It’s called “Running the Cross”, or simply “The Cross”. It is dangerous.
I’ve been here before. It’s a small town in South Australia where twelve rail lines merge, an east-west alignment of freight trains travelling from various states. Once every few months, the timetables align and twelve trains converge in a slightly staggered pattern. For the few that are fast enough, strong enough, determined enough, or just plain crazy enough, this is the place to test your mettle. No-one will stop you, except the trains.
The Cross had gained a level of notoriety in running circles, even attracting some big-name Olympic athletes to the dusty town. I’m not an Olympian, but I share a place with those who have completed The Cross.
One Olympic aspirant had made the town, and Running the Cross, infamous on a sunny afternoon one July. There are two paths you can choose: the first is shorter. It is closer to the shunting lines, closer to the town centre, so the area is flatter with less undulations between the tracks and it is also where the tracks are at their closest. This closeness is both a blessing and a curse. The biggest problem is that the shortness of the route also means the trains are far closer together, leaving no place to hide. I looked east, back towards the town, at that path. The tracks look like they are spaced quite far apart, but once you have twelve trains side by side they seem far too close together.
The sprinter learned this. Two and a half thousand tonnes of steel and freight moving at eighty kilometres per hour ended his Running of the Cross, and nearly his life. He’d fallen on the second to last rail. A spectator had been filming – you can still see the horrifying moment of impact on Youtube.
His legs were severed below the knee. Many thought it would end his athletic dreams. Five years later he was back on a pair of prosthetic limbs and completed The Cross. No-one was filming him this time. Not long after, he posted a world-class sprint time and was lobbying to be included in the Olympics on his carbon-fibre legs. He’d reclaimed something of himself: he could do anything.
The second route across the tracks was the way I was going to cross today. Longer and harder, but you could quit and wait out the passing trains between the tracks. The second route had also claimed more lives. You were more likely to slip and fall, which was all it took when you only had fractions of a second to cross each track.
This route was just west of town, closer to the first train as it passed the signal marker for the start. Here the ground sloped away, creating a hollow that saw the tracks built up, creating short steep hills.
The trains were coming now. One train gives the ground a slight rumble; twelve you can feel up through your body. I breathed deeply, shook out my limbs. The rumble was up to my stomach.
This would be the second time I’d attempted The Cross. I had been fifteen years younger and dumber when I first ran. Now, like the Olympian, I was here to prove something to my forty year old self.
The trains were now all visible. My heart was racing, adrenaline making my chest feel tight, sweat already trickling. I tried to relax, tried to be in control. The rumble pulsed through my body, shaking my insides. The trains were looking painfully close, some honking warning horns, some slowing a little, others still thundering forward.
The first train reached the marker and I was off.
Short, quick steps as I tackled the first incline, the steepest and longest of the raised tracks. I was over it and down the other side when I felt a rush of wind from the first passing train. The next track fell behind me, the train coming from the east was further away, I barely noticed.
The third and fourth tracks were flatter but slightly further apart with a flat section in between. I bounded over them and up the strewn surface. My foot slipped slightly and my hands came into play. Still I moved forward. I didn’t dare look at how close the trains were, but I knew I had to soon. It was a mistake not to.
Tracks five and six were flatter, easier, the wind rushed past and a horn from the sixth train blared at me. The drivers had spotted me and were sharing their disgust. They had to live with your death; you just died.
Seven was moving fast, too fast, trains are only supposed to be doing eighty through towns. It skimmed past me, chomping at my heels, whipping my shirt as I ran on. Too close.
The end was in sight as I crossed eight. The thunder of steel, the rumble of earth, the harsh symphony of horns, all enough to throw anyone off their stride. The Cross was as much mental as physical.
I shut the sounds out and continued. Suddenly, the last two tracks were before me. A glance, left and right. Converging trains from the east and west closed in. I was too slow, the gap too small.
I should have hesitated, I should have faltered, should have stopped between the tracks. I should actually give up.
That wasn’t why I was here. Giving up wasn’t what I was here to do.
I eyed a spot beyond the last track, my goal, my haven. The thunder was now all in my head. The breathing, the blood pulsing in my neck. The last train was right on top of me, looming like a steel giant. It was power; it was death.
I tumbled and sprawled across the hard dirt. Pieces of bluemetal and small rocks grated my skin. I felt the skin tear from my elbow to thigh. The sting was dull, more a warm feeling; the pain dulled by my adrenaline.
I was alive.
I stood in the thunder, breathing in the rasping, pungent diesel fumes. My applause, my fanfare, was the passing of the twelve freight trains. The steel tracks bent and strained under the load, hissing a high-pitched whistle of delight at my victory.
I could do anything.
Bio: Tyson started writing after an unfortunate accident with an imagination and a pencil at a young age. No longer allowed to carry out black-ops operations, he instead writes thrilling stories. Tyson has a couple of science degrees, is married with a son and fur-kid and is a vocal proponent of renewable energies and quality whiskey. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or his blog tysonadams.com