My Australia: South-East Qld Relay
The Sri Chinmoy Centre has been my life, my journey and my home for many, many years. I hope these pages offer a small glimpse into the joy, the grace and the wonder that is Sri Chinmoy.
An Epic 1,000-km Relay in 4 Days
ON NEW YEAR’S MORNING 1981, as most of Brisbane still lay sleeping, there was an unusual busyness at a suburban house in Annerley.
As news teams arrived, cars were being squeezed tight with bags and equipment, signs attached, shoes laced, legs stretched and T-shirts donned. Interviewers clamoured for their notepads and scrambled to the scene of the action. “What exactly is the purpose of this? Where are you going again? Could you just run down all together one more time and we’ll take a shot? Can we get a shot of the map?” they asked. It was obviously a no-news day.
In the clear, crisp, early morning, TV cameras filmed a group of us jogging carefree down an unusually silent Ipswich Rd. towards the centre of Brisbane. But as news-watchers that evening, seated comfortably on their sofas, first heard of the ‘My Australia: South-East Queensland Relay’, we had already travelled 100 miles north, on our way to the town of Nambour, trudging through pouring rain, clinging to the muddy edge of Highway 1, as speeding semi-trailers jetted past. When we set off from Brisbane, we could not have imagined the incredible adventure we were stepping into.
Brisbane — Caboolture (57 km) — Nambour (119 km) — Gympie (188 km) — Maryborough (276 km) — Childers (336 km) — Bundaberg (389 km) — Gin Gin (438 km) — Biggenden (502 km) — Ban Ban Springs (540 km) — Goomeri (615 km) — Kingaroy (679 km) — Kumbia (706 km) — Dalby (789 km) — Oakey (846 km) — Toowoomba (876 km) — Gatton (914 km) — Ipswich (969 km) — Brisbane (1,000 km)
The relay had been planned carefully, though, with every plan, circumstance often tends to outweigh the best of logic. Two teams of 5 runners in each were to take shifts of approximately 8 hours, giving a chance for each team to rest for 8 hours. At specific points along the route, the teams would change over. The driving of support vehicles, as well as running, was rostered, but distances covered by each individual was voluntary.
We had organised several meetings in major towns with mayors and city officials. So strict was our schedule that there was very little leeway for adjustment. The first team left Brisbane at 10 am and was to arrive in Caboolture at 2.30 pm. However, as we found out later, map distances were often different from road distances.
Our meeting in Caboolture was with Ron Grant and it was as though Ron knew what to expect because he came out to meet us on the road. This was an inspiration to us — a sort of reassurance for the trip to come. Many times over the next few days we would be surprised and gladdened by the unexpected. It was as though we were being looked after and protected from our own naive adventurism by a heavenly hand.
Right from the earliest stages of the event, we were made acutely aware of how precariously balanced our journey was and how much we were dependent on grace to keep it on a steady footing. As our first team of runners left the outskirts of Brisbane and headed north out onto the highway, they were pulled over by a police road patrol. The police somehow already knew that we didn’t have official permission to be there. As it happened, one of the policemen — a certain Sergeant Williams — was the very person responsible for approving traffic permits, state-wide. The relay could have easily been stopped in its tracks, right there and then until the sergeant asked who was organising the event.
It turned out that Sergeant Williams was an old friend; someone we had a long association with over the years in planning routes for our monthly races. And with a good deal of subdued humour, he kindly let the team go on, albeit with an authoritative warning to take care and to “not do anything stupid.” As he left, he said that he would alert the police along the route and ask them to watch out for us. Further along the road, we were to find out just how caring Sergeant Williams really was, when a policeman in a small country town took great pride in telling us that he had received a message to look out for the relay runners. Without Sergeant Williams’ magnanimous heart we may never have made it to Ron Grant’s hometown.
Before we left Caboolture we presented Ron with a trophy from the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, inscribed with the words ‘Queensland’s Hero Runner — Run and Become, Become and Run’. With baton in hand, Ron led the team out of Caboolture to the highway. As we ran, Ron spoke of his plans this year to run across the Simpson Desert. His record-breaking Birdsville track and his Cairns to Brisbane run behind him, he was in search of ever-transcending challenges — a philosophy held dear by Sri Chinmoy. It’s people like Ron Grant that make you believe that the Australian pioneering spirit lives on.
It was Ron who suggested we try and set a record for a 10-man relay over 1000 km. With meetings in each town already planned, there was no way that we could speed up our journey. But as this was the first time it had been done we eventually did create a record of sorts — 4 days and 6 hours.
To each of us, the run was much more than an expression of physical fitness; we all shared in the experiences of the soul. A documentary of outer events has emerged, leaving the inner, more personal struggles and joys unworded. In that sense, it is the silence of meditation that comes closest to expressing our inner journey. Meditation, which Sri Chinmoy feels can be a helpful inner concomitant to outer running, played an important part in the overall event. As well as meditating twice a day, morning and evening, we would meditate a few minutes before each runner changed over the baton.
Meditation put back the inspiration that so many hard miles can often take out. It brought back into focus the very reason why we were doing it. And it kept up our morale during that first night. Leaving Caboolture and Ron behind, we headed off onto the road for many hours of running on a dark, turbulent evening.
It began to rain around 10 o’clock at night. And it poured down so heavily that we could barely see our feet in front of us. The point vehicle driver too had his share of hardship, sitting in damp clothes, trying to keep the headlights on the runner ahead while dodging 10-inch cane toads that came jumping across our path.
By the time we reached Nambour we had managed to get the relay back on schedule. But the rain had started to set in and we took shelter for our meeting at the Council Chambers. We were greeted with a letter of commendation, good wishes and gifts — including 10 packets of locally grown ginger — from the City of Nambour. Here, and at each of our subsequent meetings, we made a presentation of a banner printed with the words of Sri Chinmoy’s song ‘My Australia’ and our ‘Declaration of Purpose’ signed by all the runners. At most meetings, we sang ‘My Australia’ and ‘Run and Become’ — another of Sri Chinmoy’s songs that has almost become an international anthem for runners.
The day after the night at Nambour, the skies had cleared but a day of humid running had begun. At Maryborough, we had a meeting with the Mayor.
Queensland roads, due to the torrential rains at this time of the year, are subject to flooding within minutes of a storm. River levels rise quickly but subside slowly. Heading out of Childers we were told that the bridge at Gregory River might be flooded and when we arrived there we realised just how serious it was. As we approached the river, we noticed a steady stream of cars passing us on the opposite side of the road, which meant only one thing — the Gregory River was up and it would be up for a long time.
As we arrived, the rows of cars parked at the side of the highway, people listening to radios and walking idly along the middle of the road, confirmed our worst fears. At the river, the water was 3 feet above the bridge and rising. According to the locals, it wouldn’t be down until midnight. According to our schedule, we were due to meet with the Acting Mayor in Bundaberg. The evening in Bundaberg was supposed to be a rest night for both teams. But it seemed as though we would be spending the night by the banks of the Gregory. And there was still 40 km to go before Bundaberg.
As we looked at the river, we toyed with the idea of wading across the submerged bridge to the other side. The water was above waist height and flowing fast. The bubbling current in the middle carried broken trees and branches downstream. Seasoned truck drivers stood at the river’s high-water mark assessing the situation, but none were willing to take the risk. “It was possible to cross it,” someone said, “if you could keep your feet on the bridge.” But that was cold comfort to us — even if a runner did manage to get across, he would be without a back-up vehicle and have no assistance for the 40-km run into Bundaberg.
Amidst the discouraging conjecture, a divine inspiration seemed to manifest itself and summon an inner hero to take up the challenge. Prabhir, baton in hand, waded out from the bank into the treacherous flow of the Gregory River, looking back only once for a newspaper cameraman’s snapshot. As he reached the centre of the river, he almost lost his footing and was being pulled towards the edge of the bridge. There were no rails along the side, so he cautiously moved further towards the middle of the road. Once he passed the peak of the torrent, he held the baton up in victory and waded through to the calm water on the other side. With a wave, he signalled that he was off to Bundaberg — alone. As his solitary figure disappeared over the hill, we wondered if we would get to him again before he managed to drag his exhausted body into Bundaberg or was found wasted at the side of the road.
We decided to return to Childers and perhaps ring the radio station in Bundaberg to put over an announcement for anyone spotting our runner to see if he needed any help. When I called them, they said that they would see what they could do. It didn’t sound too hopeful, so we thought of phoning Ron Grant in Caboolture — surely Ron would have friends up this way? When I finally got through, Ron’s wife told me that he was not home (no doubt out running somewhere). But she did give me Eric Brown’s number in Bundaberg. When I rang Eric’s place, his wife told me that he was out on a run, but she expected he would be back in about 15 minutes or so. I told her the story and said I would call back. She assured me that she would let Eric know when he returned. When I did call back, she told me that Eric had gone out again — but this time he was off looking for Prabhir.
Meanwhile, back in Childers, we heard from the locals that there was a possible crossing point for vehicles downriver, but it was a much longer route than we had planned. However, realising that we had no choice, we decided to take a look. It would be a long drive, and our thoughts turned to Prabhir — out there alone, no water, no food — nothing but his faith to sustain him. It was then, that someone mentioned the significance of Prabhir’s spiritual name, given to him by Sri Chinmoy many years earlier. It literally meant ‘divine hero’. We knew then, he would make it.
We still didn’t know for sure if we would get through to Bundaberg. If we had to wait for the river to go down, it could be days before we met up with Prabhir again. However, grace was on our side — the back road from Childers was clear all the way — and as we approached the river, there it was: a dry road bridge and open to traffic. Within an hour we were in Bundaberg.
As it turned out, Prabhir, as wet and as exhausted as he was, had still managed to keep running, dragging his tired feet slowly towards the lights of the city. After many hours on the road by himself, he was beginning to contemplate his sorry fate when he was surprised to see a car pull up and offer assistance. Eric had arrived! Prabhir didn’t argue when Eric grabbed the baton from his hand and started running. Instead of a lonely run into the city, Prabhir sat back in the comfort of Eric’s car, sipping coffee and cheering him on for a few miles.
When we turned south onto the road towards Childers we saw them — Eric and Prabhir, running side by side heading into town. The enthusiasm of the occasion was overwhelming — all the runners from both teams jumped from the vans and ran with Prabhir and Eric down the main street of Bundaberg. People waved and tooted their horns as we arrived. The local radio station must have spread the word after all.
The next morning, we met the Lord Mayor. Of course, our friend Eric was there as we accepted an official letter of greeting and the ‘Crest of the City’ of Bundaberg.
Our route from Bundaberg took us inland to Ban Ban Springs. We were getting used to the mileage and so the stretches became longer and longer. The countryside, which we expected to be dry and barren, was green and alive. Everywhere, there was a freshness, a new feeling in the air, and for us — a new inspiration.
Somewhere along the Burnett Hwy, between the Route 52 turn-off and Goomeri, we started to lose time. We were hoping to average 5-min/km pace, but due to the inaccuracy of some of the maps and extended meetings, we often found that we would be behind 10 or 15 minutes between towns. Usually, though, we could manage to catch that up in 7-8 hours of running. But this time we found that we were over one hour behind schedule. We had an important meeting in Kingaroy and so we decided to do 2-km sprints to make up the time. We were low on food supplies; we had nothing in our legs and we were exhausted. On Sunday mornings in country towns, there are very few shops open. But with scoops of jellybeans and chocolate, we managed to press on. Eventually, we sprinted into Kingaroy for the official ceremony with just a few minutes to spare.
Day 4 saw the relay leaving the outskirts of Kingaroy in the early morning hours, heading towards one of the toughest sections of the trip — the climb over the Bunya Mountains. The hilly terrain took its toll physically and the team once more faced the challenges of a tight schedule. But with determined progression the runners moved steadily on across the Darling Downs, stopping briefly at Dalby for one more mayoral greeting.
While one team skipped ahead to Toowoomba to meet Deputy Mayor Alderman John Duggan, the other team kept running and didn’t reach town until after dark. Nestled high on the eastern edge of the Darling Downs plateau, Toowoomba has long been known as ‘The Garden City’. Its altitude provides it with a much milder climate than its coastal neighbour Brisbane, which in January can become extremely hot and humid. It would have been nice to have spent more time there. But, with our goal in sight, we were up early the next morning and on the road again. The next stretch was the most coveted of the entire trip, the run down the Toowoomba Range — 5 km of gently winding road that descends 500 metres to the valley below. We were flying like eagles that morning.
All too suddenly we were back on the ground, grinding out mile after mile in 30°C heat and 70% humidity — the ease of our thrilling descent, just a vague memory. We passed through Ipswich in a blur and onto the highway for a sprint towards Brisbane.
Prabhir was the last runner to carry the baton, and rightly so — he was the true hero of the relay. On his last kilometre, the rest of his team members joined him. With Prabhir in the lead, they all trekked in single file up the final steep hill. News crews, cheering crowds, the official welcome home speeches, all evaporated from our collective imagination as we approached the finish line. There was to be no fanfare that day, but nothing could detract from our achievement. We had covered 1000 km in a little over 4 days; met with mayors and community dignitaries; ran with the locals, in country towns and in cities; and had an unforgettable adventure along the way. The enduring feeling, however, was one of gratitude in being able to carry goodwill from place to place, giving and receiving inspiration and sharing our hearts with the people of South-East Queensland.
– End –
This article is dedicated to the memory of our dear brother-friend Prabhir Bothwell (1948-90).