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The Power of Running

Brendan Larcombe

This story was written for and published by Runners World Australia Magazine in June, 2022.

For Bundjalung man Brendan Larcombe, running is much more than a sport. It brings him purpose, control and a taste of freedom, making the daily battle of the mind verse the heart more manageable. With positive thoughts, powerful goals, adversarial growth and a strong sense of belonging, Brendan is unstoppable.

“Three and a half years ago I was sitting in a park homeless with nothing but a plastic bag”, Brendan says, “and I couldn’t have dreamt about the life I’ve got now. It’s simple, but it’s enough. If nothing else goes right during the day, I know during my run I’m in full control of the outcome and I’m going to feel free. That’s what running gives me—freedom”.

Brendan is a member of Cairns IMF RAW – a grassroots community led and localised extension of the Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF). IMF was established in 2009 by world marathon champion Rob de Castella after training four Aboriginal men to run in the world’s biggest marathon in New York City over ten years ago. Since 2009, the IMF has grown exponentially with the addition of programs such as IMF RAW (running and walking), a community led program sustained by volunteers providing a free, inclusive and safe environment for individuals to flourish and feel supported in as they commence or continue their running or walking journey.

Brendan settles in for his interview after returning from a 22km run in preparation for Canberra Marathon on 10 April. He asked for the interview to commence after he had finished his run as he says this is when his head is most clear. Brendan relaxes into the interview glowing with a radiance that some would call the post-runners high, smiling from the start to the finish despite recounting some of his most challenging experiences. In the background off a bedroom door hangs a sign that reads “today is a good day, to have a good day”, messaging synonymous with Brendan’s outlook on his future and his deep appreciation for the power of positive thinking and manifestation.

But Brendan didn’t always have this outlook.

In 2018, Brendan entered a rehabilitation clinic in Cairns for drug and alcohol addiction. Brendan describes this time as a low point and place of darkness, and it was during this time that Brendan found his light, after one of the rehabilitation support workers suggested running as a coping mechanism. “I couldn’t sleep during my first few weeks in rehab because I was withdrawing from drugs and alcohol and experiencing nightmares and twenty years of feelings and emotions flooding in at once”, Brendan says. “I’ve gone out for a few runs over the course of my life, but there wasn’t a purpose to this running before”. Following the advice of a support worker and to help him sleep better in rehab Brendan started running three to four kilometre distances.

Brendan explains how his thought process at the time was that if he ran himself into the ground and exhausted his body, he would be able to sleep better at night. “As the weeks went on”, Brendan says, “I started to sleep better. Once the withdrawals passed, I could feel properly and think a bit better. I found that at end of my runs I would feel a sense of calm and happiness and could find solutions to my problems.” Brendan reflects on running as his pressure relief valve and still uses this technique. “If I have problems, I don’t think about them too much until I go out for a run. Running shows me what isn’t real, and what I need to focus on, reminding me my problems aren’t always as big as they seem.”

Following his rehabilitation journey, Brendan was running for six months by himself, attending a local gym to complete his runs on the treadmill, and it was here that his journey with IMF RAW began. Each Monday, Brendan would see Cairns IMF RAW runners meeting out the front of the gym, noticing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander themed IMF RAW singlets donned by the runners, and it was here his interest in the group grew. “The singlets stood out to me, I was thinking ‘what is this group of Murri’s doing running outside here?’, so I googled it and saw what it was all about. One of the boys in rehabilitation was the cousin of an Indigenous Marathon Project Graduate and was telling me about it and I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it came back to me in a full circle. I found out what time the sessions were held and decided I would give it a go”.

It took Brendan weeks to build up the confidence to attend one session. He was at the time struggling with a deep sense of shame and low self-esteem. “I walked up to the group of about six or seven people and started freaking out, so I just kept walking. I didn’t even stop; I just went home”.

After another few weeks of building the confidence to attend, Brendan gave it another shot.

“I walked up to the group and was greeted straight away by two people I now look up to, TJ Cora and Nathan Schreiber who are run leaders within the group. We started chatting and during the five kilometre run they both ran on either side of me, asking me questions about myself and who I am, making me feel welcome”.

It was through his introduction to Cairns IMF RAW that Brendan felt the sense of belonging that he had always been searching for. “I now feel like I belong to something special”, Brendan says. “I’ve always felt alone. Humans don’t live alone, we live in groups, and when I was younger, I was trying to find that group and feeling of belonging, running around trying to be something I’m not, with gangs, drinking and drugs. Having these people from IMF RAW around me now reminds me I belong to something, something good, and something that my community, family and sons can be proud of. People in the Cairns community know who I am. If you say my name, they will associate me as a runner from Cairns IMF RAW. Because that’s who I am. That’s what I belong to.”

Brendan says at the start of his running journey, running was a vice to help him make it through the day, but as he has grown so has his mindset and reason for running.

“Life is hard for all of us in different ways,” says Brendan. “I’m a product of my past environment but I feel running has had a huge influence on helping me change that environment”. Brendan reflects on the old saying ‘you are what you eat’, further explaining that we are often influenced by those around us, and credits running for supporting him to stay clean and sober, adding “I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I take things one day at a time. But running keeps me alive”.

For Brendan, running provides a relief from stress and delivers clarity that nothing else can deliver. “Running brings people together, it clears our heads, and we walk away from our sessions happy. Running is my new addiction. It’s like magic”.

Many IMF runners, walkers, community members and staff alike often refer to each other as ‘IMF family’, and with hundreds of passionate IMF runners across Australia supporting each other through adversity, training, and events – both virtually and physically, it’s easy to understand why.

“It does feel like a family”, Brendan says. “When I first joined Cairns IMF RAW, I still felt this overwhelming sense of shame. It took me months to have a yarn at the sessions and before that, I would stand up the back and hardly speak. I would let my running do the talking”. But overtime, Brendan built strong relationships within the running group, relationships where he could talk about problems and about parenting and life goals. “There are a lot of strong male role models within the group that I look up to. I told them ‘I want what you have. I’m trying to become what you are’ but in my own way. There are so many positive men and women in IMF communities across Australia and I know if I ask for help, they will show up for me in a second”.

As part of the IMF RAW program, run leaders within each group often award their runners with a running singlet exclusive to the IMF RAW program. To some, they may just be a singlet but for the IMF RAW community, the singlets represent hard work and belonging. Singlets are presented to new runners after they have shown consistency and commitment to the running program and these singlets were what initially caught Brendan’s eye.

“I didn’t know the story behind the singlets. I often saw them, but I was too shame to ask about them. I turned up to training one day and I could see something going on. One of the Cairns IMF RAW run leaders and IMP Graduate Nadine Hunt welcomed the group and explained the story behind the singlet – sharing they can’t be bought and that they are earnt”.

Brendan had no idea the singlet was for him. He accepted the singlet and was speechless. Brendan was six months out of rehab and nine months sober, feeling an overwhelm of emotion. “I didn’t know what to say”, says Brendan “and I didn’t know how to feel. That sort of thing hadn’t happened to me before, to be given something I had earnt. When I was walking home from the session, I got a glimpse of what it felt like to belong to something, especially something my kids can be proud of. It was the first time in my recovery that I allowed myself to be vulnerable”.

The power of running in his life has extended far beyond Brendan as an individual, with the ripple effect reaching his three sons who regularly join Brendan for running sessions with Cairns IMF RAW.  “I can see the ripple effect my sons – they don’t actually really like running but all my sons have become better runners, and that’s because I take them to sessions where they see me running. I was talking to Uncle Rob [de Castella] about it. I often question if I spend too much time running and not enough time with my kids. But Uncle Rob reminded me that I won’t see the benefits of what I’m doing until later in life. He told me I’m teaching the boys good things, teaching them what it takes to get what you want in your life through the values of running. Through discipline, dedication, commitment, integrity, honour, consistency, hard work and positivity. The world is missing these things. I don’t need to speak to teach my boys these things I show them with my actions.

“When my boys tell me I’m always running, I say that’s because I’m disciplined. Because I’m dedicated. I’m committed. I’m completely focused. It doesn’t matter the circumstances – if I have a program that tells me I need to run at a certain pace, then I do it. That’s integrity. Nobody knows, but I know. I’m there 6 days a week and I don’t miss runs. I’m consistent and that’s what I show them. I spew up once a week after my speed sessions. That’s hard work. I push myself to the limit. I’m giving [my sons] the ingredients to life, but they have to cook the cake.”

Brendan shares that one of his favourite experiences with his sons during his running journey was watching them receive their IMF RAW singlets. “They were like me, very quiet and a bit shaky. They didn’t say much, and we just got on with the session, but I could see what it meant to them. I love getting photos with my boys in our IMF RAW singlets. They will get handed down from generation to generation. They might not understand now but they will one day – that they belong to something as well. I want them to look back and see they were a Cairns IMF RAW runner. That’s something I didn’t get as a kid. They won’t feel alone. I don’t want them to ever feel alone.”

Looking to the future, Brendan says his ultimate goal is to finish a marathon in 2:30 and to continue supporting other runners on their journey. “I often think to myself I wish I was younger as I would have loved to pursue running professionally. My age is my enemy, but I don’t really think about it too much or let it deter me. I keep moving forward. I’ll take running as far as my body lets me.

“I want to support other people on their running journey. It feels so good to do that. When one of the 2021 Indigenous Marathon Project squad members [Tristan Nelliman-Adams] was running a 25km event last year I told him ‘You can’t stop running. Your spirit is there waiting for you at the finish line, you just have to get your body there’. I didn’t know the impact it had on him at the time but during his celebration ceremony following the completion of his marathon he pointed me out in the crowd and told me he carried that message with him during his marathon journey. He had that message written on his arm. That was such a special feeling”.

Brendan has plans to race the Gold Coast Marathon in July and has his future sights set on the New York City Marathon and the Great Wall Marathon in China. “When I’m running,” Brendan says, “I’m most free. Nothing else compares”.