I am visiting my beloved Australia to see family and friends but, as soon as I have booked my trip, I couldn’t help myself checking if there would be a trail running race I could attend. Does this make me a trail running addict? As soon as I read about the Razorback Run I knew I wanted to sign up. And, if I was going to run in Australia, I might as well run something memorable; I signed up for the 40k out of the three options: 22k, 40k and 64k.

All of them offer scenic views of the Alpine National Park from the Razorback Trail. It’s not everywhere in Australia you can get altitude and steep terrain trails, so this race encompassing Victoria’s second highest peak, Mt Feathertop (1922m), makes it especially alluring. The mountains are not as steep, high or rocky as in e.g. the European Alps, but high enough to have ski resorts in the area.

Mt Feathertop view

The 40k route seemed good and the distance would be the perfect challenge for me, not having run longer than 15km for a couple of years. After an injury last year I don’t take running long distance for granted, I treasure it, and I’ve been longing for it for some time now. Signing up to the Razorback Run gave me just two months to build up distance and get some serious hill training under my belt.

The race briefing is the night before the race at a local hotel. A friendly, funny and small scale affair setting the tone for this grassroots event. I pick up my race number and the SMART snakebite bandage that I could luckily buy from the organisers. A serious reminder of what to watch out for in the Australian bush. The kit check is quick but extensive. This is the heaviest my vest has ever been, and it’s bursting at the seams.

There is only one aid station during my race, which means there’s only one guaranteed source of water about 23km into the race. I’ll need to carry plenty of water as it looks like it’ll be a sunny day tomorrow during the race. In addition to waterproofs, hat, gloves, silver blanket, first aid kit and compass, we’re informed to bring a buff in case the bushfire smokes blow our way. There are always bushfires in Australia this time of year, and luckily for us the race is not cancelled or badly affected by the closest fires.

Minutes to the start

I stay at the campground where the 40k and 64k race both start and finish. I get up at 5am in the crisp cold night, reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag. It feels bizarre to be applying sunscreen in my tiny tent when even the thought of taking my warm layers off gives me shivers. How glad I am to have my favourite base layer, the Inov-8 Base Elite long sleeve top, as it keeps the chill off my arms but I know will stay breathable and light throughout the race. I even wear a vest version of the same top underneath my sports bra to prevent any chafing, a tip my ultra runner friend Hana gave me recently and it’s been working a treat!

Under a clear sky filled with the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, we hurdle up few minutes before the 6am start. One last roll call of names, and with my shoelaces barely tied it’s time to set off. I think I’m still half asleep. I run slowly, waiting to warm up and knowing pacing is important today. It’s down the street for a few hundred meters until we turn off and soon get on to the Bungalow Spur track. With poles ready the upwards hiking begins.

At dawn, working my way up Bungalow Spur

Clusters of racers settling into their own pace slowly become a trail of head torches in the dark. The atmosphere is very polite and friendly, people even offer to step aside for you to pass. Engulfed by the dark I lose track of time. I enjoy the smell of eucalyptus from the gum tree forest all around us. Strips of naturally shredded bark lie strewn across the path. Below, I glimpse some street lights from Harrietville, the town we’ve just left, which gives me an idea of the climb made so far.

Over an hour later the forest gets less dense and I can see the break of dawn. Magnificent colours saturate the mountains in the distance. I remind myself to have some gel blocks and to stay hydrated although the morning is still cool. I try to take photos but in the low light even stopping for a few seconds ends up in blurry pictures. Later with more light a runner offers to stop and take a photo of me, which I’m thankful for.

Elite runner stops to take my photo, almost reached Mt Feathertop

By the time we pass Federation hut there’s no need for head torches anymore, so I warp mine around my wrist and put my cap on. As we start the ascent to Mt Feathertop the last Snow Gum trees stay behind us. Although it’s not far my legs feel weak. Maybe it’s the altitude, or maybe it’s the almost 1,400m I’ve just climbed so far. I stuff myself with more gel blocks because this morning I had to leave my porridge untouched, leaving it to turn cold in my tent. I usually always have breakfast but ran out of time today.

The fastest runners doing 40k or 64k pass me, already on their way back down from Mt Feathertop’s summit as I start my upwards hike to it. Not long after sunrise I’m on the peak with stunning views in all directions. We got incredibly lucky with the weather; a clear sky and the smoke from the bushfires are not a worry today, unlike the last few days.

At Mt Feathertop summit: 1922m

Coming down from the rocky peak feels great. The ground feels familiar as it reminds me of British mountains and with my poles I can move faster downhill. I feel secure underfoot in my Inov-8 Mudclaw G 260 – they’ll grip on anything! That moment I feel full of beans, and not until the terrain flattens out and I get my first small hill do I notice the fatigue again.

It is the start of the Razorback, I follow an undulating track snaking the mountain ridge through low trees and, sometimes, with unobstructed views of the valley on either side. It’s simply breathtaking. The sun is getting stronger and it’s warming up but a cooler breeze keeps temperatures ideal. After a while we start meeting the 22k racers who come in the opposite direction, having started at Diamantina hut where the aid station is.

The Razorback trail

I’m feeling great on the downhills and flats, but uphills I still hike to preserve energy – and my legs. I’m getting very hungry, I’m desperately craving something solid and feeling tired for it. I could take my pack off to get a Cliff Bar, but at this stage I know the aid station is not far away, so I count down the kilometres dreaming of snacks. When I get there the sweet cool watermelon tastes like heaven and I have several pieces, as well as half a banana and a piece of cake.

Almost at Diamantina Hut

I was worried about running out of water, so I carried a whole 2.5l from the start line in two soft bottles and a hydration pack. By the aid station I have only consumed about half, so I could have done with less, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Especially because the race course isn’t marked, so if getting lost or held up, there would be few sources of water available in a hot climate.

I decide that I only need to fill one of my bottles before walking off with a handful of watermelon to munch on. The first four hours have passed surprisingly fast, and I’m feeling hopeful about the time, but there is still a long way down.

The turn off to Bon Accord Spur, so the big downhill begins

From the aid station we turn back, but this time over the hill and then turn off west onto the Bon Accord Spur that starts rocky and quickly becomes very steep. A friend told me before the race to “strap on my Killian legs” when I got to this section, which was a good way of describing what lies ahead.

Quite quickly the downhill track enters a knee high thick overgrown bush that slows me down a lot. Although really, my only worry are the snakes. I can barely see my feet as the bush hangs over the track. The area has plenty of tiger snakes, one of the deadliest ones, and they aren’t particularly shy either. Even sending vibrations through the ground stomping down the hill might not scare them off.

I use my poles to try and push away the bushes to make the path visible. Soon the vegetation becomes higher and a little less dense, but it’s still very overgrown and now I use my poles to fend off branches from slapping me in the face. I guess this is the ‘Indiana Jones’ section. All my efforts are going in watching the track for snakes, and whenever I feel a single thread of spider web catch on my face I hope I’m not dragging a spider with it, knowing how many highly poisonous spiders are around.

After a few kilometres the steep downhill eases off into a softer one. Occasionally there is a gentle uphill and obstacles come in various shapes. At one stage there is a huge log from a long ago fallen tree that I have to climb up and over to pass. I haven’t seen or heard any runners for a long time and start to worry at times that I have gotten lost. I check my map a few times and it does match up, so I keep pushing on.

Some of the obstacles on Bon Accord

Whatever energy I got from the watermelon is soon gone, and I’m feeling the efforts of kilometres of downhill running. The temperature rose considerably as soon as I got into the forest and it’s now both humid and hot with no breeze. The gumtrees are high and I can hear birdsong that is distinctly Australian to me. I try to drink frequently and really feel the fatigue as I reach 30km – this is my longest training distance. The next 10km will be tough.

Finally, I reach a river crossing where the river has moved so that the bridge no longer crosses it. I’m relieved because this was mentioned at the briefing and I know for sure that I’m on the right track. I also naively think it should be mostly flat from here, but I’m soon proven wrong. From the river the course climbs uphill again, which I allow myself to walk; while with flat and downhill I coax myself into a slow run, even when I wish to walk the whole time.

River crossing

The path has finally become clear and easy to see, so now it’s just the lack of energy and the heat I need to battle. I keep thinking I’m closer to the finish line than I am, and I curse a little every time I see another hill when all I want is for the path to drop back down to the river again.

This bit just seems so much longer than it is, and I know it’s because I’m hot and tired. Once I’m alongside the river again I know there’s not much left of the race anymore. Still, I have to stop a few times and pull out the map. In this tired state I really wish there were markings, but I consolidate in the fact that the finish line is around the corner.

Hot sweaty and tired

I finally arrive in a time of 6:21:14, which makes me 6th woman and 20th overall in my 40k category. With relief I head straight for my tent and then the showers. I walk a little funny, but I feel better than after my first street marathon some years ago. It’s with relief that I have arrived, relief that it went as well as it did, and relief that I don’t feel any injuries – unless you count a blister under a toenail, which I don’t.

Once fresher and cooler I join the other runners by the finish line who greet and cheer on the incoming runners while snacking away on various treats. My shoulders are very sore from the heavy vest and running with my poles, so I do some yoga stretches both for the legs and my back while enjoying the warm weather under the shade of a tree.

I have very nice chats with lots of people, comparing notes about today’s race. Everyone I speak to seem very happy with the experience. The weather was great and conditions ideal. Some know the area from before, and newcomers like myself echo what a beautiful place it is. Thanks to the event’s relatively small size it sort of feels like a trail run with friends rather than a race.

Almost at the summit, hiking up to Mt Feathertop: 1922m

I get the impression that there is a very strong bond within the Australian trail running community. Many know each other from other races or various running groups. At the prize ceremony a special mention and extra prizes get handed out to the runners who had stopped and helped others when injured, which is embracing the true trail running spirit.

I want to thank everyone for their help – for providing information before the race and helping me find transport to it, as well as showing support and being great company. I hope we share trails again, somewhere in the world.