Kokoda Challenge versus Matt’s Mental Toughness

17th July, 2010: At 7am I began the most physically and mentally challenging task I have ever experienced..

With three team-mates I commenced the 96km journey from Mudgeeraba Village Shopping Centre to the Nerang Velodrome known as The Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge.  The Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge is a bushwalking team event where teams of 4 people trek a 96km course through the Gold Coast Hinterland within a 39-hour time limit. The Kokoda Challenge is designed to reflect the key elements of Kokoda with 96km representing the actual distance of the Kokoda Track and the 39 hours symbolizing the 39th Militia who were the first of our Australian troops to arrive at Kokoda on 15th July 1942.

Our Kokoda team was put together in the hallways of Mental Notes Consulting’s headquarters at the Queensland Sports Medicine Centre in January of this year when most of us didn’t actually know what was involved in the event but thought it would be fun.  When reality set in about what would be asked of us we started organizing our training. Mary Smith and John Miles at Executive Excellence put together our training program which went well in the 4 months leading into July.

After our team meeting on the Friday night before the race we had our food, gear, and packs ready to go. We awoke at 4am to get ourselves ready and to make it to the start line for registration along with the other 1200 competitors.

There are 13 checkpoints in total but we broke the event into six sections (between 12km and 25km each) which were the sections between the major checkpoints where we got to take short breaks to re-supply and check in with our support crew.

The first 12km went well, spirits were high and we all felt great. After we left the first major checkpoint things went a little off-track. At about the 20km mark I began to get pretty bad cramps in both quadriceps muscles so that every step ended in cramping. I knew this would happen (it had happened in training a few times) but I had hoped I would make it further before they set in. With some salt tablets, a lot of water and some help from my team I was able to walk through the cramps for about 4 hours until they eventually subsided and were replaced by an ongoing ache.

As night fell we were feeling good but as the night went on the team was pushed to its limit. As we got closer to the most infamous section of the course some of the team started to feel less than fantastic. A list of team ailments at this stage included cramping, blisters, foot pain, gastro issues, fatigue, headaches, and knee problems. Once we finished the 4km uphill section to the checkpoint I sat in my chair where I was supposed to re-supply and change into fresh socks. Instead I passed out until I was awoken by a team-mate telling me it was time to go.

We left this checkpoint tired, sore and in pain. We were also quite happy because we knew if we left that checkpoint we had a great chance at finishing which is something that only about 50% of teams do. As we walked on we were told that when the sun comes up we would get an injection of energy. And sure enough as the sun rose we all got our 3rd or 4th or 5th winds.

We left the final checkpoint for the last 15km home at about 6am. We were in pain and had pushed our bodies harder than we ever thought possible. What we had up our sleeve was a deal we had made as a team that none of us would let any other team-mate pull out. We decided we would never even entertain the idea of pulling out unless we were injured badly enough to require immediate medical attention. This was a little risky and many would think dangerous but as a team we had decided that we would definitely finish and this was the only way we could think to make sure that happened.

We finally crossed the finish line after 11:30 on Sunday morning. When we set out we covered our first 12km in under 2 hours. It took us over 4 hours to complete the last 10km.  Every single step of the last 15km shot pain into every part of our bodies. Our feet were so swollen that when we would loosen your shoes for comfort barely an hour would pass before we needed to loosen them again.

All of this, plus the pain and injury that we are all still suffering, was nowhere near what the ANZAC soldiers went through on their journey along Kokoda which does help to keep things in perspective along the way. Nevertheless this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The experience was amazing for two reasons. The first was because of my Grandparents’ involvement in the army during the World War II. During the toughest stages of the walk I had a feeling that I was getting a small taste of what those incredibly tough people went through for our country.
The second had more to do with myself and the team. After having worked with athletes who put their bodies and minds through all sorts of pain in order to achieve their goals this was a great chance for me to see what I was capable of.

Our team trained, we planned the event, we were organized but most importantly we found where we thought our physical and mental limits were and realized that we could push straight through them. If we can push through where we think our limits are that means there are some pretty amazing things possible in sport and in life.

For more information on the Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge go to their website at www.kokodachallenge.com.

Matt Ahlberg | Sport & Exercise Psychologist MAPS