I first came across the Big Red Run (BRR) when it popped up in my Facebook newsfeed as something I may be interested in. The idea of running 250km (or 150km for the Little Red Run) over 6 days in the Simpson Desert seemed daunting, so I decided that instead of participating I would sign up to volunteer to see what the run was all about.
Now in its fourth year, the BRR starts and finishes in Birdsville, Queensland, and was set up to help raise money for the Junior Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF). The run itself takes runners over sand dunes (including two named Big Red and Little Red), through bush, along gibber (rocky) plains, and even goes along the Queensland and South Australian borders.
I hadn’t had much time to think about the run whilst I was overseas so I only had three weeks to prepare after returning home at the end of May. I’d volunteered to be on the course crew which meant I needed the same mandatory gear as the runners, plus a few extra items. It was a bit of a mad scramble in the days before I left Perth as I gathered everything I needed, but luckily the only thing I needed to buy once I got to Sydney was a tent and food.
When I was buying my food for the trip I couldn’t help but feel incredibly underprepared. I hadn’t planned my meals, was buying food on the fly, and the fact that I’d picked a small Woolies to shop at wasn’t helping. I stocked up on a lot of crackers, muesli bars and oats and neglected to buy any fresh food for the road. I had some dehydrated meals in my bag for dinner and protein powder to add to my oats every morning, but I was at a loss of what to have for lunches. In the end I got away with heap of chicken in a can, crackers and noodles. It wasn’t ideal food, but as I only had access to hot water to make my meals I was limited in what I could buy.
Ella from Big Run Events had put me in touch with Jay and Hao, a couple in Sydney who were driving to Birdsville and had room for one extra. We met on the Tuesday night to say hello before starting on the road trip on the Wednesday morning. Birdsville is about a 27-hour drive from Sydney and so we had plenty of time to get to know each other during the long car trip.
Whilst on the road we stopped briefly in some country towns including Gunnedah, St George, Roma, Mitchell, Charleville, Quilpie and Windorah. We spent about 11 hours on the road each day on the first two days, stopping in St George and Windorah overnight. On the road we encountered countless kangaroos, some emus, herds of cattle, brolgas, and even spotted a few wedge-tail eagles. I had never seen a Brolga or wedge-tail eagle in the wild so it was pretty incredible to pass them on the road.
As we left New South Wales the rain started and continued for a day as we drove west through Queensland. After a quick stop in Quilpie to check the status of the roads we headed to Windorah and managed to avoid any road closures. The road between Quilpie and Windorah was open to 4WD only as the rains had flooded the rivers and the bridges were underwater. The road between Windorah and Birdsville was quite muddy in sections and we almost got bogged when trying to visit the ghost town of Betoota, but luckily we got through the mud without getting bogged.
We arrived in Birdsville on the Friday afternoon and met everyone at the Community Centre. After a quick briefing we left to set up the tent for the night and returned later that evening for a group dinner before the event kicked off. All the runners and volunteers were excited and pumped for what was going to be an incredible week. I was excited to get stuck into volunteering as I’d never helped out with such a large-scale event before. The ratio of runners to volunteers was 1:1 which is often unheard of at races.
The weather on Day 1 (Saturday) was glorious. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping as the runners headed out of Birdsville for their first 42km run of the week. Whilst they were out enjoying the run to Camp 1/2, I headed out to do some course marking. Course marking involved walking or driving along the course and putting out pink flags or pink tape for the runners to follow. The toughest part of my day was trying to eat my chicken in a can without eating any flies in the process. Only one fly died after drowning in the mayo as I was taking my last bite and so it was given a quick funeral after being thrown out the window.
That night I woke to the pitter-patter of rain on my tent. I needed to use the toilet but at the same time I didn’t want to leave the warm tent. After trying to go back to sleep I reluctantly got up and put on my thongs as I trudged to the toilet. After a few steps I realised that my thongs were heavy. As I looked down I saw about 3cm of clay stuck to the bottom of the thongs. The light rainfall had turned our camp area into a clay mud pit overnight and we woke on Day 2 to a cloudy sky and non-stop rain.
There were a lot of depressed looks as the runners waited to head out for another 42km run in the rain and mud. I headed out with the Checkpoint 2 volunteers as I was due to sweep the leg between Checkpoints 2 and 3. As we arrived at the checkpoint we realised that most of the gear was underwater, so we moved to higher ground and managed to get set up without getting completely drenched.
Despite the cold and rain we kept ourselves in good spirits and managed to have a few laughs throughout the day. At one stage I was sitting next to Lorraine (one of the nurses) when I heard a noise that sounded like farting. I couldn’t smell anything but I thought she had farted and just not said anything which was quite rude. About 30 minutes later I heard the noise again, but this time I realised that it wasn’t a rogue fart but the rain falling down the side of the tent. Lorraine mentioned that she thought I’d been letting off farts, while I thought it was her! The other nurse, Karen, found it hilarious as she’d thought that one of us has been farting without mentioning it.
At noon the first sweep arrived and it was time for me to head out on course for the 12km leg. The main task of the course sweep is to remove all trace of our presence along the course – i.e. removing all the flagging and tape and any rubbish that’s been left behind. For the first hour I embraced the silence but as I walked on I started feeling miserable as the rain continued.
Two hours in I had given up on trying to keep my feet dry as I walked through mud and puddles to collect the flags and tape. In some parts I had to stand in ankle-deep water to get tape off trees. I pitied the runners who were still on course in the rain and mud and was glad that I only had to be out in the rain for 12km instead of 42km. It got to a point where I’d been walking for over three hours and the Checkpoint 3 people were wondering where I was. I was contacted by Callum at Base to try and determine where I was and after checking Google Maps I was advised that I was only 1km away. By the time I saw the 4WD at CP3 I almost cried as I was tired, hungry, cold and feeling pretty miserable.
That night the event organisers advised that Day 3 would be a rest day as parts of the original course were flooded. In addition, the proposed camp move wasn’t going to go ahead as the road to Camp 3/4 was no longer accessible. Whilst some runners were relieved not to have to go through the mud again, others were disappointed that their running total would no longer be 250km, but only 208km. Despite that, all the runners understood and were grateful for how the situation was handled by the event organisers.
On Day 4 we were back in business. While the runners headed out for a 32km run I joined Jackie and Rick for a 9km stretch of course marking to change the Day 5 route. We grabbed our wooden stakes and green flashing lights and marked a path through the plains, through chest-height trees, and along a sand dune.
Part of the challenge of course marking is trying to keep the markers in a straight line, which means that sometimes you have to double-back to re-mark the course after accidentally creating a zigzag instead of a straight line. As we neared the end of the dune we were marking Jackie had the brilliant idea of taking her shoes off, so I joined her in walking barefoot across the dune and along the flooded road. I ended my day with some Big Red burpees to celebrate the day’s work.
The biggest physical and mental challenge for runners was the 84km trek on Day 5. After starting at 6am the runners had until 2:30am to complete their trek across the desert to Camp 5. I was down as a course sweep for leg 6 which started from checkpoint 5. The cut-off time for passing through Checkpoint 5 was 8:53pm, so I prepared for a long day at the checkpoint before heading out on course. Around noon we were almost set up when the port-a-loo arrived. As we walked over to get it ready when we heard someone yell out “runner!!” and we hurried back to see the lead runner, Elisabet Barnes, heading in to the checkpoint. The leading male runner passed through 15 minutes behind Elisabet, with runners coming in dribs and drabs over the following nine hours.
We were based at the 60km mark and made some runners very happy when we offered them Coke and chips. No matter how tired or sore they were, they all widened their eyes and smiled at the prospect of something other than gels! You could see the determination on people’s faces as they stopped for some food and rest, and every single person just wanted to finish.
The worst thing we had to contend with during the day were the thousands of flies. The sound of them buzzing around your head and the feeling of them walking on bare skin was annoying to say the least, but as the sun set we said goodbye to the flies and started the campfire for the night.
After sending off the last three runners just before 9pm I headed out with Jackie and Skye on foot to sweep. We managed to avoid all the holes and the water as we powered along the course picking up stakes and flags before catching up with the last runner. I was lucky to catch some people finishing as I got back to Camp 5 and saw the same look of exhaustion and relief on each person’s face. The day was a true test of physical and mental strength and I was in awe of those who completed the challenge.
After a short sleep we awoke on the last morning and packed up camp as runners prepared for the 8km run from Camp 5 to the Birdsville Hotel. Before leaving camp I spotted Hao with a ring in his hand and he explained that he was going to propose to Jay as he crossed the finish line. He was so nervous that he ended up running at full speed the whole way and was the first to cross the finish line on Day 6. I arrived at the hotel just as I heard the words “she said yes!” over the loudspeaker and went to congratulate the newly engaged couple.
Everyone was smiling as they were welcomed to Birdsville with their medal, a cold beer and the promise of a hot shower after six days of cleaning themselves with wet-wipes. Even I was feeling emotional as I clapped and cheered as everyone crossed the finish line for the last time. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I wasn’t one of the finishers, but watching them cross that final finish line made me want to try the run in 2017.
Volunteering gave me a great insight into the run and I felt like I would have been incredibly under-prepared had I decided to run it this year. I wouldn’t have necessarily been under-prepared from a physical standpoint but a mental one. The people who were most inspiring to me were those who took on the challenge despite never having done a marathon before as they showed some incredible mental toughness during the week.
My main role during the week was to ensure the course was properly marked for each leg on each day of the event. After the runners had completed each leg it was up to me (and the other course markers) to remove all trace of us being there. That meant walking through clay, mud, cold water, and even through spikey bushes to remove all the tape and flags that we’d put out a few days before. It also involved picking up any rubbish that the runners had left on course.
Volunteering made me realise just how much work goes into putting on an event like the Big Red Run. I learnt the importance of thinking on your feet and having contingency plans up your sleeve. I also realised how important events like this are for raising money and awareness for charity. The BRR was created to help raise money and awareness of Juvenile (Type 1) diabetes and they did an incredible job in doing so.
There’s a few small lessons I learnt in relation to being out at the run and have the following suggestions for anyone who wants to run or volunteer at the Big Red Run:
- Plan meals in advance. I was often lethargic despite little exertion due to the lack of nutrients. Chicken in a Can and crackers just aren’t a sufficient lunch. Despite sleeping for 9-10 hours a night I was always tired as my body was craving real food.
- Bring metal cutlery. There’s nothing fun about snapping your plastic spoon when trying to eat your porridge or having a fork break in your Chicken in a Can. Also, metal cutlery helps you get into the tin of Milo faster after someone slams the lid on properly.
- Bring marshmallows. When you’re sitting around a campfire trying to warm up on a cold night and craving something sweet, a marshmallow (or even a s’more) would work wonders for cravings.
The crew were amazing and would express their gratitude to the volunteers every day. They worked incredible hard and even though mother nature tried to play havoc they managed to still put on an incredible event. I am grateful to have been part of such an amazing group of volunteers.
I had my SISU Iron buff with me throughout the event and every time I looked down at it I’d remind myself of why I was there. 2017 is the year of gratitude for the SISU Iron and volunteering at the BRR was part of my journey to give back and support people who need it. Normally people volunteer at a race in order to get a discounted or free entry, but I volunteered because I wanted to help put on an incredible event and help support a good cause. Gratitude is about expecting nothing, but appreciating everything.
The Big Red Run is definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I would recommend to any runner who wants a great challenge, or any person who wants to volunteer at a unique event. Spending a week in the desert with none of the luxuries of home was great, even though it was challenging at times. Whether you talk to a runner, volunteer, or spectator, I can almost guarantee that they will tell you that they had a great time. I can’t wait to take on the run myself someday, and hopefully I’ll be back in 2017.
Want to see more? Watch my Big Red Run video.
Event: The Big Red Run
Type: Multi-stage off-road race
Distance: 150km (Little Red Run) or 250km (Big Red Run) – over 6 days
Location: Birdsville, Queensland (Australia)
Date: 25 – 30 June 2016