kokoda challenge support crew memories

To say I was unprepared for what I would face as part of the support crew for my brother Dean’s attempt at completing the Kokoda Challenge on the Gold Coast this weekend would be an understatement. I sit here, laptop open and ready to report back on the whole thing, and that’s the thought that hangs most vividly in my mind. Unprepared. Like a word of the day.

Not unprepared in that I hadn’t read the information packs or studied the maps. Not unprepared in that we didn’t have a car full of supplies and some description of strategy to deploy them. We were packed, prepared and ready to roll. That wasn’t it at all.

I was completely unprepared in the sense that I was about to charge head on into challenge that would push me through almost 30 hours of problem-solving and preparation. My fellow support crew Shell and Ursula would agree, we had no idea what it would take for us to pull this off when we started. We just knew that we needed to. I’d packed books for goodness sake, expecting extended periods of downtime and the mental space to relax. HA! As if.

I was wrong. And let me tell you why.

Challenge Day

The house where we all stayed for the duration of the weekend was buzzing with activity before 5 am on Saturday morning. Due at the start line before 7 am, the boys were making final preparations, lacing up their shoes and getting ready to tackle this thing. The morning was cold and spirits were high. We were certain in those moments that what was to come was going to be challenging and with metres and metres of strapping tape applied they were ready.

The first time we saw them after that was at checkpoint 4. The first assisted checkpoint and not long after the first of the Big 5. Something that our guys scoff at “Big Five get lost, Big Ten more like it” they would say. They looked good, already sore but strong. And Dean? Dean was struggling to keep pace, digging quickly into his reserves and he was already managing some issues with his quads. He struggled to eat, managing only half a sandwich and some banana between the flurry of activity to change socks, check strapping and refill water. We had our first taste of what the assisted checkpoints would be like.

As they prepared to leave, I snapped that if they wanted to finish as a team of four, they needed to back off the pace a bit and look out for each other. I was angry, worried about my brother, and it had started to dawn on me what they had gotten themselves into. I tried to use whatever Jedi mind control tricks I had to let them know that they needed to look after my brother or die.

But I had judged them too harshly. They were as committed to getting all four of them across the line. They proved that commitment time and time again as it went on. And let me tell you, there were plenty of teams that left checkpoint 4 without all their members. Forgetting perhaps that this challenge is supposed to be about mateship as much as it’s about endurance and personal challenge. My brother’s team, The Gympie Avengers, they didn’t forget. And Dean rewarded them for their care of him by showing up time and time again as his body fought him to stop.

The you look so bad checkpoint

By checkpoint 6, the next assisted stop, Dean looked terrible. Freaking terrible. White as a ghost, shaky and like he might just throw up at any time. We went into checkpoint mode and I got him sorted out for the road ahead. Change of socks, shoes, more rub, long skins, layers. Plus more magnesium, an e-shot, anti-inflammatories and another two bottles of Gatorade. He ate at this stop. A little. But the girls and I all worried that it wasn’t enough. I made them carry another Gatorade with them for him to drink. He had to get some more fuel in.

Looking around the other boys were showing signs of wear and tear. Jason had been developing a blister on the ball of his foot, and it was growing. Blister pads and more strapping were required. Ursula was attending to him while similtaniously serving stew for all the boys. It was cold already and the night wasn’t far away. Doug pointed out a small developing blister on the back of his ankle to Shell which would later become massive despite further strapping. While Harry rubbed a menthol horse cream into his muscles all the way down to his feet. They’re just so sore, he said.

They had two of the majors left to climb. Three down, two to go was the only thing Dean said that meant he would go on. A wry smile and a weak chuckle. As I filled his pack with snacks and water, I looked over at Dean and took stock of him. It looked bad and the pressure of preparing to send him out again built. They were aiming for a 20-minute stop, determined not to let their muscles cool down too much or get too used to sitting. They prepared to leave, and Dean stood up, bracing himself against the chair as his legs shook, and they left.

They were only a few cars away when the other girls commented on how terrible he looked. I agreed, worried and sick to the stomach at the thought of the climb, the night ahead. I fought back tears, and we started loading the back of the ute, preparing to vacate the limited space there was at this checkpoint for other teams to come. The cold of the evening was sweeping in quickly and before long we were on the road. In the first of the darkness, I cried for my brother in the back seat while we made the 45 minutes drive back to our base.

In the darkness, I counted him out a couple of times. After he had left with the same ashen skin tone as he arrived, muscles cramping and sore, steps unsure and shaking I swore we’d be going in to collect him from first aid. Joking when I saw a Westpac helicopter that they were probably sending it out for him, I was sick to the stomach at the thought. I hoped that he would finish, but I knew that the reality was his body was fighting him hard every step of the way.

The rally

Back at the base, I returned a call to my Mum, packed up the items for the night shift, and prepared myself for whatever might come. He was determined, I knew that I could be determined to. I would make him fight me to let him drop out. I would remind him over and over why he could do this. The distance he could do. The hills would end. The pain would go away. I rallied myself to do everything in my power to keep him in this challenge. But I prepared myself and those supporting from home for the possibility that he wouldn’t make it. A remote possibility but one that up until that moment I hadn’t even considered, so I knew they wouldn’t have either. We braced ourselves.

Then Ursula called from the lounge room to say that they had checked into checkpoint 7. Already! Already? They were moving ridiculously fast for the terrain they were covering. I showered, we put the last of the things in the car and hit the road towards checkpoint 8. Thinking we had over 2 hours wait ahead of us we swung through a drive-thru for coffee, skipping food we were too nervous to eat and grabbing yoghurt for the morning checkpoint.

As we drove up a massive mountain range, winding further and further up into the hinterland, we marvelled at the height of it and the impressive views of the city. As we continued to ascend, the conversation stopped as the realisation dawned that they were probably climbing this.

We came up on the checkpoint only to be told the road we had arrived at was not 8, but 9 and that checkpoint 8 was 6km ahead of us on the right. Stupid GPS, we said making the turn towards 8 when my phone rang. An unknown number flashed on the screen, and I was sick with worry. Something had happened to Dean. I was sure of it. Oh god. This was bad.

Hello, this is Melissa, I said as I answered. Melissa, it’s Dean, his voice came strongly down the line, where are you guys? On our way to Checkpoint 8, I said. And then he said the words I was relieved and yet equally sickened to hear, we’re already here! Ohhh shit. I assured him that we were less than 6km away, we’d be right there, hang tight.

Hanging up I was ecstatic. He sounds good, I said to the girls, really good, chipper even. And OMG what time are they even doing? I was so excited that he was going to make it. He was absolutely going to make it. I could’ve leapt out of the car and ran the 6km to the checkpoint I was so excited to see him. The other girls were a little more anxious. It was cold out, we didn’t know how long they’d been there and if they’d been searching. We’d met them at the gate every time so far, had they been searching the rows looking for us?

Shit.

We started making a plan for as soon as we had arrived. Chairs out, boxes on the ground, find out if they wanted hot soup or if they’d rather not wait. Action plan in place we swung into the driveway of the field that was checkpoint 8. Parked in the next available space, as we threw the car doors open, the freezing night air greeted us. It’s so god damned cold up here, I thought, the boys are going to kill us. But I was elated. I talked non-stop excitedly. I was so happy to see them doing so well. We each did our jobs, and the boys were in their chairs, tending their feet before I knew it. Blankets on their shoulders and legs, we prepared them for the coldest part of the night yet to come.

You could see the soreness and fatigue in them at this stop. In all of them and they were all dealing with in different ways. Some quiet, some a little snappy and short but all charming with their gratitude. I’ll tell you one thing, those boys never once forgot their manners always please and thank you. Real character that is, genuine character.

They passed along the menthol horse cream, the strapping tape, the supplies from chair to chair. Knowing now what needed to be done to prepare for the next leg. They ate snacks instead of a meal, something that we regretted come checkpoint 11, but they were determined to get moving. So we let them.

By this stage, I was sure they were going to make it. It may have been optimistic; there was still over 30kms to go, another mega mountain, some major climbing and the long, dark night ahead. I’m sure that occurred to them more than it did me, but all I could see was the finish line. And at this rate, at the pace they were setting, holy shit, they could be done and across the finish line before 3 am.

After the shortest assisted checkpoint in the history of mankind (probably, not, but for us) they were on their way, and spirits were high; Determination was even higher. We threw everything back into the ute, a seamless operation now, and set our sights on checkpoint 11. Eleven is the final assisted checkpoint before we would see the boys at the finish line. A larger area to accommodate more cars, there was no time limit for teams regarding how long they could stay, so our plan was to get there, set up stumps and wait.

And let’s face it, after being called the ‘worst support team ever’ by an unhelpful SES woman after showing up after our team at 8, we weren’t going to let THAT happen again.

The final hours

We were there for hours, ready and waiting before the checkpoint tracker showed that the boys had passed checkpoint 9. It was 11:27 pm. I remember that because at that point, worried about their progress, we had made ourselves wait for at least 10 minutes before refreshing the page for a new update. This game had continued since just after 10 pm. Their pace had slowed down hugely. We prepared ourselves for another few hours to wait. Unable to sleep we chatted and laughed and drew penises on the glass as the windows continued to fog up in the cold. We heated and reheated the soup making sure it was ready to go.

We decided that after 12:30 am we would go to the main gate to wait for them. It was just after 12 when I declared that I couldn’t wait any longer. It was optimistic to think they’d be here within an hour when the pace was slowing, but we grabbed hot chocolates on our way through and waited. Chatting to other support crews and shivering in the cold of the night we cheered many teams into the checkpoint watching and waiting for our guys.

During one of those million toilet stops I washed my cold hands, flicked them to dry and my rings flung off my hand into the dirt and darkness beyond the spotlights of the checkpoint. My wedding band, engagement ring and the 30th birthday gift from my parents. SHIT. Double shit. What the actual f-bomb shit. I started madly searching for them and found the first in the dirt not far from where I’d been walking. Following that line I started looking for the others attempting to turn on the torch on my phone.

Sidenote; cold fingers and an even colder iPhone makes it an impossible task to swipe. FYI. Put that in the research and development notes team. Wink wink Apple! 

Luckily, some others came to help me and soon we found my wedding ring too. Two out of three ain’t bad, right? But then I got into a conversation with a guy who had just come through the checkpoint. He offered to help us look using his headlamp. Goodness no, I said, we’ll be fine here. Imagine that? 96km challenge and just stopping for a wee bit to help me find my rings! Some people are too generous. Luckily I didn’t have to convince him for long because miracles of miracles, my engagement ring was FOUND! Woooo.

And after all that excitement I returned to the gate to wait with the girls. They were a little annoyed that I hadn’t called them over to join the hunt, any distraction at that point would have been welcomed. The time was still passing. Slower than ever. It was after 1 am and we were worried. Maybe they’d gone too hard the stage before? Maybe something had happened? Where the hell WERE THEY?

We watched the path like hawks, spotting torches off into the distance and counting the number. 5 for school teams. 4 or less for other teams. We needed four. Then as they drew closer, we looked for yellow hi-vis vests. Other teams wore orange, or green; some wore none. We needed 3 yellow and a yellow with an orange. We counted torches and spotted vests until finally they came in around 2 am.

Short version, they were exhausted.

They passed the official checkpoint and after hugs Ursula and Shell dashed off down the hill the lay out the chairs, blankets and heated the soup (again). Dean was shuffling, dragging his feet and moving slowly. The other guys stepped gingerly, the descent into the field where we were parked drawing groans. Downhill used to be our friends, they said, now it’s the worst.

I stayed with them as we made our way slowly to the car. On the journey down people who were waiting were cheering and clapping them the entire way. Telling them to keep going. That they were doing so well. I did the same thing proud of what they’d achieved so far. There was 18.6km to go, and they had done all of the major climbs. It was the home stretch.

They spent a little longer at 11 than at other checkpoints, but still less than 40 minutes. A finely tuned machine now we fed, watered, packed and vitamin’ed them up. They changed into some fresh layers and as always, some fresh socks and rugged up against the incoming dawn. We insisted. They ate hot soup and for the first time Dean finished his bowl. He was shaky on his legs and relying heavily on his hiking poles, but he was mentally tough. I knew no matter how long it might take them; he was coming across that finish line. As he went to leave, I snapped the top strap of his camel pack, gave him a hug and wished him luck while mentally giving a huge sigh of relief. Our work was done. It was up to them now.

With the 3 am finish time estimate pushed out to 5 or 5:30 am. We told them that we would see them soon. Stay warm, keep going, heads down. Spirits were high as they left the checkpoint, a fully charged phone in hand with plans to pump some music to keep them going. I turned around and left them on their way as they sang highway to hell after a suggestion for songs to play. They were in good spirits.

Later we would find out that they walked straight out of our line of sight and into a steep incline that almost broke them. Back at the finish line we had no idea that they were now facing their toughest challenge. The final climb. The home stretch indeed. Can you even imagine what it takes to rally once again yourself when facing something like that? No. Me either.

Meanwhile, we waited. Given the expected timeframe we went to the finish line to wait. And wait we did. And waited. Expecting them to check in within an hour or two (given the pace) we watched the time tick over until finally at 5 am they arrived at checkpoint 12 on the tracker. It was over 3 hours since they left us at checkpoint 11.

We worried about them a lot then. Not that they wouldn’t finish, I was convinced that this close to the end it would be easier to finish than to turn back and get airlifted out. Later I found out Dean had thought the same thing. But we worried what was going on for them. They had 8km to go. One checkpoint without tracker information for us to check. We wanted to make sure that if they had a second (fifth?) wind that we were there for the finish. So with that in mind, we waited.

Mum and Dad had been staying nearby and joined us in the supporter waiting area as the sun peeked over the horizon. It was morning. We saw teams finishing, most incomplete, lots finishing the shorter 48km trek. We shed a few tears as competitors crossed the line and burst into tears, the relief and achievement showing on their faces. And we waited for our boys. Their goal had always been 24 hours. They’d wanted it so badly.

As the minutes ticked down to 7 am Ursula decided to give them a call. Were they close? Could they push through and beat the clock ticking over into the 24th hour? They could see a checkpoint in the distance, but it was checkpoint 13. They had 4km to go. They were doing ok. Exhausted and moving slowly, but they were coming. Not by 7 am though. So we waited.

As we passed 7 am we started to watch the teams coming in with the same details we had the night before. We were looking for four guys. Probably wearing yellow hi-vis, maybe grey shirts. As the groups streamed in it became more and more likely our guys were next. I looked at Ursula and Michelle, and we exchanged more than one worried smile. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement of the finish line and forget all the work that had gone into being here. We wouldn’t though, we’d seen it first hand. We knew the moment they stepped over the finish line they would know themselves to be extraordinary. And that we’d played our part in that.

Michelle’s family joined us, her three boys excited to see Dad again after the separation. We spotted a team or two we were convinced were them until it wasn’t. Then there they were. Rounding the corner, stepping out of the bushland towards us. Our guys, all four of them, team intact and still very much in the 24th four. We cheered loudly, and they gave us a weary wave, the kids called out to their Dad as we watched them step together onto the finish line. Triumphant. Exhausted. Superhuman. And just a little bit grey. They collected their medals, stopped for a team photo and were keen to find out where the checkpoint chairs were. No chairs we said, just the car, let’s go home. There were hugs and congratulations. Thanks yous and relief. They’d made it. They’d done it.

What I know now

And like I said in the beginning, I was unprepared. I joked with Dean in the days prior that I’d constructed the bones for a post about achieving your goals. Five Steps for Achieving Your Goals, all with witty headings and ‘holy shit’ based headers. Which may or may not end up written now, we’ll see. You better make it I said, I need a big finish for my post. Haha. No pressure, he replied. Like I said, I had no idea.

I had no idea when I packed my bags Friday night that over 50% of competitors that start the Kokoda Challenge don’t finish. Or that of those finishing only 20% do it with their team intact. It’s hard, it’s not a walk in the park. Even though let’s face it, 96km in 24 hours walking in a park is a feat in itself. But 96km through the night, that’s worse. Add to that, 96 kms up hills, and mountains and ranges and back down again is brutal.

It’s bad, I’ve tried to tell anyone I can since I got back, it’s really bad. And until you do it you have no idea. I stood by and watched. I was offered a sneak peek behind the curtain, and I came out the other side impressed, proud, filled up and inspired. I also came out a little in need of a nap, as you do.

I said unprepared was the word of the weekend, right? I was most unprepared for watching someone I love suffer, push and rally like my brother did. That is something I’ll never forget. The determination to finish this challenge, the fight he showed, it was awe-inspiring.

While he feels he relied heavily on his team to pull him through (he did and they did. They 100% did) I’m sure he inspired them too. He was so mentally tough. He was making it, even in the moments when his entire body was screaming for him to stop, and no one would’ve batted an eyelid if he did, he didn’t. One step at a time. One ledge in the climb. One checkpoint and rest stop at a time. It was a massive effort. Well done boys.

kokoda challenge - gympie avengers

And that, my friends, was one heck of a way to spend a weekend.