Every Saturday morning, 1,200 or more people line up in Sheffield parks to run, walk or jog five kilometres to get their weekend off to a flying start.
“You just get into the habit,” said Janet Glover. “It’s Saturday at nine o’clock, it’s what you do.”
Sheffield is one of the most easily parkrunned cities in the UK, with six runs every Saturday, at Endcliffe, Graves, Concord, Hillsborough, Manor Fields and Rother Valley parks, all supported by the local authority.
“There’s a parkrun near just about everyone in Sheffield, and I think they’re popular because there’s an outdoor temperament to people here,” said Jo Eccles, race director at the Graves Park event. “They’re completely free, you just need to register and print off your barcode on a computer, and that’s it, you can then just turn up at any parkrun anywhere in the world.”
The initiative began in London 12 years ago, and has since spread to 14 countries, with nearly two million runners in over 1,000 different parks everywhere from Moscow to Johannesburg and the Gold Coast in Australia.
The aim, to offer a free, easy to enter five kilometre weekly run against the clock for all ages and abilities, is supported by a small team of volunteers at each event who log finishing times against the participant’s barcode, which is then uploaded to the parkrun websites and emailed or texted to the runner later.
There’s a park run near just about everyone in Sheffield
“You can walk, jog or run, you can bring a dog on a short lead, you can run with a pushchair or in a wheelchair and if you’re blind or partially sighted you can take part with a guide runner,” said Jo Eccles. “They’re for anybody from the age of four upwards and I’d say come and have a look first if you’re thinking of taking part. We’re not scary, we’re not all elite athletes, not everyone’s in lycra.”
Parkrun ‘tourists’ like to chalk up different events around the country, and opinion on Saturday was that Graves is a much more picturesque course than Coventry, and certainly much tougher than flat Sheffield Hallam, the city’s biggest run with often over 500 runners on the rather congested start line in Endcliffe Park.
There are usually around 150 to 200 runners at Graves, each with a story to tell. Like 75-year-old Roger Knightly, who runs every week after having a heart bypass and brain operation. “The volunteers are such obliging people. I love coming, it keeps me fit,” he said.
David Owen took up the run to lose weight and to tackle a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
“The Graves run helped me lose weight, and I don’t have to take tablets for my diabetes any more,” he said.
And then there’s Lilly, the whippet cross who takes part with running partner Simon Nightingale, and who recently picked up her ‘100 runs vest.’ (Humans get a tee shirt instead).
Recent reports from Public Health England that 80 per cent of 40 to 60-year-olds in the UK weigh too much, drink too much or are inactive may not apply to middle-aged Graves Parkrunners, and organisers say that it’s easy to join in if you’re wanting to get fitter in the New Year.
“Competing against yourself every week like this helps you have a better quality of life,” said Martin Dunham. “It keeps your heart a bit safer, your circulation a bit better and cuts your risk of illness in later life.”
The key draw of the park runs is the opportunity to socialise, and the encouragement of all runners, no matter how fast or slow, said Jo Eccles.
“I used to walk and run when I first started, and then a random woman came up alongside me and said: ‘You can run all this, you just don’t know it yet. So come on.’ And she stayed to encourage me until nearly the end, even though I was slowing her time down. The parkrun brings that kind of thing out with people. That’s why the volunteers do it.”