Hi, my name’s Glen. I grew up in Australia, I am a rugby league fanatic, and I work for parkrun HQ.
I was kindly asked to write this week’s event report for Hull parkrun, but I’ve taken the liberty of focusing more on my experiences and observations as a first-time visitor to Hull. You see, my home town in Australia has a lot more in common with Kingston-upon-Hull than you might think…
Until last week, when somebody mentioned Hull, the first image that popped into my mind was of 3,000 naked people painted blue. And how parkrun’s Founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE, would be a dead ringer for Papa Smurf if he was also painted blue. But that’s not the image I want to leave you with.
In a moment I want you to close your eyes and concentrate hard. Picture Hull in your mind, but then imagine what it would look like with palm trees, koalas, golden sand beaches, an ocean the colour of turquoise, and with a much milder climate. The vision you will have in your head is of the area I grew up in. The place is called Wollongong, it’s the 10th largest city in Australia, and it’s 11,000 miles south of Hull as the crow flies.
What do Hull and Wollongong have in common? Well, excluding the palm trees, koalas, beach and climate, quite a lot actually. Hull was founded in the 12th century by the monks of Meaux Abbey because they needed a port to export wool. It has gone on to become a market town, military supply port, trading hub, fishing centre and a sizeable industrial area.
Wollongong (pronounced Wool-un-gong) is a harbour town that was originally inhabited by the indigenous Dharawal people. The name translates to “great feast of fish”. The Europeans who first settled the area in the early 1800s were cedar cutters and graziers, and a military barracks was constructed at the harbour, but it was the discovery of coal that secured its destiny. To this day, Wollongong has the largest single concentration of heavy industry in Australia, produces five million tonnes of steel every year, and has an ideal harbour for exporting materials. It also continues to produce lots of delicious fish!
The similarities don’t end there. Like Hull, Wollongong also has three parkruns – North Wollongong, Sandon Point and Shellharbour. Hull parkrun and Shellharbour parkrun both have wallabies (more on that later).
It was parkrun that brought me to Hull for the first time at the weekend. I always feel completely at home in coastal industrial areas, and I’m no stranger to ‘northern hospitality’, but what struck me most was the immense sense of pride that the people of Hull have in their city. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.
Since I moved to the UK in October 2004 (parkrun coincidence?!) people continually ask me why I left the sun and surf of the Great Southern Land. Don’t get me wrong, where I come from is a beautiful part of the world. However it’s also very remote and, because of the time difference, anything that happens elsewhere in the world is in the middle of the night if you’re in Australia. For example, some of my earliest memories are being woken up by my father at 3am to watch The Kangaroos play Great Britain in the good old days of the fiercely contested three test rugby league series. (Australian readers may wish to re-live Ricky Stuart’s dummy from 1990 using this link. British readers probably not so much).
Equally, Australia can seem like a million miles away if you’re anywhere else in the world. If you want to visit and experience the country properly, you need three or four years to spare and quite a bit of money. It’s the same size as Europe. For this reason, especially when I was growing up, it felt to me like Australia had a bit of a chip on its shoulder. A proud country, idyllic lifestyles, good education, a strong economy, great healthcare, competitive at sport, and with an abundance of unique experiences ready and waiting for any intrepid traveller – if they could somehow find the time and money to get there. Then something happened.
In September 1993, Australians collectively set their alarm clocks for the early hours of the morning to find out who the hosts of the 2000 Olympic Games would be. I was about to become a teenager and I remember the moment vividly: IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said “Syd…” and nobody heard the second syllable, such was the spontaneous eruption of cheering.
That year I was living with my parents in the United States and I was acutely aware that at that time it was Crocodile Dundee, poisonous creatures and a ‘big red rock in the desert’ that were the only things that most people knew about – or associated with – Australia. Thankfully the Olympics would be a chance to change that, and it did, beyond all recognition.
When The Greatest Show on Earth came to Sydney in 2000 I was in my final teenage year, and I was lucky enough to being working for SOCOG, the organising committee for the Games. My job was in the press centre, and my days involved running press conferences, writing articles and helping foreign journalists – from introducing them to athletes to taking them around the city. I knew their own personal experiences of Australia would influence what they wrote, and as a proud Aussie I wanted them to have an unforgettable experience.
There’s no doubt that most people embrace a major event when it comes to their city. The party atmosphere, civic pride and positivity is something that you can feel, and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. London 2012 was no different to Sydney 2000 in my own experience. But when the circus leaves town and the eyes of the world look elsewhere, what happens next? My personal view is that it should look and feel like a port city in East Yorkshire that was the UK City of Culture in 2017. It’s called Hull.
I didn’t know anything about Hull until 2013, when it was announced as the next UK City of Culture and was suddenly beamed into my living room on BBC Breakfast most mornings. The cultural renaissance was underway and it seemed as though everyone in the country had a front row seat. What you can’t see on TV though is how a place feels, and that was what I was so keen to experience at the weekend.
Having met 65 incredibly passionate parkrun volunteers from the area on Friday evening as part of our ‘parkrun HQ on Tour’, it was off to a somewhat icy East Park on Saturday morning for the 417th Hull parkrun. I noted with interest that the first Hull parkrun was 3 April 2010, and my first parkrun was 10 April 2010. I was following in the footsteps of greatness one might say.
Speaking of, parkrun’s Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE kicked off the morning by welcoming 504 runners and walkers and 32 priceless volunteers (who I would personally like to thank once again). You could hear a pin drop as the man who delivered the first parkrun briefing on 2 October 2004 took hold of the microphone for the first time at Hull.
Shortly afterwards we were on our way, and by the time Paul Martindale (Peter Pan junior parkrun Event Director) and his daughter Heidi pointed us around the first turn I was just starting to warm up enough that I could feel my hands!
I’d been told that the Hull parkrun course was picturesque, flat and fast, and that I would ‘feel at home’. That cryptic clue was lost on me until I did a double take at the 2k mark, when I ran past… wallabies! I almost fell over when I saw them – the last time I ran alongside wallabies was at Bowral parkrun last month when I was in Australia visiting family and friends. The ones at Bowral were unexpected, but the ones in Hull blew my mind.
Overall though, my impression of Hull parkrun was not about the course. It was about the people. How supportive the course marshals were (it was like running through a guard of honour), how the fingers of the finish funnel volunteers are made of the strongest stuff, and how much everybody smiled whether they were walking, running or volunteering.
“What you can’t see on TV is how a place feels, and that’s what I wanted to experience”
A special shout-out must go to the 18 people who were taking part in parkrun for the very first time on Saturday (welcome to the parkrun family), and equally to the 17 people who were back for their second parkrun. Congratulations on taking your first and second parkrun steps – Saturdays will never be the same again. A big well done also to the 55 people who recorded their fastest time on the Hull parkrun course.
Once token 504 was scanned and the funnel taken down, I must be honest and say that the cafe couldn’t have been close enough for my poor Aussie hands! I was seriously cold, but it was worth it for the seriously amazing coffee and breakfast that awaited at the Pavilion Cafe. It wasn’t the hot food and drink that capped off a perfect parkrun morning though: once again it was the people who I spoke to.
Excuse my Australian forthrightness, but the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and the tendency for people to understate the town or city they live in is still something I’m getting used to after 14 years in the UK. As I said earlier, most people I meet ask me ‘Why did you leave Australia to come here?’. In Hull though, nobody asked me that. They said ‘Welcome to Hull’ or ‘Thank you for coming’ or ‘It’s a pleasure to have you here’. Then they told me about the history, the culture, where to eat and drink, where to go and what to see. There was a point when I thought that the local tourist information centre was doing a parkrun takeover day. I found it so refreshing, and it reminded me of the way people acted in Sydney after the Olympic torch had been extinguished. That sense of pride and an unbridled enthusiasm at showing off your city is a truly wonderful quality and it made me feel welcome. I felt proud to be in Hull in the same way that the people of Hull are proud to promote it.
Just before leaving the cafe I glanced at my phone to check the score in the rugby league match between Hull FC and Wigan Warriors, which was being played at WIN Stadium. For those of you who don’t know where WIN Stadium is I’ll give you a big clue: it’s where I used to watch my local rugby league team play when I was growing up, and in those days it was called Wollongong Showground.
It’s a small world isn’t it?
To the people of Hull: happy parkrunning, keep smiling, stay proud, and thank you. I’m already looking forward to coming back to what is a City of Culture, and a City of parkrun.
Headline photo thanks to David Gowans
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