In May 2017, Red Bull triathlete and dual Olympian, Courtney Atkinson, set out to do something that nobody has ever done before.
Inspired by the State 8 – a hiking challenge that involves summiting eight of Australia’s highest peaks over the course of a lifetime – Courtney wanted to see how many of the State 8 mountains he could summit in just one week. And he didn’t want to just hike up them. He wanted to run.
So that’s exactly what he did.
Courtney’s idea quickly turned into a running project of epic proportions, one that challenged him in a way he never anticipated.
He tackled Mounts Meharry (WA), Zeil (NT), Kosciuszko (NSW), Bartle Frere (QLD), Bimberi Peak (ACT), Ossa (TAS) and Bogong (VIC), running some 145km – 25 hours’ worth of running in total – up a collective vertical gain of 7.7km.
He took 11 flights (travelling over 13,000km by air) and drove over 2,200km.
He even ran up and down Mount Bimberi and Mount Kosciuszko in the same day.
- 25 hours of running in 7 days
- 7 ascents: Australia’s Highest Peak in every state or territory
- 72km of that running UPHILL at RACING pace
- 7.7km of vertical gain
- Fastest known times (FKT) up multiple mountains
- 11 flights – 23hrs 15mins – 13,023km equal to flying Sydney – Dubai
- Drove 2265km – about half the distance across Australia
Check out the clip and read on for a Q&A with Courtney below
“When I race a half marathon at racing pace, I take a week off because it destroys my body,” Courtney told RedBull.com. “But on this project, I was putting myself through more physical stress than a half marathon, sometimes twice per day.
My body should have shut down after the second day. I was totally surprised by what it was capable of.”
As well as challenging himself like never before, Courtney also wanted to showcase the wild and diverse natural wonders Australia has to offer. And The Lucky Country didn’t disappoint.
He came across kangaroos on snowy mountains, got sucked half to death by leeches, pierced his feet along kilometres of needle-like spinifex grass, got caught in a northern Queensland tropical downpour, locked himself in a national park, dodged brown snakes in the dark…and he did all of this with just one team member for support.
Talk about an adventure.
We caught up with Courtney to find out how the week went and, more importantly, what the experience taught him.
Courtney, is it fair to say that this project was a smidge harder than you’d anticipated?
So much harder. The biggest thing that came out of this for me was what the body’s capable of when you set a goal. I didn’t have time to think, “Oh shit, I haven’t had enough sleep” or “My quads are sore.” I just had to start again and keep on trucking.
When I’d finished, we sat down and worked out the amount of time I was running for, at least half of which was at racing intensity. If you convert that into easy running time for me on the flat, it would have worked out at over 300km for the week.
My brain can’t even process that information
If you’d have told me that before we did it, I wouldn’t have been able to process it either.
It’s crazy how much psychology, the way we think about certain things, can affect what we’re physically capable of…
If you’d have told me to go and do something like this without a reason, I wouldn’t have been able to. But because I didn’t have time to think and because we had this schedule and this goal of hitting all the peaks, I didn’t have time to think about each one. I was just concentrating on keeping moving and going up. I think that’s what really made the week special.
The goal people talk about in life is overcoming something, like climbing a mountain, and that’s what we were doing every day for that week. You get to the top, you achieve it, you come back down and then you reset and then there’s the next mountain. And then the next one. Because I had an end goal of doing them all in one week, I felt like I could just keep going. You just put up with it. You get it done.
Did anything go horribly wrong?
Well, I thought the flights would be the biggest issue, with eleven flights in seven days, but they were all perfect – no delays, no missed bags, nothing. The one thing I thought would be the biggest problem was the smallest.
We had some interesting snags though. When we got to Mt. Ossa, which was going to be the longest run day, a flood had recently been through so all the trails and bridges were knocked out and the road to the start point was closed. The closest we could get in my Subaru AWD was about 5km from the start point. I knew the run would take four or five hours so I added it up and thought an extra 10km wouldn’t be the end of the world, and I ended up running the extra 5km up to the start point and running it back at the end. It made it a six-hour, 48km monster of a day. It was pretty much the longest run I’d ever done.
That’s insane. What else happened?
In Western Australia, we had a photographer with us. We knew there was a 4WD track on Mt. Meharry, so the idea was that the team were going to follow along and light me up from the truck. It turned out being a really rough trail and even the Land Cruiser couldn’t get over some of the rocks, so I ended up running to the top of the mountain in the pitch black with just a head torch. It was pretty creepy.
Then in the Northern Territory, we were trying to find the spot where I’d start my ascent of Mt. Zeil. It turned out to be a nightmare for us to find it – a mixture of closed roads, dodgy advice, getting the 4WD bogged up to the axles and so on. Then we finally get to a spot and I start running.
I knew it was 20km so didn’t think it’d be too bad, so I only took the bare minimum of food and water. But it turned out to be pretty much impossible to run up, so I was basically just hiking. My feet are covered in needle pricks from the spinifex grass, there were snakes out there, it ended up taking about six hours I had to do the last two hours with no food or water. It was just a nightmare day.
From a physical perspective, how did you find the challenge?
It’s funny – looking at it in kilometres doesn’t really do it justice. Because that hike up Mt. Zeil was only 20km but it took me close to six hours, and I was moving as fast as I could. And for all the others, I was racing up those mountains. When I ran Kosciuszko, I was only four minutes slower – in appalling conditions – than the record which was set by Marty Dent, who’s an Olympic Marathon Runner. So I was really moving.
Hiking is hiking, but when you run at the pace that I was running up these hills, your recovery is a whole different scenario and that’s really the crux of what this project turned into a pure running athlete project. It wasn’t the State 8 project, in the end, it was actually ‘Australia in a week: a running project’. The State 8 goal was the catalyst for me to go and challenge myself and see how hard, how far and in what extreme conditions I can put my body through.
My legs are buggered, I’ve got bruising, my feet are absolutely smashed and full of splinters from spinifex. The last day I put myself into a complete state of dehydration and it all stemmed from the fact that I was running up these mountains back to back without proper athlete recovery.
When I race a half marathon at racing pace, I take a week very easy afterwards because it destroys your muscles. But on this project, I was putting myself through more physical stress than a half marathon, sometimes twice per day, and then just jumping straight into a car or a plane on limited sleep. But my body held up amazingly. It just adapted. I couldn’t believe the pace I was able to hold under the conditions. My body should have shut down after the second day. I was totally surprised by what it was capable of.
I heard you couldn’t run the last mountain – what’s the story there?
Yeah, the permit didn’t come through for that one. If anything, the week we had was bigger and more interesting than if you’d just done them all. It’s kind of what happens in adventures. You have a plan about what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to go, but then what actually happens is life.
Did you have any point of real of exhaustion that you really had to push through?
I was completely burnt out on Mt. Zeil. It was the last mountain and I was out of water for the last two hours. By the end, I was almost literally falling down the mountain, just falling over and I couldn’t stop myself. I was absolutely gone. So it was fitting that on the final two hours of a 25-hour week of moving, it caught up with me and my body just pretty much shut down.
Do you have any major highlights from the experience? Any moments of pure euphoria?
As much as it was painful – and mate, my body was smashed up – combining trail running, travel and Australia is my perfect week. It’s everything I love. The highlight for me was being able to see that much in a week and then the big kicker was that the trails – besides Zeil – were absolutely amazing to run. I just loved running through the trails.