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BA Athletics Club News Digest 2nd October 2014: parkrun tenth anniversary special

The parkrun phenomenon has grown from a loose organisation of a group of 13 runners and 4 volunteers at Bushy Park in October 2004 to a national, indeed international, federation of free fully–inclusive weekly 5km time-trials all based on a common timing system and a central database which is open to interrogation by all registered runners.  To ensure that the original principles are protected in the long-term parkrun has been established as a not-for-profit limited company based in Twickenham.

It may have taken until 2007 before the second weekly parkrun got started at Wimbledon Common but several other events started soon after that and nowadays there are inaugural runs somewhere most weeks.  The growth chart reveals that parkrun has almost doubled in size each year, both in numbers of parkruns and the number of parkrunners.  And we all should know the story of grains of rice on the chessboard. In theory, any community who wants to start a parkrun can do so but local support is a must and there are set-up and equipment costs of at least £3,000 which must be raised somehow. While some events struggle to attract more than a few dozen runners, others attract hundreds and Bushy Park itself has frequently achieved 1,000 finishers and the one-off world record is far more than that.  Parkruns have spread to other countries and are proving very popular especially in Australasia (with a recent satellite run in Singapore) and South Africa.  In Europe the movement is flourishing in Denmark, Ireland, Poland and most recently Russia and is likely to spread further.  Conditions in Iceland proved just too harsh and the run in Afghanistan at Camp Bastion is unlikely to survive the withdrawal of the Royal Army.  There are three parkruns in USA but expansion there is being held back because of the difficulty of matching the fundamental parkrun principals with the expectations of potential sponsors.   A turnout of up to 50,000 runners on a Saturday morning is now common and that is just in UK.  With almost 100 parkruns now in Australia, the world total is much higher.  This amazing contribution to society has not gone unnoticed.  parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt was awarded CBE in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

BA runners with a home near Heathrow are very likely to have a parkrun within easy reach although the 28 (out of 32) London boroughs which host a parkrun curiously do not include either Hillingdon or Harrow.  Hounslow, Ealing and Richmond make up for this with established runs now at Osterley Park, Crane Park, Northala Fields, Bedfont Lakes, Old Deer park, Gunnersbury park, Richmond Park, Kingston (Ham Fields) all nearer than Bushy Park itself.  Black Park and Upton Court at Langley are only a little further away.  Although the run at Bushy Park grew from 13 (run #1) to a regular attendance of more than 100 by January 2006 and 200 by the end of 2006, BA runners did not adopt parkrun in significant numbers for quite a while from the outset.  A Saturday morning habit of a run in Windsor Great Park followed by a coffee and cake at Savill Garden had become popular towards the end of the last century and has retained a loyal following.   By the third anniversary run in October 2007 (over 500 runners for the first time) a few BA runners had started showing interest.

John Coffey first run was at Bushy Park on Christmas Day 2005, less than 15 months after the first run.  Prior to his 65th birthday John Coffey ran 20:17 on 21st January 2006 and remains 28th out of 363 in the MV60-64 age group.  He then ran 104 times between his 65th and 70th birthdays with a best time of 21:04 and he stands 8th out of 200 in that category (best WAVA score of 81.09% on 4th June 2011) and ahead of Brian Bennett whose best time in that five year span of his life was 21:40.  Since turning 70 Brian Bennett has set age category records at several parkruns.  Jane Davies was a club member back the 1980s but later joined Epsom & Ewell Harriers.  She recently scored a WAVA score of 99.6% in the VW65 category – a world record for any parkrunner of any age or either gender.  Her first parkrun was way back on14th May 2005.  Former Munchman hero of the early 90’s, Dave Tyas, now with Amadeus, started running at Bushy in October 2006 and has now run over 300 times at either Bushy or Crane ParkDerreck Brion ran his first parkrun on 14th April 2007 and has a pb of 29:47, the best by a club member in the MV80 category.   Helen Smith joined only a few weeks later on 12th May 2007 and later that year set an enduring pb of 26:25.  She must have got talking to Alan Anderson who ventured along to Bushy Park on 07/07/07 and the rest as they say …………….. is history. Alan has now run 329 parkruns, over a hundred more than any other BAAC runner. He ran 200 at Bushy before moving his allegiance to Gunnersbury where he has now run well over 100 times.  Most weeks he cycles to the park, sets out the course markers (that he made himself), runs the event, gathers in the markers and then cycles home. He also talks to anyone and everyone to convince them to become a parkrunner – even once engaging the parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt in such a conversation!

Almost without exception parkruns in England and Wales are held on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.  In other regions the start times have been adjusted in recognition of a later sunrise (e.g. Scotland, Ireland) or a much warmer climate (e.g. Singapore).  Occasionally there are additional runs organised on bank holidays.  There is no entry fee for any of the runs.  This is made possible by generous sponsorship by companies like Sweatshop, who have been involved since the very early days, Adidas and PruHealth Vitality and with support also coming from the London Marathon, “3”, aql, and the Mayor of London’s office. Lucozade and Lloyds Pharmacy have also been sponsors in the past. Locally the events are all arranged by a group of unpaid volunteered headed by an event director.   Once you have adopted a particular venue as your home run there is a plea that you will volunteer three times a year to help with race organisation, e.g. calling out split times at the half way point, handing out position tokens at the finish, trail bike, etc.  In practice many people don’t volunteer three times a year or even once but generally the slack is taken up by people who just love to help and never seem to run at all.  Injured runners often account for some of the volunteers and some runners perform a volunteer role (such as course set-up, break down, pacing) as well as running.  Fast runners can even zoom round the course and on finishing become one of those scanning the runners’ barcodes just beyond the finish line.  Some BAAC members do more marshalling than running – Alastair at Guildford for example.

The events are all held in traffic free areas such as urban parks, country parks and seaside promenades and always with the blessing of the appropriate local authority.  Always bear in mind that runners do not have priority over other park users.  Most of the courses have been measured very carefully, some with 5,000m certificates.  Courses vary from a single loop or out and back to two or three laps – but there is no rule, Crane Park has its unusual one and a half laps and Highbury Fields in north London has five “count them yourself” laps.  Surfaces vary from all grass, through rough tracks to paved or tarmac paths.  On the whole the courses are neither dead flat nor extremely hilly but some are undoubtedly more challenging than others.  Most parkruns have identified a café to which some runners will migrate after the run for a cup of tea and a chance to socialise.  The availability of toilets, showers or changing rooms should never be assumed and indeed even toilets cannot be guaranteed to be unlocked.  Remember these events are free!  The parkrun website has a full list of all the events, course maps, etc.  Course maps should not be relied upon as changes made locally may not be reflected on the national website maintained by head office!  Most parkruns these days have facebook sites which have more collaborative activity from organisers and runners.

To be involved with parkrun it is essential to have access to the internet and to register with parkrun by 6 p.m. on the Friday prior to entering your first run.  You will need to register an email address to which your personal barcode is sent and you may also benefit from supplying a mobile phone number.   You will need to print your barcode and it is best then to enclose it in a plastic folder or laminate it.  There is no minimum standard, but if you are likely to take more than 50 minutes, you should, as a courtesy, warn the volunteers before you start.  At most parks you may run with a dog on a lead and/or a baby in a buggy as long as you don’t impede other runners.  Children under 11 should always be accompanied by an adult and should never be pressurised to run faster or even all the way round.  Children whose parents are too slow are urged to find a faster trusted family friend to run with!  The ‘inclusive’ label means that three generations of a family can all run with ages varying from 4 to 94 (or more).

Armed with your barcode you can join in any parkrun anywhere in the world and be recognized when you reach the finish line.  A position token, associated with a finishing time, will be scanned (and surrendered for re-use the following week) along with your personal barcode which you retain to present the next time you complete a 5km parkrun.  In UK, usually by lunchtime the same day, you will receive a text message giving your time and position and an email providing the same plus some further statistical information.  A complete set of results appear on the parkrun website at about the same time.  Leaving you barcode at home is the equivalent of arriving at Heathrow without a passport or an employee’s ID card.

The website is a wonderful treasure trove of information and every runner’s completed parkrun performances are retained for ever and available for all to analyse. There is even a weekly club report that lists all of the parkrun performances of registered club members. This reveals an important point about parkrun – whilst the concept is simple the organisation has had to carefully work around all of the potential hurdles that could stifle the events – local running clubs, UK athletics, local authorities, other park users and so on.  A feature of every result is the WAVA %. This scores your time against the world record holder of your age group (year by year) and gender.

The sponsors, Adidas, provide commemorative T-shirts for those completing 50 runs (red), 100 runs (black) and 250 runs (gold); children also receive a white T-shirt after 10 runs.  Initially, a jacket was also presented to those reaching their century of runs but as numbers mushroomed this became unsustainable.  A recent innovation is an online shop (Wiggle) selling parkrun merchandise.  This is reacting partly to demand but also the need to tap into revenue flows as the parkrun phenomena continues to grow years by year.  The Sweatshop still generously presents a pair of running shoes to individuals selected by the event directors of each parkrun each month.  These generally recognise outstanding volunteering efforts or progressive meritorious performances over a sustained period.

One of the attractions of parkrun is that it can be whatever you want it to be for you.  If you want to treat a parkrun as a race you can (but don’t expect those that you “beat” to take much notice!), for most it is a time trial, for some it is little more than a weekly stroll in the park.  For many people it has proven to be a single step at a time towards greater health and fitness.  Most run at the same park each week – some almost religiously, Tony Hird has run 73 times at Gunpowder, usually with his family, but never anywhere else. Scott Davidson has run 88 times at Bedfont Lakes and just 4 times elsewhere.  Chris Kelley ran at the inaugural Reading parkrun in September 2009 and has now run 163 of his 204 parkruns at Reading. His dog, Mia, has run almost as many. But then we get to parkrun tourism, runners who deliberately run at different parkruns.  Roderick Hoffman got into parkrun late, having ignored Alan Anderson for years, before running his first in June 2011.  But in March 2013 he ran at his fifty second different parkrun having not once run at the same parkrun twice.  That set a parkrun record that has only recently been broken.  Whilst he then started occasionally running at the same parkrun again he is now up to ninety different parkruns and has the target of becoming a “Cowell” by Christmas – the title of anyone who achieves one hundred different parkruns.  Since doing two parkruns on an organised trip in Poland Roderick has discovered that there is a whole tribe of parkrun tourists who are making visiting different parkruns their ambition.  parkrun tourists descend upon new parkruns like gold prospectors and this has started to overwhelm inaugural parkruns so measures are being taken to discourage, but not ban, tourism to such events. Steve Newell also has a tourism target – but his is slightly different – he is attempting to run in every London borough that hosts a parkrun and get to them by travelling by public transport (with or without a bike). Currently he has just one left to complete this target.

The fastest regular club members to date have been Paul Knechtl 17:28 at Bushy Park (07/01/2012), and Katherine Stather 18:52 (26/08/2008) also at Bushy Park (78.53%). Adrian Haines has run 17:27 at Brighton & Hove and Andrew Eynon has run the Pollock Park in Glasgow in 17:56. Next fastest by two occasional runners:  Robert Brown ran 18:01 at Bushy Park on 04/11/2006, equaled by Dave Dixon at Finsbury Park on 13/8/2013 (though Dave’s only other parkrun was recorded as 36:45, one of the slowest by a club member – but that is another story)

WAVA scores in excess of 80% are rarely achieved:

  • Barry Walters scored 81.81% for his 18:47 at Bedfont Lakes on 25/06/2011. 
  • John Coffey’s scored 81.18% for 20:17 at Bushy Park on 21/01/2006.
  • Alan Anderson scored 80.42% for 22:49 at Bushy Park 27/09/2008

Brian Bennett has scored over 80% at four different parkruns (Kingston, Gunnersbury Park, Black Park and Bushy Park) but his first claim club is Runnymede Runners and dual club membership cannot be registered at parkrun.  Those registering for the first time should be sure to enter “British Airways AC”

We could go on…and parkrun undoubtedly will…

Steve Newell and Roderick Hoffman
2nd October 2014 [parkrun’s tenth anniversary]


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