Thursday, 19 May 2016

All about parkrun

For a long time now, I've been meaning to write a blog specifically about parkun. So, here it is. I tend to mention parkrun in most of my posts, since I'm there most weeks - and so I would ask regular readers to please accept my apologies if some of the material in this post duplicates that found in previous ones. I doubt that many of you actually pay much attention to what I'm writing anyway, so I should get away with it. I often make reference my "regular readers" with a sense of irony, or maybe self-deprecation, because I'm not so sure I have many of them. But then, if you're a regular reader, you'll know that already, so I'll move on.

What is parkrun?

parkrun, then. Spelt with a small "p" - even when you're starting a sentence with it. I think. The distance is only 5km, or 3.1miles if you prefer. Founded by Paul Sinton-Hewitt back in 2004, in Bushy Park, it has now spread across the UK, with nearly 500 events taking place every Saturday morning at 9am, at a park near you. There's a map on the parkrun website, reproduced below, showing all the various event locations - plenty to chose from! And it's popular - very popular, with the organisation recently celebrating its millionth participant. I say "the organisation" but I very nearly wrote "our organisation." Because that's how it feels - once you get involved, you feel a part of something very special, and everyone plays a part in its continued success.

And, it's free. All you need to do is register on the website - go to www, and click on your country's page - you'll be given a unique barcode to print out and take with you, and that's all you need to do. You never need to tell anyone in advance that you're going - one of the biggest benefits for me personally, since you can make a last minute decision as to whether or not you go - or indeed, as to where you're going to go. More on parkun "tourism" in a bit....
I should point out the stats I've mentioned relate to the UK, but parkrun is now global - visit for a list of countries. I know I have readers in the US, Australia, Poland, Russia - you've all got parkrun in your country too. I should
also point out, the map is interactive - and you can zoom out. Which is kind of necessary!

How does it work?

A lot of parkruns have a laminater for you to use.
So that this doesn't happen
So, you've registered online, and printed off your barcode. Chose which parkrun you want to attend - you can use the interactive map to find your nearest. Each event has its own website, where you can discover a bit more about it, including instructions on how to get there, and what facilities are at that particular venue. For example, is there car parking - and if so, is there a cost attached? Are there toilets? (nearly always there will be, which is a relief for runners. Literally.)  And, most important of all - is there a Cafe?!

On arrival, you don't need to do anything in particular, although a warm up is never a bad idea, and a visit to the loo is usually a good idea. If it's your first parkrun, or your first at that particular venue, then one of the volunteers will give you a newcomers briefing, so you have an idea of what's going on. All runs are well-marshalled, so there's very little danger of going the wrong way, and if you were to get into any kind of trouble, you'll never be far from someone who will look after you.

There will then be a pre-race briefing for everyone, given by that week's Run Director, when they'll mention any issues out on the course, remind people of the etiquette (eg, that we should be respectful of other park users, etc.) and to make sure you stick to the course properly in order to get an accurate 5km time. Otherwise, you're only cheating yourself. Which is something my headteacher used to say all the time.

Usually, there will be some recognition of people who have reached various milestones. Runners of all ages qualify for a free T-shirt each time they reach a particular milestone -  completion of 50, 100, 250 and 500 runs. Our junior runners have a special 10 T-shirt too.

This is also an opportunity for everyone to thank that week's volunteers - and there's a T-shirt for racking up 25 volunteer appearances too - more on volunteering later....

Then, just run. Or walk. Get round the course however you want. Within reason. As you come into the finish funnel at the end, you'll be given a numbered token. This represents your finishing position. Then, after you've got your breath back, simply take this token and your barcode to the nice people with the scanners - and they'll do the rest. You give back your finish token - that bit's really important, it's needed for subsequent weeks! - and you keep your barcode, for next time. By the wonders of modern technology, by about lunchtime the same day, the Core Team at your particular event will have finalised and released the results - you'll get an email or text, if you've signed up for that, and the full results will appear on the website. It's really that simple.

However, DON'T FORGET YOUR BARCODE, otherwise you'll end up in the results as "Unknown Runner" and your run won't count towards anything. And you don't want that.

Course Description

I was confident I could beat the hotdog, but wary that
the bottle of mustard might have a bit of a kick...
On the event page, you'll also find a description of the route - particularly relevant if you like to run with a buggy and small person, for example (or I suppose, a buggy without small person, although that would be a bit strange.) There are some surprisingly quick mums and dads out there - I once got overtaken by a guy pushing his young daughter round the course, who came in under 20mins. To make matters worse, the next week was halloween, and he went past me again, but this time dressed up in a skeleton costume. I assumed this would probably haunt me forever (no pun intended) but I think it was trumped a year or so later when I got passed in the London Marathon by a large bottle of tomato ketchup.

Some courses allow you to take your dog with you too - although make sure you check the website first to be sure. The route description is also relevant if you prefer certain types of running, because you'll be able to discover if it's flat or hilly, on paths or on grass - and if, like me, you like to chase PBs, it's a good way of finding out the likelihood of achieving your personal best on any particular course. More on this in a bit too.....

Home run?

You can set which park will be your "home" but it really doesn't matter where you go each week - you're not tied to your home event at any point. It used to be more relevant when the milestone T-shirts were presented to you - because they would automatically go to your home event - but these days, you order your T-shirt online and it's delivered to your address, so it's not so important. If you chose to volunteer at an event that's not your home, it's worth letting them know, so that they can find you on the database - particularly if you have a more common name - but in terms of running, your barcode is unique to you, so it doesn't matter where you are, you'll be readily identified.

Great Cornard - definitely a course with PB potential.

PB hunter?

One of the great things about parkun is that you get given a PB for each different event, so you can look to improve your times at specific locations - because let's face it, there are certain courses that you'll never get an overall 5km PB on, perhaps because they're particularly hilly or have tough terrain. This means that, whichever course you chose to visit, you can always aim for a PB - should you wish. For example, when I visit Bury St Edmunds, which is all on grass and mud, and has a couple of inclines, I know I won't get the same kind of times as I can manage at Great Cornard, which is also grass, but completely flat and a much quicker course. But it doesn't matter, because I have different PBs for each course which I can try to beat.

Not interested in PBs?

parkrun is not a race. This is central to the whole ethos of parkrun, and is no doubt one of the reasons why so many people have embraced it. Of course, you can treat it like one should you so wish - and personally I tend to, because I like competition and am always aiming for specific times - and it's fine to race it if you want. Providing you don't use elbows or anything. But of course, not everyone is competitive, and so many people just enjoy the experience of running without aiming for certain times or positions. parkrun is all inclusive. Most events have participants who walk as well as those that run, which should immediately reassure anyone reading this who is worried about being too slow. Besides, there is always a "last runner" so you'll never be left at the back on your own.

Age limits?

There are none - although children under 11 must be accompanied by a responsible adult, for obvious safety reasons. Most parkruns have a whole host of enthusiastic youngsters running regularly, meaning it can be a nice family activity. Many locations are now introducing Junior parkruns, usually on Sundays, using a shorter (2km) route - so if you have children looking to get involved, this could be the ideal place to start - and I believe they can run without an adult at these, in most instances, which may well be preferable for all involved.

There's no upper age limit either, and it's inspiring to see runners well into their 70s and beyond clocking up a 5km every weekend - although slightly depressing if they overtake you.

parkrun Tourists

If you spot a tourist, make sure
they feel welcome
We're all different - some of us are creatures of habit, some like to add in a bit of variety to their
parkunning. I've moved about a bit over the last few years, and so my local parkrun has changed regularly. I started off running at Milton Park, Cambridge, before moving to Colchester for a while - and this is where I really got the parkrun bug, and became a bit more involved in helping out. Subsequent moves have seen me becoming more regular at Bury St Edmunds, at Thetford, and more recently at Great Cornard, near Sudbury, which is now my home. However I do still travel occasionally to Colchester, and to Great Notley (where I have a number of friends on both Core Teams) and I have the choice of a fair few within reasonable driving distance, so I enjoy mixing it up a bit from time to time.

In addition to this, I've tried out one or two parkruns further afield, whenever the opportunity has arisen - so I've combined trips to see family and friends with one off visits to Worsley Woods (near Manchester), Newport in Wales, and Coventry - to name just 3. This parkrun "tourism" is extremely popular amongst regular parkunners, and in fact there's a club set up for those who have attended at least 20 different locations - I think I'm only on 11 so far, but it's something to aim at. That said, having just got my 25 Volunteer T-shirt, my next goal is to achieve my 100 runs T-shirt: only another 17 to go!

All your parkrun stats are recorded on their website, both course specific and overall ones too.


Because it's run by unpaid volunteers, most of whom are runners themselves, it's nice if everyone pitches in to help out from time to time. As an organisation, parkrun suggest people aim to volunteer at least 3 times a year - in practice, many people chose to do so more often.

Each event has its own Core Team, who take it in turns to be Run Director. Your Core Team do a fantastic job - including things a lot of people don't see, for example recruiting volunteers to ensure a safe run each week, getting there really early to set up, staying later to pack away, and spending time processing the results afterwards.

Binman comments not appreciated
In addition to these guys, every run needs a number of volunteers, and everyone can offer to help. Never be worried about any particular task - they're fully explained, and you can always request specific ones that you're more comfortable doing. My own personal favourite is barcode scanning, since you get to chat to loads of runners and congratulate them on their efforts - and they're usually in a good mood, because it's all over with for another week! Other roles include being on the stopwatch, handing out the finish tokens, managing the finish funnel, and of course, being out on course marshalling.

More recently I've been marshalling a lot, and it's been great to see the same friendly faces each week, seeing some of them making obvious progress, and getting lots of smiles and "good mornings" along the way. As regular readers will know (yes, both of them,) I've not been able to run for a few weeks following surgery, so it's been an opportunity for me to get in a decent run of volunteering, and I'm so glad I have, because through this I've got to know fellow Gt Cornard parkrunners in a way I don't think I would otherwise have done. Now I'm back able to run again, I'm intending to alternate between running one week and volunteering the next, because I can no longer decide which I prefer!

So, What's stopping you?

Unless you've been along to a parkrun or two, you really can't appreciate just how friendly and welcoming they are - far more so than other "races" - since you get to know so many regulars, and there's no real pressure on anyone to achieve anything: predominantly people are there to have fun. So, if you're reading this and you're a runner who's never tried parkrun before, or if you're reading this as a non-runner (why you'd be doing that is anyone's guess, but I suppose it's possible) - get signed up, and come and give it a go.

I know so many people whose lives have been enriched through getting involved in parkrun. Mine certainly has.


  1. Cheers for this post Ian. As someone who wants to do a parkrun but has been intimdated by the thought of it, your article has put a few of the demons to rest.

    1. that's so good to read, and precisely why I wanted to write it. there's really nothing intimidating about them at all - i promise you, do one and you'll be hooked :-)