I first discovered parkrun back in July 2009, when Woodhouse Moor typically had around 100 runners. Parkrun was still a relatively new phenomenon after being founded in 2004 by Paul Sinton-Hewitt with the Bushy Park Time Trial. Woodhouse Moor started in 2007 and was the first parkrun event to be held outside of London.

It soon became a personal obsession. Beating the clock and racing against myself week after week, chasing personal bests and never daring to miss a Saturday for fear my place in the ladies points table might be put in jeopardy! I turned up without fail every Saturday morning fighting through illness, sleep deprivation, hangovers and various injuries. Nothing would have kept me away! I paced myself against familiar faces – the irritating man who used to sprint/walk the whole route, the girl with the strange crab-like running style, the man who ran whilst juggling, a certain silver-haired speedy Horsforth Harrier who always managed to overtake me at the most infuriating distance from the finish line (he knows I love him really).

In the end, life (and two more babies) side-lined my parkrun obsession and I didn’t return to Woodhouse Moor for over 4 years.

I finally revisited Woodhouse Moor in 2017 considerably faster than when I last ran there in 2013. From humble beginnings, the number of regular weekly runners has now grown to around 600.

I soon found myself chasing PBs again and felt the familiar fire of parkrun addiction licking at the heels of my running shoes. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re just using it as a gentle training run, you’re not bothered about the time and all those other half truths us runners tell ourselves as we turn out at early o’clock in all weathers on a Saturday morning. Despite all intentions to the contrary we just can’t kick the competitive habit. We’re often heard repeating that old familiar mantra of “parkrun isn’t a race” but it doesn’t stop us from gritting our teeth with grim determination in a quest for the next PB or milestone t-shirt. We are competitive creatures by our very nature.

PB chasing at Bramley parkrun in 2017

It was only after subsequently becoming injured and unable to run for 3 months that I glimpsed what truly lies at the heart of parkrun. It is so much more than obsessing over how many regional parkruns you have visited, compiling pie charts of your running statistics, shaving precious seconds off your best times or the urge to beat that smug runner who always manages to pip you at the finish line. It’s all about the magic that goes on behind the scenes to make parkrun the global phenomenon that it has become today.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of parkrun. They are essential to its continued success and its vital place at the centre of the running community. Each event is run entirely by volunteers and are integral to its not-for-profit status.

There are so many roles necessary to ensure parkrun runs smoothly for participants on a weekly basis.

Each event has a core team of run directors/volunteers who are responsible for organisation, filling the volunteer roster, setting up the course and clearing away. There are marshals who turn up every week to support runners, encouraging them with smiles and applause in all weathers. Timekeepers, finish token support and barcode scanners all ensure runners get the right results and are processed quickly beyond the finish line. Pacers are there to help fellow runners achieve personal bests. The tail runner brings up the rear and provides slower runners/walkers with vital encouragement to keep going and reinforce the message that parkrun is accessible for all. The volunteer race photographers are there to provide a visual record of the parkrun experience, giving runners the chance to proudly share photos on social media or simply to refine their best action shot facial expressions. There are those who pack up the course carrying placards, cones and signposts. Not to mention those who provide the cakes for many a celebratory post-run pig out. There are the dedicated individuals who process the results and which parkrunner doesn’t get a thrill when they see their individual results pop up? A huge army of volunteers provide the backbone of parkrun – it could not happen without them.

Part of the volunteer family at Bramley parkrun

As a parkrun volunteer you are witness to a veritable kaleidoscope of runners – from the nervous beginners to the hackneyed veterans, young and old, of all shapes and sizes – from every walk of life. You are an observer of a myriad of emotion – from elation at reaching the top of a hill without walking, grim determination as each lap becomes tougher, hearing the huffing and puffing as another incline takes its toll. The despair, the exhaustion, the thumbs ups, the high fives, the satisfaction and pride at another milestone completed. As a volunteer you are witnessing people conquering their fears, achieving their ambitions, discovering their passion, feeling alive. You are there to support hundreds of people take a step closer to their goals, whatever their motivation. Being thanked as you applaud them – particularly during the winter months with your fingers gradually losing sensation, unable to feel your toes and with tingling cheeks due to the wind-chill factor – it never fails to put a smile on your face.

Witnessing the magic at Bramley parkrun

Parkrun shows no signs of slowing down. In the UK alone, almost 200 parkruns took place on Christmas Day – to say nothing of those over the course of Christmas weekend.

As a parkrunner you need to remember one important thing (other than your barcode): without the required number of volunteers, parkrun cannot go ahead. If no one volunteers, no one runs. More than 180,000 people volunteered for parkrun last year. The dedication of each volunteer is what brings parkrun to life. So many people have discovered the joy of running because these people care enough to give their time. Parkrun is free and accessible to all because volunteers continue to make it happen. They are truly our hi-vis heroes.

Please consider volunteering every now and then and giving something back to the phenomenon that has given so much to so many. To those who already volunteer: I salute you, both as a runner and as a fellow volunteer. Long may you continue to be part of the parkrun family and keep its true spirit alive…

Photos courtesy of Simon Cullingworth – the fantastic volunteer photographer at Bramley parkrun