by Michelle Carnegie
16 November 2017
Imagine creating an event that has helped thousands and thousands of ordinary people get off the couch, start exercising and realise that running is something everybody can do. On top of that, imagine creating an event that has reclaimed community space, changed communities for the better and connected people who in ordinary circumstances would have never shared the joy of exercise. Sounds mind-blowing? Well, that is exactly what Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the creator of parkrun, has created and achieved. Run24 caught up with Paul on his recent visit to South Africa.
Let’s look at the stats quickly. Worldwide membership of parkrun is now over 4 million strong. parkrun South Africa itself has grown from 26 original registrations to over 700,000 in a family of 125 SA parkruns. Impressive, to say the least.
The inspirational and success stories that emerge weekly from parkrun circles are astonishing. parkrun has literally saved and changed the lives of thousands of people, and it has had had a huge impact on running and health in general. Most importantly though, is has brought joy and happiness to the lives of thousands.
We first ‘met’ Paul via email when setting up an interview. Paul, who is snowed under with emails from all over the world as he is responsible for a worldwide, mission driven social movement, is understandably a very busy man. But he got back to us in no time and was more than willing to accommodate us in any of our requests.
When we got to meet him in person at Delta parkrun where parkrun SA celebrated its 6th birthday, it was easy to understand how Paul has managed to grow a simple idea to a worldwide phenomenon. His great demeanour, accessibility, and most importantly his passion for people and running are what contributed to Paul Sinton-Hewitt becoming a household name.
Those early days
The very first parkrun was held in London’s Bushy Park just over 13 years ago and Paul is the first to admit his drive to start it was a selfish one.
“I tried to engineer a situation where I would see my friends and have coffee with them every week. Because I was injured and couldn’t run back then, I knew that if I offered a simple, free, fun and happy run every Saturday, I would see all my friends from time to time. It was only after we added the second and third event locations that I started to realise that we could have a parkrun in every town and village that wanted one. We carried on like that for quite a long time but we changed our mission to “help make the world a healthier & happier place” after some brilliant interventions by some good friends of mine took place in 2015,” says Paul.
A life-changing event
parkrun has changed Paul’s life as much as it has changed the lives of the thousands who run or walk every Saturday. When he started parkrun in 2004 he was working a normal job. “My career was set to continue on the path I was on and I wasn't looking to change that. Fast-forward to now and I no longer work in that industry. I have the responsibility of founding a worldwide, mission driven, social movement that receives accolades for the good it does wherever it goes. My responsibilities are greater now and I am in the limelight, which is something I didn't particularly want.”
Changing lives and attitudes
parkrun has changed the lives of so many people in so many ways. “parkrun has changed how we view ourselves, how communities view themselves and it has even changed the landscape as parks are reclaimed and differences in communities are mended,” explains Paul.
“Firstly, let’s look at it from the individual or participant point of view. We know that regular exercise helps make us all healthier and happier. But we also know that regular exercise is hard and that people sometimes find it too hard to be regular and consistent. Well, when you first come to parkrun, you are often overwhelmed by the wonderful, fun and simple atmosphere that pervades the event. So, while the run might feel difficult to start with, you will be persuaded to keep coming back because of how much fun it is. And, because it is every week and because we don’t emphasise speed, folks learn that just getting around the course with your friends is often good enough, which leads to these folks attending more regularly. The result is that ordinary people find that running is something they can do, that it is something they enjoy and it becomes a habit in their lives. Some folks even find out that they are good at this running thing and go on to bigger and better things. The conclusion that I make from this is that parkrun is instrumental in changing attitudes about ‘hard exercise’ making it attainable and enjoyable for everyone,” says Paul.
“The second point is the perspective of the volunteer. We do everything we can to explain the true benefits of volunteering. We continue to shout about the social, health and well-being benefits to the person who volunteers. The result of this is obvious to all as we have undoubtedly the most engaged group of wonderful, inspired and engaged volunteers. Many people volunteer to improve themselves. They might be looking to improve a particular skill. Others do it because they want to meet and be a part of the wider local community. Some volunteer because this is their chosen way of "paying it forward” or investing in their community.”
The third perspective is the collective good that these local communities are bringing. “All over the country and the world we are seeing local parkrun teams being nominated and often winning awards for their social improvement programs, changing communities for the better. In some communities like South Africa and Ireland, parkrun has been instrumental in bringing open community spaces back from the brink, allowing communities to reclaim parks that had been overtaken by crime and violence. We know for instance that in Northern Ireland protestant and catholic communities run together at parkruns where this kind of collusion might not have been possible just a few years ago.”
parkrun’s biggest success recipe it the fact that it is simple, weekly, free and founded on unequivocal values, explains Paul. Has it boosted running in general? “Without a doubt. Evidence is that wherever we have placed a parkrun, the local community has been boosted, participants have grown and sporting clubs including running clubs have grown. Local races are filling faster and most are now oversubscribed,” says Paul.
Inspiration and great moments
As a man who travels extensively Paul has experienced some great parkrun moments. “Just when I think I have a greatest moment, another comes along. This week we registered our 4 millionth parkrunner. But, if I thought that was a great moment then it pales into insignificance to the launch of a parkrun in a prison here in the UK.” (more about this in a future separate article on Run24)
He has never experienced a “bad” parkrun moment. “There is no such moment. How could there be? By definition every parkrun moment is wonderful and special. It’s never about the running alone, it’s about the people I meet and the way they treat me and everyone else.”
Paul is most inspired and impressed by the actions of those people who are “intrinsically fair, generous, bold and courageous.” Nelson Mandela has left an indelible footprint on his heart.
No slow coach
Paul himself is a fantastic runner and no slow coach. He runs a parkrun nearly every Saturday morning and describes it as the best time of the week. Well, that is apart from the one Saturday he was on the timer and accidently deleted 250 times!
With a best parkrun time of 18:22 and a great history of running he has no more running goals such as completing a particular distance in a particular time. “I’ve done as much as I can in that regard. These days I run 5km four to five times a week. I cycle once a week and swim in the summer. With this as my base I am ready to tackle just about anything. I recently ran a 28.5km trail run in France with 1000m ascent and the same descent and I loved it.”
Paul describes parkrun SA as a “vibrant, engaged and enthusiastic” movement. He has known nine-time Comrades winner and parkrun SA CEO Bruce Fordyce for years. In fact, six years ago, Paul invited Bruce and Gill to run Bushy Park parkrun. He asked them to start parkrun in South Africa and the rest is history. “I know Bruce from his Comrades days. I was privileged to be one of his seconds towards the end of his winning period. There is no better ambassador for parkrun than Bruce and I am delighted that I was able to convince him to get involved back in 2011,” says Paul.
He explains that the wonderful thing about parkrun is that no matter where you go, each parkrun might have its own personality, but is always the same. “It’s vital to me that we continue to observe the values of the movement ensuring that every country and event is always viewed this way.”
Encouragement and praise
Paul is in awe of the thousands who have turned their lives around through parkrun. “I am always astounded by the achievement of people who have turned their lives around. I never had to go through what they have been through, and so it's a total privilege and honour to meet these people. I always tell them that they did it – they should be proud of themselves.”
Any words of encouragement for those still on the couch? “I would gently try to understand why they are on the couch, and if appropriate find a way to excite them about the community aspects of parkrun. The key to getting people to change their lives is offering them an achievable step that is both fun and exciting but also addictive – replacing a bad habit for a good habit.”
Breaking new ground
Paul describes parkrun as an “adolescent. So, you bet, we have just started and we are going to go on to make a huge difference in the world. There are programs like the prisons, helping those less fortunate than ourselves and making it possible for people of disability, colour, religion to all benefit from parkrun. Our mission is ‘to help make the world a healthier and happier planet’. That leaves a huge scope for us to continue breaking new ground whether that's a project like the prisons or offering sign language instructions to visually impaired parkrunners or whether its starting in a new country where we can help to change things for the better.”
Ever wondered which parkrun is Paul’s favourite? Well, that will have to stay a secret, as Paul is not allowed to say!
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