Friday 28 August this year marks the ninth time I’ve competed in Oxfam Trailwalker, a 100km endurance race to raise money for all the great work Oxfam does internationally.
In a skip-forward mood? Yes this is a pitch for donations. Here’s the link. But it’s a good story, you should read on…
The goal of Trailwalker is to get a team of four people through 100km of rugged bush tracks in 48 hours or less. There are checkpoints every 10–15km at which the team all have to check in and check out together, meaning your team goes as fast as your slowest team member, which is fascinating from a team dynamics perspective.
There are elite running teams who can complete 100km in 12–13 hours and less-elite teams who will use all 48 hours. Most teams take 24–36 hours, and usually my teams have finished in between 26–28 hours.
The first 40km of the Sydney course are just brutal.
Those 200m ascents and descents are like spending 15 minutes on the stepper at the gym with it dialed up to 11, but instead of regular steps you’ve got irregular dirt, rock, and timber steps up and down that mean long lunges, high steps and high-impact landings (in some places steel hand and footholds are set into short cliff faces, some of which you go up, some you climb down) …but the next 60km are merely very hard.
So why do it?
You just don’t do things nine times — unless it’s compulsory or you really love it. This certainly isn’t compulsory. Trailwalker takes a huge commitment of time, energy and determination to raise the $5,000 fundraising goal, to put in about 500km of training from April onwards with a team of busy people, and negotiate the concessions this requires from my work and family life.
But I love Trailwalker anyway, for the fitness benefits, the stronger friendships it builds with the friends on my team, the funds it raises for Oxfam, and most importantly because it teaches me about myself.
How to last all night long
Trailwalker is literally about lasting all night long. To adequately ramp from “startup-level unfitness” to “Trailwalker fitness” takes a few months. The event takes considerable endurance, aerobic fitness, leg, glute, hip and core strength.
Minimal training makes sure you’ll stagger across the line in 30 hours or more in a world of hurt. Maximal training and the right physical proportions can get you across the line in less than 20 hours in good enough shape to go for a run the next day. My goal is to get my 6'4" 100kg lumbering frame across the finish line tired and a bit stiff but with my head up, smiling, and then shower, have a beer, and sleep like a log for the next 15 hours.
We start training in April, a full five months prior to the event. My base of training is to do two outdoor 60 minute strength and endurance training sessions each week with Maddie from Fresh Fysique and at least one 10–20km trail run or fast walk from April onwards.
Each weekend some or all of my three team members schedule a team training walk/run on a section of the event course, and we each do one of those together at least every fortnight. We start with 10–15km distances and work up to 50–60km at a time towards the start date.
Downside: even a 30km training session will take a half day out of your weekend, and 70km will take you all evening, all night and some of the next morning, leaving you useless for much on what remains of your weekend.
Upside: when you spend so many months getting so fit, you get really fit, able to scoot up a few flights of stairs without any trouble, able to walk across town without sweating-up, able to carry heavy loads with you.
Downside: pedestrians are just too damn slow. Get the hell off my stairs!
Take the time to really know each other
Each year I’ve done Trailwalker with a core of fellow addicts mixed with a sprinkling of new bods, usually friends from work and their friends.
You start out thinking you know someone when you work with them all the time, but Trailwalker teaches you that you don’t know anything about them.
In the same way serving in war forms lifelong bonds between veterans, Trailwalker teams really get to know each other because we get to see each other at our best and our worst. You can’t spend months talking through the long training sessions on the trail without getting through all the superficial stories about your life and getting into the kind of stories that are prefaced with, “What’s said on the trail, stays on the trail, OK?”
Some of the most inspiring experiences of my life have been observing someone who I thought I knew before Trailwalker get to a very bad place, start to crumble, and then reach deep down, grab some bedrock deep inside, and come up strong to make it to the next checkpoint, and the next checkpoint, and the next… 30 hours allows plenty of time for each member of the team to lose it, start to think about quitting, get some help from team mates and support crew, and then come back strong. Including me.
Downside: when relationships go bad on Trailwalker, they really go bad. There’s only one ex-team member I’d never do Trailwalker with again, but it’s pretty clear she feels the same way about me too.
Upside: you’d have to marry these people to learn more about them, and Trailwalker means you’re only committed to each other from April to August.
Who is this person I share this body with?
I’m no gifted athlete, and I’m no spring chicken anymore. Why am I really doing this? I could give this up now and friends would totally understand. So why?
Honestly, I think the main reason I do Trailwalker is because I get to see a side of myself I don’t see otherwise. I live a good life. My wife was sick a few years back but she’s on the mend. My son is happy at school and with his friends. Sometimes I have to work long hours, sometimes I have doubts and fears, sometimes I don’t enjoy my day but nothing like Trailwalker.
In last year’s event, when the torrential rain in the weeks leading up to the event and continual rain during the event turned the course to a freezing, leech-plagued, muddy, shoe-sucking quagmire, I hardened the f_ck up and got it done.
At 3am standing steaming against a gas heater in a warm, bright checkpoint tent, I could have buckled and called it a night, but I gathered what I had, squared it across my shoulders, switched on my head torch and headed back out into the dark, cold and rain for the next three hour section.
Trailwalker leaves me in the best shape a 50 year old geek can be. Ramping up training from April to August means I’m getting fitter for almost half of the year, and the fitness takes a long time to fade.
Between June and October, I can take the stairs without panting. I can walk everywhere without breaking a sweat. I can run around with my son and be no more out of breath than he is. I may have sore calfs and quads, but don’t get neck pain, back pain or any of the usual middle-aged-guy-at-a-desk-job pains. I can take my shirt off at the beach and I don’t get wolf-whistled but I don’t get a crowd of people draping me in wet towels and trying to drag me back out to sea.
Thing is, I think Trailwalker actually is something our bodies are designed to do. For millions of years, small groups of our ancestors regularly took a few things they needed and headed out as fast as they could, pursued by other groups in territorial disputes, the changing seasons, or in search of seasonal or migrational food sources.
Sometimes, the going may have been easy, but most of the time, the trail was mostly the same kind of organic terrain-following trail Trailwalker follows across Sydney today. In fact, a lot of the trail we use in the event was originally laid down by the Dharug, Kuring-gai and Awabaka tribal groups tens of thousands of years ago.
It feels good to use your body and brain to do what millions of years of evolution may have prepared us to do — take a small group of people with a light load on a fast journey over rugged terrain to a new place. The hot shower and the Ibuprofen are relatively recent inventions but the post-trail beer goes back a very long way.
If you’re not ready to join me in signing up for an Oxfam Trailwalker, I’d be grateful if you’d take a moment to make a tax-deductible online donation. As I write this we’ve raised only $1,320 of our $5,000 fund-raising goal. Oxfam is a highly-efficient global charity organisation which has no affiliation to a religious or political framework. It just focuses on providing sustainable, self-help solutions to underprivileged, marginalised and poor people in Australia and all around the world.
So far, our most generous donor has donated $250 but if you could just manage $20(the cost of a week’s coffees) we would only need 184 more donations. If you match the average donation so far of $110, we’ll make it with only you and 32 other friends. Between now and 28 August, that’s only a few people per day — it’s doable. Please help us out? It’ll feel almost like a reason why you don’t have to do Trailwalker yourself…