NOVEMBER 2016: Last Saturday morning, in Hove Park Café, post parkrun, I found myself chatting to a delightful couple who had just moved to Hove. Mike and Christine Gibbons were clearly running enthusiasts, keen to find out about the local running scene in the Brighton & Hove area.
It transpired that Christine was appointed last year as Chair of parkrun Global.
With Mike recently having secured a good-for-age place in the Boston Marathon next spring, who better to train with, I thought, than RunBrighton. And, sure enough, by the time I had returned home that day, both Mike and Christine had signed up to our winter training.
I was particularly keen to know more about Christine’s background and how she had come to be on the board of the worldwide phenomenon that is parkrun.
Welcome to Hove, Christine! What prompted the move here?
We were both retiring and so we were free to choose where we would live. We wanted to be close to an airport and close to London for our charity work. But we were also keen to live by the sea, and where there are lots of opportunities for going to the theatre and to concerts. So, we thought of Brighton and Hove. Once we met the core teams of the parkruns here in Brighton & Hove, they helped us decide where in Hove to live and here we are, almost a year later, moved in.
What did you do for work?
I was a pharmacist and an executive board member in the NHS, and Mike ran his own companies. I was an undergraduate at Bath University and I’m delighted to now be able to go back to it as a Board member of the University.
How did you come to be Chair of parkrun Global, and what exactly does the role involve?
I was, and still am, a keen parkrunner, and about 20 months ago parkrun UK advertised in their newsletter for two non-executives. They had over 70 applicants; they shortlisted and interviewed me and I got appointed. I joined Andrew Lane, who was one of the first parkrunners 11 years ago; Jeremy Townsend was also appointed at the same time. We joined Tom Williams who was MD of parkrun UK and now Chief Operating Officer for parkrun Global, and I was appointed Chair. Over the past year, parkrun UK has become a subsidiary of parkrun global and hence the Board now includes Paul Sinton-Hewitt (parkrun’s founder) and Nick Pearson.
The role is a strategic one; the Board sets the strategic direction for next five years and also provides a governance role. It’s like any Board of a limited company or social enterprise. We don’t get involved in the operational side of things.
It’s a real privilege to be Chair – and remember, we are just volunteers.
I imagine you’ve visited a fair few parkruns. I guess they’re all unique in their own way. Is there any one that you’d say stands out as the most unusual?
I’ve only done a handful outside the UK (including South Africa, USA and Ireland) on my holidays, but hope to continue to do that. I’ve visited many in the UK, as I’ve lived in several parts of the country. Actually, what amazes me is how similar they are; parkrun flags, briefings, enthusiastic volunteers… and the barcodes work worldwide! It’s the consistency of the experience, be it in Dublin, Nkomazi, San Francisco or Brighton & Hove. I love the experience.
Which one has presented the greatest challenge to set up?
As I mentioned, I don’t get involved in the operational detail – we have very competent staff who do that. But it has to be the local community who want one, and they need to get the initial funding and make it happen. It can’t be dictated from the centre. When we embark in new countries, as we’ve just done recently in Canada and Sweden, we do ask for a business plan so that we know it might succeed in a particular country, and we have key goals to measure against.
I guess you’ve heard plenty of inspiring stories of how previously sedentary individuals have turned their lives around with the help of parkrun?
There are so many and each week they’re described in the newsletter. Parkrun has affected so many lives in a positive way and will continue to do so. I meet inspirational people every week, be it at my home parkrun or at a junior parkrun or whilst touring. I’d recommend all parkrunners sign up for the newsletter and have a read of these stories.
The way parkrun has grown worldwide, and at such a rate, is just incredible. When Paul Sinton-Hewitt started the whole thing back in 2004, he surely can’t have imagined it would go on to become anywhere near as big as it is today. What about plans going forward?
For individual countries, we do work up business plans with those wanting to try and set up a new parkrun; it’s great to see events start up in the likes of Canada and Sweden, and to watch them thrive. But, as mentioned, in the UK, it’s up to the local communities to want one and make it happen.
Am I right in thinking you only took up running fairly late in life, and have gone on to run a few marathons? How did you get into it?
I was 52, a fairly active cyclist and swimmer, but had never run. At school I was useless at sport and given a ‘must try harder’ on my school reports. But I saw an advert for a women’s running club in my town and I joined it. I was very nervous when I went along, but Erika our coach was very encouraging and I ran 1k. I was so pleased. In fact, to help me run further, Erika took me to parkrun and the rest is history… 307 parkuns later! Mike joined me running 5ks and then he started doing further distances. Within two years of starting, I was doing my first marathon… so nervous, but I did it, finished it and now I’ve got up to 10 marathons. “No more” I said. Mike has done really well and has qualified for Boston next year. He tells everyone he meets, so pretend you didn’t know and look interested!
And now you’re also a keen triathlete, I believe.
Yes, some of my friends started doing triathlons; there was a sprint one near my home, so I did it, and got hooked. This September, I did my first Olympic distance in Sussex, but I’m scared of swimming in the sea and also need to learn how to do front crawl properly. Mike doesn’t swim but he’s a good cyclist and he’s representing Ireland in his age category at the European championships in the spring.
So, what event is next on your agenda?
Well, this weekend is the Conwy Half – my favourite half marathon. It’s fantastic; it involves running up the Great Orme. You should try it!
Then I think we have a few festive runs in Brighton & Hove.
I understand that, through your marathon running, you’ve raised a lot of money for Hospice UK. What triggered getting involved with that particular charity?
Hospices have been central in my life for two reasons – I’ve had family members cared for in these establishments, and also I’ve been a trustee of one since 2002. They’re all excellent at providing palliative care, and at providing support for families and friends. They only get approximately 33% of funding from the NHS and rely on fundraising for the rest. So, it’s important we fundraise for our local hospice or for the national membership organisation, Hospice UK. I’m Deputy Chair of Hospice UK and love running for them. There’s something special about running London marathon that’s hard to describe… but I particularly enjoy it once I get to the Hospice UK base at the end, and recover!
Christine, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Keep up the great work with both parkrun and Hospice UK, and good luck in Conwy. See you again soon at one of the local parkruns, or otherwise out on a RunBrighton Sunday run!
By Mike Bannister