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Parkrun should be embraced not unfairly maligned

Maybe it’s a peculiarly British thing, but the success of parkrun, which recently enjoyed its 10th birthday hasn’t been universally applauded. From just 13 runners in Bushy Park, these free 5km timed runs have become a global phenomenon, yet still hardly a week goes without someone complaining, and blaming it for a variety of ills. The sad fact is that those who grumble the most aren’t dog walkers, fellow park users, or local residents up in arms about not being able to find a parking space, but other runners.

The parkrun statistics are astonishing. After taking seven years to exceed global participation of 10,000 in one day, the numbers grew exponentially. In April 2014, numbers exceeded 70,000 for the first time, when 386 events took place, and in May this year the one million registrant mark was reached. In August parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt reported that the total number of parkrun runs had broken the six million mark. Since then parkrun has continued to go from strength to strength, with new events springing up, and hundreds of new runners joining every week.

Yet even In 2010, before the rise of parkrun had become fully apparent, the treasurer of the Start Fitness North-East Harrier League called for running clubs to boycott parkrun on the basis there was no entry fee and no extra charge for non-club members. A contributor on one forum complained that parkrun reduced the numbers attending fellrunning events. Other club runners simply boycotted parkrun on principle, and continue to do so. Only this week, a club member of one running club berated a club member for running parkrun while not turning out for the club.

This constant harping on about parkrun needs to stop. It reminds me of those mistaken individuals who thought that television would be the end of radio. It’s not a zero sum world guys, and far from parkrun siphoning off existing runners, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that it is in fact adding to overall running population. Open your blinkered eyes. Go to any parkrun, and it is clear that it is reaching parts of the population running clubs never reach. And more to the point, these are people who many running clubs have traditionally never even considered.

Look at the facts. Sport England’s most recent survey of sports participation found that the number of people who said they ran or took part in athletics rose to 2.02m from 1.95m in the previous survey, making it the UK’s second most popular sport behind swimming. Only cycling in third place saw a bigger increase.

And just to emphasise that running clubs can happily co-exist and indeed prosper together, in March 2013, the Sunday Observer reported that the Olympic triumphs of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and other British stars had inspired a new interest in athletics with clubs reporting record numbers of new members. In 2012, it reported that the number of athletes over the age of 11 affiliated to English clubs rose by almost 10,000, to 130,000.

As for damaging official events, this year has seen record numbers at cross-county events as far apart as Surrey, the North-East and Scotland. In one league in the North-East two events had to be cancelled because so many people turned up.

The Observer investigation found that many of the problems with athletics clubs had nothing to do in the slightest with parkrun, and more to do with lack of funding of grassroots athletics. Between 2009 and 2013, England Athletics established 52 networks to promote grassroots athletics. Each received between £20,000 and £30,000 a year. But has since been cut to a maximum of £10,000 per network and will end in 2015.

Yes, of course there will be some individuals will do a 5km parkrun and then not turn out for their club. But is isn’t always a case of either or. If it meant giving up the best part of a day to attend a club event, then perhaps they wouldn’t have bothered anyway. In contrast, parkruns tend to be close to home, and their early start time means people have the rest of the day for themselves.
Where parkrun could be detrimental is if it replaces long runs and proper endurance training, but that’s a different issue all together.

Those who grumble about parkrun will no doubt continue to do so. But rather than take a selfish parochial view, perhaps they should look at the big picture. Like it or not, in its short 10 years parkrun has transformed the UK running scene. It has struck a chord by offering people what they want, when they want it, and has tapped into a previously undiscovered well of enthusiasm for running.

It has attracted huge number of new people to running, while firing the interest and enthusiasm of many existing runners, including thousands of club runners. It has spawned thousands of willing volunteers, happy to get off their backsides on a Saturday to stand in the cold and rain. Perhaps there are lessons there that can help running clubs to grow and develop.

While it might not always seem like it, we all in this together united by our love of running. So if you are a club runner, or even a club official instead of bemoaning parkrun’s success, why not get to know a parkrunner, and tell them about your club, and how welcome they will be.

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