parkrun came into my life about six years ago, just after I had my daughter. Running has long been an important way for me to stay mentally and physically healthy, so I was intrigued when a friend invited my family to try Westerfolds parkrun. It quickly became a regular part of our Saturday mornings. When Darebin parkrun later launched closer to home we moved across and, over time, joined the event team.
I have lived with anxiety for more than 30 years. It has been a defining feature of my life that ebbs and flows and can really peak in stressful situations. I suffer anxious thoughts and panic attacks which, at times, have really dented my confidence.
For many years, running has been a huge part of supporting my mental health and wellbeing. parkrun is an important part of this because every Saturday morning, whether I am running the course or calling out encouragement as part of the volunteer team, I am always sharing smiles and friendship with my fellow parkrunners.
Because of my anxiety, the first time I went to parkrun was a huge step. Even though my friend had invited me, I didn’t know what might happen, who would be there, and if I would be any good on the course! Having my friend and my husband with me made a huge difference, so I would suggest when you start out, go with a buddy if you can. Even if you can’t, I would still encourage anyone to give it a go. It might be scary, and you might need to be brave, but if you can take that first step it could be life changing. parkrunners are so welcoming that even if you arrive by yourself, you won’t feel alone for very long.
Even six years on, I still get anxious when I go to a new parkrun. However, the people are always so friendly and supportive that they put my mind at ease. When you smile at someone at parkrun, you know they will smile back, and that is special.
I learnt a long time ago that pretending my anxiety isn’t there is not a successful coping strategy, so I sought professional help in the form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and also took medication for a short while. I learned how to process my thoughts more effectively and how taking time out for relaxing and enjoyable activities such as running is really important. For me, being mindful of what I eat and how much sleep I get is also important.
Having a regular, scheduled run on a Saturday morning, in a place that I am familiar with, alongside friendly and encouraging people, is fabulous. However, it’s the volunteering at parkrun that has improved my mental health more than the running because this has enabled me to develop so many close friendships. Through volunteering at parkrun I found my tribe.
These wonderful friends have been so important, especially over the last 18 months during Melbourne’s lockdowns. Melbourne has had more days of lockdown than any other city in the world and being physically separated from people has really underlined to me how important our social connections are. My parkrun friends have become an extension of my family – they are the people who check in on me and who I check in on. They have also ensured that, outside of parkrun, I have had people to run and talk with. At the heart of parkrun is shared values including support for one another and a commitment to the local community. parkrun has shown me there are so many people in my community who care about one another.
Volunteering remains my favourite part of parkrun and the thing I have missed the most during lockdown. I have gone from being a Run Director to an Event Director and I am now a volunteer Event Ambassador. All of this has happened because of the people around me.
If my anxiety has taught me anything it’s that regardless of what happens, the most important thing in life is to give something a go. Sometimes you will succeed and sometimes you will fail (and I’ve experienced both) but either is better than sitting on the sidelines. I am forever glad that I took that first step and gave parkrun a go. Regardless of whether I run or volunteer, I always feel better after going to parkrun and I can’t imagine life without it!
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Almost 2,500 events held, over 23,000 unique participants with nearly 100,000 completed parkruns and more than 23,000 instances of volunteering. In just four years. This Saturday parkrun Germany celebrates its fourth anniversary! What better reason to take a closer look at the country with the record for the most number of events started in their first…