01 January 2018, 8am
Rottnest Running Festival
Sun 22 October 2017
Emil Zatopek once said, ‘If you want to win something, run the 100m. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.’
For the last 24 years runners have been visiting the tiny island of Rottnest, 19km off the coast of Perth, to experience the pain and pleasure of the Marathon. The island is a protected nature reserve and home to the quokka – a small wallaby-like marsupial and supposedly ‘the happiest animal in the world’.
Rottnest Island covers 19 square kilometres and is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride. Runners can come over days in advance or cross on race day at 05.30.
There is a permanent population of around 200 people but also 500,000 visitors annually. White-sand beaches and secluded coves surround the island.
In October every year runners flock to run the scenic course around the island, opting for either a four-lap Marathon, a two-lap Half Marathon, a single-lap 10km or a 5km course. The course has been designed to ensure runners take in the magical scenery and experience everything the island has to offer. It’s undulating and showcases views that will stay in the memory for a lifetime.
The race starts in Heritage Common and heads out across the salt lakes towards Armstrong Bay, where runners are confronted with an ocean view that must be seen to be believed. The race circumnavigates the island to ensure nothing has been missed. The course is tough but you lose yourself in the moment.
In all of the 24 years that the race has been run bagpipes begin to play just before the start of the marathon. The ethereal sound of Amazing Grace sets the scene for the day ahead. In the inaugural Rottnest Marathon of October 1994 72 runners finished and a plaque with all their names was placed in the Rottnest Hotel, then known as the Quokka Arms. Ray Brown took the men’s race in 2:35:50 and visiting New Zealander Nyla Carroll took the women’s in 2:52:20.
The race has forged its own bit of mythology. Legend has it that 70 years ago Harry McFordyce, an immigrant prisoner on Rottnest, escaped justice and attempted to run off the island. On the fourth time around McFordyce succumbed to dehydration and died. If you run the marathon you will see and hear the ghost of Harry playing his bagpipes throughout the race. Two bagpipers stand atop Armstrong Bay playing the haunting melodies. On the last lap, at the foot of Harry’s Hill, you are given a gold coin which you must carry up the hill and deposit in Harry’s tub. Failure to do this will result in cramps, dehydration and a possible DNF imposed on you by Harry’s ghost.
Bagpipes aren’t the only historical aspect of this island race. The Dutch mariner Samuel Volckertzoon wrote of sighting a “wild cat" on Rottnest Island in 1658. In 1696 Willem de Vlamingh mistook them for giant rats and named the island “Rotte nest”. You will see thousands of these native marsupials around the island and although being taken as rats back in the 1600s actually look like very small kangaroos. The tiny creature now features prominently on every finisher’s medal.
The Rottnest Running Festival has a distance for everyone. The course is marshalled by some of Western Australia’s greatest runners and friendliest volunteers along with army cadets who are posted at all the water stations. The uniformed cadets have been visiting the island for years to offer aid to the runners.
At the finish it has become a custom to share the tales of the day at the Rottnest Hotel – the drinking hole for both locals and tourists alike. Many friendships have been made and many stories have been told but there is one underlying theme that underpins them all: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.
The Rottnest Running Festival is a unique event on a unique island. The 25th anniversary race is on 21 October 2018 and celebrations will be bigger and better than ever.