The parkrun family is made up of 22 countries around the world, and we’ll be taking a closer look at a number of them.
This week it’s Australia! We go on a trip Down Under to discover the history and growth of parkrun in this vast and beautiful country.
Australia is big. Really big. It’s a country and a continent.
A map of the UK fits inside Australia 32 times and the outline of those 32 borders look like the boundary rope inside the fence at an Ashes Test. The bushfires earlier this year burnt an area the size of England.
Highway 1 around the outside of the country is 14,479 kilometres long, which means any journey shorter than that is ‘just down the road mate’. Incidentally, Highway 1 is exactly the same distance as the UK to Australia.
It can be quite a scary place too. For example, Cairns parkrunners go past a sign warning people to watch out for crocodiles. It’s the only parkrun in the world where people take a token at the start and return it at the finish, just to make sure everyone makes it back.
Yet despite Australia’s vastness, on average there are just three people per square kilometre and three sheep per person, which proves it’s not just rugby union in which New Zealand and Wales have the wood on the Wallabies.
This harsh and vivid landscape has seen its fair share of baffling and bizarre moments nonetheless, including a Prime Minister who disappeared like Houdini and never reappeared, The Great Australian Bird War that saw humans suffer a humiliating defeat against a well-prepared army of emus, and the errant breast of a timekeeper inadvertently turning off the stopwatch at Coomera parkrun.
Such events may explain why Australians are the world’s most extensive readers of newspapers!
Australia really does offer up the strange, the silly and the sublime. So what better way to get a dose of it than on a history tour of parkrun in Australia? After all, Google Maps and Wifi were both invented in the land Down Under, which means you’ve got a far better chance of finding your way home than Burke and Wills.
Setting the scene
If we cast our minds back to April 2011, when Main Beach on the Gold Coast became the first parkrun in the southern hemisphere, Australia was set up perfectly for a free, socially-focused movement based around physical activity and social connectivity.
Queensland had just suffered the worst flooding in Australian history and the north of the country had been devastated by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, the costliest storm in the nation’s history. Yasi’s impact was so widely felt that meteorologists retired its name on the list of South Pacific tropical cyclone names and replaced it with Yvone.
It’s no coincidence that the biggest recreational ‘running booms’ over the past century can be directly linked to severe economic downturns: The Great Depression in the 20s and 30s, the Wall Street crash in the 80s, and the GFC in the late 2000s.
Less disposable income, more time for physical activity and the mental and psychological benefits of such activity, combined with a means of restoring social capital, creates an ideal environment for mass participation running to thrive.
By the time 115 intrepid parkrunners took their first tentative steps alongside a Queensland beach in early 2011, lots of hard work and a sprinkle of good fortune had conspired to create a platform for parkrun to capture the country’s imagination.
The Main Event
The Gold Coast has the world’s largest canal system, which is more extensive than those of both Venice and Amsterdam combined. It’s also home to 10 parkruns, from the beachside course on gravel trails at Main Beach to the grassy hills of Tamborine Mountain parkrun perched high in the ancient sub-tropical Gondwana rainforest that overlooks the other nine events.
Main Beach parkrun launched on the 2 April 2011, with 115 participants under the guidance of Event Director John Borrbidge, who sadly passed away earlier this year after a long cancer battle.
John always said the infancy of parkrun gave him just what he was looking for at the right time in his life. He had recently moved to the Gold Coast and was looking to find a running network in his new location, so he answered an ad in the local newspaper from parkrun Australia CEO Tim Oberg, who had experienced parkrun while living in the UK and was determined to introduce it in Australia.
“Tim was looking for someone to become the first Event Director at Main Beach parkrun,” John recalled. “When I came across the ad I was doing a few other things, but this was an option that needed to be investigated.
“So we had a meeting – Tim, a guy called Brendan Murray, (Australian running legend) Ron Clarke and myself and that was the genesis of it. We headed to Main Beach, Tim showed us how to set up the timing and so forth, and away we went.”
Renee Gimbert, who attended that first event with her husband Adam, described herself as “anything but a runner!”
“We registered without really knowing what it was about and it connected us to a place on the Gold Coast we’d never really been to before. The atmosphere was welcoming and the event clearly had strong support from the local council. I managed to just about slowly jog the whole way and that gave me a big sense of accomplishment and motivated me to go back again the next week.”
The Gimberts weren’t the only people hooked on this peculiar concept that had quietly emerged in a pretty corner of the Sunshine State, and it wasn’t long before Brisbane joined the party with New Farm parkrun launching less than five months later.
New Farm was a small step for parkrun, but event three was a giant leap for parkrunkind with Albert Melbourne parkrun launching 1700 kilometres away in Victoria. Albert Melbourne parkrun’s roots lay even further away however, in Hull in the UK.
“I flew home from Australia to visit family in England and took part in Hull parkrun and loved it, so when I returned to Melbourne I enquired about starting a parkrun there,” says Carol Cunningham, who went on to be the first Event Director at Albert Melbourne parkrun.
“The concept was simple, easy and like nothing I’d never experienced before. I didn’t have any expectations, I just wanted to replicate the atmosphere I’d experienced at Hull parkrun because I knew if we could do that then people would get similar enjoyment.”
Two years later Carol moved to Singapore and took parkrun with her, launching East Coast parkrun in June of 2014.
With Queenslanders and Victorians enjoying their free weekly timed events and coffees each Saturday it was obvious that the Blues in the middle would be green with envy, so unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before Sydney Park in St Peters saw the parkrun flag flown in New South Wales for the first time.
St Peters parkrun also saw the introduction of the word ‘hill’ into the Aussie parkrun vernacular, dividing opinion and creating a slippery slope that led to character building events such as Nambour, Cormorant Bay and Cleland.
Ginninderra parkrun became the ACT’s first event and Australia’s sixth when it launched in April 2012. Ginninderra means ‘throwing out little rays of light’ in traditional Ngunnawal language, a perfect description for a course that winds its way under the trees on the shoreline of the lake.
The Wild West and a New Frontier
Perth in Western Australia is the most isolated city in the world, the sunniest, and has the highest percentage of millionaires. Three facts that make it the perfect location for free, socially-focussed outdoor physical activity.
The launch of Claisebrook Cove parkrun in Perth in August 2012 signalled that parkrun was well and truly forging a new frontier. WA was followed by Launceston parkrun in Tasmania and Torrens parkrun in South Australia later that year, and when Darwin parkrun in the Northern Territory scanned barcodes for the first time in 2013 there were parkruns across every state and territory.
Completing parkruns in every jurisdiction is now referred to in parkrun slang as ‘The Peel Club’ after the first person to accomplish the feat.
2013 was the year when, it’s believed, the first two Australians to ever take part in parkrun in the UK participated at an Australian parkrun for the first time. Aussie Michael Clayton first did parkrun at Bushy parkrun in London in October 2005, with Melanie Cottell joining in the following July.
Yet it wasn’t until Torrens parkrun in 2013 that they had their barcodes scanned on home soil. Interestingly, Melanie recorded the exact same time at Torrens as she had done at Bushy seven years earlier – 28:52!
By the time four Aussie parkruns launched simultaneously on 26 October 2013, there were more than 50 events across four timezones and 5000 kilometres separated the most northerly and southerly events and easterly and westerly events. More than 10,000 participants were taking part each Saturday.
Plus there were many more communities putting their hands up for a parkrun. Strategically, parkrun Australia needed to evolve its approach.
On 31 May 2014, a group of parkrun Event Directors convened a two-day meeting that was coined parkrun:2020 Summit. The group spent the weekend pouring over the numbers and forecasting where they thought parkrun Australia would be by 2020 and what they could do to ensure it didn’t fall over along the way.
Off the back of this get-together, Territory Directors were established, a role that has since evolved into Event Ambassadors. The Ambassador program is now made up of more than 150 dedicated volunteers who assist with the development of new events as well as supporting existing parkruns, writing grant applications, helping with social media, undertaking community outreach and creating photo and video content.
Adding this additional layer of support proved crucial. Over the next 12 months parkrun in Australia went on to double in size, with 126 events attracting around 15,000 weekly participants. When Calamvale in Queensland became Australia’s 100th parkrun in November 2014, this beautiful video was created with footage from all 100 event locations.
The People Behind The Pins
There are now more than 400 pins on the parkrun Australia map, with 660,000 people having walked, jogged, run and volunteered at parkruns and junior parkruns. Behind each of those pins are countless individual stories that have not only shaped the lives of those people, but the life of parkrun in Australia. Here’s a very brief highlight reel for your enjoyment…
The parkrun Australia newsletter in April 2014 featured the story of Chris Smith, who had celebrated his 50th parkrun at Newy that weekend.
Andrew Dodd explained “Chris walked his first parkrun on New Year’s Day 2013 in just under an hour and burst into tears at the finish line. Dave Robbo and I were standing nearby and thought perhaps he had lost his barcode out on course!
We talked to him and found that this very overweight man was so overcome by emotion at completing a 5k walk. He was in the early stages of a weight loss program and has since lost more than 50kg, with parkrun becoming an important part of his weight loss and fitness program.”
That same week Campbelltown parkrunner Terry Baker, a Type 2 diabetic, joined Chris in the parkrun 50 Club.
The following month saw parkrun Australia’s first-ever marriage proposal, when a very speedy Nick Marriage (yes that is his real surname) crossed the line as first finisher in 16:50, proceeded to hastily change into a suit, before getting down on one knee and proposing to Maddy Herbert as she crossed the finish line in 20:37. For the record, Maddy said yes!
Around the same time, Sandgate parkrunner Phil Rourke came out of his shell for a crack at setting a new Guinness World Record for fastest egg and spoon over 5km. Luckily for Phil he was on the boil that day, poaching the record in a time of 20 minutes 30 seconds.
From one world record holder to another (slightly) more famous one, June 2015 involved a far more sombre celebration following the passing of Aussie running legend and parkrun Australia Patron, Ron Clarke.
Ron was arguably Australia’s greatest ever track athlete, at one point in the 1960s he held every world record from two miles to 20 kilometres, and in a 44-day European Tour in 1965 broke an astonishing 12 world records, a feat that we can safely say will never be repeated again.
To put it into context, Ron’s fastest time for 5k was 13:16 in 1966. The parkrun world record is 13:48.
Ron was Mayor of the Gold Coast when parkrun started in Australia, attending the launch of Main Beach parkrun as guest starter and then walking the course (and forgetting his barcode!).
When Ron retired as Mayor the following year he became parkrun Australia’s first Patron, and from then until his death three years later was a staunch advocate and supporter of parkrun. The parkrun following Ron’s passing was referred to as #parkRon with parkrunners across the country paying tribute to a great man.
Meanwhile, parkrunnner Gary Wilmot’s incredible feet were undertaking an incredible feat, quite literally from coast to coast. Starting at his home parkrun of Canning River in Perth on 16 May, Gary walked 5,583 kilometres to the other side of the country and raised $27,000 for charity.
On his epic journey he included Kalgoorlie-Boulder parkrun, Torrens parkrun in Adelaide, Albert parkrun in Melbourne, Gungahlin parkrun in the ACT, St Peters parkrun in Sydney and finished at South Bank parkrun in Brisbane for his ‘5km lap of honour’ on 19 September after 126 days on the road.
A new year brought another wave of incredible parkrun feats which were also firsts!
Gold Coaster Brian Peters became the first Australian to join the illustrious parkrun 250 Club. Brian was at the inaugural Main Beach parkrun and had hardly missed a week, as well as putting his hand up to volunteer on 45 occasions.
Alfie and Boaz Bonar became the youngest twins in the world to complete their 100th parkrun, at 6 years, 2 months and 27 days.
At the other end of the scale, Norman Phillips from Brightwater parkrun on the Sunshine Coast became the first person in their 90s to join the parkrun 100 Club, at the sprightly age of 92! This video captured Norman’s milestone moment.
Norma Wallett from Bowral parkrun in the NSW southern highlands became the oldest female to join the 100 Club at the age of 88. Norma went on to record the highest ever age grade percentage at an Aussie parkrun when she finished in 35:37 in October 2019 at the age of 90.
While Norma was showing no signs of slowing down, Brett Orpwood from Mullum Mullum parkrun in Victoria was breathing new life into parkrun Australia’s commitment to ensure all its events have access to a defibrillator. Brett had collapsed during parkrun and was “down” for 15 minutes.
Thanks to some quick thinking parkrun first responders administering CPR and using the event’s defibrillator, the ambulance crew stabilised Brett before rushing him to hospital and placing him in a coma.
To the amazement of his medical team, Brett walked out of hospital, after a cardiac MRI, ECGs, a brain scan and x-rays, just 12 days later. Christmas Day had gone by in the meantime and Brett left hospital with a special gift – a defib of his own, connected to his heart, to help should he ever suffer another cardiac arrest.
New parkruns can’t launch without a defibrillator and need to raise $2000 to purchase one, and Brett wanted to help turn his near tragic event into a positive for parkruns in Australia without defibrillators by launching a fundraising campaign. He raised enough money for 20 defibs and by June 2018 every parkrun in the country had access to one.
This was when we met Ada Macey for the first time, a transgender parkrunner who had started parkrunning three years earlier after completing a Couch to 5k program. Ada loved parkrun so much she had become a Run Director at Chermside and Kedron parkruns in Brisbane.
Ada came out to close family and friends in 2017 and started to transition, the process transgender people go through to begin living as the gender which they identify as.
Ada wrote candidly and passionately for the parkrun blogsite about how she had felt nothing but overwhelming support and acceptance from the parkrun community after she came out, as well as explaining the various challenges she was facing.
Ada has continued to consult with parkrun head office on its own approach to supporting participation by transgender parkrunners and her input and insight has proved invaluable.
parkrun Australia was instrumental in driving the Federal Health Department’s ‘Girls Make Your Move’ campaign with the goal of encouraging teenage girls to participate in physical activity. It involved a national launch day in April with activations at South Bank (Brisbane), Diamond Creek (Melbourne), Torrens (Adelaide), Cooks River (Sydney), Burley Griffin (Canberra) and Rockingham (Western Australia).
parkrun’s own record of female participation has remained solid since 2011, with more females than males taking part as walkers, runners and volunteers. Not only that, as a share of all instances of participation, females take part more often than males.
‘junior parkrun’ was welcomed to Australia in April 2018, which are 2km events for 4-14 year-olds and their families. Southport junior parkrun on the Gold Coast was followed by Westerfolds juniors in Melbourne and Cannonvale in the Whitsundays.
As a result of the success of these events, and with thorough and careful consideration, parkrun Australia is now looking to start additional junior parkrun events around the country with six prospect events already identified.
2019 was a seminal year for parkrun Australia, starting with the establishment of the organisation’s office on the Gold Coast, just a stone’s throw from the site of the country’s first parkrun.
At the pointy end, Olympian Lisa Weightman set a new women’s parkrun record, flying around Maribyrnong parkrun in 15:54. You can watch Lisa’s sprint finish here.
Part of the project involved a survey of 3000 Aussie-based health professionals which revealed 70% were prescribing parkrun to their patients in a professional capacity as an alternative or to complement existing treatments. 87% of those who weren’t signposting patients stated they would like to be supported by parkrun to do so.
The survey findings led to the establishment of a number of trial ‘parkrun Practices’ around the country that involve GP surgeries linking with their local parkrun to facilitate patients being introduced to parkrun.
These particular surgeries exist in various types of ‘communities’, including Correctional Centres in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland.
Nine custodial parkruns launched in 2019, including the first women’s prison in the world to host a parkrun at Wandoo Rehabilitation Prison in Perth, and Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre, the only remand centre globally to introduce parkrun.
More than 1,100 prisoners and staff have now completed parkruns in correctional settings, with 347 volunteering.
Volunteers across the country continued to share how lending a hand at their local parkrun was making them healthier, happier, more socially connected and more active in their communities. In turn, communities celebrated the contribution of volunteers.
Gerry Lovett from Diamond Creek parkrun in Victoria had completed 29 parkruns before ill health meant he could no longer cover the 5k distance. Instead, Gerry became an integral part of his local parkrun community, volunteering more than 70 times. His 80th birthday involved a massive parkrun party.
“I don’t care which role I do, so long as I’m involved,” Gerry said. “It’s such a lovely community. I’ve got some wonderful friends there and of course, made some new friends since going along too.”
By the end of 2019, almost 50,000 different people had volunteered at parkrun in Australia since it began in 2011.
In 2019, more than 224,000 walks were recorded at parkruns in Australia, representing more than 10% of participants. Not only that, but a staggering 183,000 parkruns in Australia have also been completed by people who identifeid themselves as physically inactive when they registered with parkrun.
Consequently, the average finish time of parkruns in Australia has slowed every year since 2011, from 27:42 to 33:29 in 2019, a stat which we should all be incredibly proud of.
For many parkrun events across the country, 2020 began under an ominous haze of smoke and uncertainty, or did not start until late January or early February.
Fires, road closures, poor air quality and the need for emergency services to use our open spaces meant 10% of parkruns across the country had to cancel events, several for extended periods such as Braidwood Showground parkrun in NSW which was closed for 11 weeks.
Eventually, the droughts gave way to flooding rains, with Dubbo parkrun in country New South Wales showing how a few drops of rain can make a massive difference to a parkrun course!
Things weren’t slow to start everywhere however, with Liam Adams setting a new parkrun Australia record in 14 minutes 13 seconds. A few weeks later Liam ran the Lake Biwa Marathon in a personal best time of 2:10:48, good enough to qualify to represent Australia at the Tokyo Olympics.
90-year-old Colleen O’Shea joined the 250 Club at Fingal Bay parkrun in NSW, while Vivienne Singleton who is in her 70s completed her 50th ‘parkwalk’ at Burley Griffin parkrun in Canberra, adding a red milestone shirt to the purple shirt she had already earned.
Vivienne began parkrunning in 2014 when she was overweight, had been diagnosed with coronary heart disease and struggled with her breathing.
As parkrun Australia rapidly approaches its 10th anniversary in 2021, it is reimagining the way it supports 400 communities and hundreds of thousands of walkers, runners and volunteers across this massive country to be healthier and happier.
While the current circumstances may be unprecedented, the uncertainty and long-lasting economic, physical and psychological repercussions are not. Just as parkrun filled a need in Australian society back in 2011, it will play an instrumental part in helping the great southern land get back on its feet.
Every economic downturn in history has led to a boom in recreational running, and there’s no doubt this one will also see more people walking, jogging, running, spectating and supporting one another when we come out the other side.
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