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Aug 3, 2015

Tom Williams, MD of parkrun, is planning to grow the free event by 50 per cent in the next 12 months

The best ideas are often the simplest ones and it doesn’t get much simpler than putting your trainers on and going for a run in the park.

Add a printable barcode and you have parkrun, a movement that has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings in Bushy Park, Teddington on October 2, 2004, when just 13 people took part.

Expanded
The concept of running five kilometres in a park with others every Saturday at 9am hasn’t changed, but parkrun has now expanded to 325 locations across the UK and was taken to Denmark in 2009, with events springing up in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, USA and Russia in the past few years as well.

Almost 700,000 different people in the UK have taken part so far, with each event attracting 156 runners on average and each runner having participated in an average of 10 events to date.

Parkrun celebrated its 10th birthday at the end of last year. Its progress is all the more remarkable considering the concept only spread to a second event in Wimbledon after just over two years and a third in Banstead Woods in June 2007.

The fourth event and the first outside of London was started in Woodhouse Moor in Leeds by Tom Williams, who is now the managing director of parkrun, and he firmly believes the movement is only just getting started.

“When we talked about it in 2007 and there were only two events, the vision was for there to be a parkrun in every community in the country if not the world, so we always had an expectation we would grow,” Williams says.

“And at the moment we feel that, although the growth has been significant, it is just the tip of the iceberg. I believe we will look back in 10 years’ time at where parkrun is now and laugh at how small it is.”

Apart from the simplicity of the idea, when you speak to participants in various areas of the country, the words ‘sociable’, ‘community’ and of course ‘free’ are nearly always mentioned. Williams agrees that parkrun’s appeal lies in the positive feeling it engenders in people.

“I think the key is that in reality most people want to do good things and contribute to the community, be social and active, but it is difficult and there aren’t many opportunities to do that easily and for free,” he says.

“So all we have done is create a very accessible opportunity for people to get active together with friends and family and make it a habit. When you look at society as a whole, that is important and has largely been missing. We have empowered people to do it and they have taken it on.”

Novices
As many as 10,000 new runners per week have been signing up recently in the UK and, although many of those will be runners already, a significant proportion are novices.

Running was already the world’s most accessible sport, but parkrun has increased its appeal and more than done its bit to attract new runners and increase demand in all areas of the
sport, as well as helping to improve the health of the country to some extent into the bargain. 

parkrun’s rise might have been rapid thus far, but Williams told Sports Insight there are plans in place to grow by another 50 per cent in the next 12 months.

“We are growing faster now than we ever have before and that growth rate has increased constantly and has been almost exponential,” he says. “Today we have 1.6 million runners registered across 625 events in 10 countries.

“In five years we have gone from around 5,000 weekly participants to 100,000, so it has grown by a factor of 20 and when you look at some of the countries we are in, but don’t really have any scale yet, such as the USA and Russia, the potential is huge.

“In the UK we will start in excess of 100 events in the next year and in the rest of the world we will start in excess of 200, so we will have at least another 300 events and have grown another 50 per cent in terms of events in 12 months’ time.”

The ambition doesn’t stop there either and, while Williams jokes about the potential for parkrun to reach everyone from the remotest corner of Afghanistan to the farthest flung forests of Zimbabwe, there is no slowdown in sight for the latest running revolution.

Brave
“When I’m being really brave, I think that in 10 years we will have a million runners every single week,” Williams says. “I think someone has worked out the point at which every single person on the planet will be doing parkrun if growth were to continue at the same rate and it was something like 2037.

“Of course, that can’t happen in reality and we are going to have to plateau sooner or later, but in 10 years’ time I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a million people participating every week.

“At the moment, the UK accounts for around 70 per cent of runs every weekend and the UK is tiny. If we were to be successful in Canada, America, Russia and maybe even China, the sky is the limit.”


Empowering human interaction
The technology used to monitor runners’ times and allow them to measure their progress against both themselves and others is attractive to many. It’s come a long way from the washers organisers procured from a local hardware store to use as finish tokens in the early days.

Now a far more technologically advanced finish position token is used alongside a personal barcode in order to produce results. parkrun staff have written the software used from scratch.

The technological operation is a large part of what the small number of staff employed by parkrun do, but Tom Williams says using technology in the right way is paramount, as is ensuring the movement has access to enough funds to flourish, but that the backing comes from the right sources.

He says: “The important thing is that in order to get it right, you need to use technology to empower human interaction, as opposed to using it to reduce it. So we use technology quite heavily, but it is always focused on getting people to integrate with each other in an outdoor setting.

“We have got 10 staff in this country who focus on the UK only. There are seven staff looking after the technology and in other countries it is mostly volunteer-led, but there are some paid staff in the bigger ones as well. We have a decent amount of income and we get that partly on a local level when we start new events in terms of investment from a local authority or similar and partly from commercial partners.

“It’s challenging when your core product is free and you have strong principles and ethics to raise enough money to make it all happen, but we have thrived so far.”

Both adidas and Lucozade have supported parkrun for lengthy spells in the past and Alzheimer’s Research UK, Vitality and Sweatshop are current partners.

Sweatshop provides a pair of shoes to each event in the UK every month as a reward for exceptional achievement and Tribesports has also agreed a five-year deal to provide milestone t-shirts free of charge.

The t-shirts are awarded to runners and volunteers when they have participated in a certain number of runs and the brand expects to hand over 300,000 of them during the course of the agreement.

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