“But I don’t run,” is a commonly echoed phrase I often hear as I launch into describing the healthy phenomenon of parkrun that is sweeping the world. It could be a friend, it could be a neighbour or someone I have known for five minutes. The joy of parkrun does not discriminate between those that run and those that don’t. And I do not discriminate in who I hope to inspire through running.
My own running story began at the age of four when I was diagnosed with chronic asthma. Having to always carry an inhaler with me, I was a constant risk of having an asthma attack. On various occasions, I would find myself blanketed by the thick white hospital sheets, oxygen mask over my face, or being loaded in the back of an ambulance. On one occasion I found myself on board Heli Med One, destined for the Royal Children’s Hospital. While I knew there were other children doing it worse than me, I felt like I was missing out on life.
And today, some 20 years later, I am making up for those years by living every day to the fullest. “Irrepressible” is the word my dad uses to describe me. I have completed eighty-two parkruns and seven half marathons. Two more are needed to achieve my goal of running a half marathon in every state and territory in Australia.
Half marathons aside, the run that I am most proud of happens every Saturday morning on the Great Southern Rail Trail in Koonwarra. It also happens in another 299 locations throughout Australia. Across the world parkrunners are able to participate in one of over thirteen hundred events in countries such as the United Kingdom where parkrun originated, Canada, Finland, France, New Zealand and Singapore.
At 7.45am, a crowd begins to gather. Young and old, some pushing prams, some with a dog, some wearing the latest ‘on trend’ sporting fashions, a princess tutu, others in improvised active wear. Some arrive early to help put the flags out and organise the equipment. The rostered Run Director for the day oversees the event and supports the volunteers in their designated positions. There’s a timekeeper and back up, a person handing out finish tokens, photographer and barcode scanner. A tail walker ensures everyone is safe and well on the course and if wanted, may provide company to those that are unhurried and out for a morning stroll.
If you’re a first timer at parkrun you will be acknowledged and welcomed. Nerves and any hint of feeling intimidated by a sprinkling of serious athletes are quickly dispensed. We are all here to do our best, achieve our own individual goals.
If you’re a tourist visiting from another parkrun you will be welcomed with polite applause, an invitation to write in the visitors’ book and along with all parkrun participants the opportunity to stay back for a casual chat and optional replenishing of the calories in a café across the road. It’s hearing people’s parkrun journeys that inspire organisers. It’s about bridging the gap between locals and visitors, runners, joggers and walkers.
On a deeper level, this is where parkrun becomes more than a simple run in the park. In a speech made in front of 255 participants at the launch of South Gippsland’s first parkrun on Saturday 4th November 2017, the Danish word “hygge” was used to describe the support shown from individuals, businesses and organisations in Koonwarra and surrounds. It means the art of building a community, inviting closeness, creating wellbeing and a sense of connection and warmth. It’s about a feeling of belonging and a celebration of every moment, every day.
Success comes in many forms. One participant has just completed 100 parkruns, another revels in being the first over the line. Someone else celebrates running three seconds faster than their personal best and another is well satisfied to just complete the five-kilometre course. To have “Gippslander” status does not mean you have had to be born, raised or live in Gippsland. It is parkrun terminology for someone who has ran all parkrun courses in Gippsland. It ensures a good conversation starter amongst parkrunners and is the equivalent of local parkrun royalty.
At 8am a hooter sounds to symbolise the beginning of the event and numbers on personal and official stopwatches begin to tick. The sound of movement on the gravel path is heard. Conversation between serious runners stops. Up the back, pram pushers, family members and friends turn up the volume on life’s dramas, last weeks parkrun times or weekend plans. Youngsters are encouraged to keep an eye out for wildlife that inhabit the picturesque, three bridges course. One may also find themselves sharing life stories with a stranger.
Out on the course the only pressure being felt is from the voice inside a participant’s head. “Too fast. Too slow. Sore legs. Breathe.” Another voice can often be heard, this time it’s the encouraging cheer from a friend, a family member, a volunteer, or another runner. Receiving a high five from a stranger is not uncommon. It may only be a brief interaction, one that lasts until the barcodes are returned for scanning, or until you catch your breath and exchange more greetings. Nonetheless it’s a connection that keeps people coming back for more.
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