News - 10th January 2018

Planting a Seed

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In January 2016 Fletcher’s Cove parkrun launched in a quiet corner of Washington DC. As the event celebrates its second birthday, its impact can be seen well beyond the community of locals who meet on the canal towpath every Saturday.

 

Over the past couple of years, the Fletcher’s Cove parkrun has found its calling. The parkrun itself is a relatively small run in quiet corner of Washington, DC, the Palisades neighborhood, along a scenic and popular running route: the towpath alongside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Every Saturday, forty to sixty runners and walkers, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, show up out of nowhere in what looks like an impromptu popup event, leaving no trace within the hour. But Fletcher’s, arguably through little merit of its own, has turned out to be a stable of parkrun talent that has gone on to lead what the parkrun global organization called, in retrospect, the “relaunch of parkrun USA”, four years after the first US event.

 

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The story begins with four DC-based former parkrunners independently writing to parkrun in the UK about their interest in starting an event in town. Having flatly turned down the first requests, parkrun eventually connected these individuals with one another, and encouraged them to figure it out. On hearing that parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt would visit the US for meetings in California, they persuaded Paul to schedule a layover in DC. That trip proved a success, resulting in an interview for the Washington Post that put wind in their sails, and Fletcher’s Cove parkrun was greenlighted to start in January 2016.

 

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166 people – including the mayor of Washington DC, who had heard of the event through the Washington Post story – turned up for the inaugural run. That remains their largest turnout to date. Since then, things have quieted down at Fletcher’s, though people connected to the event went on to do important things. Event Director Henry Wigglesworth, a lawyer, led parkrun USA through the legal hurdles of incorporating as a non-profit, removing a key bottleneck for the creation of new events nationwide. Darrell Stanaford and his wife Svetlana soon got involved in setting up Roosevelt Island parkrun, just three miles down the Potomac River. Darrell went on to be named parkrun USA Manager and recently started the third DC parkrun in Anacostia. Co-Event Director Andres Falconer revitalized social media channels and relaunched the national newsletter. Also present at the Fletcher’s Cove inaugural event, Andrea Zukowski and Colin Phillips told themselves on the spot that if Fletcher’s Cove could do it, then so could College Park, and the rest is history. Colin later took on the leading role in parkrun USA communications and community building, and, with Andrea, inspired the fifth parkrun in the metro DC area, Kensington parkrun, which is scheduled to start this Winter. Diarmuid Coughlan, an NIH Cancer Research Fellow, reached out to Cathryn Burby, a dogwalker turned runner, securing parkrun’s first nationwide partnership, with the American Cancer Society. Burby, upon moving to Seattle, became the co-Event Director at Renton parkrun. Joyce Adams, a Fletcher’s regular, is now co-Event Director at Roosevelt Island parkrun, though she still has more Fletcher’s parkruns under her belt than anywhere else.

 

The name dropping could continue: from Olympians to Elvis impersonators, to the local ward’s elected councilmember, Fletcher’s Cove parkrun has seen it all. Washington being Washington, many parkrunners from across the country and the world have come and gone, and Fletcher’s learned to embrace its vocation as a connector of people. It may not the largest parkrun nor most popular among tourists in the DC area, but it’s main achievement has been to become, more than a single event, a catalyst for new events, and an example of how parkrun supports communities.

 

The growth that Fletcher’s Cove triggered is also apparent in the numbers. Two years on, the DC-Baltimore area is about to launch its 6th parkrun event. There are almost 6,000 registered parkrunners in the metro area, who have completed 13,500 runs to date. Many of the first-timers at the inaugural Fletcher’s event have now joined the parkrun 50-club. The national growth has been similarly strong: parkrun USA doubled in size in 2016, and then again in 2017.

 

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We venture a few lessons from the Fletcher’s Cove experience. The first was that the event started with a solid core team with complementary skills and a strong pool of volunteers, sharing a burden that elsewhere often falls on a single Event Director. This got the run to a good start, and ensured strong community connections. Secondly, and possibly as a result of there being too many cooks for a single event, the team was immediately thinking beyond Fletcher’s Cove. The idea of starting a second run was pursued almost right away, and the team broadened their thinking from a single event perspective to a regional and national view. Washington DC was ripe to become the first parkrun hub in the US: with a strong running culture, no shortage of parks and trails, and a strong cosmopolitan population, the DC metro area has embraced parkrun like no other part of the country.

 

The team at Fletcher’s Cove sometimes likes to take credit for everything that has happened in Washington DC and beyond since January 2016. A lot of it, however, can probably be attributed to luck: being at the right place at the right time. Embracing the parkrun community and witnessing so many people move on to do great things elsewhere has become the vocation of Fletcher’s Cove parkrun: a run, not a race.

 

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