Running towards mental health

At the end of May, Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, but Jack Shephard, founder of 21 Run Club, strives to ease the struggle of mental health all year-round.

By Michelle Wakim | @MichelleWakim

On Friday mornings, as the sun rises from behind palm trees and Polites buildings, a group of individuals gather at Glenelg Jetty.

Decked out in active wear, this crew form the 21 Run Club, one of Adelaide’s all-inclusive community-building initiatives.

Running is the subtext of 21 Run Club; the weekly running club is simply a vehicle to make ground on conversations about mental health and wellbeing.

Jack Shephard, a 25-year-old who calls the coastal town of Normanville home, sits humbly, yet passionately, behind this initiative. 21 Run Club was born out of his experiences.   

When broaching the topic of Jack’s relationship with running, a broad smile unfurls and he quietly chuckles.

“I always love this question,” he said.

“I’m not an elite runner by any means, but I guess the motion of running provides me with something more than keeping me physically fit. It provides me with an enormous amount of mental clarity. Releasing endorphins through physical exercise has been something I’ve always been a strong believer in. Running, I guess, gets me out of bed in the morning.”

In an “elevator pitch”, Jack explains the 21 in 21 initiative.

“Completing 2,100kms of running – 21 half-marathons within that amount – with the aim to raise $21,000 for mental health projects in South Australia [all within 2021]. Outside of that is the 21 Run Club, which is a community. It’s a place where we embrace the joy of movement, and what movement provides us with, like connection and mental clarity. 

“People can come and connect with people that they either know or have never met before, feel comfortable chatting openly and honestly about who they are, about mental health, and is generally a really nice community where people feel welcome,” he said.

21 Run Club asks participants for vulnerability on many levels: when talking about mental health, when exercising, when connecting with strangers. However, Jack leads by example, demonstrating a sincerity and openness that grants power to the cause and the people who engage with it. 

“Mental health played an integral part of my life…I have openly struggled with anxiety and depression and really found myself in the darkest place across 2019 and early 2020,” said Jack.

“What 2020 provided me with was that time of reflection, being more self-aware about the things I’m grateful for and what I can provide other people through my experiences. This was obviously once I took time for myself, you know, saw doctors, saw psychologists, all that kind of stuff. I’ve learnt a lot about myself and how to better myself. So, how can I pay this forward?

“The least I can do is share the journey I’ve been on and try to impact and influence someone in a more positive way.

“If every human paid some kind of thing forward then the world would be a better place.”

21 Run Club started with three attendees: a couple of Jack’s close friends and his boss. The initiative has since grown to welcome more than 30 people on Fridays at 6:30am for a run followed by a coffee at local café Superette.

In Adelaide, a city with two degrees of separation and a half an hour drive from the CBD to the beach, organic networks and accessibility offers fertile ground for this community initiative.

“What’s been amazing and humbling from my perspective is people who have just stumbled across [21 Run Club], who don’t know me personally or who have come out to Run Club just by themselves,” said Jack.

When asked about the current appetite for community, Jack reflected on 2020 and the value of in-person interactions.

“One thing I learnt last year was how easily things can be taken away from us, whether that be relationships, jobs, connections and conversations. Everything was Zoom and Microsoft Teams and FaceTime, and it was coming into every part of our lives. 

“Connecting with someone through a face-to-face perspective and having a physical interaction is the most incredible thing we can do in our lives. I definitely think there is an appetite for it, and people are making more of an effort to make themselves vulnerable to a community that they may have not been a part of previously,” he said.

Jack had no expectations for the size and growth of the 21 Run Club community. The initiative found its stride on Instagram and now, four months in, has over 1,000 followers.

“Followers was never a thing for us. But, in saying this, we understand the power of social media and how we can reach more people, and how can we influence people to the point where they have one conversation or check in on one friend, or potentially save one life.

“In my own mental illness and mental health journey, that whole word of ‘expectation’ is really important for me to let go of. So, yeah, no expectations at all,” said Jack.

Jack credits 21 Run Club’s online presence to his girlfriend, Claudia, who has been “the brains and the bones behind all the social media and website” design.

The digital platforms follow a pastel pink colour scheme, creating a calm and welcoming online space that champions the power and strength in a colour typically associated with weakness, much like the power and strength in vulnerability. 

Between photos, infographics and partnership announcements, Jack and Claudia post “wellbeing videos” on Instagram which show Jack interviewing other people about their mental health journeys. 

So far, these interviews have featured a range of men, including Jack’s dad, work colleagues, and retired AFL footballer Brad Ebert.

“Men’s health, men’s mental health, obviously there is a lot of conversation around that these days, and a lot of work needs to be done,” said Jack.

“What was beautiful about those stories is quite a few of those men felt quite uncomfortable before we had a conversation and didn’t know what to expect…it’s quite hard for people to speak about how they are feeling.

“In saying that, afterwards they feel so accomplished and proud that they shared their opinion and perspective on it all.” 

While these videos currently voice the male perspective, Jack plans to expand this representation.

“I definitely find it important that we hear the perspectives of females as well,” said Jack.

“It’s all about people watching those pieces of content and they may hear something in there that helps them, you know, and something they can relate to.

“The messages of support we’ve got [about the wellbeing videos] have just been totally overwhelming and it makes me quite emotional thinking about it.”

As 2021 is now in its second quarter, there is an opportunity for a time check – a chance to consider whether this run for mental health is on track.

Having completed 800km out of the 2,100km, with eight half-marathons finished, Jack confirms the running is going to plan.

To date, 21 Run Club has raised almost $5,000 which will support a range of services such as mental health first aid and response courses.

While running and finances are measurable outcomes, they are not exclusive markers of success.

“It’s an amazing question that you ask, like, on track? It is sort of like, I’ve got my own goals I want to achieve out of this, but we have already hit so many targets as far as, have we started conversations? Have we positively impacted people? Like, I know that for a fact, and I know I will never, ever give up on doing that,” said Jack.

21 Run Club is sustained by its ideals, rather than its performance indicators. Momentum comes not only from wellbeing videos, followers, or numbers running at sunrise, but from the willingness to candidly discuss mental health.

Expression and exposure have enabled Jack to build 21 Run Club, but with or without this brand, Jack will always challenge mental health discourses through conversation and connection.

“Whether or not 21 Run Club is around in six months’ time, six years’ time, I’ll never give up on speaking more openly and honestly about people’s mental health,” said Jack.

This, more than any run, exemplifies endurance.   

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