Community, Connection And Coffee: The Secret Of Parkrun’s Success

Think that parkrun is only for the fit and the fast? Take a closer look and you might be surprised by what you find, writes Leanne Comer.

In 2015, Callie Vandewiele, a PhD student at Cambridge University, was visiting a friend in the English town of Abingdon. When Callie’s friend invited her to participate in the town’s parkrun on Saturday morning, Callie wasn’t particularly keen. She wasn’t sporty or fit like her friend and didn’t think that she’d enjoy the experience, but she decided to tag along anyway. She wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

“I fell in love!” she says. “I turned up kind of expecting this very intense sporting event and instead it was super friendly, super lovely, everybody went for a coffee afterwards. I remember being impressed that so many people wanted to stay and grab a coffee on this cold, wet summer morning.”

From that first experience, Callie knew that she wanted to be a part of the parkrun community. She’s now completed 150 parkruns in the UK, France, the USA and New Zealand, where she now lives.

Callie’s story is not unusual. There’s no doubt that there’s something about parkrun that elicits intense enthusiasm in those who participate. So, what exactly is parkrun?  And what makes it so special?

The parkrun concept is simple: a free, timed, weekly 5k run, organised and managed by local volunteers, that is open to runners, joggers and walkers of all ages. Participants are encouraged to meet for coffee and a chat at a local café after the runs.

As any parkrun devotee will tell you, the organisation has an inspiring origin story that highlights the core values that underpin it. It began in the UK in 2004, when the founder of parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, was at a low point in his life. He’d lost his job and suffered an injury while training for a marathon. Sinton-Hewitt organised the first event – 13 people, running at a local park and enjoying a coffee together afterwards – primarily as a way to stay connected to his friends in the running community. So, right from the start, community, connection and coffee were as important as the run itself.

Parkrun now has a presence in 22 countries around the world. New Zealand joined the parkrun family in 2012 with the first event in Lower Hutt. There are now 32 parkruns at locations spanning the country, from Whangarei in the north to Invercargill in the south.

Parkrun appeals to people for many different reasons. Some are motivated to maintain physical fitness or to train for competitive events. Others like to chase targets and collect the t-shirts that mark significant milestones, such as 50, 100, 250 or 500 runs. Still others find that parkrun helps them to meet new people or feel connected to their community. Many enjoy volunteering almost as much as participating in the runs. 

For Callie, parkrun offers more than just an opportunity for regular exercise.

“I think one thing that I really like about it is that I’ve met people at parkrun that I wouldn’t have met in any other space – people with different work to me, different educational backgrounds to me, people with different histories to me, who were just interested in having a friendly open space,” she explains.

Callie admits that she also enjoys what is known as “touristing” in parkrun circles – visiting different parkruns throughout the country and overseas.

“We pick our Christmas camping trip around two things: dog friendliness, and is there a parkrun? It’s not the overriding factor, but if we’re picking between two places and they’re the same, it’ll tip the balance.”

She’s completed 37 different parkruns and while she says they each have something unique to offer, the Fountains Abbey parkrun in Yorkshire is one of her favourites.

“It’s this collapsed abbey from the middle ages. It’s a phenomenal parkrun because you run in and around and through the ruins and that was super, super cool!” she says.

Like Callie, Julie Collard was also surprised by her first experience of parkrun. Julie, a language teacher, initially heard about parkrun from one of her students in 2013 but it wasn’t until 2017 that she finally decided to give it a try. She registered herself, her husband and her daughter and they showed up at Cornwall Park for their first event, not sure what to expect. She was hooked immediately.

“As I was running around, in my head, instantly, I was thinking, ‘I’d like to get involved and start one of these somewhere in Auckland,’” she says.

Since that first day, Julie has completed more than 80 parkruns at 15 different courses. She has also volunteered at more than 70 parkruns, taking on roles such as run director and marshall, helping with the course set up and writing run reports after the events.

Julie also pursued her dream of establishing a new parkrun in her local area. In October 2020, she saw that dream come true when 209 people turned up to participate in the inaugural Owairaka parkrun. She says that it was a very special day.

“The first one was great. That was actually more meaningful to me than my PBs (personal bests). I almost felt like crying at one point!”

Julie firmly believes that parkrun is for everyone, not just for those who are already physically fit and active. She hopes that as the Owairaka parkrun continues to grow and evolve, it will attract people from all walks of life, including people from different cultures, socio-economic groups and those with disabilities.

“Parkrun prides itself on being inclusive and I want to encourage that,” she says.

Inclusivity is also important to Marina Fox, a recent convert to parkrun. Marina, whose husband recently completed his 350th parkrun, participated for the first time in December, 2020. She already feels like a member of the parkrun family.  

“I feel just as much a part of parkrun doing a 45-minute walk as my husband does doing a 20-minute run. So, I really like that community feel and that friendliness,” she says.

Shan Lee also likes the fact that parkrun caters for everyone from competitive runners to those who simply want to maintain their fitness by walking regularly. She admits that she was surprised by how fast some of the participants are. (The record at Owairaka currently stands at a blistering 14.58 minutes for the 5km course).

“I wouldn’t have thought that it was all that competitive but it also caters for that crowd if they want to come along,” she says.

Shan enjoys running and likes to keep fit, but for her that is not the main attraction of parkrun. She grew up in Mt Roskill and was delighted to learn that a parkrun had been established in her local area. Involvement in the Owairaka parkrun, both as a participant and as a volunteer, helps her to feel more connected to the community. 

“It’s not just about the running,” she says. “It’s also because it’s part of my neighbourhood.”

Sadly, in most parts of the world, parkrun events are unable to go ahead at present because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In New Zealand, we are fortunate to be in a different position.

So instead of sleeping in next Saturday morning, why not kickstart your weekend by checking out your local parkrun? But be warned – it might just change your life.

If you’d like to learn more about parkrun, see parkrun.co.nz.

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