Much more than just a run in a park

logo: parkrun

Every weekend at more than 700 public open spaces across the UK, around 14,000 volunteers dressed in high-vis bibs are busily preparing to welcome walkers, runners and spectators to parkrun and junior parkrun events.

Pre-run welcome (Bruce Li)
Pre-run welcome (Bruce Li)

It might be a small p, but parkrun is a big idea that has grown from 13 runners and five volunteers at the first event in London in 2004, to a global movement that has seen three million people take part across 20 countries. The idea was developed by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, a keen amateur runner who suffered a long-term injury and wanted to find a way to maintain a link with his running club friends. Paul proposed they gather for a 5k run in the local park each Saturday, which he would time: his condition being that they gather in the park cafe afterwards for a coffee and a chat.

14 years later and the concept itself hasn’t changed: parkrun is still a free 5k on a Saturday morning for walkers and runners of all ages and abilities coordinated entirely by volunteers, with 2k junior parkruns for 4-14 year-olds on Sundays, followed by a get together in a local cafe.

Participants sign up for free on the parkrun website and print out a unique registration barcode that is then valid at any parkrun around the world every weekend.

The success of parkrun is a combination of many factors: it’s free to take part in, doesn’t require any special clothing or equipment, walkers are welcomed as warmly as runners, families participate together, parents can push their baby in a buggy, at many courses you can run with a dog on a short lead, and every event takes place in an area of open space.

Volunteers at Southwark parkrun in London (Bruce Li)
Volunteers at Southwark parkrun in London (Bruce Li)

These open spaces take a variety of forms, such as city parks, promenades, beaches, canal towpaths, sporting fields and country parks, while around 40 events are held on land that is managed by the National Trust, Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust. Crucially, every parkrun is a collaboration with the landowners and/or land managers where the event takes place. Each parkrun must obtain written permission to use the course at the same time each week (9am in England and Wales and 9:30am in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

Most parkruns are conceived by individuals in a community who approach the organisation for support in establishing a new event. Once the initial volunteer team have been assembled, they are required to identify a suitable course (normally 1, 2 or 3 laps or out and back). Since 2017, new parkruns and junior parkruns must ensure that there is a defibrillator within five minutes of the finish line. If there isn’t, the prospective volunteer team will work with local stakeholders to source one before the event launches. 98% of 5k parkruns in the UK currently meet the criteria and the aim is to achieve 100% coverage across all of our events by the end of 2018.

Once an event team satisfies the criteria to start their event, a local parkrun ambassador provides them with training, and one or two unofficial test events are held. The launch event is often a low-key affair with no publicity beyond word of mouth.

Case study – Rushmere parkrun

Rushmere Country Park, which lies on the boundary of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, has hosted Rushmere parkrun since November 2015. The park is managed by the Greensand Trust, an independent environmental charity that works with local communities and landowners to conserve the Greensand Ridge, and is jointly owned by the Trust and Central Bedfordshire Council.

The course is two laps on hard packed dirt trails, which starts and finishes by a large meadow adjacent to the cafe, car park and toilets. The one-off startup fund was provided jointly by Central Bedfordshire Council and Aylesbury Vale District Council. It averages 144 walkers and runners and 20 volunteers each Saturday.

Rushmere parkrun (Bruce Li)
Rushmere parkrun (Bruce Li)

Jon Balaam, Director of Development at the Greensand Trust, explains more:

“This particular site is incredibly popular with visitors but also contains rare and fragile heathland and acid grassland habitats. So the main focus at first was identifying a route that gave people a real experience of the Country Park and its varied landscape, but also ensured that important habitats were not harmed and visitor experience was not affected. The route was developed with the parkrun volunteer team, with input from site managers and ecologists.

“It was critically important that we had two test events in the summer of 2015, not just to ensure that the route worked, but to see how it would potentially impact other users. It also showed how important volunteers (and having enough of them in the right places) is. It also gave advance notice that something regular was coming to the existing park users and gave them the opportunity to feed back.

“On the whole everyone gets along well – the quality of the Pre-Event Welcome means that participants are always reminded that there are other users, including horse riders, dog walkers and cyclists, and everyone respects each other out on the course. It helps that 9am on a Saturday is a relatively quiet time at the park – or it was!

Jon dressed as a duck
Jon dressed as a duck

“The park café didn’t open until 10am before parkrun but it now opens earlier and parkrun definitely fills it up. parkrun has definitely increased parking income, both on the pay-on-exit basis and the number of people who buy an annual parking pass, which helps sustain the Park for everyone.

“My advice to other landowners is to be flexible about routes – have alternatives for when the main route gets too muddy, for example. Give good advance notice of things happening that might affect parkrun – for example, if we have a big event on or are doing significant management works and it’s necessary to cancel a parkrun on a certain date. And don’t just focus on the money through the tills – for us this has been about engaging new audiences and building local support. Leighton-Linslade has some amazing countryside right on its doorstep but we still get local people saying they didn’t realise Rushmere existed. Sometimes it takes something such as parkrun to help raise this awareness.

“I’ve also worked with the parkrun team to help support our fundraising appeals – one of which saw me run dressed as a duck! We also had a ‘purple parkrun’ to support our most recent heathland restoration appeal.  Rushmere is not local for me – I have to drive 45 minutes – but I think of it as my local parkrun.

“I did hear something that tickled me recently that sums up the Rushmere parkrun spirit. We obtained funding to improve the surfacing of parts of the route – now we are getting ‘complaints’ that the course is no longer muddy enough!”

Follow to register and find your local event

First published in CJS Focus on Greenspace in association with Fields in Trust on 21 May 2018