Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed some great performances from Australian guys and gals on the world stage. With the growth and popularity of the sport booming down under, more races, more entrants and smarter training, we’re seeing all of this convert into some great results in both the mens and ladies fields.
The Skyrunning World Championships held in Chamonix, France was one of those occasions that allowed some of our athletes to pit their wares against some of the world’s best. Yes, Western States and Lavaredo were taking place on the same weekend, but still: Luis-Alberto HERNANDO, Francois DHAENE, Philipp REITER and Mike WOLFE are just some of the names that graced the start line alongside our young gun Aussie guys and girls. No mugs in there at all.
The thing about racing in Europe is the depth. The sport is a passion over there, with thousands lining the sidelines to cheer their local runners on. The depth in talent is staggering. I honestly thought we’d be lucky to have one or two in the top 20 – for every Blake, Ben or Caine that we have, France and Spain have another 20-30 guys around the same level – that’s how deep the competition runs out there.
But the rest as we know is history. Three of our guys bagged themselves a top ten placing, with Ben Duffus sticking his head out and standing on the podium. The crazy thing is that both Ben and Blake are just (only just!), 22 years old. Caine is the slightly ‘elder statesmen’ of the three, but I think he just about qualifies as a ‘young gun’, given the reputation this sport has for being graced by ‘old men’.
A week or so after the race, we caught up with the three guys to get their thoughts on the differences are between racing here in Australia versus Europe, what else we need to do down under to progress as well as what plans they have next…
#1 Could you all briefly explain how you approached your training for this event given how different it is to the terrain in Europe?
Ben Duffus (BD): Essentially the only way I could simulate the big mountains of the European Alps was to do a lots of repetitions up and down the smaller hills that I have at home. With a 2 hour drive (both ways) I am also able to access some 1000m climbs, which always makes for a fun day out.
Caine Warburton (CW): For me it was all about quality over quantity. I focused more on high quality hill efforts contained within medium distance runs of 90min-3hrs to strengthen my legs and lungs as best I could for the longer climbs in Europe. As I have a limited running base I was unable to get my long runs up as high as you might have expected and topped out at 5.5hrs. I also made the effort to come to Europe early for two reasons 1. To seek out the highest, steepest mountains I could to train on in the lead up, that being the Eiger and Matterhorn. And 2. To do a lead up race (Trail Des Paccots) to get my head around how the Europeans race, the altitude and generally “Cut my Teeth” so to speak.
Blake Hose (BH): It was quite hard to prepare in a way that would have me feeling 100% confident in the work I’d done. Given the difference in terrain from here in Australia to that in Europe, I tried to spend as much time as possible in Bright to utilise the longer, surrounding climbs. Unfortunately at times though it still meant doing the same climb many, many times! Not always the most thrilling aspect of training but it is certainly effective and gives you the necessary conditioning.
#2 What expectations did you have for the race?
BD: It depends when you asked me. Before I left for Europe I was thinking that if everything came together then I might have been able to make it into the top ten. Once I got over there and starting exploring the course it really became more about just enjoying my time in those beautiful mountains. On the day I was completely ignorant of times or positions until Caine asked a volunteer at the midway checkpoint!
CW: To be absolutely honest I didn’t have many expectations for the race. I had already well exceeded my own running expectations just by getting to the start line. Being able to represent Australia was atop my running bucket list so having already earned that spot and because I made the trip to Europe a family holiday I was having a blast regardless of what happened in the race. I thought that top 30 was possible but it was hard to tell as the field was so deep.
BH: I tried not to place too much expectation on myself for the event. The only thing I really expected is that it would be an incredibly beautiful and tough course… I was certainly right in that respect! As for racing, times, positions etc. I had a vague thought of maybe a top 20-30 and sub 12hrs would be really great, but nothing very concrete. I was certainly feeling like I was going into it as more of a student than anything else.
#3 What are the major differences you noticed between racing in Europe and racing in Australia?
BD: One of the major things that I took away from the trip was a change in mentality. I felt that over there the emphasis wasn’t on “training” or “racing” but instead the mountains were just a way of life. It really reminded me why I got into all of this in the first place!
CW: I would say the main difference is the seriousness of the competition in comparison to Australia. In both races I have done in Europe there has been little to no talking, everyone (well at least at the front) takes the race very seriously. For example on the first climb in the Mt Blanc 80km despite being surround by 100s of talented runners it was over an hour before I heard the first voice break the silence and of course it was Emilie Fosberg commenting on the view. This was also the case in the Trail Des Paccots where I spent 4.5hrs in complete silence.
The seriousness of the competition extends well past the front runners as my wife during Killians Classic experienced pushing, shoving while running even in the mid-pack. In Australia I tend to find the races a more light-hearted affair even at the front and even know there might be some big prizes on the line. This seriousness of competition is perhaps not all a bad thing as I am sure it breeds tough and determined runners as a result of fighting for every position in every race.
BH: Well obviously the terrain is much tougher, not only the length of the climbs but also the nature of the ground beneath your feet. Sections of the course were purely rock rather than trail and you really needed to be switched on! Also the noticeable passion that the Europeans have for the mountains, there were spectators, photographers and even a few cheeky goats lining the course in places, it really amplified the experience knowing there was so much interest and pure love for what we were doing.
#4 What do we need to do more of in Australia in terms of developing the sport to continue building on this success
BD: That depends on how one defines “success”. If success is seeing more Australians enjoying running in the mountains then I think we simply need to put on more events and promote it to the wider community. If we want to see Australians being competitive internationally then we need to do, not only what I just listed, but also to be providing more opportunities through athlete funding – travelling to the other side of the world isn’t cheap!
CW: I think we are already tending is the right direction here, hence our awesome string of international results. However giving more Australians the chance to compete at the highest levels of the sport and be successful is fundamental to the development of Australian runners. For example I believe that Brendan Davies breaking Killain’s Record at the TNF 100 was key turning point in Australian trail running. It showed the rest of us that this level of performance was within reach and as a result we have seen a dramatic improvement in the level of competition on home soil with more runners stepping up and throwing down performances only a few years ago where thought to be beyond us. In addition to creating “champions” of the sport we also need to further expand the challenges available on home soil, adding additional “Big Ticket” races and exposing more of the general population to this type of running.
BH: It really comes down to allowing the sport to continue its growth here and as that happens the competition levels will rise in sync. I probably haven’t been in the sport long enough to give any real accurate opinions but when you take note of other sports, the higher the number of people participating generally leads to a higher base line level of ability required to be successful. Australia and New Zealand is definitely on the right track as runners and races are becoming more plentiful and thus competition is increasing.
#5 Finally what next for each of you?
BD: Next up I will be running at the Kokoda Challenge with Kokoda Spirit Racing. 96km of running on some of my local trails with 3 great mates – it doesn’t get much better than that! I’ll also be heading over the USA and to Italy later in the year for the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships (Pikes Peak ascent – 21km) and the World Mountain Running Championships (12km uphill) respectively.
CW: For me I will be lining up for the Ice Trail Tarentaise 65km/500m vert in just a few days. Once home I plan to seek out some of the most competitive races available back in Australia with the idea of having a crack at the 6ft track in 2015. I also hope with some support to be back overseas shortly for another taste of international competition. Outside of that I will continue my development of the sport through my work with Kokoda Spirit Racing and the support of new races and rising runners.
BH: Next on the list is probably a bit of shorter stuff for myself. I think this will be a good period to work on a bit of speed moving towards the GOW100s again but ultimately the bigger picture lies further ahead next year where I’m hoping to be in Europe to have a crack at some more of the Sky Running World Series races. There’s so much on the calendar that is appealing but it’s easy to overdo it and hinder performance in races. I’ll just keep enjoying myself and see where the trails take me!