Heather Doody could not hold back the tears as she surveyed the playing fields that were to have been the scene of her sporting triumph on Saturday morning. “I’m sorry, it must seem silly to see me crying but this place means so much to me – it feels like a home from home. I’m really sad.”
Doody was due to complete her 50th parkrun surrounded by the scores of friends she has made in the three-and-a-half years she has been tackling the 5km course at Little Stoke near Bristol.
But the milestone has been denied her after Stoke Gifford parish council became the first to decide to levy a charge against the volunteer-led parkrun movement. There have been howls of protest from sporting stars, health campaigners and amateur runners around the world, but the parish council is standing firm and Saturday’s run will not go ahead.
Doody took part in the very first run at Little Stoke. “When I first started parkrun, it was the only running I did and the only chance to spend an hour out of the house. Now I’d struggle to do without it. I come back after the run feeling energised, ready to get the most out of the weekend.
“There is such a wonderful sense of community among the runners. We’re like a big family. You see parents running pushing prams, people in wheelchairs, youngsters, pensioners, people of all sorts of shapes. It’s just wonderful.” There are other parkruns in the area but Doody cannot contemplate attending another to reach the half-century. “It wouldn’t feel right. I want to do it here.”
Reasons people give for turning out here on a Saturday morning are many and varied – some simply want to get fit, lose weight or stave off a specific illness. Others like to compete and see their personal bests improve. Many are there to forge new friendships and feel part of a community.
The course record is 15 minutes 13 seconds. Forty-five-year-old Paula Gregory takes almost 40 minutes but she is hugely proud of that achievement. “I’d never run before. Not even at school. I was one of those people who always had sick note for sports.” She joined a scheme called Couch to 5K designed to get people out of their living rooms and into running. The Stoke Park run was her “graduation” run. “I’ve now lost nearly a stone and feel great.”
A feature of the run is that those who can complete it in under 20 minutes stay and cheer on those who take much longer. “I managed to do it because those people seemed to have faith in me,” said Gregory. “I don’t have much faith in myself.”
Felicity Russell has taken part in the Stoke Park run 85 times. She was recovering from a vitamin deficiency that left her suffering chest pains if she climbed a flight of stairs. “I was, at 54, post-menopausal and two stone overweight. At first I couldn’t run the 5km without several breaks. Three and a half years later, I’ve lost that weight, joined a local running club, run five half-marathons and this weekend I’m taking part in the Brighton marathon.”
Lu Landymore, 31, suffers from hyper-mobility syndrome, which causes her pain and stiffness. “Running relieves that. I didn’t use to run but having this parkrun here got me off my bum. And I’ve found such love and support here.”
When he was made redundant three years ago, Bob Howell, 61, wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. Parkrun gave him direction. “I couldn’t run more than 100 metres without stopping.” Now he covers the 5km in in just over 25 minutes. “I’d have been lounging on the sofa or in the garden without this. It’s a life-saver.”
It is striking how many people say the run has improved their mental health. “There’s only so much you can do to combat stress with chocolate and wine,” said Kate Maliphant, 55 a primary school teacher. “Parkrun is much more effective. Over the last couple of years, life has been traumatic at work – unexpected deaths, one of which I witnessed, serious illness, plus massive pressure generated by [the schools inspector] Ofsted. Then there’s all the usual family cares.
“Every lap I’ve run at Little Stoke I’ve thought of someone I know who is either no longer with us or who is no longer able to run. I’ve quite literally run the stress out of the system and turned it instead into a celebration of being alive.”
There are some good runners here. Solicitor David Francetti, 37, took up the event when his younger brother goaded him into it. “He said running was not the sort of thing I did. I wanted to prove him wrong.” His best time is a swift 19 minutes and eight seconds.
Little Stoke parkrun is also very much a family affair. Husband and wife Robin and Linda Phillips, both 42, have PBs of 17 minutes 11 seconds and 22 minutes respectively. They weren’t an item when they took part in their first parkruns. Now they have a 10-month-old baby, Arabella – who gets pushed around by Robin in a buggy. “We’ve already started counting down to when Arabella can take part,” said Linda.
Zoey White, 35, runs with six-year-old Rufus. “I’ve been able to set a wonderful example to Rufus,” she said. “Unlike any running club or race, parkrun shows each of us that the achievements of the next person are not greater than ours, that we can each be better than the person we were yesterday, that we can change our own lives, can achieve things we never thought we could.
“Running, thanks to parkrun, is no longer an elite sport open only to those born with the ‘appropriate’ body shape and ability. We can all run and we can do it together in a place of safety, surrounded by support, advice and friendship, free from the heckling or horn-beeping that many of the women have been put off by when running the streets or parks alone.”
The Page family are also all involved. Kirsty, an independent neurological physiotherapist, runs with her boys Christopher, 12, and Matthew, 10, and husband, Nick. Her daughter, Sophie, eight, takes part in the junior race on Sundays. Christopher said he had got a lot out of helping out when he was not running. “I thought that parkrun had given me a lot. I wanted to give something back,” he explained.
Like Heather Doody, George Shepherd was hoping to celebrate his 50th parkrun at Little Stoke on Saturday – on his 12th birthday. He and his family (who take part either barefoot or in minimalistic footwear designed to replicate the feeling of running as nature intended) are going to another event so that he can reach the half-century.
“I’m sad that we’re having to go somewhere else,” said George. “I’m quite annoyed at what happened. I don’t understand how a few people can stop something that so many people love doing.”