Behind the scenes at Southampton parkrun

23 September 2017

In our house it wouldn’t be Saturday if it didn’t start with a trip to Southampton Common for parkrun. Southampton is the busiest parkrun on the South Coast  with between seven hundred to a thousand or more runners each week. As October sees the thirteenth anniversary of the very first parkrun, I thought I’d take a look behind the scenes to see what goes on to make this fabulous free event happen every Saturday morning. 

It’s no secret that, without an army of volunteers, there’d be no parkruns anywhere, and it all begins when most runners are still fast asleep. A group of around seven wonderful people get to the Common every Saturday morning at least an hour before the running starts. They pick up the parkrun cart with all the equipment and set out cones and barriers to create the finish funnel. Meanwhile someone, usually Gareth Jones, rides round the course on a bike and puts up all the notices telling runners where to go and warning other users of the Common to watch out for runners.

The Run Director is usually there early too. His job, at least in part, is to make sure everything runs smoothly and things are properly set up. He also has to organise all the volunteers, although the set up volunteers at Southampton have been doing it for so long they don’t need much organising.

The next people to arrive are usually those who have volunteered to marshal, collect tokens, scan barcodes, tail run or manage the funnel. The RD is kept busy making sure everyone knows what they’re doing. He has to make sure there are marshals in all the right places on the course and that barcode scanners and timers all know how to work their equipment. All this happens before most people even arrive.

The next job is giving instructions to the first time runners, then a general pre-run briefing and announcing any special milestones. The fancy new PA system means everyone can actually hear these days. Today two running friends, Lindy and Perri Seymour, were running milestone parkruns, Lindy was running for the hundredth time and Perri for the fiftieth. You’d think they’d have made a bit of an effort to dress for the occasion!

Then they’re off. The timekeepers start their stopwatches and the lead bike volunteer pedals like mad to stay in front of the runners. Out on the course the marshals make sure everyone goes the right way and gets a cheer as they pass by while the tail runners encourage the back markers.

Now there’s a slight lull for the finish line team, time for them to gather their thoughts and have a chat before the first finishers cross the line. It’s usually a very brief lull. Within fifteen minutes or so, the super speedy runners are usually heading down the finish straight. Now the timekeepers have the difficult job of clicking their stopwatches every time a runner crosses the finish line. Meanwhile the funnel managers make sure everyone stays in line, no one ducks out of the funnel and everyone keeps moving while the token volunteers hand out finish tokens.

At first the runners arrive in a slow trickle but, at around the twenty five minute mark, things begin to get very busy. This keeps the timekeepers and funnel managers on their toes. Usually the funnel managers will have to divide the queue into two, or even three, to stop everyone bunching up as they wait to collect their tokens. When this happens they have special numbered cards to give to the people at the start of each new queue so they always know who was next in line and the results don’t get messed up.

At the end of the funnel the scanners are waiting to scan all the tokens and barcodes. They also have to make sure everyone puts their token into the bucket once it’s been scanned and no one tries to take it away as a souvenir. For the odd barcode that refuses to scan there’s a volunteer to manually take down both barcode and token number.

Finally the last runner and the tail runners cross the finish line and the job of packing everything away can begin. All the things that were set out before parkrun started have to be picked up, usually by the same people who set them out. Then they have to be piled onto the parkrun cart and taken back to Holly Lodge ready for next week.

Most people think the work is over once the tail runners have seen the last person safely across the line. In fact the really hard work is just beginning. Now the RD and a team of token sorters head off towards the Hawthorns Cafe. This is where all the information from the stopwatches and scanners is downloaded onto the parkrun laptop and the manual entries from any barcodes that didn’t scan are input. Meanwhile, the token sorters are getting all those tokens back in order ready for next week. Finally, at around eleven o’clock, the last of the volunteers can go home for a well earned rest.

So, if you’re one of the hundreds of people who turn up at Southampton Parkrun each week to run, or at any other parkrun in the country come to that, spare a thought for all the wonderful people that get up early to make it happen. Better still, why not join them and volunteer yourself?

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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