Life outside work – parkrun

Well risual are an IT company, but I for one do things outside of work. One of the things that I’ve been involved with for a while is parkrun, and I wanted to write a bit about how it works and how it has impacted my life. I have missed it so much over the past year, the last parkrun I did was Oaklands in Birmingham on 14th March 2020, with whispers of “there might not be a run next week due to Coronavirus” little did we know, here we are 50 weeks later.

What is it?

parkrun is a free weekly 5K (3.1 mile) event at 9am on Saturdays, there are also some 2K junior parkruns for 4-14 year olds held 9am on Sundays. It doesn’t always follow that where there is a senior run there is a junior one and vice versa, but it is mostly the case where if there is a 5K there is a 2K nearby. These events are organised by local volunteer teams, so everyone you see there helping out is a volunteer who has opted not to lie in bed and watch repeats of Saturday kitchen. We are directed by parkrun Headquarters by a team of people who work for parkrun and get a salary for it, but each event once set up is largely self governing and relies on volunteer help and runner donations to keep going. There are event directors (I am one at Stratford-upon-Avon) who do things like liaise with the landowners, respond to general enquiries and issues and have overall responsibility for the event, and run directors who on that given day are in charge of the volunteers, the event as it happens and the results processing afterwards.

How did it start?

Back in 2004, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the parkrun founder was not having much luck on the job front, he was also a runner and was injured, but wanted to still meet up with his running mates. Bushy Park Time Trial was born and the project gave him a focus. A few friends legged it round the park, the results were timed with a stop watch and noted on paper while washers stamped with a finish number were used as finishing tokens. The runners would flog themselves senseless against each other. But really it was about having coffee and cakes afterwards. Below is the man himself:

You mentioned cake – ok so what do I have to do?

There aren’t really many “rules” to parkrun, you can just turn up and run and go home and that’s fine. You don’t have to wear fancy sports kit. If you would like to have your name and finishing time recorded for posterity, you can register on the parkrun website for your own unique barcode. This can be printed out, laminated, or even turned in to a wrist band; this is presented at the end of a run to a volunteer, in conjunction with a small plastic token given to you with your run position to formulate a results table with your time in for that Saturday. But if you forget your physical barcode you won’t get a personalised result, you won’t get written in afterwards!

It is not a race.

I am slow at the moment, and even at my peak was never fast, but really parkrun is whatever you make it. If you want to go there every Saturday and hoof it round to the point of vomiting, good for you. If you want to run there, do the run, run home as part of a longer run, well done. If you’re hungover and want to run walk, great. If you want to turn up and walk, no problem and there is always a tail walker at the back in an orange jacket who keeps behind the last person.

My journey.

I got started at Cambridge parkrun at Milton Country park in 2010 – I was running lots of marathons at the time and considered 5K too short for me. I answered an appeal for guinea pigs to try out a new parkrun route at the park – e.g. to help them know if they got the signs in the right place, did they know how to use all the equipment etc. There were only about 10 of us there at Milton Country Park. My first official parkrun was 5th Feb 2011, which happened to be Cambridge parkrun’s first birthday.

I soon realised I liked the friendliness, the atmosphere and the general camaraderie and I kept turning up more and more frequently. I also encouraged friends to go and we would meet there, and if I was training for or recovering from a longer event I would go and volunteer. If I was away somewhere, or doing something out of town I’d look up a parkrun nearby and go to that for a change of scene. It was one fateful day where I’d gone to meet some friends who were celebrating their 50th run I ended up meeting my now husband at Leamington parkrun. He also did a marriage proposal there on 1st Jan 2020.

A small team of us started the run in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, we have just had our 5th Birthday but haven’t really been able to celebrate. It is here we have built a welcoming community, seeing people who started on that first run – a lady who turned up late pushing two kids in a double buggy still comes, there are people that stop and then come back again, we don’t judge as we all have life going on. We have people who have turned from walkers to being able to do 10K and Half Marathons (not that I’m suggesting that is any sort of promotion, if you want to come and walk each week that is what we are here for). There are times when I’ve felt really rough and I’ve cried in front of my parkrun friends, and times where we have all celebrated and laughed together. We have a ping pong table by the pavilion (lucky that the lovely council let use use it) that we serve refreshments on (just tea, coffee, squash, fruit, cake) funded out of our kitty, and it’s great to see people chat and socialise; we put a run on New Years day most years even though its not necessarily a Saturday, as during that period for some that table may be one of few small bits of human interaction had over the festive period.

We’ve had parkruners pass away, and seen generations of new baby parkrunners born; we’ve changed our original course so as not to trample the more scenic bits of the rec, and lived harmoniously with the Boat Club, the fun fair and the Stratford Wheel. We’ve soothed the angry brows of upset dog walkers, people offended by the smell of another runners deodorant, and fed biscuits to a sleeping homeless person shivering next to our store cupboard. Two things I have learned being an event director – people will complain about anything(!) I mean that in a nice way, stuff you wouldn’t imagine! But generally speaking people are good and kind. We’ve had impromptu visits from Colonel Dame Kelly Holmes, Dave Moorcroft and apparently Ed Miliband has been and run with us, but managed to slip through unnoticed; no bacon sandwiches at the table, finish funnel too far to the right…

The return run (hoping for June 2021) will be very emotional – we are a family.

THE I.T. BIT:

Of course I couldn’t let this go –

I believe that parkrun use Amazon Web Services at their back end which scales to give extra computing power at the peak times (e.g. Sat AM and to a lesser degree Sun AM for juniors) when there are hundreds of events all trying to get their results published. The following basic diagram describes what happens at the finish funnel:

So following the above diagram – the run director shouts go, and the stopwatches are started. I do my 5K, run, jog, walk, crawl and at the end I get over the finish line. At least one “timekeeper” volunteer has clicked me on their stopwatch (there is a smartphone app for this which events are now using). It notes what position number I was, and my time since the run began. We usually have two timekeepers as if one accidentally stops the watch, or makes a mistake we have a fall back file to work from on the 2nd watch. When the run is over, the time keeper saves the file and it’s a CSV that has positions and times.

I stagger down the finish funnel which is taped out for me to follow, and at the end am met by one or more frighteningly cheerful people who give me a little plastic token with my finish position on; this is not mine to keep, it is needed for next week so I take it, and wander over to where the barcode scanners are. Here I have two options. 1) I could just drop it in the bucket and go home with a sense of smugness and glory for the rest of the day 2) I present them with my own personal barcode I’ve registered for on the parkrun site and my little plastic token and they scan me, then my position and put the token in the bucket. When the run is over, each scanners file is saved as a CSV which contains peoples personal IDs (I am A54627!) and their position. The following (again basic!) diagram shows what happens at a high level as to what the files contain and what happens after the run.

The files themselves look like this, with a timer file on the left and a stopwatch file on the right, the arrow showing position 5 on the watch and position 5 in the scanner file.

It’s magic; the “best” stopwatch file and the scanner files are uploaded to make the results – but it can fall down a bit – common scenarios which means the timer and scanner files will be out of sync:

  • Timekeeper has missed a click / done too many clicks
  • Someone ducks out of the funnel in between stopwatch and getting a token (the term “funnel ducker” will soon be in the Oxford dictionary)
  • Tokens were incorrectly sorted from the previous week and are in wrong order, there are duplicate or missing tokens

We can usually work out what has happened, the software also has some intelligence around this and it doesn’t usually take that long to get it sorted. We have a high level of pride about getting our results right, we won’t generally update things if someone’s time is a couple of seconds off, but if some mishap like in the above points has happened we want to make sure it’s right. I have entered paid for events in years gone by and the results have taken a week to be published, yet parkrun and a team of volunteers manage to get most of the results out pretty much by early afternoon on the day of the run.

The main thing is though it’s fun both the running and the volunteering (you don’t have to run you can just help out), and when the current restrictions are over, give it a go and you’ll never have a lie in on a Saturday again!

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