Words by Michael McAtomney
On Sunday morning, the distant and oft-forgotten borough of New York City – Staten Island – will play host to over 60,000 new temporary visitors and tourists from around the globe. No, Staten Island still hasn’t become cool. Instead, these transitory guests are trekking to the southernmost borough to compete in the annual New York City marathon.
For many of the 60,000 plus athletes, the most challenging hurdle of the marathon will be the 26.2 mile course that awaits. For eleven Indigenous Australian athletes, however, the biggest challenges came long before November of 2017. Layne Brown, Scott Cox, Luke Reidy, Zane Sparke, Tim Stephens, Roy Tilmouth, April Barry, Maletta Seriat, Natasha Shires, Cara Smith and Allirra Winmar make up the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP) team competing in the 2017 NYC marathon.
Founded in 2009 as the brainchild of Australians Matt Long and world marathon champion Rob de Castella, the Indigenous Marathon Project started under the premise that Indigenous Australian athletes could rival the dominance of the nations like Kenya and Ethiopia that have been traditional distance running powerhouses. Since 2009, the project has transformed into something much greater. Each year, Indigenous Australians from the farthest reaches of the continent compete for places on a squad that will ultimately tackle the world’s most famous marathons. After an application process comprising of a three to five kilometer run and an interview with head coach Rob de Castella, the successful applicants begin an arduous yet rewarding six month program. Comprised of both physical training and education, the program prepares the runners not just for New York’s gruelling 26.2 mile marathon but moreover, for life beyond the finish line.
The hardships faced by Indigenous Australians are impossible to comprehend for anyone that has not lived life wearing those shoes. Years of racial discrimination have left generations of Indigenous Australians at a significant disadvantage when it comes to physical and mental health. Despite making up only 3% of the Australian populace, nearly 50% of Australia’s suicides occur in the Indigenous Australian community. Furthermore, the infant mortality rate for Indigenous Australians is double that of non-indigenous children and their adult incarceration rate is thirteen times that of their non-indigenous counterparts. Compounding these travesties is the Indigenous Australian population’s ongoing battle for recognition as first peoples in the Australian Constitution.
Yes, you read that correctly – this has yet to happen. The Indigenous Marathon Project aims to not only improve the physical health and endurance of the athletes, but to provide them with tangible qualifications in health, fitness, first aid and media training to impart to future generations.
For those of us wondering why anyone would ruin a perfectly good Sunday by running to the point of exhaustion, well, we just lack the deep motivation necessary for an undertaking this grueling event. The NYC Marathon is both public yet deeply personal for many of the runners. Maletta Seriat, an aged care worker from Thursday Island in the Far North of Australia, lost her youngest child to chronic lung disease and influenza in 2014. This personal tragedy is what will inspire Maletta to finish strong in the final stages of this Sunday’s marathon. Scott Cox, a single father of three from the remote region of Broome in Western Australia, has a simpler but no less meaningful motivation: “I just want to be a good role model for [my children] and my community, and show them that if you do a bit of hard work you can do anything” says Cox. Personal motivations aside, the eleven IMP runners will have plenty of support both here and at home. Also, the Indigenous Marathon Project is teaming up with Travelling Fit, a conglomerate of one hundred other Australian’s bracing themselves for the challenge.
The marathon may end in Central Park on Sunday, but as the head coach de Castella puts it, “when [our team] finishes the marathon here it is just the start…they are forging a new path for Indigenous people, and they are having the courage to step up and go to the front and push the pace.”
Here at Convicts, we could use some extra exercise, but running a marathon won’t be on the cards for us this fall. All the energy we do have, however, will be right behind these IMP athletes come those last six hard miles on Sunday.
Good luck, team.
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