Written by Jaryd Clifford
Located off the beaten track in outback Western Australia, over 800km north-east of Perth, the town of Leonora exists in relative isolation. Most Australian’s will never set foot there, and many may go their entire life without ever hearing its name.
Even Australia’s most accomplished marathon runner, Steve ‘Mona’ Moneghetti, himself a fellow mining town resident, had “never heard of Leonora”.
Nevertheless, this has all changed. Moneghetti is now somewhat revered in the region, and the town has become home to a footrace unmatched by any other in our nation. All it took was one mile up and down the town’s historic main road.
The idea for the race originated over a couple of beers at The Central Hotel in Leonora. The town had recently suffered the collapse of its local mining company and was now seeking regeneration. Inspired by an annual duathlon previously organised by the mine, running coach Raf Baugh made a revolutionary proposal. The year was 2002.
“At the pub that night they asked Ray Boyd (Australian marathon rep) and I ‘how could we make it bigger?’ They asked me ‘how much money?’ And I just made up a number,” he recalled. “I said, ‘if you give me $50,000 for prize money, we’ll get almost anyone, and we’ll get Steve Moneghetti to be the patron.’”
It was a bold proclamation, but he kept his word.
“They had high hopes, and they didn’t really know what they wanted or what they were going to do,” Moneghetti said. “But I thought he sounded like a good bloke.”
Moneghetti’s endorsement was enough to encourage the official establishment of the Leonora Golden Mile. The pub dream was coming to life.
The town, and its people, immediately struck a chord with Moneghetti.
“The people were just fantastic. They were incredibly friendly people. Everything was done with a beer. I reckon I almost ran with a beer in my hand, my god it was good,” he said. “It was just that sort of outback countryside, and I just fell in love with the place.”
However, for Moneghetti, it was the authenticity of purpose that gave the event its strength. The idea that they were making a difference in the community stood above all else. Within a few years, the race began to make its mark, rapidly expanding to become one of the most popular social events in the region. It’s influence stretched to all corners of the desert frontier.
“They were really trying to make a difference out there. Leonora is a pretty tough mining town,” he said. “It was like the circus had come to town, and people came from miles around to be a part of it. It was kind of like old school running. It was great to see the community — ladies and blokes — having a go. There’s a race for everyone.”
Competing in a struggling sport, the runners treasured the attention. It was one weekend when the best of Australia could pretend they were household names or celebrities in demand. For Moneghetti, seeing that was priceless.
“You get treated like a king,” he said. “Athletics is not a big sport, and you go over there, and you go into that town, and you are treated like royalty. The athletes really appreciate that.”
Leonora was also pouring money into the sport, allowing Olympic contenders to pursue their dreams overseas. Moneghetti recognised this from the outset, suggesting that the lucrative prize money had the power to change a runner’s life.
“Certainly my experience was that a lot of runners would come and almost stop over there on their way to Europe. So it was almost like paying for their trip to Europe,” he said. “I think that’s the really important thing. It’s not easy for athletes. I think we all think athletes trip around the world and have a great time. It is far from that; it costs money.”
Moneghetti believes that the organisers should be proud that they are combatting the financial barrier that restricts the sport.
“There is no doubt that Leonora will have provided support and finance to athletes who have then gone onto not only international careers, but also Commonwealth, Worlds, and Olympic Games. There is no doubt about it, and they should feel really proud about that,” he said.
Now perched atop a prestigious list of Australian road miles, the Leonora Golden Gift is undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest footraces. With over 20 Olympians having graced the main strip of town, it’s legitimacy is unquestionable. Moneghetti has seen the event grow from the dust, and for him, it “ticks every box.”
For those Australians that will never set foot in Leonora, or even hear its name, Moneghetti believes it is at their loss. This remote township is not just the location of a great Australian footrace, but a beating heart for the community — an extraordinary pocket of the Australian experience.
For anyone that makes the trek, Moneghetti is confident that they will not regret it.
“You’re in for an experience let me tell you. I have great memories of Leonora. Great stuff happens. It is just a fun time.”