My life has been transformed over the last few years in terms of my health, and no other organisation – or I should say no other community – has been more integral to that change than parkrun. So it’s been a bit odd to see parkrun become the focus of sustained media attention this past week.
Every Saturday parkrun puts on nearly 500 free-to-enter 5k runs all around the UK, with an increasing number of events also taking part in other countries around the world. Although the organisation receives sponsorship to fund a handful of employees who do essential behind-the-scenes work at ‘head office’, each event is put on and run by volunteers. The events are inclusive, welcoming runners from the speediest of Olympians to people who are battling weight or other health-related issues. The events are emphasised as runs rather than races.
Recognising parkrun’s inclusive and volunteer-led nature, event venues are provided free of charge by councils and other landowners such as the National Trust. But this week Stoke Gifford Council voted to impose a charge on Little Stoke parkrun.
The reasons put forward by the council are varied but can basically be boiled down to the fact that they take on increased maintenance costs as a result of 300+ runners descending on the park every week, although their claims that the runners’ trainers are causing immense damage to the tarmac paths – and the imposition of a charge itself – has been met with widespread ridicule.
On the other side of the debate are those who point out that encouraging healthy lifestyles does much to reduce the amount of money that taxpayers have to put towards the health service, and that in contrast to football pitch hire fees – which cover pitch marking out, mowing, shower facilities including hot water and a caretaker for the changing block – parkrun is low impact and entirely self-supporting.
Obesity and sedentary lifestyles are increasingly featuring on the political agenda as issues to be tackled, and councils up and down the country are recognising the role that events like parkrun can play. In fact, I’m fairly typical of a large portion of the parkrun community. A few years back I was overweight, weighing 114kg (18 stone) and taking part in very little physical exercise. A casual remark from a work colleague set me on the path to a better lifestyle, and a key part of that has been parkrun.
Many parkrunners have been down the route I followed. I’d already actually lost a lot of weight before embarking on the NHS Couch to 5k programme, which I completed on a treadmill in my local gym. Then in March 2013, just a few days before my 39th birthday, I did my first parkrun on Wimbledon Common. I was joined by my cousin, her husband and another friend as we braved untypical late-March weather – freezing temperatures and horizontal sleet – to run around the course.
That day two other non-running friends braved the icy conditions to come and cheer us on. What they saw that day lit some sort of spark and they’re now both regular parkrunners too, and one of them will be doing the London Marathon on 24 April, an amazing achievement.
But parkrun hasn’t just helped transform my physical wellbeing. Volunteering has given me a sense of self-confidence that I didn’t have before, something that is widely reported by those who step forward to help out, and its positive impact on less obvious health issues is also well documented. The community spirit at the events is palpable.
The media attention this past week certainly hasn’t done parkrun any harm, as another 14,000 people have signed up this week alone. (Apparently it isn’t unusual to get 10,000 people sign up in a single week anyway, a phenomenal statistic that underlines the popularity of the concept.)
It seems that unless Stoke Gifford Council changes its mind, parkrun will feel obliged to seek an alternative venue. I think that would be a great shame for the people of Stoke Gifford but I’m confident that the parkrun community will rally round and the concept will continue elsewhere, stronger than ever.