Friday, August 30, 2013

"If you want to get fit, run 10k. If you want to change your life, run a marathon." - Rob de Castella, Murray Chapman Speaker Series

Former Olympic and Commonwealth Games marathon runner, Rob de Castella, delivered the address at the latest event in the Murray Chapman Speaker Series on 28 August.  De Castella spoke about his work with the Indigenous Marathon Project, and the potential for such programs to help in addressing physical and psychological issues within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Indigenous Marathon Project was born out of a conversation between documentary filmmaker Matt Long and de Castella in 2009, where Long suggested that perhaps Indigenous Australians could be competitive in the marathon at an international level.

What followed from this conversation was a journey of discovery and inspiration.  De Castella and his team undertook a "recruitment drive" in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and selected four young men - Juan Darwin, Joseph Davies, Caleb Hart and Charlie Maher - from Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and the Central Desert to train for the New York Marathon.  

Throughout the training process, de Castella was confronted by the myriad of social, cultural and psychological issues that impact on the men and women living in these Aboriginal communities.  The project became about much more than just entering a marathon - it became a mission of self-empowerment, working to dispel the sense of hopelessness and despair that many of the community members experience.  

Working towards that first New York Marathon, de Castella revealed that there were a number of unexpected pitfalls along the way, including the process of obtaining a passport for one of the competitors. Juan Darwin, from Maningrida, didn't have a birth certificate, making the paperwork associated with his application rather difficult.  Darwin eventually received his passport a few days before the team was due to leave for New York.  His friends and family in Maningrida were incredibly proud of him, not, as de Castella noted, because he was going to run the marathon, but because he was the only person in the community to have a passport. Training also proved troublesome in Maningrida, where packs of wild dogs didn't look too favourably on would-be marathon runners improving their stamina.  This issue was resolved with the help of the local police, who were able to drop Darwin further outside of town, allowing him to run back - slowing to a walk when the dogs appeared, of course.

De Castella at an early training camp with
Juan Darwin, Joseph Davies, Caleb Hart and Charlie Maher

Ultimately, despite the setbacks, all four men crossed the finish line at the New York Marathon. Their story was the subject of the 2011 documentary Running to America.

The Indigenous Marathon Program has grown in leaps and bounds since that first "trial run". Nominations for the program are received each year from November to January, for potential participants, men and women, between 18 and 30. De Castella said that usually they receive 130-150 nominations.  The program team whittle down the field, and then visit nominees in their communities.  Successful nominees are then invited to attend a number of training camps, the first of which is held in Canberra. Participants in the program undertake a Certificate IV in Indigenous Health and Leisure, providing them with a vocational qualification after the program has finished. The program has now entered runners in the New York, Boston and Tokyo marathons.

As de Castella noted, the program is about far more than just running, or a trip overseas. Many people living in these remote communities are sick of seeing their friends and family dying from chronic disease, or addictions to drugs and alcohol, and want to do something positive. As de Castella learned through that first training process, chronic illness cannot be addressed unless people are empowered and have a sense of their own worth and access to educational and vocational opportunities, giving them something to get healthy for. 

The core tenet of the Indigenous Marathon Project was summed up very nicely by de Castella:

Running is simple. Running is just putting one foot in front of the other. But it changes you.

And it can help you change others.

Heather McGowan
Project Officer

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