From humble beginnings, parkrun now pulling in 1,000 a week

Stormont parkrun attracted more than 500 runners on Jan 1 this year, a Northern Ireland record
Stormont parkrun attracted more than 500 runners on Jan 1 this year, a Northern Ireland record Stormont parkrun attracted more than 500 runners on Jan 1 this year, a Northern Ireland record

On a cold November morning, five and a bit years ago, 109 runners lined up for the start of a 5K time trial.

No one had any idea how successful or otherwise this early morning, free, timed run - it's not a race - would be.

But Saturday after Saturday, runners returned to the Waterworks in north Belfast.

Other events started popping up across the city - Victoria Park, the Dub at Queen's, Falls Park and Ormeau Park. Late last year, Stormont estate and Colin Glen Forest Park brought to seven the number of venues hosting parkrun events in Belfast.

On the first weekend of 2016, more than 1,000 people ran at these seven venues - north, south, east and west all covered.

An extra new year's day event at Stormont broke the Northern Ireland attendance record when 507 people ran, jogged, walked, pushed their children in buggies or were dragged along by their dogs through the estate's woodland trail paths.

Most counties in Ireland now host parkruns - Tramore in Waterford and Falcarragh in Donegal's Gaeltacht among the newest. The most remote is on Bere Island in west Cork, and involves an early morning ferry journey.

Those new to parkrun often wonder what makes it so popular.

Basically, it offers an opportunity for everyone, male or female, young or old, to come together regularly to enjoy a beautiful park and get physically active. Runners also meet afterwards for a chat over tea and coffee, which is seen as important a part of the new running community.

The events, while appealing to novices, are as popular with seasoned athletes who often use the runs as part of their training schedule. Those obsessed with statistics can lose themselves for hours on parkrun websites, which are full of times and age-grading percentages, for every runner who has ever taken part.

Every event is dependent on a team of volunteers who operate the stopwatches and scanning equipment, marshal the course and process the results.

Matt Shields, country manager for parkrun Ireland, said it was North Belfast Harriers' worry that it was not connecting with the community to pull in new members that first brought parkrun to the north. He took the idea to Belfast City Council and the Sports Council, who provided support.

"The original team was, however, from all over Belfast not just NBH and what we perceived was a single Belfast parkrun. We never envisaged 1,000 people per week running in Belfast or 6,000 a week in Ireland as it is at present," Mr Shields said.

"New members from parkrun have transformed the club into a charity and community service.

"After six months one of the team, Gary Keenan, wanted to start his own event in Victoria and so the spread of parkrun started. Ecos, Falls, Queens all followed on. Two years after Waterworks, Michael McMahon drove from Malahide early one Saturday morning to stand and watch Waterworks. Afterwards we had a coffee and a chat and a few months later parkrun came to ROI."

Mr Shields was asked what was different about parkrun that made it appealing.

"Question should be `what is parkrun?' It's not a 5K race neither do I believe it is primarily sport. I see parkrun as a public health initiative. It's empowerment of communities, it's families, it's inclusive, it's reclaiming public spaces, it's healing divided communities, it's of benefit to physical and mental health. No other event can deliver all these benefits to as inclusive a community for free," he said.

"Also parkrun is not about numbers. We will work with any community that wants an event to create an event. We don't care what size that community is. Another key point is we are different communities but we are also one community. New Year's Day was a indication of that."