We’ve celebrated in previous posts some of the outstanding successes in increasing participation in sport – the booming numbers playing tennis in Wales and the wonderful This Girl Can campaign from Sport England – but can any match the growth of parkrun? Our senior consultant Andrew Weltch, a regular parkrunner himself, looks at the Saturday morning phenomenon.
After decades of idleness, I decided I really had to become more active to reap all those benefits of exercise which I had been reading (and writing) about all over the place. Having abandoned most ball games long ago, due to a lack of ability, and having more recently failed to achieve the modest aim of hitting a golf ball straight or far (or sometimes at all), I was almost out of options.
Then I thought of running. How hard can that be? You just put one foot in front of the other, right? Even I could do that.
In theory, yes, but I didn’t have the energy to go very far. People told me I should join parkrun because Cardiff, where I live, had a very popular and welcoming one. But that meant running 5km, and I could barely manage 2km.
Then someone mentioned the Couch-to-5k app, and that got me there. I did my first parkrun in June 2014 in my 50s and haven’t looked back. Well, that’s not strictly true: I discovered that I overpronate severely (I have very flat feet) so needed highly supportive shoes to avoid ankle damage. Even then, asking this old frame to plod around a park every week (as well as the training runs, often longer, in between) took its toll in the form of knee injuries, strains and – worst of all – achilles tendonitis, which kept me sidelined for six months.
For those who don’t know, parkrun (one word, all lower case) is a free, timed 5km run on a Saturday morning (plus Christmas Day and New Year’s Day at many venues) for all abilities – from serious athletes, who might complete a flat course like Cardiff’s in under 15 minutes to those who walk much of the way and may take more than 50 minutes.
It all started at Bushy Park, near Hampton Court, when 13 parkrunners took part on 2 October 2004. Nearly two years later a second parkrun was established, but soon the idea took hold and spread further and faster.
I’ve heard that within the first three years of parkrun, 10,000 runners had registered. Sounds a lot, right? But last Friday [6 January 2017], in one 24-hour period, 12,000 runners registered!
Early January is famously the boom time for people to take up or return to exercise – gym memberships peak and parkrun sets records. On 7 January, more than 50 UK parkruns set attendance records, including Cardiff at 815.
In all, more than 110,000 people took part in parkruns in the UK alone that day, and fittingly Bushy Park remains the nation’s biggest – with 1,292 runners.
But the parkrun phenomenon has spread to other countries too, with events now in other parts of Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, and Australasia.
Courses vary from flat, paved surfaces to grass and woodland; and once you’ve registered, you can turn up at any parkrun and take part without any further process. I’ve visited several other parkruns and enjoyed them all in different ways. An advantage of going at my pace is that you get chance to take in the scenery.
Many welcome runners with dogs (on a short lead) or with kids in pushchairs. I’ve even seem someone on roller skates, though I think that’s not quite cricket – or indeed running. And there are separate junior parkruns too.
As running becomes increasingly popular, parkrun goes from strength. It’s easy to see why – 5k is a manageable target distance for most people, there’s a great sense of community and support, and it’s free.
Volunteering is as rewarding as completing the course in my experience, and thanks to an army of volunteers and some sponsorship, parkrun promises to be free forever. You even get free T-shirts for reaching milestones in runs completed or occasions you’ve volunteered.
As other sports seek ways to grow participation, there must be many envious eyes looking in on the parkrun phenomenon.
Photos of Cardiff parkrun by Paul Stillman (Les Stills).
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