Elsie Seriat is the first woman from Thursday Island—a small community, located approximately 39 kilometres north of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula in the Torres Strait, Queensland—to complete the New York Marathon. She achieved this feat after being selected to take part in the Indigenous Marathon Project, founded by Rob de Castella, The former Australian world champion marathon runner. Elsie was recently appointed to manage the Indigenous Marathon Foundation’s FrontRunners program in Canberra, where she supports her fellow marathon alumni to create positive change in their own communities. Elsie is passionate about promoting a healthy lifestyle and fighting chronic illness through preventative measures, especially in Australia’s indigenous communities. She is behind a surge of running groups on her home island, and has successfully organised an annual running festival on Thursday Island that she hopes will soon include runners from nearby islands.
What was life like growing up on Thursday Island?
My mum is a single parent, but I grew up in a house full of people—with my two sisters, small brother and all my cousins. We played outdoors and had lots of adventures as kids. We would bushwalk and hang out down by the reef, when the tide was out we’d go and look for fish, octopus and crabs.
It was a tiny Island, and my mum would support us by taking us around to all our sports commitments. At school I was good at sprinting and playing basketball. After secondary school I started playing rugby league football on a women’s side. Coming from a community where men do everything, that was definitely breaking barriers. I got into the first representative team that was able to travel to the mainland and play rugby back in 2006 when I was 21.
What was it like breaking down that barrier?
I think the guys just thought that we couldn’t play as they played. But really our whole game was pretty similar. We tackled hard and they were amazed that we were actually playing better than them in some ways. I had ‘known’ all my life growing up that rugby league was only for guys. I only got to play two and a half games when we took our team away to Cairns, because I broke my arm. In spite of this, I was selected to go and train with the Brolgas, the Queensland women’s rugby league team, which was an amazing experience.
What did your mum and family make of your path?
Mum was amazing. My mum has been there ever since she laid her eyes on us. She has always been proud of me.
When you were a kid were you encouraged to be active as much as the boys were?
No. It was different. It was always “Boys, boys. Boys are better than girls. Boys do this, so you can’t do what the boys do.” It’s different now, but growing up we heard that message from the boys, but also sometimes we heard it from the elders in the community. They would base their perspectives on the time of our grandmothers or our mothers. Sometimes my mum would say it too. But then she was great at being flexible as I started to break down barriers. Mum had a strict childhood, but I would always tell her respectfully that generations change.
Aside from sport, where was your life taking you?
Growing up, I didn’t know much about the outside world. All I knew was home. I guess with my sporting ability and that of my sisters, we could have achieved more, or gone professional in track and field or basketball. I do wish we had been given the opportunity to be recognised. I thought home was always where I would belong, and it was who I was, so I focused on stuff in my community to grow and to try and be someone. I had always been interested in health, and wanted to study Exercise Physiology, but I got a job first with Queensland Health.
When did you decide to really stretch yourself beyond your community?
In 2014 I applied for something called the Training Rural Australians in Leadership (TRAIL) program run by the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. It was a program that went a bit over a week, held in Australia’s capital, Canberra.
I had always been told as I grew up that I was a natural born leader. People could see me dreaming, and could see me going on to ‘be someone’. I really didn’t know what to expect of the program. There were four of us participating from the Torres Strait, but the rest were non-Indigenous. It took me way out of my comfort zone. When we were starting to speak about ourselves, it was hard for me to talk. I knew I couldn’t stay silent, and that I would have to get used to this environment. We shared a lot of stuff as the program went on, and became a very close network. My biggest fears come from race. How I get judged for the colour of my skin; who I am and where I come from. That’s what holds me back.
I got to reflect on my life and find my inner strength, and my drive. There is something out there for me, the group would tell me that. Every time I spoke they’d say “there’s more for you than the Island”. They were helping me find myself, and it was good to hear it coming from strangers who I’d come to respect.
How did you get involved in the Indigenous Marathon Project (IMP)?
The Project is run by the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, founded by Rob de Castella, who’s an Australian marathon legend. One of my friends emailed details of the Project to me and said they thought I’d be perfect for it. I saw the Project was about finding local role models in communities at a grassroots level and helping them become someone that people look up to. I thought I could be this person, but I had no idea what a marathon really was!
Rob came to Thursday Island on the day of try-outs at the start of 2014. We all came from a base of ‘zero’ in terms of long distance running, but we had to run three kilometres. I cried the whole way, I was in so much pain. I thought, what am I doing? Myself and Harold Matthew, also from the island, were the first two selected from the one area since the Project began in 2010.
How did you prepare yourself?
I was lucky to find a great mentor, a triathlete who lived on Thursday Island, Brenton Koch. We weren’t close at the time, but he saw me post on social media about going for the IMP, and when I bumped into him one day he asked me if I needed help. I said, “no thanks” at first because “I know what I’m doing” – but I definitely didn’t! I soon gave up and told him I needed help. It was the best thing that happened to me during that time, because he took me totally out of my comfort zone. I did stuff that I had never done before. I lost ten kilograms simply training after the try-outs.
How challenging was this phase?
It was hard! My little sister had her third baby very premature at 23 weeks, just after I’d been selected for the Project. She had to be medically evacuated to Townsville. I got the call that I’d been accepted for the IMP in May, and my mum and sister flew down south in April. I had to train and come home to an empty house. I had no one there to tell how I felt about my first 5km run, or my first 10km run and even my first 15km.
In training, my mentor got me to run up a 1km hill in a zig-zag loop to the top 13 times in one day. It took me eight hours. The community knew that I ran 13 times up that hill. They said “well if Elsie can do it, I can do it too” so people started joining me as I trained, because they saw my transformation. I thought to myself, this is exactly why I wanted to do this, to show people that they can do it too. I was overweight. I was obese. I had tried a lot of things to lose weight. I remember that I said in my interview: “This is who I am. I am never going to change. This is how much I weigh. I’m an Island girl. I’m fat, and I’m obese”. Through the Project I have lost 20kg by running and eating right.
How did you stay so disciplined?
The project is a gamble, because they can’t be with you for all your training. They encourage you to find a mentor and community support. We took part in the Gold Coast Half Marathon seven weeks into the program and Rob got to see us crossing the finish line. He could tell if we had been consistent to our training plan or not. It helped to motivate us, it made us think yes, we can do this!
After that we went to Sydney to take part in the annual City to Surf race. For Indigenous people, going to such a big event was an eye-opener. It was also an eye-opener for others to see us there and know that we’re just the same. Despite all the negativity that goes around, we are assisting in making a change. It was good for us to be acknowledged.
Our last camp was a 30km run in Alice Springs to qualify to take part in the IMP at the New York Marathon. On the way I drove to Townsville to see my sister for the first time in four months, with her baby. She was so moved when she saw me, because she couldn’t believe that I was almost her size, I was so fit. I met her little baby Elma. Elma was what pushed me in Alice Springs to finish my run strong, because she had been diagnosed with chronic lung disease, but she was a fighter. When the time got tough out there, all I could think about was how challenging it was for her to breathe on a machine.
What were you learning about your mental strength?
Running is a lonely sport, and when you’re out there, you have things going through your mind. You hear all sorts of voices saying “you can’t do it”. You’re doubting yourself and you want to give up, and you’re exhausted. I just kept reflecting back on why I chose to do it. It was to inspire my community, but also, to see my little niece like that, it was unfair for her. That’s what pushed me through.
About three weeks later, it was time for the New York Marathon.
Describe that experience
It was my first trip overseas, and the same for my mum and my best friend, as well as Harold’s wife and sister. Our families were all together, so I wasn’t worried about them.
Come race-day, it was the coldest weather for the New York Marathon in a long time. It was minus-two, with headwinds. The course goes through the streets of all the five boroughs. It happened so fast that I just want to go back and do it again!
Initially, I was running too fast and I realised I had to pace myself. The excitement around me was so contagious. Nadine Hunt is an IMP squad member who was the first Indigenous women to cross the finish line in 2011, and who now works at the Foundation’s Head Office in Canberra. She ran with me for 25km of the race, helping and encouraging me. When we parted, she told me how proud she was to see me grow. She said she would wait for me at the finish line. That was pretty magical and a very emotional moment for me. Even though I still had 17km to go, I had to hold myself together. I still have goosebumps, because it still feels like it only happened yesterday.
I didn’t hit ‘the wall’ this time until about 34km into the race. That’s when I had to dig deep. Every kilometre that I completed I knew there were people back home celebrating with me, so I wasn’t alone. For 42km I carried my Indigenous flag with me, right to the end.
What did it feel like to cross the finish line?
My legs had gone to jelly and I didn’t think I was going to cry, but as soon as I saw the Project team and my family at the finish line, I broke down. I was exhausted. I just kept saying “I’m a marathoner. I just ran a marathon.” I was crying my heart out. My whole journey though the marathon was so emotional, I’ve never cried so much in my entire life. I loved it, because it was pain, but pain because you’d just accomplished something that you didn’t even think you could do. I ran it in 4 hours and 36 minutes. When I have talks with kids, I tell them it’s like watching the movie Frozen four times!
After the high of completing your first marathon, how did you sustain the energy to keep making a difference?
My community was so supportive about what we had done. It was good for us to go back into our community with a full understanding of the Project. Originally, when the project started, Rob thought he would be finding the next Aboriginal or Torres Straight marathon runner to compete in the Olympic Games. He soon saw the impact differently—it was bigger than that. The Project helps promote health. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. So I could go back to my community and help people to understand the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, being able to just put on your shoes and go out there and do it.
The primary problems for health in the Torres Strait and on Thursday Island are obesity and diabetes. I started doing a voluntary running program in the community to take people with zero running experience of all ages and fitness levels to be able to run 5km. Since then, I’ve trained about fifty people. We staged our second running festival this year and we had 10 per cent of the Island population at the event, with over 300 people. We catered for everyone with the message that anyone can do it, and it’s a family orientated, fun sport.
How hard has it been to overcome the barriers in your way?
Every day I get up and think about why I’m here and how did I get here? I’m here because I’ve earned my spot through all my hard work helping to make a change for my people. My mum and her generation lived with a lot of shame, often placed on them by society, but we’re not living like that anymore. We still have to break barriers.
Before, when I was training, the shame factor played on me, and it’s a big thing for my people. When I got out there to exercise, as soon as I saw a car coming, I’d walk, because I was scared of what they thought and whether they might laugh at me. As soon as I saw the car leave, I’d start running again. That’s what I was doing for the first couple of months. I was self-conscious, but I grew out of it quickly because of how much I was achieving. I get to talk about this now, because I’ve walked it. I feel honoured to be able to speak the truth. Yes, we have shame. I got to say that to a group of Indigenous women I spoke to recently. I said you mob are all ashamed, hey? And they said yes. I said what for, because it’s not getting you anywhere. It’s about having pride in who you are, and why you’re doing something.
What other changes did your marathon experience set in motion?
After New York, my mum went back to Townsville to be with my sister. She called me about two weeks after I got home to come down because my sister’s bub was not well. I went straight away to Townsville. During transit my sister lost her baby at seven months old. I got there and just thanked my sister for being so strong. She was my reason to push through everything. I was able to hold her and tell her that and show her my medal.
We get told that when you cross that finish line in New York, it’s the beginning of a new chapter, and it’s true. In 2014 I decided to apply for another IMP opportunity to walk the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, which is very significant in Australia’s military history, to the people of PNG and to my great grandfathers who served, but were never given respect as servicemen. I got to do the final day of the trail with Australian Paralympian and wheelchair marathoner Kurt Fearnley, who is an IMP ambassador and an incredible inspiration. I would say that trek was tougher than the New York Marathon. It was all about relying on the mind to get you up the mountain.
After that I did a Qantas commercial shoot with actor Hugh Jackman. That was surreal. Six of us from the Project came to Sydney for filming, and Hugh announced an initiative called the FrontRunners Grants. 65 graduates have now gone through the IMP, and they can apply for these grants, which can assist them in anything, from education to career development. It’s now my job to manage that initiative. In September I moved to Canberra, and it’s the first time I’ve ever lived away from home.
How is your home community going while you’re away?
We are all part of the ‘Deadly Runners’ group together. Through Facebook, everyone tags me about the running going on at home, and I do the same in Canberra. This is to let everyone know that I’m still running here, so they don’t give up. When they heard I was leaving, the community was sad. I told everyone that I already planted the seed, and they are the ones who will make it grow, so when I come back I will see it blossom. That’s exactly what’s happening. My little sister, Elma’s mum, is now running, and she’s also studying midwifery. Mum is running too, and she has never run before. That is a ripple effect. I was always able to inspire people of a similar age or younger to run, but I also wanted to inspire the older women. Now my mum is inspiring that generation.
My fiance Neville was on his own pathway to losing weight when we met. I encouraged him to run, and he said he wasn’t a runner, but four months later he did the Gold Coast Half Marathon with me. Four months after that Neville did the Honolulu Marathon. It’s great to be with someone who gets it. Now he is inspiring a lot of men in our community.
What is the next challenge you would like to tackle?
After going back home and starting to train people, I did forget about me a little bit. Now I’m away from home I’m trying to lay my foundations again and find myself. My next goal is the Gold Coast full marathon eight months from now. I want to do a Personal Best and knock 20 minutes off my marathon time.
My long term vision is to go back home and have my own Foundation and have it named for my niece–the Elma Faith Foundation—to raise awareness and assist family members to visit their loved ones in hospital. I also want to help educate young mums about the importance of having healthy babies and how important is it for self-care before and after birth. My story is really my seven-month journey while Elma was fighting for her life.
What is your advice for young girls who may not feel brave enough to push boundaries the way that you have?
I’d say never underestimate yourself or your potential, especially being a girl. Anything is possible. Dream big, and follow it, because it will come true. We all dream about going somewhere in the world like New York. That was one of my dreams, and I got there because I believed in myself, and I trusted others that believed in me. I was never going to give up. Sometimes people will tell you that you can’t, but you need to prove them wrong by taking your positive energy and saying: “Watch me, and I’ll do it.”