How to Solve a Problem like Parkrun?
Parkrun it’s like the behemoth that keeps on giving. In the U.K. and worldwide running has never been so popular and Parkrun has been part of that, races of all sorts are oversubscribed and running is on a high. I live in an area that is pretty remote we have no Parkrun and limited racing opportunities locally so I’m looking at this as an outsider. I have been impressed by the rise of Parkrun and I love the ethos of a free timed run that aims to encourage people to run. The question I’ve been asking myself recently though is ‘Is Parkrun in Danger of alienating those it wants to attract?’ Now before I get leapt upon by the millions of parkrun fans I see in my Twitter feed weekly just go with me on this.
In the 1990’s I used to do lot of mountain Biking. One of the things I loved about it was it felt inclusive not exclusive. Road cycling and Triathlon felt exclusive and Alienating. My impressions were however misguided I started turning up at my local Road clubs weekly 10 mile time trial and found it was more inclusive than I thought. Despite that my impressions were wrong many people would not get past that impression as outside appearances of any organisation can put people off.
Last year an English Council decided to charge Parkrun using a local Park, some of the reasons stated for this included the cost of Park up keep and issues created for other users of the Park. As Parkrun is always free to use Parkrun stopped using the park. These issues may have been real or just perceived. While researching this blog I was surprised to find that the case last year was not the first time when a Parkrun has been stopped due to logistical issues (be they percieved or real). A Case in Cardiff in 2013 (which did not recieve the publicity of last years) which stopped Parkrun due the amount of people using the Park at once. In both these case those in support of Parkrun have stated that the councils should support participation in sport rather than try and quosh it. The issue for the councils though is should they prioritise one user of a public facility (the park) above another.
Going back to my mountainbiking experience in the 1990’s there were many times that Mountain Bikers butted heads with other trail users. Mountain Biking was the new kid on the block and we ‘invaded’ trails that Horse riders and Walkers used. There was many unfounded accusations on both sides about the use of the trails. The rise of Parkrun has seen an influx of runners in local parks at certain times and those users that were there before can easily feel they are being pushed out. When you have for years gone to walk your Dog on a Saturday morning and suddenly there are dozens of runners suddenly hogging the paths it can easily seem as if your use of the Park is being ignored for another user.
The other day I saw something on my Instagram feed that really surprised me. One of the people I follow was talking about being a Pacer for Parkrun. I was surprised I personally have issues with Pacers in any race (to me running is a personal and individual challenge). A quick search and I realised that this was not just a one off, pacers seem to appear at numerous Parkruns. The idea that Pacers were at Parkruns seems to me to be against everything that Parkrun is about. Parkrun is meant to be safe easy to participate in and free. Using Pacers makes Parkrun seem like a race. Parkrun is not officially a race it is a timed run if it was a race that would involve a different setup and financial implications (insurance etc). Many people like to run and get attracted to running because of many reasons other than racing. In fact the racing part of running actually puts some people off. The other issue I can see with pacers is the perception to other users of the Parks. It makes it look like a much more formalised racing environment rather than a ‘non competitive’ timed run. So other users may wonder why such a formal event is not paying for use of the facilities (as other organised events may have to)
As I said I am looking at this as an outsider but a runner. Encouraging people to run and participate in sport is a good thing but we need to be careful that a blinkered view that ‘Our Sport’ is the way to do it does not alienate other users of the facilities or put potential participants off. I personally think that if Parkrun is not careful there may be more frequent issues such as the one in Bristol last year.