This race means so much more than the miles to its participants
By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
It could have been easy to miss that the muggy morning on June 26 was Durham, NC parkrun’s eighth anniversary if not for the handwritten chalk message on the sidewalk: “8 years of parkrun.” The timed 5K takes place every Saturday at 8 a.m., and despite the momentous occasion, it was perfectly the same: new and familiar faces, a pre-run speech from the co-event director, high-fives along the course through Southern Boundaries Park and the echoes of cheers at the end.
It’s this routine that co-event director Julie Messina treasures most.
She discovered parkrun in England in 2009 when her friend invited her to join him for one of the events near where she lived in Hove. She both ran and walked the course and set a goal to return and run the entire time. More than a decade later, parkrun has evolved into a worldwide movement in 20 countries, with more than 3 million registered runners.
It helps that the weekly 5K is free. Participants, regardless of age or gender, just need to register online and make sure they have their unique barcode to scan at the end of the run and log their time. The goal? Do your best, and enjoy the company. Anyone can do it.
“It ticked a lot of boxes in terms of physical well-being, the psychological well-being that comes from being outside in nature and doing physical activity,” Julie says, “but also the social well-being that comes from having a sense of community.”
Julie wanted to continue to enhance those connections and founded the third parkrun in the U.S. in Durham in 2013.
At first, participants were mostly composed of members from the Carolina Godiva Track Club, but now more than 2,200 runners have taken a crack at the course, a quiet part of the park away from cyclists.
None of it would be possible without the volunteers, including longtime participants like Kevin McCabe who helped behind the scenes in the early days when there were just eight people regularly showing up.
“That’s basically what makes parkrun work,” he says. “Without the volunteers, there’s no parkrun. It was something that I enjoyed and something that I wanted to maintain, and so it was incumbent on me to make sure that it existed.”
The 171 other rotating volunteers would all reiterate the same sentiment, including co-event directors Bill Harris and Heiko Rath who stepped up a few years ago to assist Julie in leading the events. Or just to let her take a Saturday off.
But Julie would never dream of that.
“Some people really need this – I did – but they’re not going to come right up to you the first time that they’re there and say, ‘I need this,’” Julie says. “They probably don’t even realize it themselves. … I always want to make sure that even if I thought nobody else was going to show up, I was going to show up, just in case somebody needed us that morning.”