When my dad died of colon cancer at 57, I decided to change my life. I went vegan and became a distance runner.

When my dad died of colon cancer at 57, I decided to change my life. I went vegan and became a distance runner.
  • When John Salton's father died at just 57 from colon cancer, he had a revelation.

  • He decided to change his life. He adopted a vegan diet, reduced stress, and became an ultra-runner.

  • He now owns a vegan café and is planning a cross-Australia run for charity.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with John Salton, a 63-year-old vegan ultra-runner from Bright, Australia. It has been edited for length and clarity.

My father died in 1985 when I was 25. He was only 57. He was a dairy farmer and professional cyclist. It wasn't long after he decided to give up dairy farming, mainly due to the stress levels, that he developed colon cancer.

The epiphany for me was when I was carrying my father's coffin. I did a lot of reflecting and realized I didn't want to experience this in my life, and I didn't want my children to have to deal with the loss of their father so young, either. At that point, I had two sons — David was three, and I also had a newborn, Marcus.

I made a conscious choice, at that point, to be part of a generational shift. While reflecting on my father's life, my grandparents' lives, and his grandparents' lives, I thought, "There's something not quite right here. What am I going to do differently?"

That's when I really started going down the path of changing so much about my lifestyle and habits. It was a process.

After my father died, I altered my diet and reduced stress

I know that stress and diet were big contributors to my father's illness. I remember when Dad came home from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne (which was the next closest city to where we lived) when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, they suggested he reduce his consumption of red meat. He did change his diet, but it was too late. Dad died 14 months after being diagnosed.

But it wasn't too late for me. I reduced mine pretty much straight after Dad died. I started to eat better and ate more plant-based foods. Then, around 2009, I went fully vegan. Then, in 2011, I did a 40-day water fast to deepen my healing experience emotionally and physically.

At that time, I had a building company in Melbourne which was going quite well in its early stages, but it was a very stressful period in the building industry. I ended up losing my business and going into liquidation. I lost everything financially and decided I wanted to get into a career that was more aligned with my purpose in life.

I wanted to make a difference in people's lives through food. In 2017, I ended up buying into a predominantly vegan café in a town called Bright in northeast Victoria. At that point, the café was called, "You are what you eat." My partner at the time and I ended up changing the name to Wild Thyme — a space where people could come to enjoy amazing plant-based food.

I embraced exercise

After my father died, I started racing bikes. I did that up until my early 40s. However, I was nearly hit by a car twice, and it was the thought that I wanted to be here for my kids and grandkids that made me give it up. So, I took up running in 2014.

My first year of running, I did a marathon up a mountain which had 2500m of ascent. Then I started ultra running, which involves running distances of 50km and above. I ran a 60km, 100km, and 160km ultra that same year. I was hooked.

Some friends of mine had created a run called the Down Under 135, covering 135 miles. At that point, it was regarded as the toughest single-stage ultra-endurance event in southern Australasia. I was the oldest by 10 years and ended up coming in first. That was 2017.

John Salton wearing a hat and backpack while on a run.
John Salton has embraced exercise as part of his new lifestyle.Courtesy John Salton

I started dreaming bigger — and running farther

After that race, I thought, "What's my next goal?" Then it came to me: I would run across Australia. I wanted to get myself in such good shape that I'd be more than capable of running across this great country of ours.

In 2019, I decided to test myself on a multi-day event that I created and ran myself. I decided to run up and down Mt Buffalo near where I live for 40 consecutive days, which is what I did. I wanted to do it to prove that I was up for a multi-day challenge, leading up to my coast-to-coast run across Australia.

Since then, I've done several distance runs to prepare for the big one across Australia, which I'll start on June 29. I'll be covering 76km a day for 63 consecutive days, from Steep Point at Shark Bay in Western Australia to Cape Byron at Byron Bay in New South Wales. I'm so ready. I can't wait.

I always tear up just thinking about running up the steps to the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse. I've already dreamt about being there, it's already been done in my mind. I've just got to get out there and physically do it now.

I decided to help others

The run is just a small part of it. Another big part of the journey is what my team is going to achieve from the run.

The money my team is going to raise will go toward creating a charity called Soaring Connections. The goal is to build regenerative farms that will grow food for regional communities, with other initiatives that will support the vibrance of people in regional communities.

It's been an incredible journey. I'm proud that I got to acknowledge the death of my father from the perspective I did, which truly got me to grow and evolve into who I am today. If he could hear me, Dad would be saying, "I'm so, so proud of you." I'm very proud of myself, and I'm proud of my father, too.

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