Liz Henry’s success creating the world’s southernmost parkrun is remarkable when you consider she is – quite literally – allergic to exercise.
The worldwide phenomenon that is parkrun has taken some time to arrive in Invercargill, but it has captured peoples’ imagination, with more than a hundred participants on average turning out every Saturday morning (8am in the summer, 9am in the winter) to take part in a free, timed 5km run through Queens Park.
And Henry, an Invercargill lawyer, is an unlikely instigator given she has a condition which means her body reacts badly to wheat, especially if she exercises.
It’s significant enough that she carries an epi-pen with her, but it hasn’t been a barrier to creating a weekly event which has been running for more than a year and now has close to 1300 registered members.
Henry was introduced to parkrun by her sister while on a trip to the Gold Coast a couple of years ago.
“There were like 385 people there at 7am on New Year’s Day. We had to leave home at like 6am, so it was really hard work. I didn’t come last, because there’s always a tail walker, but they had a special thing on that day where all the participants waited for the final person to finish. They stood and gave me a guard of honour and clapped me across the finish line.”
Later in the year Henry attended a wedding in Adelaide and decided to try another parkrun to see if it had the same vibe.
“I did better at that event, I didn’t come last, and it had a similar atmosphere. I thought, if Australians can do this, how good would it be at home.”
The original parkrun was created in 2004 by 13 runners in Bushy Park, Teddington, in the United Kingdom.
Since that time it has spread to include more than 300,000 events, at 1,867 parks in 21 countries and over 3.7 million participants.
The ethos is based on a volunteer-run event that is free and for all abilities.
After working through the accreditation process, and a brief delay caused by drainage work in Queens Park, Invercargill became New Zealand’s 17th parkrun just over a year ago.
Former Southland Cricket development officer James Carr, who had previous parkrun experience from the UK, was able to provide input into the type of event that the Invercargill run would be, with a focus on community and being able to socialise in a low-cost way.
“It’s such a cool event because we usually have about 130 runners, but about 40 percent of them will actually be walkers,” Henry said.
“The objective is to do the 5km in under an hour, but our longest is an hour and 18 minutes and we celebrated at the café afterwards with some fudge. We get a bit silly about things like that, but what it means is that we are attracting people who haven’t typically been involved in a lot of physical activity, but they’ve set out to do something and they’ve achieved it – and that’s amazing.”
Invercargill parkrun welcomes the fleet-footed as well, with Dwight Grieve (16min 41sec) and Claire Nichols (18:44) the current course record holders.
“We average 13 volunteers a week and we have four run directors, which means I can get a run or a walk in once in a while,” Henry said.
“In the past year I’ve had three weekends off. I hate mornings, I really struggle to get out of bed, but on Saturday mornings I just bounce out of bed and my husband just thinks it’s mental, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Henry hopes Invercargill parkrun will continue to grow, with more registered members and more people turning up on Saturdays to experience the sense of community which parkrun is known for around the world.
“They call it the difficult second parkrun, because we have people who come and do it and then other things get in the way. We know that once they come to the second, third and fourth ones, they will be hooked,” she said.
“It’s been amazing hearing people’s stories. We had a guy who had a major heart attack and running parkrun has become part of his therapy post-surgery.
“We’ve got other people who have come off a couple of years of chemo and wanted to get into some exercise and we are supporting them – we know the first week they might not finish but we will support them the whole way around.
“We had one lady whose goal was to finish the 5km by the end of the year and we had her doing it in four weeks, it was just about distracting her and supporting her. These are really cool celebration moments.”
You can find out more about Invercargill parkrun here.
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