Run Australia’s Simpson Desert

It’s a typical outback winter’s dawn. The light is golden as it beams across the Birdsville Hotel, a single-story white brick building established in 1884, known as Australia’s most legendary outback pub. As we peel away from the remote town (population 100), I settle into my pace in the red, hard-packed sand. Already, this race feels like something special.

Australia’s first and only 250km multi-stage desert running race, the Big Red Run brings runners from across the globe to the Simpson Desert for six days in July. Starting in Birdsville, Queensland, participants head 42km west to reach the Big Red Dune, the desert’s largest, at 40 metres high. Then, for the remaining 215km – spread over a few days – the course winds through the best parts of the Simpson, finishing back in Birdsville.

For me, this run is the culmination of an epic journey – a pledge to race across five deserts on five continents to support people living with Type 1 diabetes. In 2012 I ran the Atacama Desert, the Gobi Desert, the Sahara Desert and Antarctica, and now the fourth largest Australian Desert sprawls before me.

The desert terrain is ever-changing. Far from monotonous drab dunes that one might expect, the Simpson features striking red dunes, clay pans, salt lakes and vast gibber plains. As I round the top of each dune, I am excited to see the scenery that awaits us. Every valley is different.

At 2pm I reach ‘Big Red’ with my 20-year-old son, Stephen. Stephen is Type 1 diabetic, and my aim is to run the entire 250km beside him. Rising before us in the afternoon sun, the dune’s red sand is glowing luridly. The climb three kilometres up its windswept crest is tough – a grand finale to our first running day. Settling into camp by the dune, the atmosphere is jovial – we recline to the rustic tunes of country singer John Williamson in a concert on top of Big Red. I’m feeling exhausted, pondering how I’ll cope with another 208km.

Day two is as varied as the first, with another dune climb offering 360-degree views across the desert. There’s a difficult section of spinifex and thick vegetation to tackle before crossing a vast clay flat to finish the day – the smooth surface is a welcome relief.

By day three, I’m tackling my third marathon in three days, and I can feel it. I’m nursing blisters on top of blisters, and my calves are hurting from climbing so many dunes. After three days, I’m in kilojoule deficit, too, so my general energy levels are low. Nevertheless, I kick off on formed trails before crossing a large, dried salt lake. At the 25km mark a series of closely set dunes tests our resolve before the welcome broadness of the area’s main 4WD track guides us gently back to Big Red.

Day four is the much-needed “short” day, at 26km. At more than 30 degrees Celsius, it’s warmer than the previous days, and 20 kilometres in I run out of water and need a swig from Stephen’s supply. By 1pm the heat is beating down, and all the participants look wilted – except for Stephen. In the day’s final climb up Big Red, he breaks into a sprint.

Day five is a gruelling 85km stage known as “The Long Day”. Stephen and I leave camp at 6am in darkness, following flashing green lights marking the course, under a canopy of twinkling stars until an hour later, when the sun begins to peek over the horizon. The hardest part is after checkpoint five, at around 50km, when Stephen’s ITB flares up. With 35km still to go, we feel like this could be the end of the road. Luckily, the pain settles down.

As Stephen and I leave checkpoint six, setting out across a vast five-kilometre-wide gibber plain, the last rays of the sun are shining down on us. Our shadows seem to stretch hundreds of metres over shiny red gibber. A helicopter buzzes overhead briefly, before silence descends and we run into darkness together. We pull into camp at 9.45pm.

Our final day in the desert is a gentle 8km jog back to Birdsville’s pub. This leg is untimed, and we enjoy the social element this brings. During the past 240km+ kilometres, the event’s 60 participants have grown close, through hardships and many nights spent by the campfire. We run as a group, and just as we’re about to join the main road leading us to the finish line, a group of wild horses emerge from the scrub. We pause to soak in the moment.

Crossing the finish line at Birdsville Hotel, hand-in-hand with my son Stephen, I am one very proud dad. At the post-race festivities held at the pub, the first beer I polish off is the best I’ve ever had, and washes the red dust down. We’ve finished, and we’ve raised more than $160,000 for Type 1 diabetes research.

RUN IT: bigredrun.com.au

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