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The Power Of Running

The Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) isn’t just about achieving PB’s. It’s about using the simple sport of running to change lives and provide a sense of empowerment, purpose and pride to celebrate resilience and achievement, and create inspirational Indigenous leaders.

Rhett Burraston

29, Campbelltown, NSW

I used to describe myself, as having a life that was strewn with adversity blended with privilege, compared to some of my friends and family. That’s how I used to describe my life by comparing it to others, but to talk and to think like that is rude. It is rude to be comparable of circumstances and trauma and the adversities of others. It’s easy to do, be comparable like that, but we shouldn’t, because when we do, we diminish the uniqueness of that individual’s story. That’s what makes us human, our story. When we compare stories, we disintegrate our capacity for humanity. In short, I’m a simple man, with few layers of complexity. There has been a considerable amount of sadness in my life, mixed with luck, opportunity, hard work and love. 

I was born and raised in Campbelltown, New South Wales, and a single father to three children who I have in my care week on and week off. I have two daughters, Bianca, almost 15, Sienna-Estelle, 9 and a half, and a son, Mindarie, who is almost 3. My bloodlines descend from the Mandandanji, Ngemba, Weilwan and Wiradjuri peoples and I also have special cultural ties to the Yuin nation. I grew up a pretty shy and quiet child, and couldn’t speak properly until I was five, because I couldn’t hear correctly. I lived in a household where I was the only Aboriginal person. This didn’t change until the birth of my second daughter, when I was 19 – my eldest daughter is not my biological daughter, but I raise her and treat her just like my own. I grew up experiencing and witnessing the deficit that Aboriginal people, due to where I lived and growing up with my Aunties and Uncles, my mum’s siblings are Aboriginal. When I reflect on my Aboriginality as a child, it was random and spontaneous. I’d learn culture, via a phone call from jail, or through one of my Uncles stints on bail or during their transit whilst being on the run. Memories like this, instilled a desire in me to help people. 

“Running gives you an opportunity to see yourself, truly see yourself. Not the version you wish to display or be for the sake of others.”

That journey kicked off in my teenage years, getting involved in community work, through volunteering, some casual work and the odd leadership program. These opportunities increased and I worked my way into roles with more responsibility. In 2015, I was recognised as the inaugural NSW/ACT Young Achiever of the Year. I don’t know how, and it didn’t faze me too much. Other people thought it was a big deal and in hindsight I should have milked it a bit more. 

Probably since about 11 years old, I had dealt with mental illness which was self-diagnosed. That changed in 2017 when I realised the burden I had been carrying for years. It was my own doing, and it unleashed a flood of hurt. I hit rock bottom. I know now what that looks like. I went in and out of mental health units, psychiatrist to psychiatrist. I was prescribed a cocktail of medications and it was nothing to scull a beer at 9am. I became irrational and aggressive. I walked away from a A$100,000 paying job to end up on Centrelink. It was jail or death. 

I remember waking up one morning, in hospital. You get given this claustrophobic room to reside in, stained with the stench of second-hand cigarette. The nurses wake everyone up routinely to receive their medication, followed by an inspection of your mouth to ensure you have consumed it. I remember saying to myself, “I want to get out of here”. I didn’t want to do it anymore. But something had to give, and I decided to heal. That is a process in itself, you can’t do it over night. It’s ongoing as well as the big question, as to how? 

I am lucky that I have my culture, and I am lucky to be privy to strong ceremony and the undying rituals of the most alive ancient culture in the world. This gave me good stead to be able to rock up and trial for the IMP in 2019. I had done enough work on myself to entertain the idea of doing this program. I remember on the day I had enough money to buy a drink and get the bus home. So, I jumped on the train and ended up getting fined. I cheekily thought a plane ticket to New York will cover that cost. I wanted to do this program to shake the demons I had in my life. I ran 5-kilometres that day, for the first time ever. I felt on top of the world when finishing but 2019 wasn’t to be the year for me. For the second time, I trialled for IMP. And for the second time in my life, I ran 5-kilometres, beating my time from the year prior, possessing a greater level of acceptance, open to the possibility of not being selected and optimistic about trying out again. Despite the affliction of 2020, it has been my year. I became a squad member.

For the last 10 years, IMP squad members have travelled to New York to run a marathon together after a mere six months of training. Due to Covid-19 halting travel to New York in 2020 this year’s squad were unsure of their path. However, it seemed inevitable that an intervention was in order to prevent straying from IMP’s ritual and customs of running a marathon in the same year of your selection into the squad. So, an alternative plan was enacted. What that entailed was a full moon, and the powerful landscape that is the spiritual heartbeat of our nation.

To an extent, I believe all Australians, resonate with the red sand of the centre, irrespective of whether or not their senses have been privy to the experience. After all, it is iconically Australian. Of course, I’m talking about Central Australia, in particular Alice Springs, the spiritual heartbeat of Australia and the Indigenous Marathon Foundation.

In 2020, the most profound year of this millennium, the 2020 IMP squad was to run their first marathon in Alice Springs. They began their journey at 10pm on October the 31st under a full moon, finishing the early hours of November 1st.

I believe that I am quite honest, and so heading into the marathon I was honest about my intentions regarding running and believed that I would not continue to run post-marathon. I thought I would finish it and then be done with running. I wanted to get this journey over and done with. It had likened to a chore, to go out and train. Perspective can be beautiful as well as a curse.

The mantra ‘you’re never the same person after a marathon’ was just words to me. Until I finished. It is definitely a crucible, a somewhat safe, controlled crucible, not within reach of the everyday person. I don’t have the time or space to explain the euphoria, the wisdom, knowledge and strength extracted from my experience. But I will share this… Running gives you the chance to look at self, to work on self, in a way that is so much more than just physically. Like those in the profession of archaeology – the study of human activity – you too can practice it, you can do your own personal archaeology. It might be on a 30-kilometre run, it might be more or less. But in those moments of solace and isolation it facilitates the occupancy of self. Those times allow you to excavate the true and authentic version of you, from the layers of stories and unprocessed emotions resulting from trauma and deep hurt. Running gives you an opportunity to see yourself, truly see yourself. Not the version you wish to display or be for the sake of others. 

I’m more than a single Dad! Running that distance on Arrente country reaffirmed that. My guilt, my shame, my regret and pain and devastation inflicted on others, I confronted it, I owned it, and welcomed it. I shook hands with it. Then laughed at it. And in that moment, at around 34.5 kilometres, that part of my being and identity were no more. My sorrow and stressors from the past became my friend. 

I used to think I only had my culture, as a means to heal. But running can be a medicine too.

Another one of Rob De Castella’s sayings is “don’t disrespect the marathon”. So as much as the marathon culminated in that great realisation of truth, it was the process, it was the hundreds of kilometres that lead to that, it was the minutes and the hours. The discomfort and self psycho-social support that got me out into the world to run. We can only ever live one day at a time, and we can only ever put one foot in front of the other. Only you can look at self, only you can run. 

TANESHIA ATKINSON

27, Brisbane, QLD

I don’t remember a whole lot from the 2019 New York City Marathon. I remember lessons I was learning along the way, conversations I was having with myself, and the energy I was consuming from the rowdy spectators throughout the five boroughs in New York. The 35-kilometre mark was really significant for me. It was at this point I decided the marathon was entirely impossible. I couldn’t physically move my legs anymore but somehow, they kept going. I was crying uncontrollably but somehow, I kept breathing. I could no longer keep my eyes open, but my vision was stronger than ever.

‘You are stronger than you think. You are stronger thank you think, don’t stop’. The words of Adrian Dodson-Shaw, IMP Head Coach were echoing through my head for 5 hours and 14 minutes. ‘Running is easy, just one foot in front of the other’, the simple yet brilliant words from Rob DeCastella, Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) founder reminded me what I needed to do to achieve what I once thought was impossible. 

I am a Yorta Yorta and Bangerang woman originally from Shepparton in Victoria, however I grew up on Bundjalung country in Northern NSW. I was a little active growing up as a teenager, and as an adult I was a semi-regular-ish-cross-fitter but running was something I hardly did and certainly never enjoyed. I didn’t like how repetitive it was and the level of self-determination required to continue after the first few hundred metres. Considering this, applying for the IMP was a wild choice but after following the empowering journey of other graduates, I knew I needed to be a part of it. My acceptance into the 2019 squad will forever reaffirm that timing is everything, and despite adversities we have faced or may be facing, and our traumas and our fears, we are exactly where we are meant to be.

The months leading up to IMP try-outs were some of the most challenging times of my life. During this period my family saw the passing of my father, my grandfather and my grandmother. I moved to Brisbane after an almost five-year stint in Canberra and had experienced some debilitating moments with my mental health. One day after a panic attack I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house to go to work but through my IMP journey, the strong connections I made and the experiences we shared, my mental health is strong. I have a renewed sense of purpose and fulfilment, and my healing journey has accelerated.

It’s been amazing to see the impact my marathon journey has had on those around me, particularly the young people I was working with at the time. I remind those in my sphere of influence that if I can complete a marathon, they can truly achieve anything. 

As Graduate #93, I’m so proud to be part of the IMF family. The connections we have are unbreakable and the things we have shared can’t really be put into words. I am in awe of the journey of each individual involved and continuously reflect on their strength, determination and power, and their passion for community. If there’s one thing my involvement with IMF has taught me, it’s that you are so much stronger than you think. Find your boundaries and run through them, one step at time. 

The Indigenous Marathon Project

The Indigenous Marathon Project celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resilience and achievements and uses running to push squad members’ physical and emotional boundaries to a new level with just six months of training. Established in 2010, the Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) has empowered 109 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to complete a marathon – but running is only the half of it. To become an IMP graduate, squad members must also complete compulsory health education, and attend training camps throughout the year. IMF uses the analogy that the marathon finish line is only the start line, and as graduates we must be the change we want to see in the world and continue to support, uplift and inspire those around us. 

Founder, marathon legend Rob De Castella (Deeks), aims for the donation-supported project to provide positive role models who will inspire others in their communities to adopt healthy lifestyles – and to convince the runners themselves that they’re capable of overcoming whatever challenges they face.

“The expectations of Indigenous Australians and First Nations people is that they are always struggling, and are often perceived negatively in the media,” says Deeks. “I want to use the marathon to show how strong and determined Indigenous Australians are and what capacity they have to do amazing things. The marathon is such a metaphor for overcoming challenging situations and a great way to change people’s perceptions,” he says.

To find out more visit imf.org.au

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