Park event that has run and run
Today, about 125,000 runners will go out for a three-mile run around their local park – three times the number who took part in the London Marathon.
And next Saturday, they will do it all again. Parkrun, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, has become one of the biggest keep-fit phenomenons of the 21st century, attracting everyone from Olympic athletes to pensioners and children.
And it all started out when a club runner, feeling out of sorts following a series of personal setbacks, decided to organise a leisurely run with a dozen friends.
Paul Sinton-Hewitt organised the first Parkrun event at Bushy Park in south-west London in October 2004.
"When I turned 43, a number of bad things happened including a severe running injury," he recalls.
"I was in a dark place, I got fired from my job, I lost my girlfriend, I got injured running.
"I found myself in a spiral of depression. Usually, when this happens, I am able to deal with it and recover by running and talking with my friends, but I couldn’t run," he says. Organising the event enabled him to meet up with his running friends and still be part of the running community, even if he was not able to run at a competitive level.
Today, there are 28 Parkrun events around the West Midlands, including ones in Telford, Dudley, Ludlow, Wolverhampton, Shrewsbury, Cannock, Ludlow, West Bromwich, Oswestry and Chasewater, as well as in Newtown over the Welsh border.
Among those taking part today will be 81-year-old Jim Hussey from Sutton Hill in Telford.
The former RAF man had been a competitive runner in his youth, before deciding to retire at 44. But when his late wife Teresa had to move into a care home, Jim found himself with spare time on Saturday morning, and decided to get back into running.
"I joined just over six years ago, and I've missed just 15 runs since then," he says.
"It's all so friendly, both with the other runners and the organisers who support you around the course."
He says the camaraderie and enjoyment he got from the club also helped him through difficult times during the death of Teresa, and also that of his daughter.
And while Jim might not be as quick as in his youth, he can still show some of the younger runners a clean pair of heels.
"Apart from a time when I was recovering from a broken ankle, I have never been last," he says.
Strictly speaking, nobody who enters the Parkrun comes last, as it falls to one of the volunteers to bring up the rear in each race.
The beauty of Parkrun lies in the simplicity of the format. Every Saturday morning, 5km (3.1-mile) runs are held at up to 631 locations around the country. All the events are listed on the parkrun.org.uk website, and people can sign up online, free of charge. They are issued with a barcode which they present at the start of the race. When they finish they are issued with another ticket, which allows the computers to accurately calculate each runner's time. Famous participants include Olympians Jessica Ennis-Hill and Dame Kelly Holmes.
Telford Parkrun, which marks its 300th race tomorrow, has been running since February 2013, and typically attracts 600 runners to Telford Town Park at 9am every Saturday.
It was founded by club runner Kim Fawke, to help a friend who was new to the area and wanted somewhere to run.
The first Telford run attracted 161 entrants – much more than Kim had been expecting – and electrical gremlins did delay the release of the results. But despite a few teething problems, people kept coming back, and the event has grown and grown ever since.
"We're all volunteers, nobody gets paid for it," she says.
"The thing I love is that you have some very fast runners, but the people coming in from the back are cheered just as much.
"There is no pressure, you can run it as fast or slowly as you want, you can walk if that's what you prefer."
As well as seniors such as Jim, Telford Parkrun also attracts a large number of children – so much so that it now runs a junior Parkrun event on Sundays, which is attended by about 300 youngsters aged four to 14.
Dudley Parkrun, based at The Dell athletics stadium in Brierley Hill, has been running since January 2017, and has so far staged 105 runs. The run begins with a couple of laps of the athletics track, before the team head off along the local parks and canal towpaths.
"It is actually quite a picturesque run," says organiser Steve Coldicott.
"I started running to lose a bit of timber, and I saw Parkrun advertised on Facebook.
He says the runners are encouraged to volunteer as marshals or helpers for one in every 10 races they run.
"There are two reasons people get involved," he says. "Some join because it's free, and it's a way they can run in a relatively controlled environment, they may already be fast runners, but the majority join as a fitness thing.
"If you are not particularly fit, it can be quite intimidating joining a running club, or even running on your own. But we get quite a lot of people who haven't exercised a lot in the past. You do not feel like you are surrounded by racing whippets."
Steve, who is 38, even managed to persuade his mother Isobel to join.
"She was in her late 50s, and had never been running before, but I encouraged her to come along, and she's now just done her 50th run," he says.
Back at Telford, Parkrun has also had a life-changing effect on Kim's brother Darren.
"I did my first run in July 2013, at the time I wasn't really a runner, I was a bit overweight and I was quite slow. I finished it in 48 minutes 45 seconds," he says.
He is now a member of Telford Harriers, and recently completed the run in 31 minutes 41 seconds.
"I don't think I would ever have gone running if it wasn't for Park Run," he says, adding that it has also helped him lose a great deal of weight.
Parkrun is also the perfect preparation to married life, according to newlyweds Jim and Natalie Vidler from Ironbridge.
Jim, who met Natalie at a running event in 2015, popped the question to Natalie at the start of Telford Parkrun on New Year's Day 2018. They tied the knot last month – but not until they had done Parkrun in the morning.
Natalie, 34, ran in a wedding dress, and the couple were showered in confetti when they reached the finishing line. Jim, 48, joked that for once the Parkrun would be the easier part of the day.
Parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who was appointed a CBE for services to grassroots sport in 2014, says the success of Parkrun is demonstrated by the average running times: they are significantly slower than in 2004, showing how the event has managed to cross boundaries and attract runners of all abilities.