Shan Riggs’ 5k run was interrupted by the sight of an enormous lizard scurrying up a nearby tree, a creature unlike anything he’d seen in Connecticut, that was as long as a park bench, muscular and thick with elongated black claws and a reptilian dragonhead. But before he could process the situation, his attention was promptly diverted by the rustling of leaves to his left. Something large and substantial was crashing through the forest heading directly toward him, and as he swung his head, he saw a terrifying werewolf-like creature—a black-feral dog the size of a lion and cunning as a leopard—savagely sprinting directly at him. Frozen from fear, he prepared for the mauling, knowing the attack was imminent, until he noticed the dead kangaroo dangling from the beast’s mouth and realized a kill had already occurred and that he and the terrified lizard were secondary targets. It was at this precise juncture that Shan Riggs realized, with absolute certainty, he was no longer in Connecticut.
Just where the hell was he? To answer that question, we need to dial back the clock several months to a Zoom call with legendary Australian ultrarunner and adventurer, Pat Farmer. On the fuzzy computer screen, Pat explained to Shan and three other American athletes (Katie Visco, Samantha Pruitt and myself) that he was organizing a relay-style run across Australia, from the West Coast to the eastern most point of the island continent, where a four-person American team would compete against a four-person Aussie team. The COVID situation was under control in Australia, he explained, and we’d be pleasantly surprised at how open and maskless the country would be once we arrived. A former politician, Pat was persuasive and convincing. I remained a bit skeptical, but when he explained the race would be a benefit for ReachOut Australia—an organization that provides critical mental health services for youth and young adults—I decided to sign on. The bold don’t live forever, but the timid don’t live at all.
Shortly after the American team committed, we got a message from Pat. Because of COVID restrictions, the race could no longer take place entirely across Australia. Instead, it would be confined to the Australian state of New South Wales. We would now start at the inland bush town of Broken Hill and still finish at the eastern most point of Australia, Byron Bay. We would cover 100 miles each day for 10 days, passing an Aboriginal message stick between us as the Indigenous Australians had done in bygone years, and stopping at ancient tribal locations and townships along the route to show our respect and meet with the local people. The event would be coined, “1000 Miles to Light,” as symbolically, we would be crawling out of the COVID darkness towards the light, and we would literally be finishing at the Cape Byron Lighthouse, covering 1,000 miles on foot in the process.
Everything seemed so buttoned up in a neat little package that was straightforward and understandable. A brilliant event. We smiled in delight. However, behind the scenes, all hell had broken loose. A new Delta strain of COVID had spread to Australia, and it was a game changer. Flash lockdowns were put into action and strict limits were placed on the number of people allowed into the country. There were reports of thousands of Australian citizens being denied admission because of incoming traveler limits imposed by the government. Suddenly, it seemed very wrong that four Americans would be visiting Australia when their own citizens could not enter.
I called Pat to address my concerns. He assured me that we had been granted “above the cap” exceptions to enter the country and were not taking the place of Australian nationals looking to return home. I wanted further assurance. We arranged for a call with government officials who reiterated Pat’s explanation and explained that 1000 Miles to Light was the one and only sporting event permitted within the entire country. No pressure there.
Boarding the flight to Australia was surreal, if not apocalyptic. The airport terminal was deserted and there were a total of eight passengers on the flight. There were twice as many flight staff as passengers. Upon arrival we were greeted by medical personnel in hazmat suits and ushered in a military envoy to our hotel for a mandatory two-week quarantine. Pat’s words on the matter were, “We’ll get you all large suites with decks and views of the harbor and Sydney Opera House. You’ll get sick of the views.” None of our rooms had views of the harbor. The windows didn’t open, and there were certainly no decks. Three times a day, there would be a knock on the door. We were supposed to wait 30 seconds, put on a facemask, open the door slightly and pull the white bag inside. Those were our meals. The only exception to this protocol were on days 4 and 12 when a separate knock would occur. On those days, shielded medical personnel would insert a chopstick-length swab down my throat and then deep into each nostril to test for COVID. This virus has dehumanized us, though I digress. Other than those knocks, we were not to leave our room for any reason or open the door without wearing a mask. Shan briefly put a garbage bag outside his room, forgetting to wear a mask. The police arrived shortly thereafter.
Over the course of our quarantine, the COVID situation in Australia deteriorated. Every day, the numbers got progressively worse; Delta was wreaking havoc. Midway through our two-week stint, we got a message from Pat saying we needed to talk. Such prefaces are never a good sign. His first words on the group Zoom call were, “I’ll get right to it.” Again, not a welcomed intro.
Pat went on to explain that we could no longer run from Broken Hill to Byron Bay. Instead, he informed us, the entire race would be conducted within the Singleton Military Base in a safe isolation bubble that would be supported by the Australian Army. The base was quite large, he added, and the Australian Army would design 10 separate 5k routes for us to follow. The format would be that each runner covered the 5k carrying a message stick and then passed it to the next runner. Every team member would do this eight times per day until 25 individual miles were completed for a total of 100 team miles, equaling 1,000 miles at the completion of 10 days of running. Remember how I said everything seemed so buttoned up? Now they seemed entirely unbuttoned. And we still had a week of hotel quarantine to go.
After 10 days of being confined inside a small hotel room, we were going batshit crazy. Katie started talking to her TV remote as though she was a gameshow host. I had a full conversation with an ice bucket. People were concerned. I was concerned. And this was all well before the 10-day race even began.
Finally, the quarantine was complete, and we were transported to the Singleton Military Base where we met the Australian team. They looked well-rested and fit. We looked haggard and disheveled, like someone found wandering around Burning Man. We were to stay in military barracks on the base with a communal bathroom and central mess hall. Welcome to the Army, soldier. At 7 p.m. sharp each day, there would be a mandatory all-hands meeting (known as “prayer,” don’t ask me why). At prayer, the Army officer explained that we would receive three meals a day brought in by a contractor. You get what you are served, he instructed us, no exceptions. Shan looked distraught. “Can we just get more?” he inquired. After all, as athletes, we would be burning thousands of extra calories a day. The answer was an unambiguous, “No.”
The first day of racing degraded into a full-blown catastrophe. The start was set to commence at 6 a.m. sharp (everything in the military is sharp). We were to board the bus leaving for the starting line at 5:30 a.m., sharp. At precisely 5:15 a.m., a military staffer parades down the hallway of the barracks bellowing, “Fifteen minutes!”
When the clock struck 6 a.m., a runner from the Australian team, Deirdre Hopkins, and American runner Sam Pruitt took off. They were carrying the Aboriginal message sticks as originally intended. Away they disappeared into the distance, kangaroos bounding alongside them (no shit, kangaroos were everywhere). We are told by the Australian Army personnel that the course is relatively flat. They’d driven it in their Humvee. None of them are runners.
Deirdre finishes the 5k loop first. She looks winded and her time is slower than anticipated. “That course is not flat.”
Sam Pruitt comes in some time later. “That course is not groomed,” she laments, handing me the message stick. I take off. Not 50 meters down the trek, I get my foot stuck under a tree root and come crashing to the dirt. Something is wrong. My legs are already heavy and I’m in a mental fog. I stand up and dust myself off. I’m seeing stars and there is a metallic taste in my mouth as though I’m sucking on a handful of nickels. I grovel through the first lap. One down, 79 to go.
The relay continues. Temperatures rise. Bodies sweat and clothing starts to reek. Lunch arrives: meat sandwiches on white bread with a thin slice of cheese and a wilted piece of lettuce. It’s as though a robot made them. We are introduced to Vegemite and it tastes like thickened soy sauce. We greedily smear the little packets on the soggy bread for flavor. Yum.
Runners come in, exchange the message stick, and runners go out. Someone rings a bell when they spot an incoming runner. The format is relentless, something of a cruel permutation on last man standing. Yes, last man standing is grueling, but at least you have certainty. Each new loop starts at the top of the hour. Here, this relay-style race imposes its own schedule on you. Between legs, you’re afforded time for almost complete relaxation. Almost. Just when you’ve settled in and started to unwind, that damn bell rings and up you go. Relaxation is a tease, and recovery is never complete.
Day one ends well past dark. My final 5k loop is hideous. Bile is coming out of my mouth at this point, and I’ll spare you a description of what’s coming out the other end. The hills have now become mountains and I’m reduced to a walk. Everyone at the finish looks destroyed and weary as they wait for me to drag my sorry ass across the line. Something is wrong with my body. I don’t think I have COVID (I’ve been tested five times in the past two-and-a-half weeks and all results have been negative). But something isn’t right. The Base guidelines require us to report any shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue or muscle and body aches. I have all of these. I do the right thing and report the symptoms because I need an IV and I know it. Nothing I’m putting in my body is staying in. But getting an IV means leaving the Base and a mandatory two-week quarantine to re-enter. That would end the race. They are about to put the wheels in motion to transport me off the Base when my team steps in and tells them that I am tough, that I will get through it and to leave me be. Jeez, thanks team.
The next morning I am throwing up coffee. Then water. At one point, I feel as though I am going to die because my entire body is rebelling against me. That’s when I tell myself that it can’t possibly get any worse—no lower low can be achieved. And thankfully, it doesn’t get any worse. Slowly I start to improve. Not significantly, but enough to grunt through day two. By now, the Australians are thoroughly kicking our butts, but at least the event is still on.
Over the next several days, my personal ordeal takes its rightful place on the backstage. Endurance comes from enduring, I tell myself, and you endured. Now move on. By this point, each of the runners had established their own cadence. Pat Farmer runs as though each step could be his last. He knows one speed: full throttle. Australian team member Deirdre Hopkins is like the Terminator, indestructible and relentless. Justin McDonald is the speedy one, hammering out 17-minute 5ks on hot and hilly courses. And the fourth Aussie team member, Greta Truscott, smiles and giggles as she sets her scope on your backside in the distance like a ponytailed assassin. Soon, you can feel her hot breath on your neck and a puff of air as she whizzes by, svelte and efficient.
We were more of a ragtag lot. Shan Riggs was machine-like, consistently churning out 20-minute 5ks day after day, regardless of the course or the weather. Sam Pruitt was an executor. She wasn’t fast, but she was in it to see the finish line on day 10 and knew intuitively what it would take to get there. Wrapped in her headscarf and red, white and blue sunglasses, she looked like a running version of Willie Nelson. And if Sam was Shotgun Willie, Katie Visco was the athletic equivalent of Janice Joplin. All hippie and love, Katie exuded positivity. Flowers grew in her hair. Sitting near the fire one night, the race director warned she might spontaneously combust. “Rainbows,” she replied.
Once I found my sea legs, my running steadied. I aimed to find the fastest consistent pace I could sustain without imploding. The difference between my pace on days five and six is one second.
After crossing the midway point, every runner seemed to find his or her groove. Morale at the barracks noticeably improved, too. The Army started treating us like humans instead of new recruits. Some of the Army members were musicians and they formed a band—a damn good one! They entertained us at night and helped ease the strain of the daily pounding. And they also started periodically running with us, sharing a loop or two throughout the day. In between, they would tirelessly cheer each runner in at the end of her or his leg (mind you, this happened 64 times a day as there were eight runners each doing a total of eight loops per day). But the Army cheer squad was indefatigable, and their enthusiasm lifted everybody’s spirits.
Pat Farmer had envisioned this event as a race, something of a rebirth of the fabled Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in which an Australian potato farmer, Cliff Young, surprisingly won the race at 61 years of age and wearing work boots. Perhaps it could be a competitive race, but this was not the year for competing against each other, this was a time to come together. COVID had torn the world apart and left us isolated and alone, and 1000 Miles to Light became a show of collective unity rather than a cutthroat competition.
In fairness to the Australians, their overall team performance far bested the Americans. They handedly won the race with an impressive show of athleticism and stamina. Justin McDonald had the fastest segment, though American Shan Riggs had the lowest cumulative time over the 10 days of running. Personally, I never fully adapted to the relay-style format. The total distance we covered each day was not huge (25 miles per day for 10 days straight) but running those 25 miles in sporadic 5k increments over the course of many hours—rather than continuously—proved more disruptive than I’d anticipated. Loitering around in the elements between bouts of running was stressful and draining. Even after returning home, I had nightmares of the bell ringing and would jump to my feet in a cold sweat frantically looking to lace up my shoes.
Still, the communal experience was unique and unparalleled to anything I’ve done in the past. There were moments of confusion intermixed with episodes of elation, contradiction was rife as the conundrum of our purpose was called into question daily. However, as a group we silently conformed to a coda of support and mutual respect as the days wore on, cheering each other during the highs and scraping each other off the ground during the lows. It might have been intended as a race but in the end, it became something more—something grander. The effort raised over $65,000 for ReachOut Australia and we had more than 2,500 virtual runners join us along the way. As I boarded my flight back to the US, the growing COVID numbers in Australia dominated the news headlines. Yet, in the midst of a worsening situation, 1000 Miles to Light offered a glimmer of hope. And that is something the world could use a little more of.