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Blazing Trails to Reduce Poverty

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NEWS FEATURE:

If you are a team player who is seeking an extraordinary challenge–one that will test your endurance and commitment as it aims to eliminate world poverty–then Oxfam’s Trailwalker is a charity event that you just cannot walk past.

You stand there nervously at the start, wondering if you will make it. You look over at your three teammates and smile unsurely. The butterflies in your stomach are creating this knot. You cannot help but wonder if the preparation has paid off. All those months of hard work, will they get you to the finish? You shake away any doubts and mentally prepare yourself for the challenge that lies ahead. Just you, your team mates, the Australian bush, and 100 kilometres of trail to blaze. You can do it. Those who live in poverty are counting on you. They walk further than this just to get clean water. Therefore, you ask yourself, “What is 100 kilometres between friends?”

Welcome to Oxfam Australia’s Trailwalker, whose motto is to commit, and then endure, so that you can achieve. This event is classified as the world’s hardest team challenge where competitors need to be physically and mentally fit to make it to the finish line. Moreover, they need to do so, as a team, to win.

In fact, according to historical records, the Trailwalker event has always been about teamwork. The first challenge took place on the MacLehose Trail inHong Kongas a British army training exercise, in 1981. Today, the event occurs in eleven different countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, The Netherlands and the UK. What’s more, all events follow the same principles. A team of four must travel 100 kilometres within a specified time. Moreover, all proceeds assist Oxfam in its quest to change the conditions of those who are living below the poverty line.

Oxfam Australia, which began in the 1950s, was Father Gerard Kennedy Tucker’s vision for changing poverty. Starting out as the ‘Food for Peace Campaign’ and then gaining the name ‘Community Aid Abroad’ in the 1960s, the non-profit organisation then merged with the ‘Australian Freedom from Hunger Campaign’ in 1991. This attracted other similar organisations and, by 1995, Oxfam International was created. In 2005, the organisation became known as Oxfam Australia, which now operates in more than 26 countries around the world in an effort to eliminate poverty and eradicate injustice.

Jane Denning, marketing coordinator for the Sydney Trailwalker held annually in August, is extremely passionate about her role and has been involved with Oxfam as a volunteer since 1999.

“I grew up in the UK, so I used to walk past the Oxfam shop there, and I always thought, one day, I would really like to work for them. Anyways, many years later, here I was in Australia, at home, looking after my young children, and I thought right now is the time to get off my bottom and start volunteering. I started with what was known as Community Aid Abroad and then became Oxfam in 2005. I just wanted to do something to help and to give something back,” said Jane.

Jane, who has personally competed in the event, simply describes it as ‘amazing.’

“As a competitor, it was an amazing experience, but it was hard. I had my teammates supporting me, and I remember that one of our members had done the event before whereas the rest of us were newbies on the trail,” Jane said. “I was very nervous before the event started. I had a stomach full of butterflies. I mean, we had been training for months.”

Laughing, Jane adds, “We did things together before the event like go to the movies so that we would have something to talk about whilst on the trail. Girls just love to talk. I remember during the event that we would come across a group of men on the trail and they would be so quiet. Then, we would whisper to each other, ‘They’re not saying anything.’ We just thought this was so odd. But, then, teams of women and men are just so different.”

To get through the event, Jane and her team members had a philosophy, which was to break the trail down into parts and take it section-by-section to the finish line.

“We took it from checkpoint-to-checkpoint rather than thinking about the whole 100 kilometres. We broke it down and made it easier on ourselves. We had a great support crew. They took it in turns to be there, some during the day and others at night,” Jane said. “It was surreal at night. It was hard. We got low in spirit. It was quite cold. We did really well during the day and we thought we were going to finish in record-time, and then night falls and it gets so cold that your body does not want to continue. You have to concentrate at night. It is harder to see, but the trail is well marked with fluorescent trail markers. You have a headlamp. We were being overtaken at night because we were so slow, and then you see all these little lights. Other people are in front of you and behind. The trail is blazing as you go through the bush. It is an amazing experience. Then, when you cross the finish, it is just so climatic. You think of your huge achievement, especially as a team of four.”

The Sydney Trailwalker event, which Jane helps coordinate, has risen close to $3.2 million dollars for Oxfam, annually, since 2007. The event has a limited number of team positions available, which adds to participant enthusiasm. The limit is set at 500 teams of four, or 2,000 individual participants on the trail, by the N.S.W. National Parks Authority. This is intended to reduce the environmental impact and to ensure that the number of walkers do not become a safety issue. And, the speed at which teams registered for the 2010 race is indicative of the event’s popularity.

“This year’s team registration was done in two phases: a lottery system for our regular teams who pledged to raise between $1,000 and $5,000 and a first-in-best-dressed system for our highest fundraisers who raise over $5,000 for Oxfam. That last category opened online on March the 16th at 10a.m., and it sold out within 1 hour and 45 minutes. The lottery was open for six weeks, and we had 400 entrants for 200 spots,” Jane said.

So, why is this event so popular?

Apart from being charity-based, the event pits man against nature and is the ultimate challenge in terms of mind over matter. As such, the Trailwalker event attracts a variety of participants–from mums and dads, sisters and brothers through to businesses seeking to develop unity and teams who are health and fitness-orientated.

“The Sydney event begins on a Friday and the teams who have entered have to walk 100 kilometres in under 48 hours. It is an endurance event, so the walk is not easy. Most of it is on a single trail that goes over many hills,” Jane said. “It is not just about endurance, but it is also about teamwork. People do need to train. We open registration at least five months prior to the event so that people have time to prepare.”

On the day of the event, the 500 teams are divided into three starting times – 7a.m., 8.30a.m., and 10a.m. – which allows for a steady flow of foot traffic and alleviates the congestion at the starting line. Competitors are allocated 48 hours to travel the 100 kilometres as a team. They are timed from the start and must travel together and check into and leave every checkpoint as a team. Those teams whose members are unable to continue in the event can complete the event, but they cannot be considered for podium positions.

All competitors must be 18 years or older, and it is vital that they have a support crew of between 2-10 people who can provide encouragement and main meals as well as carry supplies. It is important to train in the lead-up to the event; otherwise, it is highly unlikely that a person will make it to the finish line. Walking or running 100 kilometres is not for the faint hearted; it takes dedication and conviction as well as a good degree of fitness.

“There is training and it does require commitment. You have to endure a lot of hard work in training your body to walk the 100 kilometres. Some people even run it. The fastest team this year did it in 12 hours and 7 minutes. They are professional people. They are not athletes. They are ordinary every-day people. Mind you, they probably run a lot more than the average person,” Jane said. “The drive is that sense of achievement when you walk across that finish line and just know that the fundraising is for a great cause. You really feel that. It is just an amazing feeling when you walk across that finish line. Having walked 100 kilometres and having raised funds for Oxfam. I mean, some teams set themselves amazing goals. There is a team called “On a Mission,” and they entered with a $10,000 target. They are a group of young girls–they are not university students, but they are young. They have now raised more than that target. They finished, and they feel very good about themselves.”

Trailwalker event proceeds support Oxfam Australia’s work where the organisation assists people, who live in poverty, to find their own solutions to remedy their situation. This means helping to educate them, giving them access to clean water and life-sustaining food, and providing the chance to earn a living. In addition, the organisation also responds to emergencies and natural disasters by enabling those who have been displaced from their homes to gain access to clean water, shelter, and food as well as rebuild and prepare for future disasters. Overall, Oxfam Australia campaigns for change, encouraging world leaders and governing bodies to change their policies so that people are not kept in poverty and are able to become economically viable.

The Trailwalker event has fundraising classifications: the Regular category of teams who raise between $1,000 and $4,999 dollars; the Gold teams who raise between $5,000 and $9,999; the Platinum teams who raise between $10,000 and $19,999; and the Diamond teams who raise over $20,000.

Andrew Needham, a hotel manager, competed in the Sydney 2010 event in a team called “A Band of Brothers.” They finished the event in just over 28 hours and walked through the night to get to the end. All four team members finished, and they could not have done it without their support crew.

“Surviving was pretty special,” Andrew said. “We went into the night, and we seriously could not have done it without our support crew, especially their egg and bacon rolls.”

Andrew adds, “I remember going to the information night for the event after we had registered. I was sitting there, listening to the facts. They said that 50% of teams lose a member before the half-way mark; they simply cannot go any further. Then, they start to show you these images of blood blisters, swollen feet, and even broken ankles. I sat there and asked myself, ‘What have you got yourself into?’ That was the real eye-opener. However, I was committed and that meant that I was going to finish, so we started training in March.”

Team training saw Andrew and his three other team members meet every Sunday for six months in the lead-up to the event. The team trained to build stamina and endurance, and they all agreed the best way to make it to the finish line was to train on the track and familiarise themselves with their surroundings.

“We focused on having time on our feet. We trained on a Sunday and walked 14km to start of with and then, the following Sunday, we walked 18kms and slowly progressed up to 50kms. Then, just before the event, we tapered the training back,” said Andrew. “We even did night preparation. I can recall walking from 4.30a.m. to 4.30p.m. during one training session and feeling deflated by the end because we had only managed to travel 40kms. That’s when I think we all realised that it was going to be really tough physically.”

Andrew’s main reason for participating in the event was the challenge. He wanted to do something for a worthwhile cause as a team player and he wanted to make a difference in the lives of others by doing so.

“Nothing against cold-calling and donating to charity this way, but Trailwalker’s way of raising money gives us a sense of achievement. We get to help someone by putting the effort in ourselves, not just putting our hands in our pocket,” said Andrew. “This is just such a worthwhile cause. I have always wanted to do something challenging that really made a difference to other people.”

Weeks of raffles, meat trays, and other initiatives allowed Andrew and his teammates to raise just under $25,000 for Oxfam.

“We did 7-8 weeks of meat trays and the Crow’s Nest Hotel. They raised over $2,000 for the event alone. We had a comedian night at the Woolloomooloo Hotel. The entry was a $40 donation for a stand-up show and then we held raffles,” said Andrew. “It never ceased to amaze us how many people knew about the event and how many people were willing to give something towards it.”

The event for Andrew was the biggest charity initiative he has ever been involved in, and he could not commend the organisation of the event highly enough, especially the volunteers and the way the track is marked out at night-time.

“You are walking down cliffs and, at night, you have such limited vision, but there are these little fluorescent markers everywhere. They light up the trail as do the volunteers. Those volunteers are just incredible. They greet you as if you are the first person they have seen and you know that 300 people have already passed them. This can be at one in the morning. They are so encouraging and they just make you feel so good even when you are physically exhausted,” Andrew said. “The hardest part for me was when I was walking along a particularly tough section. It had lots of hills and rock faces. It was night. We were walking single file. Then, ‘bam,’ out of the bush flies this kangaroo. It knocked me clean over, straight off my feet, and I fell down an embankment. I just sat there dazed, thinking what the…?”

However, Andrew says he would like to do the event again though he is unsure about competing in the near future.

“I think I need more than 12 months to recuperate, but I would like to be one of those individuals that can lay claim to having finished the event five, six, and seven times. I would like that.”

If you believe that you can also go the distance like Andrew and his teammates, and you, too, would like to make a difference to others, then you can find out more information about the Australian Trailwalker events or register online at: http://www2.oxfam.org.au/trailwalker.

Registration costs $600 per team, which equates to $150 per person. This fee covers the cost of your information kit, which includes a safety and training manual, and the operational costs of the event. In addition, your registration fee also enables you and your team to receive basic food supplies at the checkpoints, such as bananas, apples, other fruits, energy bars, coffee, tea and soup.

Please Note: This article was originally written by Tricia L. Snell and published in Lifestyle Investor Magazine Vol. 1.8 |  2011. It has been updated and re-printed with the permission of the Lifestyle Education Group.

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