I’ve resisted organised religion for many years, but towards the end of 2013 I decided that parkrun is the closest I’ve come to filling my spiritual void. I’ve recently found myself heading off for the same natural high at 9 a.m. every Saturday morning for 9 consecutive weeks.
I’ve got some friends who are committed followers of a more commonly accepted religion. Sometimes when we’ve gone away with them for the weekend, they’ve sought out the local church to go to a Sunday morning service. I used to find this odd, but one Saturday last December, I found myself 200 miles away from home and similarly seeking out the local parkrun. It then felt totally right to find myself doing three laps of an unfamiliar park with 280 people I did not know but with whom I shared a common bond.
Most Saturdays I meet the rest of the regular local “congregation”, a hard core who come every week along with the parkrun-curious and the recent converts. Parkrun is a highly inclusive religion. The only types of people not represented are those who will never quite be able to imagine themselves being up and out at such a ridiculous time on the first morning of the weekend. There are no expectations that people wear their “Saturday best”. Some are kitted out in state of the art gear but others wear whatever they’ve got to hand. I’ve seen one man photographed finishing a South London parkrun wearing stiff leather shoes and the kind of clothes that gave no indication whatsoever of someone planning to go out for a run.
So how does parkrun measure up when compared to the other great religions?:
Formal ceremonies: Registering and printing out your barcode is the first sign that you are considering heeding the call of parkrun. Then there’s the stages of confirmation that include the award of the 50 run red shirt or even the hallowed 100 run black shirt and jacket. Otherwise it’s all pretty informal.
A recognised leader: Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun is the closest we have to this. His first event in 2004 included 13 runners. He seems oddly overlooked and low profile given that his initial idea has inspired what is expected to be up to 60,000 people running a UK parkrun every single week by the end of 2014. If he turned up at my local parkrun I doubt anyone would recognise him.
The network of Race Directors are the closest we get to “clergy”. They are distinguished by hi-viz jackets, but this is not usually in recognition of the many sacrifices made in their years of training. You or I could get to wear the garments of the “inner sanctum” just by emailing a race director and offering to scan a few barcodes.
A holy book I don’t believe there is such a thing when it comes to parkrun. No doubt one of the obsessive band of “parkrun tourists” (or should that read “pilgrims”?) who try to visit and run every one of the 200 plus events has something in the pipeline, but the weekly newsletter will have to suffice for now.
Sensitivity to blasphemy: One of the things I like about parkrun is its tolerance. We tolerate the quirky behaviour of other non-parkrunning park-users, even the ones who are clearly outraged that we dare to run in their park. The man who kicked a football smack between my legs during my first ever parkrun was only sworn at and wrestled to the ground in my imagination. The man who insisted on walking very slowly slap bang in the middle of the narrow path at last Saturday’s parkrun was not barged out of the way but politely negotiated by 180 runners wanting to get past him. In fact it’s very hard to upset the parkrun faithful, so long as you don’t ever claim to “win” an event or take to Twitter to berate the race director if the results are taking too long to get published.
Hymns: There is no rousing parkrun song of praise, although this one’s crying out for a rework:
Next Saturday I expect to find myself waking up in a hotel miles away from home after a going to a wedding on Friday (along with all the unathletic activity that’s likely to include). The one bit I was apprehensive about was having to miss my Saturday morning “enrichment”. However, after a quick check of the parkrun website, I was amazed to find out the hotel was 1.7 km away from a…..you’ve guessed it. As well as packing my suit and tie, my running shoes will be in my bag. It would be rude not to.