On paper it doesn’t sound too exciting: a timed 5km group event around a park, with no prizes, no entry cost and no judgment for walking.
Despite this, parkrun has come to be hailed as one of the greatest public health initiatives of our time, with 3 million people across 20 countries taking part each week in non-Covid times.
Now, a dedicated parkrunner from Cumbria has set out to explain why the initiative is so widely loved and – during the past year – desperately missed. Eileen Jones, a writer and publicist, found a female bishop whose home parkrun is at an abbey, a couple who got married halfway round a parkrun, a man who runs it backwards, old runners and very young ones.
Their stories are collected in Jones’s new book, called how parkrun changed our lives. It will be launched on Friday with the start of a 330-mile relay “bookrun” from the Lake District to Bushy Park in London, home to the first ever parkrun in 2004. A copy of the book will be passed like a baton between 100 runners, the last of whom will deliver it to parkrun’s founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt.
The relay will set off from Fell Foot at Windermere, the location of Jones’s home parkrun, which she helped set up. She will run the first leg on Friday, handing on to parkrunners from Cumbria, including the world mountain-running champion Sarah McCormack and ultrarunner Paul Tierney, holder of the 214 Wainwright fells record.
Researching the book, Jones found people who found solace, companionship, respite from grief, escape from social isolation, a new purpose in life, and just sheer joy in running every week in good company. She met doctors who are prescribing parkrun rather than medication, and talked to the academics whose research has proven the many benefits of taking part or volunteering.
A former fell runner who says she stopped competing because it was unfair on the marshals waiting for her at hilltop checkpoints, Jones was “born again” as a parkrunner and had done 260 events at 104 different venues before lockdown. Occasionally well-placed in her age category, she was once proud to be “first old dear” at Old Deer parkrun.
She muses whether parkrun is like a new religion, with a litany and liturgy that’s familiar and repeated weekly, and leaves participants feeling better about themselves. She also introduces us to the record breakers, including the British doctor who ran the fastest women’s time in the US at a parkrun near San Francisco.
But mostly there are stories of very ordinary runners, walkers and volunteers who explain why parkrun has brought so much joy into their lives.
“Everyone’s parkrun journey is different and yet we share so many experiences,” writes Sinton-Hewitt, in the foreword to the book. “In common with many other people, I have made countless friends, covered parts of the country, and indeed the world, I never imagined, been united with family I didn’t know I had and shared a parkrun course with my grandchildren. I have been introduced to volunteering and learnt what a rewarding experience it is.”
Parkrun is free to enter and open to all. Runners print out a unique barcode, which is scanned by volunteers at the end of the 5km course, giving them a finish time and allowing them to keep track of their progress. The average finish time in 2019 was 32:31, but the female record is 15.45, set by Lauren Reid in January 2021 in Australia, where parkrun has restarted after Covid restrictions. The male record, set back on 11 August 2012 by Andrew Baddeley, is 13.48.