Before reading any further, if you are living with type 1 diabetes, please know that you aren’t allowed to use it as an excuse – for anything. Hitting the ‘Quit’ button because you have type 1 is the biggest mistake you can make. Regardless of what health practitioners might try to tell you, the risks posed to you by inactivity and lack of fitness, lack of will-power, and lack of self-reliance are far greater than those posed by your condition alone. Anything is possible, if you choose to really do it.
Like every multiday desert run, and every Racing The Planet 250km event that we’ve run and loved in the past, the Big Red Run finished last week by bringing us back to the place where we began. This time, it wasn’t San Pedro, or Cairo, or Kashgar, or even Ushuaia. It was Birdsville. And like every other time we’ve thrown ourselves into the ultra challenge of self-reliance in challenging remote locations around the world, the place we returned to may have been the same as when we left, but we had all been changed, even just a little, by the richly dirty, sweaty, confronting and rewarding experience that took place in the in-between.
It may sound strange to say that this sensation of deep fatigue after running 250km in a desert is an unusual feeling, but for Team Born to Run, setting out to run last week’s Big Red Run in the Simpson Desert at our own respective individual paces was both an exciting opportunity and challenging feat.
Greg Donovan, event founder, had plenty of experience putting his patience to the test last year, accompanying ailing son Matthew in the Gobi Desert and himself being utterly flattened on the first day (and all that followed) of the Sahara. So with a father’s love and some experience of the death march, he trotted gently by the side of his youngest son, Steven, as this young man who inspired the launching of the Born to Run Foundation knocked over his first, second and third marathons, first ultramarathon, and first multiday desert race all in the same week, all with a questionable knee and some very ad-libbed type 1 diabetes management on the go.
Ron Schwebel, the Silver Fox and seasoned campaigner came to the game with a badly plantar-fasciitised foot. Through the miracle of some skilled taping, running 250km actually made him well again by the end of the week, but only after he showed some experienced pacing by playing the longer days softly and hitting the starting gun hard on the 24km Day 4 sprint.
Matty Donovan, meanwhile, blew the field away on Day 1, putting in a surprisingly strong finish to close roughly 90 seconds per kilometre on the front of the field over the last 6km of the first day’s marathon, finishing equal leader and clearly more confident over the daunting power-sapping soft sands of rolling dunes than on the harder faster flat terrain that preceded them.
Jess Baker, of course, wrought giggling destruction at the front of the pack. Smoothly running into 2nd place by the middle of the week by vaulting Matty D, she exceeded the expectations of most by vaulting race leader Matty A as a skeletomuscular issue nearly sidelined him less than 20km into the 84km long day, Day 5. Though he fought back bravely, pushing on through heat, dehydration, and strength-sapping pain, she converted a 1-hour deficit into a 25-minute lead, crossing the line with Lucy Bartholomew, Victorian pocket rocket and rapidly rising talent, in a stunning time of just over 8 ½ hours.
I, meanwhile, managed near-perfect blood sugars for most of the week – something of an achievement in itself. Ironic, then, that I should decide to stay awake now to write this for the very simple reason that they are currently about 300% higher than I would like, and there is no way I’m going to sleep until they’re closer to normal and the insulin flowing through my system is clearly behaving as it should.
As for my own run, it could have been faster, smoother, and better executed, but realistically, I’m really happy to have had a chance to run a multiday desert race solo. The zombie battles shuffling across smoldering fields of irregular, glossy red rocks may not have been pretty or watchably fast, but they were riveting, exhausting, and unpredictable, and taking part in them was certainly an exciting way to make it to the end of a week of humour, intrigue, new friendships, sweat, learning, admiration, physical exhaustion, teamwork, and laughter. And let’s not forget to mention just how breathtakingly beautiful and diverse desert landscapes are, especially when you’re a slowly moving part of them.
Watching Jess get a blister taken care of by Pat Farmer has to go down as a personal highlight, but perhaps moreso hitting the final campsite at the end of the long day after hallucinating vivid aid stations that appeared 3km earlier than they were supposed to and running hard enough to reach a dehydrated dimension where time moved while space stood almost impenetrably still.
With 4 Deserts down and this as our fifth, it still felt, I think, very much like a first time for the team, having not previously run a multiday outside of a team situation. That said, we clearly had the benefit of experience, which so many runners more than made up for by their own courage in the face of the unknown, commitment to achieving bold personal goals, and willingness to suffer as much physical and mental hardship as they possibly could to reach that faraway finish line, many many more kilometres away than most of them had ever run in a fortnight or possibly even a month, let alone a week.
As Jess acknowledged at the awards dinner, we are in awe. Duncs took his on-the-run diabetes management to another level, Dave in his Kung Fu Panda headband went so much farther outside his comfort zone than could have ever been expected, Mark just made us all cry and smile at the same time, Mohan and the Singapore crew also brought a very welcome international flavour and with it such a sense of fun and curiosity that it might not have been as special a week as it was if they hadn’t flown so far to be part of it. Lucy Bartholomew showed so much class that when it came down to it, everybody else seemed perfectly happy to be beaten by a 17-year-old girl. What an exciting future she will have! And longtime trail-loving Kirrily Dear surprised herself perhaps more than anybody else by grabbing her first podium after days of finishing fresher and fresher every time she hit the line.
Glenn, Jill, Dan, Faith and all the doctors did a brilliant job in the face of what might have been an unnerving week, with multiple type 1s also in the desert in remote locations for the first time as supporters and crew, but they held strong, patched us all up each day as needed, and sent us back to the starting line for another round of scenic suffering. Lucas Trihey, first white fella to walk unsupported across the Simpson and safety officer for the North Face 100 in Sydney did an astounding body of work, redesigning courses on the fly as the first rains in 4 months created concerns about previously planned routes that led away from easier access to reliable roads and support vehicles. Legend. So too, Laura Donovan excelled herself utterly, as an event planner and coordinator responsible for the first time for dozens of lives hovered over by a rumbling cloud of possible unknowns. Certainly some things could have been better anticipated in the first day, but the importance of lessons wasn’t lost and the mammoth task that she completed would have crushed many more experienced event managers. Speaking of experience, race director Adrian Bailey was last seen standing atop a pulsing pink cloud, flying back toward New Zealand, fuelled only by the energy he expended and generated during the week in his dual role as Stadium M.C. His buoyant Welsh crowd-wrangling may well have seen some runners blow their pacing early by sprinting to the finish line each day, but it was a small price to pay for his 110% commitment and an enviable level of personal sacrifice that no doubt helped cement other specialised helpers like Bernie and Allan to his cause, that being the inaugural Big Red Run’s outright success.
The physios Maaike & Maddy also have to get a special mention. Their commitment of over 6-7 hours per day in a baking tent at the finish line ensured that many of us could run our hardest each day, with significantly less pain and injury (and slowness) than might have otherwise been expected. Almost all runners seemed appreciative of this special gift to the cause, and rightly so. And of course Tiani, Kinza, Jill, Marco, Tamati, Chris, Peri, Huw, Jason, Neil, Donna, Mitch, Bazza, Jacinta, Michael, Leeane, and OMG RAELENE!! and the floorshaking styles of DJ Nathan, plus every single other vollie who poured their tears, sweat and literally blood into the raging success of this first running of the Big Red Run and OF COURSE, the heroically helpful, positive, wise and friendly Pat Farmer. Legend.
I really look forward to either running or volunteering to help out at the next Born to Run Foundation desert run/fundraiser/multiday epic, gorgeous, brutal ultramarathon festival. CAN’T WAIT!
sidenote: Jess and I are still collecting donations for JDRF through our fundraising pages if you would care to contribute https://bigredrun.everydayhero.com/au/roger Thank You!