Katie Visco wore out 4 1/2 pairs of shoes and Henley Phillips flatted five bicycle tires — four in one fell swoop — during their human-powered traverse across Australia.
The Austin couple slogged over washboard roads, endured biting flies and searing pain, and cried in frustration at times as she ran and he pedaled 2,210 miles from Darwin to Adelaide. They also saw, up close, the effects of devastating drought and wildfire. In the end, they finished something they both, at times, doubted they could.
Visco, 34, who runs Hot Love Soup, an Austin-based soup delivery company, and Phillips, 32, started their adventure on July 13, but their story starts long before that.
The desolate, sandy expanses of Australia had long fascinated Visco. During college, she took three months off to intern at a nonprofit organization there. She loved it, and vowed to go back. When she learned about an aboriginal rite of passage called the walkabout, in which boys head into the bush alone, carrying nothing, and emerge days later as men, she wanted to experience something similar. She decided to run across the country in 2015.
She wasn’t new to long-distance adventuring. In 2009, she ran 3,132 miles from Boston to San Diego, spreading a message highlighting the importance of asking children about their dreams and goals. Visco planned and prepared, but the 2015 run was derailed when she injured her heel.
Three years later, she couldn’t shake her dream. "I thought, ‘Am I going to go to my death bed without having tried to run across Australia?’ I didn’t want the dream to haunt me anymore, so I said, ‘Screw this, I’m doing it.’"
She reset her run for 2019. Phillips, whom she’d married in 2017, would go along on a bike, pulling a 350-pound trailer loaded with food, water and camping supplies. They would run north to south and stick to dirt roads instead of the main highway.
"To us, it’s one human-powered effort supported by another human-powered effort," Phillips says. "The route was just on the edge of possible, given that we did bike support."
They raised money for the trip through crowdsourcing among friends and family and also sold their homemade energy balls. (Visco sells these, and you can order them through email@example.com.)
The couple flew to Darwin in early July and began their adventure by dipping their toes and bike tires in the ocean. Soon they fell into a routine: Up early, move for three or four hours. Take a break from noon to 4 p.m., the hottest part of the day. Run and bike again. They averaged six to eight hours on the move each day.
Those midday breaks became highlights, Visco says. "Lying on my back, putting my feet up, listening to a podcast with Henley and staring up at the sky or a rare tree branch — those were the best moments for me," she says. "That was ultimate presence; that was life."
Phillips carried four 25-liter jugs of water and other supplies in the trailer. He planned ahead to determine where they could refill: Mining companies have built water wells with hand pumps on aboriginal lands, and cattle stations also had water sources they used.
Each night, they’d pull off the road and pitch a tent. One day early on, he pushed the trailer into a bush and all four tires went flat.
A week in, Visco remembers thinking she’d made a very bad mistake. "I kept thinking everything hurts but I have 3 1/2 months to go, that this is totally dumb and I’m going to break my body," she says.
Henley pulled her out of those dark times. "Many times, I’d confess to Henley I wanted to be done with this. He helped me realize my body was going through pain but I could compartmentalize it and stay strong mentally."
As they chugged south, the terrain turned brittle, sandy and dry. They ate oats, energy bars, pasta, canned fish, rice and beans, re-supplying every week or two. (They shipped food supplies to themselves from the start and midway point to smaller towns along the way.) They saw fewer and fewer passing cars but also encountered a handful of wild camels.
"It looked apocalyptic to us — cows dragging themselves through dust trying to get a lick of water," Visco says.
Early in their trip, in the northern regions, they passed through charred areas affected by Australia's seasonal fires. The big fires that made headlines around the world started in September and October, in the Victoria and New South Wales areas. They didn't travel through those areas, but the intensity of those fires was caused by the ongoing drought, described as the worst spring drought in the continent’s history. They saw evidence of that drought as they cut across Australia.
Once, they found some rare shade and took a break. Four kangaroos watched longingly from a distance.
"You’d look out and not see a single thing growing, rocks the size of fists, nothing as far as you could see," Phillips says.
Both Visco and Phillips are regular runners, so they had a good base fitness level going in, and in the six months leading up to the trip, Visco ramped up her running from about 20 miles a week to 65 miles a week. Phillips continued using his bike as his main form of transportation and added some swimming. They also did two shakeout ride-runs.
At the midway point of Alice Springs, the couple thought they had made it through the worst of it. They were wrong.
Visco’s knees began to hurt. She had to walk for three days straight. Phillips struggled to get the loaded trailer through sand. The miles grew tedious and painful.
"The pain is always going to be there physically, but the real lowlights were emotional," Visco says. "I kept thinking, ‘I’m not tough enough.’ I thought I needed to be OK with sleeping in dirt, being bitten by ants and eating tuna every night. The moving miles were incredibly difficult, but even when we weren’t moving, trying to get comfortable in 100-degree heat with thousands of flies was nearly impossible. I had thoughts of quitting and thinking, ‘I just want to be done, I want to not be doing this.’"
Henley dealt with his own demons, in the form of rugged, washboard roads that slowed him so much he couldn’t keep up with Visco at times.
"I began to feel I was dragging us down or I was the weak link," he says. "I remember dreading the mornings. It sucks beginning every day knowing it’s going to suck."
They had to reroute along the western edge of the Simpson Desert because the road was too sandy. They still hit loose, tire-grabbing sand, and Henley struggled to drag, push and pull the bike and the heavy trailer forward. To avoid the worst of the heat, they shifted their schedule to start moving at 3 a.m.
"It was getting hotter and more remote, and we needed more water," Phillips says. "I remember saying, ‘This is dumb.’"
They pushed on, relying on each other.
"To see your loved one suffer, and on top of that knowing it’s your fault — he’s doing this for me — that was my lowest moment," Visco says.
They officially reached the ocean at Henley Beach in Adelaide after a cold, windy day the evening of Nov. 8, to the cheers of a small group of family and friends who’d gathered to watch.
Her feet, toes and hip hurt, and she’d strained her groin. His back ached, and his hands were numb. Still, moments after they finished, Visco turned to Phillips and said, "We’ve got to do this again."
She didn’t mean run across Australia, but they both already crave another — equally mad and just as daunting — challenge, just not right away.
"Henley and I will always be the types that crave a little bite in the ass — to do something just to see if you can, to follow a hunch, to push your limits however you imagine, to discover something, anything," she says.
(Correction: This story has been updated. Katie Visco ran from Boston to San Diego in 2009.)