IT was 3.30am, but time no longer mattered, because after 22 consecutive hours of running, Tim Turner’s brain only comprehended pain and hunger. Place no longer mattered, either.
Where was he? Suspended in misery. Halfway done with the longest race in Australia. On a dirt road, following the faint tunnel of light that extended from his headlamp. He and his running partner, Andrew Hewat, wore aerodynamic water packs and synthetic reflective gear, striding through the thick darkness.
“We have hit what I think you can call our low point,” said Andy, a skeletal and goateed 44-year-old known as Whippet.
“I’m staggering,” said Tim, a 44-year-old from Kiama.
“Everything hurts,” Andy said. “Just a multi-pronged attack. Pain. Hunger. Nausea.”
Andy, from Geelong, said his feet felt like ground hamburger meat. Tim felt famished and yet the idea of more food sickened him. Both runners, competing in last weekend’s Coast to Kosciuszko 246km ultramarathon, now dealt with their bodies as antagonists. Their bodies screamed at them to stop running. Both kept closing their eyes, the way others might do when it’s time to close the novel and set the alarm. Andy almost zig-zagged off the road. Tim, warped by hallucination, spotted a general store in the distance – wait, no, just more darkness.
At 5.30am a day earlier, 20 runners had met on a beach near Eden, NSW. Most already knew one another, if not by face, then by avatar. They communicated daily, sharing advice and trash talk on a running website. The night before, at the pre-race dinner, they had loaded plates with elephantine portions of lasagna and risotto and listened to race director Paul Every recite some last-minute warnings. “There’s a list of hospital contacts in your race packet,” he noted.
As the runners lined the beach, under a dim expanse of gray clouds, some shared nervous banter. The ensuing hours, they knew – as they would ascend 2228m to the highest point on the continent – guaranteed the worst kind of agony, the kind whose solution, stopping, was both obvious and inconceivable.
Tim, like many of the runners, felt addicted to endurance challenges. He started running almost seven years ago, around the time of his son’s birth. Back then, he weighed 100kg – 23 more than he does now. He felt lazy, sofa-bound.
So a few jogs to the end of the block grew into a couple of 2km runs, which grew into some local races, a marathon, a 100km event . . . uh oh, he discovered the runners’ website – the community where he learned to measure himself against others in the stratosphere – and he felt like he had something to prove.
Last year, Tim tried the C2K. He managed 105km before his right leg throbbed and forced a withdrawal. For this year’s race, he accumulated 400km of monthly training. He, like Andy, a partner who moved at the same pace, wanted to finish in less than 40 hours.
Tim arrived in Eden with a two-person support crew, six pairs of shoes, a massage stick, a blister kit, numerous painkillers, bug repellent, salt tablets and a trunk full of vegan-friendly food, to last as long as necessary.
“I don’t want to be running into the second night,” Tim said at the beach. “We think being close to finishing at the second sundown is quite an achievement,” Andy said.
Neither one of them had a chance to win. Some of the racers possessed almost alien ability, especially Tim Cochrane, one of the best ultrarunners on the planet, who aimed to finish somewhere between 26 and 28 hours.
When Every issued the send off – “OK . . . 3, 2, 1, go,” with no further fanfare – Cochrane bulleted away, passing the marathon mark in 3:26, the 100km mark in just over nine hours.
With his pale face slathered in sunscreen and caked with salty sweat residue, Cochrane looked almost spectral – that is, if anybody saw him. He ran so fast he became mere rumour. Other top ultras around the world have organised checkpoints and computer monitors that record splits and projected finishing times; runners can keep tabs on the others. The C2K, though, just had a bunch of guys going on their lonesome through the countryside, no idea of anything but the path before them.
The hours leading up to Tim and Andy’s 3am delirium imposed a dreadful cycle. Every 4km or so, their support crew, Blair Venn and Lisa Ferguson, stopped their vehicle, prepared a meal or snack, waiting for the runners, handed the runners their sustenance, packed up and drove on down the road. By the time Tim and Andy reached the marathon point, in just more than five hours, they’d been coated in a reptilian shell of sunscreen, red country dust and flies.
Ultramarathons, Tim said before the race, break life down into the raw essentials. That notion sounds romanticising until you see it up close. The runners became children. They wanted food. Avocado and tomato sandwiches at 7.10am, apricots and cherries a few kilometres later. Fruit mince tarts for course three. Then some Jatz. Then some canned potato, strained and topped with salt. This was all before 10am.
Indeed, the C2K doubled as an exhausting buffet line. By the time Tim and Andy reached their first night of running – having passed along sunbaked farmland and climbing through dense rain-drenched forest – they had consumed some 20 meals, not to mention litres of water, tea and iced coffee.
They were also hopelessly behind.
Lanky veteran Phil Murphy, powered by a ghastly intake of creamed rice, found a comfortable gap in third place. Cochrane lived off the ingredients he denies himself on normal days – lollies, coffee, flat Coke, chocolate. He finished in 27 hours, 46 minutes – a course record, coming in the race’s fourth year. Five of the 20 starters would fail to finish.
Just around the time Cochrane crossed the finish line, the sun rose on Tim and Andy’s second full day of running. Normally a sunrise offers instant rejuvenation, but this time, neither runner felt reborn, a worrisome prospect. After one pit stop with the crew, at 7am Saturday, Andy fell asleep for about 10 minutes. When he rose again to run, disoriented, he began down the road in the wrong direction. Tim razzed him for that one. After so much shared time, Tim and Andy interacted like a married couple.
“Let’s see if this will make me happy,” Tim said while changing into a fresh pair of shoes. “Nothing can make you happy,” Andy said.
The second day was more a lurch than a run. Runners reached the town of Jindabyne, some 60km from the summit, and then headed on a brutal incline toward Mount Kosciuszko National Park.
Andy’s posture had acquired a geriatric hunch. Tim’s stride had devolved into a shuffle. They bickered about why this race ever felt like a good idea.
In truth, Tim wanted this – desperately. And not just because of last year’s failure. With thick legs and a wide torso, he lacked the natural build of a runner. He embraced running more because of his world view: he relished its simplicity, the way it freed him from his phone, his computer. All minimalism. He never ran with a stopwatch and rarely used an iPod.
“It’s selfish, ego-driven,” he said at one point. “People feed me, people change my shoes – it’s all about me . . . But then, at times, you’re just plodding along, often going through the darkness just following a headlight, and you haven’t got any energy and all you do is keep going forward and it’s very honest and raw. In a way, in those moments, you almost have no ego.”
The C2K, anticlimactically, doesn’t end at the top of the mountain. After reaching the summit, runners must return 9km back to the finish line – a car park.
Tim and Andy, along with their crew, ascended the mountain just as the sun disappeared, streaking the sky in profound purples and oranges.
By this time, Andy feared he wouldn’t make it back down. He thought a rock formation was a bloke – delusions quickly remedied with the sugar and caffeine of an iced coffee shake. But both kept moving. They reached the pinnacle, in an exhausted stagger, around 9.15pm. The world was now dark and windy.
A stone obelisk marked the mountain top and Tim and Andy both touched it, laughing. They held hands. Their crew snapped a few photos. They could barely speak, though later, Tim would call the experience life-changing, a touch-the-sky moment interrupting a normal life.
After five minutes tops, they left the pinnacle. (They’d finish in 41 hours, 34 minutes.) All agitation had melted away. They embarked on the ginger trip back down, where the finish line awaited and after that a shower and a beer, and after that, a good night’s sleep. And after that, a massive breakfast with second and third servings of hash browns, where all the runners would get together and share great stories about the worst of times.