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How the parkrun phenomenon took hold in the West Country

Create: 04/14/2016 - 09:30
When it comes to getting the Great British Public moving there can be few – if any – initiatives that can claim to have had quite the same impact as parkrun over the past decade.
Born when 13 runners got together at Bushy Park on October 2, 2004, the movement has since touched the lives of more than a million people of all ages worldwide. It took more than two years for a second parkrun to be added five miles away in South West London at Wimbledon Common, but the snowball effect since means there are now around 700 events held across the globe.
More than 400 of them take place in England – 11 in the West – with an average in excess of 150 participants toeing the startline of each in their local park at the uniform time of 9am every Saturday morning. 
Back at the beginning, all results were collated on paper and washers obtained from the local hardware store acted as finishing tokens. These days, there is an incredibly simple yet sophisticated online registration and barcode result system in place, helping to process the names and achievements of runners in an ever-growing growing community. The principles set out by founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt and his team on day one have never changed – all events are still run over a 5km distance, remain free to enter for people of all ages and ability levels and are staged every single week. The additional Christmas and New Year's Day specials that take place attract particularly big attendances.
Geoff Keogh launched the Bristol area's first parkrun at Ashton Court Estate in April 2011 and remains its event director to this day. As one of parkrun UK's 80 ambassadors, he has helped a dozen other events in the region to start up and thrive and there are now three more within 12 miles at Little Stoke, Pomphrey Hill and Chipping Sodbury. Plans are afoot for additional parkruns around the city as word spreads and demand continues to soar.
“Our mantra is that it's a run and not a race,” explained Keogh. “It was set up with the intention of people improving their times by running regularly, so it really is a competition against yourself. 
“One of the lovely things is seeing how much people support each other. You have runners who help others to achieve personal bests and there is a massive amounts of support from everybody. Our course record is 16mins 11secs but you also have people walking it in around an hour, and it is wonderful to see absolute beginners coming along, nervous, thinking it will be full of elite athletes and realising it isn't and that they can come along every week and get better and better. Now we are seeing them running the Bristol 10k and Bristol Half as well, and that's just fabulous.”
Keogh's counterpart in Swindon, Emma Sperring, has overseen more than 250 events since organising the region's maiden parkrun at Lydiard Park six years ago in March. 
She said: “It has been a commitment, but well worth it. It is like a second family for me. It's a community event and it's not about the running, more about the social aspect. I think a lot of parkrunners would agree – they see their friends, have a coffee and have a chat and it is more than just a run. People do come for a time and a PB but the majority come for friendships, I think.
“Things are very different now to back when it started, when 30 people rocked up at Lydiard House and went for a jaunt around the park. Now we get up to 550 in the summer and there is such a variety of people. We get people walking it, or beginners, or really fast runners  – it's amazing and that is what makes it work. Good friends of ours in our mid-70s come every week, one of them just to volunteer.
“We celebrate people's birthdays and 100th parkruns and in the summer, before I had my daughter, they held a baby shower for me – how lovely is that?
“You meet different types of people, and probably ones you might not normally talk to otherwise. When people are all in their running gear, it doesn't matter how much you earn. Everyone looks the same. There's no hierarchy at all and I really like that. I just wish I could get to run it a bit more often myself!”
The fact there is no cost attached for the thousands of parkrun devotees owes everything to the dedication and commitment of an army of volunteers at each venue. Sinton-Hewitt revealed in 2014 that the first ten years of parkrun had racked up costs of more than £3million, an amount offset by grants and sponsorship deals.
“parkrun UK is a not-for-profit company, there are no shareholders and everything goes back into running,” Keogh added. “It has a paid staff of about 13. We have the best part of 500 events across the UK delivered by around 8,000 volunteers, so that's quite a ratio.”
The cost to anybody wishing to start up a new event is £3,000, an amount that will then be matched by parkrun UK. The councils in Swindon and Bristol helped to fund the runs in their respective areas, while in Bath the relatively new Skyline event was boosted by a £2,000 donation from the runners of the city's half marathon.
Events are not typically promoted heavily and rely very much on word of mouth. But such talk is becoming louder and more frequent in every town and city in the land and positive publicity and accolades have followed. At October's West of England Celebration of Sport Evening, six parkruns across Bristol and Bath jointly received the Outstanding Contribution to Sport and Physical Activity award. Keogh, meanwhile, was nominated for the Volunteer of the Year award, having scooped a Special Prize for Outstanding Achievement on the fourth anniversary of the Ashton Court run earlier in the year.
“When we first set up we had a selling job to do to the council and running clubs but it is well and truly out there now and it is all down to organic growth,” he said. “We don't really promote parkrun and we think that's the best way to go.
“In a sense, it is growing so fast that there is an issue of being able to start up new events quickly enough to stop existing ones from outgrowing their parks. That has been the story here, with Little Stoke, Pomphrey Hill and Chipping Sodbury keeping our Ashton Court numbers relatively stable. They are climbing a bit now, but if we get one in South Bristol in the near future then that should relieve some of the pressure and I think that is the way parkrun is developing generally.
“It is really hard to know how far this will go,” he added. “Everywhere you look now, there are runners – any time of the week, any time of the day. It is something that has just really taken off.”
Keogh said parkruns were initially viewed as a threat by running clubs, but the relationship between the two has instead proved to be a happy and mutually beneficial one. The same is true 40 miles along the M4 at Swindon.
“A lot of running clubs have benefited from it,” added Sperring. “People come to parkrun and get to know one another and then join a running club because they meet someone else who is a member. There are a lot more people running now than there were ten years ago and I think parkrun has been a big part of that.”
Bristol-based world champion ironman triathlete Chrissie Wellington is a driving force behind the development of junior parkruns, which are held on Sunday mornings at 9am and see youngsters between 4-14 years old tackle a shorter, 2km course. Full 5km parkruns are very much open to children, although under-11s must run with an adult.
Sperring oversaw Swindon's debut junior event at Lydiard Park last May and there are a further three in Bristol (Little Stoke, Kings Weston and Windmill Hill) and one each at Cheltenham and Chippenham. The latter started in February and, much like the longer run, the number across the country is rising by the month.
“The junior parkruns are absolutely fabulous events,” said Keogh. “We have been amazed by how many children are doing the three in Bristol. We don't want children to be pressured into running a 5k distance. We have youngsters who do love it and run with their parents but the 2k events have taken off and that gives them the chance to run without them and allows them to be as competitive as they like.”
'parkrun tourism' has also taken off in a big way, with runners eager to check out new courses and travelling across the country to test themselves over varying terrain.
“We have got a serious hill at Ashton Court and we don't know how many might be put off by that but we do see people of all abilities,” said Keogh. “We have complete beginners through to the occasional Olympic athlete, like Liz Yelling a couple of months ago, and Chrissie Wellington.
“Every course is different. Ashton Court is essentially 2.5km up and 2.5km down, whereas Little Stoke and Chipping Sodbury are flat and Pomphrey Hill is somewhere in between. Every parkrun has its own personality. Some go in for lots of events, with fancy dress and that sort of thing, whereas with others it is purely turn up and run. 
“There is room for all of those things but the thing they have in common is that they are all very friendly and welcoming. That's the one thing you can rely upon.”

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.