We spoke to Tom Dade, one of only two finishers from the 2021 edition of the Down Under 135, a 217km single stage race on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Every trail race wants to be the hardest, the gnarliest or the most brutal. For a group of people who love pain, being the most of anything is great marketing. It’s actually such a prevalent issue that only the other day elite mountain runner Killian Jornet was calling for a grading system to be introduced.
The Down Under 135 miler however might be worthy of its claims. Started by four Aussie ultrarunners keen to create an iconic and globally recognised ultra, the event is an ‘out and back’ affair through the Lerderderg and Wombat State Forests. To directly quote the event page:
‘We are giving you possibly one of the best 50 / 100 km you have done on Victorian trails but thought an extra 167 km / 117 km on top makes it way more memorable hahahaha’
Yeah, they’re a little unhinged.
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You’ll notice I’ve missed the obvious comparison to the Barkley Marathons, the famously difficult US race known as being the hardest in the world (no one finished the 2021 edition) and popularised in an awesome doco.
There’s a few reasons for this; firstly, the Down Under 135 doesn’t follow the same ‘five marathon loops’ format as the Barkley, it’s keen to become its own thing; and secondly, I found out about an actual Barkley Marathon-inspired race in Victoria called Unbreakable that Tom competed in not long after this interview.
I caught up with Tom to find out more about competing in one of the most messed up foot races in our part of the world.
Tim: You’ve just finished a race with only two finishers, how do you feel?
Tom: Honestly I still feel a bit shocked, a little bit like a fake [laughs]. Just because there were so many elite and experienced hardcore runners out on the course. So weird that I’d be one of only two finishers. However, with that being said, I do feel very honoured and proud to have finished, especially with such a high DNF rate, my age, and the conditions we faced this year.
The rainy and wet conditions made the going even slower and they made the course even harder this year apparently, taking out more of the runnable parts and adding in more off-trail segments. I think it makes me the youngest finisher of the race since it started [in 2017] and I’d be lying to say I don’t feel proud about that.
What’s the Down Under 135? How did you find out about it?
The Down Under 135 is promoted as the hardest and gnarliest foot race in the Southern Hemisphere. I haven’t run every single ultramarathon/foot race in the Southern Hemisphere, so I can’t say if this is 100% fact, but I can say it’s the hardest I’ve done – and I’ve done some of Australia’s hardest including the Alpine Challenge 100 miler and Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER100) miler*.
It’s an out and back course that takes runners through Lerderderg State Park and into Wombat State Forest. Over the span of the 135 miles (217km) we ended up climbing over 13,000m of vertical ascent, it’s rugged and hilly. I should add that it’s promoted as a foot race rather than an ultramarathon because of how gnarly and rugged it is, only half of it at a maximum is runnable.
*100 miles = 161km
Were there any traditions or rituals that the race followed? It seems pretty grassroots.
The Down Under 135 was created by four local mates (Tom Cullum, Dale Chircop, Anthony Beyer and Dion Milne) and it’s pretty grassroots yeah. The start of the race is signalled by the crack of a real whip rather than a siren and the finisher prize is a bronze bowl with the Down Under 135 logo, a tribute to the gold mining history of the area.
Do you know why the distance is listed in miles, not kilometres?
I believe it’s just an ultramarathon thing, you know when you run a miler you say I ran a miler or 100 miles, not 160km. Also Badwater is 135 miles, one of the hardest footraces in the world. I think we just inherited the American way of saying things [laughs].
You can go supported or unsupported, how did you tackle it?
I did it solo and unsupported, mainly because I felt bad asking someone to pace me for the 60km+ required! But also the extra challenge was very appealing. Being 100% reliant on your drop bags and yourself. I did have my amazing Dad support me at every aid station, just my Dad being there was very comforting and helped tremendously.
I hear the course was pretty gnarly! Tell us about the terrain. Any issues with navigation?
The course was just stupid [laughs]. Over the 135 miles you’re climbing over 13,000m but that’s not the difficult part, the difficult part is large sections are off trail. So no actual path. They get you running through tree and shrub clearings (mind you my shins wouldn’t agree with ‘clear’).
It’s just extremely rugged, there was part where you’re running along the Lerderderg River for a good 10km or so, it’s flat but because you have to push through shrubs and jump along rocks I was only managing 2-3km an hour!
The parts that are along a trail are super rough and steep as you climb in and out of Lerderderg Gorge. There’s a few parts were you look to your left and right and you’re like ‘oh shit, if I fall, that’s it!’.
There were some parts along fire trail that were very runnable but it was few and far between. In terms of navigation, the route was marked extremely well with reflective pink markers, and overall it was easy to move from one marker to another. I only had real issues once and that was on the second night when I was hallucinating and pretty stuffed, so that probably played a part.
How do you even train for that kind of distance? Do you train for lack of sleep?
I feel that people try to run way too many weekly kilometres for these distances and get themselves injured. Personally, I find building up to 100km of running a week with two important days; a double day (20km in the morning, 10km at night) and a long day (3+ hours of running), is all you need in terms of running, quality over quantity in my opinion.
However I also like to weight train with heavy compound lifts 3-5 times a week as well as 2-3 swimming sessions and, if I’ve got the time, add in some other conditioning work such as the stairmaster, cardio boxing or some HIIT sessions on the stationary bike or rower. I believe it’s all about having a super strong base of overall fitness.
This year a big help for me has been how frequently I’ve run ultramarathons, this is my eighth ultra this year and I reckon that helped a lot! I personally don’t train for lack of sleep, sleep for recovery during training is super important (although I’m not great at it yet) so I don’t want to hinder recovery during training to train something like lack of sleep.
I hear that the cutoffs kept you moving, how brutal were they?
Yeah the cutoffs* were absolutely brutal, I’m not sure if it was just this year because of the new course changes and the wet conditions but I’d say at least 50% of the field was wiped out because of cutoffs, it knocked off some really experienced, tough runners.
I remember on the second night, I was literally running as fast as I could after I’d already run 160+ kilometres, and my Dad asked me if I was going to bother to try and make that cut off, the odds were against me.
Luckily I found the energy to really dig deep and push, making the cut off by about 30 minutes. I think I only made the next checkpoint with 20 minutes or so to spare, which is nothing when the run took me over 53 hours!
I remember thinking ‘In what race is second place worried about a cutoff? Like seriously, what the hell?’ [laughs]
*Cutoffs in long distance running are the maximum time you can take to complete a race or section. The Downunder 135 features multiple cutoff times to eliminate slow runners.
You must get this a lot but, why?
A combination of reasons; the challenge, to set myself goals, and prove to myself that I’m capable. I’m extremely insecure and need to finish tough things to prove to myself that I’m not a loser.
Also, the people I get to meet! These events bring the most interesting and awesome people together, and having an opportunity to be part of that community is pretty special.
I like to add discomfort to my life – we’ve got things so easy, and it’s easy to get comfortable, complacent, and lazy. I need the struggle to appreciate how good I’ve got things, I can’t truly appreciate what I’ve got until I’ve been stripped of my comforts. It makes me appreciate my family, my lifestyle, my work, all of my privileges, that much more!
What’s the next goal?
I’ve got a lot of goals [laughs]. Rottnest Channel Swim, climb the Seven Summits, swim the English channel, too many. But the two immediate goals are to finish my first 200 miler at the Irrational S.O.U.T.H in June down in Adelaide and to finish what I believe to be the three hardest milers* in Australia in one year (Alpine Challenge, Down Under 135 and Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER100), I’ve finished two now so all I’ve got left is GSER100 in November, which is going to hurt!
*slang for a 100 mile race.
We met on a Climbing the Seven Summits course, is that still a goal once travel opens again? How many are you up to?
Yes! 100%! I love ultrarunning but my biggest passion is climbing mountains, even though I’d still call myself pretty inexperienced. Soon as the borders open I’m keen to get myself to Denali in Alaska for the highest mountain in North America.
I’ve got some more training with Climbing the Seven Summits (CTSS) at their Alpine Academy at Mount Kosciuszko in August, so I’m super keen to brush up on the skills. I’ve done four of the seven, although there’s really eight as most people don’t count Kosci.
I’ve done Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Aconcagua in South America and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. That leaves me with Denali in North America, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Carstensz Pyramid in Australasia and Mount Everest in Asia.
I’d love to thank Melton City Runners for their amazing efforts with volunteering and also shout out Warren Maynard who was awarded the 2021 Tailwind Community Spirit Award for his massive contributions with volunteering, marking the course and more. The event wouldn’t have been possible without them, they’re the heart and soul of these kinds of events.
Feature photo by @theeventurers2