Soldiering on in the rain and Australian trail.
The 40km ANZAC Day Challenge held on 23 April 2016 was the longest run I’ve completed since the KL Marathon in 2014. I’m a bit hesitant when it comes to joining long runs. I have many friends who will happily sign up for an ultra-marathon without batting an eyelid and I admire them for their courage and tenacity. But I’ve never been able to keep up with their pace, literally and figuratively.
Anyway, doubts aside, I decided to celebrate my one year of moving to Australia with a long run event so I signed up for the 40km in the ANZAC Day Challenge to get out of my comfort zone and give my trail shoes meaning for existence. I also chose it because it was a trail route. These days, I prefer to run in the bush around nature as I find it more interesting and soothing than running on road.
Two weeks before ANZAC Day Challenge, I ran the 22km Jabulani Challenge as a precursor and training. Thanks to Yanti for letting me know about the event, it was one of the best ones I had ever done!
So what is ANZAC Day Challenge?
Someone back home on Facebook asked me what ANZAC is, so here’s a crash course.
ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and ANZAC Day refers to the day the Australian and New Zealand army men first landed in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915 during World War I.
Over the years this day has evolved to carry meaning beyond this centennial anniversary, it now commemorates and honours all ANZ men and women who have served and died in war and peacekeeping operations. It is also a public holiday in Australia.
The ANZAC Day Challenge is a trail running/trekking/walking event that aims to raise funds and public awareness to help soldiers and affected family members to carry on with life post-war.
There are 100, 65, 40 and 25km distances that you could pick to do; each one is given a name of an area on which WWI battles took place in Turkey. The 40k distance I did is also called the “The Nek Challenge.” (Nek refers to a stretch of ridge that ANZAC soldiers fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula.)
ANZAC Day Challenge is a relatively small event of about 352 participants (90 people completed the 40km). The 40km folks are given a generous cut-off time of 12 hours to complete the challenge, so I told myself I’d be happy if I can achieve it in less than 8 hours.
The event mandated a list of items that everyone needs to bring with them on the run. This was my first time running with such a requirement so I decided to upgrade my hydration bag and invest in a Salomon running vest to carry my things.
Among the things you needed to bring included a sealed-seam rain jacket (organisers check your jacket to make sure, if you don’t have it, you don’t get to run), emergency blanket, thermal top and pants.
I brought other things too like trekking poles (in case there were long killer inclines) and of course my own stash of protein bars. Later I discovered the trekking poles were not really needed as the course was relatively flat and elevation was bearable (in relation to say a mountainous course).
And because I wasn’t confident I’d complete the challenge before sunset (which is really early these days, 5-ish), I packed a high visibility vest and a 200-lumens headlamp too (these are also on the mandatory list too but could be left at the Drop-bag area). I didn’t want to risk the chance of running in the forest in the dark!
After packing everything in, including my 1.5 litre water bladder, I think I had close to 3-4kg of weight to carry on my shoulders and back. Personally, this was more weight than I cared to carry but better safe than sorry!
Truth be told, I went a little ape with the shopping for this event to make sure I had all the right gear – trail running can be a rather expensive affair initially! Hopefully, I’ll be using these items more often as I enter more events or do my own bush runs.
1) Yanti, my trusty running buddy, and I arrived at St. Ives Showground at around 8:10, just in time to see the 65k participants running off at 8.15am. The 100k runners started at a different venue, the Manly Dam. The temperature that Saturday morning was 17C. It was lightly drizzling, what a cool way to start a run!
2) Our 40k event didn’t start till 10.15am 2 hours later so we milled around, browsed through some Women’s Running magazines that were on the table in the runner’s tent, went to the loo countless times and prepared to put on our gear.
3) It was still lightly drizzling when we left the start line in the second group of the 40k (the faster runners left in the first group). I initially decided to run with my rain jacket on. After a while, I got hot and bothered so I ran most of the 40km without the jacket on, rain be damned.
4) The course is mostly undulating fire trail through Duffys Forest in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase national park with a few hills and short stretches of asphalt road that brought you past residential areas to the bush track. The trail was clearly marked with rectangular yellow reflectors dangling on pink ribbons.
5) Fire trails are unpaved off-roads designed to allow fire trucks to carry water during bush fire season, so they’re full of rocks. I find running in cushioned trail shoes to be the best bet to survive this run, my trusty Salomon XR Mission shoes performed well.
6) Some stretches of the trail also had a considerable amount of horse dung on it. The area is a popular place for horse riding; I came across quite a few equestrians mounted on their magnificent beasts while I was plodding along. Some of the houses I passed by in the countryside had horses grazing in their huge backyards too.
7) I ran extra carefully this time – a week before this event, I came to train in this area and rolled and slipped going downhill. I sustained a deep cut on my left palm, tore my brand-new running tights, and bruised and grazed my knee. Because of this incident, I decided not to wear my compression tights because I couldn’t bear tearing up another pair if I slipped dramatically again, so I wore a thicker pair of running tights which also helped to keep me warm in the cooler weather.
8) At around the 7th kilometre mark I left the trail onto a residential road to get to the next section of the forest. I could hear gunshots in the distance and deduced that there was a firing range nearby. Just earlier that week, I had read about how a portion of The Great North Walk had been closed to bushwalkers because it passed by a firing range and posed a risk to walkers and hikers due to possible stray bullets. Now I know the organisers of the ANZAC Day Challenge wouldn’t have picked a dangerous route for us to go through, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy when I could hear gunshots, so I said a prayer and ran faster.
9) There is a map app that the organisers prepared for you to download to your phone in case you need to refer to it. I only had to use it once when I couldn’t see the next marker leading to the first U-turn.
10) There are 3 U-turns on this course, two of which are situated on the edge of cliffs that oversee large creeks, the view is breathtaking.
11) The friendly support crew on the course were great and full of encouragement. They kept saying I smiled a lot and looked happy (they must have mistaken my look of lunacy for joy). But seriously, I did enjoy myself. It felt serene running off-road in the rain.
12) There was plenty of food and water to go around. On the tables organisers prepared gummy candy, oranges, watermelons, potato chips, and ANZAC biscuits (traditional cookies made by wives, mothers and sweethearts of soldiers back in the day). At KM34 at the last water station, I wolfed down quite a few slices of oranges, and wow, fruit cakes and Coca-Cola never tasted so good!
13) After my 2nd U-turn, I decided to sit down for a few minutes at the next water station to eat my protein bar. I watched a few runners grab their rations and munched as they went off again. The marshals at the water station said that I was more than halfway through and had “only” 16 kilometres to go! “Only” 16?? They made it sound like I only had 160 metres to go.
14) The constant light rain made the course muddy, slippery and challenging. Less than halfway through the run, my shoes were completed soaked. I tried to run in the soft mud where I could to avoid slipping on rocks (I did a few times, especially going down slopes). I tried to avoid puddles as much as I could but after a while, it was futile.
15) At kilometre 18 when I was all alone and had just finished scaling up a rather challenging slope, I heard a rustle in the bush and saw a furry creature retreat hastily. I nearly jumped out of my skin and was prepared to pull out my trekking poles in self-defence, thinking it might be a dingo (yes, imaginations can run wild when you’re in the bush). I looked carefully again and saw the hopping tail end of a wild joey kangaroo! Wow!
16) Runners and walkers – what can I say, I love you all? I passed so many of you and you all gave me kind words of motivation. I tried to give as much back as I could.
17) As I was nearing my last kilometre I encountered a middle-aged woman who was either doing the 65k or the 100k (I wasn’t sure) and was heading back in the forest, in the opposite direction where I was coming from. She jokingly cried out to me, “Do you want to trade places with me??” Err, no thanks lady, I’m almost done!
18) As I neared the finish line a few volunteers cheered me on and I became a 6-hour 26-minute finisher based on the clock at the finishing arch, placing 55th out of the 90 people. Yanti greeted me with a hug and I was so happy to finish! (Later on, my official completion time would be 6 hours 30 minutes, not sure where that 4 minute extra came from).
19) I was thankful to complete the 40k before sunset so I didn’t need to use my head torch which I carried with me all the way. Although I think running in the dark would have been more fun, albeit perhaps slightly riskier.
20) For some reason, I didn’t think there would be leeches in Australia’s temperate climate, but I found a small bloody spot on my right foot and an itsy bitsy little leech in the car as we were heading home. Later I found out from a colleague who had volunteered at the event that one runner pulled off as many as 7 leeches! So yes, they do exist even in sub-20C temperatures. 🙂
At the end of the day, I went home feeling accomplished and ravished for two days before my appetite normalised again. I enjoyed the serenity of running at the ANZAC Day Challenge, even in the mud and rain and slippery rocks; it cleared my head and allowed me to feel free.
I liked this event enough that I may consider running it again or upgrade the distance, depending on what the next year brings. One thing’s for sure, I felt like a soldier running with all that gear on my back!
The running club at my workplace announced my participation in this event in its weekly e-mail newsletter (thanks, Luke!) and I was pleasantly surprised to receive well wishes from other runner-colleagues (some of who were strangers) because I personally didn’t think it was a big deal (anyone could lazily jog 40km in the rain and on trail, right?).
But apparently it was a big deal, and I am humbled to be reminded that runners everywhere in the world are just the same, whether they knew you or not: we all have a high sense of camaraderie and understand the effort and pain it takes to complete what we started.
I like to think that this runner spirit is in the same streak of mateship and solidarity displayed by the brave men and women who have had to fight together in war.