mmore than 5,000 people lined up for Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) on the last weekend in October, making it the largest trail running event in the country and, according to the race organizers, the second-largest in the world. But the multi-day event, which includes 50km and 100km ultramarathons, almost didn’t go ahead because of the sport’s vulnerability to extreme weather and climate change.
UTA, which is owned by Ironman, was postponed in May after heavy rain, and the lead-up to the October event was again hampered by severe wet weather. The 50km and 100km courses were altered from sweeping loops through the Megalong valley in the Blue Mountains to mostly out-and-back routes with more road running.
The UTA race director, Nick Christopher, says it was “a mission” to get October’s race ready, with the final courses locked in less than a month before the event. “It takes a very calculated approach to understand which trails have the capacity to withstand the runners and the rain, as well as which ones you might need to avoid,” he says.
Extreme weather and climate change are also affecting the industry on a larger scale. Paul Ashton, the director of another race company, Running Wild, says the window for alpine trail running in Australia is getting smaller, and riskier, every year. “Climate change is having an inordinate impact,” he says.
Ashton’s Mount Buller race used to be held in February, but too many days of extreme heat at that time of year forced it back to April. “Now I don’t do any runs basically between mid-December and early March because of the risk of bushfires,” he says. “But now you get floods and road slips and snowstorms in November. And March and April is fine.”
At the end of last month La Niña took its toll as Ashton rescheduled another alpine trail run from later this month to April 2023, because of landslides in Falls Creek after heavy rain. Last week ski resorts were blanketed in snow after an unseasonable cold snap across the country’s south-east, just as places like Mount Buller were preparing to open their summer trails to mountain bikers and walkers.
Severe weather events don’t just wreak havoc with the running calendar, they also often impact the long-term viability of walking and running trails in the landscape. “Climate change is going to be significant, especially once we get El Niño back, and the drying out and the threat of bushfires,” Ashton says.
Victorian runner Ben Clark, 45, ran his seventh UTA 100km this year, and says the trail community has seen what happens when races go wrong. One of the most high-profile race tragedies occurred in 2011 when several runners were caught in a bushfire during an ultrarunning race in the Kimberley. Turia Pitt suffered burns to 60% of her body and supreme court action against the race organizers ended in an out-of-court settlement. Last year 21 runners died in Gansu, China when extreme weather hit an ultramarathon.
While some people expressed disappointment at the changes to this year’s UTA event, others understood the need. “They make the changes to keep us safe and allow us to go out and do the run,” Clark says. “While there’s no incidents, we’ve got more chance of these events continuing to happen.”
Despite trouble with an injury Clark finished UTA in less than 13 hours, and it was the bushfire-affected landscape that stood out on the new route. “It was very exposed, and unfortunately lots of black trees to look at,” he says. “We were just out in the sun and that part of it was unpleasant.”
But the course also offered some nice surprises. “The waratahs were out in bloom, explosions of red all over the place,” Clark says. “That was very cool, not something we would ever get to see on a normal year.”
Christopher acknowledges UTA ”this year wasn’t the cleanest run”. “But when you talk to people who ran the race afterwards, the excitement and joy, and the new challenge that was presented to them definitely outweighs a little bit of a wait to get that information,” he says.
Trail running events have rapidly expanded in the last decade – from less than 10 events to more than 300 in 2022, most with multiple distances on offer from 1km to more than 300km. Tour De Trails director and tourism consultant, Chris Ord, says the sport’s growth spurt has been fueled by people’s desire to be outdoors and a low barrier to entry.
“You don’t need to spend a lot of money,” he says. “And you’ve got a low skill threshold. At the very core of trail running is this idea of a return to nature. You get the mental health benefits of being in nature and being active at the same time. That is a very addictive thing… Generally once you’re in, you’re just absolutely hooked on trial running.”
Ord says technological improvements have also encouraged people to try trail running. “You can jump online and there’ll be a Facebook group that covers the region you’re trying to run in,” he says. “There’ll be a million different mapping applications … you’ve got all this access to information.”
The Victorian Ultra Runners group, of which Clark is a member, has almost 3,000 active members on Facebook, where people share tips about local routes and training, and swap stories from events. Clark started trail running in 2012 and remembers the humble beginnings.
“In those first few years, you’d turn up for a race and you pretty much knew everyone who was there,” he says. “Whereas now you turn up and you may not know anyone.” After getting “wet, muddy and filthy” on his first trail run, Clark made the switch from road running.
“I just had an absolute blast and thought, ‘Oh, this is brilliant. Where else can you run around in the mud and it’s socially acceptable?’ And then it just kind of snowballed from there.”
And so did the sport in Australia. Trail running is running on any natural unpaved surface, usually on bushwalking tracks and often with a good dose of steep hills. When Ashton started Running Wild in 2000 his races had about 10 runners each, they now average 200 runners an event.
Ord says trail running has “an alchemy that I just don’t think exists in pretty much any other sort of pursuit”. “I guess maybe bushwalking. If you magnify the benefits and fun of bushwalking – that’s trail running.”
The flip side of the climate challenge is that because people take part in the sport to be in nature, Ord says more become advocates for the environment. “Trail running is one of the jigsaw pieces that gets people out to see it, experience it, love it, value it, fight for it.”