Ultra-Trail Australia is the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest trail running festival

Since its first staging in 2008, Ultra-Trail Australia has grown to be the Blue Mountains’ biggest sporting event and the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest trail running festival. It attracts the elite and the everyday runner, Olympians and Paralympians, farmers and mathematicians, adventurers and politicians, kids and blokes pushing 80, locals and foreign raiders. There’s the original 100km race, but now there’s also a 50km and 22km, a time trial up the Furber Steps, a kids’ race plus an outdoor adventure expo and even a trail running film festival.

But race director Tom Landon-Smith is particularly proud of the way Blue Mountains residents have come to embrace the event as hosts and often enthusiastic spectators. Just like with Sydney’s famous City to Surf, he loves the way locals line the track or gather at the Scenic World finish line to cheer runners on. He's even started seeing people whose properties adjoin the race routes inviting their family and friends around for UTA champagne breakfasts and barbecues.

For the locals cheering on this year’s UTA (May 17-20), here’s some runners to watch out for.

FOREIGN LEGION

When the famed Spanish mountain man Kilian Jornet entered and won the 100km race in 2010, he put the Blue Mountains and UTA on the world trail running map. And the foreigners have been raiding ever since. Over the years the 100km race has also been won by the likes of Ryan Sandes (South Africa) and Dylan Bowman (United States), while last year’s male podium featured runners from the USA, Canada and France. Female winners of the UTA 100 have included China’s Dong Li and Spain’s Nuria Picas. This year’s UTA festival will feature the likes of elite Romanian triathlete Zsombor Deal and Kiwi Vajin Armstrong in the 22km race. In the 100km, watch out for Japan’s Yoshikazu Hara, who has run 285km in 24 hours. A favourite for the women’s 50km will be New Zealand-based Italian Cecilia Flori, a former rock climber who now mixes it with the world’s trail running elite and whose training involves running 140-160kms a week. She’s also a mathematics academic at the University of Waikato. On YouTube you can check her out talking about quantum theory as well as trail running.

LOCAL ELITE AND THEIR CHALLENGERS

For the same reason the Blue Mountains host Australia’s premier trail running event, the Blue Mountains are also home to some of Australia’s top trail runners. These Mountains and their tracks are a trail running nirvana. Some elite runners have grown up here, others have moved here. In the 22km race, watch out for Olympic 10,000m runner Ben St Lawrence, who grew up in Bullaburra. He is facing some torrid opposition from other elite runners including Newcastle’s Vlad Shatrov, the winner of the last two Six Foot Track marathons in the Blue Mountains. Shatrov also won the UTA50 in 2013 and last year’s UTA22 in a time of 1 hour and 42 minutes - more than three minutes ahead of second place. Another who will challenge St Lawrence is Queenslander and Olympic triathlete Courtney Atkinson, who once ran to the summit of the highest peak in seven Australian states and territories in just seven days. In the UTA100, watch out for Woodford’s Brendan Davies, who won the same event in 2013 in a time of 9:16. Another well-credentialed local is Warrimoo’s Andrew Lee, who won the UTA100 in 2009 and 2010.

STEPPING IT UP

In the UTA951, a leg-burning time trial that involves climbing the Furber Steps from the bottom of the Jamison Valley to Scenic World on the clifftops at Katoomba, don’t miss world champion stair runner Mark Bourne, who has raced to the tops of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower. The 951 steps and 221 metres of vertical gain involved over 1.2kms of Blue Mountains cliff face shouldn’t pose too many problems for this Canberra man who last year won the race to the top of the world’s fifth tallest building. The South Korean skyscraper hosts a leg of the stair-climbing Vertical World Circuit that involves climbing 123 stories or 555 vertical metres using 2917 stairs. Bourne ran it in 15 minutes and 44 seconds. Last year the UTA951 was won by Blue Mountains boy Ben St Lawrence in 8:23, just ahead of Bourne in 8:43.

BACK OF THE PACK

One of the joys of UTA is that the cheers for those bringing up the rear are usually louder than for those who get to the finish line the quickest. Here’s a few runners who are going to be absolute crowd favourites in this year’s races. Alf Johnston, 75, has become a familiar and very popular figure running the UTA100 for the past five years in his trademark flannelette shirt. Johnston got his grit growing up on a farm and always carries with him a card that says “NEVER GIVE UP!” In his first UTA100 in 2013 he did a time of 23 hours and 44 minutes. In 2014 he recorded his only DNF (did not finish), which still haunts him, and his time last year was just five minutes inside the offical 28-hour cut-off time.  Frank Falappi, 78, ran the UTA50 in 2013 in 8:55, finishing 321st out of 419 finishers. He stepped up to the UTA100 in 2014, finishing in 20:56 and is having another crack at the UTA100 this year while his 67-year-old wife, Marilyn, is doing the UTA22. The oldest competitor will be Bert Sloan running the UTA50 just shy of his 80th birthday. He only took up running when he was 50, belongs to three running clubs, first entered the UTA50 in 2014 and last year had his plans to complete the UTA100 ruined by a broken fibula, so this year is a big comeback from injury. He hopes to complete the UTA50 in about 13 hours..

LOCAL CHARACTERS

Rather than kayaking to New Zealand or walking across Antarctica, these days he’s flat out as a husband, father, motivational speaker and owner of My Adventure Group, but famous Blackheath adventurer James Castrission also loves trail running and you can catch him in this year’s UTA 50km race. Check out some of his career highlights:

Oct 2011 – Jan 2012: World first South Pole Return (89 days, 2275km, ANTARCTICA)

Nov 2007 – Jan 2008: World first Tasman Sea Kayak Crossing (62 days, 3318km, Australia NewZealand)

March 2006: Bass Strait Kayak Crossing (9 Days, 350km, Australia)

Nov 2001- Jan 2002: World first Murray River kayak traverse (49 days, 2560km, AUSTRALIA) 

Another high-profile local running is Blue Mountains City Council’s ward two councillor Romola Hollywood. She is entered in the UTA22. Hollywood has posted on Facebook that five years ago “I couldn’t even run a kilometre! Everyone says getting to being able to do 5km is the hardest and once you can do that, then adding more kms isn’t that bad.”

THE POWER OF ONE (LEG)

As The Sydney Morning Herald reported last year when he entered the UTA 50km race, Michael Milton could complete the distance in less than 15 minutes if he could replicate the speed he once reached on a single snow ski. Milton is a leg amputee and former Winter Paralympic gold medalist who was once clocked at 213.65km/h - the fastest Australian on snow. But running over the rugged bushland of the Blue Mountains using crutches on one leg is a different story. The 2017 50km race took him more than 12 hours to complete in 1327th place. His average speed was 4.18km/h.

It was an epic and painful effort, but Milton is back for more this year as an Ultra-Trail ambassador and entrant in the 22km race. Milton’s 2017 UTA run has also become a half-hour documentary, Best Foot Forward, that will make its world premier in this year’s Trails In Motion film festival at UTA at the Fairmont Resort in Leura on the Thursday night, starting 7pm.

And in the 100km race, keep an eye out for Winter Olympic medalist Zali Steggall. If she can run anywhere near as well as she could alpine ski she should put in a strong performance.