In Praise of Park Runs

This article by Simon Gear was first published in Runner's World in 2012

We live in the Mecca of long distance running.  If you’re into spending upwards of three hours trotting along quiet Sunday morning roads, you could not pick a better country than ours in which to live.  In the two and a half months from late January to Easter, Gauteng alone boasts more marathons than most countries put on in an entire year.  Last Sunday, my local club had over two hundred people show up for the weekly 28km club run.  That’s probably more than the global average field for organised races.

No matter where you live in South Africa, you can pretty much guarantee that there is an opportunity to run long within a hundred kays of your house most weekends.  Is this obsession with going far somehow inherent in us, or is it enforced by the grip that Comrades has on the national psyche?

I’m undecided on whether Comrades is, on balance, a good thing for the country.  There is no doubt that the spectacle of ten thousand ordinary men and women achieving the superhuman every June has motivated countless of our compatriots to lace on their shoes for the first time.  I’m willing to bet that if you are reading this, you can trace your decision to buy this mag, at least partially, to watching the TV early on Comrades morning.

The flip side of this, of course, is that Comrades has seeped so deep into the sport that it now taints every aspect of it.  Prize money is spread so thinly through so many small town marathons that our top athletes cannot hope for a decent pay day unless they win Two Oceans or Comrades itself.  Our running calendar has resulted in a binary season of feast and famine.  We gorge ourselves on mile after mile from January to June and then hibernate for two months until the August half marathons get us going again.  In a sport which rewards consistency above all else, that rhythm is guaranteed to lead to injury, unhappiness and year after year of underperformance.

None of this is even taking into account the enormously intimidating power that our long distance fetish has on newbies.  Just about anyone can get arou nd a 5 kay timetrial course, but marathons and ultras are unhappiness factories for the uninitiated.  We’re not going to end our love affair with the ultra, and nor should we. But we do need to remind ourselves that there is more to running than long slow distance.  And there is no one better placed to turn our ship around than the man most responsible for our marathon culture in the first place.

Six months ago, Bruce Fordyce announced that he was hosting a park run down the road from my house, in Johannesburg’s Delta Park.  The park run phenomenon brings together two brilliant ideas: running short distances fast and spending time in your city’s green lungs.  Unsurprisingly, it was kicked off in London by a lonely South African who was missing the weekly timetrials of his homeland and was likely in mild culture shock at the thought of cross country, rather than the marathon, being the drug of choice at the local running club.

The runs are slightly more formal than club timetrials, being part of a global network, with the idea being that just about any city in the world that you travel to, will have one going at 9am in the local park.  There are now hundreds of these races scattered around the globe, and with the Delta run well established, I’m hearing of other parks around SA beginning to host their own events.

I don’t anticipate that we will ever fall out of love with Comrades and Two Oceans.  And nor should we.  They are great events that define us as a nation of toughies.  But anything that spreads the running net a little wider, into areas where we wouldn’t normally run, has got to be a good thing.  And if we can all get a little fresher and faster as a result, well, then these park runs could prove to be the best thing to have come along in our scene for a very long time.

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