The Puffing Billy Great Train Race recap


You’ll have to wait till my next post to get the full details as to why, but today’s race was more of a hard training run than the all out assault I’d originally planned.

The Puffing Billy Great Train Race (GTR) is one of those iconic races unique to Melbourne.
With a cap of 3300 people it’s tiny compared to, say, the Melbourne Marathon, which sees ten times as many people swarming into the city. But because of where it’s situated it’s still fairly crowded, in a cosy sort of way.

Set in the picturesque Dandenong Ranges, beginning in the town of Belgrave and finishing at Emerald Lake Park, it’s a gorgeous area at any time of year, but in autumn I think it is truly spectacular.


This pic is not mine and not from today; today was wet and cold and dark, with clouds sent straight from Hades. But other than that it looks exactly like this now. Source

After a cheesy yet somehow stirring rendition of Advance Australia Fair (sung by Mike Brady) the race directors wished us a happy International Star Wars day and followed it up with the Star Wars theme music.
If anything’s going to get you fired up to go into battle I think it’s a few bars of that echoing around the mountains, right?

Puffing billy startBeing Melbourne, the sun came out for 5 minutes right before I took this, then rained for 10 minutes immediately afterwards, ensuring we were all nice and soaked to begin the race.

At the start you have to watch out for a deceptively steep downhill section for the first kilometre or so. That combined with the excitement of the beginning of a race sees most people go out way too fast. Save something for later, because at the 2k mark you will hit a wall of a hill.

Side note, there’s a hilarious joke about the GTR that goes like this:
Interested Possible Race Participant: Is it a hilly race?
Seasoned Veteran: Naaaah!There’s only two hills – one is 6k long and the other is 7.

I know, I’m wetting myself over here.

The truth is there are probably only two sections of really difficult gradient, one is about 2k long, the other about 4. I think. It’s hard to remember stuff when you are dying.

Anyway, I had not forgotten my last battle with these mountains and knew it was just a matter of time till I had to walk a hill. I settled for holding out as long as possible.
I got through the first incline and drinks station no worries and had settled into granny gear quite nicely by the 5k mark, which is when the next wall of a hill arrives.

puffing billy hill

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some nice downhill sections

puffing billy view

And some beautiful views…

But the fact remains, you are running up Mount Dandenong. (The clue is in the word Mount, the Prefix of Doom).

I don’t remember much from the 5-8k mark because I was busy trying not to pass out, but I do recall that even powerwalking hurt.  Luckily not much farther on the course finally begins to level out slightly as you enter the lovely little town of Clematis.
This is where the first train overtook myself and many others.

puffing billy clematis

But it’s kind of difficult to get too upset about ‘losing’ when there are so many happy faces cheering you on…

puffing billy wave

After another couple k of rolling hills – which would be quite easy if I hadn’t already trashed my legs – you get to the town of Emerald itself and things start to head quite literally downhill until the finish line.
What had been a mix of paved and unpaved roads turns to proper trail. None of it is technical, but it does get very steep and muddy in some places, as a few firey young fellows I saw hopping on their one good leg at the finish line can probably bear witness to.
Personally I would rather run up a steep hill than down. My clutziness is legendary, I don’t need any help hurting myself!

As it turns out it was a good idea I held something back for the finish. The combinaton of up and downhill and the steepness of this course in general takes a lot out of your poor quads, trust me on that one! I was doing anything between 6-7 min/kms, depending on the gradient, for much of the race, but the last 2.5k have me at under 6 and even under 5 (just!) for the last 500mt. I’m not built for that kind of speed!


As is pretty bloody obvious from my results. But hey, don’t say you weren’t warned – it’s all there in the blog title!

After one final MASSIVE (but blessedly short) hill through to the finish area it was over. Everyone got a yummy free Gatorade and a new Yarra Valley Water bottle. Yay, free stuff!!

Puffing billy winners

The winners and the train times – As it turns out I was close but no cigar to the 2nd train finishing time. Maybe next year.

puffing billy

The second train headed back down to Belgrave

So – how did I go?
Well, last time I completed the GTR I managed a 6:30 min/km pace, this time it was 6:36 min/km (the course length has changed in the past two years so I can’t compare finish times).
The difference is, I remember how wiped out I was last time. I was SO sore the next day, and not particularly spritely immediately afterwards either. I finished hard but was totally spent.
This time? I was fine, I could still jog around and out of the finish area (I’m very impatient and was trying to get past the crowds) and it was lucky I had that extra energy too, because hubby couldn’t get anywhere near the finish line to park, so I had to walk 3km back UP the hill I had just run down, to meet him at the Emerald shops.

All in all it was an excellent hard, hilly training run that’s still left me able to go for a recovery run the next day and get straight back into my marathon training (more on that soon!).


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