I’m writing this 29 hours after finishing my first 100km race, and most things hurt. If I gently prod my body with a finger, I discover muscles I didn’t even know were used in running that are tender, including my forearms, all over my back, and my neck. The main exception to this are the tips of the toes on my left foot, which appear to have gone a little numb during the race; I’m still waiting for the all the feeling to come back.
Yesterday I won the GOW 100s run, or, as I tell people, the Great Ocean Walk Run, which is someone confusing to those unfamiliar with Victorian ultramarathon running. I’m still not sure why the ‘100s’ in the name has an “s” in it — there is a relay race too so it is 100km races at once I suppose. Needless to say, the run traverses the entire route of Victoria’s relatively new but now famously beautiful Great Ocean Walk, a track which starts at Apollo Bay and roughly follows the coastline to Twelve Apostles, while the road turns inland.
In my last post back in April, I described the emotional rollercoaster of the Buffalo Stampede, where the weather and hills ground me down until I was a crying wreck. This time there was none of that, save for some dissociative thoughts during the final 30km of the race as the afternoon sun beat down on me. Perhaps being in the lead for most of the race helps in that regard too! The physical challenge was, however, as intense as any ultramarathon I’ve done.
Five days before Saturday’s race, on Monday morning, I felt the dreaded feeling of something stuck in my throat. Was it a bit of almond dust? A cold? By Tuesday night I knew it was definitely a cold, as I lay in bed at 6pm with a mild fever. I was willing the fever to get worse, in the hope that a hotter fever would be over more quickly and I would have more time to recover for Saturday. I had been targeting this race as my main event for the year, so the thought of being ruled out for sickness filled me with dread. There was, however, nothing much I could do, except eat oranges and take zinc tablets (which apparently helps, but happy to be corrected by knowledgeable readers).
By class on Friday morning, following Thursday night’s law school valedictory dinner, I was full of anxiety, wondering whether I should make the trip down at all, or whether I should turn up and try to run the first 40km then decide whether to continue based on how I was feeling.
The evening before the race at the briefing in Apollo Bay, we received a stern warning from Andy Hewat, the race director, about the risks of running while sick. We were also warned about several other health risks inherent in ultrarunning, like the body fuelling itself by dissolving muscle tissues which damages the kidneys, and low sodium in the blood — does it make you want to try an ultramarathon? Once again I thought about whether to run, but decided that if my energy levels were low I would know about it early on. I went to sleep once again with an itchy throat, but decided upon waking up at 4:40am that I was good enough to go.
About 100 nervous runners gathered outside the Apollo Bay pub in the dark, on a still and mild morning. I said goodbye to Audrey, who had kindly agreed to be my support crew for the day, and we headed off into the dark along a sealed path at 5:30am. I made sure to count the people in front of me, so I could figure out my position at all times. I slipped into a group of three, with two in front (including one relay runner), as we made our way onto the first of several beaches we were to run across.
It was possibly at this beach that I first got some sand in my shoe and noticed the top of one little toe rubbing, but decided it wasn’t worth stopping to clear the shoe of sand, given the amount of sand running we would be doing. Fortunately the pain didn’t last, but I found out at the end of the race that this was because a large blister had formed, and needed some medical treatment for it. I guess the blister did its job of protecting my toe?
We headed up through the beautiful rainforest and tall stands of mountain ash before Blanket Bay, where the path was somewhat muddy, even in this very dry spring. I later learned that in most years this part of the course is covered in deep mud, a challenge I was glad to have avoided.
The sun rose from over Bass Strait, shining red light through the treetops. A koala ran across the path in front of the Danish guy 20m in front of me, although in the dim light of the forest floor and not having ever seen a koala run, I thought it was a wombat. Luckily I had a northern European to identify Australia’s native animals for me!
After the Blanket Bay aid station, I settled into a group of three for the run to Cape Otway, 30km in. I noticed I had a slight advantage on the uphills and was breathing less heavily than the other two guys, which gave me a bit of confidence. From Cape Otway to aid station two at Aire River (42km) it was just two of us, and we pushed fairly hard through the sandy hills while marvelling at the views all the way to Cape Volney, another 35km along the track and 24km away as the crow flies.
At Aire River I was keen to stop for as short as possible, but knew that the sun would cook my pasty skin without sunscreen. Luckily two volunteers there helped me apply sunscreen, one on each side of my body while I slathered in on my face. Audrey meanwhile helped to put salt tablets in my water bottles and helped with refilling them, which left more time to do the important business of eating slices of orange.
Simon and I ran to the half-way mark together, along a section that was mercifully less sandy but more hilly than what we had just been running. We hit Johanna Beach at 52km, for a two-kilometre section of fairly soft sand running. I have seen this beach when it is wild and rough, but on the day it was comparatively serene, and almost looked nice for a swim. I decided to run close to the water’s edge, occasionally getting my feet wet, as this is where the sand was generally hardest. The trade-off was a little bit of climbing over the mounds that form on the beach (between the rips), and having my left foot lower than the right, which can tire out the ankles and calves.
I reached Johanna Beach aid station, still with Simon, but I had seen Frank (the one from Denmark) behind us on the beach. I followed Simon out of the aid station, heard an instruction from a volunteer about the course following the fence line, and despite this not being the instruction nor what I knew the trail to be, I followed him anyway back down a steep sandy track onto the beach. I fortunately realised quickly what had happened, but we still had to battle up one extra sandy hill!
Back on the trail, I could see Frank had passed us; the diversion had cost us three minutes. I was pretty annoyed at myself by this point, and channelled that energy into dropping Simon in my quest to catch Frank, as we all struggled up the longest hill of the day, at nearly 300m elevation. The sun was also beating down at this point, and one of the relay runners close behind apparently jumped 2m sideways when an angry tiger snake reared its head and prepared to strike.
By 65km I had caught and passed Frank and we were back onto walking track after a road section. I was in the lead heading into the hardest part of the course, from Milanesia Beach to Moonlight Head. Here the trail climbed out of steep gullies with the sun beating down, then through a patch of shady rainforest, then back down a steep hill into the next gully. As this pattern repeated itself time and time again, I gradually realised I was short of water. This meant I couldn’t eat either, as I just couldn’t swallow food while dehydrated. On each hill I felt myself getting dizzier, particularly as I transitioned from speed hiking (with my head down) and running (with my head up). At times, my body switched from feeling slightly overheated to slightly chilled, which was a bit of a worry.
When you’re that thirsty it is hard to think of anything else except water, so on each steep, exposed uphill I was only thinking about the heat (31°C on my watch) and my thirst. I knew there was a water drop near Moonlight Head, but I didn’t know exactly where that was, so the water drop took two hot, hard kilometres longer to reach than I had anticipated. I felt a wave of relief as I arrived at the tanks, where there was a sign requesting runners only take 500mL of water because the Gables aid station was only 4.5km away. I drank one litre on the spot, then took another litre to go, which I drank within the next half hour. Suddenly I was running properly again, with hardest bit of the course complete!
I spent a bit of time at the final aid station, eating as much orange and banana as I could and stocking up on food. A very helpful aid station volunteer filled my buff with ice, and I got ready for the final 20km. Frank arrived at the aid station after me but left before, however I knew I needed the time to take on more water and food. Audrey was once again a huge help, managing tasks I couldn’t, like finding things right in front of me on the table which I was failing to see. It’s fair to say my brain wasn’t functioning that well by this point.
As I began my pursuit to retake first position, I had to cross one of several shin-high metal bars built across the track to keep motorbikes out. Instead of hurdling this one like I had the others — a significant challenge given how sore my legs were — I decided to spring off it by putting my foot on the bar. Unfortunately I didn’t place my foot correctly and fell forward into the dirt. The biggest problem was not my bleeding hand, but the effort required to get myself up off the ground!
I re-took the lead 2km after The Gables, and realised I was running much stronger on the downhills. I managed to run the next section with some better technique, and thought to myself that Audrey had given me some really good coaching advice for the final section. I knew intellectually that she hadn’t actually said this (whatever ‘this’ was has escaped my memory), but just couldn’t shake the thought. My brain fade also meant I felt like I was coaching myself from a distance, rather than actually doing the running myself.
At this point I saw what might have been a tiger snake (one of the ten most venomous in the world) lying across the track, but it was pretty calm so I just walked around it. Over the next few kilometres however I did jump and scream at numerous, threatening, snake-like tree roots.
With 7km to go, at Princetown, my improved running technique had worn off, and I was back to struggling to the finish, up some very steep and hot sand dunes. The temperature on my watch was showing 35 degrees, while I could feel the heat from the rock going through my shoes and baking my feet. The last few kilometres dragged on forever — I could see the Twelve Apostles but couldn’t get a sense of just how far I had to go. Near the end I saw my dad on top of a hill screaming words of encouragement; this was a bit of a surprise because my parents had decided not to come to watch, but I figured they might have come (three hours!) from Melbourne to watch the finish if they knew my race position. I declined my dad’s offer of water, knowing that taking water from anyone who could be considered your support crew is against the rules, and this year led to a high-profile disqualification.
The final kilometre was up a sealed path to the Twelve Apostles visitor centre, and seemed to last forever. I could feel the stones underfoot grinding away at the soles of my feet, and my thighs were screaming in pain. I crossed the line in first place in 10:36:17, staggered over to a chair, and was seen to by medical staff, who made sure my legs were elevated and I was not about to pass out.
I spent the next hour or so moving very slowly around the finish area, struggling with basic tasks like eating and standing up. I watched other runners come in, most of whom didn’t seem nearly as badly affected as me. That night, I struggled to eat dinner, and while lying in bed I alternated between overheating and the occasional shiver.
The ‘best’ way to see this stretch of coastline is via the recommended 8-day hike, with time to visit all the lookouts, watch the sun set over the ocean, and sit of the beach for lunch. Nevertheless, it a beautiful race to run, with great scenery, great volunteers and a great sense of adventure. Thanks to Andy Hewat for meticulous organisation of the race, assistant race director Brett Saxon, and to everyone who helped put the event on. Most of all, thanks to Audrey for being such a great support crew, and to my parents who endured six hours of driving to watch me race for about two minutes!
I have an even tougher race on late next year (181km long through the Victorian Alps!) so I may not be doing this race in 2019, but I do look forward to tackling this stunning event in the future. I also look forward to the feeling in the tips of my toes coming back… does anyone know how long that will take?