On Saturday 2 October 2004, 13 runners and five volunteers turned up to Bushy Park in Teddington, London for a free, timed, 5k run, known then as the Bushy Park Time Trial.
Little did they know what they had started.
15 years later, more than four million different people around the world have completed a parkrun across 21 different countries. Between them, that’s a staggering 53.8 million parkruns!
How did the Bushy Park Time Trial turn into parkrun, and become a global phenomenon?
The number of parkrun locations has rapidly risen, particularly in the past five years, to the current total of almost 2,000. Each week up to ten brand new parkruns start in communities around the world.
However, it took more than two years for the second event to launch. Bushy Park Time Trial had become more and more popular among local runners. By the end of 2006 weekly attendances were reaching close to 300. The demand for a second event grew.
Eventually parkrun Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt agreed and on Saturday 6 January 2007 the second event, the Wimbledon Common Time Trial, launched in nearby Wimbledon. The success of event number two was a significant step in the future of parkrun, as it showed that the parkrun model could be replicated, and the cookie-cutter growth began.
By the end of 2007 there were seven events in total, with parkrun spreading to Brighton, Leeds and Zimbabwe, and 24,972 walks, jogs and runs being recorded. The growth continued in 2008 with Scotland and Wales soon joining the parkrun family. Total parkruns completed across the year more than doubled to over 50,000.
There was also a change of name for the organisation, as UK Time Trials (UKTT) changed its name to become parkrun.
Staying true to principles
By this point, many entrepreneurs would have realised they were onto something, and the temptation to monetise the movement and cash-in would have been too much to resist. The Saturday morning experience was so special, surely people would pay to take part? Think of the millions that could be made as growth continued!
But, sticking to his guns, Paul was adamant that events should always stay true to his founding principles: free, weekly, for everyone, forever.
Here is the poster advertising the first event.
Even before the very first event, the foundations for parkrun’s welcoming environment had been put in place, with the event advertised as being open to all runners.
This can again be seen in the very first Run Report. Both were written and produced at the time by parkrun Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt.
Both the first two finishers, and the final two finishers received prizes, showing that participation rather than speed was seen as the most important aspect. The five volunteers were also recognised for their help in the inaugural event, demonstrating that participation through volunteering was always a key part of parkrun.
On parkrun’s tenth birthday, all 13 runners and five volunteers now referred to as the parkrun pioneers were awarded gold commemorative barcodes.
New technology & international expansion
Denmark became the next country to embrace parkrun in 2009, and in 2010 Northern Ireland joined the family, meaning parkrun was now taking place in all of the home nations. A further 30 events launched and total parkruns completed reached nearly 250,000, including the first junior parkrun event.
2010 also saw the introduction of mandatory barcodes at parkrun. Up until this point, parkrunners would simply finish and take their token up to a volunteer who was sat at a table with a laptop. Finishers would inform the volunteer of their name and they would look the participant up on the database, and assign the result.
This of course brought with it some challenges – such as maintaining the hardware, searching for multiple parkrunners of the same name, lengthy queues of parkrunners, and using a laptop outside in the great British weather!
By 2012, parkrun had gone truly global with introduction of events in Australia, Poland, South Africa and the USA. 90 new events started that year, and we fell agonisingly short of passing one million completed parkruns in a calendar year, ending 2012 with 992,308 completed walks, jogs and runs around the world.
Having initially launched in 2010, another significant step in the impact of parkrun was taken in 2013, with the wider UK roll-out of junior parkrun events for 4-14 year olds, taking place on Sunday mornings.
These 2k events have proven to be hugely successful at introducing children to the concepts of physical activity and volunteering from a young age, with parents and guardians also able to take part. There are now more than 300 events across the UK, Ireland, and Australia.
Booming attendances & Little Stoke
By the end of 2014, parkrun had celebrated its 10th birthday, Paul Sinton-Hewitt had been awarded a CBE, and weekly events had launched in Russia and the Republic of Ireland. Global weekly attendances topped 60,000.
In 2015 Nick Pearson joined parkrun to become global CEO, bringing an expert strategic approach, and importantly an outside perspective, to work alongside Tom Williams and Paul in working towards long-term financial stability and targeting growth in a sustainable, proactive way.
Early in 2016 parkrun became headline national news when Stoke Gifford Parish Council announced plans to introduce a charge in order to continue allowing Little Stoke parkrun to take place. Despite public outcry and under an intense media spotlight, the Council voted in favour of the charge, and in keeping with parkrun’s principles of being free, for everyone, forever, the event was unfortunately cancelled.
In more positive news, parkrun expanded in both Scandinavia and North America, with the launches of parkrun in Canada and Sweden, and further progress towards financial stability was made with the introduction of the parkrun Apricot clothing range.
Reaching those with most to gain
With a mission of creating a healthier, happier planet, in 2017 a significant health and wellbeing initiative was launched, with the introduction of the world’s first prison-based parkrun, at HMP Haverigg in Cumbria.
The event was a huge success, with prisoners taking on walking, jogging, running and volunteering roles, and was soon followed by parkrun events in several other custodial estates across the UK, Ireland and Australia. There are now 25 parkruns taking place on custodial estates every week.
The optional ‘Tail Runner’ volunteer role became mandatory for all events in the UK, and was renamed ‘Tail Walker’ in a further step to publicly show our commitment to embracing walkers and welcoming those who worried they would be too slow, or feared they would finish last.
As we developed a better understanding of the barriers that faced some people, preventing them from participating at parkrun events, we recognised that language is tremendously important. Nobody finishes last at parkrun, except for the Tail Walker!
parkrun also launched in Norway, Finland and Germany, and in an effort to evolve, reduce the operational barriers to launching new events, and embrace new technology, the Virtual Volunteer app was successfully rolled-out, enabling volunteers to both time, and scan barcodes using their mobile phones.
In an unprecedented move, Germany became the first country to launch parkrun with an app-only approach removing the requirement for these events to be provided with the traditional and expensive laptop, scanners and stopwatches. The move is embraced by volunteers across Germany and lays the foundations for a smarter, leaner approach to launching in new territories.
Breaking new ground
In 2018 health and wellbeing continued to be key in the strategic direction of parkrun, and following the success of the prison-based parkrun initiative, the first parkrun launched in a young offenders institution at HM YOI Wetherby.
In another ground-breaking move, to promote social prescribing and lifestyle medicine, parkrun joined forces with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to launch the parkrun practice initiative, which saw parkrun events partner up with their local GP practice to encourage doctors and healthcare professionals to prescribe parkrun to patients and staff in order to improve health and wellbeing.
It was a huge success, with numerous inspirational case studies and in excess of 1,250 parkrun practices became part of the scheme, equating to more than 10% of all GP surgeries in the UK.
Such is the growth of parkrun internationally, for the first time the number of events outside the UK exceeded the number of UK events, helped by the launch of parkrun in Malaysia.
In a move to further safeguard the financial stability of parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt launched CONTRA, the ethical and inclusive sportswear brand.
CONTRA tackles some of the issues constantly overlooked and ignored by other apparel brands by producing sports clothing that avoids using gender-specific colours and covers a much broader range of sizes, with ten different sizes for men and women. Everything is made in European factories that pay fair wages and all profit generated from sales is donated to parkrun.
January 2019 saw huge attendance records worldwide, with more than 360,000 people walking, jogging, running and volunteering across a single weekend. Japan became the 21st country to join the parkrun family, with six events quickly established across the country.
Average finish times
In 2005, the average finish time for completing a parkrun was 22:17. In 2018, it was 32:29.
For 14 consecutive years, parkrun has seen the slowing of average finish times, showing that parkrun has increasingly broken down barriers to participation and welcomed more and more people for whom physical activity was not previously the norm.
What started as a running event, has become a community event, that is truly for everyone – whether you walk, jog, run or volunteer.
Now with nearly 2,000 events around the world and 15 years of parkrunning, having grown from 13 participants to 4 million, you might think that parkrun has changed beyond all recognition.
But parkrun is still free, weekly, for everyone and forever.
By 2024, more than one million parkrunners will be participating every single week. But putting the numbers to one side, what will always make us proud, and importantly always direct our focus, is the impact parkrun has and will continue to have on improving health, wellbeing and enhancing communities around the world.
Together, we are creating a healthier, happier planet.
It was fantastic to see 48 junior parkrun events return in England on Sunday, with over 4,000 children crossing the finish line, of which over 1,000 were attending for the very first time. We’re immensely proud of all those event teams who successfully delivered the first parkrun events in England for 13 months, and have…
Glen Meredith has an intellectual disability, autism and bipolar. In late 2019 he was hospitalised with pneumonia and para influenza A and spent two weeks on a ventilator in ICU. After a year of rehabilitation, which included learning to independently get out of bed, dress and walk, Glen returned to parkrun. Glen’s sister Sue explains how…