Parkrun takes off in South Africa

31 July 2013

First introduced to South Africa by nine-time Comrades Marathon champion Bruce Fordyce in November 2011, the sociable, hassle-free, open-to-all parkrun concept is taking off around the country.

Speaking to SAinfo recently, Fordyce said that Paul Sitton-Hewitt, one of his seconds in his Comrades glory days in the 1980s, had introduced him to it.

“I went over to run the London Marathon in 2011 and [Sitton-Hewitt] invited me to come and run a parkrun at Bushy Park the day before,” Fordyce said. “I did that and immediately thought, what a great concept and said, ‘Paul I’ve got to take it to South Africa’, and he said: ‘That’s why I invited you’.”

Compared to a typical running event, parkrun has many advantages. It doesn’t cost participants any money. There are no registration fees or licence numbers. It is open to all ages. It takes place in a safe environment, away from roads. Runners need not belong to a club. The runs are always five kilometres long, and they always take place at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning.

Taking part

To take part, all a person needs to do is to log onto the parkrun website – www.parkrun.co.za – and register. That person will then be issued with a barcode which could then be used at any parkrun event, anywhere in the world.

“It’s not a race. That’s probably the biggest single advantage [it has over other running events],” Fordyce told SAinfo. “It’s difficult to describe. In the front, there are people who race each other or race against themselves, and there are some very, very quick runners.

“The other day at Elana Meyer’s parkrun in Stellenbosch, we had 10 people who ran [the five kilometres] in 15 minutes. That’s absolutely flying for five Ks. On the other hand, at the back you will get an old woman pushing a pram, who might take over an hour.”

‘It’s about enjoyment’

He added: “It’s about enjoyment, and then there is a huge community spirit to it too. People look forward to seeing each other every Saturday. I noticed that when I did the first one in the UK.

“Afterwards people go off for breakfast, they go off for coffee. It’s all about people getting together and it works all around the world,” Fordyce said.

“I’ve run five overseas parkruns now – three in Australia and two in the UK – and as we spread the parkrun family here, it will work all over South Africa. On a Saturday morning at eight o’clock, if you feel like having a five K run or a walk or a stroll or just getting out, you can go with your barcode and go and do one.”

Barcodes

The barcodes are used to log data and they help participants track their progress. Results are posted to the parkrun website and are also sent by SMS.

Volunteers, Fordyce said, play a vital role in parkrun, helping with scanning, timing and marshalling. “They absolutely love it,” he said.

“Our nicest story of a volunteer is that of Don Oliver, who does the timing at Big Bay in Cape Town. Don’s run 19 Comrades and umpteen Two Oceans, but he lost both legs to a degenerative disease. He sits in his wheelchair and does all the timing in Big Bay and everybody loves him. Everybody is like ‘Hi Don, hi Don’, and he loves everybody. It has given him a new lease on life because he is able to take part in a running event, even though he is not running it himself.

“Some of our parkruns are wheelchair-friendly, so even the disabled people can do them.”

Funding

Finding anything free nowadays is a fresh delight, but putting together a well- organised sporting activity comes with costs. Luckily for participants, those are covered by parkrun’s corporate sponsors.

“We fund from corporate sponsors, so adidas is one of our sponsors and they kit our volunteers out and they give us the club T-shirts,’ Fordyce explained.

“We’ve got a company, Blue Label Telecoms, who were our first sponsors. They’ve been wonderful and they’ve been working on the technology to enable us to send results to your cellphone, not your e-mail, because unlike the UK, where it started, not everyone has access to a computer, but everyone has got access to a cellphone.

“Our final sponsor, who we’ve just got on board, is Discovery Vitality and they are giving 500 Vitality points to anyone who completes a parkrun.

“If you go to a gym you get 150 points, but the reason Vitality loves us is because they recognise that lots of people go to the gym, swipe their card and have a cup of coffee and don’t do any exercise. But parkrun doesn’t record that you were there, it records that you finished. Discovery love it because they know that that person did five Ks.”

Venues

Venues for the fast growing events are listed on the parkrun website. When SAinfo spoke to Fordyce, he had had three enquiries that day, from Kokstad in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, Sunninghill in Johannesburg, and Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland.

“It is already starting to snowball. We had one parkrun for six months. Our first one was Delta Park in Victory Park in Johannesburg. Then we opened a second one, and then what happens is slowly the word spreads, and then it starts to snowball,” Fordyce said.

Visit www.parkrun.co.za to find the parkrun nearest to you. The website provides event information for the entire country, as well information on volunteering, course descriptions, results, tips, photos and links.