Marie McInerney writes:
Not too many years ago, Eileen Byers was overweight, drank more than she should, smoked, and suffered deep anxiety.
Last year, however, she ran the 42-kilometre New York Marathon, part of a select team of Indigenous athletes trained for the event by former Olympian Robert De Castella and team coach Mick Rees.
“Twelve months ago she told me all the things she couldn’t do,” Rees told Croakey. “Now she’s a superwoman.”
Byers, a Bundjalung/Wakka Wakka woman from Casino in northern New South Wales, described her life-changing journey at this week’s Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council conference in Sydney, “Tackling Tobacco and Chronic Conditions”.
The presentation earnt her a standing ovation from delegates, whose ranks she joined earlier this year when she was appointed as an Aboriginal health worker at the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, 600 kilometres from home and her first job since she was 18.
A little nervous at the conference, the 31-year-old let her inspiring slideshow do most of the talking but she gave more details in this post, published at the ABC as part of a series about her preparation for New York. In it she said:
Back in January 2012 I was unfit, overweight, hadn’t worked since I was 18, I’d been a mum since I was 15 and I was struggling with alcohol abuse and low self esteem. I was so so timid I was too scared to apply for jobs or do any courses to improve my situation.
Then I met my current partner in March 2012 and I got a glimpse that I could make a change. He was a healthy role model and so when [he] got a job working on an outback station, I made a decision to show him I could also be healthy. The kids were all at school and I had loads of free time so I took myself off to the gym for my own personal makeover. I was 89 kilos and surprised myself when I dropped 18 kilos in just 16 weeks.
But then when he returned we decided to have baby and within weeks I was pregnant.
By the time I had our baby I’d crept up to 103 kilos.
Then in December 2014, Byers saw a Koori Mail advertisement from the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP), which every year selects a group of young Indigenous men and women to complete the New York City Marathon with just six months of training.
It uses the marathon as a vehicle to promote healthy lifestyles to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and says it “uses running to change lives”.
It sounded just right to Byers. “I really needed something to get me going, I needed something to get all the stress out of my life,” she told the conference. “I needed to set myself a goal.”
There was just one problem.
The only running I’d ever done was on a netball court and running after my kids.
Still, she applied and headed for an IMP trial day at Coffs Harbour. She finished the three-kilometre course, but mostly walking. She could only run in spurts between pain and cramps, and didn’t think there was a chance she could qualify.
But, as she said in the blog post, she also had a one-on-one interview with coach Mick Rees.
He wanted to know why I wanted to be part of the IMP team. I told him everything … the drinking, the smoking, the unemployment, the teenage mum, being unfit, overweight, my learning problems … and being over it all, over my life and wanting a change.
He then asked me what being in the IMP would do for my life. I told him I wanted the opportunity to train as a fitness coach and that it would challenge me out of my very unhealthy, comfort zone – physically and psychologically.
Then the crunch question, he asked “what would I do for my community?” I said “ I want to be a role model in my community, for anyone who wants or needs it, and because of my experience as a teenage mum, I also want to help young mums to live a happier, healthier lifestyle.”
Rees told Croakey that he had deliberately set the trial on a waterlogged oval across the road from the athletics track, to see how the candidates responded to tough conditions. He said he gave Byers every opportunity to quit. “I was saying ‘you can pull out if you want’,” he remembered. “She just wouldn’t stop.”
He said: “After seeing what she did and hearing her speak in the interview, I saw an unbelievably tough and resilient woman who had just never been given an opportunity. All she needed was an opportunity to showcase her resilience.”
A month later, she got a phone call to say she was one of 12 from across Australia who had been selected for the 2015 team.
“Then the hard work began,” she told delegates.
The photos below from her slideshow show both the pain and the joy that led her through training (8 hill sprints, three 5 kilometre runs, two 10-20 kilometre runs every week) and via a half marathon in Canberra (“I came last but I was so proud I finished”), the Sydney City to Surf, and a 30 kilometre bush run outside Alice Springs.
And then New York, the world’s most popular marathon, where she broke down in tears as she finished.
“The tears were joy. Joy and (being) proud of myself for finishing….not just for myself but for my kids and family and everyone who supported me, especially my partner,” she told Croakey.
What kept her going when she began to struggle in New York was a sign that said: “When your legs are tired, you’re running with your heart.”
And she has plenty of it. Her eyes light up as she talks about breaking through the pain barrier as she runs. “I love the pain, I just love it. It hurts, but with the pain I know that I’ve done something.”
The journey isn’t over
As part of the IMP, she completed her Certificate 3 in Fitness, and Level 1 Athletics Coaching Certificate, as well as Senior First Aid and CPR. Participants aren’t allowed to compete in New York unless they’ve done these.
Rees also worked with her to stage a Fun Run in Casino, that attracted 120 participants, including her sister “who got out of her hospital bed to walk it in her pyjamas,” he said.
Rees said the program is not just about taking young Indigenous people on a fantastic trip to New York, but about empowering them personally and then to go back into their communities to help increase levels of physical activity, not just for the impact on obesity and fitness rates but for the impact exercise can have on mental health issues that have led to high Indigenous suicide rates.
“When she crossed the line in New York, she crossed it as a different person,” Rees said. “She’s starting now to understand how much of a community asset she is.”
This year Byers completed her Certificates in Primary Health Care (levels 2 and 3) and has now taken the big step to move way from family to take up the job at Walgett.
“It took me a really long time to work out that (working in Aboriginal health) was what I wanted to do in my life,” she told Croakey, but acknowledges the move away has been difficult and she’s struggled in recent months to keep up her training regime, nervous of new surrounds.
Success in quitting
Many of the issues she has had to dealt with in her own life and which will now come up in her work were under discussion at the conference, with its theme of Caring for Community and focus on Tackling Tobacco and Chronic Conditions.
She was particularly struck by the presentations highlighting ways to reduce smoking and talked to the conference herself about the the large role that smoking continues to play in the social and family life of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Byers said she had to distance herself a little from family while she got through the hard days of quitting. She would still visit, but not stay as long.
“I had to quit smoking, I knew I had to do it, not only for myself but for my family as well, my kids,” she said. “But it’s really hard when your whole family smokes.”
But she made it. “I can be around them today and not even care (about smoking),” she said. “I can’t even stand the smell of smokes anymore.”
And Byers is now inspiring her siblings to make changes too.
“My sister wants to start running as well, my brother,” she says. “I think a lot of my family has been wanting to change. They’re always going to have that negative thought telling them they’re not good enough to change, but if you believe you can change, you can.”
Below are some photos and tweets from her presentation, and watch her interview at the bottom of the post.
Running at Alice Springs
At Coffs Harbour
In New York City