Why parkrun changed their lives

The Mag North editor is promising to get along to a parkrun...soon. In the meantime, our Cumbria correspondent Eileen Jones explains why millions of people around the world are getting a weekly 5k fix in a park.
August 3, 2022

I’m galloping downhill on a steep forest track towards a finish line and for a few glorious moments it feels like a fell race. But though this is Whinlatter Forest parkrun , steepest in the world, it’s strictly not a race. There’s no winner, just a first finisher, no medals, no podium – and no entry fee. Welcome to a life-changing, global phenomenon that happens every week.

I took up parkrun (always one word, always lower case) when I became too slow to race the fells any more, too concerned for the marshals who were hanging around for me at summit checkpoints. Within weeks I realised that  this was about much more than a Saturday morning run around a park. It’s a community, a family, a volunteer-led weekly event that gives structure and purpose to many lives, arguably the greatest-ever public health initiative. It’s been dubbed a new religion, while the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, was awarded a CBE and the Albert medal from the Royal Society of Arts for creating a global social movement for the common good that unites people and improves lives. Around the world, in 22 countries, more than seven million people have signed up for parkrun, and for so many of them parkrun has changed their lives.

Jaz Kaur Bangerh, (Left), at Roberts parkrun. She was the first British Asian woman to reach 500 parkruns

This bug, that bit me first in Europe’s biggest municipal park, Heaton Park in north Manchester, is still biting after more than 300 parkruns at 125 different locations. (And these statistics are modest compared with some parkrun obsessives.) I’ve run all the Cumbrian events – including one in a prison, at Haverigg – after helping to set up events at Fell Foot at Windermere and Rothay parkrun in Ambleside. Across the north I’ve run in the shadow of historic Alnwick Castle, on the edge of a housing estate at Skelmersdale, through parkland at Leeds and Wigan, Burnley and Halifax, in a park named after Peter Pan, around the grounds at Fountains Abbey, underneath the Humber Bridge, and along the promenades at Fleetwood and Morecambe.

Get Me To The parkrun On Time

It would be improper here, in the pages of Mag North, to wax too lyrically about my all-time favourite at Mount Edgcumbe on the Tamar estuary near Plymouth. But among the northern gems are Crosby (running among Antony Gormley’s “Bings”), along the clifftop path at Sewerby near Flamborough Head, and in the delightful Roberts Park at Saltaire where the enthusiasm of the volunteer team is utterly effervescent, and you’re warned in no uncertain terms that “it’s not cricket to overtake in the snicket”.

Everyone is welcome, of course; parkrun is a beacon of encouragement and inclusivity. There’s no one too old, too young, too slow, to take part, and while first-finishing times are applauded, no one is ever last-finisher because a tail-walker volunteer goes round at the back to ensure all get safely home. Records are set and broken at individual parkruns, of course, and age-category positions are treasured: I was once delighted to be first old dear at Old Deer Park. But the record of which HQ is most proud is the ever-lengthening of the average finish time. “That means we are reaching more people for whom physical activity hasn’t been the norm,” says Sinton-Hewitt. “I would like to see that continue, and for more people to understand that parkrun is truly welcoming of those who want to walk, jog, run or volunteer, especially those who would like to take their first steps on the path of being physically active.”

The value of volunteering is much more than anecdotal. Those cheery marshals and finish-funnel managers are clearly having a good time, but serious research has proved the benefits of volunteering at parkrun. Studies led by Steve Haake, Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, at the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, found a significant and positive impact on health and wellbeing. Their studies shone a light on the fact that volunteering is an incredibly positive activity in its own right. People may be motivated by altruistic factors, but the research supports the belief that volunteering at parkrun benefits the individual in a range of ways, as well as the community they are part of.

So You Won't Get Lost

Chrissie Wellington, four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion and world record holder, now Head of Health and Wellbeing for parkrun Global, says that “breaking down the barriers to participating in regular physical activity and volunteering has been one of the cornerstones of parkrun’s global success.”

It has also saved lives. Dr Simon Tobin, a GP at the Norbury Surgery in Southport, was one of the pioneers of a formal partnership with the Royal College of GPs. The parkrun practice initiative, to which some 1500 GP practices have now signed up, means that doctors will literally prescribe parkrun instead of medication for a range of conditions. Simon is passionate about the benefits of “lifestyle medicine”, and says that after a couple of volunteering sessions at Southport parkrun, he knew that “something special was happening and that I wanted to be part of it.”

He adds: “I’ve now seen many, many people exercise themselves back to health. My patients are healthier, happier and on fewer medications, and the NHS saves a fortune on unnecessary drugs and dealing with their side effects.”

More specifically, a parkrun collaborative project, 5k Your Way, is a community-based initiative to encourage those living with and beyond cancer, their families and friends and those working in cancer services, to walk, jog, run, cheer or volunteer at a parkrun on the last Saturday of every month. There are now more than 60 groups around the country, and the founder, Lucy Gossage (another Triathlon Ironman champion and an oncologist) loves parkrun because it’s NOT a race: “It’s a community of people who are active. It’s not just for runners; it’s for normal people who are not sporty finding that love of being outdoors.”

Happy Family at Whinlatter: Global Chief Operating Officer for parkrun, Tom Williams, With Wife Helen and Children Rosie and Aston

Back in Cumbria, Dr Paul Davies, a core-team volunteer at Rothay parkrun who created a parkrun-practice link with the local health centre in Ambleside, is evangelistic about looking beyond the physical benefits of parkrun. “You experience a place differently when you’re in a different physical state. It stimulates the senses, especially going out whatever the weather. Going out in all elements has a health benefit in itself, exhilarating and invigorating. If you were just going out for a run, you might wait till the rain had stopped. But with parkrun you have to do it at the same time, whatever the weather. It encourages people with anxiety or depression to take exercise when they wouldn’t do otherwise.” 

Eileen Jones is the author of How parkrun changed our lives, published by Gritstone