Sunday, 27 October 2013

Ashford parkrun

For over two years, Whitstable was the only parkrun venue in Kent. However, throughout 2013 parkrun has been expanding throughout Kent at an incredible rate and after landing in Margate, Ramsgate, Shorne Woods, Maidstone and Gillingham, has now reached Ashford, with Tonbridge launching in November and Canterbury planned for the new year.

On a typically autumnal October morning, I made my way along the M20 to take part in the inaugural running of Kent's latest addition to the parkrun family - Ashford parkrun.

victoria park, ashford

The run takes place in Victoria Park, which is just on the southern side of the train line and not far from Ashford International train station. Visitors travelling by car from outside Ashford will be pleased to hear that you can park for free on Jemmett Road or in the Bowls Club car park. There is also a bus service that stops on Jemmett Road. The toilets are located just inside the park next to the playground and tennis courts and while they are basic, they are a welcome sight after an hour on the road.

Cyclists should find the network of cycle lanes helpful in making their way to the park, and upon arrival will find bicycle racks in the main car park and also within the seating area next to the Hubert Fountain.

the tree lined path adjacent to the finish area

In true parkrun style, as 9am approaches, parkrunners emerge from all directions and congregate around the start area. As this is an inaugural event, there are a fair number of parkrun tourists - themselves a nomadic community, there are first time tourists from other Kent parkruns, and there are others, runners, run-walkers and indeed walkers (all are welcome) new to parkrun - they have heard about this 'parkrun' thing and are here to find out what all the fuss is about.

pre-run mingling

Before every parkrun there is a briefing. There are many people to thank for helping to get the run set up - Ashford Borough Council were instrumental, as was parkrun's ambassador for Kent and event director at Whitstable parkrun, Jacky MacDonald. The event, and indeed all parkruns, simply could not take place without its volunteers and today's heroes were recognised, as is customary, with a hearty round of applause during the briefing.

the first section adjacent to jemmett road

There's a countdown and then the runners are off.  In total 19 different running clubs were represented at the inaugural event - Ashford AC, Ashford Tri and Ashford and District RRC are the local clubs and were all represented amongst the field of 90 participants. However, the majority of the field was made up of non club-runners.

the hubert fountain

The inclusive nature of parkrun means that there are participants of all different shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. The gazelles at the front spring into action and disappear into the distance at a pace that the majority of parkrunners can only dream of. Others start off at a more leisurely pace, quite happy to use the run as an opportunity to socialise. This is one of parkrun's great strengths - parkrun themselves are not putting on a race, they are just hosting a free, timed, 5k event in pleasant parkland surroundings. How each individual decides to approach the run is completely down to themselves. As they say in the parkrun world 'it can be whatever you want it to be'.

the wide shared use path adjacent to the great stour

The run takes place over two identical anti-clockwise laps through the northern part of the park with an out-and-back section towards the far end and is entirely on tarmac apart from a few metres at the end which are on grass. It starts near the tennis courts on the eastern side of the park adjacent to Jemmett Road and follows the path around the Hubert Fountain where participants reach the northern boundary and follow the cycle path along the Great Stour in a westerly direction. This path forms part of National Cycle Route 18, so runners should take note to be aware of bicycles coming from both directions.

at the far end runners follow the path on the right, loop around and come back out using the path on the left

Soon after passing the fountain, the course leaves the formal area of the park by swinging right (still following the cycle path) and, after passing an adventure playground, takes runners across to the Watercress Fields end of the park. This section mostly consists of open grass areas but also has a good wildlife habitat and features areas that have been sown as meadows. There are small wooded areas dotted around the park and the route weaves and meanders around and through them.

part of the loop at the far end

At the far end of the course the path splits in two. At this point, the route takes a slight right hand turn where the route briefly leaves the main shared-use path and loops around following the curve of the river. The route rejoins the main shared-use path with a very sharp left-hand turn which brings runners back towards the formal part of the park. There is about 400 metres of two-way parkrun traffic at this point.

the narrower section of shared use path

There is a right hand turn which leaves the shared use path and takes the runners through the centre of the park. Before you turn back into the formal part, there is an unusual point where you run through a basketball court. I don't truly understand why it has been positioned across one of the main walkways rather than in its own dedicated space. Anyway...

the basketball court

... a few alternating 90 degree turns and a short incline later, the route arrives back at the start area. Only one more lap to go now. Upon arriving back at the start area at the end of the second lap, runners are directed into a short triangular loop along the formal tree lined paths before leaving the tarmac and running the last 30 or so metres on grass.

near the end of the lap (the wife took this one from the playground as I ran past)

At the end, all participants filter into the finish funnel, where the timer will register each runner's time as they pass. Each runner is then given a finishing token. This finishing token is then taken to the volunteer on registration - they will have a small scanning device and will firstly scan your personal barcode and then your finishing token. A few hours later you'll receive an email containing your result. The full results (event 1) are also published on the event's website.

the finish funnel

Once all runners, buggy-runners (none today but the course is suitable), run-walkers and walkers have finished, all of the equipment is packed away and the post-run social gathering takes place at the cafe in Ashford Indoor Bowls Centre. The social element is really important at a parkrun and if you embrace it, you could find that it becomes just as (or more) important as the run itself.

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The inaugural run wasn't without some teething problems. I am only mentioning them here to provide a source of information and are not meant in any way as criticism of the core event team or volunteers.

  • The first right hand turn wasn't signed or marshalled - I missed the turn during my recce of the course.
  • The sharp left turn at the far end loop wasn't signed or marshalled - I had to call out to a fellow runner who had missed the turn and was running off in the direction of Singleton Lake and Great Chart. Fortunately he heard my call and did a swift u-turn.
  • The 'triangular loop' at the very end of the run confused a number of runners - However, I think the runners have to take the lion's share of responsibility here as the course is clearly shown and described on the official course page. Plus it was specifically highlighted during the briefing before the run. The marshals should be commended here for reacting swiftly to the issues by adding some extra taping in-between trees in an attempt to resolve the problem. This seems to have done the trick so might need to become a permanent feature.
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I found this to be a very enjoyable course to run, I especially liked the meandering paths and I even enjoyed the short incline. Plus, according to my running app, Strava, I ran a new 1 mile personal best during the run, breaking the 6-minute-mile barrier for the first time with a time of 5.58. Afterwards I stopped off at Tonbridge to have a freedom run around the future course. Overall it was a very good day of parkrunning!



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