“Kikiamah” was a cattle and cropping property located near Thuddungra, 45kms from Young in South Western New South Wales. For me, the greatest attribute of country life was the open spaces. The vastness to explore and play. From riding motor bikes and horses, to fishing and swimming in dams and creeks. It was truly a remarkable place to explore and live. But, as previously mentioned by Tim Davidson in his post, life growing up in rural Australia can have its challenges.
For me, often the greatest challenge coincided with the trip home from school. The bus trip was a little over an hour most days, which was relatively boring for a young child full of energy. Eventually being dropped off at the bus stop, our front gate was another 14km down the Thuddungra Road. Dad would be there waiting at the bus stop to take us home, and it was usually between 4.05pm and 4.14pm that my brothers, Charles and Edward (and my sister Phoebe on the occasion), would engage in such outrageous behaviour that Dad would make us all get out of the car at our front gate and run home. But as with many rural properties, home was still 2km from the front gate (and mailbox pictured below).
As dad drove the 2km home in the Toyota Hilux ute, dust spraying everywhere, the choices became somewhat limited. Stay and be showered in rocks by my brothers, or run. Then when summer came around, so did the King Brown snakes, so the options became even fewer.
The runs would always start off competitive, my sister taking the lead. But what would ensue was the exhilarating thrill of chasing my sister, the lungs burning, legs searing in pursuit of a distant goal.
My sister would often win. Phoebe the gazelle, light and effortless when running. Me more like a buffalo, not very gifted at moving but very keen on wrestling the crown of the best endurance runner in the family for a day.
The other two, well they were more gifted than me in every sense of the word. I wonder what they truly could have achieved in Rugby Union, had they possessed my stubborn belligerence and inability to give up. This is not to diminish their incredibly successful business careers, or impressive Rugby Union achievements. Merely stating if my sister was the gazelle and I was the buffalo, well those two were more like a pair of Kalahari lions.
Phoebe went on to have a very successful junior track career. I often wonder what would of happened had she been nurtured better during her formative years post leaving the amazing tutelage of Warren Martin at North Turramurra Oval. So many Australian junior athlete’s either break or burn out, or both. I wonder do we truly understand the concept of keeping athletes in a sport long enough for them to shine, rather than seek short term achievements. That’s another story.
Fast forward some years, and I dabbled in track and field at school, but it was always orientated towards improving my acceleration and velocity profiles and capacities, to optimise my Rugby Union playing performance. I wanted to maximise my ball carrying, kick chase and repeat efforts, the problem was that it lacked the freedom and purity of my initial love of running.
Post retirement from Rugby Union (for the 9th time officially or unofficially), life nowadays dances to a very different beat. Longing for some fulfillment in the world through exercise. For well over 8 months I searched and oscillated between weights, Crossfit, F45, running, not exercising, yoga and any form of stimulation that could fill the cravings that most ex-professional sportsmen seek. I was lost, not lost in terms of who I was or what I wanted to do in life, but how could I get a sense of purpose in exercising. I still believe today, one who works within the health profession, needs to epitomise the change within themselves that they often seek in others.
It started on a Monday afternoon in May 2018, in Glebe. Two Human Performance athletes, Lewis Horenko and Lora Storey, both on similar yet different stages of their athletic journey. Previously riddled with injury, disappointment and set-backs, both were seeking solace and excitement in the season ahead. After completing one of our structural strengthening and rehabilitation sessions, they invited me to join them on an afternoon stroll. Having convinced me they were embarking on a recovery/capacity run (45 minutes for Lewis and 40 minutes for Lora), I ignorantly accepted.
We headed east along Blackwattle Bay foreshore, and the first couple of kilometres were okay. By okay, I mean highly uncomfortable, but my ego overpowered this for the moment. For Lora and Lewis, it was clear they were taking it easy, somewhere between 4.30min/km and 4.40min/km.
I focussed on placing my foot under my hip, and trying to be as effortless as possible with my arm action. This was quite different to how I had been trained as a rugby player, under a multitude of strength and conditioning coaches and speed gurus such as Martin Harland, Ross Jeffs, Tim Leahy, Henry Mitchell and even Matt Shirvington. Some of the best in the world at their craft. My focus then was on extension, aggressive ground contact, accelerate foot into ground and produce optimal hip extension and shank positions.
The moment my life changed was between the 5th and the 6th kilometre, where Lora thought it would be entertaining to drop the hammer to a low 4min/km and leave me gasping for air and oxygen. What had started out as a somewhat enjoyable challenge, became an unbearable, pain staking and brutal experience. My heart rate was through the roof and my lungs were screaming. I started obsessively checking my watch, and realised we were only 26 minutes in and have 14 to go.
The next 14 minutes were intertwined with so many thoughts, feelings and pain.
Lora and I stop at 40 minutes, Lewis keeps going for an extra 5 minutes. I start to think about what I have done and the journey I am beginning to start. I go home tail between legs and start reading: ‘The Science of Running’ by Steve Magness, ‘Endure Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance’ by Alex Hutchinson and ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami.
My ego may have been dented, but my early childhood passion for running was reignited.
Who would of thought that the pain, enduring, searing sensations one can experience whilst running, would become a meditative healing force for a busted up, broken old footballer.
I often speak with Sue Dill Macky (nee Landells), an Olympic silver medallist in 400IM in Los Angeles, discussing the challenges when ones sporting career is over, but also how one can find purpose in difficult physical challenges. Sue told me to enjoy the song “Hurt so Good” by John Mellencamp when running, as she did when swimming.
Through these conversations with Sue, one day the epiphany finally came to me; I don’t miss the game of Rugby Union, I miss the challenge of seeing where I can push my body, the upper limits of human performance.
It’s time I seek comfort in exercising, and in hurting so good.
The initial stages of hurting so good centre around my feet, with blisters and loss of toe nails now a ridiculously common occurrence. Yet, despite the blood on the sheets from the bubbling carnage on my feet, the euphoria of finding peace in the process and journey is beyond words.
As much as I still have a lot to learn about in this vocation, I love it. I am the kid chasing my sister on the roads of country New South Wales. As I pound the pavement along Blackwattle Bay, things begin to change within me. Endings end and new beginnings begin.
I have now been running for 4 months. 5 – 7 days a week, at various intensities and duration, anywhere between 40-70km a week. My body has changed having dropped some weight too.
But that’s not why I love it.
I love it because it is like everything extraordinary that I have done thus far in my life. From professional sport, transitioning out of sport, academic pursuits, work, relationships: it is life. You have good and bad days, you have fears, you have doubts, and you sometimes want it to go faster than you are probably capable of. But if you hang in there for long enough, you grit your teeth, you endure, you enjoy and celebrate your successes, you will succeed.
Every journey (and every run) is an opportunity to earn a little more about yourself. Rain, hail or shine, after a run, I have a deeper sense and desire to be a better son, sibling, partner, dad and friend.
I have learnt to laugh and smile a lot more at myself and the way life has panned out. Broken relationships, time lost, behaviours, moments and disappointments can’t be undone, but my perspective has shifted on focusing and nurturing the positives of life.
I have changed for the better, and I believe something like running (or exercise) has the power to do this to anyone.
Next week… ‘New Beginnings (Part 3): Science of Running’