When Patrick Farmer AM, the 347th person I’ve met on my quest to have lunch with 500 strangers, was 18 and working as a mechanic, a chance event changed his life forever.

A famous ultra-marathon race, from Sydney to Melbourne, was passing by the workshop. Pat’s boss called him out from under the car, pointed out the runners and told Pat that he could never hope to do the same thing, because ultra-marathon running required discipline and long-term commitment – and those concepts were alien to young people.

On one level, Pat, who grew up in a housing commission home in south-western Sydney, agreed with his boss. He was a terrible athlete, he’d had no meaningful successes during his childhood and he’d been told all his life that he’d never amount to anything. However, Pat was also very pig-headed. So when Pat’s boss told him he couldn’t be an ultra-marathon runner, he decided to prove him wrong.

Pat started running, slowly building up his endurance. He failed to qualify for the Sydney-Melbourne race 12 months later, but succeeded the following year.

In the decades since, Pat has done a series of incredible runs, including, in 2011-12, becoming the only person to continuously run from the North Pole to the South Pole and, a few months ago, running around Australia to campaign for the ‘Yes’ side in the Voice referendum.

That was actually Pat’s second lap of the continent – he previously ran around Australia, in 1999, to promote the centenary of Federation. After the run, the prime minister, John Howard, invited Pat over for a cup of tea. During their chat, he asked Pat to stand for the Liberal Party at the next federal election.

When Pat does his epic runs, he breaks down his enormous challenge into small chunks, and, to motivate himself, constantly pictures the finish line. Pat took the same approach to politics. He decided to door-knock all 100,000 homes in the electorate – a few at a time, then a few more, then a few more – and, as motivation, visualised what he’d do once elected. As a result, he secured an upset victory in what had been a very safe Labor seat.

Hanging out with Pat was such an enjoyable experience. We covered a broad range of topics – everything from running and politics to psychology and foreign affairs. He’s a really nice guy, he’s very humble and he’s got a great sense of humour.

During our chat, I couldn’t help but think how unpredictable life is: if Pat had called in sick the day the ultra-marathon passed by his workplace, perhaps he’d still be a mechanic. At the same time, when opportunities present themselves, we need to have the foresight to recognise them and the courage to pursue them – one step at a time.