WHEN seven runners raced the length of the historic Six Foot Track from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves in 1984, they had no idea they were launching an event that would soon rival the big-budget, corporate-sponsored marathons of the capital cities.
But that is the story of the birth of the iconic Six Foot Track Marathon, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on March 8 this year. The race now attracts about 800 runners, making it Australia’s fifth-largest marathon, and it is clearly the nation’s premier off-road event.
Running Six Foot within the seven-hour time limit has become a rite of passage for many endurance runners and the event attracts competitors from around the world. This year’s race has entrants lined up from France, USA, Germany, Finland, Singapore and New Zealand.
The Six Foot Track starts at a national landmark – the Marked Explorer’s Tree near Katoomba, where the early pioneers Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth are believed to have carved their initials. It winds its way through rainforest, farms and bush tracks; it crosses a river, climbs mountains and eventually descends dramatically into the World Heritage Listed Jenolan Caves, where hundreds of spectators gather for a raucous and spirited finish.
The first race was held to mark 100 years of the Six Foot Track, a bridle trail built as a shortcut to Jenolan Caves and named after the original tender reference for the width of the trail.
The event is now a superbly organised fund-raiser that nets some $30,000 a year for the Blue Mountains Bushfire Brigade, which provides manpower on the day. The course is well marked, there are 17 well-stocked aid stations, personalised electronic timing and even a commentator to announce finishers as they cross the line.
It is a far cry from the first race, when the seven competitors quenched their thirst by drinking from puddles, had one barley sugar lolly between them and relied on maps and a whistle to prevent them straying off course.
One, Max Bogenhuber, now 65, has completed every race within the seven-hour cut-off and will be among the starters for the 25th running.
“I keep lining up because I’m the only one who has run every year,” he says. “I will try to keep the record going as long as I can but as soon as I miss one year because of injury, or if I fail to make the cut-off, that will be the end of it.”
The other six original runners were Ian Hutcheson, the organiser, Bob Marden, the winner of the inaugural event, Chris Stephenson, Ian Taylor, Bill Miller and George Fitzgerald.
Well into the race, Bogenhuber, Stephenson and Marden broke away from the others.
“But things were getting rather tough,” Bogenhuber says. “We expected to be out there for about three hours or so, but we had already spent more time on our legs and were nowhere near the tar road that starts 36 kilometres into the race.
“Bob pulled out a barley sugar and we decided we should share it. He suggested he could suck it for a while, then hand it on. We declined. We drank out of puddles. It tastes all right when you are really thirsty.”
Bogenhuber finished in the top 10 six times in the mid 80s and early 90s, and, as a 60-year-old, still managed to break five hours. Last year, aged 64, he finished in five hours and 20 minutes – 15 minutes faster than the time he ran in the inaugural race as a 41-year-old.
Fitness, experience and strategy are critical in all endurance races, but Six Foot will break any runner who does not pay special respect to the unique demands of the course.
Sydney runner Tony Fattorini scored an unexpected win last year, breaking the long-standing race record with a dramatic 20-minute improvement on his 2006 time due largely to the greater respect he paid to the course.
“The trick is to hold back in the first half of the race and run at a comfortable pace, particularly over the steeper sections,” he says. “You can’t afford to let rip until you are in the back half of the race.”