A column by Len Johnson – Runner’s Tribe
One year ends and another begins, just as it has for the past 40 years, at Falls Creek.
What were once training camps have now become family holidays, but otherwise little has changed since my first visit here in 1978-79. Actually, lots of things have changed: new accommodations, including a couple of resort hotels, coffee places to while away the time. A supermarket which stays open has replaced the store which opened at the owner’s, not the customer’s convenience. The newspapers arrive pretty much on the day of publication now.
But these are superficial changes. The fundamentals remain the same – eat, sleep, run, recover: repeat.
After tentative beginnings back in the mid-1960s when Olympic federations around the world were searching for high-altitude training venues to prepare their athletes for Mexico City, Falls Creek has progressively grown into Australia’s best training venue. A multitude of groups and hundreds of runners trek out to the aqueducts at Langford’s Gap, or run around the Rocky Valley storage to the water tower on Friday morning, for the most popular training sessions.
And, with missable exceptions, everyone mixes and mingles. You might find yourself on your very first session at Falls running next to an Olympian. In my case it was soon-to-be Moscow Olympic 10,000 metres finalist Bill Scott.
Not for nothing was the laconic Scott known as “the Living Legend.’ As Tim O’Shaughnessy explained it back then: “You never knew what Scottie was doing, but you knew he was training hard.”
I’d met Bill once before, and we renewed acquaintances at the start. Those were about the last words spoken until we reached the gate marking the end of the ‘right’ aqueduct around nine kilometres away.
As we turned at this gate where the aqueduct crosses the Bogong High Plains Road, Scottie spoke again. “Mate, I’m just going to pick it up a little,” he said.
Having reached the gate in 36 minutes, I got back to Langford’s in another 33. Bill had beaten me home by a couple of minutes. It was a case of “see how the other half – i.e. the Olympic class athletes – run.
After all these years, that remains one of my favourite Falls Creek runs. A few days later, I rang the secretary at work to ask her to let my boss know I’d had ‘car trouble’ and wouldn’t be making it back for a 2 January return to work. I’ve been back at Falls every year since – 40 Christmas-New Year visits this year (plus the occasional one at other times), 40 years next year.
Like the best long runs, it’s taken a long time to build into it, but all the above is by way of recalling some of the great runs at Falls. For all the time I have been coming here there has been talk of epic runs and heroic failures.
There was Peter Fuller tailing Ralph Doubell out to Langford’s to discover the great running along the flat, grassy tracks alongside the aqueducts draining water into Rocky Valley Dam. While not an epic run of itself, this was an epic development for which the hundreds who run there now should thank both Ralph and Peter.
Then there was a chap named Brendan Layh, a Victorian champion, summer and winter, at various distances. Brendan would sometimes add a third run to his morning and evening routine, a dash up the rocky track underneath the Village ski-lift. Layh also once reduced Olympic walker – and very good distance runner – Ross Haywood to despair on the seven-kilometre climb up the dirt road from Howmans Gap to Mt McKay, surging away relentlessly with a “I can’t run at this uneconomical pace any more.”
Some of these early Falls runners decided to attempt the run from Falls to Mt Hotham and back. This was the first heroic fail as for various reasons – if Brendan Layh was there, possibly because he wanted to get back for his afternoon run! – they did not complete the trip. The heroic fail was followed by an epic consumption of ice cream, as one of the returning runners demolished a whole tub in his heroic efforts at carbo reloading.
A couple of years later, a group of us decided to run from the foot of Mt Bogong to Falls. We boldly declared this an epic, despite the fact there was then, and still is now, an annual ultra-run from Bogong all the way to Hotham.
It was one tough run regardless. Up to the top of Bogong via the Staircase Spur. Across the top to Cleve Cole and Maddison’s Huts, down the precipitously steep T-Spur to Big River, across the river and up the just-as-steep Duane Spur to Roper’s Hut, then across the top of Mt Nelse to the finish.
Trevor Vincent put a picture of the finish of this run on his distance running nostalgia Facebook page recently. Rob de Castella is slumped over, hands on knees. Chris Wardlaw staggers around in a painter’s cap looking dazed, the rest of us straggle in some way behind. ‘Deek’ is clutching an instamatic camera, though if the pictures are back from the chemist we are yet to see them.
Others on that run included Steve Poulton, me, Steve Foley and an American runner named Sue Schneider. The following year we did the return trip from Falls to Hotham, so at least we could say we’d done it.
After that, we put the epics on hold as we’d exhausted the readily-accessible peaks. Maybe the fact that we were far better equipped to celebrate self-proclaimed epics than to contemplate heroic failures had something to do with it, too.
With increasing age, epics have made a comeback. What were once regular training courses – Howman’s Gap, Around the Lake, Spion Kopje – even Fitzgerald’s Hut – have with the passing years become at least ‘mini’ epics.
Some days, just getting out the door becomes a minor triumph.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Len Johnson has been the Melbourne Age athletics writer for over 20 years, covering six Olympics, eleven world championships and six Commonwealth Games. He is also a former national-class distance runner. For over a decade Len has bee Runner’s Tribe’s lead columnist. Len also writes for IAAF. He has recently been named an Athletics Australia Lifetime Member. He is also the author of ‘The Landy Era’.