A cool morning greeted runners at the start of this year’s event, as they mingled in the dull morning light at the top of Nellies Glen. As always there was plenty of tension and excitement in the air, with perfect conditions suggesting a fast race was about to unfold. In the end it was quite the contrary, at least that was the case in the men’s event with the winning time being one of the slowest in recent history (3:31:07). That’s not to take away from the amazing effort of Courtney Atkinson in taking the title, but more a reflection of how things unfolded in what can be an unpredictable sport. The opposite can be said in the women’s field, where Steph Auston executed a perfect strategy to build into the race and run a blistering time of 3:48:22 to defend her title.
The early pace was set by Atkinson, who reached Cox’s River at close to record pace (59:22) with 2 x defending champ Vlad Shatrov 30 seconds behind. Third to cross the water was Gerald McPherson, a name relatively new to the trail scene. Leading the women’s field to the river was Margaret Campbell (1:12:25) with Steph only 11 seconds in arrears. Third woman to cross was Jo Brischetto.
The climb up Pluvi is where the race is often decided, and this is where Shatrov attempted to take control. He reached the top in a split under one hour (59:13) taking the lead in the process. Normally you would assume he’d run away with the victory from this position, however it wasn’t to be. Atkinson rallied through the middle of the race as Shatrov faded, regaining the top position and running away to a convincing victory. Meanwhile, a patient Rhett Gibson picked up the crumbs, rolling through the filed to go from 13th at Megalong Road to 2nd at the finish (3:36:57). Shatrov, despite a late fall, held on for third, completing three podium finishes from three consecutive starts.
From the river the women’s race also went through a change in the lead, but it was a move that would remain unanswered. Steph stormed up Pluvi in 1:02:29 to take the lead and control of the race, striding away through the Black Range to a huge winning margin of 21 minutes (3:48:22). Campbell held on for second place in a respectable time of 4:09:22. In third was Elizabeth Humphries (4:15:11) who overtook 21 people from Pluvi to the finish. Interestingly, Humphries split from Caves Road to the end was the 9th fastest of the day.
Looking at the results for the race makes for interesting reading. Despite fantastic running conditions, the times were generally slower at the front end. That said, there were plenty of personal best performances in amongst it. I was asked afterwards by a couple of people why one year is so drastically different to another. It’s a tough one to answer, but my thoughts are it’s a reflection of a couple things. Firstly, trail running in Australia doesn’t have the same depth as you get in Europe or the US. You find a handful of the same names always being mentioned in pre-race articles and touted as potential podium finishers. By having less depth, there’s increased volatility with how easily the front of a race can fall apart, more on that in point two. Trail running can be an unpredictable beast and there are loads of variables in the sport that can turn a race on its head. You can easily roll an ankle, have a fall, get stomach issues or cramps, or simply have a rough day. It’s not an exact science and if one of these unfortunate things happens to 3 or 4 of the pointy end runners, when you don’t have great depth you end up with a decimated front of the field.
My take home observation from the 2019 Six Foot is that you never know what might happen. It’s a challenging event, loved by Sydney trail runners and not entirely understood by those interstate. It may not be the most scenic or technical course, but the atmosphere at the start and finish are hard to beat. 2020 will no doubt be another big year, and who knows, maybe we’ll see records broken by names yet to have graced the start line of a trail race!