A Runner (Chapter 4)

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IMG_2110I have always been a runner. Okay, maybe not always. But it was something that did come naturally to me.

I remember when in secondary school, we would run laps around a circular path in the park that separated the primary school from the secondary school which I attended. At the time, I thought that this path was a long distance, but returning to the area a few years ago I was surprised at how small it actually was. I was usually well out in front. I didn’t see my ability as anything special. It was just what I did.

My passion for running really comes from my father. How or why he started running is something I can’t say for sure, but it is likely to be been influenced by the interest in running during the 1970s. My father read the books of people like James Fixx, and also became involved in orienteering. In fact, he travelled overseas a couple of times to attend orienteering meets.

I would go so far as to say that my father was at his happiest when running. He showed me where he ran, and these become daily routines for me. I don’t think we ever ran together. We weren’t joggers, but runners.

My father ran a marathon. I remember seeing him at the finish line. He was part of a larger movement of runners, but each one also achieving their own personal victory no matter what time they completed the distance.

A few years later in 1983, I followed his example and ran a marathon myself. My time was pretty ordinary, but I was only young. I don’t think I really appreciated the value of training as a means to improve performance at that time.

Around the same time, I remember going to some junior athletics meets, but I just couldn’t get into the intensity of the other competitors and coaches. For me, exercise came naturally and was something I enjoyed. That was enough for me.

One time, I remember meeting Robert De Castella at an event somewhere. I knew he was famous for running, but I don’t think I was really aware of why he was among Australia’s, and even the world’s, greatest runners. Looking back, I cringe at my naivety.

Distance was my thing. I could run with endurance and probably had a gift. I was fast enough, and remember running a pretty quick 5 km course around Albert Park Lake and The Tan course which circumferenced the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne. Even though I was fast, there were always others who were faster. I don’t think I understood then that it might be possible to train and become the best.

I also used to ride my bicycle a lot at that time. On one occasion, in fact the year before I joined the Australian Army, I rode from Melbourne to Singleton. It just seemed like a good thing to do. There was no real occasion, and I have often thought that if I was going to do such a thing now that there would need to be a reason combined with a circus of media and fundraising. Other than getting my photo on the front page of The Argus in Singleton at my uncle’s insistence, it was a simple journey full of adventure. I probably didn’t appreciate my ability to get things done and took a lot of my youth for granted.

After joining the army, I ran long distances for sport and was good at cross country. I later was involved in a sport called “rogaining” where in pairs we would run 24 hour orienteering-style events across large areas of the bush. They were great days.

I’m not quite sure how I came to choose running as the vehicle for raising awareness at the beginning of this journey described by this book. There had been no precedent that led me to setting a challenge involving running, and I wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in terms of being a runner.

I had an idea at the very beginning of this journey which much later would lead me to begin the 10 City Bridge Run. This idea was to undertake something I called the “7 x 7 Bridge Run” where I would run seven laps of a 25 km course looping around Sydney Harbour in seven days as a stunt to raise awareness for homelessness. My only real exposure to homelessness at that time was some volunteer work I had done in London, New York and San Francisco with some great organisations that we impacting people caught in what I would describe as chronic homelessness. I thought it would be worth opening a similar conversation in the city which I lived at the time, Sydney, and that by running across bridges through different suburbs I could symbolically show a connection between people. My contention was that people who were homeless came from somewhere, and the many households that sat around Sydney Harbour were as likely to have their own stories as much as those places that seemed to be like a beacon for people who were homeless. At that time, I had never had any experience of being homeless myself personally.

My efforts were to be entirely self-funded, and I approached a well known charity which seemed to be doing great work in this area. We agreed that through this running, it could be a good vehicle for opening a conversation. I agreed that the charity might be able to do some fundraising of the back of this initiative. None of us knew what the outcome might be, but to their credit they were wholly supportive of a new approach and a new idea. It was new territory to explore.

There was an organisation in Sydney at the time which conducted a walk around the harbour once a year. We were a few months away from when I was going to conduct this event, so I finally was able to connect with the organiser of this harbour walk so that I could introduce myself and suggest that we had an opportunity to share what worked. Together, I thought it was a natural way to collaborate. His response was entirely baffling. After I explained on the phone what I was planning, his response was incredulous as he exclaimed: “Look mate, you can’t just go and make a sandwich then call yourself McDonalds”. I was at a loss as to what he meant, so asked him to explain further. “Mate, if you do that, I will sue you. We have spent a lot of money on our branding, and the last thing we need is some upstart to come along and ruin it for us all.” Welcome to the wonderful world of professional fundraising…

I rang the organisation who I had approached earlier to work with on this endeavour, and explained that the response I received on my phone call presented too much risk to their brand to continue. I was willing to have a go, but I thought there was too much room for unnecessary controversy. That was 2007, and I parked the idea thinking that it would remain forever on the shelf.

It was around this time that I first met my good mate, Tim. He asked what I had been up to, and I explained this conundrum I found myself in. I think Tim is the one person who has seen this whole journey unfold from that point onwards. This is worth remarking about because Tim’s kindness which I have subsequently benefited from first-hand stood in stark contrast to the mean-spirited response from the person who I had encountered earlier. Be careful of your words and actions: they can embolden someone to better things or extinguish dreams that would otherwise make the world a better place.

The organisation I was offering to support were really good about the whole situation, and later invited me to their annual gala evening. I was great that they included me on their invitation, but I still had unresolved feelings about how this 7 x 7 Bridge Run had ended. My instinct was to push back, as I sensed the response I received an enormous injustice on so many levels, but I saw the reputation of the institution as more important than my personal soap box.

And this is where this book could have ended, except for a meeting with a few friends a short while later which changed the conversation forever.

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