by Cath Wallis
My feet slip with every step. Moving with the soft sand beneath. Struggling to gain traction and push forward. And yet I must. Force each step; push with the poles to achieve forward motion. This is the desert, and as much as it forces me back, I must resist.
My first foray into desert foot events was in this same spot. The Australian Simpson Desert in 2017. A late comer to this sport at age 41, I had only recently discovered the joy of trail events, having completed a 100km single stage event in my hometown. I was looking for the next challenge and a one-week desert ultramarathon seemed perfect. It was as far away from my ‘normal’ life, working in an office, as you could get. Here, in a place 2000km from the nearest city, requiring two days travel just to get here, was a desert gateway town with only 100 residents, leading into one of the harshest deserts in the world.
Lining up on that start line was the most terrifying experience of my life.
Lining up on that start line was the most terrifying experience of my life. Would I be able to cross this desert? Would I be worthy of this challenge? The event began with nearly all 100 residents there to see us off. A loop of the town to the cheers of the crowd and then into the desert. Crossing dune after dune, punctuated only by flat sections with ankle-breaking rocks known as gibber plain. The heat radiating from the sand as the sun rose higher, reaching over 40 degrees in the exposed terrain. Completing a marathon distance before crossing the stage finish and sleeping our first night under the stars, sharing a tent with two strangers who would later become friends.
Desert running has this mystique around it. People imagine lithe young athletes moving gracefully across the sand at great speed. Men like Moroccan champion and seven-time Marathon des Sables winner Rachid El Morabity. And women like Canadian Isabelle Sauve or Swede Elisabet Barnes. And there are definitely those people out there. But the vast majority out here in the desert are ordinary people, doing something special. Walking is not shunned here, but welcomed. According to the 4 Deserts Series organisers, Racing the Planet, only around a third of entrants in 250km desert ultramarathons run the entire event. Another third alternate between running and walking, and a full third walk the distance.
For me, I came to this sport almost by accident. Middle aged and totally non-athletic, I was looking for a sport that could bring great personal reward despite more commitment than skill, and in the trail running community I found my place. A sport where, other than a tiny elite, everyone is competing against themselves and who genuinely desire to see others succeed. Where in that moment when you feel you cannot take one more step, another competitor will walk with you and urge you forward. And on another day, in another moment, you will do the same for them.
So we continued on - with hues of red and orange in the sand like fire at sunset. Gradually my mind settled from fear to awe. The vastness of the space. An ancient landscape, the country of the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi people, exuding an aura of calm. A timeless place in which petty human concerns are reduced to insignificance.
While each person comes here for a different reason, crossing this desert generates deep and long-lasting bonds. We each take on our own race, against our own time and meeting our own demons in the process. And yet, there is a shared experience here. Of hardship, of the harsh beauty of this place. Shared pain, shared jokes, shared joy. I knew no one as I crossed the start line. By the end of a week we are friends for life. Sixty competitors, now firm friends, making their way across the last section of desert towards the finish line. At a pub. A cold beer passed to each as we finish our desert adventure. The quintessential outback Australian experience.
Deserts have this reputation of being empty places. Of vast nothingness. But they are far from empty.
After my first foray into desert trail events, I was hooked. I discovered there are desert ultramarathon options across the world and my list of dream events grew longer and longer. I headed to the Oman Desert Marathon and Race to the Wreck in Namibia, before COVID sent me back home to the Australian desert.
Deserts have this reputation of being empty places. Of vast nothingness. But they are far from empty. In Oman, I shared the desert with camels and lizards. In Namibia with ostrich and zebra and leopard, and tiny beetles that followed my foot placement at every step. The sand moves endlessly, shifting the ripples on the surface, erasing any record of human endeavour.
I think only 40% of desert running is physical. The rest is mental. The heat (or the cold at night), the sand, the distance – it can drain you quickly and if your mind is not in the right place, it can beat you. When you prepare for one of these events, you need to get ready for the moment that your mind tells you that you cannot go on. And you need to practice telling your mind to shut up.
For me, in those moments when it all seems too much, too hot, too far - I stop. I stop and take a long look around me. Focusing on the landscape. The shape of the dunes, the movement of lizards or insects. The vast sky above me. And how grateful I am to have the opportunity to be in such a special place. And that gratitude resets my mind. And I gulp some water, grab my poles, and head off again across the sand.
What kind of people come here to run or walk in the desert? People seeking that epiphany moment, that opportunity to find what is important to them. To put themselves to a physical and mental test. That breaks down their fears and their ego, and that leaves them at peace with themselves.
Desert events often have very special endings. At the end of my crossing of the Namib desert, on Rat Race International’s “Race to the Wreck”, you reach a point where the sea used to be. Shells and whale bones jut out of the former seabed. And then, as you move further west, the wreck comes into sight. The Eduard Bohlen, twisted metal rusting in place, a full kilometre now from the sea. You run down past the wreck to cross the finish line, to receive your medal, and feast on fresh Walvis Bay oysters and pink champagne.
I would love everyone to have a desert foot event experience. And so, when I found myself headed once more to the Simpson, as the event Ambassador for the Simpson Desert Ultra, I wanted to bring a team. Eighteen women from around Australia answered a call to step out of their comfort zone and come with me to the desert for the first time. They are scientists, and art therapists and teachers. Small business owners and nurses, and mums. Some literally starting from “couch to ultra”. Others thinking Parkrun was their limit, but now testing themselves across as many as 100km of sand in a single stage.
And now we make our way across the desert. Through sand, and gibber and clay pan. In heat and cold. It is brutal and it is beautiful. There is no certainty in finishing, but there is the knowledge that our lives will be forever changed by this place.