Red Bull Wings for Life World Run, Busselton

This is the first time I’ve been reluctant to post a race report, not because I didn’t get a good time, or didn’t enjoy myself, but rather because I’m afraid my writing doesn’t do the event justice.

The Red Bull Wings for Life World Run was a completely bonkers idea that worked so well. The 2014 race took place simultaneously in 34 different locations around the world, everyone starting at the same time; 10am GMT. For Australia, Busselton was the only location taking part, and for us that meant a 6pm start on Sunday night. 100% of the entry fee went to spinal cord research.

The Busselton event local organisers were TriEvents, who had run the Busselton 70.3 the day before; so all the infrastructure that they had in place for the 70.3 was recycled by the Wings for Life run. A number of the 70.3 athletes used the WfL as a recovery fun run, because really you could run as far and as fast as you wished.

We all set off near the famous Busselton Jetty heading west to Dunsborough, and then the plotted route went south towards Augusta. Half an hour after we started, a ‘catcher car’ began to travel the route at 15km/h behind us all. The idea being as the car catches up and passes the back marker runners, they are deemed ‘out’. Effectively, your finish line is behind you, and you have to try and outrun it. Following the catcher car are shuttle buses to take finished runners back to the party at the Busselton start line. The catcher car travels at 15km/h for 1 hour, then 16km/h for a further hour, then 17km/h for a third hour, then 20km/h, and then five hours after the car starts it travels at 35km/h. No one would be able to outrun the car; if you are a slow runner, or a walker, you are looking at 4-6km completed before you get caught. The faster you are able to travel, the further you will make it down the road.

Now, I can’t remember where or when I read that there was a runner that was considered the ‘favourite’ at Busselton. Of course, Red Bull had some people that were ‘ambassadors’ for the run around the globe – Mark Webber ran at Silverstone in England, locally we had Steve Hooker, the Olympian pole vaulter and Courtney Atkinson the triathlete (who actually also competed the day before in the 70.3). But I read somewhere there was some obstacle course runner called Chief Brabon who was supposedly the favourite in Busselton, and I laughed. You see, Wings for Life had done some late promotion work for the run and we’d seen a video where a TV news mob interviewed a local ultramarathon competitor that Jeremy and I automatically assumed was going to win WfL Busselton; Dave Kennedy.

Now an ultramarathon is any distance over the standard 42.2km marathon, so there are ‘short’ ultramarathons and there are ‘long’ ultramarathons. Dave Kennedy runs both. Actually, he organises them too – he’s the Race Director of the Six Inch Trail Ultramarathon that Jeremy ran last year, and also organises the WTF 100 Ultra, a 160km/100 mile race around the Waterous Trail mountainbiking loop – the ‘Waterous Trail on Foot’. Dave Kennedy considers a half marathon a warm-up, runs a marathon as a constitutional and is the sort of person who doesn’t look at a mountain range and say “race you to to the top”, he looks at a mountain range and says “race you to the top, along the length of the ridgeline, down the other side and back again”. Dave was going to win, it was just a question of how far he’d have to run in order to do it.

In the starting corrals we all stood and waited – there were five parkrunners that I knew of; Jeremy and I, Matty, Tim and Abdul. Abdul hadn’t run his half marathon before he’d signed up so he had been placed in the starting corral behind us. Jeremy and I had previously discussed our plan for the race and he suggested that we run together, and Matty and Tim were going to do similar. About 3 minutes before the start I said to Jeremy “No, let’s run separately – let’s see what we can do.” Almost simultaneously Tim said the same to Matty; we’d been speculating in the corrals as to whether the event was going to happen a second time, so I felt it seemed such a waste of an opportunity to truly test out what distance you could manage by running together and one person potentially slowing the other down.

Because the timing of the event meant that Busselton was starting after the sun had set we had all been equipped with complimentary LED Lenser headlamps. In the first kilometre the long snake of runners glowed as we ran. Jeremy and I had chosen our outfits carefully, because we knew that it was going to be quite dark and assuming we got that far we’d be running on Caves Road (which has a 110km/h speed limit) so we both had our high-vis Craft running vests on for extra visibility. Jeremy wore an amazingly bright headlamp that he’d bought earlier in the year over a hat and I wore my LED Lenser headlamp over the Wings for Life supplied buff – the problem with running with headlamps we had been advised was that you can end up with blisters on your forehead, which is not entirely comfortable or the best look.

The plotted route took roughly the same course as the February half marathon that Jeremy and I have run, travelling through the back streets of Busselton from the Jetty, eventually making it the 7km to Alan Street and onto Bussell Highway. Running through the suburban streets there were masses of people cheering; locals, tourists and the previous day’s 70.3 competitors. I think it’s partly because Busselton people embrace endurance sports, partly because of the time of day and partly because of the brilliant and daft concept of the event there was more support and cheering for the Wings for Life than I’ve seen at any running event I’ve ever participated in other than the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival. At the 5km aid station we came across Cathy, Greg, Claudia and Misia cheering on the runners. I found out later that at this point Jeremy had thrown his Craft vest at Greg to take because he was just too hot in it. We had experienced some very gentle rain by this point, but it wasn’t sufficient to get you cold.

While the majority of the pack ran the 1.5km along the shoulder of Bussell Highway vehicle traffic was stopped – I did feel sorry for the Domino’s Pizza driver – but spectator support continued, with clumps here and there where people had come out of hotel accommodation and stood on the corners of streets connecting with Bussell Highway. Once we crossed the massive roundabout to Caves Road vehicle traffic flowed around us while we ran on the wide shoulder of the road, but because there are no street lights along that road and the mass of runners had thinned out significantly, combined with the sparser spectators you found yourself running stretches by yourself in the dark, slowly catching blobs of light in the distance that became people-shaped and occasionally having your shadow appear defined on the road in front of you as someone overtook you.

Earlier in the race I’d been overtaken by Steve Hooker, so I was proud to later overtake him on Caves Road. As you ran along you’d fall into conversation with other people; encouraging them and being encouraged yourself. There were a number of 70.3 competitors who were running with complaining hips, knees and ankles and many were flagging after 10 kilometres – hardly a surprise as they’d put it all on the line the previous day. I later found out that Courtney Atkinson who the day before had had to pull out of the 70.3 race half way through the run leg was leading Wings for Life Busselton at around the 30km mark.

I’d played with a “how far can you run” device on the Wings for Life website and worked out that with my likely pace I could probably managed 15km before the car caught me, and sure enough I managed 14.66km. The first indication I had that the car was near was two support volunteers on mountain bikes who were warning runners of the proximity to the catcher car. When they told me I took off. I would have been around the 14.1km mark when they told me, and if you look at my Garmin file for the run my speed shoots up for about 500 metres. I just sprinted for as long as I could while the volunteer biked alongside encouraging me, but at 14.66km the car pulled alongside. The passengers in the car were cheering and clapping and one called out my distance travelled as I gently jogged up to the 15km aid station.

I scoffed down water and electrolyte drinks at the aid station while the volunteers manning the station were frantically pulling it down to leapfrog the field and set up an aid station down the road for the runners further away. Just as they cleared off the tables I grabbed an energy bar to eat on the shuttle bus back into town, and all the runners at the aid station clambered aboard to cheers of people who had been caught earlier. There were no seats left on the bus so rather than stand the 15km ride back into town I sat down crosslegged in the aisle, grabbed my phone from my spibelt and tried to find out how Jeremy and everyone were managing.

There was the most amazingly long thread on Facebook filled with comments from friends who had been following our progress during the race, and Cathy, Greg and Claudia had been tracking our progress and updated me with text messages. As the runners were caught the website showed our names and the distance run, and there was a live video feed from all the other locations of all the other runners. Bill advised me that I beat most of India and large chunk of Ireland, which I was rather chuffed with. While I was on the bus heading back into town Jeremy was caught at 20.58km.

I got back to Barnard Park and went straight into the marquee tent and picked up my backpack of clothes – the temperature was low enough to warrant the adidas tracksuit I’d packed to wear afterwards – and then I went straight to the food line. The array of food was wide, portions good and the butter chicken was brilliant; even factoring in endorphin supplied flavouring. I scoffed my food while watching the live feed on the screen; there is something quite wonderful about a crowd of people in Busselton, Australia cheering on an exhausted man in Colorado who is just trying to eke out a few more metres before the car catches him.

So: Jeremy managed 20.58km and Matty got 22.07km with Abdul just ahead at 22.58km. Tim thrashed us all with a mullet wig assisted 32.99km, which put him as the 9th male in Australia.  The women’s race at Busselton was taken by Laoise Thuama, an Irish born local, and the men’s race was won by Dave Kennedy who ran 43.89km, finishing just past Wilyabrup. The overall winners were – female – Elise Selvikvag Molvik in Norway who ran 54.79km, and – male – Lemawork Ketema in Austria who ran 78.58km.

One of the best parts of the run was knowing that you were competing with people all around the world, and it was easily checkable on the website as to where people came. For example, Mark Webber managed 28.36km, which isn’t bad considering he apparently intended on 10km.

Happily next year’s World Run has already been announced for May 3rd 2015, and I am crossing my fingers that TriEvents are able to put on a Busselton edition, because if so I will be there. I cannot recommend it more highly – that was the most fun I’ve ever had racing.

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