It sounds like a line from Monty Python, but it’s true.
When Yorkshirewoman Stephanie Evans moved from London to Michigan at the start of 2018 she biked 30 miles each way through the snow to get from Ann Arbor to Livonia, so that she could join a parkrun.
Last week over 100 runners, walkers, and volunteers gathered on a spectacular morning at Lillie parkrun, Ann Arbor to give Stephanie and husband Richard a sendoff as they moved back home to England.
Ann Arborites now have a thriving, diverse parkrun community of their own. They can just show up on a Saturday.
“Kids today. They wouldn’t know they were born.”
WATCH: Monty Python, The Four Yorkshiremen
What happened in between is a wonderful story of how a stranger in a new community created something that left her feeling more at home than she ever could have believed. And left a community of new friends, of different ages, ethnicities, speeds, and sizes, that is sure to keep on growing.
Stephanie had been a regular parkrunner at home in Leeds and later in London. She knew she would miss her Saturday morning runs when she took a research job at the University of Michigan. She quickly made clear her intent to start a parkrun in Ann Arbor.
In the meantime, she became a regular at Livonia parkrun, the first US parkrun, which had existed in isolation since 2012. She quickly made new friends, and she began working with a couple of parkrun USA ambassadors on finding the venue, team, and funding to bring parkrun to Ann Arbor.
By the fall the pieces had come together. Lillie Park, a little known park on the edge of town, had it all. Beautiful trail with a stunning boardwalk; supportive landowner; shelters and bathrooms; parking; welcoming coffee shop across the street. Like many other US parkrun startups, Stephanie started weekly informal meetups at the park, to raise awareness and build a team.
Even before Lillie parkrun was official, the post-run meetups for coffee were a key part of Saturday mornings.
Lillie parkrun, Ann Arbor started on November 3rd, 2018. It quickly gained an enthusiastic group of followers that kept the event going through a harsh Michigan winter, including weeks where the parkrun relocated to a nearby backup course where they ran a 6-lapper on plowed trails.
Backup North Course – One of very few 6-lap parkrun courses
Now, after 40 events, the community is continuing to grow. Over 400 people have completed nearly 2,000 free 5Ks, and drunk innumerable cups of coffee at the ever popular post-parkrun meetups at Biggby’s. The event has been put on by a rotating crew of 70 community members who have together volunteered 450 times.
We checked in with Stephanie to learn more about the community, the experience of bringing parkrun to a new town, and what it has meant to her.
Tell us about how the community has developed? What gives you the greatest satisfaction?
We have an amazing community of parkrunners and volunteers at Lillie with at least 20 people heavily involved in the core team, but the community really grew by itself. Before the event even started we had a really diverse and friendly team attending our unofficial run/walk/jog meet-ups, including people who have been great ambassadors for Lillie parkrun. Almost all of our meet-up team still run and volunteer with us regularly. They really are at the heart of the Lillie parkrun story.
It’s really hard to pick a single thing that gives me the most satisfaction. There are so many things! People signing up to volunteer for the first time always makes me feel happy. But probably my proudest moments are at the start and the end of an event when everything is done. I definitely remember micromanaging the set up and close down at the start, but today everything just seems to get done!
Stephanie’s husband Richard has been a key member of the Lillie parkrun team from the start
The changing seasons created some additional challenges. Tell us how that went?
I am relieved that I was here long enough to implement contingency plans for winter. This year was a particularly cold and icy winter in Michigan. Our course got totally iced over for about 10 weeks.
We were incredibly lucky to discover that the township clear a shorter (800m) route in the north part of the park. Despite it being one of the world’s only 6-lap parkruns we still have a delightful lake view which seems to be our trademark.
Our top tips for parkruns starting in a climate where winter is an issue are: 1. Find an alternative course if possible. 2. Bring a drill to put holes in the frozen soil for signs to stand up in (thanks Ron!). 3. Hot Hands are your friends!
One thing we totally weren’t prepared for is our lake flooding! We have a potential emergency backup for this scenario too. But I am hoping we won’t have to use it.
You looked at a few venues when trying to bring parkrun to Ann Arbor. Any advice to future teams on what to look out for?
We did check out a lot of alternative courses, but in the end we went back to one that we had preselected before we left England! From having two very different courses I have realized that everyone has different things they look for in a course.
Personally I love our regular (south) course. It is shady, we cross the lake, it’s a nice soft trail through the woods, and it is just 3 laps.
Other people (you know who you are) prefer our alternative (north) course. The thought of running 6 laps is one of the worst things for me, but I do appreciate the course being open so you see everyone, all of the time. For me it was important that our course was stroller and dog friendly to make the course fully inclusive.
The community kept coming out in all weathers
Did anything surprise you about the experience?
How quickly parkrun cemented itself in the community here. One of the questions I got asked on the funding trail was “Why do people come back to parkrun?”, and honestly even now I can’t answer that question. We just really like it!
The Michigan parkrun community is now A Thing. After 6 years of isolation, regulars at Livonia parkrun can take an excursion to nearby Lillie parkrun.
Are there things that you will miss when you return to England?
SO MANY THINGS! I will miss the people here so much. I met my best friends in Ann Arbor at parkrun.
I will never again get to experience being part of a real grassroots parkrun, or running an event where I know almost every single person by name. I’m tearing up just thinking about leaving.
The volunteers come in all shapes and sizes
Now that you’re leaving is the event in (many) good hands?
The future of Lillie parkrun is definitely safe in Ann Arbor. I am officially passing the crown on to Adam Hockley, who has been running at Lillie since he arrived in the US in January this year, and he has been a key member of our team since he started.
Adam is going to be (I suspect) the youngest event director in parkrun USA, but he is supported by our amazing team. I want to name them all here, but there are just too many great people!
Anything else you want to say?
I really want to thank everyone at Lillie parkrun and parkrun USA for making Lillie parkrun the wonderful thing it has become. I am so lucky to have met all of you, and privileged to call you my friends.
Lillie parkrun is in good hands. Adam Hockley, center, now leads a large team that will continue what Stephanie started
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