My first experience of running with, and against other people, was at the Cardiff Blackweir Parkrun. If you’ve not heard of Parkrun before, where have you been? Parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs that are open to everyone, independent of ability, age or anything else you may think would normally exclude you from such events. The free events recently hit the headlines as Stoke Gifford Parish Council tried imposing charges on park runners for the upkeep of the Little Stoke Park which led to the dissolution of that particular Parkrun. Since then, common sense has prevailed the English government announced plans to legislate against this ludicrous practice of charging people to use public parks for free events.
Originally the brainchild of Paul Stilton-Hewitt, the first Parkrun was started at Bushy Park London in 2004 as a way for Paul and his friends to have a regular timed event, outside of the big races. This idea quickly took off and other UK Time Trial events, as they were originally called, were organised across the country. By 2010 the practice had evolved into what we now know as Parkrun and has since gone international, with events now in Australia, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa, France, Singapore, the Czech Republic, the United States, Italy and of course, the UK.
Each event is entirely organised and managed by a group of volunteers, with Parkrun providing the facility to time the event and give each runner a time based upon their performance. This is all manged through the clever use of personalised barcode each member is assigned, which is then scanned at the end of the run giving you a time relative to the first finisher. Sound complicated? It’s really not, but you need to take part to really understand how it works.
I was encouraged to go to my first Parkrun by a good friend; I hadn’t been running too long and really didn’t have too much confidence, I certainly didn’t feel sure enough to run with other people. ‘What if I run weird?’ I thought, or maybe, ‘I’m really slow and will annoy other people’. Finally he managed to convince me with one very simple argument, ‘You can bring the dog’. This is the beauty of Parkrun, the inclusiveness of the whole event; I’ve already mentioned how I started running because it meant I could exercise myself and the dog, so this was just perfect. It’s not just dogs either, these days I run Parkrun with my son, safely strapped into his customised running buggy but that’s a blog for another day. At this point I should make it clear that not all Parkruns allow you to run with a dog and/or a buggy, each park is different and it’s not always safe to have these additional elements but I’m lucky that Cardiff allows both, just not at the same time.
Dog in tow, I turned up at my first Parkrun expecting a couple of old duffers with clipboards and an overly enthusiastic sports science student with a stopwatch, whistle and a penchant for tracksuits. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when presented with over 400 people of all ages and an army of high-vis clad volunteers kindly shouting at me to ‘Stay off the path!’. This last bit perplexed me, surely I was meant to be running on the path? I soon learned that Parkrun comes with its own rules, regulations and even language, all of which are designed to enhance the experience for everyone and limit the impact on the other non-Parkrun park-users.
Every once in a while, Parkrun hosts these pacing events where volunteers will run the course at a specific pace to help those looking to run the course in a time they wish to attain. My first visit just so happened to be one of these events so I had the added bonus of not only running a timed run but I had something to aim for; a guy with a bloody big number written on his back. At this point in my running development I was going for sub-28, which in all honesty, without boasting, seems like such a long time ago now. Needless to say I achieved my goal that day but that’s not the only thing I gained.
What struck me the most on that cuttingly crisp, autumn morning was the very real sense of community, everyone is in it together. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve gained friends through Parkrun but that’s because I’m antisocial and just one Netflix-binge away from becoming fully hermitized, others however, have made lifelong friends at Parkrun and I’ve even heard of some Parkrun weddings! It’s not just the runners either, some people never run, they just turn up to volunteer, every, single, week, that in itself should be applauded. Even the photo attached to this post was produced by Mr Paul Stills © for the 9th anniversary run but he does this most weeks not just on special occasions, producing beautiful photos of nearly every participant, now that is true commitment.
Parkrun isn’t just about running anymore, it’s about communities coming together with a common goal, and it is truly amazing what can be achieved when that happens. Good luck to everyone running this weekend and if you’ve never run a Parkrun before I can’t think of a better time to start.