Will Thames

swim, bike, run, tech

Completing the Kokoda Challenge

Note: this post has taken nearly two weeks to complete and so there are some lapses of memory. Apologies if I skipped anything important! This is another of my posts that likely requires a cup of tea.

My journey to the Kokoda Challenge and beyond was a rocky one for many of those involved.

For those who don’t know, the Kokoda Challenge is a 96km trail walk or run in the Gold Coast hinterlands, where teams of four attempt to get from one end to the other, taking in 5000m of vertical ascent over the course. You can’t start with less than four people, and if two team members drop out, you need to join up with another pair before you’re allowed to continue.

I’d had discussions about joining a team early this year, but as the North Face was my primary goal race for the year, I wanted to make no commitments beyond that. Other teams were formed and I had good fun running with Aaron and Brad — they were doing their Kokoda training and I was doing my North Face training.

Unfortunately at the same time I did TNF, Aaron developed a very nasty knee problem that prevented him running for weeks. While thankfully he’s slowly easing back into running he had to withdraw, and I was the logical substitute — I was trained for the distance (I’d eased off a little after TNF but otherwise fighting fit) and keen to join the team.

Over the last few weeks of training, I too managed to pick up a knee niggle. I took a few days off running and went to see a physio, who told me that it would be tough even with a good knee, but that he’d strap it, recommend some rolling and stretching exercises, and I could go back to running. He suggested I might want my strapping changed before the race, but as I could barely get up the step onto the train when the strapping was first on as it was so tight, I figured I’d just keep the strapping I had.

So, I was strapped, trained, prepared for the course and ready to go. And at 5pm on the day before the race, they changed the course. Rather than a nice gentle 20km followed by some tough hills and then a really tough last 50km, we were to do the last 50km as an out and back. Double trouble. Additionally, the route change added an extra 3km to make it 99km in total.

Due to a bush fire on the route we were taking, the organisers nearly had to cancel the race — apparently at 3pm on the day before the race, there was no race. By 5pm they had worked with the Rural Fire Service, police, State Emergency Service to agree on a safe course.

Some frantic rescheduling of pickup times occurred, but by 9pm I was fully packed, prepared, and ready for bed, at which point I had a great sleep until about 2:30am (before a 4:10am alarm call) and then tossed and turned trying to get to the right temperature and having vivid dreams that it was 7am and I’d completley missed the start (yeah, the usual pre-race jitters).

When the alarm actually went off, I quickly put on all my warm clothes, had coffee, breakfast, and was ready when Shayne arrived at 4:45 as planned. A quick trip to pick up Kerno and Brad and then we were off to Nerang velodrome for the new race start.

We passed the time for the next couple of hours sorting various bits out — race registration, slowly getting out of warm clothes into the starting kit, chatting to fellow runners — it was early but it didn’t drag too badly, and we were soon ready to head to the start, after a few photo opportunities (including one where I was the only 1 of 12 across the three Brisbane Trail Runner teams not wearing a BTR top).

The start itself was preceded by an explanation of the previous day’s events leading to the near cancellation of the race, and also stories from veterans of the Kokoda track defence — reminding us that no matter how bad it got, at least no-one was in danger of being shot at. After a minute’s silence and the Last Post, the school teams doing the full course set off. A couple of minutes after that we were off too!

We took it nice and steady for the first few kms, taking in the terrain as it slowly rose. We passed and were passed by other teams as the pecking order slowly established itself. There were some groups with some annoyingly loud people that because of how little pace varies uphill, stayed close to us for longer than I’d have liked — I took off at one point picking up the pace a little too much — the team followed but at that stage it was a little unnecessary. At the top of a descent Phil stopped — I thought he’d take a quick break and I’d carry on, but by the bottom of the hill I realised he wasn’t behind me. After a while I realised I should go back to find him. I passed a few groups who let me know he was on his way (so at least I didn’t have to go back up the hill) but it was a while until Phil reappeared. His water bladder had broken and he was unable to get water out of it but had come up with a solution.

We carried on together to the first checkpoint where Loz and Brad had already checked in — we must have been five minutes later checking in which didn’t go down too well given you’re not supposed to be more than 100m apart.

We pushed on and here our first problems started. At the 10km point, a pink ribbon was missed. As a team we bear collective responsibility for the following 3km when we ran without seeing another pink ribbon (to my shame I didn’t even notice — I was merrily following along like a sheep). At this point Phil mentioned to me that he hadn’t seen a ribbon for a while and we bumped into some trail bikers who hadn’t seen anyone else. We were just about to ascend one of the steeper hills of the Nerang course and thankfully avoided going any further. We headed back, collecting all the other teams who’d blindly followed us and got back to the 10km point — an additional 6km!

We were all fuming at this point — we had so many team lapses — some people had spotted the ribbon but thought it must be for the way back, some people were too far ahead to even discuss this with, and some people hadn’t even noticed the lack of ribbons. It took me a good 15km from here before I stopped being annoyed with myself.

At this point we’d done 16km and were now behind people who had done around 10km, and so we had to overtake those people all over again. Thankfully most people were fairly gracious about this (there were probably a lot of people wondering where all these fast people suddenly came from).

Just before the 3 hour mark we finally got to what was officially called the 18km checkpoint (24km by our route). I say we, but again Loz got here well before us (in fact in between us and the other men’s BTR team). Here, Shayne and Josh, Danica and Lachlon could look after us for a bit. Already I needed some blister patches for the soles of my feet, but other than that I just needed to calm down a little. Brad tried another of many attempts to persuade Loz that we should all run together, as this was a team event…

After the first checkpoint came the first monster hill up to Beechmont plateau. Like a lot of the hills in this race, it really was just a matter of putting one pole in front of another (I was so grateful for my poles — I used them for the whole 100+km) and following that with one foot and then another. We bumped into our Brisbane Trail Runner compatriots from the other team. Kerno was really suffering — he’d had massive cramps and fallen over as a result, and was just struggling to keep moving upward. But he did, slowly but surely. We got out of the worst of the hill onto the road, where we expected Loz to be waiting for us (he’d long since left us for dust) but we didn’t see him until we actually summitted the hill.

Phil was struggling with downhills by this point, but here at least we had some flats and the downhills we did have were gentle, so were able to put in some runs for a while before we got to Syd Duncan Park and took some more refreshments on board.

From Syd Duncan it was a long, slow descent into army land. It was dusty, loose, rocky and at one point I was attempting to use my poles as if skiing down the slope because running wasn’t much use. Because Phil was struggling down hill, and I was wary of descending too fast and further inflaming my knee tendons, we were actually descending slower than we were ascending!

Once into army land it was pretty cushy — the creek crossings were very easy — while it was possible to get wet feet if not careful, you could walk through most of the creeks that weren’t dry and the water wouldn’t go above the sole of the shoe. At the 40km point we got to the army land checkpoint (Three Ways) where they kindly pointed out to us it was only 5km to the next checkpoint. I’d seen the profile though. So, 5km, uphill.

Again, another long uphill trudge. No real dramas, we were all capable of good speed uphill, catching up with and overtaking other groups. It was here that we first saw the 48km Jim Stillman cup participants who at this point had got to their 15km point. As we got further uphill, we were struggling to acknowledge and reciprocate every ‘Well done’, ‘You’re doing well’ but we did try our best — certainly I wouldn’t have contemplated doing a 48km run or even unbroken walk at that age. Brad, Phil and I took it in turns to lead the uphill stroll and thus be in charge of greetings acknowledgement!

Shortly after the top of the hill, it plateaued and then a couple of gentle kms and we were at the official 38km checkpoint. We picked up lights, a bit more cooler weather gear, had some minor snacks and minor first aid (not me this time — the blister plasters I put on at 24km lasted the remaining 82km).

From this checkpoint it was a couple of kms across fields and muddy bog and then it was down, down and down. We passed some very tired looking teams — two of a group of teenage girls seemed to have given up at this point. They were actually very near the top, relative to the rest of the climb, but I didn’t realise just how much down we had still to go. From a profile point of view, it was obvious — we had to lose 500m of altitude but what that translates into in reality can be quite shocking. Steep dusty slope followed steep dusty slope — because we weren’t running downhill any more we just took our time, and I used my poles for balance, or to push me around corners, or to take load off my legs, anything to make it slightly easier to descend.

Finally at the bottom it was an easy run across the bridge over the Nerang River and then to the next checkpoint at Numinbah Environment Centre. We didn’t stop here long — check in and then onwards. Uphill and then downhill, pretty unmemorable now, until finally we got to the pipes that took us under the road to Numinbah Hall. Here we did stop a while — Phil got a very effective looking massage, I fully topped up with water (and drank a couple of cups, realising quite how thirsty I was). Also had a bite of my chocolate chip bar, and put my fluoro top and light on at last, as the sun had already set and it was only going to get darker from here. We were on the return path after 55.5km and 9 hours.

As before, the run between the Hall and Environment Centre was pretty unmemorable, other than being awkward for the number of people now coming the other way. I do remember feeling grateful and sorry for the guys manning the road crossings — always cheerful and generous with their support, it’s a long effort for them. Again, we passed through the Environment Centre pretty quickly onto the next section, probably the toughest of the day.

In my mind, the run up to the 60km checkpoint was three Camp Mountains (a run up Camp Mountain takes about quarter of an hour per km and is 200m in ascent, so it’s pretty close). Again, one pole in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, count down the kms. After 2kms, we started to go down, and although I knew there was a kink in the hill, I really started to believe that perhaps we were nearer the top than I thought — after all, it was only 2km to the checkpoint and surely most of that was fields? And then we turned a corner, and saw a string of lights descending a very big hill and realised that was the third Camp Mountain. Although the track was narrow and dusty, we managed to get up it at the same time all those people were coming down, and eventually we got to the top.

At the bog bridge, there were so many people coming the other way that in the end Phil just shouted across the bridge to stop and let us through. Graciously the other direction paused as we came through (they really didn’t have any other way of knowing, the traffic was that bad), even apologising for holding us up in our cooler running kit while they were decked out for walking over night. And then it was the trek across the fields again and we were at the checkpoint.

Dinner! I had made chicken soup a few weeks before in preparation, and macaroni the night before, and it turns out that chicken soup and macaroni was exactly what I wanted. I also made sure I had all the colder weather gear I was likely to need, as Danica was reporting that the temperature could go down to 1C. I hadn’t brought a spare top but Phil lent me one so that I had a dry one, and also put on my arm warmers. It was at this point that I lost it a little with Loz — he was ready to leave and I was just slowly getting my stuff together to get going and he said something that made me just tell him to shut the f*** up. Apparently Danica was surprised even to hear me swear, but even though me swearing is not that rare, me swearing at people is. I was not feeling 100% happy with Loz.

The plateau from the 60km checkpoint was probably the last running we did until the end, as Phil’s knees just weren’t feeling good on the flat or the downhills now (not that there was that much flat to be had). After a couple of kms, my light started to die (after just three hours of use) and we started making the descent into the depths of army land, another seemingly interminable descent. It was at this stage that Loz seemed to have completely lost the plot, shouting into the breeze — wasn’t really doing any harm but I preferred the tranquility of nothingness. Apparently too much cola was to blame!

But we got to the Three Ways checkpoint again, and didn’t really stop long (although Loz lent me his spare battery here, which really helped me to not feel blind). Then back across the creek crossings, before the ascent back up to Beechmont Plateau. From here to the end we were much more of a team, sticking together as a four, which made me a lot happier.

We were ascending really well (of all the things that we were doing, relative to how you’d expect us to be doing, our ascending was the strongest) and so it was another long upward strong trudge to the top before we returned to Syd Duncan park. At this point I was getting cold from the wind, and so time for my windjacket. I was wondering if I had enough warm clothes but I still had an additional fleece layer if I really needed it, along with a buff, gloves and armwarmers that I was still wearing under my jacket.

After Syd Duncan there was the long haul along the roads which felt pretty dull (although slightly helped by some kind supporters handing out Freddos and Caramello Koalas along the way) before the final long descent of the day (there would be further descents, but none anywhere near as long) down from Beechmont to Little Clagiraba. It seemed that we saw the lights of the checkpoint hours before we got there, and the dusty bit of track that traverses the slope was particularly nasty, but we got there in the end. At this checkpoint Geoff from the support crew for the other men’s BTR team told us that the remaining two members of that team were just about to come in. And I got a bit grumpy with him for even mentioning the other team, worrying that it would cause Loz to hurry off so that we could beat them. I am very sorry for being grumpy to Geoff who was just checking if we could go with them if they needed us to make up the numbers (a team of two can’t continue on its own until it has joined with another group). In the end they didn’t need us and beat us to the line by an hour.

And then more dinner! After eating I went a bit crazy and put on a few too many warm clothes (something I’d been ribbing Brad for doing earlier on in the day). At the checkpoint I had on my buff to cover my ears and neck, and also put my gloves on. Soon after we took off I was boiling and it was time to remove gloves and arm warmers and I got back to a sensible temperature. One last reasonable size hill to cover and we were back to the 10km point where it had all gone so wrong earlier in the day. From there through the 8km to go checkpoint, up the ludicrously steep hill where Phil had stopped at the top early on, and then up and mostly down for the next 8km.

At 18km to go we’d hoped to go sub 20 hours, which was still possible if we could do 6km/h for the next three hours. And I have to say we made a valiant effort — we powered up the hills but just weren’t making the necessary time up on the flats or downhills to quite do sub 20.

The final checkpoint at 4km to go was a surprise, as there hadn’t been one on the way out. We checked in and out and they confirmed that we had just 4km left to do. But that still meant nearly an hour of travelling. At the time it felt ridiculous how much hard work we had to do — another hour still!

Slowly but surely we got to the end. Tiredness was seeping in (it had gone 4am with 2km to go) and my borrowed light had faded and I was onto my original backup torch. Then we hit 1km to go, and it suddenly started to feel manageable — just five lots of 200m! We kept going, and then we could see the lights and hear the sounds of the velodrome. We kept on walking until with 50m to go I asked if everyone felt able to run across the line. And we did, together.

Across the line we were given our souvenirs — a certificate and finishing dog tags. We had our photos taken, and caught up with other friends who’d finished, including new friends like Elmer, a guy I’d never met but had bumped into as our teams crossed paths a few times before they’d gone on to finish in 19:15, a fantastic time.

But our team was whole. Much as many times during the day I felt like stabbing Loz with a pole, I was happy that we’d finished as a four. We didn’t make our time goals, but adding 6km on to our route hadn’t helped with that either. I was pleased that we’d managed to dig ourselves out of the collective funk associated with going wrong and pressed on. None of us ever mentioned quitting and as far as I know, none of us considered it either.

I made some personal stuff ups. I should have been more attentive to our route finding. I should have brought a spare top (I had one for North Face but that was a warmer top — a drier top would have done) and I don’t know what went wrong with my headtorch but when travelling with poles a spare handtorch is not sufficient. Either take a spare battery or a spare headtorch.

I would like to thank the organisers for rescuing the race and the volunteers who made it all happen — registration and checkpoint staff, road crossing marshals, emergency services and everyone else.

All the Brisbane Trail Runners who participated or crewed, well done. Two of the three teams made it across the line in one piece, and 10 out of twelve isn’t bad. Sorry Kerno didn’t make it the whole way but given how he was doing at 30km, getting to 60km was a brave effort. And thanks to him for helping organise all the fundraising and the BTRs in general.

Congratulations to my running team, Brad, Phil and Loz — it’s great that we all succeeded in beating the Kokoda Challenge.

Our crew was awesome. Shayne and Josh, Danica and Lachlon, you sacrificed so much time, energy and resources into looking after us. Shayne even helped sort people’s feet out. I hope if I ever crew, I do somewhere near as good a job.

On reflection, our team did quite well. Only 34% of teams finished as a four. We came 23rd out of 375 teams doing the full “96km”. I was always worried how I’d do running with a team as there are so many things that can go wrong — you can end up being the slow one, there could be someone undertrained holding you up — and so our team did well on that score.

One more thing — after doing the Kokoda Challenge I was curious to learn more about the Kokoda campaign during World War II. I ended up reading Peter FitzSimons’ Kokoda, a well written account describing the horrors of war with tragic unnecessary wastes of young lives, and the triumph of mateship and hard graft in spite of inadequate leadership.

My GPS died at 102km — we did 105km in the end.