Red Clay for Days and Ayers Rock as Our Backdrop
When you think of Australia, what typically comes to your mind? Kangaroos. Fosters. The Crocodile Hunter. The Sydney Opera House. The Great Barrier Reef. For me, all of these iconic images stick out, but the area I want to focus on for this article is The Outback. More specifically, Uluru, or Ayers Rock, located in the heart of the Northern Territory’s red center desert, 450 km from the nearest large town; the perfect location for one of the most extreme marathons on the planet. To runners, this race is known as The Outback Marathon where 400+ men and women flock every year to compete in the most remote and historic parts of the “land down under.”
Arriving at Ayers Rock with my father was special enough for starters. Unlike past races, my father was determined to be more than a spectator. He signed up for his first ever race, a unique 3.7 miler (6 km) while I was preparing for 26.2 miles (42 km). The night before the race, we laid out our running gear in traditional R4P fashion.
Saturday, July 20, 2015 at 5:13 am – Climbing out of my bed like a tortoise meandering off a start line, I showed my father the neurotic way I prepare for race day: breakfast consisted of white toast and peanut butter, 1.5 bananas, 3 cups of water and a mixture of fresh fruit, followed by an overly long hot shower, a battery check of my iPhone and GoPro and an excessive amount of body glide applied, well, everywhere (veteran move folks). As we rode the bus to the start line, he was prepped was all decked out in race gear as if he had been running for decades.
7:05 am – Arriving at the crack of dawn to see the sunrise hit Ayers Rock was probably the most panoramic scene one could ask for before the start of a race. The night before, the sky opened up and pounded the red clay with an onslaught of water, packing it down for us runners which didn’t hurt our cause.
8:03 am – I crossed the start line into the extreme wilderness of The Outback. With only 400+ runners between the Marathon (154), Half (150), 11 km (58) and 6 km (77), this was the type of race where sticking side-by-side others runners was essential to maintaining a consistent pace. The only view around was Ayers Rock (not too shabby) and red clay from one side of the world to the next. No Towers. No buildings. No fences. #PureOutback
Similar to my previous seven marathons, I never run with music. I think it is helpful to feed off the environment and listen to my body since there weren’t tens of thousands of runners to keep pace with along the way, nor hundreds of thousands of spectators cheering us on from Miles 1 – 26.2.
8:33 am – My father crossed the start line for his 6 km race! I felt an extra sense of pride because he running in one of the most breathtaking places in the world, and knowing him like I do, he was loving every moment.
8:33 am – At Mile 3, I began chatting with a woman who worked as a pediatrician in Sydney which quickly transformed into an uplifting scenario for two reasons. First and foremost, since my “Papa” was a pediatrician for 50+ years, it was incredible to run alongside a doctor that clearly shared the same passion for her patients and families. Secondly, it was an inspiring opportunity to pace one another while exchanging our motivations for helping others in this world.
9:18 am – While I was approaching Mile 8, my father was crossing the finish line with a massive million watt smile. Although I wasn’t present to see his initial reaction, the picture below says it all!
9:53 am –Mile 11 came quicker than initially expected and I was making my way up and down ankle deep red clay dunes. Fortunately, my father and close friends were skipping around the course in a car and meeting every two to three miles along the way. The fact that I saw my support crew five times in the first 13 miles was beyond uplifting, especially running in such an isolated location.
10:25 am – Passing the 13.1 mile marker, I immediately recognized that I had run the first half of the race WAY too quickly. They say in the racing world, that if you are able to talk and run, you are running at a solid pace. If you are unable to run and talk, you are running too quickly. Admittedly, running with the pediatrician initially felt like the right pace; however, I am truly awful at pacing myself! I run with the flow and usually never look back. As I was knocking down miles 14, 15 and 16, the speed of the first half of the race was starting to take its toll on my body. I knew I had 10.2 miles remaining and like all marathons, no two are EVER alike. Your body and mind respond differently every time, and you best be prepared for the unexpected challenges along the way.
11:37 am – The red clay was seemingly endless. Although the red earth was helping cushion each and every step, my feet were also absorbing the red clay on the bottom of my shoes and sinking slightly into the ground with each and every step. Miles 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 all felt like an endless maze through the Outback. The only saving grace was seeing my father every couple of miles in between the dunes.
12:51 pm – The beginning of the end…of the beginning again. Something happened that had never happened before in a race for Run4Papa. At one point, I went from seeing a camel tour to being completely alone on the longest red clay road you could imagine. There was no one in front of me nor behind me!
Infamous Mile 24 (38 km) was dead ahead…or so I was led to believe. I passed by a water station and headed toward Ayers Rock, and presumably, the finish line. For the next mile and a half, I continued running on terrain that felt similar to the previous 24 miles; yet, somewhat unfamiliar. Something was off. Was I on the course? Did I take a wrong turn? The red ground didn’t feel as uncovered as previous routes I ran earlier. I made an executive decision to turn around and head back toward the water station, truly not knowing if I was making the right or wrong decision, rather just trusting my instincts.
1:55 pm – Hearing the words, “We are so sorry, but the 38 km sign temporarily fell down and you were indeed running in the wrong direction” were not the most pleasant ones of my racing career to date. “You need to veer left NOT right and the finish line is a mere 4 km ahead (2.5 miles).
Demoralized does not even begin to describe my emotions in that moment.
At this point, I had run 27 miles and was completely spent. Knowing I had an additional 2.5 miles to go was gut-wrenching. I started walking “in the right direction” and began cramping, dropping a few curse words, and felt mentally dejected.
Half a mile later, I thought to myself, “Self, you are in Australia running the Outback Marathon to honor the memory of your ‘Papa,’ and for countless numbers of families, caregivers and patients who have supported this journey from the beginning. There is no reason to not enjoy the moment, even if it means running several more miles miles.”
For the next two miles, I ran through cramps that would clearly not go away despite my stretching efforts. And what do you know, the finish line was in sight! Seeing my father standing approximately 500 feet from the finish line was not unusual, what was surprising was that he started running with me ON THE COURSE! Having my father run side-by-side at The Outback Marathon was by far one of my Top 5 racing moments of all time. WE crossed the finish line together at exactly 2:00:33 pm!
2:00:40 pm, Mile 26.2/29.2 – My dad and I celebrated with a massive hug and he shared some fatherly comments that will remain between him and I for an eternity. A 6 km for him and continent #5 conquered and in the books for Run4Papa.