On a chilly Saturday morning three years ago, a siren blared and a small mob of more than 200 runners and walkers took off on a 5k jaunt through a wooded trail in northeast Pensacola. After months of preparation, what seemed like a quirky experiment to some had become reality as the first ever parkrun took place at the University of West Florida’s Rec Plex North trail.
Since then, our parkrun has blossomed into a thriving event with thousands of runners, joggers and walkers and a healthy volunteer support group. We’ve celebrated countless personal fitness milestones and battled challenges from weather and a global pandemic.
Thanks to its unique system of tracking every finisher at every event, parkrun offers a fun batch of data for us to enjoy. 1,317 different participants have completed our course and recorded 1,506 new personal bests. Their combined 7,697 finishes total 38,485 kilometers of parkruns. At the current average pace, sometime this March we will have run/walked enough parkruns to span one full trip around the earth! There is also tracking and recognition at the 25, 50 and 100 volunteer or run/jog/walk levels, and many at Rec Plex North have already achieved these milestones.
After the nearly miraculous feat of resurrecting the overgrown trail ahead of the first event, a long battle with the landscape has been waged. Thanks to a steady stream of faithful volunteers, vast improvements have been made to our trail, mainly clearing and widening the path and repairing and mitigating water runoff damage. Having a natural trail is both a joy and a challenge, and we cannot thank our volunteers enough for their labor of love to improve our course.
The course improvements have benefited more than just our parkrun community. UWF hosted the ESCAROSA Cross Country Championship event in October 2021, with hundreds of high school runners competing on the Rec Plex North course. In addition, several high school teams now utilize the safer course for midweek training. Two successful home meets for the UWF Argonaut cross country teams have also raised hopes of the university hosting larger invitational meets in the near future.
The challenge of navigating a global pandemic put a damper on our parkrun’s second year but also opened a new outlet for personal achievements – the (not) parkrun. With our community event on temporary hold, the (not) parkrun offered friends a motivational online place to track their 5k runs and aim for new personal bests. After joining the effort in June 2020, Rec Plex North soon shot to the top of the heap. Averaging 17 participants and 47 run/walks completed per week, Rec Plex North has been atop the leaderboard among all U.S. parkruns since September, 2020!
Despite the challenges, our community has continued to thrive and support each other and the Pensacola running community. Holidays are even in play for parkrun, with great groups turning out for the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot and New Year’s Day events. Veterans Day is a special event at parkrun, with veterans, current active duty and ROTC members all recognized and appreciated. Parkrun has become a special community that draws people together in more ways than one. Our participants and volunteers say it best:
“Fellow park runners have become a ‘family.’ We enjoy seeing other parkrunners on our Saturday events, but it also has been great to see many of these same runners at other area events. I enjoy the camaraderie of weight loss, healthy exercise, staying fit and relaxing in a green space.” – Paul Houk
“Parkrun has been the perfect avenue to make new friends in the local running community. Seeing each other weekly enriches these friendships provides fitness accountability, and volunteering at parkrun gives us an opportunity to give back and serve others.” – Heather Tucker
“I have enjoyed being able to get out on the trail and work on improvements during the week. Helping the campus maintenance crew clean up the trail after Hurricane Sally was very satisfying for me. And my personal achievement was using the parkrun trail to improve my running and endurance which allowed me to be competitive in my first ever Triathlon on Sept 10th, 2021.” – Don Birtsch
For every person who has navigated the hills and turns of our tough course through the Florida woods, parkrun is about personal fitness. During a fist bump or a high five of congrats after another good effort, parkrun is about accountability. In smiles at the finish and laughter at the coffee shop later each Saturday, parkrun is about community. But through a truly remarkable first three years - and evident every Saturday at Rec Plex North - one thing is most clear: parkrun is about people. Here’s to many more great years!
-by Tony Ferguson