Big Red Run Shows Big Heart

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.

BRR8When 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.

BRR6There 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.

BRR4As 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.

BRR9Legendary 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.

BRR2There 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.

If you would like to donate to the cause, please visit;

The Donovan family celebrate at the finish of the inaugural Big Red Run, outside the Birdsville Pub.

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.


Big Red Run Launched

A major new endurance running event, the Big Red Run, will be in held in Australia’s Simpson Desert in July 2013 to raise funds for type 1 diabetes research.

Based out of Birdsville from 8-13 July, the Big Red Run will take runners across the iconic red sands of one of the world’s most remote deserts, including the world’s longest parallel sand dunes and the famous 40-metre high ‘Big Red’.

Launched this week, the week-long running event has the support of some of the biggest names in Australian running and entertainment, with ultra-marathon champion Pat Farmer announced as event ambassador and country music legend John Williamson set to perform a free concert atop ‘Big Red’ on 8 July.

The Big Red Run will become the major annual fundraiser of the Born To Run Foundation, a new charity founded by amateur runner Greg Donovan, whose son Stephen was diagnosed with the potentially fatal type 1 juvenile diabetes at age 14.

Donovan launched both the foundation and the Big Red Run in September, kick starting a mission to raise $5 million to fund research into a cure for type 1 diabetes.

“More than 130,000 Australians are living with type 1 diabetes, with six new cases diagnosed every day and around a quarter of Australians affected directly or through family and friends,” said Donovan.

“I know this first hand due to my son Stephen being diagnosed with the disease and I know the best thing I can do to help him is support clinical trials and improved lifestyles and awareness around type 1 diabetes through the Born to Run Foundation and the Big Red Run.”

Coinciding with National Diabetes Week, the Big Red Run will give runners the option of participating in the Big Red Run, a 250km six-day stage race, the Born to Run 100km or the Big Red Dash 42km.

Among the world’s largest and most remote deserts, the Simpson Desert is six times the size of Belgium, stretching across 176,500 sq km in central Australia crossing the borders of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. It is also Australia’s driest desert.

An Australian owned and organised event, the Big Red Run will be underpinned by a comprehensive safety plan, with endurance event specialists Adrian Bailey and Lucas Trihey managing the event, safety and logistics.

Event ambassador Pat Farmer – twice world record holder for crossing the Simpson Desert – said the Big Red Run would attract endurance runners from across Australia and internationally.

“The Big Red Run will give runners a truly unique opportunity to tackle some of the most beautiful and forbidding landscapes in Australia and join an even bigger race – the race for a cure for type 1 diabetes,” said Farmer.

The journey of the Born to Run Foundation began earlier this year with a team of five ordinary Australians attempting the extraordinary: to race across five deserts on five continents to raise money for type 1 diabetes research.

The Born To Run team, which includes Donovan, his other son Matthew Donovan, Ron Schwebel, Jess Baker and type 1 diabetic and regular Trail Run Magazine contributor, Roger Hanney, is aiming to become the first team to complete the 4 Deserts, the world’s leading endurance footrace series.

The team have already successfully completed the first two deserts, the Atacama in Chile and the Gobi in China, and will embark on the two remaining weeklong, 250 kilometre races in the Sahara Desert and Antarctica in October and November.

The Big Red Run will mark the final leg of the Born To Run team’s five-desert journey, with all money raised going to type 1 diabetes research projects. The Born To Run Foundation will work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), a charitable organisation dedicated to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, to identify promising research projects for funding.

“It’s going to be a physically gruelling journey but in every step we live our foundation motto of “fitness for fighting diabetes”,” said Donovan.

To make a donation to the Born To Run Foundation, register to compete in the Big Red Run or for more information visit:

How much desert running can Jane Trumper Bear?

“I did this whole thing to raise money for Bear Cottage, rather than to see my name up in lights,” she muses. “The lows of the trip were probably when I was out there thinking about Bear Cottage and just realizing how lucky I am to have three healthy kids. I think there was more of that sort of emotion than ‘I can’t do it’.”

Running into Birdsville with pacer and friend Susan Griffen on Day 10

Jane Trumper has just become the first woman to run across Australia’s harsh sunburnt Simpson Desert. Drinking up to 15 litre of water per day in temperatures approaching 45 degrees Celsius, this nurse from Dee Why, who only took up running 8 years ago, set out at dawn on April Fools Day, 2012, uncertain of what lay ahead. 10 days and 660km later, she made it to Birdsville, home of the famous outback races, for a beer, a bath, and a comfortable bed.

At age 51 going on 35, and nicknamed Small in reference to her subtle height, Trumper has an irrepressible lust for life that draws supporters to her. Her friend Susan Griffen came from Tokyo to keep her company along the way, new friends Garry and Janet Tapper drove their 4WD from York in WA and picked her up from Alice Springs Airport and crewed the entire run, alongside another vehicle from South Australia, driven by supporters Peter and Ellis.

Brutal temperatures peaked around 45C early in the run.

“The heat made me slower than expected so I was out each day for longer than I thought I would be. I really didn’t mind the sand dunes, even the soft sand didn’t worry me at all. What I did mind was the rubble and the ankle breaking rocks on the road.”

“You don’t get any help out there if something goes wrong, but I didn’t even take a Panadol, the whole 10 days – no pain relief, nothing!”

Any escape from the heat, perhaps running under the moon?

“I did no running at night – too dangerous out there, no way in the world,” she says, matter-of-factly.

With the risk of snakes, even after sundown, the option of running in a cooler time of day just wasn’t available. There would have also been the added strain on the support crew of making and breaking camp – a laborious process of bedding, stoves, food and water preparation, and repacking vehicles – twice a day rather than once.

Jane (centre) with crew – Janet and Garry Tapper, Susan Griffen, Ellis, and Peter (on knee)

So how did she keep running day after day, and what was her routine?

“As soon as it got light I started running. There were a couple of days I finished running just as it was getting dark,” recalls Trumper. “And on the day I was running into Pirnie Bore the distance was inaccurate so I had Garry driving behind me with the lights on and it was dark when I got there.”

The most famous sand dune in the Simpson is named Nappanerica in the local dialect, but visitors just know the 40-metre high sand mountain near the Desert’s eastern boundary as Big Red.

“I didn’t actually have to run up Big Red but I decided because it was there I had to.”

While Trumper’s last attempt to cross the desert was stopped by fires, this time heavy rains nearly saw her adventure delayed by floods. The combination of mud and sand was enough to stop one of her support vehicles, forcing the other to tow it.

“There was an old Aboriginal guy there, up the top of Big Red. He said that in his lifetime he has never, ever seen water there like that, so yesterday we had to make a bit of a detour around that for the vehicles and run a bit further than expected.”

Climbing another of the Simpson’s more than 1200 dunes

Sand dunes aside, the greatest highs and lows in ultra marathon are usually deeply emotional and personal.

“I did this whole thing to raise money for Bear Cottage, rather than to see my name up in lights,” she muses. “The lows of the trip were probably when I was out there thinking about Bear Cottage and just realizing how lucky I am to have three healthy kids. I think there was more of that sort of emotion than ‘I can’t do it’.”

She also laughs about her time in the shifting red sands. “I don’t think there were any major highs, other than seeing the support vehicle up ahead with cold water – that was probably the best.”

running into a salt pan

The day after completing this epic challenge, how does she feel?

Today, she says she could easily go for a run, maybe a 10km, but warns that it would be slow. She’s returning home briefly at the end of the week, but only as a pitstop. With just a couple more races now until she reaches her 100th ‘standard’ marathon, she’s off this weekend to run the Canberra Marathon.

But, she warns, “that’ll be slow,” now laughing, “that’ll be very slow.”

See Jane’s blog at Please visit it to donate to Bear Cottage.