Published on April 13, 2015
Behind the Royal Parks Half
In just eight years the Royal Parks Half – or Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon as it is properly known – has gone from conception to veritable institution, offering runners a unique perspective on London as they wend their way along closed roads and through four of London’s eight Royal Parks.
My life as a running – and equally as a writer – has its share of surreal moments. On a glorious early spring day the tranquillity of Hyde Park is defined by people cycling, planking, punishing themselves with military cross-fit, and striking complex yoga poses. Me? I’m taking a short run in the company of a giant squirrel called Chester and a small group of runners all sporting squirrel tails. Chester – whose real identity is a closely guarded secret (sort of the Stig of running, if you will) – is the mascot for the Royal Parks Half’s running squad Team Squirrel, and for someone with only vague peripheral vision he’s keeping good pace.
Brief warm-up over it’s time to find out more about the Royal Parks Half, so it’s off to a Victorian policeman’s watch post complete with miniature disco ball on the ceiling for continued surrealism. In these slightly incongruous surroundings I meet with Sara Lom, Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Foundation, and Kate Giles, founder of Crewroom, sponsor of Team Squirrel and designer of the now legendary Royal Parks Half t-shirt.
Sara begins with some background on the genesis of the race. ‘One day Limelight Sports, who now do the management of the half marathon for us, came and suggested doing a little Sunday morning breakfast walk in Regent’s Park,’ she explains, ‘I remember thinking that sounds great, but I don’t know if that’s quite different enough and London doesn’t have a half marathon, so why don’t we see if we can do that? We sat round the table and by the time we had finished our talk that little breakfast walk was a half marathon.’
From that initial meeting things, it seems, took on a life of their own incredibly quickly. ‘We did it in a crazily quick time,’ says Sara, ‘I think it was about nine months from initial idea to getting permission to close Hyde Park Corner, which was the first time it had ever been closed for a non-ceremonial event, to actually getting 7 or 8,000 people running… It was a scramble in year-one because we were trying to promote this thing that didn’t even exist – we would go to potential sponsors or partners and tell them it was going to be great, but they would say “well yes, but its only on paper.” But Crewroom had a leap of faith.’
So how did apparel specialists Crewroom, then just a fledgling company, come to take that leap?
‘We had a mutual friend and it all just coincided,’ explains Kate, ‘She told me there was sustainable ethos behind this new event, but couldn’t tell me much about it; I got the idea from some of the initial images sent across that it would involve going through some of the Royal Parks… It was suggested that we could do recycle bins and send things off to Africa and that sort of thing, but I was actually thinking no, that’s not enough! The thinking in terms of the shirt was that it should be very technical – that way it meant it could be worn over and over again. At the time I had been working with bamboo fibre, which I knew didn’t dry out that quickly – it’s like using a pure merino – so you have to mix it with a man-made fibre to get it to dry out quickly enough. I knew carbonised bamboo was around and I had already been doing some recycled bottle material – I kind of made it up a little bit I suppose. They took a punt on me so I worked like stink to make sure it worked.’
‘We were thrilled when we heard about the bamboo fibres idea,’ says Sara, ‘because one of the big things for us was that we wanted the race to be as green as possible. It was also great to be able to support Crewroom because they were a small organisation at the time and now it’s like a full-circle, because they have grown and are now able to support Team Squirrel.’
Team Squirrel, the running team raising money for the Royal Parks Foundation itself, has gone from strength to strength with 2015 seeing all 250 place being snapped up well ahead of the race itself. ‘We though well the likes of UNICEF and Tommy’s and so on have their own hugely successful running teams – why don’t we?’ says Sara. ‘People are beginning to understand that the parks need support,’ she continues, ‘most people see the parks and don’t think about who looks after them or how they are funded. The fact is that government grants have dropped 25% over four years, that’s a £1m a year to be found. The parks do need support so this race is hugely important now for that.’
Beyond the charity aspect (and it’s a huge aspect that has raised many millions over the years for innumerable good causes) the intention of the Royal Parks Half from year-one was to encourage family engagement. In part this comes from offering something unique for spectators in the form of the Food and Fitness Festival, which now sees upwards of 50,000 people in attendance.
‘We always wanted it to be as much fun for the spectators as for the runners,’ says Sara, ‘It’s not just some mismatched tents in a field – it has the feel of a village and we have lots of organic food stalls and lots of “have a go” areas for all the family where they can try football and tennis and hockey and parkore; the army are here with a climbing wall… It’s as much about getting the young athletes of the future trying new things as anything else and most of the exhibits lead into the opportunity to join a club. On the day we hope that will inspire young people.’
‘It really worries me that the statistics are saying that the young – especially young girls – are doing absolutely no outside activity,’ adds Kate, a former rower, ‘ at Olympic level for women it’s okay, but below that things are dropping off and you need that grass routes because eventually the cream runs out…’
So the Royal Parks Half could prove to be the starting point for the next Paula Radcliff or Jo Pavey, but even if not it remains a truly unique event that combines charity, environmental concerns and wellness education with the chance to see London and some of its glorious parks in a whole new light.
The Royal Parks Foundation Half takes place this year on October 11 – full details at royalparkshalf.com and more on Team Squirrel at supporttheroyalparks.org – If you want to be a part of Team Squirrel and support London’s Royal Parks you can join the waiting list by emailing email@example.com. Or if you have your own place, the Royal Parks Foundation would love to have you as an honorary squirrel – sign up here.