Running in the scenic birthplace of modern Australia
It was approaching the spring weekend of November 8th and I was following timeline feeds of friends online who were flying into East Java, embarking on their BTS ultra trail running adventure at Mount Bromo national park. I must admit, I was envious that I couldn’t join the troop this year on account of me starting a new job.
I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. I had to participate in spirit somehow and go find a trail race to run too! And so I looked up Sydney Trail Series and noted that they had one last spring race scheduled for the same weekend that BTS was taking place. And so I paid AU$55 for the medium distance of 11km (they had 8, 11, 20 and 30km), choosing that category because I had persuaded a friend, Lil – who had never run a trail race in her life – to join me, and so I chose a distance that was doable for both of us (thus reducing the chances that she’d ban me as a friend after).
Sydney Trail Series
The Sydney Trail Series is pretty interesting in that they hold events that only run throughout the southern hemisphere seasons of spring and summer. In the months of Sep-Nov, they hold the spring series in Botany Bay, and then after taking a break for Christmas and New Year, they resume from Jan-Mar with the summer episodes in Manly Dam. If you miss a race for a particular month, you can always join the following month in the season. Or you could join every month, build your way up and upgrade the distances progressively. And you get a discount if you sign up for 2 races, getting the third one free.
Now runners in Australia are crazy fast (maybe powered by years of eating Vegemite and their more inculcated competitive sports culture from young). I’m absolutely back-of-the-pack material but I definitely didn’t want to be dead last because that probability is insanely high here. So I looked up the previous month’s race results to see whereabouts realistically I’d be for the 11km. The first person to finish did it in 45 minutes and the last person completed in 1hour 49mins.
Finishing a trail run is always a bit iffy – because of the uneven terrain and surprises that mother nature throws you along the landscape, it’s a bit harder to target a specific time. However with the information I had from last month’s results, I told myself to aim for anything between a 1:20 and 1:35 completion time.
Historically sigfinicant venue
The venue of the race was in an area called Kurnell which is home to Botany Bay National Park, about 22 minutes southbound away from the Sydney city centre according to Wikipedia (in reality it actually took us almost an hour). It boasted of spectacular sandstone clifftop views overseeing the ocean as you run down coastline of the park so I was pretty keen to indulge in the scenery. That’s how I got Lilien to sign up for the 11km and not the 8km as she originally planned: I sold her on the coastal views that wouldn’t have been in the route had she gone for the shorter distance (c’mon Lil, you know that extra 3km was worth it!).
I never quite had the time to research into the race venue much, but when it was done I was in awe to learn that the national park is so historically significant. It was actually the peninsular area in which Captain James Cook, the English founder of modern day Australia, first arrived on his ship, HMS Endeavour in 1770. It was also home to the native people of Goorawal and Gweagal, the first Aboriginals to have made contact with the newly arrived Europeans.
Originally Captain James Cook wanted to name the bay Stingray Bay but later changed it to Botany Bay thanks to the botanists who collected unique and bizzarre samples during their expedition. Also, Captain Cook first christened the state New Wales but then changed it to New South Wales. Thus through this eventful landing, Australia was “discovered” by the English (according to history, the Dutch found the continent earlier and called it New Holland, but didn’t bother to explore it) and colonies grew to become what the country is today.
This information added a new dimension of awareness to my trail racing experience and I was glad to have had the opportunity to run here.
Getting to race venue
I stayed over at Lil’s house to save the hassle of me travelling so early in the morning from my home suburb. After dressing up, I made us both my favourite pre-race fuel for breakfast: toasted bread slathered with peanut butter and topped with sliced bananas. I was surprised to learn Lil had never had something like that. To me, it was a go-to breakfast for runners, perfect fuel for running and ridiculously easy to make.
We started driving to Kurnell after about 6am, thanks to spring time the day got longer and it was already bright at this time. I love that feeling of a highly-anticipated journey to a race venue on a sleepy Sunday when most people are still snoring with dried drool down their chins and hardened bits of crust in their eyes – and there I was, bright-eyed and rearing to go!
As we approached nearer to Kurnell, we passed by many pelotons of cyclists on the road, each wearing their own vibrant and colourful team jerseys and faithfully riding within their groups, so I assumed they were all participating in an event (aside from runners, cylists are just as crazy). It promised to be a good cloudless day with showers towards the early afternoon, so it was perfect race weather with temperatures in the high teens and low 20s.
Upon arriving at the national park, we were ushered by attendants to park our car outside the entrance at a vacant lot as the parking space inside was supposedly full. We had to walk about 500m to get to the race site.
Lil didn’t get to register for the race before we came. As the Aussies say, no worries, mate! The nice thing about races here (and I guess many other races in Western countries) is that you can still do a last minute sign up for it on the day of, up till maybe an hour to 15 minutes before gun-time. The only caveat is you need to cough up an extra $10. That’s about the only downside to registering late.
The longer distance categories of 20km and 30km were flagged off earlier at around 6 or 7am, so we could see people already running around with their hydration backpacks, making their way along the course. My 11km race was starting at 8am so we toed the start line not long after Lil signed up. The organisers sent us off in waves, possibly not wanting to crowd the trail with so many of us at one go, especially since the trail lane gets narrower and narrower midway.
The 11km was pretty straightforward and runners are told to follow pink ribbons on the course. We started at the beachside of Commemoration Flat, passing by an obelisk landmark called Solander Monument which is a tribute to Swedish botanist Daniel Solander who accompanied Captain James Cook during his expedition in 1770. The monument was erected 100 years later after the landing, in 1870.
We would run cross country-style for about 6.5 km past the beach into Yena Track fire trails, heading towards the clifftops where we passed a whale watching point called Cape Solander. Then run further down the coastline and sand dunes, only to U-turn near Cape Bailey Lighthouse and back up the same way to the starting point.
The first views of the clifftops were breathtaking, seas for miles to come and majestic white cliffs in the far distance. I’ve gotten actually used to seeing this type of scenery when running off-road in Sydney, it being a coastal city and all, but it’s always a visual feast to come into contact with it time and time again.
The winds blew mightily as I ran on the uneven washboard-like sandstone surfaces of the clifftops while admiring the cove. The winds were so strong sometimes I felt like I was going to be blown off the cliff and into the sea!
Anyway, a few runners (the casual ones) stopped for a few photo opportunities (how could you not, views were so amazing) but most people kept running and didn’t bat an eyelid, most likely their competitive streak keeping them focussed.
To reach the U-turn where the lighthouse was located, we had to traverse sandy landscapes, sand dunes of sorts if you will. It got quite tough to run here as the sand was soft as heck with inclines. I didn’t (and couldn’t) complain though – when it comes to sand dunes, I think BTS volcanic ash sand dunes are more of a sabotage to your running pace, so I made my way patiently in the sand trail, not exerting too much because resistance is futile. Just go with the flow and enjoy the run, as they say!
Because it had already been raining a lot recently, there were also muddy tracks to deal with. No choice but to just run through the slippery sludge, hoping I wouldn’t fall face-first into the muck.
When I finally saw the lighthouse in the distance I wondered how much further I’d have to move to get to it, but then I saw a U-turn sign in the distance with a check point attendee waiting there. So we didn’t need to run to the light house afterall, it was just a landmark. No worries – I made the U-turn and then proceeded to make my way back to the starting line.
I didn’t forget to admire the coastal views again, this time it was on my right. I saw a camera man positioned rather indiscreetly to my left side and he took some shots of me as I waved furiously.
The spread of runners was getting thinner at this point as I noticed less people around me, I assumed more than 70% had already or nearly completed by the time I had made the U-turn. I repeated my trudging of the muddy tracks, braving of the sandy trails and actually managed to bump into Lil who was running from the opposite side and was just heading out to the U-turn checkpoint. We hugged and took a quick selfie and laughed out loud about how crazy the sandy trails were. As we posed for a shot, the strong winds blew my visor away, resulting in this shot below:
I guess being a new trail runner really took the wind out of Lil as I could see the bewildered look of exhaustion on her face, but I was so proud of her for even wanting to try! After a quick see-ya-later, we continued our own journeys.
Running back into the non-coastal areas of the national park where trees and bushes grew tall and wild gave me a sense of peace as I remembered what it was like running through the national park in Bromo, it felt similar. Pink ribbons tied onto branches flapped lazily in the wind and continued to guide me.
On the sandstone rock surfaces, I jumped over puddles of rain water, but missed one and got my shoes and socks wet. The water that seeped into my shoes felt icy cold and I yelped from the sensation. But I had no choice, I now had to run in wet socks. After a while they warmed up and I didn’t notice anymore. At the 8km checkpoint I decided to take a breather, chewed on some watermelons and gummy candy for the road.
Nearing the finish line I came across some folks who were already done and they cheered and clapped, telling me I only had 200metres more to finish so I ran as fast as I could. Another photographer was positioned strategically behind the finish line so I raised my arms and zoomed past the electronic tracker. Net and target time achieved: 1:32:12! I wasn’t last after all, placing 157th out of 165 runners (25 of out 29 runners in my age category 30-39). Haha, awesome – I’ll take it – 95th percentile it is!
This was probably the first race I had ever entered that only earned me bragging rights and no medal, which is ok with me – less junk for me to keep and the experience and sceneries more than made up for that.
Post-race food came in the form of a sandwich with freshly cooked two eggs (I skipped the bacon) and ketchup (no nasi lemak sorry mate. :)) Prize-giving ceremony was held about an hour after I arrived and it was interesting how winners get to choose their own reward by selecting what they wanted from a pile of running gadgets, shoes and clothing on the table. Pretty cool!
All in all, I enjoyed my first trail race experience in Australia very much, especially after knowing how historical the venue was. I look forward to joining other off-road events in my adopted country. Summer trail series, here I come! Till then, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!