Saturday, May 19, 2012

St Albans parkrun

Not the most technical course even by Verulamium standards
Parkrun keeps coming up when people discuss how orienteering should be attempting to present itself, and today I got a first chance to try it out. The St Albans version started in January this year in Verulamium, one of our regular Saturday Series areas. This was also a chance to work out how we might need to modify Saturday Series arrangements to avoid any clash.

The idea is very simple: a 5km run held every Saturday morning in the same place. Entry is free but you need to register on the website beforehand. This allows you to print off a bar code to take with you. Then all you need to do is turn up on the start line and join in. I set off with 120 other runners as the bells of St Michael's Church chimed 9.00 o'clock. A show of hands on the start line showed quite a high proportion of first timers like me (nearly a third looking at the results) but the course instructions were quite simple: follow the guy in white and do three laps of the lake.

The race itself was pretty much what I expected: a few fast guys at the front, a few walkers at the back and quite a cross-section of shapes, sizes and speeds in the middle. I set off too fast as normal, and got passed by people as the race went on, including two runners about half my height who turned out to both be 14. Three laps of the lake is just about manageable before terminal boredom sets in and then it's just a short sharp 5 metre climb to the final long flat finish straight. My target had been 22 minutes so 21:55 was perfectly acceptable even if my watch did only register 4.95km. Maybe next time I won't do 5 km beforehand running to the start from home. After crossing the finish line you are given a small plastic tag with a finish position and bar code on it: the modern equivalent of the good old raffle ticket which nearly made it in at number 2 on my list of orienteering things you didn't know you had missed. Results are done using a phone to read your registration bar code (carefully retrieved from a plastic bag in the pocket on my shorts) and your finish tag, and the correlated with finish times recorded on the finish line. Results were on the website that afternoon and I even got a text message telling me how I had done.

So why is this proving so successful and what can orienteering learn from it?

The format is simple, easy to understand and accessible. Everybody has a reasonable concept of what 5 kilometres on a surfaced path involves. It's far enough to be a worthwhile run for most, but short enough not to put people off. And you don't need to keep looking at the fixtures list to find when the and where the next event is.

The technology is used very effectively. The website is attractive and informative. Registration and timing bar codes are simple and work well.

Requirements for volunteer effort are relatively small. Eight people are acknowledged on the results page. I spotted one finish timer, two on results download, and three or four marshals on the course.  Doing away with registration by asking people to do it on the website is a key saving.

It's free. To be honest I'm sure people would be willing to pay one or two pounds if asked, but if the financial model doesn't need it then this can surely only help to increase attendance.

Much of this is of course is where Orienteering on demand is trying to go.