The time is 9.00am on a Saturday morning at Eaton Park, on the western side of Norwich, England, a few minutes’ jog from the University of East Anglia. Gathered around the bandstand are four hundred or so runners preparing for the toughest half-hour of the week, but for many, the most gratifying. The event organizer calls us together for the usual instructions, and reminds us this weekend makes the tenth anniversary of this movement, of which we are active members – ParkRun.

ParkRun 1Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Paul HollowayHere, and at 280 other venues around the UK, and several others around the world, over forty-six thousand men and women, take their place at the starting line of one of the fastest-growing grass-roots athletics movements in the world, and await the starter’s whistle. Ahead of them, 5 kilometers of sweat and strain; behind, a decade of growth and an enduring belief in the empowering effects of recreational athletics.

Ten years ago, it was all rather different. The first ParkRun event was held at Bushey Park, Teddington, London, with just thirteen runners and a few of the volunteers without which no ParkRun can take place. One of those volunteers was Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of ParkRun, and for whom the tenth anniversary would be marked by the award of a CBE. A ParkRun, Sinton-Hewitt and friends decided each event would be timed, and always over 5 kilometres (3.2 miles), a manageable distance for most standards of runners, many of whom can complete such a run in a half-hour or under.

By 2005, 150 runners were taking part, growing to a record 378 in 2006, requiring a second event set up elsewhere; organizers chose a venue in Wimbledon, south London. By the end of the following year, seven ParkRun events were taking place around England, with Scotland and Wales joining in during 2008.

The next year saw fifteen events added to the weekly schedule around the country, with Denmark the first nation outside the UK to get itself up and running; Northern Ireland completed the UK set in 2010. Those two years saw 45 new events; 2011 alone saw an extra 55. This was almost doubled in 2012, with 90 events created and first American ParkRun set up (there are now three ParkRuns in the USA: Livonia, Michigan; Clermont, Florida; and Durham, North Carolina).

Ireland joined the ParkRun family in 2013 and at the time of writing, there are also ParkRun events in New Zealand, Poland, Singapore and South Africa. For a time, ParkRuns were a feature at Camp Bastion, the British Forces HQ in Afghanistan, before the UK's reduction of their military presence in early 2014. Such are the way of all things military, the runs took place at half past six in the morning.

Part of the success of ParkRun comes in its ‘cookie-cutter’ approach; a ParkRun organized in England looks much an event in Russia or Australia. Set in attractive parkland and not on the road, each race uses the same technique of electronic tokens to establish a runner’s time and final position. Each runner must register online before they can take part in their first event and print off their unique barcode (this is all the technical effort required for a runner, who registers for life, and not for each specific event).

Handed to runners at the end of each race, tokens are then presented, along with your unique barcode, to another volunteer who scans both items. A few hours later, the organizers have cataloged every runner, and email the final times and results to everyone who took part, and then posted at the event’s central online site.

That’s all behind the scenes, of course. On the ground, ParkRun operates on a simple ethos: “weekly, free, 5km, for everyone, forever.” Once established, a ParkRun provides a regular venue for opportunity, open to runners of all abilities, regardless of age. As a non-profit organisation, ParkRun does not charge for its events, to help keep organized running available to anyone who wishes to take part.  

Everyone takes part together in a race, regardless of age, gender and ability. ParkRun 2Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Paul HollowayIt is not uncommon to see grandparents running alongside an enthusiastic grandchild (enthusiastic for the first lap or so at least), or a new parent running while pushing a pram with a future Olympian within, or even a time-efficient Parkrunner racing while also taking their dog for some exercise (runners with prams and dogs need to start at the rear of the pack, for safety reasons).

Children can compete, though under -11s need the company of an adult. A free t-shirt awaits Junior runners once they have completed their tenth run; the more mature runners must wait until after their fiftieth race for their free t-shirt, with another presented to any runner who completes one hundred events. Everyone who registers with ParkRun receives a free weekly newsletter via email.

ParkRun also helps to foster a sense of community among its participants. For example, at the Eaton Park event prior to the anniversary weekend, a record attendance of 609 took part in a minute’s silence for runner Darryl Davis, a veteran of fifty-five Parkruns, who died while participating in a relay run along the North Norfolk coast, earlier in September. In tribute, each athletics team member taking part ran in their official colors.

On a brighter note, a couple of weeks beforehand, there were big cheers on the announcement that one of the men taking part in the race was getting married later that day (I’m sure he was running, and not as one wag called out, running away). Once a race is underway, the volunteers who marshal the race make sure everyone is safe, cheer on the runners, and if a back-marker is struggling, will keep them company and in good spirits.    

ParkRun 3Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Paul HollowayFrom a personal perspective, I took up running as a New Year’s resolution in 2013 and ran my first ParkRun in April of that year. In that first race, I finished halfway down the field with a time of over twenty-seven minutes. Now, I regularly finish in the lower reaches of the top one hundred, in times of around the twenty-two minute mark. ParkRun has given me an added sense of purpose to my running and an extra incentive to keep fit and active.

It has also given me a structure to my running regime, and I use my performances as a guide to my overall progress. Earlier this year, I found my times were worsening, so I weighed myself and found I’d put on a lot of weight since losing my job in town; I commuted by cycling and the loss of this daily exercise had a negative effect on my physical condition. By increasing the distances of my running, and making a few changes to my diet, my times have steadily improved to the point where last month I recorded a new personal best time.

If you have read this article and still think that running isn't for you, then you sound like me from around two years ago. I took up running on a whim one morning while out in the local park, just to see how it felt. This first run lasted six minutes. A week later, I decided to run ten minutes every other day. 18 months later and I am planning my first half-marathon. Give running a try, and as long as you don't do too much too soon, your legs will carry you to a new way of life.      

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