For marathon champion Robert de Castella, exercise is a vehicle for positive change.
In 2009, the former Commonwealth Games gold medallist came up with the idea of starting an Indigenous Marathon Project. Rob hoped to discover Indigenous Australians with a natural running ability. And he hoped he might find someone capable of taking on the world’s top long-distance runners in the New York Marathon.
A year later, Rob joined forces with GoodOil Films, a company interested in following the project for a documentary. Rob and writer/director Matt Long started planning how they would put amateur marathon runners in the biggest race in the world. With help from the Australian Sports Commission, they sent out a countrywide call for volunteers: Does anyone want a free trip to New York?
Rob and Matt were overwhelmed with responses. “But I don’t think people really knew what a marathon was, let alone how hard and how far it was,” Rob says.
Rob had enough funding secured to support four runners: Juan Darwin, 22, from Maningrida in Arnhem Land; Joseph Davies, 18, from the remote mining town of Kununurra; and Caleb Hart, 17, and Charlie Maher, 27, both from Alice Springs.
Their goal was to finish the New York City Marathon, and the journey was documented in Running to America in 2011.
“What I wanted to do was give these young men a real culture shock and make them realise that the world is this amazing place, but you’ve got to have courage and you’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to work hard,” says Rob, who was the world’s fastest marathon runner from 1981–1984.
“[Running] is a wonderful metaphor for so much in life. It can relate directly to self-pride, self-worth and self-confidence.”
It was Rob’s first time visiting Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and Alice Springs. The scope of the challenge became evident almost immediately.
“There’s no history, no culture of distance running in these areas,” Rob says. “Training by yourself was foreign.”
For Juan, training in the isolated and small community of Maningrida presented a particularly unusual obstacle.
“No-one there runs or even walks fast because there are so many town dogs. These dogs get very vicious, and if you’re running, they’ll run after you and try to bite you,” Rob says.
Juan was prepared to relocate to Darwin for training, and this meant leaving his wife and young son behind. Then, just a couple of months before Juan was due to run in New York, his brother passed away in a car accident.
“All concepts of running or going to New York were just not priorities anymore,” says Rob.
But with perseverance, Juan continued his training. As well as its benefits to physical health, running can have positive impacts on emotional and mental health.
“I think the run, in some ways, actually helped him to deal with the trauma of the loss of his brother,” Rob says.
“Running is about you. Every step you take is a personal triumph. Especially when you feel like you want to quit.”
Thanks to funding from various organisations, including a grant from the Australian Unity Foundation, the program has been able to continue.
Six years on and with 65 program graduates, the Indigenous Marathon Foundation’s annual marathon project is the crux of a holistic program that campaigns to educate and ultimately give back to communities.
While Rob says the program has been refined and improved, the most important aspect is that the veteran runners are becoming coaches. Many are working in their local communities, organising fun runs for all ages and inspiring others.
At the end of the program, each runner has also completed a Level 1 Coaching Certificate with Athletics Australia, as well as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid certificates. This year, runners are also undertaking a Certificate IV in Sport and Recreation.
Of the 65 runners, Rob estimates 25 have gone on to run in iconic international marathons in Tokyo, Vancouver, Boston, London, Maui, Frankfurt, Berlin – and even the North Pole.
“Each one of our graduates is this rock that we drop, and they send out ripples,” says Rob. “Those ripples inspire other people to step up, and either run or just take more responsibility for their health and wellbeing.”
Words: Lachean Humphreys
Running to America (2011) is directed by Matt Long and Steven McGregor and produced by Sydney-based GoodOil films. Email orders can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org ($20 including postage)