When marathon races started developing in Australia about 15 years ago, they were very different to how they are today. The majority were point-to-point events, through farmland, country dirt roads, singletrack, quad bike trails and undeveloped animal trails. The mountain biking experience was raw, and riders often had to negotiate gates, creek crossings, and long distances between water points. Marathon races took riders on a true journey, both in terms of geography, but also sometimes emotionally, as few riders were used to racing for more than 5 hours, which was a pretty common winning race time in the earlier years.
But the discipline has progressed, as XCO-centric riders brought their race speed and supreme fitness to the events, and race organisers ironed out any troublesome sections of routes. Winning times dropped well below 4 hours for some popular marathons. And while many ‘classics’ have kept their route, some events changed tact, and new events grew to a different format. Race loops were tight, circling back on themselves, or even doing multiple laps of one course – an affliction of Australia’s XCM Championships since 2011. The lap based events have offered easier feed zone logistics and course management – but you have to ask yourself – is it truly a journey? And with a focus on man-made trail centres, are riders being pushed to race a long format XCO race, as opposed to a true marathon event?
The birth of the Highland Fling
The Highland Fling is one of the oldest marathon races in Australia, having run since 2005 in the Southern Highlands. For many riders, the Fling has always had a great mix of terrain – from a fast start out of Bundanoon, with dirt roads and farm tracks, to the fire trails of state forests, and then with singletrack in Wingello, plus of course the farmland finish with some of the hardest singletrack of the day – to test weary legs and minds.
“The first ‘Highland Fling’ was not the Highland Fling MTB Marathon you know today,” said Event Director Huw Kingston. “We used to run an event called the Polaris Challenge, a peripatetic event that, for 11 years, moved to a different part of NSW each year. In 2002 we ran it in the Highlands and, given the Polaris always had a theme, the 2002 version was all things Scottish. The Flinging Jimmy, portrayed today going over the handlebars in the Highland Fling logo, was the mascot of the 2002 Polaris. So in some ways, anyone who says they have done all the Highland Flings, needed to also have done the 2002 Polaris Challenge.”
At the time, there was growing interest in having big point-to-point races, with the Epic having started in Queensland, and soon enough the Dirtworks 100 in St Albans and later the Otway Odyssey began in Forrest in 2006.
“We saw the need for a great mountain bike marathon in NSW, saw the potential of our own backyard and combined the two and so the Highland Fling MTB Marathon was born. The first event ran on the second Sunday of November 2005, a date we’ve stuck with ever since,” explains Kingston. But one thing the Fling has never done is be tamed. It hasn’t been dumbed down. While a ‘half’ Fling, and a 100 mile Fling have been added, the race course has made small changes, but never moved away from being a journey through the Southern Highlands. And it’s not a standard 100km journey too, with distances ranging from about 105-115km, depending on the precise course.
“‘I got to the 10km to go sign and I’d already done over 100km. That’s bullshit’ “is a reasonably regular refrain from riders in the Full Fling (less so now than early years perhaps). The Full Fling has never been and will never be 100km long which, an expectation due perhaps to most other events using the 50/100km distances,” stated Kingston, who clearly wants the route to create the distance, not have the distance create the route. There is a clear distinction there. Many events will have too much ‘filler’ to get the event distance to the right number, as opposed to letting the best route determine what the race distance will be. In that regard, Wild Horizons have invested in the journey – not the number on your GPS.
“Each year the Full Fling, the Blue Riband distance, will be somewhere between 105 and 115km. We tell you beforehand of course! The Full Fling takes in what have become known as the Ground Effect Stage, the Shimano Stage and the GU Stage,” continues Kingston. And each of those stages has a timing quirk between them, essentially making the race like a mini stage race, except you never truly know where everyone else is on GC, as Andrew Blair once stated. The three stages are broken up with a short neutral section to allow a train line to be crossed safely, and for safe passage through Wingello. Riders have 5 minutes to cross a distance that shouldn’t take longer than about 70 seconds.
So elite riders stop. Refuel. Rehydrate. They plot, plan and watch. Further down the field, riders will stretch, eat, drink, joke and laugh – all while keeping a close eye on their bike computer, not wanting to overstay their welcome in the neutral section.
“The Half Fling is not 50km and nor is it necessarily half of the Full Fling.” Kingston is clearly used to answering questions about his event not exactly matching the ‘Australian marathon standards’.
“Traditionally, the Half Fling is around 55 to 60km and is the most popular distance in terms of participant numbers in the event. The Half Fling does the Ground Effect Stage and the GU Stage. The 100Mile Fling was introduced in 2006, the second year of the Highland Fling, thus making it Australia’s oldest imperial century MTB marathon.” The 100 mile Fling has never attracted huge numbers, but the fact that Wild Horizons have continued to run it shows their support for those who prefer the ultra-distance option.
“Initially the 100Mile (approx. 160km) distance had pretty severe cut-offs but as we’ve mellowed with old age (just like fine wine) so have the cut-offs. That said it is still a massive undertaking that relatively few people attempt; around 20-30 each year, and many still don’t complete. Finish times run from less than 7 hours to more than 11. Katrin Van der Spiegel was the first woman to complete the 100Mile Fling then in 2012 6 women completed the distance with the podium split by a mere 90 seconds. The 100Mile Fling does the Ground Effect Stage, The Shimano Stage (twice!) and the GU Stage.”
Sometimes a journey is best undertaken with friends, leading to exciting stories to share. Why else was The Hobbit such a compelling read? The Highland Fling has catered for those who want to share their race experiences with others – if not in a paired setting, but in a relay format.
“The ménage a trois of mountain biking; a Flinging Threesome offers a relay style opportunity with one rider doing each of the 3 stages that make up a Full Fling, transitioning at Bill O’Reilly Oval in Wingello village. For those more traditional couples, you can also do it as a Twosome where one rider does two of the stages and the other does one” said Kingston.
The Casual Fling
Risqué language seems to be the flavour of some Flings, and Kingston speaks for Wild Horizons on the matter of one of the short events on the weekend.
“In our mind there is nothing more satisfying than a Casual Fling. Relatively short (around 15km) requiring less commitment, it was designed for those who don’t want to be timed in a race but want to be part of the atmosphere that is a Highland Fling weekend. After many years, in 2015 the Casual Fling was caught out and replaced by the more zippy Some Fling. Like all pleasurable affairs, it might return one day…….
The Some Fling
There was a mild dilemma for Wild Horizons – where do you put the younger kids who are too quick for the Kids Fling, too performance minded for the Casual Fling, and not old enough for the Half Fling?
“Recognising we needed to offer more particularly for the 12-15 year old racers, we introduced the Some Fling, a 23km course taking in the first 7km and last 15km of the Half Fling. Whilst it is our shortest distance and thus suited for less fit riders too, be warned it does feature some of the more technical aspects of the course,” said Kingston. So it should also give parents of overly active young teens a quiet afternoon as well.
Check points on the journey
The Highland Fling has many notable sections – trail signs will bring whoops of joy to some, and fear for others. Huw Kingston can break the whole route down and give you a run down on each section, and why the name came around. And if you happen to be on some sort of bike adventure with him – I’d suggest you make time for it. It’s a look at the history of one of our oldest marathon races, and how it has grown, plus who the people involved are.
But, there are always signs that stand out for me, so here are the ones etched into my head, in order, and what they mean to me on my Fling journey.
Free bike wash – the first major creek crossing. Some run it, some ride it. Depending on recent rain, you might find half a beach on the exit. I get a little pedantic about chain lube early in a marathon race, so often run and remount.
Bill O’Reilly Oval – This is about 30km in at the end of the first stage, but often that first hour is a blur. The oval is a brief respite. It’s some more fluid, or food, from the transition area, and the chance to try to sneak away into the GU stage with a good group of riders.
The Wall – It’s steep, but to be honest it’s not ridiculous. Unless you do the 100 mile Fling. It is bloody hard the second time around. A measured approach and enough clear space to the rider in front makes a big difference.
Tangles – This section is usually where I’m most aware that I haven’t been eating or drinking properly, and I start to make stupid mistakes. It’s pretty twisty and fun. Just not as fun if you’ve hunger-flatted.
Halfway Hill – I have learnt from experience to never trust any suggestion of distances in a bike race. Especially not from something naming a section of trail. There never seems to be an exact hill, and don’t let yourself get conned by this one – trust your bike computer and whatever the total event distance is for the year.
Wombat’s Wander – I’m lead to believe it’s an ode to creating singletrack from animal trails. For me, this is a purely enjoyable section of trail, as you’re coming into the closing sections of the race. But this section just gives, it’s really lovely riding. Most of the coming sections involve a little more effort for your pleasure.
Brokeback Mountain – Most people know this as an evil grassy hill climb. Which is exactly what it is. It is harder than The Wall both physically and mentally, but once you’ve knocked it off, there are only a few physical challenges left until the finish line. Sip from your bottle on the lower slopes, and if you have the breath a caffeine gel once clear of the top will probably be well timed for the final challenges.
To me though, the Fling is about more than just sections of trail. It’s a tour of the Southern Highlands. It is one of the better marathon routes around, although I did not enjoy the changes to the first stage in 2014. They were short-lived and didn’t feature in 2015. But I can recall perhaps four or five years ago, starting on a cool morning, the day built into a gorgeous spring day, before a rain squall passed over while we were on the final stretches of the GU stage – I was racing the 100 miler, and passing some Full Fling racers. Everyone was in good spirits. We shared comments, urging each other on. All of us were close to finishing, and we had all had an epic day out on the bike, through countless previously hidden pockets of forest and farmland that the race route ties together – areas not seen by non-mountain bike visitors to the Highlands.
Few races end with a provided meal. But the Highland Fling does. It is a very nice touch, to have some nourishing food at the finish line. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the ‘pasta party’ at the end of an Italian marathon race. The real benefit though is the debrief. Sitting with other riders, sharing stories, and talking about the past few hours. No ones journey is like another, and sharing stories is an integral part of what makes the race what it is.
And this is another part of what makes the Fling sit apart from the rest. Some events suffer as they haven’t created something unique. Riders finish, snip their number off, and go home. But at the Fling, you are more likely to see riders hanging around, getting a beer, enjoying their meal, and telling war stories to loved ones or just anyone who will listen.
Want to be part of the journey? Entries for the 2016 Highland Fling are open now.