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The power of parkrun

Let’s look at some numbers. On Saturday (February 2) 1267 runners took part in the Bushy Parkrun.

There were 764 runners in the Cardiff Parkrun, 741 in Cannon Hill and 730 in Coventry – you get the picture.

In Chelmsford – Essex’s only city – there were 654 runners who showed up for a parkrun in Central Park on a bitterly cold Saturday morning.

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One of the 654 was me, doing my first ever parkrun and my first ever running event period.

It was my first taste of what has rapidly become the UK’s most popular mass-participation sport and it’s easy to see why.

The phenomenon that is parkrun 

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654 runners took part in the Chelmsford Parkrun on February 2

Parkrun – a timed 5k run through parks across the country – is no secret anymore.

It can trace its origins back to 2004 when keen amateur runner Paul Sinton-Hewitt managed to convince some of his friends to show up for a timed run around Bushy Park in London.

After 13 turned up they calculated the results on paper then went for a coffee.

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By accident parkrun was created and it has stayed exactly the same since – aside from the fact that a lot more than 13 are now showing up at events all over the place.

The run I attended was the 324th edition of the Chelmsford Parkrun, and it just so happened to be the fifth biggest in the country on that weekend in terms of numbers showing up.

So what did I find out?

The best things in life are free

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The runners queue to collect their token at the end of the 5K

In a world where sports participation can so often be dictated by how much money you have, and the cheapness of the equipment needed, parkrun is a godsend.

It’s incredibly easy to register, and it’s free, thanks to the incredible volunteers who help to make the events happen every single weekend.

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A couple of weeks before I ventured out to do my first event I registered on the Parkrun UK website.

After you input your details you get a barcode to print out and you can take this to any Parkrun UK event whatsoever in the country.

At each event it is scanned, and you get your time and race result recorded before it is sent to you via email.

Easy peasy.

Race day

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I took part in my first ever timed running event

Whilst traveling into town to the meeting point at Central Park a lot of me was wondering what was in store and whether I could even complete the course in a respectable time.

For as long as I can remember stamina has been a bit of an issue for me, but I’ve recently upped my gym and running sessions, so I felt ready before hitting the course.

After arriving at the starting point the first timers are given a quick briefing 10 minutes before the race begins.

There we were told that – while timed – a parkrun is far from competitive. It’s whatever you want it to be.

We were told that there was no way we’d be first because there were people that had been doing it for ages.

And there was no way we would be last as some liked to simply walk the 5k course.

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Personally, I had set myself a target of under half an hour to complete the course – partly based on the fact that it was my first one and also the scarring memories of being forced to do the house cross country competition at school.

But part of the enjoyment of my run was that the only pressure there was the pressure I put on myself.

Everyone else has their own goals so while there were well over 600 participants there was never that nagging feeling that you would be singled out as a rubbish runner.

In the end I managed to complete the course in 29:17 – the first building block and something to improve on – and it felt damn good crossing that finish line.

But that’s the beauty of parkrun – it’s free, you can use that 5k route however you like and your own times give you targets to better yourself.

Mending my mind

The Chelmsford Parkrun takes place in Central Park every Saturday

Aside from the health benefits of doing sport and keeping fit there is a wider point I want to make.

Running has fast become a tonic for my mind and taking part in parkruns only helps to enhance this.

The mental health benefits of sport are very well documented and research from Staffordshire University released in October 2018 showed just how beneficial parkrun could be.

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The study in question involved parkrunners who identified as having experienced mental health difficulties and it concluded that volunteering, being outside and participating in a community activity was hugely advantageous.

Those who participated reported that parkrun gave them a sense of identity – being part of the ‘parkrun community’ and reducing the stigma associated with mental health difficulties.

Every single person that took part in the research reported that parkrun was beneficial to their mental health.

From my own perspective I have my own history with anxiety and depression having spent the best part of two years struggling to get to grips with it at university and being put on medication.

Toward the back end of 2018 I suffered a real dip and started to experience similar levels of depression to what I had during my darkest time – I’m still not entirely sure why but I suspect it may have been down to some sort of burnout.

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As 2019 came around I promised to myself that I would up the ante on my running. That meant hitting the gym more, hitting the streets after work more and finally signing up to a parkrun.

I’m now infinitely happier than I was a couple of months ago – running and my gym sessions have become my switch off time.

When you’re out there it’s just you, the music through your headphones and a stopwatch – and nothing else.

Those moments, while tiring, have become my escapism from everyday life and I’m now doing more than I ever have done before.

Mark my words Parkrun UK – you’ll be seeing me again.

Written by Alasdair Hooper

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