The magic of parkrun - the event that changed running for good

a celebration of parkrun

Image: Parkrun/Twitter

When 13 runners gathered in Bushy Park in October 2004, little did they know they’d be starting a revolution. The idea was simplicity itself – a free, timed 5km run – and the finish tokens were washers from the local hardware store.

Yet, this week, parkrun will celebrate its 5,000,000th finisher – a staggering achievement, achieved in just 14 years.

Initially, parkrun started as a way for its founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, to see his friends and enjoy a coffee afterwards. The easiest way to do so was to get them out running. But some things take on a momentum of their own. And when Sinton-Hewitt kept hearing, week in, week out, that there was something special about his creation, he felt impelled to bring it to the wider community.

Wimbledon Common parkrun followed next, with many others quickly following suit. Today, there are more than 500 parkruns across the UK and more than 50 in London alone. At the heart of this success is parkrun’s ability to galvanise the local community. Sinton-Hewitt, a competitive runner in his youth with a marathon PB of 2:36, has described parkrun as his way of giving something back. Parkrun has achieved this by amalgamating people around a simple form of exercise – making communities feel closer together, larger and more engaged. A non-profit organisation, it's not all about the runners themselves - each parkrun is started and run by volunteers. Key to the community-orientated feel, those who can't or don't run are also involved.  

While parkrun attracts its fair share of faster runners – the male parkrun record of 13:48 was set by Olympian Andy Baddeley back in 2012 – the magic of parkrun is that it’s offered an easy entry point for those who previously believed they couldn’t run. Plenty of people are shooting for PBs, make no mistake, but parkrun is a run not a race. And signing up couldn’t be easier. Simply visit the parkrun website, print off your barcode and head to the start line of your local event at 9am on Saturday. No money, no pressure, no strings attached.

This simple idea has transformed countless people’s physical and mental health. Indeed, parkrun is now being prescribed by GPs to patients suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Elsewhere, in a study conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University, parkrun participants self-scored as happier than the general population. Happiness was measured using the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, with parkrunners scoring 4.4 out of 6, compared to the national average of 4.

Parkrun’s progress shows no signs of slowing down, either. There are now parkruns in 20 countries around the world, from Sweden to Swaziland, New Zealand to Namibia. Yet it’s not just far-flung countries but hard-to-reach communities that parkrun is hoping to target. Parkrun’s chief executive, Nick Pearson, recently told The Guardian that the organisation’s biggest ambition was to get more people involved, particularly ‘in areas of social deprivation where the free market has left people behind and there is a lack of provision for physical activities’.

During a time of great economic and political division, with the UK in the grips of an obesity crisis, that seems like a pretty noble aim. So here’s to parkrun, the runners it’s inspired and the volunteers who make it possible. From small beginnings, it’s become the biggest and best thing to happen to recreational exercise in the 21st century.