Promises to keep … and miles to go before he sleeps

08 Mar 2016


Australia's veteran marathon runner Patrick Francis Daniel (Pat) Farmer has run from the North Pole to the South, among other awe-inspiring feats. A former MP and sports minister, his 'Spirit of India' run from Kashmir to Kanyakumari – 4,600 km in 60 days - is aimed at promoting Indo-Australian friendship and child education, among other causes. Swetha Amit catches up with him in Mumbai

Photograph by: Kevin Nguyen  

When and how did you get into long distance running, Pat?
It is quite an interesting story actually. I quit school when I was just 14 years old as I come from a poor family, which couldn't afford my further education. I got a job as a motor mechanic. One fine day, my boss called me and pointed out the fanfare that was happening outside our work place. I could see people clapping, cheering and police sirens followed by these runners whom my boss mentioned were ultra-marathon athletes. They were apparently running 1,000 km from Sydney to Melbourne.

As I looked at these runners, I noticed one particular guy at the back who seemed quite old. His name was Cliff Young and he was 63 years old. I was very inspired looking at him and decided that I too wanted to do something special with my life. That's how I got into long-distance running.

Four years later, I competed in the same race and became the youngest person to finish this race. After that I went on to do many other races and eventually got featured on a popular programme in Australia. I slowly became a known face and started to get sponsorships. This made me realise that I could do wonders through running and therefore began to run to raise money for different causes and to help people.

After one such run across Australia, I got a call from the Australian Prime Minister at that time, John Howard, who praised my efforts and invited me to join politics. I decided to give it a shot and eventually became the minister for education science and training. I was there from 2001-2010 and continued my running even then. So it's been over 30 years now since I commenced running.

Now, with a remarkable 30-year-old career in running, where you have run from North to South Pole, across Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, and West Asia, you have currently embarked on the Spirit of India run to raise funds for the girl child education, which is the Nanhi Kali program of Mahindra & Mahindra. What prompted you to take up this initiative?
I realise the importance and value of education as I didn't finish school myself and also because I had been the minister of education, as I had mentioned earlier.  I also realised that if you educate girls, then you end up educating future mothers and mothers are usually the first educators of their children. There is this popular saying which says ''If you teach the girl child, you educate the mothers, if you educate mothers, you educate families and if you educate families you are educating the entire nation.''

Also my wife died when my children were very young - my son was 10 months old and my daughter just two. So I had to play the woman's role here as well and raise them all by myself. This single parenting enabled me to understand the significance of a woman a lot more and I felt very passionate about it. Therefore I took up the initiative of raising funds for the girl child education.

Your run commenced on 26 January, India's Republic Day, which is also Australia's National Day. Starting from Kanyakumari, you have run across several southern states and you are now in Mumbai. How has your experience of running in incredible India been so far?
Yes, being the Republic Day of India and the National Australia Day, January 26 seemed to be the perfect day to begin. The decision behind this date was a man who is an incredible patriot and also the High Commissioner of India to Australia. 

His name is Navdeep Singh Suri and he coaxed me to start on this date. Even though I wasn't fully ready, I fast-tracked everything as I realised the importance of this day. I am glad I did so as both the countries instantly took ownership of this expedition and it helped me strengthen my initiative to promote India-Australia relations, which was one of my primary purposes of this run.

Now the tagline - Incredible India - might seem like a play of words to someone who does not know anything about this country. However once you travel across states, then you realise that this tagline lives up to its name. One thing I have observed is how diverse and different each state is and that's the beauty of this place. Each state has its own language and unique landscapes. I have run through the interior belts of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa - each place so distinct from one another.

Usually most Australians just visit Delhi, Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Mumbai and form their opinions based on these three places alone. I feel that you get to understand the geography, people and places better if you go across states and that's what I am trying to portray through the film we are making during the course of this run. We are going to submit this film in the Cannes Film festival and it will be called 'Spirit of India'.

After running in cooler climates, it must be an arduous experience running in 88 per cent humidity. When many people would give up, what keeps you going in such unfavourable conditions?
During the course of my run, there are people to greet me at some points, presenting flowers and waiting to welcome me. I have also come across schoolchildren standing on the sidelines, clapping and cheering for me. I remind myself that I am running for these people who are counting on me to finish this journey. If I finish running the entire length of India, it would be something special.

At times I do feel the burden of both the countries on my shoulder but the spirit of these people and children keeps me going. I also think of my support crew who support me and believe in me so much that I don't want to let them down.

A distance of 4,600 km in 60 days means running 80 km per day. Could you tell us more about how you trained for this expedition,  your diet, hydration, sleep hours, your running attire especially the shoes that you use, your playlist, your team and support crew?
In Sydney, I reside very close to the beach which is about 1 km long. So I run about 20 laps on the sand barefoot. So that takes care of my speed workouts. At other times, I do 20 km of hill training and rest of the time I cover long distances around the beautiful routes of Sydney. I put in about 20 km in the morning before I go to work and in the evenings I hit the gym and do some light weights, squats, skipping and work on my core. Weekend training includes 30 km on Saturdays and 40 km on Sundays.

In this Spirit of India run, my timing depends on the functions and engagements I have in the evenings. For example if I start at a particular point and there is a school where I have to give a speech, then I start accordingly. Overall I am on the road for 10-12 hours.

Usually runners are known to take GU gels, Gatorade or sports drinks but too much of these for days together can upset the system. I find coconut water one of the best electrolytes. It's natural, safe and clean. Otherwise I stick to solids like bananas during my run and an Indian vegetarian diet during my meals. So it's mostly cooked vegetables like peas, carrots, onions, broccoli, occasionally a vegetable broth or naan (Indian unlevened bread) and lentils.

Most of the time we organise the food the night before and carry it with us the next day, or we pick up some food on the way.

As for hydration, I usually consume 500 ml of water every 5 km as its stimulating and rejuvenating both for the body and brain. Sometimes I take in coconut water as mentioned earlier, juice, lemonade or Sprite. I try and take a short break for 15-30 minutes at the 40- or 60-km mark. At times my break will just consist of merely walking along the road.

You see, this entire expedition is not just about running. The real purpose is to communicate with as many people during the course of the journey. There is so much to do and only 24 hours in a day. So I try and get about 4-5 hours of sleep.

I have tried all kinds of shoes from Mizunos, Asics, Puma, Nike, Adidas and I find that the shoes that suit me the best are Brooks - the one that I am using at present. These shoes stabilise the heel very well and minimises injury chances. I personally feel that the best shoe is the one that suits you the best depending on your body weight and alignment.

Sometimes I listen to music as it helps in taking my mind off from the mileage that I'm covering. However when I am running through traffic laden roads, I keep off music as I need to be alert about the vehicles behind me and can't afford to go into my zone completely.  But around the countryside where there is not much rush, I tend to listen to a bit of everything from Rap, Hip Hop to Pop.

My team consists of my doctor who checks my blood pressure and ensures that I am ok at the end of each day, and my journalist Kevin who keeps a record of the entire journey. There are two trainers - Katie and Josh - who ensure that I consume the right amount of fluids and keep a record of my weight every day. I have to ensure that I don't drop any further and maintain my optimum body weight which is around 61-62 kg. That way I am light, fast as well as efficient.

It is said that the journey is more important than the destination as one tends to pick up vital lessons during the course. What have you learnt in all these years of running in different places?
Well there is this beautiful saying that we should all travel through the road less trodden. Doing things that are beyond my imagination opens my mind to new possibilities, new friendships and new places, and enables me to discover a lot about life.  The more I run and break barriers, the more I seem to discover myself.

I also realise that the lessons you learn in running can be implemented in business as well. For instance, it takes hard work to reach a goal. Long term goals need to be broken into smaller goals and there is no short cut to success. If I want to attain success it has to be step by step. So when I took my first step in Kanyakumari, I was already thinking about my last step in Kashmir. So even now when I have stopped in Mumbai, I have set my eyes on where I want to reach and enjoy my journey in the process.

Every sportsperson has a role model he/she looks up to. Who has been your source of inspiration as a runner?
It's my dad undoubtedly. He wasn't a good sportsman but a great dad nevertheless who taught me the vital lessons about life. He passed away sometime back but whenever I run, I think about the lessons he has imparted to me.

The one important thing he has said is that one should always have a goal and purpose in life otherwise they will just go through life without knowing if they have changed anything or not.

Speaking of inspiration, you may have inspired many people to take up long distance running. However sometimes, the enthusiasm is so high that a runner is eager to jump the distances too fast too soon. What would be your advice to such people and how should one graduate from say a half marathoner to a marathoner and then to an ultra-marathoner?
There is a saying'' If you want to fly like an eagle, you need to hang around eagles.'' If you hang around Turkeys, you will stay only on the ground. It's the same logic here. If you want to graduate to an ultra-marathon, then you need to hang around more with good ultra-marathoners and understand their diet patterns, training schedule and their philosophy in life. Same goes for those who want to graduate to a marathoner. As I have mentioned before, running is like an accumulation of goals and you have to work up to it gradually.

There have been a few instances in the recent past where people in quest of wanting to achieve their personal best (PBs) timing have pushed themselves beyond their capacity and this has resulted in them collapsing at the finish line. How would you mentor such individuals and what is your take on such instances?
I feel that they are trying to achieve too much too soon. It's like a person whose aim is to become a millionaire and wants to achieve it at that very moment. So what happens is that instead of having a long term goal and working towards it, they are trying to take big chunks, using a short cut method.

It's like a hungry kid grabbing big chunks of a cake when they see it and gobbling it up at one go, which eventually makes them fall sick. Instead if they just have bit by bit, they will actually enjoy the taste of the cake a lot more. Similarly a person wanting to achieve their personal best record in a race needs to build up on it gradually with the right training schedule and most importantly enjoy the journey while doing so.

How has the response been so far for the fund-raising for Nanhi Kali initiative?
It's really been good so far. Every time I do an interview or article in the newspaper, there are about 40 people who immediately come forward to make a donation. Another thing I love is that even kids are eager to make a donation of five dollars. There was another person who donated $4,600 stating that he wanted to donate a dollar for every kilometre that I run, which is incredible. We are advertising these funds from Australia largely as my intention is to help India and not take anything away from it.

What are your expectations from this run? And what are your future plans? Any more runs in the offing?
I expect to raise $100,000 dollars for girls' education. I also expect to finish this journey albeit it's going to be a tough one. I am hoping to adverse through difficult conditions, be it the heat or rain and also hoping to inspire people along the way with my determination.

If you recall, I had mentioned about the old man who inspired me to take up running. He had no idea that I even stood on the side-lines watching him and it is because of him that I took up running and raised millions of dollars for various causes. So, you never know whom you will inspire and I believe that you just have to inspire one person to change their life. Who knows they may even change the nation.

I have been asked to think about doing something in countries like China or Africa. I will also be running in other parts of the world. When I met Navdeep Singh Suri (High commissioner of India in Australia), he said that the 'Spirit of India Run' will be one of my best runs. I have to say that I agree with him even though I have miles to go before I reach my last step in Kashmir. This run in India has by far been the greatest run because of this country's people, culture and diversity that makes it a very special place.

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