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The significance of parkrun cannot be overlooked

Most events have been placed on hold for the past year - it's time for them to make a return

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Image Credit: Craig Muir

For 17 years, parkrun has been a routine part of the weekend for runners, walkers and buggy-pushers alike. On a typical weekend pre-pandemic, 300,000 people in England would take part in their local parkrun. But since the banning of mass gatherings in March 2020, these weekly, timed events have been unable to go ahead.

The first ever parkrun took place in 2004 in Bushy Park, London, and only had thirteen participants. It now exists in over 22 countries and has over three million registered members in England alone. Its popularity is due to the fact that it does not discriminate: parkrun is for everyone, whether you’re young or old, fast or slow, an elite runner or a beginner. Since parkrun’s founding, the average finishing time has slowed down every year, showing that more and more people are getting involved in running, including those who have never run before. In 2005, the average finishing time was 22 minutes and 16 seconds, while in 2020, the average finishing time was 32 minutes and 20 seconds. As the event has grown, it has become one of the country’s largest and most successful public health initiatives ever.

So why hasn’t parkrun returned? Despite having permission from the government to go ahead since March 2021, the weekly 5km runs remain cancelled. After failing to return as planned on the first weekend in June, the restarting of parkrun has now been delayed indefinitely. As an outdoor event which takes place locally, parkrun is relatively safe when it comes to transmission of the virus, and therefore its non-return is not due to safety concerns. Instead, the delay is simply down to problems with landowner permissions and bureaucracy within local councils. Around 90 percent of parkrun events need permission to return before any at all can; at the moment, less than 50 percent of the events have this permission. For example, in London, only three of the 56 events that exist there have permission to return. If these three were allowed to go ahead, there is a risk they would be overwhelmed with runners from across the city.

The past few months have seen the welcome return of pubs, restaurants and sporting events. While this has both been exciting and relieving – giving us some sense of normality  – I can’t help feeling frustrated that parkrun remains cancelled while the rest of life slowly goes back to normal. This is not just for the selfish reason that I’m confident I could beat my parkrun personal best now, although that does come into it. The value of parkrun cannot be overstated: it boosts mental and physical wellbeing, as well as bringing communities back together, all of which is essential post-pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics have recently published data showing that over the course of the pandemic, depression rates in the UK have doubled. While a holistic approach will be needed to tackle this mental health crisis, it is undeniable that running has huge mental health benefits. Parkrun has even been prescribed to patients by GPs to combat anxiety and depression, as well as conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Of course, running has great physical health benefits as well, improving cardiovascular fitness, strengthening muscles and helping to maintain a healthy weight. Some prisons even have parkrun events, which seek to maintain the wellbeing of the population. The return of parkrun is fundamental to boosting public health.

Another valuable aspect of parkrun is its inclusivity. Every event is completely free, meaning it is accessible to anyone, no matter their background. This means that children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, get a chance to get outside, exercise and make friends. Getting involved in a sport from a young age sets them up to stay mentally and physically healthy for the rest of their lives, and an event like junior parkrun is essential for families who cannot afford pitch fees or expensive sporting equipment. As worries about growing wealth disparity post-pandemic emerge, the existence of free and inclusive activities is paramount.

As well as providing health benefits and an inclusive environment, parkrun also enables people to feel part of a local community, something that is needed after an isolated year. It is volunteer-led, meaning that anyone can volunteer to marshal, scan barcodes or give out finish tokens. No matter where the run is based – I’ve taken part in several different parkruns, including one in Germany – the atmosphere is always friendly and welcoming. Whether you go to chat to friends, beat your personal best, or just to maintain fitness, there is always a sense of togetherness.

As the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, we need parkrun more than ever. If the past year or so has taught us anything, it is that our health and our connections with other people are two of the things we value the most. Clearly, parkrun helps to maintain both of these things. It is vital that we do not lose this wonderful initiative to bureaucracy.

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