PILLIGA ULTRA 2022
Whoa! The Pilliga Ultra weekend was nothing short of amazing!!! From the whole FWP team, we would love to thank the wonderful people at Pilliga Pottery and all of the amazing partners, sponsors, runners and volunteers who not only made this event possible, but contributed to such an incredible, warm and welcoming atmosphere. It’s one thing to have an event, but to feel a sense of safety and belonging amongst such a diverse crowd of people is pretty special – and that’s what the Pilliga Ultra was.
Although the rain dampened the finish line flag, making it hang about 1m lower than initially installed, it didn’t dampen spirits! Stoke levels and energy remained high – as did the pre-race nerves.
A huge thank you to some incredible volunteers – from those who endured the Friday night rain to register runners and check mandatory, to those who ensured the aid stations were set up and ready to go. Your help is very much appreciated, and the event is not possible without you.
Following the running, we were privileged to have the Gomeori people perform traditional dancing, and have the local band entertain us well into the night.
Q&A WITH RUNNERS
FWP Volunteer Elanor Finch spoke with a few runners who participated in either the 20km or 50km event about their motivations, experience, sports activism, small scale carbon footprints and key takeaways. These runners are:
- Russell and Gareth Kindler from the Frack Off Brothership
- Damon Angelopulo from Outdoors People for Climate Action and Blue Mountains guide
- Alexandra Ewen – an artist who’s practice is informed by the relationship of our species to the ecological, social and political impact on the planet
- Julie Steele, who has completed ultra runs all over the world
Q: It takes a special kind of person to commit to running 20/50kms through rugged wilderness and raising much needed funds for local communities. What motivated you to take part?
Russel & Gareth: The majority of the time, our pursuits in nature are selfish. Now felt like a great time to reset this trend, and start to offer something back. The opportunity to combine these individualistic pursuits with a broader purpose with meaning i.e. empowering communities to conserve our wild places whilst also challenging us, is something we will always jump to participate in.
Damon: I’ve been aware of the Santos Narrabri Gas Project for a while and am conscious of the fact that we need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. After spending some time in the Pilliga previously, I knew that it would be an incredible place to run an ultra through. The proposed gas field will not only cause extensive damage to the local environment and underground water sources like the Great Artesian Basin, have negative social impacts for the local communities and contribute to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also sets a precedent for the government and gas companies to significantly expand gas extraction in North West NSW. Preventing coal seam gas extraction, especially in the Pilliga is something that I’m passionate about and I saw taking part in the Pilliga Ultra as a great way to make a contribution towards this.
Julie: Bruce, my husband, has provided accounting advice to For Wild Places throughout the past year. I was therefore aware of the event through conversations with both Bruce and Hilary. To me, the Pilliga Ultra is an ideal opportunity to combine my passion for trail running with such an important cause – that of protecting a pristine, sacred and wild forest from being destroyed merely for outdated fossil fuel resources. Running 50 km through this stunning rugged wilderness to help raise awareness and funds for local communities was a privilege, not a chore.
Q: Could you please describe:
(a) the general atmosphere at Pilliga Pottery
Russel & Gareth: Everyone was gregarious. From the minute we arrived, there was an empowering feeling of community. After the run, it felt like we’d been a community for years, connected together by shared positivity and purpose. The screening of the Pilliga Project followed by the panel Q&A further emphasised these feelings to support the fight against this fossil-foolish project. Almost forgot, the band! Our legs may have been weary but Paul Kelly and Dire Straits had us shakin’ to an hour we didn’t think we’d be awake to see. We may be the runners and donation magnets in this but really, the credit for this event should be going to Kerry, for the trails, to Maria and her pottery family, for the gemütlich hosting, and to the FWP crew, for everything!
Damon: There was an amazing atmosphere at Pilliga Pottery the whole weekend! It was such an awesome group of people all coming together over shared values, a desire to have an impact and for an awesome experience. The pottery itself is such a unique and remarkable place and was the perfect location for the event.
Julie: Being family owned and run by a close-knit group of artists, Pilliga Pottery provided an ideal welcoming atmosphere for this inaugural event. Maria and her staff went out of their way to meet the needs of all the runners and their supporters. They provided us with hearty meals and spaces to stay dry despite the often-torrential rain. By offering a variety of accommodation types, homemade food at the café and places for runners to chat, Pilliga Pottery created a warm community feel, with fabulous opportunities for runners and their families to interact before, during and after the run. There were also plenty of activities for non-runners, including kids, such as feeding farm animals, pottery classes and bushwalking, making this a truly family experience.
(b) what it was like running through the Pilliga forest.
Russel & Gareth: It was breathtaking. Sure, the running might have been contributing there but we reckon it was being amongst the undulating hills, narrow gorges, eucalypts, lichen, rock formations, grasslands, and birdsong. It reminded ourselves of the overwhelming importance of these forests, as a carbon sink, as key biodiversity habitat and as a place for future generations to get to know too. We were a bit patchy with the training for this one so whenever we felt the pain, hearing Majell’s voice, we looked at the surrounding nature and were spurred to continue; left foot, right foot.
Damon: The Pilliga forest is stunning and made for some challenging and technical running. There were so many great lookouts and running for that distance on those trails really allowed us to get a proper taste of what the Pilliga is like and how diverse it is as well as giving some context to just how big it is.
Julie: As the slowest 50 km participant, I was privileged to have additional time traversing the forest, savouring each step taken in this unique landscape. The terrain varied from fresh tracks cut by a tractor through waist-high grass, undulating trails shaded by towering ironbark forest, open farmland mingling with local cows, and single trails that twisted up and down rocky ridgelines and along unfenced clifftops, all interspersed with 4WD tracks that provided a welcome chance to cover sections of the trail a little faster. Constant rain before and during the event made the course somewhat challenging. Loose and slippery rocks were scattered along the more technical sections of the trail, and deep creek crossings ensured everyone had constantly wet feet. The local wildlife seemed to be hiding away from the rain, although birds were abundant. I was particularly chuffed to discover a hand-painted sign for Julie’s Lookout, with spectacular views across the Pilliga Forrest. Although wet, the rain kept temperatures cooler and made the forest glisten – it was a truly spectacular experience, which only a handful of runners have ever experienced.
Do you think that sports activism, such as the Pilliga Ultra, is an effective way to raise awareness of environmental injustices (and broader socio-political issues in general)? Why/why not? Do you think there are other more effective ways?
Russel & Gareth: Most sports have an element of nature in them. Trail running relies on a liveable climate and is augmented by having beautiful places to explore. As a result of this relationship, sports, in particular runners should be at the forefront of environmental activism. Also, by connecting Australia culture (our addiction to the outdoors/sports) with fundraising, it broadens the scope of individuals who are potential donors. Endurance events provide an opportunity for demographics conventionally disinterested in environmentalism to support the cause and raise awareness.
Damon: I think sports activism is an effective and unique approach to raising awareness and creating action. To properly address climate change and other major environmental issues there needs to be many different ways in which the issue is approached, and from every different section of society. I think that sports activism is an awesome way to get the sporting community involved and empower people in the community to have a positive impact.
Julie: I strongly believe that events such as the Pilliga Ultra are an effective way to raise awareness, particularly of environmental injustices. They provide another tool to add to the plethora of other activism strategies. During such an event, participants are immersed in the environment of concern for an extended period, being “forced” to focus on their immediate surroundings to safely traverse the terrain. This provides an ideal opportunity for the participants to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the environment that they are advocating for. The extensive opportunities for photographic posts on social media following such an event also allow participants and organisers to showcase features of the environment that would not otherwise be seen, raising awareness of threatened environments to the broader community.
There seems to be some general criticism that trail runners are “contributing to the problem” – the problem being climate change. And it’s true that the Pilliga Ultra did have a carbon footprint and impact on trails. I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this. For example, do you think that trail runners and sports activist NFPs such as FWP, should be doing more to protect and give back to the environment? Or do you think that small scale carbon footprints/trail impacts are necessary to raise awareness about larger issues?
Russel & Gareth: As we have said above, outdoors sports enthusiasts should contribute to environmental activism. We always think we should be doing more. However, we think NFPs such as FWP are carving out a great space for this. They are providing an outlet for people that want to combine environmentalism with their love of the outdoors/exercise. It is important to minimise impact and contribute to decreasing impact where feasible but ultimately let the trade-off speak for itself. If small footprints such as the impacts generated by the Pilliga Ultra event raise awareness and funds to stop the root of the problem here – large corporations pillaging the planet in pursuit of monetary gains then it is a necessary trade off.
Damon: The carbon footprint and minor trail impacts of an event like this are grossly outweighed by the positive impact which this event had. To have the best chance of stopping and ultimately reversing global warming, we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels and absolutely must stop new fossil fuel projects. At times it’s easy to have too much of a focus on our own individual and comparatively tiny carbon footprint, instead of putting our time and energy towards creating the larger system change that’s actually necessary to address climate change. This event was an example of people coming together to raise awareness and funds that will contribute to ultimately stopping this extremely damaging fossil fuel project from going ahead, and in doing so help to address climate change.
Julie: In my experience, trail runners, particularly those who participate in smaller community-based runs rather than in oversubscribed commercial events, tend to have a deep connection to and appreciation for the trails they traverse. As these stunning wild environments are core to the sport of trail running, most trail runners have a strong desire to protect the trails. For this reason, trail runners are ideal individuals to give back to the environment through activities such as the Pilliga Ultra because their sport depends on the survival of these wild environments.
What’s your key take away from the Pilliga Ultra event?
Russel & Gareth: There is an extremely depressing amount of fossil fuel projects and environmental destruction occurring/ in the pipeline for the world. When confronted with this reality, individually we are often left with a sense of powerlessness. If you’re feeling understandably down about the circumstances of the world, come to one of these events, get involved with the community. Our experience showed us a glimpse of this strong community and it left us with an enhanced sense of importance that coming together as a community offers, to halt the onslaught of environmental destruction occurring around us.
Damon: That the proposed coal seam gas project must be stopped and that there are so many incredible people working to ensure that it will be! It was so inspiring to run alongside and get to know a great group of people stepping up the the challenge of helping to protect this beautiful place and ensure that we continue to win the fight against the Santos Narrabri Gas Project.
Julie: Events such as the Pilliga Ultra provide opportunities for the trail running community to use their passion for running to help raise awareness of, and much-needed funds, to protect the pristine wild places from destruction.
Thank you again to all of the runners and volunteers that made this event possible. To date (05.04.2022) this event has raised $82,300 to protect the Pilliga forest.
Fundraising is still open for the Pilliga Ultra 2022 – find out more here. To stay up to date with future FWP events, sign up to our mailing list here, or follow us on Instagram or Facebook. To reach out about a wild place in your backyard that needs protecting, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org