Parkrun Australia will return nationwide for the first time in months next weekend when vaccine mandates in New South Wales are lifted.
NSW is the last state to restart the free weekly 5km runs, having been suspended since 19 June, after vaccine mandates in Victoria were clarified last month.
Parkrun cancelled its Victorian schedule indefinitely at the start of November after the event was listed under “physical recreation” and required all participants to be fully vaccinated.
But Victorian health authorities eventually gave it the green light to resume on 27 November with its existing Covid framework in place.
Parkrun’s health and wellbeing lead, Glen Turner, said the resumption in both states that have been subject to long lockdowns this year was a huge boost to people who depended on parkrun for social interaction and physical activity.
“There was a nice cheer that went up in the office when we found out we were coming back that weekend … people in New South Wales and Victoria have been affected by Covid restrictions enormously,” he said.
“As of 18 December, it’ll be the first time since early this year all our parkruns have reopened and are operating as normal … it’s absolutely terrific.”
Megan Paton has attended the Kamay parkrun in Sydney for nine years “on and off”.
“I can’t wait,” she said of its long-anticipated return. “My family are so happy for it to come back so I can go. I’m very excited … there’s so many looking forward to it – just being able to see each other again.
“There’s people I would never have met but through parkrun we talk and chat, check in on how they’re going.” ”
Paton made herself go for runs during lockdown but said it “wasn’t the same”.
“It’s just not like being there with everyone and running a proper course…not just around my suburb,” she said.
More than 700,000 people, and 120,000 volunteers, have taken part in the weekly Saturday events in Australia. Some 90,000 were identified as “physically inactive” when they registered for parkrun, which began with 13 runners in London in 2004 and has since bloomed into a global phenomenon.
Turner said people had felt “less motivated” to be physically active during lockdowns while they were disconnected from their communities.
“Parkrun provides what people have been missing most,” he said. “It’s not about the run but that focal point with the community, to come every week and have support. It’s a one-hour escape from reality.”
An internal parkrun survey in October found 71% of respondents were motivated to take part in parkrun to feel part of a community, and 31% to feel less isolated. More than half said their mental health had suffered as a result of the pandemic.
Turner said the reopened runs in Victoria, which had been streamlined with more physically distanced volunteer roles, had been attended by many people who just came along to cheer others.
Under the Covid-safe plan in Victoria, volunteers must be fully vaccinated and record their vaccinations status but they do not need to check the status of runners. QR codes are provided at entrances.
“With 430 events around the country, we needed to make sure we worked closely as possible with landowners and public health to make sure all events are compliant and take place every week,” Turner said.
Some 6,000 walkers and runners took part in the first week back, alongside 900 volunteers. “It’s been overwhelming,” he said.
“A lot of people have been in tears. It’s been quite an emotional time for the 100 communities in Melbourne without parkrun for all of 2020.
“So many people use the term ‘parkrun family’ they haven’t seen for a long time, so getting back and having something resembling normality was a real sigh of relief.”
Turner said it wasn’t uncommon for health professionals to prescribe fun runs to patients struggling with mental health.
“Now we’re back, we’ve had an influx of health professionals across the board looking to have discussions with patients about how parkrun can help with current treatment plans,” he said.
“Parkrun isn’t about running, it’s about so many more things that benefit health and wellbeing in a fundamental way.”