I was thirteen when I first discovered the world of parkrun. I’d been introduced by a family friend who first told me about these weekly 5km runs whilst on holiday in Cornwall. “It’s much easier to get out of bed for,” Nicky told me, “when you can treat yourself to a full English breakfast afterwards.” A good enough incentive, I thought, as I polished off my third cream tea of the week.
Bushy Park was my nearest course and so it was there that I set out on my first ever parkrun, one chilly October morning in 2008. I remember that run well, not with great fondness, I’ll admit, the discomfort of not being able to breathe being the dominating memory. “Why has everyone actually chosen to do this,” was my recurring thought as I trailed behind hundreds of energetic-looking runners around the course. To my relief, I reached the final one hundred metres and standing there, as he would for the next ten years, was my dad.
“Go Hannah!” Dad shouted from the side-line as I attempted a sprint finish. For a man who, in his prime, could run a 10km race in 36 minutes, he was very supportive of my 30:05 debut performance. “Well done Han!” he called to me as I emerged from the funnel. “Wow, I wish there had been something like this in my day.”
You wouldn’t have guessed it from his unassuming and self-effacing character, but my dad was an exceptionally talented sportsman in his day. From a young age, Dad had been an avid footballer who found any opportunity to kick a ball around. This passion continued into his young adulthood where he played for his local team, never missing a training session and proving himself as a brilliant striker on the field. His natural flair and drive was recognised by Bangor Football Club in Northern Ireland, where he played alongside Gerry Armstrong at a semi-professional level.
Taking up the game in his mid-twenties, Dad quickly displayed a competence for hockey and went on to play for Lisnagarvey Hockey Club, one of Northern Ireland’s most prestigious teams. It was here that Dad showed off his prowess for running during their weekly 5km and 10km training runs. According to one of his closest friends, his speed was the envy of all his fellow teammates as he would secure first position every single week. “No matter how hard I tried,” his friend lamented, “I could never keep up with your Dad. In all the years that we played, we never beat him!” As captain of the Men’s First XI, Dad’s reputation preceded him, which was how my mum first heard of the infamous Neville Simpson. They met at a social event, bonded over their shared love of hockey and, as they say, the rest is history.
Teddington Hockey Club was the club of choice when Dad first moved to England in 1987, and so it was the charming town of Teddington where my parents decided to put down roots. Little did they know that nearly two decades later and only a mile away, the first ever parkrun would take place. Frustratingly for Dad, by that time, a long term and recurring sports injury would prevent him from ever being able to participate.
After that first parkrun in 2008 which I struggled through, I was well and truly hooked. I was catching the running bug and soon the 5km run became mine and Dad’s weekly routine. Every Saturday morning, we would scramble into the car and race (within the 20mph speed limit) down Chestnut Avenue, I would hop out, run the three miles and Dad would cheer me on at every possible sighting. We would then hop back into the car and enjoy a de-brief about the run on the journey back home.
This regime continued for many years and even when I left home for university, Dad was still firmly invested in my parkrunning activity. I ran a personal best one week at Brighton’s Preston parkrun and a couple of hours later, Dad called me excitedly, expressing his delight at how I had beaten my record; he had checked my result online before I was even aware of having achieved my PB. That was my Dad. He was my cheerleader and he never failed to encourage me to keep on running. I was never going to break any records, but for him, what mattered was that I was getting out there, running my best and just enjoying.
Very sadly and unexpectedly, my wonderful Dad passed away on a sunny Bank Holiday weekend in May last year. Exactly a week before, Dad had taken me to what would be our last parkrun together. It was like any other Saturday. We were running late, we crawled through the park with the greatest urgency and I jumped out at the start-line. “Have a great run, Han,” Dad said, “and remember to enjoy!”
On that first weekend after Dad passed away, I knew exactly where he’d want me to be at 9 o’clock on the Saturday morning. And so, I found myself running past the deer, the smiling volunteers and all the familiar landmarks just as I had done countless times before. I did the same the next week, the following, and a couple after that, I completed my 200th parkrun. Of course, the day was bitter-sweet, but I have my mum, sister and best friend to thank for making it a really special occasion. Approaching the final home-straight, I hadn’t expected the big group of family friends who were there cheering me across the finish line. Nor had I anticipated the massive 2-0-0 pink balloons which Mum excitedly waved in the air! They had all surprised me, and it has firmly become one of my favourite parkrun memories. We cracked open the bubbly, soaked up the summer sun and enjoyed the post-parkrun buzz all around us. There I stood, Prosecco in hand, surrounded by people who loved my dad and reflected on the many happy Saturdays that he and I had spent there together.
As we prepared for our first Christmas in 2018 without Dad, my family and I decided that it was only appropriate to mark it with a parkrun. So, on Christmas morning, my mum, brother, sister, cousin and I ran alongside two-hundred others in Wallace Park, Northern Ireland, the very same park where my dad grew up playing football. We were all there, along with his brother who cheered from the side-line, to honour the greatest parkrun advocate that we knew.
In May, we marked the first year since Dad’s passing. Again, it was the parkrun that brought my family and friends together as we ran, walked, chatted and laughed in memory of him, and to support the work of the British Heart Foundation. Friends and family as far away as Melbourne, Edinburgh and Belfast were also running the three miles in honour of Dad. We used to joke about how great he looked in pink, so we were all there, running in various shades of the colour to remember a wonderful man who so loved to see people getting out and running.
The parkrun has always been very special to me, particularly within the past year, and I know that it will continue to have huge importance throughout my life. In recent years, I’ve had the chance to run parkruns further afield including Roosevelt Island in Washington D.C., and Crissy Field in San Francisco. It is so encouraging to see how parkrun communities have emerged on the other side of the world and I look forward to running many more. But of course, Bushy Park will always be my home. For me, there’s nothing quite like starting off the weekend with a run where it all began, followed by an indulgent breakfast at the Teddington-famed Fallow Deer!
The Bushy parkrun alone has experienced the most incredible evolution. I personally have witnessed the numbers explode from a mere 400 in 2008, to roughly 1,400 runners who now partake in the race every week. My dad was increasingly uplifted by its popularity and I could see how the sense of community and spirit of goodwill gave him a boost each and every Saturday morning. As I continue to run the parkrun today, I find myself smiling at the sight of runners, volunteers, organisers and supporters showing up week-in-week-out, because I know what joy that brought to my dad.
So, here is my tribute to a devoted parkrun Dad. I could never forget how he spent his Saturday mornings standing at the finish line, often wrapped up from the cold or sheltering from the rain, just smiling and cheering me on. I have often questioned why I failed to inherit any of Dad’s natural sporting talent, I suppose many of those genes went to my brother. But with every Saturday that I find myself at the parkrun starting line, I realise that I, in fact, have inherited my dad’s love of running.