Indigenous Marathon Foundation: Running for social and cultural change

Posted by Mother's Day Classic on 07 August 2019

Most of us know the physical and mental benefits we access when we stay active, but physical fitness also plays a role in a bigger picture. Physical fitness can bring people together and create close communities working together towards change. Our Mother’s Day Classic is one event that fuses physical activity with a good cause, with participants raising money for breast cancer research.

Another organisation is using running as a vehicle to promote health and wellbeing in Indigenous communities. We spoke to the Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) to learn more about the initiative and its amazing impact in Australia’s remote communities.

The IMF runs four programs, all designed to support Indigenous people to adopt active and healthy lifestyles: Indigenous Marathon Project, Deadly Running Australia, I-CAN, and Front Runners.

Indigenous Marathon Project – 2019 Squad (Photo: The Indigenous Marathon Foundation Facebook page)

The Indigenous Marathon Project

The flagship program of the foundation, and where it all began, is the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP). 12 Indigenous individuals, painstakingly selected throughout a long application and interview process, undertake a strenuous training program and travel to the US to compete in the TCS New York City Marathon. 

The project was started by Olympian and world champion marathoner Rob de Castella. In 2010, Rob travelled across Australia, hoping to find a long distance running champion in the Indigenous community. He trained four men, and took them to the TCS New York City Marathon creating history as they became the first Indigenous Australians to compete. 

But it wasn’t as simple as getting them started on a training regime. The men experienced isolation and were often ostracised and made fun of by their communities for trying to better themselves in a way that their communities thought was strange. 

The strength and courage they showed in completing the training and competing inspired Rob to continually grow and expand the IMP. Since 2010, 86 graduates have now run across the finish line.

Indigenous Marathon Project – 2019 Squad (Photo: The Indigenous Marathon Foundation Facebook page)

Reaching out to communities

Once these graduates return from their adventure, IMF helps them set up regular walking and running groups with their friends and family. Deady Running Australia is a grassroots program established, run and owned by communities. IMF has thousands of Deadly Runners participating in weekly runs and special fun run events. In fact, one of their Deadly Running groups joined in our own Mother’s Day Classic, participating in the events and sharing their story on stage.

IMP graduates also encourage school attendance and address childhood obesity and inactivity by installing running tracks and fitness equipment in primary schools or in Indigenous community parks through the I-CAN program. The graduates assist with track and equipment installation, and in some instances, will conduct the eight week program. These inspirational graduates develop positive relationships with the students, and with ongoing involvement in the program, encourage the children to attend school and participate.

Last but not least, our graduates are also able to access grants to establish their own running groups, start a business, or undertake training courses through the IMF’s FrontRunners program. Thanks to a significant contribution from the QANTAS Foundation, IMF is committed to keeping their graduates engaged and on track to achieving their goals.

Deadly Runners during the National Deadly Fun Run Championships at Port Macquarie (Photo: supplied)

The impact on communities

When IMF holds national events, you can get a real sense of the impact physical fitness is having on remote communities. Groups come together from all over the country to share stories, run relay races and connect with other local communities. The events can feel very raw, emotional and powerful, and allow people to experience a different sort of appreciation for Indigenous culture. 

This new focus and cultural acceptance of physical fitness as an important part of life is helping people transform their lives and overcome major adversities, like domestic violence, drug and alcohol issues, and obesity.

IMP graduates are also a big part of encouraging this positive impact on communities. Not only are they bringing a new understanding and passion back with them, but many go on to raise money for important equipment for their communities. In one extra-special case, a graduate went on an ultra marathon of 62km, pushing himself to the limits of his physical endurance to successfully raise $50,000 for a dialysis machine in his remote home community.

Deadly Runners with founder, Rob de Castella (centre) Photo: supplied

Running as a motivational tool.

Running is one of those things that becomes a bit addictive, especially for those who haven’t come from a background of sport or fitness. Once they start, the benefits are so obvious. They can see real changes. The reason this program works is because IMP graduates are doing this for their families, and to be the change their community needs to see. 

Belonging to a community and having that connection to other runners motivates everyone, which is something we see in running groups all over the country. 

How to get involved 

While the Indigenous Marathon Project is an application-based process open only to Indigenous people aged 18-30, Deadly Running is an open group which welcomes everyone. You can download their app to see where groups gather in your area, or find different Facebook groups to get involved. 

If you’re in Sydney, IMF is also holding a special Father’s Day event – WARRIOR Run – to celebrate the strong men in our lives. Indigenous men are, at times, portrayed in a negative light, so IMF wanted to highlight some of the great role models coming through their program. You can find out more about the event on Facebook. 


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