My daughter on Sydney’s Bondi Beach at sunset

Run for Your Life

We are the product of our parents. Nothing in my own life brought that fact into sharper relief than my divorce. I’d married in my mid-20s thinking I could prove my Mum and Dad wrong, that it was possible to have a love that endured and could withstand anything that was thrown at it, but I was naïve: the marriage ended ten years later in great acrimony and I found myself where my father, Fred, had found himself when he’d broken up with my mother, Jan, in 1979: tying up the shoelaces on a pair of running shoes.

The nicest thing about running was the way he could be whatever he wanted to be. Some days he’d feel troubled, so he’d run troubled. Head tucked down, listening to his own breath, mixed with troubles, going in and out of his body… he was a troubled man taking it on the concrete.

Fred had written these words for Billy Blue, a Sydney literary magazine, back in 1981. The story was called “Runner”. I vividly remember my dad from that time and what he wore when he went running: an old-style Bjorn Bjorg headband around his long, curly brown hair; flimsy, thin, black football shorts that rode high on his thighs; white Reeboks; a red singlet so faded it had turned pink. He was a distinctive sight around the streets, beaches and hills of Sydney’s North Shore, where most days he’d run 20 kilometres till he was utterly spent.

Me, my parents and my brother, Vietnamese orphan Tom, Balmoral, 1970s

Of course, I didn’t know what was going through his head when he went on those long runs from his bachelor flat in Mosman; I was just a kid. But I do now. We’ve come full circle. He’s married again, and has been for more than 30 years, while I took his place as the jogging loner struggling to deal emotionally and mentally with issues that felt beyond my control.

At other times he’d run full of living. Head thrown back, mouth open for breath, almost sailing across the footpath.

The marriage break-up wasn’t my only source of tumult. For about eight years in my 30s — what should have been some of the best years of my life — I’d also battled fairly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It got dramatically worse during the divorce. My ex wife had an affair. When she broke up with her new man, she gave him our dog. I found out it had happened much later through our daughter. I didn’t think my situation could get any worse. I wanted to suicide. I put a knife over my wrist. I stood on a ledge. I contemplated walking in front of a garbage truck. What stopped me killing myself was my kid. I couldn’t hurt her.

To cope with the stress of my rapidly unravelling life, I guzzled antidepressants, I slept around, I drank till I passed out, and I did my best to ignore the advice of Fred and Jan, because — as I had when I’d got married — I thought I knew better than they did.

Aside from these pressing problems, I was also grossly fat — up to 105kg at one point when my normal weight was 72kg — but still thought I was attractive enough to entice my ex wife back. I was totally deluded, of course.

Jan urged me to “let go” of the idea of ever getting back with my ex wife. “Life’s a series of letting go,” she said. I resented her words at the time but she’d ultimately be proved right.

Fred, for his part, suggested I go running, as he had when he’d split with Jan. He’d done it without fail, no matter the weather, irrespective of his emotional state. He told me it gave him structure when he had none. It freed him from the prison of his own bad thoughts and regrets.

Occasionally he’d run sick. Feeling bad. Trying to make whatever it was in his body leave, because it was such a painful place to be. Those days he’d just watch his feet and feel the cold wind holding him back.

Exercise — having a set physical routine — was the last thing on my mind. Getting through the night and waking up the next day was my top priority. I hadn’t run for years and, at 37, I knew I could never get back to what I used to be when I was 25 and at peak condition.

I was nowhere near even running on a treadmill — my cardiovascular fitness was non-existent — but I had to do something constructive. Howling at the moon with a half-empty bottle of whisky in my hand or arguing with my ex wife on the phone till we hung up on each other wasn’t getting me any closer to where I needed to be: which was being happy in myself, in my own body and in my own company.

So I stopped drinking like Gérard Depardieu. I got my diet sorted. And — this involved the biggest psychological effort of all — I started walking on a step machine down at the Juanita Nielsen Centre, an old-school community gym in the inner-city housing-commission area of Woolloomooloo, not far from where I lived in Sydney: Kings Cross.

There were other men in that gym facing their own personal demons: drug addiction, life after jail, relationship breakdowns, bereavement, unemployment. Like me, they were trying to get back some of their self-esteem and sense of purpose back through physical exertion and daily commitment. We were in it together and we felt it. The camaraderie in the place was palpable.

I used that machine for an hour a day, six days a week, for six months. Then, when I felt ready, I switched to jogging on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day, six days a week, for six months. I got fit.

A section of the running path at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney Harbour

I began running outside, from Kings Cross to the Sydney Opera House and back along the foreshore of the harbour. In rain, hail or shine I began running seven kilometres a day, six days a week, and I did it for four years. I ran a couple of half-marathons. All the extra weight I had stacked on melted away. I got “sex lines” or “v-cut abs” for the first time in my life. My OCD disappeared. I fell in love with another woman. I lived each day for the exhilarating feeling of putting on some headphones, cranking up AC/DC’s Powerage, closing my apartment door behind me, and bounding into a run.

Then there were the days he could run forever. Clear eyes, shining skin, thighs slapping, breath pistoning in and out like a machine… and they were the best days.

I was doing what my father had done before me: getting better through my own effort, discipline and initiative.

I am now 41. I’ve been running solidly for four years and in the process of recovering my fitness, self-esteem and mental health have become a lot closer to both my parents, but especially Fred. I used to hate my dad for allowing his family to fall apart. But now I understand what caused the marriage of my parents to falter — there are always two sides to the story — and have been able to confront the mistakes I made in my own. I have forgiven my ex wife for hers. We’re all human and imperfect.

At the City of Sydney gym, Woolloomooloo

Running has given me the sort of clarity I could not get through alcohol, casual sex, medication or counselling. It’s taught me to be self-reliant. It’s restored my confidence. It’s made me more attractive to women. I’m a happier and healthier person. When I feel better about myself it’s no accident I’m a better father to my daughter. There is nothing more important to me than that.

I’m not going to reconcile with my ex wife or put together our family again but I’ve got my life back. It’s not the life I had before but, like Jan said, I had to let go of that. I found a whole n­ew life through running and I’m grateful for it.

The big irony is that I’ll never go for a run with Fred. At 68, his knees are shot. He can’t run any more. Instead, he swims each morning at North Sydney Olympic Pool. We get together for a sandwich and coffee every Monday at a friend’s café in Bellevue Hill.

Fred admits he doesn’t get the same pleasure from doing a kilometre of laps as he did running — the sweat, the smells, the sun, the beautiful passing female joggers — but age catches up with all of us. I hope to be half the father he is when I’m 68.

After everything I’ve gone through I realise it’s better to be a wise man with lousy joints than to be a fool going nowhere fast.

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