To me, running is simple. In a world where it is almost impossible to escape the digital noise and on-going nonsense, I’ve found that the act of running can give me an open door to my thoughts, allows a deeper understanding of myself, and offers an opportunity to connect with other people who have discovered a common secret: the power of “the run.”
I grew up running. Ever since I was 7 or 8, I have been running circles, around tracks, around mountains, around the roads. I was lucky to grow up in an active household with parents who were always encouraging me to partake in physical activity. In contrast to today’s visual values of “fitspo” culture, they taught me that exercise is not about constructing a desireable body with toned legs and a flat stomach, or even about producing personal best times or national titles to feed the competitive ego. It’s about discipline, getting up, getting out on the road or track, and knowing every step you take is a step closer to a rush of adrenaline, a positive outlook, and a clear mind for the day ahead.
My parents taught me the positive effects of exercise on our taha tinana (physical health) and taha hinengaro (mental health), as they had seen first hand the impact that depression and anxiety can have on people. These mental illnesses affect one-in-six adults in New Zealand and even now, we can face huge challenges when we try to talk openly about how it affects us. For me, running has been a medicine for my mind, and I have experienced how gathering with other people to participate in running has opened up space for relationship, honesty, and encouragement of mind, body, and soul.
Far more than just an individual pursuit, running has always provided ways of connecting with people. Whether it was going for a run with family, belonging to running clubs at school and university, or building friendships through social runs as an adult, my love of ‟the run” has widened my circles far beyond the people I would otherwise have met. It’s a simple concept, going for a run. You get your shoes on, meet in a place, and start moving, side by side, down a path in the same direction.
Over the years I’ve been surprised who I’ve ended up sharing these paths with. Sport and activity is a great leveller—you make friends out on the field and only later do you find out how different you are. In a society where much is made of the things that divide us, a simple pursuit like going for a run is a beautiful way to draw all kinds of people together as one, no matter their background, their race, their size, their colour, or how wealthy or underprivileged they are.
I’ve seen “the run” act as an open door to openhearted communities that welcome anyone who is willing to take the first step. In our digital world, “community” is often co-opted as a broad term used to describe people joined to the same virtual eco-system: Instagram followers, YouTube subscribers, gaming tribes. Despite the real connections made possible by these platforms, I still believe that all of us truly need real-life, in-person communities. Communities where you can see a person’s emotions, sense their vulnerability, speak honestly, and feel a proper connection to one another.
As a member of several run clubs in Auckland and the head coach for the Nike+ Run Club in New Zealand, I was involved with many different running and exercise communities. Communities that were filled with fit, fast, and competitive athletes. Communities that could seem intimidating and unwelcoming to those that may not run for fast times, or may have never run at all. There is definitely a place for such communities to encourage athletes to strive to be better but these groups miss the opportunity to talk to those people who don’t see themselves as athletes. That’s why I started a running club called One Step.
It started with an Instagram page inviting anyone to come along for a run on Monday morning. From small beginnings, One Step has become an open community designed to raise awareness of depression and anxiety and to spread the positive message of how exercising together—especially running—can help prevent, manage, or minimise the effects of mental illnesses. Everyone is welcome, regardless of how fit or unfit. All that matters is that you are willing to get to the park at 7am, and help yourself. Every Monday morning, we meet, we run, we talk. Little by little we get to know the people who show up over time, trust starts to build, and we create an environment where it’s okay to speak honestly about what’s going on in our hearts and minds.
One Monday morning we had a new face at One Step in Auckland. Britt is an incredible woman who raced professionally in Europe as a triathlete and cyclist in Europe until December 2017, when she was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. Britt came to One Step, with understandably severe depression and a huge barrier of anxiety, not knowing who or what to expect. Britt ran with us during months of chemotherapy and during laps of the park, she shared her story and the day-to-day struggles she was facing. Later, she told me that on Monday mornings at One Step, she was able to move past the barrier of being a ‘cancer-patient.’ On Monday mornings, she was just another ‘runner.’
The idea is spreading: One Step is now active across 6 cities—Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Taupō, Melbourne and Boston—and is preparing to kick off in Mt Maunganui and Wellington in the near future. In founding this community, I have made lifelong friends, across all different generations, who have all found value in moving along together. These friends have come from all walks of life, and are spread across the world doing amazing—and very different—things. Without the connection of running, the opportunity to meet these people would have never come about.
Earlier this year, I discovered another way that running can contribute to these important conversations about mental health. In June I got the opportunity to join the Movember team that will run the 2018 New York Marathon. Running one of the major world marathons has always been a dream for me, one I never thought possible. When Movember approached me I could not have been more excited—this opportunity allows me to bring together my passion for running with my desire to encourage people to exercise and talk more openly about mental health.
As part of our preparation for New York, the New Zealand Movember team have been hosting a weekly Movember Run Club every Wednesday night, simply putting the invitation out through social media. It’s been amazing to see how this kind of real world activity has converted followers on social media into a group of people engaging in real conversations—coming together, side by side to support one another and support the cause of mental health. Every Monday morning, when many people are dreading the start of a new week, I wake up feeling so fortunate. Driving to the park, getting out of the car and and seeing the smiling faces of the One Step crew, ready to run and encourage one another along the way; it’s the most fulfilling way to start my week. Jogging the laps in the fresh air, getting to know a new face, and hearing stories about the good and the hard stuff of life from the regular One Steppers—it’s what inspires me as an athlete, and as a person.