Shortly before I moved to Birmingham in 2013, the Equality Network in Scotland published a report called ‘Out for Sport’. The research focused on the negative impact that homophobia and transphobia has on the number of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people (LGBT) taking part in sport.
The findings made sobering reading. 57% of LGBT respondents said they would be more likely to participate in sport if it was more LGBT friendly. 62% had witnessed or experienced homophobia or transphobia in sport. Just 5% thought enough was being done to tackle the problem.
And while the report came out of Scotland and I was in Birmingham, and it focused primarily on sport as opposed to physical activity in general, the findings and recommendations used those words and phrases that we in the parkrun community are all too familiar with: accessibility, inclusivity, breaking down barriers, community engagement.
So when I discovered that Birmingham didn’t have an LGBT running group, there was only one option – and it wasn’t long before the Birmingham Swifts were born.
With the support of the local LGBT Centre and Birmingham City Council I attended a leadership course and gained my Leadership in Running Fitness (LiRF) accreditation. The added bonus was that I had been an event director at Hanley parkrun before my move, and parkrun was the perfect model for establishing a group that was open to everyone who wanted to join. We started out as a social run on a set route from the LGBT Centre, which made it easy to spread the word, and we encouraged people to take part in local parkruns on Saturdays.
All along I wanted parkrun to be part of the club plan, and connecting the two really opened the door and showed that running is for everyone.
What started out as a few mates going on a social run and extending the hand of friendship to anyone who wanted to join has turned into a running club with more than 100 members. We have a constitution, club vests and an affiliation to England Athletics, who have been incredibly supportive.
As a result of Birmingham Pride in the last couple of years, our profile has really ballooned, and hits on our website and social media channels translated into people turning up and running. We’ve had dozens of runners completing both the Birmingham 10k and Half Marathon, many of which didn’t consider themselves runners not that long ago – and many still don’t!
One of the reasons we’ve grown so effectively is because we are seen as a safe space. Sexuality isn’t an issue. The awkward questions people fear such as “when can we meet your girlfriend” through to genuine anxiety about using changing rooms are not barriers to participation.
The first time I had a call from someone I didn’t know asking about joining was from a Muslim woman who wasn’t sure if she could run but wanted to try. That was the moment I knew our club was going to work, and two years later that woman had two half marathons under her belt.
We continue to grow, both as a group and individuals. I recently completed a Coaching in Running Fitness qualification to improve our members’ running technique, and we’ve been attending different parkruns than just the local one at Cannon Hill Park, both to test our personal bests and for the social aspect.
We’ve also got an increasing number of members who are reaching landmarks at parkrun – and I was the latest to get to the milestone of 100 parkruns. It’s taken me nearly five years to get there, but as someone reminded me, in that time I’ve volunteered on a Saturday nearly 100 times as well.
I never thought that when I was introduced to parkrun back in 2011 that I’d be a regular runner, let alone set up my own running club, helped establish other parkruns or become a running coach! Who knows where the next five years might lead?
Just like parkrun, for some people our runs are the only ones they do. Some come for socialising, others to strive for a personal best and more and more are completing a Couch to 5k programme through our club. We also have a handful of non-LGBT members who came along to support someone at their first run and liked the ethos of the club.
Whatever the reason, all of us have had our lives changed for the better in some way. For me, I am always looking for ways to bring people into the running community and then help them progress.
Just like parkrun, I can’t imagine life without the Birmingham Swifts.
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