By Marissa Tiel
On a cool Saturday morning in early December, a group clad in spandex and running shoes begins to gather on the Okanagan Rail Trail near Clement Avenue. It’s a small crowd at first but as the clock nears 9 a.m., more join in.
They mill around, chatting with friends and staying warm in the crisp morning air.
Before long, more than 50 people have gathered on the path and run director Bill Justus, clad in a leather jacket begins a countdown. With a ceremonial 3-2-1-go, they’re off on the 122nd Okanagan parkrun.
Since August 2016, runners have been meeting in Kelowna for Canada’s first parkrun, a free five-kilometre event that now takes place in more than 20 locations across the country.
The parkrun movement began in the United Kingdom, and Justus, a former military man, was tipped off from a friend who’d moved across the Atlantic. She told him he had to bring the event to Canada.
“And I went, ‘do you know how many 5Ks there are?’” says Justus. “And she said, ‘no, it’s different.’ And I said, ‘how is it different?’ It inspires people like you inspire people.”
Intrigued, Justus flew to the U.K. and took in a parkrun. What impressed him wasn’t so much the 5K run itself, but the community it generated.
“I could see the writing was on the wall that if we were–because I am the age that I am, closer to 60 than 50 and the tail end of the baby-boomer generation–that if we were going to keep our next generations out of drugs and injections and all the other medical interventions we have to do to keep people living longer, physical activity had to happen,” says Justus. “I’ve used running as an antidepressant my whole life; stress reliever. I’ve been fit, happy. I don’t think I look like most 60-year-olds. Running is a testament to that. It’s been very good to me.
“I really wanted to give that to Kelowna.”
Doctors in the U.K. are now prescribing parkrun to their patients.
But getting parkrun to Canada wasn’t all that simple. The organizing committee in the U.K. questioned whether the event could happen over the winters in Canada. Justus countered, saying the Brits run in the rain; Canadians run in the snow.
Then came convincing the municipality.
“When I first went after Kelowna, I got no. No you can’t be on their runway, no we won’t keep this parking lot open for you,” says Justus.
But he succeeded and the first parkrun took place on Aug. 20, 2016. It began at Truswell and Lakeshore Roads and more than 100 people showed up.
Attendance shrank a bit after the inaugural event, but within a few months, parkrun had outgrown their location. They moved to the rail trail behind Parkinson Recreation Centre and remain there today, with a slight modification to their starting location. Now an average of 57 people attend each Saturday.
For all its events, Justus has only missed four parkruns–well, five. He helped set up the Regina event one Saturday and forgoed his attendance in Kelowna.
“It’s part of my life. It’s part of who I am,” says Justus. “It feels weird if I’m not here.”
The parkrun is a free five-kilometre event.
“Running should be a pair of running shoes and that’s what this is,” he says.
Participants are asked to register online. They get personalized barcode that they bring to the event. It’s their ID and how they get their times recorded.
This weekend, Bob Ferch will use his barcode for the 100th time. He’s expected to be the first Canadian to reach 100 parkruns.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” says Ferch after wrapping up his 99th parkrun. “I was hoping to be the first to 50 and I didn’t quite make it so I was determined to be the first to 100.”
Ferch hasn’t missed a Saturday this year. He says there a quite a few other regulars and the event has a family feel.
“It builds a community of moms and dads going by with their strollers, elderly people getting out for the exercise,” says Justus. “There’s no expectations to go fast. There’s no expectations to run the whole thing. You can walk.”
That’s not to mean the event can’t be competitive.
“There’s races within races here and it’s a run, it’s not a race,” says Justus. “But there are people out here that want to go faster this week than they did last week or they want to beat their buddy or they want to catch somebody they’ve been chasing and you’ll see guys come in here and they’ll be going blazing fast as they come through the finish line.”
New attendees like Madelaine Sumner are always welcome. She took part in her second parkrun earlier this month after urging from a friend.
“It’s really fun and it’s a great community,” she says. “It’s great to see people outside.”
The sun is starting to shrink shadows as the first runners cross the finish line. They catch their breath on the crunchy grass and cheer as the rest of the field trickles in.
“It is infectious. It is mind-bending. It is life-changing and it’s enjoyable,” says Justus of parkrun. “You’ll make friends you never know existed.”