Andy DuBois recounts his time in the Simpson Desert
Posted: Nov 10 2016
The comfort zone – it’s a place we all like to hang out. We know how it feels, we know it’s a safe place to be and the outcomes of any actions in the comfort zone are very predictable. But it’s not where all the fun happens, it’s not where we learn and grow as runners or even as people. If we want to achieve anything meaningful, then we need to step outside that comfort zone, and see what we are really capable of.
On the morning of day five of the Big Red Run I had a choice – stay in my comfort zone and take the predictable outcome of 3rd place, or risk all and go for a win or 2nd place, and risk losing 3rd. It wasn’t really a choice to be honest and I knew as soon as the gun went off what option I was taking.
But let’s back up a bit and see where the story began.
The iconic dunes
The Big Red Run is a 250km stage race held in the Simpson Desert, in the centre of Australia. It consists of a marathon a day for the first 3 days, then a “short” day of 30km, before the long day of 84km and then a social untimed 8km jog back to the pub to finish on day 6. It is unique compared to other stage races around the world in that you don’t have to carry all your gear with you. There is a 14kg allowance that gets transported from camp to camp which means the runners just need to carry what they need each day. The 14kg includes all clothing, food, sleeping back and sleeping mats so it means most runners ran in the same clothing every day and survived on freeze dried meals so its not exactly luxury!
You might think that given my job as a running coach I would be well trained for this but sadly this wasn’t the case. Alas, even running coaches are human! A combination of niggling injuries, colds and a flu meant the last 8 weeks I had averaged 35km a week of training with the longest run of 24km. Not exactly ideal when the aim is to run 250km in 6 days!
The leap of faith one has to take to even consider running back to back marathons with so little training is large let alone doing it 5 days straight and on the last day running two. However somehow I had the confidence I could do it. This wasn’t, I hoped, misplaced confidence. Years of training for and competing in ultras, especially 100 mile races, had given me a quiet confidence that I had what it takes to finish this race. I’d been outside my comfort zone by massive amounts in all my 100 mile races, and except for passing out in one race due to heat exhaustion, had finished all of them. I would have to call on all those experiences and lessons learnt to help me get through this race.
I had come up with a plan to hopefully get me to the finish line and then had to stick to it. If I went too hard early then I’d be spending a lot of time walking later on in the race.
Day 1. Lesson 1. Swallow the Ego
The start takes place at the iconic Birdsville Hotel and it was a cold crisp morning as we were sent on our way. We ran a loop through the town before heading out into the desert.
The Birdsville Hotel.
My legs felt great and I wanted to take off with Elisabet Barnes, who having won the MdS last year was the stand out runner in the field, as she took the early lead, but I knew I had to be patient, so instead, after 12 minutes I started walking. Yep we had hardly left town and just over 2km into the race I was walking. This was something I knew I had to do to give my legs a chance of coping with the 250km but watching people run by me and knowing they were thinking what is he doing walking at this stage wasn’t easy. Self discipline was required or I would blow up very early. So I walked for 3 minutes and then settled back into running for 12 minutes, a routine I kept at for the whole 42km. Since my running pace was faster than anyone else I gradually pulled away from the pack and found myself swapping positions with Jamie Hildage. He would pass me when I walked I would catch and pass him when I ran.
The next 34km passed like this as we ran over dirt roads, sand dunes, gibber plains and wild countryside between the dunes taking in the beauty that is the Simpson Desert covered in wild flowers from recent rains. We chatted briefly each time we passed one another but in general both of us were happy to soak up the atmosphere of being in such beautiful surroundings. The scenery constantly changed and the time went quickly. Running was a joy with fresh legs, stunning surrounds and with so few people around. A chance to be absorbed into the vastness of nature that places like this provide.
I was paying careful attention to my legs, waiting for the niggle that had been hounding me for the last 8 weeks to make itself known, but so far so good.
We approached the 36km final checkpoint just as I was having thoughts of crossing the line together with Jaime. I didn’t stop at the checkpoint other than to get my number ticked off but Jaimie stopped for water so I was alone as the course climbed the Big Red sand dune and then dropped down to the finish line at camp 1, taking 2nd overall, and finishing around 15 minutes behind Elisabet. Considering I had walked 48 minutes over the course of the 42km I took some confidence that I was actually running faster than her.
Day 1 done and had surpassed expectations. So far so good.
I wasn’t getting carried away though – there was still a long way to go and I was very unsure how my legs would hold up over the 5 days . How much could I rely on the years of training in my legs and the mental strength developed over years of racing to overcome the very reduced last few months of training? I knew one thing for sure – I was going to find out.
Day 2. Lesson 2. Stay present.
We awoke to the sound of rain – an unexpected sound in the desert. It was quickly apparent walking around the camp site (which was situated on a dried up but now wet clay pan) that any running on clay was going to be very difficult. With every step clay stuck to the bottom of your shoe until it reached a critical mass which felt like 2-3kg, upon which some would drop off until the next step. Just walking around the camp site was challenging, we had no idea how we would run.
We set off at a very slow pace across the clay pan dragging well over a kilogram of clay with us on every step. Fortunately this was only for a kilometre or two until we reached a road. Whilst the road was also wet and muddy it had far less clay and running was a lot more comfortable. I had decided to run a bit more of today and see how my legs felt so Jaime, Elisabet and I ran together with the early leader James just in sight ahead.
Turning off the road the course had us veer around a massive lake – a stunning sight in the desert that is usually nothing but sand. We ran through others that although looked like a lake were only an cm or two deep. After 20km we had caught the early leader James and the three of us were running well. I decided I needed to ease up a little and switch to a walk/run. Using an 8/2 strategy I found I was still keeping up with Jaimie and Elisabet and was actually pulling away from them slightly in the run interval. By the 24km checkpoint I had a slight lead – so even when I walked I wasn’t caught. It was at this stage I had my worst period of the entire race. We were directed onto a road which started off very runnable. As I slowed for my 2 minute walk section Elisabet passed me and said, “see you soon,” but as soon as I started running again I saw that Elisabet was still pulling away from me. Not long after Jamie went past me as well and he was also pulling away from me, although not quite as fast. My legs didn’t want to play anymore. They didn’t feel that sore they just didn’t want to run fast anymore.
At that exact moment things went from bad to worse. We hit the clay. My running speed went from 5 minute kms a few kilometres ago to struggling to run 7 minute kms. I knew this stretch was around 10kms long and the road disappeared off into the distance so I knew I had over an hour of this to get through, maybe more. Running with 2-3cm of clay stuck to your shoe was the toughest running I have ever done. Looking ahead at how far there was to go was mentally demoralising. I knew what I needed to do.
Mud, mud, glorious mud!
Challenging conditions to say the least! Image c/o Ian Corless.
Challenging conditions to say the least! Image c/o Ian Corless.
Stay present. Don’t think about how far to go, don’t think about how much longer I can continue this for, just focus on the present. I tell my clients if you can’t be positive then at least be neutral. Negative self talk is only going to make the situation worse. So taking my own advice I started counting to 10 and repeating again and again and again. Every now and then I looked at my watch to see how long until the 8 minute run section finished. I just had to run for 8 minutes – I could do that. Although the temptation to walk more was very high I told myself that it didn’t feel any easier walking and it would just take longer.
As time went on I was getting sore in parts that normally aren’t sore at all due to the extra weight of the feet and wondered what effect that would have on tomorrow and the rest of the race. Stay present – worry about that tomorrow. 1,2,3 … repeat. I’ve never been so happy to run on a sand dune before in my life. My legs were getting quite sore so I took it super easy to the finish, happy to cross in 3rd, 20 minutes or so behind Jaimie.
It was a challenging evening at camp with every step an effort due to the inches of mud attached to our shoes. I made one trip to the tent to grab everything I needed and then sat in the kitchen tent and didn’t move for the rest of the afternoon and evening!
Later that day we were informed that day 3 was cancelled – the organisers simply couldn’t get people out to man the checkpoints or provide any kind of safety backup due to the wet clay tracks. This was met with a mixed reception by the runners and some started discussing how to add the extra 42km to make up the 250km for the race. From my own point of view I wasn’t disappointed! A day’s rest was certainly going to benefit my legs. They were feeling pretty sore and I was uncertain how they would cope with day 3.
Day 3. Lesson 3. Expect the unexpected.
I certainly didn’t expect to have a complete day off running. Some were sure it would leave them stiff for the next day’s run, others disappointed they wouldn’t be doing the full 250km. My view was that in trail races and ultras the goal is to start and finish whatever the race organisers set out for you, what the actual course and distance is can change depending on conditions, but the goal isn’t to run a certain distance it’s to meet the challenge of the race. If race organisers say it’s impossible to have a run on day 3 then that’s fine with me. Goodness knows I have run extra mileage in a number of 100 milers. It’s nice to come out on the receiving end for a change!
We awoke to mist but no rain and after breakfast the sun slowly appeared and we set about trying to dry all our wet clothes from day 2 . Many of us had only brought one set so getting them dry was a priority before day 4. The organisers looked after us and found some rope to tie between trees as a make shift clothes line. Shovels were found and paths were dug through the mud connecting tents to kitchen and toilets so we didn’t have to walk through several inches of mud to get anywhere and the rest of the time we just sat and chatted.
One of the best things about a stage race like the Big Red Run is the people. In the six days we were out there there was no negativity at all. Sure we all commented on how hard day 2 was but we laughed about it rather than winging and moaning. Everyone was super positive, we had none of the stresses in our normal lives to worry about, all we had to do was get up, eat, run, eat, go to bed, for 6 whole days. Taking life back to basics and being extremely grateful for the simple things like a warm cup of tea, getting warm by the campfire, being able to walk to the toilet without dragging several kilograms of clay around with you. A walk to the toilet has never been so enjoyable!
Day 4. Lesson 4. Have fun.
We awoke to a clear sky and cold morning. All of us were keen to get started after the day off. James took off hard from the gun, he was obviously keen for a stage win, and Jaimie Elisabet and I let him go and settled into an easy pace to warm up and see how our legs were feeling. At around 5km Elisabet decided her legs were feeling good and sped away from Jaimie myself and Braddin (who had finished 4th the last 2 days) and we watched her go thinking that the pace was too quick for us.
Today’s course involved a lot of dune running, which normally would be tough, but today the dunes were made up of hard packed sand due to the recent rains and were far easier to run on than the muddy tracks.
One of the highlights of the stage and indeed the whole race was running along the top of one of the dunes with Jamie and Braddin and seeing a herd of camels running parallel to us on the valley between the dunes.
Not long after this, perhaps inspired by seeing the camels move so easily across the terrain, I decided my legs were feeling good and being a short day I thought it worth seeing if I could put some time on Jaimie and maybe even catch James or Elisabet up ahead. They had been out of sight for a while now so I had no idea how far in front they were. I gradually picked the pace up and the gap between myself and Jaimie grew until I could no longer hear him. Picking the pace up felt great so I continued to wind it up as we approached 20km. With just over 8km to go I knew I could maintain the pace so continued to push hard as the course turned and followed vehicle tracks. Just in the distance I could make out a figure running, was it James or Elisabet? I couldn’t tell but I was gaining on whoever it was. So I picked up the pace again, I was working hard now, probably too hard, but with only a few kms to go I couldn’t do that much damage for the long day tomorrow . Gradually the figure came back to me and I realised it was Elisabet. The last bit of today’s course was along the dunes and as I reached the top of the dune I could see Elisabet what appeared to be just ahead, but with a few ups and downs of the dunes, distances were deceptive. I kept pushing hard to try and close the gap but in the end ran out of time and crossed the line just over a minute behind her.
It felt great to be able to take the handbrakes that I had had on the first two days off and race again. This filled me with some confidence that I might just be able to get through the 84km stage tomorrow with walking half of it!
Day 5 – The long day. Lesson 5. Embrace being outside the comfort zone.
Today I decided that I had two options – the safe and far more comfortable one or the risky and vastly more uncomfortable one. Deep down I new which one I was going to take. I don’t race ultras to stay in my comfort zone so there really wasn’t any decision to be made. I knew what I had to do to win, and if that didn’t happen I knew what I would go through to keep 3rd place, and was confident that I could use all my experience to do at least that. But 84km is a long way and anything can happen.
We set off just after 6am on a chilly, dark morning and I took the front position almost immediately with legs feeling fatigued from the previous day’s running but better than expected. The early kms felt easy and with Jamie and Elisabet happy to sit behind me I decided it was time to shake things up a bit. I upped the pace just slightly and, slowly but surely, started to open a gap. I knew I needed enough of a gap to get out of sight to give me any chance of making up the deficit on them. I didn’t have the legs to put in a surge so I would have to hold a slightly faster pace for as long as I could and hope they couldn’t keep up with me. Of course whether I could keep that pace up, or what would happen if I couldn’t, was the unknown.
The early running along the top of the dunes was a treat. The rising sun highlighting the dune parallel to us was spectacular and a highlight of the race.
Gradually the sound of people behind me faded and I knew I was opening up a lead but how long I could sustain this pace for I had no idea . Would I blow up? Would the lack of training mean I’d be reduced to a walk for long periods later in the race and if so did I have enough to hold onto 3rd place? I was about to find out .
For me this is the part of the race which I enjoy most. You put it all on the line, step outside the comfort zone and prepare to deal with the consequences that will ensue later on. If you spend the whole time in your comfort zone then you haven’t really tested yourself. Some might say running 84km is far enough outside one’s comfort zone as it is, but I know I can cover 84km, the question is how fast. That’s what I wanted to find out.
I would have loved to know how far ahead I was but I didn’t look around once as doing so indicates to those behind me I am worried about them rather than focussed on my own running. I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness no matter how I felt. At around 20km I heard footsteps approaching and wondered who it was, soon enough Elisabet ran up to my shoulder and we exchanged a few words. I wasn’t done yet though. We approached an aid station which I ran through as fast as possible and got another gap which I decided I needed to maximise as quickly as possible so upped the pace again.
I ran the first 30km faster than the 30km stage the day before – as did Elisabet and Jaimie which gives an indication of how fast we were going. I had no alternative in my mind. I had to try and get a large lead and hope that they eased up. The course then turned and ran along the South Australian border going up and down the dunes along a dirt track. This was very runnable terrain and although the uphill on the dunes wasn’t easy running, downhill I feel confident on, and hoped I could put some more time in between myself and Jamie and Elisabet.
As we ran over the ups and downs I sneaked a look back and unfortunately despite my best efforts the gap wasn’t extending, if anything it was decreasing, although it was hard to tell.
My legs started to protest the fast early pace and a hot spot on the arch of my foot got more and more noticeable. This was concerning as a blister there can make it a very uncomfortable last 48km. As the course turned off the track and headed along a dune I decided to stop and attend to the hot spot. I had a medical pack in my pack and quickly took it out and placed some tape on the hot spot. As I did so Elisabet and Jaimie passed me. My lead gone, but potential blister averted, I got back to running and set about catching Jamie and Elisabet. Noticing almost immediately that the wind has gone out of my sails and everything is feeling a lot harder. The gap to Jaimie takes a while to bridge but eventually I’m on his heels as we hit a road that leads to the half way point a few kilometres ahead. We run in together with Elisabet speeding off into the distance. My legs don’t have it in them to try and make the chase anymore, now it’s about survival. Could I stay with Jamie and if not can I stay ahead of Braddin who started the day an hour behind me in 4th?
Jaimie and I ran in together to the half way checkpoint – fastest marathon for the whole week ! I needed to get myself back together so I stayed a little longer to get some more calories in. The course then headed along a dirt road up a hill. I left the aid station eating so walked as I did and then the road crested a dune so walked that as well before moving back into a run again. Jaimie wasn’t that far ahead so I was hopeful I could catch him again, but knew I would have to go back to a run/walk pattern to make the finish in good time. So 8 minutes run 2 minutes walk it was. Jaimie never got much further away but certainly didn’t get any close either and eventually he disappeared from sight.
I now had 30km left to go. My legs were rebelling more and more against the early pace and lack of training miles but I knew unless Braddin caught me very soon there was no way he could put an hour into me over 30km so 3rd place was mine.
At that point I could have slowed down and cruised in to the finish but for some reason that never entered my mind. I was keen to get this race done as quickly as possible. The option of giving less than 100% didn’t occur to me. I’d left my beautiful wife and daughter for 8 days to do this and that alone meant I wanted to give 100% and not ease up. So on I pushed trying to keep the pace up on the 8 minute run as much as possible and not ease up when walking.
It’s at moments like these when fatigue has well and truly set in that the beauty of ultras in locations like these makes itself known. There I was completely alone, no human or man made object as far as they eye could see. Wildflowers and sand dunes in every direction for miles around. Alone, yet with a deeper sense of connection to both myself and the earth we live on, than at any other moment. The desert or mountains never fail to inspire me. They give a sense of perspective on how insignificant we are, but also how powerful we can be, if we set our minds to things. The overwhelming fatigue helps to make the other trivial concerns of modern day life fall away and leave you with the core of who you are and of what’s most important. Or maybe thats just me!
The course took us over dunes, across valleys and then across a massive gibber plain. I stumble and fall with my knee hitting a rock hard brought me back to reality with a jolt. In most races there are times when time seems to pass without you knowing it, you have no idea what you were thinking about or how you covered the last 5km but covered it you did. I’d just had one of those moments and whilst I was certainly aware of the effort involved in covering it, the sense of time had been skewed, and I remember last time I looked at my watch it said 60km and now it said 66km.
I got up from the fall and reminded myself to focus, another near stumble had me cursing and then refocusing on staying present, positive or at least neutral. The gibber plain was impressive – stretching as far as the eye could see in some directions with the red stones reflecting the heat of the midday sun and giving a mirage like effect. Out of that mirage appeared an aid station which, as much as I like the solitude, the aid stations were a welcome sign of progress, not to mention water and a few snakes or potato chips!
Not long after the aid station a helicopter appeared overhead filming and then flying over to just across the next dune and hovered most likely above Jaimie who couldn’t have been too far ahead. A kilometre or two at most, but far enough that catching him wasn’t going to happen. I pushed on sticking to 8 and 2 as much as I could, every now and then succumbing to a brief walk in the middle of the 8, if terrain became more difficult.
The gibber plain skirted a sand dune for what seemed like a very long time before eventually leaving the plain over some sand dunes. I looked back as I left the plain with a sense of relief of having crossed it, but also a sense of awe at its primitive beauty, and the feelings being in such a place can invoke.
Back to work. The finish can’t be too much further away. The next aid station approaches on top of a dune and I ask how much further to the next aid station. The answer is music to my ears – the finish is the next aid station. I feel emotion building up inside me but suppress it as there is still work to be done.
Setting off with a slight spring in my step that comes with the knowledge that the end is near I push on. Eventually I reach a main road where the course turns to follow. To clarify, a main road in these parts is a dirt road that’s only passable some times of the year, and is the road to South Australia. It’s hardly a bustling highway, although it is the peak time of year, and is frequented by regular 4WDs. Although these bring to an end the magnificent isolation the desert can provide, the friendly horn beeps and shouts of encouragement provide some compensation. The finish I remember being told is on the other side of the road. Just how far that is I don’t know. Although my watch tells me how far I have run and I know the distance is set at 84km there is always inaccuracies and 84km might mean anywhere from 80-90km so it’s important not to get too hung up on what my watch says.
I look into the distance, which since its pancake flat means you can see a long way, and can’t see anything that looks like the finish line. Stay present I remind myself, keep pushing, count to 10 and repeat. Every now and then I correct my running form and try to run a touch faster, pick the cadence up slightly, get a bit more onto my mid/forefoot, ask the question of my legs – can you run any faster? The answer is usually yes but not for very long. But it always feels better running a touch faster even if it hurts more. So I push on as best I can.
Slowly in the distance appears something that must be the finish, surely, it has to be doesn’t it? My legs are really starting to rebel. The niggle that plagued my pre race training had been making itself known over the last 15km or so and was starting to speak a bit louder to me. Not long to go though, focus on form, count to 10, repeat. At this point running for 8 minutes was extremely difficult and I switched to running for 10 red flags walking for 5. This allowed me to run faster and, going on previous days, was faster for me than settling into a slower more sustainable pace. Count to 10 then walk, count to 5 then run, repeat. The finish camp grew larger in the distance and with barely a kilometre to go the emotion welled up inside me. A few tears were shed and that complete sense of satisfaction that comes from working so hard towards something that has been so far outside your comfort zone grew more and more.
I could now see the finish line and make out individual people, it would all be over soon, enjoy these last few moments but keep pushing, extract every last bit out of yourself I kept telling myself, push, push right until the end. Finally when I crossed the road and ran up the finish chute I allowed myself to ease up and enjoy those last 50metres. They are always the sweetest moments of any race and this was no exception.
I crossed the line and needed to lie down immediately. My legs would had no more. Greg Donovan, race organiser, came over to interview me but I was puffing so hard I couldn’t speak. Wisely he decided to give me a few moments. It took a few minutes to get my breath back which was a good indication of how hard I pushed myself.
In the end I was about 13 minutes behind Jamie and 23 minutes ahead of Braddan so 3rd was secure but in the end it was more about giving 100% than the actual place.
Day 6. Lesson 6. Celebrate!
Today’s “run” was an untimed run back to Birdsville – 8km and most of us were walking. What I initially thought of us a bit of a waste since the race finished at the end of the long day I actually really enjoyed as a means of gradually returning to the real world instead of being thrust back in it as soon as the long day finished.
A beer awaited us at the finish line in front of the Birdsville Hotel to cap off an amazing week in the desert.
The day was spent having the best shower ever after 6 days of wearing the same clothes and not showering. Another beer at the pub with lunch, some amazing donuts, plus a veggie roll or two, plus a few more donuts at the bakery (you can see food is becoming a major focus here!). Then back to the pub for the presentation dinner and then it was all over. We all started our trip back to where we came from the next day, some flying, others starting the long drive and the return to normal life.
The Big Red Run was an amazing experience. The scenery was incredible, but just as inspiring were the people. From my tent mates Olly and Angus, who had never run a marathon before and stuck together every day to help each other through, to my clients Heather and her daughter Ally who ran every day together bar a few sprint finishes to get bragging rights. From spending time with Elisabet and Jaimie, who although we were competing hard always had the utmost respect for each other, and their first words when they saw me fixing a blister on day 5 was are you ok with genuine concern, to the those bringing up the rear of the field often with injuries but always with smiles on their faces – they were as much of an inspiration as anyone. There are too many to name so I won’t, for fear of leaving someone out, but all of you out there were inspiring to me in your own way.
Thanks to Greg Donovan and his Big Red Run team. The Big Red Run is primarily a fund raiser for the search for a cure for Type 1 diabetes and in 4 years has raised well over half a million dollars for the cause. It is an extremely well organised race over spectacular scenery with an amazing bunch people and one I highly recommend to anyone interested in doing a stage race. The cutoff times are very achievable for anyone with a moderate amount of fitness (you can walk basically every step and still make cut offs).
For those of you interested in what I used in the race – here is a photo of all the gear I used.
One of the big focusses before the race was avoiding blisters. I managed to avoid getting a single blister through a combination of wearing a pair of socks and shoes that were tried and tested over long distances, stopping to address hot spots before they developed into a blister and wearing Dirty Girl Gaiters which stopped anything getting into my shoes.
For food I used Strive vegetarian food – the Laksa and Dhal Bhat were delicious. I did need a stove but a lightweight MSR Whisperlight took very little space or weight and was well worth it judging by the looks of jealousy from others as I tucked into my meals!
The Hammer Fizz electrolytes were a compulsory item but I didn’t take a single one and had no cramps at any stage. (There is no scientific reason or evidence to take electrolytes. Read more here.).
Breakfast was small bowl of muesli in water (didn’t taste as bad as you might think).
Lunch was flavoured couscous and/or Strive food.
Afternoon snack was a bag of trail mix.
For each day’s running I used approximately one scoop of Hammer Perpetuem per hour – 5 scoops mixed into 600ml soft flask that I kept front pocket of my pack. The long day I supplemented that with a handful of trail mix, a few snakes from aid stations and one or two cups of coke at the later aid stations.
For a treat I packed 4 teabags per day (I am a bit of a tea-a-holic).
Hoka, one pair of socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, calf guards, one pair of shorts, one running t-shirt, one running long sleeve top, one lightweight Salmon Bonatti rain jacket, buff and hat.
For around camp
One pair of light weight shoes
One pair socks
One pair of lightweight pants
Icebreaker base layer
Icebreaker thermal top
Lightweight trekking towel
Sleeping bag – rated to -10