Great Train Race

The race against the old steam train Puffing Billy is definitely up there in my all time favourites. A brilliantly hard course, obscure distance (13.2km), fantastic scenery, a unique atmosphere with the sounds of the train and just some sections of stupidly fast running.

Since I am now focusing on running, and don't have recovery from an Ironman in the way, I thought I would take the opportunity to head back into the hills. My last run against the train was in 2006 and I may have had four other previous goes too. Times have always been somewhere in the vicinity of 52-54min, with the train travelling 53-55min most times. Each time I have always beaten the old steam engine.

My approach this year was a bit different than in the past. No taper, or specific training this time. Instead I trained through, even after the recent hit of gastro and the previous sinus infection, I wasn't going to take the lead up days easy. Turning up on race morning, I feeling reasonably stiff and sore. Definitely not race ready. A long way from how I felt in the Police Games and Run For The Kids, a few weeks ago.

Race Plan
The course covers 13.2km over some very significant hills. The track is a mixture of bitumen country roads, dirt roads, and mountain trails. Some of the hills are steep. There is also a reasonable altitude gain over the whole course. That means there is no such thing as an even paced race.

Taking all the above into account, plus remembering it helps to beat the train through all four rail crossings, I came up with a simple plan... quick, slightly harder up hill, and fast downhill.

Yes, I really did make it that simple.

What Comes Down Must Go Up

Having managed to gain a spot near the front I was in a good starting position. The first section is downhill, and as usual there was plenty of entertainment as runners hurled themselves down the slope at ridiculous speeds. For myself I found the start almost relaxing. I fell into a nice fast clip, that felt natural. I paid attention to those around me, making sure to avoid a fall as is common. Soon enough I was making my way through the crowd. When you're relaxed, the gaps just seem to open.
Around the 2km mark the first climb started. I was happy for all the hills I have been running over in the last three weeks. My form felt natural and strong. No extra concentration was required, I simply let my body run up the hill. That first climb is one of my favourite parts. First we pass underneath the trestle bridge which is very picturesque. Second so many runners suddenly fall of the pace.
Through the first rail crossing and the signs were that we were well ahead of the train. I thought for a moment it was a odd I hadn't heard the train at all. The crossing guards didn't even look ready to close the crossing for Puffing Billy to pass. Maybe I was just running that fast.
I wasn't paying attention to how fast I was going, with all the hills there wasn't really any point in checking my splits (but I did hit the lap marker at each mark kilometre for after the race). Instead I was happy running on feel. It was feeling comfortable to run a solid pace.
Off The Cliff
The descent were just on the edge of controlled falls. A quick leg turnover, forward lean and gravity allowed me to pick up speed while my breathing and heart rate eased. Some runners matched me. Others braced themselves and slowed on the down slopes.
Of course these descents were immediately followed by another climb. At the start of each there were always a few guys who sped past me, but most of these I seemed to catch by the top. Each new climb always saw the group get smaller. No other race I can think of has such a consistent and dramatic blow up rate as this. The hills really hammer the legs.
Eccentric Wounds

My effort had been fairly consistent and I was still feeling pretty good. At least for late into the race. Past the fourth and last rail crossing. There wasn't much fanfare at this one and I wondered about the train. Still we hadn't even heard a whistle from it.
Over the last hill, and a bit over 2km left. The last bit of bitumen road offers a relatively moderate down slope. I hit it hard, aiming to pick up over the last section. Finally my legs gave an indication they had taken a beating. My quadriceps, adductors and lateral lower muscles just had a bit of trouble with coordination. No real pain, they just didn't work in harmony.
No problem as I stepped over the last curb and onto the forest trail. Dirt and old wet leaves. Soft underfoot should allow some fast work to the end. For the most part this was the case for me. No discomfort and while the trail was somewhat close to level I kept the speed up. However, a short, but steep a winding section challenged my ability to run. My legs just didn't work fast enough to allow for my favourite controlled fall style. Instead I probably looked more like a new born giraffe that was attempting to get to stand up for the first time.
The last 100 or so metres is back on a sealed path and up a mild climb. No problem with the legs there. Into the finish shoot and I'm feeling ridiculously good compared to previous years. Then somebody points out my shoe.

Front, back and both sides have been re-coloured courtesy of a blister and a couple of cuts I somehow sustained. They'll sting in the shower.

The Result

Again I beat the train. Apparently that was easier to do this year. The rumour I heard is it slipped off the tracks on one of the climbs and took an extra 12min to take 66min to finish. Not as exciting this year.

Personally I ran 51:29 for the 13.2km. Finished 99 out of 2696 people overall. A result I am very happy with. Even better is I felt very comfortable running the event. I couldn't have gone much faster, just that I fit enough to race well on call. Might have to consider going under 50min next year.


  1. Congratulations. Sounds like you had a great run.

    And eeewwwww on that photo of your foot....

  2. When I saw the photo I thought you might have had a stack!

    Sub-4s on that course is good running - a sub-50 minute run next year would be something - go for it!


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