As we prepare to celebrate our 13th birthday this weekend, it’s hard not to reflect on how far we have come in such a short space of time. 13 runners and a handful of volunteers at our first event has grown into a global community of more than 2.5 million participants. And while the numbers are impressive, it’s the friendships, the life-changing stories and the positivity that I have always seen as the true measure of our success.
For a while now I’ve been contemplating what parkrun really is and the values we represent. It’s no secret that I was an injured runner when I came up with the idea of parkrun, and the 5k run was the ‘hook’ to get my mates to the park at 9am each Saturday. Really though, it was all about creating an opportunity to catch up with those friends in the park cafe afterwards.
Of course parkrun has adapted and evolved since those early days, but the reason that so many communities have embraced it hasn’t changed - it brings people together in a social, supportive and non-competitive environment. parkruns are not races, there are no winners, and we celebrate participation - whether it be walking, running or volunteering - over performance.
Yes parkruns are timed for people who want to keep track of their own personal improvements, there are finishing positions and age grading percentages too, all of these though are instruments for measuring personal progression, if that’s what you want. We regularly hear stories of people who are achieving what they never thought possible, but for many parkrunners it is simply about running or walking with like-minded people and being part of their local community. We value everyone at parkrun equally and the fact that 80,000 people who previously did no physical activity have become active through parkrun over the past three years alone, demonstrates how successful we have been at breaking down the barriers to taking part in regular physical activity.
Yet despite growing into the world’s largest running event, there are still people in running circles who don’t quite understand parkrun in the same way we do. As many of you will know, the editor of Runner’s World magazine in the UK recently asked a journalist to attend a parkrun to secretly ‘cheat’ by not completing the full 5k, and then write about his experience.
I share the disappointment that was clearly expressed by both parkrunners and the wider running community in response to this article. I’m most disappointed at the foundations and fabric of our community being challenged by an established and respected publication, by the deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the team of volunteers delivering the event, and the impact the article could have in dismissing the achievements of so many parkrunners.
I’d have expected the role of a major running publication to be to positively promote participation in running and volunteering, not attempt to undermine it for the sake of a publicity stunt. It was the behaviour I would expect of the gutter press, not a supposedly pro-running magazine, and I shall exercise my personal right to not purchase that magazine any more as I feel it has let all runners and volunteers down.
Of course, the subject of the article is a pointless one. Our events are not races, it is not a competition. 13 years ago, when I started our first event, I called it ‘Bushy Park Time Trial’. It was always a timed run, offering the opportunity to measure progress on a weekly basis, and those principles still exist: there are no winners, or prizes, and so should someone choose to cheat, they choose only to cheat themselves. It is not the responsibility of our volunteers to officiate, and it isn’t something that other parkrunners should be concerned about.
My first ever experience of parkrun was as a volunteer, and volunteering has been the cornerstone of parkrun since the beginning. It should be a positive and life-affirming experience, and it saddens me that this wasn’t the case for these volunteers in the Runner’s World article, who feel the magazine attempted to humiliate them. It didn’t succeed though; all Runner’s World managed to do was humiliate itself.
So on that note, I would like to say a personal thank you to the team of volunteers at that event that day, and to each and every one of you, who all play an important role in promoting the values that we stand for. parkrun is so much more than a traditional running event and spreading that message far and wide is helping us to create a healthier and happier planet.
Whichever parkrun you are walking, jogging, running or volunteering at this weekend, I would like to wish you a happy International parkrun Day.
Paul Sinton-Hewitt, CBE