Team Salomon ultra trail runner, winner of the Alpine Challenge and dedicated piccolo expert, Matt Cooper, takes a trip to Victoria’s Surf Coast to see how a coastal course compares to his usual mountain running terrain in a two-day preview of the 100km Surf Coast Century.
DISCLOSURE: Matt Cooper was hosted by event managers Rapid Ascent and is a team Salomon Runner, a company which is one of the secondary sponsors of the SCC. TRM’s editor also carries out media duties for Rapid Ascent. Having got that off our chests, a hill’s a hill and Coops will call it as such – we believe no bias was entertained in Coops’ writing of his preview and like to think as much as it promotes the event, it also serves to give those considering entering a better idea as to the course conditions. Keep an eye out on Trail Run Mag for more course previews, including that of another new ultra, the Hume & Hovell, happening in October.
When you get to board a plane to hit the trail for a day (or two)… you know you’re in for an adventure. Arriving at Avalon airport, about a forty minute drive from trail touchdown, it was off the plane, into the car and straight to the Surf Coast.
Entering the small seaside township of Anglesea, which hosts the start and finish of the Surf Coast Century (SCC), I immediately felt a sense of homeliness. It’s a cozy little town with a few gourmet shops (including an amazing coffee spot: hello Red Till, just opposite the race start area), set on a small escarpment overlooking some of the most pristine coastline you can imagine.
After a quick ‘Piccolo’ at Red Till, where I met local running gun Julian Spence and fellow Victorian trail legend Chris Wight, it was off to run the first half of the course.
Within meters of trotting off you hit the beach…Bam! There it is… a whole 18km of sand running alongside and underneath some of the biggest cliff lines I’d seen.
The first 50km takes runners north east along the coast from Anglesea to Torquay and back. [Ed’s note: the recce missed the first 4km of the official course, a quick out and back loop south-west.]
The beach run made for a great platform to move along the coastline, squeezing us between the incoming tide (supposedly low) and sheer cliff lines that hold above them many of the single tracks we would run later on. Rock hopping along some sections and a touch of deeper-water navigating made for a nice break up of this early section. But the stretch went quickly with mostly firm sand (assisted by rain in the days prior) and it didn’t take long until we were hitting the final stretches to CP One at Point Danger, Torquay. Special mention goes to my first experience of iconic surf spot Bells Beach, which competitors run along.
A few notes on taking heed of the race name. Surf equals sand and you will get it in your shoes. And yes, you will be in the surf albeit briefly as you pass just before Jan Juc’s Bird Rock – but hey, it’s a unique way to start a 100km trail race. I can’t forecast the condition of the sand in September, but this 18km of beach running was actually quite pleasant and made for quick moving with firm and fairly level sand underfoot. That may change according to conditions in the lead up and where you are in the pack, however – pointy enders get firm sand early on.
At Torquay, we double backed for the return journey on trails weaving their way towards Anglesea. Here, it’s all sweet, sweet singletrack! A fast, fun and flowing leg makes up the majority of this stretch. Well-groomed single track meanders and climbs its way along the clifftops of this classic bit of coastline – nice to feel underfoot after burning up the beach.
Any ascents/descents along this leg are generally smooth undulations with no steep pinches. Once off graded trail you hit rougher but well-defined trail in a forest section. This takes you up to the top of a short steep fun descent over Addis Beach.
It’s then back inland using slices of fire trail to link up single track sweeping you from deep tussock grass and native bushland back to the coastline yet again. This part of the course was again smooth and swift making for some great in-the-groove running.
Hitting a high point, the track opens up to a panoramic of Anglesea and the bushland and hills that make up the second half of the course. The final blast of the first fifty leads downhill past Anglesea’s sporting ovals, through more single track until you cross a short inlet to the halfway checkpoint (start/finish area).
The following day was a slightly more abridged preview of the back half of the course that stretches out from Anglesea to Moggs Creek and back. This was my favorite section with a heap more bushy single track, fire trail, small waterfalls, lookouts and the majority of climbing on the course.
From the Anglesea Inlet, it’s not long before you take a steady climb up a local mountain bike trail that rises gently upwards before hitting a short, sharp ascent onto a ridge giving expensive views back over Anglesea and the coastline traversed on the first half. Undulating fire trail (okay one sharp pinch) on orange dirty/clay makes for a nice chance to get your rhythm going on a straightforward section between Anglesea and the back of Aireys Inlet. Then you hit the fun stuff: a beautiful loop trail amongst the iron bark park lands that dives into bushland hiding Currawong Falls.
Running through this section the terrain changes constantly ranging from smooth natural trails to rocky sections with a few small creek crossings. A ‘switchback’ climb to the top of the range brings you past a trig point and out to a small lookout where you can see the next 18km of the course, including the lighthouse at Aireys Inlet, which you run past later on.
A sweet bit of downhill dancing has you weaving down to join a short section of fire road leading to the most south western section of the course, which includes the short and sharp climb. Never far away on this course, it’s still only minutes until you reach single track again which climbs slightly to yet another coastal lookout from where you can sense the anticipation of making your way back to Anglesea.
From CP3 at Moggs Creek, a short section takes you through the streets of Moggs Creek before climbing over a range and drop back into the river inlet that Aireys is named for. Following the river it’s a small climb up past the lighthouse and some magical views of rugged coast line. More smooth groomed single track leads you along the clifftop until a short section takes you through private property to a quick fling down one of the only sections of paved road (very short). [Ed’s note: this section may still be taken off course and/or will be all coastal trail in 2013].
From here it’s a drop down to meet a long awaited rendezvous with another beach: Urquhart’s. It is kind of nice to hit the sand again now, although I should mention that the boys from Rapid Ascent had Urquhart quite hard packed for me and warn that for the top end runners passing through early, this beach section according to tide is likely to be on the soft side, all 3km of it. The back end of the field may have better conditions.
The nice part about this beach section is that as soon as your on it you can see the end of it: the backside of Point Roadknight. At the end of the beach you are put up a short set of stairs and onto the final sections of groomed trail leading back to completing the inaugural Surf Coast Century ultra.
Overall feel of the course is flowy, fun and fast. There are some great sections to really find your rhythm and put on the pace, with a few undulating climbs and some leg burning beach running.
With checkpoints spaced at roughly 25k intervals (with a couple of water stops in between) there won’t be any need for a heavy pack or much liquid.
Highlights for me were definitely underpinning the cliff lines whilst running along the beach at start; coming down Billy Goat Bluff (locals’colloquial name!) with the views south over Point Addis; the single track loop of Currawong Falls and, of course given my predilections, hitting the Red Till cafe for a piccolo at the finish line.
I think a great aspect of this event is the flexibility to enter as a team of either 2 or 4, giving shorter-distance runners, or those looking to just get a taste of the ultra trail scene, a great experience.
Wildlife on course encountered included kangaroo and wallaby, birdlife including cockatoo, parrots and two sea hawks along first leg. Apparently Julian encountered a sea lion in a small cove on one of his training runs on course.
Special thanks to Chris Ord who made the trip an adventure and homely experience (cooked up a wicked pasta dish too… Note to self: book in at his for Friday night pre-race carb load and accom); and to local star runners Julian Spence and Chris Wight for being local trail guides on the first recce day. We even found some off-course trails, which was a bonus (the Eumerella mountain bike trail sections on the second Torquay to Anglesea leg will need to be very well marked!); and to Rapid Ascent for hosting me to a full preview of the anticipated Surf Coast Century Ultra run.
I’m already looking forward to September’s Surf Coast session.
Training for the Surf Coast Century? Or any other ultra for that matter? Check out Matt Cooper’s ‘Ultra Made’ ultra trail running camp. The camp will be held from Friday 31st August – Sunday 2nd September at Fitzroy Falls, Southern Highlands, NSW. The location, with fully self contained cottage accommodation (including fireplace!) is set on 50 acres in the surrounding Moreton National park right alongside Twin Falls and the famous Fitzroy Falls marathon trail.
For more information the Surf Coast Century, including course maps, images, training tips and advice, see www.surfcoastcentury.com.au.