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2013 Report by Gayle Cowling

Great Ocean Walk – 100km’s – Apollo Bay to 12 Apostles

This is the second year I have taken on one of the greatest 100km ultra trail runs in Australia. GOW100 is an extraordinary trail run from Apollo Bay through the Otway Ranges and along some of Australia’s most majestic and scenic coast to finish at the 12 Apostles.  The aim is to chase the sun from dawn to dusk and the prize is watching the sun set over the 12 Apostles.  Only the elite usually achieve this. 

My preparation for this race started when I finished it this time last year.  I have had an amazing running season with achieving personal bests in every race I have competed in throughout the year.  Most of you will know I was training for the Tan Ultra 100 in August but 3 days before the race I sliced off the top of my left index finger, and under duress and Doctors orders, it was not recommended that I run - unless there was some way I could keep my hand elevated the entire time.  This in hind sight was a saving grace as it forced me to rest – but only for a short period of time.  I then entered the Walhalla Round Up 50km in September, a first time for me in very unfamiliar territory, and much to my surprise, out of nowhere I pulled out a 5:07 50km and first place in Veteran Female.  The rest obviously did me the world of good. 

Coming into the start of the week leading up to GOW, I knew physically that there was nothing more I could do.  My biggest concern was my current mental state, something was not quite right, I was not in the right head space, I could not work it out but I could not shake it either.  Everyone who attempts to run ultra’s knows that most of it is mental toughness and if I could not turn it on for the day it was going to be very long race.  

On Friday night all runners turned up to the Apollo Bay Hotel for the mandatory equipment check and for Andy to give us a race briefing and advice on how to tackle the course.  It was also a great opportunity to catch up with fellow runners and wish everyone the best of luck for the next day. 

The gods were on our side this year as the weather forecast was sunny and 24 degrees, ideal for those out on a nice leisurely run but, for those about to battle the elements for in excess of 12hrs, it was going to be warm and hydration was going to be key.  6am was check in time and all runners were weighed.  This year I was going to have race number 28.  At 6:20 we all crossed over to the large white anchor for race start.  Final good lucks and best wishes were passed around and as the sun came up Andy counted us down to a 6:30am start.  I was running the race again this year with Owen, who was attempting his 4th GOW100.  Our time last year was 16hrs 13 minutes so we set ourselves a quite achievable goal to simply beat 16hrs. 

There are four official checkpoints throughout the race with cutoff times for each to ensure that runners complete the event within the allotted time.  

The first checkpoint is Blanket Bay – approximately 21km’s into the event.  This part of the course takes you along the coast line of Apollo Bay through Marengo Caravan Park and along the coastal cliffs for the first 6kms.  It was absolutely stunning watching the sun rise with the waves crashing onto the beach.  Once past Marengo we hit the sand for a brief stint across the first beach crossing then we head inland to Shelly Beach.  This year the track was dry, no mud compared to last year, thank goodness which made for a faster course and slightly easier climbs and descents.  The run down into Elliot River opened up into an inlet where we rock jumped across the river overlooking the waves roll in – I managed to take in the view only briefly.  The climb from Elliot River is a tough one before the race takes you inland through the Otway Ranges.  Last year this was kilometer after kilometer of mud so I had prepared myself for much of the same this year.  To our very pleasant surprise it was relatively dry and made for some good running.  As we descended into Blanket Bay we hit another beach crossing of soft sand for a couple of hundred meters before we climbed up to the top of the cliffs and met all the volunteers and support crews at the first checkpoint.  Andy the race director was there to greet all the runners with words of encouragement for everyone as they came through.  A quick toilet stop and a top up of our water bladders and we were off to the second checkpoint – Aire River which was around the 42km mark. 

The first 20 odd kms had not been the best for either Owen or myself.  We were both dealing with our internal demons.  I had started the race with doubt and just lacking that drive and enthusiasm needed to get you through the event.  Where we would both normally be very chatty in the early stages of a race we were both pretty quiet and not talking very much at all.  After our climb out of Parker Inlet just on the 26km mark, Owen told me to go on without him as he was struggling with an injury in the top of his right leg. The climbing and running down hills were causing him too much pain.  This is where emotions play a big part.  We had started this race together and for all intentions we were meant to see this race through to the end together.

At the point where Owen told me to go on I was given only seconds to argue with him and then be convinced that I needed to go ahead and run my own race. Initially I thought how do I complete the next 74kms of this race by myself, the support of someone running with you to get you through your tough times is very important to your overall mental and physical state and initially I was reluctant but I knew it was something I had to do.  I had to get my head in the game. 

The views between Parker Inlet and the Cape Otway Lighthouse are spectacular and I did not want to pass up a photo opportunity so along the way I started to take photos.  This encouraged me to keep my eye on the prize of seeing those 12 Apostles before the sun went down. 

Nick was waiting for me at the lighthouse.  I was beginning to feel the heat now and knew it was important to keep hydrated.  Aire River was only another 10kms away and I knew a lot of familiar faces would be there to greet me.  The trail from the Lighthouse for the next few kilometres is undulating sand dunes so it is quite tough on the legs - about 5kms out I turned around to see just how far I had already travelled – the coast looked beautiful so another photo opportunity was at hand.

It was not long and I reached the mouth of the river and a nice descent into the sand dunes of Aire River.  Seeing the smiling faces of Nick and the volunteers was just what I needed.  Some more food and little bit of water I crossed the old wooden bridge to the official checkpoint to be greeted by Greg Robinson, the husband of my Oxfam team member Karen.  Greg told me I was smashing it – I did not even think to look at my Garmin to see the time so I really had no idea how well I was going or how I was even looking. 

From Aire River there is about 13kms till you reach the next checkpoint at Johanna Beach but before then you get to experience some majestic views coming into Castle Cove about 6kms away.  This is where you get to run along the trail far below the high exposed cliffs overlooking the ocean. Nick had the chance to see me again as you run very close to the road and it is a favorite tourist spot for views of the coast line.  He had met three French tourists who cheered me on as I ran on past them.  The heat was taking a big hit on me and I just needed some cold water. Nick had a bottle of water which I threw over my head to try and cool down.  All I heard was gasps by these tourists who were still trying to comprehend we were running a 100kms in a day.  Not too much further long I felt my Garmin buzz and as I looked down it told me I had just completed 50kms. Knowing you are half way it was a great motivator for me so I reset my internal running clock and convinced myself to do it all over again.

Johanna Beach is 55kms but just before you meet the volunteers at the Checkpoint you have about a 1.5km run along the beach and a river crossing through Johanna River.  As I hit the beach I was faced with a head wind the entire way – running lasted about 200 meters and I was forced to walk through the soft sand.  I took a selfie on my iphone (taking a picture of myself) so I could capture the moment and made my way to the river.  You need to time the tide and the waves coming in and out but all I wanted to do was get wet to cool down.  I stopped in the middle of the river and covered my head in water but caught a big wave coming in behind me which nearly sent me toppling over. 

Once I reached the Johanna beach car park, I was greeted by Nick and Greg Kew – his partner Nicole was also running GOW.  This is where I took a few minutes to get as much food and drink into me before I headed off on a long 25kms towards The Gables.  I gave myself about 4hrs to do this section as it involved quite a lot of climbing and technical descents.  It is also where you have to begin wearing your high visibility vest and take you head torch for light.  Putting on another layer of clothing was the last thing I wanted to do.  I think at this point I was feeling relatively good and Nick told me that Owen had decided to pull out of the race but he was going to get to Johanna Beach for Nick to pick him up.  If I remember correctly I checked my Garmin and I left Johanna about 6hrs 50 minutes, this meant I was on target to think about beating 15hrs but I also knew I could beat 16hrs even if I walked the rest of the way. 

The first 8kms from Johanna is climbing through green hilly pastures and down a long gravel road.  Taking a look back on how far I had travelled I marveled at the coast line and a view back into Johanna and yes I took another photo.  The climbing was tough going and I was now reduced to covering only about 6.5kms an hour.  Mental strength kicked in so as each hour passed I set myself a target goal distance to achieve.  The last beach crossing was at Milanesia beach – I did not want to see anymore sand but it was a chance for another creek crossing and more cold water thrown over my head to cool down.  The climb out of Milanesia beach is heart breaking and around the 65-70km distance I hit a pretty big wall and doubt started to creep in.  To my surprise at the top of the climb a group of volunteers were waiting with a bowl of orange segments, I devoured 3 of them in seconds to replenish my fluids. It was also just nice to speak to another human being for a few moments.  

The next milestone to aim for was Ryan’s Den – this was a little over 5kms away so I just focused on reaching it in best a time I could.  Once I got through Ryan’s Den my next target was Moonlight Head – the dreaded climb out of there was going to test my mental aptitude like never before.  As I climbed the hill and reached the top of an open field, I turned back to see the entire coast line as far as the eye could see – at the furthest point was the Cape Otway Lighthouse and I knew that the worst of the climbing was over.  It was now about 5kms to The Gables, 80km mark and the finish line was within 20kms.  I arrived at The Gables a bit after 5pm in the afternoon - 10hrs 45 minutes down.  I was thrilled.  I was about to adjust my race time in my head but did not want to get too confident just yet.  Nick, Owen and Greg Kew were all there to get me through that last hurdle.  Owen just told me “get into a good walking stride and travel the final distance in 3.5hrs”.  That meant a finishing time of about 14 ½ hrs, it was going to be a great PB.  One last kiss from Nick, more water in my pack and more food in my belly, and at 5:15 in the afternoon, I was on my way and through the last checkpoint.

The next time I was going to see Nick was at Gellibrand River near Princetown 12kms down the road. When Owen told me to take it a bit easier I pushed that aside and managed to keep a good steady running pace all the way into the camp ground.  To Nick’s surprise I came out of the trail onto the road at exactly 12hrs 30 minutes – at this rate I was going to break 14hrs.  His first words to me were “where did you come from I was not expecting you so soon”.  Trust me it surprised me too.  He followed behind me in the car as I took the gravel road to the last turn off point with 8kms to the finish line.  I had the prize in sight and I was going to see the 12 Apostles just as the sun was setting but it would take a good steady running pace to make it.  

I started my final climb out of Princetown to the top of the cliffs which wound their way along the coast line, and yet more photos were taken as the sun began to set.  4kms in and the first glimpse of the 12 Apostles were in view – it was an inspiring site – I had the final 4kms to go and my aim was to get to the Gibson Steps and get one last photo opportunity.  The body was definitely suffering by this stage as each descent and climb seemed like the hardest thing I ever had to do but every turn of a corner presented itself with such amazing views I just did not think about it.  With about 300 metres to Gibson Steps I was in full view of the Apostles and I just stopped to take it all in.  I could see the officials in the carpark yelling at me but that one last photo had to be taken – as it turned out it was Nick and Owen screaming at me to keep moving.  As I ran into the car park I had 1 1/2kms to the finish line – this is where I became very emotional knowing I was going to complete one of the toughest Ultra’s this country has to offer.  As I ran under the gantry clock it read 13hrs 39 minutes and 11 seconds – I had smashed my time by more than 2 ½ hrs on last year.  When I think about over the distance of the race that equated to 1 ½ minutes faster for every single one of those 100 km’s I had completed – I was amazed!

As soon as I crossed that finish line, the body went into shutdown mode.  Owen and Nick got the gear off my back and got me into a chair with a warm milky cup of tea and some hot pasta.  I was congratulated by other race competitors and volunteers alike for an amazing run.  The next 45 minutes I just sat there and took in the moment, watching other runners come across the finish line and I could congratulate them for a race well run. 

The next morning we fronted up to the Port Campbell Youth Hostel for official presentations.  Course records and PB’s were set everywhere.  First female was an international competitor from Japan and first male was a 20 year old who ran his first 100 ever.  I received the customary belt buckle trophy for completing the race and I also won a sports bag in the spot prizes. The official results have not been published yet but for everyone who competed they are winners as far as I am concerned. The race director Andy Hewitt ensures every competitor is made to feel like a champion and acknowledged for their efforts.  It is also a great time to exchange war stories from the previous day with your fellow runners and talk about that next event.  I guess ultra running is just in our blood.