|The lake at Delamere that the 5k Park Run course follows|
Having friends who have participated previously who advised they're a great place to measure progress on your speed work, I nervously gave these weekly gatherings a go. From a standing start having taken 3 months off from track work, the races have been hard going and tougher than I imagined. I'm about 2 minutes off my 3 mile PB from 2 years ago. But progress has already been noticed, and with some track sessions, a bit of pacing and a fair wind, I'm confident that by Easter I should be knocking on that PB.
What's pleasing about the Park runs is seeing so many people out pushing themselves for their own reasons. At the top end of the stack there are some seriously good athletes (in the 16 minute finish category), all the way down to run/walkers completing and competing in their first organised event. And you know what? I love seeing it. The unrelenting media misery of double, triple dip recessions, bad news, high obesity prevalence and how much this costs the overburdened tax payer would leave one thinking that improving ones health through something as egalitarian and inclusive as Park run would provide good headlines.
Maybe I'm just soft, but something warms my cockles seeing 250 people turn up on a miserable winters day in a South Manchester Park, all pushing themselves to finish, with their own running stories. But hearing a programme on Radio 4 this week, and looking online, it seems that some in the UK running community feel threatened by the presence of 280,000+ souls per week partaking in the the Park races. Their complaint is that unlike organised club events and commercial races, UKA is missing out on potential revenue and club numbers will be affected as new runners bypass the club system just to do park runs and enter the odd race of their choosing.
As ever where the old brigade of the running community is concerned, they miss the point that when you talk to people partaking in Park Runs, a huge number come from clubs, intend to join clubs or give up their own time to marshall/ensure public safety. From my perspective, Park runs are a great shot in the arm for UK Athletics, and club running. They are, if you like, a gateway drug.
Some participate in the 5k's to kickstart their running journey, eventually signing up for 10ks, half-marathons and beyond. When I heard that people were complaining about Park runs, I banged my head against the (metaphorical) wall. Along with Triathlon, distance running is the largest growing participation activity (numbers wise) in the UK and this should be something that should be applauded. If UKA have issues with regard to Park Run and funding, that isn't something I can't really comment on and have to leave to those respective parties.
Off the record, I've heard some top end coaches complain that the effect of so many extra participants in UK running is diluting the quality at the top end and overall, for a number of factors, the amount of club runners clocking fast times and PBs has been decreasing over the past 50 years. You can't argue with statistics, and I do accept that the amount of top end runners (based on time) has gone down. But rather than sit on the sidelines and snipe, why don't those naysayers go and encourage the cream of Park runners and develop them?
Maybe I'm missing the point - if you're someone who has an issue with Park runs and want to explain what needs changing, then I'm open to hearing why. For the record, I do intend to run more park runs but also have entered (and paid for) 1 10K race this month and 2 half marathons in the next two months. Without overdoing the amount of races, if coaches want to see improvements in their athletes, I do think that participating frequently in races is a great proven way to up those times at the top end. From the 5k to the full distance.