It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and already there’s footsteps approaching the calm and tranquil riverside of Futako-Tamagawa. A multitude of people in both sports attire and casual outfits, some walking dogs or with their kids in strollers, gather at the riverbank of Futakotamagawa Park in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward for parkrun. As the event’s name suggests, parkrun is a 5-kilometer walking and running event held in a park. But what makes parkrun unique is its inclusiveness, internationality and its locality.

Unlike a typical running event, there’s no entrance fee, time limit or age restriction. From athletes to amateurs, seniors to children, all are welcome. Parkrun originally launched in London’s Bushy Park in 2004, and caught on in Japan in April of last year in cooperation with Sumitomo Life Insurance Company. Parkrun has now spread to 22 countries around the globe including the United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Finland. Having its roots abroad, there is an international feel to the starting line.

From its beginnings in Futakotamagawa Park, as of October 2020 parkrun events have expanded to 15 parks across the nation. Although parkrun had canceled all its events in response to the pandemic since early March, Oct. 24 marked the first parkrun event in seven months. Seven new events are expected to start up in November at parks in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Aichi prefectures, bringing the total number of participating parks to 22.

The government’s decision to ease crowd restrictions at professional sporting events in early September prompted parkrun organizers to consider reopening. Being a local event, the scale of the run easily met government criteria. However, Chiaki Okada, a manager for parkrun in Japan, admitted public opinion was a concern. She says parkrun carried out a survey in mid-September that gauged the temperature of previous participants. The survey showed many were in favor of its restart, with over 80% answering that they were ready to participate even if the event was to resume the next day.

“Everyone fears being infected, however, a lack of social interaction is equally serious,” Okada says. As the pandemic continues, she is worried about its negative impact on society in Japan, citing issues such as general reclusiveness and suicide. She hopes reopening parkrun will help provide a place to create real-life connections with people.

Parkrun may be a health event at its core, but its benefits go beyond simply gaining physical confidence: It also offers an enriching sense of belonging. According to Okada, “one of the purposes of parkrun is to make a community where (no one feels) isolated.”

Ready, set, go: Parkrunners kick off their Saturday morning run at Tsujido Kaihin park in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. | ATSUSHI OIKE © AICCO
Ready, set, go: Parkrunners kick off their Saturday morning run at Tsujido Kaihin park in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. | ATSUSHI OIKE © AICCO

COVID-19 countermeasures

The long shadow of the pandemic may have had you feeling socially isolated, but parkrun organizers hope this opportunity to boost a person’s physical and mental health will provide something of a light at the end — or the middle — of the tunnel.

In order to carry out the event as safely as possible, parkrun has set a “COVID-19 Framework” so all events in Japan will be carried out with these guidelines in mind. Event staff, for example, are requested to sanitize their hands in advance and participants are asked to refrain from spitting, high-fiving or having any other non-essential contact during the event. To prevent any unnecessary crowding, participants are recommended to place themselves at the start line according to their estimated finishing time.

Parkrun perks

Last weekend, more than 600 parkrunners across Japan celebrated the event’s return. Ashley Jupp, a British English teacher in Kawasaki, was one of them.

“I was delighted when I heard (of the reopening of parkrun),” he says. “Parkrun gives us something to look forward to each week, an opportunity to be social and meet people as a form of exercise.”

Jupp adds that he appreciates the fact that parkrun provides an opportunity to connect with Japanese people outside of work, which he sometimes finds difficult to do on his own.

In addition to regular participants marking the event’s return, some of the runners were there for the first time. Risa Hatta, a 27-year-old banker who joined the Tsujido Kaihin Koen parkrun in Kanagawa Prefecture, says that “5 kilometers sounded hard to complete for me, but the relaxed atmosphere helped me to keep running at my own pace.”

Parkrun also boasts that its participants can gain new skills once they become a part of the community. Tim Burland, an event director for the Futakotamagawa parkrun, points out that his role as a director enhanced his ability to cooperate with team members, manage a group and lead. All parkrun events are organized by locals, and provide volunteering opportunities.

Okada adds that, in 10 years, “we would like to create a lifestyle where everyone can join parkrun in their neighborhood park.”

Although it’s quite different from your average Saturday morning coffee, kicking off your weekend with parkrun may provide a refreshing jolt to your daily routine.

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