As many of you will know, I’m the Event Director of the Eastleigh parkrun. The event has been running for 22 months and in that time, we’ve grown from 50 runners to almost 300 runners.
We run at Lakeside Country Park from April/May to October and from November to March at Wide Lane.
As participant numbers have swelled, we’ve reached saturation point at both venues both in terms of having almost 300 runners safely negotiate the courses but also in terms of the infrastructure such as car parking.
To allow us to continue using the venues, we were hoping that a new event would open in the area to soak up some of the excess runner population that was heading our way each Saturday morning. We heard rumours of event teams getting close to start up in Havant, Bournemouth and Southampton to then go cold due to one reason or another.
In February, I decided to proactively liaise with the local borough and county councils to try and bring new parkruns to fruition as well as try to support any event teams starting up in Hampshire and earmarked Southampton, Havant, Winchester, Fareham and Fleet as potential venues.
At the county council and borough council level, there’s definitely interest although that interest seems to disappear at park management level. However, two parks were keen to move things forward.
In parallel with plans to try and activate new parkruns in Hampshire, on Monday I was called into a meeting by the team responsible for Wide Lane Sports Ground. Originally I had contacted them to ask whether we could use Wide Lane as a parkrun venue 52 weeks per year as it had greater capacity than Lakeside although wasn’t as pretty or as interesting to run. However, on entering the meeting it was clear that the management had some issues caused by our growth. These were the contribution to the damage to the ground by the runners during poor weather and ground conditions in January to March but also the fact that the volume of parkrunners was causing issues with other paying facility users being able to park at Wide Lane. The latter was clear given we were struggling to park by 8:45am. Anyone arriving after that time was unlikely to be lucky.
The Uni could support the event, although clearly reluctantly, until April/May but would then have to reconsider whether we could use the facility after that. This wasn’t so bad as we had almost secured the use of a great facility at Fleming Park from May. However, the massive issue was that the Uni wanted to reseed the whole fields which would mean we couldn’t use the facility for at least 2-3 weekends at best case possibly longer if the weather meant the seeds didn’t germinate. Worst still was the news that reseeding would commence several days later. Arghhhhhh!!! We’d be venue-less with little time to find an alternate venue and no clear date for being able to return.
In happier news, on Wednesday, Eastleigh Run Director, Neil, and myself had a meeting with the Countryside Ranger at Royal Victoria Country Park. I’d prepared a short presentation on parkrun, a case study of Eastleigh parkrun and some bullet points on what makes a great parkrun venue. RVCP got a tick in the box for every bullet point.
The response we got was phenomenal. The park management of RVCP would love a parkrun there. This was probably helped by the fact that the Park Manager’s sister was a keen parkrunner at Basingstoke (one of the two other parkruns in Hampshire).
We then mentioned the short term issue of Eastleigh parkrun being venue-less and tentatively asked whether we could use the park as a temporary venue for about 3 weekends (but potentially several if reseeding wasn’t immediately successful) whilst we found a venue within the Borough of Eastleigh. Again, the response was overwhelmingly positive. We couldn’t believe it. Our short-term issue was solved and it looked very likely that the park could be used as a parkrun venue in the future.
When I got back from the meeting, I let the other Run Directors know and also contacted parkrun HQ to let them know what was happening. The Run Directors were mostly positive about the news although there was concern over the distance from Eastleigh and the car parking charges at RVCP which form a good percentage of the revenue for the park which has seen budgets cut for the last couple of years.
Within a few minutes, I was on a conference call with parkrun founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, and Tom Williams, the UK Manager explaining what was happening.
Both agreed that Eastleigh’s existing venues had reached capacity and had no viable future with the levels of attendance we’d reached. However, they also said they weren’t as keen on using RVCP as a temporary venue as it would cause confusion for parkrunners to move for 3 or more weeks to a location 9 miles away from our current location and well outside Eastleigh. The answer was to bring forward the creation of a brand new parkrun at RVCP and mothball Eastleigh until we had a new venue within the Borough. Given that it normally takes several months to create a new parkrun from scratch, doing so in as many days was going to be a challenge. Having said that, I love a challenge! It was agreed that this was the best way forward and that I’d Event Direct both Eastleigh and the new parkrun (at least in the short term) and build up a team of Run Directors that could support both events.
Now it was time to tell the Eastleigh committee the news.
It certainly came as a shock to all. I was a little shocked too. We had 10 days to create a brand new parkrun with its inaugural event on the 17th March. parkrun HQ had said they’d do everything at their end to get things done in terms of setting up the event website, providing equipment etc. I’d have to liaise with the park to iron out all the local issues and entice the Eastleigh Run Directors to support me in getting the new parkrun set up and running until we could return to Eastleigh. Each Run Director agreed, in some cases a little reluctantly which given the circumstances wasn’t too surprising.
First, we had to get the go-ahead from the park that the positive response during our meeting a couple of hours previously could be ‘officially’ confirmed. Next we had to decide on a name for the new parkrun. The latter was a little more difficult than I’d expected (in fact, one of the more difficult and time-consuming tasks!) Neil had suggested Royal Victoria parkrun (a great name) although this was rejected as it wasn’t really location-specific. Netley Abbey parkrun was finally chosen.
We next needed a course. At this point, there was one person to contact, Gareth Jones. Gareth was course-design gold and set to work with a plan of the park, an Ordnance Survey map and some string to define some potential courses. More on this in part two.
One sticking point was related to the car parking charges. We’ve been spoilt at Eastleigh where parking has been free. At RVCP, both runners and volunteers would have to pay. Not only that but volunteers would definitely have to pay the over 1 hour charge which was £3. This was seen as a hurdle to get people to volunteer.
Over the course of a day, I managed to reach a great compromise on parking charges where volunteers wouldn’t be penalised and runners didn’t all desert the park immediately after their run.
As part of the acceptance of parkrun to the park, we needed to submit a Risk Analysis and Public Liability Insurance documents. I quickly drafted up the Risk Assessment based on the one used for Eastleigh parkrun.
On Thursday, after a few more course suggestions, Gareth very kindly visited the park to establish whether the suggestions were actually feasible in reality.
During the day, several email communications went backwards and forwards between myself and the park manager as we ironed out issues to ensure the smooth running of the event.
Friday arrived and a lot had been achieved. Everything was looking good for a first event 8 days away. We still didn’t have a course though but John Grant stepped forward with some suggestions based on visiting the park regularly as part of his marathon training. One of John’s suggestions is the course we’ll be using.
Given the need to inform Eastleigh parkrunners about the changes, it was time to make a formal announcement which was done with Dave Williams’ excellent feedback and amendments to my original ‘penned’ announcement. I also set up the social media presences for the new Netley Abbey parkrun on Facebook and Twitter and started to engage the community to get behind the new parkrun. Many thanks to Neil and several members of Lordshill Road Runners for their positive messages.
Once the announcement was made about the temporary mothballing of Eastleigh parkrun and the opening of a new event at RVCP, a few questions came up. To save having to deal with lots of questions, I wrote a quick FAQ article and published it on the Eastleigh parkrun news page.
2 days passed and just over a week to go.
Saturday morning arrived and it was time to run our final event at Wide Lane. It was good to catch up with the other Run Directors face-to-face. Gareth came over and said he’d been receiving emails from several James Saunders’ at all times of day and night over the last few days. If only I could clone myself.
As Berni had yet to grasp that RVCP was to be a new parkrun and not simply a temporary home for Eastleigh parkrun for a few weeks, I stood up before the main pre-run brief to share the news with the many participants that hadn’t read it on the news pages or Facebook. There were some surprised faces in the crowd. Once I finished the announcement, a young lady shouted a message of thanks to me )and the team) and a ripple of applause spread through the 250 attendees. That was a touching moment and one that makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Berni then took over his pre-run brief which seemed to last seconds. I’ve no idea what he did and didn’t say but it was so short we were ready to start the run at 8:55am. Fortunately for those arriving still and for those warming up on the other side of the field, we waited until almost 9am before 3, 2, 1, go!
As I ran around, several runners thanked me for the hard work. I had quite a long conversation with a couple of runners. Apologies if my responses were short, I was trying for a comeback PB!!
In order to keep two events in relatively close proximity going, we need to double our team of Run Directors. Amazingly, since the announcements, we’ve almost done that in terms of receiving requests from 5 people to take on the role. Many thanks to you all.
As I write this at almost 2am, we have 6 days to go. In that time, there are several things to do, not least choose a course. We’re not home and dry yet. However, all looks good for a new parkrun set up PB! Hopefully the new event page will go live early in the week and all the equipment needed to run the course will arrive in time. If we make it and are stood at the parkrun at RVCP at 9am on the 17th it’ll be due to a little hard work, some long hours and a smidgeon of determination on my part but also largely due to the incredible support given my ‘A team’ of Run Directors who have been the key ingredient to creating the amazing Eastleigh parkrun event and vibrant community as well as volunteers that go above and beyond the call of duty; Gareth and Dave. Thanks also to both Paul Sinton-Hewitt and Tom Williams at parkrun HQ and to Nicky Myers, Countryside Ranger at Royal Victoria Country Park.
As a funny aside, there were indeed two James Saunders’ at Eastleigh parkrun yesterday. However, it had nothing to do with cloning (if only!) as the imposter was about 10 years younger and 10 minutes slower than me!
Shouldn’t forget to mention that at parkrun I finally got under 25 minutes for the first time in almost a year (4th fastest time) and completed my 25th Eastleigh parkrun (26th in total). Result!!