Yesterday was International parkrun Day.
Fourteen years ago, 13 amateur runners and a handful of volunteers led by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, gathered in Bushy Park, West London, to run a 5km course on a Saturday morning. Sinton-Hewitt was a keen runner but, injured at the time, was unable to run, and was looking for a way to keep running as a central part of his life while he was injured while giving something back to the community he loved and valued so highly.
The Bushy parkrun grew so popular that in 2007 Sinton-Hewitt eventually gave in to those who kept asking him whether it could be trialled at other venues, too. There are now more than 500 parkruns in the UK, and more than 1600 worldwide. Since April, there has been one in the park next to my road, which is hugely lucky for me; running tends to drift in and out of my life based on. how busy I am with music and work, so momentum is everything. At the moment, I’m in the habit of running twice a week, and I hope to keep it that way. A Saturday-morning parkrun less than five minutes’ walk from my front door is a godsend.
I don’t want to be an awful bore or a fitness bully, so I’m not writing this to badger anyone into taking part; I enjoy running, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to. For me, going for a run is not just about keeping fit and healthy; it’s a celebration. Six years ago, I couldn’t run at all, and it looked likely that I never would again. So the fact that I now can is something I cherish. I love the feeling of accomplishment, the feeling of strength and above all else the feeling of movement itself.
While my reasons for going along are perhaps a little unusual, what’s great about parkrun is that any reason for doing it is as valid as any other. I’ve taken part in organised running events elsewhere (as recently as this morning), and while they’ve been well organised and friendly, the spirit at them is different. parkrun is very explicitly a run, not a race. Of course, many people who take part want to push themselves and go faster and get PBs, but parkrun is no more geared to the club athletes who run sub-20 than it is the people who want to jog slowly, or even walk, around the course while having a natter with a friend. All are welcome. And because the volunteer roster at each Parkrun includes a tail walker, no one comes last.
I understand those who dislike organised exercise, and find it a bit too much like school PE lessons. But for me, parkrun is the easiest way to see the best parts of humanity. Crucially, it’s free and Sinton-Hewitt vows it always will be, and it inspires an obvious sense of community in those who turn out. People take their turn at volunteering, and runners unfailingly thank the volunteer marshals and timekeepers (I lost count of how many people said “Thank you, marshal” as they ran past me yesterday when, really, my sole contribution to their run hadn’t been to wear a hi-vis jacket, clap and occasionally whoop, and acknowledge those pushing buggies round the course as “buggy dudes”). At a parkrun, runners congratulate and encourage each other, staying behind after they finish to clap and cheer others as they come in. You see smiles and hear laughter everywhere.
Yesterday, I didn’t run, as I’d already committed to a 10k in my hometown of Southend today, so I volunteered as a way of being involved. Like many acts of volunteering – or possibly all – it wasn’t entirely altruistic. I did it because parkrun depends on volunteers, since it doesn’t charge for participation (or for anything), so it needs volunteers, and doing it once in a while is a quid pro quo. But even more than that, I wanted to be there because nothing else I do locally makes me feel more a part of my community than parkrun, and nothing else I’m involved in is such a pure social good with, as far as I can tell, absolutely no down side.