When Charlotte Saunders signed up to Parkrun in January 2018, she’d recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune liver disease. On her first attempt, the student could barely complete the first kilometre of the free 5K run.
She walked most of the way round but, thanks to the encouragement of other runners, kept attending races every week. Seven months later, Saunders ran her first 10k, while also raising more than £600 for the British Liver Trust.
“I’m really proud of my achievements,” Saunders, 20, tells HuffPost UK. “The good thing with Parkrun is that there’s always a tail runner, so even if you’re slow, you’ll never be the last person.”
Like Saunders, Linda Kibble, 41, and Peter Johnson, 49, also took the plunge and signed up to Parkrun last year – and if your New Year’s resolution is to get fit or make new friends, they’re convinced you’ll love the hobby, too.
Saunders attends Parkruns most weeks in her student city Newcastle or her home town of Nostell. She’s just one of more than three million Parkrun members worldwide. “I love that it’s sociable,” she says. “You meet new people and there’s always people who encourage you on the way round.”
And Saunders repays the favour, too, adding that she loves motivating others who seem to be struggling – she enjoys it when, a few weeks later, she’ll see them running the whole 5K or even overtaking her. “It just makes you wonder if they would’ve come back if they hadn’t had people encouraging them,” she adds.
For some, starting with the 5K route is too much of a leap. Linda Kibble, 41, from the Forest of Dean, began her new hobby by joining a local 0-5K running group – she “graduated” from the group by taking part in her local Parkrun.
“It took me almost an hour to complete as there was lots of walking and chatting but I was so excited that I had done it,” she says.
Kibble was almost 23 stone at her first race, but continued to attend the weekly 5K with her seven-year-old son and has lost almost six stone in the process.
Kibble’s weight loss wasn’t the only benefit of joining Parkrun, because the highlight of her year was running up Mount Snowdon in July to raise money for charity, in memory of her nan.
“At one point I was quite cross as my hubby, Lee, passed me to finish his half marathon before I finished my 10K,” she jokes. “But my beautiful friend Vicky, who ran with me, kept me going.
“I was really emotional and overwhelmed at the finish line. It was so amazing that I’m doing it again this year – as well as the two half marathons I’ve got booked in!”
Like Kibble, Peter Johnson, 49, has also set himself big challenges in 2019, including the National Three Peak Challenge and a half marathon – both to raise money for National Star, the disability charity he works for.
Johnson, based in Ross on Wye, started running after reaching his heaviest weight of 21 stone, when he decided it was time to improve his physical and mental health. “It was pretty intimidating to just turn up at Parkrun and I was anxious about being last,” he recalls. “I was always last at school, but everyone was so friendly and there was zero pressure from anyone.”
It took Johnson 34 Parkruns before he could run, slowly, all the way round. “It was a fantastic moment for me as I never felt I would be able to,” he says.
Johnson has lost three and a half stone since signing up to Parkrun, and has seen his time get faster and faster each week.
To anyone thinking about giving it a go this year, he says: “Just do it. It doesn’t matter how slow you are, you can walk it and no one cares. It’s all about taking one step forward.”
Saunders adds: “It’s going to be hard at first but you just need to persevere. Even if you can only run a mile at a very slow pace, you’re still doing a lot more than the people who are at home on the sofa eating rubbish.”