The Great Ocean Road running festival feels like the kind of event you only get to do once in a lifetime so I felt very, very lucky to be heading down on Friday night to complete my second event. As always, I wasn’t undertaking this alone but was part of the usual running crew, ensuring a fun weekend ahead.
My friends and I had booked a house in Skenes Creek which was a great place to relax and get ourselves mentally prepared for the task. On Saturday, we slept in (beyond parkrun time – eeeek!) and chatted before popping into Apollo Bay to shop for GOR merchandise, wander the event village and grab some lunch which we took back to eat on our balcony with amazing views of the ocean.
We spent the afternoon with more relaxing and then headed into the Apollo Bay Brewhouse for dinner. They had put on a pasta selection for those running people requiring such things and I was grateful for it – running long distances is hard enough without messing with routines and, stereotypical as it is, eating pasta the night before is one of my rituals.
Back to our holiday home and time to get all our things ready for our early start in the morning then a relatively early night. My 5am wake up call wasn’t too harsh although I’m not sure I slept that well. I wasn’t exactly nervous – I knew the course and what to expect but, as always, felt pressure from within to do ‘well’, whatever that means. I’m always my harshest critic and the one most likely to inflict judgement.
This year, we were lucky enough to skip the buses as one of our fabulous support crew drove us to Kennett River which saved me from having to stave off travel sickness in the back of a bus driving through the dark on the Great Ocean Road. We arrived before the crowds and headed to the beach to savour the sunrise – definitely a highlight of this event. Today’s sunrise didn’t disappoint although the photos don’t do it justice.
All the usual rituals then ensued – portaloo queuing (not too long actually), photo taking and, soon enough, heading to our starting positions. It seemed a lot busier this year than last and saw us start further back and amid thicker crowds. Neither of these things were a problem – it’s a large road with plenty of room and I knew we’d spread out easily after the start.
So we started. I figured 23km was far enough to run so I walked until I got the start line then began my run. I hadn’t really decided on a game plan other than to a) try to beat my time from last year and b) enjoy myself. Run when I felt like it, walk when I felt like it, instead of sticking to set intervals. From the start line, you head very quickly uphill and, having fresh legs, I felt ok to run a bit. In fact, I felt great. I had my Garmin on the lap screen so just tracked my pace for that kilometre and ran enough to keep it below the pace I needed. This was a pretty easy strategy for the first couple of kilometres as there were plentiful downhills to bank some time.
Somewhere around the 5km mark I had a couple of things that ate into my time – koala spotting and the large hill taking you up to Cape Patton. I still managed a respectable pace, just inevitably a bit slower, especially as the view demanded some snapshots before moving on. If you’re running too fast to enjoy the scenery in this event, then you really are missing the best part.
After Cape Patton, the hills are smaller and you begin to spend some time inland, running alongside farmland. You still have undulations along the course but nothing too draining and I was able to keep my pace within my target. My biggest challenge was that, while I had trained for this, much of my training was on trails which are much softer on the feet than road. The constant pounding was starting to take a toll – on the soles of my feet, on my joints and on my knees.
I was lucky enough to be running close to one of my friends – we kept catching each other up and it helped keep me motivated and happily distracted from the task. We were also pleasantly surprised by how many other runners were around us throughout – no doubt partly a result of record numbers but also related to us being quicker than last year. The runners around us were a great bunch and definitely added to the fun atmosphere – no one taking it too seriously but also clearly pushing themselves to achieve their own goals.
As we ran through Skenes Creek, my friend showed her consistency and determination as she went on ahead while I was finding it hard to keep up the pace. So I put my head down and power walked it out. And when I say power walked, I mean power walked. I couldn’t slow down – the finish line was edging closer and I needed to get there.
This event is an ‘ultra half marathon’ (ie, a bit longer than a half marathon) so you actually cross over timing mats for an official half marathon distance 2km before the actual event finish. I crossed the half marathon mats having knocked 18 minutes off my time from 2016. I was elated. However it did nothing to make my body feel better which was telling me in no uncertain terms that it had had enough. That I managed to keep moving still astounds me – all I wanted to do was stop and sit. By now, there were crowds starting to gather along the route which was wonderful as it gave me motivation and encouragement.
Amidst the general ‘go’ and ‘you’re doing great’ there was one gentleman who could learn the art of what to say to someone who looks like they’re struggling. He decided advise was the best thing and told me ‘You’re doing well. Push up to a shuffle so you can finish strong.’ Had I been capable of speech at that point, I would have told him that this was finishing strong, because the act of finishing at all showed my strength in that moment.
The cow cheer squad were there again this year and were just as lovely – I don’t remember what one lady said but I appreciated it and thanked her, telling her I was doing my best. She put her hand on my shoulder and said ‘I know you are. You’re amazing’ which brought on the tears that I then had to work hard to hold back.
I continued my power walk until I finally saw the finish line as I knew it was the longest finish shute in history and would take everything I had. And possibly then some. According to Strava, it was about 300metres and I ran it proudly and as quick as I could. The finish shute is lined with people, many of which were cheering for me thanks to my name on my bib and the absence of other runners at that moment. Every step I wondered if I was capable of taking another and it was an extra strain as I was fighting back the tears. I’m normally pretty emotional when I run but this was another level – a combination of pain, exhaustion and elation. I crossed the line having knocked exactly 19 minutes off my time from last year.
This event is nothing short of epic. Epic in the way it takes over Apollo Bay for the weekend, epic in the logistics which ensure smooth running and movement of 7000 athletes and epic in the views along the way. There really is something truly magical about getting to run on this road with no interruptions or distractions, surrounded by a diverse mix of athletes and supported by a township of locals and visitors. If you haven’t done it, add it to your list and make it a priority. It will hurt but is definitely an event you won’t regret.