Kokoda Challenge 2007 and 2008

After finishing the Hawaiian Ironman in October 2006 my plan was to take a year off Ironman and focus on the run. I knew that I was never going to significantly decrease my swim time, and my bike time was sub-5 hours so I figured that bigger gains would come from a fast marathon off the bike.

2007 was going to be my run year. I registered and trained for the Gold Coast Marathon. However, about two weeks before I was to race, friends of mine in Cairns told me that they were going to race the Kokoda Challenge in Papua New Guinea. Somehow they managed to convince me to run it too, and so I registered. With this is mind I went and raced the GC Marathon and ran a personal best marathon. However this left me shattered for a week afterwards, and considering that I only had eight weeks between the Gold Coast and Kokoda, I was seriously reconsidering. The Kokoda Challenge was started in PNG by an Australian expat who traversed the full length of the 96km track unsupported in a time of 26 hours and some minutes. It soon became a race between Trek Organisations and their porters. The title of fastest across the track needed to come home to PNG and who better than to contest this, porters - guys who trekked for their day job. After a few years, the race was opened to the public and the challenge was set to see who could try and beat 24 hours.

On Saturday morning the 25th August 2007, about 40 of us, including 12 or so Aussie expats, toed the start line, which happened to be the timber arches at Ower's Corner. I wondered to myself just exactly what I had got myself into. The race is run from Ower's Corner to Kokda Village across the Kokoda Track. It is 96km in length and is predominantly unsupported. However, there are about five check points set out at various villages along the route. These are manned by senior staff from Kokoda Trekking Limited (KTL). Communication was via two-way radio between checkpoints and base camp in Port Moresby. The KTL guys had supplied various items of food; medical kits etc. and had arranged for the local villagers to provide items of fruit, sweet potato and papaya.

The gun went off and we descended down a steep single track to the Goldie River. Although having positioned myself upfront the local guys made the expats look like we were walking down hill. We were all almost last to the river. As I crossed the river and made my way up the next hill I soon started to catch up with the stragglers, and realised that this first attempt at blowing the Aussies away was more just from excitement and inexperience. Soon I had made up a number of places and was well up in the field.

For anyone who has walked the Kokoda, they will know how unforgiving the terrain is. There is not a single flat section, it is extremely hot, humid and the single track is highly technical. It takes a huge amount of concentration for foot placing as well as direction. Because we were not part of a trek, and the map that was provided did not have the level of detail that would be able to assist you across a river crossing and link up to the path on the other side, we were constantly having to scan ahead, look for footprints and signs of a path up and down creeks.

The field split up fairly quickly and I found myself running on my own for large parts of the day. Often I would pass groups of trekkers who would stand aside and cheer. This brought goose bumps to my arms and legs, and then just as suddenly as we had met up, I would be gone and not see anyone for another 3 or 4 hours. The day went quickly. Because you are not able to see many panoramic views, your vision is limited to the forest surrounding you. The ascents and descents are brutal and relentless and your quads are generally smashed after a few hours. I drank from many of the cleaner creeks, taking a chance as I didn't use any water purification tablets. I figured that I would deal with whatever I got after the race, and that it probably wouldn't affect me during the time I was on the track.

So far so good. Although it took over 9 hrs to do 50km, I was still sitting in around 3 or 4th position. Now is where the fun started. It got dark. I put on my head torch and slowed down exponentially. The same conditions now had to be dealt with in the pitch black. It also started raining. I remember cresting the top of the Mount Bellamy at the Kokoda Gap at about 10 o'clock in the evening and thinking how this was going to help me run a faster Ironman marathon. Two thirds of the way through the Papua New Guinean rainforest would surely have to constitute for one of the remotest places on earth, at night, on my own. It was the most fun I could have had without laughing.

I pushed on through the night and eventually made it to the village in Kokoda at 06:43am. I was 8th overall in a time of 23 hours and 43 minutes - ecstatic that I had broken the 24-hour barrier. I was now the first Australian across the line and the second fastest Australian in history to traverse the track.

Take Two

It is now 27th August 2008 and I'm standing in a line of about 60 runners at Ower's Corner. I'm back for a second attempt as I feel that a bit of local knowledge and specific training may swing in my favour. As I look out from the arches I remember the pain and discomfort I experienced a year ago. The thing I love most about ultra-running is that it is a mind game. The more you are able to control your mind and the fears that it creates, the longer you are to hold off on things like pain, distance to go, fatigue, the better day you will have out there.

The second big driving factor for me this year was that my wife had decided to walk the track ahead of me. She had left Ower's on Monday and it was now Saturday. The plan was that I would run through their campsite at Isurava Village, and that they would pack up their gear and follow me down to Kokoda getting there sometime in the morning.

The gun went off and this time I was surprisingly able to hold my position down the hill to the Goldie River. This gave me confidence and I soon got into a fast pace. This year also saw the entry of the legendry Aussie ultra-runner, Don Wallace. Don and I ran for the first six hours together until I hit a massive wall. We were 1st and 2nd through most of the initial check points and then fell into 2nd and 3rd. Don and company left me as I battled on through the barrier. Not too long after that I came good and set about chasing, which by the time it was dark I had managed to reel in significant time on Don and was about 10 minutes behind at Eora Creek. Because of this I took off like a bullet hoping to catch Don, however at Eora Creek crossing Don had unfortunately missed the creek crossing and continued along the bank. I crossed and was on my way to Isurava. I ran into the Isurava campsite at 1am to the cheer of my wife and small trekking group. I had now been going for 3 hours and still had not caught Don, which was strange as I was only 10 minutes behind. I was surprised to hear that he had not yet come through and decided that he must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but was guaranteed to be chasing hard. With this information I descended to the valley floor and onto the flat track that leads to Kokoda. I ran a blistering pace for the last 3kms and finished at 03:20am in a time of 20 hours and 25 minutes. I had managed to take off 3 hours and 20 minutes from my previous attempt. I was fourth overall and first Aussie home again.

The Kokoda Challenge has been a life changing experience for me. Because of the unforgiving terrain and environment and because of the shear isolation of running by myself day and night, I have learned to trust myself and have grown in confidence. My comfort zone has increased exponentially and I now define most things by my experiences I have had along the Kokoda.

An awesome race and experience, one that I will cherish for life.

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