Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Great Train Race - Puffing Billy (or should that be Puffing PB?)

For an event with "only" 3000 or so competitors in an out of the way location in the hills, the annual Puffing Billy Great Train Race always draws in the television coverage. Which is perhaps reflective of its same draw on athletes. For 30 years now runners have come to Belgrave to test their legs against the restored - and in great shape - Puffing Billy steam train. The 13km course with 250m of climbing, a similar amount of descents, and four train crossings is a true test. Everyone leaves with a story to tell; though few leave with a victory over the train!

This year, continuing a very good run, we once again had perfect running weather. It was about 13deg's by race start at 9.30am, with overcast skies and not a breath of wind.  Before the start the announcer introduced Leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott, to the microphone and he received a kind applause as he stepped up. Oddly enough, a few minutes later, when the train driver was introduced to the crowd he received nothing but boos and hisses! Seems unusual, but in this race, the train driver is the natural enemy of the runner!

For something different this year I arranged for Fiona, Brooke and Keira to travel on the race train so they would get a first hand view of the race from the best seats in the house. I even rigged her up with a gps logger so that I could compare the speed of the train through the course with my own pace. Finally I'd be able to answer those questions like "just how fast would I need to be to beat the train to the top of Menzies Creek?"

There was some hope this year, fuelled by the train driver who suggested he might be on a 56min pace, that I'd at least get to the Trestle Bridge before (or at the same time as) the train. But as I ran down the first hill towards that point, I could hear the train's whistle and knew that this would not be the case. As the photos above show - not many runners were coming down the road when the train crossed; but plenty of them were ahead of me when I got there 90 seconds later. This would be as close as I got to (not) seeing the train which was clearly "on song" for a second year running.

From the bridge begins the first climb of the race which goes for about a mile at just over 4% through to the small township of Selby. It's always a bit of a shock to a system not used to running hills to finally see one and today was no different. So I just relaxed and tried to settle into a manageable pace. From Selby you take a right turn onto Selby-Aura Rd and begin what I think is the prettiest part of the course. This is a gentle downhill along a narrow winding road through a beautiful fern gully lined with towering gum trees. It takes you through to 5km where the first aid station is located - and where the fun begins!

The Hill hits you before the water you've just swallowed is even in your stomach. And it hits you like a wall. The tarmac is left behind and you are running on dirt (or at least it used to be) and gravel. The first 1.3k is what most would consider "the hill" and this climbs up to the Menzies Creek crossing at a brutal-feeling 7.4%. Around the corner it still goes on with the total climb ending up a gnarly 2k@5.8%. And you've no sooner crested this behemoth when the mother of all downhills appears in front of you. This is a 200m out of control, steep as it gets, dirt/gravel piece of rutted road. I've seen many people come to grief here and every time I get to the bottom in one piece I am thankful!

The worst is over by then. 8km are done and if you have any strength left now is the time to use it. Today I did not have any (!) courtesy of a raging cold I've had for a week now. All forms of exercise have ceased and I probably should not have raced today!?! So whilst my pace quickened, there wasn't much in the way of zip or feeling good.

Through the fourth and final crossing at Emerald (10km), take one final drink at an aid-station and crest the small hill through the town. I've always struggled on that small incline (not really a hill) along the aptly named "Heroes Ave." Run strong through here and it is 2.5km of good downhill to the finish line. Suffer on this part and it's likely you'll be jogging to the line. Today I ran "ok" :-)

I took the last part of the course very sedately not wanting to overextend myself. It is very easy to run hard here (I normally do) but today was just about finishing so I cruised down the last hills, around the corner, and up to the finish line where Fiona, Brooke, Keira (and Puffing Billy) were all waiting. 66.49mins is not bad today. I'll take that. Now if I can just get rid of this cold!

And the stats out of the gps? Not pleasant reading - unless you are a fan of the train!

9.32.56am - race start
9.34.55 - train starts moving (so two minutes just to get going, always wondered how long he took to get down to the station)
9.37.54 - train at Trestle Bridge (no wonder I didn't see it)
9.44.10 - train at crossing #1 (Selby-Aura Rd)
*** train stopped before Menzies Creek crossing for 6m30sec !!!
9.59.31 - train at crossing #2 (Menzies Creek)
10.03.02 - train at crossing #3 (Belgrave-Gembrook Rd)
10.09.16 - train at crossing #4 (Emerald)
*** train stopped at Emerald Station for 4min !!!
10.22.47 - train stopped at Lakeside

So if the train "ran" 50.49 that would mean the driver crossed the line 59sec after the train stopped.


  1. it sounds like a really pleasant day out (!?) and those photos are lovely. Get well soon :)

  2. Bloody train again! Great report Paul (and photos). Good to see the GPS times from the train. Maybe put some oil on the tracks next time .) I'll do it one year, but it always clashes with Nail Can...


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