Nyla Carroll's final race will be for her brother, who died after a lonely Christmas dinner
Former NZ Olympian Nyla Carroll is making her final running effort to honour her late brother.
A former Olympic athlete is running one final race for her late brother. Virginia Winder learns about a marathon quest to raise money and awareness around mental health.
Murray Easthope was a big man with a smile to match.
With a determined gait, he walked all over New Plymouth and would wave a mitt at tooting cars and pop in to weed old ladies' gardens in exchange for a cuppa heaped with sugar. He would visit various organisations with that cheerful grin and envelop the willing with huge hugs.
His life, through necessity, was a simple one. He had few possessions, little money and a love of martial arts. He was also a qualified butcher but had been unable to secure a permanent job since becoming unwell.
Despite his gregarious persona and a willingness to assist wherever he could, Murray struggled with mental illness. "After his marriage ended he had a psychotic episode," his sister Nyla Carroll says, unsure of his actual diagnosis.
Sometimes, he would just hide away in his tiny flat on Cook St, Marfell, or he would disappear, especially around Christmas time.
While the festive season can be a time of celebration for many families, for those on the margins of society, it can highlight their lack and loneliness.
"Three Christmasses in a row he went missing and they found him down the beach," Nyla says of the man, who was an excellent surfer in his younger years.
The year Murray died, nobody knew anything was wrong, mentally or physically.
"I saw him before Christmas and he was looking so good, I didn't worry about him," she says.
But sometime between Boxing Day 2015 and January 7, 2016, Murray died alone, aged 46.
"I have decided this will be my last hurrah," says Nyla. "It will be my 20th marathon and I did my first 25 years ago. I think that's enough of my life to give to running."
Normally, he went to the community Christmas lunch at St Joseph's Church Hall, but he didn't turn up that year, even though he'd booked his spot.
It's unclear what happened to him, but Nyla, a former forensic interviewer for the police, says she has many questions around Murray's death.
Piecing together reports from taxi drivers, financial records and talking to people, she can tell he ended up getting a McDonald's feast for Christmas dinner.
In the days leading up to his loss, he also rang the chemist and said: "Don't worry about my meds, I'm going away for a while."
The coroner's report says Murray died of bronchial pneumonia and that he fell and hit his head in the shower and lay there, until his body was found.
"There was heaps of stuff missing from his house," Nyla says.
Under his bed there were three deposit slips for $300 to $400, to an unknown bank account. "That's a lot of money for someone who's got nothing."
Thinking about the whys around Murray's demise began to eat away at Nyla. "I got to the point where I had to let it go."
But not the memories of the brother she loved, and who she is honouring by running the New York Marathon to raise money for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. It will be her final attempt at the 42.2km distance.
Nyla has decided her body has had enough battering from a self-admitted addiction to exercise. "People say it's a healthy addiction, but it wasn't for me," she says.
"I ran through a whole winter without getting sick and injured; I think it was because I had a purpose for Murray," Nyla says.
Born into a family with an alcoholic father, Murray grew up as the youngest of the five Easthope kids and the only boy.
Nyla thought of him as her baby. "He didn't walk or talk until he was quite old – about three or four – because I used to carry him everywhere."
She was the second eldest and showed a natural talent for running from a young age. As teenagers, she and her older sister Kathryn, took part in a training camp with Arthur Lydiard, and from then on he took Nyla under his wing.
He coached her right up to and for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, where she came fifth in the women's marathon.
Then she switched to Dick Quax, who trained her for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. But things didn't go well for Nyla at the US event.
She had qualified for the marathon, the 5000m and 10,000m, opting for the latter.
"In hindsight, I should have never have gone," she says. "I was injured. I had a torn Achilles, but I was told it was just tendonitis. I was held together with tape and Glad Wrap."
Nyla knows she trained too hard for Atlanta. "Lorraine Moller sent me a fax saying, 'you don't want to be the fastest one on the sideline' and I was."
She spent the Olympics in the medical quarters. "It was the most miserable experience of my life."
At home an MRI revealed her Achilles was one step away from rupturing completely, and she ended up having surgery.
After failing to perform in Atlanta, Nyla's exercise addiction took hold. "I couldn't run, so I biked and swam until the point of no return."
She even worked that way.
For 11 years, she was on the police force, ending up as a specialist forensic interviewer. When there were police shootings, it was her role to interview the police.
One of the toughest jobs she faced was questioning the survivors of the Mangatepopo Gorge tragedy, where seven people died during a canyoning adventure in 2008.
In the last couple of years of her law enforcement career, she was one of two national investigative interview trainers at the police college.
In 2011, she took two years leave without pay from the police, returning to New Plymouth suffering from shingles and glandular fever.
Even when she was meant to be recuperating, she never slowed down.
"I think exercise was the way I coped with everything," she says. "I didn't have to think."
Nyla chose not to return to the police force and, these days, works part-time at the New Plymouth courthouse.
Following, Murray's death she received an email about the Rotorua Marathon, attached with a 12-week training programme. She decided to follow it.
On the morning of the event, she went to the race expo and visited the mental health stand. After hearing Nyla talk about Murray, the woman behind the stall gave her a T-shirt, saying: "Give – your time, your words, your presence." The seasoned athlete wore it in the race.
Last November, Nyla entered the Auckland half marathon to raise money for the Mental Health Foundation.
"I ran through a whole winter without getting sick and injured; I think it was because I had a purpose for Murray," she says.
On race day, her grief was released. "I cried for the whole last kilometre thinking of Murray."
That helped with some closure for Nyla, but then came an email about the New York Marathon, saying there were 12 spots available for fundraisers seeking to raise $6000 for a charity. She immediately dismissed it.
"When my relationship ended this year, an email came out saying there were still a couple of spots and I thought 'bugger it, I'll do this'.
"Now I have decided this will be my last hurrah. It will be my 20th marathon and I did my first 25 years ago. I think that's enough of my life to give to running."
There's an even more pressing reason for New York, the largest marathon in the world, to be her last.
Earlier this year, she ran the inaugural waterfront half marathon in Auckland, with little training because of "niggles". But she'd booked her accommodation and flights, so decided to go for the weekend anyway. Then she thought she'd walk down to the start of the race, with no plans to run.
But when the gun went, so did Nyla. She felt strong and sure, recording a time of 1h37m38s, winning her 50-55 age group, coming 14th out of 618 females, and was in the top 97 per centile of the race. "Not bad for an oldie," she laughs.
"As soon as I crossed the line, my legs were cramping and hard to pick up."
By the next Friday, she was still in intense pain, so she visited the doctor and had blood tests. "He rang me that night to tell me my muscles were leaking protein. I had the levels of someone who'd had a heart attack, crush injury or car crash."
Normal creatine kinase (CK) levels are between 30 and 180, but Nyla's recording was 2159.
"I had to have complete rest, so me being me, I said 'can I go swimming tomorrow?"
The doctor's answer was emphatic: "No!"
A week later, her levels had dropped to 1200, so she was instructed to have another week of rest.
When the recording got down to 500 she did a 1km swim, and the levels went up to 800.
Sitting at her kitchen table, a sheaf of printed information fanning out before her, Nyla says that a CK level of 500 can be normal for an athlete. So, she's going ahead with her marathon plans, even though it's likely the protein leaking is caused by an auto-immune condition, which is still being investigated.
"It was a big wake up call and I can't keep smashing my body. I have started listening."
That means taking it easy, Nyla style: "I'm only going to run five days a week and swim for no more than half an hour."
On her two days "off" training, she is allowing herself to do a longer swim and a walk.
If her race preparation goes well, she would be ecstatic to record a time of 3h20m. "I want to get to the finish line in one piece, fit and healthy, and I'll be kissing the ground at the end like Rod Dixon."
Meanwhile, her mind is on New York, on raising money for mental health, and on getting the message out that it's OK to ask for help. She wants people to "just talk about it or stop and say 'are you OK?' and actually want to hear the answer".
So, when this sinewy Kiwi, Olympic rings tattooed on her upper right arm, stands tall on that start-line on November 5, she'll be racing for the one in six New Zealanders diagnosed with a mental disorder.
"But mostly, I'll be doing it for Murray."
For more information visit: https://events.mentalhealth.org.nz/fundraisers/nylacarroll/new-york-marathon-2018
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