Runnin’ The Flats – 20 Years of Park Run. The Score Ezine Issue 05

It’s 8:30am on a proper February morning over Wanstead Flats, East London. For those that don’t know, the flats is a stretch of grass, lakes, meadows, ditches and football pitches, criss crossed with half trodden paths, the odd cluster of beer cans and scored through by a couple of tarmaced roads. Stood on the Leytonstone edge, wondering why I got out of bed, you’d be forgiven for feeling zombie movie vibes, as through the miserable morning mist on every horizon, dark bundles of fluorescent edged winter warmers approach.

I’m here to meet a man about a jog. Tom, lives nearby me in Forest Gate, and has been doing Park Run for years now. And as Park run is celebrating its 20 year anniversary, he’s agreed to give me the low down on why this weekly national run attracts people from far and wide, why all these now surrounding figures are now closer. Men, women, old and young, babies and dogs. Park runners. Trying to keep warm, I stamp my feet in my inappropriate footwear and blow into any hands. The flask I’ve brought gives the briefest of respites, but I can’t help but wonder if a lug or two of scotch would have been a more appropriate choice.

Tom looking electric, arriving at the start line raring to go.

Tom’s arrival cuts through the grey, with his electric blue lycra clad torso matched only in brightness by his smile. This guy exudes sunshine, his rays a crew travelling in his slipstream, four or five men, a couple of women and two teenagers. “These are my neighbours, a good turn out today.. these three live on my road and the others we pick up along the walk. It’s great innit”. We drift off to the side just as a Park Run volunteer stands on a stool to address the crowd. Over the megaphone, welcome pleasantries are made and then questions asked on who is there for the first time. A few hands go up and a ripple of applause echoes off the overlooking tower blocks. “… whose here for their 25th run? Whose here for their 50th? 75th? 100th..” A look of bemusement flashes across Tom’s face.


“A couple of years ago I was on my 50th race. I’d literally got the tee shirt with 50 on it, over here nice and early and told anyone that would listen about the milestone. I was so proud and couldn’t wait for this part where they do the shout outs… The volunteer shouted out the ‘whose doing their 25th run today?..’ Me next I thought. I’m there bouncing about grinning ear to ear with my mates around me. Then when the next words out of his mouth were ‘whose doing their 75th run today? My heart sank. Literally the only time they hadn’t asked about the 50th. Absolutely gutted. But I can laugh about it now, just. This is my 97th run. I’ll be doing my 100th in a few weeks. There’s no way they will skip past that..”

Men, Women and Children start the run, but this is definitely not a Women and Children first kind of event.

As I wonder if I should get myself a ‘5 Park Runs’ tee shirt, Tom tells me the events started off in Bushy Park, London, 20 years ago now with just 18 competitors, and has since grown to over 2300 weekly Park Runs with over 300,000 participants. It’s now a charity and is free to run weekly. As Tom heads towards the start line, I chat with one of the volunteers who help make this happen. “I used to run myself religiously, but I’m getting on a bit now. This way I can still be around it all. Not just the running, but the community sprit, the togetherness, the camaraderie, all the by-product of running together. That’s why our motto is ‘The Feel Good Movement.” 


One of the many Volunteers, this guy was my mate for the morning.

Right on cue, he spots a middle aged man with ‘500th Park Run’ emblazoned on his back, with what looks like his two young sons by his side. “This guy is here every week, with his two boys, come rain or shine. They run hand in hand the whole 5K route. That’s not just about running is it? That’s bonding on another level”.  


As the run begins, it’s clear there’s a mix of not just people but running ability. The 2-300 strong group snakes around the first bend, and you can see the first third look like serious runners, these are the guys that are competing and want to get a good time. The second third look like the semi serious runners, keeping fit and enjoying themselves, and the last third is the slower runners, the walkers and the talkers. They seem to be content to be out and about doing something social in the fresh air, that’s the group I pitch up in on the odd occasion I actually do the running. 



The runners make their way through a lovely stretch. I sometimes forget how lucky we are to have the flats on our doorstep.

Being familiar with the route, and knowing Wanstead flats like the back of my hand, I make my way to a spot where I think there will be good photo opportunities. The group pounds the dirt below the Tower Blocks, weaves through some beautiful tree lined tracks, and by the time they’ve made their way through the muddy uphill stretch, round the semi frozen pond, in and out of the woods and back to a narrow path, there is a clear leading pack, with one runner, Ryan, starting to break away, who eventually went onto win the race with a time of 17mins 35secs. As Tom comes by with some of his neighbour crew, it’s clear he is a regular runner and taking it seriously, but is also chatting his way around, genuinely having fun. 

Tom finds time to flash me a wave (again).
Using a dog to pull you round? Surely that's cheating.

Passing the finish line all smiles, he’s made it round in a very respectable 26mins 01secs, positioning 95 out of 292 runners. There’s a lovely few minutes after the finish where people kind of mingle and chat about the run, cheer their mates on coming in behind them, get greeted by family and friends who have come to watch, take photos and compare times. Tom waits for the last of his neighbours to make it back before they head off. But as Tom and his crew start ambling back across the flats, past the old boating lake with the light mist drifting and the frost all but disappearing, he refutes my observation that he looks like a seasoned runner. “I hated running. I done the marathon over 10 years ago, hated the training, hated the time I was spent out the house, and hated the run itself. It was solely to enjoy the achievement rather than the process. I thought that would be the end of my running.”

Race Winner Ryan in full flow.
Tom and Neighbour Tania making it across the finish line.

So why Park Run now Tom? “A few years back, I used to drink most Fridays in the local, and a woman in there was a keen Park Runner. Each Friday she used to try and drum up interest with a few of us, and it was always yeah yeah maybe, drunk talk, I’ll do it soon, but it never was. I would normally wake up with a hangover and running round the flats was the last thing I wanted. Then one week, I bit the bullet and thought, go and do one, hate it and never go again. But, I loved it, I was hooked. I find it so much easier now to go to Park Run rather than just go on my own for a 5K run.”


“It’s just such a different way of running. Most weeks I don’t care about my time. It’s just the buzz of running with others, doing something as a group. If I run with my mates, we chat all the way round, it’s great. But some weeks if I run alone, I know I can turn to anyone beside me and strike up a conversation. It’s that meet up. I think in this day and age it’s even more important you know. People maybe don’t have their friends and family around them as much as they used to. How many are living alone, how many are suffering? But they can come here every Saturday, see the same faces, have a chat as they go. The volunteers are always making the effort to include people and build that community. It’s important.”

Top Dog of the Canine Leaderboard, before it was removed.
"Fifty more yards and I can get down the pub.."

“And it’s not intrinsically competitive. People do it in their own way. They run with dogs and babies in pushchairs. You know they could call it ‘Park Walk’, or even ‘Park Get Together’, the running is the excuse to come out, but it’s the rest that draws people out in the freezing cold or the glorious sunshine. But it can be competitive if you want it to be. Some peoples’ times are incredible. And every week you get an email saying how many Park Runs you’ve done, what your time and position was. So you can track your progress if you want. And it’s all free. That ain’t bad.”

It was good to see all ages making their way round, even those who didn't have a choice.

Since that day, Park Run have removed parts of the data they hold for participants performances, saying ‘we will no longer publish data such as attendance records, course records, fastest finishers, most first finishes and age grade or category records.’ They say this is partly to ‘continue to find ways to remove barriers to registration and participation’. It seems they feel like putting up the fastest times may put off potential newcomers or runners who are finishing way behind the fastest. I’m not sure it’s completely necessary. I’ve done Park Run a few times, and I don’t need to see the time of the winner to know I was miles behind. The sight of them walking off into the distance finishing a cup of tea as I complete my first lap tells me all I need to know. I don’t care about that, but I do like to marvel at the impressive times some non professional runners are achieving.

Young Park Runners bringing new blood into the game.
Running through the generations.

I wonder if Tom’s Saturday morning routine has now pushed his old Friday night antics into the background. “Well, it’s not just Park run. You get a bit older, I have a child now, so Fridays are a lot calmer. But even still, the couple of beers watching telly on the sofa last night isn’t my start to the weekend. It wasn’t enough for me to move out of work mode and into weekend mode. This is. This is my de-stress, I feel ready to take it on now. Sometimes my wife and daughter come over to watch, and hopefully when my daughter is a bit older, we can run together. I’d love that.”

Leading light round the pond.
The chasing pack making good time.

Walking down their road, there’s a buzz amongst Tom and his group and an obvious sense of achievement. “How often do we pat ourselves on the back and celebrate a small win? I don’t. I spend most of my time criticising myself or worrying I’ve said something stupid or been a fool. But this is a chance to feel good about yourself. When I get to 100 runs, I know I’ll be proud of myself. And no one else may care ya know, its like if your mate tells you they shot 84 on the golf course, you say well done but you don’t really care. But I’ll care about it, I had that target and I’ll have reached it… and I’m looking forward to that. There’s some people, when they hit 100 or 200 runs or whatever, their family will bring a cake down to the clubhouse for after the run, and they stick up pictures on the wall of previous runners’ milestones, I applaud that.”

Possible personal best - time is of the essence for some, and rightly so.

As we approach Toms house, his wife and daughter waiting for him at in the front garden, he leaves me with an interesting tidbit. “For me, this says it all: The average time of Park Run, across the country, is actually getting slower. And that’s not because people are getting slower, it’s because more non runners and new runners are coming. Park Run is attracting more people into running rather than just supporting existing runners. It’s opening up to everyone, and people are coming to be a part of it. Not just to run, but to meet more people, meet their neighbours and their wider community. And that’s what it’s all about, right?



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