parkrun is big. There are now events happening every Saturday morning all over the UK and in other parts of the world, even as far away as Australia! There are also Junior parkruns taking place on Sunday mornings, encouraging youngsters to try a 2k run with their friends. I’ve been closely involved with Hilly Fields parkrun for the two years it’s been running, and have made some lovely friends and would even say it’s changed my life, so I was a bit disheartened recently when a friend said on Facebook that parkrun had messed up her time again. Of course, I jumped in and got all defensive and it seemed that people were saying this is a common problem at many events. I’ve run at a few different events around the country and have never had a problem with my time, in fact the only problem is my own eagerness in pressing my Garmin too quickly at the start. I thought, as a Run Director, it might be a good opportunity for me to show you what goes into a parkrun, how we make it happen every week (and on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day!).
**Warning! I do go on a bit, go into lots of detail, but I really wanted to illustrate a week in the life…It’s my own personal experience, and each run is different, with different needs and approaches.**
On Saturday I ran, I didn’t have a good run, it was windy, muddy and I wasn’t feeling too healthy. After the run, we packed up the finish funnel, thanked our volunteers and sauntered over to the cafe to process the results. It’s always heaving in the Hilly Fields cafe, lots of smiling faces, hands cupped around a hot drink, talk of PBs, goals and life in general. We grab a table, place our order and the Run Director gets to work on uploading the data to the system. When you cross the finish line, you are given a finish token. This has your position and a barcode on it, we scan this and your own, personal barcode and these are (magically?) matched up to the time on the stopwatch. Usually, one of the volunteers will grab all the tokens and spread them out on a table in the cafe, where they are carefully put back into number order and rethreaded onto a long cable-tie (for some reason, this is a really popular job!). In the meantime, we locate the leads in the rucksack and connect the stopwatch and scanners, which load the data onto the computer. To make parkrun happen, we enlist the help of volunteers, we couldn’t do it without them so, before the run data is sent to HQ, we submit the names of our volunteers for the day and they will be allocated any points owed to them.
Once the barcode and timer data is in the system, we can have a look at the results table to check for any errors. At this point, we might notice ‘unknown runners’ (people who haven’t brought a barcode), and we will have the opportunity to rectify any problems that may have occurred at the finish funnel – this might be something straightforward, like a sweaty barcode that won’t scan, or something more puzzling like someone running through the funnel again with their partner/child/mum but being counted on the timer, or a ‘funnel dodger’ – someone who runs through, is counted, but doesn’t get scanned. These sorts of things happen all the time and you get to spot them quite easily but, occasionally, there might be something a little more perplexing and this is where you would ring up HQ and speak to the person on duty that day (sometimes you’ll even get through to Paul Sinton-Hewitt himself, the founder of parkrun!). Once everything is ok, we will send the data and it’s processed at head office (remember, there are hundreds of events all doing this at the same time…there is a queue). As we update Facebook and Twitter and get to drink our coffee, we start to hear phones pinging around the cafe as people enjoy seeing their official results. Result!
If everything seems ok, it’s time to gather up all the kit and head home. Every so often, someone might come up and say ‘My time seems a bit out’, so it’s back on the computer to see what’s happening. Again, this could be something like a funnel dodger or similar, and can be easily rectified and the data resubmitted (in this case the person would not receive another text, they would need to look at the results on the website). There’s quite a lot of kit to make up a parkrun (though they are all different, and have different needs depending on the course and the preference of the Event Director). We have managed to condense it down into a Sainsburys bag, a rucksack and a bundle of finish funnel poles, quite a lot for one person to carry! This week I was on my bike, so Stephen, our Event Director kindly offered to take the finish funnel poles home :) When I get home, I keep an eye on the Hilly Fields email, in case there are any queries, lost property concerns or offers from prospective volunteers. I will also check the kit bag, fold up the hi-viz vests (and wash any that have got muddy!) and, if there is any lost property, I might put up a message/photo on the Facebook page to let people know (the bag gets very heavy over the winter!).
Early in the week I will send out an email to all registered volunteers asking if they would like to help out. Our event runs with around ten volunteers and we generally don’t have too much trouble in recruiting people: once you’ve done it, you realise what a buzz you get and people often commit to running regularly and volunteering every few weeks – we even have volunteers who don’t run! If the roster is looking a bit empty, I might mention this on Facebook or Twitter and we usually have a few more people coming forward. By the time we get to Friday, the roster will be nice and full, and I check the rucksack to make sure the computer has performed any updates, clear and charge up the scanners and clear and reset the stopwatches. Ready to go!
I set the alarm clock early for Saturday morning, it wouldn’t happen if I overslept! A quick breakfast and I might head up the hill by myself, or have Edward and Hector to help me set up if they’re not stuck into Lego. It’s all uphill from our house, so I’m usually a bit hot by the time I get there, carrying all that kit. It’s great if there is an early runner or volunteer around, so I can enlist their help in putting out cones and arrows. There are two key spots on our course that need to be carefully marked out with cones, so that needs doing first, other areas need just a few cones and maybe an arrow, depending on how many marshals we have that day. At the top of the hill we put out the finish funnel and the parkrun flag for all to see, and slowly more and more people begin to gather and it gets a bit noisier as people greet their friends and catch up on the week. Volunteers arrive and I hand them their vest and any equipment they might need (stopwatch etc) and tell them where they need to be during the run. As we near nine o’clock, I call everyone to the start and we have our pre-run briefing. This is where we welcome any first-timers (big cheer), say hello to any tourists (big cheer), thank our volunteers (even bigger cheer), present any 50 or 100 t-shirts (another cheer), go over the course details and any things to look out for such as dogs, park users, potholes. We might congratulate anyone running their 50th or 100th parkrun (more cheering) and maybe sing happy birthday and, of course, mention any cake that might be shared at the end. I will then hand over to the timer, and off we go!
We have a spot where the course forks, not far from the finish, and a few volunteers and family/friends might gather here to cheer people on. When I’m Run Director, I like to chat with people at this point and usually have a walk around the course to speak to other marshals and encourage people as they pass. We often have dog walkers and other park users coming up and asking what’s going on, sometimes you’ll see them a few weeks later, in brightly coloured kit, joining in :) Quite quickly, we assemble at the finish to cheer the first runners across the line (our course records are men: 15.39 and women: 18.56). The people on the stopwatch and finish tokens will keep communicating with each other to make sure they are in synch, so we can keep track of any missed tokens and so on. We now have a steady stream of runners at all different paces, it might be that a regular runner is trying to achieve a PB, so we will shout that little bit louder to encourage them up the hill. Faster runners might head over and cheer other runners on, and friends mill around, stretching and finding out how they got on. After around 40-50 minutes after the start, we are congratulating the last few finishers, collecting up the cones and arrows and leaving the park as we found it (if slightly muddier in places!). Smiling runners thank us as they head home and others join us in the cafe, where we do it all over again.
*Thank you to Natalie, Lisa and Paul for taking such lovely photos time and time again*