As a ‘recreational’ runner, I often view the people who seem to spend their days gallivanting around trails and mountains with an immense sense of jealously. They get up, train and run where they wish. No ties, no responsibilities and the freedom to do as they please with whomever they please. They can rack up an immense amount of miles, leave the worries of the 9-5 behind and travel to far-flung places around the world at the drop of a hat.
It’s an idyllic picture we create in our own heads as to the kind of lifestyle we would want to lead if we became a running ‘explorer’. Much of it is pretty hard to achieve, unless of course you’re content with living an extremely basic existence, or you happen to have the safety blanket of a few million in the bank – something that escapes many people who choose to make trail and ultra running as their form of ‘work’.
That said, I appreciate that if you wanted live a basic lifestyle, that essentially of a nomad, then it’s perfectly achievable without the considerations that will be discussed in this article. However, if you’re essentially seeking to make running your chosen lifestyle and form of ‘work’, there’s a little more to it than selling everything, jumping in a van and doing whatever you please…
So what’s it like to give everything up and choose the path of what you might term a ‘running’ explorer?
A few years ago, Richard Bowles took on the challenge of becoming the first person to run along the Bicentennial trail that runs from Victoria all the way up to Queensland – all 5,300kms of it – done in 154 days. I remember something I wrote about his adventure as he was on his merry way that described it as ‘living the dream’. But is it really a dreamy and hedonistic lifestyle that we like to picture? What’s behind all of the running and adventure to get you to that point?
Many people in Australia will know who Richard is, but if you don’t he’s the guy that not only ran up the Bicentennial track, but also ran the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand, along with the National Trail in Israel. Now he’s off to run the Heysen Trail (1,200kms) in South Australia in its entirety. As I interviewed Richard recently about his running of the Heysen trail, I soon realised that although the ‘news’ was his new adventure, the story was understanding more about what a running ‘explorer’ actually is.
Many people would say that Richard is living the dream, being able to follow his passion and experience all of these wonderful place around the world. But for many of us, we only see one side – the adventure or dream being lived out i.e. the output. The output however only makes up around 1% of all the time and effort he puts into making this ‘dream’ happen. So how exactly would you go about making the dream happen? I thought this would be a good story to tell…
Preparation and planning
“Many people think that I have the luxury of running when I want, and at a moment’s notice to these far-fetched places at the drop of a hat. It couldn’t be further from the truth to be honest. So much time and preparation goes into planning these trips that I often don’t leave enough time to train for them – which is kind of ironic given this is what you give everything up for,” says Richard.
Leading a life on the road, or in this instance on the trail needs careful planning and preparation. Logistics have to be arranged (transportation etc..), along with a crew to manage and to help manage you on the run as well as planning nutrition and accommodation too. If you want any insight into this on a small-scale, go and crew at an event such as Badwater in the US or Coast2Kosci here in Australia.
I was part of a crew last year for C2K and was simply amazed at how much planning and preparation went into the pre-race – running the race was essentially the icing on the cake. What made me realise the enormity of such an operation was seeing over 200 people sat in a race briefing for a race that only had 50 participants – and this was only for a weekend event. Imagine now multiplying that by 150+ days which is the time it took Richard to complete the Bicentennial track in. It’s spreadsheet hell!
“Each day you’re out on the road needs to be planned and accounted for in some way. This is made all the more difficult by virtue of the fact that in the bush or on trails it can be hard meeting your crew, so location points need to be planned for. We have to work out distances between stops and the amount of food and water I will need for each leg of the journey to name but a few simple things.
“Then there’s working out where we’ll be each night, places to stay and working on the next day’s schedule. I’d love to be fleet of foot and just wander off at a moment’s whim, but I’d probably die out there if I did. Even with all the planning and preparation, you still don’t know what you might face out there. I’ve even had a shotgun pointed in my face here in Australia – how can you prepare for that?! While you can plan all you like, one of the most important things you need to do is to plan for the unexpected.”
The reality is that planning attempts on trails around the world is a 9-5 job. If you’re thinking about taking the high road and following in the footsteps of someone like Richard, the 9-5 still exists, but in the form of an ‘event manager’ and planning these trips. Be prepared for being prepared.
Then of course there’s the money to make it happen. While it’s a romantic ideal to be spending your days running around the mountains, we do at some point need to be able to fund the lifestyle of our chosen path, something Richard is all too aware of.
“As much as we’d like to think that money shouldn’t come into the equation, it’s an evil necessity towards making the big trips happen. Of course, anyone can go out and run without the need for money per se, but when you’re making ‘exploring’ your living as such, you need to find people prepared to back you and plan some serious logistics for these things.
“All to often, my experience is that people when looking for companies to back them, approach it in the wrong way. The conversation centres upon what the athlete has done and their achievements, rather than what the athlete can do for the business. Unless you’re Usain Bolt, then companies aren’t going to be knocking down your door, clambering to sponsor you. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to convince a business to part with some cash and you have to show what value you can bring to them,” says Richard.
Getting a business to part with some cash is often the final hurdle that many ‘explorers’ will fail at. You can do all the planning in the world, but if you can’t find someone to fund it, then it’s pointless. Richard advises, “The first thing I do when meeting with a business is sit and listen to what it is they’re trying to do and work out how I can help them. Businesses don’t want to hear about all the podium places you’ve scored at various trail events – it doesn’t mean anything to them. They want to understand the value you can bring to them. What are the skills or lessons you’ve learnt along the way that could be applied to their business and people. That’s where you can start to add real value and speak in a language that they understand.”
If you’re seeking funding in some way, one tip is to look for companies that you either like or you feel aligned with. It’s very hard to approach a business that you might not believe in or feel no affiliation with – it will make it harder to convince them to part with their money. If you believe in what a certain brand or business is doing, then the conversation becomes much easier around what it is you feel you could offer them, and that will convince them to write you a pay cheque.
And finally… some training
As mentioned, the irony of being a ‘running explorer’ is that running and training can often be the last priority. “Given the amount of work that goes into my trips, I find that I have to train and run at 4am in the morning most days. The more the day progresses, the more difficult it gets to go out for a run, so my motto is to get out early and get it done,” says Richard.
But how exactly do you train for these big runs? It’s not like a normal event whereby you’re planning to be at your peak for a certain race of a certain length. Big multi-day events require a different level of training and conditioning that enables you to get up and back out on the trail day after day, often covering two marathons a day for weeks. There’s very little point or time or speed-work, perhaps no need to taper as you’re not seeking to be at a certain peak.
“The training can be a little dull at times,” says Richard. “Often it’s a case of just ticking over the miles day after day, with lots of back to back runs to help build the conditioning so that the body can take the pounding you’re about to give it. There’s also not much point in tapering. You want to go into these trips on a kind of constant motion and cadence. I may have a slight rest the week before, but the body needs to be ready, and resting too much isn’t going to help that!”
We hope that’s given you a little bit of insight into what some of these ‘running explorers’ do and also a sense of what it takes if you’re thinking of taking it all board yourself. Thank to Richard for giving us some insight into his life and we wish him the best of luck with his next endeavour across the Heysen Trail. Richard will be running to help raise awareness for Indigenous Health. The Nixon Red Dust Run is about shared experiences and learning how to achieve more in our lives. Richard has the determination to make a positive contribution to the country he calls home supporting Indigenous Health promoters Red Dust Role Models in the delivery of innovative health promotion programs in partnership with remote communities.