“Running can take us to fantastic places. Just as importantly, it can also bring us back from terrible ones. For people in times of crisis, trauma and physical or mental illness – when normality collapses – running can put things back together again.” Phil Hewitt, Outrunning the Demons
Good things can sometimes take root from traumatic times.
In this episode I speak to Phil Hewitt. Multiple marathon runner, journalist, author and father. Phil paints a vivid picture of a violent attack he suffered in 2016, in an urban wasteland outside Cape Town called District 6. The area was cleared over 50 years ago during apartheid and named whites-only. Today, most of the district remains deserted and, at times, dangerous.
Phil had heard about it before. He tells the story of what happened that day; how it started with an exciting trip to the cricket and an adventurous, impromptu walk back to the city. He shares insight into the shock and survival instinct that overwhelmed his body after the attack, how he was plucked from the ground by a stranger, a delivery driver called Steven, and sped to hospital. All in all, an alien experience alone in an unfamiliar country.
Afterwards, back home, Phil was tormented by a seemingly endless list of questions as he struggled to adjust to the after effects of such a sudden and unprovoked assault. Most would go answered, and Phil had to find a way to begin to accept. He felt helpless, powerless and trapped in a mind unable to process and move forward. Would he have died? Did his attacker mean to kill him? What had happened in the perpetrator's life to drive him to desperately assault strangers?
Phil caught sight of the depths humanity can reach, just briefly, whilst at the same time feeling first-hand the life-saving kindness of strangers. A transformational realisation followed: that running can undo trauma, or at least make it more bearable, aiding sleep and re-connecting him to the real world, a respite from the endless stream of questioning.
Phil is a storyteller as well as a runner and was prompted by this experience to write a new book, Outrunning the Demons. A diverse collection of human experiences, Phil shares what he went through alongside 34 other resilient people from all over the world. They endured their own personal traumas and pain, discovering that the surest, safest and quickest way back was to run. Some were caught up in 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing; some lost loved ones to murder or natural causes; and others survived addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, sexual assault and even a nose-diving jet.
Phil’s very personal perspective provides the scaffolding from which to share these stories, which together form a powerful voice proving that recovery is possible. He now recognises it is not realistic or helpful to just ‘get over it’ but instead he can live well with trauma as a part of his life, instead of simply existing.
Power to Phil for speaking up about his experience and for taking on his 39th marathon in Portsmouth this December, which will take him over 1,000 marathon miles! I felt moved by our conversation, and Phil's honest analysis of his suffering and vulnerabilities - so important in helping others, particularly men, speak out. He also shows incredible empathy for his attacker, and the hardship he has likely endured.
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