Running clubs can be intimidating places, full of people with no body fat engaged in a superfitness contest. But Ian Rosser tells goodforleeds about a volunteer-led event which genuinely welcomes and encourages all comers.
It’s Christmas Day. The clock strikes 9am as snow drifts gently to the ground.
Most residents of Leeds are either still snuggled up in bed or unwrapping the presents that Santa left.
So why am I standing, freezing cold in shorts and a t-shirt, with 55 others in Hyde Park? It’s simple: I have the parkrun bug, and so do they.
Every Saturday morning (barring injuries or family commitments) I line up with hundreds of runners, joggers and walkers in Woodhouse Moor, just behind the University of Leeds, to take part in the 5km event.
We are counted down from three – and another parkrun is underway. The really fast lads and lasses bomb along the downhill path at the start, followed by those not quite so fast.
Nationally, there are dozens and dozens of parkruns. There are four in Leeds alone: Woodhouse Moor, Roundhay, Beeston and Temple Newsam.
Founded in London nine years ago, parkrun has since spread around the globe, linking Leeds up with countries including Denmark, Australia, Poland, South Africa, New Zealand and the USA.
On one Saturday in November, more than 50,000 runners completed a parkrun, overseen by a combined 3,675 volunteers.
In my six years of doing parkruns, I have watched in awe as Olympic and World Championship athletes Alistair Brownlee and Susan Partridge raced away from the field. I have seen top club runners going “eyeballs out” to set a new personal best. I have also seen mums and dads push those three-wheeled prams around the undulating course. One chap always finished quickly having juggled all the way around.
My highest admiration, though, have been for those who spend the longest time getting around. They aren’t elite athletes, but they are the gutsiest people on the course.
I I first did parkrun in 2008, although the Woodhouse event started a year earlier. There were 80 of us, and the vast majority were already signed up with running clubs.
Today, about 400 runners take part. The majority are not with clubs. I assume they take part for the same reasons I do – it’s fine to run on your own, but it’s great to run with other people, whatever their age or ability.
There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie amongst those present: applause for juniors doing their 10th run; recognition for adults on their 50th, 100thor even 250th run; the loudest applause for those about to attempt their first-ever parkrun.
Another big pulling point about the event is that it’s free. Staffed entirely by volunteers, parkruns rely solely on the goodwill of kind-hearted souls in yellow reflective jackets to set up the start and finish, marshall the course and time the results. It’s as well-run as any of the dozens of paid-for races that I have taken part in over the years.
Being part of parkrun means you are part of a far-reaching community. So when you gather behind the start line, waiting for the countdown, you know you have 50,000 kindred spirits across the globe willing you on.
parkrun Leeds is every Saturday morning at 9am. It is free to enter but you must register in advance at http://www.parkrun.org.uk/leeds/