"just as well we didn't know how long it would actually go on for" - Alison Sandilands (61 runs)
14th March 2020
198 finishers and 23 volunteers.
Alex Pulis was our first male finisher in a time of 17:51
Zoe Nicholls was our first female finisher in a time of 22:21
This was our 277th event at Melton Country park, but somehow, this one felt different. There was a melancholic sense of inevitability in the air. We kind of knew that it would be our last for a while.
At the time, I was in my third time teaching at a school in Stamford, but had recently been offered a place at Soar Valley College in Leicester. We had been told that we needed to prepare 2 weeks worth of cover work for our classes in anticipation of what was to follow.
This was days before the briefing where a mahogany-surrounded Boris Johnsson addressed the nation with a stay-at-home order and all our lives became unrecognisable.
18th March 2020
parkrun UK (and global) needed to follow suit. There would be no parkrun on the 21st March. Having been so heavily involved in parkrun for 278 weeks (plus the months of planning beforehand), it was hard to imagine a Saturday morning without parkrun.
Then Julie Thompson (our former ambassador) posted the following into our closed FB group for core teams of local events:
and then apprently my life changed and became unrecognisable! The very next day, this happened:
There was no way of knowing how this would go down, and setting up the spreadsheet took quite a while - but it was going to be worth it all if it kept the conversation going and made sure that our parkrun community kept in touch and had that one thing that was a constant - a parkrun on a Saturday morning. I mean, what's the harm, it's only going to be a couple of weeks?!
The idea was simple enough, and there were Virtual running events long before the period where Corona was any more than an overly-fizzy lager, so the concept was easy enough to replicate. Go out and run 5k, time yourself, and let me know how you did. I'd stick it onto a spreadsheet and do a quick (they were quick to begin with) write-up that evening.
the briefing by Boris had asked us to only leave the house once per dday for exercise, and if I made it a strict 5k then I would be alienating those who tended to do parkrun as part of their longer runs. The way around this was to ask people to run a minimum of 5k and I would use the average pace to calculate a 5k time (something which I can now do in less than 10 seconds because I instinctively know every second as a decimalised minute!)
Secondly, everything was now different. We, as parkrunners, are always out at 9am on Saturdays. There are people who work weekends and therefore can only make the odd parkrun now and then, but 9am is the constant. But this may need to be different in this alternate reality. People's childcare arrangements may be different. Key workers may have had their hours changed. People may be leaving the house for their one-a-day in order to tie it into something else that they are doing later that day. So maybe 9am didn't fit - to make sure this was open to people, I said just any time before 8pm (extended to 9pm on the really hot days of the summer).
21st March 2020
Having detailed the plan a couple of days before, I put out a 10 minute reminder post at 8.50am and at 9am I went on Facebook Live by the side of my house, next to the 'parkrun Finish' sign (that I still need to get reinstalled - one day). I had absolutely no structure to what I was going to say and the wind between houses caused the sign to blow into my face half way through. The video ended with me saying "3, 2, 1, Go!" and I began my own 5k - an out and back to Asfordby Hill school that became my regular route for well over 50 of my Virtual runs.
I then remembered that my unstructured video had missed out some key information, so I actually went live again half-way through my run to give the rest of the information.
We had 84 runners submitting their results that day, so I saw this as a huge success. Little did I realise just how long this would go on for, or that 84 runners would be our smallest Virtual field for the next 16 months!
28th March 2020
The same overall plan as before, but this time nobody knew that Liz Parkinson would be our RD. And with all of the FB permissions at her mercy, she did this:
to which Andy Nicholls commented, "This has Liz Parkinson written all over it!" This in itself was the birth of the teaser pic at 8.50am - and it became the notion of a different RD each week whose identity would remain secret until 9am when the videos went live.
I am not sure exactly how it started, but we started to get noticed. Three weeks in and we had featured on an interview on Radio Leicester, which then became an online video which was shared by BBC East Midlands, and even BBC TWO on their respective Facebook feeds.
The BBC TWO link (click here) was shared on May 26th (a few weeks after the East Mids post) has to date been viewed in excess of 332,000 times!!!!
I also began to get messages for appeals of help in setting up similar events. Kerstin Pepper messaged from Perrigo parkrun in Washington State, Ellen Harrison from Henley Woods parkrun, Oswestry, the marvellous Colin Phillips from College Park parkrun in Washington DC, and a shy and retiring person we have come to know as Kettering's Andrea Crellin.
I am not someone who is precious about ideas if they seem to work. It wasn't a case of "No, this is my ball and you're not allowed to play" as that's just petty (in case you're reading this Andrew Gibson from Year 5). Instead, it was more like, "Here's an actual Excel document that is already set up. There are no details in there that haven't already been publicly shared through our results posts, so no breach of GDPR. Just delete the names and put in your own details. Here is how I share the results afterwards. This is what I think works. This is what doesn't. Make it your own and let me know if you need anything"
To Andrea, I did put a post-script message in my email - "Are you the Andrea that does the first timers briefing and talks about willies?" I had ran Kettering parkrun as part of my New Years Day Double earlier in 2020 and the FTB really stuck with me. She was brilliantly funny and I knew she needed to do an RD slot for us once I knew it was definitely her.
The idea that we would have a different RD each week was seemingly straighforward. By the time this was definitely going to be a thing, I had been asked to prepare classwork for a further 2 weeks at work. Surely it isn't going to be that hard to arrange for 4 or 5 different people to be an RD for us - after all, we have 12 RDs in my core team. No dramas whatsoever.
I committed to saying that nobody would repeat their slots and the members of the parkrun core team played out as follows:
Me (week 1) - sign blew into my face
Liz (week 2) - ran in a dinosaur onesie with her camera held sideways on
Mark (week 3) - Invited people to cycle their 5k!!!!
Sharon (week 5) - ran to where she was going to do her brief, realised she had no 4G there so had to run home to do it before running out to do her run again
Anne (week 13) - loads of connection issues with her briefing and a tremendous bobble hat
Catherine (week 21) - loudly and proudly said "arse" in a family friendly briefing
Mike (week 32) - was clearly nervous as he made sure he went through everything on his script (it isn't easy talking to a faeless crowd on the internet)
Theresa (week 45) - covered in pompoms and blasting out Stevie Wonder
If it wasn't for the frustratingly faultless Rachel Holland (week 6), I'd be more concerned about the team I have assembled here... To be fair - our Ambassador Darren (week 9) welcomed us all to "Rutland-Melton Mowbray"
Other local runners that had a go at being a Virtual RD included Andy and Kristy Nicholls, Anne Craddock, Jenny and Clive Kent, Volunteer extraordinaire Nina Snowling, Andrew Wrath, Matt White, Latham House GP Matt Riley, Vanessa Walker, Jane Collingham, Calum Walker, Tony Worn, Alan Thompson, Ashley Milne, Chris Genes, Ashley Jackson, regular first finisher Toby Heaver, David Harknett, the soon to be wed Amanda English and Paul Ward, Jason Barton, Jane MacNaughton, Rach Cousens, Carl Taylor-Beeby, Mark Preston and the legend that is Mr J!
The idea was to showcase as many of our community as possible - but I realised that with the amount of tourism that is inherent within parkrun, our community is not restricted to or exhausted by the regular Melton runners. This is where the likes of seriel tourist and random celebrant Dan Moult came in with his unique dress sense, the Crellin treated us to her own brand of megalomania (in her first ever RD stint - she'll be doing it for real shortly after our return I am sure). We had former ambassador Julie who explained to everyone the story of how I got lost in the park while showing them the prospective route. Bestwood's Mark Weston in his shirt and tie, Rutland Water's Emma Herd and her blind dog Millie, former regular Chris Limmer in his world famous Drumsticks running top, Sarah Mullis from Dungloe in Ireland (my parents' local event), Eve Taylor from Macclesfield who I met when I proposed to Emma in Lyme Park, Regional Ambassador Gordon Pearson, Newark's Bob White whose fantastic prep was decimated by the wind, Colin Phillips who presented his at 5am local time to ensure that our Halloween run had the spooky feel that it deserved, Keith Bennet live from the Faulkland Islands, and Tom Hansen (originally from Melton but now of Lincoln) getting mauled by his dog throughout the briefing.
There were people who did an RD slot that I only came to know through this Virtual series: Grant and Lousie Bridgeman, Melton expat in South Africa - Peter Shirtcliffe - who then put me in touch with Keith Bennett in the Faulkland Islands, local barkrunners Caroline Vissani and Rosalind Heatlie, and the inspirational story of Mike Freeman.
But from this wider parkrun family, I started looking upwards. Who is involved with parkrun more intimately that would do a briefing for us? I managed to get the social media administrator George Sullivan, With Me Now podcast presenter Danny Norman, ultra-distance legend and head of parkrun South Africa Bruce Fordyce, Chief Operating Officer Tom Williams, the originator himself Paul Sinton-Hewitt, and the author of the fantastic book "parkrun: More than just a run in the park", Debra Bourne.
Through trying to find RDs, I did chance my luck a little by messaging some celebrities that are known to be parkrunners. Within minutes of sending out a request, Sophie Raworth from the actual BBC News emailed back with "Of course! What do I need to do?" - little did I realise she was actually going to present her video from the News Studio itself!!!! Nell McAndrew was also only too happy to help out, as was Team GB athlete Eilish McColgan - who has since broken the 17yr standing British record for the 5000m), and the wonderful Carolyn Gale who had a formal voice-over introduction from her husband David - Carolyn had started running aged 63 and now represents Team GB in the Masters series. Even our own MP stood in for a whole 21 seconds...
We also had some amazingly imaginative and creative run briefings. Who can forget Duncan Greene's cheeky little pork pie (or his kamikaze blind roller blading while selfie videoing), Bob Frake whose wettest run still makes me giggle a bit, Amelia Coltman's briefing from the side of the Skeleton Run, or sister Charlotte's "Wish You Were Here?" tribute? Or, smashing all of them out of the park in terms of views was Debbie Longley's marvellous "It's beginning to look a lot like parkrun" in the run up to Xmas.
Across the 72 videos we had a spectacular 43,773 views with the top 10 as follows:
1. Debbie Longley - 3600 views
2. Sophie Raworth - 1800 views
3. Shane Sharkey - 1410 views
4. Duncan Greene - 1300 views
5. Liz Parkinson - 1006 views
6= Andrea Crellin - 934 views
6= David Harknett - 934 views
8. Amelia Coltman - 873 views
9. Nell McAndrew - 779 views
10. Peter Shirtcliffe - 765 views
We also managed to squeeze in two Easter runs. Regulars will know that each year we randomly sticker 10 finish tokens and the rules are simple - finish in a position with a sticker and win and egg. I decided to do the same thing for each of our two Easter runs (Laura Seth brilliantly presenting her Bunny Ear clad video upside down and Ashley Jackson who somehow rigged it that she was our second Virtual Easter Bunny and then went on to win an egg herself).
We also stuck loyal with the tradition of special runs on Xmas Day and New Years Day (although times were not recorded on the former - just runs).
The spreadsheet and the stats
If you were to add all parkrun and junior parkrun events in the world together, the total distance to cover them all would be 9,944km. Well, over our virtual series, a total of 531 athletes ran over five times this distance covering a whopping 49,680km (in fact, that isn't far off completing the 9,944km total parkrun distance followed by a cool-down lap of the Earth (9,944 + 40,075 = 50,019 which is just 339km more than we collectively ran. Another 68 individual runs would have made it - that's less than 1 extra runner each week)
I have also been able to keep track of average times across the whole series. Although these would not be reflective in a race setting (some quicker runners may have taken it easier most weeks which would affect their average time, and some people literally clocked themselves paving patios and planting aubergines...) but it may still make for interesting reading.
We had a total of 26 athletes that have completed all 72 events. Other than myself, big congrats to: Alan THOMPSON, John KERR, Rob NASH, Amanda ENGLISH, Darren WHEATLEY, Paul BEETON, Paul WARD, Bob FRAKE, Rich GRAY, Rob MASON, Mike BRIGHTY, Tracey UNWIN, Marie GRAY, Mike SCALLON, Jef TODD, Dan GIBLETT, Og STER, Carl TAYLOR-BEEBY, Tony WORN, Kristy NICHOLLS, Rosalind HEATLIE, Jonty GIBLETT, Nina SNOWLING, Jenny KENT and Zoe HEATH.
Each 100%er has done 72 x regular 5k runs. This is pleasing as a mathematician, as a five sided shape is a pentagon and the exterior angle in a regular pentagon is 72 degrees. 5 x 72 = 360 which brings us full turn and back to the start - Tomorrow!
There are so many people that have played their part in this Virtual series and made it what it was. I am equally pleased that it is over and pleased that it happened. Huge thanks go to my wife Emma and the kids for bearing with me while I have stared at a screen for long periods each weekend over the last year and a bit.
Many thanks to Rich Gray who actually took over the reins for the first weekend in October as I was getting ready to run the Virtual London Marathon the following day. Rich processed all of the results that day and wrote a very good run brief - and had everything published at a very reasonable time (putting me to shame with my midnight+ reports).
Huge thanks to all of the aforementioned RDs and mostly thank you to all of the 531 athletes that made it all possible and worthwhile.
It started off as a suggested post in a private FB group, but ended up being so much more. It was a lot of work over its duration, but it gave me a sense of regularity and routine that was completely missing for huge swathes of time since the pandemic began. It is only through messages from you guys that I have come to realise just how reciprocal the appreciation was though.
Along with his final results, our Washington Correspondent, Colin Phillips wrote:
"Shane, I owe you big thanks on behalf of our extended College Park community, for the inspiration and motivation that you provided during the course of the pandemic. Hundreds of people thousands of miles away from you benefited. Many people told us that virtual parkrun helped them survive the past year. We had families who couldn't come together but felt more connected by getting active "together" every Saturday. I know how much work it takes to keep this up week after week. Probably more than organizing a regular in person event. Your community is so lucky to have you. I have no idea when I'll next be able to visit my own family in the UK. But I know very well what is at the top of my list of parkruns to visit."
The Run Reports
A few people (largely led by Paul Merrison) suggested turning the run reports into a book as a keepsake or souvenir of this weird time that we have worked through together. Paul did look into this and although I would personally like to have something to remember this by, it all seemed a bit costly to process (I am not saying it shouldn't still happen though).
Anyway, including this report now, the run reports total to 123,034 Words (including the 765 by Rich), and I have made them available below for a free download as a pdf.
Thank you again everyone. See you in the morning.