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Born to parkrun: the free activity that is changing the lives of thousands of people across NI

Our local parks are besieged by Lycra-clad runners every Saturday morning doing their weekly 5K, attracting everyone from marathon veterans to mums with pushchairs and pet-owners and their dogs. Andrew Johnston investigates the latest phenomenon

Every Saturday morning at 9.30am, in parks across Northern Ireland, a sporting revolution is underway.

The phenomenon of Parkrun - a free, weekly, timed, five-kilometre run for participants of all abilities - has spread from one event at Belfast's Waterworks to, at the last count, 22 across the province.

From humble beginnings in north Belfast in November 2010, Parkruns now happen in all corners of the city, from Victoria Park and Stormont in the east, to Queen's and Ormeau Park in the south, and Falls Park and Colin Glen Forest Park in the west.

Beyond the capital, Parkrun has also entrenched itself in Antrim, Armagh, Ballymena, Bangor, Carrickfergus, Comber, Cookstown, Craigavon, Enniskillen, Larne, Limavady, Lisburn, Londonderry, Newtownabbey and Portrush.

To get involved, runners simply register online and receive a personal barcode to print at home, which grants them access to any Parkrun, anywhere in the world.

Founded in London's Bushy Park in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt - later awarded a CBE for his efforts - Parkrun is now a fixture in Denmark, Australia, Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, the USA, Russia, Singapore, Italy and France, as well as the UK and Ireland.

There was even formerly a Parkrun at Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan.

After registering, all runners have to do is clamber out of bed on a Saturday morning, head to their nearest participating park for 9.30am and run at whatever speed they fancy.

Organisers are keen to stress it is a run, not a race.

At the end, each runner is handed a finisher's token, which is scanned alongside their own barcode.

Afterwards, everyone retreats to a nearby cafe to reflect on their performance over a cup of tea and a biscuit or two. The social aspect is an integral element of Parkrun.

Later that day, runners receive their results by text or email, and can then lose themselves in the Parkrun website, a veritable Aladdin's cave of statistics. These feed into the annual points table, with prizes at the end of each year.

An added lure are the Parkrun club T-shirts, awarded for 50, 100 and 250 runs.

Currently, just one Northern Ireland runner has bagged the coveted 250 club shirt, west Belfast man Jim Clinton - alias 'Parkrun Jim' - who has been known to interrupt foreign holidays to fly home to notch up another Parkrun.

From its lowly beginnings, each Parkrun in Northern Ireland now has an average of 96 runners showing up each week, with the Waterworks, Victoria, Ormeau and Bangor events regularly drawing upwards of 150.

Meanwhile, on New Year's Day, Stormont broke the local Parkrun attendance record, with more than 500 souls braving the winter weather to make it round the course.

The runs rarely take a week off, with several even priming the stopwatches on Christmas Day.

Unique locations at home range from Londonderry's imaginative riverside course, which crosses the iconic Peace Bridge into St Columb's Park, to Portrush's East Strand Beach Parkrun, where runners contend with the fierce winds blowing in off the Atlantic as they charge along the sand.

The key appeal may be that Parkrun isn't aimed at elite runners (though such types are welcome, and attend in large numbers as part of their training programmes or to set an event record).

But further back in the pack are entrants of all ages, abilities, backgrounds, shapes, sizes, even species.

Yes, dogs are welcome, and a growing number of pet owners are seizing the opportunity to jog with their canine companions.

This writer can usually be spotted being dragged along by his excitable rescue lurcher, Minnie, who herself has racked up a couple of dozen Parkruns.

The events are also popular with families. Many parents run with their kids, while youngsters who aren't yet of an age to run by themselves can often be seen being pushed along in buggies by keen mums or dads.

One such Parkrunner is Helen McClements (36), a teacher from Bangor. "My first experience of Parkrun was in Victoria Park in 2011," Helen says. "Friends told us about the event, and my husband, Stevey, ran the course while I looked on, as I was heavily pregnant with our first baby.

“I did my first run there a few months after Georgina was born, and huffed and puffed my way round.

“From our first ventures, we were struck by the friendliness of other runners and the quality of the buns afterwards.”

Helen now attends the Ormeau Park events, where she has chalked up 67 runs. Her ‘PB’ (runner’s shorthand for ‘personal best’) is 22 minutes and 42 seconds.

But it’s the friendly atmosphere and sheer enjoyment factor that attract her as much as any sporting competitiveness.

“Friends drive over to Ormeau from the east, so our kids can play together, and the craic is always great,” she says.

“During the monsoon that was the month of December, we pounded through the puddles soaking our shoes.

“The air may have been blue at times, but it added to the fun.”

Helen also notes that Parkrun fits well into the schedule of a busy, working parent. “Life is hectic, so I love knowing I can run with a group of people, without having to organise anything.

“I’ve met other mums from my children’s nursery, and we always say it’s an ideal way to get out, socialise and have your run done by 10am of a Saturday morning.

“The running enables us to spend real quality time as a family. Gone are the days of dancing in the Duke of York. I have to get my kicks out jogging to great tunes.

“Listening to my iPod also helps neutralise the Peppa Pig theme tune.”

As for why Parkrun has captured the imagination of the people here, Helen has a few theories. “One, I think that people like me, who are inept at ball games, grow up thinking they are poor at sports, and thus don’t have the confidence to go running or join a club,” she says.

“However, if they trot over to a Parkrun, they see other runners of all ages and abilities, which encourages them to join in.

“Secondly, the statistics are a fascinating aspect. I love hearing the ‘ping’ on Saturday afternoons and seeing where I’ve come in.

“And thirdly, people here are gregarious and love a bit of craic. Parkrun provides a welcoming, non-judgemental environment where everyone’s efforts are appreciated, whether you’re first in or bringing up the rear.”

One man who certainly doesn’t come from a sporting background is firmware engineer Ronan O’Flaherty (27), originally from Londonderry and now living in Belfast.

“Before I started running, I couldn’t run a bath,” Ronan laughs. He says he got involved in Parkrun as a less gruelling alternative after training for a marathon.

“I wanted to try something new, different and most importantly shorter,” he grins. “My first Parkrun was the very first event in Derry City, in June 2013, about a month after I ran the Walled City Marathon.”

Since then, Ronan has completed 115 Parkruns. “That’s nearly 600k on a Saturday morning alone,” he marvels.

“My PB is 22:24 at the Belfast Victoria event, but I came very close to breaking that, posting 22:25 twice, once at Derry City and once at Ormeau.

“One of my proudest moments was finally getting into the top 10 at one of the events.” Inspired by his Parkrun experiences, the aspiring athlete joined various running clubs, before settling with Belfast’s Dub Runners.

Ronan is also involved in helping out at his hometown Parkrun whenever he can. “These are free events and rely on volunteers for them to happen each week,” he points out.

“Parkrun is all about community, about seeing the same faces every week — it’s a big family.

“Everyone who runs a Parkrun gets out there to achieve something, and what I like to see is the vast array of abilities of runners of all ages who take part each week. Each person has their own personal goals, and it is inspiring each week to see so many friends pushing their limits.”

Thirty-nine-year-old mind coach Victoria Armstrong, from Newtownards, has definitely pushed herself, having graduated from rarely running to being a hardcore distance runner.

“I had done two 10k runs years earlier, which I agreed to when I was drunk,” Victoria admits. “I did the first Parkrun in Comber, in May 2014, because I wanted to start training for a 10k in August that year,” she adds.

“I ran it in 26 minutes, which is still my PB. I nearly gave myself a heart attack, as I didn’t know how to pace myself.” Now, Victoria prefers Parkrun to other fitness regimes. “You get a more euphoric feeling from it than you would at any gym or fitness class,” she remarks.

Since the inaugural Comber event, it has been all systems go. “Parkrun has led to me doing about 16 10k runs, four half marathons and the Berlin Marathon,” says the Newtownards woman. “I’m training for the Belfast Marathon in May, and then a group of us from my running club, Ballydrain Harriers, are planning to go to Chicago in October.

“I’ve had to forgo drinking on a Friday night, but I don’t miss it, to be honest, and it’s helped me lose weight as a result.”

And with a milestone birthday looming, Victoria has ambitious plans. “It’s my big 4-0 in August. I’m planning to drive Route 66 (in the US). I did think briefly about running it, but then thought, ‘Wise up.’”

Still, Victoria has many more running years left in her, if Des Reid’s example is anything to go by. At 63, the auditor from Dromara continues to rack up the miles.

A long-time Parkrunner, Des has been joining the throng every Saturday morning since debuting at Victoria Park on New Year’s Eve in 2011. “I heard about it from a friend and thought I’d try running to keep fit,” he states simply about his reasons for signing up.

“I have done 157 Parkruns,” he says, “including 57 at Victoria, where my PB is 23:23, and 93 at Ormeau, where my PB is 24:06.”

Des’s best age grading, meanwhile, is 68.57%. This calculation is another key feature of the Parkrun leader boards. It takes your time and uses the world record time for your sex and age to produce a percentage score — the higher the score the better the performance.

Des, a keen cyclist, joined Belfast Running Club in 2014, but admits he doesn’t get to compete in as many longer runs as he’d like. “I get out on some BRC social runs and hope to get back to training, as I’ve entered a few 10ks,” he says. He also plans to ramp up the amount of Parkrun volunteering he does. “It is only what it is because of its volunteers,” Des says. “The community and socialising aspects are also very important, and the reason why people enjoy Parkrun.

“I’ve made many new friends through Parkrun.

“It’s the winning combination of exercise and social interaction.

“That’s why people love Parkrun. The camaraderie is incredible.”

Des’s next goal is to hit the 250-run milestone. He says he would also like to run sub-23:30 at Ormeau.

And this dedicated veteran doesn’t even mind the early starts. “Saturday is one day I’ve no problem with,” Des smiles. “Weekends start with Parkrun.”

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