My First Kokoda Challenge

Kokoda Challenge 2009My first Kokoda Challenge was a bit of a surprise as, fittingly it popped up in the middle of a series of challenges that I was doing to raise money for a couple of charities. I only had 2 days to prepare for this epic adventure with a team of great blokes that I had never even met before. So here is my 2009 Kokoda Challenge story…..

Last Wednesday night, still basking in the glory of my marathon PB, I settled down on the couch to watch the final State of Origin (rugby league) game when I noticed there was a text message on my phone. The message read:

“Hey Mark, I hope you and Therese are well! I was wondering if you are interested in doing the Kokoda Challenge this weekend with a good mate of mine who is down a team member. Let me know if you are interested and I’ll give him your details…..”

Isn’t it funny how just one message, one decision, one moment can change your life. Kokoda Challenge is a cross-country endurance event where teams of 4 trek through a 96km course of rugged terrain and climbs totalling 5000m. It is something I had wanted to do for years and here was my opportunity. I couldn’t believe it, this opportunity pops up bang in the middle of Challenge 7×7, like a little present from the gods of pain and suffering. Meeting the team

For a moment I considered the implications. I felt I had recovered well from the Gold Coast marathon 2 weeks prior. Brisbane Marathon was still 5 weeks away so I wouldn’t be jeopardising Challenge 7×7. The 1st Birthday party of Beatrix (our goddaughter) didn’t start until lunch time on Sunday so it was possible that, if the team was fast enough, I would still make it to the celebration. So I replied that I was interested and waited for a phone call from the team leader, Simon.

After a few minutes Simon called and told me they were looking at completing the race in less than 20 hours. Not only would I make Beatrix’s party, but if all went according to plan I would even get a few hours sleep before. Just like that, I was booked in to take on Kokoda Challenge in three days time! Excited, I felt like Charlie having just found my golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Kokoda Challenge Start LineSaturday came around quickly and before I knew it I was on the start line, quickly getting to know my team members Simon (team leader), Rod and Justin, as well as Jason who would be our support man for the event. Simon and Rod had completed Kokoda Challenge last year and their experience would prove to be an invaluable resource that we drew on repeatedly throughout the day. Having not achieved the result they were hoping for last year, the boys were keen to go under 20 hours this year. Although to their credit they did complete last year’s Kokoda Challenge as a whole team of 4 which is the ultimate goal of this event and something many teams fail to achieve.

We got off to an excellent start. A good steady jogging pace saw us get in front of the masses and avoid getting caught up at the bottle-necks that can occur in the first half of the course. The plan was to run the flat sections and walk the hills, continually consume fluids and fast energy dense foods along the way, then eat something more substantial (e.g. ham sandwiches) at the 5 major checkpoints. We hit our first checkpoint well ahead of schedule and it soon became apparent that Jason was a very good choice for support man. He had us set up like professionals with chairs and our respective gear tubs all set out for us to quickly re-fuel, re-load and get on our way. We planned to minimise time spent at checkpoints and Jason’s approach certainly helped us achieve this. Kokoda Challenge Checkpoint

By the time we hit the second major checkpoint, Polly’s Kitchen (35km), our spirits were soaring. Having stuck to the plan of running flats and walking hills we felt good physically and were an hour ahead of schedule. Simon and Rod made sure we stayed well hydrated with their regular calls of “DRINKING!” and despite not really having an appetite we managed to keep well-nourished with regular bites to eat. Justin kept us entertained with some hilarious one-liners that made me laugh so hard that walking on uneven surfaces became dangerous. Surprise, surprise my good mates, Geordie and Leigh who always seem to pop up in support when I do these crazy things appeared again, out in the middle of nowhere and armed with a bag of Vaseline, chocolates and lollies to keep me going.

Within minutes of setting out from Polly’s, there we were, faced with another one of these ridiculous hills. In fact I don’t know if they could even be classified as ‘hills’, the term ‘not-quite-a-wall’ is probably a more appropriate description. Never the less we eventually summited another not-quite-a-wall and strangely enough I felt like I was getting stronger and stronger with every one of these beasts that we conquered. Anyone who has completed this course will tell you that coming down these hills can be as tough as going up them and it was descending from this summit that our team first ran into strife, big strife. Simon, Rodney and Justin all sustained knee injuries within minutes of each other. From the way that their knees were giving way I had serious concerns but the three of them all remained positive and determined to push on. Each of them was forced to adopt an altered gait pattern which enabled them to manage for the time being. Of course Justin kept coming out with a string of funny comments which helped. I don’t think it slowed us down much as we still maintained a good pace as we hobbled into Numinbah Environment Centre for a rushed knee strapping attempt.Kokoda Challenge Pushing Ahead

All day we had done a great job of sticking together as a team. Disappointingly we watched teams all around us disintegrate through lack of team work and an inability to accept that you are only as fast as your slowest member. If you are pushing on, way in front of your slowest member, you are not helping them at all. Time is lost and energy is wasted as the person left behind becomes pissed-off that they are not part of the team and you are pissed-off that this person is slowing you down. In actual fact it is YOU who are slowing the team down as you have forgotten that it is NOT about you, it is about the TEAM. I knew this well because I had made this mistake in a similar event a few years prior, during which we had someone pull out half way. It occurred to me afterward that had I acted differently in this situation we may have been able to complete that event as a full team. You learn a great deal about yourself in these events and I was glad to have another opportunity to rectify this mistake. Today the ANZAC spirit was alive and strong in our team and it felt great to be a part of.

Through the half-way point we continued to be on good pace, still running the flats and walking the hills. Coming up to 50km we had one more hill to get over before we came down into our next major checkpoint, Numinbah Hall. Until this point I had felt great. Sure I had some soreness in my patella tendons left over from the marathon and the occasional calf cramp going downhill, issues I was used to dealing with. I can’t quite remember where, but somewhere in that last few k’s down to Numinbah Hall, I really started to feel the pinch. I was feeling cramps up under my ribs and every step suddenly felt much more difficult. Fortunately we were not far from our next opportunity to take a quick break and re-fuel. The boys needed to do a more thorough job of taping their knees also, so we were all looking forward to getting to this stop. The added bonus was that we were still 40 minutes ahead of schedule and would arrive at this checkpoint still with a little daylight left.

Unfortunately for me the trouble didn’t stop here though. When we got to this checkpoint our gear was all laid out perfectly again but I just couldn’t seem to concentrate. It seemed like such an easy task; feed, re-pack my Camelbak and change into some warmer gear. The problem was I just couldn’t seem to function properly, instead of just focusing on one job at a time I seemed to be attempting everything at once. Simon was asking me for advice on how he should tape his knee and I remember at the time just not being able to think clearly. I was fumbling through my box, making a big mess and not achieving anything. All of a sudden the boys were ready to go, whereas I wasn’t dressed, my gear was out everywhere and I had only managed to eat 1/3 of what I had intended to eat that stop. I really felt like I needed more time at this checkpoint but I was determined to not succumb to that feeling as I felt privileged to be given the opportunity to come on this adventure and there was no way I was going to let my team mates down. Each of us was battling some little trouble anyway, so hopefully I could pull myself together out on the track. Jason and Simon’s parents rallied to help me get packed and sent me on my way.

As soon as we started running again I was faced with the realisation that when they named this the Kokoda Challenge, they weren’t using the word ‘challenge’ lightly. The cramps under my ribs returned and I felt terrible. I just kept telling myself to be patient, eventually I will push through this. The next 15km became a painful blur. By the time we hit the climb up Lower Beachmont I was convinced that there was no way I was going to be able to finish this. I was in absolute hell. I was doing it tougher than I had ever done before and I was thinking “even if I make it to the next checkpoint, I still have another 5hrs of this hell to go”. The fact that I was in trouble became obvious and my team mates supported me well through this. They stayed with me, making sure I didn’t get too far behind and Justin kept the funny stories coming, the laughter intensified the pain under my ribs but this was small cost for the help that it gave. At one point I just had to stop for a few minutes to get a gel into me and catch my breath as my body and mind were on the verge of complete shutdown. Many times this day and night I spared a thought for the soldiers on the Kokoda Trail and imagined how tough it must have been for them going through all this and so much more while at the same time dodging bullets and living with the very real fear of never making it home alive.

The carbs definitely helped and a short time later we discovered that we were much closer to our next major checkpoint than we had thought. Then the major turning point came with good news at Black Shoot, we were still on schedule and were in about 16th place! My eyes lit up, my pain halved and all of a sudden I started to feel stronger. At this point the track seemed to flatten out for a while, giving us all some welcome recovery time. The ‘not-quite-a-wall’ at ‘Cow Pad’ was just as tough as the others, but our mindset had improved drastically and it seemed more manageable now. We cruised up to Jason and Carly at the next major checkpoint with renewed confidence, spurred on by the cheers of the welcoming crowd.

I still felt a little clumsy and disorientated at this checkpoint which was probably made worse by the dark and cold of the night. Just doing strange things like replacing my head lamp batteries with the old ones I had just taken out. Consciously I knew I was doing these things but did them anyway, it was a really weird experience that is difficult to explain rationally. Fortunately I was feeling stronger than I had for a while and my head was in a good space so off I charged, ham sandwich in hand.

The 2 ambulances that rushed passed us as we headed up to the infamous Hell-Fire Pass were an ominous sign that we still had some seriously challenging moments ahead. For a team with 3 people carrying knee injuries it was the downhill sections that caused us the most trouble. Looking down from the top of this long, steep, slippery section all we could do was laugh. This is where we most needed a video camera as I reckon we must have looked like a bunch of 80 year old cartoon characters, each of us adopting some bizarre strategy of getting down this slope. Every step was excruciatingly painful and the descent seemed to go on forever. Our mood remained good though, as we made jokes about how we must have looked. Every time our feet would slide out from under us busts of laughter could be heard followed by calls of “oh great save mate”. Despite the pain this was actually a really enjoyable time for our team as we were able to experience this whole part of the course to ourselves, in our own little world for a while.

Of course, when you are out in the mountains, what goes down must go up and soon enough we found ourselves on yet another not-quite-a-wall. By now though we knew the worst was behind us so our spirits were high and it became a matter of powering up to finish strong. We hit the final checkpoint on Beaudesert-Nerang Road full of enthusiasm. My thoughts of not finishing were far behind me now as we constantly discussed what finish time we could achieve and what position we were in. There was no stopping at this last checkpoint, we were on fire. The plan was to grab what we needed to eat and keep on moving, eating on the go. I must have been feeling better as, for the first time in the whole race I managed to down 2 of my ham sandwiches. Yes, you read that correctly, now I am calling it a ‘race’. It was no longer an event, now that I knew we were in good position, my competitive streak came out, the mongrel was back and I WANTED TO RACE!

Kokoda Challenge finish ceremony

Not home yet though, it wouldn’t be Kokoda Challenge without another couple of those not-quite-walls to get over. Then finally the 10km to the finish was more forgiving and we just had to maintain a fast walking pace to reach our goal of finishing in under 20hrs. I started to feel like I could jog again but with 3 injured knees in the team that was never going to happen. Talk was flowing about what position we could finish and whether we would make our time. My appetite came back sooner than I hoped making me dream of a nice, hot, well filled pizza or hamburger. Oh yeah, I was going to be doing some serious eating the rest of this weekend. I felt like a dog on a leash, just hanging to get to that finish line. As they had the whole way, Simon and Rod did a great job of keeping us all together for this last leg.

In the last 5km 3 teams blew past us and there was just nothing we could do about it. We were over the moon with how things had turned out and nothing could upset us. A full team, loaded with satisfaction and pride, we passed under the big guns that marked the finish line in 19 hours and 57 minutes, achieving our goal of sub 20 hours. Our 16th place finish was just a phenomenal feeling and the icing on the cake of the best event I have ever been a part of. Things didn’t always go our way, many times our plans looked like they could be completely derailed, but you have to expect that in this type of event. It boils down to how you, as a team deal with these things that determines your success. Fortunately this time we were able to deal with these moments without compromising our goal.

Kokoda Challenge 2009

There is so much to gain from this Kokoda Challenge as it tests you in ways that you could never imagine. In completing this mission your mental and physical barriers will be completely obliterated and then the realisation that you are capable of far more than you previously thought becomes inescapable. Your teamwork abilities will be completely exposed and you will not only learn so much about how to work as a team, but will also discover the awesome power of teamwork in enabling you to achieve things you could never do on your own. There is no way I could have achieved what we did on my own, it would have taken me many more hours to complete this as an individual. I have been a part of teams (successful and unsuccessful) all my life but never before have I experienced the effects of teamwork so profoundly.

I urge everyone to have a go at Kokoda Challenge. I honestly believe the world would be an even better place if we all did something like this from time to time. You don’t have to race for a sub 20 hour finish; the challenge has different meaning to different people. I guarantee you stand to gain more from taking part in this one event than you could in years normal living. It will put things into perspective, simplify your life and empower you in so many ways. It is impossible to really understand what I mean here until you actually do something like this, so get off your butt, form your team and start preparing for YOUR Kokoda Challenge.

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Mark Barrett /