AS Derry’s parkrun celebrates its 300th run this Saturday, Kathy Donaghy talks to run director George Row about how something so simple can be life changing.
Every Saturday morning at 9.30 am hundreds of runners of all ages gather on the city’s quay to run at their own pace for 5k across the Peace Bridge into St. Columb’s Park before returning along the same route.
Derry is one of hundreds of cities and towns around the world to host the parkrun which is currently held in 21 countries with Japan the latest to join up.
The first parkrun happened in Bushy Park in South west London on October 2nd 2004 when 13 amateur runners joined up, unwittingly starting a revolution. The free timed run quickly spread into a global community of over one million runners from Singapore to Dungloe.
Derry’s first parkrun took place six years ago and on a typical weekend the event sees 100 people put on their running shoes to take part.
George Row, a parkrun volunteer from the city’s Rosemount area, had been a runner in his youth but years behind a desk had left him feeling like his running days were behind him.
His health was suffering as a result and one day some five years ago, George started using an app on his phone to keep an eye on how many footsteps he was taking in a day.
He noted that the World Health Organisation recommended 10,000 steps a day and with this in mind started making an effort to get increase his own. He started walking to the supermarket instead of driving and taking the stairs instead of the lift where possible. If he didn’t reach a certain amount of steps in any given day, the app on his phone would let him know.
George says he realised that if he were to run he could quickly improve his daily target and get fitter too. He remembers his first day trying to run around the green area near his home and having to stop after about 200 yards gasping for breath.
“It took me six stops to get around the green. By the end of the week I could do a lap of the park without stopping,” he says.
For his 60th birthday he decided that his present to himself would be an entry to the Derry City Marathon and he gave himself a year to train. His friends were dubious, telling him to politely “catch yourself on”.
A combination of consistency and sticking with it saw him running four times a week. Within a matter of weeks he was running 5k without a rest.
The Derry parkrun was his first formal run and he was nervous. Looking back, he admits he doesn’t know why he was so nervous because while parkrun is timed, you’re only running against yourself and the whole ethos is about getting people out and socialising with one another.
With a number of marathons now under his belt, George is in training for this year’s marathon in Derry. He’s also a dedicated parkrun volunteer and a keen advocate for how parkrun can change your life for the better.
To date 4,500 people have done Derry’s parkrun – 5% of the city’s population. Participants sign up online, print out a bar code which they bring to the event and this allows them to be timed by officials at the finishing line.
While lots of the city’s running clubs take part, George says lots of amateur runners who love the social aspect of parkrun get out on Saturdays. The location along the quay was chosen so people can get together for a cup of tea or coffee and a chat afterwards.
“We have people who show up and walk. We have people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. It really all depends on volunteer participation and we always need more volunteers,” says George.
These days, George is usually engaged in an official capacity at the parkrun but still gets plenty of running in, clocking up around 70 miles in a week.
“Parkrun is not as intimidating as other events with chip timing. We have that level of organisation but it remains casual. The idea behind it is that it’s safe, sociable and inclusive,” says George.
For more information see www.parkrun.org.uk/derrycity