John Lennon once said, ''trail running is bigger than Jesus," or something like that - and if the increasing number of people flocking, week-in, week-out, to tracts of stunning wilderness to unleash well-practised and devious fartlek strategies is any indication, he wasn't wrong.
Few outdoor activities provoke incredulity quite like the efforts of a boundary breaking ultra trail runner pushing themself remorselessly for 100 miles, or more, along narrow winding goat tracks.
Stripping a fraction of a second here and there from best times over short sprint distances is nothing compared to a sustained and gruelling invalidation of what was once thought impossible.
The first ever Alpine Challenge 100 mile race, staged in the Victorian high country near Falls Creek, began quietly without fanfare in 2006 with a field of five. Horrendous weather closed in, snow fell with enough force to classify proceedings a white-out and well-laid plans were condemned to the shelf until the following year. In 2007, conditions weren’t as ferocious and three managed to complete the course.
High-country smiling. PICTURE CREDIT: Ian and Velta Fellowes/ The EVENTurers
Ten years later, there were 240 starters across four distinct courses — 36, 60 and 100 kilometres and the grand-daddy 160 km, 100 mile, whopper. Paul Ashton, race organiser, event founder and possessor of diabolical trail running passion, first planned and staged a trail run in 2000 at Wilsons Promontory with “a couple of mates”. He says the increasing appeal of the sport is clear-cut.
“Being outside on a trail is just a different beast to running on bitumen, you’re out in a natural environment completely removed from anything man-made or artificial.”
And this, in a nutshell is the nub of it. Alina McMaster from AROC sports, who organise the Ultra Trail series in NSW’s Blue Mountains region says, more or less, the exact same thing.
“Trail running is a lot more interesting than running around city streets,” she says. “Of course, the practical reason for lifting your head up and looking around is to spot and avoid overhangs and to better navigate the winding trail ahead, but actually - you WANT to lift your head up and look around, because looking around is what it’s all about”.
The appeal of these races, the organisers of two of the biggest in Australia say in accord, is all about where the runs are staged and the experience of being immersed in beautiful surroundings. The actual running part, although obviously a factor, doesn’t hold the same importance as it does on the track or over bitumen. Getting out into the bush, breathing in mountain air perfumed with eucalypt, even stopping to take in a view, is a vital part of the trail experience. Rarely do you see a runner paused at the side of a road, hands on hips, contemplating a billboard or an office block.
Early morning fog rolls in during the ULTRA Trail 100. PICTURE CREDIT: Kurt Matthews / Marceau Photography
Outdoor’s written a few trail running-focused features in the past, interviewed the likes of Beth Cardelli, Richard Bowles, Ryan Sandes and Brendan Davies and analysed, in almost stupid detail, the nuances and intricacies of trail running. We’ve approached it like it’s some form of quasi-religious deity, perched invitingly in the ether, beckoning disciples who seek the answer to fleet-footedness.
Competitors take in the scene during an Ultra Trail race. PICTURE CREDIT: Mark Watson / Incite Images
All we’ve spoken with have said, in a similar yet independently arrived at fashion that, in essence, trail running prunes the principle of running back to the nub.
“The act of running quickly draws you out of your comfort zone,” Paul explains. “It’s just a matter of finding a trail outside and beginning. It’s so pure, there’s nothing else like it”.
This notion of trail running being “pure” pops up all the time. It’s like they’re saying running through areas of pristine wilderness is some sort of antidote to a techno-toxicity played out in our infuriating daily addiction to phones, digital gizmos and the insidious creep of things like Facebook. A rejection of the mundane and a reconnection with bliss. Pure.
Running through beautiful and remote regions allows exponents, they seem to suggest, to be momentarily free from gadgetry, equipment, even from artificial surfaces – and now with the advent of barefoot shoes - even, if they wish, from the artificiality of rubberised soles.
“People use their interest in trail running as a reason to travel,” says Alina, “setting yourself a goal to complete a course is a cool way to get out to a spot you wouldn’t see if you weren’t running the trail”.
Night may descend, but the ultra-runner's don't rest. PICTURE CREDIT: Mark Watson / Incite Images
“And then there’s the variation in terrain, you run up and down inclines, over winowy tree roots and around sudden sharp corners,” she continues. “It keeps the brain sharp and focussed, whereas you tend to switch into a numb sort of autopilot-mode when plodding along over flat road”.
The Ultra-Trail festival, which runs over four days, Thursday 17 May to Sunday 20 May, has evolved into a sort of mini-festival of running, with a 22 and 50 km distance available as course options alongside the 100 km. And, as a way to involve the whole family, there’s also a 1km event for the kids.
Straight up the Blue Mountain's eye-diddle-diddle. PICTURE CREDIT: Lyndon Marceau / Marceau Photography
“Of course there’s the competitive side to the races,” Alina says, “but there’s other ways to approach a run”.
“Many people who run have their own individual goals and ambitions that don’t involve winning, and are there simply to experience and enjoy the course”.
This brings us to another key aspect of trail running: the course design. Alina and the crew at AROC and Paul at Running Wild spend years honing and perfecting their perspective on what makes the perfect trail run. They’re completely in sync with what runner’s want and take pride in devising routes that feature subtle changes in incline and technical difficulty balanced with considered path plotting through regions that aim to fully showcase an area’s natural attributes.
PICTURE CREDIT: Lyndon Marceau / Marceau Photography
“Getting these races up and going isn’t easy,” adds Paul. “There’s a lot to consider, a lot of permissions and approvals to be sought and arranged with councils and local government - and then there’s the safety aspect”.
“Essentially, at the end of the day when you’ve done all you can as an organiser, you rely on the entrants to be aware of their own abilities and respectful of the adventure ahead.”
It’s a good point he makes. The big 160 km Alpine Challenge is probably the most arduous route available for ultra trail afficiandoes in Australia. All entrants, regardless of experience, must compete with their own support crew. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“A healthy re-estimation of one’s own abilities can be a big personal revelation during one of these, it doesn't matter how good or fast you are, the combination of weather and the wild remoteness usually offers up some sort of insight into where you’re at, personally”.
Mt Baw Baw Trail Fest
1 km, 4 km, 7 km, 15 km, 21 km, 42 km Runs
Date: Saturday 03 March - Sunday 05 March 2018
Location: Mount Baw Baw Resort, Victoria, Australia
22,40,64 km Alpine Runs
Date: Saturday 17 March 2018
Location: Harrietville Victoria, Australia
Mt Buller Sky Run
22,36,45 km Alpine Runs
Date: Sunday 08 April 2018
Location: Mount Buller Alpine Resort
Start/Finish: The Village Square Mount Buller
Dinner Plain Mile High Trail Run
1 km,5 km,10 km,21 km Runs
Date: Saturday 18 November 2017
Location: Dinner Plain Village Victoria, Australia
Start/Finish: Dinner Plain Hut, BBQ area next to Village Square Car park, Dinner Plain, Great Alpine Road.
True Spirit of Alpine Australia
3.5,10,25,40 km Runs
Date: Saturday 18 - Sunday 19 November 2017
Location: Mount Hotham Village, Victoria, Australia
Registration/Start/Finish: Village Square, Great Alpine Road, Mount Hotham
100 Mile,100 km,60,36 km Individual,Team,Relay Challenge
Date: Saturday 25 November– Monday 27 November 2017
Location: Alpine National Park, Victoria, Australia
Start/Finish: Falls Creek, Slalom Plaza
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