Time: Any given Saturday, 8:20 am.
Venue: Gladstone Park, North West London, birds chirping, a group of elderly walkers strolling on the paths, some clothed in varying degrees of non-exercise-friendly gear furiously flogging the exercise machines and dog walkers rubbing the Friday night shenanigans from their eyes.
8:30 am: A rustle in the bushes, some breathless voices and a few runners tumble out into the open, followed shortly by others dressed in bright, fluorescent jackets, walking purposefully from various corners of the parks.
8:55 am: A massive throng of people bunched around a table tennis table, on top of which is perched an animated individual trying hard to get his or her voice heard above the excited din. “Welcome runners to the 4506th edition of the Gladstone parkrun. Please give a big round of applause to Mary who is participating in her 798th park run and our volunteers who give up their time….”
A few mins later to the roar of the motorbikes and the whirring sound of the BBC helicopters circling above, the runners are above...
Ok, that last bit is not true.
But if any of the above sounds even remotely familiar, then you would have definitely participated in a weekend runner’s ritual called the parkrun. Every week, nearly half a million people take to their local green space for the free, timed 5 km parkrun, expecting to reap the health benefits.
Of the nearly 2,000 parkruns held each week in nearly two dozen countries, the majority of them take place in the UK. parkrun celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2019. When Australian Glen Turner decided to start one in the neighbourhood culminating in Gladstone parkrun #1 on 30th June 2012, little did he know he would start something that would have a profound impact on the community.
In the words of Susan who was present for the first run: “Sian Griffiths and I met the very lovely Australian, Glen Turner, who was tasked to set up the run in Gladstone Park. We tried out his route - loved every moment of every hill and the incredible views and so it was done. A week or so later we were there, gathered at the old starting place, near the gate by Cricklewood library, ready to run for the very first run.”
Glen’s words before he left Blighty to head home years later: "Surreal to think I’ve been in the same park on this day for 8 years running. Nothing I have ever been involved with has influenced my life as much as this amazing event and the people who have made it so."
Health benefits apart, Gladstone parkrun has impacted lives in many ways. It has brought communities closer, helped cope with personal setbacks and has been the venue for memorable occasions. Here is Sam who organised a picture perfect setting to propose to his now lovely wife Emma:
I got both our families and a few friends to attend the parkrun on Saturday 1st September at Gladstone and the plan was that as Emma came towards the finish, they’d created an arch for her to run through, with me waiting (nervously) at the other end.
There were FAR more people who were up for it, so she ran through an arch of around 50 arms and started to well up before I could even see her face. I knew I had a keeper as it wasn't until after stopping her watch that she finally said YES!
For many of the Harriers and the wider community, Saturday mornings start with parkrun. Gladstone Park, with its rambling paths and varied sections offers views of the London Eye, Wembley Stadium and other famous landmarks. Its hilly circuit has enough challenges for the amateur and the seasoned runner and the finish on the grass is a perfect end. It has brought many to the club and also encouraged many of the club’s members to volunteer their time on the weekends to organising this event.
It is also an incredible way to meet people and make new friends. In Jojo’s words: Having only just moved to the area and having done next to no running and knowing nothing about parkrun we were excited to see balloons, cakes and awards which we assumed must be a regular weekly thing, turns out it was Gladstone parkrun's first birthday, needless to say we were slightly disappointed the following week.
Nearly 9,000 participants have completed around 67,000 parkruns since its inception a decade ago covering a total distance of 334,210 kms or more than 8 times the circumference of the earth. For many, it has also provided a path back to running.
Frances: I volunteered at Gladstone parkrun for over two years before being cajoled into trying to run it myself. If you get into running kit and then deliberately get freezing cold and muddy you're either going to laugh or cry. It always makes me laugh. I'm never going to break any speed records but I run for all the people of my age who can't.
And Chetan: parkrun has been such an incredible experience to cope with many challenges. My motivation for parkrun began in March 2017, to cope with the loss of my father who passed away in 2016. In the same year, my time went from 40 minutes to 29, and I was so surprised to get a runner of the month award.
Freezing cold or boiling heat, parkrun has some veterans who have become a regular fixture. John Walerych is one of them. He started doing parkrun in order to avoid Saturday morning supermarket shopping with Jean. It took her almost a hundred parkruns to discover this fact. I have an award from Gladstone parkrun as a motivational speaker pointing out this plus point for parkruns. He also holds the unique honor of the only person requiring an ambulance at Gladstone because he suffered hypothermia while volunteering.
Leanna: Whenever I stand on the table tennis table as Run Director and look out at the sea of excited and nervous first timers, and all our committed regular runners and volunteers who turn up week in, week out, it makes me extremely happy to be part of the parkrun family.
And while running can be quite an individualistic sport, parkrun is that rare spot when running truly feels like being part of something bigger. Every week, the walkers, runners and volunteers cheer you on and you get to know people at a personal level. After all, where else can novices and champions stand shoulder to shoulder every week.
Gladstone Park run celebrated its 10th anniversary in June.