Over a month in mid-2021, I took part in two Australian 50km trail events: the iconic Ultra Trail Australia 50km (UTA50) in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, and the brand new desert trail event in outback Queensland, the Simpson Desert Ultra. As one of a very few people to have taken part in both - here are my thoughts on how they compare.
Ultra Trail Australia, known mostly just as UTA, is based in Katoomba - in the stunning Blue Mountains just west of Sydney on the land of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples. The drawcard here are the magnificent views down into the valleys as the course takes you along the ridge lines, and then down past waterfalls and ferns, through forest and along and across streams. Think greens and blues and a fair chance of rain at some point. (In 2021 we had driving rain and wind for a chunk of the day). The event is easily accessible by car or by train, from Sydney.
In complete contrast, Simpson Desert Ultra (SDU) is possibly the most remote ultra running event in Australia. Based in Birdsville, Queensland, on Wangkangurra-Yarluyandi land, the start-line is approximately 2000kms from every major city. A shuttle bus takes you the 20mins from the town to the 'hub' from where four loops (west, north, east and south) take runners over and along magnificent sand dunes, across clay pans and over long gibber plains of loose rock. This is place of reds, oranges, whites and browns. Dry and harsh, and stunningly beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset. Being so remote, getting here is part of the adventure, with flight options from Brisbane and Mt Isa, or a major outback roadtrip.
Both UTA and SDU are marked courses, that do not require navigation. UTA provides four course options: a 100k, 50k, 22k and 11k. The routes are a mixture of single trail, dirt track (fire trail) and road, and each course makes a single loop. The trail, even the single track, is very well formed and obvious, and there are volunteers stationed at key turn points to ensure everyone stays on course. At UTA, most people are on the course during the day, with the slower 50km and most of the 100km participants finishing in the dark.
SDU takes place entirely away from any tracks. While the course is marked, you are literally making your own path from marker to marker (although if you are further back you can also follow the foot depressions in the sand from those before you). Plants, loose rock, trees and pot holes may block the most direct route, so expect to be weaving around obstacles and choosing the best line based on looking 2-3 markers ahead. There are also four course options here: 100k, 75k, 50k and 25k. The course is set out as four different loops from a central hub, so you can leave your belongings at the hub and access them every 25kms. Unlike UTA, the SDU event is designed so that everyone finishes in the daytime, and this means that most people will spend at least half of their event in the dark.
What makes UTA hard is the total elevation (2450m +/-) and the stairs. In the UTA50 I have been told (I didn't personally count) that there are 8800 stairs in total, including the 956 step ascent of the Furber Steps to the finish and the 1100 or so on the ascent of Fern Bower (which I found brutal). In 2021 the weather was also challenging - with sleeting rain and high wind gusts in certain sections. This translates to an average finishing time between 8.5 and 9hrs. As a back of packer, who had not trained for the stairs (last minute entry), it took me 14hrs.
The difficulty at SDU is of a completely different type. The elevation is not significant (I measured 560m+ across 50km) and there is not a stair in sight, but the terrain is literally brutal. There are basically three surfaces. The first is soft sand, including several traverses (walking along the top of a dune) for between 1-4kms. These are almost the same as the soft sand section of a beach. The second is gibber plain, which is a flat surface covered in loose rock of various sizes. And the third is clay pan, which while sounding runnable, was littered with holes of various sizes. Added to the lack of a distinct path and the darkness, the surface poses a formidable challenge to those (like me) used to being on a defined fire-trail or single track. Like UTA, the average finish time of the 50km in 2021 was 8.5-9hrs. I unfortunately injured myself at 43kms when I fell in the dark, so my last 7km was VERY slow, and I came in at 14hrs. Which suggests to me that the SDU50 course is a little easier than UTA50, but not significantly.
While I have not completed the 100km course at either event, the race statistics suggest that SDU is much harder than UTA at this longer distance. The fastest SDU100 time in 2021 was over 16hrs which is reflective of the unrelenting nature of the terrain.
UTA is a mass participation event, with around 2200 entries in the UTA50 alone. There is a runners expo, a massive finish line and a major buzz around the whole town of Katoomba on event weekend. Competing in this event feels like being part of a major sporting endeavour, where elite athletes, amateur runners and fast walkers come together to challenge themselves and celebrate the sport of trail running.
SDU feels like being ushered into the warm embrace of country hospitality. With only 230 entrants across the four distances (400 in 2022) you cannot help but make new friends. Across the event lead up, during and post event, it was not uncommon to see runners doubling as volunteers - helping to set up toilets, collect markers or compile race results. This event is small group running at its best.
So which to Choose?
It is possible to enter both events in one year - but with only 3 weeks between them, most runners would chose their target event. For me, both are incredibly worthy challenges, beautiful landscapes and both have a team of volunteers that really make the events happen.
Weighing it up - my pick of the two is SDU. This is based on my preference for small and close knit over mass participation. There is also no other way that I would have travelled to this beautiful part of Australia.
2022 entries to UTA open 16 September 2021. Event dates 12-15 May 2022.
2022 entries to SDU open 3 October 2021. Event dates 4-5 June 2022.