The rise and rise of parkrun

Running across the Sydney Harbour Bridge twice in the Sydney Running Festival recently (the half-marathon, then the 9km bridge run with the kids; yes I’m a sucker for punishment) gave me time to reflect on the power of participation. And the benefits of organised events. (And how dodgy the bridge surface is for scooter commuters like me.)

A lot of runners eschew formally organised events, preferring to stick to their solo routine or casual arrangement with friends rather than set themselves a goal race and then train systematically and progressively towards it. Which is fine.

But with effort comes reward, and there’s nothing like a race to keep a runner - no matter how fast or slow - motivated over a period of days, weeks or months. Motivated to train consistently, to eat properly, to push that bit harder to see what their body and mind is capable of. The rewards of competing - against yourself but in the company of many others - are both psychological and physical. And don’t get me started on the feeling of draping that treasured finisher’s medal around your neck ...

There’s also the reward of getting to run in otherwise inaccessible places, like across the Harbour Bridge, or into the Melbourne Cricket Ground as thousands of lucky souls will be doing later this month, or simply through city streets free of cars.

Participating in an event like the Sydney Running Festival, the Melbourne Marathon Festival or the City2Surf really lets you know you’re part of a big and diverse community. In these moments, running is not a lonely sport. The people you’re slogging around the course with have also been training early in the morning or after work, investing in themselves just like you have been, so it’s nice to finally meet up, so to speak.

Spending Sunday morning with 34,000 runners once a year is one thing, but organised participation events happen every weekend all over Australia. One event in particular that has caught the imagination of runners of all abilities is parkrun.

Parkrun is unique because it’s free and totally volunteer-run. Every Saturday morning in parks around Australia, people gather to run a timed 5km race. The results are posted online by midday, so runners can track their progress if they want to.

If there’s not a parkrun near you already, there’s likely to be one coming. National parkrun director Tim Oberg brought the event to Australia in 2011 (it started in London in 2004). In just two and a half years it has 53,000 registered members running in 42 parks nationally per week. By the end of the year he estimates there will be 60 parkruns.

“We are growing by 1000 registrations a week and by the end of the year I’d say that’ll be more like 1500 a week,” Oberg says. “We are going amazingly well, more than I could’ve ever dreamed of. Every time we launch an event the network just grows.”

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Oberg says parkrun’s success is its simplicity. Once registered, you can participate in a parkrun in more than 280 parks worldwide, so even when travelling overseas all you need is a printout of your barcode and you’re up and running. Costs of Australian parkruns are covered by sponsors adidas and Suncorp, and local councils.

“The whole ethos of parkrun, and my take on running, is that it’s about the people you’re with, and running with good people and enjoying their company both during and after the run,” says Oberg.

Oberg says there’s no shortage of runners. The challenge is to find a park, a willing council and a director, but even that’s not too hard. Volunteer directors approach parkrun to offer their services, with about one in 10 proposals making it to reality.

“People direct because they want to contribute to their community,” says Oberg. “They also want to meet people; the social motive is very strong. We give them some bits and pieces like adidas shoes. It’s a very pure form of volunteering. When we build it, people come.”

In fact, people not only meet new running buddies, they form partnerships, including marriage. Tom and Lana Do Canto (St Peters parkrun in Sydney) have the prestigious honour of being the first parkrun wedded couple. They met at parkrun in March and were married on Sydney Harbour in July. So there’s another benefit: running’s romantic potential.

Saturday, October 5, is international parkrun day, marking the ninth anniversary of the event’s launch in London’s Bushy Park. Oberg is encouraging Twitter users to post footage from their parkruns using the #loveparkrun hashtag so the organisation can compile a mini-documentary of the day as it played out in all its parks worldwide for next year’s 10th anniversary. More info:

What do you think? Does the informality of parkrun have more or less appeal than organised fun runs or club events?

Follow Pip on Twitter: @pipcoates