Updated: Feb 14, 2020
At the beginning of 2019 I committed to running the entire continental challenge in 1 season...I arrived in Alice Springs with almost no preparation and regretted my lack of training almost immediately. This is what happened to me when I set my goal but didn't follow my success framework.
All images (C) 2019 Canal Aventure, G. Piekle/D. Lemanski
The Track Part 2
This post follows on from an earlier post in my blog that you can find here
After the first 2 stages, I was happy to get out of the mountains and onto ground where I could switch off and get a rhythm going but the temperature soared to 42C and the distances were ramping up. The field that I'd normally expect to keep up with just ran away from me effortlessly and my mind was taking a big hit. I wanted to stop and I didn't want to be left behind but I had nothing left. All the time I was trying to reason with the constant negative voice in my head. If I fought against it's constant calls to stop, I would get annoyed and frustrated, lose focus and it would beat me.
On the third night we had huge thunder storms. I was sharing a tent with Jennah-Louise. She was incredible on her first ultra and the longest self-supported stage race in the world! We laughed and joked that the tent was going to blow away. It certainly lightened my mood and I took every bit of enjoyment out of it to stay positive.
We set off on stage 4 to Boggy Hole in a heavy mist. I was very thankful that the temperature had dropped. The red sand in the desert had changed with the rain to the heavy sticky clay that I'd experienced previously in the Simpson Desert. It made going tough with slippy trails and deep water everywhere. As we approached the end of day 4 we turned a sharp right bend to be faced with a river crossing. I knew in this weather I'd never get my kit dry but there was no other way so I went straight in over me knees. Everyone was in the same boat with soaked kit but one stage closer to the end.
These races are individual events were participants are placed based on their cumulative times for each stage but there's a huge team element to all suffering the same discomfort.
In my mind stage 5, whilst long at 59km, passed with no event. I recall the trail still being very wet and treacherous underfoot but the temperature rising and the cumulative distance taking it's toll on my under-prepared legs.
A Turn for the Worse
It was on stage 6 travelling 58km from Palmer River to Ernest Road that my already dreadful race took a massive turn for the worse. We had collected our drop bags at the end of stage 5 so our packs were back to full weight. I went to the bathroom 3 times before the stage but didn't really think anything of it. I'm meticulous with my hygiene, cooking and cleaning in camp so dismissed it as just one of things things during a 10 day race. By the time I reached the 1st checkpoint at 17km I realised I was in a lot of trouble. I'd held down no food or water. My stomach was cramping and I felt empty. I ran through everything in my mind and knew this wasn't because of contaminated food or water or because of a lack of cleanliness. I collected drugs from the race doctor that would suppress the stomach cramps and nausea and continued to the next checkpoint 14kms further on at 31km. I still hadn't managed to consume any water or calories. The temperature was well into the 40s and I wasn't good. Leaving checkpoint 2 in the middle of the day I started to have "day nightmares". I didn't know such a thing existed but they were so vivid about me and my family that they significantly changed the way I ran the last stage and I still remember them in such detail that I imagine they'll always be there.
The next leg to checkpoint 3 at 44km was along very hot exposed sandy roads. The stomach cramps and everything else had subsided but I still couldn't eat or drink. I was struggling physically and mentally drained. I know I decided to quit at the next checkpoint but I don't really remember all the details so here's the Instagram post I put up about it very shortly afterwards:
There was an entire team of amazing volunteers out there over the last couple of weeks that made this possible and I want to say a big thank you to all of them but there's a story I want to share that changed my outcome... I walked into check point 3 at 44kms on stage 6. I hadn't managed any calories all day. My breakfast had gone in and straight out and everything else followed suit. I threw my bag on the floor and walked into the woods to cry. I had already decided to quit as I approached the check point. I was exhausted and still had 16km to go and not much time before the cut off but I was crying now because I wanted to continue and didn't think I had it in me. I've never had to dig as deep in a race as I did in this one to get myself to the end. When I coach or speak, I talk about a framework for your goals and it is something that I use in daily life and for running. The final stage of the framework is to take your first step in the knowledge that you are the only person who can actually realise your goal. Before that is to share your goal to create an encouraging and supportive community to lean on when things are tough. It is this step that saved me out there on stage 6. My great friend, the man in the picture, Ian Crafter, gave me space to deal with my thoughts, filled my water bottles for me and when he saw the time was right, he approached me and said "Jamie. I'm very proud of you. You've got this. I'll see you at the end" and without any realisation, I was back out on the course and lived to run another stage. Thank you Ian and to all of those in my positive supportive community 🏃♂️🏃♂️❤
Sheer stubbornness, absolute determination not to quit and a supportive network got me to the end of that stage and as a result I had the opportunity to finish the race. I sat in Dr Bruno's office, weak, sick and emaciated and contemplated what had happened over the last 275kms and what was still left to do...a further 247kms.
I slept well on the 6th night and whilst exhausted, I set off on the 66kms of stage 7 feeling better and in a determined and positive mindset. I was lucky enough to share the first 25kms or so with Heather Hawkins who has such a positive, smiley and supportive spirit that I hardly noticed the distance passing. I ate quite a lot of my food early in the stage to try and replenish some of the lost energy from the last 24 hours but was very happy to be feeling better. After I left Heather I was running mostly alone and the day dragged. The checkpoints towards the end of the stage were 18kms apart and I was drinking my water too fast. I slowed everything down with a focus on getting to the end of the stage. If I made it to the end of this day, I knew I'd been very lucky and that I would get through the 44kms on day 8 standing between me and the last and longest stage of the race at 140km+.
I ran all of day 8 with Heather. I recall very little of the actual stage itself or the terrain but I do remember endless sharing of stories, terrible jokes and even worse singing as we plodded through the kilometers to Mount Conner. There were also lots of tears both happy and sad as we swapped life stories.
Coincidentally, when I ran The Track the first time in 2017, I ended up running the final two stages with Claire Heslop, another amazing human being who helped the kilometers and hours fly by and who also went on to finish as 2nd female in the race as Heather did. I was recently asked why I run these long events and it is because of this community. Whether it's during the trip to the start camp, camp-life itself or out on the trails when things are going very well or not so, everyone pulls together. We're all competing against each other but also all suffering the same hardships and struggles and in my experience, this creates strong and immediate bonds that are more difficult to experience in everyday life. There is little space for ego and vulnerability is hard to hide. People are raw and fragile, tired, sore and hungry and yet these relationships forge more strongly than ever.
The Final Stage
Unlike stage 8, even with Heather's singing and stories, the it's difficult to forget the experience of the final stage...42kms of undulating sand and fire trails followed by 89kms of straight, relentless highway and 6kms of winding, never-ending sand trails to the finish. Heather and I set off slowly determined to finish the stage however long it took. We ran and walked the first 42kms to check point 2 enjoying the experience. Mount Conner looked amazing and Heather explained all about the area having lived there previously. We eventually reached the Lasseter Highway that runs all the way beyond Uluru. It's a typical outback highway...tarmac with one lane in each direction and rough red rubble on the sides. It was easiest for us to run along the edge on the tarmac but we were really supposed to stay off the road. It is here and particularly at night that I was very aware of the day nightmares I'd suffered earlier in the race. They plagued me throughout this stage. We reached Curtain Springs Station at 55kms quite late in the day but Heather had lived at the station and was keen to spend some time with the family who own it. We eventually got chased out by the race director and were ushered back onto the course as night was falling. It was good to have a break but now the hard work was to start. We briefly left the road to follow a trail out of the station. It was now completely dark and we saw a light coming towards us. It turned out to be another runner who was concerned they were lost. They joined us but eventually dropped off and unfortunately didn't make it to the end of the stage. We were both quite exhausted and just wanted to finish.
As the night wore on, the road seemed to drag on and the temperature dropped significantly. We set a routine that would hopefully keep some momentum. We would run one behind the other for 3kms and then walk 1km. It was slow going but all we had left. I tried to eat constantly but didn't really feel like it. At one point we both expected to see the checkpoint final checkpoint at 118kms but there was nothing. I was sure we were in the right spot. We both had our down jackets on by this point and had been moving for about 20 hours. We finally heard something ahead. Ian had just arrived at the checkpoint and was starting to build a fire...Saving the day again. We refilled our water bottles and set off for the last 20kms. By this time I had sore shins to the point that I could hardly walk. I cursed myself for about the millionth time during the race for my complete lack of preparation.
We reached the turning off the road to take us to Uluru when the sun was high in the sky. The temperature took no time to sore and we walked the final 6 kms with our jackets tied around our wastes as we didn't have the energy to take our bags off to put them away. I groaned with every step with the agony in my legs and there was certainly no singing or joking. Somehow, as we rounded a corner and saw the finish line, we held hands and both found the strength to run to the finish...It's amazing what you can do when you know it's all about to end.
After 25 hours of moving we had finally reached the finish line. It had been a long and torturous 10 days. I was lucky to finish, learnt a lot of lessons and faced some demons but lived to run another race. I'd spent time with some more amazing human beings, laughed, cried and grown.
I became only the second person, along with my good friend Brigid Wefelnberg to finish The Track twice. Heather secured 2nd place in the women's race behind our other lovely Sydney-based running friend Leigh Hawkes.
If you'd like to hear more about the lessons I learnt about myself and others, have questions you'd like to ask or learn more about what goes into the goal setting, motivation and resilience required to run these races or achieve any big goal, please send me a message. I'd love to hear from you.