TRM trail reporter, Nicki Letts, and her partner Mat head to the iconic Red Centre of Australia to take on the rough but rewarding ride that is Run Larapinta, a multi day running adventure along the eponymous trail.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
My disbelief echoes around the towering red gorge walls as I watch my running partner, Mat, heave his tired legs up the vertical rocks. This cannot be the right way. For the past eight kilometres, we’ve been following the now-familiar blue arrows of the Larapinta Trail over a rugged ridge, on a precarious descent and along a riverbed so dry, it’s surely never seen a drop of water.
It’s day two of Run Larapinta, a four-stage trail run along the iconic Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, and what should be a pretty achievable 39km has started to feel like it will never end. Our legs, which hopped and skipped over the 19km moonlit trail around Alice Springs the night before, are now worryingly weary. On the upside, light clouds are starting to obscure the scorching sun that was beating down us for the first six hours. But the dry heat refuses to release us, instead sapping our energy with every step. And playing hide and seek with the blue arrows isn’t helping our mood.
Admittedly, we’re still feeling emotional after spending two hours exposed on a high saddle with Greg, a fellow long-course runner who was so overheated and dehydrated that he collapsed into a heap onto the steaming rocks. Fortunately two hikers travelling the other way stopped to help us, and we’d been able to construct a teepee from their tarp, keeping Greg out of the sun. Hours passed as we kept him cool, tried to keep him talking, fed him sips of electrolytes and swatted away vicious march flies. By the time two Rapid Ascent crew climbed up the mountain and took control, it was nearly 3pm. Greg regained consciousness – to our collective relief – and was able to walk down with the crew to the medical vehicle. They waved us off and told us they’d see us at the finish line. And I almost cried.
But climbing up and running along the high ridgelines of the West MacDonnell Ranges, we quickly warmed up, cheered up and felt like we were on top of the world. What better way to experience this rugged country and experience one of Australia’s Great Walks?
Now, we are facing a wall of rock and my despair again rears its ugly head. Just as I start yanking out the map to prove that Mat’s wrong, a female voice rings out from above: “You’re on the right track! Keep going up and stick to the right – it’s easier!” My weary legs follow the voice until we’re sitting on the top of a ledge next to a blue arrow and a young energetic hiker. “It’s not much further,” she assures us. “Just follow the riverbed. Then there are a couple of steep rocky bits before the end.”
With her encouragement, we muster our energy and shuffle down into the creek bed. With every step closer to the finish line at Standley Chasm, the more breathtaking our surroundings become. Right here, we’re reminded, this is the reason we are trail runners. Squeezing through brilliant rust-red cliff walls, we happily slow down and allow ourselves the luxury of time to take mental snapshots.
By the time we shuffle over the finish line at 5pm, we’re sporting the same beaming smiles we had nine hours ago at Simpson’s Gap. The race director, Sam Maffett, cheers and rings his cowbell, then somberly thanks us for helping Greg, who is being transported to hospital at that very moment. Ali, another Rapid Ascent crewmember, starts chopping up watermelon and oranges before breaking the news that we’ve just missed the shuttle bus back to the hotel. But we don’t care. It’s been a massive day and we’re in no rush to move anywhere.
But slowly and unexpectedly, as we munch on juicy watermelon and cheer the final runners over the line, realisation starts to sink in: we have to do it all again tomorrow, and again the day after that.
That’s the thing about multi-day running events – the sense of achievement you get when you cross the finish line doesn’t have time to settle in before giving way to a niggling nervousness about tomorrow’s race. Each of the four Run Larapinta events is part of a greater whole, which is only complete when (or if) we run over the finish line at Glen Helen Resort on the fourth and final day.
Back at the race hub, Lasseters in Alice Springs, we join a hundred or so other runners for a drink and listen to tales from the day. It turns out we weren’t alone in our race experience; it was tough trail for runners of both the long course (Malbunka) and short course (Namatjira). Before announcing the stage winners, Sam comforts the audience with news that we have indeed completed the hardest race. The two remaining runs – even the final 45km leg – will be less technical, he promises.
After a fitful night’s sleep, the next morning we gather with our fellow runners, and new friends, on the sandy riverbed of the Ochre Pits for the 30km run to Ormiston Gorge. We start off slowly, stepping gingerly, unsure of the aches and pains yet to emerge. But it’s not long before we relax and find a rhythm. We fall into step with Gayle, a friend we made on the first night, and the first 15km flies by unnoticed. The trail meanders through rugged and ancient landscape dotted with ghost gums and spinifex. Our trio only puts on the brakes when we reach the top of a steep ridge to take in the view made famous by Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. Gayle pulls out a sandwich, while Mat takes photo after photo. It’s a classic Larapinta moment and, if a hiker happened upon us, they’d never guess we were in a race!
After a relaxed run, day four presents the real challenge – if not physically, then mentally. For the final push, Run Larapinta leads us up Mt Sonder, the fourth highest peak in the Northern Territory and the highest point on the trail, before traversing along arid floodplains, over another peak and across rugged rolling plains to Glen Helen Resort – a total of 45km. To my surprise, the euphoria of making it relatively unscathed to the final day overwhelms any aches and pains. Gayle, Mat and I settle into a relaxed pace up Mt Sonder, where Sam is waiting to tick off our names and congratulate us. We reach the bottom of the mountain to find a fellow Malbunka runner, Ian, being bandaged after a tumble. Now a foursome, we all pledge to cross the finish line hand in hand.
Our last day on the trail is punctuated by wonderful moments of clarity. At one point, as we’re marching eyes-down up a hill, Mat tells us to stop and turn around. We find ourselves gazing upon the majestic Mt Sonder in the distance. Later, with just 7km to go and melting in the hot sun, we are elated to find the trail stops at the river’s edge. A day of hot running is washed away in an instant with the river crossing. As we sink into the cool water, soaking our hats and buffs, the finish line is all but forgotten.
Cooler and much happier, our “awesome foursome” weaves through the final few leg and our voices ring around the valley as we count down the kilometres. When we hit the road, we’re unstoppable. When we run up the driveway to Glen Helen Resort and see Greg cheering us on, looking fully recovered, we can hardly contain our whoops. When we spot Gayle’s husband, Nick, sprinting to the finish line with his camera, we are spurred into a sprint. We join hands and let the cheers and bells of the runners and spectators carry us across the line and straight into the river. There have been many unforgettable highs on this momentous trail run, but the friendships we’ve made are tough to beat.
NEED TO KNOW
Run the Red Centre: if the competitive running thing ain’t your thing, and you’d rather stop more for photos, run your own pace, a glass of shiraz, beer, a massage, some live music and staying out on trail under the stars (luxe campaign style – it’s all set up for you by camp hosts), then check out Tour de Trails’ trail run tour along highlight sections of the Larapinta, usually held every May. Itinerary details here.
Or…just go run your own way – there are plenty of local operators who will drop you off and pick you up and the trail is pretty well marked. Make sure you are prepared, have enough water and a on your own steam is also possible! A good place to start your research is www.larapintatrail.com.au.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicola Letts and her partner Mat are travelling around Australia in their groovy VW Camper ‘The Old Girl’ s 1973 VW Kombi, trail running at every opportunity (we’re uber-jealous). Follow their trail adventures on the blog Run, Old Girl, Run.