Parkrun. You may have heard of it; you may have not.
It is a weekly event all across the country where you can run or walk a 5k with your friends and be a part of an incredibly fast-growing community. It is that last word, community, that defines parkrun.
On Sunday 18th April, I went to Eaton Park to speak to co-event director Jo Phillips about what both what parkrun could do for you, and what you could do for parkrun (to paraphrase JFK).
When asked to describe parkrun in as few words as possible, Jo had this to say:
“Well, it’s a free run in the park but it’s a community-based event. You make friends, it can be a life-changing thing, you get a hell of a lot out of it if you start volunteering as well.”
To those that are thinking that ‘that sounds nice but I can’t run 5k’, allow me to reassure you. The mission statement for parkrun is ‘free forever, for everyone’ and the thing they’re most proud of is their average finish time. Whilst the record is 13 minutes, which is incredible, the average finish time has gone from 26 minutes, 5 years ago to around 30 minutes now.
Instinctively, this feels like a bad thing, but Jo made it very clear it is a thing to be proud of:
“Parkrun is really proud of that because that’s what they want; they want to engage with people who haven’t done any exercise before. Speedy runners will always come, it’s a great time trial opportunity for them. We want you to walk the whole way if it gets you involved.”
She could not stress enough how much of a variety of fitness levels they want, and indeed have, at a parkrun and how much that contributes to the great community feel. People may often be put off by the prospect of a 5k, but the walkers do it in around 50 minutes and if someone asked you to go on a walk for an hour, most people would be able to say yes, you feel.
It is the inclusiveness of this target audience that must be stressed; it is quite hard to quantify community spirit but the fact that the average participant goes on to complete 14.7 parkrun events feels like an excellent way to emphasise just how welcomed people feel here.
There may be some reading this who exercise a lot already but like the sound of parkrun; there may be some who aren’t interested in exercise; and there may be some who, for one reason or another, cannot exercise. All is not lost; parkrun would not survive if not for its army of volunteers.
When I was there, every single volunteer was smiling the entire time, as they helped with mapping the route, assisted people with their times and just added to the feel-good factor of the whole event. To be a volunteer, all you need to do is send them an email, the address for which you can find on their website. It’s that easy and I really do recommend it.
Why do you recommend it though? Isn’t it just a lot of standing around? Well, yes but that brings me on to a very important part of my discussion with Jo:
“It’s [the benefit of parkrun towards mental health] massive! If you’re struggling with your mental health, all of the things that would be recommended: go out and get some fresh air, go and connect with people, give back. All of the things that are frequently listed as ways of helping are present at parkrun.”
This can apply to both volunteering and taking part in the run itself.
There is actually a parkrun at Colney Lane, set up by UEA’s very own Professor Ian Edwards, that Jo would love to get more students involved in. Whether it’s because you enjoy running, or you can see the potential benefits towards your mental health of exercise and meeting new people, it really is something to consider. This may sound scary, but I lack the skill as a writer to express just how welcomed I felt whilst there; you’ll just have to take my word for it.
I feel a point to end on would be what I noticed as I watched the junior parkrun itself. As the first finishers crossed the line, I heard one run over to his dad and say:
“I guarantee I’m going to get a PB!”
Later on, when some of the younger children came around hand-in-hand with their parents, I heard one saying:
“That was so much fun, daddy!”
It is this spectrum of appeal that makes parkrun so special. Some reading this can use it as a time trial each week; some can use it as a way to improve their fitness; some can use it simply to get out the house and some will be able to reap the rewards of enabling everyone else to do all of these things, through their selfless volunteering.
I really cannot urge you enough to try parkrun.