Only three more kilometres. Everything is hell – this marathon. Everyone. Life. Why keep running when there is this much suffering? To continue is torture. Something brushes past his left shoulder. The runner has a cord attached to their back that is connected to another runner behind. Above that cord, the words: ‘Blind Runner’ plastered across their back.
Since his first 2015 New York City Marathon experience, former NRL player, Nick Youngquest has run eight marathons across the globe. “I started violently crying. I kept going, thinking this is the best sport in the world. Running the New York City Marathon is the most profound athletic experience of my life,” Nick says.
This year, Nick’s foundation, Athletes for Life has recruited eight former sportspeople to run as part of their mission to help athletes find purpose after sport.
Transitioning to life after retirement is notoriously challenging for athletes. Research from Australia and the United States identifies many negative ramifications of athlete career retirement including a loss of purpose, a loss of identity and several psychological difficulties. Athletes for Life uses marathons as a tool to help former athletes transition into life post-sport with more ease and support.
For Nick, the New York City Marathon holds a particularly special place in his heart, running every marathon the city held since, with the exception of 2021 and the travel restrictions. The combination of his love for the city, nine months of solid team training in Sydney along with an abundance of gels, was the fuel needed to fly his team to the Big Apple to run the 42-kilometre race through the five boroughs.
“My first experience with a marathon was in New York. That’s where I came up with the idea to establish the foundation to help former sportspeople on their journey to a successful transition by prioritising their mental, emotional and physical well-being, all while supporting charities,” Nick says.
It’s more than the physical
For the 2022 race, Athletes for Life partnered with Equinox Hotel, the world’s fittest hotel, to deliver an unrivalled health and wellness package for marathoners. In the days leading up to the race, the athletes would indulge in the hotel’s facilities including the hot and cold plunge pools, cryo-chamber, infrared sauna, sound bath meditation and ice baths to name a few.
While the team is jumping between the eight-degree plunge pool into the warm spa, Luke Burgess is seen pacing himself swimming, running and dynamically stretching the length of the lap pool. This will be Luke’s first marathon after training under Athletes for Life for the past nine months.
Giving athletes a new sense of purpose outside of their identity as a sportsperson is the cornerstone of Athletes for Life and was a big reason for Luke signing up to run the New York City Marathon. “I never ever had the desire to run a marathon… I think the longest I had ever run was five kilometres prior to this training. Nick reached out to me… it was the perfect timing for me to get back into something that had a bit of an end goal as well. I enjoy training for a purpose.” To provide this sense of structure, the team trained toward micro-goals, City2Surf and the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon to build confidence in their journey to the New York City start line.
Nick says these micro-goals go well beyond the physical and Athletes for Life has developed programs alongside leading psychologists in the United States that allow everyone to tap into their athlete mindset and reach their full potential. “The athlete mindset is fairly under-utilised when athletes are participating in sport, let alone when they retire. To make it to elite sport takes a lot of dedication and a lot of resilience. There’s a lot of managing uncertainty… you don’t sign long contracts, there’s bouncing back from injuries, and overcoming challenges in the face of adversity. So the mindset is really, really important and we utilise that in our [online] programs, Next Chapter being one of them.”
The Next Chapter program, developed by Athletes for Life, is backed by evidence-based positive psychology and allows people to act before reaching a critical level. In Australia, more than double the number of people die by suicide every day than the national road toll, 75 per cent of which are men, while Lifeline receives a call every 30 minutes.
“We’re [also] building a suite of programs using the athlete influence that is proven to be profoundly impactful on today’s youth and on people in general,” Nick says.
According to a 2022 study by No2ndPlace, 93 per cent of Australians believe that sports should play an important role in addressing societal challenges, while 73 per cent found athletes to be more influential than top-tier figures such as politicians, the news and business CEOs. “This is what we’re harnessing with the program… We amplify and improve the athlete influence by marrying that with evidence-based ideas in our program to ensure long-term, sustainable growth, not just a low-leverage, low-impact interaction, like those on social media.”
As part of their partnership with Equinox Hotels, Athletes for Life hosted a charity event in the lead-up to the marathon, fundraising for Project Healthy Minds, – an America-based mental health charity – auctioning off artwork from the CEO, whose son took his own life. Nick, his co-founder Mitchell Doust and the entire Athletes for Life team came together to celebrate the $30,000 that was donated to the charity, raising a glass of sparkling water to the cause, while everyone else raised wine. “The running events are just a physical extension of the impact we are trying to have,” Nick says.
Put one foot in front of the other
“I stopped playing rugby in 2005. My beautiful mother, who was my closest person in the world, passed away in 2006 from breast cancer and it hit me hard. I really needed to channel that frustration, that anguish somewhere and I could either do it destructively or I could try and build something positive,” says Ben Lucas, who admits to having an addictive personality. But instead of turning to drugs or alcohol, he chose to run.
Ben has now ran 40 marathons before hitting 40, something he never set out to do. “It just turned out that way… I think running itself is kind of a metaphor for life,” he says before adding, “We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make it to that next lamp post or that next tree and it will all be OK.”
For Luke Burgess, the New York City Marathon is an entrée into the Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon in 2023 where he will run for Motor neurone disease, which his father passed away from. It is estimated that approximately 40 per cent of marathon runners ‘hit a wall’ and Luke says he taps into these very strong and personal reasons to get through. “I think about my Dad – that really gets me fired up. Also, my daughter,” he explains. “I’ve always drawn strength from my family, especially my father and my children so I’m sure they’ll be very present in my mind tomorrow.”
The marathon heats up
Lining up like ants, spectators dot the streets of New York City to cheer on the runners. To the left, a family shouts, “Go Ashton!” as Ashton Kutcher runs past, while a Scottish man to the right has a cowbell and calls out anyone’s name that he can read off their shirts. The Athletes for Life’s team’s partners are holding up signs for the men and when they run past there are tears, sweaty kisses and ear-to-ear smiles.
It’s the hottest day on record for the New York City Marathon – 23 degrees Celcius with 85 per cent humidity. This is the first year that the marathon returned to full capacity, with 47,839 finishers, a third of which were internationals. The city is heaving with electricity, while the 487,117 mobile app downloads brought those from around the globe to the event.
Just 400 metres to the finish line and the scene is beautifully confronting. Runners drop from fatigue, while others flock to them, throwing the fatigued runner’s arm over their shoulder to run together to the end. It’s a battle: the runners against the finish line. A man with blades as legs soars past while another runner who is pushing someone uphill in a wheelchair. One-by-one all the Athletes for Life team pass by. Almost. Checking the live update, ‘LB’ has frozen at 32 kilometres. Luke is in a medical tent, his whole body cramping and unable to take on any more fluids or gels.
Unaware if Luke will recover, the athletes decide to retire to Equinox for a beer and meal. Compared to 2019, there were double the amount of non-finishers in the marathon, while the average race time was drastically slower across all groups except the elite runners. The 2022 marathon conditions were brutal. Among the sound of clinking glasses and marathon war stories, an echoing roar overcomes the room. It’s Nick: “Luke finished!”
There’s a pulsating sense of camaraderie as the whole room, even those at other tables, applaud Luke and the team’s accomplishment.
“I almost felt guilty, like I shouldn’t be having a beer but I refreshed my phone and saw the Luke crossed the finish. It was the best part of the whole nine months! We’ve trained together for so long and even though none of us achieved the times we wanted, this is what it’s all about!”
Like the runners near the finish line that would stop to help those that physically couldn’t keep going alone, these former rugby players are connected by something far greater than their identification as sportspeople. It’s the knowing that they’re part of something bigger. Like a collective intelligence. Regardless of your athletic background, Nick says it’s this deep bonding and connection to everyone, regardless of their sporting background, that he cherishes the most and propels him and his foundation forward. “Less than one per cent of people make it to be an elite athlete but we believe everyone can be an athlete for life.”
By Nicola McClean
Nicola McClean is a lifestyle and travel journalist and certified health and wellness coach from Sydney. She has written for titles including Signature Luxury Travel & Style, Holidays with Kids, Harper’s BAZAAR, ELLE, Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health. When she’s not away travelling, you can find her beach-hopping, lying in the sun like a lizard or on her yoga mat. You can follow her on Instagram here.