Leakin Park's new 5k run is about more than winning

Once an avid runner, Jill Balthis of Columbia has broken her foot, torn her hip flexor and injured her knee and toe in the past two years.

Some of these injuries were bad luck. Others came during races she participated in while training for a half marathon. Every time she bounced back from one injury, she said, she would succumb to another. Balthis went from training six days per week to two, and running in competitive settings soon became a daunting task.

But during “Parkrun” Saturday morning at Leakin Park, she wasn’t pressured to go all out. The weekly, free 5-kilometer run is free and accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities or skill level. There are no cutoff times, qualifications and no “winners.”

Participants are solely encouraged to try their best and have a good time.

“There’s pressure of being in a real race that you have to finish and there are other people watching,” Balthis said. “This one is just relaxed. I don’t have to push myself too hard.”

Leakin Park is one of 12 Parkrun locations in the U.S., run organizer Doug Jones said. The local Parkrun is part of a trend that began in the United Kingdom in 2004. The event has grown tremendously since then — and there are currently runs at nearly 1,200 parks in 15 different countries.

Nearly 50 people came out to Saturday’s run in Leakin Park, an uptick from their weekly average of 25 runners, Jones said. He said he's seen steady turnout every week since the first run on June 24.

There are also Parkruns nearby in College Park and Washington D.C., Jones said. The event is free at all locations.

“People never believe it's completely free,” Jones said. “Your goal is just to come out and do the best you can.”

Some opt to run the course, hoping to beat their personal best time, while others take a more leisurely pace — walking with friends, strollers or dogs.

Martha Wagley, 25, said she typically ran on a track in Edmondson Village before she saw a sign advertising Parkrun. She was drawn to the event because it allowed her to meet new runners in a relaxed setting — something she hadn’t experienced in other organized runs, she said.

“It’s a really great community feel, everybody’s talking to each other,” Wagley said. “Usually when you go on a run with people they’re really serious. I like to communicate and get to know people.”

Parkrun’s non-competitive environment is especially attractive for runners rehabilitating from injury, Jones said.

Ed Orser, a 76-year-old from the nearby Hunting Ridge neighborhood, said he tries to walk half of the 5-kilometer route each week as he recovers from a heart bypass procedure.

“I went through cardio rehab for 12 weeks, where you sort of simulate walking,” he said. “But it’s awfully good to get back out.”

Jones said being part of the Parkrun family occasionally attracts “Parkrun tourists" to Leakin Park. He's seen runners from Germany, New Zealand, England and Australia travel to check out the Leakin Park course.

Michael Allen, who typically runs in Tonbridge, England, ran with Leakin Park Parkrun for the first time Saturday. While the Parkrun in Tonbridge has about 400 weekly participants, the self-proclaimed Parkrun tourist said the community feel of the event is the same no matter where he goes.

“It’s really nice to see the global reach,” said Allen, who has participated in Parkruns in South Africa, Europe and the United States.

Leakin Park has a bad reputation, Jones said, partially because of the “Serial” podcast, which told the true story of a high school student whose body was found in the park in 1999 after she was killed. He hopes Parkrun will give people a reason to see the park in a more positive light.

In the meantime, he said, he and the other runners will be at Leakin Park every Saturday at 9 a.m., rain or shine.

“It is a growing movement,” Jones said. “It’s about supporting people of all abilities to come out and have a good time.”

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