PICTURE: Nadia Winborn

It’s a cold Saturday morning in mid-February, but St Leonards sea-front looks a picture under the cloudless blue sky.  Sun glints off the stucco of the Royal Victoria Hotel and other buildings along the Marina.  Baby waves gurgle at the foot of the mid-tide beach. Fishermen are laying out their tents and arranging their tackle. Dog-minders are loosing their charges to frisk on the foreshore. And there on the promenade adjacent to Grosvenor Gardens almost 300 Parkrun devotees –  roughly equal sexes and all ages and stages from primary school to care home –  are stripping off their outer garments, preparing for the weekly run along the seafront as far as the Source and back again, a measured distance of five kilometres.

There are two Run Directors and up to 20 other visibility-jacketed marshals, pacemakers, time-keepers and safety officers greeting and moving between the runners.  Most would be runners themselves, whose turn it is this week to donate time and energy to regulating the event for the mutual benefit of the community they are part of. No money is changing hands, though, because no one is getting paid.

Parkrun is a remarkable alliance –  one that has lasted over 13 years to date –  between this kind of volunteering and the application of information technology to the sport of    running. (Not ‘racing’, a word which doesn’t find favour in the Parkrun lexicon).

The first Parkrun event, styled the Bushy Park Time Trial, consisted of 13 runners of varying abilities setting out on a Saturday morning in October 2004 to accomplish a five kilometre run around Bushy Park in Teddington, West London, then repeating the same run in subsequent weeks.  From the start the participants were less concerned with competing against each other than in forming a running community that would record individual times and aim to reduce them by repeat prescription. The run was always entirely free, in both senses of the word, as founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who was honoured with a CBE in 2013 for his contribution to the creation of the Parkrun phenomenon, has explained.

“From day one I never wanted Parkrun to compete with the clubs and I didn’t want it to compete with the races. I just wanted to be a part of the community. My objection to clubs and governing bodies is that they feel they own you and they can direct you to do things, and in fact, that’s not true. People do what they want to do. All we are doing here is building a playground, and if you want to come and take part, you can. It’s not just that you don’t have to pay, but you’re not signing your life away either, there are no terms and conditions, just the same obligations you’d have as a citizen walking down the street.”

Across the globe

From that little acorn a remarkable forest of trees has grown, not just in Britain but across the globe. On any given Saturday there are parkruns, each of five kilometres distance and each involving a regular community of runners, in up to 500 different locations in at least 19 different countries spread over five continents. It is a sporting phenomenon. Information technology, in the maintenance of both individual and communal statistics, is at its heart. 

Each runner registers with Parkrun (at no cost) before his or her first run and is issued with an individual bar code that provides unique identification. At each event the finishing line is manned by a volunteer with a stopwatch that exports data to a central computer. Runners are handed a barcoded tag which tells them their finish position, and a second volunteer then scans the runner’s personal barcode and finish tag together onto a server which plugs into the central computer. Then, within an hour or so of the end of the run, every participant is sent an e-mail detailing both the entire roster of results on the day from first to last but also an update of personal statistics with comparisons of all previous runs.  If you happen to be in Canada or Swaziland or Singapore next week and turn up to the local Parkrun with your barcode they’ll presumably be able to update details of your performance there too.

Too much information?

Isn’t this just a little too much information, recorded in a style that a would-be totalitarian regime might be pleased to replicate? This doesn’t appear to concern Parkrun participants at all. They are a cheery bunch in the main, even the ones who reach the finishing line wheezing and spluttering as if they’re breathing their last. Most sense that their health and fitness are gaining week by week.  Anyone might say that, but the computer records prove it; and when they run a record time, the corroborative e-mail awards a personal exclamation mark: “New PB!”  Everybody is being counted, and everybody counts.

Nadia Winborn started with a time of 42 minutes two years ago.  Since then she has lost over six stone in weight and can now run in under 25 minutes on a good day. But she is today’s tail end volunteer, which means she stays right at the back of the field and makes sure that all runners complete the course ahead of her or, if they drop out or otherwise become incapacitated, that there is suitable help on hand. So she lollops in last, happy to report that there have been no problems this morning. 

Ian Nunn and Rebecca Webbe are members of the Holy Trinity church congregation. Ian is chuffed because he has just run his best ever time, Rebecca is waiting to learn whether she has done likewise.  They are part of a group from the church, including vicar Simon Larkin, who provided the majority of volunteers a couple of weeks ago.

Tessa Martina is in a Walk 2 Run group for people who may not have run, even for the bus, for many years and perhaps never thought they could succeed in completing a five kilometre distance.  In her first sortie at the beginning of January the aim was to manage 30 second jogs between intervals of two minutes walking. In this mode she completed the course in a little over 47 minutes. Four runs on, the group was aiming today at three minute jogs with 90 seconds walking between. Tessa reports that she wasn’t able to sustain this for the whole of the course, so ran alternate 90 second jog/walks, however her time has reduced once again to a little over 39 minutes    another PB!

Louise Johnston ran in the first St Leonards parkrun in April 2015, and has completed  – so the computer verifies    134 runs out of a total of 149 runs altogether to date.  Which makes next Saturday the 150th.   Today she was just over the 30 minute mark against a PB of 27:48, but beaming with pleasure at the finish. Is it the enhancement of health and fitness, the sense of community, the competitive challenge, or just being out in the fresh air on such a glorious day? All of those – and more    she said.


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