From 11-14 May 2023, Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB will celebrate its 15th anniversary, growing from humble beginnings to becoming the second largest trail running event in the world.
Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) began in 2008 as a single distance ultramarathon, with 157 athletes taking on 100 kilometres of spectacular trails through the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains.
Fast forward 15 years, UTA has become a mainstay of the global ultra running calendar, attracting around 7,000 athletes each year to the now multi-day festival of trail running.
Since 2022, UTA has been part of the UTMB World Series, a circuit of the best trail running events in the world which offer runners the only opportunity to begin their quest to UTMB Mont-Blanc – the UTMB World Series Final and the pinnacle event of trail running.
A global boom in trail and ultra running contributed to the growth of the event, but the true success of UTA lies in its community – inclusive, passionate, caring, and devoted.
David Austin has been part of the UTA journey since the beginning. As of last year, he is the only Founding Runner remaining – someone who has finished every UTA100 since the event began.
“I just love the race. I love the people around it. I’ve loved watching it grow from about 160 people to what it is today,” said David.
The 61-year-old from Mona Vale on Sydney’s Northern Beaches stumbled across the inaugural UTA (back then known as The North Face 100) when a friend suggested they do it together. David, who describes himself as “just the average Joe who puts on a pair of shoes and runs”, wasn’t really a trail runner at the time, more a 40-something dad who ran casually to keep himself in shape.
Prior to the first event, David admits the furthest he ran in training was about 35 kilometres. Undeterred, he threw himself wholeheartedly in at the deep end and signed up for the 100km race – a race that would start a 15-year love affair with trail running.
“We thought we were still young enough and stupid enough to be able to wing it. It was damn tough,” he said. “That’s sort of how I got into that and then I just absolutely loved it, and it just grew. Then we just started exploring more trails around where we live, different places. Now I do probably two or three races a year, just all trail races.”
The inaugural race in 2008 attracted 157 starters, 130 of which finished the challenging 100km course. It was a race that David remembers was run mostly in solitude due to the small numbers spread throughout the trails but is still one of the most special memories he has of the event.
“That first one was so unique, I ran the whole last stage from the Queen Vic to where they used to start at the Fairmont, and I did not pass a soul and a soul did not pass me. I never saw anyone. All I could see was just a couple of headlights in the distance and if I turned around when I was up on the mountaintops you could see a couple of lights in the back, and it was just unreal,” he said.
David has been hooked on the magic of UTA since that first race 15 years ago. Although the event has grown and changed over the years, one of the core drawcards of the event that has stayed consistent throughout is the camaraderie shared amongst the runners, says David.
“You’re chatting as you’re going along. You’re always encouraging people, people are always encouraging you,” he said. “Everyone seems to be on the same high 99% of the time, people seem to be in the same high spirits as you are. Everyone is out there enjoying it and having a good time and doing it to the best of your ability.
“People will help you too. Like last year, I wasn’t going so well, I cramped up really badly and that put me on my back. Two blokes just stopped to help me up. One of them gave me a bit of cramp fix and they stayed there for five minutes with me and once I was able to start walking, I pleaded with them to go because I said I’m alright. They didn’t have to stop but they did. They weren’t worried about their time, they just wanted to make sure I was alright,” said David.
After 15 years, David is now the only person left to have started and finished every UTA100 since 2008. Although it’s not something he set out to do, it’s something he’s immensely proud to have achieved.
“They’ve all been fantastic. It’s just a fantastic feeling to cross the finish line. It’s unbelievable for me. You’re out there for 16 plus hours, I’ve never done a time under 16 hours, so I’m out there for 16 plus hours and to finish it, they’ve all been great,” he said.
“But last year was quite special when I finished it, because you could hear the announcement. They were saying, ‘here’s the last man standing coming across the line’ and oh my, the cheers that I was getting coming through, it was really good. Last year was very special, but all the other years, they’ve all been just as special in different ways.”
Part of the growth of Ultra-Trail Australia has seen the introduction of additional distances. The event now incorporates an 11km, 22km, and 50km, alongside the 100km, which has helped to attract more first-time trail runners to the event and has helped boost the number of women taking part. Proudly, UTA now has an almost even number of men and women racing across all four distances each year.
David’s daughter Amy is one of those who now regularly takes part in UTA, having completed UTA50 the past few years. Being able to share his love of the event with his daughter is something David takes great pleasure and pride in.
“She really likes it. She’s probably not as stubborn or quite as passionate as I am, but she’s young and got other interests as well. It’s something really special for me too, that she’s sort of followed in my footsteps. We often go trail running on the weekend when time permits because she’s a nurse and does a lot of shift work. That’s really special for me too,” said David.
It’s been two decades since David first entered the world of trail running but he has no plans to slow down, declaring he intends to return to UTA every year until he’s physically no longer able to.
“It’s entrenched on the calendar now, I’ll always be there. It was a little goal I had trying to outlast everyone,” said David. “I’ll keep coming back until my body gives out, until I can’t make it, unless health gets me but hopefully touch wood that won’t happen. As long as I’m able to I’m just going to keep coming back, I’ll just keep going.”
The 2023 Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB takes place from 11-14 May in the Blue Mountains, with limited entries remaining across the four distances – 11km, 22km, 50km and 100km.
For more information and to enter the 15th anniversary edition of Ultra-Trail Australia by UTMB visit https://www.ultratrailaustralia.com.au/
Header image: David Austin is the only person to have completed every UTA100 since it began in 2008. Credit: Sportograf