Feature Article from AURA Ultra Magazine
Contributed by Down Under 135mi race director Dion Milne
No sooner had the second edition of the now infamous DU135 finished in 2018 and we were already planning 2019. The four-person creators and race committee were, and are, in a unique position not afforded by many races around Australia. For anyone who has the lads on Strava, you’ll see three of the four probably spend more time on course than any other race directors anywhere. This provides an intimate knowledge of the course to the extent their partners might even be a little jealous.
What changes would be in store for 2019? It is now known that every year DU135 provides a course tweak so the same 135 miles is never run twice. From year one to two it was the inclusion of Mt Wilson – it may not be the size of the mountains usually frothed about in trail running circles, but she’s a little beauty with challenges all on her own. We have memories of Kevin Muller coming off it in 2018 uttering more words than he speaks in a year, some unable to be repeated.
This year had as many as 48 athletes entered at some point, but credit goes out to the 31 athletes who got to the start – a feat all on its own. Many travelled from across Australia and included internationals Michael Stuart from Christchurch, NZ (2019 Northburn 100mi runner up) and American athlete Jessica Hardy from California who was aiming to put the DU135 in her bag of 135-mile finishes including Badwater 135 and Brazil 135.
As we approached 8am on Friday, a crowd of 150 people waited for the whip crack to get the athletes underway as they did their last checks and said goodbyes to crew members and family. RD Anthony sent them off down a dried upriver with a very Aussie whip crack ahead; there were no mountains in sight, just the modest look of a few tree covered hills, but for those who hadn’t been there previously, it was about to get gnarly really quick.
As expected, there were groups forming where athletes settled in with familiar faces. We do encourage people to navigate the gorge together with a pack mentality, because an early tumble in there and you must be one tough person to carry any minor injuries 200km plus through here. We knew Michael Stuart was good, and we knew Karen Barrett had an axe to grind, but watching their dots break away from the group made everyone watching wonder if they had gone too hard, too early. It can set you up or break you with 2018 being a prime example, where it set up Ben Hirst but cut down Jay Kinsella.
At Bears Head hub (16km) it was interesting to see the set ups of each athlete. Twelve qualified athletes would go through with no crew, having a quick top up of electrolytes and water, and others working in a pit crew setup. It was the first chance for crews to also work out who was with whom, after all, the crews would be crossing paths for potentially 54 hours, so a comradery is always formed quickly.
With the race safely underway, the four of us dispersed across the course to make sure plans were executed at the hubs ahead. As other organisers would attest in a race of this size, you can go from feeling like there’s lots of time, to chasing your tail, so the hours of preparation at this point needed to be rolled out as early as practicable. We were fortunate to have the local Melton City Runners playing a huge role with volunteers and behind the scenes; many of their members had really taken ownership of their hubs since the event started.
Our next hub, Hogan’s Heroes, was another walk-in for crews and a little bit of a drive around. Some chose to have crews meet them, while others waited at Loh’s Lane (34km). The first three remained as Michael Stuart, Karen Barrett and Damian Smith whilst the rest continued to travel in groups of two to four. What we did see was that the gnarly terrain had already had crews and the medical team doing running repairs on cuts and grazes. The leader Michael was loving it though, saying how much he loved the ‘aggressive vert’, a great piece of terminology we might use in our course description that currently only reads ‘gnarly, technical, beautiful – enough said.”.
Eleven kilometres of rock hopping Old River was a feature of the event, and with the rain earlier in the week, it was a little more slippery than in previous years. Through 34km, all athletes were still moving well, although there were two or three falling back. It was getting quite warm for May, not so much on the thermometer, but being exposed on ridge lines with the sun reflecting off slate and shale, there was nowhere to hide.
By mid to late afternoon, all athletes had signed the book atop of Mt Blackwood, a small mountain overlooking the gorge; it sticks out like a sore thumb, but really is a great spot to look over a large portion of the course.
The next section, between Mt Blackwood and O’Brien’s Crossing, is where legends are made. The terrain we ask athletes to navigate though is something truly unique to our race; navigating the riverbed is tricky, and does require a cool head because you can quickly stray if you don’t concentrate. The course doesn’t have comfort markers, so when we say stay in the river until we tell you to get out, that’s what you need to remember. For those who make it back to 155km, they will see exactly what they went over late day two.
At O’Brien’s Crossing (62km) the leaders were in within five to 10 minutes of each other. It was Michael, Karen and Damian. They had gone out hard where Michael had broken away, but the last 5km saw the other two claw their way back. This was the first time I had seen Michael since 16km, and he was looking shaky. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be the first time I had him in the maybe basket. Karen was whisked off to the campervan and her F1 precision pit crew; Damian went for Mrs Cullum’s homemade soup and enjoyed the company of all the other legends as they entered the hub. All athletes bar one would make it through 64km, but it was from this point where we started to see who will, who may, and who won’t make the 90km 24-hour, and 108.5km turnaround and 26-hour cut-offs.
The four RDs at this point weren’t all in the same spot and there is always one at every hub and sometimes two checking on volunteers, medics, crews and athletes. It may seem like micromanaging but we love getting amongst it.
As the leaders passed through Nolan’s Hub (90km) some at the tail of the field were still coming in between O’Briens (62km) and Blackwood (74km).
As daylight broke on day two we did a quick check with each other and the medical team to see who was still in and who was not. Many of the DU135 followers do the same; there’s a lot of people at home checking intermittently throughout the night on loved ones. The trackers aren’t setup for constant pinging as we need them to last 60 hours, but anyone who has done research on the event and the course can work out how they are transmitted.
By morning the monster had fed with four probably the least in the first three years, but soon there would be another helping as we approached the 26-hour mark. Athletes through this section were in good spirits with the course being an out-and-back so there are chances for plenty of interaction between athletes and crew, quick check-ins and the customary hug of respect. Another four finished up at the halfway mark, two missed cut off and two called it a day despite having ample time to spare. There’s some seriously awesome performances having a record 23 people heading back to do it all again. Rachel Sykes is worth a mention as she knew from a long way back that after a very heavy fall where she now packed a tennis ball size lump on her forearm, she wouldn’t make the halfway. Rach continued on and went as long as she could in the time given and she soaked up every bit of inspiration from being there to cheer on a lot of the front markers as she made her way. To not quit and still get the most from yourself is a different mental strength again.
I say thankfully, nobody was a line ball at cut offs because as an RD it would have to be one of the toughest jobs, knowing someone has trained 12 months for your event and you can’t let them continue. With the first dozen all looking super comfortable and 23 heading back, the question returned to what was happening up front? The first two were Michael, and Karen, who was racing the shit out of our course, always within 10 to 15 minutes of the lead. Thirteen months earlier Karen’s race came to an end prematurely and this year she was here to be the first female finisher of DU135, so not receiving the gold finisher’s pan was never an option. Ross McPhee, the 2018 runner up, was aiming to be the first two-time finisher of a race that had only a 26 per cent finishing rate.
Ross is a quiet man who is so calm you’d think he was just on a Sunday long run. He was always at the checkpoints how everyone was looking ahead so he could sense getting a chance and by the time they hit 155km he watched Karen leave O’Brien’s where she’d taken an 11-minute break including a seven minute nap. Not flustered he just did his thing and got moving on his terms, it really is a lesson in doing your own thing.
We knew we were now down to 18 by 2pm which was the 30 hour mark. How many would make it through to Blackwood (151km) in 33 hours?
We’d heard stories down course that are now etched in our history of people being in cars ready to finish at Nolan’s Creek Hub. Adrian from Liz Woodgate’s crew was the enabler who got a group of four moving again with choice words, especially to our visitors from the USA. The group would include Queenslanders Jenny Damon, John Kilkelly, Jess Hardy and Liz. Their mission was to get to Blackwood by 5pm. Both Jenny and Jess made it there in time, but that’s where it comfortably ended for both near a warm fire with beer, soup and hot potatoes at peace with their decision to call it.
Eighteen athletes were now within 67km of home as the second night fell. Considering the leader took 14 hours to get to Blackwood on fresh legs most would have another 15 to 20 hours to go as they entered the night. Seven former finishers were amongst the 18 as were locals Garry Yaxley (MCR) and Tim Woods (SCTR).
Michael was powering through and what we thought would be a 47 to 48-hour winner was now looking like 44 or 45-hours. Ross had now moved into second, but it was looking like he’d need to be content for a second year in a row. Karen would continue in third overall and be the only female to pass 151km; she’d done the hard yards, it was now about being sensible on the way in.
As per the first two years, 100 miles was a popular spot to call it a night with both locals ending at Sponge Bob Square Bottle, a water drop manned by the medical team. The 19 not on course were safe, but with the last 50km having 3000m of gnarly technical on 100 miles worth of tired legs, it keeps us and the EMS on our toes. Jimmy Morrison would be next and all eyes were on two mates – last year’s winner Dave Giles and returnee Adrian Nicholson.
The second night is legendary whether you’re competing or not. There’s always a great fire, good people and a last chance to gather before heading back into the gorge and of course Naomi’s famous pumpkin soup once again lauded by anyone who tasted it. The reports were coming through as I headed to the finish to setup that nine people were through, and once you get through there you have little choice but to finish. In the first two years, everyone who has got past Loh’s Lane at 3am or 43 hours has finished.
Of the nine there were three finishers from 2018 – Ross McPhee, Guy Schweitzer and Simon Austin along with 2017 finisher Mat Piper, who felt somewhat ripped off the course was shortened 15km the year he finished. Karen and Adam Baker were back for revenge; Phil Dernee aimed to be the youngest finisher at 29 in a $1 pair of Bali boardshorts; Wayne Terrington, who was the terminator out there was just up for every challenge; and of course New Zealander Michael who was dominating from start to finish.
Estimations by the race directors were Michael to be across the finish at about 5am, and the ninth person possibly right on cut off at about 2pm or 54 hours. Last year’s winning time was 49 hours 5 minutes, but we’d never seen an athlete like Michael; he was nothing short of an absolute beast out there, coming in even quicker than we’d predicted at 44 hours 28 minutes.
As predicted Ross finished strongly in second, and now all eyes were on the tracker of Karen, the soon to be first female to ever complete the Down Under 135. So many admired the way she attacked 2019 from her sprint start at 8am Friday to racing with Michael over 150km of our course. Children were up on the sides of hills looking for a vantage point; people were in the river beds when the screams came out of the gorge, “She’s coming!”, her crew in tow. Karen had not only finished the DU135, she’d finished third overall and in the third quickest time ever. This was now one of the greatest female endurance performances on Australian soil. Those close to her knew what this meant to her and we couldn’t be happier.
As a race committee we wanted Karen on board as ambassador not for her profile, but to show her, as well as every other girl and woman out that we believed in her and believed she had a story to write that would inspire and prove women can do anything.
2017 finisher Mat proved his first finish wasn’t one out of the bag and he had serious ability and confidence in his own strengths to finish anything, along with last year’s finisher Simon Austin would become the third double finisher. Now we had entered into a record of sorts with a sixth finisher, Adam Baker, who was definitely in a superior mental place than 13 months ago.
The next 14 minutes would see three more finishers led in by the Terminator Wayne Terrington. He had impressed many with his ability to go out there and get the job done. He’d come into aid stations never wanting anything, never troubling anyone; the confides of his crew were his happy place. Another 2018 finisher, Guy Schweitzer, who had another infamous kip this year at the top of Link 1, the final descent after last year’s river snooze, it was Phil Dernee’s footsteps that actually got him up moving again and the two finished only five minutes apart.
With nine finishers it was an incredible performance by all, including those who started our DU135. To finish isn’t fluke, and there is no exact recipe we had for the second year in a row. A winner and also the youngest ever finisher to finish with no crew no pacer, we had athletes who had a crew and pacer and our second finisher who likes a crew but not pacers. We saw an athlete finish with 1 x 100 mile race under their belt, and we have also had two of three winners not using poles.
We’d like to thank everyone involved in the race directly, and those who followed from home. We are coming back for year four, and look forward to showing the world more of our backyard trails and the hospitality of our friends and volunteers.
The DU135 isn’t looking to grow too much. What we have sits nicely, so keep an eye out for dates, and start training.
Pictured: Karen Barrett racing in Down Under 135. Photograph – DU135.