Having said that I would be available to help, I was handed a stopwatch on arriving at the park. Fortunately, I was not going to be the only timekeeper, as Anne introduced herself and said she too had a stopwatch, and better still, she had done the timing before.
It wasn't the first time I had been a volunteer at my local parkrun, which is held in an attractive area of country park not far from Bonnybridge. Usually I had been out on the course as a marshal with a hi-vis jacket at one of the turns, but operating the stopwatch would require undistracted attention. On a number of occasions I have run, but volunteers are necessary for the event to go ahead and besides it is good to see how it all happens from both perspectives. One formality to clarify is that 'parkrun' is all one word and lowercase.
While there are still many who have not yet heard of parkrun, most of the better informed, even those not particularly disposed to physical activity, have done. It is best described as a movement, in the widest sense, that surfaces every Saturday morning in areas of open space up and down the country – a 5km timed run. People of every ability are encouraged to take part. It is free and all are welcome. Participation statistics are impressive.
While some who take part are members of running clubs, the majority by far are the more recreational runners and those setting their own challenges, whether it is to finish inside a particular time or to complete the course without having to stop. That all are given a finish time confers meaning to what they have done, even those who are content to progress at talking pace, enjoying good company in pleasant surroundings.
As participation levels have increased significantly year on year, the originators derive satisfaction from evidence that the average time taken for the 5km is getting slower. The message this gives is that more people without a background in running are getting involved and taking part as a healthy activity. Consider that from a small beginning in 2004 parkrun is now happening every Saturday morning in more than 500 locations throughout Britain, involving some 100,000 participants. In Scotland we have 40 parkrun venues, from Lerwick to Dumfries, and Ellon to Troon.
It costs nothing to take part and the events are run entirely by volunteers. They are rarely advertised in any overt way, but go to the website and everything is there. People turn up at the allotted time, there is a short welcome and briefing by the run director, then it starts and some time later people begin to finish. And after that everyone is gone; all over and done with inside an hour and no trace that anything has taken place.
All that participants require is a printed barcode they can download after registering on the website. This barcode is scanned on finishing to be matched to a finish time. By lunchtime there will be an email with the results. All very straightforward – a simple system that works. The objective is for people to enjoy taking part whatever their ability. It is an extraordinary example of an initiative by an individual visionary that has grown and spread without collapsing under its own weight.
The key has been its simple and consistent formula. People who never thought of running before have been motivated to get out and take some regular healthy exercise for the mind and body, something that all manner of publicly-funded initiatives have failed to achieve. Health services are at last beginning to acknowledge what is happening, recognising the contribution to the nation's wellbeing. A number of GPs are now recommending parkrun for some of their patients and this is gathering momentum. Its continued success will depend on keeping it simple, free of charge and avoiding external interference.
Pressing the buttons on a wet stopwatch with wet fingers can be tricky, trying to avoid the double strike and the missed hit. Wet conditions made it awkward for the runners too as the course is mostly off-tarmac on undulating woodland paths that were soft underfoot and requiring care. But it is the essence of parkrun – having exercise in magnificent parkland spotting the occasional roe deer loping into the trees. It took just over 19 minutes for the first finisher to appear, and he was nearly two minutes clear of the second person. Then the first female finished followed by a steady stream of others until all were back inside 44 minutes. The tail end was quicker this week, as normally some will take between 50 minutes and an hour to complete the course. It really is for everyone.
Positioning ourselves on either side of the finish line, Anne and I compared notes every so often to check that the number of finishers logged on our watches was keeping in step, and we also checked with those handing out the numbered finish tokens that we were in tune with them too. This kept us fully synchronised right through to the last finisher. There would be no discrepancies to resolve for the computer download this week, matching participants' personal barcodes and finish tokens to the times on the stopwatches.
One of the things parkrun does well is creating a sense of community and respect amongst the runners and volunteers, and valuing especially the contribution of the volunteers without whom the events would not take place. As a runner, I find the marshals always give encouragement. When volunteering, I am struck by how many of the runners say 'thank you, marshal' when passing; those who haven't the breath still manage a knowing gesture of acknowledgement or a thumbs-up. It is a reminder that there are good things happening around us every week. This is one of them and it is easy to join in.