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On an overcast Saturday morning on 2 October 2004, 13 people got together in Bushy Park, south-west London, to go for a run. A 5km run. The organiser, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, was at a difficult time in his life. “I was unable to run due to injury,” he remembers, “and many of my personal and professional relationships had broken down. I was at a low point.”

The run became a regular weekly event; when more people joined in, Sinton-Hewitt and his friends would gather afterwards to collate the runners’ times over coffee. “Really, I wanted to get together with my friends, even though I couldn’t run,” says Sinton-Hewitt, now 60. “It was always about bringing people together, always about the coffee.”

A couple of years later, a second Time Trial, as it was then known, was started, not far away on Wimbledon Common. More followed, in England, Wales, Scotland and Zimbabwe, where Sinton-Hewitt was born.

By early this year, parkrun, as it was renamed, comprised 2,237 weekly events (1,863 Saturday 5k runs, 374 Sunday 2k junior versions) in 22 countries including Russia, Malaysia, Canada and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). All were organised and presided over by local volunteers wearing hi-vis vests. The format is the same everywhere: it’s free, you register, print a barcode, turn up, run, jog or walk the course. Later you get an email or a text with your time. Since the beginning, 4,430,272 people have completed 61,042,282 parkruns. That’s 183,682,350 miles in total – or roughly from Bushy Park to the sun and back.

And then, in March, coronavirus stopped everything. Within weeks, parkrun was cancelled worldwide. This was no time for hundreds, or even thousands, of people to be clustering together.

There are almost as many reasons for doing a parkrun as there are people doing them. To get fitter, to lose weight, to beat last week’s time, to beat someone else, for the camaraderie, for the community, for that coffee afterwards, to see people, to escape from people, to exercise the dog, to exorcise the black dog – or at least to outrun it, keep a step ahead of its jaws. It’s about inclusiveness, wellbeing and creating a healthier, happier planet.

“Parkrun is a fantastic event for the older female runner,” says Annie Ross, 69, an artist and longtime runner in Maidstone, Kent. She was one of many Guardian readers who responded to a call-out asking for parkrun stories. “We are all in need of exercise,” she continues, “and you can see achievement, whatever level you run at. I love the idea of coming out regularly on a Saturday morning, and seeing friends and neighbours all taking part.” Annie has had Covid-19 and took a long time to recover, but missed her Saturday 5k runs so much that in the past few weeks she has completed three “(not) parkruns”, running her local course on her own in her own time.

For Sammy Doublet, 17, a sixth-form student in Brighton, it is all about running as fast as possible and trying to beat as many people as possible. “It’s my deep-rooted competitiveness that drew me to parkrun,” he says.

Worried about her fitness in her late 50s, Janice Bell in Southsea “was instantly hooked and it grew into something close to an obsession. I was closing in on my 200th parkrun when lockdown happened; I have run in more than 50 different locations, including parkruns in New Zealand, Japan and France.” Since it became possible to meet up with others, Janice has been joining a group of friends for an informal run, followed by breakfast together. “Almost as good as the real thing, but not quite,” she says. “I am desperate for it to restart.”

As is Vikki Skipper, 64, a teacher in Barnsley. A proud “alphabeteer” doing an A-Z of parkruns around the world, in order, she did Zamek w Malborku parkrun at Malbork castle in Poland just before lockdown. (There is no X – hurry up, Xi’an, start one.) “I have had two knee replacements and I’ve run some parkruns on crutches, just so I don’t miss one,” she says. “I am up to 384 now and 101 volunteering sessions. Parkrun was a huge part of my week, deciding which venue to visit and where to book my holiday to get a parkrun in. The Mount Etna one will always stand out. I miss parkrun so much.”

At around the same time that parkrun stopped, other, more glamorous gatherings were also being put on hold. The London Marathon was postponed, before being cancelled. There will be a London Marathon of sorts, on 4 October, but only for around 100 elite athletes – a men’s race, women’s race and wheelchair races – lapping St James’s Park before finishing as usual on the Mall. Nothing like the mass participation event it usually is. For all the entrants who missed out, there will be a virtual edition on the same day. They complete their 26.2 miles wherever they like – not unlike a (not) parkrun – plus, their place is carried over to next year.

And it has been the same story for mass running events up and down the country and across the world. The Great North Run is taking place today, only virtually, though runners can download an app providing them with audio clips to make it feel more like the real thing. Berlin? Cancelled. Boston: only virtual.

What you don’t get from a virtual event, even with a sound-effects app, is the community. The decision to shut down parkrun was not taken lightly, says Tom Williams, the chief operating officer of parkrun Global (you can tell how far it has come by the fancy titles). “We were aware we were taking away something that makes a lot of people healthy and happy. Not just committed runners who would continue running 50 miles a week – we’re talking about some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, and people for whom that’s the only time of the week they have human contact. We regularly get people writing to us saying: ‘Parkrun saved my life.’ By closing parkrun events, you are taking away what is a lifeline for some people.”

That aspect – that this is not just a run in a park, but a public health service – is something the organisers have worked at very consciously, targeting less affluent areas to start events. There is an initiative that enables GPs to prescribe physical activity by referring patients to take part in parkrun. And there are more than 20 parkruns on custodial estates – in prisons, young offender institutions and correctional facilities.

Chrissie Wellington, a four-time Ironman triathlon world champion, is now parkrun’s head of health and wellbeing. She wants people to recognise that parkrun is for everyone. “It’s for those who want to run it in 15 minutes [the women’s record is 15 minutes, 49 seconds; the male record 13 minutes, 48 seconds, set – appropriately – at Bushy Park] and it’s most definitely for those who want to walk it in one hour 15 minutes. And everyone in between. You can use parkrun in any way you want.” While many races have a cut-off time beyond which runners are disqualified or encouraged to give up, parkrun has none.

The pandemic has, Wellington says, exacerbated the already expanding health inequalities. “We’ve seen a growth in inactivity by those who were less active, we’ve seen increased isolation, sedentary behaviour, problems with mental health and increased morbidity attached to all of those things. There is a secondary public health crisis that could potentially dwarf Covid that we all need to focus our attention on. It’s organisations like parkrun that can help change that.”

A Sheffield Hallam University survey in 2018 looking at the effects of parkrun found that the mental health benefits were as important as the physical ones – and it was not the runners but the volunteers that accrued the most.

In Norfolk, Thomas Rose, 38, was drawn to parkrun as a way to help deal with depression. “It was a way to meet other runners in a noncompetitive environment and have a nice run to clear my head on a Saturday morning,” he says. He hasn’t managed to replace it. “I tend to lie in now until I have to get up. My fitness has suffered and my mood is much lower.”

Nick Hayes, 47, in Lancashire, got into parkrun during the early months of recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. “It gave me something to focus on,” he says. “I’m not a confident person at all and the thought of attending parkrun made me very nervous.” Originally from north Wales, Hayes chose Conwy as his first. “It’s a stunning location, with the castle in full view across the estuary. What struck me was the random mix of people gathered to knock out a 5k, whichever way they wanted. I was well and truly bitten by the bug from that day onwards.”

Daisy Overton, 35, in Rutland finds that in her job as an airline pilot, it can be hard to have any sort of routine, and making friends can be difficult. “In 2014, I found parkrun near where I lived. It gave me a routine of sorts around my quite nomadic career. For me, parkrun has always been my crucial regular social contact with others.” What has she found to fill the gap? “Nothing really, I’m a bit lost. I go open-water swimming, but there’s no social interaction.”

In Basingstoke, Cami Cameron, 40, who has physical and mental illnesses, appreciates that it is “free, open to everyone of all abilities, and accessible for disabled people, with guides for the visually impaired or blind, and signers for those who are hard of hearing or deaf”. Martin Allchin, 61, on the Isle of Sheppey, does it to keep his diabetes under control. In Bolton, Ainsley Hinchliffe, 54, wanted to improve her health after recovering from two bouts of breast cancer. “I miss it more than I can say,” she says.

And that’s a sentiment that echoes round and round the parkrun community. Parkrun plays a big part in a lot of lives, it has been sorely missed, and a lot of people badly want it back. Need it back, too.

Good news: parkrun is coming back, soon. By the end of October in England, even with the new six-person rule. Preparations have been made, with a new framework that aims to maintain distancing, encourage sanitising and so on. Start lines and finishes can be enlarged; the post-run coffee may have to go. After discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Sport England and Public Health England, they’ve got the green light. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are works in progress. If your local parkrun is in – or you can travel to – one of three parks in the Northern Territory of Australia or the Falkland Islands, you can start sooner still, on 19 September. Perhaps you’re doing the alphabet challenge and haven’t got very far, just Ally Pally in London and Bressay in Shetland. Why not make the next one Cape Pembroke Lighthouse parkrun outside Port Stanley?

Parkrun’s founder is ready for the return. “I know enough about troubled times to know that when you’re going through a rough patch you need to keep hold of the things that really matter,” Sinton-Hewitt says. “I am so proud of what it has become; I am proud that, over the years, average finishing times have been getting slower and slower, proving that we are engaging those who might be taking their first tentative steps into physical activity. And they are so welcome.”