February 2024


Running out of trouble

By Grace Tame
How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

“Don’t run with your legs, run with your heart.”
— Dean Karnazes, ultramarathon runner

For as long as I can remember, I have hungered for adventure. I’m quite a peripatetic person. I need to move to think. Before I could walk, as soon as I discovered I could use the rails of my cot to lift my tiny body, I used to stand up in my grow suit, open the curtains and watch the action outside.

“You were a really good sleeper,” my mother recalls, “but the moment you woke up, you were ready to rock’n’roll.”

When I was about seven, my older cousin Eloise stayed over one night and got up before dawn to run around the local foreshore. “Can I come?” I asked. Together we ran from home, around the Lindisfarne waterfront on Hobart’s eastern shore and under the Tasman Bridge. Since then we’ve run thousands of kilometres side by side, including our first ultramarathon (72 kilometres) for charity in 2020.

Endurance running came naturally to me as a child. I was petite, energetic, inexhaustible, fearless. I wasn’t the strongest or fastest, but I had stamina. I got this from my mother. The grit I got from my father, along with added stubbornness. In school I played as many sports as time permitted, but this changed when I was sidelined for anorexia treatment at age 14. The devastating experiences in my following school years are well documented and are not needed to credit my joy of running. But it would be another eight years until I rediscovered that I love to run.

Today, when I am tens of kilometres into an ultramarathon, in the hurt locker, I remind myself that my hardest days are behind me. I know from experience that I can prevail. To reframe the darkness, put the past in perspective and measure adversity in new ways is profoundly healing.

As Haruki Murakami observes in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing”.

Looking back on my life, I can pinpoint the periods when I felt the least happy, level, present or connected to myself and the world around me. They all coincide with a lack of healthy physical activity. Running is at the core of who I am. Most of my philosophies on life have either been reinforced by the act of running, or generated by it.

Agency is a concept I am still developing. Running has helped me understand what it means to be in control. It’s taught me the value of balancing effort with rest, how to move with discomfort, and to love the process as much as the outcome. It’s taught me patience and the importance of celebrating every single step forward. Productivity generates more productivity. So goes one of the key laws of momentum: an object will not change its motion unless a force acts upon it.

Between the ages of 15 and 23, I didn’t exercise much at all. In 2018, after several turbulent years living overseas, my friend Jason and I started doing morning workouts at his studio apartment in eastern Los Angeles. Jason is an animator and rock climber. His apartment is fitted with chin-up bars, gymnastic rings and hangboards for doing single-finger pull-ups. One morning, he suggested we warm up by jogging a four-kilometre loop around the neighbourhood. To our mutual surprise, I took off effortlessly. This initial jog spiralled into mandatory runs before every twice-weekly session. One lap became two. Before I knew it, I was running every other day.

At the end of 2018, I moved home to Tasmania and got a job at a specialty running store. As well as selling merchandise, it hosted social runs every Wednesday night, and the staff would often participate in local fun runs and events as a team. What started as a hobby turned into an unbreakable habit. I was doing a half marathon once a week, and traded the 20-minute bus ride to work for a free 40-minute run over the bridge into town.

After a hard-going year of public advocacy during Nina Funnell’s #LetHerSpeak campaign, I returned to California to live and work in November 2019. Up to this point, 21 kilometres was the farthest I had run. Then a friend introduced me to Leo. “Leo runs too,” he said without elaboration. In the same way that people on boats instinctively wave at other people on boats, and cyclists nod at fellow riders, there is an implicit bond that pervades the global running community. It’s so strong that even non-runners seem to notice it.

Days later, Leo and I met before first light and ran the single track that hugs the More Mesa bluffs near Santa Barbara. The trail wasn’t familiar, but the land was. My late friend Christian grew up there. As the sun rose over the steep cliffs, I thought of him and the memories we shared. I imagined him running the same path. Together we had leapt off the same dunes, played in the same waves, swung from the same trees, and lit fires at dusk under the same sky.

On our second run, Leo brought his friend Ariel. They were both in training for the Boston Marathon. The three of us ran for an hour along the coast before Ariel left us to finish a 24-kilometre course. At the time this seemed like an impossible distance. I had a self-imposed limit on my capability.

The following day, Ariel visited me at work with a bag of homemade cookies and a watercolour of a flower she’d painted. Such was the connection forged in running that we were instant friends. Initially, she and I ran shorter loops. We sprinted the stairs at the community college track, and I chased her up the steady one-mile climb over Carrillo Hill. With every stride my confidence built, and the barriers to possibility dissolved.

With Ariel and Leo’s encouragement, I ran 25 kilometres beside them. That particular morning, we were also joined by another of Leo’s friends. It soon became a Saturday tradition for the four of us to meet at Hendrys Beach car park at 6.30am sharp, start up the steep slope of Cliff Drive and trace the palm-lined shoreline to Montecito and back, running anywhere between 20 and 30 kilometres.

I remember Ariel telling me about doing a marathon in Greece as we ran through the local butterfly reserve, being awed by her, and imagining what that would be like. My running mind was free. I registered for my first 42.2 kilometre race. To prepare, Ariel and I decided to run nonstop for three hours one morning. We started together, then I fell into a groove and went solo. I ran the length of Santa Barbara county, through three towns and back, covering 39 kilometres. Afterwards I burst into tears: I was so overcome with joy, despite my blistered and bloodied feet.

Running balances two opposing human impulses: to destroy and create. As you pound the earth repeatedly, your body breaks down muscle fibres while at the same time making new adult-born neurons that strengthen their connection to the brain’s circuitry. Adrenaline is also created, which has a codifying effect on memory.

The question people most frequently ask me upon learning that I’m a long-distance runner is an iteration of “what the hell do you think about?” Some might say that pursuing this information is invasive. There is no such thing as privacy these days (shakes cartoon fist). The omnipresent eye of Big Brother has eroded the boundaries between our inner and outer worlds. Regardless, it would be impossible to document all of my thoughts. Would that I could diarise and run at the same time.

While the question is clearly lighthearted, part of me does lament that modern society has been conditioned to fear spending hours alone being intensely active in nature. We readily construct roadblocks between ourselves and perceived challenges. By far the most difficult component of running is not the physical but the mental.

Over the course of a week I run as many as 100 kilometres, just after the sun rises, mostly by myself. This is part of the appeal. Even when running with others, any conversation is subsumed into the higher shared experience. Silent miles are often the most binding. Running is a vehicle of both spiritual and social connection. The meaning of compassion, after all, is to suffer together.

I’m aware these platitudes don’t answer the question. But as the saying goes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – transposing the act of running to another medium seems fruitless. Running is its own unequivocal language that can only be fully communicated and understood in practice. It is at once a science and an art form. A soulful, biomechanical, chemical symphony. Like music, it is paradoxically grounding and transportive. As you tune into the moment-to-moment movements of your body, your thoughts clarify and dance through time.

What crosses the mind depends on many variables and how they interact: company, location, terrain, weather, technique, stress levels, hormones, fuel, hydration, rest, distance, time, pace, et cetera. For instance, road running is different to technical trail running. The latter requires you to focus on every footfall as you navigate uneven ground. You are pulled out of the depths of any irrelevant negative thoughts and into the present light. It’s hard to be more engaged with your environment. Equally, the more you practise, the more your coordination improves, giving you more space to think.

It is perhaps easier, at least scientifically speaking, to explain how I think when I’m running as opposed to what I think about. In short, I think better. We all do. Running improves overall health and quality of life in many ways. All of the body’s functions become more efficient, including energy usage and emotional regulation. Through running, I have conditioned myself psychologically and physically to function optimally in high-pressure situations.

Trauma rewires the brain, including your reward pathway. So does running. But the latter is constructive and healing. Fear is technically not a feeling but a central observable state, measured by various cognitive, hormonal and physical changes. An inaugural jog, or a return to running after a prolonged break, might feel like a “shock to the system” because it effectively is. It sets off similar internal processes to terror, the key difference being you have agency over the stimuli. You can decide to stop and restart at any time. Running is therefore an exercise in discovering, reclaiming and regulating personal power. If you commit, the pay-off is worth it.

When you run, your heart rate rises, pumping a higher volume of oxygenated and nutrient-dense blood to your organs, including your brain, which produces endorphins to block pain. Cells in your body produce cytokines, which fire up the immune system to help fight inflammation and improve focus.

Running also promotes the growth and moderation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids bind to the same receptors as cannabis and are responsible for the euphoric “runner’s high”. Except that these are self-produced, legal, free and don’t require any equipment that might land you in the Daily Mail.

There is a distinct difference between my thought patterns when I am jogging, running at threshold, and sprinting. This can be explained biochemically. When running at an explosive pace, most of the body’s energy is diverted to the vital organs. It’s impossible to employ the same level of concentration required for deep reflection or sophisticated imagination. Thoughts become simpler, clipped, melodic, metronomic. They naturally synchronise to your cadence. I often alternate between positive affirmations that have the same number of syllables – “I am strong”, “I am well”, “It’s okay” – or I visualise something.

For example, recently I did a speed session of 13 consecutive kilometres over the course of an hour, starting with 15 minutes at a relaxed pace to warm up, followed by 12 repetitions of 400-metre sprints with 90 seconds of slow jogging in between. I finished with a 10-minute cool down. I ran this particular session on a flat strip of unused road near to where I grew up. I used to ride my bike along it. To distract from the discomfort of the harder bursts, I pictured my younger self, happy and smiling.

Speed sessions are rare for me, though. More often I run at a pace that is conducive to conversation and quiet contemplation. I catch up with other friends who run, or I privately weigh decisions, problem-solve and appreciate the landscape. There is a meditative quality to being in constant motion. Sometimes I don’t think at all. I just am.

Then there’s racing. Races are like parsnips: I’m yet to figure out what the point of them is, but I know they’re good for me, and after I’m finished I very quickly forget how much I dislike them. That said, I do enjoy testing the limits of my body and mind, and the heightened connection of community events.

On December 2 last year, I got up at 3.30am, woken equally by nerves and an insatiable runner’s appetite. In a matter of hours I would join 79 other solo competitors and 720 relay members in running the length of Tasmania’s Bruny Island for their annual 64-kilometre ultramarathon.

This was not the farthest distance I’d run, but it was the farthest I’d raced. My cousin Eloise and her husband were there as my support crew, passing food and drinks at intervals along the way. The course was dotted with familiar faces spectating and competing, exchanging words of encouragement, laughing, cheering, smiling. The camaraderie was infectious.

There were also long, lonely stretches of silence. In these moments, the only person you are competing against is yourself. When you find yourself 50 kilometres in, fatigued, covered in sweat and dirt, staring up at an impossibly steep climb, feeling your whole body burn, you have two choices: either give into the temptation to quit, or carry yourself forward with the pain – beyond the pain – and transcend.

It’s impossible to do this if you don’t believe in yourself. Even if it feels insurmountable, you have to hold on. You cannot give up on yourself.

At kilometre 62, you suddenly exit the cover of dense forest at the crest of a hill. The trail then descends into exposed national parkland with a view of the finish line marked by a stunning lighthouse. You feel broken, you are broken, but you have a beacon in your sights. You also have a bank of miles behind you that validates your ability. All that’s left to do is run.

Completing an ultramarathon race is brutal, exacting, exhausting and at times totally ugly. It is also exhilarating, rewarding, restorative and beautiful. It is the ultimate test and triumph of the human spirit.

At the awards ceremony, held outside Australia’s southernmost pub, I was congratulated for being the fastest female, fifth overall, and for having shaved three and a half minutes off the previous female course record in a time of 5:04:07. But the best part, as always, was sharing the day with friends and family. It was a solo race but a team effort.

Last year, I started teaching my friend Mostafa Azimitabar to run. Moz is an artist, poet and musician. He is also a Kurdish-Iranian refugee who fled persecution in 2013. For six and a half years, Moz was detained on Manus Island. He spent another 15 months locked inside hotels in Melbourne before finally being declared “free” in 2021.

At breakfast in Melbourne one morning, I mentioned to him that I was going to run afterwards. He was wearing formal footwear and jeans but insisted on joining me. We immediately set off for the shoe store.

“How far are we running?” Moz asked when we met up again later by the Yarra River. I told him I planned to do six kilometres.

“Okay, we run six kilometres.” That we did. With no prior training, and asthma from years breathing polluted air in confined spaces, Moz ran the distance without stopping. We have since run more than 100 kilometres together. He asked me recently if I thought he could run a marathon. I told him he already has. Moz has survived more mental marathons than most people could possibly fathom.

In a life that has its fair share of stressors, including working a job that necessitates being submerged in the worst of humanity and my own personal trauma, running is a privilege.

It is my favourite mode of transport and cultural immersion. Being a public speaker and advocate means regular interstate trips. I travel light. My essential items are a head torch, a running vest, electrolytes and on-the-go snacks. My only surplus pair of shoes are my runners, but the possibility for adventure is endless. They say the best things in life are free.

In the past year alone I have run the length of lush green Florida Keys, through Colorado snowfields at subzero, up the California 101 freeway, alongside Queenstown’s glassy Lake Wakatipu, around the Yarra River, above Balinese rice terraces, under sheets of tropical Cairns rain, over red-earthen Darwin dirt, into Gunnedah bushland and beyond.

It’s difficult to consider much else besides the scenery while running in a foreign place. With every step you are learning new ground, sights, sounds, smells. New wildlife. New wonders. You are integrating with the world in real time. You are alive. To run is to live.

Grace Tame

Grace Tame was the 2021 Australian of the Year, and is director of The Grace Tame Foundation.


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