I had never heard of the Oxfam Trailwalker event, but when my mate Charlie contacted me to see if I was up for it, he sold it as “a charity event for hikers and bushwalkers”. I said yes before I investigated it (bad idea) and when I finally did get around to looking at the website, I suddenly realised the enormity of what I’d done. Charlie is a bit nuts – he loves ultra-marathons, extreme running and says “innit” every other word, but I didn’t know he was this nuts.
Charlie initially wanted to RUN the event, on his own, but they wouldn’t let him. So he needed three other loonies to sign up to his team so he could take part. I was one, and he also recruited two previous work colleagues.
What is the Oxfam Trailwalker event?
I started to investigate the route and the event in more detail. Billed as one of the toughest team endurance challenges on the planet, Oxfam Australia holds four events each year in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The aim is for teams of four to work as a group and walk 100km in under 48hrs. The Sydney trail features the well-known Great North Walk and the Harbour to Hawkesbury walking tracks. The terrain features rugged and beautiful bushland, as well as small glimpses of North Sydney Suburbia.
The longest I’ve ever walked was around the 50KM mark, but that was over a 3-day hike. I was also younger and with less weight! I knew we needed to get a serious amount of training in to ensure our legs and bodies could last the course. All the training tips and insights from online users were also suggesting that you can’t “train” to walk 100KM. You can train up to around the 50-60KM mark. Anything greater than this is just mental endurance and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that your body holds out.
Cue Rocky Music
I trained pretty hard for the event getting a load of km’s in on the elliptical machine in the gym, as well as strength training. I strengthened my lower back to ensure my rucksack wouldn’t cause any issues, my shoulders for having to use walking sticks for that distance and duration, and between the four members of the team, we did our best to get as many day hikes into the Sydney bushland as we possibly could.
We even managed a night walk to prepare for the section that we had to do over Friday night into Saturday morning. We were all a bit nervous but confident that we could do it.
Looking back now the event was a bit of a blur. We almost missed the train from Central up to Berowra – that would have been a good start. We checked in, final preparations then suddenly we were off with a few hundred other people at 10 am on Friday morning.
The challenge is not to push too hard to start. It’s tempting as you’re caught up in the masses, and you just want to get away from the group, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The first 30km flew by; we were tracking well in terms of time. Then we hit around the 50km mark, and everyone was feeling the effects. We carried on. The night time part of the hike was good but felt strange. No idea where we were, just following a trail of headlights into the darkness, illuminated by the full moon.
I started to feel the effects dawn of Saturday morning. A small blister had started to form on my right foot, and it required a decent amount of attention. I was tired, sore and starting to feel the effects of the intense effort I was putting in. Still, we all carried on. When we got to the checkpoint around 70km, I knew we were struggling. Everyone was silent. Everyone was feeling the effects of walking for 30 odd hours non-stop. We left the checkpoint, but at the bottom of the road, Adrian called time. Both his hips had gone, and he couldn’t continue. We talked it through for a good 10 minutes to sanity check the decision, then parted company in opposite directions. I was gutted he couldn’t finish but understood his decision.
The next 7.5km were the hardest I’ve ever walked. My little toe on my right foot and most of the underside of the foot was one giant blister that had ballooned to Elephant Man proportions, and my left hip and groin were now feeling the effects of putting 90% of my weight on that side to compensate for the blister.
I had to stop.
Serious MacGyver work was required. I knew there were a physio and someone to tape up my feet at the next checkpoint, so if I could just do whatever was necessary to get to the next checkpoint, I could regroup there and hopefully push on.
The toe was enormous so to give it some breathing space I cut open my Merrell trainers, creating space for the toe and its padding. It felt better, so I continued. The others had pushed on, so I was on my own pace. I walked on, and after what felt like an age I checked the GPS. I’d gone 1km in 1hr.
That’s not good timing, the sun was starting to set, and I calculated that I still had about 4km to get to the checkpoint. It would be dark, and I’d left my warm clothes and headlight with the support crew as I didn’t think I’d still be walking on that section into nightfall.
I pushed on trying to work a quicker pace. I can’t have gone much further when I was forced to stop and sit down on a rock. Physically I couldn’t go on. Mentally I was still good. There was still gas in the tank, but my body was broken. I tried to take another step, and I literally couldn’t lift my left leg to swing it forward, the pain from my hip was unbearable.
I checked the GPS again, and I was at 77.5km. A range of emotions went through my head. Frustration at getting this far then failing. Happiness thinking I could finally stop and get some rest. Embarrassment at knowing I would have to tell everyone who sponsored me that I’d failed. I was too busy being a grump to almost miss the rescue crew who were walking past me.
I grabbed one and said I needed help. They laughed at first because they must hear that from everyone around that mark, but then they realised from the desperation in my voice that I was serious.
We discussed my options & confirmed the next steps. I had to call it in officially with the Oxfam team, and they would pick me up on the way back from supporting another walker who had retired further down the track.
Some more time spent on my own as I waited. Scores of people walked past, all of whom asked if I was OK. The team spirit and camaraderie throughout all the walkers were a humbling experience.
Finally, the rescue team returned, and I was in luck. They’d managed to contact a fisherman with a tinnie on the river we were walking next to. He was going to stop at my location and give me a ride back to the St John’s Ambulance & 4WD. He rocked up, I hobbled on, and I was on a boat cruising down the Middle Harbour Creek with the sun starting to set. When I woke up 24 hrs prior, being in a tinnie on a river had never crossed my mind.
After a quick check out by the ambulance crew, I was driven to the checkpoint and dropped off. My wife & kids were waiting for me and helped me to get my kit together and into the car.
I gave my supplies, some kit items and best wishes to our team’s last two members and hoped they would make it.
The drive home was brief, but by the time I’d hobbled through the front door, I was a mess. My body was shaking uncontrollably, and my emotions were shot. Struggling through the shower and went straight to bed. I woke up about an hour later still shaking, to eat some dinner. It didn’t touch the sides of my throat I was so famished. The next day I awoke after a solid 12 hours of sleep.
Still smarting from my wounds, I lay in bed assessing my performance and what worked and didn’t work from our core strategy and tactics. Before realising, I was mentally signing myself up to the event for 2017! I’m not one to give up easily, and I think knowing I was that close made me know l could finish it given some subtle tweaks to my strategy.
I was lucky enough to not receive the full brunt of the Trailwalker horror stories. I didn’t lose any toenails. My feet and hip had fully recovered after a week with no lasting damage.
No one who I spoke to made me think that I hadn’t completed the event. The reality was that I had pushed myself to my physical limit at that point in time. There’re not many people that can say they have done that. Yes, I didn’t finish, but I can’t remember the last time I pushed that hard to see how far I could go before something broke.
My two team colleagues Charlie and Mikaela completed the event, and I’m so proud and happy for them. A massive achievement and one they should be proud of too.
Not sure whether they’d be as keen to sign up again in the future, but we’ll have to see.
Am I going to be attempting the event in 2017?
Registration is now open; I just need another three loonies to join my team :o)