Rose Penfold and Chris Wyburn-Powell came to America expecting to spend a year studying abroad in one of America’s running meccas. Rose came to Boston, Chris to Boulder. They certainly made the most of what the cities had to offer, academically and athletically. But they also noticed that something was missing: a parkrun. So they decided to do something about it.
One year on, they have certainly left their mark. Both cities now have a growing parkrun community. As they return home to the UK, Rose and Chris told us how getting involved in creating a parkrun for their temporary home transformed their experience in the US.
What was your involvement/participation in parkrun before you came to the US?
Rose: Before I came to the US, I was a member of Fulham Running Club in London. I joined the running club after going to the local parkrun at Fulham Palace – where I saw a lot of runners wearing black and white stripey singlets and t-shirts and thought that it looked like a friendly and fun group to be a part of! I also enjoyed touring to other parkruns in London whenever I was visiting friends and for a change of scenery.
Chris: As with many parkrunners I never considered myself a runner when I first took part in 2012. At first, I assumed that everyone just ran and left immediately after, but it stuck me how friendly and social parkrun was. I began spending longer at parkrun, started volunteering, and was soon encouraging everyone I knew to take part.
You’re both speedy runners. How did parkrun fit into your running life in the UK? (Rose was the first British woman in this year’s epic Boston Marathon, and Chris eats 6-minute miles for breakfast.)
Rose: In college I had always been a track runner. When I moved to London, I knew that my track schedule would be difficult to keep up alongside work as a medical doctor – and hence decided to increase my distance and enter my first London marathon. parkrun on a Saturday morning formed a core part of the training for this. Sometimes I would pace others targeting a particular time, or use it as an easy run also.
Chris: Despite parkrun inspiring me to train and become a reasonably fast runner, it was always those runners who might have taken twice as long who I thought really encapsulated the parkrun spirit. parkrun has the unique ability to bring together a diverse group of friends: from serious runners to those who would never call themselves sporty. No running club or university society I’d been part of had come close to matching this.
Rose’s team won the women’s team prize at this year’s Boston Marathon
Chris took part in the Bolder Boulder 10k, one of the world’s largest road races
Why did you decide to come to the US for a year? What were your expectations or apprehensions?
Rose: I came to the US to study for a Master of Public Health. I am a medical doctor in the UK and was looking to explore broader opportunities. I wanted to learn more about a contrasting healthcare system and hope to draw from this as I continue working as a doctor in the UK.
Chris: I came to the University of Colorado as part of my Atmospheric and Oceanic Science degree. Boulder is a fantastic place for this.
What was your perspective on parkrun in the US before you came here?
Rose: In all honesty, it wasn’t something that I had thought a lot about. My local parkrun was something that I knew I would miss greatly on moving, but it was a very busy time, moving to another country with lots of life changes. I never thought that a parkrun would come to Boston, let alone that I would be a co-Event Director!
Chris: I was disappointed to see that where I’d be spending a year hadn’t yet got a pin on the parkrun map. I had known that parkrun was slow to spread in the US, but I thought if anywhere in the world would be suitable for a parkrun, Boulder would be, due to its well-known running scene.
How did you come to be involved in creating a new parkrun in your temporary US home?
Rose: Good question! It was one of my friends in London who informed me that parkrun was growing in the US and put me in touch directly with some key people in parkrun USA. They told me that a small team in Boston was already working to start a parkrun in the city and connected me with Laura Cornelissen, Ann Carbone and Ben Birch. The four of us discussed what we needed to do before holding a few test runs. The team had already mapped out a 5km loop around the scenic and historic Jamaica Pond, and we spread the word via friends, local contacts, and social media.
Chris: Contacting the running club at the University of Colorado brought great positivity for the idea of parkrun, but also equally strong assurances that it just wouldn’t work. Boulder already had too many running events. I quickly realized that without some local knowledge and help I wasn’t going to get anywhere.
How was the event development process?
Rose: I met with the new JP team at the end of 2017 and we held our first unofficial run in December. At Jamaica Pond, we held a lot of unofficial runs before the event officially launched. This not only helped us to get things in place for our official launch (fundraising, risk assessment), but also allowed us to cultivate a group of core volunteers and regular runners before the event appeared on the parkrun map. We officially launched on March 31st 2018 and the event was a great success, with 92 runners, joggers and walkers. We have a growing and dynamic team of volunteers and run directors and each week more and more people step forward to support.
Chris: Just as I was about to give up hope I got an email out of the blue that Boulderite Devin Rourke had also been in contact with parkrun USA and had made some very promising contacts in Boulder. Suddenly the question about parkrun in Boulder was ‘when’ not ‘if’! Finally, the start date for South Boulder Creek parkrun came around on February 24th 2018, of course accompanied by several inches of snow to make things run smoothly!
Tell us about what you’ve learned from your experience as an event leader in a US community?
Rose: It is difficult to compare US and UK parkrun communities. My involvement in parkrun has been very different in the two settings. There are certainly differences and I have learnt a lot from the experience. Social media has been integral to the success of JP parkrun, ensuring that the local running and jogging community hear about the event. I have gained confidence in reaching out to new people and organizations, and we were overwhelmed by the support for the event from the local community and from foundations and companies who provided financial support. This is my first experience of organizing an event on such a large scale. It is only in doing so that I have really appreciated the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, week-after-week.
Chris: Being an Event Director (ED) in the US was a much less intimidating process than I’d thought from my experience in the UK. It took me a while to get used to our parkrun having 30 parkrunners rather than the 500 I was used to in Norwich, UK. Being a parkrun ED in the US is in my opinion more fun as you can talk to pretty much all the runners and get a much better feel of how parkrun fits into the community.
How has parkrun made a difference to your year abroad?
Rose: parkrun has without a doubt been a defining part of my time here in Boston. It has been a staple of my weekly calendar, providing opportunity to meet new people, make friends that will last beyond my time here. My enthusiasm for the event has been infectious and I have loved sharing my experiences with friends both here in the US and friends and family in the UK.
Chris: Being involved setting up a parkrun really gave my year abroad some meaning. You’re forced to actually get integrated into the local community and go out of your way to make new friends. I’m sure most people on a year abroad won’t find themselves in between lectures taking conference calls to arrange partnership agreements with a local running store!
Has your perspective changed, having been involved in different ways in the UK and the US? Any differences in the landscape for running and physical activity in the two places?
Rose: parkrun is so well established in the UK that it is difficult to imagine a landscape without it. In the US, parkrun is in a massive stage of growth and development and it is fascinating to learn the lessons of parkrun in other countries while adapting it specifically to the US context. The US is vast, and in many cities people are entirely reliant on private vehicles for transport. It can be hard to just “go for a run”. Having a safe and friendly environment for exercise is invaluable. Many of the races in the US are also very expensive and commercial – parkrun is regular, free and accessible to those of all experiences and abilities.
My year in the US has been amazing – and my experience directing JP parkrun has been such a huge part of that. When thinking about what I will miss when I leave here – the community which meets every Saturday at Jamaica Pond for a 5km run is top of that list (closely followed by the City Feed and Supply homemade scones which we enjoy afterwards!). I never dreamed I would have the confidence and ability to direct a parkrun here in Boston, but I think it is one of the best decisions I have made.
Chris: One of the biggest differences from the UK to Boulder is the altitude. At least the visitors to South Boulder Creek have an excuse for being a bit slower than their normal time. The knee-deep muddy puddles continuously found on British parkrun courses only vaguely prepares you for Arctic Colorado conditions!
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