Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Recently I had the privilege of being part of Movember, a fundraising cause which aims to raise awareness of Men's Health; particularly prostate cancer and depression. As part of my role of an Ambassador at Lake Crackenback Resort and Spa, I was invited to speak at their annual Movember Sportsman's Dinner which included an informal Q & A session with MC of the night Ben Ikin and included other guest speakers Jared Tallent and Nick Farr Jones. It also coincided with my second Trail Running Camp that I cohost with Hanny Allston at the resort.

I would like to sincerely thank all those that donated to the cause via my Movember Page. All up $436 was raised and the team I was part of raised $2000. A pretty good effort and worth carrying that hideous thing on my top lip for a month! I would like to thank Scott O'Neile, the GM at Lake Crackenback for the opportunity to be part of the wonderful night. Below is a bit of a talk that I prepared.

'Changing the face of Men’s Health'
I participate in a sport that is pretty hardcore, it’s an individual sport that pushes mind and body to the absolute limit. It’s called ultra marathon running. And just because I love it so much, I make it harder by doing it not on flat roads but on some of the toughest terrain imaginable; up and down mountain trails (if there is a trail), through creeks and mud and bog, sometimes over ice and snow and sometimes, if I’m lucky enough to be racing abroad, in literally quite breathtaking altitude. I’ve raced in snow blizzards (funnily enough in Canberra in Summer), thunderstorms, minus temperatures, on snow and on scorching hot days! This is ultra trail running! So really it’s a very diverse sport but it can be pretty much summed up in this way ‘athletes, do whatever you have to do to get you from Point A to ridiculously far away Point B. Or in the case of the most famous Ultra Trail race, Ultra Trail Mt Blanc 100 miles in and out of 3 countries), so you get it, it’s a long way usually via the hardest way possiblein the shortest amount of time’. Then there’s the chaffing, and all the peculiar places you can get chaffing. The only pain worse than chaffing is the feeling of that initial contact of hot water on the chaff of the post race shower. That’s my sport that I get so much joy from! And funnily it just happens to also be one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now, and thousands upon thousands of people are discovering the joy and challenges that this sport offers. Yes joy! That’s right! There is joy to be found in running these long distances. I’ve been in races in Japan where the pre race brief contained warnings about bears, Mountain Lions in the US and I’ve had Mexican standoffs with roos in Australia, but I’ve also encountered some amazing wildlife. Ultra trail running can be the most beautiful, serene and captivating experiences. It’s on the whole, a peaceful and pure sport which connects you with nature and our roots as human beings.

You know ultra runningis actually quite similar to life; instead of getting from A to B in a race, living in its most basic form is really about getting from birth to death. But where running and living differ is that we don’t want to go through life the hardest way possible in the shortest amount of time as is the case in ultra running, we often want to go through life living in an uncomplicated and fulfilling way, in the longest amount of time! We all go through good and bad patches in all the parts of our lives; personal, professional and the like, even through the difficult stuff, how often have we all heard others say ‘at least I’ve still got my health’.When we do happen to get sick we notice how even day to day tasks become hard and we feel vulnerable even if it is the dreaded man flu. This tells us that a big contributing factor of how content we are in our lives is of course how engaged you we are in our own health.

But I’ll pick up on this theme a little later.

When I was researching Movember, I watched a couple of YouTube clips that Adam Garone, the founder of Movember presented. Now here is a regular guy who has done an extraordinary thing. He’s brought about one of the biggest fundraisers in the world, and certainly the biggest fundraising event that supports Prostate Cancer research. But what is even more impressive in my opinion is that he has indirectly started hundreds of thousands of conversations all around the world. Even with my moustache, as strange as it is, it’s proven to be a wonderful conversation starter. (Once people are able to look at me face to face that is!)

When I’m not running, travelling, competing or recovering from chaffing related injuries, I work as a Special Education Teacher in a primary school in Western Sydney. This year I teach a colourful lot- a class of 15 year 5 and 6 children, some with emotional and behavioural disorders, of which 11 are boys…I’m sure you can visualise what my classroom is like during the day! The Mo has actually had a number of advantages; I’m sure there has been a positive correlation between the length of my mo and the compliance of the kids! But more importantly, the Mo has also been a way to talk to my colleagues about Movember. Which in a predominantly female workplace is interesting. Once they got over the shock of my Mo, they love nothing else than having a chat about the Mo. My fellow male chalkies, yes all three of us out of 35 staff, of which me and one other are doing Movember, would keep the conversation about the mo simple. ‘Your’s is growing quick’, or ‘I think I may curl mine at the end of the month’ or if we were getting really deep and emotional ‘geez it’s hard to keep it symmetrical when shaving in the morning’. But that was about it. The women staff on the other hand would cut straight to the chase. ‘What’s the cause again’, or asked about my motivation ‘Have you had friends or family affected by men’s health issues’, or were quite happy sharing stories of people they knew who had been affected by cancer or depression. It’s quite striking to realise how many men in these ladies’ lives have been impacted.

The Movember tagline is ‘changing the face of mens’ health’ and Adam Garone describes this as not only giving men the challenge of changing their appearance for a month but more importantly (and this gets back to the earlier theme I mentioned ‘getting men engaged with their health and having them have a better understanding of the health risks they face’. So suddenly I wasn’t just growing a moustache, which let’s face it men, is the easy part. I found myself in the staff room being an advocate for men’s health awareness and this made me think a lot about my own journey with my own health.

There was a definitely a period of my life where I was very disengaged with my own health, it was probably between the age of 25 to 30 that were particularly bad. I had just left university after a long and undistinguished undergraduate career, that only ended when I had out ‘unied’ all my friends who had graduated and moved on. I chose teaching as my career, not so much because I was drawn to it but more due to the awesome 9 – 3 hours and all the holidays you get (a big fallacy)! Anyway I soon found out that teaching is in fact one of the most time demanding jobs there is. I also met and married my beautiful wife Nadine, and I was keen to get established in my career. And I did, I put in big hours, worked back and usually had no time to cook and eat properly. I definitely didn’t prioritise any time for exercise either.

Only 7 years ago, almost to the day, I was pretty much in the worst spot I’d ever been in with my health. I did not run, nor was I particularly careful with what I ate, drank or did with my life. I played some squash, but mainly to be around mates and get a good workout once a week that would alleviate some of the guilt of my poor lifestyle. But even looking back at that, although I enjoyed the game a lot, I think it was the post match get together with the other teams that I looked forward to the most, and every comp night always seemed to end with party pies and beer. So much for the calories I’d burnt off on the squash court!

The crux for me came when I returned from a holiday to Vietnam, where I enjoyed all the local cuisine way to much and drank way too much (only due to the humidity in South East Asia of course!). I remember looking at a photo of myself and thinking WOW is this the road I want to go down in life? I was 87kg, that’s pretty much look at me now and add a half of me again. But you know what? I wasn’t just about how I looked, sure looking at yourself in a mirror is a big motivator of change, but for me it was more what was going on in my head and how I was behaving in my life. I was stuck in a rut; and my mental, as well as my physical health was suffering. I was irritable, I lacked patience, I lacked confidence and had low self efficacy. I was less resilient and became easily overwhelmed when things went wrong. I’m sure I went through bouts of depression; and Nadine is pretty confident that I did. My priorities were all muddled up, there was a lack of purposefulness and I had a sense of a foreshortened future. I was definitely taking my health for granted. The point is, it’s with routines and lifestyles like this when we doubt that change in our own lives is ever possible. We see others that make great changes in their lives as just being lucky, or they have the resources, the time and the money to do it, or they don’t have the commitments that I do.

It’s so easy to go on in life doing things in an unthinking and unplanned way, focusing on the day to day tasks without ever stepping back and thinking about how I want my life to be. This is how distracting life can be without making any goals. And after I looked at that photo of myself I made myself some small goals. I was now entering the phase when I was re-engaging with my health.

I chose to change. Of course initially it was a conscious choice because I saw what I looked like and I knew what I felt like on the inside but it wasn’t my plan to become to an elite runner, it was simply a choice to change. It was a choice to change my lifestyle, my eating habits, my routines, my philosophy, the time I spent at work, my belief in myself, my exercise routines and my commitment to health.

And the process of reengaging with my health has not been easy. It was hard to get into new routines of making healthy meals, instead of going for the convenient option of takeaway. It was hard to always choose the healthy options on the menu when I really wanted to go for the deep fried, salty, fatty option. It was hard living opposite an RSL club and not being able to go over the road for my regular afternoon beer and chat with the lads that I’d gotten to know. It was hard doing those initial runs in the beginning months not looking at all like a runner, being heckled and from car windows. Now I run too fast for them to even get the window down in time! It was hard to keep my meal sizes down and stay away from the sweet snacks between meals. I still struggle with this. It was hard to say no to people when I know what type of night they had in mind, when all I was thinking of was the fun run the next morning. It was hard to find the balance when I had a new found passion. It was hard for me to renegotiate my relationship with my wife. No more weekend sleep ins together as I’d be out training. Having this new passion meant I had to give other things. I had to negotiate with myself as well as Nadine and it was hard to give up these other things. It was hard to stick to my new priorities. At times it’sbeen hard not to have my cake and eat it too.

And in the process of reengaging with my health I have learnt that I like myself and my life more. And it’s not just because of the act of running and the success I’ve had in my running career so far.For me it’s more the fitness, the mental health benefits and the enjoyment of the environment. Running has taken me around the world to places I would never have chosen to go but have loved. It’s about the people I’ve met, so many wonderful, inspiring and generous people. I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for people like Scott, who randomly sent me a question on Twitter after I won TNF100 this year. Now I’m here ad coaching him towards his first TNF100 next year. But principally, at the core, the reason I’m loving life more is because of the changed relationship with my body and my commitment to my health and sharing this passion with other people.

Which is what has brought me to this beautiful location at Lake Crackenback. Lately I’ve started taking on some coaching roles on board; running trail running camps and teaching children clinics, along with coaching people who have made a similar commitment to their health and have decided to set a big race as a goal to work towards. I enjoy sharing my passion and skills that I’ve picked up with others.

But back to the reason we are all here; Movember. I was trying to think of how I could bring ultra trail running and Men’s Health together, and you know what? There are many parallels between long distance running and Men’s Health.

In ultra trail running, it’s a lot more than just running and being an athlete. You have to be your own nutritionist, first aid officer when things go wrong, crisis counselor (when you get lost) and decision maker. Our journey with our own health is a bit like this. No one else has more control over your own health than yourself. No one is going to make you see a doctor about the new pain you have or the worries and anxiety that you’re experiencing. When things get bad, you’re the one that has to act.

However, thankfully we don’t always have to do everything ourselves. In big trail races, there are checkpoints where we can refuel your body, refill water and get some moral support from family and friends. Sometimes these checkpoints are the difference between finishing or not. Sometimes they can be the difference between making the right decision or stubbornly going on and doing damage.

Recently in what is one of Australia’s toughest ultra marathons the GNW100 I had an experience I’ll never forget, I was running a 176km trail race, a race that I’d won and set the course record the year before. But it was much different this year. It reached 38 degrees in the middle of the day and I was affected by heat stroke and then couldn’t hold any liquids or food down. I’d lost 7kgs by the 100km mark. I was determined to push on. Thankfully at this point my crew and medical staff spoke the sense I needed to hear and I called it a day.

Just like I needed a wise head that day from my crew and medical staff, sometimes in life we need the words of others help uschange a pattern or make a decision to do something about our health. The Movember message is just this, to spread awareness and encourage men to engage with their health.

The other message I learnt that day was that we can never take our health for granted. I was probably guilty of taking the race for granted, not factoring the external aspects that the weather was presenting and running a race plan that wasn’t suitable. I was reminded that day, in a very unpleasant way that we’re not indestructible.

Another parallel is about the dreaded feeling of ‘hitting the wall’. I definitely hit a couple of walls that day; and it was only pure stubbornness that even got me to my eventual retiring point in the race. Unfortunately for thousands of men who get diagnosed with prostate cancer or testicular cancer, or indeed any serious health issue, they would feel like life has suddenly hit a wall. Thanks to Movember, through the money raised that goes towards cancer research and early cancer detection, diagnosis and effective treatment and for their message of getting that annual check up and adopting a healthier lifestyle, the wall is going to impact people with less severity and intensity.

Last parallel- everyone goes through good and bad patches in ultra trail running. It simply comes with the sport. And everyone goes through good and bad patches with their health. With running I learned that most bad patches don’t last forever. I’ve won lots of races after going through significant low points, ever after getting lost! And our own health is exactly like that. For most of us we struggle with some form of health issue. The message here is that with applying more common sense strategies, like regular checkups, following up on the small things and becoming more aware of health issues we can also bounce back and get back on the right track.

I’m very proud to be just one of 100s of thousands of men and women worldwide who are part of this Movember movement. Not only has it refocused my commitment to my own health but this itchy protrusion on my top lip has given me the opportunity to spread awareness and start many conversations.

With Scott O'Neile from Lake Crackenback Resort