21 May 2016
Hundreds of people turn out for parkrun at Southampton Common every Saturday morning. They run their 5k and they go home feeling virtuous, quite rightly so. It takes a lot to get out of bed early at the weekend and run around an often cold, wet, muddy common after all. Most probably don’t realise all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make their run possible though. This week Commando was volunteering to help set up. For him this is a regular thing, he does it a few times a year. Some amazing people do it every week though. They are the real parkrun heroes!
This week I decided to go along to see what all the volunteering lark was about. Admittedly, I did marshal once because they were low on volunteers but it just involved standing about shouting, “that way,” occasionally and “well done.” Ok it would have been better if it wasn’t freezing cold and pouring with rain at the time but still… This time we would be arriving really early and helping to set up. Well Commando would, I was busy taking photos so I have to admit I didn’t do much to help.
This week part of the Common was closed off to set up for next week’s Common People music event so parkrun was beginning near the Cowherds rather than the Hawthorns Cafe and using a different course. We weren’t the first to arrive. When we got there they were already setting out the poles and chains for the finish funnel. Commando quickly pitched in. It looked like a tangly job to me. Then there were signs to put out, the ones warning other park users that there are runners about and the ones telling everyone where the start and finish is. Along with the signs there were hundreds and hundreds of coloured cones to lay out.
The Run Director was there making sure everything got done and there were volunteers to marshal all the important points. Being Run Director looked like hard work from where I was standing. There were clip boards and lists, pots full of finish tokens and goodness knows what else.
While all this was going on runners had begun to arrive and the place started to get a bit crowded. There were a few grumbles about the course because it loops around the top of the Common and a long uphill stretch twice. It wasn’t a PB course that much was clear. Then it was time for the RD to give the pre race briefing and, before I knew it, they were off. I stood and watched while hundreds of people of all ages and abilities thundered off into the distance. Somewhere amongst them was Commando but, as usual, I couldn’t spot him.
Once they’d all gone it suddenly seemed very quiet with just me, the RD, a few volunteers and a handful of spectators. Typically, it began to rain. Now I had a bit of time on my hands before even the fastest runners came back down the long finishing straight, so I thought I’d pull up my hood and take a wander up to the Beyond Graffiti tunnel to see if there was any new graffiti. At least it would get me out of the rain for a while.
Some dog walkers had the same idea and I found myself walking behind them into the tunnel. While they strolled through and out the other side, I took my time, snapping away at the new paintings and a few old favourites.
There’s nothing quite like a walk through the graffiti tunnel to put a smile on my face, even on a dismal, drizzly day like today. Some of the paintings are stunningly beautiful, others funny and some bright and colourful but puzzling. In fact some are all three at once.
At the other end, back out in the rain, there were more things to brighten my day. The brilliant blue flowers of green alkanet and some rather wet but sunny looking buttercups. A quick look at the time told me I should probably be heading back to the cross roads so, with a couple more photos along the way, I retraced my steps.
Straight away I could see there were already runners coming down the hill. Hopefully I hadn’t already missed Commando. The marshals at the cross roads were doing a wonderful job of cheering everyone on, despite the dismal conditions. Standing about marshalling is a thankless task in bad weather but they did it with good grace. Finding a tree to shelter under I joined in the cheering. Some runners were turning off for their second go at the hill whilst others were on their final lap and heading for the finish. It seemed a cruel twist to have the finish in sight and have to face the hill again, especially when faster runners were lapping you and almost at the end. Pretty soon Commando appeared.
Of course I stayed around to cheer on the other runners. By the time I got back to the finish the volunteers were already beginning to pack up. All the poles, ropes, cones and signs that had been put out earlier had to be gathered up and put away. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t help. Instead I stood around taking photos.
By the time everything was loaded back onto the parkrun cart the volunteers were the only people left on the Common. Even then it wasn’t over. Commando suggested we go along to the Hawthorns Cafe to see the final piece of the parkrun volunteer puzzle. As this meant a coffee I was all for it.
The place was full of people sorting out finish tickets. Commando explained that, when a runner finishes, a timekeeping volunteer clicks a button to record a time and a finish position. Next the runner collects a finish token then goes to a barcode scanning volunteer who scans their special parkrun barcode and the finish token which is then put into a bucket. The finish tokens all have to be sorted into numeric order before the next week, a laborious and thankless task that takes ages. Then there is the small matter of downloading all the data from the scanners onto a special parkrun computer and sending it off to the parkrun website. This is the Run Director’s job. It looked like a tricky, head scratchy kind of business.
So there you have it. That is what goes on behind the scenes at parkrun. Without an army of volunteers there’d be no parkrun at all. Anyone can be a volunteer, all the information is on the parkrun website. All the volunteer’s names go onto the parkrun home page each week and they get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped keep parkrun going. It’s admirable that hundreds of park runners get up early and run on the Common every week but it seems to me the volunteers are the real heroes. Maybe I should put my name down?
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