2 May 2024

'We've had a few curlies thrown our way' - five years of organising Canberra’s biggest trail run

| Dione David
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Three people a the Stromlo Running Festival finish line

Stromlo Running Festival power couple Steve and Mel Bingley with founder Rob de Castella. Photo: Stromlo Running Festival.

There was an inevitability to Mel and Steve Bingley’s role in the Stromlo Running Festival.

Steve, a former army paratrooper turned fitness coach and Mel, a graphic designer and avid amateur runner, started their successful outdoor training group Century Strong 14 years ago.

“We were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and everyone told us the boot camp model wouldn’t work in Canberra, that the cold made Canberrans indoor kinda people,” Mel says.

“We decided to roll the dice anyway and discovered nothing could be further from the truth.”

When Mel participated in the Stromlo Running Festival 2017, which was then run by Stromlo co-founder and marathon champion Robert de Castella and MountainSports founder Sean Greenhill, she didn’t dream she’d be helping run the show two years later.

“Sean was looking to wrap up his part in the event and approached us about taking over his share, and we said yes. In hindsight, we probably went into it wearing rose-coloured glasses,” Mel says.

READ ALSO Canberra gets tough new marathon for Stromlo Running Festival’s 15th anniversary

The pair were no strangers to event organisation, but Stromlo was attracting about 700 participants at the time, and it was a steep learning curve. That first year, before Steve realised it would take him three days to ‘build’ the course, he got one hour of sleep over the two days.

The years since have tested their mettle and the resilience of the event.

“We’ve had a few ‘curlies’ thrown our way. COVID was perhaps the biggest spanner in the spokes, and weather is always a big factor,” Steve says.

“Up in the mountains, a big storm can hit like a mini tornado. One year, a storm hit the night before the event. We arrived at 2 am the morning of the race to check the course. Signs were knocked down, marquees flipped over. That’s kind of the nature of the beast, though … you have to build in a lot of contingency.”

Despite the challenges, the dynamic duo bumped event participation up more than 40 per cent in their first year and it’s gone from strength to strength since. Last year, there were a record 2500 registered participants.

“It shows the appetite for mass events that bring the community together and the exponential growth of trail running in the years since COVID,” Mel says.

“As people face this cost-of-living crisis, we’ll continue to see that growth. Running is free. If you have a pair of shoes, you can be active, and in Canberra, we’re spoiled for choice with hundreds of kilometres of beautiful trails at our disposal. We are, after all, the bush capital.”

READ ALSO What does Stromlo Running Festival’s partnership with the University of Canberra mean for you?

In the years since Mel and Steve took over, the Festival has been recognised at the prestigious CBR Sports Awards and added two extra events – the 5 km and the 15 km. This year, they retired the 50 km event and introduced the 42 km.

“The 5 km bridged the gap for people getting off the couch and into the 10 km, and the 15 km allowed people coming off the 10 km to get a real taste of the mountain without going the full hog. These new pathways sent a message that you can really start your journey with us and then grow with us,” Steve says.

“The 42 marathon we’ve introduced this year is an incredibly scenic course that allows people to really sink their teeth into Stromlo Forest Park, using trails we haven’t run on previously. It still ticks the boxes for people who want a more challenging run but is a more reasonable jump for people coming off the 30 km event.”

Calculations have shown that the Festival injects well over $1 million into the Canberra economy, with over 30 per cent of participants now coming from beyond a 40 km radius of Canberra.

But of all the highs, it’s the thriving community forming around the event that fuels its success.

“We’ve brought on amazing business partners and sponsors, and they help keep the lights on, but the single greatest factor to our success is our incredible volunteer base. They have a life and reputation of their own,” Mel says.

“We might’ve built this event, but it’s the volunteers who make it what it is. Our success and the spirit of the race are down to them,” Steve adds.

Despite the runaway success of the event, there’s no grand ambition to be the biggest anything, and Mel and Steve reckon growth will happen organically. They plan only to put on a beautiful experience year after year.

“Stromlo is our passion project. There are many hidden hours that go into organising an event of this kind, and you do it for the love,” Mel says.

“This race is so much bigger than the two of us. We’re the custodians, but this event belongs to Canberra,” Steve says.

For more information or to register, visit Stromlo Running Festival.


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