When it comes to techno-utopianism, it’s hard to top Facebook’s mission statement. Apparently, the company is dedicated to “bringing the world closer together.” Personally, I find the dystopian counter-narrative—that “Big Tech” has us hopelessly atomized—more persuasive, but I’m trying to remain optimistic that the Internet isn’t irredeemably at odds with (non-virtual) community building. One of the more encouraging examples in recent years is an initiative called Parkrun.
This won’t be news to anyone from the U.K. where Parkrun has become as ubiquitous as our Turkey Trot—except that it takes place every weekend, instead of once a year. The inaugural event was staged in Greater London’s Bushy Park in October 2004. Back then, a few volunteers strung together an ad hoc 5K that was open to anyone who felt like taking part. Over the past decade and a half, the concept has proliferated, to put it mildly. Today, there are over 1,800 Parkruns in 20 countries on five continents. All events are free.
“The concept of Parkrun is that it’s not a race and therein lies the secret of what we do,” says founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt. That might sound suspect to the class of turbo-jocks who lament the rise of fun runs and other participatory running events, but the beauty of Parkun is that it’s as competitive as you want it to be. The format is loose enough to also accommodate walkers, stroller-pushers, and anyone who feels like joining the procession. It’s still a timed running event, but without the rigid formality of a race. The only requirement is that participants go through a one-time online registration process and print out a personal bar code for timing purposes. Runners receive same-day results via email, while the Parkrun website abounds with nifty statistics that are continuously updated, like a weekly leaderboard of top finishers around the globe. As of this writing, over three and a half million Parkrunners have combined to run roughly 137 million miles.
Despite this global appeal, Parkrun remains a predominantly British institution. Of the three and a half million registered runners, almost two million are in the U.K. where Parkrun grew exponentially after the London Olympics. At the time, a Guardian article touted the boom as a grassroots-style “running revolution,” that drew in everyone from dog-walking retirees to multiple-time Olympic champion Mo Farah. Last year, in a column for the Financial Times titled “How Parkrun Became My New Religion,” London-based editor Katie Martin warmed my Anglophile heart when she noted that one of the perks of the event was that afterwards you could “gather your breath and chat to strangers, sometimes over a well-deserved slice of cake and cup of tea.” Martin added that: “As a cure for the national crisis of loneliness, it’s hard to beat.”
So what about our national crisis? (No, not that one.) In a nation where adulthood obesity is encroaching on the 100 million mark and where increasing numbers of people are also feeling lonely and alienated, a weekly communal exercise event that’s easy to put on, costs nothing to participate in, and has an engaging tech component would seem like an appealing concept.
That’s what Rick Brauer, who in May 2012 launched the U.S. iteration of Parkrun, thought as well. But the idea has struggled to gain a foothold over here. At present, Parkrun has established itself in roughly 30 locations, scattered across the country. (Most events are small, with fewer than 100 runners.) Not bad, but still a far cry from the 600-plus Parkruns in the U.K.
According to Brauer, there are several reasons for this. Reached by email, he noted that the U.S. didn’t have the same number of large community green spaces that serve as Parkrun venues overseas. In a litigious society like ours, there are also more bureaucratic hurdles to access the spaces that do exist; Brauer cited the example of one park in Boston where an annual use permit would have cost $30,000. National sponsors were another issue, in that Brauer couldn’t find any. He says he reached out to “anyone and everyone,” from running shoe companies to health insurance carriers to McDonald’s. No dice.
In Britain, meanwhile, Parkrun has plenty of corporate support. And that’s not all. Last December, Reuters reported that the British government would be investing three million pounds (around four million dollars) to fund an additional 200 Parkruns over the next three years, with the specific intention of bringing in more women and people from lower socioeconomic groups. Imagine that, a national government investing millions to provide greater access to a free running event.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a U.K.-based sports and public health initiative that we could take an example from. To be honest, it’s hard to view the lukewarm reception of Parkrun in the U.S. and not see an implicit cultural barrier here as well—as if there was some ingrained skepticism towards to a free sports event in a country where some charlatan is forever trying to monetize everything under the sun. (Sinton-Hewitt affirmed my bias when he told me that he’d had a tough time convincing prospective organizers in the U.S. to keep things super low-key. “Americans always want to build a gazebo,” he says.)
Or maybe we just like buying stuff. As Brauer put it to me, “In the U.S.A., people are more inclined to pay $50 for a T-shirt and a finisher’s medal plus a number of social media selfies, than run Parkrun.” (For the record, Brauer says he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that.)
Obviously, a few free 5Ks aren’t going to magically transform this country into a nation of healthy, well-adjusted citizens, bursting with neighborly love. According to a recent RunningUSA survey, almost nine million people signed up for a 5K in 2017, so it’s not as if there’s a paucity of races in this country. But, as mentioned, Parkrun doesn’t brand itself as a race, so much as a weekly group exercise session.
It’s certainly preferable to the scourge of “virtual racing,” another trend that appears to be on the rise. This ghastly concept allows you to compete against other runners without the inconvenience of having to be in the same place. Enabled by fitness tracking apps like Strava, the virtual race impressively cancels out the community aspect of running (or at least banishes it into the app-sphere) while preserving the competitive element. You can even do it on your treadmill.
Maybe the tech dystopia isn’t so far off after all.