Home to one of the best playgrounds and parklands in the country (Lake Pertobe Adventure Playground), an amazing coastline and whale watching site, and the origin of the story of Oddball and the penguins, there’s a lot to see and do in this regional town, and five years ago, another reason to visit was introduced: Sufferfest.
Originally billed as Southwest Sufferfest and now one of the marquee events of the Sufferfest Triathlon series it’s a triathlon and multisport festival running over the first weekends in March each year and is fast becoming a must do race in the calendar for many athletes. Hosted by the EventPeople crew, it is set in the the Hopkins River region near “Blue Hole” and there is something for everyone on offer.
Sufferfest Weekend Schedule
Saturday events include the kids races, an all-abilities race for the triathletes, as well as a couple of fun runs. On the Sunday we step it up a gear with the Sprint, Olympic and Half-Iron distance races kicking off. This year they are introducing a couple of open water swim events to the Sunday list as well.
Get ready, the Sufferfest course is tough
I was first introduced to this event in its inaugural year as my lead in race for the Melbourne Ironman and from that I was hooked.
It’s a tough, honest course with nice flat, clean swim and a decent hill in both the ride and run courses which you tackle multiple times, but it was the support and sense of community that really struck a chord with me.
Both from the sidelines and from fellow competitors on course there was heaps of encouragement to push on, it’s like we all were celebrating the effort required to complete the task and trying to ensure that everyone got there.
This year the race format changes a little, the core event remains the same but, initially a long course event it will now be a Half Iron distance race. Effectively shortening the swim slightly, extending the ride by 10 km and the run by 1100 m. You still get four laps on the bike and complete the run course twice to earn your finisher’s medal.
The Sufferfest course breakdown
The river offers a cleaner environment to swim in than any other I had experienced. Ordinarily the course takes you from a small beach across to the opposite side before turning right to proceed under a bridge to the far turn buoys to then return, again under the bridge then left to the beach.
Last year a boating event further up the river meant the entire course was set within the section before the bridge. Similar start but competitors completed two circuits of a rectangular course before the left turn to the swim exit. If we are returning to the original format there will be flags or banners on the bridge to indicate the the bounds of the course for both the outbound and return trips, look for them on race morning to ensure you stay on track. Note, they are set to the left of centre as you face the structure in both directions so there you won’t be swimming headlong into an athlete going the opposite way.
Pro-tip: Sighting the swim exit can be tricky as the sun rises directly behind it. On your warm up swim, try to find a landmark along the hilltop horizon behind it that will stand out when everything below becomes shadowed in the glare.
Let’s talk about “that hill”. From transition it dominates the focus and can’t be ignored as it’s right there looming. At about 1 km in length and an average gradient in the realm of 4.5% it can be comfortably ascended with an appropriate gear selection, though, anyone racing for high finishes can hit it harder to create a gap.
The road surface is generally pretty good, just watch the shoulders and driveways/intersections for gravel. Also, there is a small rough section near the top turn-around which is often marked out by bidons that were improperly secured in cages. The return trip on the bike means you have to climb again, this time the ascent comes as a set of three “steps” spaced out as rolling hills, if you leave it in your race gear you’re quads are likely to let you know all about it in later laps!
As you complete the lap there is a fast, straight descent to the turnaround or exit to transition, take care here as halfway down, the natural foliage windbreak opens up and so too does the risk of the cross-winds that Warrnambool is known for. Generally there are signs beside the road to warn the cyclist before this potential hazard.
Out on the run there is another ascent to test your weary legs, the Hopkins River has cut this valley and now you get to test the other side of it. It’s a winding climb, across a suspension bridge then over the top to the local landmark of Granny’s Grave; from there you’ll take a few switchbacks down to the coastal path which you follow all the way to the turnaround at the breakwater and back – twice.
Dig in on the climbs, shorten your stride and lean into the hill a little and you’ll serve yourself well.
There are a number of aid stations along the way. Take care accepting the offer of a “splash” from the kids manning them as you’re likely to experience the full enthusiasm of youth given permission to throw something
I think I got fully six cups worth last time! Cooling – certainly, appreciated? Definitely. Surprising? Understatement!
Take care on the path as it is a beach path and there will be loose sand across it in places, be prepared to go around the drifts if possible or watch footing if not. Also be aware of others on the track, most locals know the race is on and give you space but, the path is not fully closed so you may need to call out and pass some pedestrian traffic.
Why I love this race
From the intimate transition area where the pros and elites are racking in the same area as the age groupers, the clean waters of Hopkins River, charging flat out down “that hill” only to turn and climb it again, the amazing view of the coast as you crest Granny’s Grave, to the high fives and cheers from perfect strangers – I love this race.