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The Toughest Race in Australia
Report by Sean GreenhillHeld 9th January 2000
The Bogong- Hotham 60K, or "Rooftop Run", crosses the roof of Australia by summitting three of the highest mountains in Victoria- Mt Bogong (1986m), Mt Nelse (1882m) and Mt Hotham (1868m) via the Australian Alps Walking Track.
Kevin Cassidy, who has finished the American Western States, Leadville, Wasatch and Angeles Crest Hundred Mile Runs, rates this as, mile for mile, the toughest he has done. Mike Ward, equal first place at the 1998 Glasshouse Trail Fifty Mile, had three attempts at it before making even the halfway cutoff, and still speaks about it in hushed tones. Kevin Tiller, a man who delights in self inflicted pain (and yet is good enough to finish several times in the top 10 at Six Foot Track) loves this race (and what it does to him) so much as to be it's unofficial marketing manager.
The extra difficulty of the Bogong lies in the aggressive halfway cutoff. Runners who are going the full distance have 5 hours 30 minutes to reach the 34K mark at Langford Gap. People can scoff that they can cover the distance in half the time, but the fact is that more than half the competitors come up short. Those that make the cutoff must then urge weary legs to continue across the Bogong High Plains, descend into Cobungra Gap then ascend to the finish at the summit of Mt Hotham.
I entered the first half only, knowing that far better runners than myself have not stood a chance of making the cutoff. Having secured Monday January 10 off work, I caught a bus to Albury Friday night, and was given a lift by fellow Sydney Strider Martin Fryer, who now lives in Canberra, and was Mike Ward's co winner at the 1998 Glasshouse. Driving towards Mount Beauty, where we stayed the Saturday night, we soon spotted a conical peak with a number of ridges and spurs running off it that towered far above its fellow members of the Victorian Alps. This was Mt Bogong, and we had no doubt that it's aboriginal name, which translates as "big fella", was appropriate.
After settling at the Snow Gum Motel, Martin and I drove out to the start at Mountain Creek camping ground. As we were about to leave the Motel, Jim Screen, President of Sydney Striders, pulled in, having just completed the same mission. "Can you see the size of that bloody mountain?" he enthused. Martin and I (and Martin's son Luke) walked from Mountain Creek about a mile along the track to the base of Staircase Spur, the start of the real climb. The altitude gain over the 8K from Mountain Creek to the summit of Bogong is 1401m, the second highest gain from base to summit of any peak on the Australian continent.
Sunday morning, in the cool twilight at Mountain Creek, the seventeen desperadoes who were to attempt the first half gathered. Jonathan Worswick, another Strider who now lives in the USA and has finished the epic Hardrock Hundred Mile in around 34 hours, was there, as was the Human Metronome, Kelvin Marshall. So too was Strider Joel Mackay, who I had run with at the "inferno" Sri Chinmoy Marathon last October. After a quick briefing from Race Director Geoff Hook, I muttered, "Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure to know you" and the starting whistle went at around 6.21am.
The first mile, a vehicle track, crosses streams four times at bridges, then runners come across a sign marked "Staircase Spur" pointing to the right. The real ascent commences immediately. The course is not specifically marked for the race, but there are occasional plaques saying "Alpine Trail" and across the mountain summits and high plains the trail is defined by ski poles.The trail veered upwards at an alarming rate, and I was walking strongly upwards through ferny rainforest. Ahead, I could see the backs of Jim Screen and another character named Paul, who soon dropped back to stretch a calf muscle, and I passed him. Through the trees, I could sometimes still see Jim, every time ominously high above me for someone who wasn't that far in front. On aching quads, we emerged into a different line of trees, without ferns, but instead dry and littered with deadfall. I took the chance, at a flat section here, to run again, but soon the relentless haul upwards sapped from me the desire to do it again at any other flat sections. After about an hour forty I emerged into clear and trotted down to Bivouac Hut where a volunteer was filling Jim's bottles and chatting to him. "Real people," I joked as I approached. Paul joined us in a few seconds and the three of us forged onwards, above the treeline, on rocky trail surrounded by head high bushes. This shrubbery parted in a few spots to show us what a gloriously clear bright morning it was, and the Australian Alps rolled away below us as far as the eye could see. Soon the shrubs gave way to alpine grasses and we were running across several massive embankments, and looking to the north we could see as fas as Kosciuzsko.
This was a magnificent, yet humbling, environment to be running in, as the very size of the spurs and ridges made one feel insignificant. Soon enough, I was heading straight up a damp grassy slope to the summit cairn of Bogong, Paul having made several minutes on me and Jim about a minute beneath me. I passed a monument to three skiiers killed in a 1943 blizzard, then reached the highest spot in Victoria. I had made the summit in about 2.10. Three volunteers filled my bottles and pointed me towards the ski poles, which arced aross the Bogong Massif and descended off it to the south. I set off, and within a few minutes Jim had joined me. He was already resigned to not making the cutoff, and we used his camera to take several photos. We dropped off the massif and followed the poles through the trees to Cleve Cole Hut, where more volunteers waited. "Pleasant little run to the river, is it?" said Jim with a dry smile. We continued dropping, crossed some swamply moorland and came upon Maddisons Hut, where a volunteer pointed us towards T Spur, the infamous descent to Big River.
What confronted us here was a sheer drop along the top of a ridge through undergrowth that had not been maintained in years. At first dry forest with a rocky floor, then damp rainforest, following the "trail" was guesswork at the best of times. I ended up following the path made by deadfall (and there was a lot of it) as it was washed into the river by snow. Near the bottom I came across Paul, who had stopped, unsure of which way to go, and we bush bashed our way down a sheer drop to Big River. Jim was waiting at the bottom, about to grasp the safety chain. We forded the icy water, refilled our bottles, and took stock Four hours had elapsed. "We've only come a miserable 18K," said Jim, then he glanced up and said, "it's taken us this long to descend off this bugger, now we've got to climb it's brother!"
The climb out was impossible. There did not seem to be any trail at all, just an incredibly steep muddy slope covered in rocks, branches and ferns. Jim and I took one route, which was not a trail in any sense but had been flattened by previous runners, and Paul took a similar line twentry or thirty metres to our right. We flailed on the loose surface, climbing upwards on all fours. I was grasping rocks and plants to haul myself up, and half a dozen times I put my hand around nettles. "How much more of this steep, steep, steep?" said Jim. After about 40 minutes, we crossed over to the real trail, just as Paul worked his way over to us and kept going upwards, leading the way. We were still on all fours some of the time. "Paul, is this the slow route?" said Jim. "Sorry Jim," replied Paul, "but we're coming from a river valley to a mountain peak, which means going up." "What kind of marketing exec are you?" grumbled Jim, referring to Paul's vocation. Eventually Paul took off from us and Jim and I reached the line of Duane Spur, which would take us to Nelse. The trail was much better here, but we were too drained to do anything but walk, with rest stops thrown in every few minutes. Eventually we reached Roper Hut, not far from the treeline, and Jim's 5.30 cutoff passed as we filled our bottles and rested up. Then we set off through the bushes, passed the treeline, and emerged onto a damp moorland, with the several summits of Nelse (West, North, Central and South) rising flatly above. Here thr trail was marked by a vehicle track and ski poles. Walking when we needed, or jogging, Jim and I reached the next aid stop, Warbys Corner, a few minutes ahead of the last two runners.
This was magnicent, exposed scenery. Flower covered moorlands sloped away in all directions, and behind us we had the back of Bogong, ahead were Mt Feathertop, Mt Hotham, Mt Mackay and others. By now clouds were closing in, and we set off from Warbys with the last two competitors. I started running ahead of the other three (I was not going to come last, I decided) and Jim set out to keep up. The rain started sprinkling down as we followed the vehicle track past several grops of puzzled and bemused hikers, then intensified as we missed the turnoff at Watchbed Creek where the trail separates from the road. We headed diagonally back cross country to meet it, and entered a few sparse groupings of trees as we gradually recrossed the treeline. The trail forded several small waterways, then we entered the last aid station, where the trail crossed Langford East Aqueduct, then turned right to follow it. I pulled away a little from Jim over the last two kilomtres, but as I turned the corner to see the cars parked at Langford Gap and the finish, I waited for him, then we crossed the line arm in arm. Our final time was 7.22.58. It was the second longest run (in terms of time) I had ever done, and Jim, a veteran of Comrades and several Australian ultras, agreed it was the toughest he had seen. Driving out of Langford Gap, the lightning started cracking and hail pelted down.
Jonathan Worwick won the complete race to Hotham in around 7.50, having gotten lost for an hour climbing out of Big River. Martin and Joel made the halfway cut by less than 10 minutes, having also gotten lost for half an hour in the same gully. They went on to finish just behind Kelvin Marshall. A radio operator told me that only three out of seventeen did not get lost on this particular climb. Apparently it had been damged in a rainstorm and not remarked.
Navigational difficulties apart (which may be rectified by the time the event rolls around next year), this race demands that competitors use all their speed and strength to make the cut, then they still have to hold on over the second half. Even if one just runs the first 34K, it is still worth the travel- it alone is tougher and more magnificent than many longer races such as Six Foot Track. Next year, if you want a real challenge, put it on the calendar.
Sean has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :
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(includes links to other Bogong to Hotham articles)