STEPHANIE Mollica is gearing up for the biggest challenge of her athletics career at next month's Bendigo International Madison carnival.
Two years after winning the women's 400m in Bendigo, Mollica has the Bendigo Black Opal 400m in her sights.
Racing the men is something Mollica has done several times this season.
"It's always a great challenge," she said of a campaign which will start with the heats on March 8 at the carnival's Women's Night.
The Black Opal carries a prize pool of $6000. The winner will pocket an opal valued at $9500.
"Winning the women's 400m at Bendigo was a great thrill. This is another challenge I am really looking forward to," Mollica said on Tuesday.
"It's a unique track to race on."
Mollica has been a regular starter at Bendigo the past eight or nine seasons.
Earlier this season she raced against the men at the Rye Gift and Wangaratta Gift.
A highlight was contesting the open 800m on the Wangaratta track.
"The Bendigo International Madison is a fantastic carnival," Mollica said.
"It's a fast surface, a big crowd, and a great program of racing.
"To be racing in the Black Opal 400m is a great opportunity for me."
Away from the athletics track, Mollica works in student recruitment at Melbourne University.
The Mark Hipworth-trained sprinter raced in the women's 300m at last weekend's Geelong Gift.
"I have not had a win on the VAL (Victorian Athletics League) circuit this season, but have been running some reasonably quick times," said Mollica.
Wins in the women's or men's 400m on Bendigo's track are feats that several athletes from the Hipworth stable have achieved in recent years.
The Black Opal in 2010 was won by Adam Coote, a training partner of Mollica.
The Hipworth team includes Strathdale's Josh Nolan.
The Melbourne-based schoolteacher has triumphed in the backmarkers 1600m at the madison carnival, but this year is racing over shorter distances at Gift meetings.
Athletics action at the Bendigo International Madison is on March 8-9 at the Tom Flood Sports Centre in Barnard Street.
The first day's program starts at noon. Highlights will be the Black Pearl women's 400m heats shortly after 4pm, the Black Opal 400m at 6.40pm, and Black Pearl final at 7.45pm.
Sens Jewellers in Bendigo has handcrafted the pearl for the women's 400m champion.
Racing on March 9 includes the City of Greater Bendigo Thousand 120m final and Black Opal 400m duel.