Not Running Away from Anything
14 December 2015 at 9:30 am
Last month 27-year-old Oliver Woolrych arrived back home in Australia after running the length of Central America, 5,874 kilometres, for charity. Woolrych is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
After finishing high school, Oliver Woolrych found himself struggling with his mental health.
He turned to the Not for Profit beyondblue, whose services helped him get back on track, and discovered his love of running.
To repay the organisation that helped him through the darkest period of his life, he decided to embark on a gruelling journey.
Over six months he ran from Mexico City to Panama City, a feat that required him to run 200 kilometres by himself every week.
Along the way he raised more than $27,000 for beyondblue.
In this week’s Changemaker column, Woolrych explains what motivated him to push his physical limits, how he survived the mammoth task and what he plans to do now to continue the good will.
How did the run come about?
I started running when I was in a bad place in my life and it really helped me through my days. For whatever reason, that whole idea of healthy body healthy mind really affected me. I was living unhealthily, I was making bad lifestyle choices, as a lot of 19 and 20-year-olds do in this current day and age.
I started running and it really gripped me. Immediately it gripped me. Originally I started running because I could go out and turn my phone onto airplane mode and tune out for an hour or two and not be reached. I used to like that feeling. Very quickly I wasn’t running away from stuff, I was trying to run to find stuff. I was trying to find confidence in myself and explore myself and my surroundings. That’s why I started running.
I did this run because I wanted to send a message that if you find something you’re passionate about you’ve got to let it grow. That’s how this run came about.
As far as Central America, I wanted to run through multiple countries, speaking foreign languages. I wanted to put myself way outside of my comfort zone, because for a lot of years I didn’t do that. I believe it’s really important to hang outside of your comfort zone as much as possible in order to grow. So pushing myself physically with five marathons a week and being on a foreign continent by myself, obviously there was plenty of different variables that were going to put me out of my comfort zone.
Why did you decide to do this for beyondblue?
I liked the way beyondblue communicate their message. They take a very relaxed approach to a very serious issue. I think that’s the right way to go about mental health. I don’t think that young people out there can relate to a 60-year-old professor in a white coat. That’s not taking anything away from that professor, but I think there’s more effective ways to talk about mental health to these young people, which is the most vulnerable demographic at the moment.
I also liked beyondblue because they helped me when I was struggling with mental health issues. I used some of their online resources and I think they did a good job.
What was the most difficult aspect of the run?
The isolation was hard. There were times where I wouldn’t see another English speaking person for several weeks or a month. I remember at one stage on the Pacific coast of Mexico I didn’t see another person for a month. I saw locals but I didn’t meet one English speaking person. I had some Spanish that I could use, but there’s a big difference between saying “hello, how are you?” in Spanish to actually having an in-depth conversations with someone. The lack of human interaction was tough. I was concerned by how quickly I started talking to myself. When you don’t speak to someone for four or five days you start talking to yourself quite a bit.
I thought the mountains were going to be the most difficult part but it was actually at sea level in 100 per cent humidity that made me completely uncomfortable from before sunrise until about 3 or 4pm. I had to find a shower or a creek to cool down in. It sounds petty, but rubbing the sweat out of my eyes for 10 hours a day made me get really bad rashes and then it would sting every time I would sweat. Struggling with that six days a week for 10 hours can get you down.
How did it feel to finally complete what you’d set out to do?
The end of the run was amazing. I knew my brothers were coming across. My twin brother flew down from New York and my older brother came accross from Sydney. I knew they were coming just for three or four nights, but they actually ran the last day with me, which was really cool. That was something that I was looking forward to for about six weeks beforehand. That was such a special day. They met me just outside of Panama City and we ran the last 15 kilometres together.
I had mixed feelings [about finishing]. I loved the adventure I was on but to complete the challenge I had set out for myself nearly two or three years previous was a really nice feeling.
What advice would you give to someone else considering doing something of this scale for charity?
I have been so humbled by the amount of help that I’ve received. I’ve not had one “no”. I’d not gone to one person for advice or help to have them turn around and say “no thanks”. There’s plenty of people around that will want to help. Whether they’re strangers, family or friends, there’s a huge amount of help out there. I had nothing but lovely experiences with everyone that I came across. Humans want to help each other, so don’t be scared to ask for help.
If you find something you’re passionate about, the person next door might not think twice about it and that shouldn’t deter you from the passion you feel about it. I want this to now be my life’s work, spreading the message, particularly to young people. I’m going to do that no matter if someone thinks it’s important or insignificant. Stick to your guns I guess is the real message.
How do you plan to continue to spread this message?
I’ll be going around and speaking to a lot of schools next year. 16 to 18-years-old is a really important age to approach mental health issues. I was blindsided by mental health. Even though I went to a great school, I don’t think that was something they covered, so when I started battling away I didn’t really understand what was happening.
I plan on just speaking about my own experiences. I’m not saying I have the answers, I just want to let other young people know that this is what happened to me and it may be that the next eight or 10 years isn’t always straight line success. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and that’s completely normal.
Has doing this turned you off running for a while?
I’m going to be doing a lot more marathons. I’m actually running the Great Wall of China marathon next year. I’m doing a 100k marathon in April and a 100 mile run in September. I love running now more than ever, which is surprising but true. I thought I would be over it but I’m not. I guess I owe it more than ever. I used to say that running half saved my life. It took me from being suicidal to a happy 27-year-old. Now it’s given me this amazing adventure for the last eight months.
There’s a thought that I can’t get out of my head that has me wanting to run the length of Vietnam. That’s a dangerous thought and we’ll have to wait and see what happens with that.