When 20 years in a highly successful comedy act came to a close, Rusty Berther wanted to mark it with a special event. Jonathan Green discovers why that event would be a gruelling 42km in Antarctica.
When a chapter closes in your life, there’s a great pleasure in marking it with some sort of event: you reach retirement and take that epic holiday, you say goodbye to an old car with a final road trip, the kids finally move out of home and you celebrate for 48 hours straight…
Rusty Berther is perhaps best known as one half of the comedy act Scared Weird Little Guys (or the Scaredies at they were often known). Over 20 years, you would have seen Rusty with his mate John Chaplin-Fleming on stage, in comedy galas, doing TV appearances and countless radio spots – performing their shows or often being tested with some form of quick-thinking musical comedy challenge. The Scaredies toured the world – from little college gigs in Northern America, through to 90,000 people at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games – building a wonderful name and reputation in one of the toughest jobs in town.
I could run a list of my own favourite Scaredies moments – great songs, specific acts, memorable appearances and alike – but you know what… you’ve probably got your own. And if for some reason it’s not ringing a bell for you, check out YouTube or, better still, go out and buy one of their DVDs.
Like all good things, there came a time when Rusty and John decided to call an end to the Scared Weird Little Guys. And when it did, Rusty had an idea that he would like to close it off with a personal adventure or experience. It makes sense.
So what would you do? Take an adventure holiday perhaps? Restore an old car or settle down to write that great Australian novel that’s lurked in your mind for 20 years?
What about running a gruelling six hours in -15ºC across snow in one of the most remote parts of the world? No…? Well… yeah… ummm… me neither… But that is exactly what Rusty did – he ran the famous Ice Marathon in Antarctica.
Make no mistake about it – this is an extraordinary effort – particularly for someone who only took up running some five years before the event. But before we get to that day, we should probably start with the obvious question – how did it get to this point in the first place?
Becoming a runner
Even those who are familiar with the Scared Weird Little Guys may not know of Rusty’s background as a bona fide musician. It would appear nowadays that every second comedian is picking up a guitar or sitting at a keyboard at some point in their act, but Rusty is most definitely a musician first – he just happened to be very funny as well.
As a kid growing up on Bribie Island in Queensland, he formed a band with his sister and another local kid who had a passion for country music – a kid by the name of Keith Urban. Not a bad start you might think. As a young adult, he moved to Melbourne and performed in music singing groups before deciding to break away with John and start a comedy double act.
You often hear about a person developing their professional career and using something like running as an escape to clear their head. For the average bloke sitting on the couch reading this, the great part about this story is that Rusty only started running in his late 30s and took his place in Antarctica barely five years later. I only say that because it’s very easy for people to assume that someone who undertakes such a massive physical achievement must be a lifetime runner – the type of guy who has religiously punched out 50km a week for years on end so that their leg muscles instinctively twitch like an excited dog at the sight of a pair of runners.
“As a kid you run – you just run everywhere,” Rusty says. “Then maybe again at high school you have another shot at it for some sort of school sport. But then it wasn’t part of my life for another 20 years. I mean, I used to exercise a bit when I could, but not just straight running. And I don’t think I’m alone like that, it seems to be fairly common amongst blokes my age.”
Like a lot of people, the trigger to really give it a go came from a few different areas. Firstly, the Scaredies had taken an office above an antique store, and Rusty had become good friends with the antique store owner Bernadette – and she liked to run. Back at home, the family had just got a new dog, and all the while Rusty was thinking about getting some activity back into his life.
“The kids were pretty young, so I would be the one to take the dog for a walk. So, I’m thinking and talking about running, and I’m heading out every day with the dog, and the next thing you know you sort of find yourself jogging along a little bit with the dog.
“But then you see a ‘real runner’ so you sort of stop for a bit until they’re well passed … and then you pick it up again,” he says laughing.
“Eventually I got to the point where I decided I might actually try to do it properly. I never set out to run a marathon; it was more just something that felt good at the time.”
Of course, making the decision to run is one thing – but sticking to it is another. Firstly, you need to commit to getting out on a regular basis – but the dog did help with that. The other issue is setting out as a beginner in a world where so many people look very serious and dedicated.
“Getting into running is such a funny little world,” Rusty explains. “You start out thinking how ‘it’s just running’, but then you notice other runners everywhere, like there are suddenly more of them around, and a lot of them look very organised and professional.
“You start off knowing very little and you almost feel like an imposter – like someone is going to pull you up and ask you what you’re doing out there. Then slowly you learn more and suddenly have this knowledge about how it all works. And then you have that philosophical debate in your head about how long do you need to run before you can call yourself ‘a runner’,” he laughs.
“Not specifically. There was a moment when I realised how much gear I had for it. I mean, when you start out you say to yourself that the great thing about running is that it’s free – all you need is a pair of shoes and you’re on your way. But then, in the lead-up to an event, a friend gave me a pair of special running socks – we’re talking a $25 pair of socks and I don’t think I’d ever spent more than a few dollars on a pair of socks before – but they are really good and well worth it. Oh, and then you should get some proper running shirts because they draw sweat away and you don’t get chaffing. And a cap is good – a running cap that breathes. Unless it’s cold, and then you’ll want a beanie. And some compression gear. Maybe some sunglasses. And a watch – with a heart rate monitor. Get some energy gels, protein powder, a subscription to a running magazine and fork out some dollars for an entry fee to an event… and then you realise your free sport has just cost you $2,000 – but you’re definitely a runner.”
Making it official
A big step for anyone enjoying regular exercise is when they sign up for an organised event. As someone who’s quite partial to the occasional physical challenge, I can say personally that this is both exciting and dangerous: exciting because it gives you something real to work towards, but dangerous in that it can easily become highly addictive.
“Eventually I built up the courage to tell Bernadette that I’d been doing a little running,” continues Rusty. “As soon as I got the words out she became pretty excited and told me that we should sign up for the Run for the Kids event. And once you sign up for an event … well, it’s a slippery slope. The next thing I was signed up for the Great Ocean Road half marathon – and this was only six months after I’d started.”
Rusty describes that half-marathon as “extremely painful”, but like most people who are bitten by the exercise event bug, the pain is quickly forgotten and another plan is quickly put in to place.
At this point, the Scaredies were still on the road touring, and Rusty was enjoying training in different cities. He managed to knock off his first full marathon in Melbourne in 2008 and followed it up with another the next year.
Then came the time when Rusty and John decided to finish up the Scared Weird Little Guys and move to another chapter in life. And that led to a desire to do something a bit special.
“I had 20 years with the Scardies and I guess I wanted to pick some adventure or experience to help me close that.
“I’d always wanted to visit Antarctica, but didn’t want to just be on a boat and take photos of penguins… I mean, it would have been fine, but I’d always hoped I could do something a little bit different to that. I loved the stories of the old explorers and I’d had about four years of calling myself ‘a runner’, so when I saw there was an opportunity to do a physical challenge in that environment, it had a strange appeal.”
The ice event
If you’re signing up for a marathon, it’s worth spending some time reading all the information you can about the event. From general thoughts about training, through to specific details about the gradients and terrain you’ll be competing on, it is imperative to get as much knowledge together as you can. When you transfer those 42km to Antarctica… well, you multiply the need for that information by a considerable amount.
The first issue however, was the cost. Holding a marathon is an expensive project; holding one in Antarctica is verging on ridiculous. Then, as a competitor, you have to get your way there. It all amounts to a very expensive adventure.
Unsure he could justify the hefty fee, Rusty decided to try an interesting approach: he went onto Hot Seat Millionaire and managed to win enough money to fund the adventure. You’d almost think this was a Hollywood script.
With the trip funded, attention turned to training for the unique conditions.
“I basically decided that I needed to get as fit as possible and make my legs as strong as possible,” he says.
“I got told that in terms of terrain, the closest simulation to the conditions was soft sand – so, along with my regular training, I also ran along the beach from Port Melbourne to Elwood and back once a week.
“From there, I wanted to simulate what it would be like from the weather perspective, so managed to organise a few sessions running in an industrial freezer to test out all the gear and get a sense of how it would be to run like that. It was about -18ºC in there and the guys were good enough to clear a bit of space so I could run around in this little loop, changing direction every 10 laps so I wouldn’t get dizzy.
“It was really good to stand in that temperature and realise that – with the right gear – it really wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Mentally, that was really important and helped me feel more confident.”
Most trips to Antarctica go via South America, as it’s the closest land mass to fly out from. Unfortunately for Rusty, that short time in Chile, gave him a horrible bout of food poisoning.
“It was pretty devastating,” he says. “It was literally the night before we were due to fly out and I was lying on the floor of the bathroom.”
Thankfully, the Ice Marathon will only be held when the organisers can land a plane down there safely, and when the weather will not be too big a risk to competitors on event day. With a little divine intervention, the weather turned nasty and the competitors were all held up for a couple of days, allowing Rusty to take his place on the start line – despite his horrible preparation.
“It was the opposite of ‘carb loading’ – I couldn’t eat anything for 48 hours. Then, the day before the race I could actually hold down food again and probably ate too much for what my stomach could handle – but I was so desperate to get some fuel in I didn’t really think about it.
“Even standing at the start I was still a bit unsure if I would be able to make it through, but I took off and actually felt reasonable. I did have some pretty serious stomach cramping and issues for the final 10km and it’s fair to say that my lead-up may have contributed to that, but underneath it all I had a pretty good base and was very fit – and I’d decided that I was going to do it no matter what, even if I had to crawl.”
If you’ve ever done some form of athletic event, one of the great moments is when you turn up on the day and feel the buzz that only comes from the combined nervous excitement of thousands of competitors. You can train on a certain road hundreds of times, but when you front up for the race that same stretch suddenly seems magical.
The problem with the Ice Marathon is that there are generally less than 30 competitors. And it’s not like you’ve got thousands of well-wishers lining the route to cheer you on.
“You can’t get any more isolated. It is completely silent – silence like I’d never experienced before. And that is amplified by the fact that there are so few competitors, so you’re generally running by yourself for most of the event and the only thing you can really hear is your feet breaking the surface of the snow and ice.”
Rusty completed it in roughly six hours, which is a very good time by Ice Marathon standards and placed him mid-field, and even more impressive when you consider the days leading up the event. It is however, a very long time to be out on your own in such extreme conditions – both physically and mentally. So surely, even with a little ‘post event amnesia’, you couldn’t possibly consider wanting to do it again, could you?
“Ummm… not that one. There’s one in the North Pole and I’d like to do that. But there are great ones all round the world like one along the Great Wall of China and another around Machu Picchu – but they cost some serious money.”
In the interim, Rusty will continue running in local events. At the time I met up with him he had just taken part in the Oxfam 100km Trailwalker event (in which he mixed up running with hiking) and he has signed up for the Melbourne Marathon again.
They sound like the words of a hardened athletic icon, not a loveable musical-comedian, but in no time you realise it’s actually just a wonderful, natural enthusiasm combined with realistic and well-measured objectives.
“One of the great things about getting into running a bit later in your life is that you don’t get so focused on setting times and achieving personal bests every time you go out,” he explains.
“There might be times when I really want to see what I can do, but I also know that if I wanted to, I could head out on a marathon, take a couple of breaks along the way and not hit that wall. The run itself is more enjoyable, and the next day you’re walking normally and feeling good.”
He almost makes it sound like anyone could do it… maybe we could.
Rusty has put his experiences into a very funny book called Scared Weird Frozen Guy, where he also gets to delve into some of the great stories from his times with the Scaredies. It is available through Five Mile Press.