Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Everyday as hot as Badwater. A wildfire. A mutiny, and an unthinkable tragedy. Welcome to part two of the 2001 Trans-Australia Footrace.
Finishing a trans-con attempt takes strategy, grit, and a shitload of intangibles. But when conditions change, especially in a hostile environment like the outback of Australia, all bets are off. Things can get desperate quick, and on the seventh day in, they did.
The course for stage seven was long, 100k, and the prize money big, $500.
Race director, Jesse Riley, wanted it to keep each stage competitive. The prize money was good enough to keep the fires lit; for some athletes, it was a way to help pay for the trip. That is, if they were fast enough to compete. As expected, the fastest took off to get the money and the others, who were just in it for the finish, separated. They had no way of knowing that they wouldn't even see the other runners till the following night. (After all, it was the outback)
Some runners had better setups than others, but that didn't always equal performance. One runner with no handler and no support vehicle proved to be among the strongest.
Siberian runner, Andrei Derkson, 36, had slept on the ground the night before. He had grit, loved the heat, and preferred coming on strong at the end of stages. He had won the Marathon de Sables three years in a row. Now in Australia, he was making a run for the $500 prize. The only thing that could stop him was his fellow countryman, or so he thought.
Anatonii Kruglikov, 43, had won Badwater the year before and had beaten the legendary Yiannis Kouros in a brutal head-to-head in Tasmania. Like Derkson, he was Russian. But unlike his countryman, he had his own vehicle and was crewed by his girlfriend, Marina Bychkova, who was a top-tier runner in her own right.
One crewed and one screwed; these two would fight it out for the stage win.
SEE Kouros and Kruglikov battle it out in the documentary, below. (47:09)
Slovinian runner, Dusan Mravlje, 47, did his best to stay with them, but according to Markus Mueller, "he was a bit past his peak." Nevertheless, the battle for the top spot became very personal. For his part, Mueller stuck with his countrymen. When times got tough, the Germans ran in single-file, breaking the wind and conserving energy across the outback. Mueller's girlfriend, Gabrielle, crewed off and on for the Germans as did another volunteer, George, but Mueller has come to believe that there should have been "one crew person per runner, minimum." In reality, only a select few could afford such a luxury.
Riley was of the opposite opinion. "People can do way more than they think. It's not impossible. Sometimes people do more with less." It's his belief that these brutal distances, day after day, don't wear down the body but actually make stronger runners.
"A lot of people shouldn't have started in the first place," Mueller says. A part of the German contingent, he saw one runner as being too young and a few perhaps past their prime. "One of the main themes," he says, "was that there were so many setups. Nothing about it was fair."
With that said, they were out there all the same, from various countries around the globe, all with the same mission: to run across Australia.
Twenty miles into the stage, things changed. A series of small fires appeared up ahead on both sides of the road. Smoke careened across the countryside like an animated black fog. The flames licked so close to the asphalt, that the edges melted. Eucalyptus shrubs shriveled up like dry sage, and the intense aroma infiltrated the runners' lungs. On top of that, temps soared over 118 degrees Fahrenheit... in the shade.
But the top three runners made a gamble: they would run through the wildfire to get the prize money! First was Kruglikov, followed closely by Derkson. Hanging onto their backs was Hungarian runner, Mihaly Molnar. Two crew vehicles went with them into the storm of smoke and ash, disappearing into the wall of blackness.
When the rest of the runners got there, the situation had shifted dramatically. Helicopters were swarming overhead, and police had put up barriers; the road was closed. (Video below at 20:30 mark)
Dusan Mravjle, a Slovinian runner, was the first to say, "the race stops right here." And thus, in Riley's eyes, the mutiny of Yellowdine began.
A small stop on the road, Yellowdine had a gas station, a place for boarding, and a cafe. It became ground zero for the debate. The question was to bunny hop the stage or not!! And the runners quickly got up in arms about it.
Option A: cut that stage out. (Stage seven never happened)
Option B: restart the next day with various course lengths for the two groups.
Riley's worry was the finish. If they restarted, their schedule would be put in jeopardy. Some runners agreed. According to Riley, the Japanese and Germans didn't mind dropping stage seven. The Australians, however, including Bryan Smith, Paul Every, Peter Grey, and George Audley, along with Brit, Bob Brown, cared about keeping the stage, and they weren't shy about it.
The Australians and Brown were adamant to run every step across the continent, and that is understandable. They had all come a long way and invested, not only time, but a tremendous amount of resources. And when the police lifted the barriers a few hours later, they decided to go back and start from where they had stopped. Riley tried to get ahead to contact the other vehicles but ran out of gas and had to thumb a ride back to Yellowdine.
Unfortunately, Brown and the Australians headed out in the most brutal heat of the day. They only lasted five or ten miles before retreating back. It was a statement that they were serious about no shortcuts. In the end, those extra miles that day would be wiped away.
Up ahead, the breakaway had made it through the fire. Kruglikov and Derkson had pulled away from Molnar and were stride for stride. Derkson was fighting for the prize money. He felt Kruglikov got much more support, and he needed it to offset his expenses. Kruglikov felt insulted at that thought and by being challenged so directly. When Derkson finally reached the finish line, Kruglikov had already wiped himself down and was sitting eating chicken-fried steak and drinking a Coke, just to rub it in. The two would despise each other the rest of the way. (Kruglikov would later go on to win 25 stages in a row and average 7:19-a-mile for the entire 65 stages of the race.)
That night, opinions flared in the various camps as to the way the race was being organized.
The three finishers, Kruglikov, Derkson, and Molnar camped in a school gymnasium, while back at Yellowdine, most slept in cars or on the floor of the cafe. Riley and George Jermolaevs, whose claim to fame was being able to swallow a whole bottle of strawberry syrup, slept on a concrete slab of an old home in the open air.
Riley wanted to cut the stage out. "In Australia this is not a complicated process," he says.
He thought Dusan was jockeying for the restart to get an edge. Regardless, everybody stopped where they were.
"It was going to be difficult if we didn't arrive in Kalgoorlie on time," Riley said. In the end, the stage would stay. The solution was for the slower group to run 100k the next day, the others would switch and run only 25 miles. That way everyone would be at the same finish line in two days. Problem was it left two huge days for the slower group, 100k and then 53 miles to reach Kalgoorlie.
It wasn't the first problem to arise in the run, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. While the first week had been tough, the next section would splinter the field in dramatic fashion.
INTO THE NULLARBOR
It's day 13, and the bunch is headed into the dreaded Nullarbor Desert, 700 miles till the next town. It would take 15 days to cross from Norsemen to Penong with often over 100 miles between roadhouses.
Given the daunting nature of what lay ahead, Riley had made a calculation. He had set the course for day 13 at another 100k, one of the longest of the entire race. "I wanted to make the first day into the Nullarbor one of the hardest," he says. His thinking was if they finished that, they would know they could make it to the end.
But at what cost? This was Australia in January, equivalent to mid-July for us in the Northern Hemisphere.
I'm reminded of my basketball days in middle school. We were headed to the state championship in the Catholic school league. Our coach had the idea to pit us against the city team the night before our big game. His thinking was if we played a team so much better than us, we'd come away stronger.
The Decatur city league team happened to be National Champs that year. I had a premonition at the tip that the ball was going to come to me. Can't explain it. It did, and in a burst of fear, energy, and psychotic self-belief, I made a streak down the left side of the court. I felt the heat of bodies all around me. In a flash I was at the goal. Actually, faster than I thought, and when I jumped I realized I was going to fly out of bounds. I looked towards the goal only to see two very large bodies above me, soaring like shot out of a circus cannon. I slung the ball from my waist and in one of the true miracles I've witnessed in my life, it went in. We led 2 - 0. When the final buzzer rang out, the score was 110 to 12. We were demoralized. The next night we blew a large lead in the final period to go on and lose the state tournament in overtime.
But this was not a basketball game. This was a trans-con run. And, this was the Australian outback!
The sun rose quickly on day 13, the second 100k day, and the first in the Nullarbor Desert. The fastest runners weren't deterred. Again, there was hefty prize money at the finish. They decided to throw down. Side by side, the two Russians were gonna run till they dropped, and it turned into a death match: man vs. man vs. the elements.
Again, the two Russians, Kruglikov and Derkson fought it out. They were neck and neck till the last five miles. Both men were in extreme pain. Even Marina was freaking out. "It was a battle to the death," Riley says. "Gruesome." The last mile or two, the van would stop every 500 yards. Derkson finally started walking. Kruglikov ran up about 100 more yards and then started walking, himself, looking back to see if Derkson would make a move. He didn't.
The first night camping in the desert was a turning point for many. They had just run 100k in extreme conditions to say the least. Now, they were camping in a concrete block hut. There was a doorway but no door. The only thing it offered was shade. But it also came with a healthy amount of bugs and no bathrooms. Even Riley started to think maybe the race wasn't going to work.
Two runners dropped that night, Peter Grey, who had finished Sydney to Melbourne and David Spaulding, Trans-Am finisher, aka "the big Hawaiian." Both would stay on to crew.
Day 14, the Russians refused to run fast out of protest. They were letting Riley know that the organizers were gonna have to do better. That day, a Japanese runner, Kaname Sakurai, won the stage. He had also finished Badwater the year before but would eventually quit Trans-Australia just three days before the finish.
It was a slow stage, but it would turn out to be rife with conflict. Tempers were boiling.
At the end of the day, Riley was heading to the finish line clearing the course, but Peter Grey was hanging out at an intersection, trying to flag Riley down. Riley didn't stop. Instead, he yelled "let's go. I'm gonna go to the finish line and get my goddamned cheeseburger."
Grey resented it.
When Riley arrived at the roadhouse, the thunderstorm that had peppered the runners at the end of the stage was moving on. "Literally, a wall of water," Riley says. All the runners were in in a bad mood, scalded from the early heat and now suddenly freezing to death. Sitting in the cafe, grabbing a bite and trying to warm up, they watched out the window in various stages of amusement, anger, and frustration as Peter Grey approached Jesse Riley.
Grey had followed Riley to the roadhouse ten miles up the road, exited his vehicles with a few choice words and punched Riley right in front of everyone. "You didn't stop for me," Grey said. "You're supposed to stop." Riley had seen him hit people before at a six-day in Victoria. As soon as the race had started, he had hit somebody. Police had come, and he had earned a reputation for being a hothead. Now, he was throwing a second punch at Riley. The race director half-blocked it, and the stand off came to an end, but not the animosity of the runners. To many of them, it was the most expressive moment of the race.
Day 27 was extraordinarily hot, even for the Nullarbor. Entering Penong, most runners felt relieved. They had survived the hardest part: they had crossed the desert. The next morning, the second of February, day 28, Groundhog Day, the runners started yet another stage.
Bryan Smith, 57, one of the top ultrarunners in Australia, who had won the illustrious Sydney to Melbourne, had started his morning slow as usual. With his wife alongside him crewing for him, they started out into the dark of the morning. Two kilometers in, he started to feel strange. His head was hurting, and he felt dizzy. He had just gotten a bottle from his wife when he collapsed.
It took 30 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. Helmut Schieke was crying, and no one knew what to do. The EMT's started CPR immediately upon arrival and carried him to Ceduna, the closest "bigger" town.
Riley was up ahead when his brother, John, came up and told him. By that time, Smith had already been taken to the hospital. "He was a nice, humble guy," Mueller remembers. Just one day out of the Nullarbor, Smith lost his life.
Nobody had planned for something like this. The runners were able to see him lying in the hospital and say goodbye, and they were given a counselor to talk to if needed. "Nobody expected a perfect race," Mueller says, but this tragedy hit each runner to their core and made each question why they were there and what to do. It wasn't just about toughing it out, anymore. (Video: 13:44)
The organizers agreed to a two-day pause as the race was in limbo. Discussions were tough. The runners finally came to the conclusion to carry on. Stages were cut. The Australian Alps 86'd, and the daily distances shortened.
The next stage would be a parade stage, no times. One of the volunteers made a white cross, and Riley placed it on the side of the road where Smith had fallen. It was all they could do. Being runners, the thought was to carry on in his stead. The Co-race director, Bernie Farmer, remarked, "I can only hope that we can learn to be better people."
They had gone to hell and back and back again. And, they were still only halfway across...