Some of our members stories here at Running Mums Australia leave me hanging onto every word. This story is one of courage and determination, a desire to never give up, to push on and reach the finish. I want to thank Tina Kirwan for sharing this very detailed, amazing journey into what is an ultra trail marathon.
For those who aren’t aware of the event, the Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge is a gruelling, cross country 4-person team even held over 96km – the length of the actual track in Papua New Guinea and has a 39 hour time limit in honour of the 39th Militia, the first Australian troops to set foot on the Kokoda Track.
Al & I had walked the event in 2013 in a tough 29.5 hours but were proud to get our team of four through to the end. However, we decided that running for a large part of the course was achievable and we were keen to give it another go for the 10th anniversary in 2014. Registrations opened early in October 2013 so we registered a team of four (with two spots to fill) and were excited to start training early for the event.
We filled the third spot with ease with a friend of Al’s who’d also done the challenge in 2013 and like us was keen to give it another go. We eventually filled the fourth spot with a fantastic runner and multi-sporter that was keen to check it out. We trained long and hard, working around family and work commitments. We spent many hours running up and down Mt Cootha and got in some great longer training runs on the Gold Coast track. Unfortunately we lost our third team member to a hamstring tear so re-filled that final spot in June with a running buddy we’d met at another event.
We were all excited as the day loomed nearer – we were fit, ready and couldn’t wait to get out there! The support crew were organised, accommodation was planned and everything was coming together. A few last minute changes on the Friday meant that accommodation plans fell apart (high winds meant it was unsafe to tow our caravan and team HQ to the Gold Coast) but alas, our fantastic support crew had a plan in place and were happy to take us in (bless them!!). So I excitedly headed down the Friday night to register the team and collect our race bibs and arm bands.
As I went to join the queue a lovely gentleman approached me and said please come over here, the tracks changed. I wasn’t phased, there was often small changes to the track and much of it is a mystery until the day anyway. “We cant start here”, he told me. Okay I thought, I guess we’ll start round the corner or something. “We’re starting at the Velodrome””. Again (probably not really comprehending) “ok – no problem”, then hang on – “the velodrome? Where we finish??” That’s right, a raging bushfire threatening homes near the start meant than in less than hour with work of the Kokoda Challenge Association, SES, Police and countless others the course had been changed to start at the end, to the halfway point and return. WOW.
Our Kokoda plan is always to change the plan but suddenly things started flying around my head, like, where do our support crew go now? As the details emerged it meant we’d go through the last two support crew checkpoints twice, meaning we’d now see them at 18km, 38km, 62km and around 82km (we weren’t really sure the track was the same length now). That took a bit of thinking as we didn’t really need our support crew at 18km (previously we saw them at 30, 47, 57 and 78) so we figured out what that meant for us and what we were carrying and needed and set a new plan in place.
As we stood in ready to go at the start we were told at 3pm on Friday there was no event, what an amazing job they had done literally overnight, to make this work. I was grateful and ready to go! We had a goal of 20 hours but if things went our way I knew we could do better than that.
We took a quick team start line selfie, honoured the diggers and paid our respects as the last post was played and then we were off. The first 18km was fun, we were pacing well, everyone was in great spirits and we were enjoying running through Nerang State Forest, noting some very steep downhills that wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable at the end of the course! I was sure to keep sipping water and had a gel at about 10km. I knew it was important to fuel properly or there was no way we would last the distance.
There was lots of chit chat with other teams and it was really enjoyable. We hit the first checkpoint and cruised on through to our first support crew checkpoint at Clagiraba Reserve at the 18km mark. We were only stopping long enough to collect some medicine for one team mate who’d had what he though was pre-race nerves for a few days. They pulled up just as we arrived at 10.30am and we did some quick foot strapping for one team member, I grabbed a protein ball, team photo and we were back on our way knowing we’d see our amazing crew again in another 20km at about 2pm.
We swiped our arm bands as we left the reserve and headed off across the road and into some bush that was a combination of open fields followed by some slopey single tracks around trees and plants. We had to stop a few times to check we were on track and forever keeping an eye out for the tell-tale orange and pink ribbons. We were still running well and taking in everything around us however very aware that we would soon be ascending Hellfire Pass, a pass not wrongly named that was usually only descended during the course.
We navigated our way up the steep and slippery pass to the top of Lower Beechmont admiring the spectacular view of the Gold Coast and onto the next checkpoint at Syd Duncan Park. A quick toilet stop and arm band swipe and we were on our way again. I was a bit worried about Al at about this stage as he’d mentioned he was really hot and was having trouble bring his body temp and heart rate down and I could tell he was struggling.
Its easy to focus on how you’re feeling but we always made a point of “How are you feeling? Going ok?” If someone had a niggle or something concerning them we had to look out for them – we still had a LONG way to go! Matt also noticed Al wasn’t doing so great and despite objections took his pack off him to ease the strain. I was impressed, I hated carrying even my own pack, it was a true representation of what Kokoda is about – sacrifice, mateship, endurance, courage.
I’m not really sure what the next part of the track was called but we headed downhill into Army Land and we knew we were at the right place when we got there! It was 12.45 and we were on track to see our support crew at around 2pm.
We spent a few minutes here and refilled water and chatting to the amazing volunteers. I have to say the volunteers, support crews and general public throughout the event were amazing. We ran through one part of the track to cheering and applause, felt like a celebrity!! It was amazing.
At all the crossings, everyone was encouraging, friendly and helpful. Al was suffering cramps in his calves at this stage but he was confident that he was drinking and eating enough so we were hopeful they’d ease off. We knew from the previous year we had over 6km of a long continuous uphill, armyland road to the next checkpoint and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to that! We set off and managed to keep a fairly steady pace. Matt stayed close to Al, our other team member, Bert had charged on and I was in my own world staying pretty close to Matt and Al but just focussing on the road and checking every now and then that were okay.
I’ll admit, I’m not the best team member and I struggle to know what to do with someone who’s suffering. I knew Al was struggling with the uphill and had to keep stopping because of cramps but I knew Matt was there so was happy that there wasn’t much I could add. The road the top of army land went on and on and on. I thought we were never reaching the top…maybe just over this rise, or around the next bend. We’d dropped our pace considerably by this stage but I wasn’t worried, we were going uphill and I was more concerned about Al getting through.
We finally saw the grass of army land and our amazing support crew had a primo spot right where we came in. I sat, re-dressed the strapping on my little toe, enjoyed a hot coffee and vegemite sandwich and had my water filled. We knew at this stage we were amongst the first teams through with only about 6 other teams having hit the CP at this stage so we didn’t want to stay too long, we were pretty keen to get moving after we got Voltaren on the legs and everyone was refuelled.
As we set off across the hill we started seeing the high school teams from the Jim Stillman cup coming the other way (they started at the hallway point at 12pm and did a 48km course). There was a lot of encouragement both ways “well done, you’re amazing, great work” everyone was in pretty good spirits. From the top of Army Land we were heading down the Environment Centre – it was a steep downhill, very dry and dusty. We carefully shuffled down here, trying to get our footing and not send rocks falling down on those below us. Al and I both ended up on our backsides and various points down the hill. We reassembled at the bottom and headed across the road and into the Environment Centre.
There were no other teams here and it’s a major checkpoint for first aid and nutrition so we checked in and Al jumped up to get the first aid guys to massage his calves. I grabbed a coffee and we chatted while we waited for Al. I could see he was in pain and I was getting really worried. He was okay downhill and on the flats if he didn’t push it but any uphill caused the cramps to kick in again. I hoped this would help. We headed off towards Numinbah Hall which we knew was the halfway mark. We weren’t sure if we had to go through the 11 creek crossings that are normally incorporated into that part of the track but I knew there were a couple of reasonable hills and I was glad it was still day time and warm if we were going to get wet.
As suspected though the course turned off before the creeks and we headed uphill. I love this part of the track, its an interesting trail to run (although last year there was a snake on it when we came through!) and the hills are challenging but not killers. We weren’t exactly sure when we’d hit the Hall but as the GPS watches hit 49km the sign said 1km to the checkpoint, awesome, that meant 50km so we were up for a 100km round trip. That doesn’t seem significant when you’re doing 96km anyway but I can tell you when you’ve done 96 and there’s 4 to go it feels very significant.
Anyway, we’d made it to halfway, 50kms and 8 hours in, we were pretty happy. A couple of other teams came in and left while we were regrouping and we discovered a couple of teams had taken a wrong turn near the start and done an additional 10km. Yuck, I was glad that wasn’t us. I checked on Al and he wasn’t looking flash as we headed back towards the Environment Centre. The cramps had moved calves to quads and I knew he was going to struggle with some of the hills back to the Environment Centre. Nothing was said but we also knew that following that was the steep ascent into Army Land that we had come down, that wasn’t going to be fun for any of us.
We approached the Environment Centre as dusk was setting in and it was a good place to get the headlights going. As we were leaving I spotted another team that I knew that were just heading into the Environment Centre for the first time. We chatted about how both teams were going and admired their pink undies which were worn outside their compression wear with “Suck it up Princess” printed on the backside.
We headed off and back towards the dreaded Army Land ascent. It was 6km and it took us an hour 15 mins. I wished I’d brought my walking poles when we left this checkpoint earlier. My garmin went flat partway up but it was about a 550m ascent and as we were going up there were a lot of teams coming down which made it even more difficult with dust and falling debri. I don’t really know how I made it up there unscathed but I did and I was grateful to see the grassy hills at the top. It was cooling down fast at the top of the hill and I remembered Al’s warning that we’d cool down fast after we’d finished the climb so to put on an extra layer when I hit the point where the farmer had the bonfire last year. Sure enough at the top of the hill was the bonfire so I put my jacket on and headed over the hill where I knew our support crew would be waiting with hot food and drinks.
I got changed, swapping my shorts for thermal pants, a thermal top, another thin long sleeve top, jacket, beanie and had my gloves and headlamp sorted ready to go along with the walking poles. Heather and Rosie fed me hot vegetable soup (an amazing hit with everyone two years in a row!), hot chocolate and anything else I needed and filled my water. We were ready to set off when Al looked at me and said he was about to pull the pin. I could feel his pain and see the disappointment in his eyes. I knew we had 6km of downhill from there so convinced him to keep going as I knew he’d be okay with the downhill and see what happened after that.
We headed off downhill and no-one was really feeling great. I was regretting not joining the queue for the toilet at the checkpoint. We walked the whole way down the hill to the checkpoint, did what we needed to there and then headed back into the bush and up. The next checkpoint was Syd Duncan park and that meant more uphill. I stayed with Al who really couldn’t take more than a step or two without cramps by this stage and spasms through his calf muscle. I was trying my hardest to keep him going but I knew what I’d do the in the same situation. At one point he looked at me and said Í’m trying to remember what I said at this stage last year to get the others up this hill.
I knew what we’d done last year – but it was a different story as because we knew the problem was lack of fuel and promised a smiling support crew, warm blankets and some nourishing soup and good stuff to get the body going again. None of this was going to help Al and I told him that and the best I had to offer was a joking threat to whack him round the head with my poles to distract from the pain. My heart broke for him when he asked me to call our support team to pick him up from Syd Duncan. The thought of what was to come after that and whether he could do it was too much, and although I supported his decision, I was devasted and I almost broke down in tears at that point.
Now, tears aren’t uncommon on the Kokoda Track – a lot of demons visited at various points, I’d learnt that the first year but we’d promised no tears this year so when I told him I thought I was going to cry – I was quick to perk myself back up and make light of it with a “only because I know you’re going to make me come back next year and bloody do it again”. He admitted he had unfinished business here to deal with.
The others were a bit ahead of us so we continued on and I sent the SOS SMS knowing the support crew could be there pretty soon. We reached Syd Duncan and the others were waiting and understandably ready to check in and keep moving. They looked surprised when I told them Al was staying, the support crew were on their way and I was hoping neither of them would decide to call it quits as well. I checked that Al was okay, the others were fine and we made the decision to head off, the sooner we got to the end the better. We picked up some light jogging on the flats (there were many of them) and the the downhills and headed toward the Hellfire Pass descent. Matt admitted his knee was sore so we weren’t pushing the running but we were feeling okay and it was only about 8km at this stage to the next major support crew checkpoint. We made it down Hellfire pass although my headlight was starting to dim and I didn’t really want to stop and change the batteries, luckily I had a small torch in my pocket so I used that to add a bit of extra light.
Before I knew it were at the bottom and heading back through the bush to the Clagibara Reserve checkpoint and I got a message to say that the support team had just arrived as we did, perfect timing. We had 18km to go until the end and it was 11.45pm. Less than a half-marathon, easy right? I kept pushing away the memories of the big descents from the start of the race knowing what they meant in reverse. I didn’t want any food at this checkpoint, my stomach was still feeling a bit blah from holding on too long from the last checkpoint. I changed my headlight batteries and a bag of ready salted chips emerged which I knew would sit okay so forced a few of those down.
It was cold there and the support crew looked chilled to the bone, I was extremely grateful for them. We estimated about 4 hours to the end. We worked out this should be enough for them to wait at the reserve for the other team they were supporting and then meet us at the finish.
We left there and it wasn’t long at all before we hit a large uphill. The accumulation of 82km & 16 hours suddenly hit me. That hill was tough, it flattened out partway but then just over the verge started to ascend again. I knew I just had to keep my legs moving and used my poles to help me up. I was exhausted at the top and really wished I’d just pulled out with Al, we weren’t a whole team anymore anyway. We just trudged from here, I knew Matt’s knee was painful and we really didn’t talk a lot just offered words of encouragement to a couple of school teams we passed and occasionally checked in to see how each other were going. We were counting down the km and excited to hit 10km to go.
Bert mentioned about the Blackall 100 in November and some Alpine 160km event next year – haha, have fun with that, no thanks. Earlier that day I probably would have been pretty keen! There was another horrible ascent with about 7km to go and somewhere after this things got worse, we were still moving along but Matt was stopping often and putting his head down between his knees I had a feeling he was going to throw up and being as supportive as I am, didn’t want to be anywhere near that but stayed close enough so that I could see him but also knew I had to keep my legs moving because once they stopped they probably weren’t going to go again.
I also hit a point where I felt really queasy and thought I might join him. I looked up and was somewhat surprised to hear Bert helping a young girl out who was struggling. He was carrying her pack and keeping her going and had managed to get her just before she sat down in the track. I just kept walking and had decided somewhere in that final 18km that I was done with this event.
The values of Kokoda are courage, endurance, mateship & sacrifice, yet we’d left Al at Syd Duncan and no-one was really having any fun. I knew Al had felt crappy since his about 20km in and by this stage I wished we’d all just pulled out together at Syd Duncan Park. I guess this was my dark time and last year it had hit between 2am and 4am as well. It was cold, dark, I was tired and really just over it. I was quite prepared to just lie down and go to sleep and didn’t even care if I didn’t make it to the end. Suddenly there was light ahead and another checkpoint. This was a scheduled checkpoint but it wasn’t setup at the start (as it probably wasn’t necessary at 4km in) but just the light and someone cheery to say hello was like an oasis in a desert.
I had been getting occasional text messages from my husband up until the last major checkpoint but they’d stopped so I guessed he gone to bed (can’t blame him for that!). 4km to go…. 4km…. barely a warm up, but it may as well of been 50km. Bert got the young girl to sit down and instructed her to drink a bottle of water, she was dehydrated and we left her in good hands and continued our crawl to the end…. We passed a 3km to go sign – Bert was ahead of me and Matt was behind me, still stopping regularly with his head down between his knees but all within sight of each other. I was grateful that it was all downhill or flat from here and I knew there were no more hills as we were still what seemed quite high above the street level.
I saw the 2km to go sign and suddenly Matt came powering past me – what the? I don’t know what happened, he said he had vomited again and now felt great. Righto I thought better keep up with him so I picked up my pace and we’d soon caught up to Bert who was just as surprised. I think adrenaline had kicked in. Right let’s do this then, I said and in the excitement started to jog. This lasted about 5 seconds til we remembered Matt had a sore knee and I could also feel my ITB twinge when I started to jog and started to get stich. A fast walk seemed like a much more realistic option.
Now the guys have much longer legs than me so their walking pace is a lot faster than mine but I was determined to keep up and threw in a few metres of jogging to make sure I didn’t get left behind. Soon enough we could hear the finish line and see the lights. I knew we had to get over the fence to get out of the forest and once we were over that it was across the road and we were there.
The bar that marks the exit (and this time the entrance as well) into Nerang State Forest.
We walked through the finish together and I was relieved but really just numb. I didn’t feel happy I was just glad I didn’t have to go any further and it was over.
We stopped so the photographer could get a snap and I saw our amazing support crew cheering for us. Steve (the photographer) stopped to ask me where Al was and he was surprised that he wasn’t with us. We got stopped before we went any further and asked if we had our certificates, huh? Oh, certificates, no, oh, we have to go up on stage and get them, awesome, just up those steps – hahaha, cruel. Anyway up we went, got our certificates and tags and stumbled back down the steps to see Al and our crew and the hope of a hot shower, hot food and a warm bed.
A day later and how do I feel? Legs are tender, a couple of toes hurt, I still don’t feel like it’s something I need to do again’. The training and fundraising commitment is huge and I’ve been lucky to have amazing support from my husband with our children but I think its time to hang up the Kokoda poles. It’s an amazing organisation, an amazing event, maybe next year I’ll help out on the other side of the event. Who knows. Right now I have my first marathon in October to start training for.