March 25, 2019 by DAVE JACK
My sincere thanks to Bruce Fordyce for this article on the birth and amazing growth of parkrun not only in South Africa but world-wide.
On a damp autumn morning in October 2004 in London’s Bushy Park 13 runners lined up to run a 5 kilometre time trial. Organising the time trial and helping to time them was an injured runner and ex South African called Paul Sinton-Hewitt. The first runner finished in just under 19 minutes the last just broke 30 minutes.
Later, over coffee and breakfast the runners wrote the results down and promised to be back the following Saturday morning. The event was named Bushy Park Time Trial.
None of those 13 runners and volunteers could have imagined the monster that they had just created. None would have known that their time trial, renamed “parkrun” would become a sporting, health and community movement that would sweep the World and that the word “parkrun” would enter the lexicon of the English language. Every one of them would have been astonished if someone had suggested that a few years later registered Global parkrunners would number over 5 million members participating at 1800 different venues in 21 countries and growing at an astonishing rate. Japan will join the parkrun family in April.
parkruns (always one word, always lower case) are started by communities who want one. These communities find safe traffic free environments in which to hold a 5 km run and then they source the invaluable volunteers who ensure, every week, that the parkrun “runs” smoothly. When Paul first suggested that I start parkruns in South Africa I told him the concept would never work because South Africans did not have the volunteer spirit and would want incentives or payment. Volunteers are the lifeblood of parkrun and without them there can be no parkrun. I am happy to report that I was terribly wrong, and that South Africans have volunteered in their thousands at parkruns around the country. At this stage in our growth we have about 2500 volunteers assisting at parkruns every Saturday morning.
parkruns are run in a wide variety of environments and not just in parks. There are parkruns in school grounds, in housing estates, in nature reserves, farms, beaches shopping centres and vineyards. In South Africa a large proportion of our parkruns are run on golf courses. The only rule is that parkruns must be accurate 5km routes but they can be single loop routes, out-and-back, lap courses, and many different configurations.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the NASA Apollo moon landings and I remember following the progress of the Apollo programme as a fascinated schoolboy. Perhaps the most spectacular part of the entire flight of an Apollo spacecraft was the launch from Kennedy Space Centre. The rocket used was a Saturn V rocket which to date remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever built. On lift off the enormously heavy rocket with its precious payload remained stationary on the launch pad for a second or two before slowly growling and lurching its way off the ground.
Every second thereafter as its propellant burned of at a furious rate until the Saturn V was travelling faster than a speeding bullet from a gun. In a sense the growth of parkrun, both globally, and in South Africa, has followed a similar trajectory. For a while nothing much happened and then suddenly the beast started to gain momentum.
Lift-off in South Africa started on a November Saturday morning at Johannesburg’s Delta Park. 26 runners clutching paper bar codes lined up alongside 6 volunteers and ran the first parkrun. A week later there were only 17 as it was drizzling. No one could have predicted that 7 years later there would be well over a million registered parkrunners with up to 60000 participating each weekend at 190 venues, including Namibia and Swaziland.
A few weeks after the start of the Delta Park parkrun David and Ann Ashworth (Yes, the 2018 Comrades champion) asked to start a second parkrun in the Len Rutter Park in Roodepoort, and then in June 2012 Iain Morshead started one on the Eastern side of Johannesburg at Ebotse in Benoni. Shortly afterwards parkrun travelled out of Gauteng and Bob Norris started Nahoon Point parkrun in East London. While the three Gauteng parkruns had regular attendances of between 30 – 50 participants Nahoon Point continued to astonish us; 70 participants, then 100, then 300. As Bob said “I didn’t think we had that many people in East London”
Soon after more communities began to request parkruns and the phenomenon gathered speed. It wasn’t long before every province had parkruns. Participant numbers also started to grow and in a couple of years we recorded over 30 parkruns with fields of over 1000 runners and at least 8 where over 2000 people have run and walked parkruns. Durban North Beach is the parkrun attendance World record holder with over 2500 parkrunners. Botanical Garden Pretoria has the biggest parkrun registration record in the parkrun world with over 53000 registered members. That is bigger than many parkrun countries.
Soon parkruns left South Africa’s borders with new venues in Namibia and Swaziland. Other African countries are clamouring for parkruns are Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Kenya and our aim is to bring parkruns to these countries but in a slow and measured growth pattern.
Of course, the magic word at parkrun is “free” and it would be impossible to bring parkrun free to thousands of parkrunners in Southern Africa if it wasn’t for the generous contributions of our parkrun sponsors. In the very early days Blue Label Telecoms gave us a vital boost and more recently Dischem, Mr. Price Sport, and Discovery/Vitality have helped us to sustain our commitment to have a parkrun in every community that wants one.
In November parkrun Southern Africa will be 8 years old. By then we will have a family of about 230 parkruns, with 1.2 million registered members, over 60000 participants and 3000 volunteers each Saturday. At our very humble beginning in November 2011 no one could have predicted the impact we would be making 8 years later. We can only ponder in awe where we will be when parkrun becomes a teenager or later when it turns 21.
BRUCE FORDYCE – MARCH 2019