run England - a project set up by England Athletics designed to encourage recreational running. It is supported by Kent County Council and its Kent Sport arm.

It runs sociable running groups – perhaps where the target is simply to achieve a 5k run.

She explains: “Parkrun is complementary to what we do and we have been actively involved in assisting its growth in Kent. It ticks a lot of boxes.

“The £3,000 cost, which is a bit like acquiring the franchise, is often met by the local authority. For example, Kent County Council contributed towards the event in Shorne Woods, Gravesend, as it is on its land and Medway Council is helping out with the upcoming Gillingham event.

“It may sound a lot, but once that cost has been paid, that’s it, there’s nothing more to come up with.”

Donna Carr is event director for the Maidstone race, which winds its way from Sandling to Whatman Park. It started earlier this year.

She explains: “It ticks so many boxes and fulfills so many government targets in terms of getting people to volunteer, take up exercise, to run and of course it’s free.

“The council has been extremely helpful and supportive to us. Local running clubs weren’t very helpful at first, as I think they saw us as competition, but now many come along and take part and a lot friendly towards us. Plus they see those bitten by the running bug progressing from parkrun to joining local clubs.”

Adds Jacky MacDonald: “Once an approach is made to parkrun to set up an event in Kent, I am asked to meet up with the sports directors on the council and discuss the feasibility.

“The next step is recruiting the volunteers – I leave this in the capable hands of Lucy Tomlinson who finds a nucleus of around ten volunteers.

“Without an event director taking overall charge, and a team of volunteers to rotate marshalling, there would be no parkrun. They are the backbone of an event.

“Normally there is no shortage of volunteers once a parkrun is established, and local running clubs or family members of runners are more than willing to help.

“Parkrun policy now is not to advertise new events but let word of mouth bring people to them. So far they are doing very well.”

Perhaps ironically, the success of parkrun puts a huge strain on the support network which underpins the entire operation.

The IT system in place now has to handle an average of 45,000 results each weekend, pinging out text messages, emails and updating hundreds of websites, as well as being active on social media.

It presents an ongoing issue given its relentless growth.

“Whatever works today,” says Tom Williams, one of just four permanent staff in the UK, “will probably not be sufficient in a month, and certainly not six months.

“The challenges of the unbelievable growth of our community is the biggest challenge we face.

“There is no slowdown and our challenge is to build systems which are future proof. Everytime we think growth will slow, it increases.

“In the US there are only three events at the moment, but the scope is remarkable – if it really caught on it could have 1,000 events – that’s 150,000 runners straight away.”

All of which will put an enormous strain on the free model.

“We believe it is sustainable,” says Mr Williams, “I cannot see a future where we would ever charge for parkrun – that’s not what we do, that’s not how it works.

“Even if you paid 50p for a run it would change the ethos completely. We try as hard as we can to break down barriers to participation for physical exercise, and cost is the biggest one.

“Parkrun will always be free. We’re nine years old next month and we’ve got this far, so we’re pretty confident.”

BLOB: To find out more about parkrun and events near you, visit www.parkrun.org.uk.

There are clear details on how to register to run or simply to volunteer to help out.

For more on getting into running see www.kentsport.org/running.

Organisers are seeking an event director to head up the new Tonbridge parkrun.

The route will run from the rugby club, through Haysden Country Park and around Barden Lake. Volunteers are already in place.

Anyone interested would need to spare three hours each Saturday morning and no more than another three during the week.

For details contact Jacky MacDonald at WhitstableOffice@parkrun.com.

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