Fat Ass Revival


Originally published: Trail Runner Australia and New Zealand, Apr/May 2019

Where experienced runners run in no-fee events, with no prizes, no aid and no wimps. That’s the opening line of the fat ass world website.

Back in the day, fat ass ruled trail-ultra. It had a vibe of an underground movement, and spawned ultra-runners from a hotbed of tough love.

A few years ago, the trail running scene changed. A tsunami of new, fee-paying events increased access to the sport.

The 22-kilometre 'ultra' entered people's vernacular, and fat ass faded into obscurity.

But lately, whispers are again carrying the fat ass ideology around the trails. Burgeoning race fees and a craving for simplicity seem to be fuelling the resurgence. Runners want to leave behind the marques, muffins and merchandise of modern racing. They want to purge the addiction to bling and get back to the roots of trail running's true spirit.

Fat What?

Fat ass. Best said with a twangy New Yorker accent. Be careful there are no children around when you google it. The search results can be edifying.

A fat ass is a trail running event where your life is in your hands. Nobody will do anything for you. It is up to you to turn up, have your own supplies, print the map and be able to read it.

There are no course markings, no pacers or volunteers to point you along to correct trail.

Plant your butt on the side of the trail, bury your face in your hands and ball your eyes out all you want. No one will listen. Believe me, I’ve tested the theory. No one comes running.

The term “organised event” has a very flexible interpretation in fat ass world.

In the past, people organised fat ass runs through the Cool Running website. A runner would post a suggested time and date for doing a route.

Other runners then indicated they would show up, and sometimes that’s what they did. Some started at the designated time. Others started an hour or two, or perhaps a month or two, later. Start and finish times were unimportant. The honour was in the doing.

The Origins of Fat Ass

The global fat ass movement started in 1978, in San Francisco. Founding demi-god, Joe Oakes, orchestrated the first fat ass. He felt frustrated with a lack of 50 milers in his area.

The event aimed to burn a few calories after the Christmas binge. He named it the "Recover from the Holidays Fat Ass 50”.

The fat ass movement smuggled its way through Australia’s border protection in the 1990s.

It travelled in the backpack of trail running legend Kevin Tiller. Kevin participated in a UK fat ass and the memory of the experience stayed with him.

Fat ass in Australia gained traction in the lounge room of Kevin and his flatmate Sean Greenhill. It was around 1999. Beer may have been involved. Their conversation ranged over all the ideas they had for trail runs. Evil ideas.

The type of ideas that sane people throw down in the cellar and weld the steel trapdoor shut. Ideas that should never see the light of day. During this, and later conversations, Kevin and Sean hatched a plan. They would release their dastardly ideas onto the world using the fat ass tradition.

They set up a website, plotted a few routes, invited a few friends and things just grew from there.

Blue Labyrinth

My innocence as a trail runner ended on the day I turned up to The Blue Labyrinth (45km) fat ass in 2008. The Blue Labryrinth (Full Monty, 90km) twists its way through the Blue Mountains in a big figure of eight.

It connects Lawson, Wentworth Falls, Mount Solitary and the Jamison Valley. I opted to complete the second half of the run, the loop over Mt Solitary. I chose that option because only fools would consider running 90-kilometres out there. At least, that's what I thought at the time.

A few months before the Blue Labyrinth I had walked over Mt Solitary with a girlfriend. That’s the big, flat topped mountain to your right when looking out from Echo Point toward the Three Sisters.

It sits in the middle of nowhere. The 13-kilometre route over Mt Solitary sucked every drip of energy from our veins.

But underneath the exhaustion hid an addictive feeling of accomplishment. It surfaced a few days later.

A Sunday or two after that something occurred to me. Beer may have been involved.

I was sitting, feet up, on my lounge chair. Sixteen kilometres in the bag for that day, my longest run ever. Lots of self-congratulations floated through the air. Then a question popped into my head, ‘I wonder if people run over Mt Solitary?’. I looked to google for the answer.

My jaw hit the ground as I clicked on the search results. The page listed a series of runs. As an experienced bushwalker, some of the routes described covered territory familiar to me.

The rugged, isolated terrain demanded solid boots, first aid kits and locator beacons.

Most required multi-day food supplies in case of an emergency. These people tackled it in running gear; joggers, shorts, t-shirts and a rain jacket.

The warning on the Blue Labyrinth route description triggered a big belly laugh. “WARNING: the 90km option is very remote and getting lost/injured could result in you being missing for some days. You MUST bring a torch and be an experienced night-time bush runner and/or multi-day athlete.”

That’s where the advice and guidance ended; bring a torch and you might get lost.

Images of these people came into my mind. They’re skinny runners’ legs poking out from old loose-fitting shorts. They carried battle-weary packs strapped on with duct tape. Maps rolled and poked into ripcords on their chest-straps. Hard core. Old school.

The only Blue Labyrinth ‘race’ results showing on the website dated back to 2003. I clicked on a link to the Cool Running website and set up an account.

I posted a thread to ask if the Blue labyrinth still happened. It took only thirty minutes before someone called Spud posted a two-sentence reply.

More strange names piped into the discussion; RodtheHornet, JoggerK, vStar, Beaver and Brick. It was like stumbling into a secret meeting of eccentric thieves.

We all gathered on the 10th October 2008 near the Kedumba Gate on Wentworth Falls Road. The chatter cut through the misty morning air. The details of the conversation are difficult to recall. I missed most of them because the nerves in my stomach had me running into the bush every few minutes.

The old hands shared stories of their recent training runs. One hundred kilometres here, 150 kilometres there.

They looked normal. They didn't sound normal, or sane. It turned out those 'eccentric thieves' counted among Australia’s top ultra-marathon runners.

I'd never met one before. I even didn't know ultra-marathon runners existed. Except for Cliffy Young of course. I didn’t squeak a word about my epic 16 kilometres.

At the allotted time, or around about then, everyone started to run. They disappeared ahead of me within minutes. One runner paced with me for the first hour then left me on the climb up Mt Solitary.

From then I was alone, armed with a map and a burning desire to live.

I pulled the plug at the 33-kilometre point. A distance twice that of any I had run before and with a heck-load more elevation. I exited the Jamison Valley via the Giant Stairway. The path spat my body back into the melee of tourists at Echo Point.

I slumped filthy and stinking onto the footpath. My back rested against a wall and shut my eyes for a few moments. The pain in my body a mix of exhaustion and disbelief.

Training Grounds

Much of the contemporary trail running scene owes its origins the fat ass runs. A few years after our 2008 outing, a group of fat ass’ers formed the NSW Running Wild organisation.

They designed the Mt Solitary Ultra based on the Blue Labyrinth route.

Each year fat-assers gathered for the "Glenbrook Australia Day Fatathon". We ran in very hot conditions and cooled off in a swimming hole afterwards.

NSW Running Wild has nurtured the legacy of that run into the Australia Day Knapsack Lap Race.

The popularity of the Otford to Bundeena fat ass grew to the point that it caused crowd control issues. It morphed into the Coastal Classic hosted by Maximum Adventure.

Sean Greenhill has become the Grand Poobah of body-destroying trail races in Australia.

He went on to establish Mountain Sports and Sky Running Australia / New Zealand. Hounslow Classic, Buffalo Stampede and the Stromlo Running Festival feature in his stable of iconic races.

Coast 2 Kosci, Australia’s premier road ultra-marathon started its life as a fat ass.

For me, fat ass defined a new normal.

It gave me the opportunity to learn a new trade, to become an ultra-marathon runner.

I picked the brains of people far more experienced than me and watched them in action.

I chased them through the bush. It can be an intense and painful way to learn. But it is also the most powerful.

Next steps

The fat ass concept isn’t owned by anyone, so you are free to set up your time, place and routes and make it happen.

Check out the rules for your local national parks with regards to ‘organised’ runs. Some tight restrictions can apply.

Be aware of your legal obligations as an event organiser. Be sure that people are clear about the conditions of running (e.g. unsupported) and waiver form may be required.

Join the SUFR (Social Ultra Free Runs) Facebook group to get involved in upcoming fat ass runs.

Kirrily Dear