At run angel we are delighted to launch our series of running interviews, commencing with Paul Sinton-Hewitt, founder of parkrun who runs the group that manages the growth of parkrun around the world.
How did you come up with the idea for parkrun?
Things were looking a little dark for me at the time. I had recently lost my job, ended a relationship and worst of all injured myself while running cross country. At 44 years old I realised my racing days were over and so decided to give something back. Secretly though I also wanted to entice my friends to meet with me over coffee each week.
The format was a simple decision for me. Firstly, running 5k is an achievable distance for just about anyone, can be included as part of a longer run and the time required to manage an event of this nature was limited. It had to be weekly because I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to contrast and compare their runs over a period.
How many parkruns have been set up around the world?
We are well over 1,200 parkruns across 17 countries now. The majority of these are the 5k events in the UK with the junior parkrun 2k series growing fast. Australia and South Africa are going gangbusters too while we continue to work hard in all our other countries to grow the movement. We are very excited about the recent growth of parkrun in the USA, Canada and the Nordic countries and have strategic plans for Germany too.
One memory that sticks out most about a parkrun event:
While I remember many significant milestones, the memories that are constantly with me are the life-affirming stories of personal achievement that are showered on me weekly. Stories of people overcoming the most incredible setbacks and those less fortunate than ourselves who go on to change their lives for the better and who are now proud members and often leaders in our community. We review many of these stories on our weekly blog here
How many parkruns have you completed to date?
I’m on 350 runs at 173 different events. This week is parkruns 13th birthday and the oldest event, Bushy parkrun, has offered 700 events since 2nd October 2004. Our most prolific participant, Darren wood, has run on 633 occasions and volunteered on 282 occasions. Some record.
Aside from the bigger numbers, what are the main differences between a parkrun event today and one in 2004?
Clearly when we started we were a small, local running event breaking down barriers for both participation and for event management. We did everything we could to better the experience, to allow everyone to take part and to bring people together within the community. These principles remain and are core to our mission today which is “To make the World a healthier and happier place”. As we grew from a single event to ten events and then to 50, 100, 300 and so on, we accepted that our responsibility would grow as more and more people took advantage of the movement. In line with our growth we have tackled the desire to be responsible, professional, safe while at the same time keeping the events simple, welcoming and appropriately managed. Today we are the largest event series in the world delivering the world’s most impressive benefits for the lowest possible cost in the most appropriate professional manner. This is something every member of staff are incredible proud of.
Did you ever imagine when starting out that parkrun would become such a huge success?
I never thought about it. I simply put one foot in front of the other and kept on moving forward. I refused to accept that I couldn't do it because I knew that we were doing good and I couldn't believe that anyone would feel differently. I refused to accept NO as an answer.
How important are your volunteers to parkrun?
Volunteers are the glue that makes society work well. Of course, I didn't know this in 2004. Looking back, I thought that volunteering was necessary to ensure that these events could be offered. But, Tom Williams changed my mind. He convinced me as early as 2007 that volunteering was a privilege. Volunteering delivers massive benefits to those who engage including skills, social, emotional and personal benefits.
Being a volunteer at parkrun offers a huge opportunity to the local folks in a community. I have witnessed the growth of individuals from shy and timid participant to a leader of a local group delivering weekly briefings in a fun, engaging and exciting manner.
With the growth of parkrun, we have heard so many occasions where people have opened up a conversation at a job interview with stories of their parkrun volunteering. It seems everyone understands just what kind of person you are if you have volunteered at parkrun.
Convince me to participate at my local parkrun:
I’ve never done this before. I’m not a salesman and I like to respect the wishes of the individual. When I founded parkrun, I followed a simple principle that people would decide for themselves and we would survive only if what we offered was brilliant.
What I will offer is the view that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. You do not have to run. You don't even have to walk. Volunteering is the simplest and most valuable parkrun experience but if even that is too daunting then just come and spectate. We welcome everyone, regardless of the role you fulfil and we welcome the fellowship that follows (coffee and cake) as much as the event itself. After all, that what I needed form that first event in 2004.
What’s in the pipeline for parkrun?
Our mission is “To make the world a healthier and happier planet”. If you believe that then there is so much to do… Where can parkrun deliver the most benefits. Is it a geography or a community with a certain disability or perhaps a socio-economic group? Well its all of these.
We are no different from any properly run organisation in that we have a responsibility to manage the company well. This includes the governance, financial management and operations. With this in mind we are always looking forward, reviewing initiatives and opportunities to achieve or get closer to achieving our mission.
Change is a constant at parkrun. You should expect new countries to join the family from time to time. You should see new and improved initiatives to address the less fortunate in our society. You should see us continue to refine our approach to reducing barriers to event management and increase our drive to include everyone. Finally, you will continue to see us strengthen our financial resources in line with our objectives.
parkrun founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt on running:
I run because…I love it.
AM or PM runner: Mostly AM.
I run solo, with partner, pet or club: Mostly solo.
Favourite place to run: Bushy Park, Teddington.
Favourite tunes whilst running: I don't do music while running.
Favourite distance and why: I’m old now so 5k. I can run 5k as often as I like without hurting myself and it’s enough to allow me to be fairly competitive at parkrun.
Favourite race event and why: The Stragglers Wedding Day 7k event. Takes place at the end of summer at 7pm. It's a great run in Bushy Park and is followed by a social at the cricket club. Loads of my friends are always there and so what’s not to like.
Most challenging race to date: I have to say the marathon. No specific marathon, just those where I aimed to compete. Where the time was important. I ran these events with such determination often putting myself in a difficult position that required strength of mind to overcome the issue I faced.
Favourite food: Probably pasta.
Guilty pleasures: Sweets. But these have been outlawed now!
Favourite race fuel: Just good food and water.
Running hero or athlete: Haile Gebrselassie.
When I’m not running I can be found: Cycling, travelling, negotiating.
My safety advice for runners would be: Never run with headphones on.
Top tip for newbie runners: Take your time. The key to longevity is enjoyment. Enjoyment is a factor of achievement balanced by effort. If you hurt yourself early in your running career it will be difficult to sustain the enjoyment.
My running goals are: To be running late into my seventies.
The greatest lesson running has taught me: I can always do more. Just when you think you have achieved your limit you find another gear.
Now that I’m older, I don't think like that anymore. I simply think about continuing to run and to enjoy running for a long time to come.