It’s that time of year again where 1,000+ hardy souls line up in waves for the annual dash through the Aussie bush to Jenolan Caves, following the historic old trade route into the depths of the Blue Mountains. The race has gone through a number of face lifts this year, most notably a new race director in ‘Big’ Chris Stephenson, one of the original seven guys to line up at the very first running of this race. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris and the organising committee around six months ago to help feed into the running of the race and it was an honour to be able to offer input and thoughts from the ultra trail community. The sad thing for me personally is that for the first time in five years I won’t be lining up, but I guess that makes the hunger and desire even greater for next year.
I am however not important and in the grand scheme of things, a mediocre runner. All you do need to know is that we have a pretty awesome line-up of top-end athletes running. The men’s race I would say has more strength in-depth, but I do think it’s the women’s race where we could see some fireworks kick off, and this is where we’re going to start.
The champ from last year, Hanny Allston is returning to give the race another nudge. Given she was just three minutes off the race record last year, one has to think that with a bit more course knowledge under her belt, she’s going to give this a real nudge this time around. A fit, well and in form Hanny will beat this record on Saturday. Hanny spent the last few months of last year giving the World Orienteering champs another bash in her local Tasmania, but as we all know, those orienteering/rogaining types tend to be hugely successful at crossing over to ultras in an instant. Gill Fowler is proof of that as one of our most successful female 100 milers right now.
However there is another very interesting name on the starters list this year in the ladies, and that’s Vanessa Haverd. Back after a few years break from the ultra game, Vanessa has been kicking up a storm in some of the local Canberra short course mountain races, where her face pops up in my Book of Faces feed courtesy of a few of my Canberra stable connections. Vanessa has a PB of 3:57 at Six Foot and again if in form, has the potential to give Hanny nudge up the long climbs of mini mini and pluvio in the middle sections of the race. Whether she’ll have the legs to hold on towards the latter undulating stages is another thing, but it’s great to see two very good female athletes going head to head.
Others challenging for the lead places will be another six foot stalwart in Julie Quinn and the above mentioned Gill Fowler.
In the mens, the top ten on the list of starters has ten guys that could easily finish within 5 minutes of each other, that’s how tight the pointy end will be this year. And I also throw Hanny Allston in that top ten list too. Let us not forget that Ultra168 Male Ultrarunner of the year, Andrew Tuckey just about managed to squeeze past Hanny in last year’s race. She is a real weapon.
One name I’m very excited to see on the starters list is Stu Gibson – the mystery man of Aussie
ultrarunning. No nonsense, no fuss and no sponsorship. This guy turns up to races, wins them and disappears like a thief in the night. Indeed, he reminds me of a rather bizarre arthouse film noir I went to see last night called A Girl Walks Home Along Last Night. This is an Iranian, vampire western movie (obvious combination), telling the tale of a lone vampire lady that appears in mysterious dark corners of Bad City to unleash her fury on the sordid characters that inhabit the place.
Now Stu isn’t a vampire, nor is the ultrarunning scene sordid… but you get my drift. It’s kind of hard to call this one. On paper, Stu has all the skills to win this. He’s a former GB International athletics rep, so the pace is there. He’s come so close to breaking Andy Kromar’s Bogong to Hotham record, so the climbing skills are there too. He’s won TNF100 twice and in five years of racing in Australia over 14 races, he’s won 12 and come second twice. Pretty shit hot record yeah?
BUT… this is Six Foot and stupid things happen at this race, as we know last year when all and sundry called Marty Dent to smash Ben Artup’s longstanding record. Only to see him gallivanting off on private land 7kms into the race after a missed turn.
Stu’s lead in for this has been perfect with a very solid win at Cradle Mountain a few weeks back, and defending champ, Dave Byrne is coming back to race again to create a real tete-a-tete upfront. This race last year was Dave’s first big trail ultra, which he duly won in 3:25. You’d like to think that with more trail positive training under this belt and some course knowledge that he’s going to beat that. I hear on the vines that he’s not in tip-top shape, but as we all know in ultras, if you start, you’re fit – no excuses. Dave will be raring to go I’m sure and I think go under 3:25, which makes him a contender.
Then we have a whole host of guys whom I think could all go under 3:25 and the fact that they’re racing and pushing each other means I do think we’ll see the times at the top end get better. Since Ben’s record back in 2009, the winning times have gone backwards and we generally see 2-3 guys going around 3:24-3:30 (bar Alex Matthews running 3:20 one year), and then a splattering of guys in the 3:30-3:40 range.
This year I think we’ll see a splattering of guys hitting the 3:20 – 3:25 range. One of the dark horses I think we’ll see as a potential podium guy is Robbie Neill, whom I believe is trained by Dave Byrne (please correct me if I’m wrong). Robbie first ran in 2013 with a 4:27, then last year blew that away with a 3:34 for fifth place – rumblings around the inner Sydney flatlands have this guy pegged right up there.
Then whom to pick? There’s Andrew Tuckey, a guy that simply smashed all before him last year. I can’t wait to see what he does this year. I believe he’s in for Western States – that course will suit him down to the ground, I can see him going top 5 there, but it’s early doors in the season right now, so we’ll see how hard he goes. One thing I do know is that feedback from my Strava Stalkers saw Mr. Tuckey blow away all of the Quarry Road (a famous 6ft track training ground) Strava crowns the other day – the man is in form, no doubt.
A welcome return also for Mick Donges, the Blue Mountains prodigal son. Again, the Strava Stalkers have seen some great form from Mick and he improves his time every year he runs here – I’m thinking around 3:25 if his body holds together.
Then we have three former recent winners in Alex Matthews, Andy Lee and Tony (Fats) Fattorini. Each of these guys is more than capable of hitting the 3:25s mark and they do so regularly. Alex is a notoriously slow starter, heck I was ahead of him at 7kms last year, which probably tells you more about how hard I went out! Although a slower starter than most, Alex is truly the King of the Mountain when it comes to the climbs.
Finally, another stallion backing his chances is Jono O’Loughlin. The guy has finally shed some of his winter coat and is looking lean. He had a bit of a false start over in Hong Kong recently, trying to outgun some of the World’s leading skyrunners, which saw him calling Silver Service Taxis in Sydney for a pick-up at CP2 in mainland China, but if his head holds together, he’s another one with a sub 3:25 on his head.
Other very notable mentions and guys to look out for are Mark Green, Mark Lee and the big man from Canberra, Rob Walter who ‘podiumed’ down at Two Bays earlier this year. Rob is a unit and has massive pace to burn, plus a monster on the hills too. Dark horse for podium. Can’t wait to see how he goes.
The beauty of some really close up front racing however is that you’re guaranteed some carnage of some sort. While ten guys banging heads together is good for the hard racing, you almost always see some sizeable blow-ups taking place, the question will whether the RFS truck comes into force and the undignified ride in the back of a troopy sees you piling out at Jenolan caves to the cheers of the masses. Race hard, race fair.
Picks for the wins: Hanny Allston and Stu Gibson