The 2015 ultra season kicks off with two races next weekend, this one (64km and 35km options) and the Two Bays ultra (56km and 28km options), both down in Victoria. The latter we’ll preview in the coming days, but for now our attention focuses on this legendary mountain race, which is in its 29th year and a record that has stood for nineteen of those 29.
This year I think we’ll see that record go as there is once again a quality field lined up for what I think is one of the best races going in Australia if you’re looking for pure mountain goodness. Normally we start with the ladies in our race previews, but we’ll break tradition on this occasion and hit with the men first.
You may wonder what’s so special about this race? While there’s the 29 year history to ponder, putting it alongside the other Aussie classics of 6ft track and Cradle Mountain, it’s the vicious nature of the track that really sets what I think are the best runners in the country versus the pretenders. The front half is a sheer monster. You climb nearly 1,500m (over 5,000ft) in the first 8kms (5 miles), before dropping down to the rather appropriately named Big River, before doing it all again and climbing nearly another 1,000m /3,300ft in just 3.5kms/ 2 miles. Once you’ve obliterated your quads to pieces, the thing that really makes the best runners stand out is the ability to then run hard along the relatively flat / undulating high plains terrain, before one final slog up to the finish. This race is a ball breaker. In short, you need to not only have mountain goat legs, but you need the speed to burn in the second half where it really counts.
As per usual, there are a stack of really high quality runners that will be toeing the line come a week on Sunday, and while it’s always difficult to know where each is at with their training and form, one thing’s for sure is that none of them would be lining up if they weren’t in decent form. I think there are four or five runners that all have the potential to give the record a nudge, or certain at least hit the magic sub 7 hour mark, then there’s a whole heap of guys who’ll be cracking the 7-8.5hr mark.
Those four or five who’ll be vying up front for the title include Stu Gibson, Vajin Armstrong, Blake Hose, Damon Goerke and Jono O’Loughlin. (Edit- Rob Walter was initially missed, but is another guy who’ll be right up with these guys).
Given Stu’s history at this race, with a win last year just three minutes outside of Andy Kromar’s epic 6:41, you have to say that he’s probably the favourite here on paper. Blake ran Stu very close last year, hanging with him for the best part of 50kms, before succumbing to the ‘Stu drop’, but still cranking out a sub 7 time – an awesome debut run.
It’s great also to see Vajin heading over this side of the Tasman for a crack at this race, although he’ll also be lining up at the Big Easy 100kms two weeks after (edit, we hear Vajin isn’t racing Big Easy now), so it remains to be seen how hard he’ll go for this one. Damon Goerke is another runner that has had countless runs at this race, running out winner back in 2009 and will always be there or thereabouts, consistently knocking on the 7.5hr door.
Then finally is the wildcard in Jono O’Loughlin. By his own standards he didn’t run anything special last year, a mere 8:17, but as a friend of his I know he did that off zero training. This year is very different. He’s coming off the back of 9:53 TNF100 and is in better shape now than he was when he ran that. He’s kept the winter coat off and is easily knocking around the 32/33min mark for 10kms. Whether he’ll take out the title remains to be seen, but I can see a definite podium if he holds it together.
Then of course you have the likes of mountain stalwart, Andy Lee; the pacey Mick Donges; consistent performer, Dan Beard; sub 20hr WSER runner, Adrian Lazar Adler and the exciting talent of Amadeus Gladbach, who I think is another guy with a few more years until he really reaches his best, but that best could be a sub 7hr run here. He’s a big potential talent.
My call for the win (and new record) is Stu Gibson. He deserves it after last year and I think he wants it bad. Blake and Jono will round out the podium.
The ladies race also looks hot to trot, with some very talented runners lining up too. The two obvious big guns are Beth Cardelli and Gill Fowler. These two went hammer and tongs at each other last year, with Beth beating Gill by just 10 minutes and setting a new record in the process. While there is a good crop of ladies racing alongside these two, it’s difficult to see them being challenged too much.
In saying that however, watch out for Katherine Macmillan who ran fourth here last year with a sub 9hr, as well as Sonia McDermott (2014 GNW 100 miler winner) and Susan Keith (2nd place at 2014 Buffalo Stampede). Watch out also for dark horse, Sara Jane Uden a pro ladies cyclist and handy runner, while also being the better half to a certain Mick Donges. She ran a very credible sixth at the Kepler Ultra a few weeks back and could be right up there with some of these ladies.
I think it will be a very tight race upfront between Gill and Beth. Gill has moved on a notch since last year, but it’s whether or not she’s recovered enough from the Alpine 100 miler, just over a month ago. Beth normally cranks it up for this race, so likely to take this out again, with Gill close behind. We’ll plump for either the dark horse in Sara Uden for the final podium place, or Katherine Macmillan, who always starts very slow and smashes the back half of the race.
(Edit – other runners to watch out for include Lucy Bartholomew and Isobel Bespalov).
Feature image Credit: Gretel Fortmann