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Ultra-fit

Athletes push their limits

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Ultra-fit

In 1996, aged 30, Paul McGaw bought his first mountain bike. Unfit, overweight and struggling to shake his cigarette habit, McGaw knew it was time to take stock.

In 1996, aged 30, Paul McGaw bought his first mountain bike. Unfit, overweight and struggling to shake his cigarette habit, McGaw knew it was time to take stock.

“It’s that realisation that you are not indestructible anymore and that the fitness of your 20s is a long way behind you”, says McGaw, now 44.

“The idea of going to a gym and sitting on someone else’s sweaty machine, looking at four walls and dealing with people hacking and coughing everywhere didn’t really appeal, so I thought I’d take advantage of the amazing bush and tracks on the doorstep in Sydney.”

Ultrabiking

Since then McGaw has completed some 25 mountain bike races around the country, including the legendary four-day Wildside event in Tasmania, which he cheerfully describes as “brutal”. Along the way he has trimmed back to a healthy weight, stubbed out his last cigarette and discovered an insatiable appetite for endurance sport.

He is just one of a new army of ultra-fit weekend athletes who delight in pushing themselves to their limits, running 100 km or further through the bush or tackling gruelling mountain bike marathons in dozens of events that have sprung up around the country.

Often these events are sold out within days, or even hours, so keen are participants for the chance to prove that they are fit and strong enough—physically and mentally—just to cross the finish line.

Mountain running

One foot race that is becoming a firm fixture in the calendars of many endurance runners is the North Face 100, a 100 km event run through the rugged bush of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in May. The elite competitors can expect to complete the course in under 11 hours, while those at the back of the field may not see the finish line for 24 hours or more, running through the night by the light of head-torches.

Online registration opened on December 1, and within four hours more than half the 800 entries had been snapped up.

Paul Karis, who heads up The North Face in Australia and first conceived the event four years ago, says it has grown beyond all expectations.

“In the first year we had about 200 entrants and we really didn’t know what to expect in terms of putting on a 100 km run through the mountains with brutal elevation gains”, he says.

“We initially thought there would be a lot more people doing the pairs [a] and fewer people doing the hundred, but about 90 per cent of the field is doing the full hundred.”

Karis says many of the competitors are ordinary people curious to answer the question, “can I do it?”

“Once they have done one or two events they understand that it becomes a matter of time&all they have to do is keep going for a certain amount of time and they will finish.

“The idea of running 100 km with big hills and big descents is almost too hard to conceive”, Karis says. “But if you look at it saying, ‘I know I can probably keep going for 20 hours—walking, crawling, running, whatever—and I’ll get there’.”

Ultrarunning

It’s a philosophy that is very familiar to Kevin Tiller. Tiller is a veteran of the Australian ultrarunning scene, having first pulled on a pair of running shoes about 30 years ago as a 16-year-old growing up in the UK. When he moved to Australia he competed in marathons and then, sensing that the marathon distance was not enough for him, began competing in ultramarathons in the early 1990s.

In those early days, he says, it was very much a minority sport.

“No one knew about ultrarunning then”, he says. “At a lot of the races you’d only get ten or twenty people competing. It almost felt like the Australian runners’ magazine should be sold in a brown paper bag!”

But since those early, underground days, ultrarunning has become hugely popular, with a full calendar of events all year round in Australia.

Tiller has long been involved in the administration and promotion of running, having founded the popular website CoolRunning Australia (coolrunning.com.au). He is also race director of the iconic Six Foot Track Marathon, staged in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

Internet fuels popularity

One of the developments fuelling the growth of extreme events is the Internet, which provides the perfect forum for enthusiasts to find out about events and exchange information.

Tiller points to the North Face 100 as an example of an event that has grown almost purely through the buzz it has generated online.

“There isn’t a big marketing thing behind it”, he says. “It’s not in the public consciousness, but you have these niche areas of the Internet where people are talking about it and new people end up saying, ‘Hang on, they’re doing it and they seem pretty reasonable and they don’t have two heads, so maybe I can do it. Not tomorrow, but maybe if I train for a year or so ...”

The story is the same in extreme cross-country mountain bike racing, where events such as the Mont 24 Hour Race staged in Canberra in April are sold out within hours of opening for entries.

It’s the same story with the Dirt Works Classic, which takes mountain bike riders over a punishing 100 km or 50 km course north of Sydney in May and sold out more than 1500 spots within two days.

Gary Farebrother of Max Adventure organises the Dirt Works event and many others.

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth in popularity and numbers”, he says. “We pride ourselves in getting people out into the bush in nearly all our events so people can appreciate the beauty of the surroundings around Sydney.”

And, in common with many other similar events, the typical competitor tends to be well into middle age.

Age is no barrier

“The profile it appeals to is the more middle-aged person rather than your 19-year-old”, says Farebrother. “It’s the 30 to 45s or even 50-year-olds who have the high disposable income to buy the ‘bike bling’.”

It has even been suggested that taking up endurance racing is the new mid-life crisis for many men, who prefer the healthier option of Lycra and sweat to the clichéd sports car and new girlfriend.

Sports physiologists also point out that longer endurance races tend to favour older athletes, as they have had time to build the necessary stamina and mental toughness.

From his own figures, Tiller confirms that the longer events tend to attract an older crowd and he has his own theories as to why this is.

“I always think running is not a very sexy sort of sport”, he says. “Often people are getting up early and running in the rain or the heat. Maybe younger people are interested in more social sports, but it suits people who have jobs and mortgages and families because they can sort of disappear early and make it fit into their life.”

Ultimately, however, for Tiller, who works in IT, getting out into the bush and pushing his body to its limit simply reminds him that he is alive.

“If you get up and sit on a train or drive in your car to work in an office every day it feels like a very domesticated existence”, he says. “But running wild over the hills makes you feel like it’s an adventure and you’re not just a tame animal.”


Coast to Kosciuszko Ultramarathon

Reputedly the toughest foot race in Australia, the “Coast to Kosci” goes from Eden on the NSW coast to the top of the country’s highest peak—a distance of 240 km.  coast2kosci.com

Kathmandu Adventure Series and the Teva Adventure Series

Held around the country, these are team “sprint” events that bring together mountain biking, trail running, kayaking and navigation. maxadventure.com.au/adventureseries / tevaadventureseries.com

The North Face 100

Competitors either run the full 100 km or compete as “marathon pairs”, each running 50 km. The course covers some of the most rugged parts of the Blue Mountains and even includes a section where the runners are expected to climb ladders out of a valley! thenorthface.com.au/100

Pure Tasmania Wildside MTB

This mountain bike event is run every second year—the next race will be in January 2012. It’s a multi-stage race run over four days, demanding an extra level of fitness from riders who have little recovery time between stages. wildsidemtb.com

Dirt Works 100 km Classic NSW

A perennially popular mountain bike event run around beautiful tracks in the Hawkesbury region north of Sydney, the course follows the historic Convict Trail through the Dharug and Yengo National Parks affording some spectacular ridgeline views along the way. maxadventure.com.au/100kmclassic/nsw

Salomon Tre-X Off-Road Triathlon Series

This is a series of six events held in three states (Queensland, Victoria and NSW) that combine mountain bike riding, trail running and swimming in a hard-core twist to the usual triathlon format. tre-x.com.au

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