In 2005, I signed up to the inaugural Kokoda Challenge.

As a brand new event, there was zero collective knowledge about it, so the 62 teams who took off on the morning of July 16 2005 were, for the most part, heading off into the unknown.

We headed off with great enthusiasm (but very little idea) into that unknown. Woefully unprepared, my team and I withdrew just after the halfway point.   Aside from the physical pain of smashed knees and missing toenails, it was the ego-bruising that hurt the most.  After such a sobering experience, we had a nagging desire to fulfil our original goal of a sub-24 hour finish, and thus I ended up at the Challenge starting line each subsequent year to "get it right".

Year after year we encountered more mishaps; rain, injury and illness each conspired against us in turn.  Strangely, this seemed to strengthen our resolve, rather than diminish it.  What had begun on a whim was now firming up as something bordering on obsession.

Finally, in 2009, after 5 attempts, we completed what we had originally set out to do; get a full team of 4 across the finish line within 24 hours.

In that time I'd come to realise that we'd initially made things ridiculously difficult for ourselves, and far too often had picked things up through the school of hard knocks rather than anything resembling proper research or preparation.  Since 'retiring' after the 2009 event, the KCA has had me along to their annual briefing nights to share some insights from a very ordinary athlete who insisted on learning things the hard way...



(A guide for mere mortals who just want to finish without losing too many toenails)

Before the event:

  1. Know the track
    Ignorance is rarely bliss.  Knowing the track (or at least the important parts) gives you a huge mental advantage.  It also helps you plan what gear you might need/want between checkpoints, and can allow you to accurately gauge how long you will take between support stops.

    Knowing what lies ahead makes facing the tough hills easier mentally.  Usually.

  2. Know your feet (and other important bits of your body)
    Blisters, chafing and cramp are the #1 enemies for trekkers.  The only way to know how to deal with them successfully is to experiment in training.  What works for one person may not work for you, so do some training treks that are long enough to test your remedies.  Prevention is roughly 1000001% better than having to cure, but if any of them do rear their ugly heads, deal with them immediately.  Persisting with a hotspot till the next checkpoint rarely ends well.

    Knowing your feet helps you get them to the finish line in one piece...albeit held together with tape...

  3. Know your gear
    Just as important as point 2 above.  Get gear appropriate to the task.   It's doesn't have to be the most expensive stuff out there, but skimping can lead to regret and/or the violent destruction of cheap headlamps at 1am in the morning.   Don't use anything on game day that you haven't tried/proven in training.  This also goes for clothes, food and pain killers (if you plan on using any).

    After 20-odd hours, your gear will almost be an extension of your body.  Make sure it fits, and works!

  4. Agree on a sensible goal
    The only thing harder than covering 96km on foot in a team of 4 is trying to do so in a team that's fighting about how fast to go.  Sort out your goals and contingencies before you step off.  For first-timers, finishing within 39 hours is a good primary goal...

    Agree on a team goal before you step off...while you're still all friends!!

  5. Support your support crew
    Your support crew is crucial to getting you over the finish line.  Teams have failed because they've failed to properly prepare their support crew (or not organised one at all). Remember the onus is on you, not them, to ensure they have the maps/directions of where to meet you, and that they are properly equipped to help.  Think about what you'll want them to do at each stop and communicate that.  Pack the support vehicle with them so everyone knows where things are.

    Prepare your support crew before the event.  Trust me on this one.

During the event:

  1. Don't run!!!
    If you're not a runner, avoid the temptation to run...even if it's "just a little while as we go downhill".  The damage you do to your feet, ankles and knees may not be evident at the time, but it WILL come back to haunt you.   If you're still not convinced, try this; go for a 10k training run.  Include some hills.  Just before you finish (before you stop and release all those great endorphins that make you feel like Superman) consider whether or not you'd like to now walk another 86km.  If the answer is no, don't run.  If you don't think you can do a 10k training run, you definitely should not run.

    The Kokoda Kids train for months leading up to the Challenge, and they don't run.

  2. "Stuff" Happens
    Some things won't go to plan on the day.  Foresee what you can and deal with them before they happen.  Have the mindset and flexibility to deal with things that don't go your way.

    Even the legendary Nike Hammer have to adapt, improvise and overcome when "stuff" happens

  3. Accept that 96km will hurt/Beware your demons
    Walking for 96km will hurt.  How much might vary from person to person but don't expect a walk in the park (pun very much intended).   Rather than panic at the creeping lists of ailments you begin to suffer, accept that most of them are par for the course.  Your mind will start playing tricks on you too, and will actively work at coming up with convincing arguments about why you should give up.  Stay strong.  As long as you're moving forward you're winning the physical and mental battle.

    Don't panic when the hurt starts creeping means the Challenge is working as prescribed!

  4. Celebrate the little wins
    Keep yourself and your team mentally sharp by ticking off each success as they happen, no matter how small they might seem.  Getting to the top of Fairview Mt is a little win.  Getting away from a checkpoint on schedule is a little win.  Talk about them and celebrate them...they are all incrementally getting you closer to the big win...

    Everyone celebrates their own wins in their own ways...

  5. Cross the finish line!
    When you're hobbling down Hellfire Pass in the middle of the night with busted knees and screaming feet it can be hard to stay focused on how you ended up there and what the hell you're doing this all for.  The reasons are many, and crossing the finish line is symbolic of all of them.  Think about the historical context, and the present work of the KCA.  Think about your family and friends who sponsored you and support you.  Think about your 3 team members.  Don't lose sight of the fact that you're doing something extraordinary!

    Stay focused on the finish line and what it will mean to cross it.