Opening image: Runner Majell Backhausen runs through some of the oldest ferns in the world. Photo Jarrah Lynch

Run It Then It's Real: Majell Backhausen Runs The Great Forest National Park

As told to Ashleigh Falconer


In March last year, over the course of four days, Majell Backhausen ran 273 kilometres across Victoria’s Central Highlands. The run, through wild mountain country and threatened mountain ash forest, spanned the width of the proposed Great Forest National Park. The park doesn’t presently exist, but Majell – My-al, Patagonia Sport Community Manager – hopes it soon will. The idea is being put forward as the ultimate protection for some of Australia’s most ecologically important old growth forest. Majell recalls when he saw the map of the proposed park his first thought was to run across it, east to west. “It just makes sense,” he said, as only a runner can reason. Majell’s run would be featured in the film series, End to An End, and in the days after he completed it, he wrote these journal notes.


Day 0, The Taper Down

The day before an ultramarathon I highly recommend wrapping yourself in cotton wool and locking yourself to the couch. But of course, I didn’t do that. Climbing the walls, I decided a gentle bike ride while calling a friend could calm me down. I stacked it. One hand on the handlebar, one holding my phone, the hairpin turn got the best of me.

The mornings start early and quiet. Majell steps between single track, 4WD track and the occasional highway. Photo Cam Suttie

Day 1, The First Day: Taungurung Country (72km covered)
Fuel: peanut butter and Vegemite sandwiches, Clif bars, a lot of pasta. Water, mushroom tea and hydrolytes.

We started at Wandong. With a cut foot, bung hip, a light breakfast, a crew, a camera and a million thoughts about whether I can pull this off, I get mic’ed up and ready to run. My mind should be grateful and focused on the beauty around me, but it wasn’t. My mind was busy: complaining, worrying, questioning, judging.

Ironically, I wasn’t present in this place I love. I have to laugh looking back at the footage – I look like I’m carrying the weight of the world. And of course, I thought I was. The fight for this forest has been going on for almost a decade, and with the support of this film, the support of Patagonia, maybe we could make a break. Maybe all my selfish running could really make a change for this place I love.

We started out in state forest – “we” being me and Cam, filming. I was running through an arid, dry landscape. There were shotgun shells on the ground scattered like confetti. It’s somewhat protected forest, I suppose.

Thirty kilometres in I found the flow. My mind started to quiet and my body started to recognise, “Ah, today is a long running day.” Finally I could hear the hum and buzz of the forest. We’d crossed into Kinglake National Park. It was quiet and beautiful – a sanctuary in every way. It was one of those moments where I didn’t think about the running 'cause I was just so captivated by my surroundings – the endlessly tall, endangered mountain ash trees, the curtains of ferns ancient as anything and streams so clear.

“Come on mate,” I told myself as I ran. “Eat. Drink. Move. Try to be positive.”

Peanut butter and Vegemite (together) sandwiches are the unique, somewhat sacrilegious, and yet sacred fuel for the ultra runner. Photo Cam Suttie

Day 2, The Longest Day: Taungurung – Wurundjeri Country (77km)
Fuel: peanut butter and Vegemite sandwiches, Clif bars, one slice of pizza. Water, mushroom tea, and hydrolytes.

We woke up at the edge of Kinglake National Park, right under the gum trees in this campsite appropriately called The Gums. I started with a light breakfast. My sister packed me these adaptogenic mushrooms. I had them the first morning and knew this was something I needed every day. Thanks Simone!

Starting day two was funny. The first five kilometres of the day were spent on the side of the road. Fifteen minutes in I ran into this guy walking his dog. We ended up chatting for half an hour – turns out he hikes for mental health – he needs this forest too.

Before long, my sister Simone joined me for a peanut butter and Vegemite sandwich, a top-up of hydrolytes and the rest of the day’s running – the ascent of Mount Donna Buang. She entertained me with our usual sibling banter: the perfect balance of burn and affection. The distraction and company were welcome. With over a kilometre incline ahead, the fatigue felt real.

It’s in these moments the one-per-centres matter: wear good running shoes – wear them in. Wear things that don’t chafe. Carry a lot of lubricants. Make sure you have ample supplies of what you want to eat – then double them. Make sure you have pre-made protein shakes at the end of every day. If you don’t, you’ll feel it the next day.

I ran past one of Professor Lindenmayer’s tagged trees. His research with ANU, his many books, his understanding of the mountain ash ecosystem have all been essential to crafting this campaign to protect this forest, which is not only Melbourne’s main water source but also Australia’s greatest carbon storage sink.

We reached the summit of Mount Donna Buang and were greeted by Wurundjeri Elder, Perry Wandin for a Welcome to Country as we crossed onto Wurundjeri Country. It was a special experience – one I am deeply grateful for. This whole park is sacred ground.

With it getting dark I was becoming so hungry. I’d spent 11 hours running this day. The support crew had brought pizza but I’d just run 67 kilometres and still had 10 kilometres to go when it arrived. If you run 67 kilometres and stop for an hour at the chilled temps of 1250m elevation with 10 kilometres still to run – to eat a pizza – it’s not ideal… but I was fucking keen. So, trying to balance my hunger with no GI issues I nabbed one slice and hit the steep dark single track towards Warburton.

Downhill, I followed the words of Uncle Perry from the running days of his youth: “Just turn off. Just run.”

Move. Try to be positive. Remember why you’re here.

The end of each day through the forest calls for leech check. There’s nothing like unlacing to find a shoe full of blood and a sucker between your toes. Photo Cam Suttie

Day 3, The Beau Day: Wurundjeri Country (57km)
Fuel: peanut butter and Vegemite sandwiches, Clif bars, pasta. Water, mushroom tea, and hydrolytes.

This morning I got to wake up in a bed. My brother lives in Warburton so that made a pretty good campsite. Still, it felt like I’d only had two hours sleep. The first 10 kilometres of this day were on asphalt. My first steps of the day were slow and painful.

I had Beau Miles join me for the morning. Together we had breaky and then started on our little adventure. Beau is highly reliable for a chat. Someone to talk the whole day through and not just for my wellbeing. He’s done a lot of multi-day running himself and regularly makes running films. He’s had years of mastering the art of verbalising thoughts into cohesive soundbites that can be used to tell a story.

See, on day one you have a lot of energy. You’ve just been tapering for a couple days and you’ve burned a lot in overthinking but you’re doing good. But once you’ve got a couple days under your stride, you’re tired. You’ve got no energy to care about anything. By day three I was back in it, back in the selfish side of running. “I’ve just got to run”. And that’s why Beau was great. “You’re gonna get this done,” he would tell me, and that was so reassuring.

Majell and Beau stand in front of a logging coupe where 60 percent of the forest is left behind in mulch, with 30 percent to be burnt in the final stage of the clearing process. Only 10 percent will be used in timber products. Photo Cam Suttie

We tracked on, following the Yarra River for the rest of the morning. It was just like running with a mate – except I was way more tired than he was, perky bastard. We passed the Ada Tree, creeks, leeches. “Holy moly, look at that tree!” You could hear Beau’s enthusiasm and my half-hearted replies. We ran single track through proper old growth; growth that hadn’t been burnt in the recent Victorian fires. The old, hollowed trees are almost spiritual, even for the naturalist atheist. We ran past a logging coupe: national park on one side of the path, logged moonscape on the other. It was a strange feeling running between two potential futures.

We passed older logging coupes. The resilient ferns peak up through the burnt logs and debris. But the mountain ash, the tree that helps to not only capture and filter our water but houses endangered marsupials, takes over a hundred years to grow to a point where they become hospitable to fauna.

Beau and I parted ways and I remembered it’s always worth inviting a friend along.

The day ended in a campsite just outside of a town called Noojee. There’s a lot of logging around Noojee, a lot of plantations. As you drive in, the town sign is a tree cut in half with “Noojee” carved into it. I got to have a bath in the river that night – god that felt good. Not only did I get to wash off all the salt crystals that had built up over the day, and this grime that’s like a layer over your skin, but the whole process of just splashing yourself with water makes it feel like a whole new day is about to begin.

A full-body bath in the middle of an ultramarathon in some of the country’s cleanest water – it’s a different kind of heaven. Photo Bryan Hynes.

Day 4, The Last Day: Wurundjeri/Gunaikurnai Country (67km)
Fuel: peanut butter and Vegemite sandwiches, Clif bars. Water, mushroom tea and hydrolytes.

We had an early start this day, much earlier than all the others. It was a big day. There were a lot of unknowns. There was a section of forest where we really didn’t know where the trail was. We didn’t know how long it would take to get through.

“It always looks so much further on the map”, says Majell ahead of the unknows instore for day four. Photo Cam Suttie

We started in the dark running out of the campsite. “We” (me and Brett, the running cameraman) literally got chased out of camp by a jack russell. It was so dark we couldn’t see it till it was nipping at our heels. At that point Brett ran but I stood my ground and he ran straight into me. But that morning was incredible. As we started off there was a full moon setting as the sun was rising. A camera will never do that justice. We climbed up out of the valley that morning, and as we turned around, the valley below was filled with clouds. It’s a scene that always makes the early start worth it.

This day was the most remote day. The further east you go, the further away you are from people and townships. Simone joined me and that was definitely the highlight. We passed through the Baw Baw Plateau and ran through these glistening snow gums – one of my favourite trees. Then we came across this buln buln/superb lyrebird who was pumping out all kinds of hectic tunes. So random!

Simone left me to run the last track of the day alone. By this point I was feeling it; I hadn’t eaten enough food, hadn’t carried enough water for the conditions of the day. I’d really cooked myself. When you’re dehydrated, everything is harder. I was so close to the end, the sun was starting to set and I realised I’m not carrying a head torch. Up a river without a paddle… but out bush without a head torch! Now, I really had to make it back before dark.

The final stretch was a run through Mushroom Rocks, these incredible giant boulder rocks at the edge of the Mount Baw Baw National Park. They were just stunning. Huge! You were just running through this maze of rocks. I saw a bunch of people camping. I told myself, “I’m at the end!” I was hooting and hollering, having a great time. Everyone was waiting there. I was full of emotions, tears in my eyes. It was hard to believe such a great little mission was going to be over. And then... they weren't there.

First Nations People speak about the life of the rocks – that the rocks hold spirits, have children, they are present. It’s more than just a maze. Photo Cam Suttie

"Huh?” I realised they must be at the end of the trailhead. I kept running. I saw a sign. It was still another kilometre-and-a-half – “ahhhhh.” Honestly, it was just funny. I had this emotional moment 15 minutes before the end. I arrived at the real end thinking, “Well, I'm glad I dealt with my emotions by myself, cause now everyone's waiting and I don't have to get all emotional about it.” Nailed it, despite the reality that an emotional ending is probably what everyone was hoping for to end the film.

The sunlight of the day was fading and I arrived without needing the head torch, just. I was there with my sister, the crew, the camera and the forest. Run complete. It felt good. What a Great Forest.

Help create the Great Forest National park. Find out more here.

Find more about Footprints run camp in the Victorian Central Highlands here.

“A moment of many emotions and little energy to show them. Sometimes all you can do is squat,” Majell says in reflection of the moment he completed his traverse across the proposed Great Forest National Park. Photo Cam Suttie

Opening image: Runner Majell Backhausen runs through some of the oldest ferns in the world. Photo Jarrah Lynch


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