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December 4, 2012

For the past eight months or so I’ve been a lead runner for Home Run London. Officially, Home Run has now broken up for Christmas – or acknowledged that the party season is likely to haemorrhage runner numbers, depending on your perspective – but it’s given me cause to reevaluate the initiative.

The principles behind Home Run are simple:

  • A group meets and runs from a central London location to a ‘home’ destination, all the time sticking close to tube lines
  • The group’s bags are carried from the start destination to the home destination, either by bag bike or by car

On paper, it’s a free and healthy alternative to the tube. But things on paper don’t always work out that way.

The reality

Since its inception, about 15 different routes – ranging between 3 and 6 miles in length – have sprung up over the capital with some operating once a week, others up to three times a week. A few runs have become very popular, attracting around 40 runners each week, but a substantial number regularly garner 10 or fewer. Each run is staffed by one lead runner (who acts as a sweeper, at the back of the pack) and a cyclist or driver.

Let’s take the routes I’ve run as examples. I started running from Canary Wharf to Stratford (3.1 miles), and then ran from Liverpool Street to Stratford (4.4 miles). The Canary Wharf route attracted five runners on a good day, and was eventually cancelled after the regular crowd dwindled to one or two. The Liverpool Street route attracts somewhere between seven and ten runners, a substantial number of whom come from one of the East London running clubs.

The first problem comes from the fact that the ‘home’ destination is the final destination for very few of the runners. Rather than avoiding the tube, these commuters are catching the tube from a different station. Naturally, London is a big place and there’s a limited pool of people going from one station to another, and a more limited pool still of those people who are interested in running. If you’re to look at this from a pure time-and-money position, it’s taken them longer to get home and it’s pretty likely they’re still paying the same tube fare.

The second problem is that the routes aren’t particularly scenic. Take Canary Wharf to Stratford – we could have picked up the canals from Limehouse (a few minutes jog from the start location), picked up the road at Bow roundabout and made a 4-mile largely off-road route. But one of the guiding principles of Home Run is that the routes stick close to public transport so people can drop off the runs if need be, so instead the route went through several housing estates and involved crossing some fairly major roads.

The third problem is that the variety of paces make it much less social than you might expect. On the Liverpool Street route we had runners who might be doing 7:15 minute miles at the front, and 10-minute miles at the back. You spread seven runners out over that spectrum of paces and you’re going to have a very spread-out group. And, unsurprisingly, a few people getting lost. It’s just not practical to herd people from five minutes down the road, so you either end up sprinting back and forth, or just accepting that the runners will probably all make their way back to the home point.

Will Home Run be back in the New Year? I hope so – it’s clearly working for some people – but I don’t think it’s for me. I suspect after a hiatus of more than a month it’ll suffer some natural attrition.

Sticky initiatives

In reconsidering Home Run, though, I’ve been thinking about what makes a grass-roots sporting initiative ‘sticky’. On paper, the principle behind Home Run sounds attractive and compelling, but it just kind of doesn’t work out in the delivery. Sticky initiatives – and by ‘sticky’, I mean stuff that’s simple to understand, attracts a regular crowd and appeals to more and more people – like Parkrun and Sweatshop Running Community have succeeded through being simply about running.

Compare these with Home Run:

  • Parkrun is a now-international series of free, measured, timed 5k races that take place in parks. There’s no pre-registration, the races are organised by volunteers and sponsored by various brands, and runners receive their results by text and email within a few hours of the race. They’re fully inclusive – they are run by world champion and Olympic runners and novice runners. When a runner passes a certain landmark – 100 Parkruns, etc. – they receive a free gift and a round of applause from the other runners. Crucially, at the end of the run, there’s usually some kind of a social gathering in the nearest cafe.
  • Sweatshop Running Communities are based at Sweatshop stores nationwide. One or two evenings a week, they lead a guided run around a route near the shop of around 5k, with different pace groups. Runners receive rewards for attending a certain number of Sweatshop runs, and of course there’s a social aspect. They work well for Sweatshop because they emphasise how much their staff understand running, and they build fondness for the brand.

What makes for stickiness?

Ultimately, neither of these have departed too far from the tried-and-tested dynamics of a running club, where runners meet for a circular route, often run in pace packs, and which are followed by a social element such as a trip to the pub or cheese and wine in the club room.

What makes running initiatives sticky is the social element. This is either people chatting in pace groups, or gathering afterwards over a beverage of some sort. By threading a thin group out over a couple of miles, only to disband them on various tube lines, Home Run seems to lose its potential stickiness through over-complication.

If we went back to basics and wanted to set up a sticky event, my money would be on a handicap race. Base it at a friendly cafe or pub so all bags could be left inside and safe, set a safe circuit (say, three or four miles), and set the runners off based on their predicted completion time, so the slowest start first. Then, everyone finishes at the same time, gets a drink and enjoys a bit of post-run banter.

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