Among ultra runners it is known that their pursuit is not an individual one. The one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process that is the central focus of achievement is most certainly individual motion, but getting to the finish line is most certainly not accomplished alone.
When distances being run are marathon plus, day in, day out; when the territory is both as brutal and other-worldy beautiful as the Simpson Desert; when the forces that attempt to halt your progress attack from within your body – fatigue, blisters, torn tendons, bruised feet – and from without – heat, sand, wind and no water – you need help.
And so it was a fitting end in Birdsville, Queensland, to the inaugural 250km Big Red Run multiday with the entire field running as a close knit group down the broad, dusty main street of Birdsville to finish on the steps of the iconic Birdsville Pub. They ran into the bar and a few cold beers to boot as a newly formed family group, each having conquered the same overall obstacles of the desert along with their own, very personal demons of mind and body to finish an adventure run odyssey like no other.
There was little talk of winners and times. None, in fact. In place of the usual run gathering stopwatch fests, were hugs all round, tears, congratulations and perhaps a pint of beer or two. The first was chugged down by a beaming Greg Donovan, the instigator and dream builder behind this event that will no doubt become as iconic as the Simpson through which it runs and the pub at which it culminates.
The genesis of the Big Red Run multiday event began with Greg’s determination to raise money and awareness for Type 1 Diabetes, which affects the life of his youngest son Steven Donovan. Over the course of a year and with an inkling of cause related running, that journey ventured through four multiday desert runs across the Gobi, Atacama, Sahara and Antarctic deserts. Greg took with him the five-member Team Born To Run, made up of what would come to be the oldest and youngest to finish the Four Deserts series, the first couple, and the first with Type 1 Diabetes.
His journey, or at least a major chapter of it, ended with a mixed group of elite ultra runners, weekend warriors, and Type 1 Diabetic entrants capping off a big week of running by completing the final 8km stretch untimed, with results settled on the previous day’s double marathon leg.
As it happened, Team Born To Run member, Jess Baker, took line honours after chasing down an almost impossible lead of near on an hour held after four days of racing by ultra young gun, Matty Abel. Struggling with knee issues, Abel had gone out hard from the first day’s marathon effort, a decision that cost him (and many other inexperienced multiday runners) dearly.
As each day’s 42km course unfolded in a stream of unending gibber plains, sand dunes, mud flats and sharp scrublands, the front pack settled with Jess’ fellow Team Born to Run members Matt Donovan and Roger Hanney toughing it out alongside up and coming trail runner Lucy Bartholomew. Behind them and Abel were 36 more runners stretched across an unforgiving landscape, each looking for answers to all sorts of personal questions, podiums and places furthest from everyone’s minds, including those at the front.
One of the most inspirational stories of all was that of Mark Moala, an Australian-Tongan who set out to inspire his family and his Tongan community by taking on a challenge that was to all intents beyond his judged capacity. After six days gutting it out, Mark crossed the line last and was quickly mobbed by media and supporters to become an inspiration to everyone.
Legendary ultra runner Pat Farmer – known for running from the North Pole to the South Pole – bear hugged Mark at the finished.
“You’re my hero, mate. You inspire me.”
As event ambassador, Pat had joined the fray each and every day, setting out on foot from checkpoints, heading across the plains to cajole and encourage those flagging at the rear. He spent the penultimate 84km day with Mark; the legend and the legend-to-be leaning on faith and passages of verse (and likely a few famous Pat Farmer quotes) to pick Mark back up from the brink of quitting. The pair eventually lumbered into the final night’s camp under the glare of bobbing headtorches and to the tune of Chariots of Fire at four in the morning, both silent, exhausted, and broken but safe in the knowledge Mark would indeed tomorrow achieve the seemingly impossible.
The media scrum around him was deserved and tomorrow a Tongan community will know his name, perhaps a few will follow in his image and Mark’s decision not to quit, to continue on will resonate well beyond the finish line cheers. No, the Big Red Run is not about times or places, it is as one competitor said, about people and camaraderie and the idea that anything is possible.
Pat Farmer’s starting line speech this morning was pertinent, sending the runners off with: “So long as you don’t quit, you’ll get to where you are supposed to be in life.”
Not quitting was pertinent to more than just Mark. Matty Abel admits “I’ve never ever cried before like I did on that leg,” referring to the frying pan hot day that squeezed life from runners over the 84km distance. Yet like Mark, he continued on, hobbled, limping, almost writhing in pain. He did not quit; he endured his self doubt and ceased legs to complete the entire course.
There was Carmen Boulton, who, never having run a marathon, entered in memory of her father who passed away from Type 1 Diabetes complications. She finished.
There was Duncan Read, a long time Type 1 Diabetic, out to show the disease is no barrier to achievement. He finished.
Belgian-New Zealander, Patrick Rousseau, had only signed up to do a 100km leg, yet he got into the spirit by running the first day’s marathon on a warm-up whim, and went on to complete his first and entirely unexpected 250km multiday race. Previously, he had only ever run one road marathon.
And of course there is Steven Donovan, the inspiration behind his father Greg moving heaven and earth to make the Big Red Run a reality. On Monday morning, Steven had never run a marathon. Come that evening, he had a notch on the marathon belt, having struggled with wavering insulin levels and a gammy knee. Within 48 hours, he had two marathons done and very dusted, surpassing what many would aim for in an entire year.
There were moments for Steven, as there were for all runners, but with his Dad taking every step beside him on every day (apart from when Steve found a burst of energy and burned his father on Big Red, the desert’s biggest sand dune, to cross the line well ahead), it was a team effort. Finishing the event stronger than ever, Steve now has the equivalent of six marathons completed within a timeframe of six days. Diabetic or otherwise, Steve, and all the runners who took part in the inaugural Big Red Run, showed that in the big heart of a big country, with a big crew of runners, medics, volunteers, organisers and friends supporting each other to, anything truly is possible: even running mind and body-bending distances through one of Australia’s harshest deserts. And keeping on going when your mind and body is shouting to stop. And when you do keep on going, you do indeed, as Pat Farmer said, end up where you are supposed to be in life: with a satisfied smile drinking a beer at the Birdsville Pub musing on how life will never be the same again.
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The Donovan family celebrate at the finish of the inaugural Big Red Run, outside the Birdsville Pub.
**Trail Run Mag and Adventure Types would like to thank the Big Red Run Team and the Donovan family for having us in tow for the event. This event is special – beyond your average multiday adventure, it was an experience that had more meaning and heart than the Simpson Desert has grains of sand.
We encourage everyone – trail runners, ultra runners, fast trekkers and those just up for a life changing and life affirming challenge to sign up next year. We witnessed participation in the event change people’s lives in the space of six days. The Big Red Run was the crucible and catalyst, but the power of change and achievement came from within each competitor. Big Red Run just showed them that it was within them the entire time. It also showed the power of one family’s determination to make change for the greater good. The Donovans – all of them: Greg, Steve, Matt, Laura and Raylene; are an inspiration to all. They have along with RD Adrian Bailey and their team of volunteers, medical staff and course markers, created a legacy that will benefit the battle to cure Type 1 Diabetes and conjured an experience for runners that goes well beyond the running. Bravo.