Appetite for the Aussie 100 miler?

While we have a plethora of ultra marathons here in Australia (over 100 at my last count), it got me thinking about how many Australian 100 mile races we have, as well as those in New Zealand too – Six is all I could come up with in Australia, with three over in New Zealand.

Admittedly, this doesn’t include track ultras where the measurement is time-based however, many competitors will regularly run/walk over the 100 mile distance in these races – so there is an argument to include track ultras in that list too.

But when you look at the facts, only a little over 5% of our ultras in Australia are 100 milers – measured in actual distance.

If you compare it to the US (yes, you need to look at it proportionately and in terms of overall population!), I counted over 300 ultras in the US (source Ultramarathon running).

Of those 306, 144 were 100 miles or had a 100-mile option – that’s a whopping 47% of ultras. The difference is massive. Yes, I get that the US has a population of nearly 320 million and ours sits at just over 23 million. Yes, I also get that the ultramarathon scene in the US is arguably more mature in terms of its development too.

The Alpine Challenge 100 miler is arguably Australia's toughest when it comes to pure climbing and time taken
The Alpine Challenge 100 miler is arguably Australia’s toughest when it comes to pure climbing and time taken

But my question is simply this, do we not have the appetite for 100 mile racing in this country? I doubt this – us Aussies are a tough bunch and each year we see many an Australian head overseas to race some of the biggest milers in the world, Western States and UTMB being the most prestigious.

But I also think there’s another big factor at play here to account for the massive numbers of 100-mile races in US compared to Australia, and that’s metrics.

You see, in the US (and UK), they’re very much based on the old money system of measurement i.e. miles. Europe and Australia in particular, focus on the new money of metrics i.e. kilometres, hence the popularity of 100km races you see over here compared to the US. There’s a nice ring to running 100kms here in Australia, yet if you go to the US, running 62.5miles just doesn’t have the same appeal, those guys will run 50 miles instead.

Similarly in Australia, running 80kms just doesn’t have the same appeal, so we bump up to the next denomination, which is 100kms. And so on and so on.

But… when you look at the options here in Australia and New Zealand, here’s the list I came up with:

Please do correct me if I have missed a miler (like I said, I haven’t included track ultras here), but if you look geographically, we have a good split in the major states here in Australia in particular. However, with the rise of 100km races such as Ultra-Trail Australia and of course, the Skyrunning series, the opportunities and indeed demand for 100 miles seems to probably sit about right. But is it a case of build it and they will come, or have we simply put too much focus on the 50km / 100km options to squeeze out the demand for milers?

Glasshouse provides a great opportunity to ease nicely into the 100 mile club - although the heat up there can sometimes make this race very hard!
Glasshouse provides a great opportunity to ease nicely into the 100 mile club – although the heat up there can sometimes make this race very hard!

I still think the opportunity exists for another major 100 miler to be put on that would see people move into the next level. I’ve always joked that you haven’t lived until you’ve completed a miler. I tell people who I work with that if you want to experience the very depths of your soul and depravity, then everyone should be made to run 100 miles or more.

So I guess this is my call to action to ultra runners in Australia – make the move upwards and see what you’re made of. Running 100kms is a great achievement in its own right, no-one is denying that, but I would personally love to see the proportion of ultras shift upwards in favour of a few more 100 milers, but that however, takes demand from runners. It also takes a mammoth effort from organisers too and that means volunteers and cash.

We’ve already seen one miler disappear from our calendars in recent years, the GOW100 miler put on by probably our most experienced ultrarunner in the country, Andy Hewat. That disappeared simply because of lack of demand and the sheer logistical effort it required to put that race on, with what was only a very small budget and volunteer base – unfortunately it takes cash in this country to put these races on. I’ve seen and heard discussions that Ultra-trail Australia could put on a 100 miler in the Blue Mountains and that would make perfect sense.

There you have a deep and already engaged group of runners, and I’m sure many are asking themselves, ‘what’s next?’. In the Blue Mountains you have hundreds of kilometres of trails open to put this type of race on too – so the infrastructure and audience is there, it’s a case of making it happen. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a 100 mile race in a place such as the Blue Mountains that would rival the likes of UTMB in France? Who knows, maybe plans are already in place. It would certainly take a good number of years to build the demand locally, but combined with interest from overseas and what is really, good timing on the running calendar internationally, a UTMB style of event in Australia in April/May would sit well.

But that’s not to say that we don’t have some great options here locally already. In a few months, there’s the Alpine Challenge in Victoria, a UTMB style of event that really does sort the men from the boys so to speak. But it’s a tough gig to ask people to move up to a 100 mile race when there are so many options that sit at the 100km mark – again a metrics discussion.

You also need to factor in demographics too. Many ultrarunners have families and it’s not so much the time taken up in racing 100 miles, but the training required to get there. Realistically, to race a good 100 miles, you need to be putting in at least 12+hours of training a week. That’s tough on people who have families and the reality is that their priorities lie elsewhere. With 100kms, you can get away with training only 5-8hrs a week (trust me, I just did it). It might be painful, but the truth is that you can ‘fluke’ your way through a 100km if you have enough mental resolve.

The Northburn 100 miler in New Zealand is as equally brutal as the Alpine Challenge in terms of sheer climbing - over 8,000m of vertical.
The Northburn 100 miler in New Zealand is as equally brutal as the Alpine Challenge in terms of sheer climbing – over 8,000m of vertical.

100 miles however, is another story entirely. Yes, you can apply the same logic, but for runners with families, do they really want to be spending the night out in the middle of the bush battling the demons within? I’d argue not in most case, which is why 100km racing appeals so much. With a little luck, you can be home for some late supper.

So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well for me there are two things; firstly that as runners, if you can, it’s great to test what you’re made of over the miler distance. Go and find ‘the hole’ as Rob Krar so eloquently puts it. Go and test yourself on a course like Alpine or GNW if you want to really screw yourself over and haul your ass up some big climbs. Or if you want to dip your toe in the water, try some of the flatter milers, such as Glasshouse in Queensland, WTF over in WA or the Hardcore 100 down in Victoria.

Secondly, let’s create the demand with some more focus on the miler here in Australia and see if we can get those numbers of races booming with more runners going beyond the 100kms distance. How amazing would it be to see thousands of runners lined up in Katoomba on a Friday night, ready to embark on a 100 miler through the Blue Mountains…

Get planning 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.

8 thoughts on “Appetite for the Aussie 100 miler?

  1. Nice one! I was only thinking the same and looking around after completing GNW miler the other week. There aren’t many choices that’s for sure. Blue mountains would be perfect….. 2017 maybe??

  2. “That disappeared simply because of lack of demand and the sheer logistical effort it required to put that race on,”

    It’s that simple, Dan. Personally, I love the 100 mile distance but the reality, it’s a very personal thing and maybe I wouldn’t put such store in it if I weren’t from Wales and lived in ‘old money’. Many events, and I know former GH100 director Ian Javes has long held this view, hold the longer runs as not much more than an indulgence for those that want to run them. It’s the shorter runs that facilitate the longer runs being staged more often. In my race directing experience, that’s definitely the case.

    The metric challenge is certainly valid (with regard to the rounding of numbers) and I’m convinced that it’s a major factor in the appeal, or lack of, the miler in Australia.

    The fact of the matter is, it’s much harder to run fast than long. Much harder to run a marathon to your full potential than to simply finish a miler (which is what most of us do, even though we may have races within races).

    There are very few out there who specialise in the distance, even those who are habitually successful (read ‘David Waugh period at GH). Market is the issue and, regardless of the uptake even in the more populous countries, there are still massed more who rock up and run their club 10km every weekend (or Park Run).

    However, given the right course, in the right location (it’s not enough to have plenty of trail to make up the total), there is scope for the distance, but it has to be something special as opposed to putting one on for the sake of it. The scenery, the difficulty and the conditions all come into play. Big loops to make the distance? Not really. Alpine Challenge, Northburn, Western States? They’re probably on the money.

    1. Quite simple, I agree Alun 🙂 Good to have your insights. Yes, the shorter runs facilitate the longer ones for sure. But I look at the UTMB model and I know that could be created here. I’m sure UTA is already on the case. It’s a natural progression for them to do that. Build a base around the 50/100km events and you’ll soon enough have a bank of people asking… ‘what next?’

      1. The problem with the miler is that it’s a tipping point. ‘What next’ can quickly turn into ‘never again’. We aren’t naturally equipped to do it. Really. But we endure it (though it’s not healthy in repeated doses – ask the endocrine system).

        Kyle Scaggs, Anton Krupicka, etc. Sure there are exceptions who have longevity (Jornet, Jurek, Fordyce), but the reality, though I myself would argue that you can finish a miler if you can finish a marathon, is that it’s beyond most people’s reach and will never be more than an indulgence as a distance.

        Western states has the allure of history, which makes it so difficult to get in. But it’s maybe the same as 6ft Track – it’s history, not the distance.

        Make no mistake, I personally love the miler but honestly believe it’s something for the few. Watch this space 🙂

  3. Admit i think in miles (when i was going to school we were turning metric in Australia), think it is a much more challenging distance as, unless you are fast, you are out overnight, 100K doesn’t have the same ring or allure to me at all and i admit for years 50 Miles was my “pet” distance just don’t call it 80.5K !!!

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