Saturday, February 8, 2020, Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun celebrated a very successful first year. Regulars and first timers came out for the event, several with treats in hand. The tables were laden with cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes, fruit and other assorted items, homemade and store-bought alike. We sang Happy Birthday to one of our regulars, Jim Hagon, a 70-year-old Ironman/triathlon competitor!
And Co-Event Director Robin Foley ran our course for the very first time!
How this parkrun - the first in the US, and maybe in the world, established on the campus of a university – came to be is a tale of one man’s determination to bring parkrun to Pensacola, Florida.
Robin Foley, originally from Cork City, Ireland, emigrated to the US in 1983, and he and his family found their way to Pensacola in 1989. Robin, a retired accountant, is a self-described “plonker” when it comes to running and a member of several local running groups. He’s also a dedicated member and Past President of the Rotary E-Club of Southeast USA & Caribbean.
In 2014, Robin and his family were visiting Ireland, and he learned of this thing called parkrun that was taking place right across the street from where he was staying, in Marlay Park, Dublin. He learned that parkrun was a free, timed 5K event, which sounded like a fun time to him, so he decided to try it out. And, as most of us are, he was hooked on the idea.
When Robin returned to Pensacola, he had resolved to bring parkrun with him. He floated the idea to various running groups, but the idea of a free5K run every week didn’t resonate – at first. He quit pushing the idea vocally, but he didn’t forget his new dream.
Two years later, Robin returned to Ireland and ran the Marlay Park parkrun and the Bere Island parkrun in County Cork. These experiences renewed his determination to start a parkrun in Pensacola. He worked with the City of Pensacola and Escambia County Parks Departments and looked at several venues, including parks in downtown Pensacola, but they were all too small to accommodate a parkrun – it would take 10 or more loops of one of these parks to complete a 5K, or they crossed streets which parkrun does not permit. Then he considered the Equestrian Center and Osceola Golf Course, but, of course, both are just too hectic on any given Saturday.
During his search for a parkrun venue, Robin heard Dr. Martha Saunders, President of University of West Florida, speaking at a Rotary Club meeting. One of the topics Dr. Saunders was presenting was that UWF is working to become a ‘destination campus,’ for residents as well as non-residents. Dr. Saunders shared her dream that the UWF campus would attract locals for academics and more.
Robin realized that this could be the opening he was looking for. He contacted Howard Reddy, Vice President for University Advancement at UWF. Howard, a fellow Irishman and friend, was interested in the parkrun idea, so he put Robin in touch with the building and maintenance guys at UWF, who showed Robin a proposal for a trail that wound all through the UWF campus. But the trail they offered was on the streets, and UWF wasn’t too keen on shutting down traffic every Saturday morning.
As Robin continued his search for the right trail, a UWF student working in a local sports store suggested he talk to Caleb Carmichael, Head Coach of the UWF Cross Country Teams.
When Robin approached Caleb with his plans, Caleb was at first skeptical. He confides that he wasn’t sure this parkrun thing would work, since, as someone with his finger on the pulse of the local running scene, he knows that with a race – 1K to full marathon – practically every week in this area, he just didn’t see that there would be enough participation to make parkrun successful.
But Caleb knew that there was a dangerous, disused trail on the UWF campus that wasn’t being used, and he realized that if Robin’s commitment to clearing this trail and bringing it up to standards became a reality, it would allow Caleb and UWF to start having cross country events at the campus once again – something that hadn’t happened in a decade! Robin’s persistence, and the realization that this plan could end up being a win-win, caused Caleb to supportuse of the trail for parkrun. Once Robin had the trail identified, he received a substantial donation from the Pensacola Runners Association, which brought credibility to the project and facilitated raising the balance of the one-time start-up cost
Soon after, Robin was contacted by his first volunteer, Bill Cutler, a snowbird from New England who lives in Gulf Breeze. In December 2018, Bill was looking for area 5K events on the internet and came across a link for parkrun. The site had no info other than “Contact Robin Foley” - so he did. During their first conversation, Robin said that the trail at UWF would make a great course for parkrun, but that the trail was overgrown and needed to be cleared. Robin asked if Bill would like to help. Bill agreed and showed up at the appointed time. He remembers, “I was stunned by how MUCH work needed to be done! You could see the outline of a trail, but roots, overgrowth, branches, and washouts made it ‘unrunnable’ for the most part.” But… Robin’s enthusiasm was contagious, and the work continued.
Not content with being Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun first Volunteer and Trail blazer extraordinaire, Bill was our first Volunteer Coordinator and Results Processor, which entailed setting up the propriety parkrun software. Bill and Robin then proceeded to develop the ‘corps of volunteers’ to what now numbers over 80 members. Since then he has volunteered in all the roles, coming every Saturday except when he is away in the summer visiting other daughters and grandkids in Kansas, Maine, and Vermont.
Currently, Bill prepares our weekly newsletter email, trains Results Processors and turns out for the Trail Maintenance work mornings.
With this small group of volunteers, and help from the UWF maintenance workers, the trail was revitalized, and Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun was born.
The date for the inaugural event was set for February 9, 2019, with a ‘parkrun preview day’ set the week before. Caleb says that when 20-30 people showed up for the preview day, it affirmed his thoughts that this would be a lightly attended event. He was impressed that that many people showed up for the preview and figured that these would be the weekly numbers for parkrun.
Imagine his surprise – and the delight – when, on February 9, 226 people came out to see what this parkrun thing was all about! It was then that Caleb realized that he had helped UWF move towards the goal of creating a destination campus.
And then, in the Fall of 2019, the Head Coach of the University of West Florida Argonauts Cross Country Teams realized his own dream, as UWF hosted the Argonaut Invitational – at Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun venue – for the first time in almost a decade, taking a pair of second-place finishes.
Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun is proud to be the first US parkrun on a university campus, to have had the largest number of participants for a US inaugural event (226) to date, to have had the most USfinishers in afirst year – 4779.
If not for the dream of Robin Foley, and the collaboration of Caleb Carmichael, and indeed, UWF, parkrun would still not be a part of the Pensacola landscape.
So, on this, Pensacola’s Rec Plex North’s first anniversary, Caleb says, “It was really cool to see so many parkrunners and walkers hanging out post-run to just have a casual chat. It really gave a great sense of what makes this parkrun thing so great…the community.”
Robin adds, “Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun/walk success is a fitting tribute to the community volunteers who make this free event happen EVERY week.”
Hearty thank-yous to Robin, Caleb, and indeed all the people who in some way have contributed to making this first year of Pensacola’s Rec Plex North parkrun so much fun, so rewarding, and something we’re all so very proud of! Onward we walk, jog and run into Year 2!
Here are some "before" and "after" pictures of our trail. The "before" pics are from December 2018 when we first started clearing the path!
This was what part of Mile 2 looked like before
I think ths was part of the downhill section before
This was looking to the right just after the concrete bridge
This is looking to the right after the bridge now :)