Running: Tragedy leads to epic battle for charity

By Vicki Woolley

Malcolm Law and wife Sally celebrate the completion of the Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge for Mental Health. Photo / Photos4Sale
Malcolm Law and wife Sally celebrate the completion of the Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge for Mental Health. Photo / Photos4Sale

After a personal tragedy, Malcolm Law decided to undertake an epic sporting endeavour to raise awareness and funds for the Mental Health Foundation NZ.

The Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge was to exceed Law's wildest expectations - but would cost nearly three years of his life.

Malcolm Law's flatmate and brother-in-law lost his battle with mental illness at Christmas 1995.

It was a tragic experience that Law was never able to fully reconcile in his mind.

"It was a massive trauma and I was close to a breakdown myself as I struggled to deal with the after-effects."

Law is passionate about the role exercise in the outdoors plays in maintaining mental well-being.

The 55-year-old decided to attempt 50 off-road marathons and climb 50 peaks in 50 days to dispel the stigma surrounding mental ill-health.

He wanted to open the door for safe, honest dialogue about illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

In the process, Law hoped to raise $250,000 for the Mental Health Foundation NZ. Insurance company Partners Life jumped on board as chief sponsor, a decision that seemed obvious to managing director Naomi Ballantyne.

"For an insurance company, it is important to have a happy, healthy population. We start by encouraging that within our staff, and extend the message to our clients."

The Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge was an enormous logistical exercise spanning the length and breadth of the country. Law began training. To build endurance, he ran every day in 2013, a 365-day unbroken running streak. During 2014, he went high, climbing a staggering 241,000m - more than 27 times the height of Everest - and challenging runners to log more height than him.

The Challenge engaged the country. Support runners were invited to sign up and run with Law, pledging to raise $400 for each day they ran. Places sold well and red High Five-0 shirts began popping up on the road, in the bush and at events all over New Zealand.

When Law stood on the start line of the Tarawera Ultramarathon on February 7, 2015 - day 1 - he and his Red Army had already smashed the original fundraising goal. He doubled the target. For the next 50 days, people all over the world watched and bared their souls. Stories poured forth on social media sites.

Onlookers quizzed the support team as they did laundry in remote towns.

Strangers approached the convoy and spoke of their experience with mental ill-health, some telling their story for the first time.

"The High Five-0 Challenge changed my life" became a mantra repeated over and over. Donations rolled in.

Meanwhile, Law was fighting a desperate battle as fate delivered a series of blows that would test his and wife Sally's commitment right from the start.

A crushing chest infection just four days in nearly floored him. The virus relinquished its grip only to be replaced with a crippling knee injury.

"Part of the logic behind having support runners was that if something happened to me, the Challenge wouldn't fall over. The team would carry the flag - literally - to the summit." Law says.

As his knee pain intensified, Law shuffled to local peaks alone and in tears to fly a handmade flag while the team continued to the designated peak.

The Challenge was to suffer another potentially terminal blow.

We asked each other: 'What would Steve have wanted?' He was such a big-hearted generous man. He would have wanted us to continue.
Malcolm Law

As Law descended into camp on day 13, Sally delivered the terrible news that their very good friend and loyal supporter Steve Combe had been tragically killed in a helicopter accident.

The pair were devastated. With shades pulled down in the campervan, they faced each other.

"I wanted to quit right then and there" said Law.

"We thought about what had happened since we started the Challenge - of strangers telling their stories, of the lives we were changing.

"We thought about the support runner who showed up worried she would not finish: she had decided she would probably take her own life before the Challenge started, so hadn't trained. We asked each other: 'What would Steve have wanted?' He was such a big-hearted generous man. He would have wanted us to continue."

On March 28, the ordinary man from Wanaka and his red-shirted army crossed the finish line of the DUAL to complete 50 marathons, 50 peaks and 50 days of running.

An emotional Law spoke: "The news is filled with stories of bad people doing bad things. For the last 50 days, all I have seen is good people doing good things."

For many, the Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge ended there - but it was the start of the biggest learning curve for Law.

"I knew it would take some time to recover and there might be some niggles to sort out," he says.

Yet as the administrative tasks of tidying up the Challenge diminished and Law's desire to run returned, his body refused to co-operate.

"I just couldn't run. Not being able to get into the mountains was devastating for me," he chokes.

As Law began the slow grind through the health system, he became increasingly depressed.

"All too often, I'd wake to find the Black Dog waiting for me," he admits. "I had to accept my body's limitations - that although I was mentally ready to set the next goal, my body needed further recovery."

Deprived of his running 'drug of choice', Law explored new avenues to keep himself mentally stimulated and healthy.

"I discovered a conservation project along a track I ran regularly, but had never noticed before", prompting him to begin working with the Department of Conservation on their Healthy Nature, Healthy People initiative.

Law is now back running and as he rebuilds mileage, he has an even greater appreciation for the role physical exercise and nature play in mental wellbeing.

Stories continue to pour in about how the Partners Life High Five-0 Challenge is changing lives.

Malcolm and Sally presented a cheque for $514,125 to the Mental Health Foundation NZ. More importantly, the Challenge opened the door to safe, honest dialogue about mental health issues in our communities.

"So much good was done by so many people, and such a lasting legacy created, that if this was to be my life's work, then I'll leave this world a very happy, fulfilled man," Law says.

High Five-0 Challenge

What: 50 marathons, 50 peaks, 50 days

For more information: high50.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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