Originally published in Kiwi Trail Runner October/November 2017
Gavin Markey took a huge leap of faith, throwing the fate of his entire family into the hands of the running gods. Kirrily Dear tells the story.
The 4am alarm ripped through the dark silence, launching my crewie and I from our beds with greater enthusiasm than one would normally expect. It was race morning, and the 2013 chapter of the Great North Walk 100 Miler was about to unfold. It was going to be a hot one with temperatures already above 20 degrees. Final gear check done, we cracked the door of our hotel room.
In the hallway, we found the same scene was being played out by another runner whose fate that day would prove to be very different to mine.
Over the course of the weekend temperatures soared above 40 degrees, and Gavin Markey went onto win the race, and more than 70% of the field succumbed to a DNF. I was one of those statistics as stomach issues that began to plague me within a few hours of the start showed no signs of relief.
Gavin was a relatively unknown runner, yet managed to nab the victory from some of Australia’s best. Naturally, everyone was curious about Gavin’s secret and the sharing of his story would kick-start one of the most significant shifts in race nutrition strategies in recent years.
Later, he would be kind enough to say that it was our meeting in the hallway had provided good luck for the race. Looking behind the curtains to his journey into trail running, it is clear the luck is of his own making.
Gavin’s is a familiar story. One day he found himself wanting more from life so he renewed his childhood love for running, finding greater enjoyment from long runs.
“I used to love running at School but then late teens and early twenties parties started, and I guess I just lost focus on what I loved to do. I always knew that I loved longer runs, and never saw something like a marathon as a challenge, so had to look further for that. Although if I’m totally honest, the short stuff just hurts too much.”
“After I started running again in my late thirties, I soon realised that mentally I just felt so much more in control on the days I ran, so knew then that it would be integral to being healthy as a whole person.
“I had been ‘stalking’ a few of the local runners where I live and soon found that they all ran with the Berowra Bush Runners. The logical step was to then join the club and see how I could be part of their community. Plus, they knew the local trails so well. “
Not the kind of person to do things by halves, Gavin and his family quickly became and integral to their local trail running group, the Berowra Bush Runners, which has been at the heart of Gavin’s exploration and learning.
“They were so welcoming and encouraging right from the get go. The greatest challenge was in my head - ‘What if I’m too slow?’ or ‘What if I hold them up all the time?’. I found, however, that they were more interested in making sure that I enjoyed myself. It was this support and encouragement that has really struck a chord with me.
“For someone to stay back and make sure you are not going to get lost and that you enjoy yourself rather than focusing on themselves…who does that? What a cool sport!
“I am now the club president and hope to encourage that very same selfless support to others.”
Gavin’s running journey wasn’t to be plain sailing and he reflects on the ANZAC Ultra in 2015 as being one of his greatest teachers. The race was held in Canberra and commemorated the centenary of the ANZAC troops landing at Gallipoli. Gavin chose the 450-kilometre option, the longest distance he had ever faced.
Due to circumstances beyond the control of race organisers, the circuit route was changed days before the race started. The new format was six laps of a 75-kilometre loop, half of which was cement bike path. Runners had little time to get conditioned. Gavin’s race didn’t go according to plan.
“The ANZAC Ultra was my first DNF. The hard concrete was something that my body just was not prepared for. After the first two laps, my right knee began to pain. Halfway round the third lap, my knee was swollen, and, by the start of the fourth lap, was severely swollen. It became obvious that I would be unable to continue or finish what I had started.
“I struck a deal with the medic, that if he administered pain killers, I promised I would finish after the fourth lap, bringing me to the 300-kilometre mark. I just had to show some of that ANZAC grit and determination. I had run the first 150 kilometres in 18 hours, the last 42 kilometres took me just under 17 hours to hobble/crawl.
“It is a run that will live with me forever as it showed just what those heroes would have had to endure even before they went into battle. It was not one of my greatest achievements in terms of finishing or placings, but one of my greatest lessons in how much you can achieve with the support, love and encouragement of others - and that is what the Anzac spirit is all about.
“It was a lesson in the 5 P’s - Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance, and that part of ultra-running is being flexible in your outcomes, all the while being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Just keep smiling, no matter what.”
Gavin’s reflections on the ANZAC Ultra are a nod to what is truly driving his success.
Trail running was never destined to fulfil only Gavin’s health and voluntary service aspirations. At the time of his return to running, Gavin was captaining super yachts around Sydney when an innocuous weekday run to work would send him down a very different career path.
“I was in the middle of a run to work, listening to the podcast “Trail Runner Nation” when I heard about an endurance sports nutrition product.
As soon as I got into work I looked it up and things just fell into place: the guys at the company had only just started out but it was clear they shared the same passions as Rebekah and me.
“We became their first international distributor. I remember when the first shipment arrived - it was half of one pallet, and I thought I needed new undies. I was so scared of what we had undertaken!”
Gavin adopted an organic approach to growing the business, avoiding the large retail chains and opting to engage with the running community directly.
“It probably goes against every business model out there I know! We spent many hours just talking to people, getting them to rethink about fuelling and race nutrition as an important part of their running performance. Before this, it was accepted as the norm to throw up during an ultra marathon but this is really not what is meant to happen.”
The 2013 Coast2Kosci (240km road race) took place a few weeks after Gavin’s Great North Walk victory. “One friend who was competing in the race was affectionately known as ‘Mr Puke’ - whether it was five kilometres or 240-kilometres he was guaranteed to be ill. For the Coast2Kosci he fuelled only on our product the entire way (over 30 hours), and never had any stomach issues.”
News of the breakthrough experienced by those earlier experimenters spread quickly, but Gavin is very clear about what fuels his ongoing growth in the sport. “The people, always the people. I didn’t start the company with the purpose of one day hiring my own super-yacht captain. You just come across everything that is good about the human race when trail running and I absolutely love it. Even in a serious race, the person in the front would rather stop and help someone else in need than take the win - which other sport has that?
“There are times is a race when it all seems so dark, helpless, and painful and with no end to the suffering…and then at the next checkpoint you see your crew (usually my lovely wife and kids) and volunteers and suddenly life is full of positivity again. Your problems are that much lighter because you have all this support. It’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
“I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to be involved in something that I am absolutely passionate about, and which has such a positive outcome for others. There is a quote that I love that reminds us to not be afraid to follow our hearts, even if it’s not the norm.
“If I want it to be, it’s up to me.”