Last updated: 20-Aug-18
By Ian Corless
A down jacket protected me from the cold wind and the low temperatures, amongst the dunes of the Simpson Desert, the sky was not dark, it was black. A lack of light pollution, a lack of people, I was remote and alone in the outback of Australia. Above me the sky glowed with a series of glitter balls. It was like a child’s artwork creation, you know the ones I mean – black card, some glue and then throwing glitter at the card until it sticks. To say the sky was amazing would be a complete understatement. I could see all the constellations, I could clearly pinpoint stars and for a moment I was lost, overwhelmed by the enormity of my location and my insignificance within the world in which we live.
I love running, the simplistic and uncluttered approach of moving from one place to the next under one’s own power. I doesn’t have to be fast, on the contrary, I often think a slower approach is more rewarding. Here in Australia, the home of the ‘walkabout,’ I can think of no better place for a multi-day race.
Now in its 4th year, the Big Red Run (BRR) is Australia’s only multi-day 250km event and it has grown from humble beginnings into a premier event. It follows in the footsteps of iconic events such as Marathon des Sables (Morocco), The Coastal Challenge (Costa Rica) and the Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun (South Africa). BRR was created by Greg Donovan and it was his participation in Racing the Planets 4 desert series (which he completed in one year) that inspired him to create and complete a 5th multi-day event. Thus, the Big Red Run was born. Greg is a passionate fundraiser and has a son with type 1 diabetes. From the off, BRR has always been about raising money to help find a cure and to date, Greg and his team have raised over 600,000 Australian dollars.
A dedicated and passionate guy, Greg wears his heart on his sleeve and it’s this openness that the runners love to see. From the first to the last runner, Greg stands on the finish line and welcomes them all home day-after-day. It’s no easy task, especially when one takes into account everything that must happen to make an event like the BRR function. That is where volunteers come in and boy-oh-boy does the BRR have volunteers.
Australia is a BIG place and this comes into real perspective when one talks to the volunteers – they travel 1000’s of kms to come and work on the event. They themselves endure their own ultra but this in many ways is normal here in Australia. The ‘walkabout’ spirit is clearly personified when one looks at the vehicles that everyone drives. They are not cars; they are rigs of ingenious extravagance – they bring a whole new meaning to ‘mobile home.’ Four-wheel drives transform into rooftop tents and boots or cabins open and expand with tables, fridges, cookers and a plethora of equipment that makes outback life not only functional but pleasurable. I was a little jealous.
BRR is a lifestyle event, here in the outback, without a doubt it is an extension of daily life, the only contrast comes with 100 runners who travel light and fast over six days to endure a simplistic hark back to aboriginal roots; a way to explore on foot. The race format is also unique, it mixes up the best of many other multi-day events and in doing so, it creates its own unique format.
Runners are semi self-sufficient. They are allowed a 14kg allowance which is stored ideally in a waterproof holdall. Within this they must have food for the duration of the event (usually freeze dried), spare clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping matt and then any luxuries. A pack is required whilst running and this must have the capacity to hold mandatory kit that can change based on weather conditions and three litres of liquid. Tents are provided and in most scenarios they hold three people. Bags are transported from camp to camp as required. It’s a great format that allows the runners to run light and, unlike Marathon des Sables for example, recovery is not compromised because the runners have their 14kg of kit waiting at the finish line. There is also unlimited hot water, a foot care team and medical support. The BRR is a great race model that so many other races could learn from. Safety is also a key feature and each runner has a tracker so that they can be monitored throughout the race.
Birdsville is a hick town. It’s a stereotype of what I expected a town in the outback to look like. A scattering of houses, a bakery, a general store, a gas station, a caravan park, a small airport and of course the famous Birdsville Hotel. Imagine a scene from Crocodile Dundee, the scene where he is in a bar drinking a beer – that is Birdsville. No worries mate!
The BRR and the 150km ‘Little Red Run’, which runs alongside its bigger brother (designed as an entry level event with more manageable daily distances), start and finish outside the Birdsville Hotel and once underway, the outback journey begins through the Simpson Desert. ‘Big Red’ is a key feature of both races as you can see from the names. Big Red is a dune section that stretches for several kilometres. Camp 1 and 2 are located next to the Big Red dunes and then camp 3 and 4 are in a new location before the final camp 5 which is located just outside the town of Birdsville. This allows the untimed final day fun run of 8km into the town.
The BRR has three marathon distance days: 1,2 and 3. Day 4 is 31km and then the final competitive day is 84km. For the LRR day 1 and day 5 are marathon distance. It’s a format that works well and the terrain for much of the race is flat with very little technical running. Day 6 for both races is a non-competitive 8km jog/ walk back to the town of Birdsville. The BRR suits a ‘runner’ and the LRR is designed for the runner, jogger or walker who’s looking for an entry level challenge in multi-day racing. Don’t get me wrong though, as one would expect, both races get fast runners, joggers and walkers – anything goes and the daily cut-offs reflect this.
2016 may well go down in the race’s history as one of the most memorable and challenging due to heavy rains that arrived during night 1 and persisted throughout day 2. Rain in the desert, I know, who’d have guessed it? But these rains brought with them unexpected flooding and the desert turned into a quagmire of puddles and thick, sticky clay that bogged vehicles, turned camp into a mud fest and made just walking an almost impossible task. Shoes doubled, trebled and then quadrupled in size and the weight increased from ounces to kilograms. It made the day 2 marathon much more of a challenge, not only for the runners but the race team. Conditions became so bad that camp could not be moved and racing on day 3 was cancelled.
Of course it’s never nice for a day’s racing to be made null and void but just as flooding disrupted Marathon des Sables years ago, rain and flooding caused disruption at BRR. Greg and his team did all they could and in all honesty, they did a remarkable job redesigning race routes for days 4 and 5. They made the tough call not to move camp until the final day when ground conditions had dried out.
Day 3 in camp became one of action as all the runners worked together to dry clothes, make a fire, clear a pathway and basically just bond in true Dunkirk spirit. It’s these moments of adversity that brings out the best in people and now on reflection, the hardships of night 1, day 2 and the clear up process of day 3 may well be a highlight of the race.
Racing sure did happen and the 2016 BRR will be remembered by the dominant and outstanding performance of 2015 MDS ladies champion, Elisabet Barnes. Elisabet broke away on day 1 to win the stage outright, on day 2 under the harsh wet conditions she repeated the process and this scenario was echoed on day 5. The 84km day was a tough one as 3rd placed runner, Andy Dubois applied the pressure in a hope to break Elisabet and 2nd placed runner, Jamie Hildage. It was a tactic I applauded, an all or nothing scenario that resulted in a faster than normal first 40km. Andy unfortunately paid the price for his efforts and then Elisabet took over, went into auto pilot and once again pulled away from the men to win the stage by over 30 minutes. Stage 4 was the only one she lost.
Behind the fast-paced efforts at the front, the rest of the race was one of running, walking, survival, pain and tenacity as so often is the case in any ultra event. What’s great about BRR is its ability to cater for all and offer a course that can be tackled by any runner, irrespective of ability or speed. You just need to hone one supreme endurance tool to complete – the brain. Races of 250kms or 150kms are completed in the mind, get that right and the legs and lungs will follow.
Roaring fires, nightly slide-shows, starry skies, laughter, music, group banter and chilly nights under canvas make the BRR an experience. An outback experience second to none. As the 2016 edition came to a close, talk was already beginning about who would return in 2017. Despite some hardships, the 2016 BRR was a cracker!
But wait, it’s not over… a man of ideas, Greg over the years has developed an event that coincides with the end of BRR – the Big Red Bash. The Bash is an open air music event that lasts for several days and this year, over 7000 people will travel to Birdsville to experience the ultimate outback concert experience with a line-up of Australian music legends.
Let the Bash begin!
- Elisabet Barnes 19:47:39
- Jamie Hildage 20:54:34
- Andy Dubois 21:25:02
Top 3 ladies:
- Elisabet Barnes 19:47:39
- Helen Durand 23:35:04
- Anna Bennett 25:54:10
Top 3 men:
- Jamie Hildage 20:54:34
- Andy Dubois 21:25:02
- Braddan Johnson 22:29:18