Altra Centennial Park ultra preview – The rebirth and future model for track ultras?

The second in our race previews this week sees the second running of the Altra Centennial Park Ultra, with 100km (29 laps) and 50km (14 laps) events taking place simultaneously. In a sense, this race bridges the gap between the track races and the trail runners, given that the course is run entirely on what you might regard as flat trail around the edges of Sydney’s Centennial Park. While we’re focusing on the race and the great runners taking part, there’s another question that needs asking – why are track ultras so low in numbers in Australia and fail to attract talent?

The race

There’s not much point in giving you a description of the course 🙂 It’s 3.54kms long and you run around it either 15 or 29 times in a clockwise loop 🙂 The interesting bit is who’s running!

Both the 100km and 50km fields contain some ‘stud’ runners as such. Starting off with the 100km, one of the more interesting names to hit our screens was that of sub 2:30 marathon runner, Chris Truscott who’s aiming to stake his claim for a place on the Aussie 100km team. This would be a huge welcome to our sport and if we’re honest a much-needed addition to the 100km road team as they look to build strength in-depth.

Along with Chris are some familiar names all bidding to take home a piece of Centennial Park dirt. Tim Cochrane is back in the mix, along with another Aussie rep in Jo Blake in the 100kms. Also flying in under the radar are Rob Mason and Kevin Muller from Victoria, both very capable sub 10 runners. In the ladies, trail queen, Beth Cardelli is having a crack at this track thing in a bid to make Aussie rep colours too.

Our pick is Chris for the men’s and Beth for the ladies. This race will be well worth a watch too as a few of these guys aim to qualify for the Aussie National team.

Of all the track ultras I’ve done, CP is probably the nicest in terms of location and distraction from the grind of each lap 🙂

At this point we must salute the great work of April Palmerlee and her team for getting this one-off the ground and for also getting dollar investment and sponsorship in place too for only the second year of this race. She also had the wits to hold this in a central, mass populated location to give it the highest possible profile too. This in turn attracts a quality field and a good number of runners – 82. In order to attract the best, you need to put the foundations in place. That means investment, sponsorship and professionalism to the way in which your races are run. April has done this in spades. Build it and they will come.

Without investment in sport at the top end, you’re nothing. While we want our sport to retain its amateur ethos, we also want our athletes to be at the top of the world stage. And whichever way you look at it, the two go hand in hand, unless you happen to chance upon a group of very talented runners in any given period. But this is not going to address the long-term sustainability of success – unless of course we wish to celebrate mid-table placings for the next fifty years. We’re not saying that amateur is wrong, indeed grass-roots is essential to the lifeblood of any sport, but if we’re to progress at the top end, we need the systems in place to help support that and our athletes.

So why is there such a lack of depth attracted to this type of racing in Australia? Why do we see so few entries in track ultras compared to trail runs? The talent is there, but they chose not to race. Why is that?

Is it really that fun to run around in circles?

Brendan Davies, a current Aussie rep for the 100km and a recent sub 7 hour performer over the distance described these events on a thread of ours as the ‘ugly sister’ of ultra running and in some respects he’s right.

Part of the issue may lie in the fact that so many people are attracted to trail running in our glorious mountains and the bush – track racing by comparison suffers as it’s deemed a little dull – this is proven in the numbers that run these races. Ultra runners are attracted to the sport for two main reasons, we want to test ourselves over a hard course and we want to have fun while we’re doing it.

As an ultra runner, I get the whole ‘hard thing’, but struggle with the ‘fun’ bit in track races that utilise the whole loop system. I personally just don’t find it fun – but I do see that it is a great mental challenge. I’ve personally run half a dozen track ultras and I think they’re mentally tougher than running in the bush where there is constant distraction. Others I’m sure have their opinions. But I do believe that trail runners can learn a hell of a lot from running a track ultra.

Martin Fryer a multiple representative for Australia and a general legend at these races adds, “We only have a small population base in this country, and 99% of the top-notch marathoners I have spoken to are proud of their speed. They are simply not interested in going longer at a slower pace no matter how you frame the opportunities and challenges. Over the years a few brisk marathoners have had a go and most have disappointed – probably due to the very different physical and mental requirements needed for something like a 24 hr track race. It’s one thing to hammer away for 2.5 h and suffer for maybe an hour at most but another to experience the repetition, pain and fatigue that can sit with you for 8 to 12 hours while missing a night’s sleep in a 24h race. I don’t think there is a magic answer.”

Lack of critical mass and systems

In 2012 we had just 32 runners at the Australian 24 hour Championship and just 22 at the 100km road champs. For national championship races, that’s low by anyone’s standards – these events should be the pinnacle of our sport, yet they’re on the bottom rung in terms of athlete priority. How is AURA helping to support and promote our champs as the highest accolade in our sport, and to a wider extent, what can we all do to better the competition?

Matt Bixley is a New Zealand 24 hour rep and in conversations with him recently, sees similar issues over in NZ. He had this to say, “Doing events and completing them is worthy of credit for the challenge. But being the best in Australia or New Zealand shouldn’t qualify you for a national team. Both countries have a history of being winners in all forms of sport, with bat and ball, on foot and on wheels. The world 24hour, 100k and indeed trail champs should be for athletes at the highest level not for participation.”

So should we turn these events into invite only for Australia’s elite? Should we have a minimum qualification to even be entitled to race at the national champs?

Australian track ultra teams are very reliant on the individual i.e. a few talented runners coming through from marathons who want a challenge in the longer stuff.  If we’re to support our elite, we need a system that attracts and channels our runners through to ultras, and that starts with proper funding and nurturing of talent. Otherwise what incentive do they have to take part? Do we continue with our ‘amateur’ ethos, and be happy to remain in a status quo?

Attitudes

In Australia, ultras are also deemed to be the domain of this wacky, crazy world. Attitudes (and professionalism) in countries such as France and Italy are very different – hence why you see many great runners from those countries constantly winning these types of races. In Australia you get a slap on the back for completing a 36 hour bush walk along the GNW, while we see numerous posts on Facebook whereby ‘it’s OK to DNF’.

If Australia is to get serious about 100km and 24 hour racing it needs to seriously reconsider its approach. We cannot rely on a few gun runners of the likes of Brendan Davies, Dave Kennedy and alike who out of their own goodwill want to have a crack. These guys have to rally the support of others for themselves. I remember being on a training run with Brendan early this year when we discussed names for a potential 100km team that he could contact to get on board. Brendan has a full-time job and his own training to think about.

Australian track ultra running and (indeed trail champs) if it has the desire to get better, needs, to be frank a kick up the arse. It needs investment, a plan and process for nurturing and supporting our runners. Currently, it is the money of companies such as Salomon, North Face and Pearl Izumi leading the way here, forming their own teams. Our organising body, (if it has the desire to), needs increased funding to enable those systems to be put in place.

We have some great runners, and the burden that is placed on them year in year out is half the reason why so many can’t be bothered after a few years. The fact that they have to pay their own airfares to places like Poland by holding fund-raising initiatives, maxing out their own credit cards, taking annual leave and generally lose a hell of a lot of cash  is to be frank a joke. The tools need to be in place to help our athletes, not put them on the back foot from day one.

If we want to get serious, we have to stop celebrating and aspiring to mediocrity.

Dan on Twitter
Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

35 thoughts on “Altra Centennial Park ultra preview – The rebirth and future model for track ultras?

  1. Pretty sure track ultra’s “jumped the shark” when I saw a guy running a sausage dog on a piece of string with car tyres tied to his feet at the Australian Championships this year.

    1. hahah. I saw a guy at Glasshouse wearing some sort of home made sandals. I thought that was a strange choice to make when you want to run 100 miles as fast as possible. I wouldnt have put money on him finishing either

  2. You may disagree, but people with tyres strapped to their feet is why I love the sport. Sure – we can do better in attracting elites if that is what we want. But in my view we don’t need to make it mass-participation and elite like marathon running. The obsession with speed, the sterile and ultra-competitive nature and the uber zzzzzzs of comparing times (d**k measuring) is what turns a lot of people off the shorter races. Ultra running is something special. It’s zen and its a way of life – let’s celebrate that and not deride people for being a bit ‘unusual’ (i.e. the comment from AV above).

    1. Never had a go at the guy, just the event. Please note the difference.

      When you’re running for a national championship and paid an entry fee, I reckon it’s a fair assumption you’re not going to have to run through dog poo on the track at 3am.

    2. Track ultra racing is all about d**k measuring. Why else would you run around a flat track over and over again if not to run as far/fast as you can for the required time/distance? “How many Ks can you run in 12/24/48 hours? 6 Days?” Track ultras are all about making conditions as benign as possible (flat track and lots of support) so as to maximise the participant’s result.

      Trail running can be about d**k measuring too but it is just as much about the experience, zen, comradeship, adventure etc etc.

      1. So Charlie, any one who aspires to run at their best on a certified course is a “dick measurer”. Why is exploring one’s potential as to how fast one can run such a bad thing? Or that concept only permissible up to 42km?

        Small loop courses (track or road 400 m to 2 km) are about effectively managing a time-measured event, not about making the course as easy as possible. Running as far as you possibly can in 24 hours is not easy.

      2. Hi Paul,
        I didnt say it was a bad thing, nor did I say it was easy. I was only pointing out to Lisa what was the primarybobjective – to run as far as possible.

        The people who run those races are amazing in my view. The mental strength required is something I doubt I would have (I struggle on 10×400)

  3. I think that the track and road ultras suffer similarly in the US. It’s been good to see Jurek and Morton step up to the 24 hour the last 2 Championships though. This more than anything raises the profile of the event.
    Most of the strong teams at the World 24 didn’t have to pay their way. The only excpetions I am aware of are Estonia and NZ. Estonia did a 1000K road trip but they are a small, poor country with runners who wouldn’t qualify for even a Kiwi team. NZ had to pay a share of the team managers costs on top of their own.
    AURA’s income stream is almost entirely members fees. So you need to look at broadening this or decreasing costs. IE scrap the points competition.

      1. That’s a crap call, Andrew.

        The points competition was designed and refined by David Criniti to encourage broad participation in events, as well as to provide incentive and reward for top athletes (open and veterans) to run quality races.

        It is weighted to allow as many members as possible the opportunity to participate. National records and race wins are rewarded, as are those race frequently and support events.

    1. Might be a dumb question – but why does Australia and NZ need to take a team manager ? What do they do ? If they are more valuable than the runners then fair call to pay for them (in NZ case) – but when the runners foot huge bills just to be there and often extend the trip with family members/crew shouldnt they be getting the lions share of available funds ? As for AURA -from a business/membership perspective it needs a 21st Century makeover otherwise its a dinosaur when it comes to a growing revenue model

      1. For many years AURA president and IAU board member Geoff Hook was Team Manager for our 100 km teams. As such, Geoff’s basic costs were funded by the IAU. The IAU’s AGM was held to coincide with 100km Worlds.

        Following Geoff’s resignation, we generally had a selected athlete doubling as the Team Manager. This would involve the athlete attending technical meetings, liasing with the race LOC, collecting team funding, and other administrative tasks on behalf of the team, often to the detriment of their race prep.

        As Rob Boyce (AURA President) stated in his post below, his attendance as TM at the Worlds is self funded, and not paid for by AURA. Unfortunately, the significance of Rob’s understated post would be missed by many reading this. Not only does Rob take time away from his own business to support our Aussie reps, his wife Pitsamai also travels with the team to crew for our athletes.

  4. Great peice of writing and all the information I’ve been looking for and so far through Aura haven’t sent… I’m a first year ultra runner with good success in Scotland uk, With a winters goal of setting qualify time to get in Aussie 100k team, if this dosnt happen this year I will keep trying, my problem being resident in UK I’ve asked for clarification on certain races and times, in Scotland it seems to be a natural progression that all the top trail ultra runners move into 100k team to compete,maybe due to harsh winters and road and paths are only available to run and the fact the speed work will keep them up at the front of the pack on the trails..as the sport becomes huge there is a need to support and encourage athletes from inside the sport to get the best team on the start line

  5. Also not until i raced a 12hr trail race did it come together for me..based loosely on what a track ultra would be like it had 4mile circuit(all off-road and hilly)in a 12hr time limit but you ran into the start/finish arena every lap, this i found was great for getting feeding strategy right and finding how my body works and being able to concentrate on that rather than worrying about support crew getting to next check point or carrying enough stuff to feed myself for a week, it also gave the confidence to push it knowing i didn’t have miles to get back to…great experience for any ultra runner..
    It’s all running after all, i love running and racing in the Scottish highlands and i want to get better at it…and to get better ,whether that is to win or complete (they are races after all) you need to push your body and mind.
    It would be a great privilege to represent my country (and i have sent emails to find out how to AURA with no response) and i feel within the sport with the right support and structure you will find the talent, I don’t think bringing top marathoners in will sort it, look at Jez Bragg in UK, was ok at marathon but exceptional at ultra and did race 100km road.
    Need to get back to work
    Great site and article

    1. Wearalliance, qualifying standards are provided on the AURA website, well before forthcoming champs, but off the top of my head, you will require a recent sub 8 performance to be in the running.

      You will also require Aust citizenship to represent Aust (IAU / IAAF rules).

      I know Rob has recently been busy in Poland with the 24 Hour team, so that may account for the late response.

      1. Cheers Paul ,Rob emailed the other day with all the info,it was more my impatience than anything to do with AURA or rob ,my posts were in no way a criticism of AURA and I thank you for help

    1. “We have some great runners, and the burden that is placed on them year in year out is half the reason why so many can’t be bothered after a few years. The fact that they have to pay their own airfares to places like Poland by holding fund-raising initiatives, maxing out their own credit cards, taking annual leave and generally lose a hell of a lot of cash is to be frank a joke. The tools need to be in place to help our athletes, not put them on the back foot from day one.
      If we want to get serious, we have to stop celebrating and aspiring to mediocrity.”

      Do we have great runners?
      One of our best, Don Wallace (former comrades top 10), I remember, referred to himself as “a hacK”. I have never heard athletes mentioned, such as Brendan, Chris, Jo or Tim, refer to themselves as ‘great’ & I hope they wouldn’t.

      One poster above referred to “good” as sub-2:30, but bear in mind you’ve got 55 year old blokes and 45 year old women doing that.

      You lament the fact these guys are paying their own airfares, but I’m glad it isn’t those people themselves posting articles saying they deserve all this. They are fortunate to receive any subsidies they get.

      If you want to stop aspiring to mediocrity, is throwing money at mediocre athletes and calling them ‘great’ (which they thankfully don’t do themselves) the answer?

      I don’t begrudge these guys if they get their trips subsidised, but not one of the athletes you’ve mentioned is at a standard that they should expect a subsidy (* and again, thankfully I haven’t heard the athletes themselves do this), let alone an entire trip funded.

      Remember, money isn’t always the answer. The Perth City to Surf, for example, threw out a $25,000 first prize & has done for a few years. Did it help any any Aussie athletes become great? No, but it did serve one good purpose – putting food on the table for the families of a few sub-elite kenyan marathon runners 🙂

      R4TL,

      ps: Great work by April in setting up this event.

      1. A) easy to say, but essentially bs. If you think you are not talking bs then how would you do this?
        B) who?
        C) so what? 6.40 is still well behind the female world record and still light years away from the male wr, which I’m sure the IAAF regards as the softest wr in any running event – hence their refusal to endorse the world 100k as an IAAF world championship event , leaving it as a ‘world challenge’.

        Perhaps taking a look at whatever comrades is doing is a good idea since they’re obviously on to a winner, but remember our pool of talent is much smaller and the more talented they are, the less interested they are in ultras. This is what needs to be addressed. Why did Magnus, rowen walker or dave eadie never bother with an ultra in their prime? What can change this? This is where you should be focusing your efforts and I wish I had an answer for you.

  6. Great article Dan.

    Will just answer a couple of things at the moment. In regards to investment. Basically there is the federal govt through the Australian Sports Commission handing out dough to sporting organisations. They are very biased towards Olympic sports. Athletics Australia couldn’t give a stuff about Ultra trail or Mountain Running, so give nothing of their small slice out unless there is an Olympic gold medal in it for them. A couple of years ago ASC asked for submissions from lesser known sports, pretty sure John Harding from Aus Mt Running Assoc. put in a submission and got a very token amount back. So not sure how AURA (run by volunteers) can pull in more investment. The exception is orienteering that seems to be in favour with the Canberra bean counters.

    I don’t think it’s fair to tee off on AURA. They are, for better or worse, our saving grace. If it wasn’t for the passion of a group of volunteers there would be nothing that keeps the sport recognisable and organised. They are not a business, but granted, like anything, need to be scrutinised. The alternative to AURA would be to hand it over to Athletics Aus and that would be tragic. To them, ultra running (all kinds, track, road or trail) is nothing more than a novelty. Look at how NZ athletics look after their ultra runners.

    1. Athletics NZ treat the athletes no better or worse than any other branch of athletics. Personally I think they ned to raise the standards for seelction to be more in line with all other events. ie top 30ish or teams capable of finishing 8th. For the men in a 24 that means 230+ minimum, the women are about right at 200k. For the 100k that means 7:00-7:15 for men, not the pathetic 8:00 that it is now.

      Manager – John Muskett pays his own way for the 24 hour, other managers for other events have the right to be paid for. Jono Wyatt became manager for the world mountain running so that athletes didn;t have to pay for a manager. My understanding is that the Aussie Team manager also gets paid for. Could be wrong on that.

      As I said in the quote in the article, World Champs are about participation, Commonwealths are better suited for that.

      Why would you do a track ultra? So you can see how big your d..k is for sure. The more good (sub 2:30) marathon guys that can be lured over to swing theirs the better.

      1. Hi Guys
        Keep up the great work you are doing here at Ultra 168.
        Thanks Dave for a great article and bring up some of the issues of track races.
        Like John I also pay my own way, not sure what happens with other OZ teams

      2. Nice one Robert, thanks for coming on here and commenting. As mentioned, we all have a common goal here and that is to further the sport. The reason we’re having this debate is that it is being driven by numbers and more people entering the ultra world – what we want to make sure is that we harness this and help develop the sport together, making sure that track ultras remain a focus in the ultra world too.

  7. Good input brendan. Just to note, am not taking a swipe at AURA, although I think improvements could be made. This is saying that investment is needed to help fund them and advance them further if they have the desire… and the money is there. There are companies willing to invest. We all have to work together if we want the sport to progress.

    1. Yeah Dan, I agree that changes have to be made at AURA too, and they are thanks to people like Bernadette, David and co…slowly but it’s happening.

      The private enterprise sector will only put if there is return. This is where trail ultras definitely have the upper hand as they can attract the outdoor gear companies dollars, but while we see this booming in Europe and US we are a long way off that.

    2. Unfortunately, investment requires money.

      During his tenure as AURA president, Ian Cornelius exhaustively petitioned AA for support and financial backing. Unfortunately AA have never been interested, even unwilling to supply singlets to national teams.

      Realistically, most corporate sponsors are more willing to support an event (ie a race), rather than the organistation (AURA).

      For anyone who thinks improvements can be made with AURA, I perhaps becoming involved with AURA and being a part of instituting those changes would be benefical.

      1. Has aura been approached or made an approach for private investment? Until we try how do we know? Also the whole part time thing for me is a non issue. We’re all busy, I can tell you how busy I am, but no one cares. We’re here to do a job and work together to find solutions. I take it from all these comments that we have some passionate people, we need to harness that passion to work together.

  8. Good article, good comments. Like a lot of others have said I dont think there are any magic pudding answers that will solve it. I think as well track ultras will be constrained by the track size as well. Coburg limits their entries as well. I have often mused that Ultrarunning needs a Comrades type race to attract mass participation in the sport, but Australians dont have the type of personality to be attracted to a sport in this way ( has to be played over 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon) Just as a final comment, AURA are doing a GREAT job, as well as all the other groups (as yourselves) with the sport in Australia. See you all at Stromlo!

  9. Quote:
    “We have some great runners, and the burden that is placed on them year in year out is half the reason why so many can’t be bothered after a few years. The fact that they have to pay their own airfares to places like Poland by holding fund-raising initiatives, maxing out their own credit cards, taking annual leave and generally lose a hell of a lot of cash is to be frank a joke. The tools need to be in place to help our athletes, not put them on the back foot from day one.
    If we want to get serious, we have to stop celebrating and aspiring to mediocrity.”

    Great runners? A joke that runners recreational runners have to pay for part of their own airfares to international events?

    The athletes mentioned are mostly slower than 2:30 mara runners. They are not the ones demanding all-expenses-paid trips from what I can gather. The outcry if they did do so would be enormous.

    If we can get sponsors on board to pay for it, good luck to them, but to say that runners of this standard (bear in mind that you’ve got 45 year old females and 55 year old blokes of a similar or better standard) deserve all-expenses paid trips to international events is what many would consider to be a joke.

    It is great that events like April’s are offering incentives like prize money, and it would be great if more events followed suit. However, it saddens me that on one hand you talk about getting serious and call to stop aspiring to mediocrity, yet your solution is to criticise a national body for not providing all-expenses paid trips to what can, in all fairness, only be labelled mediocre athletes. Please let it be noted that these athletes do not label themselves ‘great’ as you have done. Most of them run because they love the sport. Most of them would accept whatever funding they could get, as well they should, but they themselves are not demanding this funding or labelling AURA a joke for not providing it.

  10. I am a complete newbie to the Ultra fraternity so I wouldn’t dare pass judgement on what has happened in the sport to date. I’m going to throw out a very straight forward question though – just how much monetary support does the sport require to take it to the next level?

    1. I don’t think that is such a straightforward question – or maybe I just ldon’t know a straightforward answer, but money alone is not the answer. As mentioned below, perth’s $25,000 first prize at their city to surf Marathon hasn’t improved our marathon stocks one iota – simply attracted a bunch of Kenyans who are not quite up to the standards of getting prize money at the richer European marathons.

      I would imagine the same thing would happen at cp ultra next year if it was suddenly announced that there was a $25,000 first prize.

      Money is necesary but not sufficient to change the culture. At the moment, real athletes do not consider this a real sport. Try getting any sub 2.06 guy to run a 100k! you would have better luck nailing the proverbial to a wall!

      What this sport needs is to work out how to change its image. Perhaps it needs to take some tips from ironman racing. That’s an event of. a similar duration with success in. a different stratosphere….

      …then again, be careful how you measure success!

    2. Welcome aboard Chief and great run on Sunday mate. The reality is that there is no overnight magic wand effect, unless some very generous donor would like to come along and pump$50m into the sport. The biggest thing ultra running needs to take it to next level is TV rights to take to it a mass audience, and let’s face it it’s not a great spectator sport.

      Members of Ultra168 have been over to the likes of Transvulcana and the sport is on another level there with thousands lining the streets, but importantly, the race is broadcast on TV. They also take their races through major towns so that they can get people on board that way. If you’re looking for a model, then that’s it. It’s ingrained into the physche and culture.

      Over in the mountains of France and Italy it is a way of life, much like rugby is for the All Blacks. In Australia it isn’t and never will be – but you can take a pessimists attitude and say well whats the point, or you can start to do something about ti and take one step at a time. I also don’t agree with whacking out big prize funds for winning races, that’s not my point at all. What I am saying is that offering financial assistance to people to allow them to train more is the way forward. You only need to look at the way British Athletics developed over 16 years to see the success there. 1996 Team GB won 1 gold medal… the National Lottery system was introduced (although lets not enter the rights and wrongs of that debate please!), but what it did was pump money into fringe sports to allow those people to train full time, so that over time you develop squads and athletes, people need people to aspire to and use as role models to encourage and develop the sport. The success of all this culminated in London.

      I’m talking about getting some systems and processes in place that will develop talent over the next 10-20 years, not short-term fixes. That starts with identifying talent and building programmes around them.

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