Updated: May 23
‘The Centenary Trail’ is not the right name for a trail around Canberra. Naming it that way identifies it as yet another one-too-many celebration of whiteness, in a country that has such abundance of celebrations of whiteness that we fail to see them for what they are. But the idea of the trail is grand. This trail is an opportunity to build a connection with place by circumnavigating the capital while traversing much of the landscape in which it sits. Any person who spends time on the trail marks their story on the earth. It would be so easy to ditch the word ‘Centenary’ and call it something a little less pale. In fact, such a shift may have already begun. In the parlance of runners who dream of completing the trail in a single push, it is simply known as ‘The Cent’.
The official map of the Cent is broken into seven numbered sections that progress counterclockwise around Canberra in a 145km loop. The ACT government website recommends walking the trail over seven days or riding it in three.
In an article dated June 23 2017, the Canberra Times reported that Julie Quinn and David Baldwin had run the Cent - they did it clockwise - in under 17 hours. A look at their data reveals that the sub-17 hour time only takes into account their moving time. Their elapsed time adds more than 1.5 hours. Regardless, it's a formidable achievement, but it might be expected given that Quinn and Baldwin have also racked up multiple international orienteering titles in their spare time; they’re very serious outdoor sports athletes.
Nor did their circuit create a rush of copy-cat ultrarunners. But that’s not to say there weren’t people out there thinking about it. In August 2017 Damien Stewart attempted to run the Cent unsupported. I made my own unsupported attempt in April 2018. Both attempts failed to complete the southern part of the course. It wasn’t until November 2019 that another single push loop was completed. This time it was counterclockwise beginning from Mulligans Flat. Brendan Codrington did the loop in 23:14:19. It’s slower than Quinn and Baldwin, but it stands as the first push effort in the counterclockwise direction.
So without really being aware of it, I missed out on the opportunity to be a first in one or other direction. Nonetheless, it was a goal that I had set myself and when Neverest was postponed, the weekend that I had aimed my training at was left open.
As luck would have it my parents would be visiting and Dad was keen to help out with aid stops and to do part of the course with me on a bike. He’s an experienced endurance cyclist, so he’s interested in this stuff. My plan was to go on Friday directly from work in Barton to the Tent Embassy and start there at 6pm. The weather had other ideas. A lot of rain fell during the week, and it looked like the rain would continue until the early hours of Saturday. Running the first six or seven hours in wet conditions in the dark would not be a good strategy for finishing. The other reason to postpone until morning was that frankly, after work lately I’ve just been feeling a bit too buggered to immediately set out on an ultramarathon. So I decided to take a zero fuss approach and leave home on foot and get myself to the nearest point on trail to start at 4am.
I’m not great at making a coordinated plan for efficient aid stops, appropriate nutrition and so on. But I did put together a box or stuff for Dad to put in the car and discuss locations for aid points with him. Mutsumi offered to run Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo with me, so I had something to look forward to once the sun was up. The other important thing I did prepare was some back up navigation. I loaded Brendan Codrington’s data onto my watch and even practiced turning the feature on while running on and near the Cent between home and Black Mountain. I know the course pretty well, but there are some sections I haven’t visited for a while so it seemed a good idea to have a fall back position for my navigation, especially in the streets. While aid points are not well planned, this is probably the most logistical preparation I’ve ever done for a long distance run. I am, however, particular about the first aid point and want it to go right. I ask Dad to be at the Hall trailhead to One Tree Hill by 6am.
These days I get a bit nervous before a big run. It’s one of the factors that killed my Alpine challenge race last year. I lay in bed burning up until sometime around 1am when sleep finally comes. The alarm chimes at 3am and I’m up straight away. I get dressed and have my normal breakfast: seeds, nuts, milo, banana, soy milk. With 15 minutes to get to the bike path where it diverges from Dryandra Street, I’m out the door. Once there I have a couple of minutes. I take a photo, then a few deep breaths, and at exactly 4am I go.
These early kilometers are dark and fresh. I feel good being out there on Saturday before anyone. The points along the way pass quickly. AIS, Gossan Hill, near the Belco skate park there’s an early morning walker and I’m sure he greets me in Japanese “Konbanwa”, clearly he doesn’t know what time of day it is “Ohayo Gozaimasu”, I reply. I skirt the edges of Lake Ginninderra, cross the bridge and run off into the morning darkness.
As I approach the Barton Highway it dawns on me that I’m going to hit the trail before 6am. I’m hoping Dad is awake and ready to move. As I pass the Dinosaur Museum I dig my phone out of my running vest and make a call. Dad says he’ll get there asap. Running into Hall I’m expecting to see him pass me on Victoria Street but there is zero traffic. Approaching the trail head I’m worried. Then headlights appear behind me and the black wagon pulls up at exactly the moment I arrive. There could be mud out there so I change from my Altra Superiors into my deep-lugged MT Kings. I put on sunscreen, grab a hat, sunnies and a couple of vegemite wraps and I get on my way.
One Tree Hill is a great place to be at sunrise. I love to look out over the city lights in the dawn, but in the foreground of this view there’s a bizarre patch of dirt with arrays of streetlights. This waste of country is a sad sight and the waste of energy is like salt in the wound. Surely the lights could stay off until they are needed. The light emerging over the horizon, however, is beautiful and it gives me a boost. On the descent from One Tree Hill I meet another runner coming the other way. It’s a guy named Mathew who I raced against in this place last year at the Gungahlin Gallop. He’s pumping music into his ears and does not recognise me.
The Northern Boundary is a trail I’m quite familiar with now, and I move through it easily. As I’m reaching the campsite I call Dad to make sure they are on schedule for the next stop. Mutsumi answers. They’re waiting at Mulligans. On the last descent into Forde there are many runners and walkers doing their morning out and back. I’m still feeling good and moving better than the other trail users. It’s good to see people out, smiling and enjoying the air and the light and the earth and trees. In Forde, the concrete path is long and boring. At the Mulligans Flat Carpark and Mutsumi is ready to go. I chew some fruit and chug some gherkin brine. Delicious. Mutsumi has brought cucumbers with a sesame oil and salt dip. Amazing. With bottles full and wraps in hand we push on into Mulligans Flat together.
The thing about Mulligans Flat is that it’s flat. We run steadily and come out the far gate in good time. Goorooyarroo is also easy going. As we get closer to the climb up Gecko Hill we start to hear pop, pop, pop and soon realise it’s coming from the Majura Park Gun Club. I’ve never heard such a racket coming from there. I suppose the preppers are getting some practice before inevitable social collapse that will happen when COVID-19 peaks. I hope they were able to buy enough bog roll to stock the dunny cupboard in the bunker when they stopped at Aldi on the way home.
We pass under the Federal Highway and turn south to the Hughie Edwards VC Rest Area where Dad is waiting with supplies. He fills my bottles with electrolytes, I chug down some gherkin brine and whatever else I can eat and grab a couple of wraps. That’s the routine. I head out solo feeling a bit bloated and heavy. But that’s nothing a good fart can’t fix.
Ahead of me is Mt Majura, Mt Ainslie then the parliamentary triangle before heading up the tardis track on Red Hill. I tag the summits and refill one bottle on Mt Ainslie. The route the trail takes between Kings Bridge and Melbourne Avenue zig-zags all over the place so I do it with navigation on. But once I’m approaching a hill I can turn it off. I head up the Tardis route on Red Hill then cut back down on the north side of Mt Davidson into La Perouse Street where Mutsumi and Dad are waiting. Here, in addition to the usual refills, I get down half a can of energy drink. Dad is ready to follow me on the bike, and we set off.
I turn navigation back on because I’m not certain of the right turn I need to make. We cross Hindmarsh drive and follow a winding trail beside high razorwire-topped chain link fence. Dad says “oh, is that a gaol?” He’s right. It is a small minimum security gaol. But having heard otherwise I reply, “No Dad, it’s where the authorities will put me when they find out I run 145km for fun.”
A counter intuitive fact about the Cent is that despite the majority of Canberra’s hills being south of Lake Burley Griffin the trail avoids summits. The only exception is Red Hill. Each one of these missed climbs is a chance gone begging. If the Cent is a celebration of this place why not take in its scenery from every available angle? But even without summits there are plenty of rocky climbs that force dad off the saddle. We pass below Isaacs Ridge and under Long Gully Road. We only have Farrar Ridge Reserve to traverse before we’re back on asphalt. This is bad for me but Dad is having trouble with his hands, so for him the flat surface brings some respite.
We’re now in the hottest part of the day. I’ve been having trouble eating since Red Hill. Nothing we have with us is appetising. I can get an energy gel down occasionally, but even that sugary gel in my mouth makes me feel nauseous. There’s only one thing I can think about: a strawberry thickshake from Maccas. Somewhere along the bike path I remember that we’ll pass right by a Maccas in Tuggeranong. I call Mutsumi and order thickshakes for Dad and I and we arrange to meet in the carpark we go to when we go to Tuggers Parkrun.
When we get there Mutsumi is nowhere to be seen. I call and she says she’s lost. I figure we’ll skip the thickshake and hope she can find us soon. Dad insists that I need it and turns back to McDonalds. Then Mutsumi calls again and says she’s found McDonalds. This is my mistake. I should’ve just made that the meeting point. I stand there hyper focused on sucking down thickshake. It’s giving me brainfreeze but it tastes amazing. Each time I stop to take a breath Mutsumi force-feeds me grapes and cucumber. I’m worried about time, the stop becomes quite long. Eventually dad and I are ready to depart. Mutsumi waves us off with a huge smile. It’s amazing how positive Mutsumi is in the face of my deeply inadequate planning.
I lead dad through Greenaway and onto the track. I’m very happy to be on single trail, but not having ever ridden this section on a bike I had no concept of how challenging dad would find it. Good thing he’s a good sport. It’s a beautiful section out there, and I think he can appreciate it, but he’s visibly relieved when we emerge onto asphalt at Kambah Pool. It’s the opposite for me. Out beside the road my lack of calorie intake is really starting to take its toll. I feel nauseous and don’t want to eat, while knowing that the only thing that will make me feel better is food. About halfway up Kambah Pool Road Mutsumi is waiting for us with Mum, who she’s been to pick up from Chifley in the meantime. Mutsumi begins force-feeding me again. I have some energy drink, grab an apple and keep moving. At first the apple tastes good, then it tastes awful and I feel more nauseous. And there’s another problem. Despite regular lubing with vaseline, a decent chafe is starting to set in downstairs.
Next aid stop is the Namatjira Drive entrance to Cooleman Ridge. Someone fills my bottles while I dig out a headlamp. Darkness will return soon. Mum asks where to find me next and I say Eucumbene Street. I start walking into the Cooleman reserve. Once I’m on trail I can run in short bursts. I walk run walk run and start to regain some rhythm. The light is dimming and my head is down so I don’t take in the view over the brindabellas. By the time I reach Eucumbene I’m feeling a little better and icy rain has started to fall. The crew is waiting for me. I grab some fruits and tell them to go and have a nice dinner. They say they will go for fish’n’chips. That sounds great, but this time I prefer to keep running in the rain.
The nausea is not fun but at least now I’m distracted from it by the chafing. At the end of Eucumbene Street I follow the trail markers and turn right up Cotter Drive. I’m aware that Codrington did something different here but I’ve followed these markers before and I’m confident that this is the trail. The other reason to go this way is that it will take me over the highest weir on the Molongolo next to Coombs, and I’m worried that the recent rains may have caused the downstream weir he crossed to be submerged. Comparing the data sets later on I find that Coombs is the area with the most variation between the two existing recordings and my own.
Decisions have to be made out there. But variations could also be symptomatic of changes in Coombs over the last three years, and a lag in trail maintenance.
When approaching Dairy Farmers Hill, I call the crew. They’ve found the arboretum gates open and so they’ve driven right in rather than wait by the gate as we had agreed. They will meet me in the carpark above the switchbacks. It turns out that they opted for pizza instead of fish and chips and they’ve brought me some. Amazing. I can’t taste it but it goes down just fine and I instantly feel better. Mutsumi says she will run with me from here to the finish. Even better! Only 15km to go now.
We do the zig-zags right, then head north through the cork forest and out of the Arboretum grounds. Frosts Hollow is, as always, sketchy underfoot and brimming with kangaroos that stare into our headlights before darting away. Aranda bushland has some big puddles that push us to the edges of the trail. We pass under the GDE bridge and into the Black Mountain reserve. There’s no hope of seeing markers now so I turn on the navigation to keep us on the right path to the summit. On the climb I’m feeling good. Mutsumi is following well despite this being her biggest day of running for a while. We circle around the south flank of the hill on the way to the summit. No time to stop here, there’s only 3 km left. I’m going to be done in well under 20hrs. I want to see how quickly we can get to the finish.
The concrete and bitumen descent is the nasty on the knees so I grit my teeth and get it done. We exit the Reserve to the substation carpark where there is a car idling. As we approach a guy gets out of the driver’s seat and utters a loud collection of random words before striding confidently uphill, leaving the door open and engine running. Single track guides us back under Barry drive and out to the McCarther street crossing. I can see the end now and wait a few seconds for Mutsumi to catch up. We touch the post I started at together and I stop my watch: 18:36:32. It feels good to have set a goal time and crushed it. We take a couple of photos then start the jog home.
A final update before I publish: all races at the Sri Chinmoy 48hr event have just been cancelled. This means that there are an unusual number of solid ultrarunners in or around Canberra all trained up with no race to run. I feel like another loop of the Cent could be coming soon. Maybe even a bonafied FKT (Fastest Known Time).
We need to talk about the FKT.
Today, if you want to look up the fastest time on a trail you can. If you have recorded a faster time with a gps device you can register it and claim the FKT. The record for the Cent his here. The record is incomplete, but at least the entries that are there establish a record. It's worth considering for a moment the state of the FKT.
If we look at the three single-push circuits of the Cent, no two are the same. Each has its own peculiarities. Quinn/Baldwin went to the top of Isaacs Ridge but the maps of the course do not call for it. Quinn/Baldwin and Codrington took separate routes into Stromlo Park, Codrington’s route seems to match the current iteration of the main route on the official map, but I followed the course markers that took me to the south and east. We all took different routes through Coombs. Quinn/Baldwin started and stopped recording data at a location in Belconnen a couple of kilometers off the course, probably near their home. The additional kilometers complicate matters because we don’t have an accurate time for their completion of the course. Codrington chose not to summit Mt Ainslie or Mt Majura, but the route he took is on the official map. Finally there’s the matter of breaks. Recent GPS watches allow for continuous recording. But even a couple of years ago this was not available without using an auxiliary battery pack, and while most devices can be charged mid activity, there is greater temptation to stop the recording for long breaks. I’ve been told that Quinn/Baldwin stopped at Quinn’s workplace for lunch (the Australian Heritage Council, I think). Does “stopping for lunch” entail pausing the activity?
And finally, the FKT is a new concept to the Cent. Baldwin/Quinn ran the Cent just to do it. Codrington did his circuit as part of a fundraiser for Run Against Violence, with no time goal. I did it as a personal challenge with a time goal of under twenty hours. I think these first three circuits are important because they create benchmarks and raise questions that might not otherwise have been asked.
How do we deal with data variance when a course map offers variations?
How much and what kind (distance/elevation) variance is allowable?
Is it appropriate to allow any start point of the runner's choosing?
Should there be separate records for CW and CCW efforts?
For the purpose of record keeping here’s how the three efforts to date compare:
Assuming that Quinn/Baldwin's data recording is continuous, it’s fair to say that the Quinn/Baldwin time is the FKT. But if you’re attempting an FKT you need to know what the time you need to beat actually is! And I can present my own effort as a case in point. I started with the claim presented in the Canberra Times article - less than 17 hours - as the Quinn/Baldwin time. That seemed unreachable to me. 20 hours seemed possible, so I went for that. After finishing I looked at their Total Elapsed time and saw that I was just 3 minutes 9 seconds slower… except that they included a few extra kilometers in their data so we can only estimate that that would’ve taken them another 20-30 minutes.
What is the time to beat? An honest FKT should, I think, break 18hrs total elapsed time. There are a few runners about who could achieve this comfortably now. If I were a little more organised I think I could even do it myself. So there. I'm calling it. If you want to honestly beat Quinn/Baldwin, go sub-18. But every attempt should be duely acknowledged.
Here’s what I suggest:
Keep clear records of all on-foot single-push efforts (complete and incomplete regardless of course variation).
For time verification it is incumbent on the runner to stop their gps activity at exactly the location they started.
There should be an FKT for both directions. The faster lap will be known as the outright FKT whether CW or CCW.
There will be an FKT for men and women. (Quinn is the only known woman to complete the course on foot to date, but note that I am relying on Baldwin’s data - there are 16 Julie Quinns on Strava and none of those accounts contain activity data likely to reflect Quinn’s training schedule)
An FKT should include all summits. (The Codrington effort, as the only CCW lap should be considered the standing FKT to be beaten).
Unsupported efforts are recorded as a separate record, however if it is faster than the standing supported FKT, will also supersede that record.
An effort may be started and finished at a time of day and location of the runner’s choosing.
The idea of the Canberra Round
I think the creators of the Cent might have been a little more creative. They missed Mt Taylor, passed by Mt Davidson, Mt Arawang, Narrabundah Hill, Mt Stromlo and Isaacs Ridge, bisected Bruce Ridge at the flattest point, failed to include Mt Mugga Mugga and the Wanniassa Hills, and just outright avoided Mt Painter and Tuggeranong Hill. Mcquoids Hill, Old Joe’s Hill and Gecko HIlls could have easily been included. At this point I feel like the Bullen Range is a separate thing, but I’m undecided about the Rob Roy Ranges. There are hills that should be included and have not been.
They’ve also made some confusing decisions, like choosing to have the path diverge into two routes in multiple places when it is entirely unnecessary to do so. I understand that mountain biking is a great sport and very popular in Canberra and there is a need to have an alternative route for cyclists in places that bikes can’t go. There is no need to have 2 paths that anybody could comfortably cover on a bike.
So there are wrongs that can be righted in a reimagening of this trail. It will go places that mountain bikes cannot (sorry, bikers), but in focussing on summits as places to be visited in a circumnavigation of our capital city, we could create a true Canberra Round. Who’s game?
I’ll do some research and put up a route description on this blog as soon as I can. Comments and suggestions welcome!!