Eight million members worldwide and counting — Parkrun thriving again in SA after lockdown hiatus

Eight million members worldwide and counting — Parkrun thriving again in SA after lockdown hiatus
The Franschhoek Parkrun. (Photo: Facebook)

From modest, almost accidental beginnings, the global social movement has grown to gather hundreds of thousands of runners at weekends and reintroduce them to nature — and to each other. 

I love the Parkrun for political as much as personal reasons. It’s grown into a global social movement in which people rediscover each other, their connection to nature and the meaning of community.

It’s multi-age, multi-gender, multiracial and free. It takes back parks and fills them with people again. It turns public spaces into public places.

Rose ParkParkrun

Runners listen to instructions from the volunteer race director at the start of the Rose Park Parkrun in Lenasia, one of the more intimate events, with fewer than 100 regular runners. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Yet, three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic almost killed this global social project. The 18 months that shook the world also shook the Parkrun — like so much else.

Parkrun and the power of community: Reflections on epidemics, running, poetry and human rights

In South Africa, the parkrun shut down in March 2020. Before the “lockdown”, it had 207 weekly events averaging 45,000 participants. Then Covid shuttered our parks for nearly 18 months.

According to Bruce Fordyce, the CEO and founder of Parkrun SA: “In May 2021 a few smaller Parkruns that were far from major centres started, but were closed again for four months.

“Then, in August 2021, 23 events started and slowly built up. Gill [his wife] and I finally ran a Parkrun again in October 2021.”

Covid Parkrun. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Fordyce continues: “It was a tough time and we still have not fully recovered… However, we are growing nicely again and I think that this spring/summer will see some encouraging growth.”

He’s right. Generally, 2023 is proving to be a time of disquiet and despair in South Africa and the world. But there are green shoots of hope and the Parkrun is one of them. In South Africa on Saturday, 30 September, at exactly 8am, there were:

  • 199 events
  • 26,669 walkers, joggers and runners
  • 2,551 volunteers
  • 1,345 first-timers
  • 3,063 personal best times (known as PBs)

Fordyce says the UK, where “the whole thing started”, has the most Parkruns, then Australia, then South Africa.

As I lined up in Rietvlei, southern Joburg, around the world there were:

  • 2,361 other events
  • 292,641 walkers, joggers and runners
  • 38,616 volunteers
  • 16,384 first-timers
  • 42,256 PBs

Tourists and Comrades

I started my Parkrun odyssey in 2019. At the time, with 20 Comrades Marathon medals in the bag, my body demanded something gentler.

Little did I know that my new exercise of choice, the Parkrun, had one big thing in common with the Comrades: Fordyce. In a week’s time, he will join the Parkrun 500 Club, an accomplishment to add to his nine Comrades wins and 30 finishes, and countless other marathons.

Bruce Forduce and writer Mark Heywood

Bruce Forduce and writer Mark Heywood. (Photo: Supplied)

If you count all those who have run the Comrades during its nearly 100-year history, it has acquired about 350,000 members. By contrast, the Parkrun is a celebration of community and the athletic ability of everybody (and their dogs). By late 2022, says its founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt, eight million people in 22 countries had registered: “We’re a long way from 13 runners and five volunteers in one park at that first event in 2004.”

The connections and coincidences get even stronger. Sinton-Hewitt grew up in South Africa and was inspired by Fordyce and a member of his Comrades crew in the 1980s, before moving to the UK and starting the Parkrun one day in 2004, without even meaning to (but that’s another story).

When we met recently, Fordyce anointed me an officially recognised Parkrun “Tourist”! He says you earn that accolade after you have run 20 or more Parkruns at different locations. A few weeks ago I passed that milestone with my Parkrun at Rose Park in the historic Indian community of Lenasia, outside Johannesburg.

It’s been a great ride. So far.

View of Johannesburg

Joburg ahoy! A different city view, as seen here from the Alberts Farm Parkrun. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Sampling Joburg’s Parkruns

I have a dream to write a guide to Parkruns of South Africa one day (sponsors welcome). But to make your feet twitch I’ll give you a taste of a few in Johannesburg.

Greater Joburg now has close to 30 Parkruns to choose from.

I’m a regular at Alberts Farm and Delta Park, two of Joburg’s most beautiful parks. Both of these Parkruns are hilly and therefore moderately challenging.

But they have views of Joburg to die for and, for a few weeks in late summer, the cosmos meadows in Delta Park rival the spring flowers of the West Coast.

DeltaPark Parkrun

The early morning view from the Delta Park Parkrun. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Parkruns are places of contrast. For example, the Ruimsig Parkrun gives you a view of the rutted quartzite ridge that cuts across Johannesburg. By contrast, the Sterkfontein Parkrun (said to be one of the hardest in South Africa because of its steep climb) places you on top of it with a view across the Cradle of Humankind. You have to pause and take it in.

Whereas the Bryanston Parkrun takes you along the ancient Braamfontein Spruit, the Rietvlei Parkrun winds through the wetlands of southern Johannesburg. The Parkrun in Lenasia’s Rose Park has the intimacy and friendliness of its fewer than 100 regular runners, whereas Rietvlei has more than 900 runners.  

Dog at Parkrun in Rietvlei

Looking ahead from the start of the Parkrun in Rietvlei, Johannesburg. At nearly 900 humans and dogs, it’s one of the biggest in the city. (Photos: Mark Heywood)

Another of the wonders of Parkrun ­tourism is finding parks in places you wouldn’t think they exist (try the surprising Golden Harvest Parkrun), little patches of green and woodland that survived the northward creep of urbanisation. Or, runs like the Atholl Parkrun that scrape out a public space in a little green lung alongside the busy N1 to Pretoria.

Each has its own character and characters. Meanwhile, if you want a sense of the power and ecstasy of the Parkrun, go to Delta Park in Johannesburg on 14 October and join Fordyce as he runs his 500th Parkrun in the park where a new national community movement started back in 2011. DM

Alberts Farm Parkrun

Runners set out on a sunny morning at the Alberts Farm Parkrun in Johannesburg. (Photo: Facebook)

Five-kilometre Parkruns take place every Saturday. They are free, staffed entirely by volunteers, and they are open to all humans and their dogs. Visit Parkrun SA online as your first step to getting offline and back into the community.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Front page P1 07 October 2023


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