A journey back to parkrun’s early days and why it’s now being prescribed by GPs

Eighteen years ago, 13 passionate runners set up a weekly 5km community running event in the UK called Bushy Park Time Trial. Now known as parkrun, it attracts 3 million participants globally. Jimmy Goulis remembers the time when he joined a motley crew of runners in a pretty English park, before things got really big…
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Trinity Frederick

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Q: Jimmy, when did you do your first Park Run event?

A: I was living in the UK, was into running and was looking for some fun runs. In those days you would buy Runner’s World Magazine. At the back you would find the calendar, which would show you all the fun runs coming up.

I saw this advertisement for Bushy Park Time Trial — that’s what it was called back then. It was free and I could see it was within jogging distance from home. So I thought I’d rock up and have a look. That was in 2005.

It turns out this was the start of the Park Run revolution. A few people had created it and had decided that there would be a free 5K time trial in Bushy Park every Saturday.

It began with motley crew of about 13 friends and it’s now grown into a worldwide phenomenon. I can’t believe that there are now around 3 million parkrunners!

Q: Were you one of the early adopters of parkrun?

A: I started about 8 months in, when there were 66 people running. They were actually all members of local clubs.

They were based in Surrey and a lot of the original founders of parkrun were members of those local clubs around the Surrey, Bushy Park region.

Picture this quirky little event in Bushy Park, which is very beautiful. There are deer in the park. Sometimes you’d have to stop wait for the deer to go past!

I don’t think anyone envisaged back then that this would explode and be in nearly every country across the world. It is so big now that almost anywhere you go, you’ll find a parkrun event. Even Bushy Park now has 1,300 runners every week.

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Q: What was parkrun’s purpose?

A: I think the founders always had a bigger vision that running should be about bringing the community together. And to be less expensive because fun runs had become pretty commercialised. You often had to spend around a hundred dollars to enter a fun run.

Bushy Park was really about promoting togetherness, social interaction and exercising… for everyone.

Through parkrun I met a whole bunch of like-minded people and that introduced me into the running clubs and the scene around the community where I lived.

Q: So it’s all about competition?

A: For many runners, it’s not necessarily about competing. It’s actually really useful to run a 5K time trial or race to say, ‘Oh, this is where I’m at the moment, this is my fitness level.’

The thing I love about parkrun is they time you and give you all of your stats; it’s really generous. I couldn’t believe that such a well organised event in a beautiful location could be free.

Q: Who does parkrun rely on? What is volunteering at parkrun about?

A: Parkrun is solely reliant on volunteer teams. They have timekeepers, photographers and pacers at the back to make sure no one gets lost. Week in, week out, all of these generous people show up for others.

Q: Do you think parkrun has an exclusive feel?

A: People can walk it, bring their dogs, push a pram. It’s really a joyful bringing together of people who are exercising. It could be Olympians or your average person around the corner. It’s not meant to be an elite thing.

If you think about grassroots sports, encouraging participation and not having it just for this exclusive group of super talented people is what it’s all about.

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Q: How many parkruns have you done?

A: I ran 39 events at Bushy Park. I was probably in my running prime and my best time back then was 15.47 in 2008.

Now I’ve hit 99 parkruns and I’m going to do my 100th soon.

My time in the UK came to an end and I returned to Australia. Not long after, parkrun came to Australia.

Albert Park was the inaugural parkrun Australia and I went to that event. I was fortunate enough to win it.

Q: How did you feel when you saw parkrun coming to Australia?

A: I was pretty thrilled because I remember how great it was back in the UK and it was just such an amazing community be part of.

Q: When you were participating at Bushy Park, at what point did you think, ‘This is going be something really big’?

A: Over time I started to see the numbers of parkrunners build. By the end of my time in the UK there were about 400 parkrun participants. You could just see the momentum building, week after week. There were 60, then 70, then 100 and it grew quickly from there.

Then there was talk about other places in the UK asking to start up their own local event.

There was a process that parkrun introduced that was like parkrun in a box. You essentially got approval from the local council and then you’d get all the things you need, like timing equipment. You were shown how to roll this out in your suburb.

It was really clever the way it was made simple for people to take on and to develop their own local version with their own volunteers and their own local parkrun participants. 

Q:Would you still know some of the old people if your were to go back to the UK and run another Bushy Park?

A: Sometimes I still check the Bushy Park Run results to I see if I can find anyone who I remember. But I guess we’re all getting a bit older, so a whole new bunch of new names comes up. Occasionally I do see a familiar name or face.

I’m still Facebook friends with some ‘alumni’. Obviously, things change, but you still have these connections.

One the guys who I met through parkrun in the UK came to live in Australia. He attended the inaugural parkrun at Albert Park Lake.

That was quite a nice moment: two former Bushy Park devotees, who we were actually in the same running club in the UK, just happened to bump into each other on the other side of the world.

Q:From a physio’s perspective, what are the benefits of Park Run?

A: People who want to exercise more, or already have an interest in jogging, should go to the website and look through parkrun locations to find their closest event. Or just type ‘parkrun near me’ into google.

I know for myself that having a goal or a bunch of enthusiastic people encourages me.

When a patient is with me and they are at the point where they are ready for something like this, I normally say ‘Let’s look at the suburb where you live. Where’s your nearest parkrun? Why don’t you go down, walk or jog it and see how you find it.’

It’s a way of giving patients tools to become more active.

In the UK now, healthcare professionals are actually prescribing Park Run as a way to improve their lifestyle and manage their health and the event has been endorsed by the NHS.

Australia’s RACGP has partnered with parkrun and GP practices are encouraged to develop close links with their local event, for the same reasons.

This really resonates with me as a physio. It’s not about how fast you are, it’s about movement and the link between exercise and positive health outcomes.

Q: What about parkrun for the elite runner?

A: Elite runners love coming to parkrun and trying to set course records. It’s really quite exciting.

When I was at Bushy Park a really amazing UK runner called Andy Baddeley came down to parkrun in between Olympics and set the course record. It was something like 12 minutes.

How exciting is it to see an Olympic athlete running the same event as you and seeing them break a course record? Very motivating.

It’s another way to test yourself as an athlete and see if you can run a personal best or a course record. I think the high-level runner enjoys a parkrun as much as your weekend warrior!

Towards the end of my stint in the UK I felt this sense that I was going to lose Bushy Park. So I used to go every weekend and I won a lot of those runs.

I ended up being one of the top first-finishers.

Parkrun keeps stats of everything. You know how many times you won the event, how many runs you’ve done, at what locations. This is one of the best things about parkrun: how well they utilise statistics.

They capture everything from your time to your age-grade ranking. This is really interesting because a lot of events forget that, okay, if you are 60 and you are running 18 minutes, that’s pretty amazing.

Looking through the results today, there’s a woman who is aged between 70-74 and is running it in 20 minutes. Isn’t that great?

Q: Parkrun has been an early adopter of tech, especially barcodes?

A: Park Run really leads the way in terms of using technology to help reduce the burden on a runner. You don’t have to pin a number on your t-shirt, you have a tag that’s electronic, they just scan it.

They’re at the forefront of using technology for timing, for ease of participation.

I think a lot of running events are still living in the dark ages by asking you to bring lap counters to events or pinning numbers to you.

With parkrun you fill in a registration form once, receive your barcode for parkrun events and you’re ready to go. Everything is automated. You don’t have to stand in queues at the event.

You do a park run at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and you can usually check the results by 10am. That’s how quick and efficient they are.

Q: Can checking your parkrun time become a bit of an obsession?

A: It becomes really obsessive because you want to see your time and compare it to your previous efforts. Plus look at everyone else’s stats…

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Q: There is a thing called parkrun tourism, what’s that about?

A: I like being close to home, I can jog to the start, I can run it and then I can jog home. But for other people, there’s a new thing called ‘parkrun tourism’. I know people who have done hundreds of events in different places. They pride themselves on variety and attending different places. That’s the thing about parkrun, there’s something for everyone; I think it depends a lot on your personality type.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s considering doing a parkrun for the first time?

A: Don’t consider it for too long. Just go down, on your own, with your dog, or take a friend. Whatever your ability, it doesn’t matter.

There’s no-one really there to judge you, it’s just about your own personal fulfilment and the first achievement is just getting to the starting line. The second achievement is, of course, finishing it!

Q: What advice would you give to a parkrun devotee like yourself?

A: Just keep running. There are so many benefits socially, physically, mentally. It’s such a nice thing to be part of.

There are always conversations with strangers, if you are up for it. And people are just glowing with endorphins.

There’s not really a profit motive, it’s quite pure in the same way that sport was when you were a kid. It just feels really grassroots.

Q: What do you have to say to the parkrun founders and volunteers?

A: Obviously the success speaks for itself. The vision to conceive this, put in the infrastructure and the technology to make it work and then organise it every week in so many different locations around the world is a huge credit to its founders and everyone who has become involved since. Oh, and thank-you.

Q: Do you have any parkrun goals left ?

A: In the early days of parkrun, I was very fortunate to be a decent runner and I regularly won events. When I came to back to Australia, I also won a lot of events in Albert Park.

But then I ended up with an Achilles injury, had surgery and this led to time off running. I was quite sad that I couldn’t run at all, let alone win events.

Now that I’m a bit older, I just enjoy the fact that I can run! For me, it’s not so much about being competitive, it’s more about showing up and returning to that child-like experience of participating in sport.

I think sometimes we get so competitive and want to run a personal best all the time. We can forget that the true joy of running is the fact that we can actually run at all.

Being able to get to the start line, not having any pain or injuries, that’s what gives me joy now. I always look at my time, but it doesn’t define me anymore. 

I think living in the moment and being present to the joy of running and the feeling of running is more important than the outcome.

 

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