It was back in 2004 when a South African living in London named Paul Sinton-Hewitt gave birth to the first parkrun event, with his partner Joanne, three other volunteers and a total of 13 runners. Paul, at the time in his own rather dark place, had stumbled upon a magic formula founded on companionship, constancy, physical and mental health, and well-being. That magic formula is astoundingly simple: a park (or closed-to-traffic area), a core volunteer team, permission from the local authorities and a five kilometer weekly event that takes place every single Saturday morning at 9am (with some regional variations due to climatic conditions).
Today, there are parkruns in 23 countries, for a total of approximately 2,000 parkruns around the globe (current Covid restrictions make an exact number impossible at the moment). Currently, over seven million parkrunners are registered in the world, and it is growing every single week.
At its essence, it’s a 5km course (each varies: some are laps, there are out and backs, and loops too—everything is good, so long as the course never encounters traffic). You can walk, run, jog, switch paces, bring a dog on a lead, bring a young child, be pregnant, on crutches or using a prosthetic, have limited vision or hearing or (for some courses only) be in a wheelchair. What else? It is emphatically not a race—if you register with the official parkrun site you will get a barcode, which you can print and use at every single parkrun in the world. This will give you access to your individual times and participation record.
And it is free, forever, for everyone! How does that happen? Borrowing the words of Abraham Lincoln, parkrun is indeed “by the people, for the people”. parkruns are managed exclusively by volunteers who cover a multitude of roles, which makes it possible for each event to happen. Some choose to volunteer every week, some choose to volunteer when feeling under the weather, others volunteer every so often as a way of giving back, some volunteer in a different way by perhaps giving another parkrunner a lift, or inviting new folks to come along and take part, or by bringing along something lovely to eat post-parkrun. And that circles us right back to the title. parkrun is all about the social moment, the sharing of some “downtime” with a cup of coffee in hand, or more likely at Italian parkruns, sharing of incredible homemade pastries, cakes, local seasonal fruits and more all brought by the participants.
Giorgio Cambiano, an intrepid Sicilian runner, brought parkrun to Italy in 2015 to Uditore park, in Palermo, Sicily. Since then, under the guidance of Giorgio, 17 parkruns in Italy have opened (in Veneto, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, Sicily and Puglia), 12 of which have managed to reopen after Covid-19 closures. New parkruns are planned across the peninsula, as well as support for those parkruns still struggling to open again.
In Tuscany, we are fortunate to host three active parkruns: Mura di Lucca parkrun, Terme parkrun (Montecatini) and Mensola parkrun (Florence). Each is different in its own way. Mura di Lucca is exactly that: a fabulous run around the walls surrounding the town, on a flat tarmaced route, and a fast course for anyone interested in speed. Terme parkrun, on the other hand, is a three-lapper, which combines undulating tarmaced and grassy sections. Mensola parkrun is another three-lapper, all on soft-surfaces including lots of short sections of somewhat severe ups and downs and sharp curves. One of the parkuns yet to resurface post-pandemic is Firenze parkrun, which was held at the Cascine park in central Florence. We are hopeful for a spring start-back date. A new parkrun, which is due to kick off in the Novoli area of Florence, is at the recently created San Donato park.
Every parkrun is hugely individual, but also has some main attributes in common. There’s a place for everyone. It’s truly inclusive. No-one needs “gear”: comfortable clothing and a pair of trainers or walking shoes are just fine.
But really why do we go? It gives your Saturday an invigorating start, gets the blood circulating and the heart pumping; there are new friends to meet, old friends to catch up with; and new skills to learn (volunteer roles include photographer, time keeper, tailwalker, scanner, data manager, social media manager and others!). It keeps you active, fit, healthy, awards you safe social contact when that is not always easily available, and it’s fun! Language is no barrier. At every parkrun there’s always someone who speaks something approaching a language that someone else can understand, and that too is all part of the glorious recipe of a successful parkrunday (aka Saturday).
Come along on January 22 (22/01/2022): twenty second – two two – tutu. Indeed, we run in tutus. Now if that’s not a good reason for signing up, I don’t know what is!
Suzi Jenkins is event director of Mensola parkrun and parkrun ambassador for Italy.