Could Winter be the new Summer for Aussie Ultras?

It’s fair to say that Australia sees quite a lot of the warmer climes (and raging storms!) each year, and this year has been no exception with record temperatures already hitting our shores in January. But this year has been particularly hard-hitting with hot, dry conditions and in some cases high winds which create a deadly cocktail for our emergency services, namely… Bushfires.

Back in 2010, Australia was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons as far as ultra running was concerned when a number of runners were caught in a bushfire in the Kimberly Desert. This resulted in two runners, Turia Pitt and Kate Sanderson receiving burns to over 60% of their bodies and changed their lives forever. Already this year, Bogong to Hotham, one of Australia’s most iconic ultra marathons has been cancelled due to soaring temperatures on the course, which led to a complete fire ban across not only the national park, but the State too. And when this happens, Parks become a no go area for runners and indeed tourists alike.

Bush Fires
Not what we want to encounter when we’re running

Each weekend as I contemplate where I may head for my weekend run, there is the threat of Parks being closed to the public because of the potential for bush fires and ultimately, people becoming trapped. But are we going too far, or have these measures been a long time coming?

What’s noticeable is that since that fateful day in the Kimberly, many local authorities do not want a repeat performance with the potential for litigation hanging over their heads one factor, but first and foremost, the safety of people using the bushland.

So will this have any effect on our running calendar moving forward? It appears now that a precedent has been set with regards to when we can and cannot run in the bush. As such, given the extreme weather that Australia faces in the summer, does this mean that we could see more races moved to the winter months to compensate? Race directors will not want to see their races cancelled year in, year out, and likewise, runners who spend months preparing for and getting ready for these races don’t want to be faced with cancellation at the last moment.

Andy giving some of his briefings before the race
Andy giving some of his briefings before the race (pic courtesy of Dandy Runner)

Andy Hewat has featured on our pages quite a lot, but it says everything about a man who considers all the minutest details when it comes to race planning and preparation – and we know that runners are extremely thankful that we have someone in Andy who puts their safety first and foremost. We sought Andy’s views to see what he thought of the extreme weather conditions and whether there would be any effect on the Aussie ultra calendar in future years. Importantly, Andy can give us insights into the views and pressures authorities are considering now too.

As a race director, with the tightened regulations being imposed by Parks authorities, do you think that in future some of our biggest ultra races could be moved to the winter months?

“The authorities are definitely looking more closely at what goes on. Which is not a bad thing as it ensures higher standards, but it also means more work for organisers to ensure we meet all their requirements. The character of the big ultras is to some extent built on the environment in which they are run. The weather has become part of the fabric of the big races. GNW has become synonymous with pressure cooker heat in the Congewai Valley. GOW is renowned for howling rain. Glasshouse has that baking sun through the powerlines and that steamy sauna in the jungle on loop 8A. Bogong, well who knows? It’s a lucky dip. Changing seasons for these races would mean losing, or at best changing, part of that character.

“The Aussie race calendar is getting fuller which makes options limited for any adjustments to the existing big ultras. The cool weather at GNW this year is a reminder that the weather can be variable. I think we just have to make the most of what we have. Enjoy the diversity, and be prepared for tough conditions be they hot or cold, or worst case scenario: a cancellation.”

What are the main concerns that National Parks authorities are relaying to you right now with regards to the extreme weather here in Australia?

“The Parks authorities across the country are more aware of the potential risks after the Kimberley disaster. But at the same time they recognise that most of us do the right thing and they have not made wholesale changes. Yet. That is still likely to come as the recommendations of the Kimberley Inquiry filter through the hierarchy. Fire risk and how we mitigate that is probably the biggest change. They are looking for more fire risk planning including things like evacuation routes. The Victorian Parks are under pressure from reducing resources (and I imagine this is similar in other states) at the same time as having increasing demand. With that comes increasing fees for events and sometimes slower processing administratively. Despite this, they go over our plans with a fine-tooth comb and work with us to ensure the safest possible race. They have a tough job but do it well.”

B2H especially has suffered badly in the last 2 years with weather at both ends of the extreme… is there an answer here to move it at all? Or will you keep it the same time each year?

B2H is one of Australia’s classic ultras, but it too has suffered in recent years from crazy weather conditions

“There have been 27 Bogong to Hothams. In all that time there have only been 3 outright cancellations and one abandonment mid-race. The 2004 race was cancelled after the 2003 fires closed many of the Alpine tracks for over a year (an out-and-back run was held from Hotham to Langford Gap instead). 1991 was cancelled but I am unsure of the reason. 2012 was abandoned due to extreme wind and rain. And now 2013 cancelled because of extreme heat. That is not a bad record considering the unpredictability of alpine weather and the remoteness and toughness of this course. Given Bogong has been cancelled or cut short the last 2 years for the total opposites in weather extremes what point would there be to moving it?

“Perhaps autumn offers a little more stability. But the race is known for its timing in the first couple of weeks of the New Year and for its unpredictable weather. Stories are told of running in whiteout conditions one year, and then sweating it out in baking sun on Swindlers Spur the following year. It is really just part of the challenge. And as we saw this year: part of the disappointment.

“Trail running is about getting out in the bush and with that comes facing the elements. Sometimes the elements get a little out of hand and we have to surrender to them. Other times we will get to push ourselves to the limit and hopefully all make it home to tell the stories. As a race director it is my job to make sure you make it home safely. You don’t want to tamper too much with the classics and B2H is definitely a classic. It will stay where it is.”

The reality is that as runners, we have been blessed with the ability to be able to run in the bush freely and for the most part, without the risk of danger. But what the recent weather conditions have told us that we probably need to be more tolerant of the fact that at times, there will be occasions when we can’t run in the bush. As the sport grows in popularity and with more people grabbing the chance to test themselves against the elements, the more we have to ensure that everyone is looked after to the lowest common denominator. Andy makes a great point in that the rise in the number of races plays well into the hands of runners, who can simply chose another event should their chosen race be cancelled – but spare a thought for the poor race directors who spend months planning for and organising races, only to see their plans torn apart by bad weather a few days prior.

Stay safe in the bush people!

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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.

4 thoughts on “Could Winter be the new Summer for Aussie Ultras?

  1. One factor Andy didn’t mention is that, for ultras, daylight is a consideration – specifically how much of it you can get to hold the race in. This is one reason for holding events like B2H in summer time.

    1. Yes indeed Leonie, another consideration for us to think about too. It’s probably more the expectations of runners that need to be worked on. We’ve had it so good for so long, but safety should always be at the forefront of what we do. People complain about the kit list at TNF100 (I know I have), but as far as this is concerned, you have to consider the lowest common denominator and the rules then have to apply to everyone else.

  2. Harsh weather and risk of events being delayed, altered or cancelled is part of trail running; that’s actually the core root of it! Running trails dry or muddy, sunny or cold, whatever they are! That’s the fun bit! How many marathon runners can you remember crossing the finish line covered in mud from head to toes and the face split by a giant smile?

    The BIG ONE (UTMB) has been under weather threat ever since I have been dreaming of running it one day. To have hiked the course 4 times in summer, I have never walked the pass between France and Italy other than in the rain.

    As for Australia’s blistering hot conditions, well, common sense is the way to go. Race directors need to (and already do) assess the risk in best knowledge at the time and make decisions accordingly (easier said than done, I agree!). As competitors, we need to understand and accept that we run in beautiful but remote locations, where conditions are potentially dangerous and evacuation difficult. We also need to put ourselves in the Race Director shoes and understand that these decisions are tough and hard to make…

    I guess that is the difference between a trail and a treadmill… Make your choice Runner, I go for the trail and accept to take the risks… Be safe out there!

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