Looking at the world map on the parkrun website with more than 2000 green pins it, each representing an event, is surprisingly like watching TV on New Year’s Eve to see where the major fireworks displays will be taking place. And just like seeing in a new year, it’s New Zealand that has the privilege of kicking off parkrunday.
With parkrun New Zealand celebrating its eighth birthday this week, we take a look at parkrun in the land of the long white cloud.
Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand, which translates as “land of the long white cloud”. But whether it’s cloud, rain, snow, frost or sunshine at daybreak on Saturday, one guarantee is that parkruns in some of the most stunning locations on the planet will be getting underway. From the geothermal features of Rotorua, to the lakes and mountains in the South Island to the lions roaring at Western Springs, parkrunners in NZ are spoiled for choice.
What’s more, if you’re unsure of the forecast, you may be able to hear it in Elvish. New Zealand first broadcast their weather report in Elvish language in 2012, the same year parkrun was introduced. Well, it is the home of The Lord of the Rings after all, and at one time had a Lord of the Rings Minister to ensure New Zealand would benefit economically from the films.
Like so many other parkrun countries, the seed for parkrun in New Zealand was firmly planted at Bushy parkrun in London when Lian and Noel de Charmoy were visiting a dear friend, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who they had known since 1983.
“We were blown away by all the volunteers and runners,” recalls Lian. “Paul, half-jokingly we thought, said we should consider making parkrun happen in New Zealand. Little did we know three years later parkrun would indeed become a reality in New Zealand and our life would never be the same.”
Lower Hutt parkrun, located near Wellington on New Zealand’s north island, started in early May of 2012 thanks to Richard McChesney who had been an extremely keen parkrunner in the UK. Richard was returning to his home town and really wanted to have a parkrun on his doorstep (Richard wasn’t a ‘fake Kiwi’, that’s reserved for the Kiwi fruit which comes from China). But we digress…
Lian and Noel met Richard The Real Kiwi in Auckland while he was in transit and immediately realised how passionate he was about parkrun.
“Richard already had a course in mind and with little difficulty, Lower Hutt parkrun was underway. It went from strength to strength with an incredibly active and supportive community,” Lian recalls.
Cornwall parkrun in Auckland became New Zealand’s second event a couple of months later in July 2012. Auckland has more than 50 volcanic cones (don’t worry, the majority are extinct) so it seemed an appropriate place for parkrun New Zealand to really start erupting from.
Cornwall parkrun is reminiscent of the English county that bears its name. Nestled on the outskirts of New Zealand’s largest city, Cornwall Park is also a working farm with sheep, cows, chickens and pheasants. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider only 5% of living things in New Zealand are humans. The rest are animals, making it the highest animal to humans ratio in the world.
Within six months of Cornwall parkrun scanning barcodes for the first time, New Zealand Home Loans announced its sponsorship of parkrun New Zealand. NZHL committed to supporting the existing parkruns in Lower Hutt and Cornwall Park and the establishment of new events throughout the country. They provided the necessary funding needed to purchase the scanners, stopwatches and other necessities. NZ Home Loans also enthusiastically volunteered at parkruns around the country, supplying refreshments and BBQs on anniversaries at many events. They also sponsored the NZ Milestone T-shirts.
The Athlete’s Foot fortuitously became a National Sponsor in February 2019 and continue to support parkrun New Zealand with local branches visiting and volunteering at parkruns around the country with great offers for parkrunners.
However, despite this additional support and New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes and outdoor culture, NZ’s parkrun pioneers did have some competition when it came to identifying accessible locations. NZ has more golf courses per capita than any other country on Earth, or on Middle Earth for that matter, and more than one third of the country is made up of protected National Parks.
International parkrunday in 2012, parkrun’s 8th birthday, was the first time Lower Hutt and Cornwall parkrun reached 100 finishers.
By the time Lower Hutt’s anniversary rolled around the following year, two parkrunners were about to become the first New Zealanders to join the parkrun 50 Club. Event 55 saw Mark Malone and Leanne Asher reach this milestone, and the newsletter that week also points out that they had both volunteered in that first year on multiple occasions. Now that’s dedication!
Barry Curtis parkrun soon became the third parkrun in New Zealand (two people by the name of Barry Curtis have completed Barry Curtis parkrun – we knew you were wondering).
As well as announcing its newest event, the parkrun New Zealand newsletter that week also contained one of the classic parkrun stitch-ups of all time.
Caitlin de Charmoy, daughter of Noel and Lian who brought parkrun to NZ, used her ’parkrunner of the week’ nomination to reveal that the inaugural Cornwall parkrun hadn’t gone entirely to plan because of her mum.
“Easily my most memorable parkrun moment was when my mother who was in charge of the timer, accidently knocked it and it STOPPED. This was on the very first parkrun in Cornwall Park. Shock, horror and adrenaline were pumping whilst she quickly restarted the timer. Luckily we had multiple people timing on this day as we were all newbies to everything, so it was very easy to add the missing few seconds to the runners’ times at the end. I’m very pleased that we have had no accidents like that since but trust it to happen on our very first one!”
Porirua parkrun and Hamilton parkrun would join the family later in 2013, before parkrun crossed the Cook Strait for the first time in January 2014 with the launch of Dunedin parkrun, the first on New Zealand’s south island.
Before the launch of Dunedin parkrun there were rumours circulating that organisers were considering incorporating this city’s iconic Baldwin Street into the course, the steepest residential street in the world with a gradient of 38 degrees.
Ultimately however permission was granted for an event in the (slightly) flatter and exquisitely manicured Dunedin Botanic Garden. The course comprises two laps of the lower garden followed by two laps of the upper garden. It does include some rather steep forested sections but what goes up must come down, meaning a fun downhill section after being rewarded with beautiful views from the top of the hill.
Emma Haddow, a Run Director in the early days of Dunedin parkrun, wrote in the newsletter “Having never run in a parkrun before, let alone organised a parkrun, I have been blown away by the response, community and fun that the whole event inspires. It’s been great to work alongside staff at Dunedin Botanic Garden and members of the council to get the event going.”
October 2014 saw the South Island’s second event, Hagley parkrun in Christchurch, as well as parkrun’s 10th birthday. One of the ways that parkrun planned to mark the occasion was through a coffee table book with photos and stories from each parkrun country.
“We want to invite all parkrunners to get involved in this celebration now by helping us to produce a permanent visual reminder of what we have achieved,” Paul Sinton-Hewitt wrote in the parkrun New Zealand newsletter. “Our wish is to produce a coffee table photo book totalling about 88 pages with many photos provided by you that will be available for sale by Christmas.”
Astrid van Meeuwen-Dijkgraaf, Event Director at Porirua parkrun in ‘Windy Wellington’ had the honour of being chosen to feature in the book. The out and back course belies the city’s reputation however, following a stream through a protected gully with an orchestra of birdsongs in the pine trees.
Paul’s prediction that the coffee table book would be 88 pages was a bit like his prediction in the early days that there would be no more than 10 parkrun events around the world. The final version numbered 120 pages and 2,500 books were produced and sold, with the proceeds going directly towards the operation and expansion of parkrun.
Over the next couple of years parkrun in New Zealand really started to increase its footprint. Event Ambassador Philip Shambrook says “parkrun came to Hawke’s Bay in 2016 with the launch of Anderson parkrun. This was followed in 2019 with Flaxmere parkrun, and we hope to see a third Hawke’s Bay parkrun launch in 2020 to continue the growth in the region to bring parkrun to more people and more communities.”
Rumour has it the event will be given the Maori name for the hill in Hawke’s Bay, Taumatawhakatangihangaoauauotameteaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupoka
iwhenuakitanatahu parkrun. This happens to be the longest place name found in any English-speaking country and translates roughly to ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as the land-eater, played his nose flute to his loved ones’.
parkrun’s IT department was approached for comment on the suggested event name but have not yet responded.
New Zealand is recognised as having the southernmost capital city in the world, and in 2018 it added the title of ‘southernmost parkrun in the world’ with the launch of Invercargill parkrun. This was thanks, in part, to a woman who describes herself as quite literally allergic to exercise.
“I have a medical condition that essentially means that sometimes when I do exercise, I can have an anaphylactic reaction,” Invercargill Event Director Liz Henry says. “Basically, I am allergic to exercise in certain conditions. I am best to exercise with other people around me.
“I quite like walking around parks, so by bringing parkrun to Invercargill I figured I could pretty much guarantee that I would have some else to walk with.”
Invercargill locals refer to Queens Park, where parkrun takes place, as an 81 acre ‘jewel’ for their city. The Band Rotunda in Coronation Avenue is the central focal point, which parkrunners see three times, the last reminding you that you are nearly home.
Liz’s reasons for starting parkrun may be unusual, but the fact she is a woman is anything but. New Zealand has long been renowned for female participation in many walks – and runs – of life. In 1893 it was the first country to give women the right to vote and it’s the only country in the world to date when all the highest positions have been simultaneously held by women (Prime Minister, Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Justice).
When it comes to parkrun, New Zealand’s track record in this area is no exception. Of the 63,349 people who have participated in New Zealand parkruns as walkers, runners and volunteers, 33,580 have been female with 29,769 males. Furthermore, women and girls make up an impressive 55.7% of parkrun volunteers in NZ.
Liz says “parkrun is a great activity for everyone. It addresses key issues that often prevent women from participating in physical activity, such as cost, accessibility, safety issues, anti-social stigma and does not decrease the quality of experience based on their gender. Through parkrun, everyone has the opportunity to develop important life skills such as leadership, confidence and teamwork. Being an active parkrunner can have huge physical benefits also, such as decreased risk of diabetes, heart attacks and depression. Participation in parkrun can helps enhance self image. After all, our volunteer photographers manage to get fabulous evidence each week showcasing our amazingness (most of the time anyways!).”
One such photographer is Andy Walmsley, one of parkrun New Zealand’s photo and video ambassadors. Andy’s original home parkrun was Heaton Park, Manchester, and became East End parkrun in New Plymouth when he moved to NZ in 2018.
“When my children were a little older I got more involved in the volunteering side of things, and being a photographer by trade the ‘volunteer photographer’ role was an obvious starting point,” Andy explains.
“It’s great to see images of the iconic East End course being shared nationally and globally by parkrun and it was a great pleasure to be appointed as a parkrun ambassador. I’ve always loved promoting parkrun and to do so in an official capacity using my imagery is a perfect role for me. parkrun is such an amazing organisation and to capture all the many ways that people enjoy their parkrun is a real joy.
“My favourite parkrun to photograph in New Zealand is East End and not just because it’s my home event. We have a beautiful course that follows the New Plymouth coastal walkway and crosses the multi architectural award winning Te Rewa Rewa bridge. As parkrunners cross the bridge there’s a perfect opportunity to capture them with the awe-inspiring snow capped Mount Taranaki in the background.”
Another favourite event of Andy’s is Greytown Woodside Trail. “It’s a real contrast to East End. Sited on a heritage rail trail in the heart of the Wairarapa it has a real sense of tranquility about it with great photo opportunities as the course passes through woodland, alongside grazing cattle and over babbling brooks, all with the hills as a beautiful backdrop.”
NZ had the biggest global percentage growth in 2018, when it grew from 18 to 29 events, a growth of 50%. It also added some amazing tourist spots that overseas parkrunners had been waiting for – Wanaka, Queenstown, and famously the most southern parkrun in the world, Invercargill.
No matter where you are in New Zealand you’ll never be more than 128km from the ocean, and with 29 parkruns around the country, 12 prospective events and one confirmed to start when parkrun is back up and running, there aren’t too many places where you’ll be more than 128kms from a parkrun.
But no matter how many new events we do see in New Zealand in the future, we can almost certainly guarantee that the ratio of parkruns to people won’t exceed the sheep to person ratio which currently stands at six sheep for each person. It’a a lofty ambition but who knows? It certainly would be a parkrun milestone to bleat about!
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