Julian Spence Interview: 21yr Old Bogong to Hotham Record Broken

What a fantastic run by Julian Spence to break the Bogong to Hotham record, which had stood for 21 years. It had to happen eventually, and while in the preview I said that it might come from Ben Duffus or Blake Hose, to see Julian break it is such a fantastic achievement.

Julian put together a fabulous run and the focus is deservedly on him. We’ll always debate the virtues of who should do what with their training, but the reality is that no-one really knows for sure until race day, nothing is expected in big mountain ultras. This is the beauty of trail running and the variables that we have to deal with, like the flats, the hills, the terrain and the weather. It’s what makes our sport very exciting and while things can go very right, they can go very wrong too.

So how did Julian do it?

Well, eager to understand I sought some thoughts from Julian post race, and he very kindly gave me some fantastic insight into his training and how the race went for him. Previously I’d made note of the difference in training between Ben and Julian, commenting that while both had done similar weekly kms, Ben had put in significantly more vertical than Julian and wondered if this would count on such a hilly course?

While I didn’t make a call on who would win, I thought Ben’s climbing and possibly experience in ultra trail racing would give him the edge, but specifically said, “Indeed the match up between Ben and Julian is a pretty interesting one, the former being more of a climber, whereas the latter very nippy on the flats. Julian’s had a few runs on this course, mixing it with some other big names in Aussie road marathons, so he knows what to expect.”

On balance, I favoured Ben slightly, however it’s great to be proven wrong, learning and understanding the approaches of others and helping us all to become better runners.

Julian is a ‘roadie’ and a quick guy, recording a 2:26 marathon at Melbourne back in October of last year and there’s no denying that if you want to run quickly, then you need to train quick too. That’s just a fact.

Julian confessed that he didn’t do any specific speed work sessions on the track, but the vertical climbing he did do was quite a leap for him.

“I did very little speed work and nothing on the track. My base from the Melbourne Marathon was still noticeable so I felt I had strength. Although I didn’t do any massive weeks of climbing, it was a big increase for me. My runs were essentially trail running with some hills in there.” 

So where does the difference come in?

“I tried to make my easy 10 milers through the hills of Ballarat and took advice from Blake Hose and Chris Wight as to what they thought would work. I also started seeing a strength and conditioning coach to build some strength about 5 months ago. I felt this helped. I increased my trail running and my climbing and I made sure I was still getting in ‘ok’ mileage, as well as a couple of longer runs, like 40km and 50km at pace.”

So while the ‘vert’ wasn’t as high as others, the thing that appears to work for Julian was two or three specific things, that of getting a strength and conditioning coach on board, doing ‘easy’ runs on undulating hills and doing some longer runs at pace. So while speed work wasn’t part of the equation per se, the faster longer runs certainly played their part in being able to negotiate the big tough hills at Bogong with relative speed.

So how did the race go? Was the record always something in mind?

“To be honest, I didn’t really feel great at any point in the run. Although I got up the hills quickly and had some solid sections on the flat, nothing came easy. I don’t think anybody can have a ‘great’ day at B2H. It’s just too hard! I had no reference when I was climbing as to the pace I should be going so just tried to go by feel.

“I was expecting to see Ben come up behind me after every little staircase so was surprised to see a gap when I made it to Warby Corner. My plan was to really wind it up along the flats but the constant rocky and uneven trail made it very difficult.

“My hip started to hurt at 38km and I had some slow kms. This stayed with me until Pole 333 when I started to feel a bit better. Swindlers Spur killed me and my battery died on my watch. I totally lost interest in any record or even winning the race and just wanted to finish line. I was so shocked to hear the time when I finished. I was very emotional at the finish line because of how the race systematically broke me down.

“That relentlessness of the single track on your hips, legs and ankles and the length of the climbing is what makes it the hardest race in the country. Brett Saxon has treated this race with the respect that it deserves and I’m honoured to be on the winners list let alone a record holder.

Spoken with true humility. I remember around 4-5 years ago I got an email from Julian out of the blue asking for some advice on ultras when he debuted at the Great Ocean Walk 100km. When I asked him his marathon time and he told me, 2:27 at the time, I was not only in shock, but in awe of the fact that we had some speedy guy coming over to do some trails. I really didn’t think I could offer a speedy guy much advice at all. He ran 9:58 that day, which was far quicker than anything anyone was doing at the time, but then he went back to road for a while.

When I saw his name on the starter’s list, I mentioned to Brett Saxon on an email a few days ago that it was exciting to see Julian having a crack at this race, but was also conscious that we’ve had quite a few quick guys have a crack at Bogong to Hotham before and the record has stood for so long. Julian is a hugely deserved holder of this record now and he will do some seriously great things in ultra trail running, I’d love to see him have a crack at the Six Foot Track record too, I think he’d give that a really good nudge and lower it by a few minutes.

But all that remains to be said is that we can all talk about what we think is right for training for certain races, but Julian left me with some great words which I totally echo, “I honestly think it depends on what works for you. Or even more importantly, what you enjoy. If you enjoy your training you’ll run more!”

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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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