NICK WALKER | PUSHING THE LIMITS
Words & Images: Nick Walker
At the age of 8, Mum signed me up to Northern Suburbs Little Athletics because I couldn't keep still. 25 years later I'm still running and it's been embedded into my life. Running from such a young age allowed me to develop a consistent routine. I always worked my school work and life around training and competition. Running from a young age also taught me to set goals. I've also been lucky to have had great coaches who have assisted me with my running journey and I have been so fortunate to have learnt how to run, how to race and how to be the best I can be. I am currently coached by Olympian and Australian 10,000m champion Ben St Lawrence and strength coach David Costello. Aside from running, I am a full time Secondary School Teacher, Assistant Year Advisor and Head Coach of Athletics and XC at Redlands on Sydney North Shore. I am also a coach at Mosman Athletics Club coaching junior middle distance athletes.
In 2019, I can say that I have had a long running career in track, road and trail and had many highlights throughout my career. Some of my biggest achievements include:
- Winning the Australian U20 Steeplechase in 2006.
- 3rd place in the World Trail running Championships in Hawaii in 2014
- 1st place in the Asian pacific trail running championships in 2015
- 10th place Australian Mountain Running Championships and silver for Team NSW 2015
- 2nd place in the Long Beach Half Marathon in 2016
- 1st place in the Waiheke Trail Half Marathon - NZ 2016
- 1st place in the Sydney Trail Series 11k - Manly Dam - 2017
- 1st place in the Sydney Trail Series - 21k - Kurnell - 2017
- 1st place in the Riverwood Downs 21k - 2017
- 1st place the Sydney trail Series - 25k St Ives Show ground.
- 6th place in the UTA 11k Sprint Distance, 2nd in 30-35 years age category - 2019
- 1st place in the Western Sydney Trail 14k
- 9th place in the Australian Mountain Running Championships and silver for the NSW teams - 2019
What many people don’t know about me is that I suffered from a heatstroke which almost took my life.
Below is a personal recap from my race in 2014:
I’m nervous as anything as i sit in my hotel foyer talking to friends on Facebook the night before i compete in the biggest race of my life. I was thinking about all the hard training and sacrifice which had lead me to this one race and the preparation which had gone into it. Its surreal to think that the time has come to compete after such a busy year completing my Post Graduate Teaching Degree along with working two jobs and training almost every day. The support i received leading up to this race by my work places, my friends and family as well as my sponsors was amazing and i can’t thank them enough for what they had done to get me to the race in Hawaii. I have never in my life worked so hard for something and i had never competed so much leading up to an event, but if you want something bad enough you work extremely hard for it and you need to make many sacrifices. In saying that, nothing has ever come easily to me i have always had to work incredibly hard to get good results whether it’s running or at university. I think because i am so passionate about trail running and running as a sport, i was disciplined to do whatever it took to run well at World Champs.
I woke up on the morning of the race and i felt good, i had my normal routine of having a nice and early breakfast consisting of rice cakes and honey and a banana and i made sure i was hydrated. I had done testing with NSWIS leading up the race and results from the testing proved my body reacted negatively to heat so hydration was the key to having a good run. I started the morning feeling hopeful and determined knowing the time had come to run an awesome race.
As i arrived at the bus terminals at Waikiki beach i saw people from all over the world. I met some Australians and New Zealanders along with some Americans and South Americans. Everyone was so friendly and the atmosphere was very relaxed.
The busride over was full of conversation and i was taking in all the volacanic surroundings which seemed so surreal.
As I approached Kualoa Ranch i did begin to get very nervous and had butterflies raging in my stomach. As the bus drove up a dirt footpath i then looked straight ahead and noticed to the 2 massive volcanic ridges which began close to the ocean and made it’s way in land. It definitely looked like scenery out of Jurassic Park (which is one of my favourite movies).
I got off the bus and took in the surroundings and it felt amazing to know i had finally made the race and that everything i had trained so hard for had finally arrived.
I started off my warmup with a light jog and decided to run some of the course. I came across movie sites for Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Lost and many other movies. It still at this stage seemed so surreal that i was finally in Hawaii ready to compete. Funnily enough, all year as my mobile phone screen saver i had Kualoa Ranch as my screen saver so what i had used as visualisation leading to the race had finally become a reality and just jogging through the open fields of the ranch was incredible! I did my run throughs, made sure to hydrate, did my drills and was ready to compete!
They called the 10k runners up to the start and wheni arrived there was a huge start list of around 500 athletes consisting of both men and women. I looked around for my competition and they were everywhere. I particularly focused on these 2 hawaiians who seemed to be incredibly fit and they were doing some fast run throughs. The starter called us up to the start and we were given a 30 second count down. I was really feeling the nerves and i was so ready to start.. i really wanted the race to be over and done with to kill the nerves! A canon exploded and away we went. I had a great start and i was out in front but i knew the start would be important because the track would go into a single trail so you would need to get in a good position before getting onto the single trail. The first k was pretty flat and fast and then after that first k, the first lot of mountain climbing began. Each corner kept on going up and up for about 2k then after the 2k there was a bit of aup and down running.
At this stage i was still leading and had the two Hawaiian guys right on my tail. Heading back down the hill i had one of the runners over take me and in my head i thought i need to reserve my pace as i still had 7k more to go and i was running very fast for the beginning of a 10k. Leading back up another one of the steep hills up the ridge line heading into the 5k that was when i began to feel pain especially with my breathing. I made sure i carried my ventalin puffer along with my hydration bottles just in case. At this stage I needed to take my Ventalin as i could feel the humidity was getting to me. I kept pushing through. As i made my way up the 5th hill i was getting pretty weary and this was with about 4k to go. I could feel like i dropped off the pace and 3rd place was very close to me. At this point we caught the 21k runners who were struggling at the back of their race so over taking them on the single trail was pretty tough as it is hard to around runners. As i entered the 7th k i was in pain. I felt dehydrated and i had drank all my electrolytes. 2nd place over took me and i dropped back into 3rd. The last 3k for me was by far the hardest, There was ome very steep up and down hills but what made it hard was that iw as muddy and very slippery which meant that it was very easy to have a stack.
From memory, i had about 6 stacks running down hill and for me it was frustrating. I could barely lift my legs and my breathing was way off and my chest felt very tight. I was really pushing through pain at this point. I really didn’t want 4th place to over take me and i was going to do anything to secure my place as well as hold onto my pace. As i approached the 9k mark after a few stacks and falls i was in a pretty bad way. It almost felt like i was suffocating and no matter how hard i wanted to go, i couldn’t go any harder than what i doing. as i reached the last station before the finish line i got stopped by an official as i looked in very bad shape! Psychologically though i was still in the game as i knew i was in 3rd position. It was frustrating that the officials stopped me to rest as i thought in my head i would lose my place. Just as 4th place was catching up the organisers said i was right to run so with a km to go it was literally a race to the finish line. It definitely was a race to the finish line as i did 3:18 for the last km which was a good time considering i was physically energy depleted and in a bad way. I did not want 4th place to catch me.
As i approached the finish line, each 100m seemed so tough and i just wanted to finish ASAP. It hurt like hell and it seemed to take forever even though i was running really quick. I remember seeing the international flags which were lined up down the finish line area and the feeling relief overcame my body. I knew i had finished 3rd which was such an accomplished feeling to have. i held both my arms up knowing i had ran the race of my life as i crossed the finish line. I was more than happy to celebrate the run until my life came crashing down.
As i crossed the line i do remember just falling to the ground. What happened between the finish line and when i was taken over to the stretcher where the ambulance was remained a complete blur. I remember waking up on the stretcher and i had ice packs all over my body along with an iv drip running out of my finger. i remember at this point that i struggled to breathe but the paramedics were telling me to relax and to keep talking to them. They said i was doing fine and my temperature which was at 106F was slowly coming down but just to relax. At this point i remember that i started to get short of breath and i said to the paramedics that i was losing my breath but the paramedic persisted i was fine and to relax. All of a sudden i stopped breathing and my eyes shut, however my hearing still seemed to operate. I could hear the paramedics go into emergency mode and they were panicing. The worst for me was hearing what was going on around me but unable to do anything. In my head i was praying to Gold to pull me through as i thought my time had come. I could hear the paramedics say that i may not pull through and that i was dropping off. They did perform cpr and i just remember thinking about my family back home wishing they were with me as i had travelled alone. I started to think that this is not my time. I was trying to be positive and just kept praying. I remember heading a waterfall sound in my right ear and it’s still unclear to this day what that sound was.
Miraculously after being out for a couple of minutes i started breathing again, very slowly but my eyes were still shut.
As more oxygen came into my body the more i began to relax. My eyes finally opened and no one can understand unless they have been in my situation how good it feels to breathe and know that you are alive. I could hear the paramedics having a moment of huge relief knowing that i was breathing again and conscious. I lay down and at that moment i thought how lucky i was to have the paramedics at the finish line because without them i would have died. I owe my life to them. I was eventually able to talk and i couldn’t believe what had happened but i was thanking the paramedics. i had to lay down for about half an hour to allow the iv drip to finish and at this point my body temperature was cooling down. The nurse had told me that i had suffered from a severe heat stroke and that i may not have made it without immediate medical attention. After about 45 minutes i sat up and felt very heavy but i was still feeling a huge relief to know i was alive. When i stood up and walked i couldn’t believe i was still here. I walked out into the open area where i dropped my bags off and it felt like i was in heaven. I looked at the volcanic mountains which surrounded me and the feeling i had was like god had given me a second chance. I thought of my family back home and to talk to Mum was the best feeling. Mum and Dad were of course super worried and really sick after what happened and were concerned for the rest of my entire trip. I walked over to the results table and i saw that i was in 4th place and thought perhaps i had been overtaken on the finish line before realising soon after that the organisers had made a mistake and put someone elses name down as 1st so this meant i was 3rd! I was so happy and over the moon but at the same time very shaken up by what happened to me just an hour before.
I made it to the podium which was about an hour after my race. I couldn’t believe that i was able to walk and felt ok which was completely the opposite to how i felt when i crossed the line. I was still in a state of shock and i couldn’t even believe i was standing up and fit enough to collect my medals at the podium. Somehow the medals were definitely symbolic of the hardwork i put into that race, yet life seemed so much more important than the medals. I was still so thankful to be alive.
After i received my medals i went back to the tent where the paramedics were and thanked them so much for saving my life and had a photo with them which 2 weeks later was featured in my local paper.
As i got the buses back to Waikiki Beach, everything still seemed surreal and i questioned my own existence. I was just once again so thankful to be alive and able to be on the bus! I had some amazing runners on the bus with me who were giving me lots of support and messages of congratulations which pretty much sums up the trail running community. So supportive!
I got off the bus and made my way back to the hotel! I was wearing my Australian Uniform and i was approached by a lovely couple from Sydneys Northern Beaches and we spoke about the race and they were once again so happy i was alive and also at the fact i won a bronze medal. What was even more amazing was that they tracked me down here in Sydney and called my parents to make sure i was ok.. that really shows what being Australian is all about.. looking out for a mate and being thoughtful.
I was so glad to talk to all my friends back home in Australia including my best friend Jamie who had been one of the best supportive friends, aside my parents of course as well as Nadine who is one of my sponsors. I Also got messages from my coaching friends at Knox along with so much support on Facebook wishing me well along with congratulations.
From that race forward i have been appreciating life and despite having post head stroke symptoms these past 2 weeks and going in and out of hospital i am hopeful i will continue trail and distance running. I am so passionate about the sport and despite what happened i will just need to prepare better for the race which might include drinking more electrolytes during the run. I am stoked to have finished with a bronze medal in the world championships but even more so to be alive and well and to be alive for Christmas.
(Written 2 weeks after the World Trail Running Championships)
After the race, for weeks I suffered from shallow breathing. I saw a cardiologist who said that my heart wasn’t 100% but said my heart was in great condition considering the event. Psychologically the race played with my mind because I was so nervous to run just in case the same issue of passing out and unable to breathe occurred again. I didn’t want to be resuscitated every again. The cardiologist recommended I do swimming but mentioned I should really think about ever running again. His important words were ‘your life is more important than racing.
Since 2014, I have been able to learn how to mediate when I run which involves deep breathing through the nose all the way down to the diaphragm of the stomach. Prior to 2014, I was breathing quite shallow through my nose and mouth at the same time. Through breathing deeper it calms my breathing and my heart rate lowers. I try and breathe for 2 seconds in and 2 seconds out through my nose and mouth. Through exercising these methods when I run, the breathing has now become second nature and I naturally take deeper breaths.
Interestingly, in the lead up to the race in Hawaii, I did a series of heat tests for the NSW Institute of Sport, running for half an hour on a treadmill in 25 - 40 degree heat. I thought by doing that, it would allow me to adapt to the humidity in Hawaii. Unfortunately it didn’t assist me in Hawaii. What I should have done, is fly to Hawaii a week earlier and acclimatise to the humidity.
Hydration for all my races are key, particularly trail races. Since 2014, I have made sure I run with camel pack filled with electrolyte. One of my go to electrolytes is Tailwind Nutrition because it can be mixed and dissolved into water quickly, it absorbs into the body quickly, its an all natural electrolyte and it settles well in the gut. Since drinking tailwind, it has assisted me throughout the race and I have not finished a race since feeling dehydrated. It’s also really important to hydrate not only before the race, but also during the race. You don’t need to take big sips, just little sips. It’s hard to run and drink electrolyte at the same time, so it’s important to drink small sips to avoid choking. After a race, it’s also important to hydrate post race to avoid further dehydration and cramping. I make sure I drink at least a Litre of electrolyte after the race to replenish any fuels. As much as it’s uncomfortable to run with my camel pack, it’s super important to me to feel safe and run with the pack.
One thing I didn’t do much of in the lead up to the World trail running champs was to eat the right nutrition. It's really important to have a good breakfast and to eat plenty of carbs. Carbs are key when training or competing. I remember in Hawaii, I avoided all things with sugar, however I should have been eating carbs to maintain optimal energy in the lead up to the race. I also try and refuel after my race. I generally eat protein bars such as the Chief Collagen Protein bar which absorbs easily into the stomach and is easy to stomach. My favourite go to meals before a race are Italian. I love pasta and pizza! After the race, I like to not only have protein but also refuel on any food products which contain carbohydrates and iron. If I don’t eat after training and comp I have no energy and I can’t focus.
All the strategies mentioned above have assisted me to be healthy and recovery quickly after my races. I have not ended up in hospital ether which is a bonus!
It’s important that if you compete in any race, that you must prepare, do the right training, hydrate, fuel up and refuel after a race and always be aware of your limits. As a distance runner, I like to push my limits, but in Hawaii my limits were pushed a little too far. As much as the cardiologist said to me after the race that I should think about competing in another sport, if you are prepared for your competition, please don’t give up, and keep setting goals and aiming to be the best you can possibly be.