Family competes for Lord Howe Island record in new mountain race
From abc.net.au, 19th December 2013
A family of marathon runners will be among a group competing in a friendly but dangerous race to the top of Mount Gower on the tourist magnet Lord Howe Island.
Five experienced runners, including Phil and Michelle Whistler and their son Ollie, will compete to set a new record on the 13-kilometre track that will take them to the top of an extinct volcano and back.
The runners will encounter sandy shores, sheer cliffs and boulders on the way up to the lush and dense rainforest at the peak of the mountain.
The island is about 600 kilometres east of Port Macquarie in New South Wales and is popular with tourists for its unique birds, plants and stunning views.
The current men’s record of 1 hour 41 minutes 10 seconds sits with 62-year-old Phil Whistler, who set it in 1995 a year after competing in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
Mr Whistler says he expects the record to pass to either his 26-year-old son Ollie or fellow professional runner 28-year-old Tim Reed.
His wife Michelle, 44, will be racing against Kayla Hiscox, 17, to set the first ever women’s record.
Mr Whistler, who grew up on the island and is now a radiologist living at Shoalhaven south of Sydney, says the Mt Gower Challenge came about as a way to celebrate the history and community of the island.
The event will be held on January 5 and will bring in money for the local island school, with breakfast and live music planned.
“We wanted to make it a community event with an opportunity for the local people to rub shoulders with the tourists that are on the island at the time,” Mr Whistler told ABC News Online.
He says the event will pay recognition to the island’s elders who have a history of maintaining the island.
“We’re going to highlight that on the day by having some of the so-called legends who have been associated with working the mountain to come and tell some kind of stories prior to the start of the event,” he said.
“It goes right back to the old days when the old boys were up in the mountains trying to make a living by collecting the various palm seeds that are unique to the island for exportation.
“It incorporates the guys who were commissioned to try to eradicate the wild goats and pigs which were put on the island originally by the whalers back in the 1800s for food.
“From that there were various stories about how good the bushmen were and how quickly they could get up and down the mountains.”
‘It’s unquestionably dangerous’
Mr Whistler says he initially did not think the Lord Howe Island Board would approve the race.
“It’s unquestionably dangerous,” Mr Whistler said.
“I didn’t think they were going to give us permission to hold the event because of the element of danger there, which is why they’ve restricted it at this stage to the five athletes who are all very familiar with the track.”
“You have to conduct it as a time trial, so you go off at five-minute intervals.
“You can’t race together because of the danger of rolling rocks or pushing each other off a cliff.”
The race starts at Capella Lodge and continues along sandy shore tracks into bush and along a 500-metre-long steep ledge to the side of Mount Lidgebird before crossing the valley to Mount Gower.
“The terrain has quite a few vertical faces where you have to haul yourself up on ropes,” Mr Whistler said.
“It’s all volcanic basalt so there’s massive boulders you have to jump across.”
Mr Whistler says the most dangerous part of the climb is about 10 minutes from the top of the summit.
“You’ve again got to use ropes and if you make a mistake there you’re in big trouble,” he said.
Competitors will transition between different terrains to reach the relatively untouched rainforest at Mount Gower’s summit, where in 1980 conservationists found just seven breeding pairs of the almost extinct native woodhen.
“The rainforest at the top has got an incredible moss-covered forest, with unique plants that are found nowhere else in the world,” Mr Whistler said.
Growing up on Lord Howe Island
Mr Whistler grew up on Lord Howe Island as one of just 40 children enrolled in the local school.
Childhood included hunting, fishing, climbing palm trees and climbing to the top of Mount Gower.
So far Mr Whistler has made 278 documented climbs.
“You have no peers to play with and no formal sports so we really became kind of men at a really early age, because the only people we had to associate with were the working men of the island,” he said.
“So by the time you were eight or nine years of age we did what men did.
“We have a lot to respect when it comes to the elders of the island because they basically taught us how to live.”
It runs in the family
Phil developed his love for running at the age of 12 after being given the opportunity to fly to Sydney to compete in athletics in the Combined Schools championships.
He continued his running through high school and into university but was later introduced to triathlons at the age of 40 by a chance meeting with Australian great Greg Welch.
Mr Whistler’s Mount Gower record was set in 1995 on the back of peak training for the 1994 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
He says his son, now a professional triathlete, suffered the same triathlon “indoctrination”.
“He had the chance to come over and see me race and Greg Welch race,” Mr Whistler said.
“Ollie had the opportunity to meet all these so-called legends of sport so he had no chance of escaping it.
“As soon as he finished school he got into triathlon and decided he was going to do it professionally and that’s where he is at the moment.”
Michelle Whistler is also a long-distance runner and competes in ultra marathon events.
She has 35 ascents of Mount Gower under her belt and has set an unofficial record of 2 hours 32 minutes.
She will face student Kayla Hiscox, whose father is an experienced Lord Howe Island mountain guide.
Mr Whistler says Ollie will face tough competition from fellow Australian champion Tim Reed to keep the mountain race record in the family name.
“Tim has been thinking about trying to break my record and he’s made lots of attempts,” he said.
“He’s an amazing athlete, he’s ranked number five in the world in Ironman triathlon.
“Ollie and Tim are both close buddies and wherever they race around the world they always promote Lord Howe Island, so it’s a very special event for them.”
Mr Whistler says, barring any mishaps, he expects his son and Mr Reed to “blitz the record”.
“Their only potential weakness is they haven’t had all the years’ of experience running through the bush,” he said.
“They’ll certainly ascend the mountain quicker than I did.
“But as to whether they’ve got the footwork and the natural kind of stupidity to come down the mountain as fast as I did, I’m not sure.”