In July 2020, Solutions Architect Tony Duan considered himself a ‘non-runner’.
Two years later, as he prepares to enter his third year in a row of the Fred Hollows Foundation fundraising initiative, Fred’s Big Run, he has just clocked 721 consecutive days of running, with a Herculean total of 3539km under his belt. And he credits Fred’s Big Run with kick-starting his running journey.
Tony’s quest began as part of a company-wide virtual fun run in August 2020. The idea to get the Luminary team to participate in Fred’s Big Run virtually had emerged as a way to foster camaraderie among the team during Melbourne’s second lockdown. Each week, participants would run (or walk) independently and then log their kilometres toward a collective tally.
Tony started the challenge with one goal – to run 30km over the course of the month. He didn’t know if he was going to make it but on that first day of August, he started with four kilometres. Then the next day he ran five, and the following day he upped his game to six. He continued to build one kilometre each day, until he hit 9km, which was as far as he could make it within the one-hour exercise limit that was in place at that time.
By the end of August, Tony had annihilated his initial target of 30km, coming in at just over 221km. He’d run an average of 7km per day, and hadn’t missed a single day of running.
The virtual fun run had ended, but Tony wasn’t done.
Far from hanging up his runners, he was inspired to keep going, to see how far he could push himself and maintain his unbroken running streak. Well-meaning friends and relatives tried to get him to pull back. They worried that he’d burn himself out, or get injured.
But for Tony, running had become an important part of his psychological arsenal in the battle against the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic. In those early days much of the focus around Covid was on China, and with many of his family members and friends still back home in China Tony felt powerless to help.
“I was full of anger and frustration at that time,” he recalls. “Running was my way of fighting back against Covid. The pandemic and lockdown had impacted everyone's normal life and plans. I couldn't help my family and friends with anything, either in China or in Australia. Running had nothing to do with curing Covid but for me it was a way to deal with the feelings of powerlessness and get some sense of control back into my life.”
“Before I started this journey, I hated running. I thought it was boring. I could never understand why people would do it. Now I understand.”
As running became more and more habitual, Tony says it started to become his “moving meditation” – a chance to take time out and recharge.
“Running has taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he explains. “Over the last two years, so many things have been uncomfortable physically and mentally. Running is a peaceful sport, it makes you peaceful inside. Before I started this journey, I hated running. I thought it was boring. I could never understand why people would do it. Now I understand.”
By mid September 2020, Victoria’s one-hour exercise limit was lifted and Tony decided to push beyond 9km. He started at 10km, building up to 15km and by Christmas, he had run his first (unofficial) half marathon, while on a family holiday in the Grampians. Unaccustomed to running longer distances, he didn’t even think to grab a drink for his 21km effort: “It was just me running with my music, the mountain and sometimes the kangaroos.”
Tony followed up his effort at the Grampians with his first official half marathon at the Sandy Point Half in February. He finished in 1hr and 46 minutes, nabbing himself a swag of ‘personal best’ times for various distances along the way.
With the half marathon added to his list of accomplishments, Tony set his sights on the next big challenge – a full 42km marathon. But before he could commit to an official event, he wanted to prove to himself that he could go the distance.
A family holiday to the Gold Coast in May 2021 gave him the perfect opportunity to test his mettle. He googled the famed Gold Coast marathon route and made a plan to take it on. Despite a postcard-perfect backdrop and ideal weather conditions, it was a rocky start. At just two kilometres in, he started to have searing pain in his outer thighs. ITB syndrome, a common affliction of long-distance runners, was making its presence felt. But still he pushed on. “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional,” he told himself, remembering the words of Haruki Murakami, one of his favourite authors.
But things were not improving. By 32km, his legs were screaming. And then his smart watch died, followed by his earbuds - leaving him with no music to ease the pain. To make matters even worse, he was desperately in need of water. At 35km, just 7km shy of his goal, he couldn’t take it any longer. He rang his wife and told her to come get him. He’d had enough. With the help of some gummy bears, water and their young son Hamish, his wife Christina managed to convince him to keep going. And so he did, with Hamish trotting alongside him for the first kilometre.
A combination of walking and running finally got him to the end. Forty-two kilometres. He’d done it. He’d run a marathon. Now, he just needed to do it as part of an official event.
Three months later, Tony’s workplace did Fred’s Big Run for a second time. With his sights set on the Melbourne Marathon, Tony knew he needed to up the ante. So he set himself a goal of running 300km for the month of August. It was an ambitious target. Some days he would do two or three half-marathons over as many days. By the end he had, as he describes it, “three layers of blister – a blister inside a blister inside a blister!” But he’d achieved his aim.
Next stop: The Melbourne Marathon Festival.
December 12, 2021 was Tony’s day of reckoning. Late to the startline, he spent the first part of the race battling to catch up with the 4-hour pacer. After that initial panic subsided, he settled in and found his rhythm. For the first 30 kilometres, he was flying. On track for a 3hr 45min finish – even better than his target time of 4hrs. But then at 35km, it happened again. That dreaded wall.
“Every muscle in my body started cramping,” he recalls. “My calves, my hamstrings – everything I tried to move was cramping! I started walking a bit. Then I saw my pacer pass me.”
His heart sank. That 4hr goal that was so squarely within his reach only minutes earlier started to slip away. Once again, it became a game of survival. Walk, run. Just get it done. “I wasn’t thinking about the finish line, only the five metres in front of me,” he says. “I was just trying to keep my pace, not worrying about how long I still needed to run – that’s the technique I used to do the final push.”
He crossed the line at the MCG in 4hrs and 5 minutes – just a measly five minutes short of his target! Tears rolling down his face, his body was spent. Even though he’d missed out on hitting his target time, he was happy. He was a marathoner!
If you ask Tony what the highlights of his running journey have been, he says of course there are the milestones – finishing Fred’s Big Run in 2020, his first half marathon, his first marathon – but the thing he is most proud of is the mental strength he’s gained. “I proved to myself that I’m not a quitter,” he says. “You can come up with all the excuses not to run, but what you need to do is run anyway. This gives you the power for your future runs – you remember back to that day you didn’t want to run, and you still did it.”
Over the past 721 days, Tony has run through illness, food poisoning, heat waves, cold snaps, and sleepless nights with two small kids and a puppy… but every day, he has run. Even if it was just one kilometre. The hardest part, he says, was simply getting started. “Nowadays it’s my habit. It doesn’t feel good not to run. I’m literally running for happiness.”
As for this year’s Fred’s Big Run, Tony isn’t aiming to cover an enormous distance. While he still runs every day, these days he’s branching out into other things like crossfit and personal training. “Running is now a habit that has led to other positive habits. It has opened the door to other things.”
Does he have plans to run another marathon? At some point, yes. “I want to do it with no walking, no hitting the wall, maybe I’ll even do an ironman,” he says. For now though, he’s content to take a back seat while his wife takes on her own running challenge.
And for anyone considering undertaking their own running journey, or signing up for this year’s Fred’s Big Run, Tony shares this story: “For my first ever Strava post, I hit the finish button (on my phone), took a photo, and wrote these three words – Just do it!”
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