Run Larapinta - four days of outback trail running

Report by Fox Dammann

If you ever considered how it would feel to disappear and start a new life, here’s your chance to try it out – at least for four days. “Run Laparinta” is a mind-blowing multi-day trail-running event in the Northern Territory, along the most spectacular sections of the iconic Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell Ranges. While you’re there, you’ll very consciously feel far away from everything else. Your only task is to get going and enjoy the timelessness of the outback. So, leave everything behind, and just run!

Run Larapinta Multi Day Stage Race - Fox Dammann

Run Larapinta is a stage race consisting of four separate races between 20 km and 46 km over four successive days, totalling just under 140 km. Compared to regular 100 km or 100 mile races, such a stage race gives you a chance to recover in between races. Once you cross a finish line, you’re done for the day, and you can enjoy luxuries such as a hot shower or a good night’s sleep. That being said, the recovery is brutally short, because it’s Groundhog Day every day. Punxsutawney Phil, in the form of your race director, will be waiting at the next start line, counting down to zero while you’re still dealing with the pains and aches from the day before.

So training-wise, it’s important to practise longish back-to-back runs (think Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday) to acclimatise your body to the incomplete recoveries. On the upside, the awkward, long, 50 km+ training runs that you would usually need for 100 k and 100 m runs can be omitted – a plus for anyone with a busy lifestyle. We all know that the long runs are easy to skip for reasons too numerous to count. 

Run Larapinta Multi Day Stage Race - Fox Dammann

More importantly, such a stage race is a beautiful opportunity to get fully immersed into just one aspect of your life for an extended period of time, with multi-tasking being almost impossible. You’re away from home and there’s no job or other chores to attend to – nothing that distracts you. There’s often no phone reception. For many of us, it’s a rare occasion to be far away from everything and everyone, and even if you’re genuinely unspiritual like me, you’ll appreciate the catharsis this brings. The cleansing comes at a price, of course, and that’s time: Stage 1 takes place at night, so depending on where you are and available flights, you can travel to Alice Springs on that day. But then there’s Stages 2, 3, and 4 on three consecutive days, and you’ll most likely be too stuffed to depart on that last day (or there’ll be no late-night flights), so the next morning is the earliest possible departure day. This means that you’ll need to wipe clean five days in your diary to make this event happen – not an easy task. It’s also not a good idea to take your laptop with you to “get some work done” at night; not only because you just won’t be up for it, but also because it would ruin the bliss of isolation.

When I did this race in 2019 with my wife Maren, we managed to leave all our obligations behind in Brisbane and just live for the race for four days, and it was exhilarating. We had to organise childminding and a house-sitter, make sure everyone was safe and looked after, and of course arrange to take time off work, but it was more than worth it.

Run Larapinta Multi Day Stage Race - Fox Dammann

The event website provides a wealth of details on the course, so I’ll just focus on the areas not already discussed, to help you to decide whether this event is right for you. Here’s a brief synopsis of the four stages:

 Stage 1 (at dusk): 20 km around Alice Springs to the Old Telegraph Station. Relatively flat and an easy start, it sets the scene for what is to come. Don’t go too hard here, as you’ll need your energy for the longer, more technical stages.

 Stage 2 (early morning): 41 km from Simpson’s gap to Standley Chasm. It’s probably the hardest day. Throw away your running watch – arriving in a vertical position is really all you can hope for.

 Stage 3 (early morning): 30.5 km from Ochre Pits to Ormiston Gorge. Significantly easier than Day 2, sort of a scenic recovery after a day of false hopes.

 Stage 4 (early morning): 46 km Redbank Gorge (via Mt Donder) to Glen Helen. The longest section, and the detour via Mt Donder is a challenge on its own. More about this below.

These are my key tips for anyone considering this race:

 The logistics are excellent. Just trust the organisers – they’re awesome and will also respond to any of your questions in no time.

 The terrain is rough. Close to 100% of the trails are rocky – and I’m talking about the sharp and edgy variety, not some smooth river pebbles you’d use for a hot stone massage. Make sure you’re wearing the right shoes, and don’t sprain your ankle on Day 1!

 Heat is not the problem. Yes, it can get hot during the day, but not too extreme, and besides, most of us have probably run or trained in the heat. The unpleasant part is the earlymorning starts, where you experience single-digit temperatures and have to kill time at the start line while you slowly freeze. If you’re prone to being cold, take a jumper; maybe even bring several from an op-shop that you can leave at the start line and potentially lose without being sad about it. Those with longer hair should bring a spare hairband to avoid arriving at the finish line with knotted hair.

 Don’t get false hopes. The halfway mark is not always that, and some of the terrain is very rough and steep. Stage 2, for example, seriously escalates after 30 km, and the final 11 km are harder than the first 30 km in total. The descents into some of the gorges are so steep that you’ll wish you had a rope, and the way up is not much better. That can all be fun and games, but be prepared for it. Don’t skip your hill repeats while training for this event!

 Choose your accommodation carefully. The recommended accommodation option after Stages 3 and 4 is Glen Helen, but rooms are limited, and many people have to camp in tents. We decided instead to invest in hiring a motor home to get a more comfortable night’s sleep, and this was well worth it. Many people pulled out of the event before Stage 4 because they just didn’t get any recovery. If you’re not used to sleeping in a tent on a thin camping mat, you’ll get tormented by either your back, the noises around you, the wind, the blowing sand, the lights in the campground, or the cold. Realistically assess what you’ll have to deal with, and don’t be afraid to buy in some extra comfort.

 Have your gear ready. Shopping options are limited in Alice Springs, so double-check that you really have everything you need or might need in the event of an acute overuse or accidental injury, etc. You don’t want to end up running like the ladies in Queen of the Desert!

 Be ready for Mount Donder. Stage 4’s notes casually state that the route goes “via Mt Donder”, but this is one hell of a way up! We experienced strong side-winds and, factoring in the windchill factor, temperatures way below freezing. Make sure you keep your jumper on that morning. Even now, a few years after doing this event, I still think of Mt Donder and that feeling of almost being blown off the edge. The experience makes for some pretty impressive race photos, though!

Run Larapinta Multi Day Stage Race - Fox Dammann

Of course, no race is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. While we truly enjoyed the experience, we found it odd that participants who only registered for one stage were also included when determining the winners of the day, so those running all stages were competing against onetimers who were, of course, not nearly as fatigued as those who had already been running for days.

Also, a participation medal would have been nice, but we got a mug instead. It comes down to taste, but I’m a traditionalist when it comes to finishers’ memorabilia, and I want something for my ego wall, not for my kitchen pantry. That said, our heads and hearts are full with memories of the beautiful scenery, our friendly fellow runners, and the committed organisers.

In summary, this is one of the few ultra-races that I would run again – the scenery is unique, the feeling of isolation exhilarating, and the organisation impeccable. It’s both physically and mentally very rewarding and will always hold a special place in my running memory.


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