The 500th Darlington parkrun took place at the weekend and, by happy coincidence, precisely 500 people completed the 5k course in South Park. Peter Barron was among them...

Into his 90th year, and still going strong, Ian Barnes is a man who’s used to hitting milestones during his lifelong love of running.

And the retired legal executive wore a justified smile of satisfaction on Saturday as he stood by the finishing line of the 500th Darlington parkrun, an event he started 12 years ago.

Some things are meant to be, and what made the occasion even more special, was the number of people who turned up. By happy accident, it just happened to be precisely 500.

“That makes it perfect, doesn’t it?” said Ian, as volunteer tailwalker, Gillian Harris, brought up the rear as the 500th, and final, participant to cross the finishing line.

On average, the Saturday morning 5k run attracts around 350 people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. But the 500th event proved to be a bigger attraction than normal, as another milestone was added to Ian’s impressive CV.

Having discovered a love of running as a young man during national service in the Army, he has gone on to hold three British records in the over-85s category: 1,500 metres (7:38.41); a mile (8:10.40); and 3,000 metres (16:34.42).

The records are set in five-year age bands so, when he hits 90 in December, he’ll be aiming to set new targets for those aged 90-95.

“You have to strike while the iron’s hot, so I really need to do it in my first year in the new age bracket, before I slow down,” explained Ian.

But new records are for another day. Saturday, with Ian having the honour of being the South Park run director for the 100th time, was a chance to reflect on the part Darlington has played in the global parkrun movement.

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It is one of 1,236 parkruns in Britain, with many more taking place in a growing collection of other countries, and the idea is simple. People register for a barcode, find their nearest event, run or walk a 5k course, collect a token at the end, and have their time posted online. Average times and personal bests are recorded for every participant, and it’s all for free.

The UK’s first parkrun took place in Bushy Park, in Teddington, London, on October 2, 2004, when just 13 runners turned up. Gradually, the priceless public health initiative spread from the grassroots, though it wasn’t until December, 2012, that Darlington caught up.

At the time, Ian was serving as President and Chair of Darlington Harriers, and he’d been organising a monthly 5k run in South Park on Sunday mornings. No fee, no prizes, just an informal get-together to stimulate interest in the local athletics club.

It had been going for about a year when Ian was approached by Alister Robson, who'd helped organise a parkrun in Durham and become an ambassador for the national movement.

“I hadn’t heard of the parkrun, but Alister asked if I’d fancy getting one going in Darlington – and that’s how it all started,” recalled Ian.

The first task was to raise the £3,000 start-up costs, with contributions being made by Darlington Borough Council, the NHS, Darlington Harriers, and Darlington Lions Club.

The other vital ingredient was people, and Ian managed to assemble half a dozen volunteers for an inaugural meeting at his house. They included Allen Hazlett, who remains an evergreen volunteer 12 years later.

The equipment needed to get up and running – a computer, stopwatches, cones, and signs – were initially stored in Ian’s garden shed, and the council was persuaded to paint a start-line by the bowling green in the park.

“We just got on with it!” said Ian. “Fewer than 100 people turned up for the first one – mostly athletics club members – but word gradually spread, and it’s grown from there.”

The London Olympics gave interest a timely boost, and Ian believes the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, was another factor in its success, with people rediscovering their love of the outdoors and the park after the frustrations of lockdown.

“Simplicity has also been key,” he added. “People can come along, keep fit and healthy, and all they need for that sense of wellbeing and euphoria is a barcode and a pair of trainers. It’s developed into a real family atmosphere.

“Hopefully, it will continue for years to come, but so much depends on the volunteers. We’re lucky to have a dedicated team, turning out in all weathers, but we could always do with more.

“The parkrun is inclusive, and lots of friendships have been made. In fact, most of the participants are now people, who aren’t in clubs, but enjoy the camaraderie.

“We have people of all ages – from six to late 80s – people pushing prams, and people with dogs on leads. It’s not a race, so you can go at their own pace, whether it’s running or walking.”

The male record for the Darlington parkrun is held by Marc Scott at 14:34, while Sarah Tunstall clocked the female record at 17:13, but no matter how long you take, the tailwalker will always be last to finish.

Despite being nearly 90, Ian is still a regular runner, as well as a devoted volunteer, and he’s clocked up around 200 parkruns at different locations.

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However, the South Park event – three laps past the aviary, downhill to the lake, round the old bandstand, along the tree-lined River Skerne, and up the cursed Squirrel Hill – will always be his favourite.

Over the years, the Darlington parkrun has thrown up inspirational stories for this column: In 2020, just before the pandemic, Deborah Jeffries took part, valiantly pushing her toddler in a buggy, the day before she was due to give birth to her third child.

Other Darlington stalwarts have included Viv Pow, who can no longer run due to inoperable cancer, yet regularly turns up to walk or cheer on the runners.

There’s also the story of the remarkable 72-year-old Keith Wilson, who uses the parkrun as part of his nationally recognised campaign to defy Parkinson’s Disease.

And still it grows. Among those who took part in the 500th Darlington parkrun on Saturday morning was retired car body repairer John Marchant, from Hartburn. At 79, it was his first parkrun after being persuaded to “give it a go” by his family.

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“It’s a great thing,” said John. “Everyone’s so friendly and encouraging – I’ll definitely be back.”

For every parkrun across the world, it has taken someone, like the splendid Ian Barnes, to be the starter. Let’s hope it’s a phenomenon that runs and runs.