Parkrun began 14 years ago and has now mushroomed into a heartwarming worldwide success story that is about to register its 5,000,000th runner
On Wednesday somebody somewhere will become the 5,000,000th person to register for Parkrun. Think about that. Let it marinate. It is an extraordinary number for an extraordinary success story. Parkrun began 14 years ago this week, with a simple idea: a free five-kilometre time-trial around Bushy Park, south west London. It was low-key, lo-fi, and unofficial. Thirteen people turned up. The results were typed up in a nearby Caff Nero. No one bothered to ask the park for permission.
Now close to 250,000 people do it on a good weekend across 20 countries, including Russia, Malaysia and Swaziland. The ambition is for that figure to climb to a million. On the evidence so far would anyone dare bet against them?
Yet there is another statistic that is even more striking. And it goes some way to explaining why Parkrun has become such a juggernaut. In 2005, the average finish time was 22 minutes and 16 seconds. Last year, having risen every year since then, it was 29:06.
It might sound paradoxical, but Parkrun is absolutely delighted that average times have got so much slower. It shows that its guiding ethos of creating an environment that is inclusive whether the runner is a beginner or an Olympian is working. It also knows another iron truth: when something is fun people stick with it, even if it takes them an hour to trudge round.
Parkrun hears so many stories of people who have not done any physical activity since school who have taken the plunge many of whom have been conditioned to think sport isnt for them. Yet time and again it has proven able to reach parts of the population that other sports cannot.
Rich or poor, city or rural, the magic formula seems to work anywhere. There are island communities, such as Bressay in the Shetlands who started a Parkrun to get everyone together at the same time each week. Meanwhile in Ruchill one of the poorest parts of Glasgow with no library, no health centre, gym or chemist they have established a Parkrun.
There are thousands of four-to-14-year-olds who do the 2km junior park run each week. Meanwhile, the oldest regular, John Butcher, is 87, having started his Parkrun journey after he lost his wife on Christmas Day 2016.
And it is not just about running. In the past 14 years, 400,000 people have also volunteered whether it is running an event, high-fiving kids en route, writing reports or taking photographs. It is, truly, the big society in action.
Since late June it has also had the stamp of approval from the Royal College of GPs, who have encouraged doctors to prescribe Parkrun for overweight patients and those with some health conditions as an alternative to medication. Already 400 GP surgeries have signed up to become certified Parkrun practices.
Yet there are some in sport who are privately sniffy about Parkrun, because they believe it is merely for fun runners. They would be better served trying to work out how to absorb its lessons. Remember too that Parkrun is able to get results with a small budget and only a couple of dozen staff. Public bodies such as Sport England, which invests millions of pounds each year into grassroots sport, would love a success story as massive as Parkrun.
And while UK Sport, the funding body for elite sport, has been wildly successful in getting Team GB to win Olympic medals, it too knows there is little evidence that those medal moments lead to more people participating in sport. Indeed a YouGov survey last year found that only 7% of 2,000 respondents said they had been inspired to take up sport by watching runners in the Olympics.
There is a challenge here for UK Athletics as well. Because there is an obvious disconnect between the social casual runner and the elite levels of the sport. Grassroots football and rugby players identify with top Premier League and Premiership stars so one would think it would be a given that most Saturday morning park runners would consider themselves as athletes, and want to watch and attend track events. Yet that does not seem to be the case.
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