Parkrun races are a runaway success

Parkruns are growing in popularity in Ireland, with four runs weekly around the country and more planned

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 15:34

Sonia O’Sullivan has run a few over the years as have British Olympic champions Mo Farah and Alistair Brownlee. But a more representative sample of parkrun participants can be seen at one of the growing number of venues which host these 5k races on Saturday mornings.

In Marlay Park, south Dublin, on the day The Irish Times visits, times for the 5k vary, from about 17 minutes to 75. While the first man home, Christian Coleman, looks to be a pretty decent club runner, he’s no more the event’s target audience than Hazel Sharkey who pushes her kids, Oisín and Orla, around the course in a buggy.

There are plenty of serious runners in an average parkrun, but there are also people who enjoy the exercise and then, as quite a few do in Marlay, head straight for the nearby pancake stand.

Started by Paul Sinton-Hewitt in October 2004 during an injury-induced lay-off from his half-marathon running, the first event in what became the parkrun series took place in Bushy Park, south-west London, with 13 of his friends.

Word spread
The concept was simple – a free-to-enter 5k run with reliable timing organised at a set location on a weekly basis. Then, as now, parkrun HQ is a shed in Sinton-Hewitt’s back garden. Word spread and, slowly at first, numbers grew. It wasn’t until 2007 that another run was established but others followed quickly after that.

By April of this year, 35,000 people were taking part in weekly runs.

There are four runs every week in Ireland, with more in the pipeline.

Malahide came first after Michael McMahon, a local recreational runner, got in touch with Matt Shields, who oversees the highly successful Northern Ireland operation, about setting up a Dublin event. It took 12 months to persuade would-be investors that the proposal – a one-off cost of about €7,500 with no further payments – wasn’t too good to be true.

“Understandably, people ask ‘where’s the angle?’ – they feel somebody has to be making some money out of it somewhere, that it’s some sort of scheme,” says Shields. “But gradually they come to realise it’s not and at that stage they tend to become very supportive.”

In fact, the organisation looks for local partners to put up just half of the start-up funds which they then match. Once established, about a dozen volunteers organise the weekly races and parkrun HQ provides all the technical and other support.

Despite agreeing to provide the venue, Fingal County Council couldn’t be persuaded to put up the €3,000 or so required to start the Malahide event but in the end a sponsor of the British operation got the ball rolling here.

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