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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Merrilyn has volunteered at parkrun 400 times without ever having run the course. Here’s what keeps her coming back

When her local parkrun shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, Merrilyn McMillan was, in her words, “devastated”.

“I was totally lost,” she told ABC Sport.

“It was like someone had died.”

Just over a decade ago, the now 73-year-old McMillan had no inkling that the community-based activity would become such an integral part of her life.

Her husband, Malcolm, a keen runner, had read about the arrival of the global phenomenon in Adelaide in the local paper.

While he ran the 5km Torrens course, she would sit in the car knitting and reading the news.

One Saturday morning, when no volunteers turned up, Merrilyn was “rounded up” to help out.

Now, the once reluctant volunteer is a veteran of no less than 412 parkruns, all the more remarkable because she has never walked or run the event.

Merrilyn Mcmillan, Dressed In A Yellow High-Vis Vest, Smiles While Greeting A Parkrun Participant
Merrilyn McMillan (right) says volunteering at parkrun leaves her feeling ‘uplifted’.,Supplied: Merrilyn McMillan,

So what keeps her coming back?

“And you feel appreciated. The participants are constantly saying thank you, and it gives them an anchor too, like when you’ve gone away on holidays and come back, they say ‘oh we’ve missed you’.”

“I mean, it’s lovely to get praise,” she added.

“But at the same time, you’re not doing it for the praise. To me it’s just something I do which benefits me.

“It makes you feel like you’ve got something to contribute — you don’t feel so useless. I think it’s good for your self-esteem, and your mental health is a big part of your physical health.”

When parkrun first came to Adelaide, McMillan had been out of work for 10 years.

Merrilyn Mcmillan Smiles For The Camera With Another Parkrun Volunteer
Merrilyn McMillan (right) was out of work for a decade before she volunteered at parkrun. ,Supplied: Merrilyn McMillan,

She had previously worked in the office of an equipment testing company, but after a restructure that saw staff numbers dramatically reduced, McMillan found herself taking on more and more responsibilities.

“I was always one of those people who just managed to get everything done,” she said.

“And then suddenly, I wasn’t getting things done. It was all too much and physically I started to break down.”

McMillan, who was surviving on — “no joke” — 18 cups of coffee a day, eventually fell ill with pneumonia.

One result of the pneumonia was that she could no longer stand the smell or taste of coffee. Then the excruciating headaches began.

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“And then I collapsed in the neurologist’s rooms.”

What followed, according to McMillan, was a “full mental breakdown”.

The neurologist sent her straight to hospital and into the care of a dedicated mental health team.

With the help of an “extremely good psychiatrist”, among others, McMillan slowly began to recover, but she never returned to work.

“The first 10 years after [finishing work]I didn’t make a lot of progress, because I sort of isolated myself, went into myself,” she said.

“So it took a bit to get back out there.

“They say that exercise is good for your mental health, but being a parkrun volunteer is as good as it gets. It’s the best possible medication — you can’t bottle it.”

60,000 people volunteer more than half a million times without running or walking

This national volunteer week, parkrun is celebrating some remarkable milestones.

Globally, just under 60,000 people like McMillan have never run or walked the event, but between them have volunteered half a million times.

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In Australia, over the 11 years since the event first arrived, a total of 126,542 people have volunteered.

And, since pandemic restrictions eased, parkrun has maintained its pre-COVID number of volunteers, including recruiting 11,933 people to the event for the first time.

Carol Cunningham, head of volunteering management at parkrun, said this was in part due to how “easy and accessible” signing up is.

“You could literally walk to your car, come along tomorrow and say ‘I want to volunteer’, and we’d say ‘no dramas, come and help over here’,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said parkrun also had the advantage of being an outdoor activity, which allowed for social distancing and “easing into” physical activity.

“There’s still some anxiety in the community around COVID… and many people have come out of two years of the pandemic where they’ve been inactive. They haven’t been around people, and volunteering offers them an opportunity to be out in the fresh air and do a bit of movement,” she said.

“It helps people get back to where they were before COVID, reassures them, builds their confidence back up and gives them an alternative pathway to be out in their community.”

Volunteering ‘a bit of an addiction’, says Mosman local

Robyn Mosman Parkrun Cardboard Frame Edited
Robyn Lindsay volunteers at the same spot every Saturday, affectionately known as ‘Robyn’s Hill’.,Supplied: parkrun Australia,

Connection to community is what gets Robyn Lindsay out of bed every Saturday morning to volunteer at the 7am Mosman parkrun in Sydney.

Since 2015, the 66-year-old has volunteered a total of 255 times.

“I’m not a runner, I’m more of a plodder,” says Lindsay.

“I have done some runs, but I wasn’t happy with my 30-minute-plus times. That’s pure vanity.

“So I fell into volunteering, and it has become a bit of an addiction.”

Each Saturday, Lindsay stations herself in the same spot: a hill near the Mosman spit bridge that has affectionately become known — by fellow parkrunners — as “Robyn’s Hill”.

Part of the appeal of being stationed on the hill, she says, is that the Mosman course sees participants walk or run the hill three times.

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