This past weekend I was privileged to be invited to participate in Australia’s first ever 24 hour obstacle endurance event. It was hosted by True Grit, Military Inspired Obstacle Course Races, and the Obstacle Course Racing Association of Australia, or OCRA. The location was at a place called Dargle Farm, in Lower Portland, which is on the Hawkesbury River in outer Sydney. The farm was maybe 1,000 acres of gorgeous Australian bush, or at least that is roughly the area that was utilised for the race course. It was hilly, at times treacherous, thickly wooded forest and some open plains littered with trees, watercourses, mud, mud and more mud.
The race started at 2pm on Saturday afternoon. A field of maybe 15-20 men and 10-15 women were running solo. They were planning to run as many of the 11 kilometre, 30 obstacle laps as possible, with as little rest as was sensible, over the following 24 hours. There were several each of the two person teams, three person teams and four person teams. Those teams which covered the most laps in the 24 hours would take out the honours of winning 1st, 2nd or 3rd place at the inaugural Australian Obstacle Enduro Championships.
For the first 6 hours of the race I decided to volunteer as a marshall on one of the obstacles. I was assigned obstacle 15, the ‘Jungle Vines’ – a series of ropes that were tied between the thick growing trees of the rainforest at the farthest outpost of the course from the festival area – where the start and finish line were located. And oh what a RAINforest it was. That afternoon and into the evening I would hazard a guess to say we got around 150 millimetres of rain, or six inches in the old measurements.
Jungle Vines was just past the halfway mark, and so it was a great place to view all the different competitors and assess how they were tracking from a fatigue, strength and morale perspective. I arrived on my post at around 3pm, an hour after the race started at 2pm. This was just in time to see the race leader, Lachlan Dansie, of the 2pm wave come through the course.
Lachlan, or Lockie, is arguably the strongest Ultra Endurance Obstacle Course Racer in Australia. That said, I would have loved it if he completed in the whole event. This because Jason Reardon, the eventual winner of the male solo 24 hour race, did just shy of twelve laps, or around 144 kilometres and 360 obstacles in 24 hours. It would have been a battle of epic proportions.
Despite there being 30 obstacles over 11kms – roughly one every 500 metres – to slow you down, Lockie still ran his first lap in just 1 hour and 3 minutes time. At the time he came past me, I was sheltering from the rain under a rock overhang, about 40 feet above among the rocks that towered over the track the competitors were running down. I shouted out, “Looking strong Lockie!” It didn’t scare or surprise him in the least, that a strange voice was emanating from high in the bush above his left shoulder. He just turned casually while still running, and said, “Thanks mate, see you next lap.”
He then did what all good, honest Obstacle Racers do, and went through the Jungle Vines obstacle with ease. It wasn’t a very hard obstacle after all.
The second placed competitor was only maybe three minutes behind Lockie, but rather than doing the honourable, honest thing and go through the ropes, he ran to the left and around them. This shortcut would have subtracted maybe 45 seconds to one minute from his overall lap time.
I’m disappointed to say that the third placed competitor did exactly the same thing, by which stage I had realised that many competitors might take the easy option unless I policed them. After that realisation, no one else took the easy option.
There was one more Dasie out on the course that day. Or at least she used to be a Dansie, before she became a Richardson. Leah Richardson was to eventually take out the Women’s 24 Hour Enduro 1st Place, but when I saw her, she was only on each of her first 4 or 5 laps. It was lap three, when she was first running in the dark, with a busted head lamp, that I spent a small amount of time with Leah. I mentioned that she was moving a lot slower than usual, and I hardly even noticed her until she was right on top of me. The emotion in her voice was raw, and plainly heard. “Oh Alex, I’m having a really shit time. This headlamp doesn’t work, I can’t see a thing, I keep kicking rocks and falling over. I don’t know how I’m going to keep going.”
That was NOT the Leah Richardson I know talking. That was someone who had had the bad fortune to take the wrong headlamp. “Just have my LED LENSER Leah. I’m not using it anyway. I’d prefer to stand in the dark when runners aren’t coming past. I can see better anyway.”
“No, you need it more than I do.” She said.
“What in the Lord’s name are you talking about. You are running. You are competing in the 24 Hour Enduro Race, I’m standing here making sure no one gets injured in the rain. Take the bloody thing!”
“Are you sure?” She says gain. This tells you what kind of person Leah is. She’s more concerned about a volunteer standing still in the dark than she is about her own safety running flat out in the dark. What a champion she is. 10 laps, 110 kilometres and 330 obstacles later she proved just what a champion she truly is.
I happened to be at the finish line when she crossed in victory. She was broken, her body only driven forward by the strength of her character, and the conviction that if she wanted to win, her mind would get her there. And get her there it did.
She fell to the ground once she crossed the timing mat, exclaiming, “THAT is the hardest thing I have ever done. I think I want to cry!”
“Cry then woman!” I shouted at her while laughing. “If ever you have earned the right to cry it is after ten bloody laps!”
Her husband was there, as he had been for the whole 24 hours, supporting her, consoling her, comforting her, ensuring she wasn’t hurt.
Then her incredible character shone through again. “It was just such a tough course. The only thing that kept me going was you, David, and all the volunteers and support in the pit when we finished a lap. It’s just been amazing. I was really doubting my ability to last the 24 hours on the third lap when my headlamp broke. I was tripping over, kicking rocks. And then Alex gave me his headlamp. It actually worked. It was just such an amazing feeling out there. Knowing every single person, competitor or volunteer, had your back. Especially when the going was tough.”
Given the length of the course and the number of competitors out on it at any one time, which was no more than 40 or 50, while I was at obstacle 15 as a volunteer there were long periods of time when I was alone in the bush waiting for the next racer to come through. I used this time to wander up and down the goat track we all ran on, to explore the bush on either side of the track, to sit in silence and listen to the beautiful birdsong all around me, to walk back up onto the ridge and blow smoke rings into the stillness of the evening (when it wasn’t raining) and to marvel at the beauty surrounding me as I was all alone and able to really absorb it. The sights and sounds, the taste of the clean, fresh air, the feel of the rain falling softly on your skin and the paperbark peeling softly off the trees, the smell of eucalyptus in the leaves, of the gentle rain falling, and of solitude. I could live there forever and be happy if I never saw another soul.
I also used this time to build a Blair Witch Project style structure just beside the running track and just before you entered the obstacle. I wish I had my phone with me when I went out there, maybe then I wouldn’t have lost it, and I would have taken some photos. It was a thing of beauty. It was somewhat freaky to begin with, reminiscent of the structures Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey find in True Detective. So to make it a little more welcoming, I added some ferns and colourful flowers to its peak. That did the trick.
I was relieved a few hours after dark when I was thoroughly soaked and so cold I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands, by Michael Aspinall. Mick is another elite Spartan Racer whose friendship has become something I genuinely value. Mick spent the next 13 hours out there, making my short stint of 6 or 7 seem like child’s play.
He also made the much maligned (by me and some of the other other 24 hour enduro competitors who had seen the finished product) decision to pull apart my Blair Witch structure and use the wood and ferns to build a barricade across the easy path around the obstacle. If only he weren’t so lazy – and looking to sleep in his chair under his umbrella through the night. I was awake for the whole time I was volunteering, just telling people they were not allowed to take the easy option. But Mick is so lazy he sometimes can’t be bothered undressing to sleep. So the barricade was a better option for him.
After a long walk out of the bush and a bumpy ride in the Land Rover back to the event area and start/finish line, I spent the next two or three hours in the pit. I tried to get some sleep at around midnight, my first in 42 hours, since I woke up on Thursday morning. That worked for all of 30 minutes.
I spent the following 3 hours around the campfire, getting ready to run and sorting through my gear, which was all over the shop in a tent I shared with my 3 other team mates and another team of 3, Blonde Ambition. Certainly the only way to describe the Pit Area, where all the team competitors had their tents and communal ‘living’ area for the 24 hours endurance of the race, was inspirational. The entrance to our tent was opposite the entrance to Team Turbo Superchicks. Arguably the strongest womens team on course that day, they chose to sleep through the night, and therefore didn’t place overall. One of their members, Amanda Steidle, the brains behind Healthy Mums, an online dieting and health advice service, and Turbo Superfoods, a pre and post race recovery powder, was my guardian angel for the 24 hours of the enduro race.
She loaned me $10 without my even asking her, after she heard me complaining about forgetting to bring cash for food. She loaned me a towel when I couldn’t find mine. She gave me fruit, soup and sausages when I was hungry. She sourced me Turbo when she heard I forgot my unopened bag, which she had delivered Express Post to arrive before I left home for the race.
This is what Obstacle Racing in Australia special. The camaraderie, the care, the compassion and the straight out AWESOMENESS of the people that make up the community. I could list 100 different times I experienced the same kind of love I did from Amanda, but I’ll already write too long an article, so it can wait.
As I was planning to run two laps back to back, I kitted up, got my wetsuit on, warmed up and readied for my first lap in the dark. Our race plan was this. Jonno Will would go out first at 2pm Saturday for one lap, followed by Rowena Murray for one (while the daylight remained), followed by Benny Mulley for two in the dark, Jonno for one, Rowena for one, then me for two (one dark, one light), Benny for one and then, if we had time, one last lap to finish.
By no means was this race plan going to secure us a podium finish, but we were only ever there to have a crack, and no one even cared for a medal. Maybe if we knew there was 2XU vouchers on offer we would have sung a different tune, but what the hey?
Jonno, Benny and Rowena had managed the course with aplomb. By no means was it easy, especially in the dark and under a heavy fog that descended around 2am, but they powered through without complaint, injury (much anyway, Benny busted his knee), or fanfare. They just GOT IT DONE. After all, we are The Battlers, and thats what we do, we battle until the job is done.
When it was my turn to run, I already knew enough of the course from what I had seen volunteering and heard from the other racers that I was as excited as I have ever been before a race. I donned Rowena’s warm little 2XU cap, my LED LENSER head lamp, my flashing strobe at the back , and I was away.
Because of the duration of the race, there wasn’t too much ‘racing’ going on apart from the first lap back at 2pm on Saturday. There was much more camaraderie, chatting to new and old friends, encouraging each other through obstacles and sharing stories of battles won and lost, than there was ‘racing.’ My first lap was a pleasure, even in the dark. From about ten minutes in, at roughly 4:10am, I heard a rooster crowing the dawn. As I was nearing the end of lap one, the sun was rising behind the clouds, bathing the scenery in a blueish light, the surreal look of the air and the bush exacerbated by the mist as it dissipated in the morning heat.
I was pacing another racer at this stage, and if he reads this he will remember me saying, “Of all the places I have been in the world, and all the bush I have seen anywhere else, nothing, and I mean NOTHING beats the beauty of the Australian Bush, especially at sunrise with the Kookaburras laughing.”
We had a laugh at how, every time we slipped on a bit of treacherous ground, or messed up an obstacle and landed on our arse, the ever watchful kookaburras would laugh. Cheeky devils.
Over the 30 obstacles, on the first lap at least, I didn’t feel anything was particularly difficult. There certainly wasn’t a lot of technical difficulty, nor that much physical difficulty. Even ‘ring the bell’ which was technically closed, was up against a rock wall, so you could use your legs to help propel you towards the bell. Unlike other events where the rope is suspended above water, and you need to rely on a leg lock and upper body strength, this one was easy.
There was a slightly more difficult cargo net climb, which had a solid metal bar at the top of a ten foot structure with cargo netting strung between the upper metal bar and side posts. This was the obstacle upon which one of the competitors suffered a possible spinal injury. Luckily, following careful monitoring by the medics and onsite doctor, a helicopter flight to hospital and testing, he was cleared of any significant injury. He shall live to race another day.
Hells yeah he will.
This was also technically closed through the night as a result of, and following, the suspected spinal injury. Understandably. That said, I couldn’t call myself an obstacle racer if I didn’t at least attempt all the obstacles, even in the dark, even if I wasn’t supposed to. I attempted them, overcame them, and was glad of it.
My first lap was completed in roughly an 1.75 hours, or 105 minutes, and my second in 120 minutes. The second lap was a joy. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everything was visible, the volunteers were as chirpy as the birds to emerge from their long, dark, midnight vigils of 13 hours duration, and life was good. Never better. We were racing in God’s Country, with our friends all around and the end in sight.
I spent a lot of time chatting with 24 hour enduro competitors, amazed that they still had a smile on their face and cheerfulness in their voice. One of the female competitors in particular, Andrea Peebles, was as bright as a button. Little did I know that she was in second place overall, and would complete 9 laps before the day was out. She is a kiwi with a ticker of gold and the smile to match. Well done Andrea.
I was finished with my running by about 7:30am, and ready to warm up by the fire. I ate as much food as I could take on and waited for my teammates to finish their next laps. Jonno did his final and third lap, then Benny took off to finish for us, a fitting person to do so, as he was, after all, our fearless leader.
We finished last on the ladder of teams of four, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we tested our bodies and minds, and they were not found wanting. We tested our strength of character, friendships, camaraderie, compassion, mental fortitude and sense of fun. None of them was found wanting.
We had a crack.
We got it done.
We had a go.
Each one of us won.