Big, meet Big. On January 19th the world’s largest running event reaches the largest state in the continental US with the launch of Terry Hershey parkrun in Houston, TX. This minimalist, community driven 5k along the Buffalo Bayou will take place every single week. It’s entirely free. And the organizers offer an iron-clad you-will-not-finish-last promise.
When Irishman Bernie Mooney was living in London in 2011-12 he discovered parkrun, a series of free, low-key 5k events held in locations throughout the UK every Saturday morning. After moving to Houston he missed the community vibe of the weekly meetups. “I always had it in the back of my mind that I would like to attend or set one up in Houston.”
In a city as diverse as Houston it’s little surprise that he wasn’t the only person who felt that way. After a few different people reached out to parkrun USA expressing interest in bringing parkrun to Houston, they were brought together to make it happen. Englishwoman Emma Smith, American Paul Dickinson, and an extended group of Aussies, Kiwis, Norwegians, Swiss, and Indians set to work.
parkrun started as a simple weekly meetup for 13 friends in London’s Bushy Park in 2004. They ran the same 5k route every week, recorded times, and went for coffee afterwards.
Somewhere along the way the weekly meetup proved quite popular, and it attracted beginning runners, seniors, walkers, families with strollers and dogs, and thousands of other people who did not think of themselves as runners. And the concept spread to more parks, across the UK and then worldwide. There are now around 1400 parkrun 5k events every Saturday in 20 countries worldwide.
parkrun is still largely unheard of in the US, but it is starting to spread rapidly. US participation is roughly doubling every year. In 2018 there were over 1000 free 5ks with around 50,000 finishers in the US. Houston’s Terry Hershey parkrun will be the 28th US location. Each local event and parkrun USA is entirely organized by volunteers who are regular participants themselves.
It takes a few steps to get a parkrun event off the ground, but the Houston parkrun group decided to just start meeting up for a run and a coffee every Saturday, to trial different routes and to start building a team. They started a Facebook group and welcomed new people to their growing community, as they worked on turning their meetup into an official parkrun event.
The team quickly settled on Terry Hershey Park in western Houston, a linear park that follows Buffalo Bayou, the city’s main waterway. The park is named for Terry Hershey, a conservationist who campaigned to keep the banks of Buffalo Bayou from being covered in concrete paving. The simple out-and-back 5k route along the bayou is perfect for a parkrun. It requires minimal marking, and everybody gets to see everybody else along the way.
Terry Hershey parkrun is part of the rebirth of the park and the bayou following the devastating floods brought on in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey, which dropped 51 inches of rain on the city in the space of a few days and left the bayou more than 30 feet above normal levels in some locations.
The coffee meetup is a much-loved feature of parkrun events, and the team soon found a valuable partner in Beans Cafe on Eldridge Parkway. They moved their start/finish point to near the Eldridge bridge so that they could be close to the cafe. And the cafe owner has been incredibly helpful. She routinely puts out water for the ‘parkrunners’, and she has agreed to store the parkrun equipment during the week.
parkrun is as much about community and social support as it is about fitness. Some parkrunners are speedy, but there are no prizes or swag, and a person who walks the 5k in an hour is just as important as a person who speeds around in less than 20 minutes. One of the most important volunteer roles at every parkrun is the ‘tailwalker’, whose job it is to finish last, ensuring that nobody finishes last at parkrun.
Families are very much a part of parkrun. Young kids in strollers are totally welcome, and children aged 4 upwards are encouraged to run or walk under their own steam (kids under 11 must stay with a parent). Dogs are important members of the family, too, and they’re also welcome at parkrun (on a short leash, please).
Every week’s event is put on by volunteers drawn from the participant community. Already 10-15 have signed up to help out with Terry Hershey parkrun, but this number is likely to swell to hundreds within a year or two.
The official launch of Terry Hershey parkrun is at 9:00am on Saturday January 19th, and then it will be back every Saturday after that. The launch is the day before the popular Chevron Houston Marathon and Half-Marathon. That’s no worry, as it’s a perfect setting for a low-key 5k warm up run.
Registration is simple: just sign up online to receive a free personal parkrun barcode. Print it out and then just show up at Terry Hershey parkrun any Saturday. Or at any of the other 1400 parkrun events worldwide each week.
Every parkrun event depends on the support of a host of partners and supporters. The Terry Hershey team is especially grateful to parks superintendent Steve Dorman, who embraced the community and fitness goals of parkrun and helped the team to secure permits. And among the donors who provided startup funding they are especially grateful to the Irish Network Houston.
If all goes well, the team hopes to bring parkrun to other locations in Houston. With 52,912 acres of parkland, the most in the US, there’s certainly space for events serving more local communities. There’s no reason why Houston shouldn’t pass the Washington DC metro area (5 parkruns every week). And since we know that everything is bigger in Texas, why not catch London (50 parkruns every week)!
Website & registration: parkrun.us/terryhershey
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