At Easter, for more than 130 years, one of the world’s most prestigious professional foot races has been run in the small town of Stawell, in western Victoria.

Story By Ken Eastwood

As one, the crowd of tens of thousands at Central Park in Stawell, in western Victoria, falls silent and holds its breath. Runners’ spikes dig into the hallowed couch grass and their fingers bend like springs, ready to propel them forward the millisecond the gun goes off.
At nearly every Easter since 1878, the Stawell Gift has been run in this 6000-strong town, attracting some of the best runners in the world, and a heck of lot of controversy. Unlike most races, the 120-metre sprint is handicapped – runners start at different ‘marks’ up to 7m apart, to enable super close finishes, making it a visual and gambling spectacle.
“It is the most prestigious professional foot-running carnival in the world,” says local mixed farmer Murray MacPherson, who has been the head starter at 11 Stawell Gifts, and has written a book on the historic event.
This year’s prize for first place is $40,000, but in the 1930s and ’40s, if you won the Stawell Gift you could buy a house, Murray says. “In 1946, winner Tommy Deane had enough money to put a deposit on a farm,” he says. “He retired.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #94

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2014