So there I am the night before the Outback Marathon, trying to sleep and failing miserably. I check my emails and there’s one from Lee Martin in Adelaide telling me he’s seen the local weather for my area and it’s going to be 32 degrees during the race, so I’d better slap on the factor 50. I get out of my sleeping bag and turn my kitbags inside out in the quest for suncream before I remember that I left it back home in the UK because it’s actually winter here in Australia. Doh!
There’s only one thing for it: get this race done before it gets too hot and my skinny white shoulders get burnt. The following morning I’m awake at 5 and stocking up on muesli, bananas and hot cups of tea. It’s still dark as we’re transported out into the bush for the 7.45am start, but as we arrive the sun rises and its rays hit that magnificent slab of Ayer’s Rock, changing its colour with every passing minute. This is what I’ve ridden across Australia for.
Everyone’s stretching, but I don’t go in for all of that so I just shake my legs out and look for a suitable tree to have a pee against. People are securing drinks bottles to their belts, filling Camelbaks and stuffing their pockets with gels. I’ve not really planned this part at all and all I have is the remains of a packet of dried apricots and a strip of painkillers. There are water stations every 3km so I’ll rely on those for my hydration.
A Kenyan is running up and down the dusty track at remarkable speed, his dark skin in wonderful contrast to the light red sand beneath his feet. He says that he’s only doing it to keep warm and I tell him that he’ll not need to worry about that in half an hour when the sun climbs higher in the sky.
Eventually we get started and I try to work out how to run efficiently in the soft sand that offers little grip — especially on inclines — and with quite a bit of vegetation growing and just waiting to trip you up. A film crew circles in a helicopter, blowing fine dust all over us with its rotors.
To pass the time, I get talking to one of the Aboriginal runners called Colin (yes, really), who tells me how fortunate we are to have permission to run on sacred Indigenous ground. He tells me that running has literally saved his life, after several years spent staring into a bottle and, at times, down the barrel of a gun. He turned his life around by exercising hard and is now encouraging many others from his own community to do exactly the same.
The course is wonderful, there is absolutely no littering of plastic water bottles and cups, and the worry of sunburn is keeping me focussed — so much so that my kilometre times continue to surprise me, because the going feels slow. In the end, I manage to knock off each of the four 10km segments in less than an hour and then stumble through the final couple of kilometres to finish in 4:12.06.
I’m pleased with this time, but in truth am just relieved that the sun hasn’t burned my skin too much, as it’s just before midday and absolutely scorching. With a cut-off time of eight hours, some slower competitors are going to be in real heat — and possible trouble — later. I cheer Colin over the finish line, discover that my Kenyan friend got lost and ran an extra 2 kilometres (he did the first 10km in 35 minutes!) and then I return to base to bathe my aching legs in the icy outdoor pool, which is a little unpleasant but really works wonders.
All in all, it was a great and unique marathon that I’m proud to have completed and in doing so, chalked off that second continent on my list. After riding over 3,000 kilometres from Melbourne, I’ll soon be heading east for the first time in 2 weeks, making my way across to Alice Springs, and then on to the Tropics to see the Great Barrier Reef, while it’s still there…
My next run will be in less than four weeks, in South Africa. It’s the Mandela Day Marathon in Pietermaritzburg. I’ve heard it’s at an elevation of around 700 metres above sea level, so I better do some altitude training. Onwards and upwards, quite literally.