It would be relatively easy to miss, but a few weeks ago in a forgotten part of NSW, Australia, was the second running of an obscure little event called Survival Run Australia. Organised by Chief Brabon and Emilie Brabon-Hames, the event’s website proudly pronounces the following:
BUCKLEY’S CHANCE is an event for athletes who have participated in any kind of trail, OCR, Ultra Endurance, adventure race or similar to step up and experience the terrain in the NSW Hinterland.
SURVIVAL RUN takes that extreme experience to another level. This is the ultimate hybrid event where the world’s best obstacle racers, sky runners, adventure racers, trail runners, survivalists and military personnel go head to head in a battle of mental, physical and emotional endurance.
What follows is the Race Report of Survival Run Australia 2016 Winner, and VFuel Athlete, Tegyn Angel. You’d better get yourself a case of beer, at nearly 11,000 words this is along one.
RACE REPORT: SURVIVAL RUN AUSTRALIA 2016
Buckleys Chance, Survival Run Australia 2016 (SRA), was an epic adventure in so many ways, but primarily it was a mental game. It could just be the haze of time diminishing the difficulty of events like Northburn or UTMB, but right now I’ve no doubt that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Physically it was significantly more challenging than last year with more heavy carries, swimming, throwing and “craft”. Mentally I’m torn between saying it was in on entirely different planet (i.e. much more demanding) and that it was somewhat easier than 2015. What the bloody hell do you mean, I hear you ask? Well it’s like this. The mental challenges this year were a result of the course tampering. The difficulty came from having to repeatedly pick myself up and regain a lead I’d lost due to taking a wrong turn or looking for non-existent course markings (i.e. not of the RDs design). Last year the challenge came during walkabout, which was an intentional part of the event. While I know a couple of challenges were cut out at the last minute for fear that no one at all would make the cut off, I can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out had things gone entirely to plan.
Taking the win for a 2nd year running, I’m proud to say that I’m one of very few people to have finished a Survival Run; one of even fewer to have won an event and; one of about 3 in the world that have won more than once. But there’s no way I could have done it alone. As per last year, this is going to be a ridiculously long, stupidly detailed and unnecessarily complete race report that I expect most won’t read in full. Indeed, I expect so few people to read it than I’m not even going to proof read it (that would take way too long!). The only people that might read the damn thing are those looking for tips in next year’s race ;). So, with all that in mind, I’ll say my thanks now so they don’t go unheard.
Kellie Emmerson, my partner in life, training and dog ownership, my best and most annoying friend. Thanks for enduring the bits of grass laying around the house, the large knives and fabric off cuts, the large rocks I carried in the boot of the car and the fluoro yellow pack I wore during our runs together.
Matt Bell, David Lipman, Katee Gray, Deb Sharp and Mathieu Dore; you’ve all contributed in countless ways to my preparedness for this event. Whether through acting as a sounding board for whacky ideas, offering training or nutrition advice, or just listening to me complain, thank you all so much for your time and energy.
To Richard Williams and Garry Marwood for hitting the trails with me to train and talk shop.
To Sabrina Zammit, Dave Garvin, Michael Meredith, The Muddy Hell Boys and, most of all, Rina, for welcoming me into the OCR community. Your support there has been incredible and I can’t thank you enough.
To Nunawading Soft Tissue Therapies and Freedom Sports Medicine for trying to get me through chronic Plantar Fasciitis.
Finally, a huge thanks to everyone Em Brabon-Hames, Chief Brabon, all the SRA volunteers and my fellow competitors; YOU made this event what it is; YOU are the tribe and SRA is a big fat family gathering. Truly, you come along to this event and you feel like part of a Viking family who love each other all the more for having fought, bled and suffered through the same battles. The energy and passion that goes into Survival Run Australia is palpable and the fact that half a dozen narrow-minded pond scum worked to undermine that by tampering with the course makes me sick.
Before I get into fiber of every heinous detail, a few little disclaimers. The following is based entirely on my memory. I’m putting the finishing touches on it almost 3 weeks later. All times and distances are guesstimates as we weren’t allowed to carry a GPS and I wasn’t paying attention to leg times. Any mistakes in recollection are mine and mine alone. If I’ve forgotten a checkpoint, encounter or anything else, I’ve probably just created a little story in my head to make it fit what I do remember, and now I can’t tell the difference between them. Oh well Conversations and Checkpoint Challenge instructions have been paraphrased and exaggerated where necessary. I’ve left out a few things to protect the innocent
Let the games begin!
Packet pickup, like last year, was our first challenge. Chief welcomed us and gave a brief explanation about the fact that “nothing in Survival Run is given to you, everything has to be earned; including your race number”. With this we had a quick group photo and set off on a 600m jog. We reached a pile of logs and were told to choose one; my wooden friend was about 25cm in diameter and 50-60cm long. Emily asked the vollies to spray paint our numbers on the log of our choice (I was given #1 for winning in 2015) and off we went (oh yeah, you can bet we’ll be seeing these babies again!). Logs on shoulder, we headed back in the direction we’d come and then dumped them in a pile partway up a long gradual climb. Nothing like a 1.5km log carry to get the bloody flowing.
The race was on! While last year we built our packs the night before the 4am start and had more or less unlimited time to complete them, this year the event started at about 6:15pm and our first challenge was to make our packs. While the quicker we got the made the quicker we could hit the trail, any shortcuts now would likely come back to bite us later! SR Nicaragua and SR Hunter Gatherer (Texas) finisher Curtis was first out in about five minutes flat. His pack looked like he was running away from home or escaping prison, but it was damn fast and seemed to do the trick. Jeff Pritchard, a professional hunter and 2nd place getter from 2015 was next out, followed by an Army Pilot called Matt and me in 4th place, having built my pack in about 20mins. I cut corners and for the 2nd year in a row made changes to my pack design on race day, something which I definitely paid for. I had to re-sew sections of my pack about 3 times during the race because I hadn’t backstitched it right the first time; an extra 5 minutes at the start would have saved me about 20 throughout the day.
Bolting down the hill and crossing small creek, I caught Matt in a few minutes as we climbed the hill toward Muddy Dam and we spent the next hour or so running together. French Canadian Adventurer (and the only woman to ever finish SR Nicaragua) Helene Dumais and another runner (who’s face is a complete blur in my memory) caught us about 60 minutes in. As they did we ran out of course markers (orange flagging tape) and spent a few minutes looking for the route. We found finally found one and were surprised that there were arrows pointing to it, but not from the direction we came from… we tried to ignore that little clue and followed the arrows down a short, steep section of single track and into the first checkpoint; or so we thought.
Matt and I reached the Checkpoint first and the volunteers, Kellie and Caroline, looked concerned. They asked us where our log and bamboo poles were… Ah shit. Somehow we’d skipped CP2 and CP3 and gone straight to CP4. Great start! Helene was still up the hill and we yelled back to her to stay where she was while we worked out what the hell was going on. We decided to backtrack to the last little road junction, thinking that perhaps we’d missed a turn. After a few minutes, we ran into 3 or 4 more runners, including Curtis Pote who’d left the Bat cave first, and Shane Koziwoda. How the hell did he Curtis get behind us? There was no sign of Jeff Pritchard though and we later found out he spent 7 hrs. wandering, lost, on the other side of the property before withdrawing.
After checking all the close junctions and discussing a few options I suggested we stick together and tackle this as a group to level the field again. I also suggested we move back to where I’d seen the arrows and follow them in reverse. Theoretically that would take us back to CP3 and from there we could retrace the markers to CP2. Unless of course we hit a junction… then we’d be screwed. We ummed and ahhhed for a while and eventually agreed, hitting the bolt fairly quickly once we did.
The holy trinity of Blood Sweat and Tears must have been looking on fondly for we soon ran into Scott Poad (Medic, Survival Expert and local knowledge) and the race Doctor who were headed our way on a buggy. We explained our predicament and they confirmed it was a good plan, confirming we weren’t too far from CP3 and that it should be fairly straightforward to get to CP2 from there. It was approximately 2km from CP4 to CP3 and we covered that ground fairly quickly. The volunteers there pointed us back toward CP2 (another 800m or so, and only about 800m from the damn start point!).
CP2 was the first proper challenge since leaving the start line. The instructions were fairly clear,
CP2, Challenge #1: “There are eggs in the bamboo forest, on unmarked shoots, hanging above head height. Bring back the egg with your number on it. Do NOT bring back, move, compromise, or otherwise tamper with anyone else’s egg. You must carry the egg with you at all times and keep it whole. Don’t break it!”
CP2, Challenge #2: “Harvest a length of Bamboo that at least meets the dimensions of this example piece [about 2m long and 4cm diameter at the thick end]. Carry it with you.”
It took a minute or so to find the first egg and BOOM! First one I found was Number 1; BOOM! I jumped, grabbed and climbed up this spindly little bamboo trunk like a freaking ninja… before it started to bend under my wait, snapped and dropped me firmly back to earth. The damn sucker egg (barn laid crap) was already broken when I got it down so I got some respite from egg-safety protocols (namely, wrapping the thing in a head band and putting on my forehead like an impotent rhino). Em was there at the time and said just to tell subsequent Vollies my egg was broken when I got it. I’d killed two birds with one stone and “harvested” a length of bamboo in the process so I trimmed it up, re-read the info sheet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and hit the bolt in 1st.
It was only a short run back to CP3, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. The route descended a steep, heavily forested slope and pushed through a mostly-dry swamp for a few hundred meters before spitting me out at the pile of logs. The instructions were fairly simple:
CP3, Challenge #1: “Show the volunteers your unbroken egg and bamboo. Find the log with your number on it. Carry it with you to the next Checkpoint.”
When I’d made my pack, I’d left my extra fabric attached in such a way that I thought it might serve as a sling to help carry things like this log. I pulled that out, tied a few cords on to it to act as handles and with some effort put the log in it. It was a complete fail and only served to waste about half of the 8-10min lead I had on 2nd.
Trudging up the hill (log on shoulder) I passed a few other runners who were coming back toward us, evidently having made the same decision as our little band to retrace our steps from CP4. I rolled into CP4 about 20mins +/- after collecting my log, dropped that filthy sucker in the wood pile (cheap labor) and started to read the challenge instructions.
CP4, Challenge #1: “Put your log in the pile. Drop all of your equipment. Take a scroll from the volunteers and lay it flat on the ground. You may not use a pen, paper, camera etc. to record the symbols on the scroll. You may not take the scroll with you. Memorise the first symbol, descend to the dam, swim to the island, find a pebble with the same symbol and return it to the checkpoint. Repeat for all 5 symbols. Correctly collecting all 5 pebbles will earn you a wristband.”
I smashed a Fudge Brownie VFuel gel and some water while I was reading, took one last look at the first symbol and ran toward the dam. I’d taken about 20 steps when I had doubts about my memory and doubled back to triple check the symbol. The route followed a rope that had been strung down a very steep hill, dropping about 50m over 150m. At the dam a volunteer explained that there was a rope that lead across the dam to a small island. I had to swim across, get the pebble and swim back but was NOT allowed to touch the rope. There were two additional volunteers (Annabel C and Michael M from memory) in canoes who would help if I got into trouble.
At some point, I’d put my head torch (Ay-Up) on and, tightening this lest it fall off and sink, I took my shirt off, waded in through the cow shit, slime and tangle of water lilies and started to side stroke. I’m not a strong swimmer and figured this was the most energy efficient stroke over what would prove to be about 1.1km of swimming. I hoped it would also reduce the chances of getting a mouthful of fecal coliforms.
I reached the island easily, found my first pebble in about 20secs and shoved in my Velcro shorts pocket, then started the swim back. On the return swim, I noticed that my head torch was attracting a lot of bugs and the little turds were threatening to fly straight into my eyes. I tried to adjust my head torch off to the side and one of the straps came loose, plonking the whole dam thing in the drink. Great. Ay-ups are, sealed, so strictly speaking they’re waterproof, but if you interrupt the current between battery and lightset they automatically switch off. Water interrupts that flow. My Ay-up went dark. Yay. Swimming across a lake of shit in the dark trying not to run into a rope.
I finally made it across and felt my way back to the beacon of light at the top of the hill. I got to the top about the same time 2nd place (Curtis I think) was starting his first lap. I quickly pulled out my backup light (an Ultraspire Lumen 170 belt) and tightened the straps enough that I could wear it on my head. I set the Ay-up to drain and memorized the second symbol before chasing Curtis down the hill for my second lap. I managed to stay roughly half-to-one lap in front of him for the rest of the challenge and the rest passed without incident. About 6-8 people had arrived in the meantime and so I hit the hoof as soon as I’d repacked my gear (including the pebbles) and read the instructions for the 2nd challenge.
CP4, Challenge #2: “Between here and the next checkpoint, make a hunting boomerang like this one [see image].”
The trail led downhill for a few hundred meters before turning back on itself and diving into thick scrub. It went off trail for a while, zigging and zagging, up and down, in and out of creek a line before emerging on a road. I soon cut a limb from a tree and made a boomerang, unsure how soon the next CP would arrive. The road came to a few volunteers, at a point called “The Gate”, who directed me back down into the scrub. After doing a big loop of some adjoining paddocks I came back to the gate and was directed toward the next Checkpoint.
CP5, Challenge #1: “Welcome to The Hunt. Show the volunteers your unbroken egg, bamboo and hunting boomerang. You need to run a lap of a flagged course that will bring you back to the start point. When you get back to the start point you need to hit the target with your hunting boomerang. If you miss the target, you will need to complete another lap. There is a time limit for the run and throw, but you won’t be told how long that is. Don’t ask. If you don’t make the cut off, you’ll have to run another lap. You will be given additional time for every subsequent lap you run.”
Fairly straight forward? I was offered a practice run but figured that was a waste of time given we were allowed as many laps as we needed and the cutoff for every lap got more generous. Each lap was about 600 and featured some pretty short, sharp undulations. I missed the first two throws (laps 1 and 2) before hitting it on my third lap, but was told I’d missed the time cutoff. I hit the target and made the challenge on lap 4 or 5, by which time Curtis and Helene had arrived.
Chief also arrived about now and told me I could earn back my egg by completing another lap. I grumbled a bit about how the damn egg was broken to begin with but set off at a jog and nailed the throw first go. Kozi had run in and was preparing to get down to business while I filled up my water bladder. I explained where he could do the same and read through the next set of instructions.
CP5, Challenge #2: “Proceed to the next checkpoint. Collect enough material to make 1m of Cordage on your way.”
Assuming Helene and Curtis would take roughly as long as I did to complete the challenge, I figured I only had a 5min lead or thereabouts and so moved off as quickly as possible. About 5 mins down the road I realized my pack was beginning to tear/the stitching was coming loose and I’d have to stop and fix it if I didn’t want it to die completely. I stopped on the side of the track, dropped my pack and got sewing! Helene passed me just as I was putting in the last stitch and I so repacked and got moving as she disappeared around the bend. Curtis caught up soon after and we climbed up the next hill side by side.
Nearing the top, I came across a plant that seemed to be Lomandra Longifolia, the plant we’d be taught (via YouTube) to use to make our cordage. I stopped to cut some off and Curtis followed suit. A little further on we came upon Helene, who’d also harvested some cordage materials before being brought to a halt by a deadly, venomous platoon of… cows. Seeing this warrior stopped dead by milkers was too much and I probably laughed a little too much before shooing them off. I took the lead here and ran forward yeehah-ing at the cows like a stockman and no doubt sounding like a bit of a dick. It was effective though as they hit the bolt and filled with air with manure-tinged dust.
Out in the lead again it was my turn to find each marker. At one point, I noticed I’d not seen a marker for about 50m and stopped to yell back at Helene and Curtis. It must have been miscommunication but I could have sworn they said that the markers kept going (i.e. that they didn’t turn off) and so I kept going. A minute or so later I noticed they weren’t following me. I turned around and ran back, finding a side trail that was flagged. Those cheeky bastards! I was pissed at their lack of sportsmanship and anger gave me the fuel I needed to catch and pass them, trying to make it seem easy. I said something arrogant as I passed like “I’m not sure how you do things in your country, but in Australia we don’t stand by and watch people go the wrong way.” It was the only truly sour moment of a difficult race, but having spent time with them since I’m pretty sure it was just a misunderstanding.
The course markings followed a road for a while before descending into a creek line and turning to follow the same upstream. The markers were in the middle of the creek so we could choose whichever route seemed the clearest. I crisscrossed the water a few times and tried to put ground between the Helene and Curtis. I felt I recognized some of this section from 2015 but, while I’d put my Ay-Up back on a few hours before it lit things up pretty well, it all looked pretty similar. The ghostly shadows, occasional dancing leech and glistening spider webs gave it a pretty morbid look.
CP6 appeared out of the darkness, a little campfire crackling in perhaps the wettest, least pleasant spot for a volunteer to hang out and wait for the runners. Wildman Scott passed me the instructions card:
CP6, Challenge #1: “Use your bamboo to make a fishing spear like this example. If it’s not up to scratch, you’ll have to make another. You must then throw your spear into a target and have it stick. You’ll get three goes and may no practice.”
Sounded pretty easy. I’d watched the video on making the fishing spear and recreated it pretty quickly. However, I’d tried (and failed) to take one off one of the rigid nodes by hitting it with the machete and in doing so split my bamboo prematurely. I continued as taught (thanks again to YouTube) but found that, rather than ending up with four long, clean spikes I had about 6 and half of those were split and shorter than they should have been. For some reason, I imagined we’d be trying to get the spear to hold in nice sticky mud… not sure where I got that idea.
“Let’s go”, I said to Scott
“Are you happy with that?”, he replied, pausing briefly.
Uh oh… that’s a bad sign… oh well, too late now
“Yep, let’s do it”
We walked down to the river and he explained the target.
“You have to stand on that log and use your spear to push the floating hay bale against the rock wall. Then, still standing on the log, you get three goes to make the spear stick into the hay and not fall back into the water.”
Shite. A floating hay bale is a bit less sticky than mud! My first shot went high and slammed straight into the rocks, worsening the state of my already-crap spear. Damn. Into the water to grab it out and try again. Shot 2 hit well but fell back into the drink. I followed it in, grabbed the spear and lined up for my third crack, which glanced off the top of the bale. In about 60-90 seconds it was all over. That’s it, no excuses, no justifications; I’m a crap throw and so missed this challenge, along with the bracelet
CP6, Challenge #2. “You may pass your grass materials through the fire to prepare it for making cordage.”
There didn’t appear to be a reward for completing this challenge, nor a punishment for not, but you can never tell with these events so I went ahead and did as it instructed. It was probably a waste of time.
While I was softening my grass (…) Helene arrived and set to making her spear. Curtis followed soon after. I was dirty on myself for missing the throw and so moved off ASAP to continue building my lead. I stopped about 100m up the trail to fix my pack again but otherwise it was an uneventful run down a stretch of road to the next checkpoint. I seem to remember passing the iconic Tower CP from last year, where we had to paint our rock and climb a tree, but It may have been on the last leg. Things get blurry out in the dark
Sabrina Z. met me at Checkpoint 7, having only recently arrived by a vehicle that had passed me about 10mins earlier.
CP7, Challenge #1: “go fishing for the two white pebbles with your bib number on them. You may not interfere with or hide other pebbles nor disadvantage other runners in any way”
I dropped my pack, and walked a short distance to the “pond”, expecting to have to dive in and scrounge around on the bottom of a deep, murky pool. Then I saw the pebbles were sitting about 40cm below the surface on a fairly rocky bottom. Winning! It took me about 30secs to find my two pebbles, though runners well back in the pack would complain that the water was super dirty by the time they got there and that it took them ages to find their respective rocks. Sabrina gave me my “Fail” medal and I pocketed it; there’d be time to have a look at that later!
Sabrina explained that the next leg was like a Cul-De-Sac. The trail markings led up-stream from the pebble pond (let’s say it was North) and then followed the creek as it curved right (East), and SHOULD eventually spit me out at a point where there were glow sticks on the ground. The markings were VERY clear, with arrows painted on rocks and trees, heaps of orange tape dangling from trees, super obvious boundary tape. And then they completely disappeared. Not a trace. There was one piece of hazard tape which, for lack of a better option, I interpreted as directing me up hill. It was a pretty steep bank, maybe 60, but it looked like there were scuff marks where people had recently climbed/descended the route.
Doubtful, I climbed the bank for 4 or 5 minutes until it flattened out and the goat track disappeared into thick scrub. Nope, not this way. I slipped and slid back down the bank and had another look around. Perhaps trail led into the river? It was about up to my knees but easily travelled and so I headed up stream for a few minutes hoping to see some sign of marking. Nope, not this way. I returned to the last taping and tried the bank again. Nope, still not there. Desperate I ran back to Sabrina and made sure I’d understood her instructions; Cul de Sac, does a loop, glow stick.
I headed back up river, followed the markings to a Tee and ended up at the same point. I tried climbing the bank again, I tried the river again, I tried the bank again. Apparently if you keep doing the same things, you’ll get the same outcome. By this time (30-35 minutes later) Curtis arrived. I explained what I’d ruled out and we agreed to try the creek one more time. He’d follow the bank up on the far side while I would push up in the knee-deep water to ensure we covered as much ground as possible. 5-10 minutes later, disheartened at having found absolutely zero, we returned to the aid station.
Sabrina was in a difficult situation, desperate to help but no able to leave her station while there were people at the CP. Helene was there, fixing her shoes or eating and just as Sabrina was about to head back down the road to explore for us Kozi showed up. She gave Kozi instructions and ran back in the direction we’d arrived at this point from, returning a few minutes later to say that there were glow sticks at a trail junction we’d all evidently missed. As it turned out, the original plan WAS to head up the river as far as a small waterfall, where we would have had to dive down to collect our pebbles. The team had changed the plan at the last minute but failed to explain this clearly the volunteers. After having wasted 40 minutes I left the CP with Helene and Curtis, with Kozi not far behind, anger fueling my strides. We passed Chief Brabon driving into the CP not far down the road and let him know how pissed we were.
Helene and I arrived at the next CP fairly close together (though I can’t remember who got there first). Head Sadist Emilie Brabon-Hames was there and informed us this CP was called Walkabout. The final obstacle last year, where we had to use a crappy map and map-to-ground recognition to navigate our way around the property finding clues to the final medal’s location, had been called Walkabout and so this made me a little nervous. As it turned out the challenge was pretty easy:
CP8, Challenge #1: “Welcome to Walkabout. Remove your pack and all your clothes, except your shorts and head torch; yep, that means your shoes, gaiters, shirt, belts, water, food etc. etc. Women may leave their bra on. You may leave your socks on. You may fashion foot protection from your remaining fabric. You must travel down the road in this manner and memorise a symbol at the end of your journey before returning to correctly identify the symbol. You may take your raw materials and begin to make your cordage along the way.”
The volunteers clarified any questions we had and gave us each a number that would correspond to a symbol. With a handful of fibers, we set off at a trot, fortunate that the Head Sadist had chosen a stretch of trail that was relatively free of rocks. I twisted cordage as I trotted, choosing to go double thickness on the premonition that we’d need to use it somewhere down road.
After about 800-1000m we came to a gate which had 5 symbols pinned to it. They were structurally all the same, a dot-painted lizard with a curved tail. However, they were all comprised of different coloured dots. Symbol 5, the one the vollie had given me, was made up of a red dot border, with green eyes, a yellow spine, green patches down its back and a pattern of red and blue lines that made up its tail. I spent a minute or two making up little contextual references in my head, “my what pretty green eyes you have…but you’ve got a coward’s spine…superman tail!”, and headed back to the Checkpoint.
CP8, Challenge #2: “Make 1m of Cordage”
Curtis arrived at the checkpoint around the same I got back to it and while he started to prepare I attempted the memory puzzle. The same five symbols that had been at the end of the run were repeated here, though in a different order. Ticking off the little references in my head I picked mine symbol out fairly quickly. The cordage took about another 5 minutes and I then changed socks, redressed, sorted my pack and got moving as soon as possible. I knew I now had at least a 5-10 minute lead on Helene and I wanted to make the most of it.
The next section was a bittersweet nightmare. I followed the markers diligently, only hesitating twice at significant direction changes. It was a little after 4am and I popped a Revvies Energy Strip that Kellie had given me. I’d never tried them in training but with 40mg of Caffeine and virtually nothing else, I figured they couldn’t screw with me too much. As the pre-dawn light filtered through the dew-sodden paddocks I eventually worked out where I was going; back to the Bat Cave! Nice! It’d been ages since I’d seen anyone except a vollie or fellow Survival Runner and I was looking forward to a friendly face. I felt like this was some of the best marking of the course and I felt great; probably the most enjoyable stretch of running of the whole event.
I crossed the small creek and hiked up to a small huddle of people about 05:15AM. Jeff Pritchard was there and I knew straight away something was up. After getting lost for 7hrs he’d withdrawn and returned to vollie at Base. He said he wasn’t expecting anyone until about 0930 and there was no one else around to ask what was what. Convinced I’d come the right way, it took a little while to work out what the hell was going on. I retraced my steps across the creek and looked for where I may have taken a last-minute wrong turn. There were trail markings heading up the hill we’d climbed 10 hours earlier, but after a few minutes exploring that option I knew it was a dead end. I started to follow the markings back toward Walkabout. Given that I’d run downhill for nearly an hour, I was pretty pissed. As time went by and I didn’t say anyone running toward me, it became pretty obvious I’d taken a wrong turn a LONG time ago. SHIT. There goes my lead; again.
I backtracked until my head torch was well and truly unnecessary and perhaps 35-40 minutes after departing the Bat Cave I came to a four-way track junction. I was fairly confident I recognized the significant change of direction I’d mentioned earlier, but couldn’t be sure. Besides, did that really help? Let’s say I’d just returned from the Bat Cave via a road which now lead to the South. One option was to take the punt that backtracking all the way to Walkabout, via the road to the West, would clarify where I was and thereby set me up to rejoin the proper trail. That sounded like a nightmare and I started to doubt that the Western road was, in fact, the one I’d taken a few hours earlier. To North the trail markings followed a major road but, without exploring thoroughly, it seemed that they quickly disappeared. The only option then was to take the Eastern option; the only one that led off a road and into the scrub.
The trail quickly plunged into a gulley and up the other side. This was one steep trail! I used my spear to help me climb up the other bank and continued for about 10 minutes before losing my shit and screaming at any little bastard fly, lantana twig or slippery patch of leaf litter that got in my way. Then I turned around and hiked back. About half way back I thought I heard vehicle noise and my frustrated, ambling hike turned into an all-out sprint. If I someone could put me on the right track I’d be saved, If I spent the next few hours wandering around lost, with no idea WTF I was, well…
I punched out of the scrub and saw an old paddock basher rolling away from me about 500m down the road. I yelled and screamed to get their attention but they couldn’t hear me over the engine noise. Then they stalled! Hallelujah! I ran toward them, yelling and waving my arms before the driver finally got out and looked in my direction. Hold up… are they with the race or are they some local redneck out to protect their weed crop? It was the photographer YESSSSSS! It took a little while to communicate where I’d come from and what had happened since, but he eventually worked it out and pointed me down a track that led parallel to the road he was on (the Northern option from before).
I hit the bolt and it didn’t take me long to see activity and recognize that I was only about 1km from the Sawmill, another point I was very familiar with from 2015. I saw the flashing lights of crew vehicles and then saw Chief getting out of his Landover; NOW we’re talking! He waved me in, asked what the HELL had happened, told me to drop my spear and explained the Tree Climb and surrounding challenge. With a bright yellow bracelet on my wrist I was told to grab two pieces of bamboo (about 2.5-3m long, 8-10cm diameter) and follow the markers toward Tallowood dam. I was saved from DNF for now, but that was far too close for comfort. If the photographer hadn’t come past when he did, god knows what would have gone down.
CP9, Challenge #1: “climb this here big phat tree overlooking a plantation of tomato plants”.
I arrived at Tallowood dam a few minutes later and found Kozi and Helene there; I was pretty surprised, to say the least. I asked where Curtis was and no one seemed to know. All we could determine was that he wasn’t in front of us. I assumed they’d all be long gone by now, having wasted at least 90mins with my little stroll down to the Bat Cave, and catching up to them reignited the competitive fire I’d put out with a big fat blanket of pissed off.
Rin was volunteering at this aid station and explained the challenge.
CP10, Challenge #1: “Show your unbroken egg, boomerang etc. to the volunteer. Drop all your kit except your Machete. Head into the scrub and bring back a tree as big around as forefinger-to-forefinger, thumb-to-thumb. You must use all of your tree, plus your bamboo, to make a raft. Your raft must float with all of your gear on it. Paddle this up the dam until you reach a spread of glow sticks which will mark your egress point”
I headed up toward where Rin was pointing and set about finding a tree. Most of them were too small and the last thing I wanted was to have to return for another one so I made sure I found a sturdy one. I’d pay for that later. I cut it down, cleaned off the stray branches and cut the spindly top off before dragging it back to the clearing, about 100m give or take.
I quickly set about chopping the tree into quarters and halving the bamboo lengths. I laid them down so that the Bamboo was on the bottom, two pieces closely bound on the left, two on the right, separated by about 1m. I figured I could swim in this gap and push the raft forward with each stroke, resting my chest on it if necessary. The tree was laid perpendicular to the Bamboo with similar spacing. I used a few lengths of pre-cut paracord to square hitch the pieces together at the four junctions of bamboo and tree, clipped my pack to the top and made sure to secure anything that could fall out; torch, machete, food etc.
Kozi hit the water first while I was still making my raft. He realized about 50m out that he’d forgotten his egg and so swam back to get it. He had a 10 or 15min lead on me by now and so, after filling and treating my water bladder with the disturbed dam muck, I carried my raft into the drink and got to sidestroking the heavy sucker up the dam. I’ve no idea how long the 1km swim took, but it felt like an age. My hamstrings threatened to cramp at one point but I warned them they’d be fired if they gave me any trouble and they went back to work.
Kozi had disappeared by the time I hit the exit point, while Helene (who’d hit the water a few minutes after me) had made up ground on my landlubbing arse. The little patch of earth, if you can call it that, where we pulled our boats out wasn’t exactly Sydney Harbor. I wasn’t until I finally got my raft out of the water that I realized there were no further instructions. Flagging tape led uphill but other than that there was nothing. I remembered something about Chief being unhappy with how our rafts had been left the year before and so we (Helene had arrived by now) correctly assumed we’d need to carry them away from the water. The fact that Kozi’s raft was missing confirmed this. Helene took a hike up to the CP, about 200m up the hill, to talk to the vollie, and confirmed as much.
While she Helene was out taking one for the team, I reached one of two particularly stupid decisions that I made during SRA16; to improvise a Travois (think of a stretcher that you drag) that I would use to get my raft up the hill. The thought process went a little like this: I can’t carry this heavy bastard, I don’t know how far the CP is, I don’t want to make multiple trips and, therefore, wasting heaps of time and paracord to make a travois, which I will then drag along very broken, covered-in-sticks ground, is the only logical conclusion. I set about wasting my time while Helene got to work breaking down her raft and doing things the smart way. In my attempt to be as efficient as possible I’d achieved the complete opposite.
Finally completing my little craft project, I stood up, lifted the handles and dragged it, with huge effort, about 30cm. Apparently dragging heavy, high-friction shit through the scrub is harder than carrying it; so, I broke down the travois and carried it. As I said, particularly stupid.
After a short carry, we reached the CP and found Caroline volunteering. From memory, she also gave us our second medal, “I”. Helene and I read the instructions together. SHIT!
CP11, Challenge #1: “Show your egg etc. Bundle and carry your raft to the next checkpoint. Fashion a Woomera [spear thrower/launcher] along the way.
Enter stage left the second of two particularly stupid decisions I made during SRA16. The thought process went a little like this: I can’t carry this heavy bastard, I don’t know how far the CP is, I don’t want to make multiple trips and, therefore, wasting heaps of time and paracord (which I have to tie together after wasting so much last time) to make a travois (which only failed last time because the ground was so covered in branches and other obstacles) along this ROAD, is the only logical conclusion. I set about wasting my time while Helene got to work breaking down her raft and doing things the smart way. In my attempt to make a travois which DECREASES friction by channeling all the weight into a single ground-contact point, I had made a deformed, rotated crucifix with TWO ground contact points effectively doubling the friction.
Finally completing my little craft project, I stood up, lifted the handles and dragged it, with huge effort, about 300m. Apparently dragging heavy, high-friction shit up a road is not much easier than dragging it over broken ground; so, I broke down the travois [cut a Woomera] and carried it. The checkpoint was about 400m further up the road. As I said, particularly stupid.
CP12, Challenge #1: “Leave your raft here. Show your egg, hunting boomerang etc. Use your Woomera with the provided spears. You must hit the targets [hay bales, about 20m away]. You can practice as much as you want. Once you give the word, you have three attempts to strike the target. Your spear must stick in and not fall to the ground.”
The spears were significantly longer and better made than those we used in 2015. They were all close to 2m long, had proper flights and were tipped with metal arrow heads. I cleaned up my Woomera and grabbed a few spears, taking my place next to Helene on the “range”. My first few shots went short or long as I adjusted my aim. We ran down range and collected our spears, returning to the shooting point. I couldn’t remember whether I’d been holding my Woomera at the end or slightly short of the end and so wasted another 4 or 5 shots as I readjusted. I took a few more practice shots then bit the bullet, missing all three of the shots that counted.
We were instructed to leave our rafts as they were, bound and off to the side of the range. I should have read into this, given what Chief had said about leaving things behind, but I needed some para cord and so cut off about 1/3 of what I’d used to tie up my raft. After waiting long enough to see how Helene went with here 3 shots (she missed, phhhew what a relief!), I hit the road!
Leaving the Range, the trail markers headed South, roughly in the direction of Muddy Dam, the Powerline Gulley of Death and, indirectly, the Bat Cave. That’s to say, a lot of the same route that I’d covered this morning on my little pre-dawn detour. After 30-40 minutes of climbing in and out of steep, off-track gullies, followed by some open, grassy paddocks, it spat be out just shy of the final creek crossing into the Start/Finish. This time, however, there were volunteers at the three-way junction between where I’d just come from, the foot-pad to the creek and the uphill route that we’d started up all those hours ago.
CP13, Challenge #1: “Show the volunteers your in-tact goodies; egg, boomerang, Woomera, etc. Drop your kit, head to the creek and find a rock that’s at least 50lbs. (22.5kg). The volunteer will weigh your rock. Rocks that are too light must be returned to the creek. Harvest the necessary timber [from small trees] to make a Travois. You must use the Travois to carry your Rock, and your Backpack, to the next Checkpoint. You must use your cordage on at least one weight-bearing joint of the Travois. It will probably break. If it does, fix it.”
Ok, here a few points to consider.
1) A Travois, in case you missed my previous lessons, is an arrangement of sticks intended to make carrying heavy things easier. Whereas I’d designed mine previous two prototypes like a mutated cross, the diagram (thank you Head Sadist) reminded me that the thing should more closely resemble an extended capital “A”, but with an additional Cross Bar to support the load.
2) By now our pack had two sticks (Woomera and Boomerang), 5 rocks, 1 machete and a whole heap of other flotsam and jetsam in it. I had an egg wrapped around my forehead and it was probably 10 or 11 O’clock, which is to say, fairly hot. The Idea of dragging this shit up a big fat hill, after having ALREADY MADE TWO BLOODY TRAVOIS, was disheartening.
3) In 2015, in order to earn our Packet/Bib, all 30 or 40 of us (with the exception of the women) had to find a 50lbs+ rock from this same patch of Creek. Which is to say, there was no way I was finding a 50lbs rock and could just about guarantee my little igneous parasite would be heavy-as-hell.
Kozi was here, putting the finishing touches on his Travois, and we chatted in between my laps to the creek. My first was 2-3 pounds too light, but I cracked about 56-57lbs on the second go. Win! Kozi still had a lead on me but his rock was heavier so I figured I could catch him on the drag. I raced to find a couple of decent trees, about as thick as the handle of a cricket back, and stripped them of stray branches. As Kozi set off up the hill I used my remaining scraps of paracord to lash together the saplings, adding the cordage to the final corner, happy that I’d chosen to double its thickness.
CP13, Challenge #2: “Drag the Travois with all your crap on it”
Heavy. As. Hell. But there was nothing for it. I picked up the handles of the Travois (the two sticks at the bottom of the “A”) and started dragging. We were headed up a reasonably steep hill, hardly a blip on the radar if you were unencumbered, but it felt like Everest dragging 30-35kg behind you. I fell into a rhythm of dragging it 10-20m and then putting it down. The sun was pretty high in the sky by now so I would aim for patches of shade, giving myself little goals.
About 15mins into the challenge I spotted Kozi, stopped on the side of the track trying to fix his travois. The poor bastard had been carrying it exactly the wrong way, point forward, two legs dragging on the ground. He’d moved mountains just to get this far, and now the thing was falling apart on him. I offered some advice, suggesting he pull it apart and start from scratch but, to his credit, he did what he could and persevered. By this time, I was moving a lot faster than him and tried to break him by putting on a few solid spurts of energy. It seemed to work, but as soon as I got around the corner I stood panting in the shade for a small age. The things we do.
Eventually I hit the top of the climb and then had a few hundred metres of downhill to the next CP, which was located next to Muddy Dam.
CP14, Challenge #1: “Leave your Travois. Carry your Rock”
There was some confusion as to whether or not we should leave the Travois intact or break it down but I chose to grab as much paracord as I could easily get free, just in case. I washed my face in the dam and pushed off up the hill. I spotted a few runners who, like me, had taken “detours” and offered what advice I could as to how to get back on track. They were a few hours behind me so theoretically I’d already made, and survived, the issues with tampered course marking that they were now enduring.
CP15, Challenge #1: “Drop your Rock and Pose for a photo”
As simple as it sounds, this next challenge was perhaps the only one of the entire event to come as a relief! The carry from Muddy dam was relatively short, may 20-30 minutes, and I used a few of the steeper hills to help me “carry” my rock. There were a couple of vollies there reclining in the shade of ramshackle structure that looked down over a small valley. I dumped the rock, stood up on a chair for my best Karate Kid White Crane, and nearly fell off. Phhhew, another close call!
I knew by now that I had a reasonable lead on Helene and Kozi, the only people I was nervous about given Curtis’ disappearance, and so I kept pushing myself to put ground between us. By now I recognised that I was on the same route that Matt and I had taken, erroneously, from CP1 to CP4 about 19 hours ago. This made me very nervous but a fume-spewing ATV came up behind me and we played leap frog for a while, which set my mind at ease. 20-30 minutes after leaving CP15 I found Scott and his family sitting in another ATV in the shade of a tiny acacia.
CP16, Challenge #1: “Make a bone knife with this here disgusting piece of crappy bone covered in fly infested, rotten meat”
Scott showed me a knife that he’d whipped up as an example and I set to work. I found a branch slightly thinner than my wrists and cut it from the Acacia. This I trimmed to about 15cm, squared off the edges and split most of the way down the middle so that it would hold the bone. I picked up the most knife-like, meat-free piece of rancid bone that I could find and tried to knap it into some sort of edge. I used my Machete to separate the springy ends of the wedged in the bone. Removing my machete, I set to work wrapping the handle with a length of paracord I’d found on the trail. I put far too much effort into this wrap, passing each wrap under the last in what amounted to about 40 clove hitches. It made a pretty pattern but was otherwise a complete waste of time. The mind plays funny tricks on you when you’ve been pumping it full of hormones for 20 hours.
I found a little dam not too far past CP16 and so I stopped to collect water. I’d spent 15-20 minutes making my knife and still not seen whoever was in 2nd but I kept trying to press the advantage. It was 20hrs in and I still only had 2 medals, in contrast to last year where I’d had all four by the 16.5hr mark. I knew I couldn’t relax; who knew what else they had in store for us.
The course markings continued to follow the route we’d taken last night and I felt uneasy. I felt uneasy pushing up through the houses where we’d had our little Junction Council last night that I scouted the junction to make sure no markings had been changed. Perhaps it’s just the benefit of hindsight, but I think I knew something wasn’t right. Regardless, the only markings led downhill toward CP4 and so there was nothing else for it. I crossed my fingers and headed down the hill.
There was no one at CP4. I followed the markings down past the dam, turned a hard right and headed in the forest. I could see traces of the event down at the Gate Waypoint, where Kellie had been sitting the night before, but no people. I pushed on anyway, convincing myself that the RDs must be repeating this leg due to a lack of alternatives, and confirmed that there was no one at the Gate. Increasingly anxious, I continued to blindly follow the markers down into the paddock, around its extremities, and back up to the Gate. Still nothing. Shit.
What else could I do? I contemplated a quick run across to the Bat Cave (about 2km) but, if this morning was anything to go by, there was a pretty good chance I’d get there only to find a group of dazed and doe-eyed train wrecks unable to offer any help. I followed the markers up the hill to where they ran relatively close to Dam and was about to cut back up to the Junction Council and retrace my steps when I heard a vehicle.
Coming up the hill toward me was an unfamiliar, burgundy 4WD. I waved it down and the driver introduced himself as the owner of the entire property. “You lost?” he said. “No, pretty sure I’m not, I just don’t know WTF I’m supposed to be.” We spoke for a while, trying to piece things together before he suggested he race back to the Bat Cave and see if he could sort things out. I agreed and, reluctantly, sat in the shade to wait. During the past half an hour I’d almost convinced myself that the Course Tampering was fake and that this was Chief and Em’s way of Screwing with us. I was so frustrated at having once again (I assumed) lost the lead, that I almost quit right there and then in protest. The fact that Em jumped out of the fast-returning car and yelled at me to “get up” made me put those thoughts aside.
As we ran back down toward the Gate and across the field together she explained where the markings had, once again, been tampered. I’d done some extra Kms and lost a boat load of time so she was happy to lead me back to the road (and the correct course), which lead back to the Bat Cave. As she was telling me I was still in the lead we both noticed someone running down the road toward us. Shit! I knew it wasn’t Kozi, Helene or Curtis but by now it didn’t matter; it was someone and they were close.
As we ran along the road and approached the CP Em explained the next Challenge.
CP17, Challenge #1: “Get to the Sawmill and collect your spear and get back here. That’s all you have to do. You’ve got almost 4hours to travel 8km. There are BLUE markings the whole way. Ignore everything else; orange markings, hazard/caution tape etc., just follow the blue.”
And with that she handed me my “DID” medal and I started to run. Glenn Sedwell, as it turned out, was in 2nd and he ran into the CP only a few moments after I left it. That bastard was big, but I figured I could out run him if all I had to do was grab my spear! So much for the Head Sadist trying to disadvantage me this year by reducing the running volume…
I didn’t take long to run out of breath and so I dropped the pace and tried to work on consistency. During the Travois carry I’d been repeating the mantra of “Sub Max Effort, Sub Max Effort” in my head, working on little efforts that left me with something in the tank rather than big, all out stretches that smashed me and required a big rest to recover from. I repeated this over and over in my head as I pushed down on my knees and power hiked up the hill toward Muddy Dam. There were a handful of other runners in the Travois stage of their event, pulling their sleds up the hill, and so I focused as much positivity on them as I could. There’s nothing like forcing a smile to help lift your spirits.
Reaching the top of the hill the road flattened out and then descended past The Range and toward Tallowood dam. There was a volunteer here, looking after those at the Raft stage of their events, and she wished me well as I ran through. It was only a few more minutes up to the Sawmill and continued to push, no idea how much time I had on Glen. Chief had sped out of the Bat Cave as I left it a little while back, presumably to ensure all his blue markers were still in place, and he met me here with a big grin on my face. Given what he was about to drop on me, it’s no wonder the prick was smirking.
CP18, Challenge #1: “Congratulations, you’ve made it this far. Take your Spear, retrace your steps via the blue markers to the Range. Then take everything you’ve collected in the past 21.5hrs [rocks, boomerang, Woomera, egg, spear] and, with that, pick up your heavy-as-hell Raft. Then all you have to do is Carry that heavy Mutha F’er back to the Bat Cave”.
Oh. Shit. After a string of expletives, I retraced my steps, stopping briefly at Tallowood to rinse my head under the tap. Just past Tallowood Glen toward me in the opposite direction, which gave me an idea of how much of a lead I had. I passed Helene perhaps 5 minutes later. We had a brief conversation that went something along the lines of, “we have to carry our raft.”, “what the fuck, I thought we only had to get the spear?”, “yeah, among other things”. She didn’t look happy. Helene is a beast, no question, but she’s not very big. Whereas I thought I was puny compared to Glen, I had nothing to complain about given she had would have to complete exactly the same task.
It took me a few more minutes to hit the Range and my Raft was in a better state than I remembered. If you remember, I’d cut off about 1/3 of my Paracord and I’d spent the last 15 minutes worried I was going to have to retie the thing with my shoe laces. I added the few scraps of cord I had and tightened the rest; it was pretty shitty but it’d have to do.
That carry is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. By itself it would have been bloody hard. The carry was about 2.2km and I reckon my raft would have been about 45kg. My strategy was to carry it on my right shoulder for as long as I could manage then slowly lower the back down until it rested vertically on the road. This meant that I could lean into it and wouldn’t have to do a complete lift from the ground every time I started to move again. The problem with this was that the lengths of bamboo and tree were all uneven. Every time I put it on the ground the pieces that shorter pieces strained with their full weight against the paracord and so started to work themselves loose.
I finally made it down the hill but by the time I hit the little foot bridge, about 300m from the finish, my raft was 50% longer than it had been up at the Range. I’d just past the Travois CP and the volunteers were all cheering me on but hitting the bridge I lost the raft and very nearly lost my shit. Every time I tried to pick it up it would separate further and threatened to come entirely undone.
I was waiting Glen to come around the corner any minute and waltz past me in the final metres and I refused to let that happen without giving it everything I had. I crouched down and somehow managed to get it on my shoulder but as I did the extra leverage almost gave me a hernia. I wrapped my left arm over the top of the raft to grab my right hand, squashed my face into it timber and somehow held on. Coming up the tiny hill just here felt like climbing a mountain and by the time I hit the top I was dizzy and zig zagging across the road like a drunk. Very soon someone spotted me though, and I started to hear shouts; I was closer to the finish than I realised and in a few moments I crossed the finish line where I was met by a little crowd of people. I dumped the raft and collapsed on the ground entirely spent, struggling to take the final “NOT” medal from Em, the Head Sadist, and scream the words “I. DID. NOT. FAIL”.
I lay on the ground for another 20 minutes, slowly regaining composure with the help of a Steam Ale and Ginger Beer. Glen rocked in about 30 minutes later, give or take, and Helene wasn’t too far behind him. Curtis, god only knows where he came from, strolled in a while after Helene. 4 People Finished this year and I was lucky enough to be among them. Yes, I worked for it, but if it weren’t for a few very lucky encounters things would have turned out very differently and I may not have finished at all. But to me, that’s what Survival Run is all about; working with what you have.
If you’ve made it this far you’re either pretty stubborn, bored or looking for advice on how to complete a Survival Run. So here are a few parting words.
1. Survival Run is a running race with strength elements. If you can’t run all day, learn how.
2. I can’t believe how many people don’t practice proper race nutrition. Sort that shit out ASAP.
3. This is a generalist’s race. The only thing I’ve ever won is the Survival Run and it’s because, while I’m not excellent at anything, I’m reasonably proficient in a lot of things.
4. Remember point #1? Even that won’t save you if your Head Game isn’t strong. In the weeks leading up your Survival Run make a habit of repeating to yourself, on a daily basis, that “this is the hardest thing I’ll ever do”. If you can come to terms with that BEFORE you start, you’ll be off to a flying start.