Screenshot 2024-02-11 at 14.36.00

Parkrun’s growth has been phenomenal. Their mission is “to transform health & happiness by empowering people to come together, to be active, social & outdoors.”  They want to reach more people. Commendable. They say critics don’t understand parkrun – it’s a community event not a race, they tell us. They see inactive or socially isolated people as the ones who need parkrun most. So it is important that people don’t fear that they will be too slow or will feel unwelcome.

Over the years the parkrun team have looked for ways to make it less intimidating for the inactive, with initiatives like tail walkers so a newcomer won’t be last, and parkwalk to legitimise the participation of people who don’t run at all. Notice that those are things that happen in real life, at the events – they are nothing to do with the published results. What matters is whether you turn up, and whether you have a good experience. That happens between 8.30 and 10am on a Saturday in a park. It’s likely that word of mouth is the biggest factor in getting people there, and volunteers being welcoming and tolerant of slowness determine whether nervous newbies come back.

Now parkrun says that “insight”, by which they probably mean market research, has told them that the statistics are a deterrent for those who are new to exercise. They want to “present data in a way that is not off-putting and doesn’t imply that parkrun is a race.” So they have removed course records, along with lists of who’s had most first finishes, sub-17 minute men and sub-20 minute women, and age grade or category records.

Will that help parkrun to keep growing? You had to look hard to find where the course records (male and female) were listed at the bottom of a page along with other stats for each parkrun. Hard to spot, unlike the ‘latest results’ page, which always has someone pretty fast (and male) in first place. Is that a deterrent? If it is, it’s still there. Seeing that someone else once ran it in 16 minutes is hardly relevant, though watching speedy runners can be quite exciting. Might not some people be motivated that they can be part of the same event as an Olympian?

What about the other information that’s now been hidden – fastest men and women, age-grade records and the rest. Newcomers to parkrun will have been completely unaware of those extra tabs on the website. Some parkrunners, on the other hand, find them interesting and motivating. There’s a Facebook group called parkrun statsgeek with thirteen thousand members. Most of them are pretty upset about the loss of access to the statistics. A poll shows 82% of them disagree with parkrun’s decision, 66% strongly. These are the people who run parkrun most weeks. Many of them are volunteers without whom the weekly events could not run.

In business terms, parkrun is prioritising non-customers over its most loyal customers. What’s more, it won’t address either of the issues that have triggered this change. Non-runners won’t have known about these lists but will still see the weekly results that look very much like race results. Meanwhile, the parkrun regulars feel they have lost something, and that they are not valued. From the Facebook statsgeek group:

“I tried to see most runs in my age group at Huddersfield. Including friends who are now in older age groups. Not a time thing. First time in 12 plus years I could not see anything. I feel robbed”

“My reading of the situation is that parkrun don’t want this kind of thing at their events so if my purpose for being there is to race or chase records then I am not welcome at their events.”

“I get really motivated and inspired by looking at performances from older females in my Age Cat and above.”

So to the elephant here. Parkrun was getting a lot of criticism for letting male runners who identify as women register as female, taking First Female finishes, age-grade records and female course records. Since the weekly results are not changing, this doesn’t change either. It’s just harder to track. Meanwhile the males registered as female (twenty or so in the UK) can continue to feature in the female placings.

Parkrun changed the product hoping to make it less unappealing to non-customers, but they have succeeded in upsetting many of their existing customers, especially the most committed, and there are certainly more than twenty of them. It has also made many more people aware of parkrun’s self-ID policy, which runners know is counter to that of World Athletics and UK Athletics because it is unfair to female runners. It’s even possible that for every non-runner who is pleased the stats have gone, there’s one who is deterred by an organisation that seems to put trans-identifying males before women.

Comment | February 2024