Northern Territory ultra-marathon: the Track
THE DESERT OAK IS an extraordinary tree. When it first stakes a claim to existence in the ungenerous dirt of the Australian outback, it grows straight up – like a spike pointing at the sky attempting to puncture passing clouds to steal precious droplets of moisture – wasting none of its scant resources on sprouting branches.
But when its roots find water, it spreads its arms out wide and celebrates life.
I probably would have gone my entire life without knowing this, if I hadn’t just overheard one ultra runner from Australia proudly telling a trail-blazing comrade from New Zealand about the qualities of some of his country’s native flora.
The Australian, Andrew Cohen and the Kiwi, Jo Pedersen, are halfway through running the first ever version of The Track – a brutal nine-stage, 590km off-road running race from the outskirts of Alice Springs to Uluru – and frankly, I’m surprised they’ve got the breath, energy or inclination to talk about anything.
But, as I’m about to learn, multiday ultra runners are different to everyone else.
The track through the Northern Territory
The Track, which is over twice as long as the infamous Marathon des Sables, in Chile, and requires competitors to carry all their own food and provisions bar a tent, is the self-proclaimed longest and hardest trail-running race in the world.
It’s hard to argue with this claim, especially when you go searching for the race in the desert and stumble across a scene that looks like the aftermath of a train crash.
There are 23 people taking part in this run, and I find most of them lying in the sand waiting to be seen by the lone medic. Others are wrapped in space blankets looking shocked. Three are still missing in action.
The Track is the somewhat sadistic notion of race director Jerome Lollier. Jerome is French, as are all the members of his support crew and many of the runners, and, although we’re literally in the middle of Australia, there’s a certain… je ne sais quoi… Gallic feel to this event.
In fact, it’s so French that there’s a huddle of people smoking by a tree. And they’re runners. And the person handing out the cigarettes is the nurse.
The notion of this race had intrigued me from the minute Australian-based ultra runner Stuart Gibson returned from Europe and told me about some crazy Frenchman’s plans to run an MdS-style ultra event Down Under.
Taking place at the same time as the The North Face100, the Track seemed to have completely flown under the radar. No one seemed all that certain it would really happen at all – least of all the online Australian trail-running community, many of whom were openly cynical.
Perhaps they were right to doubt. Four days after the race had supposedly started, no-one knew where the runners were, there was no digital cookie trail being left on the internet and none of the competitors or crew seemed to have communicated with the outside world.
I’d been in contact with Jerome for months, however, and he seemed more determined than people were giving him credit for. There was only one thing for it – I’d have to go and find them.
Finding the trail: tracking the ultra runners
From the airport in Alice Springs I picked up a 4WD and pointed it down the Stuart Highway towards Uluru, armed with a packet of lollies and a can of baked beans from a servo that boasts a piano-playing dingo but precious little in the way of supplies.
After hanging a right along Ernest Giles Road I veered off along a dirt track shortly after passing some meteorites. The mud map I’d printed off the net claimed Bivouac 5 would be right about here… but I was looking at a whole lot of nothing.
All day I drove up and down dirt tracks that either disappeared into the infinite blue-and-red nothingness or, in one memorable case, ended at a ghost town populated only by feral dogs. Occasionally, I got out to study footprints in the dust. I’m no David Gulpilil, but my tracking skills do allow me to tell the difference between bovine footfall and the print of a Salomon trail runner – and the former were outnumbering the latter by several million to none.
As the mid-May day died a bright red death, I resigned myself to spending a lonely night in the backseat of my wagon. But then, on a last chance dash along the outskirts of Finke Gorge National Park, I spied another vehicle (the first I’d seen for hours) and what appeared to be a banner.
Right enough, in a barren riverbed, about 20km from where it should have been, I’d found the bivouac. The Track hadn’t failed. Its cadence had wobbled slightly, but it hadn’t fallen over.
Many tired and slightly surprised eyes regard me as I approach the camp. For days this migratory mob have been scuttling across the morale-killing fields of the Central Australian Outback, taking on marathon-length stages, first on the lumpy terrain of the Larapinta Trail, and then through the desert scrub of inner Australia’s no-man’s land.
The three missing stragglers arrive to huge applause shortly after I join the group. Among them is Peter Jong from Melbourne, one of just two Australians taking part in the Track.
Peter is the only person ever to have completed five desert races in the Race the Planet series. “This one really tops it off, though,” he tells me. But it sounds worryingly as though the event is nearly topping him off. “This race is giving us such a hammering. We’re not even halfway yet. No-one knows how to train for a 590km run through the dirt.” Peter is totally out of food, but I’ve arrived on a good day. This is nearly the halfway point, and tonight they get to replenish their meagre supplies for the first and last time.
Trail runners: camaraderie
Food in a self-supported multi-day ultra is despicably mundane. Variety means more packaging and more weight, which just isn’t worth it. But tonight there are treats to be shared. Embarrassingly, when they spot my sad-looking meal of baked beans and barley sugar, they even force food on me.
Many languages and accents babble away around the fire. The runners hail from Denmark, Germany, Korea, France, Canada, Morocco, Kuwait, French Guyana and New Zealand. French is the exclusive tongue around the crew’s camp however, which is set up a little distance away, complete with its own fire.
This segregation puzzles me, as the group – runners and crew combined – is so small. “It’s how they do things in the MdS,” explains Andrew Cohen, the only other Australian present. “It’s because we’re self supported – they keep a distance between us and them.”
Although this division of cast and crew appears aloof, it inspires an even greater sense of camaraderie among the runners. Tonight, they’re united in their feelings about the race and happy to share them with me.
“This is a monstrous run,” says Andrew, a veteran of several Marathons de Sables. “The first couple of legs… they were really tough. I definitely underestimated it.”
For Canadian runner Josee Beauregard, things haven’t been going at all well. She’s injured, and she’s angry. “We were told the sand wouldn’t be too bad,” she fumes. “Otherwise I would have worn different footwear.”
“Even the sand in Morocco isn’t as crazy as this stuff here,” agrees a Danish runner, another veteran of the MdS. Hauke Kuenig, from Germany, tells me how he nearly froze on the first night because he wasn’t prepared for the drop in the desert temperatures, and another German, Suzanna Alexi, recounts how she got seriously lost during the first stages.
But, as they all acknowledge, it’s not Jerome’s job to spoon-feed people. They’re capable of doing their own research and there are no ultra virgins here. Everyone I speak to has at least three big multiday ultra-runs under their belt.
Then there’s Karim Mosta from Morocco, twice world ultra-runner of the year, who has done 145 multi-day ultra runs. He’s finished the MdS 23 times and has notched up 200,000km since 1987.
There’s no mistaking the awed respect the others have for this 57-year-old granddaddy of trail running, but even he rates this as the toughest race he’s ever done. “It’s a lot harder than the MdS because the stages are so long,” he explains. “We’ve run further than the total distance of the MdS in the stages we’ve run so far – and we’re not even halfway yet. But I’m here to experience Australia, not really to race.”
Later, as he breaks sticks to feed the fire, Karim gets philosophical. “If more people were ultra runners, the world would be a much better place,” he states. Yousef Khourshid from Kuwait agrees. “You make friends for life doing something like this,” he says.
Yousef was last over the line today, having rolled his ankle, but Peter Jong and another runner held back to keep him company over those horrendous last kilometres. “Camaraderie and mental toughness – that’s what this event it all about,” he says.
Another runner, Spaniard Francisco Teres Costa, has a different theory. He claims to finish an event like this you need three things: “calma, control y cojones” (calmness, control and balls).
Trail running: athletes
Truth be known, most of these runners are here for the experience more than the competition. If they’re fighting against anything, it’s themselves and the temptation to give in to the savagery of the distances involved and the harshness of the terrain they’re covering.
But there are some world-class athletes here too, for whom the Track is a race. It’s clear from both their times and the reverential tone of their co-runners, that two guys in particular are a class above everyone else: race leader, Christophe Le Saux, and second-placed Salvador Calvo Redondo.
Salvador hails from the same region as Kilian Jornet and trains with ultra running’s biggest name regularly. He has won three Race the Planet events – including 2010’s Kimberley race, where he beat another trail-running superstar Ryan Sandes – but now he’s an hour adrift of the wiry Christophe.
“It’s outstanding to be sharing an experience like this with two such high-quality athletes,” says Andrew. “They might be the only ones among us who are capable of finishing this race.”
Though Salvador barely looks capable of finishing his dinner tonight. He’s having major stomach problems, something that often runs rampant through groups of runners during multiday races, when there’s only alcoholic wipes to wash your hands with, and everyone’s living in cramped conditions.
“I feel very rough,” Salvador tells me. “I’ve eaten nothing for days. And the terrain…. it’s very hard. The first two days I liked a lot. I like mountains. Flat terrain I don’t like so much.”
Since I arrived, everyone has been asking who won the TNF100, but I want to know why the likes of Salvador and Christophe chose the Track over the high-profile event taking place down south.
“If I’m going to pay for a flight to Australia, I want to do as many kilometres as possible,” laughs Christophe. “Plus, this is a true adventure – the first run. It’s special.” A week ago Christophe ran a 150km race in Central America.
A week after the Track finishes he will do an 80km nonstop race in the Alps. A former top-flight boxer, he knows how to hurt, but even he concedes that this is one of the most difficult races he’s ever done.
These sentiments will be music to la ears of Jerome, who tells me: “I wanted to organise a race that was a real adventure… The concept was not to have lots of people. With a small group you can respect the place you are running through, and it enables you to retain the authenticity of the experience.”
“I would like a race in each continent,” he continues. “We’ll run this one in Australia again next May. In January 2012 we will have a race in India, and in September 2012 one in Mozambique. It’ll be a continental challenge. We will vary the format – but the common denominators will be small groups and a spirit of true adventure.”
And just like any adventure worth its salt, the Track is evolving even as it’s being raced. The short course has been scrapped and a ‘kilometres classification’ system introduced in its place, where anyone who doesn’t finish a stage can continue to be involved by striving to run as many kilometres as possible.
Also, as the group has fallen behind schedule, it’s been decided that the shortfall will be shaved from the start of the next leg to allow the race to get back on track, giving it a revised total distance of 510km.
I help ferry runners to the new starting point the next morning. Limping and unable to continue, Josee weeps as the remaining runners don their packs, wish each other luck and stride off once again into the swirling, gritty ginger mist that sweeps across the track, breathing in lungfuls of red dust with every stride.
They are still a shade under halfway through this race, and whatever horrors and heartbreak the Outback has already dished them up, surely there is worse to come. The final stages are 63km, 61km and then a heartbreaking 129km to the big red rock – the longest stage ever attempted in this kind of race anywhere in the world.
But none of this is any consolation to Josee, who has trained months for this, and wants only to be sharing the agony with her new comrades. She refuses to be consoled, and tears of bitter disappointment streak down her dusty face and fall to the arid dirt at our feet.
Trail running: the finale
Of the 23 runners that started the inaugural edition of The Track, 18 completed all nine stages. Christophe Le Saux won the event in a time of 46 hours 33 minutes and 19 seconds, with Salvador Calvo Redondo coming in second an hour and a half behind him.
Twenty people finished the 129km last stage. The slower runners started at 5am and Yousef, the last to finish, crossed the line at noon the following day, to the applause of everyone.
Andrew, the first of the Australians to finish and the third-placed runner overall, finished the final stage at midnight, in 53h 23m 05s. “I’m broken in so many ways,” he tells me the next morning. “When I turned off the Lasseter Highway and saw Jerome I said to him: ‘You’re a horrible man, but I love you!'”
“It’s been an incredible experience, starting in the mountains, going through the gorges of the Finke River and then the Outback. I thought I was out of the race so many times. I’m enormously proud that I held it together, but I guess I’ve got to question how sensible it is to put your body through something like that. My right ankle is twice the size of the other one, and it doesn’t bend. My back is full of pain.
“Then again…. when I’m sat in my rocking chair, it is really going to rock, and I’ll arrive at death’s door saying to myself, ‘that was one hell of a ride!’ I hope there will be many more editions of this event, but no-one else can say they did the first one.”
And it seems there will certainly be more. Like the desert oaks Andrew pointed out along the way, the Track was born into a hostile environment where everyone immediately wrote off its chances. But, not only did the race survive its first year, it also put down strong enough roots and found adequate sustenance
to branch out.
And so Australia remains the home of the world’s toughest foot race.