Michael McMahon (right) was the driving force behind parkrun coming to the Republic of Ireland. As we prepare to celebrate our fifth birthday this weekend, we asked Michael to explain why he wanted to get involved with parkrun and for his thoughts on how far we have come since Malahide parkrun’s first event.
The week leading up to the second Saturday in November five years ago is still very blurry for me. parkrun’s Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE had told me that being an Event Director would change my life forever and I was beginning to realise that he wasn’t wrong!
We were busily preparing to launch the first parkrun in the Republic of Ireland, and it’s safe to say it wasn’t without its last minute challenges. A few days before the start we changed the course to make it easier to set up and to marshal, but then we realised on the Friday that the new route was 500 metres short. Thankfully we were able to get hold of a surveyor’s wheel at the last minute and, as they say, the rest is history. The first Malahide parkrun saw 159 finishers and six volunteers including my brother, sister and son. Just like that we were underway.
I had first heard people talking about parkrun online in an Irish athletics forum in about 2010 as it was really starting to take off in the UK. I liked the sound of it, how easy going it was, and the the fact it was community focused. I’m also a bit of technology nerd, so I found the use of the website and barcodes/scanners fascinating as well.
Bringing parkrun to a new country involved a different process to a regular event activation, and it’s true that I had never actually been to a parkrun at this point. It was an idea that just captured my imagination. Luckily for me, parkrun was already underway in Northern Ireland so I knew I had an event team who could mentor me. So after identifying Malahide Castle as a suitable location and gaining the support of Fingal County Council, I went along to Waterworks parkrun in Belfast in March 2012 to actually see parkrun for myself for the first time.
I remember being introduced as the guy from Dublin who was going to start the first parkrun in the Republic of Ireland, and getting a great cheer for that. The people there were lovely and so friendly. It was exactly as I hoped and expected it to be. I was shown the results system and the volunteer software afterwards, which was all a bit overwhelming as it was literally my first ever experience of parkrun. But, I decided that we needed parkrun all over Ireland so I went home with a determination to make that happen.
Back on that first day at Malahide parkrun we had no idea if 10 or one hundred people would turn up. We didn’t know how many would come back a second time. And there was no way of knowing if we would get enough volunteers each week. When you look at it like that, and think about where we are now, parkrun’s development in Ireland has been nothing short of extraordinary.
parkrun has evolved in so many different ways, and each of those steps has made it easier for people to take part in parkrun and easier for people to volunteer. In the early days it’s safe to say that we attracted more club runners and lots more people treated it competitively, but as the emphasis increasingly moved from performance to participation we became far more attractive to people who never thought it would be possible to take part in organised physical activity. These are the people in our society who have the most to gain from parkrun and this is where we are making a monumental impact on society. I’ll never forget the day a woman turned to me and said “parkrun has given me a new lease of life.”
There are too many stories to tell. From the people who have started their running journeys at Malahide parkrun, to those who have joined athletics clubs like our local Portmarnock AC, to people who just come down on Saturday for a jog to clear their head or to meet their friends. We were honoured to receive an award from the Mayor of Fingal along with the other parkruns of Fingal, in recognition of parkrun’s contribution to the community.
parkrun has had a profound impact on me as well, particularly because of the wonderful people I have met. These include our great team of run directors (Eoin, Ruth, Helen, Des, Ronan, Gaetan and John) and Des who is running the show for our fifth birthday celebrations this Saturday. We’re lucky that the Avoca cafe is also celebrating its fifth birthday too and they are providing us with cake. We’re hoping that a lot of runners who ran at Malahide in the early months and years, but have since moved on elsewhere, will come back to visit this week.
Paul Sinton Hewitt was right. parkrun has changed not just my life, it’s touched the lives of the 110,000 other people who have walked, run and volunteered at parkrun in Ireland. But with our population moving ever closer to five million, we are only just getting started.
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