I’ve climbed Mt. Donna Buang by bike more times than I care to remember. Its proximity to Melbourne, its natural beauty and its largely consistent gradient make the main Donna ascent one of my favourite climbs. I’ve ridden the alternate approaches to Donna Buang plenty of times as well, and they’re both stunning. But despite my familiarity with the mountain, there was one way up it I wasn’t yet familiar with.
Sunday’s Vertical K was the first edition of an event in which cyclists and runners were pitted against each other in a race to the summit of Mt. Donna Buang. The cyclists would take the 17km road climb which winds its way up the mountain; runners would take the steep hiking track which takes a much more direct route to the summit.
My brother Brendan and I had free entries to the event so all that was left to do was decide who would do the run and who would ride. We’d both recently completed the Melbourne Marathon and were happy to run, but in the end we decided I’d do the run and Brendan would ride. Game on.
I was sick for most of the week leading up to the event and almost didn’t make it to the start. Add to that the fact the only uphill runs I’ve ever done were back in July in France and I was more than worried about how I’d go. But, dosed up on Nurofen and Ventolin, I set off with 200 other runners as we were separated from the riders, each group taking their own route up the mountain.
The opening kilometre and a half was the easiest by far — a mostly flat warm-up along the Yarra River to the base of the climb. It wouldn’t stay flat for long; in fact the climb began with a run up the infamous Martyr Rd. Well, when I say “run” I mean walk.
From the top of that rise we enjoyed the climb’s only real descent down to a little creek before the climb proper began.
According to my Strava file from the day, it’s 1,100m vertical metres in 5.9km from that creek crossing to the summit of Mt. Donna Buang. By my reckoning that’s an average gradient of above 18%. I don’t feel so bad for walking most of it now.
Not including the flat approach to the base of the climb, I reckon I ran less than two kilometres of the ascent. The track is simply too steep most of the time. Many times the person directly in front of me would be determined to keep running but I could easily keep pace just by walking. It seemed prudent to save my energy and walk the bits were it was just as quick to do so.
But even walking up a grade of that magnitude takes its toll. My calves were burning within minutes of starting the climb proper, and it was often a relief just to run for a few minutes to spread the load over a range of muscles, not just my calves.
But as challenging as it was, the scenery more than made up for it. Barely a foot wide in places, the track pushed us right through the temperate rainforest that Mt. Donna Buang is so well known for as ferns crowded around us and we moved higher into the mist.
There’s one spot on the course — about 2km from the top of the run course and 5km from the top of the riding course — where riders and runners cross paths. After a particularly nasty pinch I popped out onto the main road, relieved for the chance to run on the practically flat (compared to 18%!) road for a kilometre. Literally seconds after I stepped onto the road Brendan yelled out from behind me — after an hour or so treading different paths, we’d come across each other at exactly the right time.
I’d gone into the event feeling that my chances of beating Brendan were very slim and when he passed me and disappeared into the fog, I gave up what little hope I had left. He had only a few kilometres to go and I still had more than a kilometre of steep scrambling to go.
I stopped briefly at the drink station at the end of the road section before turning right to tackle the final push to the summit.
It was in these final two kilometres that I think I really appreciated the beauty of this alternate route to the top of Mt. Donna Buang. Weary figures pushed through the thick fog ahead of them while mountain gums towered above and a thick cover of ferns lined the track. I resolved to come back and visit this path again some time, perhaps on a day when I could properly take it all in rather than being focused on maintaining a hard effort.
The sound of the commentator at the summit came closer and closer and before too long I was popping back out on to the road for the final 50m to the finish line. When I got there it was to see Brendan resting on his bike. He’d beaten me, but not by much.
In fact, a look at the results showed that Brendan had finished less than 40 seconds ahead of me — a difference of roughly 0.8% over 77 minutes of racing. Then again, we did discover at the finish line that Brendan had done the climb with a rubbing front brake. On balance, it was probably a fair result.
Here’s how Brendan described his ride:
It was difficult to predict how the Vertical K race would go on Sunday. I knew that Matt’s recent illness, whilst unfortunate for him, meant that we may be on a level footing fitness-wise. The climb was a familiar and manageable one, with many ascents completed over the years, but the running route was much more direct than the road — as it headed straight up the mountain — and an unknown quantity for both of us.
The pace on the bike was surprisingly quick from the start as the urgency in some of the front runners became immediately obvious. Once the bunch settled into the climb the pack thinned out, everyone chose their pace and got stuck in. My lack of recent riding was evident as I was passed by many, but caught few.
The higher we got, the more the mist closed in and the familiarity of the climb disappeared. There was no more ‘oh I know this corner’ and more of ‘I wonder how far to the big carpark’. The trees and the fog were playing havoc with my Garmin as it read I was cruising at 10km/h, but knew I was going faster. I just focused on maintaining tempo and keeping my heart rate steady, as the speed could not be counted on.
5km from the finish the riders and runners crossed paths as they take the short cut across the road on their annoyingly short route. To my surprise (and Matt’s) we had an unlikely encounter which left me with a renewed sense of urgency, even questioning the marshals on how much further the runners had.
The race was on for the last 4km as I pushed hard up to the summit and the finish line, trying to calculate how fast Matt would run the 1.5km I was told was left. I crossed the finish line and caught my breath, and only 40 seconds later Matt crossed the line. A remarkably close race considering the circumstances.
After grabbing something to eat at the event village at the top, Brendan descended the mountain and headed home while I wandered a few hundred metres down the road to wait for the bus back down to Warburton. It would be nearly an hour of waiting in the cold before the bus arrived, loaded up then departed, but with my legs reminding me of how little running I’d done since the marathon, it was probably preferable to the steep, rocky run back down.
Thanks to the team at Rapid Ascent for having Brendan and I along — we both had a terrific morning on the mountain and I definitely enjoyed seeing a different side to Mt. Donna Buang. And for those that are wondering, it was a cyclist, Cyrus Monk, who was first to the summit. He put in a scarily quick time of 48 minutes 30 seconds (from the Warburton Recreation Reserve) while the fastest runner took 53 minutes. Also scarily quick.
Thanks for reading!