Welcome back parkrun!

At 8am on Saturday 24th July there were thousands of people in England anxiously checking their social media accounts, checking their weather apps and trying to remember familiar routines/habits. It was a day that many thought would never arrive, after hopes had been dashed on a number of occasions over the past year.

Yes, after 16 months, 70 weeks and 497 days, parkrun returned to England (and a few other places in the UK like the Channel Islands, Bressay and Kirkwall in Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Falkland Islands!).

Back on 14 March 2020 thousands of parkrunners took part in parkruns across the world; I was one of them, running on that day at Salcey Forest, Northamptonshire. Numbers were down on that day, and many of us ran with a sinking feeling that this might be our last parkrun for a while, as news of the escalating global Coronavirus pandemic was ever-present. And a few days after that last run, our fears were realised as parkrun global announced that, due to the pandemic, they were putting parkrun on ‘pause’ and that no future events would take place across the world until it was safe to do so. However, I don’t think there was a single parkrunner that realised the pause would last for quite so long.

Over the parkrun ‘pause’ there were various virtual races and running events that helped to fill the parkrun-shaped hole in my life, and I wrote about some of these in my last blog post, but although these helped a little, that void ached and it always seemed like something was missing. There’s a much-bandied about saying in the parkrun world, that parkrun is “more than a run in a park”, and never did it seem more true. Because parkrun IS so much more than a run in the park. It’s the parkrun community, the social element, the friendships made and rekindled each Saturday, the ‘fitting in’ and the acceptance, the feeling of belonging no matter how you participated in parkrun – whether as a gazelle, a snail or a much valued volunteer.

So we endured the first lockdown in the UK, and watched as the numbers of Covid cases started to dwindle, with hope in our hearts that as the numbers sank, we might see parkrun return in the Autumn. The central team who run parkrun excelled in keeping the communications going throughout this period, with weekly bulletins explaining what was needed in order to bring parkrun back again. Over the summer they explained that they intended to bring parkrun back in countries as a whole; that they wouldn’t start parkruns up in some states/counties where Covid cases were low when other areas within the same country were not able to start due to higher prevalence of Covid cases. Although this was frustrating, it made sense. Even though Covid cases were very low in Devon and Cornwall at the time, if parkrun HQ had announced that they would re-start parkrun in those counties there was a very real danger that lots of avid parkrunners would simply get in their cars and drive to Devon/Cornwall, with the result that those events might become overwhelmed with very high numbers of parkrunners.

On July 3rd 2020 parkrun returned to New Zealand which had been hugely successful at eradicating Coronavirus from the country. The parkrun podcast With Me Now streamed a live broadcast of this re-start, with presenters Danny and Nicola being joined by parkrun Global COO Tom Williams in the UK, and roving reporter Hannah Oldroyd taking part in Pegasus parkrun in New Zealand. This was such a joyous event and as I watched it live I found tears running down my face, realising how much I missed parkrun and how wonderful it was that it was returning, albeit on the other side of the world!

parkrun Global continued to work extremely hard during this period, commissioning a rapid review of the evidence surrounding COVID-19 transmission in outdoor settings by Canterbury Christ Church University, entering into discussions with the DCMS, conducting weekly “intent to return” surveys amongst parkrunners, and seeking feedback and suggestions from the global parkrun community, across 22 countries, as well as from public health bodies and governments around the world. A COVID-19 Framework was developed, which detailed how parkrun events would be delivered where there remained an underlying level of COVID-19 in the community. And then came the watershed moment, on 7th September 2020, when Nick Pearson, parkrun Global Chief Executive Officer Nick Pearson announced an intent for parkrun to return in England towards the end of October.

There was so much excitement at this announcement, and there was much buzz on social media with conversations about the return. Although everyone I knew seemed incredibly excited about parkrun’s return, I had growing feelings of unease. The new Covid-19 framework included measures to ensure that the amount of time runners spent in close proximity was kept to a minimum, which was only sensible. But it was suggested that run briefs were kept short and sharp, there was to be no celebrating milestones or other events, and instead of going to the café afterwards for lots of socialising and parkfaffing, everyone was to just run and leave. Results were not to be processed in the café or other places where people huddled over the computer; instead they would be processed by one person at home. Whilst I could understand why these measures had been suggested, it seemed to me to be taking all the fun out of parkrun. For me, parkrun is so much more than a run in the park, and the socialising bit was what made parkrun special; the coming together as a community. If we merely turned up, ran a 5k and went home, we might as well do it on our own at a time that suited.

However, it was one of the other suggested Covid-19 guidelines that became quite controversial and divisive, with different camps taking polarised views. It was advised that when parkrun returned, parkrunners were asked to ‘stay local’ rather than travel to different areas to parkrun. Again, this seemed sensible; Covid cases were rising in the UK but some areas had significantly greater numbers of Covid cases than others. And so one had to question whether travelling to a different area just to do a parkrun was wise, particularly as there was a fear that you could be asymptomatic and yet transmit the virus to anyone you came into close contact with. However, what exactly did “stay local” mean? Only go to your ‘home’ parkrun? Only go to parkruns within an arbitrary number of miles from your home? I’m lucky – there are 20 different parkruns within 9 miles of my home, but if you’re in a rural area you might only have one. And what about if you happen to be in a different part of the country from your home on parkrunday? If you’re in another part of the UK due to work, or on holiday, or visiting family, would it make any difference to go to a parkrun in that area as you’ve travelled there anyway? Of course, all those with the parkrun tourism bug, like me, suddenly felt restricted, and it was not helped by the keyboard warriors taking to social media and judging when anyone dared suggested they were intending to do some parkrun tourism!

However, within a few weeks of announcing that parkrun would start again, and with the numbers of Covid-19 cases rising sharply as the UK entered a second wave, it was announced that parkrun wouldn’t be starting in the UK in October after all. There was another false start in June 2021, when a second date was announced for parkrun to re-start in the UK, but then this date was put back and the re-start of parkrun delayed for a second time. The problem this time, was that although restrictions had been eased and the DCMS had agreed that outdoor events could take place, many parkruns took place on private land, or council land, and landowner permissions had to be obtained for parkruns to restart. And again, parkrun HQ announced that they wouldn’t go ahead with a re-start date until the vast majority of landowners had given permission, because they didn’t want parkruns that had got permission to be swamped by runners from neighbouring areas where there wasn’t permission granted yet to re-start. Some councils were very hesitant to give the go-ahead, and sadly some events fell by the wayside and it was announced that they wouldn’t re-start. One of these I felt very sorry about – Fire Service College in Gloucestershire – because I had really enjoyed visiting there a year before with friends but on a very hot day and I had to walk a lot of it as it was so hot, so I had been looking forward to going back on another less hot occasion and possibly ringing their ‘firestarter’ PB bell!

But finally, after two false starts, a third re-start date was given of 24 July – although sadly only in England, and not in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland where they had stricter Coronavirus regulations. As the date approached there was much chatter on social media with people barely daring to believe that it might actually happen. The re-start date was at the time of the UEFA Euro 2021 football tournament, so there were also many parodies of the “football’s coming home” song, changing the words to “parkrun’s coming home”!

Over the pause, some changes had been made to the parkrun model, to make the events more Covid-secure, such as getting rid of the old timers and scanners and instead having volunteers use the re-vamped virtual volunteer app for these functions. The yellow hi-viz jackets for volunteers had been replaced by bright pink ones, which clashed horribly with the parkrun apricot tops! And some parkruns changed their courses slightly to allow for a wider start line, and brefings being done more spaced out. More volunteers were needed too, as it was recommended there was one barcode scanner for each 50 participants to avoid queues building up, although with scanning being done via the app it did allow for the faster people to run and then jump on scanning duty.

And of course, there were personal changes in circumstances too – I could no longer run due to arthritis that had developed in my knees. I was determined to take part however, as I thought the day would never arrive, and so decided to volunteer as tailwalker at my home event for the first one back, using walking poles .

Unfortunately, the parkrun weather fairies hadn’t realised that parkrun was back, and rather than a lovely sunny day to greet us on our first parkrun after the pause, we had drizzly and at times heavy rain. It didn’t matter though, it was just glorious to be able to gather in a park and enjoy the fabulous community aspect of parkrun, however we participated. And after a brief briefing – we were off! As tailwalker I soon fell in with a woman who told me that she lived in one of the houses that backed onto the course. She said that she used to watch us doing parkrun over whilst having a coffee, but over lockdown she had started walking around the field for some exercise. And so on our first day back she had decided to join us. As we approached her house I was very touched to see her family had put out a “Welcome back” banner on their fence!

In the end, it was as if we had never been away! It was so lovely to see so many familiar faces, some of whom I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. Over the previous few months I had joined up with a team of four of us who were virtually running Route 66 in the USA – now our “Exit 17” team could actually meet up in person! And when I went home, I watched the live feed that the parkrun podcast “With Me Now” had made of the re-start, and joined in with the chatter on social media with everyone discussing the joy of being back.

It’s been six weeks or so since then, and I’m happily back into the swing of parkrun being back. And over that time, parkrun has returned to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and today it returned to Ireland too. Although I had thought I would just stick to my home run for the first few months, it was only the third week in that I did a bit of parkrun tourism as I was invited to attend a friend’s 100th parkrun in Bramley, Leeds, and so I used it as a reason to visit family in Leeds. But I’m going to save writing about that for my next post!

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