Running The World: Australia

Yay! Welcome back to Running The World! Today we’re going down under to talk to Rachael in Australia! I found Rachael by good old-fashioned googling, dropped her a note and asked if she fancied taking part and, bless her, she did!! I was curious to see what she’d say. Australia seems quite intimidating for runners…blistering heat, gigantic spiders, lethal wildlife. What’s it like to run there?

Tell us a little about yourself

Hi, my name is Rachael McKinney and I’m a 46-year-old ex-pat Scot. I’ve been living in Australia for the last 10 years, met and married an Aussie a few years ago and picked up my Aussie passport along the way. I live in Sydney and for my sins I currently work in the finance team of a big telecommunications company. We don’t have any kids but we do have a couple of fat lazy cats who generally use us solely for food and extra heat during the winter.

Other than running I love reading – for a brief period in the dim and distant past we ran an online bookstore – and at sometime in the future I’m still hoping to write a bad novel having taken time out of my finance career a few year ago to do a diploma in journalism – which confirmed my love of writing and my suspicion that I’d probably never make a reporter. My family such as they are still live back in Glasgow in Scotland and I try to get home often enough so that I still recognise them when I get off the plane.

To capitalise on our love of the outdoors we are actually planning to move to Queensland in the next six months and I only ran my first Queensland half marathon in June this year (got third in age cos all the fast chicks were in bed or saving themselves for gold coast in July)

Rachel.  I have hair envy.
I have hair envy.

How did you get into running?

Years ago I was doing some postgrad studies back in in Glasgow – having lived and worked for many years in London – and I got roped into a University team entry for the Glasgow half marathon and I ran my first half. I wasn’t a runner and that didn’t turn me into one! A few years later having lived in Australia for 4 years, there was a family tragedy back home that left us all reeling. Returning to Aus, I needed something to take my mind off it. I had been into fitness so it seemed a logical next step to train for and run a half marathon. That was May 2008.

For some reason this time it took hold – maybe it was something to do with the weather. Soon I had set myself a target of a sub-two-hour half marathon as the point at which I could let myself think about training for and running a marathon. The sub-two hour half came in November 2008. The first marathon came in April 2009.

So tell us about running in Australia. How popular is it as a sport?

Running in Aus is really popular though, relative to other countries, the core band of high-end recreational and elite runners is not big. Once or twice a year though, about 80,000 Australians turn up to run the iconic ‘City to Surf,’ a 14km run from the city centre to Bondi Beach in Sydney, making it  one of the biggest timed fun runs in the world.

A few of the same large crowd also turn out for city running festivals in Sydney and Melbourne while events like the Gold Coast marathon attract a big international crowd. Outside of the larger events, there is a smaller, more regular running crowd who are running club half-marathons and 10kms every month and turning out for the smaller running festivals in fabulously named country towns like Wagga Wagga and Mudgee.

Is running growing in popularity?

Running is definitely enjoying a purple patch in Australia and a quick look at look at the number of events on offer in Australia wide will attest to the popularity of ‘fun running’ (I hate that phrase) in Australia. Australia only has a population of 21 million so, by definition, there are fewer runners than other countries but there is a strong running history dating back to the early 80s when great runners like Rob De Castella and later Steve Moneghetti and Pat Carroll were making a name for themselves on the international marathon stage. I interviewed Rob De Castella, a former world champion marathon runner and now advocate for indigenous running in Australia for my blog: Here is the link. He set up the Indigenous Marathon Project, a project to introduce Aboriginal Australians to distance running.

The parkrun phenomenon has also really taken off here too which has also boosted the popularity of running amongst those who enjoy running (especially the community aspect) but for whom running 10km or more is just not something they feel able to do regularly.

Australia is a big country – do you have any idea about running’s popularity in different parts of the country?

The popularity of running in Australia is not specific to one area and is fairly widespread. Of course, given the unique geographical challenges of the country, most events are put on in the populated areas, which are generally the coastal areas both east and west and south. Darwin is sub-tropical and whilst there are running clubs and events at other distances, there is no marathon there currently. That said, there is still an Alice Springs Running Festival in August.Again a quick look at the running calendar mentioned above will show just how widespread it is.

Sydney is the biggest city in Australia (although not the capital – that’s Canberra) so probably has the biggest number of running clubs – and there are others aside from the ones I’m a member of in different areas of the city – but there is an equally vibrant club scene in the other major cities and big towns.

Cracking views when you run in Sydney. Source
Cracking views when you run in Sydney.

How do Australian runners handle the particular challenges of the country – the heat, the sun, the intimidating wildlife etc?

With typical Australian adaptability! It’s winter in Australia just now which means there are loads of events to choose from. Depending on how far north you go, things begin to quieten down as we head into spring/summer. The Hobart (Tasmania) marathon is in January – but then that is an island off the south coast of mainland Australia so they can just about get away with it down there in the summer. Australian runners are generally acclimatised to running in warmer weather though. It’s just what you do here.

Events start early and you get used to running early in the day. In the winter I might sneak in a daytime run, but in the summer, if I haven’t run first thing in the morning then it’s unlikely I’ll run that day (I’m not a great fan of evening running). Sun means hats and lots of sunscreen – generally. Aussies are very sun aware and to be honest, for most road runners, traffic not wildlife is a bigger issue – though trail running (which we touch on below) has become popular in recent years and probably requires a little more preparedness – but it’s snakes, insects and leeches that are more of an issue than bigger wildlife. We don’t generally run where the kangaroos run.

Can you describe the demographics of Australian runners?

If you look at the stats for any club or bigger event, then men still probably outnumber women roughly 2 to 1. That said, I know a lot of strong women runners in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who are getting into ultra running. I suppose socio-economically they are likely to be the professional classes but that is mainly due to having the time and resources to train and travel to take part in ultra-marathon events.

How many women are running in Oz? What’s driving any growth?

Women are definitely well represented in Australian running, both at the elite and back of the pack level. So much so that a new magazine Women’s Running was established in the last couple of years in Australia. I think it’s targeted towards less experienced runners but that’s a good thing if gets more women and girls running and helps them feel less intimidated about taking part in events. There are still more men than women but events like The Colour Run and as mentioned parkrun have also served to make running more accessible to women who might not have previously been interested or more importantly believed it was something that they could do.

Australian athletes like Sally Pearson – the 2001 World Champion and 2012 Olympic champion 100m hurdler – have definitely influenced women’s running, especially track racing.  Ultra running is popular in Australia and I know a lot of strong older women runners who might not have fast half marathon or 10km times but who have built the endurance over the years to take up this sport and really do well. Of course there are plenty of fast, shorter-distance runners who also do well at ultras.

How safe do you feel when you run?

Generally I feel safe when I’m running but I tend to be sensible about it. I do most of my running in the early morning and right now – mid winter – it’s still dark. But I run with a torch and I run where I know there are going to be lots of other runners, so I am either running with a running buddy or I am usually passing runners that I have run past so many times over the years we are on nodding terms. We are also very lucky here in Aus – and at least where I live even in an urban area – to have lots of places to run where there is not a lot of traffic.

The xxx bridge, part of Rachel's favourite local running route.
The Iron Cove bridge, part of Rachel’s favourite local running route.

It sounds like racing is pretty popular. 

Yes, it is and I know a lot of runners who think nothing of travelling interstate and overseas to run in events. At a local level here in Sydney, the club racing scene is very well organised. I run in two clubs regularly  including the Sydney Striders who have a monthly 10km race from February to June. They also run marathon training groups and LSDs on a Sunday at various locations around the city.

I also run at the Sydney Marathon Clinic which organises a 21.1/10km/5km every month from October to June. All of these races are extremely well organised and run by very dedicated club volunteers. The courses are officially measured and members get bibs and times for each race – the SMC half marathon times can be used as qualifiers for other races – and there are prizes, refreshments and lucky draws on race day and series winner trophies for outright an age group winners at an awards dinner at the end of the series

Rachel at a half-marathon in xxxx
Rachel at a half-marathon recently

 How expensive is racing?

These club races are very reasonably priced and with SMC you can run a half marathon once a month as a non-member for the duration of the series for $25 ($23 USD/14 GBP) a race (significantly less if you buy a race pack of 3, 6 or 9 runs.). Sydney Striders 10km races are a max of $25 a time – much less for members or if you register online. The city running festivals  tend to require a much greater degree of organisation and are therefore much more expensive – over $100 ($94 USD/55 GBP) for even the half marathons. Fairfax Media who own a significant proportion of the TV and newspaper media outlets here in Australia are probably the biggest (but not the only) organiser of big city events – they organise, for example, City to Surf in Sydney as well as the Canberra Marathon among many others. 10kms and half marathons remain among the most popular distances – though 5km is definitely on the up for newer runners thanks to the Colour Run and Park runs.

Which are the most important races in Australia?

I don’t think any race in Australia is more important than any other. The oldest footrace in Australia is an odd race run once a year around Easter called the Stawell Gift named for the Victorian town it has been run in every year except four since 1878, and which attracts elite athletes. To be honest, I think the most important races are those that get more people who wouldn’t normally run out running – so the newer shorter distance community runs and big once a year community events such as City to Surf in Sydney.  

80,000 runners in City 2 Surf Source
80,000 runners in City 2 Surf

Which are your own personal favorites?

My own personal favourites are the club runs. I run because I love racing and seeing my times get better so I like to be able to run regularly on the same course and see the results of my training – plus, let’s face it, when you do a lot of racing you don’t want to be forking out $100 every time. It’s also the core of a big part of my social life and I really enjoy catching up with the usual suspects at these events.

For a running weekend away I really love the Australian Running Festival in Canberra in April each year as it’s a real runners festival. It used to be only a marathon (which I ran as my first marathon in 2009) but it’s been extend to include a half-marathon and a 10km. It’s a great weekend away and one that attracts runners from around the country and is a great place to catch up with runners I know that I see less regularly. Canberra is lovely at that time of year as well – very autumnal. I am most proud of the bronze belt buckle I earned for completing The North Face 100  in the Blue Mountains in May 2010 in under 20 hours – though it’s the only ultra marathon I’ve ever done.

If you could encourage a traveller to do any Aussie race, which would it be?

As iconic races go and in terms of just real spectacle and given that it finishes at the beachfront in Bondi, then Sydney’s City to Surf  would be the one I would recommend to any visitor who happens to find themselves in Sydney in August. At 14km it’s pretty much doable for any runner.

 What trends are taking off at the moment?

For a broader audience, obstacle course races like Tough Mudder are gaining in popularity and for a lot of runners I know the lure of triathlon has proved too much and they have crossed over to the dark side.

How popular is trail running in Australia?

  A fairly recent race series called Running Wild  puts on trail running events of various distances in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Also the growing numbers of starters in big ultra events like the North Face 100, Wild Endurance and the Great North Walk (actually a running race) in New South Wales, and Glasshouse 100 demonstrate the increasing popularity of this sport for runners who want something far more challenging than ‘just’ a marathon. For the very keen, the Australian Ultra Runners association – AURA – has more details.

I’d have to say the biggest risk with the popularity of ultra marathons comes more from a lack of preparedness and training than any external risk like wildlife. But that can extend to getting lost and being on the trails for far longer than expected. That said, the stories you hear in Aus about people getting lost in the bush don’t tend to involve runners and are more likely to be underprepared walkers and hikers, which is a testimony to how seriously the organisers take runner safety and how well organised most of these events are.

What do Aussie runners use to fuel and hydrate when running? Are there any Australian specialities?

I can only really talk from personal experience here and I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to running. It probably sounds a bit naff but I’ve always subscribed to the idea that I want my body to adapt to the running I do, in terms of the utilisation of fuel from normal food sources. This means I very rarely drink sports drinks unless I’m racing – and then I will happily rely on whatever is on offer and most of the time couldn’t tell you the brand. The only time I ever take gels is if I am running a marathon. A brand I have liked in the past is High5  but I know brands like Endura and Hammer are popular here.

When training, I don’t eat breakfast before morning runs generally – if it’s over 15km I might grab an instant coffee but that’s about it. And for hydration … water, water, water, and then coffee afterwards. Aussies love their coffee and are coffee snobs. It really is the best coffee in the world. Odd I know but after 10 years here the one thing I hate about going back to the UK is not getting a decent cup of coffee (what a princess). I’m not sure there are any Aussie specialties as such – though I know a lot of experienced runners have a set routine before races and eat things like creamed rice. I’ll usually just have my normal breakfast.

What gear do Australian runners like?

Garmins are popular with a lot of runners that I know – I do love my Garmin,  my husband bought me a Forerunner 220 this year for my birthday which I love. All the major brands feature for popular running shoes and gear here in Aus, from the runners who favour minimalist shoes like Innov8 and even Vibram Five Fingers to those who swear by the oversized Hoka One Ones as being the saviour of their legs on long runs.

Anyone fancy running here? Me too. Source
Anyone fancy running here? Me too.

Where do Australian runners buy their running gear?

Because I know my preferred brand and model, I buy most of my shoes online from Wiggle, a UK on-line sports retailer. Generally I can get them much cheaper than here in Aus, which is an expensive country to buy gear in. A lot of people buy online from overseas, though Aussie shoppers do need to be careful because some websites are prohibited by some brands from exporting to Australia – those big brands have to protect their profit margins somehow I guess. It’s a bit of a source of frustration for Aussies. Yep we are geographically remote but in this day and age it feels like a lame excuse for things to be 25% higher in cost than anywhere else.

Otherwise runners here are good at supporting good local running stores – generally avoiding the ‘chains’ as they don’t offer as good a service and often try to up-sell things like orthotics even if you don’t need them. A few good stores are aligned with clubs and will let runners try out their shoes at club runs and will donate pairs for giveaways.

Who are the running heroes in Australia?

There are loads of running heroes in Australia and I’ve mentioned a few already above (a quick Google search will throw up some of the more famous ones such as Aboriginal Olympian Cathy Freeman) but there are so many more heroes than just the World and Olympic Champions. To be honest I hardly know where to start. I know local runners who are inspirational to the running community though their dedication and effort – guys who have run 100 or more marathons but think nothing of mentoring new runners.Check out the Australian Marathon 100 club.

There are runners who have undertaken huge feats for fundraising. Check out ultra runner Jane Trumper’s website or Trent Morrow – aka ‘Marathon Man’. The list is long.

My own personal heroes are those runners who don’t necessarily shine on the track or road but have made it a part of their life for all of their life. Particularly older runners still training and running races. Checkout Norma ‘Lucky Legs’ Wallett’s website. She’s in her 80’s and still running (and blogging)! Truly inspirational and someone I hope to emulate for the next 40 years of my running career.

How does social media fit into the Australian running community?

The first and probably longest standing online forum for runners in Australia is Cool Running. When I first started out as a runner, it was a fantastic place to get tips ideas and info about racing, training, gear, nutrition and anything else remotely of interest to a running community. It was the place that led me to all the clubs and events and friends I have now.

These days I probably use Facebook more, as most of my Aussie friends are runners. Plus I am a much more experienced runner and I know where all the races I want to run are and the gear I want to buy is so I don’t need as much advice any more. But I still drop into Cool Running now and again to see what is happening in the current threads.

I have a twitter account but I find it tough to keep up even though I have a fair few followers just now  and even my own blog gets a bit neglected now and again because I just don’t have the time or energy to devote to it that I’d like. So of course because of that I’m bit rubbish when it comes to recommending blogs and twitterers to follow.  

What about media?

Occasionally I buy either the Australian version of Runner’s World or the probably a bit more respected Run 4 Your Life . I don’t really listen to podcasts but one of my friends is a regular listener to Marathon Talk. Otherwise I just randomly surf for things I might be interested in at any particular time to do with running.

If I landed in your city/country, where would you send me to find out about the local running routes, group runs, and local races?

Cool Running would be the first place I would send you, no question.  

What is the best and worst things about running in Australia?

I have been to so many places and met so many people running in Australia. As an ex-pat, it has been my introduction into a new community. I mentioned that I’m about to move interstate – I have already found and been in touch with local runners – though I already knew some just from being part of the wider Australian running community. From a purely running perspective, I have run in some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable. Of course, in New South Wales where Sydney is  located, the weather is pretty much runner- friendly the whole year – it gets hot in summer but for us early birds that’s nothing.

Again probably a bit naff but I cannot think of anything to do with running that is bad or challenging here in Australia or anywhere for that matter. It’s running, we do it because we love it so how could there be?

She makes a great point! Rachael, thank you so much for talking to me!! It’s been brilliant. You can (and should) follow Rachael’s blog HERE and on Twitter HERE!

For other Running The World interviews, click HERE!

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharyn says:

    Thanks for another really interesting inspiring article 🙂

    1. Cathryn says:

      Glad you liked it!!

  2. Nicola Johnson says:

    Fantastic! SO much information! Thought London was busy with 36000 runners but 80000 is manic! Sign me up!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Massive, eh?? It sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it and apparently if you don’t run trails you should be good on the spiders too!

  3. Chris Hollies says:

    Great interview ….Rachael is certainly very knowledgeable when it comes to the running scene in Oz… running with the lovely Cat Ramsden on a 5k 4th July parade run has got me inspired ( as well as reading Rachael’s story!)

    1. Cathryn says:

      You’re going to rock Friday’s run 🙂 So excited about it! xx

  4. Bean says:

    So many places around the world I want to run because of these great posts! Now to just win the lotto so I can go!;)

    1. Cathryn says:

      I know. We were actually investigating flights to Oz the other night. We have officially given up on those plans.

  5. Grace says:

    This is timely…I’m Down Under right now! 🙂 Australia features the same contradictions as the US – it is running-mad and sports-mad too (with a lot of participation in sports, not just armchair spectating) but a significant minority of people are overweight/ obese with health problems. And Rachael is right about the coffee. Best coffee in the world. Starbucks actually has trouble getting a foothold here!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yay for being down under! Drink some coffee for us and GOOD LUCK AT THE MARATHON!!!

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