Northern Ireland news

Strabane doesn't have a suitable park to hold parkruns so it is using school grounds

When a group in Strabane came together to bring the parkrun phenomenon to the town, they hit a snag - there was no suitable park. So instead it became the first in Ireland to use school grounds. Simon Doyle reports

Holy Cross College in Strabane hosts the first parkrun in a school

FROM humble beginnings as the Bushy Park Time Trial in London, the now re-named parkrun has become a global phenomenon.

Organised 5k runs take place on Saturday mornings at thousands of locations across 21 countries.

Simply, it offers a free opportunity for everyone, male or female, young or old, to enjoy beautiful parkland while getting physically active. People can also meet afterwards for a chat over tea and coffee.

The speed of its growth means there are sometimes not enough parks - so events have popped up on beaches, along greenways, on island roads, college campuses and even prisons.

In Ireland, Waterworks in north Belfast was the first to launch in November 2010 and the number of events has since spiralled. There are 30 in the north and 89 in the Republic.

In more recent years, as part of its mission to create "a healthier and happier planet", parkrun's focus changed to be more proactive in areas of deprivation.

Where communities had typically come to it to request an event, it began specifically targeting areas and canvassing support from community groups, youth associations and councils.

It was in this context that Matt Shields, country manager for parkrun Ireland, began looking at Strabane.

The Co Tyrone town is among the most economically deprived in Britain and Northern Ireland.

When a production company approached him and suggested an event with an associated television programme, he saw this as an opportunity to break down some social barriers.

Our Lives, which was broadcast on BBC this month, followed Olympic medallist Kelly Holmes as she explored the rise of parkrun and the mental health benefits of running.

To create any parkrun there are three requirements - a core team, a venue and funding, Mr Shields said.

He said he did not make much headway after initial inquiries but things gathered pace after he was introduced to mayor Michaela Boyle and council chief executive John Kelpie, whose support was "instant and very positive".

But Mr Shields said it became apparent that there were no parks or suitable spaces for a run.

"I looked at the town on Google and the only space I could see that might work was Holy Cross College, a venue owned by a management company that lease the premises to the education board on a 25-year lease," he said.

Council staff approached the school about hosting an event, while the Public Health Agency (PHA) agreed to fund it.

"The approach to the school hit lucky as the principal's sister was a parkrunner. She was supportive which then put pressure on the Education Authority and finally the landlords. Permission was granted."

A public information meeting was held and volunteers gathered, with Keelin Begley agreeing to act as event director.

"I am only still finding out the treasure that she is," Mr Shields said. "Firstly she was visibly expecting. She gave birth the Monday before the inaugural run and still appeared at training Friday and inaugural Saturday at 8.30 without any complaints."

Holy Cross principal Clare Bradley said governors embraced the idea although it took four months before permission to host the event was granted by the school's owners.

The course now takes place on the school's roads, paths and running track.

"We have members of staff who are runners and walkers. The pupils who are going into Year 14 PE could get on board as well as part of their module on event organisation. Even for business studies, they have organisation modules. We have a ready-made event for them," Ms Bradley said.

"The school is all about community and the board of governors were in agreement that this is very much about community."

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Not all parkruns take place in parks:

Bere Island: In west Cork, this stunning run takes place on the island's roads. Runners can enjoy breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Portrush: On East Strand beach, this is popular among tourists and challenging as tides determine whether the run is on hard or soft sand.

Progression: Inside the perimeter wall at Dublin's Mountjoy Prison. There is a waiting list for tourists wanting to join inmates for a run.

Stranmillis College: One of the newest events, launched in February 2019, it involves three undulating laps around the south Belfast campus.

Westport: An out-and-back run along the tree-lined Greenway Path, a former railway line that closed in the 1930s.

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