While we have a plethora of ultra marathons here in Australia (over 100 at my last count), it got me thinking about how many Australian 100 mile races we have, as well as those in New Zealand too – Six is all I could come up with in Australia, with three over in New Zealand.
Admittedly, this doesn’t include track ultras where the measurement is time-based however, many competitors will regularly run/walk over the 100 mile distance in these races – so there is an argument to include track ultras in that list too.
But when you look at the facts, only a little over 5% of our ultras in Australia are 100 milers – measured in actual distance.
If you compare it to the US (yes, you need to look at it proportionately and in terms of overall population!), I counted over 300 ultras in the US (source Ultramarathon running).
Of those 306, 144 were 100 miles or had a 100-mile option – that’s a whopping 47% of ultras. The difference is massive. Yes, I get that the US has a population of nearly 320 million and ours sits at just over 23 million. Yes, I also get that the ultramarathon scene in the US is arguably more mature in terms of its development too.
But my question is simply this, do we not have the appetite for 100 mile racing in this country? I doubt this – us Aussies are a tough bunch and each year we see many an Australian head overseas to race some of the biggest milers in the world, Western States and UTMB being the most prestigious.
But I also think there’s another big factor at play here to account for the massive numbers of 100-mile races in US compared to Australia, and that’s metrics.
You see, in the US (and UK), they’re very much based on the old money system of measurement i.e. miles. Europe and Australia in particular, focus on the new money of metrics i.e. kilometres, hence the popularity of 100km races you see over here compared to the US. There’s a nice ring to running 100kms here in Australia, yet if you go to the US, running 62.5miles just doesn’t have the same appeal, those guys will run 50 miles instead.
Similarly in Australia, running 80kms just doesn’t have the same appeal, so we bump up to the next denomination, which is 100kms. And so on and so on.
But… when you look at the options here in Australia and New Zealand, here’s the list I came up with:
- GNW 100 (NSW)
- Glasshouse 100 (QLS)
- Coast to Kosci (240kms – NSW)
- WTF 100 miler (WA)
- Hardcore 100 (VIC)
- Alpine Challenge (VIC)
- Great Naseby 100 (NZ)
- Northburn 100 (NZ)
- Taranaki round the mountain (NZ)
Please do correct me if I have missed a miler (like I said, I haven’t included track ultras here), but if you look geographically, we have a good split in the major states here in Australia in particular. However, with the rise of 100km races such as Ultra-Trail Australia and of course, the Skyrunning series, the opportunities and indeed demand for 100 miles seems to probably sit about right. But is it a case of build it and they will come, or have we simply put too much focus on the 50km / 100km options to squeeze out the demand for milers?
I still think the opportunity exists for another major 100 miler to be put on that would see people move into the next level. I’ve always joked that you haven’t lived until you’ve completed a miler. I tell people who I work with that if you want to experience the very depths of your soul and depravity, then everyone should be made to run 100 miles or more.
So I guess this is my call to action to ultra runners in Australia – make the move upwards and see what you’re made of. Running 100kms is a great achievement in its own right, no-one is denying that, but I would personally love to see the proportion of ultras shift upwards in favour of a few more 100 milers, but that however, takes demand from runners. It also takes a mammoth effort from organisers too and that means volunteers and cash.
We’ve already seen one miler disappear from our calendars in recent years, the GOW100 miler put on by probably our most experienced ultrarunner in the country, Andy Hewat. That disappeared simply because of lack of demand and the sheer logistical effort it required to put that race on, with what was only a very small budget and volunteer base – unfortunately it takes cash in this country to put these races on. I’ve seen and heard discussions that Ultra-trail Australia could put on a 100 miler in the Blue Mountains and that would make perfect sense.
There you have a deep and already engaged group of runners, and I’m sure many are asking themselves, ‘what’s next?’. In the Blue Mountains you have hundreds of kilometres of trails open to put this type of race on too – so the infrastructure and audience is there, it’s a case of making it happen. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a 100 mile race in a place such as the Blue Mountains that would rival the likes of UTMB in France? Who knows, maybe plans are already in place. It would certainly take a good number of years to build the demand locally, but combined with interest from overseas and what is really, good timing on the running calendar internationally, a UTMB style of event in Australia in April/May would sit well.
But that’s not to say that we don’t have some great options here locally already. In a few months, there’s the Alpine Challenge in Victoria, a UTMB style of event that really does sort the men from the boys so to speak. But it’s a tough gig to ask people to move up to a 100 mile race when there are so many options that sit at the 100km mark – again a metrics discussion.
You also need to factor in demographics too. Many ultrarunners have families and it’s not so much the time taken up in racing 100 miles, but the training required to get there. Realistically, to race a good 100 miles, you need to be putting in at least 12+hours of training a week. That’s tough on people who have families and the reality is that their priorities lie elsewhere. With 100kms, you can get away with training only 5-8hrs a week (trust me, I just did it). It might be painful, but the truth is that you can ‘fluke’ your way through a 100km if you have enough mental resolve.
100 miles however, is another story entirely. Yes, you can apply the same logic, but for runners with families, do they really want to be spending the night out in the middle of the bush battling the demons within? I’d argue not in most case, which is why 100km racing appeals so much. With a little luck, you can be home for some late supper.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well for me there are two things; firstly that as runners, if you can, it’s great to test what you’re made of over the miler distance. Go and find ‘the hole’ as Rob Krar so eloquently puts it. Go and test yourself on a course like Alpine or GNW if you want to really screw yourself over and haul your ass up some big climbs. Or if you want to dip your toe in the water, try some of the flatter milers, such as Glasshouse in Queensland, WTF over in WA or the Hardcore 100 down in Victoria.
Secondly, let’s create the demand with some more focus on the miler here in Australia and see if we can get those numbers of races booming with more runners going beyond the 100kms distance. How amazing would it be to see thousands of runners lined up in Katoomba on a Friday night, ready to embark on a 100 miler through the Blue Mountains…
Get planning people!