Parkrun clubs mix world class and weekend warriors

LONDON Wed Oct 8, 2008 8:50pm BST

Joggers run past a barrier which shields London's Olympic Park building site from view next to a canal August 24, 2008. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Joggers run past a barrier which shields London's Olympic Park building site from view next to a canal August 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Forget billions of pounds worth of "2012 Olympic legacy" - the perfect model for grass roots sports participation in and around London is already firmly in place in the form of the thriving "parkrun" movement.

What began four years ago as a dozen friends meeting for a regular weekend 5 km run over the same course in one of the country's most beautiful parks, has developed into 11 weekly events around Britain, all run by volunteers and all completely free of charge.

Standards range from world class - Olympians Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland and Australian Craig Mottram are the holders of the respective course records of 16.22 and 14.00 - to those who need a sit-down to help them round.

The procedure could not be simpler. Anyone wanting to take part registers once online at www.parkrun.com and after that merely needs to turn up and run at 9 a.m. every Saturday.

There are no numbers to pin on, no registration, no I.D. or club membership checks, no security, no portable toilets -- no hassles.

Once you finish you are handed a disc with your finishing position, you give that to a volunteer with a laptop and are home, spiritually and physically uplifted, in time for breakfast.

Later that day you will get an email with your time and position while the website carries full historical results with all sorts of added information.

There has never been a race cancellation, though a temporary re-routing once became necessary once when a huge herd of Bushy Park deer took a shine to the finish area. Sunshine or snow, the race is run, with a Christmas Day special also surprisingly popular.

As so often is the case with such schemes, nothing would happen without somebody behind the scenes showing extraordinary dedication, and in this case, deep pockets.

Paul Sinton-Hewitt is the first to acknowledge the help he receives from an army of volunteers but he remains the event's rock. A man who loves running and is inspired by the concept of community sport, he is now working with an evangelical zeal to spread the idea.

"Every town in the country deserves one of these," he told Reuters as he cleared up in the wake of 500 runners completing last week's fourth anniversary of the Bushy Park event.

Inspired by the vibrant club running scene when he lived in Johannesburg he set up the first Time Trial in 2004. It grew to attract around 150 people to its first anniversary and now regularly has fields of around 400 people.

Three years later, he and his colleagues set up a second event on nearby Wimbledon Common and that was soon followed by others in Leeds, Middlesbrough, Brighton and Cardiff in Wales.

But while the experience for the runner could not be easier, getting the races set up involves an endless amount of hoop jumping as local bylaws and council policies and predilections all need to be navigated by Sinton-Hewitt and his team.

"If we followed every regulation this thing would never happen but we need to help councils recognize the advantages of it," he said.

"We are insured but it is all about personal responsibility. We don't charge and we don't want to. We want to keep it simple and accessible."

Day-to-day costs of the race technology are covered by event sponsors and though they include some multinational names, Sinton-Hewitt said they share his vision.

"Nike have their own big events and they are saying to us 'Yes, spread, but keep doing it organically and stay free.' They desperately want this to stay as a grass roots event."

Sinton-Hewitt describes his role as a "full time job on top of my full time job," though he pays for the privilege.

"I'd say I'm about 30,000 pounds out of pocket in four years, but I believe in it," said the 48-year-old phone company project manager.

"We did a survey recently and ended up with about 25 pages of positive comments. It makes you cry when you read them."

Sinton-Hewitt wrote to Sebastian Coe, head of the 2012 London Olympics, who lives a few minutes from the site of the Wimbledon event. Though the double Olympic 1,500 meters champion responded with a "keep up the good work" message, he is yet to take up his invitation to join the fun.

"I suppose we are on the 2012 bandwagon which is going to help us with what we are going to do over the next couple of years," Sinton-Hewitt said.

"But the cost of running these year in year out is very low. We can put our footprint throughout the country and once 2012 has come and gone we will still be here."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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