As we bid farewell to 2020, parkrun Founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE reflects on a very different twelve months for parkrun.
2020 started with so much promise. Our movement, now in its 16th year, gathered pace.
The Netherlands became the 22nd live territory on the global map of parkrun, we delivered a groundbreaking campaign for International Women’s Day, and between January and March we welcomed over 200,000 new participants to the parkrun family.
As news broke about Coronavirus, and public health officials and governments around the world put measures in place to control its spread and manage its risk, we came to terms with the realisation that parkrun would have to be paused, everywhere, for the first time in fifteen and a half years.
Whilst of course I understood and accepted the necessity for our events to close, I was instantly struck by the absence of parkrun. As it is for so many of you, parkrun is my sanctuary. It was born as a result of, and has helped me through, some difficult times.
The regularity and reliability of parkrun provides a comfort that comes from knowing it is always there: the same time, the same place, the same friendly faces, support and encouragement. A chance to escape, or to catch up, to be in the fresh air, and amongst others. parkrun’s mere presence is a reassuring island of calm in often choppy seas.
So when something that important is taken away from us – with no indication of when it might return – it’s natural that we feel its loss.
Whilst simultaneously managing the process of pausing more than 2,000 events around the world, we made a commitment. We promised that, despite and because of the absence of our weekly events, we would remain connected to the community. We would do what we could to offer some of the same things we always have done: a place to connect, to talk, to join in, to have fun. A shoulder to cry on, a temporary distraction or a moment of escapism.
I think it’s fair to say that in those early days, none of us thought the pausing of parkrun and the wider disruption to everyday life would go on for quite as long as it has. Without our usual weekly events, we created new ways to stay in touch. The Great Big parkrun Quiz was born – a mainstay of Saturdays since the first lockdown started, and a weekly fixture that brought parkrunners together for 30 minutes of parkrun trivia and fun.
Alongside the quiz, the School of parkrun provided parkrun-themed puzzles and activities for children, we invited you to join in with a family parkrun warmup every Sunday, and we welcomed a whole host of fascinating and famous people to tell their stories in our live Q&As.
We asked you questions too. Over the course of this year we surveyed more people than ever before and gathered in excess of 130,000 individual responses from the parkrun community. It’s these responses that guide our decision making and help us understand the impact Coronavirus has had on the parkrun community and the likely intent of someone to return when we are able to.
One thing that is clear from our survey work is the need we all have to connect with people. At least seven out of ten respondents in each territory have indicated that connections with others in their community have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Among the large majority of those surveyed, who consistently told us they are ready to return to parkrun, a key motivator across all territories was to feel part of a community again.
Understanding this, I have been humbled and proud to see the efforts of local communities to reach out and stay connected this year. You created back garden parkruns, hosted virtual coffee mornings, created board games, videos, choirs and more. In the true spirit of parkrun, you remained there for one another, through the most difficult of times.
The ingenuity of the parkrun community, and the desire to help and support each other has never been more apparent than during this year.
Back in June, and with all events remaining closed across all 22 parkrun countries, we launched (not)parkrun – an opportunity for parkrunners to log their own 5k walk, jog or run, to represent their home event, and to once again feel part of a parkrun community. We hoped it would provide some motivation and inspiration in the absence of parkrun events, and incredibly, in 28 weeks more than 81,000 people have logged over 750,000 (not)parkruns, including 7,500 people who have yet to do a parkrun.
Little by little, as restrictions lift around the world, parkrun events are returning. First in New Zealand, then the Falkland Islands, across parts of Australia, Japan, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Namibia and Russia.
We end the year with more than 300 events back up and running in six countries. It’s a far cry from where we started the year, but it does give us hope.
And it’s as we start to see our events return that I realise how lucky we are. Lucky to have such incredible communities who have found ways to be there for one another in the most trying circumstances. Lucky to have the support of commercial partners who believe in what we do, who trust that it will pass and continue to back us regardless, and all the while having to manage their own response to Coronavirus and the impact on their businesses. And lucky that the organisation is so carefully and expertly managed by a small staff team and with support from a truly wonderful group of volunteers.
All of which gives me great hope and confidence for 2021 and beyond.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s true that the absence of parkrun has helped me to realise precisely why it works, what makes it so special. Human beings need each other. We need social contact, to feel part of a community, to belong. We need to know that everything is going to be ok.
This year we may have been kept apart, but I’ve never felt more strongly that we are a part of something. A movement.
Thank you all for your patience, passion, and support. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2021.
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