A few years ago I did a post highlighting what I thought were the five toughest ultras in Australia and following some further discussion, it’s probably high time that list was updated to consider a few new races to hit our trail scene in the last few years..
In the past we’ve looked at the toughest ultras in world and granted, these things are also very subjective. But what is tough?
The definition and interpretation of that differs from person to person. For some, it can be the course, for others the heat and in putting this list together, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible as to what tough means. For the most part however, the toughness of an ultra really does begin with elevation and descent. It’s a prerequisite to entry in many regards and you’ll find that the five listed in here all have significant degrees of elevation as a benchmark.
One thing I will add is that I’m also of the belief that any track ultra over 24 hours is also extremely tough, but for one massively different reason. There’s no elevation change (for the most part) in track ultras, but the thing that does make them exceptionally tough is the mental component, along with the constant repetition on the body (in terms of the muscles used). You have to be tough as nails mentally to run one of those. I’ve done a few 12 hour track ultras and for me that was enough. 24/48/6 day is another kettle of fish entirely. So I’d like to acknowledge the role that track ultras play in our ‘toughness’ article.
So with elevation as a benchmark, what else have we considered as part of pulling together this list? The weather is always a massive consideration as is terrain too. Are there steps? Is it a particularly hard surface? Is it enclosed bush or over exposed? It’s not just about the overall climbing, but what about those climbs? What are the gradients? How many are packed into the race length? How many of them are there? If there’s a constant series of ups and downs, that plays a huge part in wearing down the body. All of these judgements and a few more come into play when considering the toughest races.
Let’s look at our picks for the five toughest. You may agree, you may not. That’s the beauty of ‘lists’, they get people talking and it’s all really just a bit of fun.
Joint 1st: GSER 100 miler and DU135
This is a really tough one to separate, because both offer quite different things. If you’re looking at climbing per km then GSER would edge DU135 out, but then if you consider the terrain and length then DU135 would edge GSER out. It’s horses for courses as what we really need are people who have raced both to offer up some thoughts and that’s pretty hard to come by right now. One person I have heard comment who has ‘attempted’ both races put the DU135 out there as tougher, but we need a little more comparison to truly find a standout winner for this one. For those interested, the GSER100 miler has around 10,500m of climbing and 11,000m of descending. The terrain in places is also pretty hardcore, with one 7km section taking me 3.5 hours when I finished the 50 miler last year.
For its own part, the DU135 has 9,200m of climbing, but spread out over a longer distance compared to the GSER 100 miler, but by all accounts it’s the terrain of the DU135 which makes is significantly tough. But if you look at the finishing times of the ‘average runner’, then you’ll see that it sits at around that 45-55hr mark for both races. Choose your poison!
3. The Hounslow Classic
When you consider that this race is just 68kms long with nearly 4,500m of elevation (and the same descent too), there’s not many other races that have that sheer level of intensity in Australia. Add to this the way in which you get that elevation and the gradients on the climbs too, many of which are just steps and we all know what steps mean – an average gradient of around 25-30% for the most part. Check out the elevation profile below from last year, it’s just ball-breaking:
But while there are races I’m sure around the world with more elevation in a shorter race distance, it’s the constant up and down, up and down that’s the massive killer in the Hounslow Classic. As the race director, Sean Greenhill said to me, “There were a lot of broken men and women out there today,” and it’s true. With a 40% DNF rate, these weren’t your average JP Morgan Botanical Garden 5km corporate challenge guys turning up for an ultra because it’s cool to brag about it to your colleagues in the office on Monday morning type guys. These were proper mountain men, broken and lying on a heap on the floor afterwards. Battered from the sheer ferocity of their quads being mangled through the Grose Valley ‘mincer’.
4. The Alpine Challenge 100 miler
We jump from the stunning Grose Valley of NSW to the over exposed high plains of the Victorian Alps. The 100 mile course runners take in six major climbs with nearly 8,000m of ascent and equivalent descent including Mt Feathertop, Mt Hotham, Mt McKay, Spion Kopje, Mt Nelse and Victoria’s highest mountain, Mt Bogong, along with four river crossings.
Like Hounslow, there are some ripper climbs in this one, with gradients regularly averaging the 25-30% region again. But what makes Alpine particularly tough is the weather. Like its neighbour in New Zealand, The Northburn 100, you can quite literally run through four seasons in one day. While in the valley below, temperatures can quite easily hit the high 30s celsius, up top, it can equally be raging a storm, lashing down rain or snow if you’re lucky and wind speeds that will keep you clicking over at 25 minute kilometre pace. In respect of that, you need gear, and lots of it, turning this one into an almost two-day hike for some. The course is also massively exposed up on the high plains and there’s very little respite from the elements, be it wind rain or sunshine.
5. Hut2Hut Oscars 100
Another new entrant onto the list is Hut2Hut Oscars 100, which follows quite a bit of the same course as the early parts of the GSER100 miler, save a few turnoffs to different places. Indeed, if you’re unable to make a certain time cut off point, then you’ve got to make your way to one of the nearest designated huts and kip for the night there. The Hut 2 Hut course is, quite simply, a bit of a brute. Over 100km various GPS units will come up with different results, but there’s around 5,700 metres of gain. Ten peaks will be bagged. Not big by world standards – indeed Buller itself is the highest at 1805m – but try knocking off ten of them in a row, with plenty of diving down to the valley floor before climbing back up and you will know you’ve worked hard. A much deserved entrant into our new list.
Your say: Which races are the toughest in your opinion?