Adapt. Survive. Repeat.

Well…by definition, this is not going to be your average race review.  The pressure is on to make sure I do justice to Survival Run Australia. My race still delivered some familiar emotions but this gig was so far removed from “average” I may as well have been blindfolded and thrown through a wormhole….to a universe where brutal simplicity and well placed mind-fucks were your guiding lights.

Despite always knowing they have my back no matter what, I definitely felt the positive pressure of expectation from my beloved family.  Encapsulated by the comforting farewell of my beautiful wife before phone signal was lost…“If you don’t finish this thing, don’t bother coming home.”  It was a Kodak moment, no doubt about it 😉 xx

Having been held annually in Nicaragua since 2008 this was the first time the concept had hit Australian soil.

Not sure what this gig is all about?  Watch this.

WARNING:  Settle in for a good read as the nature of this event demands detail….giving all due praise and respect to organisers, volunteers and the awesome tribe of hardarses that wrestled with this monster.

If you want the abridged version, here it is:

  1. Awesome race.  Great people. Will definitely do it again.  Nicaragua would be ace…dream big.
  2. Duration 17.5hrs  Distance ~78km  Energy ~9,100kcal  Elevation ~1,950m
  3. Starters: 40ish   Finishers:  17   Placed: 4th   Mood:  Stoked
  4. Walked away with:  Ear-to-ear grin, legs that look like I exfoliate with a cheese grater and four black toenails.
  5. Lesson learnt:  Try actually wearing the protective gear you had the smarts to pack. Stupid twat.

Everything was tested in this race….patience, acceptance of the uncontrollable, endurance, strength, adaptiveness, mateship…the list goes on.

A massive expression of gratitude goes to the brands that are generous enough to back a punter….Protein Supplies Australia (Mat), Salomon (Mel), Suunto (Fabi), Bikes Direct (Scotty & Jarrod) and Rock Tape Australia (Tony).  Check them out here….

If you want the full story, read on and soak it up….or wait for the movie to come out 😉 ….. if you’re a movie lover, here is the 45min documentary featuring yours truly that aired on Channel 10, Boxing Day 2015.  Enjoy!

PROLOGUE

The first two doses of mental torment were swallowed well before this gig kicked off….

TASK 1:  No conventional hydration devices permitted.  Yes kids…no CamelBaks, no S-Lab Advanced Skin 12 Set…two of my favourite race-ready possessions. No….this time you must construct your own leather water bladder !! WTF? With a minimum capacity of 3-litres. WTF?? (unbeknownst to me at the time, this versatile little phrase was to be uttered so many times it quickly became my mantra of denial).

If the volume of Facebook chatter was to be any kind of guide, it’s safe to say this task created no shortage of grief amongst our tribe.  The range of prototypes, theories, success stories and comic-tragedies was somewhat overwhelming.  My chosen strategy was to read these thoroughly, talk to people who worked with leather for a living and hopefully come up with a workable version on my first run.  The first time I really put it to the test, it pissed water and looked more like a leather camp shower.  With much love, f-bombs and bees wax, a good seal eventually materialised. To tick this one off was a massive relief. Definitely a fist pump moment.

Fist Pump

TASK 2:  No conventional packs or bags of any description.  Packs must be constructed prior to the race and include 4.5sqm of fabric.  WTF???

I found this much easier to cope with.  After consulting the interwebs for enlightenment, I felt confident a make-shift ‘Alice frame’ pack was the best option.  The materials were cheap and easy to source and I knew my way around enough knots to knock up a pretty good prototype that was also easy to repair if disaster struck.  I actually found myself quite enjoying this process.

Pack and Water

#prototypewinner   Comfy pack = happy back

 TASK 3:  Wise up. A final email was sent out with two clear directives.  Firstly to put the general fear of God into us by questioning our state of preparedness, and secondly to strongly encourage us to research some indigenous Aboriginal practices and bush tucker/survivalist tricks.  I ticked both boxes…. emerging feeling simultaneously “brown trousers” and well informed.

Physically, I can’t say I was overly happy with my training volume leading into this event…mind you, I seem to always have that cloud of self-doubt heading into an event. For SRA, I felt the best prep work was a combination of load-bearing drills, long weighted runs and just making sure my gear set-up and race nutrition were bang on….all atop my usual MTB mileage and incidental lifting.

 GAME ON

The trip up was not uneventful.  It was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of declaring a machete to check-in staff (that was a fun chat) in return for which Jetstar did a lovely job of delivering Nick and I to Coolangatta Airport around 60mins late.  We quickly met up with OCR icon, Rin Riz Quis and patiently waited for our chariot to arrive, piloted by Gloryfy Sunglasses front-man, Paul Hillary.  Thanks mate!

Nothing like cutting things fine as we rolled into tent city with about 10mins to spare before the 4pm race packet collection exercise.  Assuming there would be severe penalties in play for late-comers, I took no joy from having to bust a nut and pull my kit together in time to hit the deadline.

Tent City

Guaranteed a shitty night’s sleep. Welcome to Survival Run.

 RACE PACKET COLLECTION:  Run to river bed and collect a rock you estimate to be no less than 50lbs and bring it back to be weighed/verified.  If your rock weighs under 50lbs go back and find another one…if it weighs more than 50lbs you can elect to keep that one or ‘try your luck’ and shave some grams by selecting a new one.  My first try weighed in at 70lbs  #dumbarse

However, fortune smiled upon me as I carried this back to the river to search out something a little more user friendly.  With all the “good rocks” pretty much gone, I assumed the form of a stone mason, picked up a heavy looking bastard and smashed it across some other rocks to break it up.  I picked out a likely suspect from the debris and carried it back for weigh-in.  50lbs.  BOOM, bitches!  She was sprayed with my race number and put aside for later….I could hardly wait.

Once our gear was inspected and approved, we had until 1900hrs to complete construction of our backpacks.  The various ideas and designs on display were impressive….with the full spectrum ranging from “jeez…I’m not so sure about that” right through to “you clever bastard”.

I stuck with my ‘Alice Frame’ concept.  Wearing my best maniacal grin, I swung my machete around like Patrick Bateman, aka American Psycho….cutting three carefully selected branches from nearby trees before securing the triangular frame with duct tape and weaving a sweet paracord net. The frame was padded with plumber’s foam and came up looking pretty good.

Once nerves settled enough, I was treated to about three hours sleep before my 3am alarm sounded.  Shit was about to get real.

For those that don’t already know, this event was broken down into four main stages, with successful progress recognised by attaining small, yet meaningful medals in the following order:  FAIL-I-DID-NOT Passing various challenges on course was rewarded with coloured wrist bands that determine eligibility for medals.  Not enough wristbands for a medal?  Your race is over, son.  #harshbutfair   The kicker was that at no stage were you made aware of exactly how many wristbands you would need at each stage.

” FAIL “

0400hrs start.  State the Survival Run oath:

More than forty booming voices chorused at full volume…”If I get hurt, lost or die, it is my own damn fault.”  Game on.

With minimal pomp and ceremony we were dispatched into the darkness.  Due to the open neck design of my water bladder, I quickly discovered that if I pitched forward beyond a certain angle, I would have the contents empty over the back of my head.  Laugh. Shake head. Move on. Following the superbly marked course via white ribbon markers, we made our way through scrub until we reached our first task.  Within this designated area you must find a marked tree, cut it down to length that matches this one here and bring it back.

I stepped the length of the sample provided to ensure I hit the length bang on. Hearing some trees being cut down in the darkness only had me thinking how I was going to have to push even further into the bush to find one. Super.  Finally, I spot a tree marked with yellow caution tape.  It was about 15cm at its widest point and I needed to cut it to around 5.5m in length and carry it back. My $38 machete was about to hit centre stage again. This was awesome and nerve racking at the same time…quickly realising I could easily lose a digit if I didn’t pay attention.  It wasn’t long before I returned to the checkpoint as instructed…a bit awkward to carry but overall that wasn’t so bad.

I did hear one poor bastard get told to fetch another log because he didn’t bring his caution tape back with his tree. “How do I know that you’ve cut a marked tree?….Get me another one and keep the tape.”  That would suck balls.

Your log is an acceptable match and you’re good to go.  Carry your log.  Follow the markers.  

Oh…ok.  This is going to be interesting.  Time?  Distance?  I have no fucking idea, but it was bloody ages and through some ugly terrain.  Pitch black darkness. Getting tangled up in vines.  Trying to reverse with half-a-dozen guys behind you. On all fours dragging it up steep, slippery embankments. Knee deep mud.  The weird thing?….I actually quite enjoyed this bit.  This was the kind of torment I was expecting. Seems I don’t mind carrying shit.

As we exited the thick bush, I could hear machetes biting into timber in rhythmical fashion.  Nice.  We get to put these logs down.  Log carry complete….awarded with yellow wrist band.

Select two pieces of bamboo from the pile.  Cut your log into four pieces.  Make a raft. Put your pack on it.  Get in that river.  Swim until further notice.

Can do.  This was a chance to quickly inhale food and supplements before getting to work.  I have a  pretty good inventory of knots in my head so the raft construction was good fun.  In the interests of speed, I went for a very simple design and pulled my contraption into the water as daylight began to creep through.

Water gurgled into the hollows of the bamboo and I held my breath….praying buoyancy would prevail.  It did, and there was much celebrations as I commenced by side-stroke.  Every bend of the river I would think “Here we go…hopping out here?” only to be met with more empty river banks.  If it hadn’t been for the friendly banter and chit-chat with a kayak paddling volunteer I may have gone slightly bonkers.

After about 600m or so, salvation presented itself.  Dragging my raft and dry pack out of the water I gratefully received a lovely orange wristband.  Not so lovely was the massive flying ant thing that landed on my arm and bit it.  A weaker man may have squealed (loudly).  To distract me from the burning sensation on my arm, my body dispatched a distraction of epic proportions.  I really needed to take a dump.  Like really.  Like crowning.  Searching for a suitable piece of bushland I reached a clearing at the top of a hill….there’s a good spot….just near that…???  Out-house!!!  Yeah, baby.  A long-drop had miraculously appeared.  I unceremoniously climbed aboard, leaving the door wide open to enjoy the early morning view.  Oh, sweet Jesus….despite having to wipe my arse with my hand before wiping it on the ground (sorry, but I was not going to risk unfriendly foliage around my holiest of holies), I emerged from that structure like a startled gazelle. After washing my hands in Perpetuem, I laughed out loud. Life was good.

After a reasonable tab where I ran anything flat and downhill trying to conserve energy, another checkpoint appeared, presenting a new challenge.  Cut a replica of what you believe would resemble a hunting boomerang.  Throw it at that log to dislodge it from it’s stand.  You can remain in the practice zone indefinitely but only have three attempts when you enter the live zone.

I had around 10 practice throws….getting the feel of the weight and distance.  Feeling pretty good, I entered the live zone and nailed it with my first attempt.  Sweet.  A pink wristband was bestowed upon me.  I was stoked and had a spring in my step as I took off for the next checkpoint.

After covering god-knows-how-far, I arrived back at our start line where I was met with a much-welcomed hug from Race Director, Emilie. My wristbands were counted and I was presented with my first medal.  “FAIL”    Three to go.Fail” I “

With the ceremony over I had the opportunity to quickly fill my mega-bladder with water and scoff some food.  I wasn’t rushing, but wasn’t faffing about either.  I  was asked to take on a mystery dip…pick a pebble from the bag.  The colour of the pebble will tell you which aboriginal artwork you’ve been assigned. I scored the SNAKE.  Memorise this picture. When you’re ready to leave, collect your rock and follow the course markings. In comparison to the others…bird, fish, and another one I can’t even remember….I felt I hadn’t done too badly.

Snake.png

Maybe not quite this complicated, but it felt like it!

I collected by ‘mate’ and trotted off….wondering how long we would need to be friends for.

A fair distance it turns out.  I carried that 50lb nugget for around 8km while gaining around 250m in elevation. Not wanting to get bogged down with repetitions of put-down/pick-up I contained my effort to allow three down-times and focussed on moving forward, making a mental game of catching up to guys in front.  Seems I don’t mind carrying shit too much at all.

Rocks

The arrival at the next checkpoint was part ‘treat’ and part ‘mind-f**k’. Find some paint and recreate your assigned image onto the rock. I had used alphabetical sequences to help remember the order of coloured bands and other features and felt pretty confident. In a short while I asked an adjudicator to cast judgement. No. WTF??  “With all due respect (pause…play nice, Simo), I think you might need another look”…(looks at documents) No.  Colour is wrong. Long story short, this went back and forth a few times.  Thankfully, once he realised he was looking at it upside down (!) I was awarded my green wristband. Thank f**k for that.

Some poor bastards were stuck there for ages.  Creativity was abundant though…everything from alphabetical ‘code’ to drawing the picture on their own stomachs.  We were all having a bit of a laugh at ourselves.

Head outside, find a tree in the designated area and get your next wristband. Okey doke then. Found the trees….skinny, tall.  Perched about 5-6m up was something hanging with what appeared to be a bunch of bands…ripe for the picking.  No drama…was like climbing a big rope.  Straight forward and pleasantly pain free, thanks to my bullet proof, super comfy Moxie Gear gaiters (everyone ! had these on).  The dark blue wristband was MINE!  Feelin’ good. You must make a Woomera before you reach the next checkpoint.  No problem, sir.  My pre-race research on the interwebs made this pleasantly straight forward.

More distance.  Ran when I could.  Saving energy and avoiding injury on the forefront of my mind.

Next task was to climb a f**king enormous pine tree to retrieve a dark green wristband. Made me feel like a big kid again but at around 15m+ you remained acutely conscious of the fact that one stuff-up would be game over.

From there we were met by Survival Run legend, Shane McKay…Using your woomera, you need to send one of the spears provided over the designated distance.  Stay in the practice zone as long as you like.  Live zone allows five attempts.  I threw javelin for most of my senior school years and was feeling thankful for it right about now.  Second attempt cleared the distance….”A brown wristband?  For me?  Why thank you, Shane.”

More distance.  Eat, drink and medicate on the move.  Doin’ good, kid.

Next…Select a boomerang.  You must throw the boomerang from one of these four points and it must travel in an arc before landing in the designated square in front of you. You can practice as long as you like.  Live zone allows five attempts.  I was quietly shitting myself.  I had zero idea…as evidenced by my first few practice throws.  I may as well have been throwing a feather duster with my left hand.  A kind voice behind me spoke up…”You’re holding it the wrong way around (insert: “dumbarse”). Turn it the other way and go easy on the power.”  I turned around.  The anonymous kindheart had vanished.

I obeyed.  I fluffed a couple more but shit was happening.  Before I knew it, I had clocked up two successful practice attempts.  This was as good as it was going to get…not wanting to waste any more time I hit the live zone.  First attempt…SO close!  Second attempt….YEAH, BOI !  Cue: jumping fist pump.

The reward for my efforts? …a light green wristband and a treasured “I” medal.  Two down, two to go.I Fail” DID “

Head down to that area and complete the construction of a bush shelter as directed.  Replicate the sample already constructed.

This was a dog.  While cutting down enough timber and foliage to construct a “tent” sufficiently high enough to sit under is really no big deal, the pit underneath it was another story.  Around 1.5m L x 1.0m W x 0.15m D. The ground was pretty firmly packed, with excavation only permitted by hand, machete or natural materials. Without the benefit of any pics to back this up, I’ve pulled some random images down to at least give you some idea of the ‘perception vs reality’.

SheltersSitting down to dig this pit out was messing with my war-torn body.  My feet started to feel all the hot spots, muscles tightened…reality began to sink in a little.  It probably took around 45-60 minutes to knock this bastard up, including a multitude of “check please” calls to the lovely adjudicators/volunteers who would wander over with the Stick of Disappointment that was used to measure the pit dimensions.  “No.  Keep digging.”  My machete had seen better days by this point.

Finally I satisfied the Stick of Disappointment and was presented with my grey wristband.  Very happy with my strike rate on the challenges so far…really kept my spirits up.

Next job…what was to be my worst experience of the weekend…the race official points to the landscape ahead…Take your bearings, observe the lay of the land and make your way to that ridgeline until you intersect with a fire trail.  Turn right and continue until you locate a white marker and continue on to the next checkpoint.

What lay ahead was around 200m of extremely dense Lantana weed.  Aptly noted by the Federal Government as a “Weed of National Significance”, this shit does serious harm to the ill-equipped.  It was at this point I should have donned the Rock Tape Talon gloves and G-Form mountain biking knee pads that I had packed.Talons

What a dickhead.  I was just too far into the “hear and obey” zone to take stock for a few minutes and consider how I could make my life a little easier.  Validated by personal experience, I can tell you that Lantana bushes can grow to exceed 2-3m and are made of tough vines of varying thicknesses with an average of what felt like 1,000,000 razor sharp thorns per square centimetre.

Three of us ended up working together to carve our way through this nightmare.  This was a moment where size does in fact matter.  I deliberately economised on my machete length to save weight but now felt I was trying to slash through this shit with a Leatherman.  Next time:  bring a bigger machete (#badass).  By the time we found the fire road any exposed skin was raw and bleeding…a great look.

LantanaFrom here it was another hike through the scrub to a point where we were presented with a raw egg in the shell and a cube of raw roo meat.  Carry these to your next checkpoint.  The egg must arrive intact.  You must also harvest a bag full (shown bag) of Rhizome (Fern) roots.  They must be cleaned and prepared for consumption.

FernsIt took me some time to figure out how the root system worked with these.  I wasted heaps of time just digging up small sections instead of following the line and walking away with big sections.

Eventually sorted it out and pushed on to the next checkpoint.  No big deal.

The next run/tab section messed with my head.  After all the heavy-hitting manual labour tasks, the care and attention required to preserve this egg was annoying to say the least.  I was petrified I would drop it.

After carrying this thing for around 8km or so, I arrived at a dam crossing.  To discover my pack – thanks to the timber frame – actually floated on its own was a massive mental high-five-to-self.  With my egg safely tucked into the gel pocket of my superb Salomon S-Lab Exo Twinskin shorts, I happily side-stroked across the dam, emerging with at least six leaches.

A warm fire was crackling nicely and we were required to prepare all edible items as a meal…consumption was optional. No worries….the egg and rhizomes were placed in the hot coals and the roo meat dropped onto my machete blade as it heated quickly over the flames.  Magic stuff.  I wasn’t keen on trying the fern roots but the egg and roo meat were FUCKING AWESOME.  Hot. Real. Food.  Thank you very much.

Our final task at this point was to transport an ember from the fire back across the dam and use it to start another fire.  No problem….I was an honours graduate from the school of YouTube.  I harvested some paperbark and fashioned it into a tube, filling it with a basket of tinder into which I dropped the ember.  The tube was rolled up and secured with paracord….held high while I side-stroked my way back across the dam, collecting more leaches.  The tube was smoking heavily as the ember was kept alive with occasional puffs….a good sign.

I emerged from the dam, nursing my fire baby.  Get the tinder flaming and you’re good to go.  I released the paracord to open the tube and feed the ember more O2.

I nearly lost my eyebrows.

Another wristband was mine.  Appropriately red.

From there it was another push….driving more mileage into my legs…surprisingly not feeling too bad for it all.  After a while I found myself back at the Start/Finish line….greeted again by Emilie and a bunch of much appreciated cheers and whistles.  Emilie checked my wristbands….with no recorded misses, I grinned as she counted….and wider, as she handed me my third medal, “DID”.

Count Em UpI Did Fail

 

 

 

” NOT ”  

The fourth and final stage.  At this point I had trouble convincing myself that I might actually get through this thing.  Here’s your map.  The course you have already covered is shown in yellow.  Here’s your GPS tracker – wear it and don’t press that button unless you’re ready to quit.  You are no longer bound by caution tape or course markers and can access any area to locate each waypoint. You have four message sticks to find and interpret to lead you to the location of the final medal. 

Pro’s:  Heaps of time.  A useful distance scale on the map.  A list translating around 20 aboriginal hieroglyphics.  Con’s:  The map was someone’s idea of a joke.  A blurred photocopy off Google Earth with some tracks marked in yellow and landmarks noted with icons so oversized they obscured half the area around it.  No contour lines.

As it turned out I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Adam….both studying our maps.  We had already covered some distance together so it was good to see a familiar face.  Given the deliberate shit-ness of the maps, we agreed it might be a good idea to work together.  This typified the spirit of the event….we weren’t there to compete against each other.  We were there to defeat the race…..us versus it.

Buddy Up

Ask any Tasmanian….two heads are better than one.

It took us a little while to orientate our bearings to this map-good-for-toilet-paper but once we had it nutted out, things ran relatively smoothly.  As it turned out, this navigational component was going to put around another 25km in our legs.

One of the most memorable moments for me on this stage was our self-enforced meal stop.  We put a thermal layer on and took a few extra minutes to eat well and dose up on whatever supplements we favoured.  After so much time sucking down home-made organic ‘race coke’, Perpetuem, Torq bars and gels, this was a euphoric experience for me:

  • 1x tin of pumpkin ravioli….carried in a double-up zip lock bag (cold, but magnificent)
  • 1x massive dose of race coke
  • Endurolyte Extreme
  • Water

We were feeling good here.  No major niggles. Real food on board.  Sniffing the finish line.  Tasting the beer.

Saving you from the monotony of running trails, finding short-cuts and laughing our hearts out when we knew we were going to make it, here are the message stick drawings we had to interpret…
Message Stick - AborginalWe had to decypher the clues, carve them onto our own message stick and identify the resting place of the final medal.  Rules stated that even if we clued on after the first two or three, we had to collect a minimum of four ‘messages’.  There were five in total, but the final one involved a massive tab….no thank you.

After the first two symbols we were 75% sure the answer was at the “Amphitheatre”…a familiar space where we had previously thrown boomerangs and set up bush shelters.  The remaining two clues simply confirmed it.

We wasted no time heading there….greeted by Race Directors huddled around the fire, we were told to look “where there was shelter“.  Grinning like idiots, we bolted for the corner of the clearing where we had dug those feral pits and there they were!   “NOT” was ours!

Not

 

Hugs and high-fives were exchanged before game faces were re-applied.  This was not over until we crossed that finish line.  Powered by a gratefully received dose of adrenaline, we found maintaining an aggressive pace home came easy.

Navigating our way home…partially by that shitful map, mostly by our now intimate familiarity with our surroundings…we soon found our faces illuminated by the powerful white lights of the Start/Finish line.

Medal

We were quickly swamped with hugs, whistles, cheers and much chest-bumping.  With no idea where we were in comparison the rest of the field, Adam asked what our placing was…

Fourth

Well, that will do quite fucking nicely, thank you.  Now, where’s the beer??…

All results and race bling aside, this event bestowed me with new, like-minded friends who I can only hope to cross paths with again in the future.  Amazing people…

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