by James Stewart (Editor Couch to the Summit)
As a race director what do you do when you’re running a multi-stage race, and the athlete who has dominated the opening three days—with a healthy overall lead—misses a turn along with several other runners just two short km’s from the finish? This was the dilemma faced by Sean Greenhill of Mountain Sports during last weekend’s 40th running of the Bright Alpine (Four Peaks) Climb. Greenhill made the courageous (and possibly unprecedented) decision to grant Canberran Sam Burridge his dues, by awarding him co-winner with Matthew Crane. Crane admitted to feeling awkward and unfulfilled about the winning position he was thrust into, “It was a really rough feeling as I hadn’t deserved it at all - like I was happy with my own performances, but Sam outclassed us all.”
“It was a really rough feeling as I hadn’t deserved it at all - like I was happy with my own performances, but Sam outclassed us all.”
Trail running’s biggest missed turn scandal occurred in 2016, when American Jim Walmsley famously missed a turn at mile 93 during the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in Auburn, California. When he went off course, Walmsley was an hour ahead of his nearest competitor and on a blistering pace 15 minutes ahead of the course record. He was clearly going to win but there was nothing anyone could do. Everyone had to accept the outcome, including Walmsley. Walmsley had run so far off course; he was eventually found collapsed on the ground in dejection and could barely summon the energy to get back on course and finish the race. Which he did, by walking it in some hours later to his credit. By then, other runners had passed through and finished the race. Walmsley’s friend Andrew Miller had taken the victory, which made it a little easier to swallow. Walmsley didn’t let the setback deter him. While he DNF’d the following year, he kept at it winning the race in 2018 and again in 2019 shattering the course record.
There is no bigger nightmare to a runner than putting in hours of hard work, hold a commanding lead, only to see the dream collapse within moments of the finish line. Unfortunately, trail running events occur on huge distances across publicly open land. Sometimes people remove or switch the markings, and other times runners are so locked into a trance, their peripheral vision doesn’t pick up on the markers indicating which trail to take. It appears in this instance, old markers from a previous mountain bike race may have confused the runners.
Burridge’s missed turn only cost him 10 minutes, but it was enough to lose the overall lead after taking a seemingly unassailable 7-minute lead into day 4 of the event. Like Walmsley and Miller, Burridge and Crane—both from Canberra—are also good friends and frequent training partners. Crane explains, “He’s a good mate of mine and we train together regularly, so I could only imagine how gutted he must have been feeling. It was a bit awkward to say the least.” Walmsley’s continued upward progression—despite a big setback—is a good sign for Burridge as he continues to make a name for himself in Australian trail running.
The Four Peaks is a unique 4-day multi-stage race combining four of the toughest mountain climbs surrounding Bright in Alpine Victoria into four days of running or hiking. The event is always held on Melbourne Cup weekend and is inclusive of all ages and abilities. Entrants can choose to run or hike the climbs, participating across as many days as they wish. The results for everyone who compete for all four days are combined into a general classification.
The event originated in the late 1970’s, directed by Reg Splatt who ran the community event for an incredible 31 years. Bruce Salisbury took over for four years from 2011-2014, before Sean Greenhill of Mountain Sports took on the reigns as safety and compliance issues threatened the future of the race. Greenhill had overseen the successful introduction of the Australian Skyrunning series (also held in Bright), and was able to navigate the new era of risk management plans and regulations, while keeping the event as close to its original spirit as he could. Over commercialising the race would risk changing the feel of the race, a format beloved by mountain runners due to its unique and successful approach to the gruelling endurance demands of mountain running, and festival-like camaraderie between the runners. (Photo credit: Aaron Knight).
The combined elevation gain and the cumulative fatigue on entrants pushing to their limits, brings to the event an addictive appeal. If there is a mountain running event close to the equivalent of the Tour de France, this would be it. Trail runners in the event understand the overall winner truly represents the strongest runner because of the gruelling nature of the climbs. You might be able to have a really good single day, but being consistent over four days is another story. The event has always attracted the best mountain runners, stair climbers and orienteers in Australia. Legends who have dominated the event include, 7-time winner Robin Rishworth, 5-time winners Dave Osmond and Hanny Allston, and 4-time winner Paul Crake.
Burridge is now forging his own reputation as one of the leading mountain runners in Australia. He doesn’t fit the prototype of your stereotypical elite mountain runner; commonly with a lightweight frame between 50-65kg, able to effortlessly bound up climbs. Burridge is 184cm tall and is leaning out his previously large frame, now down to 76kgs—from 112kgs—when he began running in 2012. For the 10 years after school, Burridge’s exercise regime consisted of bulking from weightlifting. His running career only began by chance when he made the decision to compete in a Tough Mudder obstacle course race. Realising he needed to become fitter to even stand a chance of finishing the event, he began running with a colleague and quickly became hooked. How far he has come is quite incredible.
A regular 5km parkrunner, Burridge has brought his 5km time down from over 20 minutes to the low 16-minute mark, but does most of his training on the trails and hills surrounding Canberra. In 2017, Burridge was talking with a friend who had represented Australia multiple times at the Mountain Running world champs and he suggested Burridge focus solely on mountain running. Burridge took the advice. By 2018 he was representing Australia in the World Mountain Running Championships and had won the prestigious 50km ultra-trail race in the Blue Mountains.
One of Burridge’s advantages has been training with some of the best mountain runners in Canberra, as the city continues its reputation of being a high-quality producing mountain runner nursery – thanks in part to the city’s relationship with nature, and the efforts of John Harding from the Australian Mountain Running association who provides the city with numerous mountain running events.
Burridge has no doubt benefited from training with stair-climbing world champion Mark Bourne and other elite runners. I trained with both Burridge and Bourne on the steep Stockyard Spur on the outskirts of Canberra in 2017. Meeting Burridge for the first time, I was taken back by his speed of climbing, given his atypical size for a vertical athlete. I remember informing Burridge that even the big guys can climb fast and compete at the elite level. I told him how I saw imposing French vertical athlete William Bon Mardion powering up climbs against far smaller world class athletes when I raced vertical kilometre races in France two years earlier. Burridge is a great example how any body type is capable of becoming an elite level mountain athlete with the right application and dedication to diet and training.
Burridge didn’t go into 4 Peaks expecting to win any stages given the race’s history of attracting the strongest runners around and felt he was slightly underdone with mountain fitness. Turns out he wasn't underdone at all. On day one, Burridge decided to do a quick surge at around 2km to see who would go with him, but no one could. He ended up on his own for the rest of the day. He reveals this gave him the confidence to push harder on the subsequent days.
Burridge held a narrow 25 second lead over Matthew Crane after day one on Mt Buffalo, and put three minutes into Crane on the climbs up Mt Feathertop and Mt Hotham. Burridge was so fast up the Bon Accord spur on day 3, he set a new Strava course record of 1 hour and 3 minutes, 14 seconds ahead of Nathan Lawson’s time from the previous year. This was a surprise to Burridge, but he said he was feeling really good leading into day 3, “I ended up power hiking a fair bit of that but once I reached the ridgeline at the top I felt amazing again and could run quite hard along the ridge to the finish.” Crane—a former world class orienteer with a more common featherweight build perfect for fast climbing—is no stranger to the 4 peaks, having himself dominated the event in 2013 and 2014. While his times were a lot faster back then, he says it definitely helped not having to carry gear back in the old days.
Today, the stricter safety measures force athletes to carry mandatory safety equipment and 2L of water. Despite the occasional complaints from runners, Greenhill’s stance was justified on day two, when a freak hailstorm hit the finish line at Federation Hut near Mt Feathertop. The weather can vary from warm and sunny to alpine snow and ice within an hour on any day in November. Posting a picture of the hail and pouring rain on Facebook following the stage, the race director wrote, “Do I really need to take a waterproof jacket and thermal? Yep! This is why.....”
At the end of day three, Burridge seemingly had the overall win securely in his grasp with a lead of almost 7 minutes. On day four, the athletes were faced with additional challenges than just climbing, with a fast-technical descent off mystic hill. Burridge had proven himself the strongest climber all weekend, but Crane was able to keep pace with Burridge and make his move on the downhill technical rocky sections. With a few km’s to go, Crane passed Burridge and was racing to catch the other athletes out ahead including Matthew Schepisi, Mathieu Dore (3rd overall) and Phillip Bellingham. All three would prove stronger on day four’s descent, but were slightly off pace from Crane and Burridge on the longer climbs in the previous days. Despite falling back to 5th, Burridge was in no danger of losing his overall lead with only 2km to go.
However, enough of a gap had opened up between Crane and Burridge, to where Burridge wasn’t able to see the direction in which the lead runners had turned. At an intersection with 2km to go, Burridge explains, “I couldn’t see anyone in front of me but I saw some pink race markers on the right hand track so I kept heading down that way, about 500m down the same trail there was another pink flag so I assumed I was still on the right trail, after another 500m I ran into a walker (the walkers start 1hr before the runners) who told me that I had gone the wrong way.” Burridge hammered as fast he could back to the finish, along the way telling other runners who took the wrong turn to turn around, including the leading female. He ended up running an extra 2km adding approximately an extra 10 minutes.
At the finish line, Crane anxiously waited for Burridge to arrive ready to celebrate his friend’s victory. After 7 minutes had gone by, Crane knew something weird was going on. In despair, Burridge eventually crossed the finish 3 minutes behind Crane in the overall standings. Burridge was frustrated and devastated, “I assumed at that stage that it had cost me the overall win…”
I thought that was a really good solution - there’s no magic fix in a situation like that.
There was a period of time where Crane had to temporarily accept he was the overall winner, but he says he couldn’t enjoy the moment. It wasn’t long before race director Sean Greenhill approached Crane and asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing the win with Burridge due to the course marking issues. Crane said, “I thought that was a really good solution - there’s no magic fix in a situation like that. Voiding would have been too strong for the majority of people that went the right way. It was great being up there with Sam - and everyone knew he was the real champ, so that was ok.” Burridge says he will try to minimise the risk in future races, “Going forward I suppose I'll be studying the course in a lot more detail. Ideally I'd like to do some course recon runs but that’s not always possible.”
The socially supportive format of 4 Peaks allowed everyone to accept Greenhill’s decision for Burridge and Crane to share the honours as being a decision made from a place of common sense.
Burridge’s success was built upon sessions including, 6x3min steep uphill reps with 90 seconds jog downhill recovery; a continuous 40-50min uphill tempo; and using local races as fitness hit outs. Those sessions went well giving him confidence going into the race, but there was always uncertainty how the body would hold over a stage race, “I was really surprised with how good I felt each day which enabled me to keep pushing hard each day.”
His advice for other runners getting into the sport, “Consistency is key, that goes for everything. Training, nutrition, recovery etc... Spend your time slowly building up the mileage, building up the climbing, slowly introducing hill sessions. One new thing I introduced this year was including a core routine three times a week into my schedule and has helped me hold my form especially when I’m starting to get fatigued.”
Moving forward, Burridge’s next goal is the 64km Bogong to Hotham in January and is potentially looking at the Ultra Trail Australia 50km in May and the Brisbane trail Ultra 60km in July.
Matthew Crane (L), Sam Burridge, Mathieu Dore (R). (Photo credit: Aaron Knight).
The Women’s Race
The 4-day women’s overall was just a closely fought out with French native Iris Pessey taking the win with a 4-minute victory over Australian ultra-distance legend Beth Cardelli. Pessey hails from a small ski resort in the French Alps called Le Grand-Bornand on the border between Switzerland and Italy. She arrived in Australia three years ago after deciding to travel rather than head home following the completion of her studies in the USA. With a ski background, Pessey received a scholarship to ski for an American University and has a successful competitive background in biathlon, cross-country skiing and now vertical mountain running events.
She explains her background gave her a strong advantage across the four-day race. “I am used to racing back to back. The first days I was struggling with belly cramps so I didn’t push 100%. Which was frustrating, but maybe a blessing in the end, so I raced a bit more conservatively and didn't die in the last days.”
Pessey suffered the same fate as Burridge after taking the same wrong turn, but had enough time on Cardelli it didn’t end up preventing her victory, “I was actually a fairly long way ahead and I had less than a km to go until I took the wrong turn and followed the boy in front of me. This cost me the (stage) win. After quite a bit of time someone told us we were on the wrong track, so we had to turn around and run back up to the intersection that we missed.” If it wasn’t for Burridge telling her to turn back, she may have also lost the overall victory to Cardelli too.
On her battle with Cardelli, “Beth me push hard quite a few times as I know she was coming back in some portions of the race. I like to start fast and be leading so I can visualize the race and see what's going on. It was great to have her pushing me harder I really enjoyed racing against her.”
Pessey has big plans moving forward. She’ll be doing a few long races in skiing, a 220km Red Bull event in Sweden, the longest ski race in the world. Then a 170km race in Greenland. After that she will focus on the Skyrunning world series starting in China and then Japan in early May and qualifying for the vertical kilometre world championships in July.
Her racing future and residency in Australia is uncertain despite her Australian boyfriend. She admits to feeling less challenged by Australia’s low-key alpine mountains, “I think a lot of people around me in Australia struggle to understand that when you come from my background, they are not high enough, steep enough, close enough. It's a great change and I really enjoy it but I struggle finding very technical trails or climbs with big inclines that go for hours. I miss steep Backcountry skiing as well.”
Pessey is heading back home to Europe to coach the Australian juniors for cross country and biathlon, traveling with her athletes around Europe. She admits to being homesick, “For the last three years it's been great to be in Falls Creek but I feel like I need to go back home for a while because I miss it more and more and it just doesn't offer me what I want. I also miss having friends who I can share the mountains here in the way I do in France.”
Melanie Townsend (L); Iris Pessey, Beth Cardelli (R). (Photo credit: @theeventurers2).
About the Bright Alpine Climb
Day 1: Mt Buffalo - 10km with an ~elevation gain of 1100m
Day 2: Mt Feathertop - 10-12km with an ~elevation gain of 1200m (Federation hut) or 1652m (Summit) – finish location depends on the weather.
Day 3: Mt Hotham - 15km with an ~elevation gain of 1400m
Day 4: Mystic Hill - 11km with an ~elevation gain of 700m
1 Matthew Crane 4:49:08
1 Sam Burridge 4:49:08
3 Mathieu Dore 4:51:44
1 Iris Pessey 5:37:49
2 Beth Cardelli 5:41:59
3 Melanie Townsend 5:55:26