Serious South African runners do time trials in the build-up to races such as the Comrades Marathon to test how their fitness is going. When a South African called Paul Sinton-Hewitt emigrated to the United Kingdom, he discovered that they didn’t seem to have that concept there, so he started parkrun as a time trial for a few dedicated runners. It bore little resemblance to what it is now.
Paul — who was awarded a CBE by the Queen for his contribution to world health — and I are old mates, so once it started going well I brought it to South Africa. We started with one parkrun in Johannesburg, in Delta Park, in 2011 — and 26 people came along. Four years later, we have 69 parkruns around South Africa each week.
It’s the biggest running event in the world — 100 000 people around the world do parkrun every single Saturday. In South Africa, about 20 000 people run at 69 different venues around the country every Saturday. We put on an event that is bigger than the Comrades Marathon or the Two Oceans Marathon — and they do it once a year. We do it 52 times a year… and it’s free!
I think that the volunteer spirit is the most amazing part of parkrun. We thought it would never happen in South Africa where everyone wants to get paid, but people give up their time to come along and do the marshalling, timing and general jobs that need to be done at a parkrun for no payment whatsoever. There’s a massive volunteer spirit and most runners will, at some stage or another, give up a run and volunteer instead.
We will never charge a fee. That’s the magic of parkrun. Obviously, we are only able to do it for free because of the sponsors and the volunteers. It is about health and wellness, but it i’s also about community spirit and community development. People cannot wait to see each other on a Saturday morning.
In Cape Town we host parkruns in Green Point, Big Bay, Fish Hoek, at Rondebosch Common, Constantia Green Belt and in Stellenbosch. In 2016, we will introduce parkruns in Muizenberg, Khayelitsha, Century City and Paarl.
The only thing we ask people to do is register on the website. Once you’ve registered, you print a little barcode, which is your passport to do a parkrun anywhere in the world. You only have to register once. You can choose your home run, but that doesn’t mean that you have to run at your home run every Saturday. The passport gets scanned as you cross the finish line, and you get sent your results that afternoon or, worst case scenario, the next day. You accumulate parkruns and when you hit certain milestones — say 50 runs — you get a magnificent t-shirt.