An Aussie Adventure: Two Races in the Land of Oz (Part 1: The Outback Marathon July 26, 2014)

After completing the Cremator 50 Miler in South Carolina, Darcy and I had exactly one day to finish packing for our upcoming trip to Australia. Fortunately I had done most of the preliminary preparations beforehand so all I needed was to review my to-do lists and make sure I had remembered all the essentials. This trip required a lot more planning than most of our sojourns because we were visiting 3 distinct areas on the continent of Australia and making two domestic round-trips within the country using Virgin Australia as well as Delta. I am not sure how I managed to pull this off but somehow it all worked. We are now back home and trying to recover from 22 hours of air travel (and that doesn’t include the additional time spent waiting in various airports).

We left early Monday morning. My friend Marylyn was kind enough to drive us to the airport so we could catch an early flight to Atlanta for the start of our journey. It was a very long ‘day’ of travel that began at 5:30 am and didn’t end until Wednesday at 6:30 am (crossing the International Date Line meant we skipped Tuesday completely). Our flight from Atlanta to LAX left at 2 pm but we had to wait in LA until 10:30 pm Pacific time for the 15 hour trip to Sydney, Australia. I have decided that – for me – 15 hours is simply too long to be constrained in a narrow tube with 300 strangers. After 10 hours, I was ready to implode. Sleeping upright in a small seat is impossible for me so I was essentially awake for the entire trip. Words cannot express how relieved I was when we finally landed in Sydney.

Experience has taught me that when traveling overseas it makes sense to arrive a day earlier than necessary so we can remedy sleep deprivation by spending our first day at an airport hotel. So, after retrieving our bags and clearing Customs, Darcy and I boarded the Super Shuttle to the Holiday Inn at the airport where I had reserved a room. Fortunately our room was ready and we eagerly deposited our bags and freshened up. I looked longingly at the bed but knew if I gave in to sleep at 10 in the morning I would have trouble sleeping through the night. We decided instead to have breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then take a walk around the neighborhood to stretch our legs. We discovered a nearby Subway restaurant (Subways throughout the world have been a mainstay of our international diet when we cannot find anywhere else to eat) and several coffee shops. Around 1 pm we headed back to the hotel where I must admit that after a shower and change of clothes I fell into a deep sleep. I did not wake until 5 am the next morning.

It was now Thursday and we headed to the domestic terminal at the airport, this time to board a flight to Ayers Rock in Uluru, the ‘red center’ of the Outback in the Northern Territory. After the 3 ½ hour flight we were met at the airport by representatives from Traveling Fit, sponsors of the Outback Marathon. We joined dozens of other racers and their families for the short drive to the Ayers Rock Resort. The resort consists of several places to stay, eat, and shop, all in one central location. Our choice was Desert Gardens, a mid-priced hotel near the center of the complex. We had requested a room with a view of ‘The Rock’ and indeed our spacious room had a balcony large enough for two to sit at a small table and look out at the rock, although from a goodly distance. Desert Gardens was definitely not the most upscale property in the complex; it was a bit tired looking and smelled a little musty (this might have been from the dry red earth that seeped into everything, including my lungs). Lights were dim and furnishings Spartan but it was clean and the bed was comfortable.

Except for the Rock and the Kata Tjuta, or Olgas, another rock formation about 30 miles away, the landscape of the Outback is mostly flat, with some steep but very soft sand dunes, bright red earth just like in the pictures, and desert scrub and flowers. There are no trees and no shade to shield one from the brilliant sun during the day. Once the sun retreats, the temperatures can drop precipitously. The atmosphere is very dry. These were formidable surroundings and climate to me (an advocate of trees and humidity).

At the beginning of the trip I was occupied with logistics – packing, getting here, and settling in. Now I was starting to get very nervous about the race itself. Whatever was I thinking? Here is just a smattering of my concerns:
• Getting lost – and eaten by a kangaroo, dingo, or camel
• Falling – into a pile of termites or ants
• Getting bitten by a poisonous spider or snake (I read there are lots of both in Australia)
• Hallucinating

I was also afraid I would get too hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, nauseous, or dizzy – and that would keep me from finishing the race. What about blisters? I was still nursing a blister on the ball of my left foot, a result of my most recent race. What about porta potties? In all the literature about the race, there was no mention of porta potties anywhere? Oh, I did indeed have lots to worry about. Darcy tried to quell my fears by reminding me that I have done 175 marathons and ultras in heat, cold, snow, rain, lightning, and hail, on sand, rocks, roots, in daytime and night, and have been lost (and found). It worked, a little, and I eventually decided the experience was worth the uncertainty. I would just do my best.

Although we had worked with Boston-based Marathon Tours for the Outback portion of this two-week trip, the actual marathon package was handled by Traveling Fit, an Australian company that sponsors trips to many international marathons. Traveling Fit personnel put together the actual Outback marathon and developed the tours, dinners, and bus transportation involved with the event weekend. In addition to the marathon, there is also a half marathon, an 11k, and a 6k – something for everyone.

Our weekend schedule was full, even though we had not signed up for any additional and costly tours. Thursday evening we joined other participants and family members for an outdoor buffet barbeque dinner at the nearby Sails in the Desert Resort. On Friday I went on a sunrise tour to Uluru and did the 6k baseline walk around the Rock. Darcy was too tired to join me (he was still trying to overcome jet lag) but I thought this was one of the highlights of the weekend and my only real chance to visit the Rock up close. I took lots of pictures but paid careful attention to avoid photographing those sections of a religious and sacred nature. Aboriginal people request that visitors not climb the Rock so it amazed me how many people ignored this simple request.

On Friday evening there was a mandatory safety meeting. I thought this was where I would learn
about the snakes and dingos and spiders, but – no – it was just a very basic routine description of where to get the shuttles to the start and at what time, how many aid stations would be on the course, and what to expect when we reached the finish line. There were only 6 porta potties in the area and all of them would be at the race, five at the start and finish and one on the course (and we would pass it twice). Every kilometer would be marked with a sign, with the mileage (in miles) listed in the bottom corner – that idea was wonderful and made pacing especially easy. The turns would be marked with arrows, red for the full marathon, and the few road crossings would be well-marked. A pasta dinner followed the race briefing, but both Darcy and I were still too full from our Aussie pizza lunch (pizza with bacon and scrambled egg) at the Pioneer Bar earlier that afternoon so we opted to go back to our room and relax. I had to get up very early on race day.

On Saturday morning I was up by 2:30 so I could have an early breakfast, dress, and try to relax. We were bused to the start at 6:45 am and after a 15 minute ride we reached the starting line. There were lots of tables and tents set up with beverages and a gear check and the promised quintet of porta potties. I was dressed in layers, with an extra sweatshirt over everything, long pants plus mittens and handwarmers, warm cap, sunhat with brim, and still I felt the cold seep through me. Later I removed all but 2 layers and was way too warm. There is just no way to prepare for a race with a 50 degree temperature range! I also wore gaiters and some old trail shoes. Bless those gaiters! If I had not worn them, I would have ended up with tons of sand in my shoes and socks (even with them, I had several inches of red earth burning my feet).

The half and full marathons took off promptly at 7:45 am, followed by the 11k and 6k at 8. Everyone took off, with me at the very back. It took me about half a mile or so to finally pass a couple of people. I was annoyed by one of the runners at the back who was surrounded by his family members and the press (perhaps he was a local celebrity?) who were interviewing him and constantly getting in my way to snap pictures. He was even followed by a very noisy helicopter that would hover near him (and me) to take pictures – the constant loud buzzing nearly drove me crazy. This continued until the halfway point when he took off to finish the half marathon. Thank goodness! Even though I was by myself for most of the rest of the way I much preferred the peace and silence.

Although the course map looked very complex and convoluted, in reality it turned out to be not so difficult to follow. I could easily see the large signs with red arrows pointing the way. Every crossing and turn was marked with signs or had volunteers stationed nearby. There was only one questionable section and there I managed to make the correct turn. I was relieved that birds and small insects were the only wildlife I came across. My timing was way off; it took me 3 ½ hours to get to the halfway point, half an hour longer than usual. I attribute this to the thick layers of sand that were hard to walk through, especially going up sand dunes. My toes were becoming very tender and I felt a blister developing under one of my big toes. Around 10 it became VERY hot and I realized I was overdressed so I removed a couple of layers. The remaining clothes were still too warm. There was no shade and with the sun beating down I began to slow down quite a bit. Thank goodness for the volunteers at the aid stations; they kept water and Gatorade flowing and cheered me on.

By noontime, I was wilting and nasty flies began buzzing around my head and arms (perhaps they were attracted to my sweat or maybe I tasted like dead meat). Despite my exhaustion, at this point I managed to pass 2 people who seemed to be struggling. It took me almost 7 hours to finish, one of my slowest times ever. Darcy met me at the finish line and the announcer called my name and (clearly coached by Darcy) mentioned that I had just finished marathon/ultra #176! I received my medal to the cheers of the remaining racers and volunteers. Then we took a shuttle back to the resort. I could barely walk because of my sore painful feet. Once we got to the room, I emptied my shoes outside the door – I couldn’t believe the quantity of red earth that tumbled out. It was time for a shower, nap, and dinner. We toasted our 27th anniversary with some local red wine. Sleep came easy to me that night.

Sunday was a true day of rest for me. After a big buffet breakfast at the resort, I slept, read, and watched television. By 4:30 we were ready for the Sounds of Silence Celebration Dinner. We met the bus at the front of our hotel, along with all the other racers, and were driven to a viewing platform in the park where we started the evening off with canapés and champagne while watching the sun set on the Rock. Then we sat at tables set up in the desert and had a superb dinner under the stars. I tasted kangaroo (a lean tasty meat), crocodile, and other Australian specialties, while wine, beer, and soft drinks flowed. An astronomer pointed out the southern constellations and everyone chatted and relaxed. The entire evening was enjoyable and a good (but not especially silent) way to end the weekend. Buses transported us back to our resorts and again, it was easy to fall asleep.

Finally it was time to leave. Darcy and I slept late, ate a hearty breakfast, packed our suitcases, and took the noontime shuttle to Ayers Rock airport for our return flight to Sydney. The first part of our adventure was complete.

Things to note about this portion of the trip:
• It’s a long way to Australia; if I had the money, I would have preferred to stop in Hawaii for a day or two to break up the horrendously long flight. Better yet, if I were rich, I would cruise here and give myself plenty of time and space to adjust to time and weather changes
• I was definitely impressed with Virgin Australia; personnel were friendly and efficient, airplanes were clean and on time, we were given snacks and drinks on every flight, and boarding and exiting planes went like clockwork
• Prices are expensive in Australia. This was especially true in the Outback, so if you go, be prepared to spend a lot on everything, even basics like water and groceries
• Summer in the northern hemisphere is winter in Australia so bring warm clothes. Mornings before sunrise in the desert environment of the Outback can be freezing; during the day the temperatures can rise and it can become outrageously hot and dry
• If you like deserts, this area and the race will be fun; if you find deserts inhospitable, the area and the race will be challenging – worthwhile but difficult. The scenery is tedious if you prefer variety and there is no shade at all on the course
• The Outback Marathon is well-organized and very walker-friendly. There is an 8-hour time limit and the organizers make sure that everyone who starts and wants to finish will do so
• It’s a tough course, with sand dunes, red earth, and ubiquitous sand that will get inside shoes and socks (gaiters help but the sand will find a way inside). I wore an old pair of shoes and threw them away afterwards.

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