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.
Paul and Joanne Sinton-Hewitt, Duncan Gaskell, Simon Hedger and Robin Drummond made up the volunteer team that day, with pen and paper used to record all the results, and washers from the local hardware store acting as finish tokens.
Fast forward 17 years and now many hundreds of thousands of finish times are processed each week, and more than half a million individual people have volunteered. There are events in more than 2,200 locations in 23 countries across the world.
The parkrun community is growing all the time. But it’s still based on the simple principles established at that first event in 2004 – a weekly, community event that’s free, for everyone, forever.
So, how did the Bushy Park Time Trial turn into parkrun, and become a global phenomenon?
Pre pandemic, the number of parkrun locations was rapidly rising. Each week up to ten brand new parkruns were starting in communities around the world.
However, it took more than two years for the second parkrun 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 CBE 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 forward, as it showed that the model could be replicated, and the cookie-cutter growth began.
By the end of 2007 there were seven events in total, with time trials spreading to Brighton, Leeds and Zimbabwe, and 24,972 walks, jogs and runs being recorded. The growth continued in 2008 with Scotland and Wales joining the family. The number of events completed by participants over the course of that year more than doubled to over 50,000.
And it was at this time that the organisation and events 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, parkrun Founder 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.
With a commitment to fairness and equality of participation, both the first two finishers, and the final two finishers received prizes at that first event, a symbolic demonstration 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, an illustration 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
In 2009 Denmark became the next country to embrace parkrun, and in 2010 Northern Ireland joined the family, meaning parkrun was now taking place in all of the home nations of the United Kingdom.
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 to a volunteer at a table with a laptop. Finishers would give the volunteer their name and they would find them on the database, and assign the result. This of course brought with it some challenges – not least 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 the introduction of events in Australia, Poland, South Africa and the USA. Ninety 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.
The parkrun Ambassador Programme was created in 2013 providing a vital support network of highly engaged, energetic, dedicated volunteers who have since been integral to the growth and support of parkrun around the globe.
parkrun is now supported by over 600 ambassadors who help us with everything, from activating new events to social media and photography to technical support and translations.
Having initially launched in 2010, another significant step in the parkrun journey 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 and 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 now topped 60,000.
In 2015 Nick Pearson joined parkrun to become global CEO, bringing an expert strategic approach, and importantly an outside perspective. Nick began working alongside Tom Williams (Global Chief Operating Officer) and Founder Paul to ensure the long-term financial stability of parkrun, and targeting growth in a sustainable, proactive way.
parkrun’s European expansion was boosted with the introduction of events in Italy and France.
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 cancelled.
In more positive news, parkrun expanded in both Scandinavia and North America, with the launch of events in Sweden and Canada, 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 Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Haverigg in Cumbria.
The event was a huge success, with prisoners walking, jogging, running and volunteering, and was soon followed by parkrun events in several other custodial estates across the UK, Ireland and Australia.
There are now over 30 parkruns taking place on custodial estates every week.
Also in 2017, 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. It is the job of the Tail Walker to always finish last, so no walker, jogger or runner ever needs to worry about that at parkrun.
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 was embraced by volunteers across Germany and laid 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 (YOI) at HMP 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.
The parkrun practice initiative continues to be a huge success, with numerous inspirational case studies and in excess of 1,250 parkrun practices part of the scheme, equating to more than 10% of all GP surgeries in the UK.
Similar partnerships are now being worked on in Ireland and Australia.
34% of healthcare professionals who have prescribed parkrun recommended volunteering to their patients, as well as walking, jogging or running, an indication that volunteering is valued by healthcare professionals.
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, Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE launched CONTRA, the ethical and inclusive sportswear brand.
CONTRA tackles some of the issues constantly overlooked and ignored by other sports kit brands by producing 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.
Independent survey findings
On our 15th anniversary (October 2019) we published the findings of our first-ever health and wellbeing survey. Over 60,000 UK parkrunners completed the survey, making it one of the biggest ever independent studies into physical activity.
The results confirmed our belief that participating at parkrun is fundamentally good for our physical and mental health. But it also revealed that the biggest benefits were experienced by those who volunteered in addition to walking and running. An incredible 84% of volunteers said parkrun improved their happiness.
January 2020 saw huge attendance records worldwide, with more than 400,000 people walking, jogging, running and volunteering across a single weekend.
2020 also saw Netherlands become the 22nd country to join the parkrun family.
By this point parkrun had become a charity, and after many years of requests and offers from parkrunners keen to help financially safeguard the organisation’s future, the parkrun Forever donation platform was created to enable people to contribute small monthly donations.
Shortly after parkrun launched in the Netherlands, the world was hit by the global pandemic and events were paused right around the globe.
In a commitment to continuing to make the world happier and healthier, despite the lack of physical events, a number of initiatives were launched. There was the Great Big parkrun Quiz (live every Saturday), School of parkrun, parktoberfest, The parkrun Resolution, and our very first walking plan Strive for Five.
We also introduced (not)parkrun to enable parkrunners to log their own 5k, anywhere, anytime, on any route they liked.
There were also incredible efforts from event teams all around the world to keep their local communities engaged; everything from quizzes, choirs, virtual coffee mornings, and (not)parkrun competitions.
parkrun events are now reopening across the world, and it’s wonderful to see communities reunited once again.
Proud of getting slower
In 2005, the average finish time for completing a parkrun was 22:17.
In 2020, it was 32:30.
For 16 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 events in 2,200 locations around the world and 17 years of parkrunning, having grown from 13 participants to more than seven million registered parkrunners, you might think that parkrun has changed beyond all recognition.
But parkrun is still weekly and still free, for everyone and will be forever.
If the rate of growth continues, 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.
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