FOR those who haven’t seen the ABC documentary Running to America, it’s an inspirational uplifting story and, as this journo has no shame in admitting, brings a tear to the eye.
The documentary follows Juan, Joseph, Caleb and Charlie from their homes in remote regions of the Kimberley and Arnham Land to the finish line of the world’s biggest marathon in New York.
The boys are mentored in the task by Australia’s greatest marathon runner Rob de Castella. The documentary was released in December last year to rave reviews, however the Indigenous Marathon Project did not end there. Rob took a second group of runners to complete last year’s New York Marathon and is currently training his third squad of runners for this year’s event, a squad that includes Pacific Palms Primary and Forster High School alumni Nat Heath.
“Like a lot of people I saw the documentary and through work and various people I knew I heard about the project and thought it was a great opportunity,” Nat said from his office at Newcastle University’s Wollotuka Institute.
Nat attended tryouts in Sydney in April which included a 5km time trial and a beep test. The selection process also included a range of interviews.
“They asked my reasons for wanting to participate, what things I already do in the community, what things I hoped to take back to my community and just things to test my suitability for the program.”
Nat was successful and has thrown himself into training, most recently completing the Gold Coast half marathon in a respectable 90 minutes. Nat is grateful for every stride after being struck down in his athletic prime by a neurological disorder which doctors said would put an end to his days as an athlete.
“It’s called Guillian-Baree Syndrome and I was diagnosed in 2010,” Nat explains.
“Basically your immune system attacks the nervous system. It started with pins and needles in my hands and led to paralysis in different parts in my body. I was hospitalized for two weeks and doctors said I would likely never get back to my previous level of endurance.”
It took a lot of hard work for Nat, a first grade rugby player and triathlete, to regain his strength including the indignation of being outrun by a tight-head prop in the early days. “I changed a few of my habits, really looked at my health and fitness and when doctors said it was really going to affect my endurance I took it as a bit of a challenge. I’m ultimately grateful for the experience.”
After completing his first camp at the AIS and the Gold Coast half marathon, Nat is currently pounding more than 80km of pavement per week in preparation for New York and hopes to compete in September’s Forster Running Festival where coach de Castella is the headline act.
“Of all the running events we do that’s the one I’d like to do the most,” Nat says.
“It’ll be up to my coaches but I’ll most likely be there either way. My dad still lives at Smiths Lake so it’s a good chance to get back home.”
Nat, who has a degree has social science, is also completing a Certificate IV in health and leisure as part of the project which he feels will equip him well to give back to the indigenous community. “My two biggest passions are Aboriginal education and Aboriginal health. When people think of Aboriginal communities they think of you know the Northern Territory and places like that, but communities here in NSW like the Cabarita community in Forster and communities and around here in Newcastle are facing the same issues. I want to highlight that by completing the project and taking its benefits back to those communities.”
Nat is hoping to break the three-hour mark in the New York Marathon on November 4.