The Great Ocean Walk 100’s is a new ultra-marathon on the Australian calendar. Held mid-October in the state of Victoria and sandwiched between other existing 100-mile ultra-marathons, it also brings into existence the Australian Grand Slam of Ultra-running; four races of 100-miles or longer held over a thirteen-week period.
The GOW100’s actually comprise two separate races of 100 km and 191 km, both run simultaneously. Held on a recently-constructed single trail 95.6 kilometres in length and not surprisingly called the ‘Great Ocean Walk,’ competitors in the ‘sprint’ event complete an extra short loop of 4.4 km to round out their total distance to an even 100 km, while for those in the longer 191 km race it is a simple out-and-back course.
I hope you enjoy my account of the inaugural Great Ocean Walk 100’s.
Thursday, two days before the GOW100, I caught an early flight out of Sydney, touching down about 90 minutes later at Melbourne Airport. I grabbed a hire car and headed for the east-side suburb of Mount Waverley where I had a pre-arranged session with a massage therapist.
Four weeks prior I’d been running in the Glasshouse Mountains 100-miler in Queensland, and was nicely positioned at the pointy end of the field approaching the 100-kilometre point. I’d run 97 km, average pace 6:53 per km, then BAM !!! - totally seized up, scarcely able to walk or even talk. The next km took me 19 minutes to complete, and the one after that 23 minutes. I hobbled into the next aid station, took a handful of panadeine and crawled into a sleeping bag, laying flat on my back on the side of the dirt road and waiting for the pain to subside and some muscle mobility to return. It took just over an hour, after which I got up and ran the last 60-odd km surprisingly well, finishing in seventh place in the time of 20:47, which gave me a 100-mile PB by more than 30 minutes Happy? Yeah, but still it was yet another case, another race, of ‘what if’ …. ?
That’s been my ultra-running world for the last three years, and that’s the way in which my particular injury, a unique type of ‘OP’ (osteitis pubis) affects me; a sort of ‘all or nothing’. It would appear completely unannounced and had reduced many of my races to a simple battle of just making the finish-line. On a really bad day even that was out of the question. So as I had done before, a few days after the Glasshouse race I Googled ‘cure for osteitis pubis’ in the hope that maybe some miraculous medical breakthrough had recently occurred. I found nothing to get excited about, but what I did find was the ‘Miritis Massage Therapy Centre’ at Mount Waverley, who specialise in treatment of OP.
For the record, there’s no known cure for OP. After three years of research on the subject, I believe that many different but similar pelvic injuries are labelled ‘OP’ by medical practitioners. As treatment, they’ll recommend improving core strength, prescribe stretching and other exercises such as ‘clams’ until you have buns of steel, get you on a Swiss ball like a performing seal, hit you with ultra-sound, and maybe even throw in a little acupuncture. There’s also a range of botox, dextrose or corticosteroid-based injections. Now that’s all okay if you have some muscular imbalance due to a weak core, but considering that most athletes who suffer this injury are fairly damn fit in the first place, I’m inclined to think those types of treatment are somewhat misguided and often simply ineffectual, sort of like firing off all the magic bullets without knowing the actual target.
A brief phone call to the massage therapy centre left me with an appointment and some raised hopes; in principle they seemed to agree with some of my thoughts on the subject. Still, I was warily sceptical of how beneficial their massage techniques would be. Testimonials on the web-site suggested some good results, but also warned that the process itself was ‘not a pleasant experience.’
Entering the premises at Mount Waverley I met Darren, my massage-therapist-de-jour. He was genuinely interested about ultra-running and asked me many questions about the upcoming race. As he commenced the massage he kindly suggested that I remember to keep breathing, explaining quite matter-of-factly that with this particular treatment he’d had a few patients ‘pass out’ on the massage table due to holding their breath.
There are no words to describe that next hour. Unconsciousness would have been a merciful relief; rubbing crushed glass into my eyeballs laughingly enjoyable by comparison. I left Mount Waverley very tender to touch in ‘that’ area, yet feeling somehow ‘looser’, with Darren’s final words ringing in my ears …”You’ll be right for the race mate, and let me know how you go”.
OP aside, I knew I was in excellent shape. I’d shared dinner with my coach Sean Williams a week ago, and as usual we bounced around a few ideas and tactics. Sean has a wonderfully open mind and thus makes a great sounding-board, and his advice is always honest and practical. Within the past two weeks I had finally achieved some very ultra-specific training goals which I had been working toward for eighteen months. The nature of this training had robbed me of some top-end speed, but the indicators all showed my strength, stamina and aerobic capacity sandwiched within their highest parameters to date.
Friday morning, race eve, I enjoyed a short 8 km out-and-back on the course; the running was easy and effortless. It was great to be in Apollo Bay, and as familiar faces rolled into town, I enjoyed catching up with all the usual suspects and also meeting a few new runners. Of all my running, these ’big’ ultras, the ‘100-milers’ or longer; they’re the ones that really get my juices flowing.
The whole ultra atmosphere that I enjoy so much was in full swing; lots of extremely fit well-trained athletes interacting with each other, teetering on the precipice before taking the plunge and attempting to achieve something incredibly difficult. ‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.’ Oh yeah, bring it on.
We had invaded this idyllic seaside resort and put in place an undercurrent; a crazy mixture of excitement, anticipation and maybe a little impending doom. It’s quite recognisable and tangible to those involved, yet the everyday townsfolk carry on with their lives blissfully ignorant of the whole affair, casting the occasional curious glance at the under-fed people wearing leg-hugging compression tights. Ultra-running doesn’t come with sport-star fame or big-dollar fortune, but oh baby, it’s by far the coolest thing in town.
The race organisers, - Paul, Andrew, Brett, Kathy and Mal had done a fantastic job to put this new event together. A monster effort had been expended by this crew, and during the pre-race briefing with the inaugural race imminent their enthusiasm was infectious.
On examining the ingredients, the race-recipe they had concocted had success written all over it:- an 80% single-trail course traversing an iconic part of Australia renowned for its incredible natural beauty and two races of 100km and 191km; this event provided all the necessary punch to become something uniquely special. Little wonder that when entries opened on-line the race was swamped, filling to its imposed maximum number in under three hours.
The Great Ocean Walk hiking trail pretty much runs parallel to The Great Ocean Road; an engineering masterpiece constructed over 13 years, 1919-1932. Building the road provided employment for over 3000 ‘Diggers’:- Australian soldiers returning from the First World War, and on completion was dedicated as a Memorial to those who were killed in that conflict. At the Apollo Bay Hotel where the pre-race briefing was conducted are some marvellous old photos of the road under construction. Admiring those pictures, I found it very motivating that within a few hours I would get to pay a personal tribute of my own to those honourable men.
As is the custom at ultras we gathered in the pre-dawn greyness of race morning for the early start. The runners were buzzing, the weather was cool without being cold and after the usual mutual exchanges of “best wishes” we set off. I like to be alone early in these races find my own natural rhythm and head-space and soon settled into second position. I watched the impressive speed of Tim Cochrane up ahead carry him away into the gloom, while listening to the early enthusiastic race banter and chatter emanating from the runners behind
About 4km in, after passing the sleepy hamlet of Marengo, the trail deposited us onto the first of several beaches. There was only one set of footprints heading up the beach, and as I struggled to match my foot-strike to those, I could tell that Tim was really striding out early and piling on some pace. Then again, he’s got serious running talent by the bucket-load and is one of the few runners in the country that can do that stuff over ultra-distances.
I rate his amazing effort at the 2007 Great North Walk ultra, where he banged heads in a knock-down-drag-‘em-out one-on-one affair with another ultra-gun from Queensland, Dave ‘The Smiling Assassin’ Waugh as singularly the best ultra-running trail performance I’ve witnessed. On that amazing day they scorched the Great North Walk 174 km race in a blistering, astounding course record 23:30, reaching an agreement very late in the event to cross the finish line together. To add some perspective, there have been no other sub-24 hour finishes at GNW, and only one other finish under 25 hours, which was Joel Mackay’s noteworthy 24:57 to finish in third place the same year. Nobody else has even got close to going sub-26 hours.
I was happy to let Tim do his own thing; to try and go with him would be foolish. On the other hand I was running quite well; my hydration & nutrition were good and the stunning scenery on offer provided a welcome distraction. Cresting the top of each headland would provide a whole new and magnificent panorama, with the beaches and craggy cliffs of the Shipwreck Coast stretching away into the distance. Along some of the cliff-tops I looked down at the inaccessible beaches where rider-less waves were forming perfect 2-3 metre barrels breaking both left and right, a sight to take any surfer’s breath away.
The water down that way runs clear, deep and blue, with strong currents pushed along by the ‘Roaring Forties;’ those powerful winds that operate around 40 degrees of latitude and hammer eastbound across the South Indian Ocean unchecked by landmass for around 8000 kilometres, all the way from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.
Entering Bass Strait, the current increases as water gets squeezed between the substantial island of Tasmania and the Australian mainland, often causing monster ocean swells. It’s famously treacherous for shipping and wild and changeable weather is common, hence the name ‘Shipwreck Coast.’ Possibly it’s best left alone as the domain of the Humpback, Southern Right and the magnificently-large Blue whales, plus the fur seal colonies and huge predatory Great White sharks that inhabit the area.
I was experiencing more personable close encounters; several times I rounded a bend in the trail to find a startled black wallaby leap high into the air and bound off into the bush, or to cause a koala to scamper up the closest tree. Less welcome were the occasional Tiger snakes. ‘Tigers’ are in the play-offs for most lethal snake on the planet behind a couple of Taipan species and the King Brown. Fortunately and perhaps due to the mild weather they were pretty shy and happy to depart the trail as fast as they could slither. Whatever, they still affect the heart-rate and manage to focus one’s attention.
Reaching Aire River, just short of forty kilometres into the race, ‘Amazing Tim’ had opened up a 40-minute lead. Wow, he was flying! I was surprised therefore that a little further on at 51 km, the Johanna Beach checkpoint, the gap had remained at a constant at 40 minutes. At Moonlight Head, 71 km, he’d stretched it out to 46 minutes, but the aid station crew informed me he’d left there walking.
I didn’t read too much into their comments; everyone experiences a dark moment or two during an ultra and they can come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. I can even get them during a 5000 metre race. I call it ‘the bad room’, that feeling when you inexplicably struggle for a period of time. When in ‘the bad room’ I focus on picking myself up and if possible racing harder, imagining there to be a door on the other side of the room that I’ll shortly reach, and once through, I’m out of ‘the bad room’ and the world is all puppy-dogs and rainbows once more.
I was running well and feeling strong, yet constrained by the “hold it back, conserve your effort” voice-of-reason working overtime in my head. Around 80 km a vehicle came toward me down the country lane I was working away at. It stopped 100 metres or so away and out popped AURA (Australian Ultra-Running Association) Secretary Brett Saxon, snapping photos as I approached.
Brett’s always very positive and upbeat and told me I was looking good. He also mentioned that Tim was only five minutes ahead, which made me laugh. I suggested he reconsider his calculations, but no, he was adamant; so I asked if Tim was walking, to which Brett replied ’uh, yeah.’
At 84 km I spotted Tim up ahead, disappearing around a bend in the trail. After catching him I asked what was wrong, but didn’t get much of an answer, and then asked if there was anything he needed, but he replied with the same short grunt. I wished him luck and took off, but after a minute stopped and went back. I’d never seen Tim like that, and I was a little worried that maybe he was really low on blood sugar or something similar. I asked him to engage me in a brief conversation, but he knew what I was up to and after reassuring me that he was in fact lucid and in control of his faculties, I again ran off along the trail, fully expecting Tim to come back later in the race, running faster and looking better than ever.
Over the remaining 13 km to the Twelve Apostles checkpoint (96 km) the trail contained long sections of soft sand, making progress slow until reaching the small village of Princetown, where the trail surface again improved and made for faster running. I’d been expecting entrants in the 100 km event to come past me for some time; earlier in the event they had to complete an extra 4.4 km loop to round out their total distance to an even 100 km. None had come past, so I was little surprised to find myself in first position overall when running the last 1500 metres on sealed road that leads to the Twelve Apostles checkpoint. This is where the 100 km race finishes, but for me it was simply a turn-around point. I spent ten minutes refuelling and preparing for the return trip, double-checking all the gear required for night-running before heading out in the reverse direction against the tide of incoming runners.
Five minutes after leaving the checkpoint I came across Tim steaming strongly up the road, being pursued by Phil ‘Spud’ Murphy, who was about to win the 100 km race by a large margin. Phil was obviously in good form after a cracking run in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in late August. He warned me that Tim had found new life; I could see, and wasn’t surprised. I figured that if he took a short break at Twelve Apostles, then maybe I had a 15-minute lead, which meant very little at this halfway stage of the race. Later on I ran into the ex-Canadian now-Australian representative for the recently-held Commonwealth 100 km championship, Michael Lovric. Michael was racing in the longer 191 km event also, so I noted that it was 42 minutes since I’d left the turn-around, giving me about 90 minutes lead over Michael’s third position.
As night closed in I was holding a steady pace and arrived at a track junction around 112 km. On the outward journey, I had made a point of turning and taking a mental snapshot of each trail intersection to make navigation a little easier on the return leg. I couldn’t recall this intersection however, so I stopped, considered, and was finally swayed by the ‘Great Ocean Walk’ sign leading to the right. A separate sign pointing in the same direction also said ‘Devil’s Kitchen campsite’. The alternative, straight ahead, was unmarked. About 1500 metres after turning right I entered the Devil’s Kitchen hike-in camping area, and after exploring all five off-shoots found that each ended in a secluded campsite, with no ‘through’ trail. I back-tracked and yelled for assistance at the only occupied area, the first campsite I had passed. Fortunately a helpful camper appeared and after hearing my predicament instructed me to return to the track junction and take the other option.
Arriving back at the junction I knew I’d cost myself 25 minutes, and after setting off along the alternative trail was very relieved when a few minutes later I saw headlamps coming the other way. It turned out to be ‘Mr G’- Sean Greenhill, the very man responsible for my transition to The Dark Side (ultra-running). Sean informed me that I was the first runner he’d seen making the return trip; I was surprised that during my off-course excursion Tim hadn’t usurped the lead in the race. Irrespective, the only thing I had control of was running the best race I could piece together; and as always that’s simply a ‘work-in-progress’ until you hit the finish line.
Arriving again at Moonlight Head -120 km, I mentioned to the crew that I was surprised Tim hadn’t caught up from behind. I was stunned when they told me that he’d withdrawn from the race back at the Twelve Apostles checkpoint.. On his day Tim is quite possibly the top ultra-runner in the country; on almost any other day he’s well in the top five; but not today. I took no pleasure in seeing a class athlete like that withdraw from the event, especially a friend. Tim is about the only other runner I know that knocks out as many kilometres as I do in racing week-in, week-out on track, road and trail; all on top of a year-round solid training schedule, so I was well aware of his toughness and resilience. His decision to withdraw would not have come easily. The news added a whole new outlook to my evolving race plan, and reminding myself to try extra hard to DNS (Do Nothing Stupid) I was quietly confident that the substantial lead I held I would enable me to successfully hold off any challengers.
I cranked it solidly for the next 30 minutes or so and arrived at a fork in the trail. It was unfamiliar; I hadn’t noticed the other adjoining path on the outward leg as it angled in steeply from behind. There was a ‘GOW’ sign about ten metres away from where the fork merged. I walked right up to the fork, turned around to face the sign and considered which of the two trails the sign mainly faced toward. Right or left? It definitely faced the left. I turned back around and went left. It looked good from memory, even at night. ‘A long gentle uphill for a few km, eventually opening onto a wide grassy area,’ yeah that seems right; ‘follow the faint track across the grass. Open the farm gate. Close the farm gate. Start running on - bitumen road ??? Doh!!!
24 minutes had elapsed since I’d left the fork in the trail. It took me 20 minutes to return, including ploughing through a flock of sheep that had taken possession of the grassy area. As the never-before-seen scary heavy-breathing night-intruder with the one huge shiny eye scattered them in all directions, hundreds of pairs of wide panicky eyes reflected in the beam of my headlamp.
Arriving back at the fork and having carved 44 minutes from my lead, I went right. After about 50 metres the trail ended! Huh? I moved closer, and ducking under and around a fallen tree I re-discovered the correct trail. I had zero recollection of that fallen tree on the outward journey. I suppose things look different coming from the opposite direction in the dark. I took off, hoping I was still leading the race. I was rapidly learning that the GOW trail is well-marked in the east-to-west direction but not so in reverse, and the lesson was costing a heavy price in time and extra kilometres.
Reaching Johanna Beach checkpoint at 140 km I found I was still in front. It was welcome news and fuelling up I took a few minutes longer than normal, sticking with the nutritional plan that had me feeling terrific right throughout the race. Brother-in-firefighting Kevin ‘The Victorian Thunderbolt’ Cassidy from Melbourne was at the checkpoint, fully recovered from his recent epic swim across the English Channel. He was busier than a Beirut bricklayer, single-handedly preparing coffee and snacks while simultaneously keeping a rogue fox from stealing the aid-station food each time he turned his back.
I would have liked to stay longer and watch the hilarious antics, but wishing Kevin “hasta la vista, baby” I was out of there, commencing the sandy trek several kilometres west along Johanna Beach. Sea spray was floating in the beam of my headlamp, creating a mini-white out of sorts. At the end of the beach, before taking the trail up into the dark coastal forest, I looked back along the beach for the tell-tale glimmer of chasing headlamps. It was all good; nothing but inky blackness under a carnival-canopy of millions of stars, with a little phosphorescence occurring in the breaking surf providing a sideshow.
Four kilometres further on the trail again dropped onto a beach at Castle Cove. I crossed the little freshwater stream which winds down from the hills and bisects the cove before veering left toward a pair of old run-down cottages, looking for the trailhead back into the forest. I was certain it was near those old cottages. It wasn’t. I retraced my steps and headed to the right, where I found the trailhead. Another extra kilometre, another ten minutes burned looking in the wrong place.
The next 5 km to Aire River checkpoint at 153 km seemed to take forever. For the first time in the race I was starting to feel the pinch, but persisted in pressing hard to the river. Winding down the final slope I passed beside the popular camping-area; there were no early-risers sitting around their campfires at this hour; they were all enjoying their last hours of sleep. I needed to kick-start my body with a boost of caffeine and carbohydrates, but as it turned out I was disappointed.
The aid-station crew were also sound asleep and there was nothing hot available; no coffee, no soup, no hot water. I grabbed some fruitcake, an orange and a few supplies from my drop-bag and tackled the wooden bridge that leads across the river. They were an eager but inexperienced crew at the aid-station and as the first runner in I’d caught them by surprise. I didn’t hold it against them; you can’t run these events without willing volunteers and it was a situation they wouldn’t repeat. Those things happen in ultras; nothing ever goes perfectly to plan, so you adapt, suck it up, and press on.
Behind me the race had been taking shape with several runners alternating places. Darrel Robbins, a big strong runner from the NSW Central Coast had emerged from out of the field to be a clear second. Taking into account the extra sight-seeing I’d done by adding the time and kilometres, I estimated my lead at Aire River had been cut to around 20 minutes.
Leading away from the river the course travels through several kilometres of deep soft sand, so I used the slow pace to refuel and boost my energy levels back up. Minutes later I was able to pack away my headlamp, reflective vest and other night-time gear as the first rays of light brightened the sky.
With my energy stores replenished I underwent the magical mystical transformation that occurs as the new day awakened my body’s bio-rhythms; I was hyper-sensitive to the experience of mind and body coming alive and being reborn. I’d been running for just over twenty-four hours, which never fails to heighten the connection between the mental and physical self. As the joyful chorus of birdsong built to a crescendo and heralded the dawn, I was off and running eastward into the rising sun. Behold; Shangri-La, the earthly paradise exists; I was running through it.
Euphoria carried me effortlessly over the next fifteen kilometres to Blanket Bay, which serves as both the first and last checkpoint for runners. At 170 km it leaves only 21 km to go; a mere half-marathon to the finish at Apollo Bay. Arriving at the checkpoint I was informed that at Aire River my lead had been 19 minutes, although I suspected I may have padded it out a little over the last section. From there to here, through the Great Otway National Park and hooking round past Cape Otway itself with its wonderful lighthouse, I’d squeezed out some slippery footwork.
Doing the distance/time/energy-requirement equation for the remaining 21 km, I fuelled up on some boiled potatoes dipped in salt, more fruitcake, and packed enough supplies from my drop-bag to meet demands. I left the checkpoint and headed down onto the beach, where a short trip along the sand would lead me to the trail-head.
Finding the trail-head I followed its path which led me straight back to the Blanket Bay checkpoint; I’d run a completed circle! I yelled for assistance and a guy from the checkpoint came and kindly accompanied me back down onto the beach and pointed out my error. I had taken the first exit off the beach; I should have continued further on and found the trail-head at the next exit. I’d wasted another six or seven minutes I really couldn’t afford.
Back on course I followed the trail away from the beach and up a demanding climb through the forest. I came to an unmarked intersection and guessed to head right. A kilometre or so further on I recognised some fallen saplings that I’d hurdled on the outward journey. Praise the Lord; I wasn’t totally devoid of navigational ability.
While sparring with a nasty little uphill gradient I quite rapidly felt ill; in addition my legs had suddenly begun suffering and were becoming acutely painful. This was far different from anything I’d experienced during the race; I knew it wasn’t good. As the trail topped out I reached some gentler slopes and tried to run, however after four or five unsuccessful attempts things weren’t improving. I was in a very lengthy ‘bad room,’ so made up my mind to power-walk as best I could until I reached the far door and could again ‘smell the roses.’ As the race leader I was used to feeling hunted, but for the first time I was now beginning to feel vulnerable.
I trudged up the easy slope, feeling like crap. Passing beside the trunk of a big eucalypt, a subtle movement caught my eye. Turning my head to the left, there beside me at exactly head height and turning to face me, was the biggest koala I have ever seen. Our eyes locked. We were so close I could have reached out and tickled his chin. I smiled and said hello. He remained impassive, unperturbed, and inscrutable; his aura was knocking me out. Koalas don’t do expression. On the other hand, maybe it’s all true and he was smashed to the eyeballs from the effects of distilled eucalyptus leaves. Whatever, I had to go. Wandering up the trail, I stole a final glance over my shoulder. The koala’s eyes were still intently fixed upon me and I swear he broke into a little smile. It was very cool.
It didn’t assist my progress however, and as I continued to walk I imagined the runners behind me making up ground. I’d walked about four kilometres before the trail finally flattened out, so I broke into a run. It didn’t last more than a few seconds; I became physically ill and started throwing up. It was one of those body-purging experiences that prohibit forward movement and continue on and on until there is nothing left. I remember after the initial upheaval I stumbled to the side of the trail to continue vomiting; I didn’t want those behind me to see that I had been sick as it would only encourage them to chase harder.
After expelling everything I felt much better, the stabbing pains in my legs had even disappeared but my energy levels were completely sapped. I had two tins of baby food and two mini-cans of Coca Cola on me; I had figured this as the minimum I would need to carry to reach the finish. I hadn’t planned on using anything this early in the final leg, but realised what had to be done and consumed a tin of baby food. After a minute or two of walking I tried to run, but the mojo still wasn’t happening. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I sank the other can of baby food. I gave it a couple more minutes to settle and broke into a lazy trot, and with the terrain easing into a long gentle downhill I was again in control and began running freely.
Through the loose sandy sections and some shallow muddy sections I concentrated on running in the middle of the trail. I wanted those behind to see that I was running strongly. I knew that my Teva trail-running shoes were leaving a very distinctive footprint and that those prints told a compelling story. During the previous few kilometres of walking I’d tried to stay as far as possible to the grassed or leafy edges of the trail, leaving no sign of my slow struggle as encouragement for those behind.
I also had concerns about covering the final sixteen kilometres on nothing but high-GI sugary cola (totally forgetting about the three food-bars I had in my pack as part of the mandatory safety equipment all runners must carry!) but the long downhill stretch lasted almost uninterrupted to Shelley Beach, from where I only had eight kilometres left to travel.
At best I thought I may have a 15-minute lead, at worse maybe only 2 or 3 minutes. What I really didn’t need was yet another navigational problem. I reached Shelley Beach and discovered I was again off-course. I raced about 600 metres back up the trail to an intersection I’d paused briefly at on the way down. Was I still in the lead? Had someone just sneaked past while I was down on Shelley Beach? The course directions said to go to ’Marengo via Shelley Beach’. It definitely wasn’t via the beach. The intersection I stood at had a sign pointing east that said ‘Three Creeks Beach, 750 metres.’ It didn’t have one of the small blue ‘Great Ocean Walk’ plaques attached to the sign which the course followed. However the sign on the trail I had come from, pointing north, did have one of those plaques.
Physically and figuratively I was at a crossroads. I felt it was cruel that with only eight kilometres to go, after racing well over 180 kilometres previously, I was now forced to throw all my eggs in the one basket and follow the only trail that I believed led in the correct direction. I weighed up that if I was wrong, I’d travel 1500 metres just to be standing back where I now was, and then have to travel further back from where I’d come and find the correct trail. And while I stood there contemplating, runners were coming from behind; hell, for all I knew, one might even be in front of me. I took off toward Three Creeks Beach.
Three-quarters of a kilometre later the trail delivered me to a beach. It didn’t look all that familiar, but as I tentatively trotted along, things became clearer. I had a growing inkling we’d run this beach in the grey dawn some 30 hours ago, heading in the opposite direction. I moved closer to the water where the sand became slightly firmer and to my great delight, stretching out right there in front of me, was the irrevocable tell-tale evidence; dozens of running-shoe footprints in the sand, untouched by the rise and fall of the tide.
I received two-presents-in-one. Looking ahead along the beach, past the small expanse of rock and further on up the huge green grassy headland, right to the ridgeline about 2.5 kilometres away, nothing moved. I picked up the pace, laying the first set of tracks along the beach that pointed back toward Apollo Bay. Yeah, I was smiling.
As I crested the headland, the handful of houses that comprise the small village of Marengo were laid out below me in the foreground, and five kilometres away off in the distance I could see the town of Apollo Bay nestling the coastline. I stood and looked back; there was still an absence of movement down on the beach so I relaxed and let gravity do its thing and pull me down the sloping path, onto the last short stretch of sand.
Exiting that short beach the trail morphs into a man-made boardwalk, and as I rolled along following its flow through the coastal heath toward Marengo I snuck a peek back at the headland. There was no sign of life until I turned back around just in time to avoid the large Tiger snake that lay across the boardwalk. It was as eager as I to minimise mutual contact and already had its head in the long grass as it slid away; meanwhile I clocked up some serious hang-time as I hurdled its striped body Edwin Moses-style, leaving plenty off air between us. As the spike in my heart rate settled, I debated the merit of The Simpson’s ‘Whacking Day’ episode, wondering if it would ever catch on in Marengo.
After winding through the Marengo caravan park I joined the walkway that runs beside the Great Ocean Road for the final three kilometres to Apollo Bay. Following it along the coast I breached the last small hill, passing houses on the edge of town. Once over the hill the path kicks left into a pleasantly spacious waterfront park, which sits between the beautiful beach and downtown Apollo Bay. The final few kilometres had been effortless; it was nice to run along reflecting on the whole experience and soaking up the atmosphere.
Day-trippers and picnickers in the park shot me a few smiles as I crossed the open space; straight ahead in the middle of the park I could see the huge sea-anchor mounted on its edge that denotes both start and finish of the race. People were gathered around it and as the distance closed I could hear their applause. After just over thirty-one hours of running, I nearly ‘lost it’ right there and then, but managed to hold it back and put a smile on my face, hoping nobody had noticed. Wow, what a moment.
I was deeply honoured to have won the inaugural GOW ultra. Twenty-two minutes later Darrel Robbins crossed in second place. He had a huge smile; we embraced, laughed and swapped tales of the trail about footprints and extra side-trips, then settled back to await the other runners. We knew that this event had secured its future, guaranteed to become a stand-out iconic race on the Australian ultra-running scene.
Kind regards, Blue Dog.
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