When we visited the Grampians during our holidays in 2018, I searched for running options and found the course map for what looked like an amazing trail run… Since then I’d had an ‘earworm’ about the Wonderland Run!
After starting 2019 focusing on road running and the Shizuoka Marathon, in the winter I swapped to trail running to train for the 36km Wonderland Run. This included steep rock hopping on the Bibbulmun Track, up and down sand dunes on the Wadjemup Bidi (Rottnest) and a tough run in Helena Valley (including double Kelly’s Climb). I also participated in the Perth Trail Series winter series (Eagle & Child 21km, Jolly Jumbuck 21km and Half Truth 25km) and WAMC’s King of the Mountain (16km).
I became more confident on the trails, but it was hard work – and I had to keep putting my watch away as aiming for any sort of average pace went out the window as soon as there was a bit of elevation gain (and on some runs I was even slower on the technical downhill sections!) I also needed more recovery time than from usual long runs, and so did less speedwork during the week, compared to when I was road running.
I discovered that I’ve got a great fast-paced uphill hike, and in the trail races was able to overtake lots of people on the uphill sections. I ended up coming 10th female across the Perth Trail Series winter races which I was pretty happy with. However, Wonderland Trail run was going to be tougher than anything I’d been able to replicate in training or the lead-up races. Firstly, to complete 36km on the trails I was going to be on my feet for longer than ever before (it was going to take longer than a marathon), and the elevation gain of 1200m would be substantially more than running in the Perth ‘hills’!
We flew across to Melbourne on the Friday before the race, which was enough time to sneak in a pasta dinner at Tipo 00 and a quick trip to the outdoor stores to purchase the final mandatory gear items. The next day we drove out to Halls Gap, arriving in town just as the 8km run was finishing and it made us pretty excited for the next day. We checked into our accommodation and went to collect our bibs. The race directors were dressed up as the White Rabbit, and other characters form Alice in Wonderland. It started to drizzle, and we couldn’t even see the ridge-line above the town, where we would be running the next morning…
We woke up early, and jogged to the start line (about a 1km away). The weather was cool but dry, it was going to be a perfect day for the trails. It felt like the only person who did any stretching(!) and then it was into the starting corral. I knew there were waved starts but I wasn’t really paying too much attention and all of a sudden I was in the second group.
It was hard to know if this was going to be a good or a bad outcome, times were based on timing chip but it was first past the post for the prizes (not that I had that on my mind!). I didn’t know where I fit into the general pacing and didn’t want to get stuck in a conga-line in the narrow sections, but conversely didn’t want to start out too hard on the first climbs and smash myself too early. Even in the PTS races, some of the single track was interesting as sometimes you’re stuck behind people and other times I’d pushed faster than I’d liked to keep up with the pack. Anyhow, there wasn’t too long to ponder, as 3 minutes after the first wave, we were out and racing.
There was about 500m of clear running, and then we headed in the national park to run alongside Stoney Creek and through the Venus Baths area. This is a gorgeous place for a bushwalk, but soon become congested when the stairs/uphill section started. I spent most of the next 7km overtaking people at any opportunity, whilst also trying to admire the views!
Every so often the path widened a bit, and particularly if it was steep, I was able to sneak past a few people. All the crowds did, however, provide some opportunities for photos. Wonderland was just as spectacular as I’d remembered (a steep sided canyon) and Silent Street was also pretty awesome, but not so silent with a ant trail of runners going through! After my slowest hour of ‘running’ ever (it did include ~500m of elevation gain), I made it to The Pinnacle, one of the most famous lookouts in the Grampians.
While lots of people detoured for photos, I had a quick look at the views of Halls Gap below and then kept going. It became much more spaced out between runners and the terrain wasn’t so steep as it contoured on the plateau. There was some running over the slabby rocks, and some hard packed sand trails – but it provided the longest section of normal running so far!
I continued past the turn off for the 21km race, and then it was on to the next ascent, Mt Rosea which was going to be a 400m slog. There were fantastic views to the west of the many Grampian cliffs and this ascent was much more enjoyable as I was able to go at my own pace. I soon caught up with another lady and we continued on together to the top. It was actually good to have another set of eyes scouring the rocks for markers and confirming that we were on the trail! There were a couple of people that had taken a wrong turn that we shouted out to.
The summit of Mt Rosea had 360 degree views of the Grampians, and I probably should have appreciated it a bit more before beginning the descent. The first 1km was a bit technical and quite a lot of guys overtook me. However, it soon opened up and became a lovely downhill track, allowing for a bit of speed. I found myself running along with a guy who was training for a 100km ultra race. I’m not sure if he was used to running with such a chatty person! After a few kms he let me keep going as he was saving his legs (ears?) for his gruelling training program.
I reached the Bellfield Lake aid station in good spirits, telling myself there was only 15km to go. That was until I saw the size of the banana that I had put in the food drop the day before. It was huge, there was no way I was going to be able to eat it all and the thought of carrying it to the end of the race was not joyous! Anyhow, I continued on…
Wonderland 36km had been described as 15km of rock hopping and then a trail half marathon. I hadn’t anticipated how strenuous the last section was going to be. It was mainly running through the bush around the lake, but was undulating with steep muddy sections to climb. I was thinking of my friends back in Perth who were at the same time running the 12km City to Surf – the same distance I had left to cover!
I caught up with most of the guys that had overtaken me, and together we ran/walked up the finals hills. I was hurting, but took some strength from the fact that I was still battling the hills better than all but one of the guys. One of the group, who had run the course previously, advised us that ‘this was definitely the last hill’ and I tried to muster some reserves for the final couple of kilometers.
Even though it was flat, the last section was pretty tough. It was the longest I’d been on my feet and I was just exhausted. I tried to smile for the photographers and then finally we hit the main road, just north of town. From there it was about 800m to the finish line! There were a few people cheering in the runners and tried accelerating as much as my tired legs would allow!
I crossed the line in 4:41:37, which I was pretty happy with. It was faster than Mark had expected and he missed me crossing the finishing line as he was getting a coffee! Without doing any trail specific running he had done 4:11:28, but given our relative marathon times, in my mind I’d outrun him today. (Which I should have given my specific training block!) The results were being updated live, and I found out that I was the 4th female in the 36km race. It was kind of bittersweet, I was very happy with my performance, but wonder if I had started in the first wave – would I have been able to avoid some of the log jam sections and have gained a bit of time (third was only 4 mins ahead)? However, potentially I may have blasted too hard up the first climb and lost time on the back half of the course? Who knows!
With our accommodation very close to town, I hobbled back for a shower. We then slowly walked back to the finishing line as it was conveniently located just in front of the local craft brewery! We enjoyed some brews, a steak sandwich and cheered for the first of the amazing 60km runners. It was surprising how good they looked at the end of a tough day out, and how coherent they were when interviewed! (The male winner took just under 7 hours and the female winner did 8:04). Even though we were on a high from our race, we agreed a 60km trail run was probably a bridge too far!
All in all it was a really enjoyable race – fantastic scenery, great organisation and a good vibe out on the trails. It was great to have a target race which seemed like a bit of a stretch goal, and then to perform well on the day! Plus I loved the gang gang cockatoo on the race gear and was looking forward to proudly wearing my Wonderland Run singlet at training.
Final stats from my Garmin:
4hr41min37sec, 37.69km, 1251m elevation gain, 7.28min/km average pace