For Graduates of Rob de Castella’s Indigenous Marathon Project, it’s not the ticket to New York that entices applicants to sign up for one of the most physically challenging feats they may ever encounter, but the transformative journey, the ripple effect, and the version of themselves that awaits them at the finish line.
“It’s not about running, it’s about the people’s lives you’re impacting through your journey”, says Wynston Shovellor-Sesar through a beaming smile on a zoom call. The Broome local, a Karajarri man from the Bidyadanga Community 180kms south of Broome was one of ten First Nations people who ran their first marathon in 2022 through the Indigenous Marathon Project.
Founded by former world marathon champion and Olympian Robert de Castella, the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP), a program that has garnered traction across many running and Indigenous communities throughout Australia alike, is a six-month health and wellbeing, and leadership development program—transforming the lives of its participants while opening doors they may not have once dared to knock at.
The program identifies 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 18-30 each year out of roughly 150 applicants Australia-wide to take on the New York City Marathon and use the skills the marathon teaches them to find their true strength and return to their communities as inspirational agents of change and healthy lifestyle advocates.
In the lead up to the New York City Marathon, runners are required to obtain various coaching, health and leadership qualifications and tick off milestone events throughout the year; encompassing the 10km Canberra Mother’s Day Classic, Gold Coast Half Marathon, a self-managed 25km event in their hometowns, and a 30km run in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) where the IMP journey first began in 2009.
For Wynston, the journey that has proven he can achieve absolutely anything started with self-doubt and fear of the unknown.
“I struggled to run the 3kms at IMP try-outs and I realised my body needed much more work. I didn’t think I was ready, and at that point I didn’t think I had what it takes to complete the program or the marathon”, says Wynston.
But with the support of the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, IMP Head Coach Damian Tuck and his squad, Wynston’s body and mind adapted to the challenges.
“My first milestone event in Canberra was really hard. It was a 10km run and I knew I had to get it done. Everyone was alive, and the atmosphere around me was alive too. It was during that run that I learnt that the voice in your head is going to tell you that you aren’t capable of doing something, but you have to block it out, and I did”.
Over the course of his journey, Wynston didn’t realise the changes he was undergoing, and said it was the people around him who made him realise just how much he was changing for the better. “People around me started seeing changes in me before I could even realise. ‘You’re looking great, fit and healthy’, they would say, ‘you’ve changed.’ I couldn’t see it, but I could truly feel it.”
Wynston started the journey weighing 130kgs and just six months later weighed 109kgs. But the journey is much more than the physical benefits. Throughout the journey awaits an opportunity to test your mental boundaries and experience the beauty of adversarial growth.
“I’m really proud of the challenges I overcame, and I’m so grateful for the support of my Mum. I don’t say it enough, but she helped me so much from encouraging me on my runs, to making sure I had enough recovery food, and helped me with my hometown 25km milestone event.”
When asked what the best piece of advice he had received on his journey to the New York City Marathon, Wynston said he owed it to fellow squad member Chloe Wighton who shared with him the mantra, ‘just get it done’.
“Everyone is built different and has their own emotional challenges and their own commitments, but you just have to get [your training] done. That was the best piece of advice I received. Just get it done.”
Sydney local Chloe Wighton, a Wiradjuri Galari woman from Gilgandra in Central West NSW and archaeologist says the IMP helped her distinguish between what her perceived thoughts are and what she is actually able to execute, stating “you may think you can’t do something, but the reality is, you can.”
Before applying for the IMP, Chloe was active but didn’t consider herself a runner. “I would do a little bit of running here and there, but it was never anything over a couple of kilometres and it wasn’t consistent. It was more running around with my kids and playing touch football.”
The mother of two reflected on the challenges during the program and how she was able to overcome them.
“The marathon taught me patience, focus and discipline. During the marathon I tried to keep my thoughts really simple. I already knew everything is going to hurt and I thought ‘okay, what’s next?’”
“Everyone knows that you can be best your best self if you prioritise your wellbeing, but balancing school assemblies, kids’ sports events and even when they’re sick; with a running schedule can be overwhelming.”
Chloe says it’s important to ask for help, commit to yourself and remain adaptable as things don’t always go to plan.
“Not everything can be done during school hours. You might need to go for a run later at night or do strength sessions. For me, sometimes that meant my strength sessions consisted of walking around the house with strength bands on my feet and legs while my kids are eating dinner or in the shower. I look silly walking around the house doing crab walks, but my kids think it’s funny and it makes them laugh – it helps make training not such a task.”
Chloe shares that anyone can complete a training program but it’s about how much effort you put into it, and how much you decide to commit to it.
“Sure, you can finish a marathon, but the bigger question is, do you want to enjoy it, or do you want it to hurt? I wanted to enjoy it – therefore committing to my training and matching the effort was worth it.”
Similar to Wynston, Chloe says the most rewarding part of the IMP was seeing her influence in action.
For Chloe’s third milestone event, the 25km, she had planned to run the Sydney City2Surf and add on roughly 10kms before the start line to make up the distance. But as all runners know, things don’t often go to plan and Chloe had been battling an injury. “I had planned to meet my younger brother at the start line and run with him. He hadn’t run a distance like that before and he was feeling really nervous,
“It wasn’t until I got near the start line in Hyde Park that I broke the news [of my injury] to him, so he ran without me, and he ran so well. It was my proudest moment of the program. The marathon in New York City was great, but to see him do something completely out of his comfort zone was my proudest moment”.
And it doesn’t stop there, Chloe shares that when she goes out for her regular run, her young daughter often asks if she can join too.
“After witnessing your journey, not everyone around you will likely start running tomorrow, but overtime it demonstrates discipline to your own health and wellbeing.”
Since completing the IMP, Chloe has founded her own business called Bila Group, from the Wiradjuri word for ‘River’, providing specialist Indigenous consultancy advice on archaeology and heritage. Wynston, a Marine Parks Officer has just returned from Vancouver where he presented and facilitated at the International Marine Protected Area Congress Meeting, the top global gathering for marine conservation. Chloe and Wynston will reunite with the 2022 IMP Squad at the Canberra Times Marathon Festival in April, taking on the half marathon and 10km events as part of their final IMP camp, the ‘So What’ Camp, where Rob de Castella asks the question, “You’ve run a marathon, so what? What change are you going to make with what you have learnt?”
“We’re really excited to return to the Canberra Times Marathon Festival again this year coinciding with our So What Camp. IMF runners had a significant presence on the course last year and it was really powerful to see the running community in Canberra celebrate them, says Rob.
“I may be bias, but Canberra in April brings the perfect running conditions too!”
Joining Chloe and Wynston in the 2022 squad is Bree Yarran (Whadjuk, Balladong, Waigyl Kaip) of Perth, Roxanne Jones (Palawa) of Canberra, Jam Graham-Blair (plangermaireener and trawlwoolway) of nipaluna/Hobart, Kyle Wagner (Yugambeh) of Darwin, Callum Campion-Bohme (Balngarra, Dalabon) of Maningrida, Morgan Lane (Arrernte) of Alice Springs, Hayley Pymont (Wiradjuri) of Wollongong and Lungka Kija man Seymoure Farrer of Halls Creek who says “the IMF changed my life for the better and gave me the ability and tools to steer myself in the director I want to go and be in control of that. My marathon may have finished but my journey just started after I crossed the finish line.”
Across Australia, there are now more than 130 IMP Graduates who are each change makers within their community. Upon completing the IMP program and their marathon, runners become IMP Graduates, also known across the organisation as FrontRunners, leading by example and become inspirational agents of change. The IMF continues to support these FrontRunners to train and attend domestic and international running events, establish running groups within their communities, and provides financial assistance and advice surrounding business and educational pursuits.
For more information, or to donate to the Indigenous Marathon Foundation and support their current and future runners, visit their website www.imf.org.au.
This story was written for, and published by Runners World Australia in March, 2023.