On the way to start
Famous Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta
Presentation of running singlets
Ready to start
While checking my emails my attention was caught by a message from Phil Essam : “Bernie Farmer is looking for additional runners to take a part in the race in Simpson Desert. The runners must be capable of running up to 80 km in sand in 12 – 14 hours and must be available on the 4th of April 02 in Adelaide. It is 26th of March “ - in 9 days!
What an opportunity! Yes, I am ready willing and able.
I have been training for the 24hr Victorian Track Championship in Coburg running
200 km per week. My training has not been designed for running in desert but I think I could handle it. Without hesitation I sent an email to Bernie with brief outline of my running history. He doesn’t know me – will he accept me for the race?
The answer opened the door to what was going to be the greatest adventure of my life:
“I will be delighted to have you in the race. Advise your availability. Bernie.”
I had some regrets about canceling Coburg but booked my flight to Adelaide knowing that this was the opportunity of a lifetime and I grabbed it without any delays.
I arrived in Adelaide with a very little knowledge of the details of the race but who cares?
I am in it and that is all that matters. I was picked up by my friends from the airport and waited in their home to be contacted by the race organizers.
Soon I learnt that we were going to leave Adelaide the next day which gave me the opportunity to stay overnight with the friends I had not seen for 28 years.
The next day I was picked up and driven to a park where amongst others I met the other two runners and was allocated a support vehicle – Land Cruiser Discovery – driven by Hazel and Henry Antony from Portland who were to look after me during the travels and the race. As I found out very soon, I could not have been luckier and find more dedicated, friendly, well organized and competent support crew. Soon I called them my “Guardian Angels.” ( G.A. from now on)
First day we drove only about 145 km to Snowtown where we camped overnight. As I found out they had everything ready to sustain us during the whole journey including food, drinks and camping gear.
The next day we woke up at 4.30am to start early for the long drive – 900 km to Oodnadatta. The countryside was changing rapidly once we got past Port Augusta. Driving past Flinders Ranges the vegetation was fast disappearing replaced by little dry shrubs, salt lakes and stony desert which looked like freshly ploughed fields ready for seeding potatoes. Late in the afternoon we arrived at one of the outback stations and I was surprised how green all looked. We learnt from the owner that they had 4 inches of rain a month ago. Nearby creek was running 300 m wide for a week! Then it dried out but the benefits of the rain were still obvious. In places it was greener than Tasmania I just left.
The next stop was Cooper Peedy, opal mining town where people of some 80 nationalities are trying their luck. A very interesting place with shops, restaurants and other forms of life living underground. But we had to keep going. Clouds were gathering around, lots of lightening and our leaders were concerned about possible rain which could cause some problems and stop us in our tracks. It was interesting to read some of the road signs on the way – “Nearest Licensed Restaurant 400 km” or Nearest Public Phone 91km”
At 10 pm we arrived at Oodnadatta (Blossoming Flower). Accommodation was of the luxury kind – in a unit with air conditioning, shower and all other facilities including TV though we never watched it. In the morning we had time to look around, visited local Aboriginal school and had chats with locals to learn about the life in the outback. The film crew was already busy collecting shots for the documentary. We were waiting for the 4th runner to arrive from Hungary and it was decided to postpone the start of the race by one day and stay put for another day. The Irish runner Ray and I decided to go for a run to keep our legs moving and to get the taste of running in temperature over 40 deg C. We did only about 6 k but it was enough to realize, that it was going to be tough and we have to drink a lot to stay hydrated.
In the morning we continued our journey to the start of the race. A very interesting stopover at Dalhousie Springs. In the middle of desert there is an oasis of a very different world. Huge camping area with toilets, showers and cooking facilities . And above all a large pool of water inviting everyone for a swim. But do not expect any refreshment – the water is 34 deg C hot!
After arriving at the Purni Bore we set our camp. One more sleep and all the waiting is over. We will be on the way. All the runners were anxious to take the first step.
The night was not going to let anyone to sleep too soundly. First it was the heat. Next was the howling of dingoes but the worst was to come. A herd of wild donkeys must have decided to drive those intruders from their territory and all night kept the noise level above any acceptable standards for sleeping. When they finally shut up it was time to get up to the loud sound of music from Jenny and Kevin’s car – the time was 3.45am.
As always I have my Weetbix for breakfast, pack the tent while my G.A. organise the rest. Soon we are on the way to the starting line 6.5 km west to the the Alka Seltzer Bore.
There is a little but moving ceremony all captured by the cameras, the ladies are singing “Advance Australia Fair” proudly displaying Aussie flag. Each of the runners is being introduced and acknowledged. It is very emotional but then comes the whistle and we are on the way. It is a very imposing sight. 14 fully loaded 4wd vehicles, a helicopter and 42 support crew including the pilot, 2 film crews and 4 runners. It is a history creating event – the last race was here in 1986 with only two runners taking part. Never before there were 4 runners ready to tackle the desert.
It is 6.30 am and the sun is appearing on the horizon. The four of us are running together for about half an hour but then we have to split up to enable the support vehicles to follow each runner to offer drinks and food as required. I expected Mihaly Molnar from Hungary to be in front as he is young (27) and already well known ultra runner. For the second and third position I expected a battle between Irish runner Ray McConnel and another well known Australian Kelvin Marshall while I was happy to settle in the forth position. My goal was to finish the race and the strategy I adopted was to achieve that result.
First 40 km are reasonably flat and we are moving pretty well. After the first hour I have covered 12 km, little more than I planned. I am slowing down a bit and appologizing to my G.A. for being the slowest runner which means that they would be spending more time travelling than anyone else. I also warned them, that it could happen that I will “fall in a hole” but not to worry about it. I would dig myself out of it! Fortunately as the events unfolded over the next six days none of that happened.
The sun started to get hot, we were in the dunes and I was wondering after the first couple how I was going to get over another 1160 of them. In the early days they are smaller and close together at the later stage they become bigger but further apart which makes the running easier. During the cooler part of the day I am running most of the time, when it gets hot I run down the dunes and the flat and gentle up hills while walking the steeper parts of the dunes. My body was overheating and running became very hard. I had to stop frequently and my G.A. had a job on their hands, spraying lots of water over my body to cool me down. I was suffering but still capable of continuing. My food consisted of sandwiches, soft baked bars, and as the day progressed and temperature increased to well over 40 deg. C I was more interested in soft juicy food like creamed rice, Noodles in cup, fruit and yoghurt.
Eventually there was the finishing line and with it a great relieve. I knew that surviving the first day was the most important thing. I finished third, better than expected.
Everyone was there to congratulate me, someone put over my shoulder wet towel a put a cold drink in my hand. The next thing was to check my weight which in condition like this and running for some 12 hours was very important to establish if the runner has not lost too much weight. I weighed exactly the same as before the start and that was going to be the same story all 6 days. A credit to my G.A! Barry and Graeme were waiting for me to take me to the special tent set up as a shower. Another privillage as we runners were the only ones afforded such a luxury in the desert. My G.A. meanwhile set up the tent for me, prepared some meals, washed the dishes etc. We runners did not have to do anything.
I have always been saying that we runners have a very simple job – just to run from A to B. The support crew have all the worries making sure that they do everything for us to get us across the line. And on the top of it, we runners are crazy but they are not! Pretty tough for them.
It is very hard again to get much sleep. It is very hot. Towards the morning it starts cooling off – the lowest temperature I measured before daylight was 24 deg C. Now one could get some sleep but it is 2.30 am and the music is on again. Get up, pack tent, have breakfast, take a shovel a go for a walk to the desert , get weighet and be ready on the starting line at 4 am. That is going to be the patern for the rest of the race.
It is 4 am the whistle sounds and we are off again. Starting slowly this time to get our stiff muscles warmed up. I let Mihaly go after about half an hour of running together to enable our support vehicles to get behind each runner. He is moving very fast and soon I am losing sight of him. At least I can breathe fresh air with no vehicle in front of me. Kelvin and Ray are running behind me. They both pushed themselves too hard the first day and now are paying the penalty. I was actually wondering if I will see them still running by the end of the day. But they both displayed enormous amount of courage and determination and in my opinion were the real heroes of the race. I am feeling much better than the first day, getting used to the heat and know exactly what to do. My G.A. have got into the same routine and we are cruising and enjoying the scenery. They both have travelled the desert many times before and I am learning from them a lot about the desert and the life in it. Before I know there is the finishing line and the predictable routine of weighing, showering, eating ( the importance of having good meal within 45 minutes of finishing has been emphasised to my GA and they are making sure that it happens).
Day 3 starts as any previous – wake up to music at 2.30am, breakfast, walk with the shovel, weighing of each of us and start at 4 am. But the scenario of Mihaly taking off and disappearing in distance is not being repeated. I thought that he is having an easy day because he is so much ahead of the rest of us that he can take it easy. I am catching up with him but the fumes from his support vehicle start to make me feel sick so I back off to increase the gap between us. I do not want to go in front of him as I am not interested in provoking a race at this stage – I know who would be the loser.
But every time I increase the gap and start running at my conservative pace I am catching up with him again. That went on for 4 hours until I started to worry about Kelvin and Ray behind me. They could start catching up with me if I do not get moving so I finally made the move to pass Mihaly. He looked tired. We were half way through the stage – about 35k. The possibility of winning the stage made me to start pushing myself harder than I really wanted. I soon realized that I was taking a risk and concluded that it is still more important to survive the whole race rather than trying to win a stage. Mihaly is a real champion and I do not think he would let me get away with it anyway. So I am slowing down and waiting for Mihaly to go to the front again. The rest of the day is very enjoyable, I find enough time to enjoy the surroundings, look at the maze of tiny footprints in the sand. It is amazing how much life is there in the desert. A flock of bright green budgies flies by. It is really enjoyable and I am more than happy to be a part of this fantastic adventure. And here is the finishing line again and another day is over. We are now half way through the race.
It is 2.30 am, the music starts playing again and it is time to get up. I had not slept at all and feel very tired. Start is at 4am as usually. Today Mihaly moves quickly and soon is out of my sight. There are 3 km of dunes followed by 18 km running around a salt lake from South Australia to Northern Territory and to Queensland. It is flat hard surface and I am wearing the same shoes as I did in the sand. They are very old with no cushioning left, good in sand but not on a hard surface. I have another good shoes in the car but could not be bothered to change them. Serve me right – I have to stop to attend to 4 blisters starting to develop on my feet, mainly toes. Few bandaids did the job well and I keep going. Too late to change the shoes, we are back on my beloved sand dunes. My mood is not the best so I am telling myself : ”Pretend that you are enthusiastic and you will become enthusiastic!” It really works. We are cracking jokes with my G.A. and having a good time. I had just worked out why the previous day seemed to be easier than this one: “Of course, yesterday was easier because I was one day younger!” We all laugh. Another day is coming to the end, there is the finishing line and I feel really good, ready for another day.
The fifth day, start at 4 am as usually and we are on the way. This time Mihaly is dropping back soon after the start and I have no choice but to take the lead. The dunes are still further apart and there are longer flats between them – much easier to run. I was expecting Mihaly to catch up with me soon but it took 5 hours before I saw him again. We are running together for a while even holding our hands for our crew who wanted to take a picture of us running together. We developed a good understanding and friendship amongst us runners.
The surface between the dunes is hard in some parts. I decided to stop and change my shoes with more cushioning. I am in no hurry, taking a short meal break at a dry river bed with some gums around which I have not seen for almost a week. 5 minutes later I am on my way again. Hazel is serving me with a real treat – cold sausages left over from the previous evening. Oh, how I enjoy them! Then I look back and what I see! Kelvin is right on my heels and I am pressing the panic button. Now I am racing. I am not looking back, just pushing ahead trying to remain in the second place. A couple of hours later after reaching the top of one of the dunes I look back with a great relieve. No one in sight. I think it was the sausages where that extra energy came from. With only 4 km left I can feel reasonably safe. The finishing line suddenly appears when I reach the top of another dune, with the mighty “Big Red” on the horizon – the last dune we will meet tomorrow. The race is coming to the end, only the Big Red and some 40km of flat running on a road is separating us from Birdsville. But I am still going to treat the last day with the same respect as I did all the previous stages. It is no over till we cross the finishing line in Birdsville. Anything can happen.
Black clouds appear above us in the evening and strong wind starting to create some concern. We do not want any rain, everyone is saying how muddy and slippery the road could become if wet. Fortunately the clouds produced only a few tiny drops. In a short time the sky was clear again, full of shining stars. We can try to get some sleep – the last night in the Desert. Because it is going to be a short day tomorrow, we can sleep little longer.
I wake up several times during the night as always but have no idea about the time – the battery in my watch went flat. It is almost daybreak and still no music to wake us up – what is going on? Suddenly the silence is broken by shouting and whistling – we all jump up in a big panic– Kevin slept in and so did the rest of us. Now we have to get moving to make the start as planned – when the sun rises over the Big Red. The film crew wants to get the best possible scenario for filming the runners crossing the last dune.
After crossing the Big Red I changed my shoes ready for the hard road ahead. I am running last now and have to work hard to work my way into the second position. Mihaly is really flying and I do not see any sign of him in spite of the open spaces. I do not really enjoy running on the road. In the dunes you can measure your progress by conquering each dune. Here on the road without too many features one feels like running in the same spot. I wish I was the Creator – I would have placed a few more dunes between the Big Red and Birdsville. Nevertheless, a water tank and a communication tower appear on the horizon – Birdsville is getting really close. I have very mixed feelings. Stopping about 10 m short of the finishing line, I am telling the stunned crowd: “I don’t want to finish yet, I have been enjoying the race so much”. I wait for my GA to get out of the car and join me.
Only then we cross the line – all three together.
I wanted to emphasize the fact that it was not an individual achievement, it was the result of a perfect teamwork with each of us having as important role as the others.
The race is over, followed by the presentation and a barbecue in the evening. There is a big reason to celebrate but I do not feel enthusiastic. Yes, it will be nice to get home to my family, see my wife, sons, daughters-in-law and 6 grandchildren. But I am going to miss this place. My only hope is, that one day I will have the opportunity to do it again.
I have been very lucky. Firstly I had the opportunity to be in it, thanks to Bernie Farmer and the sponsors Quick Pages and Ultra Tune. Secondly I had chosen the right strategy to run within my limits and that allowed me to enjoy every minute of the 6 day challenge. Thirdly I had the best possible support team in Hazel and Henry Antony- my real Guardian Angels. And thanks God I did not suffer any illness nor injury.
And not to forget all the other members of the support team, put together by Jenny and Kevin Bolwell, the operators of the Musgrove tours. They were all very experienced in travelling through desert and the support of everyone of them was greatly appreciated.
The race is over, but the memories of the greatest adventure of my life will remain for ever. I will be dreaming of coming back again.
Vlastik Skvaril, Burnie, Tasmania. 18. 04. 2002.