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A little jog in the wilderness

Mandalay Beach ©Nicki Rehn

Mandalay Beach ©Nicki Rehn

I was the only witness to my unforgettable experience, my thoughts and pain and joy the only companions for days on end; and silence, my closest friend. So, it is hard to convey a real and true picture of my journey. It took me 20 days to run 963 km from Perth to Albany along the Bibbulmun Track. I was able to do it alone and unsupported by carrying a 30lb pack, sending food drops ahead, sleeping in the track shelters, and doing without luxuries such as clean clothes, real food and a hair brush. And as it turns out, complete exhaustion is a sufficient substitute for a pillow and mattress. I ran (which was more like an ultra-marathon shuffle) between 50 and 60 km each day, moving slowly with the heavy pack, across the difficult terrain and in unseasonal scorching heat. It would take every morsel of daylight to complete my distance, as well as the first hour by headlamp. I actually wasn’t chasing a speed record, but was hoping to find space … not just wide open physical space that characterizes the Australia outdoors, but the mental and emotional space that comes from lengthy solitude, continuous days of motion, and time defined only by the sun rising and setting.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. Taken in isolation, a 55 km run is, for me, tough but not totally insane. Sure, it’s an ultra marathon but I’m well conditioned for long days on the trail. And my adventure racing background means that perhaps I was even conditioned for a string of two or three days of 55 km in a row. The mystery, that was to be unveiled as my trip ran its course, was how my body would cope with 19 continuous days of this kind of punishment. Could I adapt to a lifestyle of constant running, with inadequate calorie replenishment, no showers, and no massages? In the end, I decided to take a day of rest halfway along — a last minute decision that sprung from a rare moment of wisdom. And so, I discovered that it took over two weeks for my body to adjust, thus allowing me to relish just four relatively easier days at the end. Up until then, every day was tough. No blisters, but definitely sore feet, sore shoulders, sore back, sore ankles, exhaustion, and sometimes an overwhelming sense of impossibility. I lost 14 lbs and I actually recall the moment my body ran out of itself as a fuel supply on about day 15. I learned the beautiful art of breaking apart my long days into small pieces of approx 12 km that were easier to swallow. A lesson learned, I guess, about how to achieve dreams that extend past your field of view.

In order to keep this somewhat pithy, I’ll summarize my most favourite parts of the journey:

  • The Bibbulmun Track crosses eight 1:50000 topographic maps and as an obsessed navigator, I completed the entire trek with a map in my hand. That equated to 200+ hours of navigation practice. I now see contours as visual reality in a subconscious instant.
  • There were some exceptionally outstanding moments, the enjoyment of which was probably exaggerated under the circumstances. One day I met a lovely older couple, the track volunteers for that particular section (the whole 963km trail is maintained by volunteers). They were inspired by my plight and gave me an apple and a hot cross bun. I have never tasted finer food in all my life. And one evening I arrived at my hut in the forest and discovered a beautiful, crystal clear natural pool formed in the river that provided the most amazing cold bath at the end of a long day. Water is very scarce in Australia, especially along the Bib. Track in April so this was like a surprise oasis in the desert, the sweetest treat imaginable. And the five times I stayed in towns I was able to end my day with local fish and chips and a cold beer … utter bliss at the end of a string of days of no civilization.
  • I saw the sunrise and the sunset every day. There is no better nourishment and my soul remained full.
  • I began each day at 5.30 am, the first hour of running by headlamp. It was my favourite part of the day. Occasionally I’d turn my light off and stand still and listen to the complete silence of predawn — a sound that few get the chance or have the courage to hear. And the stars that blanket the Australian wilderness are breathtaking, especially in the early hours after the moon has set.
  • Surprisingly, there were very few other people on the track. I would meet someone about once a day, except for the days when I saw no one! On four occasions I shared a hut with like-minded hikers, most of whom are doing the track in the recommended 6–8 weeks. On the other nights, I enjoyed solitude, quiet, and the odd bush-rat or possum as company. I loved the unknown of how my evening would end — alone, or with roommates (strangers who became friends).
  • The weather was incredible. A bit too incredible actually. I was prepared for warm days on the northern half and cold, rainy days that characterize the south. Most of the days ended up being over 30 degrees, with some up in the 35–36 range, which is not super conducive to trail running unless one is training for the Death Valley Marathon or Marathon de Sables. I finally got cooler weather on my 4th last day — a big coastal front that brought high winds, cloud cover and sideways rain. I was glad to be able to use my rain jacket that I’d been carrying, but even so, it remained shorts and T-shirt weather. The storm was awesome. It hit land as I was walking along a 7 km stretch of beach at 6.30 am, completely alone. The waves crashed violently and the wind was strong enough to blow me over a number of times and I got to listen to the deafening noise of nature in all its fury.
  • The terrain and landscape was exceptionally varied, the changes of which were magnified by the speed I was moving. From dry, gravelly hills, to open swamp, to farmland, to ancient towering Karri forest, to coastal scrub, to inlet crossings and beach … it was always interesting. Most of the track is single track through the bush, but there are plenty of sections of sand-dune, abandoned cart tracks, forestry access roads and granite rock. The most spectacular though, was the south coast (cliffs, dunes and beach), but then again, I have a very romantic connection to the ocean.
  • I saw tonnes of wildlife: hundreds of kangaroos who’d bound all around me in the early hours of the morning and in the late afternoon, rich bird life, wild emus, unusual and rare marsupials, and snakes … 20 in fact. I had a healthy fear of the slithering little fellas, some of whom weren’t so little. The Tiger Snake, 2nd deadliest in the world and most common in the south of WA, is particularly obstinate and likes to lay his 2 meter body across sandy trails to sunbath. He doesn’t like to move for anything and a couple of times I had to resign myself to just waiting for up to 2–3 minutes while he considered whether he would let me pass. A snake bite would have ended my trip, and probably my life, so it was my only real threat. I remained vigilant the entire time.

But most enjoyable was just the extended amount of time spent in nature. My perception for line and form and colour and shape in the natural world has been heightened and I can quite easily pass hours just sitting and enjoying the world around me with all my senses. And the overwhelming feelings of self-sufficiency and simplicity will stay with me forever.

So what’s next?

On May 18–22 I’ll be riding the 700 km Gibb River Road in the far north of Australia, across a desert land whose beauty and essence is indescribable. I can’t wait.

13 Responses to “A little jog in the wilderness”

  1. Tambourine Simpson says:

    This was amazing to read about. I was facinated. You are an amazing woman, Nicki.

  2. Scott Fulton says:

    Nicki, you actually managed to make this all sound almost romantic. Your love of the outdoors, insatiable quest for exploring new personal limits is nothing short of totally inspiring.

    Keep on setting the bar high. And even though it’s already out of our sight, we’ll aspire to capture a moment or two ourselves, if not in our own journey, then through your shared experiences and teaching.

    We miss you, but you’re never far from our thoughts.


  3. Sean V says:

    Hey Nicki,

    A truly inspirational story – we are all so lucky to be able to call you a peer and a friend.

    Great job – can’t wait to see you back home.


  4. Karen Martino says:

    Wow! Truly amazing Nicki. Your mental and physical endurance are awe inspiring. Take care and hope to see you back in Canada soon!


  5. Tanya Verret says:

    I love your juicy words Nicki. :) Not only did your story bring tears to my eyes, your pics did as well. You inspire me in so many ways! Thank you!

  6. Jim & Marie Marriner says:

    Dear Nicki:

    We met you and your husband in Australia at John & Dot’s in Cottesloe.
    We shared in the sorrow of your loss this past year and share in the joy of your current accomplishment!!! I have no doubt you HAD COMPANY!!! on your journey!!!!! We enjoyed spending time with your mom and dad in Feb. 08 during our last visit to Australia and look forward to another visit in 2011!! Keep running and keep safe!!! Our warmest wishes, Jim & Marie
    (Patti’s husband – Rene’s sister Marie!)

  7. Lois Crossley says:

    Nicki, you ROCK!
    Only you could make insanity sound not only normal, but also desirable. It sounds like an amazing experience. Can’t wait to here more about it this summer when I finally get organized and can meet up with you.
    Thinking of you.

  8. Vince Griffis says:

    Awesome, Nikki! Thanks for sharing your incredible adventure.

  9. Ian says:

    As many have already said, this is such an inspiring tale! You write very colourfully, it was a joy to read, and I know it is a mere fraction from what you experienced. I especially enjoyed reading that you got to witness two extremes; that perfect silence, and the full fury of nature. Thanks for sharing this, and I look forward to when we get to read more like it!

  10. Charlotta says:

    WOW…truly amazed…no wonder we have no chance in winning the City Chase against you Nikki!
    You’re an inspiring lady, and it was great to have met you in Montreal last year…
    I will now pick my chin up from the floor and pass this on to many friends who run marathons for a living, and see whether they would or could ever push themselves to this kind of challenge!
    Beautifully written too.
    Happy travels.

  11. Steve Tilbrook says:

    G’Day Nicki,
    Mandy sent me your blog, and I must say how impressed I am with your efforts. It is some time now since we spent time with you and Nick in Canada but I vividly remember our drive through the Rockies and seeing a Bear, also riding the luge. You are truly an inspirational person and I hope I can use your experience to gain strength when I really need it.
    Kindest Regards
    Steve and Wendy Tilbrook

  12. Giulio Montini says:

    Hi Nicki,
    Was great to see you and Jill the other day.
    It has taken me a few days to digest the enormity of what you have done…Even now I struggle to put into words this small tribute as an award of homage. You constantly amaze and inspire me and it is humbling to be your friend. Your actions truly are Heroic. I strongly encourage you to formally document this event. I suspect its not your style to be self promoting like a celebrity, however we all stand to gain in the realisation that within us is a capacity beyond measure.

    God Bless

    Giulio and Mandy

  13. Kreig Leitchze says:

    Hi Nicki. Kreig here. I’m just returning from my trip to Asia, and have 4 events in 5 weeks coming up. You know my plans for next April – it’s all just training for that, really. I’m glad I found this article (even though it is 2am)!

    I just wanted to let you know, once again, that you truly inspire me personally.

    I’ll be in touch soon to pick your brain some more… ;o)

    Take care, and God Bless