Going Underground – The Very Real Danger of Losing Ultra Races in Australia

Some of you may have seen already the plight of the Kep Ultra over in Western Australia recently when race director Rob Donkersloot was told just a few days before his race that “because of an administrative oversight” (read – cock-up), his approvals had not been granted – instead, with many runners coming in and already arrived from as far away as Europe, Rob went ahead with the Kep Ultra, but with his own liability on the line.

The removal of approvals meant that the race no longer had any form of insurance and Rob was out on the limb with a huge personal risk.

But how did this come about and why is it important? The short answer as to why this is important is because there’s a very real risk that races in Australia could go ‘underground’ as race directors battle the quagmire of red tape and obscene levels of Government just to put a race on.

As Rob politely puts it, “we have civil servants with zero understanding of what we’re trying to do and who are literally making things up as they go along.”

A somewhat 'pissed off' Ron Donkersloot - as a collective group, trail and ultra running in Australia needs to define our own standards, or they will be defined for us
A somewhat ‘pissed off’ Ron Donkersloot – as a collective group, trail and ultra running in Australia needs to define our own standards, or they will be defined for us

The problem is exacerbated however in Australia by the fact that we have numerous different States and Territories, all of whom approach things differently and with very differing attitudes. The fact is that race directors literally have to jump through hoops to put races on. I’ve had many a conversation with race directors whereby even at the eleventh hour prior to a race, a department has rung them up to stipulate yet another requirement.

So if you’re wondering why race fees in Australia tend to be relatively high, this article will go someway towards helping the average runner understand just how hard it can be to even get a race off the ground. The hours of form filling and leg work required by race directors goes beyond ridiculous at times. I jokingly said to one race director recently, “After the race is done, you’ll have probably earned around $3.57 an hour.” To which he replied, “If that.”

Andy Hewat, race organiser of the GOW100 and Bogong to Hotham adds, “It’s a big issue with no simple solution unfortunately. I have made public comment about this for a while now. I was quoted during the Kimberley Inquiry as saying there needs to be an Australian Standard for events to be measured against. The question is who writes those standards?”

The real problem in Australia is always going to be the multiple layers of bureaucracy and many different jurisdictions that all need to be satisfied. And each of those thinks they are more important than the other so that compounds the problem.

This was the issue Rob recently faced for the Kep Ultra, for an event which is held on a public walking track, he this year had to deal with SEVEN different departments, some of whom require approvals from the others in place before they would look at the application made to their department, “It was like a Fatass”, says Rob, “These guys make it up as they go along. One instrumentality had a new guy in charge who decreed we now had to have a traffic management plan, they didn’t require this for the previous five years, there was no change in regulation, but that one stroke of a pen cost $5,000 and 300 volunteer hours, with little if any safety benefit to our runners in my opinion.”

But all is not lost, there are a few hardy individuals making the case for consistent standards across races here in Australia and New Zealand, and a bid to have one point of contact with Government. And it’s this piece that is crucial as Rob says, “We need an all of Government approach to this. I am sick and tired of relying on multiple Government Departments, all approving the same documents, with the approvals mostly undertaken by people who haven’t the faintest idea of what’s involved with an ultra running event.”

The most meticulous, knowledgable and trusted race director in Australia I'd say - Andy Hewat
The most meticulous, knowledgable and trusted race director in Australia I’d say – Andy Hewat (Photo credit, Dandy Runner)

Andy Hewat has started a framework, and there is a loose consensus that it should be driven by the industry and then signed off on by AURA once a satisfactory solution was reached. But in the mix too, there are now several international bodies who are self-governing their share of the industry and there is no uniform approach even between them. This was in part, some of the reason why we previously wrote an article on the whole industry body thing. Varying standards are an issue for our sport.

At the recent National Trail Running Conference in the Blue Mountains, Andy made a call for a rating system of races. The context for that is a system to identify to the runners what they could expect from an event. For example, we have a difficulty rating and a support rating. You have a category for the hardest to easiest based on terrain, elevation, weather exposure, etc. Then you rate according to how heavily marked the course is, how far apart the aid stations, how well provisioned they are, whether there is mandatory gear, commercial first aid, etc. So it could be a ‘Class 2B’ race for example and you know what to expect. While serving a different purpose, this rating system could be used to help the permit process if it had some validation.

A regulatory body could look at the rating and know what was expected, deciding then if that was appropriate. Taking this a step further would be that in providing the information along with the relevant Risk Management Plan, it should be sufficient to satisfy the requirements for a permit.

But that you would still need this to satisfy Parks, Fire, Police, local government, Roads, Ambulance, etc… The issue at hand is that we would need them all to agree on a template that would meet each of their requirements, which would then give race directors a uniform platform to work from. But then apply that across different states and there are more challenges. You can start to see just how many layers of complexity there are among different Departments and then apply that across different States. It’s a full-time job for someone.

As an industry, we need to take control of our races and produce a good self-regulatory system. That is not in question and there are very able bodies already trying to take steps. The issues arise however when governments try to regulate something they do not understand, and this is clearly happening in WA after the Kimberley fires.

Andy adds, “I am definitely suffering tighter regulation and there is no doubt that the threshold for canceling an event has been dramatically lowered. B2H this year is a prime example.”

So what needs to happen?

Time and money are hugely limiting factors here. It also needs the absolute support of industry bodies such as AURA, who I believe have agreed to set-up a committee – where that is at however, we’re not sure. There are a big mix of players and representation from all would be required to show Government authorities that we ‘have our shit together’ so to speak. We also need to integrate with Skyrunning and UTWT and the mainstream athletics bodies too.

It will take a lot of work and a lot of lobbying, but we ultimately need a runner ranking system and agreement on an approval template. This would be a drastic improvement, but might not save us from the inevitable Nanny State mentality that could strangle our races.

For now however, there is still a very real risk that ultras will go underground, which will do us more harm than good. We have a sport that is rising in popularity and numbers. But with it comes the risk that more people will go and run races without the proper checks and insurance liability in place.

We’ve already seen what can happen when race organisers haven’t got their shit together in the Kimberley four years ago. We don’t want another repeat of that, but likewise, we need to get a grip on a set of standards that everyone agrees to. Otherwise race organisers will have to deal with desk jockeys that have little understanding of our sport. Or quite simply, they’ll no longer put on races.

It’s a case of regulate or we’ll be regulated.

We’ve written this article because we wanted to raise awareness of this issue and highlight a very real example in Rob’s case with the Kep Ultra. If you’re someone who wants to help our sport and be involved in something like this, the it needs bodies that can help. Let us know.


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Dan on Twitter
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.

15 thoughts on “Going Underground – The Very Real Danger of Losing Ultra Races in Australia

  1. Two Bays Trail Run…. Mornington Peninsula Shire (Deal with FIVE! departments of it sometimes), VicRoads, Police, ParksVic, CFA, Rosebud Hospital, Aboriginal Affairs, Dromana Foreshore Committee, Ambulance Victoria, DSE, Department of Transport, Planning & Local Infrastructure, Department of Health (Water carrying permits), Kingston Council (my local council – Water carrying permits.), Peninsula Health. That’s 15 governmental organisations, some of which you have to deal with multiple people/departments.

    1. I’m a race director with running wild and will agree with most of your post.
      But fatass has existed for some or possibly all of these reasons. Running Wild will continue to promote off road trail running. But if you want to get off the map then find a friend and plan a route

      1. I agree Martin and this is a trend that’s always been here. But the point we’re debating is races. One of the biggest issues is the very fact that people will go underground and thats when problems arise. We can all look back fondly at the times when we could just head off without a care in the world, but that relies on people taking accountability for themselves too… as a sport grows bigger, the chances of people not doing that grows also. That why therefore we need basic structures and frameworks in place to protect those. As mentioned in the article, ‘regulate or be regulated’.

    2. We’re much the same with Ned Kelly Chase Rohan (and others). Add IAU / AIMS / IAAF as well as local residents, private land owners, catchment management authority, Rail Trail committee of Management. We’re always working on the “next” event more than 12 months in advance, are acutely aware of the legislative and statutory requirements of the bodies that must approve the event and make submissions for approval very very early. We always seek feedback on when comments will be made by and whether or not there’s a guaranteed respond time / time frame for approval consideration. Often there’s not, but by continuing to pester in writing (usually email) we always get through, albeit eventually at times. It can be a tedious and timely process generally and yes it usually takes 00’s of hour annually to get the approval processes completed, but it is achievable. It would be nice if it were easier, but dealing with so many genuinely integrated stakeholders I’m not sure how you can overcome those that are complacent, neglectful or just don’t care. Other than to control all aspects of communication and ongoing contact as far as humanly possible.

  2. A small group of us in SA have been event managers for a number of trail events in the Adelaide Hills for a number of years. We have recently formed Trail Running SA, a registered club with the appropriate insurances etc.
    Many years ago we just put the events on. Now we need to get a Licence from DEWNR for events in their parks. Initially it was a tortuous time consuming exercise. The Department has been very supportive and we have been working with them to streamline the procedure. We are reaching the stage were we will have an annual licence for all our nominated events and repeat events on the same courses will need minimum resubmission of plans etc. We will still need to liaise with the various Park Rangers but that’s mainly to keep each other aware of any changed circumstances along the routes.
    The annual licence will give us first right to use the various trails in the parks. The licence also extends to any of our weekend social runs in any of the 50 of more parks.
    We still need to notify councils where appropriate (some trails are in council owned parks), police for road crossings (they have trained some of our volunteers as traffic marshals), SES and CFS during the bush fire season and Forestry for events in forests.
    It is basically a one stop shop for trail events.

  3. I am very lucky with the Australia Day Ultra and the Track Ultra WA, that i have two very supporting councils that see the benefit to the wider community and actively support the events.
    The difference is that these are Road and Track events and not Trail. I am not sure I would have had the energy that Rob has called upon to develop a trail race such as Kep.
    It has been a fantastic race and a shame that bungling and red tape have laid waste to something that has been so methodically developed and nurtured.

    Tragic for Western Australia and the Ultra running community.

  4. I completely agree that having an RD-driven framework for trail ultra events would be a big step forward for ensuring consistency across the industry. Afterall, it only takes one particularly bad incident at one poorly managed trail-ultra event to reflect badly on all of us.

    That said, I don’t think that gets to the core issue that you raise, which is the numerous (and considerably different) approvals required depending on state, land zoning, etc, etc. I may be a pessimist, but I don’t think it’s realistic that we can expect to have a framework such that if we meet it, our events will be permitted – there is always going to be the back-and-forth with land managers and other interested authorities depending on where the events are being staged.

    Ultimately, if we as an industry can reach a consensus with the aim being to ensure each of our events meets a certain agreed standard, then we at least put ourselves in a position where we can use the success of other events to support our case with local authorities – but I don’t think it’s ever going to reduce the need for the numerous hours in dealing with the issues put forward locally for each event. MORE than happy to be proven wrong on this though!

    1. Hey Matt, good comments and I agree. I guess what Andy and to a certain extent, I’m trying to communicate is if we can have some form of baseline, then hopefully that gets rid of the excessive repetition race directors have to deal with. Another issue that I see cropping up time and time again is public servant invariably spend 1-2years in a certain job before they move to annoy someone else 🙂 Then the whole process of educating and engaging has to start again with someone new. If there were bare minimum standards / framework in place, then at least it would kick things off in the right direction. The whole ‘One Government’ approach is a nirvana we’ll never reach… it’s to hard and there are too many egos. But hopefully some form of standards in some way could ease the burden of race directors. Good thoughts mate.

  5. Great article Dan, I must commend Ultra168 on producing some excellent industry-related articles in recent weeks.

    The number of stakeholders related to an event can be huge and event management need to demonstrate competency to all affected parties before the event can take place.

    To this end, we have created a stakeholders webpage – where we place a copy of our relevant documents for various authorities. This might be a useful idea for other RDs to have a central place for documents on their own websites.


    In regards to an industry standard, with Tarawera (both the November and Feb. events), our core documents (the Health and Safety Manual and the Operations Manuals for each event) are externally audited annually against the Health and Safety in Employment (Adventure Activities) Regulations 2011. They are also updated and audited against about a six other pieces of legislation. We bring in outside experts to undertake these audits. Our stakeholders (especially the department of conservation and regional councils) recognise they do not have the expertise to evaluate our plans themselves – so they accept the independent evaluation of our auditors.

    Quite easily the least glamorous job of being a Race Director – but without this massive amount of paperwork none of these events will ever go ahead.

    Cheers, Paul

    1. Paul, this is awesome and its great to have your examples and those from SA too… there are some good things happening already and if we can learn from and build on those, I think we can already start to be in a better place. Thanks for the comments and input.

  6. How does Oxfam manage to have so little controls? Minimal traffic management in the Vic and people not as aware as ultra runners.

  7. I guess our taxes / rates need to go towards providing some employment for bureaucrats!

    The most frustrating aspect is that the individuals on the other side can seemingly invent a new hoop to jump through at their whim. I often wonder if they are worried that by rubber-stamping things without much protest, that their jobs stand to become obsolete.

  8. This article could just as easily been about organising bicycle road races. They are an endangered species too and we are already seeing them go underground.

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