Monday, April 16, 2018

Race Report: Australian Outback Marathon

Flights and passport all ready to go...
On Tuesday, I left work at 2:30pm and excitedly made my way to JFK, heading to terminal 2 for my flight from JFK to LAX. Newly minted as a Delta Gold Medallion member, I checked my bag in at the Sky Priority counter, and was able to sweet talk the counter agent to see if she could move me from the dreaded middle seat to which I was “upgraded” to in Delta Comfort+ to the one aisle seat that was left remaining.  We boarded the flight, and I was seated right up near the front of the Comfort+ section, next to a woman also traveling to Australia, but making her connection in LAX to a Virgin Australia flight.

The 5+ hour flight was fine, considering we left JFK without having to stand in an endless line of planes getting ready to take off; I bided my time after dinner served on the flight by watching Marley and Me (holy cow, I was crying by the end of that movie), Logan, and then taking a couple hours nap. We landed in LAX early, and I was left to having a 3 hour + layover, waiting to board my ~11pm flight to Sydney.

LAX had recently done their huge switcheroo of airlines to different terminals, so Delta was moved to Terminals 2 and 3.  Luckily both my inbound and outbound flights were in the same terminal, so I just stuck around and grabbed a quick bite at the pizza place in the terminal before we were ready to board. At around 10:20, we began boarding the huge jumbo jet 777, and I got myself ready for the 14 hour flight, easily the longest flight I will have ever taken in my life.  I stayed awake for the first four hours of the flight in order to adjust to the time change as best as I possibly could, by watching a couple movies.  I then slept for about 4-5 hours, before continuing a movie watching spree, getting up every so often to pace the cabin, eating the meals that the cheerful flight attendants served us, and watching the time tick by.  Before long, the 14 hours was down to two, and the flight tracker had us flying over Fiji and the South Pacific, getting closer and closer to the Australian coast.  We landed in Sydney, as the sun was beginning to rise, just before 7am Thursday morning. We deplaned, and headed straight toward passport control; I had opted to go through the regular line rather than the SmartGate, thinking that actually interacting with a human border force guard would get him/her to stamp my passport (since SmartGate is all electronic)… except, apparently that doesn’t happen anymore at all at the Sydney Airport.  So I stood in that long line for nothing. :(

Final destination - AYQ!
Either way, my bag had not yet emerged in baggage claim (all travelers must retrieve their checked bags before going through customs), so I would’ve still stood around waiting if I did go through the SmartGate.  After getting my bag, I bee-lined my way out the “nothing to declare” green line (pro tip - there’s more than one of these, so you can get through one with less people queueing up that can get you a quicker exit!) and then headed out into the arrivals area, turning left to go to the transfers desk for Virgin Australia.  Thanks to my Delta Gold status, I was able to head to the Velocity queue (of which there was no one in front of me) to re-check my bag for the final leg of my trip.

By then, I had been in transit for a bit over 24 hours, with a layover and 3.5 hour flight still left to go.  Sydney’s international terminal does not have any airside connections to the domestic terminal, so all passengers must take a shuttle there, commuting to the other terminal among local traffic. We reached the domestic terminal, went through security, and with still a bit of time left, was able to utilize the Virgin Australia lounge thanks to my Delta status and the partnership between the two airlines. I had a hearty breakfast (MUCH better than what I had on the plane) enjoying some flapjacks and bacon before heading off to my gate to board my last flight.

Uluru from above
The 3.5 hour flight from Sydney to Uluru was made quicker by enjoying to company of the woman who sat in my row - we were lucky to have an empty seat between us to stretch out a bit.  Dr. Anita Heiss is a renowned author and speaker specializing in contemporary Aboriginal life in Australia. Having run the half marathon at the Australian Outback Marathon in 2016, she was excited to run her first full marathon at this year’s race.  Our conversation made the flight go quite quickly, and before long, we had arrived in the Northern Territory, flying over the iconic red earth of the Australian outback.

Kata Tjuta and the Yulara
Airport on our descent
We made our approach to the airport, and were maybe a couple hundred feet above the ground to land before the plane ended up ascending again.  As it turned out, we weren’t fully lined up to the runway, so they had us abort the landing and turn around to make the approach again.  My stomach heaved a little, as I was SO ready to finally be off of a plane, but this afforded the people on the other side of the plane to have a view of Uluru that we on the left had on the initial approach.

Welcome to Uluru!
Finally, we landed, deplaning onto the tarmac, just as another flight from Sydney, the Jetstar flight, made its landing.  On that flight were Lynne and Leslie, my roommates, and after thousands of miles and hours of flying time, the three of us were finally meeting up.  We were at our final destination... Yulara (AYQ)! We headed to the baggage claim area, and it took quite awhile for bags to come out of both planes, but ultimately, we got all of our luggage, were greeted by ambassadors and staff for the marathon and Traveling Fit (the Australian company that puts on the race and arranges marathon tours for Australian nationals) and boarded the bus to Desert Gardens Hotel, one of the four hotels that make up the Ayers Rock Resort. Check in was easy-peasy, and we headed to our nice sized room, where a rollaway bed was in place for the three of us. Arriving in the early afternoon after thirty hours of travel, all three of us were pretty tired; Lynne decided to take a nap, while Leslie and I decided to join several other runners to participate in the late afternoon shakeout run that the organizers arranged to "release the cobwebs" from our well-travelled legs.   It was a nice and easy 5k or so, and we were able to acclimate to the dry desert air and temperate climate, as well as sample the hard-packed and slightly softer-packed "red earth" of this part of the country.  The run also afforded us the opportunity to have a beautiful vantage point of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the two major landmarks in the superbly flat landscape, in the waning light of the sun.  After our run, we headed back to the hotel to shower (and wake up Lynne) before heading to the Outdoor Welcome Dinner poolside at the Sails in the Desert Hotel only an easy ten minute walk from our hotel.  After that delicious dinner (which included sampling lots of Australian cuisine, including lamb chops, angus beef sausage with bush tomato relish, and lemon seared barramundi), all three of us were ready to hit the hay after a long couple days of travel.

Lynne, Leslie, and I: Uluru sunrise
It was Friday the next morning, and we were up before dawn to be escorted on a private coach to view the sunrise over Uluru.  At the sunrise viewing area, known in the local language as "Talinguru Nyakunytjaku," we watched as the rock face of Uluru change color as the sun appeared over the horizon.  In our small group consisting of Lynne, Leslie, and new friends Scott and Jun, we were then shuttled up close and personal to do our self-guided tour of the base of Uluru, a 10 km walk all the way around the massive rock formation. We were also able to stop at the Indigenous Cultural Centre to learn more about the Anangu people, the traditional owners and stewards of the land, and their culture, and view the beautiful traditional aboriginal artwork by local tribeswomen.  After a busy morning, we headed back to the hotel to rest up before heading to the Amphitheatre near Sails in the Desert for the Opening Ceremony for the marathon, where the Traveling Fit staff kindly welcomed all of the runners to the Australian Outback, coming from many countries from all around the world. After the opening ceremony, we were led to the carbo-load dinner to mingle with fellow runners and prep for the following morning's "piece de resistance."

With the group of us who stayed together to walk the perimeter of Uluru
Some of the photographable parts of Uluru

We didn't climb, out of respect for the Anangu.
The Field of Lights before the start
We woke up quite early, and as expected it was quite a chilly morning with the sun not even up yet. Coaches picked us up from our hotel and took us to the start area, which offered beautiful views of the Field of Lights fiber optic light display at dawn, located right next to where we were gathered. We got together with the friends we had made prior to the race, assembling for photos before we assembled behind the start line.  Before starting the race, we were treated to a traditional performance by a local on the didgeridoo to start us off.

My kit all laid out the night before
The course took us all along Yulara's hard-packed red-earth fire trails that went all around the community.  These trails are normally closed to the public, but are opened up solely for the race course that morning.   Some of the red earth was easier to run on than others.  Throughout the course, we would be kept abreast of our distance by kilometer markings, but of course, I had my watch set to miles.  Early on, we had a nice mile long stretch where the sand was easiest to run on where the faster runners had made paths.  I ran alongside Scott and Joon for this first mile, clocking in a 9:33.  It wouldn't be as bad as we would encounter a little later in the race.  After the first mile, we turned right onto what maps refer to as the Kali Circuit.  This section of track was a little looser than the first mile, but still wasn't anything too tough to handle. We ran about 0.4 mile before turning a slight left onto track that formed the back edge of the Uluru Camel Tours ranch, so we passed a few camels who were left back at the ranch before the regular sunrise tours had begun.  We reached our first aid station as we made another turn further out into the outback desert.

Runners from above! (Official Photo by Australian Outback Marathon)
The helicopter that took the above photo
Not long after, we could hear the whirring of an aircraft in the skies above.  A helicopter was positioned over the course, taking photos of runners as they ran under it, presumably with Uluru behind us.  The end product showed some of the absolutely beautiful views we were treated to all around us. We continued along the fire trail, eventually reaching our first road crossing, Yulara Drive, the circular "main road" that encircles the resorts that make up the Voyages Hotels and Resorts community of Yulara.  We passed by the south end of the Desert Gardens Hotel, running by a few of the perimeter hotel buildings similar to the one Lynne, Leslie, and I were staying in, before turning right and continuing on.  The course then crossed the Lasseter Highway, the 244 kilometer highway which crosses through half of the Northern Territory from Western Australia to the Stuart Highway.

Sometimes the sand was soft and uneven, not easy to run on....
And we had some sections that came off of dunes....
And others that were easier and more packed... Blue skies, red earth.  ULURU.
Wide open spaces...
We made our way around what seemed to be a water treatment facility for the area before running along the 1.5 mile long wide and flat Mala Road where the sand seemed packed enough to be able to pick up some speed.  Eventually, it became an actual paved road and we made our way past some local homes, a solar park, and some industrial looking facilities out in the middle of nowhere.  We were sent back onto the red earth after seeing the only "major" cross street, and then followed a route far from civilization along the fire trails for the next three miles. The course stayed flat for the most part, but every so often, it would turn into single track areas, where we would have to ascend up a hill several feet, and then eventually down.  The sand in these dunes was more dense, and was where most of the sand was able to get into my shoes through the mesh toebox.  It also unfortunately happened to also be where the course photographers would be situated, so I'd have to ensure I was running by to get the right looking photo!  We never felt like we were alone out there, either, as you could always see another runner in front of you or behind you.  The aid stations were widely distributed, and one in particular was very nice to see, out in the middle of the desert - two guys dressed quite wildly - one in a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band style get up, the other in a sky blue suit... literally blue with clouds on it; and laid out underneath the water cups was a rainbow flag! Easily the most memorable aid station on the course.

My favorite aid station on the entire course!
An asphalt section of the course!
At around the 8.3 mile mark, we came off of the sand once more, and were able to run along the asphalt, following the side of the Lasseter Highway before turning left onto Harney Place.  The corner of that turn apparently has some history, as Heidi Makinen, a previous winner of the race (who was there again at this year's race) had either forgotten to make the turn or went straight, going off course.  Eventually, she found her way back on, and still won the half marathon!  The race organizers lovingly posted some signs on that corner, and dubbed it "Heidi's Corner" after the folly that had happened.  Eventually, we were led back onto the red earth (how could we not?) and would run through more of the same.  Some of the runners of the 11 km fun run began to join us roughly 16 km into our race, and then the half marathoners separated from us at the 19km mark, while we took a loop around a section with some of the strongest wind and some of the steeper dunes on the course.

Representing the USA!
(Official photo by the
Australian Outback Marathon)
Somewhere past the halfway point, I came upon an aid station where I asked for a chair so I could remove the sand from my shoes for the first time in the entire race!  The amount of sand that had built up bothered me enough to merit having to stop and de-shoe... AND de-sock for a moment!  Once that was dealt with, I got back onto the course.  At about the 23km mark, we turned right, against some of the half marathoners who were coming in for the finish, but that was only for a couple hundred feet because before long, we were out on the dunes yet again, and now a little more alone.

In motion! (Official photo by the Australian Outback Marathon)
Getting closer to the finish!
The wind picked up a bit, and with the sun out, we were in the midst of the "doldrums" of the race.  At around 24 km, new friends from San Francisco Larry and Jerico caught up with me, as we played leapfrog for a couple miles.  We were now retracing our footsteps back along the course we had ran earlier, backtracking through the dunes, and along the periodic asphalt sections and road crossings.  As we approached the 32 km mark, the sun was at its peak, definitely taking a toll on those still out on the course.  The dryness of the air didn't help either.  We reached a road crossing, where Travelling Fit founder Mari-Mar Walton was stationed, providing water to the marathoners, now out on the course for nearly 4 hours.  I took another stop to sit and remove sand from my socks and shoes while others passed.  With 10k still left to go, I knew I had at least an hour still of forward progress ahead of me.   The run/walk intervals became more frequent, yet the long stretch of Mala Road gave me a little pick-me-up, knowing it was flat and the sand was packed enough.  At the 35k mark, we returned to some less-than-stellar red earth surface, and with the sun out in full force, it was more of a slog through the desert.

Back to the Resort
We approached the main street of the resort are of town, and I pulled on forward, knowing that a 5 hour finish was out of reach, but I wouldn't be too far behind it.  One last road crossing took us across Yulara Drive back into the sand, but for the first time, I had to actually wait because of some crossing cars.  The last 5k was a matter of pushing when I could, and I finally, I got to the long stretch of path to the finish with roughly a mile to go. Finally, I got to the finish line, doing a loop around the village to the cheers of the remaining crowd and crossed the finish line in 5:08:44.  Scott and Jun were there to see me finish, as Lee, our wrangler, announced my name as I crossed the line.  Exhausted, I headed underneath the shade of the tent to sit down and dislodge sand from my socks and shoes for the last time!  I also had a coke, which tasted so amazingly good!

With friend and brand new marathoner Anita!
Victory Headstand!
Titanium Accomplished!
Not long after finishing, Leslie and Lynne showed up, having finished the half a couple hours earlier.  They already had time to go back and shower, and returned to celebrate with me at the finish.  I was able to check off the back bib I had been wearing for the last few marathons, checking off my last five races to reach Titanium with Marathon Maniacs.  Titanium, or ten stars, is the highest level in the club, attainable by completing 30 marathons in a combination of 30 distinct states, provinces, or territories - in my case, 23 US States, the District of Columbia, and seven foreign countries! After getting my customary headstand photo in the red sand, I headed back to the hotel for a MUCH needed shower to wash off the sand that seemed to get EVERYWHERE!

Camel Tour!
(Photo collage by Aaron Cole)
That afternoon, after some much needed rest and a little bite to eat, I boarded a shuttle to head right back out to the desert and to where I saw those camels during the race, as I had booked a sunset camel tour! With several friends I had made over the last few days, we enjoyed our trip through the desert; I was paired with Aaron from California, who placed 4th overall in the marathon. We had some great conversations as we rode up high up on the backs of these one humped dromedary camels, as the sun began to set.  The tour was beautiful as we watched Uluru bathe itself in the moonlight and change color a few more times.  As the sun went down, so did the temperatures, and before long we were back at the lodge to warm up with some celebratory beer, wine, and snacks provided by the camel tours company.

That night, runners convened at the Outback Pioneer Hotel pub for an informal get together amongst friends, with food, drinks, music, and some dancing. Leslie and I even partook in some unique food offerings, having a sampler of Australian game meats that we got to cook on our own barbies.  These meats included kangaroo loin (a little gummy, but full flavored), crocodile tail (a little tough), and emu sausage (easily the tastiest of the three, just like regular sausage!)  We had amassed a nice little group of friends who continued to chat and joke around for the remainder of the evening, including as we walked across the dune back to our hotel - Leslie, Lynne, and myself, as well as Melbournians Gabrijela and Tanya, and Dane (and super humble winner of the marathon) Frank.  That night, all three of us slept well, ready to take on day three of our adventure in the outback.

Seeing off Gaby and Tanya!
The next morning, Leslie and Lynne woke up early to get breakfast before embarking on their sunrise helicopter tour they had booked.  We got to see Gabrijela and Tanya off, as they were leaving back to Melbourne that day; try some vegemite for the first time (not a fan. LOL); and later in the morning, a new friend Toby took us out to enjoy seeing the often less-visited part of the national park, Kata Tjuta -another Anangu religious site, and a unique rock formation in the middle of the red sands.  We got to head out to the platform to observe the rocks, and then headed to Walpa Gorge to do the easy one mile round-trip hike that actually became quite windy at times when we hiked through.  After heading back to the hotel, we spent the afternoon shopping around Yulara's little town square, before heading to the exclusive Australian Outback Marathon Celebration Dinner.

Kata Tjuta
Walpa Gorge

Our table at the celebration dinner!
(Photo by Jerico Padallan/Sweat Tracker)
Based on the multi-award winning Sounds of Silence dinner, we started with sunset drinks and canapés on a dune top overlooking Uluru and Kata Tjuta, enjoyed an impressive champagne sabrage done by Aaron, took the customary celebration photo with all runners present, then enjoyed a fully hosted multi-course meal under the stars.  During dinner, we were able to view a slide-show of pictures from that morning's race!  It definitely got QUITE cold on this Australian winter evening despite the space heaters, so it is advisable to bring coats and blankets to keep warm!  After dinner, we were treated to an on-site startalker, who pointed out all of the constellations in the southern sky.  It was definitely a night to remember, being able to see the brilliant night sky without any light pollution to muck up our views.
Striking a pose at the Celebration Dinner

Mmmmm... delicious dinner, complete with kangaroo!
With Heidi on our way to Sydney
The next day, we bided our time in the morning, as we had all day to just chill in AYQ before our flights to Sydney.  We slept in and also did a bit of shopping/window shopping in the town hall, before boarding buses to head to the airport.  Leslie and Lynne left earlier on a Jetstar flight to Sydney, while I took a later flight on Virgin Australia.  They'd be arriving a few hours before me, and would navigate the local mass transit from the airport to the Eastern Suburbs and Bondi Junction, where I arranged for us to stay for the following two nights.  The flight was uneventful and pretty long, but it was made better by sitting across the aisle from Heidi Makinen, who I had mention earlier in this report, having won the half marathon for the third year in a row.  Originally from Finland, she's been living for a few years in Singapore and we were able to chat about races in our respective countries and other travels.  We arrived in Sydney and I quickly got myself out to Bondi Junction, where I got to finally meet my second cousin Joel! Joel lives in Sydney, and works for an apartment-hotel brand, Meriton Suites, with a location only 15 minutes by train into the Sydney CBD.  He was able to hook us up with a suite - originally a two bedroom, which he was able to upgrade into a humongous three bedroom suite with impressive views of the harbor.  With my flight getting in late, he got to meet Leslie and Lynne first, who remarked how alike we looked.  After another long day of travel, we crashed for the night, eager to explore Sydney the following day.

Before going on the BridgeClimb!
On the agenda for our first full day in Sydney was to explore Sydney Harbour. We took the Sydney Train (the city's suburban passenger rail network) into the CBD, getting off at Martin Place, a pedestrian mall that's considered the "civic heart" of Sydney and its center of business and finance.  From there, it was a short walk along Pitt Street, where we got to feel immersed in the Sydneysider way of life, headed to Circular Quay, the touristic neighborhood that sits between the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  It was a beautiful morning in the city, and we had a blast enjoying the views, before finding our way to the urban area known as The Rocks, where the entrance to the  BridgeClimb at Sydney Harbour Bridge was located.

The Opera House from the Bridge!
The BridgeClimb is a must do when you're in Sydney.  Times and dates sell out at peak season and times of the year, so its advisable to book this well ahead of time.   We were limited to the specific day we were going to be in Sydney, as Lynne and Leslie were leaving the following morning - so we booked in early June.  The catch?  It's expensive.  Prices are scaled by time of day and season, and for us it was $293 Australian per head, which is around $230 US, mostly because of the liability involved.  The entire time, we're attached to sturdy cables attached to the bridge itself, so it's very safe.  But in the end, only Lynne and I ended up doing the climb, as Leslie had wavered back and forth about it due to her fear of heights.  We had a very thorough pre-climb prep session where seasoned Climb Leaders equipped us with all the outdoor gear we would need, based on the day’s weather conditions and our health & safety essentials.  It was quite exhilarating - we ascended the arches of the Bridge and enjoyed the iconic views of Sydney Harbour, entertained with stories about the history of the Bridge from its construction to its opening in 1932, right through to its place in day to day local celebrations. The climb was not too tough, and we were brought to the very top of the bridge, a mere 440 feet above the water below.  The crisp Australian "winter" weather was actually quite nice, and we enjoyed the roughly 3 hours we spent having 360º views of the Sydney metro area.

I found a koala!  
After getting back down to earth, I was able to shoot a message to my friend Donna's cousin Mike, who met us as for a quick tête-à-tête, since we were on a tight schedule and he had some afternoon plans after working some in the morning. He walked us through Barangaroo, an inner city suburb of Sydney on the northwest side of the CBD.  The area is undergoing quite a bit of redevelopment, with new highrises popping up all over the area.  Our ultimate destination was Darling Harbour, where we purchased passes to go to the WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, where we were determined to find quintessential Australian animals, even if they were in captivity.  On our agenda was to pet a kangaroo, and get photos with a koala and a quokka - all of which we were successful in doing!  As the day wound down, we headed back to Bondi Junction for the evening, stopping over at Bondi Beach - not a particularly good beach day, since it was cold and windy, and it's winter after all in this part of the world.  We grabbed dinner and then crashed for the evening, with Leslie and Lynne heading out early in the morning.

Loving life at the opera house!
I had a whole additional day left in Sydney, so I slept in the next day, had a leisurely breakfast in Bondi, and headed back to the CBD to explore more of the vibrant city, including taking in the Queen Victoria Building, a late nineteenth-century building that houses a shopping mall; traversing the Pyrmont Bridge and heading to the other side of Darling Harbour to do some shopping in the Harbourside Shopping Centre; and Macquarie Street and its shops, before exploring the grounds of the Sydney Opera House.  By early evening, I made my way to the airport to catch my overnight flight on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, where I would connect to head to Da Nang, Vietnam for the remainder of the trip!

Upon coming home, I received this lovely gift in the mail from my friend Steve Walters! I'm one of less than 40 people who've achieved the top tiers of Titanium in Marathon Maniacs AND Sun in Half Fanatics!

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