Think a 250-kilometre run through the Simpson Desert sounds mad? So did Cathy Finch – until she did it. Now she reckons you should, too…
If you’ve ever stood, alone, somewhere in the vastness of an Australian desert, then you’d be familiar with the extraordinariness of its silence. You’re in the middle of bloody nowhere, after all, and there is a sense of great nothingness in all that vastness. But there is also an unshakeable sense of power.
It is one thing to spend a few days within this space from the safety of a car or tour bus. It is quite another to arm yourself with food, water and a GPS and head out, on foot, into that silence. Yet that’s precisely what I did.
The aptly-named Big Red Run is just that: an organised run (or walk) through the endless, undulating landscape of western Queensland’s outback, where, over the course of six days, 80-odd participants navigate their way across 250 kilometres of some of Australia’s most beautiful, brutal lands.
Though there are plenty of superhuman runners who take part in this event – the kind who’d consider my entire week’s exercise a morning warm-up – there are also a surprising amount of ‘normals’ here. Ordinary Aussies who, like me, are here because how often do you get to explore your physical and mental limits, sleep under the stars, swap stories around the campfire, be inspired by motivational speakers, raise funds for a worthwhile cause, and above all, connect intimately with Mother Earth?
If it still sounds like a crazy undertaking… well, it is. But as ‘ordinary’ Australian and founder Greg Donovan says, “nothing significant is ever achieved from within one’s comfort zone” – and he has a point. Donovan founded the event as a means of fundraising for research into Type 1 Diabetes, which his son suffers from, and he has pushed us to get ‘uncomfortable’, too. There’s a sense of goodwill from the get-go – all runners are required to fundraise $1000 before they can run – along with a sense of journey, since everyone has already trekked to the red dunes of Birdsville, some 1500 kilometres from the coastline, just to be here.
On arrival we’re checked to ensure we’ve brought enough food and water, as well as wet and cold weather gear, a first aid kit, whistle, emergency blanket and compass – and they’re strict about it. Though we’re here for fun safety is paramount, and to that end we’re also each issued with a course map and GPS tracker, which not only has an emergency alarm button, but tracks your movement to alert supervisors if you stop moving for too long. (There is also a helicopter on standby at all times, to ensure that no one suffers from a fate similar to that of Turia Pitt’s, the young Australian woman who was, tragically, severely burnt after being trapped by a remote bushfire while running an ultra marathon.)
Next thing you know, we’re at the starting line, imbued with the excitement and camaraderie of any festive gathering. Suddenly, it’s all starting to feel a little bit too real..
1. Setting off from Birdsville Pub
I’ve never even run the possibility of a marathon through my mind, so I’m not sure I have it in me to jog for an hour, let alone several. But I do have a deep affection for the outback, with its wide open spaces and scorching red sunsets. I have a photographer’s eye for windswept dunes, desert flowers and soaring eagles and I know that opportunities such as this, to camp under the stars surrounded by wild desert beauty away from traditional roads or even sand tracks, are rare. And I’m fit and active enough to consider myself a fairly outdoorsy type of person. Besides, this is an opportunity to experience the landscape in an entirely new way – I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. As we set off on day one, the course (which sets off in freezing temperatures from the iconic Birdsville Pub built in 1884) sees us turn from the town bitumen to gravel tracks and then off into open clay pans, salt lakes, rocks and spinifex, weaving through extensive rolling sand dunes. Over the next few days we’ll run over unchartered and untracked parts of the famous Simpson Desert, covering different terrain each day while staying (somewhat) close to Birdsville.
2. Across the Gibber Plains
I thought I knew this country so well, but at the 30-kilometre mark on day one, I feel like a fresh-faced visitor. The seemingly flat desert clay pans, which I’ve seen so many times before from a passenger seat, are actually littered with huge sink holes – cracks in the earth so large they threaten to swallow me whole if I don’t pay attention. But that pales into insignificance alongside the opportunity to be at one with the landscape. The rhythm of my slow jog is surprisingly hypnotic. After a while I’m no longer seeing what’s around me; I’m breathing it and feeling it underneath my feet. The silence is everywhere.
3. Reaching Big Red
Despite aching feet and impossible fatigue, you can’t help but appreciate the vastness of the terrain. From the top of dunes, you can see where sand gathers in not just mounds or little castles, but huge red spines of shifting inland beach. Our first day’s run ends on top of Big Red, a 40-metre dune at the start of a line-up of over 1100 dunes, which sprawl from Birdsville to Alice Springs. Coolibah trees starched white with corellas reflect in Lake Nappanerica on one side of the dunes; barren clay pans border us on the other. I’m shattered.
4. Campfire inspiration
Endurance runner Pat Farmer has joined us as the event patron – he holds the record for the fastest run across the Simpson Desert. At the end of the day, he speaks to us around the campfire about his own achievements including his most recent feat: the gruelling North Pole to South Pole run. I’ve never heard a motivational speaker like him. Over the course of the race I see him running alongside participants on their way past checkpoints; talking magic into those who feel like giving up. And, of course, you do want to give up. Each bout of fatigue is a battle of mental versus physical endurance; each step you take is a choice, and a win.
5. It’s no longer a race
Nightly camps are a unique sleep beneath an endless sea of stars and as each sunrise dawns over our remote locations, we overcome aching muscles to present at the start line with growing determination and resolve. Some people are here to raise money for a cause. Others are on a personal quest. For all of us, though, it’s no longer a race. It’s not even an event. It’s camaraderie at its finest, intertwined in a stunning desert land.
6. Crossing the finish line
After a week of trials, triumphs, friendships and achievements, the run back into the town of Birdsville is emotional. The finish line means many different things to many different people but one thing is for sure… everyone’s a winner under this big blue outback sky.
• The Big Red Run is a six-day, 250-kilometre run (or walk) through the Simpson Desert, starting and ending at Birdsville Pub. Too much? Sign up for The Little Red Run – just 150 kilometres (!) over six days. Or get a team of three or more together and take it in turns to run as a relay. You can also tag along as a supporter, or work as a race volunteer. The 2014 Big Red Run is held 2–7 July.
• Birdsville is 1585 kilometres west of Brisbane. You can drive a 2WD into town, but we wouldn’t recommend it – all roads are unsealed and require adequate off-road driving preparation.
• Skytrans offer domestic flights from major Queensland airports.
• Accommodation for runners is provided in eight-person marquees at Birdsville both before and after the event, and campsites at various desert stations during the event. Motel accommodation in Birdsville before and after the event can be booked at your own expense.
Need to know
• It’s not cheap. Entry fee to both the Big or Little Red Run is $2650. Supporters cost $395 per adult or $295 per child.
• A minimum of $1000 fundraising is required, too – but it’s for a good cause and all competitor and supporter entrants receive free tickets to the Big Red Music Festival valued at $245, held after the Big Red Run (9–10 July).
• You’ll need moderate levels of fitness and an excellent pair of well-sealed, non-mesh shoes (or gaiters) to avoid sand and Spinifex spikes.