It’s been the most momentous thing to happen in the running world since Bill Bowerman used his wife’s waffle iron to create Nike’s world-famous Waffle Trainers in the Seventies. Parkrun, which started in 2004 with just 13 runners completing a time trial in London’s Bushy Park, has become a global phenomenon that boasts 2.5 million participants in 17 countries. However, what few runners seem to consider is that even though they’re free to attend, parkrun events don’t just magically happen. There’s an awful lot of planning – and financial outlay – involved in setting one up.
“Here in the UK, we operate as a not-for-profit organisation, and we ask volunteer teams to source £3,000 locally before an event can be set up,” says Helen Hood, parkrun UK’s head of event delivery. This money can be raised through local authorities, public health funds, county sports partnerships, local running clubs and a range of other sources.
“This is always a one-off cost and we commit to supporting every event indefinitely, including training, new and replacement equipment, website development and IT support,” says Hood. “Each new event also needs to have access to a defibrillator prior to starting, and we support teams through this acquisition process too.”
So how exactly is a new parkrun born? First, a group of about 10 committed volunteers form the core team, consisting of an event director and a number of run directors, who facilitate the event and manage the volunteers on a roster basis.
“Every parkrun is a collaboration between the core team and the relevant local stakeholders, which can include the local authority or friends of the park groups,” says Hood. “Together, they need to identify a traffic-free course, fully risk assess it and obtain written permission from the landowner or park manager for the event to take place each week.”
Parkrun has a network of about 100 highly experienced volunteer ambassadors around the UK, whose role is to assist with this, after which a suitable start date is identified (normally six to eight weeks later). During that period, one of the ambassadors will train the core team, conduct at least one trial event, and then support them with the launch event and with ongoing training and development.
Creating a healthier and happier planet Parkrun’s vision has changed over time. “Initially, we aimed to create ‘a parkrun in every community in the world that wants one’,” says Hood. “This meant a bottom-up approach, where communities would come to us requesting support to start an event. The community would commit to upholding the parkrun format and values (holding a free, timed, 5K event every Saturday at that country’s agreed start time, that’s fully inclusive, forever, for everyone), and we would commit to supporting them to do that.
“That mission statement served us well, but then we realised we weren’t always reaching the sections of society that potentially have the most to gain from free physical activity and volunteering.” So in 2015, parkrun’s mission changed to ‘Creating a healthier and happier planet’, and they began actively reaching out to communities (both geographically and demographically) as well as responding to local demand.
As the amazing stories here testify, parkrun certainly seems to be succeeding in its new goal, creating healthier and happier runners as it continues to expand exponentially around the globe.
“Our parkrun helps women to be more active more often”
“‘In 2016, I met a parkrun ambassador at a meeting where we were discussing how to get more women to be more active in the south Wales valleys, and his enthusiasm was so infectious that I decided to found a parkrun,” says Hannah Phillips, who set up a parkrun in Merthyr Tydfil in 2017.
“To raise the necessary funds, I worked closely with organisations such as Run Wales and Active Merthyr, and applied for funding through the Ffos-y-Fran grant scheme.
“The community spirit that parkrun generates is second to none. It’s a fantastic sight to behold first thing on a Saturday morning. Having parkrun in Merthyr Tydfil, which is a disadvantaged community with few employment prospects, has been fantastic and I hope it plays its part in ensuring more women can get more active more often.
“Our greatest success story so far is Jo, who came to our inaugural parkrun and really struggled. She was with the tail walker the entire time and actually walked most of the course. Jo now runs all the way and has taken 20 minutes off her time. She’s lost a lot of weight and has joined my #runwithus running group, and runs at least three times a week. She also takes on the role of tail walker for us and encourages lots of runners to attend!”
“parkrun has united a divided community in Belfast”
“When I tried to set up the Waterworks parkrun in Belfast in 2010, there were more sceptics than supporters. But we won them over,” says Matt Shields. “The most rewarding aspect is that it’s been life-changing for so many people: for some it’s getting fit and active, for others it’s overcoming depression or recovering from illness or bereavement.
“Waterworks Park is situated amid housing estates from both sides of the political divide, so our parkrun has built a running community representative of everyone in north Belfast, in an area formerly noted for confrontations between opposing youths. At parkrun, all abilities and all backgrounds are welcome. We all wear the same running uniform, meaning where you come from or your social status is never questioned. People meet people simply as other participants, and friendships are formed on that basis. Before we started, Waterworks Park had the highest incidence of anti-social behaviour of any park in Belfast: it was a battleground. I remember one local saying you wouldn’t even walk through it to the shops. Waterworks Park is now among the least anti-social parks in Belfast and is a real asset for the community.”
“parkrun is helping alleviate my post-natal depression”
“Having been diagnosed with postnatal depression after the birth of my son, Benjamin, I started running in May with a local Couch to 5K group with the aim of attending parkrun,” says Gemma Spencer, 33, a member of the Lytham Hall parkrun. “I’ve now completed three parkruns and love the friendly atmosphere. It gives me a focus for the week and is helping me to keep up my running, which is alleviating the depression.”
“Parkrun helped me achieve my running dreams”
“I’ve been overweight most of my adult life, but my secret ambition was to do a half marathon by the time I was 40,” says Kelly Pattison, 41, a member of the Carlisle parkrun. “When I told one of my friends about my dream, she encouraged me to do parkrun and I’ve never looked back. My first parkrun was in April 2016 and, although I didn’t quite manage to do a half-marathon by my 40th birthday, I did a parkrun on my 40th in June and have since done three half marathons.
“I’m still staggered but hugely proud of what I’ve achieved. Parkrun is a new family I’ve discovered: there’s never any pressure to compete, just the pleasure of seeing everyone each week and doing something we all love. My five-year-old daughter regularly comes along too and now does junior parkrun. I also volunteer regularly because, as a slow runner who gets so much support from those who lap me on the course, it’s great to cheer everyone on!”
“I’ve made new friends thanks to parkrun”
“I’m a stay-at-home mum and, although I adore spending time with my son, Noah, two, and daughters, Evie, nine, and Ella, 12, it can be really isolating,” says Mandi Leech, 37, a member of the Worsley Woods parkrun. “I have friends and I spend time on social media, but 18 months after Noah was born I realised how lonely I’d become and decided to join my local parkrun. I went along with my buggy and it became a great talking point. By running and volunteering at parkrun, I’ve gained loads of confidence and, best of all, made many new friends. My girls have even started running parkrun, too!”
Words: Lisa Jackson
Lisa Jackson is a runner, clinical hypnotherapist and author of three books, Your Pace of Mine?, Running made Easy and Adore Yourself Slim. Follow Lisa on Facebook