Irishman Robin Foley dreamed of bringing parkrun, a free, weekly running and walking event to his adopted home in Pensacola, FL. He found the perfect partner in the University of West Florida. Together they literally cleared a trail through the woods, creating a valuable new resource that benefits the university and surrounding communities alike.
Starting February 9th, Pensacola residents will be able to join the world’s largest running and walking community, with the launch of the Rec Plex North parkrun on the University of West Florida campus.
RPN parkrun is a free, weekly, timed 5k run/walk on a beautiful, wooded, undulating trail in the Baars-Firestone Wildlife Sanctuary, starting at 7.30 am every Saturday, year-round. It’s timed, but it’s not a race. parkrun takes a minimalist approach, with no prizes, no swag, or timing chips, and the focus is on helping people to get active in their community. Simple one-time registration gets you a free personal barcode, and then you just show up with your barcode on a Saturday morning
parkrun (lower-case ‘p’ is deliberate) 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.
The weekly meetup proved quite popular, and it attracted beginning runners, seniors, walkers, families with strollers and dogs (on short leashes) and thousands of other people who did not think of themselves as runners. 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.
Clermont Waterfront parkrun in Clermont, FL has been held every Saturday since 2013
Each local parkrun is entirely organized by volunteers who are regular participants themselves. The same barcode is a free ticket to any of those events when you travel.
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. Pensacola’s RPN parkrun will be the 29th US location and the first on a university campus. It will be the 3rd weekly parkrun event in Florida, with existing events in Clermont and Gainesville.
Depot Park parkrun in Gainesville, FL launched in September 2018
Pensacola resident Robin Foley was inspired by visiting two quite different parkrun events in his native Ireland. First he joined the hundreds who take part every week in Marlay parkrun in Dublin, the largest parkrun event in Ireland. Then he visited Bere Island parkrun, a small event held on an island off the coast of County Cork, reachable only by ferry. He was immediately charmed. Then in 2017 the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on parkrun that asked the question – would Americans take something for free that they’re already paying for?
Bere Island parkrun in Ireland
Foley loved the simplicity of the format, and recognized the potential for Pensacola. He is a latecomer to running himself. “I have always been a walker, but in running you could say I was more of a late bloomer. I didn’t start until my 60s.” Now at 75, he sees himself as more of a participant than a competitor. “I can’t keep up with those young 70-year olds!”
Foley saw the opportunity for a Pensacola parkrun to get more people in the community moving for a healthier lifestyle. There are lots of people who want to get active, but they’re reluctant to sign up for a traditional race, or cannot afford to do so regularly. “Maybe they’re self-conscious about running, or they have never really given it a try. parkrun is an opportunity for them to do their own thing at their own pace in a relaxed social environment with like-minded people.”
While searching for a suitable parkrun venue in Pensacola, Foley was introduced to Caleb Carmichael, Head Men’s and Women’s Cross-Country coach for the University of West Florida, and found that their visions aligned.
RPN parkrun fits UWF’s vision for university-community partnerships and creating a destination campus
Foley needed an accessible off-road course for the parkrun. One of the ways that parkrun events manage to stay free is by using off-road courses, with no need for road closures or police presence. Meanwhile, Carmichael had long wanted to create a competition-grade cross-country course that could serve UWF, but could also be a resource for schools and other groups in the community.
UWF cross-country runners already have some great places to run
UWF President Martha Saunders wrote in a recent blog post: “Universities and communities thrive when they work together to accomplish mutual goals. In a university-community partnership model, everyone wins.” Hosting a parkrun on the beautiful 1,600 acre campus also aligns with her vision of creating a destination campus.
There were some trails through the Baars-Firestone Wildlife Sanctuary on the UWF campus. But they were badly overgrown and in need of repair in places. So a UWF team set to work to improve the trail. And Foley himself spent many hours in the woods, helping to prepare the trail for Pensacola runners and walkers to enjoy.
The wildlife sanctuary has additional attractions if you look carefully. There’s a bald eagle nest that is regularly used. There are signs warning of snakes and alligators, but Foley and Carmichael assure participants that these are unlikely. “We checked years of police records, and found no reports of these on the trail.”
No confirmed sightings
The trail is sure to get a lot of use. RPN parkrun will take place 52 weeks a year. Plus it will be a resource for teams, students, and staff at UWF, and for schools and other community groups. Carmichael’s hope is that the trail will in the future be able to host larger cross country meets.
UWF is happy to be the first university in North America to host a parkrun event for the community. The Universities of Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and Arizona all now have a parkrun on their doorstep, but UWF is the first to offer its own land.
The community partners that helped to get the event off the ground include Pensacola Runners’ Association, Bank of Pensacola, Express Employment Professionals, Attorney Gene Mitchell, and the Videau and Foley families.
Participants should show up a few minutes before the 7:30am start for a pre-run briefing. There’s no need for a complicated check-in process. Just bring your free personal barcode. Everybody is free to leave as soon as they are done, but participants are encouraged to stay around to support other parkrunners.
A standard feature of parkrun events is a post-parkrun meetup for coffee and conversation. This reinforces the community-building aspect of parkrun, allowing locals and visitors from out of town to get to know each other. RPN parkrun will meet every week at the Argonaut Village Starbucks off Davis Highway. As a special bonus for parkrunners, the coffee shop will offer a venti (large) drip coffee for the price of a tall (small) coffee. Ideal for chatting longer, or for recovering from the early start.
Post-parkrun meetup every week at Argonaut Village Starbucks
Although parkrun is cost-free, and essentially swag-free, too, those who complete 50 events are recognized as members of the parkrun 50 club, and they receive a (free) shirt to mark that milestone. Further milestones come after 100 events and beyond, or for volunteers who lend a hand at 25 events.
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 ‘tail walker’, whose job it is to finish last, guaranteeing that nobody else will finish last at parkrun.
Website & registration: parkrun.us/recplexnorth
Children: very welcome! All ages from 4 upwards. Under 11s must stay with a parent or guardian.
Dogs: very welcome! One dog per person, on a short leash.
Strollers: not recommended, as the trail is rough in places
Time: 7:30am, Saturdays. Year-round, starting February 9th 2019.
Parking & Directions: ample free parking adjacent to start. See map and directions on website. And a high resolution UWF map here. RPN parkrun starts near Lot Z, center of map. Coffee meetup is in Argonaut village, lower right.
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