Race Report: Survival Run Australia 2015 - Endurance Edge

Race Report: Survival Run Australia 2015

By Tegyn Angel, winner of the 2015 Survival Run Australia (SRA).

Buckley’s Chance, SRA in a word: infreakingcredible.

I’ve largely gotten out of the habit of writing blow by blow race reports, but Kellie’s right; So much happened in this one that if I don’t do it now I’ll forget it.  I’ve tried to write it as a story, but really it’s just a slobbering brain dump.  I’ve barely even proof-read.  Sorry.  You, dear reader, are to suffer for my benefit. THANKS!

This was never meant to be so damn long but then a Survival Run is such a unique event that I probably should have known better.  In the end it’s turned into a linear, blow-by-stupid-blow account of my race and experiences. I’ve offered no interpretation, no emotional back story or creative intertwining of any other content.  I needed to just get something down on paper to make sure I didn’t forget anything.  It's self indulgent and entirely about me.  I've stuffed up some place names and likely forgotten things.  Hell, i've probably misremembered a bunch of things too.  Kellie reckon's no one will read it (it's about 8200 words...) and that's ok.  A more refined, reader-worthy article will appear in the December/January edition of Trail Run Mag, available free for download at www.trailrunmag.com

With all that said, and in case you don't make it to the end, here's a list of thanks:  to Josue Stephens for coming up with such an awesome event in the first place, to Chief Brabon and Emilie Brabon-Hames for helping bring it to Australia, to Sean Meehan for the course design, Scott McKay for the on-course calming words, Rin for the photography and her smiling presence on course and to all the other volunteers and staff for putting in long hours and hard work so that we might truly test ourselves.  To all the other competitors; without you there would be no race, no challenge, no brotherhood.  To VFuel Australia for providing 100% of my race fuel, FitHealth Nutrition for keeping me well-fed before and after, SOS Hydrate for pre and post hydration and THIR Australia for the headwear-cum-egg-carrier Finally, and most of all, to Matty Bell for being such a positive influence and similarly stupid serial masochist, and my gorgeous girlfriend, Kellie Emmerson, for her unyielding support, encouragement, patience and masterful crewing.

--- START ---

This was my A-race for the year.  Since I signed up way back when, all my races and training had been working toward this.  My training slipped at times, but in general I was pretty diligent and with the help of Coach Mathieu Dore of The Garage and a very tolerant girlfriend I got the work done.  The training was fairly generalist, with a focus on first rebuilding my endurance base and then including lots of fun things like laps of Glasgow with a Weight Vest or 20litre water drum, Indoor Climbing and specific sessions at Factory3 CrossFit (RIP).

SRA was never going to be a matter of sign up, train, race.  With a motto like “Adapt or Die” and a creed that goes a little something like “If I get hurt, injured or die it’s my own damn fault”, the race directors and crew make every attempt to ensure you know that this one’s on you.  They will screw with you, it will be very hard and there is legitimate and ever-present risk.  Of course they attempt to mitigate that (thank you Nanny State Australia) with roving first aid vehicles, ever present staff and volunteers, and safety kayakers on most water crossings; but they’re going to help little when you’re 25m up a tree and unroped.

Relatively early on we got the first “training assignment” – we would not be allowed modern water carrying devices during the race: no bladders, bottles, soft flasks etc.  Rather, we would have to make our own using leather, bees wax and thread.  We could use artificial materials to “seal” the bag (e.g. silicone seams and modern closures like bottle caps) but it needed to be handmade and using these three main ingredients.  My third bottle worked out, but that was the end result of hours of gluing, sewing, waxing and generally filling up our house with random miscellanea.

Then came the kit list; Bahahaha!  You will need (among other things) the following mandatory items: an 18” machete, knee length gaiters, first aid, two head lamps, enough food for the entire race (entirely unsupported), water treatment system (you will be collecting it from whatever sources you find on course), a chunk of beeswax and a leather sewing kit for on-the-fly repairs and 4.5m of tough fabric which you will use to make your own backpack.

Prohibited items included: a backpack, a modern water carrying device (e.g. bladder, bottle, soft flask etc.), map, compass, GPS, phone, dry bags, complaints.  Yep, we had to sew our own backpack at the start of the race and use this to carry everything from our machetes through clothing, an entire race worth of food, tools that we made or collected along the way, full water bladders etc.

The final “training assignment” reminded us of the rules (complaints will be used against you, medical support = DNF, cut offs are very strict, the overall cut off for this 75km event is 28 hours, if you don’t complete 90% of the challenges you DNF etc. etc.) and gave us a list of things to become “familiar” with: Returning and non-returning boomerangs, Woomeras (spear throwers), witchetty grubs, fire bundles, message sticks, different types of plants and so on.  Practicing with a Boomerang at the local park was mostly humorous; practicing with a spear thrower was quite awkward.

With machete gleaming, fluoro pink ripstop nylon and 25 hours of food packed (we had NO idea what to expect), I headed up to the Gold Coast with my good mate, training buddy, sounding board and fellow competitor, Matty Bell.  The Bell’s very kindly let me stay with them for a few days while we did this thing. Matty and I had signed up together and (I’m sure Suze Bell hates me for leading her Husband astray) helped each other with training and assignment ideas, motivation, strategy and the inevitable conspiracy theories.  In the 2014 race the organisers had started the Nicaragua Survival Run 12 hours early; at packet pickup.  Runners arrived to get their bibs and found that the race was on.  With inevitable suspicion, this year we arrived expecting the same sort of torment and misdirection.  Things this year were relatively low-key in comparison, though not without a few little games.

The entire event was held on the 3000 acre (about 12km2) Inter-Action Experiential Learning facility, an Outdoor Education property managed by Outward Bound Australia.  Keeping everything on private property would have no doubt saved the organisers untold amounts of stress and drama; running this event on public land would have been a bureaucratic Survival Run itself and an Adapt or Die nightmare of litigious bullshit.

Arriving at the Bat Cave (aka Basecamp, Start/Finish) we were told we’d be briefed at 3:45 about what we would need to prepare for our Packet Pick up at 4pm.  “Bring EVERYTHING you need for the race, and nothing you don’t”, said Chief Brabon, Race Director.  Continuing, he explained:

Put your kit over there and listen up; you’re not given anything in a Survival Run. You have to earn your race number.  These are your example rocks.  The green one is for the ladies, it ways 30lbs [I think…], the red one is for the blokes, it’s 50lbs.  Have a feel of it and then head down to the creek and bring back a rock that weighs at least 50lbs on these scales.  Any lighter than 50lbs and you’ll be sent back for a heavier one.  Any heavier than 50lbs and… well, that’s up to you.  There’s no time limit so take as long as you want.  Once you’ve got your rock we’ll paint your race number on it, check your kit and you can get to work making your pack.

47lbs… damn it! 62lbs… nope not risking that one… 58lbs… you’ve got to be kidding me… Ok, this one is close but still too heavy; if I smash it a few times maybe I’ll crack some off and bring it closer to the correct weight.  57lbs and that’s close enough; I’m the last one to finish the challenge and off to a very rough start.  Surely a few pounds wont matter…

With #37 bib in hand my gear was checked and the arts and crafts session began.  I’d taken a punt that ripstop nylon would be up to the challenge (in spite of the advice to bring canvas) and that the lighter weight and non-absorbent nature of nylon would work in my favour.  With full knowledge that getting lost was a very real possibility I chose the brightest, ugliest colour I could find: hi-vis fluoro pink!  A previous Survival Runner, Jamie Boyle, had given me some pack advice and with two prototypes made in training I was confident about nailing this one.  My training packs had been a little two loose up front so I’d reduced the measurements for the race day pack.  BIG MISTAKE!  Filling it full of mandatory gear made it impossible to get on.  DAMN IT!

Frustrated at being the last to complete the rock challenge I now had a so small it could barely contain my frayed nerves.  I spent about 98% of the race briefing brainstorming how I could fix it and in the end used Matty Bell’s pack as an inspiration:  I could tie two large straps into my failed arm holes, haul it up onto my back and them cross over my chest. It would hurt more and be more awkward to get on and off, but it was quick and effective and I was out of time.

Matty Bell and I decided to drive back to Kingscliff to get four hours of solid sleep in a bed rather than the six hours of rubbish sleep we might get in the tiny hire car.  I was off to a bad start and needed to get my head back in the game; the drive and a comfortable bed would do us good.

Up at 2am for a quick bite and coffee and on the road by 2:30; At the start line by 3:20 and we were plunging into the dark at 0400 in a mad rush of… single file walking.  With everyone very conscious that this would surely be a long day, the pace off the start line was pretty leisurely.  Hiking up the first hill into a mess of Lantana, onto a fire trail, past a small dam [apparently!] back into the scrub.  The pace was fairly relaxed and I jogged up past a few people, keen to make ground where I good.  We emerged into a small clearing lit by Quad Bike light and our first challenge:

Alright people, this road here and the one you just walked in on are the two sides of a triangle, on the far side is another road.  Don’t cross any of them.  Inside the triangle there are trees marked with Yellow hazard tape.  Chop one down and bring it back here WITH THE TAPE.  Make sure it’s at least as long as this example log.  Go!

 Stepping out the log to get the length right we all bounded into the scrub and got to work looking for the marked trees.  I heard a few machetes thumping into timber and I pushed forward assuming the trees would be relatively well spaced within the boundaries.  I spent 10 or 15 minutes of fruitless searching and then realised I could hear a lot of hacking from the same direction.  There was a cluster of marked trees all in the one spot and I found the thinnest one I could.  Felling it with my machete I soon realised my error: it might be light but it was gnarly and crooked as hell and got lodged in another tree on the way down – and in every bloody tree I passed on the way back to the clearing.

The volunteers checked my tree’s length, painted both ends and sent us back into the scrub in the other direction.  “Take your tree to and follow the marking tape.  Have fun!”.  Smart arse.  What followed was, for me, probably the hardest challenge of the entire race.  Or at least it felt like it at the time.  Dragging a straight log through a thick forest is hard enough, dragging my deformed curse was ridiculous.  Balanced on my shoulder it would catch on a passing tree and bounce off or whack me in the head.  I tried dragging it on the advice of the bloke behind me and it would find a way to lodge itself in a low-hanging fine or pissy little branch.  Like a line of leaf-cutter ants we pushed in and out of swamp-like creek lines, knots of Lantana and bounced like a metronome in and out of loose, eroded gullies.

After an eternity we left the forest and hit a narrow road, the sounds of whacking machetes echoing across a large dam.  Pre-dawn light mixed with the headlights of the support vehicles and volunteers’ head torches as were handed our first bracelet.  Other survival runners were already hard at work, our task being to cut our log into at least four pieces (good riddance you bastard) and tie that to a couple of pieces of thick Bamboo to make a raft.  As an outdoor instructor I’ve helped plenty of helpless kids build rafts out of planks and barrels and as I splashed into the water I realised I’d gained about 10 places.  As I paddled up the lake, apprehensively watching my machete (which I’d strapped to the raft) wobble and my raft slowly work itself loose, I chatted with the safety kayaker and washed my face, taking stock of the race so far:  challenging but achievable.

Pushing my raft into the shallows (through the Nymphaea Gigantea!) and dragging it up the bank we were handed our second bracelet, told to read our next instructions and get moving.  The para-cord could be left on the raft or taken with us, as we wished.  I cut about half off and hit the road.  We were to make a hunting boomerang between here and our next challenge and I rehearsed the under-arm throw in my head while I bounced along the road with my pack (and previously waterproofed clothes, food and first aid supplies) draining of lake water.

A tobacco tree beside the road made for an easy target and gave me the asymmetrical boomerang shape I needed long before I hit the next challenge.  Not that it did much good.  I managed to hit the target three or four times in practice but missed by a bees dick all three times after stepping up to the plate.  We could practice as much as we wanted but once we said “go” we had only three attempts.  No bracelet for me!

The sun was well and truly up as Sean sent me on my way.  Trotting down the hill we made our way back towards the Bat Cave.  This section was mostly fire roads and pretty quick travel.  A section of single track spat us out at the river where we’d collected rocks the day before, a nice little homecoming.  Gunnie was there with a “FAIL” necklace to reward us for our labours and then pointed us toward our next challenges.  2nd and 3rd place was still here and I was keen to get moving ASAP.  With waxy bladder filled from the tank and loaded with VFuel drink I read the next set of instructions:

Pick a pebble from the bucket.  The colour of the pebble corresponds to one of the Dot Paintings.  Remember your painting well as you’ll need to recreate it later.  Take the pebble, and the rock with your race number that you collected yesterday, and proceed to the next point.  Make sure you’re prepared, it’s a long way to the Tower.

8kms is a damn long way to haul a 57lbs rock!  Hills don’t make life easier.  I left the Bat Cave in 3rd and watched Dan Lollback in 2nd place move steadily away from me.  I started with the rock on my right shoulder, swapping occasionally to my weaker left side or holding it with both hands in front of me.  After pushing up a small hill I could hear Nickademus’ words stuck on repeat in my head; “choose the most efficient and effective way through every obstacle”.  So I rolled the rock down the other side of the hill.  Genius! And then the bastard kept going part way into a small creek.  Serves me right for being a smart arse.

We trudged up a long winding hill.  Not super steep but clearly the highest thing around.  If we were heading for a tower, surely it would be at the top of a hill right? Sweet, I must almost be there! The film crew just before the summit very smugly asked if I knew how far we had to carry the rock.  I said that, “no, we weren’t told how far just that we had to get to the tower and that surely it wouldn’t be too much further?”.  Ahuh. Until we walked straight over the top of this hill and down the other side.

Part way down this next hill (Dan well and truly out of sight by now) I was moving the rock behind my head and across to the other shoulder when I lost my grip and dropped it.  I waited for my Achilles to be ripped apart by 22kg of stone… and waited… and waited… The cheeky blighter had gotten stuck on the top of my pack and STAYED THERE!  Boom, what luck?! With both hands now free to support my pack, and without having to stop, drop and swap every 200m, my pace and efficiency increased dramatically.  The rock fell off a few times but I managed to get it seated again and kept pushing on.  A volunteer emerged in the distance and soon after her the “Tower” we’d been promised.  Inside I found Todd Hazelgrove (eventual 3rd place) who was in first, and Dan in #2, who I’d been chasing for the last 8km.  Todd was just about to leave but now I knew how much lead he had.

The instructions from Jase Cronshaw were to paint our Dot Painting onto our rock.  I come from a family of artists and in the right light I’d probably scrape through as an artist, but my painting was legitimately rubbish.  My first “submission” was failed with the comment that I was neither “Rembrandt nor a biologist”, clearly highlighting my painting was pretty crap.  I had another crack and got a reluctant thumbs-up from Jase, and the bracelet to match.  Onward and upward!

The next challenge was pretty easy, a 5m tree climb to collect a bracelet.  The trees were all narrow, branchless, Stringybark Eucalyptus; very rough to start with but quickly “polished” of their bark.  I watched Dan pick a tree and climb like it was a coconut palm (feet and arms both pushing against the tree for purchase) while I looked around for my own.  I found one about 80cm from another tree and so used both trees and a standard chimney climb technique to grab another bracelet.

Back on the ground we read our next instructions, make a Woomera between here and the next challenge. Dan and I set off at a trot, agreeing to travel together for a while.  This lasted about 3 minutes as we were travelling at different speeds and I stopped to grab a hack out a Woomera fairly early.  I passed Dan as we descended into a rocky creek line and perhaps my favourite part of the course.  It was almost like a small, shallow canyon with steep sides, little rock pools and plenty of ferns, palms, tangled vines and dappled light.  Following this for a kilometre or two we made our way in and out of the creek line before climbing up to a fire trail and pushing back towards the Raft Dam and Sawmill area.

Challenge #6 was another tree climb, though very different to the last.  Two 30-40m Hoop Pines stood in front of us.  Both had bracelets up them.  With massive trunks and heaps of branches, the climbing was very easy but if you’d been afraid of heights this challenge would have been the end of you.  A couple of times on the way up I stopped to look around and make sure I hadn’t gone passed the bracelets.  I finally found them at what seemed about 20-25m above the ground.  With no ropes or safety of any kind, this was probably the sketchiest challenge in the entire event.  While the climbing was very easy and the likelihood of falling very low, the consequences of a fall would have been pretty serious.

Back on the ground I moved straight into the Woomera challenge.  Ideally, a Woomera should be well balanced.  Once connected to the spear, the centre of gravity of both items should be where the spear leaves the Woomera.  I’d left my Woomera long intentionally but testing the weight very quickly I found that I’d fluked the perfect length. I loosed a couple of quick practice shots and then quickly knocked off the challenge before heading out after Todd (1st place) who’d left a few minutes beforehand.

We crossed a creek and climbed a short but steep lantana slope and turned right onto the road above.  5 or 10 minutes of fast hiking brought me into the Ampitheatre where I could see Todd practicing with the Boomerang.  He was having a dog of a time with it and I arrogantly assumed he hadn’t practiced.  As it turned out, the Boomerangs were just rubbish.  They felt like Balsa wood, light weight and poorly crafted.  I looked for the tell-tale rebate that sits in the palm of the right hand, but no, they were pretty symmetrical; a tourist shop boomerang.  The smallest gust of wind knocked them well off course, even to the point of flipping them over on themselves.  Testing a few angles and getting a feel for how it flew (very poorly!) I stepped up to the plate and managed to knock it off first go.  Luck!

Next up was the “hunting hide”, Survival Run lingo for “dig a hole and cover it with sticks”.  The hole had to be approximately 20cm deep, 70cm wide and 120cm long.  After clearing the grass away with my machete I took down a branch and tried to use it as a pry bar.  Even with a good sized branch it was hard to get enough heft so I reverted to the machete pretty quickly, using it to dig, cut slice and hack my way into the dirt and clay.  Todd had started a few minutes before me but had to leave for a drink during the digging and so I pressed on as fast as I could.

Once I got the all clear that my hide had passed muster I sorted my pack and bladder for the next stage.  Meanwhile, Todd had finished and arrived in time for Sean Meehan to brief us both at the same time.  He explained,

Down that side of the clearing is a line of tall trees.  If you look down the slope, about 500m away you’ll see another line of tall trees.  There are no course markings between here and there, but they resume just before that distant stand.  Get through to it and turn right.

Off we ran, pushing headlong into the scrub.  I started in front but got quickly caught up in Lantana and Todd passed me, having found a better route.  I back tracked and found a more efficient line and passed him again, working my way past a dilapidated old cabin and forcing a path through a bramble of lantana.  I popped out on the road and found the course markings slightly ahead of Todd and hit the bolt, wanting to make as much ground as possible.  I was now in the lead and I wanted to do whatever I could to protect that lead from the unexpected.

Up down and around, the sections between challenges are largely a blur.  Crossing a creek line and climbing onto a road we headed North West (I think?), taking a large counterclockwise loop, running into a parked jeep and three volunteers perhaps 30mins later.  The vollies handed me a piece of Kangaroo meat and an egg, explaining both needed to arrive unscathed at the next challenge.  We also had to collect a Ziploc bag full of Bracken Fern Rhizomes, the part that “runs” between plants.  I wrapped the meat in a large leaf, not wanting it to turn to mush in my pack, and gently wrapped the egg in my THIR band and put it around my head for safe keeping.

Making my way up the hill I noticed the vegetation quickly changing.  Where as the Bracken had been very common a few minutes ago, it quickly thinned out and I dropped my pack and quickly doubled back.  I didn’t think it outside the realm of possibility that the Survival Run Organisers had chosen to place a task that required Bracken fern on a part of the course that had very little of it.

Bracken is quite brittle and if you just pull it out, 9 times out of 10 it will snap off at the root and you’ll loose the Rhizome forever.  Choosing a clump of plants tended to yield more Rhizomes.  If you dig around each stem (with your machete) and softly work the soil between the two, you’ll get a good chunk and in this way I quickly filled my bag.  Todd met me while I was filling my bag and Dan, in third, caught up just as I was finishing.  I explained my fears about the bracken thinning out as you climbed higher, though in retrospect they were unfounded and I passed loads of it before hitting the next challenge point.  Sorry fellas!

A swampy creekline led to the next point and I moved slowly, concerned about snakes.  I could tell the Trail Runners had been through before me, but didn’t know how long ago and so kept my eyes peeled.  Coming down onto a little beach, I could see staff and volunteers on the other side of the dam but the course markings disappeared.  The crew beckoned me across the water and so I jumped in and side-stroked across, my bag once again filling with mucky soot.

On the other side the volunteers (thanks Ian Cowan and Michelle Wyndham) explained the next challenge; harvest a waterlily tuber and then cook your bush tucker (egg, kangaroo meat, tuber) on the fire they’d been nursing.  I found a tuber and cleaned it up, skewering this and the meat on a stick and placing them over the coals.  While they cooked I made a little bowl out of wet waterlily leaves and cracked the egg in this, resting on yet more coals.  The skewers cooked very quickly but the eggs took a lot longer and only just passed Josue’s judgement.

With food cooked, next was the ember carry.  I’d practiced this in training and failed on 4 of 4 attempts to keep the ember burning for very long.  I cut some bark and made some tinder, grabbing a coal from the fire and wrapping it all up with para cord.  Things were made more difficult by the fact that the location we had to carry the fire to was back across the dam.  Great!  We had to swim across with the ember bundle protected and then use it to light a fire.

Assuming the course would continue on that side once we got a fire going, I strapped my pack on and swam back across, keeping one arm high out of the water.  Nope, apparently the course continued where I’d just swam from, so even if I got it going I’d have to swim back across with my pack, again.  I clambered out of the muck, found some dry grass and set to starting a fire.  Shane McKay was there holding a small tarp over our fire pit.  As soon as I opened my bundle I could tell things were grim.  The embers were almost cold to touch and furious blowing brought no heat or warmth.  Shit.

Determined to crack this one, I cleared a 2nd go with Shane and swam back across, keeping my now-cold ember bundle out of the water and dry.  I didn’t want to have to make another one!  This time got a few handfuls of dried grass and waved them over the fire to ensure they were as dry as possible.  It had started raining while I was cooking the Bush Tucker and things were quickly getting  wet.  Creating a nest in the bark bundle for coals, I shovelled a few more in, this time choosing the largest I could reasonably fit into the bark wrap.

Todd and Dan arrived as I was getting back into the water for my 2nd attempt, but I forgot about them and focused on keeping the bundle dry.  Every 6-8 strokes I would blow into the bundle to keep up some airflow.  Back out of the water I quickly unwrapped the embers and got to work.  Shane was there, softly spoken and confident, saying he only needed to see the smallest of flames.  He again held up a small tarp to keep the rain off and, ignoring the smoke inhalation, I finally managed to get the sucker alight.  BOOM! I MADE FIRE!  Pack on, swim done and onto the next challenge!  A special thanks to Shane for being such a calming influence during this challenge.

Knowing I had a reasonable lead, I stopped to pull a few engorged leeches from my shins and tried to pick up the pace.  I’d guessed that was about the last challenge in this, the 3rd quarter, and was keen to bring it home.  So far each quarter had been roughly the same length and difficulty.  Sean had even suggested at the Ampitheatre that the event was “roughly divided into quarters”.  Smart arse; I should have known they’d save the best to last.

Arriving back at basecamp with a 20-30-minute lead, I was given the 3rd medal and told to prepare myself to go back out.  The vollie with the medals had them all tangled so I filled up my water and rearranged my pack, adding some more VFuel drink to the mix and putting a couple of gels in my pocket.  Ready to go, Gunny took me aside and handed me a map.  “Read this”, she said.

“Here are your instructions.  Read them and make sure you understand.  The only clue I can give you is that Muddy Dam is the first place we went”.

Loosely, the instructions read something like this:

  1. The final medal is buried somewhere on course
  2. You are required to navigate your way to challenge sites you’ve already been to:
    1. Muddy Dam
    2. Tallowood Dam (sp?)
    3. Sawmill
    4. Airstrip
    5. Tower
  3. At these sites there are message sticks carved with local indigenous symbols. They’ll be easily visible.
  4. You must travel to these sites IN ORDER and carve the symbols you find into your own message stick. THIS IS MANDATORY.
  5. These symbols are clues to the location of the final piece of the medal
  6. You must visit at least 4 sites before collecting the final piece, even if you’ve guessed where it is earlier. If you know where the final piece is after finding 4 pieces, you may skip #5 (Tower) and proceed directly to its location.
  7. You can go anywhere on course, cross boundary tape, ignore markings, follow tracks or go cross country.

With these instructions written on a low-res, poorly printed satellite photo which was overlayed with a “track” of some description, we were sent on Walkabout.  Just like its namesake Aboriginal Rite of Passage, Walkabout for us was a significant step up in difficulty and independence.  The course marked on the map was not explained, though I think it was the 50km route.  Other roads and trails weren’t marked and so navigating by the marked trail alone was very difficult.  How would you know you where you were on course? While there were a few landmarks easily identifiable, such as the Start/Finish point and the paved public road that formed the eastern property boundary, placing ourselves on the map was the first challenge.

Trying to orient the map to my surroundings, I immediately headed in the wrong direction.  It only took a couple of minutes to realise this and it gave me some clarity, or so I thought.  Turning around, one of the vollies dumped a GPS Tracker in my pack. I rejoined the trail I’d run in on about 20 minutes earlier, taking a slight detour to the south, tramping up a grassy slope and then rejoining a road.  It felt wrong but I followed it anyway, looking and listening for clues.  I saw some course markings and recognised the trail I was on, but it didn’t seem to be leading in the right direction.  After a couple of kilometres and 20-30 minutes I turned around and tried to recover.

Heading back to the start, I thought again that I’d worked out where I was.  Things still weren’t making a lot of sense, but I was skilfully committing the cardinal sin of navigation; making the landscape fit my expectations rather than adjusting my view in response to my surroundings.  Cutting across a small spur, I hit another trail and this time thought I was on to a winner.  I followed it West and uphill, hitting a very sharp, hard right hand turn.  AWESOME! There was one of these clearly marked on the map and it was where I needed to be.

When we’d started pre-dawn, we’d all trooped off in a torch-lit snake, without much peripheral awareness.  The first dam I could remember arriving at was where we’d built our raft; Tallowood Dam.  This was large and easily identifiable, with a couple of small buildings at one end.  I’d assumed this was the point we were looking for and so spent a lot of time trying to find it.  Taking the sharp right hand turn, I heard a bird taking flight from a body of water, but there was NO WAY it was big enough to be Tallowood.  I followed the road, getting further and further away from the sound, eventually hitting a beautiful section of single track that spat me out by the small creek at the start/finish line.  Dumbshit.

Taking stock, berating myself and trying to reset things, I reoriented the map to some power lines and the Bat Cave and this time decided I’d straight line it and ignore tracks and course markings.  Even if it slowed me down, accuracy was more important right?  With the all the confidence of the desperate and anxious, I immediately set off into a thicket of Lantana.  And almost 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Again.  This lasted another 15-20 minutes.

Okay.  This is stupid.  By this time, I’d realised it wasn’t Tallowood dam I was looking for at all. Dumbshit. I still didn’t remember having been to another dam, but the sound of the bird taking off an hour before gave me hope.  I worked my way back to the sharp right hand turn marked on the map and, ignoring where I’d turned before, walked another 150m to the South West and immediately recognised a point from this morning’s trail.  Just before the log cut challenge, we’d come out of the scrub at one point, followed a road, and then turned a hard right.  I remembered it clearly because I’d seen lights below me and thought people must have gone off course.  I called to them before I realised they were, in fact, running down a road just below the one we were on.

Taking the turn, excitement building, I started down the road and immediately saw Todd coming up toward me.  I yelled to him, “this is Muddy Dam, isn’t it?”, “yeah, but it’s not here” he yelled back (or something along those lines.  He’d been to the dam and was now convinced the Message Stick wasn’t there.  He said something about heading for the other dam, confused as I was about Emilie’s clue.  Confident I’d finally found it, I continued down and wished him luck.  After a quick search I quickly found the first message stick on the other side of the dam and carved it into my own.  The symbol was “Digging Sticks”, if I remember correctly.  Having finally confirmed where I was on the map (at least 2hours since I’d set out!), the rest should have been relatively straight forward.

BOOM! Bring it on. I set off at a lope, found the trail and with renewed confidence headed straight there.  In my haste I’d assumed the “Dropped Pin” symbols on the map, and not the Printed Place Names, represented the location of the message sticks.  Maybe this had been the case at Muddy Dam, but it took another ridiculously stupid mistake to prove this wrong.  Heading for Tallowood Dam South, I found a road heading in a straight line for the point and gambled that it would be a time-saving shortcut.  As expected, it spat me out just across the water (about 10m) from where we’d beached our rafts and been given our next task.  I swam across, expecting to find the message stick on the beach.  It wasn’t there so I headed up the trail away from the lake for the exact point the pin point hit the map.  Nope… still nothing.  Swearing and cursing, I ran up and down the track a couple of times before giving up in desperation returning to the map.  YOU BLOODY IDIOT!  The list of message stick locations said TALLOWOOD DAM, not TALLOWOOD DAM SOUTH.  The Dropped Pins meant NOTHING.

By this point I was sure that that the guys behind me weren’t idiots, hadn’t made as many mistakes as me and so had already knocked it off.  I pushed on regardless, quickly finding Tallowood Dam, the Sawmill and the Airstrip.  I now had carvings that read: Digging Sticks; Dancing Ladies; Meeting Place, and; Forest Clearing.  I’d started to put the clues together and was reading to take another gamble:  Tower was a long way away and I was pretty confident I knew where the final Medal was; back at the finish line.

My logic went a little like this:

  1. Digging Sticks was a reference to the instructions, that the final piece was “buried” on course.
  2. Meeting Place meant Start/Finish, where we’d all met, been briefed, got our packets etc.
  3. Forest Clearing could be any forest clearing and the Bat Cave was certainly in a large cleared area
  4. Dancing Ladies meant people celebrating the completion of this epic journey, and they’d all be at the Start/Finish.
  5. Surely they’d want the crews and support people, those here to cheer, to witness the completion of the event???

If I was right, I’d save myself a heap of time and could probably still save the win.  If not, I’d lose any chance of the podium but at least I’d still finish.  Finding out that the medal was NOT at the finish line would at least help me narrow down my options.  However, there was one nagging thought in my mind:

If I got to the finish line, and “discovered” or “dug up” the medal, how would the RD keep this a secret from other competitors?  How would they prevent other runners from picking up on this “clue” as they gave them the final Walkabout Briefing and set of instructions?

I didn’t know how they were going to manage this but figured they’d have thought of a way.  Besides, Tower was too far away for the final piece of the medal and surely Amphitheatre, where we’d used “Digging Sticks” to dig a Hunting Hide was FAR TOO OBVIOUS?  Plus, there were no DANCING LADIES there, last time I checked…

Committing to the gamble, I took the shortest route back to the Bat Cave.  It was still probably a good 3-4km and lead me via some single track back down to the river where we’d collected our stones.  I crossed the river and ran up the field, stopping short of the assembled crowd to talk to Josue and Emilie.

“Have you worked it out?” asked Emilie.

“Yeah, I think so.” I replied

“Prove it” she said, “show me.”  I took out my Message Stick and showed them the symbols I’d carved into it.  I’d rubbed dirt into each one to make it stand out from the light coloured timber.

“It’s here”, I prayed, “it’s buried here, at the finish line”.

I watched the hope fall from Emilie’s eyes, or perhaps she was thinking “oh shit, you idiot.”  Either way, Josue took me aside and asked me to explain the clues I’d collected.  I ran him through my logic and reasoning while it quickly became evident that I’d screwed up.  He started to talk me through each clue, prompting me to think about it.

“Ok, stop.” I said, “just tell me if it’s here or not”.

“It’s not here.” He said, and with that I hit the bolt.

Anxious that he’d give it away and somehow accidentally (or intentionally) disqualify me, I knew I needed to get back out there before I gave it any more thought or let fatigue slow me down.  Thinking about the clues, and the way Josue had stressed his questions, I realised there was only one option: Ampitheatre.  SHIT.  The only point further away was Tower. I’d have to go twice as far again as I’d just travelled from Airstrip. The bloody dancing ladies looked like Boomerangs. urrgh.

Running out of the Bat Cave, I heard my girlfriend Kellie Emmerson and good mate Matty Bell yelling at me from the car park.  Kellie had flown up today and I was glad to know she’d made it.  Matty was also in the race and, if he were here, it must mean that he’d pulled out, or been pulled out.  Shit, no time to think about that now.  I also noticed (or at least thought) that Dan Lollback was being interviewed on camera.  That could only mean one thing: I’d wasted so much time that he’d passed me and finished, probably in first given I couldn’t see anyone else.  I was now fighting to finish, having lost any chance of a podium place.

I headed up the hill toward the hard right-hand turn and Muddy Dam for the third time.  Looking at the map, the most direct route would be to cut along the power lines, hit a trail and take that directly North West to the Amphitheatre.  I got to the top of the lines and things looked good.  Trails, if not roads, are normally maintained below power lines to allow for maintenance and to prevent fires.  I was relying on it.  I turned off the road and followed the lines. The area was devoid of trees, as expected, but there was some bracken and other undergrowth.  Running along a good piece of single track, the I quickly started to descend into some thicker scrub.  The single track was still there, but disappearing quickly.

Pushing on I dropped down a 2m cutting onto an old road and dived further into the thicket.  I was desperate and the idea that this, too, was a stupid mistake was affecting my judgement.  Finally, caught in a clump of Lantana, I admitted defeat.  There was no way I could get through to the other side without tearing myself to shreds and losing more time.  Daylight was starting to fail and I was pushing hard to be done before dark.  I turned around and hiked back up the hill, out of breath and berating myself once again. Nice shortcut dumbshit.

Back on the road the navigation was easy and I could run.  I soon passed Tallowood lake and a few guys carving symbols into their sticks.  I said something about my being a halfwit and wished them luck, climbing up to the sawmill yet again.  I ran passed the small dam where we’d cooked our Bush Tucker and made an Ember Bundle, and was noticed by Ian Cowan and one of the Vollies.  Still convinced I’d screwed everything up I replied “devastated” when Ian asked how I was.  I continued up the hill, running where I could but mostly hiking, passed the old shearing shed (I think) and toilet block and pelted down into the amphitheatre.

Our instructions had said that only the final point would be staff, so when I saw firelight I knew I’d finally got it right!  Entering the clearing I saw Sean and ran straight to him, at least I wasn’t going to DNF now!!!  He asked for my message stick and I passed it over, highlighting the four symbols that entitled me to be here.  “Congratulations”, he said, “you’ve found the final piece of the medal.”  FINALLY!  “It’s buried in a hole dug by your own hand”, meaning the Hunting Hide, “and you just need to collect it.”

Casually dropping my pack, by now driving me completely crazy, I asked him how many people had come in before me?  “None.  You’re the first”, he said calmly in his strong Irish accent.  “What the F@CK? Are you serious or are you messing with me”, I said. “Nope, you’re the first. But the race isn’t over until you get back to the finish.”  DAMN!  Dan being interviewed back at the start must have been for DNF'ing... I sprinted to the hide and found a heap of “NOT” medals laying in our painfully dug holes.  I’d spent the better part of two to three hours convincing myself that I was the guy with the massive lead who’d then screwed it all up and here I was being handed another chance.  There was no way I was going to blow it again!

The film crew asked me a couple of quick questions about how it felt, how I felt and so forth. “This race was designed to be impossible to complete.” They said.  “Sorry.” I replied sarcastically and ran off.  I passed Todd a few minutes later and this gave me an extra hurry up.  I figured in a game of straight out running I had his measure, so long as I didn’t get lost or screw up again.

I retraced my steps, aware that there were probably shortcuts around but not wanting to take any more gambles.  Back via the Bush Tucker Dam, Sawmill, Tallowood and up the hill toward Muddy Dam.  I ran past what I knew to be the turn off as there was a shorter way, but just as I was taking the necessary turn I saw a sign that said “No Entry”. DAMN IT…What do I do…ok, no gambling, head back down via Muddy Dam and go that way.  It’s longer but it’s guaranteed.

At about the same time I’d seen a light and had a distant, yelled conversation with another runner.  I didn’t pay too much attention to them, deeply focused on my own gig, but later found out it was Todd.  He must have taken a few of those other shortcuts and, right now, he was in the process of getting turned around.  If his navigation had been better at this one decisive point, he’d have beaten me no question.  I’d had to put my head torch on at Amphitheatre so now I ran with tunnel vision.  Passing the message stick beside Muddy Dam, now lit up by glow sticks, woke me up and I started to reflect on the day.  NO TIME FOR THAT, YOU’RE NOT HOME YET!

Hike up the hill on the other side of the dam. Find the trail junction. Run as much of the downhill trail back to the Bat Cave as possible.  How much would it suck to miss out by a minute or less because you were too soft to run harder and push through the pain?  A DAMN LOT!  RUN MORE!  And so I did, hitting the grassy clearing, crossing the creek, trotting up the finish shoot, surrounded by a group of silent people.  Weirdos.  I pulled the “NOT” medal from under my shirt and showed it to Emilie and Josue.  Emilie took my hand and said “repeat after me. I. DID. NOT. FAIL!!!”.  Our hands raised, I yelled those four words with as much grunt and mock Spartan Melodrama as I could, my hoarse voice adding to the effect.  The crowd, now finally allowed to cheer, did exactly that.  My girlfriend ignored my leech-bitten, mud-encrusted, bleeding, sweat-stained state and gave me a big hug and kiss.  Whoa, this must be serious!

With a beer in hand, I said a few slurred words and dropped down into a chair to catch my breath and collect myself.  Kellie explained that there were a couple others hot on my tail and that they’d been watching three trackers wing it for the finish: mine, Todd’s and someone else’s.  Damn it had been close.  Jeffrey Pritchard took 2nd place and finished about 5 minutes behind me and Todd, in 3rd, finished only a few minutes behind him.


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