The Oxfam Trailwalker, Sydney, Australia
100km, 42 hours, 4 friends
Friday the 23rd August 2013 was the day ‘The Nomads’, a team of four young adventurers, Dylan, Mel Emma Simmo and I, were going to tackle what we thought was going to be a tough track. Boy did we underestimate just what we had gotten ourselves into.
This was the most physically and mentally testing and painful experience of my life.
7am and the siren goes off. The first 500 people head across the start line at Parsley Bay, Brooklyn, NSW. Those eager to run the race set off running – this still blows my mind. We were caught up in the middle of the pack and set off at a rather slow pace, round the bend and then BAM, a monster hill to start the 100ks. Little did we know at this stage but this hill set the scene for what we had coming for us.
All fresh and positive about what we were about to endure, from the starting point to checkpoint one was quite fun. Not too many hills, few rocks to climb down, and a fairly straightforward fire trail for some the track. It was quite dangerous with people who were running the track (more like just throwing themselves at rocks) trying to get past and being quite impatient for you to get out of the way. You’d try to move to the side but they decided in that one second that you were taking too long and would jump down some steep rocks where you were just about to stand in front of. We came to a train station where the volunteers gave us some lollies to keep us motivated and told us it wasn’t far to go until the checkpoint… the first of many understatements told to us about distance to the next checkpoint! We kept walking until we heard some commotion at the local fire station where we were glad to see the checkpoint. First 15km complete!
We took a relatively quick break of about 30 mins – enough time for Dylan to eat the refreshment tent out of Vegemite sandwiches! In between checkpoint one and two was a beast of a climb. We got to the top and met ‘tag team’ who we became friends with during the first leg of the walk. They had news for us… the walk stayed flat for a while but then there were more steep climbs before we even came close to the checkpoint.
Feeling positive and keen to see our support crew for the first time at the next checkpoint, we put our heads down and kept walking. We were a little disheartened that it was taking us 4+ hours to walk 15km but the terrain was so rough it definitely took its toll on us. We arrived at a sign that said checkpoint 2, and became quite excited at the thought that we were close. This was another learning curve – we were still 30-40 minutes away! Then we saw it, smelt the sausage sizzle and found Ray and Linda with their smiling faces and bright orange team shirts. We’d nearly walked 30ks by now and enjoyed sitting down being pampered. We monstered the sausage sizzle – such a good idea! Patched up our feet, grabbed our night time gear and set off down the road to find the track to checkpoint 3.
This section I found that the different teams were a little more united than in other sections. It started off in bush, walking through some pretty cool areas, then we had to head up some killer hills to a road section. This was where everyone caught up to each other and all of a sudden when we were back in the bush there was this trail for at least a km of just head torches walking in time going down the side of a mountain. By this stage my knees had started to be very painful, hurting with every step I took… and boy oh boy there were so many steps and boulders to climb down or up! After climbing to the bottom of this mountainside, crossed a carpark and had some hope as there was a huge light there and some cars. This was just for some volunteers to tell us that there “wasn’t too far to go”. Naturally because we just came down a hill, and were relatively close to the checkpoint, we had to climb another mountain. Tough on the knees and on our moral, we put our heads down and powered on. At the top there was another bright light with volunteers saying “not much longer to go?!?” At least these guys had some lollies. We crossed the road then started climbing down the other side of the track and kept plodding along until we saw the campsite and Ray and Linda smiling at us to give us some motivation. This was the first checkpoint with a physio… and we all used it! We filled up on two minute noodles (our favourite food for the weekend), Gatorade and new snacks (or as Dylan called them, treats) for the track but then we went to check out to find out we couldn’t leave yet because a high tide had covered the foot bridge we needed to cross and it wasn’t safe. Not really want to hear when you’ve psyched yourself up, you’re cold and you’re stiff. After about half an hour they gave us the all clear to check out and we were on our way… which turned out to be the most challenging leg of the walk.
Once we got moving, the first part of this section was ok. It was after we’d all visited the physio – I realised I had killer blisters and Em had started getting a cramp all down her left leg…just a few ks in! This leg was made particularly hard because we were heading into the night. Night walking is something in itself… it’s like you are in another world. You can only see as far as your head torch will shine, and can hear noises of things that you can’t see, leaving your mind to drift off and become quite negative at times. This section had bush trails where we had to climb over fallen trees, quite intense on the knees and ankles. Each time you reached the top of one hill you were faced with another. I had to stop for a toilet break so Dylan kept going while the girls waited… we had no idea where he was in relation to us.
We kept moving when Mel started to get stabbing pains up her foot and ankle, not a good sign! Combined with Em’s cramped leg and my feet, this left us to be quite slow! When it came to the hills though I would start walking up them faster than the other girls and being after midnight was finding it too cold to wait. I started to slowly walk to keep warm, hoping they’d catch up, but the gap between us continued to grow. Soon I found a lady who was walking with who I presumed was her son. They started talking to me about the walk, their training, and our injuries. When the lady discovered I wasn’t taking any anti inflammatory drugs she gave me a pack of her Voltaren – bless her! And so, I’m not sure if it was mind over matter, or if I even believed they did anything, but I started to take these every few hours. We saw a sign pointing to checkpoint four and had a glimpse of hope, but then we passed some people who said there was still more than 1.5 hours to the next checkpoint. We were shattered. By this stage I was walking with the son, Rubin. Having a fresh face to talk to made it a little bit better.
We passed Dylan but I kept up at the pace I was traveling thinking if I stopped it would hurt to much to keep going. At about 2am I decided to wait for Dylan, stopped at a bend, put on the rest of the clothes I was carrying to stay warm, and wriggled my feet to keep the blood moving. He came around the corner and I joined him for what was the hardest hour of walking we’d ever done. It was all uphill on hard concrete roads to the checkpoint. Along the way nothing but pain filled my mind, thinking I wasn’t going to make the 100kms and that I’d have to pull out at the next checkpoint. I became a little delirious too … I was seeing things thinking that trees and rocks were moving. There were some points where I was so exhausted that I was walking with my eyes closed and had to force myself to reopen them! We arrived at the checkpoint at 3.15am and while I queued up for the portaloo, Dylan filled Linda in on the last 5 hours of walking. All of a sudden she was next to me offering a hug. Next to the idea of rest, I think this was the most welcoming thing I could dream of. We didn’t plan on sleeping, but I sat down in my sleeping bag on a chair, had a cup of tea then passed out from exhaustion. I slept in a camp chair, in a brightly lit football stadium and plenty of noise around me. Exhausted is an understatement.
I heard the girls arrive an hour later when Ray told to have a 45 minute nap, which everyone welcomed with open arms. It had been an emotional leg, tears came for the first (but not the last time) from some, and all four of us doubted our ability to finish. But after waking up to the freezing cold morning by Ray and Linda we all hobbled to the physio tent to get patched up, and were getting ready mentally for the next leg.
While waiting for my blisters to be popped and dressed, a man walks into the tent …”is anyone in here from team 91??” Oops, we’d forgotten to check in and we came up as missing on the system! They tried to call us but we missed it while we were asleep. Having had a nap, both my ankles strapped and blisters dressed I temporarily felt like a new woman! Had our team km marker photo, sang our chant..
“Team 91, we’re here for fun”
And pushed on.
This leg it was me and Em in the lead. This was quite a nice track, easy difficulty level with the majority of the track being on an old fire trail, a little bit of road walking up a steep hill but manageable! It was such a hot day without the same cloud cover that we had the day before, but all in all it was a good section. As usual there was nearly an hour of climbing to get through before we got to the checkpoint, but this was the first checkpoint past half way which was such a good feeling! We got to checkpoint 5, rested for a while, got some tips from tag team and then we were on our way.
It was about midday when we left checkpoint 5, heading for the second last checkpoint. This section seemed to drag on quite a bit- not sure if it was because it was a bit of an easier section, or if it was because it was a limbo distance – past half way but not close enough to the nearly being the end! We tried to go as fast as we could with all of our injuries, not wanting to walk through too far into the second night. We ended up at a park where Linda and Ray had set up and were working away to make us two minute noodles. When asking the checkpoint volunteers about distance and telling them we were tired a lady piped in and said the next leg was easy – I hate to see what she classifies as hard!
So from checkpoint 6 to 7 was just over 7kms to walk, but it was definitely NOT a grade one in difficulty. The first part of the track was the actual part we’d already trained on… but it felt like it had more rocks than when we trained on it! We got through the first half of that in daylight and then back to night walking – this was really disheartening. We kept going head torches on (well Em’s wasn’t working so she was carrying a torch). We we feeling really bad for our support crew at this time who had been out longer than we predicted and longer than they had signed up for.
We powered on through this ‘easy graded’ track where we had to climb up rocks using ropes, scramble up other rocks where there was hardly anywhere to put your feet, squeeze between huge rocks with hardly any foot room – crazy! It was taking us ages, not to mention each of these spaces were so small you could only have limited people there at a time! I sent Dylan and Mel up to meet support crew and apologise while I waited for Em (we all know rocks and Em aren’t friends!) We kept going and then I started to get really emotional … it wasn’t long to the checkpoint and I thought I could hold it together. Next minute I was sitting in my camping chair crying – I was so exhausted and in pain and just wanted it to be over. I felt so bad for Ray and Linda I offered that they could go home and we’d make our own way home after we had finished. Lucky for us they said they were staying with us to the end! We had some two minute noodles – I think these were the best two minute noodles we’d ever had! Em and I went to use the loos and load up on dencorub. When I came out ‘tag team’ were standing there, having just arrived. I took one look at them and just started crying again, telling them how I was so emotional and didn’t know why! The lady in the group gave me a hug and reassured us the next leg was much easier, and was actually matched to the difficulty rating. I can’t explain how reassuring this was. Once we were fed and patched up, we packed up, had our team photo and headed off.
Starting on a fire trail it was quite easy going. We came to some more bush track with rocks to climb – really not what we wanted to see! We were hanging for some suburban track, which is what we were expecting from what everyone had told us. We finally broke out into a car park and were so happy! We knew we still had about 9-10kms to go but it was different scenery, and being on the home stretch gave us a bit of a boost. Until we got lost.
The first time was when we had to cross the road and it didn’t have a sign as if we needed to keep going straight up the main road or go down the side street where we crossed to. And with our luck we’d left the map at the last checkpoint. We went down the side street looking around and a lovely resident who drove in told us she saw people walking down the main road further. So we headed back to the road and kept going… very slowly. By this time Em and I were using our walking poles more like a walking stick leaning on it for support.
The next time we got lost was after we went down some stairs to cross Spit Bridge in Manly. We crossed under the main road, then all of the event signs disappeared. We kept walking up the road and then when we were sure we were lost, we called the emergency team. They told Dylan to go down the nearest stairs… So we went UP the stairs across the road. Totally lost we decided to use the last few bars of battery on our phone to look it up and the instructions made no sense from where we were. Mel and Dylan wanted to use Google maps as last resource but I found a street that looked familiar to the instructions so we decided to go down it. We received a call from the Oxfam crew who were going to bring us a new map book. First thing he did was run up the side of the curb with the car. Then he kept telling us “I think it’s this way”. Good old Em piped up and said what we were all thinking -“you think it’s this way? Look we don’t want to walk extra steps if you’re not sure it’s the right way”. We ended up seeing some walkers about 30 metres down the road and decided to follow them. Essentially, getting lost added an extra km or so to our already long trek.
More bush, across a beach (so hard when you’re tired and the sand that got in your shoes was awful) and through a car park. We were with some other teams at this stage so made it easy to find the track but I needed to use the toilets and got left behind when we stopped. We made our way around a sports field and then started making the last final climb – of course there was a huge climb before the final checkpoint. It wouldn’t be like Oxfam to not make us climb up a huge hill. I didn’t mind the stairs too much because they were wooden and quite bouncy meaning it was a bit easier on the knees and ankles than the stone steps we’d seen so many of, or climbing rocks.
When we got the the top of the stairs we waited for Em who came up with tears streaming down her face. Em and I swapped this role throughout the entire walk, when one of us was emotional or disheartened, the other tried to be motivating and offer little pep talks.So I told Dylan and Mel to go on ahead and I walked with Em. It was tough, we knew we were close to the end but not how close so we just had to keep our heads up and walk on, one foot in front of the other. We got to a point where volunteers were directing people and they said it was 1km left – and boy did it feel like we’d already walked more than 100km (it was probably close with our detours!) This last bit of the track was through bush land, the positive thing was it was fairly flat. We passed another worker after 10 mins of walking we said it was still a km to go… another sense of false hope washed over us not knowing who to believe. We came around the corner and onto the road… surely we were close. We kept going (up the hill), crossed the road and saw the finish line. A wave of happiness and exhaustion washed over me. We walked down towards the finish and heard Ray call out “team 91?!?”.
A sense of relief washed over us, putting a smile on our faces which kept us going to cross the line with a time of 42 hours, 2 minutes, 19 seconds. We were exhausted but Ray’s and Linda’s positivity kept us awake to check-in, have photos and pop the bubbly as a celebration! By this stage we were all delirious. Em was yelling out various chants which we thought was hilarious. But we made it! All carrying injuries we put our minds to it and kept going until the very end – one of my proudest moments ever!
We definitely couldn’t have done it without the positive attitudes and commitment of Ray and Linda.
100km later, we said this was a once in a lifetime event. The next day when I couldn’t walk I still thought that. Sitting here a few months later recapping on the track, the memories, the whole experience … I think maybe I’ll do it, or something similar one day.