Last September, in a coastal nature reserve near Brisbane, a self-described introvert and trail runner named Kieron Douglass quietly set out to accomplish an incredible feat of endurance running — crossed with conservation.
Douglass had mapped out a 10km loop in the Scribbly Gum Conservation Park, a reserve near his home on the Redlands Coast in southern Queensland. Over the course of a day, he was planning on running the loop 10 times, logging a total of 100km.
However, this wasn’t a straightforward century-run. It had a twist. Every 10 kilometres, Douglass would stop, dig 10 small holes in the earth with a shovel, and deposit native trees and plants. He dubbed this self-organised run: the 100 Project.
“It’s what I like to call an ultra conservation run,” he tells RunCreature.
Douglass, 35, has lived in the area virtually his entire life. He remembers exploring the bushland as a kid, when the reserve was still flush with kangaroos and koalas sitting high-up in the gum trees.
“Over time I have seen it all slowly disappear, as we continue to build massive infrastructure and endless housing estates.”
“This project is meant to resemble the hard work we all need to do to look after our bushland and forests into the future,” he says. “I’ve spent so much of my life running on these beautiful trails. It was time to give back.”
Inspired by the Crocodile Hunter
An interest in conservation came early for Douglass. He vividly remembers turning on the television as a 12-year-old and hearing the iconic G’day of Steve Irwin.
“I was hooked,” he says. “This guy became my hero. And not just for all the crazy things he was doing wrangling snakes and jumping on crocodiles. But for the pure passion he oozed for the animals and for conservation.”
“This guy wasn’t afraid of showing emotion for things he truly loved, and I connected with that.”
Douglass knew he was passionate about the natural world, and protecting it; but he was never quite sure the best way to make a meaningful impact.
That changed in early 2020, during the coronavirus lockdown, when someone forwarded a link to a YouTube series produced by Australian filmmaker Beau Miles.
“He had a video called ‘A Mile An Hour’ where he ran 1 mile (1.6km) an hour for 24hrs and in between running he did odd jobs around his farm. Fixing things, making things, cooking things, finishing things off that he had started but never got around to actually finishing.”
After watching this video, the idea for the 100 Project “automatically sprung” into my mind, Douglass tells RunCreature.
It was a way for him to combine two passions — ultra-style trail running and conservation. It was also an opportunity to make a difference in his local community.
He set about planning the event, figuring out the logistics, arranging sponsors (including ASICS and WildEarth), and of course, training to run 100 km.
Running to process a troubled past
When I speak to people who are drawn into the world of ultra-marathons and extreme long-distance running, I’m always curious: why? What’s the appeal of putting your body through such rigour and torment?
For Douglass, ultra-running has become a way to learn about himself, but also about how to more effectively process traumas from a troubled childhood.
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Douglass says his mum had a mental illness, and he believes this was a factor in several frightening episodes when he was young.
There was the time his mum was convinced a neighbour knocking on the door was someone trying to kill them. She hid Douglass and his younger sister under the bed, he recounts, and later made them walk 15 km with packed bags to their grandparent’s home in a state of panicked-terror.
After his parents’ divorce, Douglass says his mum got involved with someone who had a drug and alcohol problem.
Douglass says he and his sister were routinely left home alone, while his mum and her partner went to the pub or to parties. It was on one of these nights, when he was about 10-years-old, that he says his “life changed forever”.
“It was a school night, quite late and there was a knock at the door. I recognised one of the people and so I opened the front door. These people walked in and robbed us. They completely ransacked the house.”
“When my mother and her boyfriend returned home, I was greeted by his hand around my throat and I was literally thrown into my bedroom wall.
“I’ll never be able to forget the feeling I felt right at that moment. It really affected me. Especially at school. I could never focus or concentrate,” Douglass recalls. “I became a crumbling mess on the inside.”
Discovering ultras and extreme endurance
Douglass is more than a trail runner and a conservationist. He’s more than a husband and a father to three children. He’s an advocate for mental health awareness.
For most of his adolescent and adult life, he has struggled with depression and severe anxiety. And at his lowest points, he says there have been suicidal thoughts. These are by-products, he believes, of the traumatic incidents from his boyhood.
He literally tried to fight these memories and mental health issues off, turning to boxing as an outlet for his pent-up energy, and his misplaced frustration.
He was a handy fighter, notching eight victories in 10 amateur matches. But eventually, the pressure he felt when getting into the ring, or when considering making the leap to the professional ranks, was too much to handle. He ended up quitting the sport.
It was around this point — about 6 years ago — when Douglass rediscovered running. He’d run some cross country in high school, and remembered enjoying the feeling of pushing himself; the feeling of trying to get comfortable being uncomfortable. So, when a good friend told him about the world of ultra-marathons, he was intrigued.
“I asked him, ‘how do you even begin training for an ultra?’ He said, ‘put your shoes on and run as far as you can, run some more until you’re really hurting and turn around and run home.’ And that’s what I did.”
Setting-off and never looking back
“Having never run more than 12km before, I woke up early one Saturday morning. My daughter had woken up at the same time to watch cartoons and I said to her, ‘Tell Mum I’ll be back soon’.
No food, no water, no shirt, no hat and I didn’t take my phone because I didn’t want the temptation of being able to call my wife to come pick me up. And off I went.
“It was a bit like Forrest Gump. I reached 15km and thought I’d just run a little bit further. Before I knew it, I had run from my home in Victoria Point on the Redlands Coast to Brisbane city, stopping every so often to drink from a tap on someone’s house.
“I was absolutely cooked. Twelve hours later I returned home sunburnt, blisters everywhere, hungry, dehydrated and to one furious wife, who was about to file a missing persons report.
“Literally. I couldn’t walk for a few days after that but I completely fell head over heels for ultra running.”
Running to test your limits
Ever since that day, Douglass has been on a mission to test the limits of his body and his endurance at ultra-marathons around Australia.
“I guess it’s just the excitement of not knowing what I’m actually capable of doing that puts me on the start line,” he says. “A friend told me that an ultra doesn’t start until you’re tired and in pain. That’s when the actual race starts.”
That was certainly true in what Douglass says was his toughest race to date: the 2019 WildEarth Ultra Trail Gold Coast 500km in the Nerang National Park.
“I tripped over and slightly popped my knee out,” he says. This was around the 50 km mark, and Douglass kept hobbling for another 120km until the pain became unbearable. “I got it looked at,” he says. “The knee [was] popped back in and strapped up, and so I decided to go back out for another punishing 25km loop.”
But only 10km into that run, the knee broke down again.
“A car came and got me and I thought I was done. I had a shower, got changed and that was me,” says Douglass. “And then I was offered a knee brace. I put it on and went out again.”
On a busted knee, in agonising pain, Douglass willed himself to run another 170 km. He didn’t finish the race, but he’d proven to himself that his reserves of strength and tenacity, and grit, were much deeper than he’d previously understood.
“When you are out there in a race, on the trails, you become more aware of yourself and what your capabilities are,” says Douglass. “I have learnt more in a 100km race than I have in the 35 years of being alive.”
Running for self-discovery
For Douglass, running is about testing limits; but it’s also very much been a journey of self-discovery; of conquering mental health issues; and of carving out a stable identity from a shaky, tumultuous past.
“My experiences growing up, I guess, robbed me of knowing me. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was,” he tells RunCreature.
“Every time I’m running, I’m learning more and more about myself. And now I know: I’m in touch with my emotions, I’m very passionate, especially when it comes to my wife and kids. I’m also quite introverted. I can be awkward, shy, and incredibly energetic when I’m excited about something.”
In the past, these were traits that Douglass questioned; traits that sometimes cost him friends, or saw him labelled as ‘weird’.
“Running definitely helped me own these parts of my personality,” he says. “Not just through physically running, but being around the running community. I found people just like me. Ultra runners can be super weird and awkward people, and I love it.”
Driven by charitable work
Before spearheading the 100 Project, Douglass was already making a difference in his community through his running.
In 2015, he saw a post on Facebook about something called Juiced TV, an Australia-first entertainment program run with the Queensland Children’s Hospital to benefit sick kids and their families. Professional film crews produce the episodes, but kids in the hospital are the hosts and storytellers.
Douglass instantly knew he wanted to help. He decided to run more than 180 km from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast to raise money for the new program. He has been raising money for Juiced TV in new and creative ways ever since, like running 100km backwards on a track.
“The strength and courage these kids possess is out of this world. It’s unfathomable. To watch a young child literally fight for their life and watch them smile because they have this program will change your life forever.”
“There have been some really beautiful moments and some really heartbreaking moments. Being a part of this show you come to form some really close relationships with the kids and, unfortunately, it’s inevitable that some of them lose their fight.
“That is why it became really important for me to continue to run and raise money, so this show can continue their incredible work putting smiles on these kids’ faces and creating a safe environment away from what they are going through.”
For Douglass, it was about putting himself in an uncomfortable position to make a difference for others. This same philosophy and motive was at work when he devised the 100 Project.
Stage one of the 100 Project
On 26 September 2020, Douglass was on the trails for nearly 15 hours, from 7:00 am until 9:30 pm — well after night fall. It was an exhausting yet empowering day.
“It took a little bit longer than I had planned,” he admits, “but by the end… we had 100km of pure running, and 100 plants and trees already established in their new home.”
Douglass planted an array of Eucalyptus and Melaleuca trees, along with native grasses, endemic to the area. He says it was important to consider the ecological history of the reserve, and the surrounding bushland, when selecting the flora to plant.
Far from a one-day affair, Douglass has returned to the Scribbly Gum Conservation Park almost every day since to make sure the young plants and saplings have been adequately watered, and are thriving in their new bushland home.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Shouldn’t the local council be doing that?’” he says. “But it’s a bit like having kids and relying on someone else to raise them. This is my job. It’s my passion and my responsibility to make sure they grow happily and healthy.
“Both my kids and my trees,” he adds.
Protecting the environment for future generations
Douglass mentioning his children is apt, for the 100 Project is largely for their benefit. He wants his children — and future generations — to be able to enjoy the nature reserve that was so special to him as a youngster.
“I spent a lot of time running through those trails as a kid jumping over things and playing in the muddy puddles when it would rain which was my ultimate escape from what I was dealing with growing up,” he says. “So that place to me is a sanctuary.”
Douglass recites a saying, attributed to the billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet: Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
“I hope that a hundred years from now, that will be the case,” he says.
“I may get to see these trees grow a little bit in my lifetime, but I won’t be around long enough to see them grow to their full beauty. My kids will.”
Douglass is hopeful that the 100 Project can continue into the future. He’s in the process of making a web-series about the initiative, plans to organise another 100 Project run in future, and would love other keen trail runners to transport the concept to their local communities.
“I encourage everyone to reach out to their local councils and bush care groups to see how they can get involved,” he says. “The more trees, the better.”