My eyes glanced momentarily upwards at the sandy track that lay in front of me. It lured me onwards, tempting me as if the only escape route in vast red wasteland. And then the incline started. On any other day it would have appeared as a slight rise over a small sand dune, but today, 32km into the Australian Outback Marathon, it was looking more like a something you’d find in the most mountainous part of the Sahara.
It was time to dig deep. If I was about to hit the wall (an infamous runner’s nightmare), now was the time to battle the inner demons, silence their voices and push through. The end was in sight, I’d just have to tough it out.
Two minutes later as I crested the dune, the view opened up and the landscape reminded me exactly why I was here. The red earth of the Australian Outback broken up by clumps of Spinifex Grass that dotted the panorama as far as the eye could see. In between, purple and yellow flowers feasted on one of the wettest, dry spells the Yulara community had seen in a decade.
The rhythm of my feet became consistent once more, allowing me the chance to look around and take it all in. In the distance the unmistakeable profile of Uluru towered over the surrounding land, looking down on the locals as it’s done for many millennia. The image I’d first seen pouring over textbooks as an 8 year-old school boy back in the UK, was now very much the driving force that would get me to the finish line.
Whether you run to keep fit, as a social meet-up or to beat your mate’s Strava record there’s something incredibly exciting about the moment you press ENTER and book your next (or first) running event. Having that date locked in the diary focuses your mind, channels your efforts and builds a mental training platform to adhere to.
The dawn of most running careers usually starts with a local event, maybe a 5 or 10km fun run, something to loosen the limbs and test your mettle, usually ending with a resounding well I don’t need to do that ever again.
But once the aches and pains have subsided, it’s surprising how quickly the joy and jubilation of that first event overcomes such a career-ending statement, blurted out in a moment of sheer exhaustion.
Before long that same voice inside your head cheekily suggests I might go for a short run at the weekend. You see something inside has been missed the buzz of training, the pleasure of feasting on serotonin as it courses through your veins, and the overwhelming sense of satisfaction as you fall onto the sofa at the end of your greatest running effort yet.
You see there’s no such thing as a bad run.
Once you’ve ticked a 5km off the list, the 10km beckons. It’s only twice the distance after all. A little more effort with your training, a new pair of running shoes and before you know it you’re crossing the finish line with your hands in the air, even squeezing out a smile for the cameras in your moment of celebration. 10 becomes 21, becomes 42 and before you know it you’re a marathoner.
Pushing further and faster might not be the dream for everyone but it certainly was for me. I grew tired of plodding the tarmac and decided to take to the trails – running off-road every weekend, soaking up the Great Outdoors and the hills around South East Queensland, scanning websites for the next challenge or event. And then I found it.
With 82% of the Australian population living within 50km of the coast, the stunning Outback and Red Centre are often forgotten – places to visit once in a lifetime and rarely, if ever returned to. Combining my passion for the road-less-travelled and a love of running off-road, entering the Australian Outback Marathon seemed like an obvious choice.
Fast forward five months and Sophee and I are huddled together watching the tangerine-glow of a new day slowly fill the frigid sky in the shadow of Uluru. We’ve flown three hours from Brisbane, across the colourfully, artistic smear of Lake Eyre to the dead centre of the largest island in the world to be part of something special – a destination marathon.
In the build-up to the start there’s a buzz that fills the air, with people from over 25 countries massing, ready to take on their own personal challenge. For some like Sophee, it’s their first marathon, for others the completion of a marathon on every continent, and for other complete nutters, their 200th!
With an event of this size an intimate and engaging experience is guaranteed. People of all ages, abilities and denominations converse. Local kids pose for selfies with U.S. Marines, old timers offer guidance to newbies, and there’s more hugging than pushing at the start line.
As the gun fires 500 equally ridiculous, brilliantly crazy people stride forwards as one, feet planting down on the red earth, every step taking them closer to their ultimate goal. Half and full marathoners disappear into the distance, followed an hour later by the 5 and 10km runners. If all goes to plan, by mid afternoon everyone will be basking by the pool back at the resort.
The course winds its way around the outskirts of Yulara, the Outback town that’s home to the most famous rock in the world – Uluru. The terrain varies throughout, but it’s mostly unsealed roads, bush trails and tracks that pass underfoot, with only a brief bitumen burst to compare it to a conventional marathon. The constantly changing landscape and topography keeps the mind occupied and helps the minutes pass by.
The locals turn out in force, manning every water stop and road crossing so they’re not just physical fuel-stops but mental ones too. Having their support is incredibly motivating and draws me through my darkest moments, taking me ever closer to the finish line. I still remember the amazing lady armed with nothing more than a box of jelly snakes and a few kind words at kilometre 34. I’m sending virtual hugs to you from afar.
The ‘out-and-back’ course works in my favour as I slowly tick off the mental markers; I remember this part, there’s water around the next corner