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Everyday heroes: runners that inspire

The definition of a hero is someone admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. Australia has been blessed with a number of running heroes, and writer Beverley Hadgraft has had the pleasure of interviewing some of them. Here are just a few of her favourites to inspire.

Pat Farmer

Pat’s long distance feats are extraordinary with one of his most amazing being his 20,919km run between the North and South Poles. It’s these achievements that have made him one of our better-known runners.

Pat ran the equivalent of two marathons every day for more than ten months, and had to eat the equivalent of 45 hamburgers a day to get sufficient kilojoules. Despite his diet, he lost so much weight even the fat on his heelpads had gone, which meant every time he took a stride he could feel the bones of his feet crunching!

Some days in the snow he battled temperatures of minus 40 degrees, running 70kms through the soft snow for 16 hours. He ran out of water and had to drink his own urine, and suffered such bad infections in his feet he fainted from the poison in his body.

The run was completed to raise cash for the Red Cross to improve sanitation and water supplies; and every time Pat wanted to quit, he’d remember why he was running. A person dies every 15 seconds due to poor sanitation. “My legs hurt, but if I wanted I could quit and go back to a normal life. The people I was running for didn’t have that luxury,” he said.

Lavinia Petrie

You probably haven’t heard of Lavinia, but she’s probably one of the most extraordinary runners Australia has ever produced. She’s rewritten the world record books and been a trailblazer for women’s long distance running as one of the first in the world to run the marathon.

Her records in the 70–74 age group include the 10km (44.43), half marathon (1 hour 37), 5km (21.34), and 3km (12.52). She’s the oldest woman to ever run under 13 minutes in the 5km challenge.

Lavinia has never pressured herself. Even when she ran her first marathon in 1977, she shrugged off being 66 seconds off breaking three hours. “I’d run as fast as I could!” she pointed out. She eats what she fancies as well. Afternoon tea is a pile of scones with jam and cream while her favourite pre-race snack is a pie! The only secret she says she has is regular Feldenkrais sessions.

Turia Pitt

In September 2011, Turia Pitt was trapped by fire during a 100km endurance race through the remote Kimberley region. With burns to 65 per cent of her body, she spent the next month in a coma.

She’s endured endless surgeries – and will undergo many more – with doctors telling her she would never run again. Despite not being able to walk at the time, she responded: “Oh yeah? I’ll show you."

Turia has returned to running and cycling – amazing considering the fire destroyed seven of her fingers, making a simple thing like changing gear, braking, and holding on to bike bars a major feat. She has even completed two Ironman triathlons, despite the fact her skin can no longer do things such as sweat or regulate her body against extreme heat.

In those early days of recovery when she was learning to eat, dress, talk and walk again; every step she took she told herself was training steps for the Ironman.

“We are all much stronger and more powerful than we realise,” she says.

Professor John Zeleznikow

At three, John contracted polio. Soon after he developed a disorder of the hip called Perthes disease.

At ten he was on crutches and had one leg longer than the other. Throughout school he came last in every race, but not to be disheartened, he studied his schoolmates and realised that although they could sprint, they never trained for longer distances, so he started working on his stamina.

Before long, focussing on his strengths rather than his weaknesses meant he’d notched up a number of wins purely because he was the only boy who could last the distance.

Later in life, John took up marathon running and completed more than 180 of them – never becoming discouraged by the fact they took him an average six hours to complete, and he was always at the back of the pack. “Running is better than not running,” he shrugs.

“I’m sure I could run faster but I can’t see the point. If I’m not going to win a medal there’s no incentive to make myself sick on the pavement,” he observed.

Instead he enjoys the positives of running slowly – the chance to chat to other runners, many of whom say they wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience without him.

Shirley Young

Shirley Young was a shy and timid person until at 47 she joined her athletics-mad family on a holiday beach run. The following year – with her confidence and running ability soaring – she entered her first marathon. After that it was as if she had to make up for all the years of running she’d missed out on, and she became a champion endurance runner.

At 70, she set an extraordinary 24-hour endurance world record of 176.8 km – unlikely ever to be beaten. Soon after, Shirley was given a devastating diagnosis, she had Alzheimer’s disease.

The doctor said: “Can you handle that?” and Shirley replied: “I’ll be OK as long as you don’t tell me I’ve got to give up running.”

That wasn’t easy. Shirley started losing track of where and how far she was running. However, doctors felt it was important she still felt in control of her training, so husband Ron worked out a course she could run laps on so she was never more than 2.5km from home, and he could bicycle out to look for her at the time she was due back.

At 70, Shirley could still run a three-and-a-half hour marathon. At 77, that time had grown to more than five hours, but it was still an extraordinary achievement and there was much more to be positive about.

Her specialists believed that keeping the blood flow to her brain with running slowed the progression of her disease; and then there was the time she entered a six-hour endurance race.

About two hours after finishing, she asked Ron what she was doing there. “We’ve come for a six-hour run,” he replied.

She looked delighted. “What time does that start then?”

Reminding her of her achievements also helped when the inevitable depression struck. “It’s not about remembering,” Ron would tell her. “It’s about doing.”

Shirley died in 2016 having run 30 Melbourne marathons. She was 86.

Next time you feel like your love of running is becoming difficult to maintain in a busy schedule, it may be worthwhile remembering the strength, determination, and joy found in running by these everyday heroes.

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