LONDON (Reuters) - The global running phenomenon that is parkrun turns 15 on Wednesday with six million people worldwide now signed up to a community that began as a meeting of 13 friends for a sociable Saturday run in a London park.
The free-to-enter, timed, 5-kilometre (3.1 mile) series marks its birthday with enthusiasts from prisoners to pensioners and buggy-pushers to record-breakers turning up in their hundreds of thousands each week.
After its 2004 birth and rapid spread in Britain, the first parkrun outside of the UK was started in Zimbabwe in 2007. One of the most recent participants, Japan, launched its first parkrun event in Tokyo in April this year, making it the 21st country to join.
Meanwhile, parkrun Russia started in two simultaneous events in Moscow in March, 2014, and there is now a weekly event in Siberia, where organisers have pledged never to let snow, ice or cold weather force them to cancel.
In Africa, runners in the tiny country of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and in South Africa’s vast cities and grasslands are also regulars.
The combined achievement so far stands at more than 260 million kilometres of running, taking 3,118 years, 25 days, 22 hours, 7 minutes and 18 seconds.
In thousands of testimonials sent to the organisers, parkrunners say it has made them fitter, happier and healthier.
“As I struggled up the hill a marshal shouted out that I ‘looked strong’ and that I ‘could do this’ and I was overwhelmed by her kindness,” said Gail Seal, a British mother of two who took more than a year to find the courage to do her first parkrun event but has now clocked up more than 100.
“Parkrun has genuinely changed my life for the better, not just from the new friends I’ve made, but I’ve never felt so fit and healthy as I do now.”
In Britain, parkrun has teamed up with the esteemed Royal College of General Practitioners to encourage family doctors to prescribe the social weekly run to patients to help improve both mental and physical health.
Of the almost 2,000 individual parkruns each week in 21 countries, 25 are now in prisons - 18 in the UK, two in Ireland and five in Australia - where inmates and staff often run multiple laps of an exercise yard to reach 5km.
Next week will see another landmark - with parkrun starting its inaugural UK all-female prison event, following the launch of one in Australia.
The fastest worldwide recorded time was set in 2012 at parkrun’s birthplace in Bushy Park, south-west London, by British Olympian Andy Baddeley, who covered the grassy 5km course in 13 minutes, 48 seconds.
Charlotte Arter set the best women’s mark of 15 minutes and 50 seconds in Cardiff in January this year.
But parkrun organisers, who are keen to avoid putting people off with competitive comparisons and who are delighted for people to walk, do not have a record of the slowest time.
More important and valuable, they say, are data showing that more than half of parkrunners are women, and that as the number of participants rises, so too do average finishing times. It helps to underline parkrun’s appeal for millions of people who would never before had considered themselves runners.
(This story refiles the earlier story and removes reference to survey in final two paragraphs)
Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Christian Radnedge