• Elliot Cooper

Unsupported

Updated: May 23

To do something like this, in a certain sense everything has to go right.

I wake feeling rough. The sinus and stomach trouble of the last 10 days is refusing to go away. But there are things to do. The seminar on Indigenous storytelling I’d signed up for a couple of weeks back was due to start at 8:30am. Unusually early, I think, but whatever. I push through 20 minutes of yoga, scoff a couple of bananas and jump on a bus. At the venue I grab a schedule. The first event is listed to start at 9:30am. An extra hour would have helped this morning.

I take a seat in the lecture hall. A colleague who two days earlier had emailed me a notice for a perfect RA position with the message ‘this will go out to other people in a few days’ asks, “Did you get that job application in?”. Of course not, I’ve been sick and there’s plenty of time. “Not yet,” I reply, “working on it”. “Oh,” he says “the deadline was yesterday”. It’s not an appropriate time to argue about the linguistic nuances of his email. “That’s very upsetting” I manage, with the acute feeling of just having been fucked. I want to leave. My wife is far away in Japan and I miss her. I want to sleep. I’m tired. My throat. My stomach.

The welcome to country and opening presentation are beautiful. I feel calm. We are invited outside to view a scar tree. An impromptu story begins. UV radiation rains down like hot gravel on my face. I’m instantly dehydrated. I decide to leave at midday. I’ll put up with a lot, but today I need to take care of myself. Today I have a plan. Whatever happens, however I feel, I’m going to start my unsupported attempt on the Centenary Trail at 5pm.

Back home the plan is to rest as much as possible, but that RA job I wanted still plays on my mind. I spend 2 hours putting together a cover letter. I send it off with a resume. Asking forgiveness. I must leave in half an hour. The only thing I can do is meditate. I need to calm my nerves. A brief Wim Hof session, bag check, and I jump on the next bus heading north. It’s hot out and the walk from Adelaide Avenue to the Foundation Stone is all it takes for my back to be drenched in sweat. Already. It has not been the day I wanted to have, but none of that matters now.

So far there are only 3 people who have an inkling of my plan, my wife Mutsumi and my friends Dave and Marsha. Time to let people in. I go live on Facebook to announce my intentions. First in Japanese, then, as I start out, in English. I do a mental body check. What have I got? I feel sleepy, my pack is the heaviest I’ve ever had to carry and it rubs the skin between my shoulders worryingly, my stomach feels unstable and my respiratory tract feels congested. Having checked in with my body I stop those thoughts. The relief of getting started makes me smile.

I cross the lake, climb the War Memorial steps and start up Mt. Ainslie. It’s a popular afternoon climb and I say hello to people as I pass them, but most are too busy bluetoothing music into their ear holes to respond. Whatever. I summit knowing that I won’t find water again until I exit Mulligans Flat at Forde. I fill all my four water bottles, eat a protein bar and don my headlamp. I descend via Mt. Ainslie’s ‘Back Door’. By the time I reach the Mt. Majura climb my headlamp is on. I start to settle into the run, certain that I won’t see another human soul until morning comes. I power hike the steep sections to be kind to my thighs and calves and summit Mt. Majura in darkness.

The split to the Federal Highway feels quick and I come out in an unexpected place. I check the app map and it tells me I’m off track, but only by a few meters. I go under the highway and follow the narrow path through long grass that leads to a hairy crossing of Horse Park Drive. The run through Goorooyaroo is dark but relaxing. Here it’s still close enough to the city for some ambient light to be in the air. My headlamp finds many eyes, and I greet their owners as I pass. Mulligans Flat with its high fences, big gates and sensor activated lights, has the air of a prison, but that fence is what allows for a greater diversity of fauna. Kangaroos, yes, but there are a few species dancing in the edges of my light beam to which I’m unable to attribute a name. I catch a toe and come down hard. Damn, I think. But I’m ok.

At Forde I guess that 3 water bottles will be enough to get me to Hall. I stretch a little and take a moment to give the heart and lungs a break, putting a photo on Facebook. I need to keep moving and push my way up the boring concrete path which leads to one of the best trail sections of the whole loop, the North Boundary Trail.

It’s very dark, but the running is good. After finding my way along the undulating path for some time I spot two headlamps. Didn’t expect that. A couple of guys had ridden out to camp at the North Boundary Campsite. Didn’t know there was a campsite there. A Japanese word pops into my mind: kenkyuubusoku ‘lack of preparation’. It’s sinking in that this trail section is longer than I thought. I ask what they’re doing and they ask what I’m doing. They tell me that a guy named Dave Baldwin ran the trail last year in 17 hours. I’d been searching for information about an FKT on the Centenary Trail, but had come up with nothing. It’s welcome information, but it means that I will have to keep out the thought that my projected goal of 20 hours is unimpressive or pointless. They say they’re looking forward to hearing about me finishing. I forget myself for a moment and reply “well, it could all go to shit”. It’s not the right thing to say. We wish each other a good night and I start off again into the darkness. A couple of kilometers further on I catch another toe and come down. ‘Serves you right’, I think.

I summit One Tree Hill at 11pm and call my parents, as they want to know how I’m travelling. Dad does some maths and estimates I’ll take a little more than 20 hours. He’ll be up early for a 100km bike ride and says he will call me at 4:30am. I descend to Hall carefully and take some time looking for the tap where I can refill my bottles. I fill two, as I only need to get to Lake Ginninderra. At Hall I’m 50km into the run, and feeling pretty good but I lose more time making sure I’m going the right direction. The ambient light from the street lights on the Barton Highway allows me to save my headlamp battery while on the flat surface of the bike path, I only use it for single track sections. I pass the Dinosaur Museum and snap a photo of the T-Rex statue for Dave and Marsha’s kids. Heading back out to the highway I turn my headlamp back on, surprising a couple in a parked car. I pass by thinking exactly nothing.

A loop around and follow William Slim Drive before emerging into the familiar environs of Lake Ginninderra. My next scheduled stop is by a drinking fountain. There’s no choice but to take some time getting organized here. Because I chose to run at night, I’m uncertain of water access until Tuggeranong, about 40 kilometers further on. Worst case scenario is that I have to pull water from either the Molonglo at Coombs or the Murrumbidgee at Kambah Pool. For this reason I’ve packed a Steripen. I fill all my bottles, eat, replace the batteries in my headlamp and rearrange my pack in an attempt to better distribute the weight. A group of four young people (haha, ‘young people’) walk past talking loudly about something that had given them a fright. Half paying attention to their conversation I come to realise they are talking about me. The one girl in the group turns around to ask me if I’m ok. I’m in my own world enough to be surprised by her question. “Yes, I’m fine, I’m just getting water”, I reply. They walk on, and, realising that I must have seemed quite strange to them (why would someone be ‘getting water’ from an unlit drinking fountain by Lake Ginninderra at 2:30 in the morning?), I regret not thanking her for her kindness.

Over Gossman Nature Reserve to the AIS, I approach the complex and spot a flashlight. “Late night run, mate?” says the security guard. “Yeah,” I reply shocked by the immense echo of my own voice. Echos echo louder in the hours before dawn. In a quieter tone I say, “I’m running the Centenary Trail”. It seems an absurd thing to say, why would he know what that means? I pick up speed traversing O’Connor ridge and following the Trail as it splices its way between Dryandra St. and Belconnen Way. Soon I’m heading up the last of the larger ascents of an anti-clockwise CT: Black Mountain.

Black Mountain is one of the more confusing parts of the Trail, especially at 3am after 10 hours of running. Towards the summit there are options to go straight, left, or right. I’m unaware of any rules, but I feel like straight is a cop-out so I go left. It feels like forever before I emerge at the summit. I sit down, aware of some kind of ambient listlessness. My watch says 74km. In an effort to preserve my water supplies, I try the water fountain but it has no water to give. I take somes photos and descend, down, down and circle around to the south, under Gungahlin Drive and on to Aranda. I’ve got the Kangaroos of Frost’s Hollow on my mind. No, I think, there are too many Kangaroos to meet in there, and too many holes in which to break an ankle. If I’m to be running into a small tunnel of light, I’m taking the wide path on the long way around. I plead with the roos I do meet not to venture onto William Hovell Drive, “Come back, my friends”, I call out, “it’s not worth it, you’ve still got good years ahead of you!”.

The Arboretum is a beautiful place, even when you can hardly see it. The cork oaks welcome me with quiet resolve. Soon I round the Himalayan Cedars on my way to the main building. No Zig-Zags for me this morning. Beyond Margaret Whitlam Hall arrows seem to point in all directions. I choose to stick with the app map which keeps me on Boundary Road. As I exit through the pines my phone rings. It’s dad checking in, doing math, figuring out that I’ve sped up. Just a bit. He’s chatty and I remind him that I’m a little busy, and could we talk later? Crossing the Molonglo I check my water. Still ok, I think, maybe till the Murrumbidgee. I see some course markers on the ground, not for the CT but for what must be the new Coombs Park Run. think of the runners coming to this place in the morning, striving for a new 5km PR. I do some quick math that tells me I won’t be in Tuggeranong at 8am in time for the Park Run there as I’d hoped, but that was only a vague novel idea anyway. One last check of the map reveals a water source at Duffy Shops. It’s a bit off the trail, but it seems like a chance to save this CT attempt. I have no inkling at this point of what psychological effect leaving the trail for water is going to have on me.

A mix of bike path and dirt track follows the slight and dull uphill of Cotter Road. The pre-dawn light is encroaching on the night and revealing a dull sky to match my dull run. I turn towards Duffy, quickly realising that I’m actually quite tired, my steps are short and my abs hurt. I leave the trail to find water. The route into the center of the suburb, where I will find the shops and the water fountain, is confusing. Why is it so confusing? At length I arrive at the water source. It’s light now but still early. There’s no-one around and the place feels not just empty, but abandoned. I start filling my bottles. And then...

What am I doing? This is a dumb idea. My bag is too heavy. I’m still sick. I have a sore throat. Tuggeranong is still miles away. 93km, isn’t that enough? I’ve got the ARF 50km next weekend. I don’t want to wreck myself before that. I’m sick of bars and gels. Real food is what I want. Oh, the weight of my eyelids. Leave me idle for the nonce. The ooze of quitting is filling up my head. I not finished and I haven’t reached my limit. I could go further. Next, I sit down on the grass with the dirt and the ants. I think about my situation for about a half hour, and put in the call to Dave. In ten minutes I’m in the car, on my way home.

I didn’t have everything in its right place to complete a full loop on the CT, but it was good running that night. It’s my first unsupported (not to mention uncalled-for) endurance distance run. I was unsupported but not alone. My companions were kangaroos, trees my protectors, and I carry in my heart a recognition of the earth on which I tread. The Trail leads me to my humble nature, for nothing is so great and powerful as the dirt under my feet.

©2020 by Running Beyond Reason.