UNTIL former world-champion runner Robert de Castella, or “Deek”, established the Indigenous Marathon Foundation in 2010, no indigenous Australian had ever run an international marathon.
Nearly 10 years on and 86 Aboriginals from 55 communities have finished international marathons through the foundation.
And this weekend, the day before Reconciliation Day (May 27), 12 new participants will do their first official run with the foundation at its “Reconciliation Run” starting from Reconciliation Place.
“These will be the 12 we’ll be taking to the New York Marathon,” says Rob, 62, of O’Malley.
“They’ll be talking about where they’re from and why they’ve signed up.
“Canberrans can come out and meet the squad. We want to encourage the Canberra community to get behind our foundation, which is based here and is making a big difference.”
Rob, who competed in his first of four Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, gained a lot from his career running and wanted to give these skills to others.
The foundation, though, was originally set up to see whether indigenous Australians had the same running ability as some of the great African runners.
“We’d never had an endurance indigenous athlete in Australia, they’ve all been in speed and ball-type sports,” he says.
As Rob travelled across Australia searching for endurance athletes, he started to see the disease, the disadvantage and the culture of hopelessness of some of the communities.
“I was really confronted and I couldn’t reconcile that in Australia, how we could have so many people disadvantaged,” he says.
He saw there was an opportunity to do more and wanted to use running to heal the friction between indigenous and non-indigenous people.
“I couldn’t turn my back on it. I wanted to help give them a sense of pride and self worth that had been eroded,” he says.
So Rob shifted the focus from high-performance athletes and started looking for determined candidates who wanted to change their life as well as their community.
In that same year Rob took four indigenous Australians to New York to run the New York Marathon.
“When I took them to New York, what I saw when they crossed the finish line was an incredible sense of pride,” he says.
Not only does the program teach squad members how to run, but Rob says it also involves media training, first aid and CPR training, mental health training, and a Certificate IV in education as well as Certificate IV in sport and recreation.
“A lot of them have to take time off work and away from their families to do this,” he says.
“[And] a lot of people who come into this program come from difficult backgrounds or circumstances and use their struggles as a force to break the cycle. It could be anything from suicide to substance abuse to violence.
“Through the program, these people develop a voice and they develop courage.
“The running and fitness is really important because you have to move to have a healthy body but it’s more about getting out of your comfort zone.
“When people have the courage to push themselves out of their comfort zone, then they’re able to harness their full potential.
“It instills in you the realisation that you’re stronger than what you ever believed. Not just in running but in life.”
Rob has seen so many people leave the program and go on to do great things. One person that comes to mind is Jack Wilson, who competed on the TV show “Ninja Warrior” after completing the IMF program.
“When we first met Jack he was struggling to get through his apprenticeship as a carpenter up in Cairns,” he says.
“He came and did IMF and it completely changed his life. He’s now driving around the country and doing fitness activities with Aboriginal kids.
“Through the work that we do, we give these young indigenous leaders the confidence and courage to be more than they thought they could ever be.
“We don’t just select people who just want to get through the New York Marathon.
“We select people who have a real drive and also have the capability to change lives. Not just theirs but the lives of others in their community.”
A lot of hard work goes into getting the squad overseas every year and Rob says fundraising is a fundamental part of the foundation. He’s extremely grateful for any support from Canberrans such as Ayesha Razzaq, who has raised about $75,000 for the foundation.
Ayesha first met Rob when he was talking at an event in 2013.
“What Rob spoke about really hit a nerve because what his program is about is giving a sense of purpose,” says Ayesha, 44, of Griffith.
Having had to live on her own from the age of 16, and without her parents since 13, Ayesha had to learn about life the hard way.
“But I was really fortunate, I had people who looked out for me and people who gave me opportunities,” she says.
“Rob’s program is about giving people a leg up, believing in them and empowering them by saying ‘you can dream big’.”
For Ayesha it was about paying it forward so in 2014 she ran the New York Marathon as the foundation’s first corporate runner. After, she decided she’d pass on the “corporate shirt” so there was a corporate runner every year.
“She created a legacy from what she did in 2014,” Rob says.
“We’ve had a corporate runner ever since.”
Ayesha says running in the marathon has given her courage to be bold.
“It’s given me the determination to embrace any challenges or opportunities I’m confronted with every day,” she says.
Ayesha has run the New York Marathon, the Tokyo Marathon in 2017 and Boston last month (which Deek won in 1986).
“I’m not retiring yet, I’ve got London, Chicago and Berlin to finish,” she says.
“And in every run I’ll run in my Indigenous Marathon Foundation shirt to raise awareness.”
Reconciliation Run, Reconciliation Place, Lake Burley Griffin, 9.45am to 11.45am, Sunday, May 26. Register at eventbrite.com.au