Running for a reason
It’s October 2017 and a young Melburnian named Sean Bell is a few kilometres from the finish line in his first-ever marathon. The Melbourne Marathon is a relatively flat and fast course, and despite his lack of experience at this distance, Sean is feeling physically fit and mentally strong. The struggle starts as he approaches a hill around the 38-kilometre mark.
“I suddenly start to feel this terrible, terrible cramp,” he says.
A fellow runner realises Sean is struggling and comes to his aid.
“He puts his hand on my back and starts pushing me up the hill, and he’s like, ‘Come on, mate! We’ve only got four Ks to go!’”
Sean knows he’s on the home stretch, but the cramps are crippling. He tells the other runner that he can’t move his legs and he doesn’t know what to do.
The man leads Sean towards the crowd on the side of the road, where a woman and some kids are handing out sugary ice-blocks.
“He checks my race bib to find my name, and then he says to me, ‘Sean, you’re just low on sugar. This will help’. So I smash a few ice-blocks and the cramp goes away immediately, and I just keep on running.”
Once he crosses the finish line, Sean realises that this will be the first of many marathons. This isn’t just a bucket-list item that has now been ticked off. He’s officially hooked.
“At that point, I know I’ve found my thing,” he says. “For me, when I’m running, it’s like time doesn’t exist.”
A different track
Some 16 months later, in February 2019, Sean is heading to his local football oval at the crack of dawn to run another 42-kilometre marathon: 105 laps around a 400-metre track.
It’s the 50th time he’s run this distance in the past 50 days, mostly on the same oval, running over the same blades of grass – sometimes on his own, sometimes with others.
The obvious question is why Sean, or anyone else, would choose to spend 50 consecutive days running a total of 2110 kilometres on a suburban football field.
The first answer: He did it to raise funds for charity. Specifically, in this case, The Compassionate Friends Victoria, which received a $30,000 donation thanks to Sean and his supporters.
But there’s more to it than that.
In 2016, fresh out of high-school, Sean had begun pursuing his Bachelor of Physical Activity and Health Science at ACU’s Melbourne campus, with a goal to forge a career in physical and outdoor education.
He studied hard through the week, and on weekends, he played footy with the Vermont Eagles, his local club. Life was good.
“I felt like I was one of the lucky kids leaving high-school, because I had a very clear direction on what I wanted to do,” Sean says.
“I always had a passion for sport and physical activity, so I looked at the degree as an opportunity to learn the health science side of things, and I was really enjoying my time.”
At the Vermont Football Club, Sean had struck up a close friendship with a fellow player, bonding over a shared love of footy and the Richmond Tigers.
Sean’s teammate had only recently joined the Eagles, and he quickly made an impression on Sean and the other players.
“He wasn’t the best player in the team, but he had an enormous heart,” Sean recalls. “He just loved the culture of footy and he loved all his teammates, and everyone loved him back.”
One Friday in July, the night before game-day, Sean’s teammate died in his sleep. His sudden and unexplained death, just three weeks after his 18th birthday, completely devastated his family, his friends and his teammates at the Vermont Eagles.
“As an 18-year-old, trying to come to terms with that, I just couldn’t fathom how it could happen, and it really affected me in lots of different ways,” says Sean, now 24.
“All of that clarity I had about my future had vanished. I felt completely directionless. My teammate was a healthy guy who had an enormously positive impact on the people around him, and all of a sudden, he’s gone.”
The soul-searching that followed led Sean down a new track. He still played footy, but he felt increasingly drawn towards running. It helped him to clear his head and to come to terms with the death of his new friend.
At the end of the 2016 football season, the Vermont Eagles instituted a special award, to be given to the player who best displayed their late teammate’s values of hard work, mateship, sacrifice and empathy. Sean won the award that year.
“It’s so hard to explain, but winning that award really changed me,” Sean says. “My friend’s death showed me that life is incredibly precious. From that day on, I wanted to make sure that my number one priority was to do what I love, to chase my dreams, and to help others chase theirs.”
Premiership captain - three weeks before first marathon
The question was, how would Sean do that with maximum impact?
He knew he loved running, but at that point, he’d never attempted more than 15 kilometres.
Having not yet achieved his dream of winning a football premiership, Sean committed to another season with the Vermont Eagles, leaving running as a something he did “on the side”.
Finding a reason
In early 2017, Sean’s mother took him to the United States to see the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins.
Robbins shared the story of an endurance athlete who’d run across America in 55 days.
Hearing this story spurred Sean on to keep running, and after completing his first marathon and captaining the Vermont Eagles under-19s team to the 2017 premiership, he quit football to commit to his new sport of choice.
One day, while browsing the internet in his bedroom, Sean thought back to the Robbins seminar and the man who ran across America. He googled to see if anyone had run a lap around Australia.
“I learned that a few people had, including a man named Dave Alley, who ran 13,383 kilometres around Australia in under six months,” Sean says.
“Something just clicked, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to run around Australia in honour of my teammate’.”
In 2018, the final year of his degree, Sean would regularly commute to university by foot, running half-marathons from Vermont to ACU’s campus in Fitzroy two or three times a week.
He completed his first ultra-marathon at the Great Ocean Road in May, and in September, he found a running coach who reshaped his training strategy.
The following February, Sean went on to achieve the incredible feat of running 50 marathons in 50 days for the ‘Jog for Joey’, raising funds for the charity that supported his teammate’s family after their son’s death.
Later in 2019, he went to Indonesia to participate in an 85-kilometre overnight run, the Bali Hope Ultra, to raise funds for the Bali Children’s Foundation.
While this growing list of achievements is undoubtedly impressive, it’s essentially a very long warm-up for Sean’s biggest challenge: a two-pronged mission to run 3700 kilometres from Cairns to Melbourne in April 2022, followed by the ultimate goal of completing a 14000-kilometre lap of Australia in 2023 – a journey that will require him to pound the pavement for eight or nine months, averaging a whopping 60 kilometres a day.
Physical feats aside, such achievements require unshakable mental strength. So, how does Sean stay motivated?
“It’s a question I get asked a lot,” he says. “I honestly think there’s so much power in having a really strong reason for doing something.”
For Sean, that reason is honouring his late friend by chasing his dreams, and inspiring others to do the same.
“I think it can be hard for some people to relate to this strong drive if they haven’t lost a friend or a family member, or if they haven’t faced adversity in some other way,” he says.
“These things can be incredibly tough, but they can teach us what’s important, and they can give us incredible reasons why we should do certain things.”
Running for wishes
Sean’s main driving factor is to help others to realise that anything is possible.
It’s why he chose to name his campaign ‘Run for Wishes’, and to partner with the charity Make-A-Wish Australia.
Sean concedes that he couldn’t run such long distances for days on end if he wasn’t raising funds for worthy causes.
“If there was no charity going to benefit, I wouldn’t get it done,” he says. “I say this to people all the time, that whatever your goal is, you need to have clear reasons why you want to achieve it. It will increase your determination and grit when the going gets tough, so that you don’t give up. If you can keep coming back to your reasons, it will ultimately help you to achieve your goal.”
With coach Jase on day 50.
As well as his endurance running, the Asics-sponsored athlete works as an inspirational speaker, and runs a business named First42K, training and mentoring people who are trying to conquer their first marathon. He says that helping others to reach this goal is just as satisfying as doing it himself.
“Seeing people go through the highs and lows, that really intense struggle, and then finally crossing the finish line, it’s such a special feeling,” Sean says.
It reminds him of the people who helped him on the hill that day in his first marathon. The fellow runner who came to his aid. The woman and kids handing out ice-blocks.
“Without them, I might not have finished that marathon … honestly, I don’t know if I would have,” he says.
So when the Melbourne Marathon comes around each year, Sean doesn’t run in it.
“I go to that exact spot, the 38-kilometre mark, and I hand out ice-blocks to the other runners. If it helps just one of them to cross the finish line, then I’ve made a difference to the life of that person, and that’s more than enough reward for me.”
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Find out more about Sean Bell.