Worried about new parkruns opening up in the area? [Updated]

parkrun is a phenomena that’s growing and growing. Not only are existing events seeing more participants but more events are opening. We’ll see 1 million parkruns complete this year. Yes, 1 million!

As we come to the end of 2012, there are about 160 events in the UK. At the start of 2012, there were only about 120 events. That number will increase to 200+ by the end of 2013 (due to planned controlled growth).

For event teams, the rumour of the arrival of a ‘new kid on the block’ (e.g. a new parkrun event opening) can cause worry and sleepless nights. I even used to have the same worries. In fact, I’ll share a secret with you. There were rumours of a parkrun opening in Southampton about a year before I opened one. At the time, I was fearful of the future of Eastleigh parkrun.

However, there really isn’t anything to worry about and here’s why… (I apologise if the following is a little rambling and disjointed but I’ve given this a LOT of thought of the last 6 months, had a lot of sleepless nights as some of you will testify, and it’s not just a view shared by myself). I may not be at each of the 3 local events every weekend (physically impossible I’m afraid), but I spend a few hours each week worrying about each of them! Before I start, the fact that you are worrying is healthy. It shows you’re passionate about parkrun. Join the club!

parkrun’s goals include having an event in every community that wants one. Although there are 160 events in the UK, there are many towns and cities where there isn’t a parkrun for many miles and I can guarantee there’s at least one person that would love to be able to take a sub-5 mile journey to get to one. We really don’t want participants to have to get in the car to get to their local event. Wouldn’t a warm up jog be better and more environmentally friendly? However, wanting a parkrun isn’t the same as organising one. It takes committment and dedication to stand up to the mark and then bring a parkrun to fruition. If you’re in one of those places without a parkrun and are desperate to have one, don’t ask ‘why isn’t there one?’, instead ask, ‘what can I do to help start one?’

I’m in the privileged position to have been the Event Director for a great parkrun event (Eastleigh) whilst opening two others (Netley Abbey and Southampton). Each time a new event has opened, a percentage of its participants move across to the new event. This is natural, to be expected, and, for the reasons given above, should be encouraged. As well as runners, there will most likely be the loss of some of the event team (e.g. Run Directors and volunteers). This is unfortunate and we’d clearly all prefer that they didn’t leave, after all, they are a key part of the community and essence of the event. However, in hindsight, in the times it’s happened to date, it not been the end of the world (at least not for too long) and each time a key team member has moved to another event, someone else stands up and takes on the role. Change isn’t a bad thing. Of course, just because a new event opens that’s closer for a Run Director doesn’t mean that they’ll never return to their original parkrun. Many Run Directors do their duties at their home run and visit other local parkruns on their ‘weeks off’.

parkrun isn’t just about one event; it’s not even just about Bushy parkrun! It’s about a family of events all striving for the same things; to get more people active and build vibrant communities around these events. An event doesn’t need to differentiate itself with special events to stop it feeling inferior due to less participants. The key to parkrun’s success is its simplicity and the fact that every event follows the same formula to guarantee its success. That’s not to say that pacing events, Junior volunteer events, and the like aren’t worth having. They most definitely are. We’ve seen some great examples of how the local events teams can add something extra to the parkrun experience with these kind of events. But, no event team should worry unnecessarily about having to put on these events simply to try to compete with another parkrun event. In a nutshell, no parkrun event should ever feel that it’s either superior or inferior to another for any reason. There simply are no tangible facts to give anyone cause to try to rate parkruns against each other via any criteria.

Which brings us onto the reasons why parkrunners stop attending parkruns completely. These might include:

  • not wishing to travel too far to get to the event
  • the travelling making parkrun take up too much of their Saturday
  • the terrain or course not being to their liking
  • poor conditions make the course less safe than they’d like
  • other factors that mean they can’t commit regularly to attending the event

Some of these factors can be overcome by having more events across the country. That means that rather than losing parkrunners completely to chores, shopping, lie-ins, we’re retaining them but at other parkrun events. Another example of retention was raised with me via email today whereby a regular parkrunner from one of our events contacted me to ask for a couple of corrections to references to her in the latest news report and let me know that she wasn’t enjoying her home parkrun due to slippery conditions caused by the recent weather and had temporarily been attending another of the local events so she could still get her parkrun fix. Had there not been a local parkrun event so close with different terrain, the likelihood is that the parkrunner in question would have stopped coming to the events and may have never returned.

Many people worry that having a new parkrun open 10 minutes away from their existing event will result in such a loss of participants that it’ll make the event unsustainable. This simply isn’t the case. There are many, many parkrun events where the attendance is under 50, many more where the attendance is under 100. These events are as good, if not better (based on opinion rather than fact), than the events where attendance is regularly in the 100s. They may be more informal and relaxed. The event team may be under less pressure to ‘perform’, there may be less people to worry about if things go wrong. The smaller events may have a stronger community feeling with the core participants understanding the work that goes into bringing each week’s event together and are more accepting of when things don’t quite go to plan.

A related concern of a decrease in runners is the fact that there are less potential volunteers to call upon and that this could add extra stress to the event team and core volunteers. I think there’s some truth in that but we’ve become quite reliant on the need for volunteer teams of 12 or more. Many events cope just as well with half that number. The key roles that need filling during the event are:

  • timer
  • numbers – e.g. handing out tokens
  • barcode scanning

If the number of volunteers is low, early finisher can be used to take on some roles once they’ve completed their run. The Run Director can also take on one of these roles at events with lower attendance. Obvious roles would be second barcode scanner or manual entry, pacing or encouraging marshals.

The underlying issue is that only a small percentage of parkrunners volunteer and we do see the same faces week by week (and we’re very grateful to them for giving up their time and opportunity to run for others). That’s something that HQ and each event has to try and resolve and events such as the recent Junior-volunteer events should go someway to encourage other parkrunners to realise that the roles aren’t difficult and volunteering is actually a really rewarding experience and, as I’ve said before, and will no doubt say again, the parkrun experience isn’t just about the run and you can’t really truly understand the parkrun ethos without volunteering. It’s one of the greatest ways of embedding yourself in the parkrun community. If you’ve not volunteered before, try it. The regular volunteers will remember your name and you’ll be encouraged by name at future events.

One final thing about the correlation between the number of runners and volunteers at an event. There doesn’t appear to be one. For example, this week at Aberystwyth there were 23 runners and 11 volunteers.

So… Size really isn’t important!

It’s interesting to note that the shortest distance between the start of two parkrun events is less than 2km. Even more interestingly is that both events are thriving. This is a concrete example that distance between parkruns really isn’t anything to worry about.

Take a step back… when your parkrun had 200 or 300 parkrunners participating was it any better than it is with 100? When there were 100, was it any better than when there were 60? Did you enjoy the larger attended events more? I doubt it. There may be less people crossing the finish line but there’s still that vibrant community spirit that makes each parkrun far more than just a running event. If you are worried about attendance, take a look at http://www.parkrun.org.uk/results/attendancerecords/ and click the ‘this week’ column and look at how many events have far fewer participants than your event.

Opening a new event on your doorstep has several benefits that far outway the negatives:

  • people in the area have less far to travel
  • people don’t have to rely on cars to get to an event
  • the new event acts as self-promotion of the parkrun concept and local events in particular and thereby increases participation
  • the new event brings a different course, terrain and running challenges to the existing event

To put this in context… When Eastleigh parkrun was the only event in the immediate area, we reached an attendance of just under 300 runners. These were drawn from the same geographical area that is now served by 3 parkruns and attendance across all 3 events peaked at 500+ runners a little earlier in the year. However, we are still only serving a small percentage of the runners in the local area. How often do you go out in close proximity of one of our venues and see runners you’ve never seen at parkrun. There’s a good chance they’ve never heard of parkrun (of course some will have but the time, venue, other committments prevent them from coming along). Imagine if every runner knew of parkrun as one of the main running brands alingside clothing manufacturers, sports drinks, magazines, etc, etc. parkruns would be filled to bursting and we’d be desperate for new venues to prevent saturation. That’s not even taking into account the fact we have 3280 registered Eastleigh parkrunners, 640 registered Netley Abbey parkrunners and 1425 registered Southampton parkrunners. That’s over 5300 people that have engaged with parkrun and printed a barcode. We see less than 10% of that number attending each week. Imagine if that doubled to 20%. Would we stop worrying about new parkruns opening in the area then?

We’re really lucky in the south of Hampshire to have so many events locally and I, for one, don’t see that we should prevent new events starting or worry unduly about them doing so. Within 5 years, there will be far, far more events than we have now, many of us will be doing more parkrun tourism and getting involved with other parkrun communities. We’ll look back and our home parkrun will still be thriving. There may be lots of new faces there and a few of the old, but that community spirit we all love about parkrun events will still underpin each event.

Where these new events start is largely out of our control. Local councils might approach us to see if we/they can start a new event in such a town. If we can find enough local support for the event, we’d be crazy to turn the opportunity away simply due to concern the event might have on an existing event or events. We might get approached by an enthusiastic individual or team who want to start up a parkrun in their local area. Again, we shouldn’t turn down that opportunity. We’d be crazy to. parkruns are created through enthusiasm. The last thing we want to do is quash that enthusiasm just for the sake of an existing event that feels threatened. To those of you that have enjoyed a spot of parkrun tourism in the local area, remind yourself that those events were started because there was some impetus and enthusiasm to start them regardless of their location or proximity to your home parkrun.

In summary, to embrace parkrun, you need to embrace its growth. Growth is great for the events and isn’t something to fear. Fear of change is natural of course. Being scared of change is the reason why many of us stick in the same jobs for years and years and years. However, most changes are good (PS if you’ve been stuck in a rut at work or any aspect of your life, read ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’). Embrace them! Don’t worry about the attendance numbers. No one else is. Don’t worry about competition between events. There isn’t any. Don’t think (or worse, make out) that your event is any better or worse, any friendlier or more social than any other. There are no facts to support it, only your opinion. If person X tells you someone else thinks it, that’s just heresay. parkrun is a family where each event is a family member that shares the same passion and ethos as every other event but that has different attributes (course, event team, etc) all combining to bring untold benefits to 10s of thousands of runners of all ages and abilities each Saturday morning. Let parkrun grow. It’ll do nothing but good. Finally, thanks to each of you for making parkrun as amazing as it is! I, and every ED, is ever-thankful to everything you do to ensure that the parkrun is the best… it can be.

[PS Don’t worry about recent drops in attendance. The weather can be solely blamed for that. Let’s face it, if Bushy gets 65% of its recent highest attendance at a weekend, there’s every likelihood your event will do too.]

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