Katherine Ultra Challenge tests teams and a handful of solo competitors in the Northern Territory backcountry

‘Exhausting’ was the first word that came to mind for Jens Ambjerg-Peterson after crossing the finish line with a time of 10 hours in one of Australia’s most grueling adventure races.

Most are tackling the 80 kilometer multi-sport challenge – which includes six different stages – as a team, while a handful take on the challenge on their own.

On Sunday, Mr Ambjerg-Peterson, 52, was there to prove that age is no barrier.

Two years ago, on his first attempt, he ended up going to the emergency room with two badly injured wrists and near delirium.

“Last year I came in last. Last. I hadn’t done any training before,” he said.

Competitors ran 4.2 kilometers from the second Nitmiluk Gorge.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

This year though, with six weeks of training behind him, he hoped it would be a different story.

The Katherine Ultra Challenge begins at dawn, with dozens of swimmers navigating rocks in a freestyle across the sandstone escarpment of Nitmiluk National Park.

The race includes a kayak, a trail through the bush, a 40km road ride as the heat of the day increases, then an 18km rocky mountain bike trail… followed by another test run to finish.

With teammates making their mark in the next stage of the event, the race also tested competitors as they transitioned.

A mountain bike on the track
The Ultra Challenge consisted of two cycling stages, a 40 km road ride and 18 km on a rocky mountain bike trail.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

From humble beginnings in 1999, when just 20 runners crossed the finish line, the event now attracts hundreds of competitors and spectators.

Founder Jenny Anderson, who won the race in 2001 because there were no other female competitors, said the challenge was even tougher.

“The concept was 100,000 a day,” she said.

“We were all new, so there were a lot of people who slipped up, but they all survived in the end.”

A woman smiles at the camera.
Jenny Anderson is proud that the event she started in 1999 has grown into the race it is today.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

She said the Ultra Challenge was undoubtedly one of the only races of its type in Australia.

“There wouldn’t be many multi-endurance events in such a beautiful country.”

In previous years the swim and canoe leg was modified and relocated after sightings of saltwater crocodiles in Katherine’s Gorge, but this year it was all clear.

Katherine Multi Sport Club President Bronwyn Humphrys said the focus this year was on “making it a little less on the hardcore side and a little more on the enjoyable/competitive side”.

A man runs on a track.
Riders were tested by a steep climb before the path evened out.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

“We didn’t want to make it an orienteering race where we had to get people to pull out a compass with them,” she said.

“We wanted them to relax along the course.

“Or [for] those who go a little bit harder, so they can compete rather than worry about which direction they have to go.”

A woman looks sexy smiling at the camera.
Sharon Campbell traveled from Tasmania to compete in near 35 degree heat.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Sharon Campbell came from Tasmania and competed in the four kilometer canoe and eight kilometer track race with her team.

She called the event “hot”.

“I loved the paddling, it was nice and cool and in the shade, but the run was really steep to start with and then it plateaus.

“I was carrying a lot of water because I knew I was going to be very hot.

“I just threw it at myself to try and calm myself down.”

A man smiles at the camera.
Dan Hewitt says he will “definitely” tackle the whole race next year.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Dan Hewitt said the ultra-challenge had been a bucket list race for four years, and finally this year he was able to put together a team.

“It’s something really unique,” he said.

“There are triathlons where you swim, ride, run, but nothing where you get to canoe.

Runners come out of the water.
Dozens of swimmers braved the cold temperatures of Nitmiluk Gorge.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

“It was a tandem canoe today which made it more fun, mountain biking, running, there’s nothing I really know that’s like that.”

He said that although he was a seasoned runner, the “hard climb” that starts the trail was a killer.

“There are very, very steep sections going up and down – but you can go as easy or as hard as you want – you can really try pumping fast or you can slow down and enjoy the view a bit more” , did he declare.

A mountain with runners in the distance.
The trail starts off steep and crosses some of the most popular trails in Nitmuluk National Park(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Ambitious, he intends to return next year to tackle the event alone.

“This year I was thinking of doing everything, but I’ve only been doing triathlon for about a year, so next year it’s final,” he said.

The fastest teams crossed the finish line at noon, after their last teammate had crossed the rocky and sandy 10km backcountry road.

Two people canoe up a body of water.
The runners paddled through Katherine Gorge in tandem.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

For Jens Ambjerg-Peterson, the six weeks of training paid off.

Crossing the finish to the cheers of his proud friends and family, as the organizers packed their bags and almost everyone had gone home, he said the toughest stage was the bike ride from mountain, which criss-crosses the southern escarpment of Nitmiluk National Park.

“I’ve had a couple of piles, so my hips hurt really badly, really really hurt my hips.”

“Next year I will jump on it and be one of the volunteers.”

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