State of the parkrun Nation

By Paul Sinton-Hewitt, parkrun founder
— Wednesday 4 July 2012

In this, the first edition of a global parkrun news, I thought it appropriate to let you know about my recent trip to New Zealand, Australia and the United States. I hope to use this feature to provide information and news that cuts across all geographies. I trust that you find this useful?

My reason for travelling was to setup the company to run New Zealand parkrun. Every country operating a parkrun event must be setup following basic guidelines developed in the United Kingdom. The company must operate a not for profit model with national sponsorship and the events must all offer weekly, free, 5K timed events run by volunteers. That all sounds pretty simple however the truth is that getting this right in each country requires quite a bit of work, goodwill and understanding not just by the local team but also by the sponsors.

In the past, we have worked on the principle that we would consider starting a new country where resources allowed and where there was an impetus coming from an individual in that country to start these events. Before providing the authority to proceed, I made sure, to the best of my ability, that the person receiving this right was the right person to operate the parkrun franchise. As you all know, this means that this person would need to understand the parkrun model which is based on mutual respect and be willing to make this happen in their territory.

One obstacle that has presented itself in the past has been where the country looking to start a parkrun did not have a history of volunteering. It’s unbelievable to think that this might be the case but the fact is that our tradition of voluntary and charity work in the UK is outstanding. Another difficulty is gaining the endorsements of the governing bodies and the local clubs. Many of us will remember the difficulties we faced in the UK in the early days where clubs didn’t understand our role in society and perceived us as competition to their domains. This couldn’t be further from the truth as athletic clubs are growing as they associate with parkrun. The same is said for race organisers who now fill their events months before the deadline but with a whole new audience – no longer just club runners but grassroots parkrunners.

And so it is that New Zealand became interested in the parkrun movement. Firstly Richard McChesney was gently encouraged to return home to Wellington and in his journey home decided that he would take the best thing to come out of England in the past decade and import this to Lower Hutt. On the basis that I had already chosen my country manager, the franchise owner for NZ, we helped Richard get Lower Hutt of the ground and he successfully delivered his first event some seven weeks ago. This meant I needed to react quickly as the formalities had not been undertaken yet.

I met with Noel and Lian DeCharmoy, old and trusted friends, for three days in Auckland and worked out all the details of the Auckland event and the principles of parkrun, working through the organisations structure, sponsorship and event activation. We also took the opportunity to meet with a couple of potential sponsors and the New Zealand Athletics governing body. The response from these folks has been tremendous.

While in Auckland, Noel & Lian showed me around the upcoming Cornwall Park parkrun which is close to the city centre and pretty accessible for all. We reviewed a couple of different possible courses before settling on the best one for parkrun. The whole De Charmoy family are involved in setting up this event as Caitlin has taken control of the social media aspects and Kelly is rounding up her friends to take part in the pilot event. We want to wish them all the very best of luck and a great first event and all that follow.

When starting a new parkrun territory, we tend to follow the same policy that we used establishing parkrun in the UK. Start small; grow cautiously and organically and always waiting for the public to request a parkrun where they live. This also means that the team establishing the territory are often found funding the start-up themselves. We obviously don’t want that kind of situation to perpetuate and so we look to establish partnership agreements with sponsors as soon as possible. However, typical sponsorship models don’t apply to parkrun. We have developed a unique sponsorship model, groundbreaking in many respects and although we can see that it’s working in the UK, why should organisations outside of the UK believe us and accept our findings. So it is that we have an uphill struggle wherever we go to convince our potential partners to work with us in the way we want to build the territory.

There are both good and bad aspects where these negotiations are concerned. The good side is that we ask our sponsor/partner to come with us on the journey. We can’t always predict our growth, how many events we will have in 12 months or what the uptake from the public will be, but we are able to surmise what it could be. Consequently we look to build a partnership where we can grow according to our resources while meeting all parties’ expectations. So far this has proved to be the right approach.

After Auckland I went to Lower Hutt to run the 6th run in their short history. Staying with Ruth, Zack and Richard McChesney, old friends who I met through parkrun in the UK, I experienced a bit of what Wellington has to offer. Firstly, Richard introduced me to the local journalist who asked me all the regular questions and then he took me for a warm up run. He called it a hill, I called it a mountain. He ran me halfway up a steep road that, had we completed the course, would have seen me gain 350ft in a couple of miles. Showing signs of exhaustion, Richard felt sorry for me and we turned down a track which took us past the Lower Hutt parkrun course and home, 10 miles later. This was the #daybeforeparkrunday.

Consequently, when I lined up to meet my fellow parkrunners on #parkrunday, I was a little unsure of my form. The hamstrings were singing their own particular tune and the glute gently reminded me that it existed. The journalist from the day before was at the run and he motioned that I should start at the back and run slowly with Zack so that he could get a photo for the newspaper. I can’t say what happened to the picture but his articles was repeated here.

Lower Hutt parkrun was unlike any other I’ve taken part in. This simple reason for this was that I started with a partially clear sky, headed into wind from the start and then rain at the 1K mark. Rain turned to hail by the 1.5K mark and disappeared just before turning around at halfway point. Apart from this, everything about this parkrun was the same. We completed the run and descended to the coffee shop, ate wonderful homemade muffins and drank long flat whites. The conversations are the same as many of the conversations I have had wherever I have attended a parkrun. It’s incredibly encouraging to see that the parkrun concept or movement transports so well. Folks can’t believe that parkrun is offered free and that the people associated with it are so genuinely nice, friendly, welcoming and trusted.

Travelling to New Zealand from the UK is a considerable investment not just in cash but also in time. It was for this reason that I decided to tack on a trip to Australia. I discussed the idea with Tim Oberg, country manager for Australia and he suggested an itinerary which meant a host of freedom parkruns and a visit with adidas in Melbourne.

Meeting the Australian adidas folks taught me a great deal about how to establish partnerships in new territories. The thing that was immediately clear was that very little knowledge or understanding about how parkrun works had been passed from the UK to Australia and this meant a slow unwinding and rebuilding of our position. adidas Australia responded brilliantly and I am now more certain that we are building a secure and mutual future with them in Australia and hopefully New Zealand too. I also learned that I need to be more flexible about certain aspects of parkrun where national boundaries are concerned.

After the meeting with adidas (please note that adidas is spelt lowercase just like parkrun and let’s see if we can help them by respecting this too), Tim took me to the city centre where we went to the home of sport in Australia. Alongside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Rod Laver Arena (Australian Open tennis) and Hisense Area (Melbourne Rebels rugby and Melbourne Storm rugby league) is the TAN, a famous 3.8K running track circling the botanical gardens where folks can electronically check themselves in and out thereby recording their time. There is a public leader board showcasing the fastest time which by pure coincidence has the same person at the top as parkrun has for our fastest ever time. I am expecting this to change in the next year as Mo Farah takes both the parkrun record and the TAN record after the Olympics!

Speaking of records, Tim suggested we setup a virtual, world-wide, parkrun smack down. We choose the day, invite Craig Mottram & Jess Trengrove (AUS), Mo Farah (UK) and any other countries wish to participate to attend any event in their country and to run their fastest parkrun. This way we can decide who the undisputed parkrun champion is! I know that’s not what parkrun is about but it’s a small distraction which would show the world just how universal the parkrun family is.

With the TAN complete, Tim deposited me at Albert Park where I waited for the Melbourne parkrun family to finish work and join me for a parkrun. About 20 folks made it to the run which was on the cold side but brilliantly friendly. Some of us jogged around the course chatting all the while, while others saw it as their challenge for the day. It was great to meet the team and the diminutive but larger than life Event Director, Carol Cunningham (from Hull). A few of us went to dinner at a local Japanese restaurant where I was treated to a wonderful meal and great company before being dropped off at my hostel. Melbourne made me feel very welcome with its London like atmosphere, climate and cosmopolitan feel.

The flight to the Gold Coast the next day was a simple and relaxed affair. Picking up a car, Tim took me back to his place for lunch before making our way to Kirra parkrun for a freedom run at 7pm. We parked up at the beach at 6:30pm and there was no one around so we walked on the beach for a bit. By the time we returned 40 folks had turned up, all excited to do their first freedom parkrun. Local Event Director, Chris van Hoof, the epitome of laid backness, barely said a word as Tim got proceedings underway. I ran with a couple who have fund that they can live exclusively on fruit and water. In fact the lady mentioned she had eaten 11 bananas for breakfast that day and had 2 litres of orange juice to wash it down. Now I’m no expert and would like to comment one way or another but they both looked healthy and ran with ease. After the run we stood around chatting, making new friends and finding out that a few folks had migrated from the Home Counties. I also became acquainted with a number of members of the Twin Towns Services Runners & Walkers Club who had made this particular parkrun their home. The Gold Cost Marathon was looming and so much of the talk centred on this with a number of folks running the marathon for the first time while other showing many attempts at the race.

The Kirra experience was brought to an end with an evening at the local Surf Life Saving Club – an institution in Australia. These are members clubs, predominantly formed out of the activities of saving folks lives on the brilliant Australian beaches, but now offer some of the best social lifestyle activities to these beach communities. Folks gather most nights for a good meal and often some other activity like a quiz nite. I joined Chris, Tim, Nicci and Vaughan for a tradition SLSC meal. As I left the club that night, one of the parkrunners asked for an impromptu interview with me, filmed on his iPod touch and destined for YouTube. His first question kind of stumped me “what is parkrun?”.

With Kirra behind us, Tim and I prepared for another day of Freedom parkruns. Starting at 7am, we joined 10 folks at Main Beach parkrun, the first of the Australian events, fathered by Tim and looked after by Brendan Murray. The Main Beach course differs from the other costal courses as it leaves the path half way through and heads off on a somewhat country path giving the feel that you have joined a cross country run before making its way back to the finish area. Once again I ran with the ladies at the back, enjoying a leisurely a chat with the folks. Post run coffee and breakfast was at the Southport Surf Life Saving Club courtesy of Tim. The weather was stunning, a summer’s day by my standards but just a good winter’s day by the Gold Coast standards. We didn’t stay long as we had an appointment with Ron Clarke, MBE.

I didn’t know what to expect meeting Ron but I wasn’t disappointed. Helen Clarke was the first to engage us, like an international envoy, she made sure we were completely at ease, brining up stories of the past and her international life while partnering her husband in his running and other business exploits. In the end we didn’t chat much about running except when I enquired about what it was like to be in ones 70’s and having youngsters jog past you as you give it your all. I found to my delight that Ron knew and was friendly with all the greats back home: Chris Brasher, John Disley, David Bedford and of course our very own parkrun UK director, Hugh Brasher. We spent a couple of hours reminiscing and having a wonderful time with the larger than life personality, Bumbles Cafe owner Kate.

Helen thanked me personally for parkrun and Tim for introducing the movement to Australia as her son has found his home with the Main Beach parkrunners. He is one of the stalwarts at this particular event never missing a Saturday. We are grateful to Ron for his patronage and we hope that he will continue to support as many event openings in Australia as possible.

My next meeting was lunch with the Team: Tim O, Tim G and Brendan Murray. This was the teams’ opportunity to question me on the more hidden aspects of parkrun and I hope I didn’t disappoint. I got to know the team and develop and meaningful relationship with them. My lesson here is one that I continue to learn on a daily basis – nearly everyone involved with parkrun, no matter what level, just wants the best for parkrun, their community and for the experience of running and fitness.

Leaving the Gold Coast behind, Tim and I headed for Brisbane or as the natives say Brisvegas. Everything in Australia is shortened and provided a nickname of sorts! About an hours’ drive heading north we arrived on the outskirts of Brissy where Tim provided the tour leader experience. Arriving in the park just before 6pm we were greeted by an eager group of parkrunners. About 60 all told! One of the first to embrace me was Gareth Saunders, Event Director extraordinaire! The run makes a small loop in the park before heading up the banks of the Brisbane River where you make a u-turn finishing in an ideal spot right outside a cafe and a permanent status marking the recent floods. As it was a school night only 20 or so folks stayed behind for a drink and a chat. Tim and I eventually left for home around 9:30pm.

For the last leg of my Australian journey, I flew to Sydney the following morning arriving to a crisp winters’ morning – brilliant blue skies and a warm sun when you sheltered from the breeze. The next few days showed Sydney off as I was blessed with extraordinary weather.

Anyone ever been stalked before? I have! The Newcastle, Australia event director, Dave Robertson, AKA Robbo, started a Facebook campaign as soon as he heard I was coming to Australia to get me to his event for a Freedom run. Of course I held out until the last minute before telling him I would come. Three hours on the train, north of Sydney and you pass through Cardiff before stopping in Newcastle (Newy). Figures, doesn’t it! Robbo and Silas, not sure if Silas has a nickname, immediately got to work preparing an interview with me for their The Naked Runner blog/website. I soon learnt that these guys are pretty efficient, effective and skilled at interviewing as the questions rolled off and it was clear that they had prepared well. It was a very light hearted and friendly interview and I’m pretty excited to see the final result of their efforts.

As the interview took longer than expected, we arrived late for the Freedom run and had to catch up with the other Freedom parkrunners which included ex-professional athlete and southern hemisphere parkrun record holder Scott Westacott along with also rans’ Andrew Dodd, Simon White and Robbo. The boys kept to the freedom theme as we completed the flat course around the docks in 25 minutes. Lunch was a delightful affair with more questions about how parkrun integrates with governing bodies and local race organisers etc.

Robbo completed the day giving me a tour of Newcastle and leaving me the impression that Newy holds some wonderful secrets and offers a paradise for those looking for it. Taking the train back to Sydney I couldn’t help notice that we went past the Hunter Valley, another great place to stop over for those who enjoy a classy glass of wine or two. Sounds like a perfect place for a parkrun?

Arriving back in Sydney, I met my friend Celine for dinner in Manly, taking the ferry from Circular Quay – this is what most people dream of. And so to #parkrunday! Driving from North Sydney, an hour’s drive from St Peters, I managed to convince Celine to not only drive me to the event but also to take part. Celine has an injury right now and shouldn’t really be running. Sound familiar? Anyway, arriving at St Peters, you can’t miss the start area as the two prominent parkrun flags are a dead giveaway, I was surprised to meet Paul Wilcock as I expected him to still be on vacation. The start area is deceptive and doesn’t quite alert you to what is to come. Heading out of the park you encounter a gentle decline – great except for what is to come. Finding your way back into the park at about half way the hill stares you in the face. It’s a killer! Short but definitely stamps the life out of you if you don’t expect it and have already spent all your energy getting there. I’ve run Ashton Court and that’s a toughie but you know it’s coming from the start and so prepare appropriately. In defence of St Peters, they did tell me there was a hill, even called it heartbreak hill, but I wouldn’t listen. Well, after the hill, the rest of the run is all about hanging on.

As is usual with parkrun, we stayed over and the perfectly formed cafe in the park for coffee and a chat. I was pleased that Celine joined me and discovered parkrun as I found that for the remainder of the weekend she was telling her friends of the experience. Isn’t that how is always is?

I’m writing this on one of those wide-bodied, double story jets crossing the Pacific to Portland, Oregon where I have a meeting with adidas and where we hope to convince them to back the growth of parkrun in America. It’s by no means a dead-cert as America will not be told what to do! Reflecting on this trip I return to the title of the article, what is the state of the parkrunNation?

Well, it is simply brilliant! Outstanding, wonderful, energetic, enthusiastic and peaceful. The goodwill that exudes from every person that I talked to who has discovered parkrun is incredible. So far we have been successful in exporting the parkrun principles, ethics and methods. The stories are all the same no matter where you are in the world. “My life has changed!”. “I’ve introduced my family and friends!”. “I’m not a runner but I’m doing parkrun each week now”. “Through parkrun I have been able to influence my work colleagues to consider a different way of doing things”.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful family that crosses all boundaries and spans a massive geography. Put on your parkrun tee shirt and take part in another parkrun anywhere in the world and you have the same entitlement. We may come from diverse cultures but when its #parkrunday we are one.

I met many folks on my travels, too many for me to remember all your names, however I want to thank you for welcoming me into your figurative homes and for showing me extraordinary kindness. I am a better person for all your generosity. Bless you all.


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