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parkrun #100 - a celebration

(or why parkrun is the most powerful health & well-being initiative on earth)

· parkrun,running,community,inclusivity

parkrun came to life on 2nd October 2004 when Paul Sinton-Hewitt gathered 13 runners together for a 5km 'time trial' in Bushy Park, South-West London, UK. They organise weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. Each 'parkrun' is open to everyone, free, and safe & easy to take part in.

Last weekend, I ran my 100th parkrun alongside the River Thames at Higginson Park in Marlow, UK. For nearing a decade, this community-oriented run organisation has been a Saturday morning staple in my life. At this milestone, I thought it would be fitting to introduce parkrun to those who may not be aware of it's existence, give 10 reasons to celebrate this fantastic movement and explain why I believe it is the most powerful health & well-being initiative on earth.

1 - Simplicity

I ran my first ever parkrun alongside the River Thames in Reading on Saturday 5th November 2011. I had just started the long road to my second marathon, three years after a very messy first attempt. I didn't know much about parkrun at this stage, other than it was a relatively new, free 5km run.

Now, after almost 14 years of operation, the organisation and concept is now well established in the UK (and operates in twenty countries). For those who aren't aware of it, here's how it works: It's free and volunteer-run, you show up every Saturday morning at the same time, same place, and run 5km. When you finish, one of the volunteer team scans your barcode and you receive your result later that morning by email/SMS. That's it. The only thing you need to remember is to register (once) and bring your personal barcode. Oh, and arrive before it starts. No-one wants to be the hungover guy that shows up several minutes late and almost kills himself trying to catch people up*.

* full disclosure: that was me.

2 - Inclusivity

This is truly an event that welcomes everyone. All ages, shapes and sizes. Parents with buggies, families running together (until the kids win the sprint finish), wheelchair athletes, walkers, those returning to exercise after illness or injury, dogs (although unfortunately they do not receive an official time) are all made to feel welcome by the friendly volunteers and regulars. Hopefully this picture I took at the start of my local parkrun in Peckham Rye, London last year gives you some idea.

Runners set off for the start of Peckham parkrun in South London, UK

3 - Community

As someone who moves around a lot, I have always found parkrun to be helpful when settling into a new area. If you arrive in a new place and don't know anyone, or are feeling isolated, it can be difficult to integrate or to know where to start. One of the first things I do is to check where the nearest parkrun is and get down there to run or volunteer - you're guaranteed to be greeted by a few friendly faces. It's also an excellent 'active' alternative to meeting friends for weekend drinks, although you probably wouldn't be drinking at 9am in the morning. Unless you're at an airport of course, then all bets are off.

As it is volunteer-led, the continued existence of the event relies on a team from the community giving up their time on a Saturday morning to help out. You can opt in to help at your local event and assist by setting up, marshalling, timing or scanning barcodes - a good way to get involved if you don't fancy running (or are injured). In addition to the run itself, as each event normally has a nominated cafe for a social afterward, you can gather with new/old friends for a post-run debrief over coffee or breakfast and put a few quid into the coffers of a local business. It's said that some people only visit certain parkruns because the cafe serves up a decent breakie.

Apropos of nothing, if you ever run Brockwell parkrun in south-east London, I can heartily recommend the Lido Cafe next to the start. Eggcellent breakfast (sorry).

Some people go to extreme lengths to ensure that they have a parkrun nearby. I know someone** who chose their first house on the basis that it had a parkrun less than five minutes run away and once timed a scramble out of bed to the start line in 3 minutes and 53 seconds.

** Also me

4 - Never finishing last

Every parkrun event has a volunteer 'Tail Walker' whose task is to walk at the rear of the event and finish last. Any fears you may hold about being the last to cross the line can be allayed - it is literally impossible.

Well... unless you crept stealthily behind the tail walker for 5km whilst hiding behind trees/bushes before jumping out as they cross the finish line and loudly announcing 'YES, I FINISHED LAST!'. That could work.

parkun tail walker on course behind participants

These first four are important. If you consider potential barriers to participation in physical activity, cost, location and anxiety about 'not fitting in' or being less experienced than others are critical factors. Removing these barriers creates accessibility for some of the most 'at risk' members of communities when it comes to inactivity.

5 - Tourism

As parkrun began to grow within and beyond the UK, so did the pastime known as parkrun 'tourism'. A parkrun 'tourist' is someone who travels to take part in a different parkrun away from their 'home' run. I have managed to visit 27 different events in the UK, US and Canada which is fairly insignificant when you see that there are some tourists who have managed to visit over 250! There are even people who are attempting to run a parkrun for every letter of the alphabet (although there's no parkrun beginning with 'X' at present) - some work for me to do here, still 14 to go. There's a handy online 'tourist tool' available to find your nearest parkruns based on any location you choose.

Group of runners gather at start of Beach Strip parkrun, Hamilton beside Lake Ontario

Gathering for the start of a chilly Beach Strip parkrun, on the shore of Lake Ontario, Hamilton, Canada

6 - Stats!

Provided you remember your barcode, the result from every run you take part in is available online. This means you can keep track of all your times, positions, your age graded performance and how many runs you have taken part in (my request for a small 'H' to be placed against any runs that were performed with a hangover is still in the 'maybe' bucket for development as far as I'm aware). As well as this, there are also 'league tables' for the most different events attended, most first finishes, sub 17 minute runners, age grade records and many more. All this brings me nicely on to...

7 - T-shirts

As well as being free to participate in, parkrun provides free technical t-shirts once you hit milestones based on the number of runs or volunteer roles you have completed - 50, 100, 250 & 500 for running and 25 for volunteering (as well as a 10 t-shirt for under 17s). I don't know anyone that doesn't love a free t-shirt.

parkrun milestone t-shirts for runners and volunteers

8 - 'parkrun practice'

As the reputation of parkrun as a vehicle for physical and mental well-being has grown, it has spawned various initiatives. One of the newest of these is 'parkrun practice', a scheme linking existing parkrun events with local GP practices. The aims of this scheme are to improve the health and wellbeing of patients and practice staff, reduce the need for lifelong medication, help develop a local community and environment centred around wellness generation and support the UK-wide movement to scale up social prescribing activities.

9 - Junior parkrun

As a 5km run may not be suitable for younger children, junior parkrun is a series of 2k events for children aged between 4 and 14. These follow the same premise as the adult runs and are normally held on a Sunday morning. A list of junior parkrun events in the UK can be found here.

10 - An event in every community that wants one

The idea is that if you want to bring an event to your local community then parkrun will work with you to set up and manage that event by offering a step by step guide, assistance and support.

Whilst parkrun is currently not adding new countries over and above those that are already established, I like to think that one day we'll be able to have one in East Africa. I can already imagine sitting on a desk by the start, printing barcodes on a borrowed printer that is precariously wired to a kerosene fuelled generator.

So there you have it. Here's to parkrun, to those who make the magic happen and the organisations whose support allow it to thrive and grow. Thank you.

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