News - 16th July 2017

A healthier, happier planet


When I was asked to write a few words for the newsletter about running my 250th parkrun, I wasn’t convinced that it’s something people would see an an inspirational story. I know a few of my 250 Club colleagues will not agree with me though, so let me explain…


As a kid I was, let’s say, a typical boy who lacked focus or discipline. But when I went to secondary school, having failed the 11 Plus exams, I discovered running. From running I learned valuable lessons such as discipline and commitment, which in turn turned my life around. Because six years later, I graduated from college and went on to have a reasonably successful career as a Civil Engineer and a family of which I am very proud.


I have continued to run from that time until now. I have pursued times, medals, prizes and titles, which all seemed very important to me at the time, and achievements that were worth celebrating.


However, seven years ago I stumbled upon parkrun and it turned my running life around. While visiting my daughter in London I searched for a “race” and all I could find was this event called a ‘parkrun’ at Old Deer Park. I turned up an hour or so before the start time to allow time to register, but the place was empty except for one bloke with an arm full of signs on stakes.


An inquiry led to me being given a job assisting with setting out the course. When we returned people were starting to arrive, but nobody seemed interested in setting up registration. By this time I was just intrigued to see how the volunteers would pull this together, so I stood back watched the pre-run brief, then ran the event, and followed the team to the café afterwards out of curiosity. I sat and watched over their shoulder as they created and uploaded a set of results and then informed me that everyone who had pre-registered had a results email coming to them and, furthermore, that same pre-registration covered every week at any parkrun location. The light bulb came on – we could do this in Belfast.


It started with Waterworks parkrun in North Belfast, and it’s fair say that some people thought it would never work. For six months or so it was static but steady, then different members of the original team started to break away and start new events, and so the growth began.


parkrun’s founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, then asked me to assist by training the new teams, and so my involvement grew. Initially it was Belfast-wide, then Northern Ireland, and finally over the past five years it’s been Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At the time of writing we have 105 parkrun and junior parkruns in all of Ireland, with around 12,000 people participating every week as walkers, joggers, runners and volunteers.


As time passed, through participating in and growing parkrun I came to realise that I was very lucky to have been able to do the things I had done as a club runner and that many others never had that opportunity. Through parkrun we were attracting a whole new community who were just grateful to be able to walk, run or volunteer. In that sense, parkrun has taught me humility and I no longer see success as titles, trophies or Facebook likes. Success to me these days is to see others gain the experience and exhilaration of running that I have known and taken for granted for so long, and for them to experience the physical and mental health benefits that come with it.


A few weeks ago, we had the first gathering of 14 Irish ambassadors (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland) many of whom had not previously met. As I watched them bond I realised that they, and the community they represent, have a profound impact on people’s lives and improving the health of our society on a mass scale.


As a leading representative of the Department of Health told the parkrun Ireland annual conference last year, “You people who volunteer weekly, quietly in the background without fanfare, are life-changers. And you don’t even realise it.”


We (parkrun globally) are just 13 years old and, like most teenagers, it takes a while to figure out what you’d like to do in life, and increasingly we are realising how parkruns contribute to the health and happiness of the community. For this reason, our organic growth model is quickly evolving to target those sections of society who have the most to benefit from free physical activity and volunteering opportunities. This excites me all over again, and I look forward to the next seven years of parkrun in Ireland and how we can all play our part in creating a healthier, happier planet.


Matt Shields
parkrunner A47042

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