Of all the various exercise options available to us, running and walking are the most natural, the most effective and the most easily accessible. Because – as Christopher McDougal says in the title of his bestseller – we were ‘born to run’. Setting aside the opposable thumbs for the moment, it’s that whole upright posture thing and the big brain that makes us human – and the jury is still out on which came first. So we are human because we run, and we run because we are human.
And it’s our neglect of that heritage in favour of comfy couches, sleek desks and shiny SUVs that is the cause of almost all of our individual and collective ills. As McDougal says, we don’t stop running because we get old – we get old because we stop running.
But running can be a solitary and even lonely endeavour so, because we are sociable beasts, we tend to prefer to spend our leisure time chilling with friends and family – and even finding new friends and family. And that’s what makes parkrun so amazing. parkrunning is a community endeavour in the best possible sense.
Having started in Bushy Park in Teddington, UK, in 2004 with a mere 13 runners, parkrun has grown to be the biggest sporting event in the world. Every Saturday hundreds of thousands of runners gather in parks, wine estates, open public space, golf courses, nature reserves and – yes, residential estates – across the world in 15 different countries to go for a nice early morning run.
And even at its founding, there was a South African connection. Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who was one of the organisers of that very first parkrun, grew up in South Africa. Always a keen runner, he seconded our own super-long-distance runner and nine-times Comrades winner Bruce Fordyce in the Comrades in the 1980s. So when Bruce went to the UK in 2011 to run the London Marathon, he took Paul up on his invite to join him for a fun and social run in Bushy Park. It was love at first sight, and Bruce just knew he had to bring the concept back home. No problem, really, as that was part of Paul’s strategy in inviting him in the first place, so it all fell together pretty neatly.
parkrun South Africa started in November 2011 with 26 people, and now – five years later – there are 93 registered parkruns with in excess of 40 000 people running most weekends. It’s such a brilliant no-brainer concept it didn’t take long to get mrp Sport, Dis-Chem, Blue Label Telecoms and Discovery on board as sponsors. And Discovery Vitality members get 300 vitality points for completing a parkrun, which is double what they’d get by going to gym. Makes sense – it’s twice as much fun, too.
They’re in South Africa, in towns all across the country, and in a few estates, too. In the Eastern Cape, there is a regular run at St Francis Links, with about 120 runners per week, many of whom live on the estate. Non-residents can gain access with their parkrun bar codes. After doing a circuit of the golf course, runners meet at the St Francis Links Clubhouse for coffee and/or breakfast.
Just outside Sasolberg, the Heron Banks parkrun follows a lovely route along the golf course and on the banks of the Vaal River, and runners get together in the clubhouse afterwards for a quick coffee or a chilled breakfast.
And some developers are so aware of the value of parkruns that they build them into the DNA of the estate right from the beginning. Oluf Erichsen, the developer of Glen Cullen Country Estate, got the parkrun going, and made sure there was a fabulous coffee and breakfast venue in The Farmhouse Market @ Glenn Cullen almost before the first house had been built. A man must have priorities.
While each parkrun has its own character and special attractions, there are some core attributes that apply across the board – there is no entry fee, they are open to anyone who has completed the registration process, and they are run by volunteers. Some parkruns are in nature reserves, some traverse beautiful coastal scenery, some are particularly family-friendly, some are dog-friendly, and it’s not at all unusual to see runners with kids in pushchairs.
So, if you’re a keen runner, or a keen-but-really-slow wannabe-runner, or even just a let’s-bring-up-the-rear-and-chat social jogger, check out www.parkrun.co.za to find a run near you. And if there isn’t one, start one. You’ll probably only have a handful of people for the first few weeks, but parkruns are infectious and addictive in the best possible sense so, before you know it, there’ll be dozens of smiling, brightly clad, happy people gambolling through your neighbourhood every Saturday morning.