Running in my Church: GNW in 5 Days
There’s a quote I once read that goes something like this, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.” Now I’m not really religious so talking to God wasn’t on the cards but running 250km in 5 days and covering nearly 9000m of elevation certainly made me feel like I could communicate with some higher power.
There are only two places I have ever lived in Australia – Sydney and Newcastle. My friends are spreads between both, I work in both, I love different parts of both and so when I first found out about the Great North Walk (pacing the legendary Geoff Evison for 50km of the Great North Ultra I fell in love with the magic of the trail - thanks for the addiction Geoff).
Ever since that day I knew I'd be back one day to try and knock of the whole thing. Why you ask? I guess the simple answer a la Mallory is "Because it's there.", and when I say there I mean I run on parts of it near my house most weekends, every time I drive the highway I spot parts of it. There really was only one way to silence the nagging voice inside my head. I also love running, love nature and Covid has forced us to really focus on the areas right outside our backdoor.
So I knew I wanted to run it rather than walk it because I couldn't spare the suggested 21 days needed to walk it but I didn't want to go full crazy and run it in one go (some people have done this and it's both bonkers and awe inspiring) - this wasn't for me as I wanted to ensure I was always running in daylight to see the beauty of the entire trail. So the perfect balance seemed like 5 days (Note to Editor: this was in now way a balance).
Now all I needed to do was recruit some unsuspecting buddy(s) and drag them along for the ride. Thankfully I've surrounded myself with other crazy cats and before long my mate Lucus and I had booked a week off at the end of November - there was no turning back. (Note to Editor - It was Lucus that ended up dragging me along for the ride).
This is where I should be telling you that the next few months were spent meticulously planning our routes, fine tuning nutrition and gear, honing our training plan and devoting my life the Great North Walk - but that would be a lie. The reality of the situation is that this was meant to be a holiday (I KNOW right!) and we're all busy - work, friends and other adventures get in the way. There was the occasional chat about logistics, support from a couple of people in the know (Thanks Nick), Lucus managed a great job of bringing the route files together on Strava but overall I relied on my general training to see me to the start line fitness wise and logistically...well...
48 hours before the start I was rushing around Woolies (Tesco for those of you in the UK) desperately trying to work out what sustenance sustains a man for 5 days on continuous running (the answer to this question as it turns out is Carmans Cereal Bars). A rushed trip to the camping store to get a bivvy and last minute downloads of GPX files to the phone. It's not ideal but in our busy lives I think getting out the door even if you're not as prepared as you want to be is the only ay you will ever get out the door and heck it's half the fun of an adventure.
It was then back to Lucus' for hours of fun filled aid station bag drop filling. We were very lucky to have Lucus's Dad drop aid drops for us at strategic locations along the course.
The night before we stayed at Ellen's (thank you) - who lived relatively close to the start point. Lucus injury on bike...
Day one started with a train journey to the start - I got us lost on the way to the station at 5 in the morning. See lack of planning works out fine :p Luckily it wasn't too bad and by 6:10AM we were at the start point - the Zero Mile Marker in Macquarie Park in Sydney (The Obelisk) - it was time to take the first step.
It's a strange start because you run 500m to the ferry terminal (Circular Quay) and jump on a boat, this running malarkey is easy!
Now I don't want to bore you with a rambling detailed description of every day (I still will) - but I'll pick some highlights and attempt to summarise the rollercoaster of emotions/energy. If you want the full story behind any of these snippets ask me over a beer the next time we catch up...
Day One (54.90km, Elevation: 1477m) - Pooed on my only running shoes for 5 days, Collected a walkers dog who wouldn't stop following us for approx. 1km (lost the owner and had to stop and hand the dog over to other walkers who knew him), a niggling knee injury I carried in to the run deteriorated rapidly, I rolled my ankle 5km in (ouch) - pain eased and carried on, beautiful scenery through Lane Cove winding out way out of Sydney, made it to Galston Gorge (ridiculous rocky descent which was more like climbing), met Bella who took us for dinner - both in good spirits if a little sort - I was a little concerned about knee so got knee support and Nurofen (just in case), made it to campsite in the dark - knackered and a bit of chat about days to come - hardest day, weather forecast etc. Soon off to bed - and when I say bed I mean bivy which is basically a body bag = probably comfy if you're dead but more like sleeping inside a plastic bag that wants to eat you if you're not. At least the spiders can't get us.
The picture above has by Bivy (in orange) literally fully setup already!
…and this is what it looks like inside.
Day Two (56.38 km, Elevation: 2246m) - Up a little later than planned but on the trail by 6:30, 1km later and come across a perfect camping site with working toilets - oh yeh that planning thing is over rated. Now we knew we were aiming for Cowan for breakfast. Only 15 km away but it might as well have been on the summit of Everest for all the climbs we had to do - think it took us 4 hours to cover 15km (1000m of elevation). Now we were really in to the meat of it. I had that weird mix of "this is cool, scrambling over rocks and up ladders in the middle of the woods with whip birds and mother nature singing it's heart out." BUT "F!&* me I didn't realise this is what we were getting in to - you should need a mountaineering licence and supplemental oxygen for this shit and this is only before breakfast.".Re-invigorated with brekky - knee sore. Jerusalem Bay absolutely stunning (this is what it's all about). Definitely not making 10:30 ferry - will wok out boat options at Brooklyn as need to cros Hawkesbury somehow. 2km out of town I roll ankle again - v v sore, limping lots. Make it in to town, head all over the place as want to carry on but I know once we cross Hawkesbury we're out of civilisation for a while - discussion with Lucus - he's a physio so get food and strapping and get on boat (ferry to Little Wobby) - Patonga route not possible so doing old GNW route. Lucus straps ankle - better but still limping lots and mind fighting body. Keep pushing on - v slow - walk for now wth ankle. Bush bash up steep slope (incredible view over the Hawkesbury). Get back on to main route. Mount Wndabyne - more great views. Day rapidly getting away from us with elevation and injury. Have nurofen and pain eases - able to run - need to start pushing to make Mooney in daylight. Both battered and tired - make it to Mooney - meet Lucus' dad and get dinner drop. Pass out early at campsite. Need to set off early tomorrow to avoid late finish again.
Day 3 (53.37km, Elevation: 1697m) – From the late finish the day before and the need to wake early to ensure it didn't happen again, coupled with the injuries the day started slowly and it was a real struggle to get going. With three full days in front of us and over 150km of running my mind was forcing me in to some dark places and I was struggling to think of much else beyond the pain in my knee and was considering whether walking the whole thing in 3 days was possible. I also knew we were getting in to the remotest part of the run and I didn't want to deteriorate and be stuck in the middle of nowhere. Half way through the day I said to Lucus, "I think I'm going to have to turn back to the last town - I don't want to hold you up and I don't think I can push through this." - Lucus was an absolute legend here and reasoned me out of my slump saying I should just make it to the end of that day and then decide and that he was happy to walk. Probably the best progress here was also taking the decision to begin taking Nurofen (I'd been resisting because I don't normally like taking it for sport) - but it was a miracle cure. Probably not great for long term knee/ankle health but it took the edge off and eventually allowed me to get running again. We passed through Yarramalong and saw the local hotel (v tempting) but pushed on. The last part of the day was 10km of flat road followed by a mammoth climb. The road running was tough and we split it into 2km segments and the final climb obviously a killer but knowing the campsite was at the top kept the spirits up. We fumbled in to the campsite just before sunset and saw the sun settling between the trees - battered, broken but back to fight another day. One bonkers things I've forgotten from this day was arriving at one of our food drops to find it had been consumed by wild dogs (thankfully we still had just enough on us still and the water was untouched)...
… bad doggy!
Day 4 (54.91km, Elevation: 2123m) – The new found Nurofen magic and the knowledge that we had a camping stove (hot food!) at the end of this day meant the spirits were a little higher than the day before. Both still aching and needing to walk slowly out of camp to get the legs going. It was a tough day with numerous stops needed and careful management of liquid and strategic stops (time off feet - the soles of the feet were really singing now). We pushed on through incredible forest and came to breath-taking lookouts across verdant green fields. Saw black kangaroos, a red bellied black snake, echidnas, lizards - we were not alone. Through the pain a magic descended and it was fantastic. We made the camp earlier than any other day and had time to cook up a great hot meal and have a little time to chill before bed. (I also finally had phone signal again - Vodafone is not designed for adventuring in Oz). I went to bed knackered but a combination of the bivy being a sauna and a possum that wanted to be my best mate kept me up for a while. Eventually nodded off....
...my new best mate.
Day 5 (53.37km, Elevation: 1697m) – We both woke feeling broken but with the knowledge that the finish line was within touching distance (sort of). Mother Nature was not playing ball though - it quickly became a ridiculously hot day (40 degrees plus), borderline dangerous and both discuss the merits of carrying on with the very real risk of heat stroke etc - decide to carry on but make sure we're stopping at every possible water source and smashing the liquids - still brutal (can't explain quite how much). I've never felt that kind of heat when in the process of doing something so stupid - it was like running through a furnace. The one saving grace was that the knee and ankle almost forgotten because body was focused on staying cool. Both fatigued and over heating - we had to stop at a shopping centre to get Air Con and cold lollies and drinks. You think it helps but as soon as you go outside again - WHACK and the heat melts your soul - it was BRUTAL! Bella was amazing and met us at halfway and was there for the finishing parts to run with us and support us with water stops through Newcastle. Highlights of the day included the Heaton Lookout and major descent (fun!)and finally seeing the ocean again. We were both at our wits end by now and just needed to finish. We followed the coastal path in Newcastle past sunbathers and surfers looking at us like we were out of our mind (we probably were) but through gritted teeth and sweat laden t-shirts we finally came to the Obelisk in Newcastle (500m from the official finish) - we had basically done it. No energy for a major celebration but an immense sense of pride and for me a respect for my fellow warrior. It was then a slow trot to the Queens Wharf and the end of the walk. 5 days, 250km and two broken bodies. Sat on a bench with no major finish line can seem like an anti-climax but we do this for ourselves and there is no finish line that could represent the enormity and struggle we had gone through. Sitting, reflecting, recovering - the quiet satisfaction of a big dream become reality. Having Bella there made it even better and I was elated and ready for bed and a shower.
Most people I talk to about this think it's crazy and I guess in lots of ways it is but I'm going to try to put in to words the awe that comes from submerging yourself in nature - I feel like it's where we (as humans) belong and a place where everything makes sense. Modern life can be complicated and getting back to basics - Run, Eat, Drink, Sleep - nothing more complicated than that frees my mind and amidst the pain and suffering I reel an immense sense of calm and clarity. "Ultra being a way to talk to God", that we mentioned at the start, is simply a greater connectedness to yourself - I am my own master and I am harnessing all my body and mind has to offer. It is exhilarating and I don't know many other experiences that would give you that. This is my church, I love the values it instils, the people I worship with and the sights I see. I'm blessed. I won't be going every Sunday but I'll definitely be back for more. #Runningformentalhealth