Starting running, and supporting Little Stoke Parkrun

I’ve made some very tentative attempts at starting running in the past year or so, but when I saw the news about the local council trying either to extract money from Little Stoke Parkrun (a free event in a public park) or to close it down, I felt I should start running to support the Parkrun.

Chrissie Wellington has written an excellent article about the importance of Parkrun being free.

So, I started to try some longer runs than I’d done before (not full runs, but a mixture of walking and running), on a grassy byway in my home area, and found that the GPS sports app on my phone showed me that I was much closer to doing 5km than I had expected, so I soon pushed myself and did that much.

Then on the weekend that the last Parkrun had been due to happen in Little Stoke, I drove down to the Bristol area, spent the night in Bed and Breakfast, and went to Little Stoke Park for 9 a.m.. I had hoped that quite a few people would turn up to run at the usual time despite the official Parkrun being cancelled; I found just a few runners already running, and a couple turned up just before 9, and we agreed to start at the official starting point at 9. I was the slowest, as I expected (but only out of three, and not by as much as I expected): I finished in 36 minutes 42 seconds, which seems to be in the normal range for beginners. I had been hoping to come back to Little Stoke to do my first official Parkrun there, but now that the run has been closed, that can’t happen; but I’ll still come and join those who still run there on, another Saturday at 9, as a matter of principle. (I can’t do this regularly; I live on the other side of the country.)

I noticed it was a poorer-looking area than I had expected; not having to pay may make quite a difference to some of the local residents.

One of the reasons the council gave for closing the run or getting money from it was for wear on the paths, but I’ve seen for myself that the paths are in good condition except near tree roots, where there were areas of cracking in the tarmac. In fact, if people stop running in a group along that path, the footsteps along the path will all be on the same part of the path rather than spread out over it, and thus won’t kill so many of the plants that grow in cracked paths, so it’s likely that the path will deteriorate faster without the runners; plant roots exert a lot more force than people in trainers.

My first thought had been that it was simply a money grab, then realized, from browsing and finding some local reactions, that it may be that they knew they wouldn’t get any money, and that it’s a way of stopping the run; the variability of the council’s “reasons” supports this view.

There’s a well-established principle of “when in a hole, stop digging”, but some people (perhaps those without reserves of inner dignity) can’t back down; the classic example is a cornered chav starting a fight, which is what the council’s actions remind me of.

I suspect (from browsing the web) that it was started by a few individuals with access to councillors, who will probably make sure they stay anonymous; or was it just the council themselves? Either way, it looks like a minority, bullying the public. (A spoof sign appeared, including the text “All children must obtain a ‘Play Permit’ in order to use the play equipment. This scheme aims to ensure that children pay their way and don’t expect to play at the expense of other tax payers. This is only fair as four of our residents hate kids and don’t see why they should pay for someone else’s offspring to enjoy themselves and keep active.” and I can’t help wondering, from giving a number rather than “some”, that this comes from someone who knows how many complaints there were to the councillors.)

Could it be about the number of people? I saw for myself that there were only a few people out with dogs, and they weren’t on the paths anyway; and very few people walking in the park at that time. A document produced by the council claims that the runners monopolize the park for two hours, but in fact almost everyone will take much less time than that; so not many people would have been inconvenienced by the runners, and the runners are briefed not get in the way of other park users.

Or could the real issue crowding in the car park? A few pages I’ve seen hint that that was part of the problem, but that could have been dealt with by asking runners to park further away and walk/run to the park. I didn’t think at the time to count or to take a photo, but it probably wasn’t even a dozen cars at peak, so it’s not as though the runners would have had to leave much room for other users.

Of course, being a scientific person, I naturally try to understand things in terms of things that make sense; this looks like it was some kind of grievance, an irrational reaction, and perhaps even an obsessional one by someone who was upset by something that a more rational person would have coped with.

Now, the parish is known as an embarrassment to the area, effectively disowned by the mayor of Bristol, who made it clear on Twitter “This is not Bristol”.

Local councils are meant to be a form of representative democracy: opinion polls suggest at most 16% support for charging, so what’s the likelihood that the council is discharging its moral obligations to act democratically? It’s possible that the parish really does contain a concentration of people who think everything should be charged for at any excuse; it’s even likelier than all the oxygen in the room you’re in moving to one end by Brownian Motion, hence suffocating you; but it’s still not particularly likely.

So, what can be done?

I think the most immediate thing is to keep running (at Little Stoke, in particular); I’m glad to see this is already being co-ordinated (without an actual organization, so there is no organization to demand a charge from) on social media, for example Little Stoke 5k run on Facebook.

In the medium term, more public-spirited people should stand for public office. Petty (or larger) power seems to attract the kind of people least suited to hold it, and so it would be good for those not inclined to such positions to stand for them. This probably means standing as independents, as political parties generally accrue those who like political power, or who want control.

In the long run, I hope the world will move to direct democracy; I think the disadvantage of half the decision-making power being in the hands of those with below-average decision-making ability is less than the disadvantage of letting those who seek power find it.

It’s also important to support public health measures, both for physical health (such as Parkrun) and for mental health; it may be that whoever prompted the council’s action might have been more public-spirited had they received help, such as counselling, for some issue in their lives.

Another useful thing would be an online system for recording and co-ordinating runs (and similar events), so that people could do something like Parkrun, but without anyone being able to demand anything from them on the excuse of them being an “organization”. I’m a programmer, and have some ideas on what such a system would be like, but I don’t work on web or mobile systems, so I’m not well-placed to implement it myself. The nearest existing thing that I can find is 5K Flash Mob in the USA. I’ve made a separate post about this as I think it’s getting off-topic for this one.

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