At a small park in east Manchester, close to the Etihad stadium, a hundred or so runners and walkers gathered last Saturday morning for a celebration. The man of the moment is 70-something Cass Castleton, a retired health and safety risk assessor who took up running ten years ago after being diagnosed with diabetes.
It’s fair to say that Cass doesn’t look like your typical notion of an athlete even now, but he’s being cheered by the crowds (who will later share his cake) for reaching a remarkable milestone. On 27 May Cass took part in his 500th parkrun, which also happened (no coincidences here, as parkrun obsessives will know) to be his 250th different location. He’s also volunteered on 770 occasions; parkrun keeps the stats which keep the stats geeks happy.
He’s not the first to reach this particular double milestone. That honour belongs to Danny Norman, so the accolade is known as a Super Norman. And I won’t dare to tell you precisely how many or few parkrunners have done likewise, because the number will undoubtedly have changed by Saturday.
There are parkruns happening all over the UK every Saturday morning at 9am, with a great selection here in the North West. They’re not all in parks, but are always in spaces which are traffic-free, safe and accessible. At Burnage near Stockport, the route is around the rugby club and along the banks of the River Mersey. At Keswick in the Lake District it’s out and back along the old railway line. Anyone can join in by registering, free, and for life, and walkers are as equally welcomed as runners.
A question of parkrun numbers
What I can say for certain is that among those taking part at Philips Park parkrun, four out of 154 had joined the 500 club, six had done more than 400 parkruns, and a further 15 had completed more than 300. Including yours truly, which is why I understand parkrun obsessives.
It’s now a global phenomenon – the free, weekly 5k events that are staged in 23 countries, and to which more than eight million people have signed up. But it’s not really just about running, though the founder had no plans for world domination, or the creation of the greatest public health initiative of our time when he organised the first one in Bushy Park in west London in 2004.
Back then, Paul Sinton-Hewitt was injured and missing his running pals, so he organised a time trial in the park and offered to hold the stopwatch on the condition that the runners – all 13 of them – joined him for coffee afterwards. But then Paul, who’s a man of determination and keeps his word, announced that he was going to do the same every week. Forever.
So along with helping people be fitter and healthier, improving lives, saving lives, alleviating loneliness, creating communities and – of course – creating a regular platform for actual athletes to measure their times and improvements, parkrun has provided a new kind of focus for those whose times are no longer improving, and for the joggers and the walkers who might be contentedly near the back. The challenges, many of them unofficial and created by parkrunners themselves, provide motivation to keep on turning up, motivation to try different courses, motivation to mix with other people.
Measuring the milestones
Yes, parkrun supplies T-shirts for ‘official’ milestones – 50, 100, 250 and 500 to date, with lots of other acknowledgments for volunteers – but there’s much more beyond these now.
There are parkrunners who head to events whose occurrences are in the Fibonacci sequence. There’s the p-index, which measures the number of times you’ve run a number of parkruns, and the Wilson index which is connected to how often an event has occurred. There’s the Stayin Alive challenge (taking on parkruns which begin with the initial letters B and G, three Bs and three Gs), and the Pirates’ Challenge (seven Cs and an R) and the name challenge (completing parkruns which begin with all the letters of your own name).
And, simply, the alphabet challenge, which was how I first spoke to Cass Castleton when researching my book p is for parkrun: A Journey from A to Z, having just proudly completed my own alphabet at Zuiderpark in Den Haag (25 letters; there’s no parkrun beginning with X anywhere in the world. Yet.). Cass brought me down to earth; he was well on his way to completing seven alphabets. “I was very overweight, so I took control of my own destiny and changed my own life, and started parkrunning.” With all the zeal of the convert, which has led to this obsession with letters and numbers.
Debra’s story of parkrunning
Another latecomer to parkrunning is Debra Cassar, now 56, and living in Wilmslow, who admits that five years ago she was six stones overweight and decided that she was going to start walking, three miles every single day.” She posted photos each day on Facebook: “You can literally see me shrinking as time went by.” After a while she discovered parkrun, and has never looked back. “It ticks all the boxes for me, there are no negatives at all,” she enthuses. “Every parkrun is different, and yet we’re all part of the same community. I love them all.”
Debra’s chosen challenge was going for a Bailey, 100 different parkruns consecutively, named after Gregory Bailey, the first person to achieve this. (Gregory went on to do 250 different parkruns without repeats, and this is known as the Full Bailey. I confess to being just a little star-struck when I met him earlier this year at Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens parkrun.)
But Debra has gone one step further, doing all of her parkrun journeys by public transport. “I don’t drive, so there’s no choice, but to be honest it’s all part of the adventure, and it’s not an adventure without an element of hardship.” Which in Debra’s case can mean overnight journeys by coach and rail and even ferry, not always ending at her intended destination. She’s twice tried to get to Girvan Prom parkrun in Scotland but due to a late bus she had to opt instead for Falkirk and Lanark Moor. Both of which she loved, of course.
A way of life
Clearly parkrun is a way of life. I’m known for introducing the ‘p’ word into the conversation very quickly when I meet strangers, often on mountain tops in the Lake District, where I live. It’s a great ice-breaker when you chat to someone at the summit. “Oh, you’re from Sheffield/Southport/Selby … I’ve done the parkrun there!”.
Recently I was invited to speak at the Swindon Literature Festival, and recounted this story. At the end of the session, one of the women in the audience came up smiling. “You won’t remember me, but we met on the summit of Loughrigg last autumn, and you said you wanted to come and do the Swindon parkrun.” It’s the small world that brings the parkrun community together, a common bond that’s about much more than just a run.
There are several parkruns available to take part in around the North West – see this website to find one local to you.