Aug 21, 2014

Running The Length Of Australia

It was never one of my life goals to run a marathon. I met a man a year younger than I who had just run his 49th and has a goal of running 100. Although impressed, I couldn’t fathom the effort and commitment this would take. Nor did it seem appealing to me. For a great many, there exists a drive to gradually increase their kilometres in the pursuit of a distant goal. The marathon is seen as amazing achievement and its completion the reward for months and, perhaps, years of effort. This I can understand entirely. Nonetheless, it had rarely crossed my mind.

A road near Lismore, NSW

For me, running is a necessary evil. Something one must do if they are to remain fit. In most sports, the ability to run is paramount. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes in different directions, but always running. Counter-acting its evil, running has beauty in its simplicity. Little equipment is required. We learned to do it so long ago, we cannot recall being unable to run. Not long after the mini-Bugler was able to walk, he is already attempting to run. So despite the groans from my mind and my body, I have been a semi-regular jogger for years.

Upon up-rooting the Bugle catastrophe from Melbourne, I cancelled my gym membership. My bike and football boots were left in storage. On the road around Australia, the only exercise always available was the simple, and thus beautiful, running. Occasionally I paid over-the-odds for a casual visit to pick some weights up and put them down again. A couple of times I borrowed a bike. For a memorable few weeks I even joined a football team in northern NSW. But for 6 months, running was my primary exercise.

The spectacular gorge at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in outback western Queensland

For reasons I cannot fully understand, there exists a competitive drive in my being.  Although it is undoubtedly true I can be competitive with others, my primary competitive drive is against myself. Or more correctly, my former self. As soon as I have set a standard, I seek to beat it. As soon as a personal best is achieved, it becomes the new normal. Somewhat inevitably, as soon as I began to run more often, I sought to run faster and further.

By the time the Bugle family arrived in Yamba on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, I was thinking about a half marathon. One Thursday the sky was overcast and the air was humid. Not quite a day for the beach. I set off on my solo folly and ran to Wooloweyah, then Angourie and back to the Yamba breakwall. The hill back to home seemed steeper than I recalled, but I managed the run quite well. With a new PB, my mind began drifting. For the first time I was considering a marathon.

An old caravan beside the road near Yamba, New South Wales

An interesting feature of training for a marathon is that you tend to lose perspective of normality. When you are 15km into a 25km run, you begin to think that there is “only” 10km to go. There is no recognition that 10km is a bloody long run in its own right, or that you have already been running for over an hour and that is enough. No. You stare at your watch and watch the kilometres mount, and watch the time go by. We camped in South Ballina over Easter with some friends and they were amazed that I ran a half marathon before cooking dinner and enjoying a few drinks. The absurdity of running 21.1km on a Saturday evening on holiday was not lost on them, but it was becoming lost on me.

By this time, I was allowing myself to dream. Our plan was to arrive in Alice Springs in early August. What better way to celebrate than to run 42.2km two weeks after moving in? Although my training was always done with a loose plan, I knew that I would have to start to run further. A lot further.

My first setback, only recognised in retrospect, was playing football again. I loved my brief foray into life with the Lismore Swans, but turning up to training twice a week and playing on Saturdays didn’t leave me with much energy for 30km runs. By the time a broken finger put me out for the season, and possibly career, a month had passed where my running had plateaued.

Lismore Swans gather in the three quarter time huddle during their AFL footy match against Ballina Bombers

With my finger in a brace, I tried to take up where I left off but a bigger problem presented. It took a long time and much complaining to Dr Bugler, but after a series of tests the diagnosis was giardiasis. While not totally debilitating, my ability to run long distances was severely compromised by stomach cramps and associated dehydration. By the time the week of antibiotics did their job, 6 weeks of illness and footy had set me back a long way.

We didn’t cover as many kilometres in the car, but two weeks in Cairns re-started my quest to put kilometres in my legs. I focused on speed and interval work to give strength to my legs in the hope that when the distance increased it would seem easier. The plan had some merit. But over 2000km up the coast, I couldn’t run as far or as well as I could back in Ballina two and a half months ago.

The Esplanade in Cairns has a flat and clearly designated path. Perfect for running when counting time and distance. The greatest challenge that remained was finding the motivation and roads on which to run in outback Queensland and Northern Territory. Running also had to be planned around long days in the car. The beauty and simplicity of running was increasingly not so apparent to me.

Twin Falls during dry season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Four runs stand out in my mind.

1. On a dusty, rutted gravel road in far western Queensland, I ran the 10km from Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park to our campsite in Adels Grove. The grey nomads in four wheel drives must have been astounded when they came across a lonesome jogger trying to keep his ankles and knees intact on the uneven road.

2. On a 35°C day camping at the base of Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park, I sprinted some laps of the campground. A group of fellow campers cheered and commented each time I passed. Hot and bothered, I stopped to chat to them after I had finished. One of them had run three Melbourne Marathons and I happily listened as he related his experiences.

3. I woke early in Cooinda and ran 32km on the roads of Kakadu. I had no breakfast, no food at all, and one water stop after about 12km at a ranger station. Overnight it had barely dropped below 20°C. I was a broken and thirsty man at the end. I severely questioned my desire to run a marathon.

4. The day prior to my 34th birthday, I planned to run 34km in the Litchfield National Park. I managed 12km. My left knee decided that the camber of the road was disagreeable. The walk back to the tent had me questioning my sanity.

The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I ever wanted to run a marathon in the future, I would have to go through a similar kind of idiocy. The thought of forgoing the effort I had already made was unpalatable. If I didn’t complete the marathon now, all the effort I had gone to for my goal would have been for not much. With this in mind, I felt I had little choice.

The serene waters of Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory

Redemption came in the form of remembering. Remembering what I found beautiful about running. The ability to trot off and explore without thinking. During two glorious runs on the walking trails of Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park I forgot about my times, distances and speeds. My knee thanked me for the break in repetition. I ran to the top of lookouts and watched the sun setting over stunning rock formations created by the Katherine River. I stood by myself at remote and picturesque locales, confident that my legs would carry me back to camp before dark. Instead of being driven by the kilometres and minutes on my watch, it merely recorded what I had done. Perhaps a subtle change, but an important one for my mind.

To be continued.

Jul 29, 2014

Doing Good With Good Friday Footy

Long drives through the Australian outback give ample time to pause and think. Recently, on the road to Karumba, I was reflecting on the role of tradition in sport. I was thinking that traditions and ceremonies help engender mythology and reverence for sport. In AFL football, this is in evidence during the Grand Final and, more pertinently, the annual ANZAC Day game between Essendon and Collingwood. But an interesting feature of the ANZAC Day game, along with many other “traditions”, is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the AFL set to introduce a game of football on Good Friday, I began thinking of how a game of sport can create its own tradition while conflicting with the religious tradition of the day.

The sunset from Karumba Point and the Sunset Tavern

I should note quite early that despite being raised with a Christian framework, I do not support their traditions. Quite the opposite. I retain no reverence for Good Friday and would like nothing more than to watch an interesting game of sport on that public holiday. While holding this strident belief, I understand that not all others do and for the AFL to be successful in their venture they must appease a great many people.

Another challenge for the AFL is to make the fixture equitable. A regular criticism of the ANZAC Day game is that the two clubs who benefit most are already rich and powerful. A game on Good Friday would have to be shared for it to be accepted competition-wide.

While musing on this very point, my mind went to the other side of the world and a vastly different winter sport – ice hockey. Each year on New Year’s Day, two teams duke it out in the annual Winter Classic. This tradition is hugely popular and is an unqualified success. There are two interesting points to note. The first is that this is a very recent tradition with the first Winter Classic being held in 2008. The second is that two different teams play each year.

These two points should give the AFL confidence in establishing a new game on Good Friday. It is possible to create new traditions using different teams each year.

An afternoon stop at the Gregory Downs Hotel breaks up a long outback Queensland drive

But the Winter Classic is successful for other reasons. Firstly, it is held on a public holiday where there are few other distractions. Check. But, most importantly, it is successful because it celebrates an aspect of ice hockey that had been phased out of the NHL. In an incredibly professional sport, all games of the NHL season are played in purpose-built indoor arenas. All bar one that is. The Winter Classic is played outdoors, celebrating a traditional aspect of the game and the way that most people still learn to skate and play hockey. Celebrating the heritage of ice hockey has certainly helped make the Winter Classic a success.

The ANZAC Day game works because it incorporates the military traditions of the day into the ceremonies of the game. The day is a celebration of our military history and of our national game. But incorporating the Christian traditions into a game of football is problematic and, quite frankly, should not be attempted and should not occur. Not, I might add, because of deference to religion but because of deference to football and multi-culturalism. The day cannot marginalise those of us that do not believe or believe in something else.

Creating reverence for the day will be a big challenge for the AFL and it will be undermined with criticism that they are not showing reverence for the Christian faith. At this point on the drive, I interrupted the hum of the tyres and told Mrs Bugler of my thoughts. Mrs Bugler proposed a neat solution to some of the problems.

The long drive to Karumba from the back seat of the Canyonero

A former employee of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Mrs Bugler drew my attention to a very successful tradition, the Good Friday Appeal. If part of the game was based around raising awareness of and funds for the Royal Children’s Hospital in the Good Friday Appeal, the AFL would at once co-opt an existing tradition and create a broader and worthwhile cause for the game. After all, one would think doing some good on Good Friday would have universal religious appeal.

Envisage a situation in which players from both teams (different each year) spent the week leading up to the game volunteering at the Hospital. In your mind’s eye, see tin-rattlers outside the stadium with thousands of fans giving generously as they excitedly walked toward the ground. Imagine, if you will, a proud Gillon McLachlan handing over an over-sized novelty cheque to the Royal Children’s Hospital worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a percentage of the day’s revenue raising. How could you criticise the AFL for having a game of football on Good Friday when it is doing so much good for the community? And the opportunities for marketing this relationship are endless. Thank you, Mrs Bugler.

The simple beauty of this suggestion becomes greater as you think more on it. The idea is transportable in that interstate teams could do similarly in their own city. It is not tied to a particular ground and I’m confident other hospitals would also appreciate the benefits. The Good Friday game could travel, much like the Winter Classic does each year to a different outdoor field.

Sunset from Karumba Point and the Sunset Tavern

The modern success of the ANZAC Day clash stemmed from the first game in 1995 when Essendon and Collingwood fought out a storied draw in front of a packed crowd. This stroke of luck must be acknowledged in the creation of tradition. Without that stroke of luck the day may ebb and flow, more like the fortunes of Melbourne vs Collingwood on Queen’s Birthday. Mrs Bugler’s suggestion does not necessarily create a Good Friday mythology or heritage like the Winter Classic or ANZAC Day. But it does enable the AFL to use existing traditions to build its own tradition while appealing to a broad audience on a religious holiday. Hopefully, with all teams in concert everyone could benefit. Especially the kids.

Jul 4, 2014

Riding The Trails Of Maffra and Tathra

The two people I cycled most regularly with often espoused the virtues of mountain biking. Ostie spent much time on his road and commuter bikes, but professed to having a deep love of thrashing his mountain bike on trails. Daniel took to mountain biking after retiring from running. He raced underneath the Westgate Bridge and enjoyed the competition, especially at night. Despite the peer pressure, my experience off-road was extremely limited. But it was inevitable that at some stage I would have to take a bike off the tarmac.

Riding to Mumbulla Creek Falls from Tathra on a hired 29-er mountain bike

An early stop on the Bugling odyssey was the Gippsland town of Maffra to visit a college friend of Mrs Bugler’s. As luck would have it our hosts, Julie and Steve, both loved mountain biking. Further, not far from Maffra on Blores Hill are a number of well-maintained trails suited to beginners through to the more experienced. Naturally, conversation got around to cycling and I expressed an interest in trying out my cycling ability on Blores Hill.

Although Steve’s gear was a touch smaller than I would have liked, his bike is top-of-the-line. Due to a broken hand, his hard-tail 29-er was not being used. For the unfamiliar, a ‘hard-tail’ means the bike has only suspension on the front wheel, and ’29-er’ means it has 29 inch wheels. This style of mountain bike is relatively new but increasingly popular. For a newbie, it was a perfect steed on which to try out the trails of Blores Hill.

Rocky Mountain 29-er mountain bike at the top of Blores Hill after riding up the trails

The first things that I noticed about mountain biking on the Blores Hill trails were that I had to concentrate every second without taking my eyes off the trail, and I was constantly on the brakes to wipe off a bit of speed. The technical nature of riding on the trails meant that I barely had a moment to blink. I managed to successfully negotiate my first few trails and was enjoying the solitude and beauty of the forest at Blores Hill. For the most part I was competent. It was only when I tried to climb up a steep trail over large uneven boulders that I came unstuck and had to walk.

After testing myself out on a variety of trails, I was thinking that although mountain biking is technically harder, physically I was not as exhausted as I would normally be after an hour or so of cycling. On cue, I went past a resting rider. He was the only other cyclist I saw that morning and he was quite a bit larger than me. But just as I was patting myself on my back for my superior fitness, he flew past me on the next trail. Quite obviously my technical abilities were restricting me from working harder and going faster.

Taking the fire trail around Blores Hill on a 29-er mountain bike

Our time in Maffra came to an end, and the Bugling odyssey continued into New South Wales. The Sapphire Coast is a beautiful area and we had a legion of places to set up camp. We chose the seaside town of Tathra. A short drive away down a dirt road is a place worth going for a picnic and a swim – Mumbulla Creek Falls. Hidden in Biamanga National Park, the waterfalls have created a natural rock water slide that ends in a deep pool. The daring can also jump off a rock platform about 5 or 6 metres above the pool.

Some swift internet searching revealed that Tathra had mountain biking trails almost on top of town, and the local bike shop hired 29-ers. A stroke of luck for the Bugler. To get my money’s worth for the bike hire, I planned on two rides. The first involved some negotiation with Mrs Bugler and a plan was formulated. It was decided I would ride to Mumbulla Creek Falls and Mrs Bugler would meet me there with a picnic and the mini-Bugler. They would take the highway and I would take the road less-travelled on the 29er.

The ride to Mumbulla Creek Falls from Tathra is one of the toughest and most scenic I have done. It is only a touch over 30km but the ride begins at sea level and meanders through the hills of Mimosa Rocks and Biamanga National Parks. On sometimes steep, dirt and gravel roads I ascended about 900m. Exacerbating the physical difficulty of this was the personal isolation. I was on very unfamiliar territory and spent much of the time not knowing if I was following the correct uneven gravel road. As I kept climbing, nagging doubt contributed to my tiring legs. I definitely earned my slide down the rock into the pool and the ensuing picnic.

Sliding down the natural rock waterslide at Mumbulla Creek Falls picnic area

Early the next morning, I stretched out my stiff legs and attacked the trails in the hills behind Tathra. Climbing through the quiet streets to Bundadung Trails, I began to regret my decision to go cycling. But I was already out of bed and had to return the 29-er later that morning so I took off down Anchors Away trail.

The conditions were very similar to Blores Hill and I again enjoyed the solitude and the natural beauty of the area. But my tired legs meant I was counting the time and kilometres. Suddenly a tree interrupted my tribulation. Squeezing through a tight gap, my handlebar clipped the tree and I came off. Both the rental and I escaped unscathed and I remounted. Funnily, the little tumble improved my mental state. The next hour passed rapidly as I re-concentrated on cycling the trails and got lost in the reverie. Before I knew it, I was running late for breakfast.

Riding the rutted road out to Mumbulla Creek Falls on a 29-er mountain bike

Two formulae are often quoted when talking about the correct number of bikes to own, n+1 and s-1. ‘n’ refers to the number of bikes you currently own, and ‘s’ refers to the number of bikes that would cause separation from your partner. Thus, the correct number of bikes to own is one more than you currently have but one less than would result in separation. Even with the crash and the exhausting ride out to Mumbulla Creek, I enjoyed my time on the 29-ers. But I also enjoy being married and only a year has elapsed since I purchased my road bike. Perhaps with some more mountain bike hiring and more subtle hints, n+1 < s-1.