Paul Sinton-Hewitt (Parkrun)
It all started with a midlife crisis-inspired return to marathon running. Some over-enthusiasm in this department led to an injury, which led to Saturday’s spent wondering how to remain involved with running. Thus, began parkrun—probably the biggest organised running movement ever.
“This is the best job in the world. The best company I’ve ever worked for. The best people I’ve ever worked alongside. I’m really lucky. I never planned it,” says Paul of the organisation he started on the back of a running injury.
It’s funny how life can work like that; lemons turned into lemonade. parkrun is certainly one of those classic lemonade stories. Paul’s own experience of birthing the organisation from the ashes of his marathon dreams is reflected in officialdom’s initial resistance against parkrun, followed by an absolute embrace of the movement. parkrun has broken the mould of traditional running organisations and found an unlikely common ground between competitive and social running—a common ground that is booming.
We caught up with Paul to dig a little deeper into this worldwide running phenomenon that started right here in London’s very own Bushy Park.
For those unfamiliar with parkrun, what exactly is it?
They’re not races. They’re runs. They’re not races because we’re not giving prizes. People do race themselves and they do race their friends, but that is a personal thing.
Our view is that it’s much more akin to a fun run. A timed fun run in a pleasant surrounding. But is this a significant series? Absolutely it is. This is by far the biggest running movement in the world. It’s the most relevant running movement in the world.
From one parkrun back in 2004, there are now over 400 around the world (and growing every week—there’s even a parkrun in Afghanistan in Camp Bastion). What has this growth been like from your perspective?
Everything has been exponential. Even if you take the first year at Bushy parkrun, the growth was exponential. We began with 13 runners and one year later 75 and one year later again there were two parkruns. No matter what period you look at we’ve had an exponential curve on the number of events, on the number of people registering, on the number of PBs, you name it. It’s quite phenomenal.
Jim [one of the original core group] approached me at sometime in the second year saying this is something that people really want. We received feedback from people saying, “This is just brilliant. I’m not an athlete, I don’t want to join a club but you make it possible for me to run. I’m getting fitter.” Towards the end of 2006 Jim said, “Let’s start another parkrun.” So I worked on how to duplicate the parkrun experience making it simple to replicate the formula.
Our second parkrun was in Wimbledon. We gave ourselves 12 weeks to find and establish a team. The good thing was it took six weeks to have a completely self-sufficient team. So we had the basis for a model that we could cookie cut. In that year, 2007, we went from one event at the start of the year to seven. Seven became 15 a year later. 15 became 35 a year later. And the rest is history.
With 46 parkruns within the M25 (so far), what is it about Londoners and parkrun?
London is a special case. Boris Johnson, the mayor, approached us and asked us to specifically create a parkrun in every borough. He invested to get them started. So London is the only place that we find the parks and then look for the volunteers before we get going. Whereas everywhere else in the country the model is organic where the volunteers approach us with requests to start a parkrun.
>> FOR THE REST OF THIS INTERVIEW, CHECK OUT THE NEW BOOK RUNNER'S GUIDE TO LONDON
Parkrun Fast Facts
Paul’s Top-3 London Running Hotspots
3. Wanstead & Wimbledon | Equal third between Wanstead and Wimbledon Common.
2. Richmond Park | This is even more attractive. It has undulations and is a little more wild. It has everything you’d want in a running experience.
1. Bushy Park | Without any shadow of a doubt. You can break it into four or five different runs or you can do the whole thing. It’s flat and the place I run in most frequently.