Race 8 – The Great Train Race

Puffing Billy 3

Well finally I got to the end of the longest stretch of continuous running that I’ve ever done. This was my fourth race in as many weeks, I’m not really sure if its taken any toll on me, after a really good performance in the Geelong Half last weekend, I thought it was probably a little unwise to train during the week so again headed into this week fresh.

The race starts in the pretty Melbourne town of Belgrave up in the Dandenong Hills. Due to parking restrictions today, we had to arrive nice and early in Belgrave ready for the race. Leaving us a good 90 minutes before the race. As per many people there at that time of the morning, we didn’t really know too much what we should be doing so we headed for a walk down to the platform where the train which we were racing would be leaving from. The train is referred to as ‘Puffing Billy’ presumably because for one is a steam train and secondly it puffs a lot up the hills up to its finishing point of Emerald.

After a quick wander up and down we bumped into James who was running it to so the three of us then set back off down to the train station to have another look at the train. Luckily enough James had his phone still on him, so we managed to get a picture of the three of us on the train station.

Puffing Billy

Surprisingly the next 90 minutes actually went by quite quickly, mainly spent dodging in and out of cover from the rain which was on and off all the time we were waiting to start. I decided to leave stripping off into my running gear until the last few moments when we threw our bags into a van, which would then drive them up to the top of the hill where our finish was.

This race has a certain appeal, in my opinion is definitely one of Melbourne’s most iconic races. I mean where else do you actually get to race a train or in fact trains. My understanding of this run was originally there was only one train however due to not a lot of people beating it, they decided to put a second train on. From my previous research, I knew the first train took approximately 55 minutes and the second train about 90 minutes. I was pretty confident I could beat the second train, but didn’t think I’d run the first train too close at all.

Well as we were huddled in the Belgrave firestation waiting for the race to start, I noticed a couple of LCD screens on the wall showing the weather radar, and it was pretty shocking with big rain clouds looking like they were rolling into Melbourne and the surrounds.

Daz and I finally huddled out onto the track with about ten minutes before the start and thought how lucky we were there wasn’t any rain. The train driver of the first and second trains came out and the presently asked the runners to give them a round of applause, as I’ve read as is customary at this event, the runners booed both drivers. Then a guy stood on top of a firetruck and sang the national anthem and then we were off. Just after in started to rain.

The start was particularly cramped, even though the 3000 runners had been split into 4 groups, there was no staggered start at all, the groups just represented people’s times I think so the theory was no-one would get in anyone’s way.  As per usual at these runs, lots of runners overestimate and underestimate there pace and this leads to the first 2 or 3 km dodging people. The only real break came on the first hill where people’s true order often tends to be found.

Once the race had settled down about, I tended to find my pace a bit more easily. The first couple of kms I’d knocked off in 4.30 and 4.34 and I was starting to wonder very much like the Geelong Half whether I’d gone too fast but I employed the same thought, that being if I felt comfortable not to worry about it. In fact the 4th and 5th  km were knocked off in 4.14 and 4.01. I didn’t think i’d ever see a 4.01 showing up on my timing device so at the time I was quite impressed. However, just after that km the 2.5km hill came up and I slowed considerably with two kms over 5 minute pace which, whilst a little disappointing in retrospect there was nothing i really could have done different.

I was quite conscious of the first  train throughout the run and kept hearing it whistle and wondering how close is actually was. I crossed the first level crossing ahead of it (most runners who have done this race will tell you if you cross ahead you stand a good chance of beating it) and then continued on into the hills. I noticed a couple level crossings on side roads and was still managing to stay ahead.

At that time you start to dream, you start to say to yourself, I’m 7km in, I’m over half way and I’m leading the train. Could I possibly on my first ever attempt beat it. The further I went the more confident I got, that was until the 9km mark, where you turn a bend to the right and the rail tracks are below you on the left. I looked left and the train was beside me and gradually over the next km eased its way ahead of me. Although disappointing, I did quite enjoy waving to all the kids in the carriages as the train puffed passed. At the 10km – 11km point as you enter Emerald (the township) there is another level crossing and I could see the runners bunched up as the train crossed the tracks. It had cleared the level crossing by the time I made it but the attendant on the crossing shouted at us “the train has to stop at the station you can still beat it”. We turned right onto the trails up to Emerald Lake, and before we reached the train it had set off again. The guys next to me said to me “Trains don’t stop very long up here do they”.

The next 2km was a pure descent into Emerald Lake where the race finished, the path narrowed as we ran on trials instead of the road. The pace did pick up and although I thought I’d lost the train, I continued pushing, telling myself over and over again, there were only 10 minutes to go and this is my last run for a while. The 12th and 13th km were both knocked off in a fast 4.17 and then all that remained was a 250m run up the hill to the finish.

I tried sprinting and managed it for 50m but I seem to be running more to my ability lately and I’m not really leaving any in the tank so I slowly lengthened my stride and hit the line in a pretty good 1:02:32.

I heard as we were waiting for them to finish that the first train had come in at 1:00:26. You then start to wonder what if I’d started at the front and not had the crowd to get through. Well the results tell me the difference between my ‘gun’ time and ‘net’ time was 50 seconds. Meaning I would have been close to a minute off the train, you have to wonder then if the knowledge you were so close would have shaved another minute off your time. Oh well no point over thinking it. Happy with the time, happy with the pace. In both cases faster than I thought i’d be.

Well done Mr Billy. You beat me, but only just.

Puffing Billy 2


Overall place 605 of 3131 (beating the second train which came in at 1:21:31)

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