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A few weeks ago I participated in my first real 5k race in a long time. It was a small race, with only around 150 people; I enjoyed myself and managed to run an 18:31. Nowhere near where I’d like to be, but it felt decent for where my fitness is currently at.
My time wasn’t remarkable, but my experience certainly was. I was at a parkrun, one of thousands of 5k’s that happen every Saturday at 9am in parks across the UK, Europe, and even a few in the USA. Parkruns are volunteer-organized races, with no sign up, and are always free. Yes. Free.
You might think that given their local focus and casual atmosphere, they attract a less competitive crowd. In reality, these races have a wide range of competitors and and fitness levels. If I had run this same race the week prior, I would have been 8th instead of 2nd. And local running clubs use parkruns as Sunday tempo or training races, with some of the ‘faster’ parkruns regularly bringing in a strong batch of sub-17 runners every week.
Coming from the US, it felt incredibly strange. I don’t race frequently, but even the average local 5k will set you back $40 (plus transaction fees). Years of running have conditioned me to signing up in advance, picking up a race packet with a bib and t-shirt, chip timing, and other staples of racing that I thought of as ‘standard’. Just to make sure I wasn’t mis-representing the cost of organized running in the US, I spent some time looking through race websites. It’s actually pretty insane when you look at it.
Why so expensive?
- Many races are held in places that require road closures and police support, which often has a cost if the services aren’t being donated.
- People are obsessed with race t-shirts and swag.
- Many races hire an outside timing agency to do chip tracking and post results.
- Registration is handled through a service like Active.com, Eventbrite, Runsignup, etc. These all raise costs and cut into profits with transaction fees.
- The goal is generally to make money, or raise money for some sort of cause.
The simplicity of parkrun
The power of parkrun lies in its simplicity and unity of purpose. These community-focused events benefit from the centralization under one organization, and an unwavering goal:
parkrun is such a simple concept: turn up every Saturday and walk, jog or run 5k, or if you’re a junior then 2k every Sunday. You can also volunteer in numerous different roles too! It doesn’t matter how fast you go. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. What matters is taking part.
parkrun is all about inclusiveness and wellbeing. We want as many people as possible to feel part of a real local community brought together by our events, as well as our global parkrun family.
The format of parkrun is simple: register once, print your barcode, then turn up and take part wherever you want, whenever you want.
A quick breakdown:
- You sign up once on the Parkrun website (free), and then get a unique barcode that volunteers scan at the finish for your time/place. All the results are up on the website shortly after the race.
- There are no signups or concessions for individual races, so you don’t need nearly as many volunteers.
- No swag. Seriously, do you really need another race t-shirt?
- Races are run in local parks, and you share pathways with other folks using the park. Nothing needs to be closed.
- The goal is to build community and improve wellbeing, not profit.
The unique framing of parkrun leads to an atmosphere that is more closely aligned with a community meetup than a ‘race’. I feel like in the US, folks often view 5ks as ‘events’ or the culmination of training. Some of this may be the cultural approach to ‘racing’, and some may be the cost factor as well. At a parkrun, neighbors are seeing each other every Saturday, catching up on the week, and heading to the cafe afterwords for coffee and breakfast. And they’re doing this *every Saturday*. In the race I ran, there were over a dozen participants that had run the parkrun at this location over 200 times (not counting other locations!).
They’ve permeated all parts of active culture here in the UK — I think every single person I’ve met (who found out I run) has recommended that I do a parkrun. Conversely, I only just today found out that there’s actually a parkrun in Boulder (one of the few in the US).
A few interesting facts
- Parkrun has a retention rate of 63% after 12 months — vs gym memberships, where only 3.7% were retained for more than 12 months. (Stevinson and Hickson, 2014).
- People associate parkrun with enhanced feeling of wellbeing through reducing social isolation, depression, anxiety, stress and increasing confidence.
- When compared to a full research sample, a greater proportion of socioeconomically-disadvantaged respondents reported improvements to fitness (92% v. 89%), physical health (90% v. 85%), happiness (84% v. 79%) and mental health (76% v. 69%).
I don’t think the prevalent model in the US is inherently “bad”. It’s used to raise a ton of money for various causes and organizations each year. However, I think the unique pervasiveness and (lack of) cost of parkrun lends itself to a community experience that has benefits far beyond race day. It’s unclear to me whether the parkrun model could actually have broad success at scale in the US given our disposition for regulations, rules, and well, capitalism. Anyways, it’s a wonderful community initiative and I wanted to dig into it a bit and share with y’all. Cheers!
- Multiple deprivation and geographic distance to community physical activity events — achieving equitable access to parkrun in England
- Evidence on the reach and impact of the social physical activity phenomenon parkrun: A scoping review
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