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Treseder’s Tales

Treseder’s Tales


The following article appeared in the Inside Sport magazine, who are gratefully thanked for letting this be re-published.

When Prime Minister John Howard casts about for inspiration to rouse his Party colleagues at their annual conferences and steel them for the travails of government ahead, he gets Peter Treseder on the line. They share a mutually beneficial relationship: Treseder, one of Australia’s highest-profile adventurers, recounts the tales of his numerous expeditions (treacherous journeys to the South Pole, astonishing rock-climbing feats, incredible kayak paddles, unbelievable endurance runs), all delivered with a unifying theme of triumph over adversity, calculated to uplift and inspire his audience; Howard, in turn, is patron to Treseder’s most recent expeditions, which have gathered corporate sponsorship of around $1 million, and contributes a foreword to the 1999 biography Treseder: Man Of Adventure.

“Peter’s unyielding spirit is in the tradition of great Australians who strive to reach seemingly impossible goals,” writes our PM. “His courage is distinguished, not by an absence of fear or despair, but by the strength to overcome them. As you read Peter’s story, be inspired by his example. Enjoy his successes and struggle with him as he relives some of his great challenges.”

Point of order, Mr Speaker. When our Prime Minister suggests we “struggle”, can he be suggesting we share the reaction of the wider outdoors and endurance sport fraternity to Treseder’s tales? For years now, but rising in volume since the appearance of Man Of Adventure, the splutterings you have been hearing in the background have been the sound of grown men and women - experienced in these matters - choking on Treseder’s ridiculous claims. For Peter Treseder is the man who has hoodwinked a nation all the way up to its highest office.

We’ll always need heroes, and we’ll find them where we can. In a 9-to-5, climate-controlled age, there is a collective fascination with those who thrust against Nature: the adventurers and explorers who range over this planet’s harshest terrain and willingly subject themselves to its most frightening extremes of climate. Of course, it was ever thus - and the races to be the first human to set foot on various extreme landmarks (Everest, the Poles etc) captured the world’s imagination, conferring universal fame on the conquerors. Today, with practically every square kilometre of the planet somehow traversed, scaled, skied, sailed or unicycled, a new army of adventurers, while answering essentially the same callings as the legendary pioneers, have invented new categories of achievement to invest their exploits with some kind of worldly significance. And so we are asked to celebrate feats in an ever-mutating range of contrived categories - the youngest, the oldest, the first to do it backwards etc. Cynics, jaded by this proliferation, suggest that the most “extreme” quality about this mob is its capacity for attention-seeking, but occasionally the adventurers’ efforts ignite the masses’ escapist longings, and genuinely inspire rather than bemuse.

Far away from the subsequent Saturday TV specials and corporate speaking circuits, however, there exists a community of outdoors types who seek little to no public recognition. For them, the personal satisfaction of their various conquests is enough. You won’t see them on the chat shows or spruiking their next big plans to sponsors. New routes up old mountains are quietly recorded in their journals, improved times for various distances are logged and perhaps written up in niche publications - and then they go back to their normal lives. An unwritten code unites them, founded on a humility in the face of the awesome natural forces they face in their playgrounds. Respect is hard-earned, but willingly dispensed when appropriate. Integrity is their currency. So when the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues chum up with Peter Treseder, and when Treseder actively positions himself in the public (and sponsors’) eyes as Australia’s most distinguished current adventurer and endurance athlete, it is natural that this community would at least scrutinise his claims. To them, there is great honour to protect - not just the names in the records of those whose marks have been eclipsed, but also extending to the efforts of the many who may have tried and failed in the quests, and then faithfully reported the details for the benefit of others who would follow.

There is no malice towards those who would subvert the record books with spurious claims - merely a desire to protect and preserve. None of the experts contributing to this story took any pleasure in exposing Treseder’s charlatan claims. But they all felt it was their duty.

No question: Peter Treseder is an extraordinary Australian. From his earliest days as a Cub in the Scouting movement, growing up in Sydney’s north, he has exhibited enormous energy and verve. On skinny legs, and squinting out from behind spectacles with lips drawn back over prominently overlapping front teeth, he has compiled an exhausting record of outdoors escapades. During the working week he pilots a desk as a clerk for a major bank, delivering occasional staff seminars; out of hours he is a relentless planner and executor of new challenges, while regularly travelling the nation to deliver multi-media presentations to illuminate his exploits. Most recently, his trips have included two expeditions to Antarctica, in which he and two colleagues became the first Australians to reach the South Pole on foot and unassisted (no dogs, dragging all their own supplies), and then in early 2000 a thwarted attempt to become the first in a group to traverse the 2700km expanse of that formidable continent. In the process, large sums of money have been raised for several extremely worthy charities.

Treseder’s list of plaudits and positions is impressive: one of 200 people selected for inclusion in the Bicentennial publication “Unsung Heroes And Heroines Of Australia”, plus a Bicentennial Medal in 1988; twice awarded the Australian Geographic Spirit of Adventure Silver Medal, in 1991 and 1993; and even an Order of Australia (OAM) in 1992 for “services to bushwalking.” He is also current vice-president of the Youth Hostels of Australasia, assistant chief commissioner of Scouting in Australia, and a celebrity speaker, who delivered the keynote address to the Liberal party convention at Thredbo in 1998. In the week prior to the Sydney Olympics, he addressed the Australian swimming team in the Village.

His presentations are neatly packaged and usually well received. But listen closely and something curious happens as he recounts his tales. On the subject of team expeditions, he duly recalls the monotony and hardship he and his colleagues face as they trudge their way to their goals. But whenever the topic turns to his solo adventures, in which no corroboration can be expected, Treseder’s image undergoes a miraculous transformation. Like a comic book hero, he morphs from adventure-loving, quirky bank worker into adventure-sport superman extraordinaire, exhibiting the combined talents of an Edmund Hilary, Pat Farmer, Indiana Jones, Sylvester Stallone (in Cliffhanger) and both the Leyland Brothers, all wrapped into one astonishing package. Away from troublesome team-mates, who just seem to slow him down, Peter Treseder becomes the Don Bradman of outdoor adventure and endurance. It’s a joke.

Meet Peter Treseder, the way you are introduced to him in his biography, Man Of Adventure. It is the evening of Friday, April 4, 1997, and our hero is asleep in the back of his vehicle in the car-park above Claustral Canyon, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Rain pelts down. Our superhero is worn out - and why wouldn’t he be? Two days earlier, he claims he completed a 500km run across the Gibson Desert, on foot and unassisted, in a time of four days and 11 hours. (The numbers on that: that’s an average of 110km a day - more than two marathons - for four days straight, across a blazing desert of sand dunes, starting out by carrying 20kg of water in a backpack, living on nothing but two family blocks of chocolate). Without significant rest or recovery, he had then driven himself for two days straight back towards Sydney . . . before finally succumbing to fatigue within an hour or so of his destination. Looking for a place to rest, he made the odd decision to detour around 20km out of his way to a secluded car-park in the middle of the wilderness to catch some sleep . . .

Within 30 minutes of closing his eyes, he is woken by a man in distress banging on his car. Lifting his head wearily, Treseder barely makes out the words: “Girlfriend . . . dying . . . canyon . . . help!”

Luckily for the party in trouble, the only car in the otherwise deserted carpark happens to contain the patron and former rescue manager of the Federation of Australian Bushwalking Clubs, and an expert in canyoning techniques. He also happens to know Claustral Canyon like the back of his hand. Shrugging off fatigue, Treseder swings into action.

The story so far: on the second of a series of abseil pitches into the canyon earlier in the day, the girlfriend, following her companion’s lead, got her hair jammed in her abseil device and became trapped, suspended halfway down a torrential waterfall of numbingly cold water (it’s raining, remember). The boyfriend, unable to climb back up to her, made the eight-hour trek to exit the canyon and return to the carpark.

With his expert knowledge on the perils of hypothermia, Treseder knows the woman’s life is in danger. He borrows the man’s wetsuit, which happens to fit, packs dry clothes for the victim, a small fuel stove and an air mattress, and heads off on the 25-minute sprint to the canyon entrance, dispatching the boyfriend to get help in his car. Treseder arrives, and faces a ten-metre drop to a deep pool surrounded by rocky outcrops. Without ropes, he has to make a decision. Does he jump into the inky black? Would his headtorch survive the fall?

He leaps. He lands, gashing an arm on a rock. It feels broken, but he’s alive. Peering over the second pitch, he makes out the woman unconscious and suspended under the waterfall itself. Treseder climbs the two metres down the rope hand over hand, and performs a rope trick called a “cow’s tail” to attach himself. As torrents pour over them both, he cuts away at the tangle of hair until she is released, then performs an “assist abseil” to the bottom. The woman remains unconscious throughout. This is followed by another abseil, followed by a 50-metre swim to a safe area to stabilise her. By this time, the woman has been dangling in a harness under flowing water for around ten hours. Treseder moves quickly, removing her wetsuit, dressing her in dry clothes, then replacing the wetsuit. Lighting the stove, he warms some water and feeds it to her. Gradually she regains consciousness.

He then leads her out, floating her on the air mattress through water courses, while together they negotiate numerous boulder fields, further climbs and jumps before safety is reached. Three hours of canyoning later, they emerge . . . to find that the boyfriend is stupidly waiting for them. Knowing Treseder’s reputation, and the certainty of his girlfriend’s safety in his hands, he hadn’t even bothered to call an ambulance or the rescue services! The three of them then make the steep climb back up to the carpark, where the couple drives off to hospital for a check-up. Our hero hops in his car and motors home where he mows the lawns, cleans the pool and plays with his children. It’s all in a day’s work.

Breathtaking stuff, you might think. One problem: it never happened. Like many of Treseder’s solo claims, conveniently absent of witnesses (the names of the folks he saved are not recorded), it can only be fiction. Armchair adventurers - even Prime Ministers - might not hear alarm bells, but those with expertise in these fields drive trucks through Treseder’s tale. Ignoring the coincidence of his arrival at this out-of-the-way carpark, ignoring the apparent fatigue he would be suffering after events of the previous week (the matter of the four-day run across the Gibson Desert living on two chocolate bars, then a two-day drive), ignoring the melodrama and exaggeration infused throughout this rescue account (the first leap is closer to six metres, not ten etc), ignoring the apparent idiocy of a potentially fatal leap into the canyon (it might be attempted in daylight, but is suicidal stuff in the dark), even ignoring the improbability of anyone undressing and redressing a limp, unconscious person in a saturated wetsuit (ever tried getting into a wet wetsuit yourself, let alone dressing another?), Treseder’s fabrications overstep the bounds of credibility. To begin . . .

It wasn’t raining. Bureau of Meterology records for the three surrounding weather stations for the region, obtained by Inside Sport, indicate a clear night with zero precipitation for days either side of this date.

  1. The contention that this woman could survive ten hours under a torrent of water is preposterous. Earlier this year, two experienced canyoners died of hypothermia in tragic circumstances in Carra Beanga Canyon, near Kanagra in NSW, when they were forced to spend a night suspended on harnesses - and they were conscious and subjected to spray, not a direct current.
  2. The notion that anyone, even a super athlete, could endure around ten hours unconscious under a waterfall, not die, and then be able to negotiate a three-hour trek to exit while suffering what must have been the advanced stages of hypothermia is ludicrous.
  3. The notion that anyone could even walk within hours (days) of being suspended in a harness for this length of time is nonsense. The risk in passively hanging from one of these devices is now widely appreciated in the field. To sit reasonably comfortably in any harness requires considerable muscular effort. Recent studies at the French National Access and Rescue Centre concur with other recent tests performed by the French Federation of Speleology and the Physiology Laboratory of the US Air Force: hanging for any length of time unconscious in a harness is deadly. High-quality sports people in perfect fitness, when suspended in a harness and asked to completely relax their muscles, invariably lose consciousness in any time between two and 12 minutes due to restricted blood flow. With circulation (return blood) severely restricted at the tops of the thighs, cardiac depression is inevitable. Over any length of time (not ascertained during these tests), it is fatal. Outdoors specialists know, or should know, that if one of their number is unconscious and suspended for more than a few minutes in a harness, they are in mortal danger. Treseder’s victim hangs like this for hours. Not only does our mystery woman survive (NOT to tell her story to 60 Minutes), but she gets to her feet, negotiates boulder fields, then climbs out of canyons.

Are we getting the picture? By now you have reached page five of Treseder’s 277-page life story. Later in the book, you’ll read how he has been bitten on the penis by a snake, wrestled crocodiles in the Cape and sent them packing, and battled pirates in the Timor Sea.

The pirate story is a hoot. In July 1994, Treseder reckons he set out to become the first person to cross the Timor Sea solo by canoe. “I’d been on the water about a week,” he recalls in the book, claiming he’d paddled 600km to within 5km of his destination, “when the water exploded in front of me, sending the sea snakes and sharks, which had been my companions for some hours, flying into the air.” In his fatigue, he hadn’t noticed that he’d been chased down and fired on by a cannon mounted on the bow of a real live pirate ship.

Treseder says he was roughly hauled from his craft, given a severe beating, and bound below deck under armed guard. Fearing for his life, and with the guard predictably dozing off after 20 minutes, Treseder realised his attackers didn’t know their Scout knots. He wriggled free, crept towards the guard with the sawn-off shotgun . . . when suddenly the guard awoke. With a piece of handy wood, Treseder was able to clout his captor and render him immediately and conveniently unconscious, climb on to the deck, engage a second pirate and defeat him in another torrid struggle, leaving him moaning and semi-conscious, then manage to creep discreetly to the stern of the boat, untether his canoe, and slip away undiscovered - then paddle back to Australia. All this after they have punctured his water containers and destroyed his canoe’s rudder system. He spent the next six days increasingly dehydrated. When found by fishermen 100km from the coast, he admits he was finally “very tired.”

“Curiously,” writes his biographer, Martin Long (who has admitted he merely transcribed Treseder’s own accounts without verifying all of them - because they couldn’t be verified), “he told no-one of his encounter with the pirates for some time. Perhaps he kept it secret to spare the family the worry, or perhaps it is an example of Peter wanting to keep everything emotional packed away from sight . . .”

The author fails to offer an alternative explanation: perhaps it is bullshit.

It gets serious. Treseder’s claims insult the hard-won records of the world’s greatest ultra-marathoners. Take this claim, for example - again a record Treseder dines out on and refers to in his presentations, again one substantiated by no-one or no thing: Treseder claims to have run the entire length of the Great Dividing Range from Cape York in the north to Wilson’s Promontory in the south in three stages in 41 days in 1988.

In the first stage, Treseder says he ran from Barrington Tops, NSW, to Walhalla in Victoria, a distance of 1500km, in ten days (an average 150km per day). Second stage: he ran from Cape York in Queensland down to Barrington Tops - 4000km in 30 days (an average of around 133km a day). The final stage was the 150km stretch from Walhalla to Wilson’s Promontory, covered in one day.

At first glance, it doesn’t look impossible: the world record for a 1000-mile run (1600km) is ten days, ten hours, set at Flushing Meadow, New York, in 1988. It’s a record set by the legendary Yiannis Kouros - an ultra-distance runner without historical equal, though many have tried to best his marks. Kouros ran an average of 160km a day for ten days - but his efforts were conducted on a flat asphalt road on a 1.6km loop at sea level. There were no hills, no bumps. On this one-mile loop, he had two support staff who tended to his every need; Kouros carried nothing, and took food or water after every mile.

Peter Treseder claims to have almost matched Kouros’ pace while running over mountainous bush tracks, carrying his own gear and food for each 500km segment, battling inclement weather on the way, being bitten on the penis by a tree snake during one leg, and even finding his own water on the way. In Pat Farmer’s recent around Australia run, he managed an average of 70km a day, running on roads, with permanent support. Treseder, carrying all his own supplies, finding his own water, and navigating through wilderness, reckons he went twice as far. (Need we dissemble the ludicrousness of this claim? See the box.)

Curiously, the first episodes in Treseder’s history of deceit are openly documented in his biography. They’re presented as harmless larrikin escapades, but in the context of later claims they suggest a propensity to play fast and loose with the truth came to him early. In 1970, as a teenager, he and a Scouting companion were required to catch and cook a fish on a camp to earn his Backwoodsman badge. “We walked to the local fish shop and bought our fish, cooking it and showing the examiner who seemed to be satisfied with the taste test,” he told his biographer. “Another time we were being tested for something and had to build a raft and then light a fire on the raft using two sticks rubbed together. Of course, we used a small firelighter - but we were disqualified when the raft sank in front of the examiner, leaving the firelighter bobbing on the surface of the water.”

By 1976, at 18, he had bigger fish to fry. With his recently completed HSC behind him, he travelled to New Zealand and undertook an introductory mountaineering course - then claims to have looked for a suitable challenge to test his newly acquired skills. That came in the form of the Caroline Face of Mount Cook, a dangerous and notorious climb to an altitude of over 12,000 feet (3700 metres).

“In hindsight Peter shakes his head and remarks that he was lucky not to have fallen,” reads his biography. “‘I would never attempt anything like that again,’ he says with feeling. ‘Even now I can’t quite believe what I did.’” He’s not alone there. Although he claims to have logged the climb with authorities in New Zealand (“He took a different route down and recorded the climb with the authorities. All his climbs were official - you had to register your intentions and your return via radios at all the huts” - page 50), Inside Sport's checks of the New Zealand National Park records through the National Archives in Christchurch records reveal this too simply isn’t true. His name appears in no Ascent Book. No such climb is recorded in any guidebook. The name Treseder only appears in an Intentions Book, and then for nothing more strenuous than a couple of pleasant day walks. All checks of Hut Log Books on the way to and from the climb on and around the dates he claims came up with blanks.

Thereafter, Treseder claims a multitude of records for speed bushwalks (known as Tiger walking), mountaineering and rock climbing, desert traverses, ocean kayaking, river canoeing and rafting, canyoning, driving and even nude skiing. Most of them haven’t simply shaved previous marks, but obliterated them.

Most of these claimed records simply can’t be tested: we are asked to take Treseder’s word. But when many of them are closely examined, doubts inevitably arise. For example, he claims to have solo rafted Tasmania’s Franklin River in 26 hours and four minutes in January 1988 - a distance usually covered by groups in ten days. It has been paddled in a kayak in 19 hours of paddling time - but it is universally known that the craft Treseder used, an inflatable raft known as a “ducky”, travels at less than half the speed of a kayak. Not only that, Treseder claims to have left the starting point in the mid-afternoon. Expert rafters know that this getaway time would place him in the most difficult and dangerous section at night - guaranteeing tangles with obstacles.

River veteran of 40 trips and Franklin guide Richard Flanagan (author of Death Of A River Guide, a novel based on his experiences, plus the definitive history of Tasmania’s south-west wilderness, A Terrible Beauty), doesn’t believe a word of Treseder’s claim. It was Flanagan who, with a companion, paddled the distance in 19 hours in a kayak back in the early 1980s - but even a guide with his experience and first-hand knowledge of the river was forced to stop during the night.

“Having led a few rubber ducky trips down the Franklin I know their capabilities and limitations,” says Flanagan. “They were very prone to rips or tears, flipping in any rapid or drop of size, and averaged only 2-4km/h. Theoretically, a ducky with a highly experienced rafter could do the river in twice the time it takes a kayaker - 38 hours paddling time. But, of course, after 24 hours, even a superbly fit athlete is going to experience considerable fatigue, which must impair judgement and reflexes. Treseder’s report implies that he shot all the big rapids and waterfalls of the Great Ravine. At various times, at various water levels, all these have been shot: willingly by experienced paddlers and some rafting parties, and very occasionally and almost always unwillingly by rubber duckies. When they are willingly shot, they are carefully scouted for the proper lines and obvious dangers - all of which takes time. But I know of no party to ever shoot every fall on the river consecutively on the same trip. They are simply too dangerous and too difficult. A level that makes conditions favourable for one rapid makes conditions too dangerous for another drop. A rubber ducky couldn’t shoot rapids such as The Churn, Thunderrush or The Cauldron without capsizing. Ever if Mr Treseder flipped his raft in some of these falls and didn’t drown, he’d still have the problem of getting his raft to shore and bailed out.

“The Franklin is a long and complex river, whose challenges and difficulties constantly alter because of weather and water level. Lines that are safe on a rapid at one level are dangerous at another. Low level portages disappear and high levels have to be found. Because duckys are so easily punctured, rapids have to be scouted for any sticks or logs. Experience allows the Franklin to be negotiated much more quickly and easily, but such experience doesn’t arise from just one trip or two trips but at least six or seven. Treseder says he did one trip ‘several years before’ . . . “I’m firmly of the belief - as is every other Franklin River paddler and guide I have spoken to on this matter - that it is physically impossible for the Franklin to be rafted in a ducky in 26 hours.”

Perhaps the strangest thing in all this is that Peter Treseder need not exaggerate or fabricate. It’s possible that some of his claims of records may in fact be genuine, given their sheer volume; in the back of his book, there are listed more than 100 claims for “firsts” or records. But given what we know about his capacity to invent or doctor some of his stories, doubts must now infect many of his solo claims.

His biographer, Martin Long, speculates that it is modesty that has prevented Treseder seeking wider recognition for his achievements in the past - but given his obsessive record-keeping about his exploits, meticulously organised into scrapbooks and extending back to his childhood years, modesty seems hard to swallow. There’s no doubt he has raised terrific sums of money for various charities through his exploits, but it is inconceivable that he could have created these elaborate fictions over so many years to further these ends alone. We are instead tempted to speculate about a pathological liar who has avoided wider publicity to escape the kind of scrutiny presented here; in this way, he might continue to extract vast sums of money from sponsors ill-equipped to test his claims, and to dupe his audiences who wouldn’t know better, including our Prime Minister.

There can be little doubt that those who know Treseder have viewed his solo claims with scepticism over the years, but tolerated them for the “good works” generated. It seems some people believe that such falsehoods are forgiveable when it’s all for a good cause in the end. We can’t agree. Let these charities find a real hero. Inside Sport made concerted efforts to invite Treseder to sit down with us in an interview to revisit the details of his book. He refused, reckoning he doesn’t have time for this sort of negativity.

We wonder what he’s planning next.


Box

It is one of Peter Treseder’s more outrageous claims that he ran 1500km in ten days over rugged bush tracks from Barrington Tops, in the north of NSW’s Hunter Valley, to Walhalla in Victoria. Inside Sport enlisted the aid of Associate Professor Martin Thompson, of the Faculty of Health Science at Sydney University, to assess it. Professor Thompson’s PhD thesis was on the subject of ultra-marathon running, he has probably run more marathons than any other Australian, and he advises many of Australia’s elite distance runners. Using the cautious language befitting his scientific background, he says he has “grave doubts” about the authenticity of the claim.

“At the very least it is so extraordinary that it raises suspicions as to whether a gross mistake has been made in determining the distance and time,” he says. “Treseder’s claim computes to 16 hours per 100 kilometres over some of the roughest terrain in Australia - just 26 minutes slower than Yiannis Kouros’ 1000 mile world record over each 100km section, which was run on a flat 1.6km road loop at sea level with full support. When we compare running on a flat, firm, even surface at sea-level to uneven bush tracks above sea-level with substantial uphill and downhill sections, we will find large differences in the energy cost and speed of running that will ultimately result in a decrement in performance. These differences can be computed.

“For example, if half the terrain was up a 2% gradient and half was down a 2% gradient, then there’ll be a 0.6km/h loss in velocity compared to a flat course. Additional energy cost is incurred with uneven surfaces; for example, running on a ploughed paddock uses 1.5 times the energy of running on bitumen. A conservative estimate of the difficulty of negotiating bushwalking tracks would suggest that it costs 1.25 more energy than running on bitumen. Additional weight carried such as food and water will also increase the energy cost. Also, running becomes increasingly difficult with altitude above sea-level: the velocity that can be sustained for four hours at an elevation of 1000 metres decreases by approximately 2% and at 600 metres by approximately 1%. A significant portion of the trail between Barrington Tops and Walhalla is over 600 metres above sea-level along rough tracks with the uphill/downhill gradients greater than 2%.

“Obviously, if Kouros were to run from Barrington Tops to Walhalla he’d be unable to sustain the pace of his undisputed world record over 1000 miles. But we can say that the decrease in performance due to the uphill/downhill aspect of the run alone would put Kouros behind Treseder. This is before considering the impact of conditions underfoot, differences in the weight of footwear, the need to carry food/fluid and the effect of altitude.”

While most of Treseder’s record claims are untestable, Peter Treseder slipped up on this one. No-one doubts that Yiannis Kouros is the greatest ultra-distance runner of modern times.


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