Published: 06:00, 02 November 2019
Free. For everyone. Forever. An ethos that has remained true to its word for 15 years, since 13 runners and five volunteers laid the foundations for what would later become a worldwide stage for exercise and social interaction.
Few could have foreseen the ripple effect that would occur on the back of a free 5k run in Teddington, London on Saturday, October 2, 2004. What was initially named the Bushy Park Time Trial would soon evolve into the parkrun.
Parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt introduced a second event a few years later, with the Wimbledon Common Time Trial on Saturday, January 6, 2007.
Seven events had been launched by the end of 2007 as word began to spread overseas of the parkrun organisation, which had initially been known as UK Time Trials (UKTT).
Fast-forward to 2019 and 13 runners has become more than two million, one event has become more than 152,000, one location has become more than 600.
One run in Bushy Park has served as the blueprint for more than 31million around the world to date.
Such has been parkrun’s meteoric rise that Kent currently hosts 17 events, with more already in the offing across the county in light of increased participation.
Among the 17 to welcome parkrun to its community is Canterbury, which has so far chalked up 293 events across which more than 5,000 runners have taken part.
Asked for his take on parkrun, Canterbury event director John Wilkins explained: “It provides the community with an opportunity to exercise together without the pressure and constraints of more formal structures.
“It gives people the opportunity to run their own race and take part in a family event which everybody can join, from grandma down to grandson.
“The advantages are there to see, it’s free, everybody is friendly and you are the only one to judge what time you get.
“You can drop in one Saturday and there’s no pressure to turn up the next Saturday, there’s no snobbery or labelling.
“There’s no difference whether you’re running a relatively fast time or whether you turn up after being dragged along by your girlfriend because physical exercise is something you can’t stand.
“We’ve had people aged over 70 running, equally we’ve had young children who have turned up with parents and they’re learning to run in a safe environment.”
Inclusivity is salient when delving into the success of parkrun, not only across Kent but the entire world.
Fast or slow, young or old, all are welcome to what is more than just a source of exercise.
Pegwell Bay is no different in that respect, breaking into the hundreds in runners on a weekly basis seven years after its formation.
Event director Adrian Smith added: “It’s wonderful, it’s a brilliant idea.
“It gets people out on a Saturday morning, it gets people fitter, it gets people meeting other people.
“There’s no difference between the first person coming over the line and the last.
“It’s a social thing as much as running, I’ve certainly met lots of new friends down there and I’m sure if you ask any of the other event directors they’ll say the same thing.
“That’s what makes it special.
“It gets people out on a Saturday morning, it gets people fitter, it gets people meeting other people..."
“It’s such a friendly atmosphere that if you spend all week on your own you can come over to it on Saturday morning and there’s always people that will talk and encourage you.
“I can remember the early days when we were getting 30 or 40 runners, we are virtually always into triple figures now, the most we’ve had is 334.”
The contributions of volunteers has emerged as a defining component to an operation that thrives on preserving tradition and simplicity.
Pegwell Bay recently saw 27 members of the Upton and Clay families, aged from eight to 95, congregate to carry out various volunteering roles such as time-keeping and marshalling.
No volunteers would mean no parkrun, insists Sittingbourne volunteer team member Amanda Crawford.
She said: “We can’t do parkrun without the volunteers, we usually need at least 20 a week.
“The park isn’t just for us, it’s for people walking around, people with dogs, people on bikes, so we have to have marshals to make sure it’s safe.
“We have people that give out finish tokens so they get a timed result, people then scan those so they go on to the system and then someone will get the laptop out to put all that data through, people then get an email to say what their result is.
“If you do 25 volunteering stints you get a coveted purple volunteer 25 T-shirt. In terms of running, juniors can get T-shirts after 10 runs and then adults after 50.
“A lot of people do it to give back to the community, they run and then maybe every 10th time they volunteer so it’s possible for them to run the next time.
“I do a variety of roles there, I sometimes marshal, I sometimes take photos, sometimes I do barcode scanning. I also help out at Medway junior parkrun.”
Echoing Ms Crawford, Walmer and Deal Seafront Co event director Kerry Drew said: “They’re essential.
“I’ve got volunteers in their eighties that help every week so the inclusivity is right across the board.
“My youngest volunteer has been about 18 months old with his mum.
“We have a lot of Duke of Edinburgh award children coming down to do volunteering with us which is fantastic.”
It is estimated that 10 new parkruns start up around the world every week, with runs now active across North America, Europe, Africa, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
“I’ve got volunteers in their eighties that help every week so the inclusivity is right across the board..."
Junior parkrun events are also dotted across the United Kingdom, giving children aged four to 14 the opportunity to run 2k on Sunday mornings.
Walmer and Deal already attracts between 180 to 200 runners each week despite having only started up a year ago.
Ms Drew added: “We’re getting new people which is great and people that have never run before are joining every week.
“We’ve also got clubs joining us as well with faster runners so it’s very inclusive which is what I love about it the most.
“We have got trained VI (visually impaired) runners available if needed and the course is accessible to mums with prams and wheelchair users.
“The first time I went I was really nervous and thought ‘I’m not a runner and everybody around me is going to be really fast’, but actually everybody is really friendly.
“My husband and I moved to Deal two years ago and didn’t know anybody but I already had in my mind that they didn’t have a parkrun here so I looked into starting one myself.
“Dover District Council backed us with the money to get set up and on average we have about 200 people every week now.
“We’ve made so many friends from parkrun in just two years and they’re friendships that last.
“I was at Gillingham before from 2014, there were about 170 runners every week. They’re now regularly hitting 500 so there’s obviously room for more.
“When I first started I was talking to the people in charge at Pegway, they were concerned about their parking because they had too many people so they joked ‘take some of them away from us’.
“We’ve made so many friends from parkrun in just two years and they’re friendships that last..."
“We thought we would have an impact on their numbers but we haven’t, they’ve recovered back to what they previously had.”
The offerings of physical activity and socialising have also combined to help address a global talking point in mental health, inviting people to participate in a feel-good and pressure-free group event.
A survey conducted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre found from a set of 60,694 returned forms that 69% of people reported improvements to their mental health after running in a parkrun event, while 79% reported improvements to their happiness.
Ms Drew continued: “When you talk about mental health, this is getting people out and about on a Saturday morning that would usually be sat indoors.
“We’re a friendly parkrun so if people are coming along a little nervous or anxious we try and put them at ease.”
As of July 2018, GP practices have been able to prescribe patients with involvement in parkrun events as an alternative to medication thanks to an initiative launched with the Royal College of General Practitioners.
“The running is obviously a health benefit for everybody,” said Maidstone event director Donna Carr.
“We have people that start off walking and then tend to lose a lot of weight and start running regularly.
“Rather than giving people drugs now, local GPs can turn people to parkrun as a potential benefit and we’ve had a lot of success from that.
“We have a lot of people coming along and changing their lives.”
For all its worldwide recognition and upward trajectory when it comes to participation, parkrun has admirably swerved the prospect of monetisation in order to remain a free service.
Ms Carr continued: “The fact it’s free is very important. Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder, has had many offers from big conglomerates to take it over and he’s always said ‘no’.
“We do have sponsors and they are very important because that’s how we keep it free, but they’re very selective on sponsors.
“They have to agree with the parkrun ethos and not take over, parkrun won’t sell their soul and that’s important.
“I wish I had one when I was younger. The variation is incredible. You’ve got four-year-olds running with grandmas and grandpas, we’ve got a guy at Maidstone in his eighties.
“The thing that we see that is incredible is families coming running together. We’ve had people saying it has changed the dynamic of their family where kids feel comfortable to talk to them in the week.
“It’s sort of holding families together nicely which is something we didn’t know would happen, it’s just another good result of it all.”
Those interested in taking part can find their nearest parkrun at www.parkrun.org.uk
More by this authorCameron Hogwood