When you turn up to a race like Hounslow, one that’s only 68kms long (short in ultra terms) and has nearly 4,500m of elevation, the conversations with other runners inevitably turn to the toughest races in Australia.
It got me thinking, we’ve done a post on what we think are the toughest ultras in world, but how about an Aussie equivalent? These things are also very subjective and I personally don’t think our ultras come close to anything in that list. But we do have some mighty tough ones and Hounslow for me, if we’re looking at things across the board is probably one of the toughest, if not the toughest out there.
But what is tough? The definition and interpretation of that differs from person to person. For some, it can be the course, for others the heat and in putting this list together, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible as to what tough means. For the most part however, the toughness of an ultra really does begin with elevation and descent. It’s a prerequisite to entry in many regards and you’ll find that the five listed in here all have significant degrees of elevation as a benchmark.
Now before we go on, one thing I will add is that I’m also of the belief that any track ultra over 24 hours is also extremely tough, but for one massively different reason. There’s no elevation change (for the most part) in track ultras, but the thing that does make them exceptionally tough is the mental component. You have to be tough as nails mentally to run one of those. I’ve done a few 12 hour track ultras and for me that was enough. 24/48/6 day is another kettle of fish entirely. So I’d like to acknowledge the role that track ultras play in our ‘toughness’ article.
So with elevation as a benchmark, what else have we considered as part of pulling together this list? The weather is always a massive consideration and it’s had such an impact that a race I would have had at either number 1 or 2 is now pushed down the number 4.
You also have to bear in mind the terrain on which the course is run, such as are there steps? Is it a particularly hard surface? Is it enclosed bush or over exposed? It’s not just about the overall climbing, but what about those climbs? What are the gradients? How many are packed into the race length? How many of them are there? This latter consideration has a massive part to play in the number one hardest race being chosen as such. If there’s a constant series of ups and downs, that plays a huge part in wearing down the body. All of these judgements and a few more come into play when considering the toughest races.
Let’s look at our picks for the five toughest. You may agree, you may not. That’s the beauty of ‘lists’, they get people talking and it’s all really just a bit of fun.
1. The Hounslow Classic
I really tried my best to be objective about having this at number one because of just being there this weekend, but when you consider that this race is just 68kms long with nearly 4,500m of elevation (and the same descent too), there’s really no other race that has that sheer level of intensity in Australia. Add to this the way in which you get that elevation and the gradients on the climbs too, many of which are just steps and we all know what steps mean – an average gradient of around 25-30% for the most part. Check out the elevation profile below from last year, it’s just ball-breaking with the extra 400m:
But while there are races I’m sure around the world with more elevation in a shorter race distance, it’s the constant up and down, up and down that’s the massive killer in the Hounslow Classic. As the race director, Sean Greenhill said to me after the event, “There were a lot of broken men and women out there today,” and it’s true. With a 40% DNF rate, these weren’t your average JP Morgan Botanical Garden 5km corporate challenge guys turning up for an ultra because it’s cool to brag about it to your colleagues in the office on Monday morning type guys. These were proper mountain men, broken and lying on a heap on the floor afterwards. Battered from the sheer ferocity of their quads being mangled through the Grose Valley ‘mincer’.
2. The Alpine Challenge 100 miler
We jump from the stunning Grose Valley of NSW to the over exposed high plains of the Victorian Alps for our number two on the list. The 100 mile course runners take in six major climbs with nearly 8,000m of ascent and equivalent descent including Mt Feathertop, Mt Hotham, Mt McKay, Spion Kopje, Mt Nelse and Victoria’s highest mountain, Mt Bogong, along with four river crossings.
Like Hounslow, there are some ripper climbs in this one, with gradients regularly averaging the 25-30% region again. But what makes Alpine particularly tough is the weather. Like its neighbour in New Zealand, The Northburn 100, you can quite literally run through four seasons in one day. While in the valley below, temperatures can quite easily hit the high 30s celsius, up top, it can equally be raging a storm, lashing down rain or snow if you’re lucky and wind speeds that will keep you clicking over at 25 minute kilometre pace. In respect of that, you need gear, and lots of it, turning this one into an almost two-day hike for some. The course is also massively exposed up on the high plains and there’s very little respite from the elements, be it wind rain or sunshine.
3. The Buffalo Stampede
In at number three is another one of the Mountain Sport’s stable of races in the Buffalo Stampede. Held in the picturesque township of Bright, down in Victoria we have another equally brutal race full of bastard climbing and tough gradients.
Sitting at 75kms with over 4,500m of elevation, while the pound for pound climbing per km may be on a par with Hounslow, the way you get that climbing is a little different, with more respite on the legs. What makes this one a real toughie though is the terrain on which it’s held, the good old-fashioned Aussie hard fire trails, which after a good 50kms or so really start to pound the body. It can get brutal and when you combine it with the stone stairs that lead up through the Buffalo Walk to the top of Mount Buffalo, this one, like Hounslow really smashes people about.
4. The GNW 100 miler
If this race was still on in November, it would be at number two on the list. There’s no doubting that a shift to September when it’s slightly cooler has made this race easier and that’s also reflected in the number of people finishing as well as the fact that overall times are heading lower too.
When this race was on in November it was brutal. On paper, it doesn’t appear ‘that hard’. Over the course of the 100 miler there’s around 6,500m of elevation and no ‘massive’ climbs to speak about. But what makes this one so brutal in nature is the Aussie bush. You run large stretches of this race in deep, enclosed, body sucking bush. I don’t know what it is about the course, but you feel as though you’re being swallowed up by the heat retaining bush and it decides to spit you out at the six checkpoints along the course.
That’s another thing about this race, only six checkpoints in 100 miles makes for some pretty long stretches of racing. This is self-sufficiency at it’s finest, meaning that on a hot day, you might be carrying anywhere between three or four litres of water. That’s a heavy pack and makes for some slow going. Add to this, some long stretches of road in parts and then a final section that’s just having a laugh right at you. Traversing over rock solid rock plateaus that after 150kms, you need like a hole in the head.
It’s also 175kms long, a full 15kms longer than a hundred miler, making it the GNW 108 miler. It brutal, and anyone who’s raced it knows that it rips you a new one. But it also has one of the best finishes going, a wonderful 500m trot along the beautiful shores of Patonga, where if you time your run well enough, you can grab some fish and chips from the shop on the beach.
5. Bogong to Hotham
One of the original mountain runs that’s now over thirty years old and has, what I think, is the toughest opening 20kms of any race going around. Not only do you contend with a 1,400m climb in the first 6kms of the race, but then you descend nearly 1,000m straight after that, only to climb back out of Big River for another 800m climb in some seriously steep gradient. After just 20kms, you’ll do over 2,000m of climbing and drop around 1,000m too.
The trick then with Bogong is once you’ve done the massive climbs is having the legs to run across the hugely exposed high plains to ensure you meet the strict cut-offs this race has. Many people miss these and are pulled halfway from the course to lick their wounds and fight another day.
There you have our five toughest ultras in Australia. Do you agree? Disagree? What are your toughest ultras?