Tom Burbidge hasn’t seen the 1982 movie ‘Running on empty’, the title of the Aussie flick may well lead to fond memories however of his win in the 2010 Stawell Gift. So too could Jackson Browne’s classic song of the same name. Burbidge, coach Matt Beckenham and a few others had left their home in Canberra with confidence in the stable producing a winner in Australia’s most famous handicapped footrace.
They drove out of the capital with a full tank of fuel, the conversation high on anticipation and tail winds at Central Park. They were prepared for risks; to do what it takes, even if it meant leaving directions to Stawell in the hands of the GPS unit on the dashboard. It had got them this far and when instructed to make a right-hand turn down a narrow dirt road which offered the ‘shortest route’, they were more than happy to oblige, after all, the car was full of athletes who are always looking to better their times.
"Why not", Burbidge recalled of their collective decision to agree with the GPS. Two hours later they were still on the dirt road and the fuel gauge was running low. Desperate times call for desperate measures and a chance at a Stawell Gift was enough motivation to steer the thirsty vehicle up a lonely drive on a remote farm. "We drove into in the hope of finding life", he explained. The panic button hadn’t been pushed but peace of mind and a nice warm bed in Stawell was still awhile away.
Driver Pat Burgan took ‘one for the team’ and volunteered to test out the country hospitality. He met Ray, the owner of the farm, who without hesitation passed on his local knowledge and directions to the nearest petrol station. Thirty kilometres later and with the fuel gauge a magnet to pleading eyes, they hit a sealed road. The lights up-ahead signalled fuel and all were relieved.
Burbidge’s road to Stawell had begun well before that narrow dirt back-road. It had been a difficult decision for him to run there. Three months prior to the ‘Gift’ he gave up his job as a uniforms officer with the Australian Institute of Sport. He compiled a budget that would strain his finances but get him to Stawell before ‘going broke’. Recurring injuries including three hip operations and torn discs in his back didn’t make life any easier for Burbidge. "It has been difficult at times, physically and mentally", he recalled. "Every time I had a bad training session or a bad race I’d just keep telling myself that come Stawell I would be fit and running fast".
It was only his second year back competing after a long stint with injuries. He persevered however and under the guidance of one of Australia’s best young coaches in Matt Beckenham, stepped onto Central Park with belief in himself and confident in a bold showing. "Matty is an incredible coach who very much supports what I want to achieve in the sport and has gone well out of his way to help me do just that", he explained. "I have learnt an incredible amount from Matty and I am extremely fortunate to have him as my coach".
Burbidge got an insight into the Stawell Gift when 2004 winner Jason Hunte lived in the family home for awhile. The timing was perfect; it was only a year after Burbidge had commenced competitive handicapped running since leaving school. Hunte’s advice was invaluable. "When I look back now, if Jason had not lived and trained with me, I probably wouldn’t have won Stawell", he reflected.
He tossed and turned about whether to compete as a professional or an amateur. After watching Hunte tear up Central Park he was left with no doubt. "The thought of winning it myself stayed in the back of my mind for nearly 6 years until I finally decided to do it", he said.
And do it he did, blitzing all before (and behind) him, comprehensively winning his heat and semi before cruising home in the final.
When the tape goes in the video at the Burbidge household it may not be the obvious, his win in the Gift, but his scintillating run in the semi-final. "The semi was the best I have ever run. It felt so comfortable and strong so I took a lot of confidence from it going into the final", he said.
"If I’m watching the video of Stawell, I’m watching the semi final, not the final" he adds. "It was technically the best I had ever run and to do it with such comfort was an amazing feeling. I’ve always said that I run more efficiently when I’m relaxed and I think that is the perfect example". "I was much more relaxed than what I thought I would be".
His goal is to run a forty-five second 400 metres. "All I want to do is run as fast as I can over 400m and 200m and I can do that now with no holds barred". His injury concerns flared again however, this time at the National Track Championships in Perth two weeks after Stawell.He ran the four hundred but had to pull out of the two hundred with stress fractures in his fibula.
Since then he has been slowly getting back into training in between looking for work and catching up with family and friends around the country. The fuel gauge is never below half way and he tries to avoid short-cuts on country back-roads.
The road to Stawell may well have been running on empty but the drive back to Canberra was chock-full of happy times, a winner’s sash and cheque, and a few hangovers from the night before.