520 kilometers of dust and desert, withering heat and pesky flies: welcome to The Track. This ultramarathon through the Australian outback ranks as one of the world’s toughest sporting challenges.
The Australian outback: the endless expanses, the shimmering heat, the red desert sand. Out of its midst rises – with great majesty – Ayers Rock. The 350-meter-tall stone formation has always been a sacred place for Australia’s indigenous Aborigines. And every year, 250,000 tourists make the journey to see the famous mountain in the middle of nowhere for themselves. Every two years Ayers Rock becomes “Ultras Rock”, a place of pilgrimage for ultra-runners from around the globe. They come here to compete in The Track, a 520-kilometer ultra-race through the Australian outback. The ten-day event is split into nine stages and culminates at the foot of Ayers Rock. Respecting the wishes of the Aborigines, though, competitors don’t actually climb up the rock.
Every night, the runners must pitch camp together; that’s one of the organizers’ few hard and fast rules. Otherwise they are left to look after their own needs. They have to carry a rucksack throughout the race, containing all the things they are sure to need over the ten days – such as a sleeping bag, compass, torch, knife and provisions. This is what is known in the trade as a “self-supported” ultramarathon, and The Track is the longest of the breed worldwide. The organizers tell of entrants pushing themselves to the limit and beyond in an attempt to stay the course. But don’t just take their word for it. “This is by far the most challenging and rewarding event I’ve ever experienced on this planet,” says Jamie Hildage, who took part in the 2017 Track. Hildage was one of just 27 athletes who lined up at the start of the most recent edition of the race. Those who can muster the courage to take it on are given a map for the job in hand. Their quest: to stick to the route marked on the map and arrive at the group camp by the end of each day.
The ultra-runners’ Australian adventure gets underway in Alice Springs, the only town of any size within striking distance of the outback. With a bit of luck, there will be some kangaroos hopping around the West MacDonnell National Park outside the town to see them on their way. Whether the athletes have quite such a spring in their step is another question. Indeed, along with the nagging burden of the weight on their backs, time pressure is another constant companion; each stage must be completed within ten hours. For long stretches of their journey they will be surrounded by a pretty desolate landscape. This, after all, is Australia’s Red Centre, the coppery semi-desert that makes up the country’s inner core.
If it weren’t for the odd plant still struggling up out of the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking the competitors were running over the surface of Mars. Instead of some galactic path, however, they are tracing the footsteps of the Aborigines – Australia’s indigenous people, who have populated the country for around 40,000 years. At the heart of the Red Centre rises Australia's Red Heart: Ayers Rock. Its iron-rich sandstone lights up red when hit by the sun and is visible hundreds of kilometers away. It makes a stunning destination for the ten-day adventure, a fitting end to those 520 kilometers of dust and desert.
At the finish line they will meet the Aboriginal Anangu people, for whom this place has been home for tens of thousands of years. Uluru, the Aboriginal name for the rock, is a sacred place for them. Indeed, the red formation has only been known as Ayers Rock since the first Europeans set eyes on it almost 150 years ago. British explorers William Gosse and Peter Warburton were on an expedition into the Australian outback and named the monolith after the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time, Henry Ayers, but since the 1990s the name Uluru has been increasingly used by non-locals as well. After years of campaigning by Aborigine representatives, from 2019 tourists will no longer be allowed to climb Uluru. But the forthcoming edition of The Track – which starts on May 15, 2019 – will once again finish at the foot of this sacred mountain in the middle of the Aussie outback.