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2019 Kokoda Challenge.

2019 Kokoda Challenge.

As someone who always needs a goal to work towards with fitness, I naively agreed to take on the 2019 Kokoda Challenge. In typical Amy fashion I agreed without asking for the finer details, only to later discover that it was a team challenge involving hiking 96km though the Gold Coast Hinterland with many hills along the way, including inclines of up to 550m. My three teammates had all successfully completed this challenge for the two years prior, so this time they had set themselves the added challenge of completing it in 24hours. I definitely should have asked for the finer details up front!

I also later discovered that the fourth team member had always been the weakest link and had failed to finish for their two previous attempts (teams can finish with 3 of the 4 team members). I was the fourth team member for this year’s challenge which came with both all the pressure of not wanting to be ‘the drop out team member’ but also no pressure as it was now expected that the fourth team member would be the one to fail – bonus!

Nonetheless, I embraced the training plan that our team leader set us, really enjoying creeping up the distance with my runs as well as having the variation of hills and stairs, intervals and PT. A typical week of training looked like this:

Monday – hills and stairs

Tuesday – weights in my PT session

Wednesday – running intervals

Thursday – rest

Friday – long run with the distancing increasing as the weeks progressed

Weekend – rest, gym or training hike.

I thrive with my running in particular when I have a plan to work with and especially if I know what distances I’m working towards on each run. I was really enjoying my training and with my running improving every week I was already thinking ahead to future challenges following Kokoda.

As part of the training plan we had the Brisbane half marathon scheduled as a training run. In the two weeks prior to the half marathon, I went for an 8km trail run through Mount Whitfield Conservation in Cairns whilst I was away with work. Trails aren’t my usual terrain, but I enjoyed the variation from the norm as the views looking out over Cairns weren’t too shabby either! However, despite feeling good on the run I woke up the next day to a swollen foot and no real idea of why. 

Again, in typical Amy fashion, I ignored the injury and proceeded with the Brisbane half marathon a couple of weeks later before seeking advice from a physio in the build up to Kokoda. My (reluctant)  physio and I were confident that, with a decreased training load in the final two weeks ahead of Kokoda and the help of some extreme sports taping on the day, I could get through the challenge – as long as I agreed to rein in the training afterwards to get myself fully fit to kick back on with the running properly to focus on future running challenges. 

Fast forward to the challenge – in the early stages of the event I was strangely enjoying the uphill sections, bounding up them with no real worries and no trouble from the foot or knee. We made it to checkpoint 5 in good time but this was where I was starting to struggle on the downhills, with a flare up of an old knee injury preventing me from properly bending the knee. Unfortunately, at this checkpoint we lost one of our team members, as she was ruled unsafe to continue by a physio. I was seen to be ok to crack on with a bit of extra tape hastily strapped around the knee. This was a relief as it was now on my mind that if I were to drop out, that would be challenge over for the team. 

We managed to make it to the next checkpoint which happened to be the halfway point, however I had been unable to bend my knee for the majority of the downhills and was really beginning to struggle to keep up with my other two team members. 

This is where the real mental battle kicked in for a number of reasons:

  1. We made it to the halfway point in 12 hours which meant that even with the pain of the injury and it impeding my ability to walk properly, we were on track for our 24-hour finish. 
  2. There was another physio on site at this checkpoint so I was tempted to go and get yet more tape, but I was growing increasingly concerned about the damage I may have already been doing by ignoring the pain and continuing for the last 12 kilometres or so. 
  3. I didn’t want to be seen to have fallen foul to the ‘curse of being the fourth team member’ (stubborn I know).

It was at this checkpoint that we met back with our other team member who had been forced to pull out at the previous checkpoint. After a bit of an internal battle with myself and a team discussion, it was decided that we would pull out there as a team and head home for a team dinner, after all – 48km in 2 hours wasn’t too bad an effort considering the injuries we were carrying. 

However, the difficulty for me was the fact that I felt somewhat irrationally, that the other three members of the team could rely on the fact that they had nothing to prove as they had succeeded in previous years. Myself on the other hand, being stubborn, competitive and just downright frustrated at feeling physically broken, knew that I’d struggle to shake the disappointment of a ‘did not finish’ by my name when the results came out.

For the days and weeks following the challenge, I felt increasingly frustrated at myself for not pushing on to finish. I battled with the feeling that I had made the right decision to ensure that I didn’t do too much damage in the long run, and the thought that I should have powered on to get the job done and dealt with the consequences after. 

It is now three months on from the challenge and I am still yet to have got back into running, with the injuries still preventing me from getting back into my normal exercise routine. However, I have re-shifted my focus and am now beginning to lose the feeling of failure about the challenge and instead focus on the new wins that are coming my way. Being a ‘broken runner’ I have started to swim – swimming is far from my strongest sport but each week even the tiniest bit of progress gives me the confidence and desire to improve. I’m still itching to get out running but I’m more mindful that without proper care and consideration for my body, the set-backs and niggles will continue to come my way so I am attempting to play more of the long game with my recovery. 

For anyone who feels they are failing at an activity or a challenge due to injury or whatever the reason may be, I would advise that you try to shift your focus and work toward the small wins that will eventually contribute to the bigger picture of success. Despite the end result, the Kokoda Challenge gave me lots of highs along the way from the training phase into the event itself.

Amy Webster