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?
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.
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?
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.