Australia’s Parkruns were suspended in March last year due to COVID-19. Since then, Centennial Park’s volunteers have been trying to find a way back.
Centennial Park is one of the most recent Parkruns added to the state’s growing list and already it’s one of the most popular. Before the pandemic, it was attracting around 300 people every Saturday morning.
Despite the consent of government and Centennial Parklands authorities, organisers played it safe and cancelled its return three times before allowing runners to hit the pavement again on January 16. This also paved the way for the return of the nearby, and similarly popular, St Peters Parkrun.
December 29's cancellation was "due to the prevalence of case locations in Paddington, Bondi, and Edgecliff," Martin Smith explains.
Due to a string of days with "0" new locally acquired COVID-19 cases, combined with the consent of Parkrun Australia and Centennial Parklands, the January 16 run went ahead without complication.
Arriving at the park, "runners" were asked to sign-in through Service NSW's QR code. As a further precaution, 25 volunteers helped monitor social distancing while also performing their allocated duties.
With all the safety seen to, runners had the chance to complete the 5km course alongside 208 others. This meant the return to an essential part of their Saturday schedule. For most, Parkrun plays a major role in their physical and mental health, giving extra cause to celebrate the event's return.
Kathryn Ashcroft is one who has gained significant mental and physical health benefits from Parkrun. "It's a really nice start to a Saturday morning. It's a good thing to get you up and get going... it's nice to be part of something, and a little bit of normalcy right now is nice, given the stuff that we're dealing with," she said.
Kathryn's professional position has given her insight into how the suspension of Parkruns affected many others. "I'm in the health field myself, so I know a lot of my patients have struggled, I think mostly with the lack of group activity. So it's nice that we're back up and running, and I hope that we'll stay that way."
One of the key benefits of Parkrun is that it's accessible to various members of society. As Kathyrn says, "it's a real mix of people, a mix of ages, from those with prams to those with disabilities. It's amazing to have everyone all in one space doing the same thing".
But this inclusivity is a double-edged sword. In the Greater Sydney area, where Parkrun is very popular, bringing the event in its various locations back to the community has presented serious logistical challenges.
The event's popularity has placed pressure on organisers to host runners again in a COVID-19 safe way. These challenges are something that Michael Magee, Centennial Park organiser, has been heavily occupied with.
While explaining the difficulty the level of interest has caused attempts to relaunch the event, Mr Magee says: "We have had a lot of interaction with people from within the Parkrun community asking when we'll be back when we can start again, is there a run on this week? It's been difficult to manage their expectations, especially with changing guidance from the government. I've found that while NSW has definitely done an admirable job with Covid, the guidance has sometimes been announced rather last-minute, which has led to shifting dates for open."
To try and address the potential issues arising from an abundance of interest in the event, Mr. Magee explained that that organisers "had a lot of talk of soft launches, just trialing with a few of us."
Such an approach was deemed necessary, as the organisers had a complicated network of events to consider. Mr. Magee explained that the Centennial Parkrun organisers feel they must "coordinate with other Parkruns in the area because we are one of the largest Parkruns in Sydney. But there are other large ones like St Peters. If we were to open prior to another large Parkrun, we were concerned we would get a bulk of their following."
Underpinning concerns of Covid safety has been the fact that Parkrun is managed by volunteers, who are limited in number. Even under normal circumstances, volunteers find it challenging to manage the number of people attending a Parkrun event. Therefore, according to Mr. Magee, for the organisers, "it's just been a bit of a dance to figure out when we felt it was safe, and when we could do it without attracting too much attention and overwhelming the volunteer numbers that we have."
After a long period of uncertainty, the positive signs from testing in NSW gave the organisers of Centennial Parkrun the confidence they needed to go ahead with re-launching the event.
Martin Smith, the event director of Centennial Parkrun, was responsible for keeping in touch with the community about the developments that affected the relaunch date. He also had to explain the additional safety measures to the runners, which included no spitting and high-fiving. He also had the pleasure of announcing the launch.
On the Facebook group for Centennial Parkrun, Mr. Smith let the community know that they thought it was time for the run to return. As he explains, "We felt that this week was right. And it turns out that Covid numbers are down in NSW, and our run today went off without a hitch."
But despite the pleasure of bringing the Parkrun back, the team at Centennial Parkrun doesn't feel that they're out of the woods yet. Although now being COVID-19 safe, the run may be stopped by future local outbreaks. However, for now, the event is providing a roadmap for the return of other large community events.
Shazy Nangru, the co-event coordinator, outlined a few things that the team considered essential to the success of the event's return in the long term.
Following the logic of local travel restrictions, such as those that recently affected Sydney's Nothern Beaches, Mr. Nangru explained that "It's the best option for people to stick with their home parkrun [the closest to them], this way they stay in the same bubble... Even if they are infected, then it's just one lot of people in the community that are infected, and they can be isolated easily."
Such measures, he says, have "worked in other parts of the country. Our country, and also New Zealand, has set a good example for the rest of the world. Just stay in your bubble, your home bubble, and be protected as well.