It’s easy to understand why Victor Macauley didn’t feel that running would solve his problems. The 28-year-old from Sierra Leone in West Africa has been a child soldier in his home country and homeless in London, and naturally still struggles to process a lifetime of extreme trauma.
Nevertheless, Victor and running have come to an understanding. ‘If I’m stressed, running is my safe place,’ he explains. ‘If I get to a point where I’m struggling to cope, I’ll just put on my trainers and go for a run. My head clears out and it feels like all that’s in there is a blank piece of paper.’
Today, he works as a social enterprise officer at The Running Charity. He organises their Meaningful Miles project, where anyone can run a distance, official race or virtual, pay to register with the organisation and receive a Running Charity medal. The money helps young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Recently they orchestrated an 8,500-strong petition to help Seyfu, a teenage victim of human trafficking from Ethiopia with the talent to become a Team GB runner, to be granted asylum in the UK. ‘He’s one of our most dedicated young people, with so many fast times,’ says Victor. ‘He’s doing really good at the moment.’
Victor already knew the charity’s co-founder and CEO, Alex Eagle, who was his case worker in a previous job at the New Horizon Youth Centre near King’s Cross. It was Eagle who invited him to take a free spot in his first ever half marathon, in London in 2019. He finished with a knee injury and a piggyback home but also positive feelings about the experience, and by the time you read this, Victor will have completed his fourth half marathon as well as a number of 5k and 10k races.
‘I’m a prime example of what running has done,’ he says. ‘I’m still suffering with my mental health, so when I was asked to go for a run I was like: “That is not what I’m thinking about right now. There are so many bigger things in my head and running won’t solve them.” But now I know exactly how important it is for me. Of course if you could click your fingers and make your problems go away, you would do that, but instead you can acknowledge the fact that they’re there, work towards doing something about them, and at the same time find something that you feel passionate about. You never know what’s going to happen further on.”
When he laces up his trainers the scars on his feet are a stark reminder of how far he has come. He has never been to school, primary or secondary. He was helped with reading and writing at New Horizon, and his only experience of formal education is one year studying accounting at college in north London.
Aged only six, he was abducted by soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front, drugged and forced to fight for them against the Sierra Leone government in the civil war that ran from 1991 to 2002. They shot his mother dead in front of him.
‘It was a horror story. I have more scars from the syringes they used on me. If you don’t do what they say, you got killed. You have no option. I was taught how to use the gun, how to kill people, how to do any outrageous thing you could do. I didn’t see human beings as human beings.’
Eventually he managed to get back to his father, an escape bid that forced him to spend weeks hiding in the forest with a bullet stuck in his leg. When his father died a few years later (unrelated to the war) he became the sole provider for two younger brothers, who he still supports financially from afar.
In 2010, he was invited to visit Plymouth in the UK as part of an outreach project called ARROW (Art: A Resource for Reconciliation Over the World) to speak about his experiences. He decided to try to stay, catching a train to London instead of returning to Sierra Leone. The only place in England he had heard of was London Bridge, because of the song. For the next two and a half years he was homeless, begging in the street, spending his days hanging around the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Finsbury Park and sleeping at a facility called Shelter From the Storm. At the latter he befriended a future Running Charity coach, Claude Umuhire.
Other charities that have helped him include Freedom From Torture and Arsenal in the Community. He has also been supported through a long wrangle with the Home Office, recently being shifted from ‘humanitarian protection’ status (a lesser form of refugee status) to be granted indefinite leave to remain. He’s now applying for UK citizenship.
‘It’s been a massive journey but everything is going good in that area,’ he says. ‘Now I want to use my story to help other people. You might not be in a situation like the one I was in, but all is not lost. At some point it will come to an end. I really believe that.’