Preview: Victorian Trail Running Festival

TrailRunMag 09.09.2014

Event Preview: Victorian Trail Running Festival

Running VTRF (1 of 1)-5There are a few trail ‘festivals’ on the calendar. Kind of like the adjectives ‘extreme’, ‘toughest’, ‘hardest’, ‘festival’ is a word bandied about a bit. There’s the You Yangs Trail Running Festival, the Brooks Trail Run Fest at Mount Baw Baw, the On Trail Running Festival in Glenworth, the Mount Buller Mountain Running Festival, Wagga Wagga Trail Running Festival, Tamborine Mountain Sports Festival…and we could go on…

Yet, to this scribe, the word festival encompasses so much more than simply stringing more than one trail run together in a row, which seems to be the qualifier for applying the word festival these days.

Rather, in the form of a traditional festival, shouldn’t it be about a pure celebration encompassing all the things we love about trail running, as much an event with a structure to communally appreciate the trail running lifestyle (and it is a lifestyle) as it is an event inclusive of the actual running of trails?

With this in mind, and with a minimum qualifier that any ‘festival’ must last for days, not hours, the new Victorian Trail Running Festival (1-3 Nov, 2014) could prove to fill the boot of its labelling more than adequately.

Running VTRF (1 of 1)

Three days of trail running. A plethora of trails and distances to suit trail runners of all abilities and experience (non-elitist – after all, festivals are about celebrations of and by the common person!). And a bunch of time between getting the pegs dirty to revel in our mutual love of running wild, as people gather round the campfire, traditional style, to muse about the spirit of our passion for going bush.

I have a theory borne by enough anecdotal evidence and experience that single day events just don’t capture the hearts and minds as fully as multi days do. On a single day event, once the line has been crossed, and the thirst quenched, the mind reverts back to the chores left undone at home, the errands to be run, the workday ahead, the lawn unmown, the dinner to be cooked, the family preparations for the school week…and on. Witness the rush to get back to the car and zip home. The mind just does not get to luxuriate in the after-moment. And the participant is momentarily, but not fully engaged in the experience or even committed to its fullest entity. Witness the low numbers at most presentations.

A multiday has the benefit of pre-commitment to the fact that the line may have been crossed, but the experience kicks on for a few days yet, so your attention remains focused as does the group energy and, as Dion Milne from the Surf Coast Trail Run crew would say, the #TrailLove remains and the vibe grows strong.

Vic Trail Fest (1 of 1)-14

So Greg Donovan, from Big Run Events – purveyors of the Big Red Run, Trail Fest Sydney, Big Forest Run and the Sydney Trail Series – may have cracked the real code to what a festival is all about with his inaugural Victorian Trail Running Festival, set for Melbourne Cup Weekend, 1-3 November.

With this in mind, Trail Run Mag headed to the Upper Yarra Valley, and the small hill town of Warburton, to get a sneaky few runs in to preview the course.

In essence, all of the runs featured across the festival take in trails that have a strong link to the Valley’s history as a tree-felling, saw milling township that had a brief heyday in the 1920s, before lumbering (pun intended) through the ensuing years, first as a resort town for the European rich and then in more modern times as dying logging town. I can say that. I lived there for my entire childhood. Don’t get me wrong, Warburton is one of the most beautiful towns you’ll find in Victoria, up there with the likes of Bright with a similar mix of European-transplanted trees, flashing bountiful rainbows of colour in Autumn, embedded within and surrounded by quintessential Australian bush, all eucalypt and giant tree ferns. It was always a special place, one with a creative soul that long attracted artists retreated into the hillsides, creating amidst the destruction of the loggers. Luckily they were far out of town, and so Warburton township was always a beautiful place, wedged at the bottom of the valley, with the Yarra River a lifeblood through its heart. I recall the artists back then saying the town and place had a certain energy, and looking back as a kid, I remember, or perhaps I layer my memories with nostalgic wistfulness. Still, that’s what Warburton does to you.

Returning there to run its trails as an adult, the scene is somewhat different but the same. The town is manicured, the vibe positive and full of tourism growth. Café’s line the streets where once were boarded up windows, and the Melbourne coffee snob in me can revel not just in one good caffeine dealer, but a few expressing the black gold in quality pours. Looking up, all around, in the form of a cauldron, are heavily forested mountain slopes. What a place to base a celebration of trails.


Lauren Starr (1 of 1)-3

Runners can opt for either an 80km or 100km multiday, or cherry pick from a rich menu of singletrack single day offerings: 41km, 21km, 15km or a 10km night run.

I decide to run the recce in the same order as the three-day 100km version of the Festival. The full shebang.

DAY 01

The first course is a 34km ‘cruiser’ that makes the most of an old school aqueduct that snakes around the contours of the northern valley, high above the township. I say cruiser, because as is the nature of a trail that runs alongside a now empty concrete aqueduct, the running is in the majority flat. Runners begin nearby the Warburton Football Oval, tracing the Yarra River upstream on a township trail, before a short stretch alongside the main road. There is a pinch of a climb early, shooting runners up into the grounds of the old Sanatarium. Opened in 1912 it has variously operated as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, a wellness centre, and a fully-fledged emergency hospital.

A short climb up behind the hospital, runners reach the aqueduct (at 2km), where they hook east on what will become a double out and back course. While the terrain underfoot is predictable (gravel double track – essentially what was the service road to the aqueduct), the scenery astounds with the mountain side rising sharply up on one side, a wall of giant tree ferns giving off a magical green glow. On the low side stand guard giant eucalypts through which occasionally are glimpses of the valley below.

Hitting the 10km mark, it’s a U-turn. While you’re running the same route the view is different (unless you kept looking backwards on the first leg), keeping the run a parlour of mountain scenery never boring.

The run hits the treetops above the township at 20km, giving false hope, as the markers will direct competitors further back west, towards the township of Millgrove, 4km further on. At the turnaround is a huge vista up the Yarra Valley, one enough to fool you into thinking you were somewhere in the rolling hills of France or Italy. The Eucalypts give it away, however.

Given the running remains flat, the four kay turn back to Warburton isn’t too strenuous, it’s just the over half marathon distance starting to nudge the legs a little.

At 29km, a little excitement is injected in, with a steep descent down a slippery trail dropping you back to the township. This is the trail that links Warburton with the summit of Mount Donna Buang, a favourite extreme hill climb training ground for trail runners and those looking to a Kokoda adventure.

Hitting the top of Martyrs Road (reputedly one of the steepest suburban streets in the southern hemisphere), it’s on further down to the Yarra River before a stunning riverside trail run back to where you started. Although, that’s not the finish – two more kilometres to go. Runners continue on to the rear of the caravan park, a flat and firm run, and just as you hit the 34km mark, looking for the finish arch, it’s a short river crossing to clean the shoes (they’ll need it from that steep slippery trail), and back into the campsite, a huge private paddock sitting in a bowl of mountains. No cows.

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DAY 02

Lucky there was little climbing on the first day (370m), as today makes up for the flat and fast of yesterday. But don’t stress, it’s no killer: 1200m ascent (Event organisers record it as 1340m).

First it’s a bus trip around into the next valley over, alighting roadside just beyond the milling town of Powelltown.

Then it’s straight into the climbing, The good thing with today’s marathon distance run (42.2km) is that most of the climbing is done in the first 10-12km. First it’s up a winding dirt road, with the big tree sentries giving a small indication of the highlight ahead: the magnificent Ada Tree. At 5km, runners take a beeline off the road and up an old tramline way that was once used to transport gigantic trees down off the mountain, to be further milled and transported to Melbourne to feed the building boom of the early 20th Century. This section is super steep but a good steady and rhythmic power walk up the bark encrusted trail soon has you nearing the high point.

Running VTRF (1 of 1)-178km in at a trail junction (Federation), runners are funnelled east onto singletrack that leads through a corridor of ferns, passing through several old mill sites easily identifiable by the old cog and machinery relics. When we ran it, the ferns were low over the trail and provided a virtual obstacle course, however we weren’t long off the snow cover and the fronds were still bent low from the weight of the white stuff, which would have only recently melted.

A few linking (dirt) roads start looping runners around and ends at the Ada Tree Carpark. Here you enter an Alice In Wonderland style trail that weaves and undulates amid a rainforest of ferns, giant myrtle beech, sassafras and moss covered rocks, with the odd creek crossing thrown in. At the end of this – 13km into your marathon – is the Ada Tree. Around 270 years old, it’s about 76 metres tall with a circumference of 15 metres and is reputedly one of the biggest living things in the world.

After ogling the Ada (a lap of the tree on the boardwalk is obligatory), a singletrail takes you back, eventually, to one of the mill sites, and on to the Federation Junction where you were 9km ago (this marks the 17km mark).

Here the trail rejoins the ‘Walk Into History’ trail, a recognized walking track from Powelltown to Warburton that retraces the route the loggers used – on foot and by tram haulage – when they worked these parts. In fact, some of the loggers may have been Australia’s original trail runners with stories of them downing tools Saturday morning to run this trail back into Warburton, arriving in time to take their place on the football field. Hard men. Think of them when you’re starting to hurt at the 25km mark at Starlings Gap, having followed a mostly benched trail that weaves in and out of contours. The trail underfoot is soft with lots of leaf and bark litter, but eminently runnable.

From Starling’s Gap, the fun begins with a long, steady descent down into the settlement of Big Pats Creek. Again, there is a bit of bush litter to content with, but it’s a sweeping ride all the way down.

Just before Big Pat’s creek (35km), runners take a slight detour, climbing on singletrack to meet the Mississippi fire trail, a final drop back down to Big Pat’s Creek marking the end of dirt for the day, and a road run for a few kilometres back to the campsite.

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DAY 03

The final day is not so daunting, with an out and back 24km  / 420m ascent course, incorporating a loop. Two stretches repeat with the run taking the roadway back to Big Pats Creek before looping further out and up, firstly along a pacey smooth dirt road, then up into a freshly cut track that gets a little bothersome underfoot with a few downed tree hurdles and plenty of loose bush litter. Still, it clears up soon enough, and then enters a fun section that twists and turns its way through beautiful fern country, back to the Big Pats valley. This is a good leg stretching, warm down run after yesterday’s marathon effort, and the final line crossing at the camp paddock sure to mark huge celebrations.

Overall, the combination of trails mixes the experience up well between some fast, flat stretches, a few beefy climbs in the middle section, plenty of impressive big tree bush, a meeting of a living giant, and a bunch of history that means you are running in the footsteps potentially of Australia’s first recreational trail runners. Footballing loggers. Who would have thought?

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Check out a feature that further explores the environs of the trails of the VTRF, along with a profile of event ambassador, Lauren Starr (pictured above), in the upcoming edition of Trail Run Mag, available at