In 2004, Paul Sinton-Hewitt invited his friends to join him on a 5K run through a park in a London suburb.
The run was a way for Sinton-Hewitt to get through what he called a “series of unfortunate events”: a job loss, a relationship breakdown, an injury. That gathering inspired Parkrun, which aims to bring people together.
At first, it comprised Sinton-Hewitt’s immediate circle of active friends. But Parkrun has now evolved into a worldwide movement, taking place in 11 countries, with 2 million registered runners and about 125,000 runners and 10,000 volunteers participating per week.
“When I started it, it was strictly about the running. But now I realize this is about rebuilding society, rebuilding communities. I never claimed to create anything, but I wanted to enhance connections,” Sinton-Hewitt said.
Parkrun officials want to bring more such events to the United States, including one in the District, which holds its first run Jan. 9.
Parkrun is a weekly, timed 5K event. Participants register once, enabling them to run at any Parkun in the world. The goal: Do your best and have fun. It’s not a race with medals and celebratory drinks (other than perhaps a post-Parkrun coffee). And Parkrun is always free. The emphasis is on allowing anyone to participate.
The key is to “tap into that source of motivation for people” who might otherwise have a hard time sticking to a fitness routine, said Henry Wigglesworth, director of the D.C. Parkrun. “We make it so it’s low-key: no barriers, no entry fee, no real planning needed. Just show up.”
Parkrun events have grown organically throughout the United Kingdom and nine other countries, but the organization wants to make a strategic effort to expand the runs in the United States. Currently, Parkruns are held in Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and California.
Max Metcalfe, the organizer of the Crissy Field Parkrun in San Francisco, said that about 25 runners have attended weekly since the Parkrun started in January and that he’s hopeful more Parkruns will pop up in the Bay Area.
Wigglesworth, a lawyer, took part in his first Parkrun while visiting friends in Nottingham, England, this summer. He was struck by the competitive yet friendly nature of the runners, who would encourage him as they were trying to run faster than he was.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really kind of different.’ The fact that the guy [who beat me] turned around and gave me encouragement in the middle of the race really struck me,” Wigglesworth said.
Thinking Parkrun would be a good fit for the District, Wigglesworth contacted Sinton-Hewitt, who put him in touch with other Washington-area residents interested in starting such an event. With a grant from the Palisades Community Fund and a permit from the National Park Service, the group has organized the city’s first Parkrun at Fletcher’s Cove along the C&O Canal Towpath in Northwest.
To test the idea, the D.C. organizers held three time trials this fall. Wigglesworth said about 20 people showed up for the first time trial, an out-and-back course from Fletcher’s Boathouse, and 30 came for the next two trials. Participants in the last trial included D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).
Parkrun “combines two really good things: It gets us out there and active and brings together people in a community that may not have met each other. I thought it was so wholesome and wonderful,” Cheh said.
Julie Messina was in graduate school in Brighton, England, in 2009 when she heard about Parkrun. She said the first 5K was a rough go, but she got better and was hooked.
“I very quickly saw the importance of Parkrun and what it can do for individuals and communities,” Messina said. “My husband and I were talking about moving back to the States, and I realized I wasn’t willing to let Parkrun disappear from my life.”
Messina and her husband, a native Yorkshireman, began the Durham, N.C., Parkrun in the summer of 2013. Her goal is to help fellow runners get to know one another and to gain confidence, just as she gained at the Brighton Parkrun.
“I wanted to be able to reach those runners who are less confident and give them a free and accessible way to try out what feels like a race but really isn’t a race,” Messina said. “It gives them that whole timed experience and helps them to develop in their confidence as a runner, because I know how much it meant for me, and I wanted to be able to do that for everyone else.”
Metcalfe said about 90 percent of the runners at the San Francisco Parkrun have been non-Americans who participated in the event in their home country. This is seen as what organizers call “Parkrun tourism,” in which Parkrunners on vacation or living in another country travel to a Parkrun. Wigglesworth said a British expatriate traveled from Martinsburg, W.Va., to the District for the third practice run — and had the fastest time.
“It makes our local runners realize they’re part of a much bigger movement that’s happening the world over,” Messina said. “At first, they thought it was weird. Now, [they see] this event is well loved all over the world, and we’re pretty lucky to have it here.”
Sinton-Hewitt views a successful Parkrun as having one runner and one volunteer show up. Still, he thinks growth in the United States is important to Parkrun’s continued success.
“The future is dependent on us getting the U.S. right,” Sinton-Hewitt said.
To that end, Parkrun organizers aim to have 350 Parkruns in California within three years. Wigglesworth and Cheh say they are hoping the Fletcher’s Cove Parkrun will branch off into more D.C. Parkruns, and officials are hoping to expand into Baltimore and eventually other cities along the East Coast.
Sinton-Hewitt, who last year was made a commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for creating Parkrun, is pleased with the organization’s legacy. It’s still a run in the local park, but he sees it as more.
“We’re fundamentally changing people’s lives.”
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