Stevenage parkrun has celebrated its first birthday – here’s why you should try it too

Runners set off on the two-lap course around Stevenage's Fairlands Valley Park. Picture: Karyn Haddo

Runners set off on the two-lap course around Stevenage's Fairlands Valley Park. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

Editor and parkrun enthusiast Nick Gill reflects on the Stevenage event’s first anniversay and explains why you should give the worldwide phenonemon a go.

One of the cakes made to celebrate Stevenage parkrun's first birthday.

One of the cakes made to celebrate Stevenage parkrun's first birthday. - Credit: Archant

When it rains, it pours.

For anyone at the start line for Stevenage parkrun’s first birthday at 9am on Saturday you’ll know what I mean – it really chucked it down – but on reflection it’s quite a good analogy, albeit not in a traditional sense, for the free weekly 5km run which is now part of the furniture.

The idea of parkrun is simple – to encourage the public to start your weekend with some exercise, no matter your level of fitness.

Comet editor Nick Gill at Stevenage parkrun. Picture: Karyn Haddon

Comet editor Nick Gill at Stevenage parkrun. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

Stevenage is no different. Everyone from Ian Kimpton – who competed with the elites at this year’s London Marathon – and famous marathon man Roger Biggs, to buggy pushers, walkers and, since April, visually impaired runners like Danny Miles head to Fairlands Valley Park to get their fix.


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The excuses for not giving it a go are endless, of course. The perceived sense of judgement, the fear of failure, the distance and, for me, overcoming the urge to have a lie-in. That, or having a hangover.

But when it rains, it pours. Once you make that leap – walk, run, sprint, delete as appropriate – it becomes addictive, and you won’t be able to turn off the tap even if you wanted to.

Stevenage parkrun: George, 7, and Lilly, 10, with grandad Derek Williams.
Picture: Karyn Haddon

Stevenage parkrun: George, 7, and Lilly, 10, with grandad Derek Williams. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

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For me the beauty of parkrun is that while it’s a race, it’s only with yourself. Everyone shares a common goal, to beat their personal best, each time as valid as the next.

And when you see what can be achieved, you’ll keep coming back for more – just ask Tracey Norris. Having never run before, she decided to go along to the first Stevenage parkrun a year ago, finishing in 57m43s. Now a member of Stevenage Striders, she’s completed 43 parkruns and has a PB of 39:42.

Fellow Strider Ken Marshall has a slightly different barometer of success. He took up running following advice from his doctor, losing four stone and reversing his medical conditions as a result.

Stevenage parkrun: Brian White with daughters Gemma and Kerry. Picture: Karyn Haddon

Stevenage parkrun: Brian White with daughters Gemma and Kerry. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

These are just two success stories, but they are everywhere you look.

“One of the best attributes of parkrun is its inclusiveness,” event director Gordon Cowan tells me, one of the founders of Stevenage parkrun.

“Initially parkrun was about helping people run, but to be honest it’s now much more than that. The positive experience it brings to the community is enormous.”

Runners heading round Fairlands Valley Park during Stevenage parkrun. Picture: Karyn Haddon

Runners heading round Fairlands Valley Park during Stevenage parkrun. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

Gordon was told about parkrun by a work colleague, attending his first with his two boys at Panshanger, near Hertford, in 2015. It soon became his mission to bring one to Stevenage, something Gordon achieved with the help of a core team and the backing of Stevenage Borough Council, namely Councillor Richard Henry.

And it may be a year since 426 runners completed the two-lap course around the lakes for the first time, but the organisers aren’t standing still. The milestone was marked with cake, of course, but also the launch of a junior version – a 2km run which is open to four to 14 year olds and will take place at Hampson Park every Sunday at 9am.

I say ‘will’ take place, but that’s a presumption. It’s time to mention the ‘v-word’, as without willing volunteers parkrun simply wouldn’t happen.

Stevenage parkrun: Matt Ankers and Helen Harbon. Picture: Karyn Haddon

Stevenage parkrun: Matt Ankers and Helen Harbon. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

Marshals line the route, but there’s also timekeepers, barcode scanners and a funnel manager required – to name just a few of the roles to be filled each week.

“With parkrun it’s simple,” Gordon explains. “The more you put in the more you get out.

“Trust me, once you get involved you will become a regular as the volunteering is just as rewarding as the running.”

Stevenage parkrun's event director Gordon Cowan and regular volunteer Helen Harris. Picture: Karyn

Stevenage parkrun's event director Gordon Cowan and regular volunteer Helen Harris. Picture: Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

But Gordon has a message for which parkrun’s future depends: “The model is based on each runner volunteering approximately twice a year, but it’s clear this is not happening in Stevenage.

“So unless the runners take their turn I expect over the next few years that organisation of the run will get considerably more difficult.”

Storm clouds overhead, perhaps, but the truth is the Stevenage event is on a crest of a wave.

Verity Fisher at Stevenage parkrun, one of 166 she has taken part in since July 2012. Picture: Ann T

Verity Fisher at Stevenage parkrun, one of 166 she has taken part in since July 2012. Picture: Ann Tryssesoone - Credit: Archant

The final word goes to Gordon: “For those of you out there wondering what it’s all about, why not get up early one Saturday morning put on your trainers and do yourself a massive favour? Who knows you may meet a new friend, future partner or just catch a cold – but you will get the bug.”

In short, don’t be afraid to get wet – it’s more enjoyable than you’d think.

 

VOLUNTEER’S VIEW:

Helen Harris, 37, from Stevenage: “Going to my first parkrun was scary. I had only just taught myself to run – I say run, but it was more of a vague trot! “I reached Fairlands and summoned the courage to walk to the starting point. Thank heavens for the lovely Kim Penny, without her I would have turned tail and gone home. I would say this to anyone thinking about joining in... do it! Walk, jog, run – the fear of joining in is far worse than the actual trot around a beautiful park. The benefits to your physical and mental health are immense, and all for free!

“Due to injury I now volunteer every week and get just a big a kick out of this. The pure joy of seeing Danny (one of our visually impaired participants) finishing is hard to match.

“Watching and encouraging everyone to reach their own personal bests and being part of the fantastic parkrun family starts the weekend in such a positive way, so this lady will not return to the couch!”

If you’re interested in volunteering just email stevenagehelpers@parkrun.com.

 

THE PARKRUN TOURIST:

Verity Fisher, 30, of Stevenage:

“I had heard of parkrun back in 2011, but without a car it was impossible to get to one. In July 2012 one started five minutes away from where I was living in Southampton – 164 parkruns later and I’m still hooked!

“When my fiancé and I moved to Stevenage in 2014, we visited the runs local to us; Panshanger, St Albans, Wimpole and Bedford. Here the tourism really began! Tourism has taken me to 38 different parkruns, the furthest afield being Roosevelt Island in Washington DC. Whenever we are away for the weekend the questions on my mind are ‘where’s the nearest parkrun? Can we get there?’

“Although there is something to be said for all this touring, nothing beats a jog down to Fairlands for Stevenage parkrun to catch up with my fellow Fairlands Valley Spartans running buddies. There is such a wonderful team of volunteers each week, and it’s the perfect start to the weekend!”

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