Updated: Mar 6, 2021
When running a 10k, the playbook for your best 800 meters goes out the window. Likewise, ultrarunners compete with different strategies than marathoners. So, what rules govern a runner's first attempt to cross a Continent? In a series of articles, we'll take an in-depth look at one runner's quest to answer that question.
Continents. The largest land masses on Earth; some rest on several tectonic plates beneath the surface, creating fissures with shifting, disruptive quakes. And, most are large enough to have several weather patterns for various regions that create massive volatility for planners. This all has to be dealt with, whether by car or by plane or train. On foot, doing 50 miles a day, the unpredictability is multiplied and presents unique challenges and dangers to any who dare attempt to cross them.
Crossing the United States has presented massive challenges to racers and organizers alike since 1928. Deserts, mountains, forests, busy highways, abandoned roads, insects, wild animals, extreme heat and humidity and even cold weather and high altitude create havoc. Pyle's Bunion Derbies of 1928 and '29 are celebrated for their ambition and derided for their haphazard and exploitative elements. In the end, the runners suffered the most.
In 1992, the Trans-Am, as it is often referred to, was revived by Jesse Dale Riley. Emphasis again was on the natural barriers to overcome and organization, the difficulty of the latter perhaps being more formidable. But the race ran with Riley for another four years.
Riley started his path into ultras with Sri Chinmoy races in Queens. He then crossed Canada with Trans-Canada record-holder, Al Howie, as his handler. He then went on to enter a 1,000-mile trek across Siberia. It turned out to be a scam, but the ambition in Riley was an ember fanned by the beauty of crossing vast landscapes. In 1998, he crossed Australia on foot with his brother, John, and an even larger event grew in his mind: a race across Australia. It would be his most ambitious and most challenging and ferocious race. Like in previous Trans-Am's, the runners would bear the brunt.
Ultrarunners, whether they admit it or not, think about it. About running as far as the land will take you, bordered only by water, they yearn to stretch their souls with their legs and find how deep the well is. In those thoughts, lives a doubt and curiosity in many mega-distance-minded runners: what does it take to do one?
One runner, Markus Mueller, was there. A German runner looking for high adventure, he would spend months on the roads of Australia, putting in mile after mile to finish, then spend the rest of his life trying to make sense of it. Mueller had started running in 1984 and soon entered marathons, then a 100k just east of Frankfurt. To his surprise, most of the runners were in their 40s. It takes a special lifestyle to make an ultrarunner: time away from work, an understanding spouse or lack there of, and an ability to ignore monotony and extreme fatigue. Mueller found he had all of the above when began entering
24-hour races, 48-hour races, and eventually a 10-day race in Queens, New York. But those would
not quench his thirst for more. Ever since reading "Flanagan's Run," he'd wondered what it was like to
run across a continent.
Several Trans-Germany races had been run in the 1980's and Mueller had read about them, extensively. Though extremely well organized with the police and municipalities, they weren't, however, without controversy. German ultraraces are organized to force runners to be more self-reliant: no pacers allowed; they know better than most the dangers Trans-Cons hold. The death of two runners in 1986 led to Helmut Schieke, arguably the father of German ultrarunning, pulling out. In 1972, Helmut Schieke had crossed the U.S. in record time and helped bring the sport of ultrarunning to the fore in Germany. But he knew the brutality of running multiple marathons a day for countless days on end clearly wasn't for every runner. Yet, given the opportunity to run across Australia, he couldn't resist.
Schieke would join Mueller in 2001 in Jesse Riley's Trans-Australia run along with volcano-runner, Stefan Schlett, and two other Germans. They had little expectation from the organizers. "We didn't expect much," says Mueller. "We had heard that we would be left to fend for ourselves." Still, they had no idea what dangers and trials lay ahead.
Perhaps nothing could better illuminate the divide between runner and race organizer than the differing attitudes toward the Nullarbor Plain. It stretches 684 miles from east to west across the border between South Australia and Western Australia. It is the epitome of the "outback." Seasonally occupied by Indigenous peoples, it presents a massive hurdle for runners. Traditionally the area was called "Oondiri", which is said to mean "the waterless". Edward John Eyre became the first European to successfully cross the Nullarbor in 1841. In writing about Eyre's voyages in 1865, Henry Kingsley wrote that the area across the Nullarbor and Great Australian Bight was a "hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams." In the mind of runners trying to cross this stretch, it is legend. To the organizer, Jesse Riley, "it is a cinch, the easiest part. It's a dream - one road and no traffic the whole way." The road he refers to is a dirt path that runs 900 miles beside the Indian Pacific Route, a railway that bisects the great plain. But even before reaching this juggernaut, runners faced a plethora of problems.
When they arrived in Australia, "there was basically nothing," says Mueller. The RV's that had been promised the runners were not there. The Australian Army, which had been onboard to supply water and aid the runners across the Nullarbor had dropped. Gatorade had made promises; they reneged. Australian runners who'd left their RV's at home because promised sponsored RV's were to be provided, were left to rent expensive ones last minute. Lack of coordination with police, forced the race to start a day late. Mueller claims, "they'd done no research on the course. We had to squeeze six days of running into five." Riley disputes these claims. "There is basically one road, and I had scouted it with my brother two and half years before. Also, I was in charge of the daily mileage, and that wasn't changed." Riley goes on to say that, "Mueller was in a very dark place in the beginning. I'd seen it before in the Trans-Am. Everything hurts. It seems the world is against you. But it's like that for everyone."
"It's meant to be tough," "iron sharpens iron," and "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," are all adages used to encourage runners to tackle the "impossible." It entices dreamers and bored office workers alike to the extremes of adventure. In the race across Australia, there would be rebellion, confusion, and doubts. Through it all, the runners would have to survive.
What they didn't know was that co-race director, Bernie Farmer, had put them all in a difficult spot. Bernie is a salt of the Earth sort. He deals in handshakes and nods and had built up high expectation for the run. It was the country's Centennial, and this race would celebrate that. What could be better? That was how it was pitched. His brother Pat, however, was running for parliament. To avoid any possibility of political favoritism, the run was officially dropped from consideration by the government, just two weeks before it was set to begin. In essence, they wouldn't help the race in any shape or form.
But ultrarunners are like actors: the show must go on. Riley, Farmer, and runners like Mueller were adamant that the run would proceed. "Crossers" as Trans-Con runners are called, are loathe to give up; it's this mentality that makes them so damned resilient. Just take a look at Tom McGrath or Al Howie.
It was hell right from the start.
A Trans-Con race smacks you square in the mouth day one, and it doesn't let up for at least another two weeks. Only then do the successful ones find their bodies are made to do the distance.
Immediate reactions were complex the first day in Australia, including for Markus. The runners were scattered, mentally, physically, and logistically. Markus had a rough time finding his pace and figuring out how to get supplies. The experience would grow mythical in their minds - each step across some of the world's most demanding terrain - through wildfires, lack of water, extreme heat and ultimately the death of one of Australia's most talented ultrarunners. Many still question it, are haunted by it, or relive it. No matter what, they will never forget it. Certainly, Markus hasn't, and in the next article, he'll take us inside his experience of a lifetime.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of a conversation with Markus Mueller
* A wildfire threatens to end the race * Teams group up by nationality to survive
* Money has its advantages (even in running) * Tragedy strikes * Race director mortgages house to pay prize money * A runner breaks away * Good handlers are hard to come by