Last Saturday morning I arrived at Upton House parkrun a little earlier than usual and, given I was only doing a recovery run, I wasn’t too interested in doing too much of a warm-up beyond running from the car to the start line. For some reason, it was one of those Saturdays where I couldn’t help but bump into friends (Helen, Jason, Andy, Greg, Michelle, Rob and Phil but not Rory).
On hearing the Run Director’s speech begin, I wandered through the pack towards the start line and then noticed a familiar face. It was Paul Sinton-Hewitt – the founder of parkrun. I tapped him on the shoulder, said “Hello” and he then called to his wife, Jo; but with the announcements continuing it didn’t seem right to encourage the founder to talk through the speeches!
At the Start sign, I observed the Britishness of the other runners standing two metres behind it, and then we were off. About a kilometre in, I caught up with Greg and babbled on at him about how to run distance, being competitive and all manner of other things. With half a kilometre left, I became aware we were hogging the path and a faster runner was stuck behind us. I half-turned and signalled for them to come through and the familiar accent of PSH replied “It’s okay I’m happy to let you take the wind”.
I first met Paul and Jo when I was part of the core team setting up Poole parkrun in 2011. He came down to show us the ropes and look over the course. I’ve since met him a few more times at various parkruns and he’s always very friendly.
The story of how he came to start parkrun is well documented and begins when he was in a “dark place” in his life: “I got fired from my job, I lost my girlfriend, I got injured running.” The knock-on of the injury was he was missing his running friends so he decided to start a weekly time trial on Saturday mornings with coffee afterwards. This became known as Bushy Park Time Trial for which he built his own database and published the results. Having started with thirteen runners it grew slowly over the next year to almost a hundred. It continued to grow by word of mouth with extra events opening slowly over the next five years and they eventually rebranded to parkrun and went worldwide.
What intrigues me is where this idea came from? Paul has always said his dream is for everybody to have a parkrun at the end of their road if they want one. Interviewed in 2016 he said “”Parkrun’s simple concept should – and really can – exist in every town in the world. No-one should ever have to pay to go running in their community regularly, safely and for fun”.
When I’ve talked to Paul, I can’t help but notice he speaks with a distinct accent which I think is South African. I may be wrong about this, it may be from one of the neighbouring countries or somewhere completely different. If he is from South Africa then it would tie up with something I read some years ago about their running culture.
When I first explored the science of training to go quicker, I spent hours poring over Stephen Seiler’s now-defunct MAPP website. Under the Running section he had filed a series of articles by Steve Couper of the Dead Runners Society. I can’t find anything of Couper now so I can give no more credit than was provided on Seiler’s website. Couper wrote:
Mention “time trial” to a South African runner and he/she will immediately think of a low-key weekly race organized by a running club. These are held on weekday evenings starting between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the city (to compensate for the country not having time zones). There is no entry fee and anyone is welcome – not just members of the organizing club. There is no formal sign-up procedure. One just shows up and runs. I’ve run time trials where just one other person has turned up and I’ve run others which draw well over 100 runners each week. The depth of the competition is also highly variable.
Doesn’t that just sound like parkrun as we know it. He continues:
At some time trials the results of all finishers are recorded and the first few places even reported in the mainstream daily newspapers. At others times may just be called out as each runner crosses the finish line.
Twenty years ago time trials were all 8K or 5 miles in length. Now there is much more variation. Many offer a choice of two distances, typically 4K and 8K. Because the time trials are run in the dark (at least in winter), during the tail end of the evening rush “hour” and without marshals or police assistance, laying out a course can be quite challenging. Most 8K courses will be over two laps and will cross a few quiet residential streets but no major intersections. The course will usually be measured very accurately.
Living in Cape Town in the late 1970s, I used to run time trials regularly – often doing 2 per week. This was the only regular speedwork I was doing but it was sufficient to enable me to race often and relatively well. When I first moved to Pretoria in 1980 there was just one regular time trial – over a hilly 6.6K route. In order to do tempo runs at a standard distance I eventually laid out and organized an 8K time trial. When we returned to Pretoria for 8 months in 1993/4 there were at least 5 weekly time trials within an easy warmup jog of our house.
The bold parts are my emphasis but I’m pretty sure this is where the inspiration for parkrun came from. In running there are few new ideas just a reinvention or updating of existing ones. Sometimes the time is right to bring an old idea back into the foreground as it was in October 2004 when Paul started Bushy Park Time Trial.