Going all out to help others

Ultra-distance runner Perry Newburn
Ultra-distance runner Perry Newburn

After 16 years of serious drug and alcohol addiction, Perry Newburn knew he had to run for his life.

Now he's making strides to support a cause dear to his heart.

The 57-year-old is circumnavigating Aotearoa on foot to raise awareness and funds for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

The former Christchurch man says he had a good upbringing, was sporty and even an age-group hockey rep.

Then as a shy young man, he headed to university. 'My self- esteem and self-confidence were on the floor.'

He didn't stay with his studies; he dropped out then headed across the Tasman to Sydney.

'I got in with the wrong crowd, lived in squats in King's Cross and heroin became my friend and so did alcohol.'

The confidence he lacked naturally was delivered in the first rush of heroin and so, for the next 16 years, Perry lived the life of a drug addict.

During that time there was a short break when he went to Britain and got a job in rehab. 'I got back to Australia - same story.'

The drug addiction world is a close-knit one, so every corner he turned there would be something or someone to remind him of his need for heroin and alcohol.

When he hit rock bottom, Perry was living in Adelaide. 'I had a few overdoses - the last one was a big one and I'm lucky to be alive, but it wasn't on purpose.'

It was then Perry knew he had to do a 'geographical'. That refers to a complete shift away from everyone and all the places associated with his addiction.

He remembers thinking: 'If I stay in Australia I will finish digging the hole and it will be all over.'

Perry chose to get back into life and so in 1989, he ran from his drug-hazed existence and returned to New Zealand.

The shift in place and thinking didn't immediately solve everything.

'It took a while to battle through a serious heroin addiction,' he says.

'People go into the withdrawal process but they don't have that awareness and they think it's going to be a piece of cake, so when it gets hard they give up.'

Perry persevered and got clean.

The next big step for him was getting back into sport. In his mid- 30s, he started playing hockey again and that led to running.

'There came a point where it became a challenge to run a half marathon, then after that it was going to be a challenge to do a marathon before I was 50. I was always going to run just one . . . 36 marathons later,' he chuckles over the phone from his home in Feilding.

Then he went even further.

Following last year's February earthquake he wanted to do something significant to help his home city, so he hit the roads and ran from Auckland to Christchurch in 15 days to raise funds for the Red Cross Canterbury earthquake appeal. His efforts pulled in $20,000.

Now he's striding out again for a cause incredibly close to his heart.

Since cleaning up his life, Perry has gained a bachelor of arts in psychology, plus completed post-graduate papers in drug and alcohol studies and adolescent mental health.

For the past 20 years he has been dedicated to helping others who have drug, alcohol and mental problems.

'If you look at the drug and alcohol field, mental health is a huge part of that. There's often a dual diagnosis. A mental health condition and a drug and alcohol condition often go hand-in-hand.'

But mental health issues don't always lead to addiction.

One thing Perry is certain of is that mental illness touches everyone's lives. 'I think everyone has, or will have, mental health problems," he says. "That does not necessarily mean being diagnosed with a major mental illness.'

People are likely to suffer from depression or anxiety at certain times in their lives, while grief too can affect a person's mental state.

There are three prongs to his 5000-kilometre circumnavigation of New Zealand.

He wants to reduce stigmas and lift awareness, plus raise money for the Mental Health Foundation, which provides information, resources and helps people know how and where to get help.

Perry also wants to share the great effect exercise has on improving mental wellness.

'It doesn't matter if someone goes out for a walk, a bike ride, a run or a swim - and they don't necessarily have to cover the distances I'm doing in the next few weeks,' he says.

'It's just getting people out the door and into the fresh air and into the sun. Sometimes it's too easy to lock yourself behind a door.'

Perry says just walking around the block is a good start.

Setting achievable goals is the most important thing.

If someone has a large goal in mind, they have to break it down into smaller goals they can reach.

People also need to start slowly. 'The first three or four times out there you should get back and feel like you have done nothing,' he says.

This is advice from someone who pushed himself too hard first up.

'I went out on that first run and felt great and woke up the next day and, oh, I was sore. It took me a while to get out the door again.

'Down the track you expect a few aches and pains, but in the early stages, no.'

Running has been Perry's saviour - that and the love of a good woman.

He says that after returning from Australia he met Kath and they have a son, Sean, who is now 19.

'He has high special needs - he's got a chromosome abnormality.'

Perry takes life in his stride now.

'Running started to clear the mind back to the right place and helped me relax. Sometimes I think it's the best relaxation I can do.

'I get up at 5.30 in the morning before work and the mind is clear.'

Running has also taught Perry to laugh at himself again.

'You are out in the middle of nowhere and I look around and think people might think I'm an idiot, but that's OK. I'm allowed to laugh at myself - I became healthier.'

While out running, Perry also began to let go of problems and to realise the importance of keeping things simple.

Simple but not easy.

Yesterday and today, the ultra- distance athlete is tackling Taranaki's tarmac.

He began The Great ENZED Charity Run in the centre of Palmerston North last Friday with a short run to Feilding for his last night at home for 10 weeks and on Saturday, began heading north.

As far as he knows, this is the first time anyone has tried circumnavigating New Zealand on foot.

That will mean a whole lot of wear on his shoes, and he's expecting to go through about six pairs - all donated to him by the Shoe Clinic.

On the way, he is hoping people will run with him as he passes through their patch, that schools will cheer him on and Kiwis all over will show their generosity by putting money in the buckets being shaken by volunteers.

Perry says his only constant backing will be the man driving the support vehicle.

But throughout the country staff members of his main sponsor, ENZED Total Hose & Fitting Service, will be assisting his journey.

In many places, fun runs and walks have been organised to raise extra money.

There is a 5km event with Perry in New Plymouth tonight at the just-opened cycle track on Smeaton Rd at Bell Block.

People are advised to head along at 5.15pm to take part and give a gold coin donation.

Perry's running task is daunting - and he will be looking for a job at the end of it.

But he has decided to treat the journey with acceptance.

'When I'm out there over the next 10 weeks I'm expecting some days I will get niggles and some days I will feel like crap. I will just pace myself.

'That's one of my great mottos - accept something right from the beginning so when it happens it's not as big a thing and you know you are going to get through it.

'You've heard that old saying that runners hit the wall. Well, I'm expecting that I will hit the wall a few times.'

When that happens, Perry will be kind to himself.

'I'll drop it back and look at the next lamp-post.'

Because, just like a person with an addiction or suffering from a mental illness, he knows he'll get through - one step at a time.

Perry is hoping to raise $30,000 for the Mental Health Foundation, so if people don't see him or the bucket shakers during his journey, they can donate online at fundraiseonline.co.nz/ GreatNZRun/ Follow his journey on: perrysruns.co.nz/

Taranaki Daily News