Mike Rowbottom

The good news. Exercise is booming in lockdown. Up by 88 per cent, according to one recent set of research figures which had running and walking – the two most basic modes – leading the way.

As you might hope and expect, organisations such as World Athletics and parkrun are keen to maximise that momentum as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, and their new partnership, announced yesterday will be of enormous benefit to that mutual ambition.

But before we get fully into our stride on this – a note of sensible caution from Nick Pearson, the parkrun chief executive. Looking ahead to that much-to-be-desired post-lockdown phase, he told me:  

"There’s an obvious trend that everyone can see for a certain proportion of the population who have become more active during lockdown.

"It’s going to be interesting to understand who was doing exercise and who wasn’t doing exercise. Our suspicion is that fit and active people are doing more and that the barriers that existed for certain people to get active have become bigger.

"The challenge is to get under-represented groups or inactive parts of the population more active.  And that will be a bigger challenge once we’re back. It will be interesting to see how that pans out."

On the question of when parkrun – founded in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt and now with seven million global registrations across 22 countries – will get back into action, there is more good news on the horizon as the event will resume in New Zealand next Saturday (July 4).

Pearson revealed there is a following group of four or five countries, with Australia the most obvious but with others in Europe, that could soon be following the New Zealand lead.

But the more profound question of identifying those who find the route to activity less easy than others remains. It has always been at the core of parkrun and it will be of even greater importance to help society restore its health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"One of the things we are more and more aware of is the challenge of doing physical activity for some members of the population," Pearson said. "Some people are not immediately excited or inspired by competitive sport.

"Being able to give them an entry point where they feel welcome, included, relevant and not almost like a secondary class because they are not as fast as other people – I think that’s been one of the key drivers for the growth of parkrun. It is about accessibility to everybody, and not just through your conventional competitive sporting mechanism."

Since Sinton-Hewitt set up his first time-trial - involving a field of 13 on a 5km course around Bushy Park, near Hampton Court - 16 years ago the parkrun phenomenon has grown to the point where, as Pearson puts it, there are "around 350,000 taking part on a good weekend."

Key things haven’t changed, however. It is still 5km, it still tends to take place on Saturday and – crucially – it is still free.

On the tenth anniversary of parkrun I spoke to the man who is now chief operating officer for parkrun Global, Tom Williams, about the essence of the event.

"The social element is fundamental to parkrun," said Williams, a former triathlete and multiple marathon runner {with a best time of 2hr 49min}.

"Our events start at 9am, not too early for people to get out of bed, but not too late to prevent them doing other things with their day. It gets the weekend off to a good start.

"The fact that it is free is also fundamental. The difference between £0.50 ($0.61/€0.54) and £2 ($2.45/€2.18) as a charge is not a lot, but the difference between paying nothing and 50p is huge.

"There is the opportunity to get together in a relaxed atmosphere, to meet friends, to have a smile and a chat while doing something that improves your fitness and your health. I always think parkrun is a bit like going to church - a lot of people with a common vision who come together on a regular basis."

The ethos of parkrun is an inclusive one. Those taking part are involved in a run, and not a race. There are no "winners", only first finishers. There are no "losers", only final finishers.

All of this remains at the heart of parkrun. "It will never change," says Pearson. "Parkrun will always be free."

He adds that "various different mechanisms" enable this to be so: "We are grant-funded to some degree. We’ve got a commercial arm which produces various different merchandise. We’ve got sponsors in most developed parts of the world. It’s a mixture of all of those things."

So the quid-pro-quo announced in the World Athletics and parkrun partnership was, broadly, that the former has now pledged to encourage people to stay active by signing up for their local event.

In return, parkrun has agreed to leave a health legacy by creating permanent runs in future World Athletics host cities, including Eugene and Budapest which will stage the respective 2022 and 2023 World Championships.

parkrun will establish a network of new events in Oregon that will remain once the 2022 World Athletics Championships at the newly-built Hayward Field have finished ©Getty Images
parkrun will establish a network of new events in Oregon that will remain once the 2022 World Athletics Championships at the newly-built Hayward Field have finished ©Getty Images

World Athletics will "facilitate Government and city support for these events."

Asked to be more specific about the benefits of the partnership, Pearson responded: "What are you going to get that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

"At the moment the agreement is in place until 2023 so it covers the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon in 2022 and in Budapest in 2023.

"We already have parkrun events in the United States so it’s not a case of bringing parkrun to the USA as part of our collaboration with the World Champs, but we will definitely be able to bring more events to the state of Oregon and to support them directly through the partnership.

"What we are doing around Budapest 2023 is working with the Organising Committee and stakeholders to find the most appropriate way to bring parkrun as a permanent concept to Hungary as part of that event.

"Working in the run-up, making sure everything is in place, and then obviously the legacy will be the network of events that is left out of it.

"To answer your question more directly, it’s not necessarily about what’s in it for us because there’s nothing to stop us having those conversations at this moment in time with organisations in and around Budapest to look at that as a potential new parkrun territory.

"I think it’s more the collaborative element of the agreement, it’s more the acknowledgement that the broad sport in general needs to work harder to bring the different sections together. You build a healthier and more sustainable sport, and we feel we’ve got a role to play in that.

"And I think World Athletics believe that a week’s worth of athletics and then they pack up and go home is not really enough. It is better that they left a footprint in a host city. They want to do more than they have done before, and we are willing partners in that.

"Where we are aligned and joined together is that bringing the mass participation element and the elite together to make things more relevant and connected can only be a good thing. I think anybody that has been involved in the growth of running over the last 10 or 15 years feels that those two things have become detached.

"Because there hasn’t been perhaps a strategic overview by national governing bodies or global governing bodies to say ‘Well, we are all doing the same thing, we are all connected.’

"There were some really interesting conversations around the World Championships and that sense that people who run feel detached and not necessarily that they were participating in the same sporting activity as the people in the World Champs. And we’d like to bring that together or be part of doing that. It’s about making people feel that they are more relevant in their sport as well.

"It’s a kind of generational project, but it feels like it’s been almost a generational neglect and now there are a number of initiatives looking to rebuild those connections and we are more than happy to be part of that."

But Pearson insists parkrun is not, essentially, expansionist.

"The 22 countries, the 2000-plus events every week – that is our number one priority.

"Once we have created an infrastructure and a resource that allows us to then extend, we look at where we extend based upon market size, opportunity, there are lots of different factors. But we are a small organisation with a pragmatic view on our resources.

"So what we won’t do is go and employ 10 new members of staff so we can start in 20 new countries. We are not that type of organisation.

"It’s really a slow filter process of becoming more efficient, and when we have a bit more capacity in our system, then we say ‘where can we go next without putting at risk anything we have already got?’

"That is the system that has really worked for us.

"We started in The Netherlands just before lockdown, and that was about 12 months after we started in Japan. But it is a slow process – there is no great rush to expansion.

"We focus our resources on making sure we can sustain what we have got."