Armed with only a box of pizza-flavored Shapes, four Canberra women gathered some good old-fashioned courage and braved their way down a flooded Birdsville Road in their underwear with only two things on their minds: warm food and a warm bed.
Chelsea Holton, 45, and Erica Collins, 47, shared with Canberra Weekly the hilarious story of their adventure of a lifetime – crossing 100 km of the Simpson Desert, unprecedented flooding that traps them in a car, and their steel-hard resilience.
“I’m not a runner, and I don’t claim to be one — I’m a shuffler at best — but I was inspired to compete in my sophomore year,” Chelsea laughs, settling in to share her experience with relive running (and walking) in the Simpson Desert Ultra Marathon.
“A group of us decided to sign up under our coach, Cath Wallis, who is amazing at inspiring women to get out and live great lives in the body they have.”
Loading their Prado, the four Canberra women embarked on the ACT’s long journey into the Queensland desert, enjoying the quiet start to their road trip, blissfully unaware of the journey that was to unfold.
“We knew there was flooding, but we were told it would have peaked by the time we got there, so we should be able to clear it up from someone on Facebook,” says Erica.
‘They said ‘keep coming, we’ll get you across the river’. By the time we left Windorah we were about 400 km away, and they then told us they would be happy if we diverted and headed north which would then be another 1500 km.
“It was also raining in the desert and driving on the dirt road was pretty sketchy with a lot of water on the road. Finally we got to the Birdsville Racecourse and were told that the volunteer coordinator who told us they would get us across the river was ready for today.”
The four exhausted women were told to get back in their car and spend the night with no bedding or food – just that one box of Shapes.
“We were about 2 miles from a warm bed and warm food, so we decided to just band our arms over the medium high tide and walk through the town of Birdsville in our underpants,” Erica smiles.
“It was really empowering actually… it was absolutely amazing. I was so distracted because the sunset was amazing, and we were so elated that we didn’t care that we weren’t wearing pants.
“People would come out of the pub and say ‘are those girls in their underwear’ and we just said ‘yeah, yeah, we are, and we’re going to get a hot meal’.”
“Everything else was secondary, we didn’t care if we got a few glances from the Birdsville Pub — we weren’t naked, so hey,” Chelsea says.
“So then we walked over to our friends and told them to give us something to eat.”
The sun rose the next morning and it was time for the marathon of champions – 100 km through the desolate and barren Simpson Desert.
“The event was hard and brutal. It’s really hot, and for me it was all about saving energy and not overheating,” says Chelsea.
“At night it was complete darkness and there were a lot of clay panes that were very slippery from all the rain, and it was difficult to pick them up in the dark. You went through periods where you didn’t see anyone, but it was beautiful there.
“I thought about a lot of things: how hard it was, how I trained for this, encouraging myself that I can do it, and knowing that Erica was waiting for me at the finish. I kept pushing and remembering how disappointed I felt after not being able to finish last year.
“The people are nice there too. They would catch up to you and slow down a bit for a chat, make sure you’re okay, walk with you for a bit. The truly beautiful scenery was the main motivation.”
Women taking part in this grueling marathon are in the minority, and Chelsea says she always believed she would never achieve such a momentous feat.
“There are definitely barriers for women who want to compete in something like this. I was one of those women three years ago – anxious, depressed, on the couch, 30-40 kg overweight – and I didn’t know how to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Chelsea.
“I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and came across a Facebook group where I found like-minded people, and I see so many women in the same boat.
“One of the great things is just trust; women in particular relationships without trust. But preparing for the marathon shows that with a little training and faith in oneself, anything is possible.”
Completing the marathon ticked off Chelsea’s bucket list and still glowing with heaps of pride, the group of women headed home but were once again faced with a series of farcical challenges seemingly straight out of a comedy.
“The floods, which should have reached their peak, were increasing, which is unprecedented for Birdsville. They’ve never had seven days between peak floods,” says Erica.
To fight their way out of the flooded area, the four women decided their best option was to move to higher ground where an SES boat awaited their safe arrival.
“We packed up and met at the river crossing, and the SES boat only made one trip. The river was more than 3 feet long and the stuff that woke us up a few days ago was underwater,” says Erica.
“Then we jumped back into the Prado and were told to get off the road and follow the sand dunes, and I really didn’t feel comfortable driving in the desert.
“But we decided that no one was left alone. The guys from another group went to the water and it was up to their bottoms, it was way too deep so to the sand dunes it was.
“It was like being on a desert safari, and by noon we were on our way again and decided to stop for the night. We stayed at the Betoeta Hotel, which was an experience in itself!”
The next day, the women were finally back on ACT soil, in disbelief at how a simple road trip turned into a crazy flood rescue mission.
“The next big marathon is in Mongolia – 160 km over an ice lake,” says Chelsea.
“But no, I’m not running the Simpson Marathon next year. I’m done with that for now.”
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