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Puffing Billy

Great Train Race

May, 2009

The Race

Puffing Billy, a steam train that is one of Victoria's most popular tourist attractions, hosts an annual "beat the train" race. The 13.2 km course loosely follows the train tracks as it winds its way through the picturesque Dandenong Ranges. Nearly the entire course is on road, with a small section towards the end on a dirt track. The route is hilly. Very hilly. The longest climb spans almost 2 km, but all hills are (barely) runnable. The last 2.5 km are mostly downhill, making for a fast finish.


One of the Puffing Billy trains commences its journey at the same time as the runners, and the aim is to reach the finish line before the he does. Puffing Billy makes it in an hour, give or take 10 minutes. For the rest of the non-elite runners like myself, there is a second train that leaves about 15 minutes after the first. Many people are aiming to beat this train. Most people are aiming just to finish. To make it slightly more difficult, there are four railway crossings on course. If you both arrive at the crossing at the same time, Puffing Billy has right of way and you have to wait while he slowly chugs past. There can be a lot of standing around time if you get caught at every crossing.

puffing billy australia train

The Lead Up

This race was my seventh of the year, building up from 8 km to 13.2 km. All my previous races had been mostly flat with a couple of climbs thrown in here and there. The Great Train Race was known for being relentlessly hilly, something I was not prepared for.


I lived in a hilly area, but I did my best to steer clear of anything too long or steep. Within a couple of minutes from home I could be on a bike path that stretched for 15 km towards the city. Along the whole course there were only gentle undulations, perfect for beginner runners. If I turned and ran the other way along the path, towards the outer suburbs, I was faced with steep, never-ending ascents and descents. What seemed like colossal mountains to me were probably only blips on the radar of experienced runners. I avoided them like the plague. 


Over the last few months I had slowly increased my mileage, and completed my first 10 km in a fun run six weeks prior to Puffing Billy. I pushed hard in that race and paid for it later. Not long after finishing, I found myself in a world of nausea and pain that persisted for hours. Since then I had run 10 km a handful of times, and my body was now better equipped to handle the distance. But would it be able to cope with an extra 3.2 km? Only time would tell.


By this stage I had been a gym junkie for roughly eight months, and my enthusiasm didn't diminish with my increasing running schedule. I was too scared of the weights section of the gym, so I stuck to the classes, notably a variety of Les Mills workouts and boxing sessions. If I was desperate (usually due to poor weather) I would hit the treadmills, but I never lasted long on these. Netball was also an important part of my regime, playing two games weekly. These games were purely social and so they rarely wore me out. 


Between the gym and netball games I only had time to run three days a week, if I was lucky. I loved running and wanted to see how far I could go with it, but I also loved the other forms of exercise I was undertaking. I didn't want to give anything up, enjoying the variety of the workouts. So heading into this race I wouldn't say I was as prepared as I could have been, but I thought I had done enough to get me over the line. 

Race Day

Danny and I arrived at the start line in Belgrave, feeling positive about the race. We knew there would be some hills along the way, but elevation profiles meant nothing to us and we really had no idea what we were about to face. We were in for a rude awakening.


Almost 3000 runners stepped up to the start line, forming a large crowd on the not-so-large street. Due to the number of people competing it took a while to get going once the siren had sounded. Once we were able to run, we ran, and didn't look back.


The first kilometre descended steeply, a nice warm-up to the main event. Then we hit the first climb: 1.5 unrelenting kilometres. I didn't know people ran hills this long. In my mind I had promised myself that I would run every step of that race. This hill was not going to make me break my promise. 


I lost Danny somewhere on this hill. He was a much better climber than I was so he took off and was gone. My pace dropped considerably, and I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other (even if it was only marginally in front). The majority of the participants around me slowed to a walk. I passed many of these people, feeling strong as I did. There were others, however, who also weren't running, but they still managed to power up the hill. It was as though they were on a StairMaster set to the highest speed. Some of them were walking as fast as I was running. It didn't make sense - why wasn't I overtaking the walkers? I always presumed that running was the best option, but a quick look around told me that this wasn't the case. 


After an eternity I made it up and over that first hill. Only two more climbs to go. At the start of the descent was our first railway crossing. I glanced down the line but couldn't see any trains in sight. The officials signaled that it was clear to cross, so I jumped over the tracks and picked up my speed, glad to be running freely again.

Dandenong Ranges australia

The stunning scenery through the Dandenong Ranges.

A couple of kilometres later came the second and longest hill: slightly under two kilometres, without a single break (not that I knew this at the time). With my head down and pace reduced, my stride length decreased while my heart rate increased. I settled into my rhythm, not daring to look up. The thought of not being able to see the top of the mountain was discouraging, so I combated that by staring at the ground in front of my feet. Every few seconds I thought I must be there, it must be over, but it never was. I wanted to stop and walk like most of the others near me. My legs were burning, my lungs were burning. I felt like I had been on this hill for hours. I reminded myself again and again of my goal of not walking. I was strong, I was capable, I could do this. Yes it hurt, but it would all be over and forgotten about soon. Knowing I had given up would not be forgotten so quickly.


At last relief came, in the form of another successful train track crossing and a short downhill section. It took a while for my legs to register that they weren't ascending anymore, as I tried to increase my speed again. The blood eventually flowed back into my weary muscles, allowing me to fly down the road. Silently I was cursing all the hills in existence, determined to never run this race or any other hilly race again. At the same time I was elated that I had persevered and overcome this obstacle, both physically and mentally.


The third hill played out in much the same way. I struggled, I hated it, I wanted to quit, but after conquering the first two I knew I could defeat this one too. I reached the summit, ran over the final railway crossing without being stopped, and set my sights on the finish line. Out of nowhere came a huge boost of energy, propelling me down the last hill. During this descent I spotted Danny up ahead. I sprinted to catch him, having a quick chat when I finally did. I felt I still had more to give, so I left Danny with some encouraging words and soldiered on.


Well over an hour after I started I crossed the finishing mat, exhausted. I felt I had left everything out on the course. I had achieved my goal of running every single step, although looking back it may have been more sensible to try to powerwalk at times to conserve my energy. Danny arrived not long after me, looking just as spent. We had no idea what was in store for us at the beginning of the day, but we had faced every challenge head on and triumphantly come out the other side.


The first train had arrived seven minutes before me, but I had beaten the second train by the same margin. I was thrilled! The emotions of overcoming the hills, of pushing myself beyond my limits and still finishing strong overwhelmed me. It was the toughest race, the toughest run, the toughest challenge I had ever put my body through, and I hadn't given up. I understood just how critical it was to come into each race with a positive, determined mindset, and that this was as important, if not more so, as physical fitness. 

Lessons Learned

  • More hill training would have been ideal. Not only so my legs knew what was coming, but also to prepare my mind for how difficult it could be pushing up those hills with no end in sight. Looking back now the elevation profile is nothing compared to other races I have participated in, but at the time they were the biggest hills I had ever come across while running.

  • You don't have to run all the hills. If you can, great, but often you can go just as fast, if not faster, powerwalking. Plus you use less energy when walking, saving it for later in the race. If you do plan to powerwalk though, make sure you practise this in training. 

  • I can be mentally strong. I didn't realise just how determined I could be until I was placed in that situation. Now that I have tapped into it, I hope I can find it again in future races. My body was dying to give up, begging me to stop and walk. Somehow I managed to push those thoughts aside and focus on my goal of reaching the finish line without walking a single step. There is no shame in walking, but I had decided prior to the race that this was what I wanted to achieve. 

  • Novel races can bring excitement and motivation to a race. The chance of beating a train gave me an added burst of adrenaline to make it to the finish line as fast as possible. It was a nice change from using other runners or previous times as an incentive to perform well.

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