Mark Slade’s form of multiple sclerosis (MS) is as debilitating as it is frustrating. 

During each relapse, he becomes partially paralysed when messages from his brain to his body slow down. 

Afterwards he endures a prolonged recovery involving physio appointments to help him move again.

Three years ago, he had a severe episode.

“My partner had to lift me in and out of bed and onto the toilet and into the shower,” he said.

“I got really crook. I thought I was going to die at one stage.”

At times, Mr Slade questioned his resilience. 

The battle, he said, was sometimes more mental than physical, and he realised how important it was to try to stay positive.

“I kept thinking I’ve got to get walking,” he said.

“I’ve got to get out of this chair.”

Mark Slade during a parkrun event in Mildura. (Supplied: Mark Slade)

In recent months, Mr Slade has had an even greater motivation to get up and get moving.

His hometown of Mildura, in Victoria’s north-western Mallee region, is hosting its inaugural marathon this weekend, and through sheer determination, Mr Slade has committed to competing in the half-marathon event.

By his own admission, he’s been a fitness junkie for most of his life. He’s completed triathlons, as well as long-distance swims and runs. 

But since an MS relapse in 2021, Mr Slade has only been able to carry out minimal long-distance training.

“It’s going to be the biggest day of my life,” he said.

“I know on Sunday I’m going to have tears in my eyes when I’m running across that finish line knowing that I finally did it.”

Hundreds set to compete

More than 650 people have already registered to participate in one of the six running events as part of the marathon weekend.  

Brian Haddy at the Conquer the Summit event in Mount Barker.(Supplied: Brian Haddy )

Race director Brian Haddy said he never imagined the marathon would attract so many people.

“I thought maybe we’d get 100 runners, maybe 200 if I really push it,” he said.

Mr Haddy, a passionate runner himself who has participated in more than 460 parkruns, has also organised marathon events in Mount Barker, Coober Pedy, and Broken Hill.

“I really get a kick out of it when I see lots of families and runners turn up and people of all abilities running all sorts of different distances,” he said.

Free amateur run clubs are growing in popularity across Australia.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Emile Pavlich)

The rise of running clubs 

On a crisp evening with the sun setting, a group of young runners assembles for what is emblematic of a burgeoning modern movement. 

Run clubs are popping up in towns and suburbs all around Australia.

Twenty-three-year-old Liz Rowe is a committee member of the Secret Squirrel Run Club, which started earlier this year in Mildura.

Liz Rowe (centre) participates in a run club session ahead of the marathon. (ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Sarah Buchecker)

She said many, including herself, wouldn’t have even considered registering for shorter distances in the marathon event if it wasn’t for the run club.

“None of us are great runners, we’re not marathon runners, but it’s fun … and we love achieving the next goal,” she said.

“It feels like an achievement when you finish a run.”

The group invites people of all abilities to run together, promoting social connection, safety and fitness.

Ms Rowe said she had never been passionate about running but found that coming together with others had helped to improve her ability. 

Liz Rowe’s run club sets off near the Murray River.(Supplied: Secret Squirrel Run Club)

“There’s something about running that’s so good and so fun when you’re doing it together,” she said. 

“I think people, they say they hate running, but they’ve actually never done it the right way or with the right people.” 

Clearing hurdles on way to marathon  

Steve Howden is known within the running fraternity as a spartan after doing 10 full Melbourne marathons. 

His wiry, lean and toned figure is that of your typical marathon runner. 

Steadfast and with a steely resolve, his character is also typical of endurance athletes.   

Steve Howden picked up running in his 40s after realising his health was declining.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Emile Pavlich)

But for Mr Howden, the road to Mildura’s first marathon hasn’t been smooth sailing. 

In mid-October of 2021, while sitting at his desk scrolling through his phone, his head starting spinning and he felt nauseous.

He was having a stroke and was immediately taken to Mildura’s hospital.  

“I knew something else was wrong,” he said.   

“They [the hospital staff] flew me straight to Melbourne.”  

Will attending rehabilitation, Mr Howden had his sights set on competing in another Melbourne marathon. The only catch was the event was less than three months after his stroke.  

“I was able to make it,” he said, “the doctors were pretty amazed.”

Steve Howden says Mildura is a hidden runner’s paradise.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Emile Pavlich)

Mr Howden survived without any long-term ill-effects. 

Doctors told him that his existing fitness levels may have helped in his recovery. 

Now he’s looking forward to the first marathon in his hometown.

“I think this exciting marathon festival will spotlight Mildura and the Murray River across Australia, while also allowing local runners to enjoy a top-tier event in their own backyard,” he said.  

Mr Haddy said the way people supported each other during running events was inspiring. 

“People come out the woodwork to support the event,” he said. 

“My motivation is to be able to foster communities, promote physical health and get people off their devices.”

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