Australia, Home is Where the Hard Is

I started running at 05h00 and only managed to finish my miles after 21h00. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

I started running at 05h00 and only managed to finish my miles after 21h00. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

I’m in Australia, the country that I was born in, and I’m not running anymore. I’m not even jogging or shuffling. I’ve got such terrible ache that all I can manage is a walk.

But I won’t stop. And so I play head games to try and distract myself from the pain. It is dark, and it is late at night. I am not where I need to be. One thing that keeps me going is that I know it will be worth it. Research has shown that the memory of pain does fade. This fact is what allows me to remember previously painful training sessions and runs so fondly. In the long run it is far easier to endure pain now than live with the idea that I gave in.  

Two months before setting out on this 1,049 mile [1,688 km] ultra I hurt my hip. My training was set back by the injury, and I had to contend with walking and weights as days passed and my #Run4Water epic got closer. Now, just over two weeks since setting off in Nevada, my old hip injury is back and saying, “Hello” with its familiar burn.

I must run 31 miles [50 kilometres] a day, which if I head out early should be done in a few hours each day. This has been no problem for the first two weeks. Today though I set out at 05h00. It is nine in the evening now, and I am still walking.

I tell myself to stop thinking of pain. The pain will diminish over time. Think of something else. And so I start thinking of the beautiful complexity of the place I am running in — this place that was once my home.

The Murray-Darling Basin river system is one million square kilometres in size and constitutes some 14 percent of Australia. This region is home to an impressively diverse environment as well as to a multitude of species of fish, plants and animals. It’s also an important migration point for many birds.

This place is the catchment of Australia’s two longest rivers, namely the River Murray [2,530km] which I am running alongside, and the Darling River [2,740km]. Two million people live here. The area is also known as Australia’s food basket. This is because the Murray-Darling Basin river system provides 40% of Australia’s agricultural produce. If you consume dairy, lamb, wine, fruits, vegetables or beef, in Oz there’s a good chance it came from this region.

Agriculture claims the highest percentage use of water here. The National Water Account for 2014 to 2015 in Australia shows domestic water usage from the Murray-Darling Basin was set at some 374 gigalitres [GL]. Water supplied for irrigation for the same period was 8,176 GL, while 1,445 GL was supplied to the environment.

Why is water supplied to the environment? Well, there’s a lot that Australia can teach the world about managing complexity, particularly as it relates to the allocation of water rights. There was a time — decades ago — when the country over-allocated water rights. This had a profoundly negative impact on the environment and the economy.

Just before the new millennium a terrible drought realised a dramatic drop in the river flow, and water allocations for farmers had to be cut back. Some farmers received no water for up to three years. As you can imagine, this wreaked havoc and seriously impacted on food production. The drought, and mismanagement of water rights, meant that many of the region’s wetlands dried up.

After initially dragging its heels, the Aussie government instituted a legislated ‘cap’ on the total amount of water allowed to be used. About 60% must stay in the rivers to ensure sustainability and ecologically sound water management. This meant that the agricultural sector had to cut back on water use.

The Australian government was innovative and rewarded good behaviour instead of trying to punish bad. The government subsidised innovative water reduction programmes, and farmers flocked to see how they could make their farms more water friendly. I read in National Geographic that thanks to these incentives, some 70% of the targeted water reductions have already been achieved.

The story of the Murray-Darling Basin is instructive. After years and years and years of delaying doing something about this critical resource, in 2012 the government legislated that the complex interests in the area had to be balanced, and that the river system must be restored and well maintained to ensure the sustainability of the region for all.

There was significant stress, tension and protests in the lead-up to the legislation, but as Sandra Postel writes for National Geographic, the groundbreaking agreement “is one of the boldest water pacts to restore nature on the books”. Postel writes: “The plan aims to return 3,200 billion liters of water – about 13 percent of the Murray’s average annual flow – to the river system.”

As humans we love things to be easy, but at times there is no easy route out. Sometimes you have to walk even though your bones ache to get to an end point. But when you do reach solution, or conclusion, it is sweet. Arriving in camp tonight after taking all day to walk 30 miles [50 kilometres], the memory of the terrible pain starts to subside. I’ve got a cup of hot tea, my shoes and socks are off, and I’m marvelling at the night sky and my fellow Australians who are showing the world how to forge sustainable solutions to the global water crisis.

Australia has been a tough run for me. Harder than I could imagine. But it is done now, and every step has been worth it. Now that the memory of the pain has gone I’m even thinking that I could do it again. :)

Thank you for cheering me on during the darkest times. It has meant everything to me.

As Robert Frost once wrote: “I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

Next up - China. Please join me!