In a few short years, Parkrun has become a phenomenon. Every Saturday morning at 9am hundreds of thousands of amateur joggers head to their local park for a 5km run, scanned at the finish to take their place on a digital scoreboard. The whole thing's run by volunteers, and free to enter, and about as good an example of a healthy grassroots project as you could hope to find.
What's less well known, however, is its sister project Parkwalk. This less physical event takes place every Sunday morning, again at 9am, and invites participants to walk their way around the identical course. The emphasis is very much on inclusivity, the idea being that anyone who can't run the distance can walk it (or use appropriate mobility aids to complete). And walking's very much more my kind of thing, so last Sunday I headed down to Mile End Park to join the fun.
The 5km course in Mile End kicks off at the southern end of the linear park, outside the stadium, where a much higher level of sporting activity takes place. From here it follows the meandering path up the centre to cross the legendary Green Bridge over Mile End Road, before looping round the Art Pavilion and heading back again. Do this twice and you've walked 5K, achievement unlocked. How hard can it be?
I arrive a few minutes early, but there's nobody else around. This is perhaps not surprising given it's nine o'clock - almost doable on a Saturday but beyond the call of duty 24 hours later. One lady is jogging on the spot, which goes very much against the nature of the event, but she then disappears inside the leisure centre so that's all fine. Also present by the gates of St George's Field are a father and son in pushchair, and they're off to feed the ducks by the canal. Looks like just me then.
At the appointed time I set off past the 'Start' sign on the grass, setting off the stopwatch function on my phone, and begin my bout of exercise for the day. One of the joys of Parkwalk is that it's not a race so no official timings are taken, but I fancy keeping track to see how I compare. Five kilometres should take about an hour, but I might be able to manage it in a smidgeon over fifty minutes, the undulations on the course being none too challenging.
The main path is split in two, ideal for busy Saturdays when two-way jogging is the order of the day. A few early risers are out on the tarmac with me, one even has a suitcase, but they can't be taking part because they're walking the other way. It'd be nice to have someone else to walk alongside, after all the camaraderie of Parkrun makes a considerable contribution to its success, but instead I continue deep in my own thoughts, keen to break the back of the course ahead.
Across the South Park comes the first mild ascent on the Mile End course, climbing gently beside the Terrace Garden where nobody is (as yet) on the lager. The Green Bridge used to provide a lofty panorama over the A11, and should be a highlight of the circuit, but sadly major re-landscaping has replaced the verges with thick vegetation and now you could be anywhere. Again I can imagine the rush on Saturdays as athletes flood across from one side to the other, but today I am the only participant present.
Never mind, I know the course, which is the great thing about a crowd-sourced internet-facing operating system. A curl round the base of the artificial hill follows, then bends back to approach the sunken Art Pavilion. There is a much more interesting path which rises up across the top of the banana-shaped mound behind a line of concrete ribs, allowing views down across the ornamental lake, but I mustn't be diverted that way. Instead I follow the official path at ground level, significantly duller but crucial in ensuring that each circuit is precisely 2.5km rather then two point four.
The return stretch starts alongside the canal, which can't be easy on a Saturday with crowds of Parkrun joggers clashing with other joggers, dogwalkers and especially those on bikes. Today however it's a breeze, there being just me, so it's easy to step out of the way when a man in a grey jacket approaches. And then it's back to the mound and the green bridge and the sweep of the South Park, exactly as before but in reverse, with only a small off-lead scottie dog for variation. One circuit down, and I'm halfway.
The second circuit passes without great excitement, indeed a feeling of déjà vu. Doing a second lap's not too troubling on a Parkrun where speed is of the essence, but on a Parkwalk it's simply a repeat - easier in company but, as we've discussed, that's not what happened here. Indeed I'm already querying the attraction of coming back week in week out to walk the same route twice, without perhaps a level of tedium setting in. But I swiftly cast that doubt aside, the main aim is of course fresh air and exercise, and I'm sure there'll be more people to sustain me next Sunday.
My final time is fifty-three minutes and twenty-six seconds, which I'm particularly proud of, even though this emphasis on pace goes against the true Parkwalk ethos. I scan my official barcode against the sign at the finish, which I assume uploads my presence, and that's my participation at the event complete. I might have enjoyed it more if I'd felt the local community were supporting me more, but all these things have to start somewhere and I know I'm providing a strong nucleus around which further participation can grow.
So that's Parkwalk, a fantastic extension to the existing Parkrun family, potentially taking place in a park near you this morning. If you're reading this too late to take part, there's always next week, I'm sure the event takes place come rain or shine. My thanks to the unseen volunteers who make each Sunday morning event possible, inspiring us all to walk three miles rather than slobbing around in bed. And if you're out there in Mile End this morning, maybe see you on the course, or more likely maybe not.