A familiar refrain here: in spite of the name, parkrun* isn’t really all about running. It’s a community, a family, a ritual, a religion substitute, and the place where runners, walkers and hobblers gather to meet challenges when they can no longer achieve personal best times. And these challenges are only partially related to running.
They’re not official, either. There are distinct parkrun milestone achievements - 50, 100, 250 runs or volunteer efforts – but creative participants have established other, sometimes crazy, targets. Along with basic tourism, going to as many different events as possible, there’s the compass challenge, for example (Northallerton, Southwark, East Park, Beverley Westwood), and only this weekend the parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt realised that he had inadvertently achieved Old MacDonald’s Farm status: he’d run parkruns beginning with E-I-E-I-O.
There’s the more esoteric Wilson, P-index and Fibonacci challenges, but perhaps the most popular is collecting the Alphabet. Not difficult for Londoners, who can nip on the tube to Ally Pally and Old Deer, for instance, but on the UK mainland there’s no Q between the South Downs and Glasgow, and there’s no I in Yorkshire. There’s no X anywhere in the world – yet – so the Holy Grail is Z, and until a year ago, obsessives had to head to Poland, to Zamek w Malborku or Zielona Góra or Zalew Żyrardowski.
Then parkrun came to The Netherlands, and one recent addition was the rather lovely Zuiderpark, which is how I came to be in Den Haag with a group of 14 delightful Horsforth Harriers who had adopted me into their tribe at Leeds Bradford airport. This would be the final stage of my personal challenge, a randomly-collected list which included Abingdon and York by way of Jersey, Guernsey, Firenze in Italy, and Nobles Park on the Isle of Man, in no particular order.
Actually, I’d met a couple of the Harriers before, six weeks ago when I SHOULD have been in Holland; the event was cancelled at short notice, and in a sulk I headed instead to what proved to be a favourite route, at Chevin Forest near Otley. Instead of jogging over the flattest country on earth, I found myself tackling some vicious hills in a beautiful enchanted wood, and chatting to some of the most enthusiastic volunteers Yorkshire’s ever seen. They were aiming to head to Zuiderpark, they told me, on the same quest, and sure, I was welcome to tag along.
It proved to be quite a party, a delightful and diverse group of fun and friendly folk who were joined, on the Saturday morning, by other obsessives from the UK on the same quest. Among them, celebrating her 14th birthday, was Jessica Walker from Southend, travelling with her mum and dad, Helen and Nigel. Jessica finished in ninth place overall and first woman; she said it was the best birthday present!
Leading home the Harriers was geography teacher Bev, with 157 parkruns to her credit, who finished in 20th place in 23.12. Fiona completed her 249th and, all being well, will hit her official parkrun milestone next week on home turf at Bramley, Leeds. But perhaps most excited was Julia, who’s worked as a project manager and is the uber-obsessive who likes the order of things. She completed her alphabet challenge but, unusually, she’s achieved all those in alphabetical order. So yes, Armley before Brighouse, and eventually and penultimately to York.
“Initially I wanted to complete 50 parkruns by the time I was 50, which was done by March 2019. Ending with the letter J for Julia, of course, and then the alphabet continued.. in order.” The sequence broken, of course, by the 15-month parkrun lockdown-closure.
“For me, at Zuiderpark it was wonderful to have such support from my running family, since it was many of these guys who got me through the lonely lockdown.”
In other existences, a weekend like this would be called a city-break. But that’s not how parkrunners see the world. Why else would I have met some wonderful people, and overcome some long-held prejudices, in Skelmersdale (Tawd Valley) and Slough (Upton Court). I’m a Dunbrian (done all the Cumbrians), or was until now; we’ve just heard news of a new event at Maryport Prom. Anyone fancy heading out west this weekend?
*parkrun is a free, weekly, 5k volunteer-led event staged every Saturday across the world in 23 countries for runners and walkers. https://www.parkrun.org.uk/
Header Image: Den Haag Sportscampus parkrun venue