Run The Planet: in the footsteps of legends

Can an ultra runner who has already run two times around the planet and a beginner who has run a few times around the block answer the question: were humans really born to run?

To find out, two runners – master and apprentice – will look to push mind and body to the limit and beyond in a proposed television series, dubbed Run The Planet. The series will will take viewer on a journey following a number of grueling ultra-distance challenges that trace the footsteps of history’s greatest feats of endurance through the wildest environments on the planet.

The pair will investigate what drives endurance runners to push the boundaries of what is possible; is there an evolutionary need to run? Is it part of our DNA? Is there something in our psychology that makes some people push the limits of endurance, to forge past frontiers, to be pioneers, explorers and adventurers? Is there an innate instinct to run? Was the ability to run in an ancient world the difference between life and death – the ultimate survival of the fittest?

Here’s a ‘screener’ – a small abridged taste of Run The Planet.

From chasing down food as hunter gathers to running hundreds of miles for a message of war, Run The Planet will take viewers to the edge of what is possible to run. And what is not.

During the series Lisa will mentor her student in the art of endurance running, the pair battling through some of the scariest ultra-challenges on earth. Will they make it? Is Chris tough enough to endure Lisa’s world? Can she find an answer to the question she has been asked a million times before: why do you do it?

Viewers will join the pair on an rollercoaster journey as they face medical crises, hallucinations, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, breakdowns, meltdowns, triumph and failures: all part of the experience of extreme running.

The program concept for Run The Planet was developed when Trail Run Mag editor, Chris Ord, journeyed to Kashmir, India, on assignment for Australian Geographic Outdoor Magazine to cover Lisa’s attempt to run La Ultra The High, a 222km ultra through the Himalayas.

While embedded in Lisa’s crew, as he watched her throw up, faint, and push her body and mind to oblivion, Chris got to thinking about why people would consider undertaking such extreme runs in the first place.

Lisa’s answer echoed that of Christopher McDougall and his famous book, Born To Run: humans were born to run. She went further, saying that anyone could be an ultra runner. We all had it in us.

Trying to run with Lisa over two of La Ultra’s 5400m  passes, Chris had doubts.

Conversations ensued about big runs undertaken throughout history. Suddenly the pair had the bet (‘I can turn you into an ultra runner’) and they had plenty of legends to unearth and feats to recreate. And Run The Planet was born.

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Run The Planet journey begins in Red Centre

Two Antipodeans are about to embark on an endurance run challenge that will see the pair retrace the footsteps of an Indigenous stockman who, in 1922, ran 252km through harsh desert country to save the life of a dying missionary.

Lisa Tamati will battle heat for the Race The Planet run retarcing the 126m route taken by Indigenous stockman Hezekiel Malbunka from Hermannsburg to Alice Springs in 1922.

On 25 February, 2012 Victorian (and Trail Run Mag editor) Chris Ord – a novice to ultra running (but not trail!) – will join experienced ultra runner, New Zealander Lisa Tamati, to run the 126km leg from Hermannsburg to Alice Springs through Australia’s scorching Red Centre, battling temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius.

The pair will tread in the historic footsteps of little-known Indigenous stockman, Hezekiel Malbunka, who took up the gauntlet to run 126km from Hermannsburg, a Lutheran Mission desert outpost, overland to Alice Springs in order to save the life of missionary administrator, Carl Strehlow.

Regarded as one of Australia’s most important anthropological experts on the local Arrernte Indigenous culture, Strehlow lay dying at the mission homestead. As horses were being saddled to dispatch a message to the Telegraph Station at Alice Springs requesting medical assistance be sent from Adelaide, Malbunka declared that he would go faster on foot. From his sick bed, his friend Strehlow agreed and so Malbunka set off, arriving at the Telegraph Station a day and a half later, quicker than station hands agreed could have been achieved by their horses. Incredibly, he then turned around and ran back, taking only a day.

The pair will film their attempt for a pilot television series dubbed Run The Planet, in which Tamati, who has run a distance equivalent of around the world four times, along with crossings of nearly every major desert on the globe and the length of her country besides, joins forces with Ord, who is, he says “decidedly not an ultra runner.”

Ord will be her protégé for the series as she attempts to prove that an ordinary fun runner has the ability to achieve extraordinary running feats, setting the pair up for a series of challenges in locations around the world.

Tamati and Ord will travel the globe, searching for legends of extreme endurance undertaken on foot. They will then attempt to recreate each run, attempting distances of between 80km and 350km while asking the question: were humans really born to run?

“I argue yes,” says Tamati, who is constantly queried about her sanity. “I don’t think I’m crazy at all; anyone can do what I do, anyone is capable of it, it just requires training and the correct mindset – a will to overcome.”

Chris Ord, pretending to train for his Run The Planet debut.

For his part, Ord argues that’s an easy thing to say for someone who has run ultra events the likes of the world’s toughest footrace, the 222km La Ultra, which only seven people have ever completed.

“I crewed for Lisa at La Ultra,” says Ord. “And Run The Planet is the distillation of a bet, really, that Lisa could turn me into an ultra runner. We were discussing the amazing things some runners – particularly indigenous runners around the world – have achieved. And I guess I got the ultra bug a little after seeing what Lisa endured, and how she endured it. I wondered if it was possible for an ordinary guy like me to push myself to that level of, well, insanity.”

“She’s one tough woman. I’m not sure I’m that tough, but it’s going to be an interesting journey finding out. There will be tears…”

Tamati will speak to local experts to find out the details of the Malbunka and Strehlow story, including relatives of Malbunka and directors of the Strehlow Research Centre, which holds key artifacts including an audio recording of Malbunka speaking in Arrernte language recounting his legendary run, and the few images of Malbunka that survive.

“As an Maori woman, the indigenous element of this story strongly appeals to me,” says New Plymouth-based Tamati. “Part of my message – that anyone can achieve great things, be that in running or other pursuits – is linked to the sedentary lifestyles modern society cultivates, especially for our Indigenous communities. Yet the stories we are unearthing show that Indigenous people were ‘born to run’ – they have an innate instinct and ability. It just needs to be tapped into. We want our show to highlight that while also pushing our own bodies and minds to the limit.”

The run has piqued the interest of Robert De Castella’s Indigenous Marathon Project, that saw a group of Indigenous runners train for and then run the New York Marathon in 2010 and 2011. Two of that project’s runners, Reggie Smith and Charlie Maher, will join Tamati and Ord for sections of the run.

People wanting to follow the Run The Planet journey can get updates by ‘liking’ .