I woke up at 12:30am to the sound of David Brown’s alarm. Three seconds later I hear him say ‘Hello? Where are we?’
My first thought was why is he talking to his phone? My second thought was ‘oh no, we’ve just committed the ultimate sin. We weren’t at the changeover point for our duties as pacers.’
Sure enough, it was Ronald Stevens calling us to let us know that Joey, who has started in Newcastle at 4am on Friday, the day before. He was making an attempt on the record for a complete traverse of the Great North Walk, a 276km trail from Newcastle to Sydney opened in our bicentennial year 1988. One of the records was 54 hours, set by Meredith Quinlan and Jess Baker. Kirrily Dear and Alison Lilley had previously set the record at 81 hours by simply completing it! There had also been a group including Andrew Vize in about 66 hours. Get the picture? All Joey had to do was to FINISH, and he would take the record for the first SOLO traverse of the complete GNW. And be only the 11th recorded non stop run of the course.
Ron, always unflappable made some arrangements for the current pacer to continue and for us to be inserted part way through the section we were meant to be pacing. We were meant to start at Yarramalong and go to Patonga, a couple of sections of the Terrigal Trotters GNW100s course that I knew fairly well from pacing Jane Trumper last year. This meant that we had to rely on the current pacer to get Joey through the infamous ‘dead horse creek’ section where someone got so lost last year she was timed out of the race. I felt like I’d really let him down because I was the one who had the course loaded on 2 different GPS devices, including maps, course descriptions etc. I take the job of pacer very seriously and was gutted to let Joe down.
We got to the intersection of Ourimbah Creek Rd and Forty Acre Farm at 2:30am. Then waited, and waited. Sitting in the ute in the dark with the apparent temp below zero was a surreal experience. We took bets about when they would turn up, and I sat there and worried about them getting lost. At 5am I said ‘I’m going to get them’ and we saddled up our gear and headed up the trail. Luckily about 600m up we discovered 2 happy chirpy lads coming towards us.
Only 7km to go until the Somersby checkpoint, but Joey was moving strongly at ~150km and 25 hours. At Somersby we were met by Emma (Joe’s fiancé) and the irrepressible Sarah Jane Marshal in a hilarious disco outfit. A quick fuel up, then we were off into the early morning sunshine towards Mooney Mooney. It was lovely being alone on the trails, having a chat and making sure Joe was eating and drinking to a schedule.
At Mooney Mooney we arrived to a thunderous reception with Alison Thomas in a onesie and some very confused cyclists going past. One cyclist who did stop was Andrew Vize! He’s come down to see how Joe was going- I’m constantly humbled by the willingness of heroes of the sport to help other. Well, it kind of went the other way this time- we filled Andrews bidon with water, gave him some snakes and he wished us well! After a massage and fill up we were off again- this time with Tanya Carrol as an addition to the pacing team. It was great adding Tanya- I think Joe was thankful that my jokes became a bit cleaner.
Next stop was Patonga, where Ben Pearce and girlfriend Jen were waiting to take Joe across the bay to Brooklyn, where Ben Blackshaw and Alison Lilley would continue for his last 76km. This was a difficult section, and one that Joe was dreading, but I know that worse was to come! We arrived at 6pm Saturday night to another great reception including my wife Sarah and son Alex. Joe spent a few moments staring at the post which marks the end of the GNW100s Miler (on this occasion it marked the 200km mark of his journey).
I insisted on a beer at the Patonga pub and retired to our lodgings to sleep. I hadn’t slept since Friday morning and was really feeling it. I could only imagine what Joe was going through.
So what next? I slept for nearly 12 hours, helped clean the house, drove back to Sydney, showered, changed, had a big boozy lunch and…… well I couldn’t just leave it there.
I went home, got into my running gear and went out to Lane Cove National Park to do the last section. Joe by this time had been travelling for over 60 hours with no real rest. He arrived with Ben Blackshaw and Alison Lilley after 8pm and just before 9pm we were on the trail again. There was a huge welcome committee from his Manly Beach Running Club! Ben was continuing however Alison was nursing a knee injury and had to go home. During the day on Sunday some of the terrain was so tough they were averaging only 2-3km per hour. The call had gone out for more pacers as some had needed to pull out because of work the next morning, others were injured, it was all looking a bit dodgy. I was happy to step up, also Sebastian Warmerdam and Gillian Russell joined up too. Matt McCarron, who had spent most of the day Saturday helping and then ran the M7 Marathon on Sunday came back out and ran the last section several times just to make sure we wouldn’t get lost. What an incredible team.
We spent the last few hours joking and having light hearted conversation. But we had a problem. The last section of the course ends at Woolwich Pier, and then you have to go across the water to Circular Quay, and from there it is only 300 metres to the ends- an obelisk in Macquarie Place. The plan was to take a ferry from Woolwich to Circular Quay, but its was too late on Sunday night for a ferry. The backup plan was to get a water taxi – guess what? Too late! In desperation the wonderful Sally Dean ( grand organiser extraordinaire) rang the Water Police. The first time her reception was predictably brusque, but as time went on golden tongued Sally managed to convince them that it was not only a good idea, but needed to be done.
Ben had been waiting at Patonga since midday Saturday, and pacing since the 6pm trip across to Brooklyn. It was no surprise that he was a bit quiet, but I had to press on being lively and encouraging, telling bad jokes and generally getting in peoples faces to try to keep Joe going. I’d apologise for being annoying, but I do feel it’s kind of my job as pacer to be inexhaustible and positive. Ben you did an incredible job, you can decide if I’m truly a d!ckhead next time we meet!
I gave Joe a mini Mars bar and some Coke, ten minutes later he breaks out into a run. That’s right- he ran his 270th km, breaking Gillian in the process. This brings to well, uncountable numbers of pacers who lay figuratively broken in his wake. Three km later we see the high wear off and he’s asking ‘where’s the @##$%^ boat? I can’t see the wharf!’ A second application of Mars bar and Coke did not work, remember refined sugars are baaaad kids.
The water police were awesome, picking us up right on time and taking half a dozen of us across the harbour, well fast! Check out the Garmin…….
At Circular Quay we were met by Ngaire Anna and a whole bunch of people, Joe was able to speak to his fiancé via Facetime back to Boston. She had hopped on a plane after supporting him to Somersby. Did I mention they got married a week after this little adventure? Yes, Joe just had to finish by Wednesday, get on a plane and get hitched in the US. Tex Whitney Productions whom I’d been having the big boozy lunch with were there to film the finish.
Joe removed the course marking tape he’d been carrying with him for 276km and laid it on the fence around the obelisk. We cheered, hugged and shed a little tear for his incredible achievement. It had taken 69.5 hours, and even though I’d only seen a small part of it I’d witnessed an amazing feat of human endurance, with a great bunch of people who all donated their time and effort for a great cause. I’m very humbled to be a small part of a community like this.
I can’t believe that it’s actually possible to run/ walk from 4am Friday morning until 1:30am on the Monday, but I saw it happen!
You- I’m talking to you. Think about crewing or pacing someone on a ridiculously long run. I’ve done it several times now and it’s very rewarding. Now, who needs crew for Coast to Kosci?