It's Saturday, just before 8am, near the rowing shed at Carrington. Despite the threat of rain, plenty of people are milling around in their running gear.
Dave "Robbo" Robertson, of Carrington, is talking to a fellow runner.
Sarah and Trent Bonar, of Adamstown, are here with their three boys: nine-year-old twins Alfie and Boaz, and eight-year-old Odin.
Lyn Pritchard, of Ashtonfield, is head-to-toe in wet weather gear, ready for whatever the heavens decide to do.
And I'm here with my husband, and like everybody else, we are ready to parkrun.
Whether at Carrington, Ballarat, Mt Isa, or even Hamilton Island, every Saturday at 8am, people are there for parkrun, the worldwide running event that has been embraced across Australia.
IF THIS is the first time you've heard the term "parkrun", here it is in a nutshell: it's a weekly five-kilometre timed run, held at multiple venues globally. Anyone can participate, the events are free, they are run by volunteers. The choice is yours to register online, print off your unique barcode and take it with you if you want to receive a recorded time and place for your run.
The first ever parkrun was held in Bushy Park, London in 2004. Paul Sinton-Hewitt and 12 others decided to run five kilometres around the lovely park and since then, parkrun has grown to include thousands of events in over 20 countries.
I've been parkrunning since November 2012. My maiden voyage was at Newy parkrun - the first event in the Hunter Region. It was started by Dave 'Robbo' Robertson, a local physiotherapist and all-round athletic guy.
"I'd heard of parkrun from its early days," Robertson says. "It was known as the 'UK Time Trials' then."
"The first parkrun in Australia started at Main Beach on the Gold Coast in April 2011."
It was during a visit to Main Beach that he decided to try it.
"I hadn't even finished that first event and already I was convinced this concept was a winner and that we needed to get a similar event started in Newcastle," Robertson says.
Through discussions with parkrun Australia CEO Tim Oberg, research at other events, and the fantastic word of mouth that exists in Newcastle, Robertson launched Newy parkrun in June 2012.
Personally, I didn't make it to that first event, I started the adventure at event #22. My husband kept disappearing on Saturday mornings and finally one day I got out of bed and followed him. In rain, wind, frost, scorching heat and sunshine, we've been attending together ever since.
"Once you're a parkrunner, it's often the case that there is a kind of evangelical enthusiasm that sweeps over you," Robertson says.
The community spirit is palpable when you turn up. After a couple of weeks, you'll see familiar faces, and when you put your hand up to volunteer, you'll get to know even more.
MY FIRST time was tough. I'm not a natural runner, more of a shuffler. After the first 500 metres I was puffing, at one kilometre I was sweating profusely, halfway I was questioning my existence. By three kilometres, I was walking. When I crossed that finish line after 38 minutes and 3 seconds of stop-starting, I was red and ready to banish running from my life. Strangely, I went back the next week, curious to see if I could do better, aware that any exercise is better than none. That second time, I managed to run the whole way and clocked in at 35:24. I can't begin to express the sense of achievement when you learn that you've bettered your previous time - it's the allure of attaining a PB (personal best) and each week you get the chance to try again.
It was the same for Bernadette Bennett, a regular runner and volunteer at Newy, who participates with her husband David.
"Our youngest daughter introduced us to parkrun in 2013. I laughed at her, as I had never run," Bernadette says. "David was fine, but it took me 12 parkruns to run the first kilometre without stopping and another six to do the whole five kilometres without a walk. I still call a non-stop parkrun a successful one."
"Every parkrun is the same, yet different. It's one of the best features: you can be confident turning up because you know how things work.Bernadette Bennett
Bernadette has now completed over 255 parkruns at over 60 different locations, but she feels at home at each one. "Every parkrun is the same, yet different. It's one of the best features: you can be confident turning up because you know how things work," she says. "There's a support and inclusiveness that is very special about parkrun. And we've seen it at each event we've been to, so it's not a Newy thing - it is part of the ethos globally."
Bernadette and David are such fans of parkrun, that they embraced what's commonly becoming known as "parkrun tourism" - travelling to destinations because they host a parkrun.
"We've been as far north as Yeppoon and south to Merimbula, plus two in Melbourne. While visiting family in UK we've been to Sheffield, Bushy Park, Ireland and Scotland," she says. "As newly-retired people we've been taking some eight-week trips. Our planning goes as far as knowing where we are each Saturday for parkrun. The weekdays get filled in on the way to our Saturdays."
Lyn Pritchard and husband Graeme have also embraced the concept of parkrun tourism, completing what's commonly known as the 'Alphabet Challenge' - running at an event beginning with each letter of the alphabet. In Australia, there are parkruns beginning with each letter, save for X, and Lyn has been everywhere from Albert in Melbourne, to Zillmere in Brisbane, with Darwin, Queanbeyan, Varsity Lakes and Yamba in between, to name a few.
Since their first parkrun in July 2013, they have clocked up more than 275 runs at 68 locations, including a pilgrimage to Bushy Park in 2019. As well as the health and personal fitness benefits, Lyn loves the camaraderie it encourages.
"We love the inclusivity of parkrun - it caters for all ages and abilities," Lyn says. Parkrun tourism "is a wonderful way to explore new places, you are assured of a friendly welcome and an invitation to breakfast and coffee in a new town or country."
Closer to home, there is the opportunity to become a 'Regionnaire', that is, complete each event with the Hunter Region.
Robertson says how it stemmed from an idea with friends to create a 'Region of Runners', inspired by a film he had seen about Bekoji in Ethiopia, known as the 'Town of Runners'. The idea stuck.
"Between us we came up with our own version of the title to suit not just Newcastle, but the broader Hunter Region," he says. "We knew the title was really established when people from outside the Hunter began referring to our region and its parkruns as the 'Region of Runners'."
To become a Regionnaire, you'll need to participate at each of the 15 events in the Hunter: Newy, Maitland, Merriwa, Bill Rose Sports Complex at Scone, Singleton, The Terrace, The Beaches, Blue Gum Hills, Blackbutt, Lake Mac, Lakeview (Belmont), Fingal Bay, Nulkaba, Callaghan and Stockton. It's a great way to visit more of the region and support local towns and their economy.
"I think once someone becomes hooked on the concept of parkrun, it's very easy to then get interested in trying out different parkruns in other areas," Robertson says. "The universality of the parkrun barcode holds a special power in that the same barcode you use to scan at your local event, will be accepted at events on the other side of the world. Almost like a global running visa."
"FREE, for everyone, forever" is its motto and this commitmenthas seen some towns struggle to have their own event due to councils wanting to charge parkrun organisers.
The events are driven by three things: official sponsorship (in Australia from The Athlete's Foot, Medibank and Blackmore's); the unrelenting service given by volunteers, and overwhelming community support.
Participation comes from all demographics: families, individuals, enthusiasts, beginners, old and young.
The Bonar family weren't what you'd call "runners" before they tried parkrun on for size. Dad Trent, Mum Sarah, twins Alfie and Boaz, plus younger brother Odin started in Newy in October 2013 when the boys were all in prams.
"We actually heard about it pretty randomly," Trent says. "We were at a kids' sporting activity and another parent turned up after completing parkrun with a double pram. We thought 'if she can do it, we can do it'. We went the next week with a triple pram and haven't stopped going since."
Children are allowed to register for their own barcode at the age of four, and once the boys passed the magic age, they haven't looked back, earning the title of youngest twins in the world to complete 100 parkruns by the age of six.
"Alfie and Boaz received a personal letter from the founder of parkrun, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, when they completed their 100th parkrun, which was very cool," Trent says.
Your milestones are celebrated - official t-shirts are received at 50, 100, 250 and 500 parkruns. No one in Australia has clocked 500 - there haven't been enough events yet. Volunteering is recognised with a purple shirt for volunteering 25 times or more. You are encouraged to volunteer three times a year - you might be giving high fives at the halfway point, taking pictures, scanning barcodes or timekeeping.
The whole Bonar family has now completed more than 230 parkruns each at over 113 events and it has become an integral part of their week.
"It's just part of our family Saturday routine now," Trent says. "Parkrun followed by coffee and brekky. It's a great way to start the weekend - we want our boys to be active and healthy and parkrun ticks all these boxes - plus, of course, it's free."
I've seen it literally have the power to change and to save lives. To be involved in something that can do that, provides an enormous buzz.Dave Robertson
An official weekly newsletter is sent out to registered runners and often includes a story about the positive impact parkrun has had on someone's life: whether it be a physical health concern they have conquered, a social connection made, a personal transformation or a mental challenge overcome.
Robertson has seen the benefits parkrun can have, firsthand.
"Beside the obvious physical benefits gained from being more active," he says, " I think some of the really significant benefits are linked to improved social inclusion and mental health.
"The actual half an hour or an hour of running or walking each Saturday morning may be seen as only a small part of what parkrun represents. I've seen it literally have the power to change and to save lives. To be involved in something that can do that, provides an enormous buzz."
When you run that track on a Saturday, there are people smiling and chatting, plenty of high fives and words of encouragement, new friendships being forged and even blossoming love. The parkrun community often commemorates recognised days of support, members who have passed away, and local charities.
"I love the celebrations of life's journeys as well as one's own running journey," Bernadette Bennett says.
And when you're out there on the course, huffing and puffing, it's reassuring to know that there will be people cheering you across the finish line, no matter how long it takes you to get there.