Getting Our Geek On: Bogong to Hotham Part 2

In the first part of our article from Chris Gippel about one of Australia’s oldest trail races, Bogong to Hotham, Chris analysed some of the race records and the history of the event. In this second part, he goes into more detail about what it actually takes to finish the race and make the infamous cut-offs at Langford Gap. As always, we’re indebted to Chris for his time and effort into pulling together this wonderful resource.

Probability of finishing the race

Much has been made of the difficulty in finishing the B2H, and being informed that typically more than half the field gets cut at Langford Gap, most non-elite runners would be giving some thought to their chance of making the cutoff. Many of them would rate their chances of finishing much higher than 50%, in the belief that those statistics apply to other runners. Nothing wrong with heading up the mountain full of confidence, but the statistics will tell the final story.

I found what appears to be reasonably reliable information on the number of starters and finishers for 23 of the 27 races held so far. The probability of any starter finishing ranged from 19% to 100% for individual years, 11 years (48% of years) had a finishing rate less than 50%, and combining data for all the years gave an average 52% chance of finishing. These findings are consistent with the general warnings given to athletes concerning this matter. I investigated the probability of finishing in some more detail based on a sample of complete race data from 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2016. This sample comprised 169 starters and 86 finishers. These years are a reasonable representation of all years, so I expect that the findings would apply generally.

For the 2016 race, the age/time relationship for finishers was similar to that of all the years combined (Figure 1). The very fast winning times of Stu Gibson and Lucy Bartholomew were outliers, most finishers were between 35 and 44 years of age, and there were only 2 finishers over 50 years of age, both male (Figure 2). Overall, 53% of starters finished the race. Females and males were equally likely to DNF, with females making up 21% of finishers and 20% of DNFs. The two most remarkable things about the DNFs were that there were no DNFs among the 7 starters aged under 30 years, but in contrast, of the 17 starters aged 50 and over, 15 were DNFs. This suggests that there is a strong age dependence on probability of finishing the race.

Age distribution of the entire field from 2016.
Age distribution of the entire field from 2016.

The gender split of starters in the combined set from all sampled years was 12% females, about the same proportion as the larger data set of finishers previously discussed. Females were slightly more likely than males to DNF, with females making up 10% of finishers and 14% of DNFs. The distribution of probability of finishing by age group (Figure 3) gives some indication of an individual’s chance of making the cutoffs. Ignoring the unexpectedly low value for the 40-44 year age group, the data show a clear pattern of probability of finishing increasing with age until 49 years, after which it drops markedly. So, runners from 25 to 49 years of age have a significantly better than even chance of finishing, but younger and older runners have a much lower chance.

Focusing on the older runners, 50 years and over, there were 34 starters in the sample, of which only 3 finished. Of the starters, 4 were female, and none of them finished. Considering that no female from this age class has ever finished the B2H, their probability of finishing is hopelessly low. But the opportunity seems ripe for someone to defy these improbable odds. For the men 50 years and over, the probability of finishing is only 10%. Max Scherleitner solely determined the 25% success rate for those 65 years and over, as in this sample of data he was successful in 1996 at age 65, but in the next 3 years, he got a DNF. The 60-64 age group is empty in this sample of data, but 4 runners of this age have finished the race. For example, Max Scherleitner was successful in 1995 at age 64 and Brian Jones set a good record in 2010. Only one runner attempted the race at an age over 70 years. That was Randall Hughes, who joined the 1999 field at the age of 74 years. At that time the cutoff was set as a time of day, so in recognition of his probable age handicap, he was sent off 36 minutes ahead of the rest of field, apart from Max Scherleitner, then aged 68, who started 12 minutes behind him. Hughes, unfamiliar with the route, and with nobody to follow, missed the first turn at the Staircase Spur, only 2 km from the start, and ran to Eskdale Spur before retracing his steps, a distance of about 9.2 km with 400 m vertical ascent and descent. Comparison of his Bivouac Hut split time with the times of others suggests that this unplanned excursion took him about 1:40 hr. From then on, Hughes made pretty slow progress over the course, finally reaching Langford Gap in 8:43:17 hr, 3:23 hr outside the 5:20 hr cutoff that applied at the time. This suggests that the cutoff would probably have been unattainable for Hughes, even if he’d stayed on course.

Probability of finishing the race by age group for males and females combined. Based on a sample of combined data from 1996, 1998-2001, 2016.
Probability of finishing the race by age group for males and females combined. Based on a sample of combined data from 1996, 1998-2001, 2016.

The low rate of success of younger runners in the B2H (Figure 3) might be explained by them having less experience, and less long-term conditioning for endurance racing. Older runners have had plenty of opportunity in their lives to gather experience and conditioning, so something else is restricting their chance of making the cutoff. As Joe Friel explained in Fast Over Fifty (2015, VeloPress), athletic performance often declines over 50 due to reduction in aerobic capacity and gravitation towards long, slow distance training. Shephard (Aging and Exercise. In: Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science, Internet Society for Sport Science, 1998) summarised that muscle strength peaks around 25 years of age, plateaus through 35 or 40 years of age, and then shows an accelerating decline, with 25% loss of peak force by the age of 65 years. In addition, risk of impairment of leg strength and flexibility due to osteoarthritis, particularly of the knees, increases with age. Together these factors conspire to make it disproportionately difficult for runners over 50 years of age to make the Langford Gap cutoff because the mountainous first section of the course requires strength and aerobic capacity to ascend, and strength and agility to descend. The race involves 3,554 m of ascent and 2,303 m of descent, with the majority, and the steepest sections, tacked in the first half. Some older athletes who can run all day on flatter terrain might gripe about the difficulty of the 6:00 hr cutoff at Langford Gap, but it’s there for safety reasons.

Statistically, the B2H is a particularly difficult challenge for older runners, especially older female runners, but the literature suggests that individuals could increase their chance of making the cutoff by including strength, agility and interval training sessions in their preparations. Making the cutoff depends on a number of factors, with the main ones being training, experience, injury prior to race, injury during race, disability, body weight, hydration and fuel (Figure 4), gear, illness, navigation, weather, gender and age. If gender and age are against you, it’s important to turn most of the other factors in your favour.

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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.

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