Ian O’Riordan: Parkrun may just be the perfect antidote

Weekly run for amateurs points a way forward for a sport embroiled in controversies

The Parkrun first took place at Bushy Park In London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

The Parkrun first took place at Bushy Park In London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

 

My accountant rang me late on Thursday to know if Seb Coe was for real. It sounded like he had Sky News on and someone was talking about the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) report into doping. 

“Have you been following this?” he asked. “Whatever else you say about Coe’s leadership in all this, if he is serious then those world records will have to go. I’m not comparing my times to those world records anymore if they’re not legit. It’s not fair.” 

At first it seemed he may have lost the run of himself. There are a lot of important issues for athletics to confront in the aftermath of the Wada commission report – which somehow reinforced both pessimism and optimism at the same time – although the rewriting of world records shouldn’t be the immediate priority. At least not for my accountant. 

That’s because his only athletics priority these days is that mass participation phenomenon known as the Parkrun, which seems about as far removed from the power and greed and corruptible sins of the IAAF as it gets. Including their current list of “legit” world records. 

Indeed my accountant has become a little obsessed with the Parkrun, singing its praises since registering for his first run about a year ago. He’s now a regular participant every Saturday morning, just down from the mountains in Marlay Park, and he’s been trying to get me down for a while. It might be no harm for Coe to come along sometime too.

Self-encouragement

There’s certainly no shortage of options. From extremely modest beginnings, the Parkrun has now grown far beyond anyone’s expectations, including its founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt. Back in 2004 he was a semi-competitive club runner, with South London Harriers, before a series of injuries left him somewhat off his regular pace. As a way of encouraging himself and others to get back into semi-competitive mode, he staged a 5km race in London’s Bushy Park, which attracted 13 runners. 

These days Sinton-Hewitt runs the Parkrun on a full-time basis, with 20 more paid staff in the UK and nine more worldwide – and for good reason. He’s stuck with the 5km distance because that’s probably the most attractive distance for runners of all abilities: either way, in the UK alone, about 80,000 people compete every Saturday morning – more than twice the number that compete in the London Marathon every year. 

There are now 785 registered Parkrun events in 11 countries, and Ireland is chief among them. The first event here took place in Malahide in November 2012, and there are now 45 registered locations – from Bere Island to Vicarstown. According to the latest figures, there have been 2,518 Parkrun events in the country since 2012, attracting 49,283 runners, covering a cumulative distance of 1,434,950km. 

Sinton-Hewitt may be full-time but the Parkrun itself is essentially a voluntary business. He estimates there are now more than two million registered runners and numbers are expected to double in 2016. 

Marlay Park, however, has now become the most attractive of the lot, with 11,057 finishers to date. No wonder the Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has indentified the Parkrun as one of the components of the Government’s National Activity Plan, announced earlier this week.

 Part of the attraction is all entries are completely free. All events also start at exactly the same time (9.30am on a Saturday morning) all-year round, and all the finishing times can be compared against each other. 

Which brings it back to the IAAF list of “legit” world records: all finishers at the Parkrun are also given an age-graded score – which is measured as a percentage against the current world record in that particular age bracket.

This allows runners to compare personal performances against each other, even though they might be a different age and a different sex: the higher the score the better the performance. 

The baseline record then is the current men’s 5,000m world record of 12:37.35, set by Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia in Hengelo back in May, 2004 – or for women, the current world record of 14:11.15, set by fellow Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba, in Oslo in 2008.

 Now there may not be anything immediately dubious about either of those times, and they are certainly not the most unattainable of world records currently in the books. But in ways that perhaps the IAAF will never realise, the sport deserves to look again at its now clearly dubious past, because even in the smallest ways that trickles down to the very grassroots. 

Credibility

Most of the two million people who have registered for the Parkruns couldn’t care less how much the IAAF made from selling their TV rights, or whether Coe is the right man to lead the sport forward, but perhaps they unwittingly do care about whether those current world records are “legit”. Or at least my accountant does anyway. 

“What draws me back to the Parkrun every Saturday is to see how much closer I can get to that world record in the 5k,” he tells me. “And I’m going to break 20 minutes this Saturday if it kills me. I really think my record is going to go.” 

With that he somehow reinforced only my optimism for the sport, and why the perfect antidote to events at the IAAF may well be to try my first Parkrun. parkrun.ie

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