What’s one of the hottest (literally!) events on marathon bucket lists right now? It’s the marathon-with-a-difference – the ‘Australian Outback Marathon’ (AOM).
The AOM is held on the largely soft, red-sand trails – with a few calf- and quad-busting dunes thrown in for sadistic measure – around Yulara in the Northern Territory in the ‘cool’ season at the end of July each year.
I completed the grueling 42.2 kms on 29 July just past, and can confirm that while the event is very ‘cool’ – affording runners incredible views of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) – it is, at the same time, piping hot – 31 degrees in the ‘shade’ this year.
While the course is relatively flat from a topographical point of view, the above reasons make it challenging, and it’s definitely not an event to chase a PB.
However, the breathtaking views and incredible atmosphere certainly make the sweaty effort and ubiquitous red dust in your socks, worthwhile.
The AOM was conceived by Mari-Mar Walton, the founder and Managing Director of specialist running travel agency, Travelling Fit, after visiting Uluru with her husband Michael for the first time in 2004.
Mari-Mar had previously taken part in adventure races around the world and wanted to bring the concept of an ‘all inclusive, fully hosted’ marathon holiday to Australia.
After six years of planning, gaining permissions and working out the logistics of putting on an event like this in the middle of the desert, the inaugural Australian Outback Marathon took place with 187 runners on 31 July 2010.
Seven years on, it has grown to involve almost 700 participants, representing nearly 30 countries, and reaching maximum capacity well before the event.
My penchant is ‘quirky’, scenic marathons with a point of difference, so as soon as I became aware of this one, I knew it was for me.
My first taste of running on the red earth came as a shake-the-cobwebs-from-the-legs, warm-up run on the Thursday afternoon before Saturday’s main game, when I joined the hundreds of other local and international runners registered to run the marathon, half-marathon, 11 or six kilometre events on offer.
That was followed on the Friday by a relaxing 10 km walk around the base of Uluru; an extensive (and entertaining!) race briefing that evening, as well as a traditional ‘carb-loading’ dinner.
When race day itself arrived, we were up well before dawn to board our coaches for transport to the race precinct and start/finish several kilometres from Yulara village.
To watch a blazing desert sunrise was thrill enough, but the atmosphere was even more electric with the sense that something momentous was about to take place and each participant delighted to note a special touch – their respective country’s flag gently fluttering against the red-earth background.
Ironically, it’s very cold in the desert so early, so hot drinks and assorted breakfast offerings were gratefully received, though we all knew that in a very short time, temperatures would gallop and we’d be sweating and desperate to cool off and rehydrate.
The AOM start even sets it well apart from other events – my heart swells and there are tears in my eyes as we are all transfixed by the unmistakable sound of the didgeridoo cutting through the crisp air.
And then, suddenly, as the sun’s first blushing rays begin to take hold, the red dust flies from our heels and we are off!
Heading out in a south-westerly direction from the start/finish area, the ground turns from a graded bush road to a genuine fire trail, with a combination of packed and soft, red earth and sand underfoot.
As a helicopter hovers overhead to capture what transpire the most amazing race photos yet, you cannot wipe the smile from my face as I acknowledge how fortunate I am to be running over such unique and sacred land.
I also check in with my body and am happy to get feedback that I’m feeling fresh and alive, with an absence of any niggles, my training having gone to plan and a restful taper travelling from Tassie to the Outback.
After approximately three kilometres, we cross the Lassiter Highway and turn north-west for another three clicks, where we are treated to stunning views of Kata Tjuta on our left.
The course then turns in a north-easterly direction for another two kilometres, with the ground changing once again from a desert track back to an unsealed but graded road.
After approximately eight kilometres, we hit one of the few sealed roads on the course, Mala Road, which takes you through the village of Yulara on our way to more trails.
After crossing another two roads, a brief turn due North returns us to the red earth as we head up towards the local Connellan Airport.
Even at this relatively early stage, as the heat starts to seep into the day, I’m grateful for the frequency of the water and electrolyte drink stations – positioned with their cheery and encouraging volunteers every three kilometres.
As we begin to head back towards the start/finish area after approximately 12 kms, there are the first sand dunes to navigate, but the reward on getting to the top of virtually every one is the spectacular view of Uluru.
The 15 km mark sees runners crossing a different section of the Lassiter Highway and another short stretch of sealed road before we head off once again into the bush.
After approximately 18.5 kms, I’ve well and truly settled and thoroughly relish another five kilometre stretch of pure Australian Outback with more jaw-dropping views of the Red Centre landscape.
It’s now that I negotiate one of the steepest and softest sand dunes on the course – “Jem’s Dune” – but I take heart that this is the marathon half way point and continue to feel strong both physically and mentally, even enjoying chatting with other runners.
There is another psychological boost at the 22.5 km mark as we turn and I know we are starting the trip ‘home’.
Using some of the routes near the Yulara resort, it’s a long, meandering loop over another dune (they are beginning to sting a little more about now and it’s slightly harder to smile for the photographers perched at the top!) and more track before once again crossing the Lassiter Highway.
Then it’s back through Yulara village and the Mala Road, the only sealed section of the course, at 32.5 kms.
It’s now stinking hot and the wind has picked up, so as well as drinking them, I’m emptying entire bottles of water over me (though within minutes I am bone dry once more).
My legs are also beginning to tire, so the low-impact red earth is actually welcome at 36 kms, as is the impressive twin sights of Kata Tjuta on my left and Uluru to the right.
At this point, I catch up to another couple of runners who have slowed, and our enjoyable conversation is diverting and serves me well to the finish line, where I’m ecstatic to learn that, somehow, I’m 10th female home and in 49th position overall!
I simply cannot rate the AOM highly enough. In every perspective, it shines – from the unique course itself, to the exceptional scenery; from the camaraderie between runners, to the fabulous atmosphere; from the dedication of volunteers and the community, to the consummate professionalism of the organisers.
AOM? Five stars.
- Race website: http://australianoutbackmarathon.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/outbackmarathon/
Written by: Annie Robson