By Colin Phillips
The rain on Memorial Day weekend could not have come at a better time for 5-year-old Mary Clare Schneider. Her soccer game was cancelled, and she got to do something that she had been looking forward to for years: the College Park parkrun. Official results show Mary Clare as one of 25 first-timer runners, but that’s just one piece of her story.
Mary Clare had been a regular at the free, weekly 5K run/walk events since she was a toddler. She started out riding in her stroller, then she’d walk or run, and even volunteer. But she had to be four years old to officially participate.
By the time Mary Clare turned four, the pandemic was upon us, and live parkrun events were on hold. Undeterred, she registered and got her own parkrun barcode. Mary Clare became a regular in the virtual College Park parkrun events, along with her parents and older sister, Samantha. She completed 50 virtual 5K events over the past year.
The family creatively embraced their virtual runs. One week they planned a route that took them through Luray Caverns. On Easter, the girls painted small rocks and cached them along the Paint Branch Trail in College Park for others to discover — a kind of socially distanced Easter egg hunt.
The pandemic put the College Park parkrun’s live events on hold for 64 long weeks. By the time they kicked back up, it was soccer season, so Mary Clare’s Saturday mornings were spoken for. Then the coolest, wettest Memorial Day weekend in memory came to the rescue. With her game washed out, Mary Clare was excited to run a 5K, even in the rain, instead.
Ahead of our May 29 live restart, we nervously watched the weather and hoped that the predicted rain would not spoil the occasion. We got wet, but nobody seemed to care. The 150 people who turned out, along with Mary Clare, were thrilled to be outdoors with other people again.
Flooding on some stretches of the Paint Branch Trail led to a last-minute switch to a double out-and-back course. Even that was a bonus. It allowed participants to try out a stretch of the new College Park Woods Connector Trail, including the beautiful boardwalk, that opened during the pandemic. And that meant that everybody got to pass and cheer for everybody else a few times along the way.
Making the event work under adverse circumstances has become routine. Our parkrun community worked together over the past year, reinforcing the ways in which College Park parkrun offers us all social support that’s valuable, and especially so when times are tough.
We initially thought that virtual events would be a modest draw, guessing that only a handful of people would take part. To our surprise, participation was even higher than for the in-person events, reaching 10,000 participants over the course of our 58 virtual events. More than 50 volunteers have participated, too, collecting and sharing thousands of pictures and inspiring stories along the way.
Participants in our virtual events have hailed from 30 states, and many families used these events as a way of staying in touch. Mayor Patrick Wojahn encouraged his mom, Karen Wojahn, to join from Green Bay, Wis. She became a regular walker and was soon joined by her sister, Mary Hicks, in Rockford, Ill. Because our events were virtual, participants could be anywhere; people joined in from Europe and even India. Participants’ ages spanned the decades, from toddlers who were completing their first mile all the way up to James Wilson, who in May walked 4 miles with his daughter Lisa to celebrate his 103rd birthday.
But we never lost our roots in the process. In April, the community organized a T-shirt fundraiser, raising over $2,500 for the College Park Community Food Bank.
So come on out, whatever the weather. Our always free, always friendly events start Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. in Acredale Community Park. You can sign-up for a free personal barcode at parkrun.us/collegepark. There’s no need to be super fit, and you can walk or run and bring along your dog or your children — yes, even strollers get a thumbs up. And as Mary Clare will tell you, anyone and everyone is welcome at the College Park parkruns!