Cape York to Melbourne: a record-breaking run for wildlife
Dave McNeill is more than a TEMPO columnist: he's a three-time Olympian, a physiotherapist and a run coach. Catch him writing for us every couple of months.
When you pause to comprehend what it takes to run from the tip to the toe of the east coast of Australia, it’s the details that stick in the mind. It’s a 6,200km journey, for starters. That’s a marathon run every day for approximately 150 days. Food, transport, camping spots. Oh, and incomprehensible fatigue. Just a few of the details.
Tip to Toe 2022 is a charity run that Melbourne runner Erchana Murray-Bartlett began in August. She just surpassed the Guinness World Record for the most consecutive marathons run by a woman when she pushed past the previous feat of 106, which had only been set earlier in 2022 by UK runner Kate Jayden. By the day Erchana hits Melbourne, she’ll have raised the record barrier considerably.
But Tip to Toe is also an intensive five-month campaign to raise awareness and funds for the Australian wilderness. Keep in mind that Australia has had more mammal extinctions than any other country in the world and is the second leading nation for biodiversity loss. Tip to Toe is an important campaign.
And while Murray-Bartlett enthusiastically runs for Australia’s at-risk wildlife, her own story is both relatable and inspiring. Of paths diverging and then converging. Of a global pandemic prompting an awakening. Of balance. Of being present. And how change can be simultaneously simple and monumental.
Running 150 consecutive marathons through the Australian wilderness might almost seem pre-destined for Murray-Bartlett. She grew up free-spirited in the rural town of Seville in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.
“I had those parents where the one rule was that you’d come home by dinner time. You’d leave in the morning, and come home by dinner. I spent 18 years of my youth just running around outside, and it was kind of awesome. I loved it. I was so connected,” she says.
That connectedness Murray-Bartlett speaks of in her childhood was to wildlife and the outdoors. “I always loved animals. Growing up in the Yarra Valley, I was always around kangaroos and every kind of native animal. It was always part of who I was.”
And it was running that fostered that connection. “There weren't really roads where I grew up, it was just trails or nothing. It was always very ‘outbacky’ and rugged. Just running through a trail you know no one else has been before, where cobwebs are getting you across the face, you know you’re the first one out there. I absolutely love it. It means everything to me.”
Running and the outdoors have remained fixtures in Murray-Bartlett’s life these past 32 years. Along the way, partly inspired by her love for running, and partly by gastrointestinal issues that threatened to derail her running, she took a keen interest in nutrition. She earned a master’s degree in nutrition, with the intention of combining her love for running and nutrition. But this is where her path diverged from where she finds herself today.
“After finishing my master’s, I got a job in a private company that kind of saw me working 8:30am–5pm. Within five years, I’d side-stepped my way through the departments, and found myself running a food import-export operation. Completely corporate, all run through KPIs, driven by numbers. And I was like, what the hell am I doing? How did I get here?”
For a time, running and the outdoors was an antidote and escape from a corporate life she had not envisioned for herself. She had a running group that kept her connected day to day, and helped her to enjoy her running, but her passion, purpose, and career were ticking along in separate lanes, and that deeper sense of connection was limited to weekends, when she could escape to the trails.
And then Covid hit. It’s a catchphrase many of us have uttered in the past couple of years.
“That’s when I realised I was extroverted,” Erchana says with a smile as she reflects on how she attempted, along with the rest of the world, to adapt to a new way of life.
“I think that’s why lockdown impacted me so much, because I was so connected to a lot of different groups and community events. It absolutely threw me.”
Her corporate job afforded her an opportunity to relocate to Queensland in 2020, a much-needed lifeline during a particularly challenging time. “I’d gone through a year of isolation, completely on my own, unable to run, and I was having a lot of mental health issues around that.”
The move to Queensland of course necessitated a two-week hotel quarantine. That two weeks might have been the final nail in the coffin amid a growing sense of isolation and a loss of connection, community and running – all the things sustaining Murray-Bartlett.
But instead of sealing the coffin, Erchana’s enforced hotel stay led to an awakening.
“During that two weeks in quarantine, I pretty much just planned this whole thing [Tip to Toe] up, because I’d had enough. I realised that when everything’s taken away, what makes me the happiest is being outside and running and exploring and adventuring. Because all of that had been taken away, I realised how much it meant to me.”
With lockdowns being a little more forgiving in Queensland than in her home state, and surrounded by her family who now live there, Erchana was able to recalibrate in the outdoors, and slowly the seed she planted in hotel quarantine began to grow.
Helping the seed grow while up in Queensland was meeting her now partner, Ryan Lloyd. If you’ve been following along the Tip to Toe journey, you’ll have seen Erchana’s infectiously positive demeanor each day, a trait she shares with Ryan. Both are infectiously positive people. Ryan is a talented videographer and is the man behind everything you see on social media. But he’s also become much more than that.
“As much as I am running every day, he does everything else. He does the social media, he sets up the camp, packs up the camp, he makes all the food, he takes all the phone calls when I’m running, he spends all day editing. I couldn’t do it without him,” Erchana says.
And she hasn’t had to. It took nearly two years of meticulous planning. Ryan and Erchana eventually moved back to Melbourne at the end of 2021 and in the middle of this year she left her corporate job. The free-spirited Murray-Bartlett, who spent her youth running around the great outdoors, has returned to them. She’s finally able to combine her love for running and nutrition as she fuels the 6,200km journey with a renewed sense of purpose.
Already, she’s broken the world record and raised over $47,000. You’d be forgiven for thinking she must be exhausted from running but, if anything, it’s only fuelling her. “I don’t really feel tired when I’ve got these amazing four-hour runs through the bush. I just love it.”
Part of what sustains Murray-Bartlett is an innate ability to transcend the magnitude of the challenge and be present. She never seems overwhelmed by how much she has to run or how many interviews, meetings and events she must attend to.
“When I’m out running, it’s almost a way of forgetting about everything else … remembering that you’re very little … a tiny little thing in a big world, just coexisting. You’re not there to do anything but just live like everyone else is living. I love that feeling.”
It’s a feeling that sits well with her purpose of bringing awareness to Australia’s threatened native wildlife. Of co-existing. Of respecting the Australian wilderness that so many of us runners love.
“I just think that protecting our national parks and animals is almost synonymous with trail running. It’s almost selfish in a way. If we don’t have parks, we can’t run through them.”
Of course, to bring that awareness and raise money takes more than just running a marathon every day for five months. While mornings are for running, there is an endless line of people like me wanting to interview or meet up with Erchana each day. To learn about the cause and engage personally in the conversation. Balancing those responsibilities has been challenging.
“I’m finding the running easy because it’s familiar. But what I’m more struggling with is how I’m regulating myself in the afternoons and trying to just be me again. I don’t want to say no to anything, because everything that’s happening is positive and it’s sharing the cause. But it’s always things. And so days that start off free end up being quite busy. Small tasks can feel like big tasks. That’s what I’m struggling with more than the running.”
It’s a long game. Two years of planning. Five months of running. Each new day on its own would be overwhelming for most, let alone months and months of it. There is a poetic parallel between Murray-Bartlett’s endeavour and that of her chosen charity, The Wilderness Society. An overwhelming, complex challenge that boils down to simply putting one foot in front of the other.
“They [The Wilderness Society] are doing things from a top-down point of view. As much as I’m campaigning for everyone to do their bit, it’s really important to make these bigger broader laws that have a really impactful change ongoing. It sometimes feels hard to get behind them because they are big projects that take a lot of campaigning and a lot of work. But they have a bigger impact when they’re successful.”
With each day, and each successive marathon, not only does Murray-Bartlett extend her world record, but her voice gets a little louder, and her plight to create meaningful conversation and change around Australia’s native flora and fauna gains more traction. She remains humble, and is always learning more about herself, her limits, and what she is capable of.
“You can go when you don’t think you can go. You just have to try!”
“I didn’t know I’d be able to get to 90 marathons. I still might not get to 150. When I first thought of this, I thought, ‘Let’s just see. Let’s aim high – and I might get there, I might not. But wherever I get to, I’ll be proud of.’”
I, for one, feel immensely proud of Erchana. I am reminded of my own limitless potential. Of the power of being present and taking things one day at a time. And I am grateful for runners like Erchana Murray-Bartlett who are protecting the wonderful world we run through, one marathon at a time.