So those who know me well at the moment will not be surprised that I am enthusiastic about parkrun, which is the largest running event on the planet. There are many who can write more articulately and more informatively than me on this topic, but it is definitely one of the highlights of my week. Why?
It launches me into my tree-shrouded, spacious local park, which is a soul-refreshing place to visit; just like any natural space, there are subtle and gorgeous changes on a daily basis. 9am every Saturday morning, brightly coloured, expensive-trainer-shod runners converge from varying directions to complete one short and three long laps of the Park, 5k, to be precise. The ambitious and seasoned canter round and notch up impressive times (last week we had James Baker, a regular parkrunner who happened to break the Bognor record by one second at 16:11 seconds, read Run Number 160); others walk round in clusters, chatting to others and coming in under an hour. All are welcome. All are encouraged! And it’s totally free. Free forever. It is not a race, it is a run.
What else is good about it?
It mobilizes one of the largest numbers of volunteers of any community activity. People come and marshal for the event, act as the Tail Walker, as a barcode scanner, Timekeeper, and more; every event has a Run Director who does an opening welcome, informs about any particular details, celebrates first timers, volunteers and milestones, and gets everyone going. There is a marshal at our local run who sadly broke his hip last weekend and we missed him today: his bellows of encouragement as we run down the alleyway give you that extra push. A number of the marshals greet and encourage you by name as you keep on running.
Later on that Saturday, when you have even forgotten that you began the day in such spectacular style, you receive an email confirming your time, and giving you the list of all the runners and the times they came in at. The level of data that parkrun generates is truly astounding. Just for Bognor alone over three years 443 people have volunteered, to allow 4,180 participants to complete a combined total of 26,695 parkruns. This covers a total distance of 133,475km, more than 3 circumnavigations of the planet. Just over a third of the distance to the moon. Our local parkrun has grown over the last eighteen months from perhaps 60-100 runners a week, to 300 most weeks now. It is ridiculously and at times ‘unsafely’ popular! And you collect ongoing statistics on your performance, all totally free. If you volunteer 25 times, and when you have completed 50 runs, you even get free T-shirts as well.
But you think that’s mad? What about the whole of the UK? According to the latest parkrun news email, last week there were 114,082 people who finished a 5k parkrun somewhere in this country, there were 12,266 people who volunteered to make it happen, there were 7,831 individuals who ran a parkrun for the first time, and there were 22,847 runners who got new Personal Bests. Not only that but globally, 18,817 people who are registered with parkrun joined a running club this year, stepping up into a fuller running commitment.
Recently Bognor marked its three year anniversary with a beach-themed run, and the run report commented that “the most impressive thing for me is another thing that is free; friendly and inspiring attitudes. Here, it is never more than an inch away. Every corner of the park non-stop encouragement is evident from all to all others; volunteers, on lookers and those taking part.”
But I’m not a runner!
I hear you say. What can I get from parkrun? Why are you ludicrously claiming that parkrun is THE best thing in the world today? Let me cut to the chase (or perhaps the ‘run’).
Parkrun happens and parkrun works. Knowing this means that lots of other things (not just running-related) can also happen and work. It shows the strength of local community wherever a parkrun has got off the ground. It prioritises kindness, thoughtfulness for others and getting out more. It shows that if there is the real attention to detail for a regular event, with a clear and straightforward demand on your time and many obvious wins, your volunteer base is more secure and you can make something astonishing sustainable for the long-term.
For those wanting to exercise more and in different ways, it is a fine ‘way in’ where you will find more hardcore runners and sportspeople who can get you an introduction or break the ice to encourage you to sign up to another challenge (a 10k run, for example or to join a local running club). I know, you’re still not into running. But whatever you’re into, what is the ‘parkrun’ for that? If there isn’t one, you could set it up! Parkrun is so much more than just a run in the park.
Parkrun makes you healthier. It gets you out of the house. It means you meet lots of other people and can have an easy opening to a conversation with them, about their running. Running (or lack of it) becomes a common factor. There are so many lonely people out there. Apart from work, or a small number of family, they don’t get the encouragement to have those extra conversations. Every time I go on parkrun I speak to people I have never spoken to before. Just an observation about the temperature, or a smile and a word of encouragement, and lots of people will happily engage in a little running-related discussion. And I meet and re-meet people that I know from lots of different contexts.
While I know that at the most basic I am going to get some physical exercise, and be motivated to finish the run (which I may not be on my own!) I also know that there will be an open opportunity for befriending, being befriended, and encouraging others in their daily lives, even if it’s only with a smile as I run past. Why does this matter? The best moments for me at work can sometimes be the spaces that I mentioned in my last post, the brief opening I get to have a conversation with someone I’ve not talked to before. It’s new – it’s fresh. It affects the course of my day. Parkrun is like that moment a thousand times distilled. The feel as everyone starts running together, carefully, not wanting to knock anyone over, past the onlookers, the cameras, the spectators. The thrill as you come into the funnel at the end, pushing those few seconds off your time.
I could spend an hour on Facebook, and no one would really know I was there, not really. I could be watching Netflix. I could be throwing more hours at that toad ‘work’. (A reference to a Philip Larkin poem).
But parkrun points out beyond me and mine to you and yours, reminds me of common humanity and the hope for a better future. A new T-shirt slogan that I saw on parkrun this morning said: ‘I’m better than I was yesterday, but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.’ I’m on that. Parkrun is the first of my Ten Best Things about the World.