“I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”
-- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
It was 5am on the morning of Saturday 14 October, 20 minutes before the mandatory roll call for the Great Ocean Walk ultramarathon. All I needed to do was put on my running gear and walk the five minutes to the start line. Putting on my well-worn shorts, I noticed that one end of the drawstring had disappeared into the waistband.
Somewhat annoyed, I extracted the drawstring (which I really needed because the elastic on these shorts is not what it used to be) and started to re-thread it. I won't go into the details of what followed, but it involved a combination of a safety pin, swearing, a ticking watch, accelerating heart rate and a steak knife. I made roll call without a minute to spare.
So far, my quest to run my second 100km ultramarathon in a more relaxed state than my first was not going well. On the plus side, it hadn't even started yet.
The Great Ocean Walk ultramarathon was celebrating its ninth running. The race, organised by highly respected race director Andy Hewat, covers the full length of the Great Ocean Walk hiking trail. It stretches from the beachside town of Apollo Bay on Victoria's south coast, to the famous 12 Apostles limestone pillars in the shallows of the shoreline near Port Campbell. It would be difficult to find a more stunning stretch of trail in Australia.
I had entered the Great Ocean Walk, often abbreviated to simply 'GOW', two years after running my first (and to that stage, only) 100km ultra. That debut was at the Surf Coast Century and although I had achieved my stretch target of sub-11 hours in that race, I had not enjoyed it. For some runners, being on their limit for hours on end is the reason why they run these races, but after much contemplation, I decided that wasn't for me.
So, GOW would be about starting conservatively, enjoying the trail, taking pictures and not worrying so much about my time. And there I was at the start line with my heart still racing and trying to calm myself down.
At the start line
The first hour or so of the race was in the dark, headlights bobbing in front of me as I settled somewhere in the second half of the 76 person field (there were also seven relay teams of two, who would complete 55/45km legs). Recent rain had turned sections of the trail into ankle-deep, foul-smelling mud. Soon, the gradient shifted up and we tackled the first climb of the day - the 7km from Shelley Beach to Parker Spur.
I enjoy hills and found myself running up this one at a reasonably comfortable pace. The thought did occur to me to slow down and walk, but I was in a good rhythm, so I decided to keep up my steady jog. I passed a few people as I reached the top of the climb around 16km into the race and began the 5km descent to the first aid station at Blanket Bay.
The descent was reasonably uneventful - more mud, a couple of runners overtaking me (I'm much better going up hills than down) and a very positive outlook. I was a few minutes ahead of where I expected to be and feeling good.
I stopped for a few minutes at Blanket Bay, having a quick chat to the volunteer who kindly re-filled my water bottles. Some complaints from campers the year before meant that support crew were no longer allowed at this checkpoint, so the first point I'd see my one-man crew member Paul would be close to the Otway Lighthouse around 32km into the race.
Near Parker Hill
By this point, the morning had turned into an absolute stunner. Hardly a cloud in the sky, not too warm and only very light wind. And every few kilometres, a glimpse of a gorgeous coastline. In fact, so frequent did these vistas present themselves, that I found myself not bothering to take pictures of most of them. "Meh, another magnificent view - just like all of the others."
Approaching the lighthouse, and having passed the people who got me on the descent to Blanket Bay, I met Paul on the side of the trail. He told me I was in around 30th place. It was nice to have the update and I knew that I was moving through the field, but it wasn't that important to me.
The differing types of trail
Flash back to 2015 Surf Coast Century, when that sort of stuff was important to me. Most of the day was a battle to stay ahead of my ambitious pacing plan and despite the awesome efforts of my support crew to keep my spirits up, it didn't stop me from hating large sections of the run.
After that race had ended, the first words I said to my wife were “I never want to do anything like this again.”
And yet, here I was, about a third of the way into another 100km ultra. And loving it. Here, somewhere on the western coastline of Cape Otway, I'd found my reason for running these races. It's difficult to explain, but during this run I realised it was the grey area between competing and cruising, and keeping in that zone for hour after hour. Of course, undergoing this experience on a trail such as the Great Ocean Walk helps a little bit, too.
Looking towards Castle Cove
The official aid station at Aire River (42km) was the first chance Paul had to offer actual assistance, after the Blanket Bay restriction. I was about 10 minutes ahead of the time I told him I'd probably be there, so I made sure to relax for a few minutes, eat something and soak in the atmosphere of the numerous support crews attending to, or waiting for, their runners.
I didn't pause for too long, however, and soon I was off on the relatively short section between Aire River and the next aid station at Johanna Beach. On paper, this was 13km of an easy, mostly coastal, route with only around 320m of ascent/descent. On the trail, however, it was a different story. The first 4km were a dream, but after that, the trail was a series of what seemed like very steep descents (often with rocky steps) and nasty little pinches.
Near the end of the easy bit on the way to Johanna
I was pretty banged up when I hit the beautiful Johanna Beach and I soaked in the glorious day with the waves rolling in on my left. Soaked it in for about 30 seconds, before realising there was no getting away from the soft sand and I had a 2km slog to the aid station at the end of the beach. At one point I got a bit too close to the tide and a wave came in a lot faster and further than I was expecting - spinning me like a top and setting off a cramp in my hamstring. I'm sure the guy I had passed a few hundred metres before had a chuckle at that.
I left the aid station in good spirits, having spent a few minutes longer there than planned, but that's what I felt like I needed at the time. I was mindful of the fact that everyone I had spoken to who had run GOW before had a variation on the theme of "the race really starts at Johanna." The next 20km packed in a lot of ascent/descent before an unmanned water drop at 75km and a further 5km to the last aid station of the day, the Gables at 80km.
Leaving Johanna aid station
The first 5km after the aid station climbs inland around 300m and I remember feeling really good, running most of it. In fact, I recall thinking to myself "this 55-75km section is a piece of cake" (or something like that, anyway). There's a really fast, fun descent to Milanesia Beach and at this point, if it's possible to strut during an ultra, I was doing it. My inner voice had adopted a mocking tone - "the section after Johanna is, like, soooo hilly. Yeah, right."
And then, the hills.
It was like one of those scenes from the old Batman television series with Adam West (Millennials: you might need to search for this on YouTube to understand this.) 300m climb at 20% - Bang! Sharp 200m descent. Whack! Immediately into a 200m climb at 20%! Pow!
Repeat for 10km.
Stairs near Ryan's Den on the horror 65-75km section
Like a punch drunk villain, I emerged from the House of Pain at Moonlight Head, where a friend of mine was spectating with a mate of his. They told me I was looking strong. "Grfyt", was my eloquent response.
Still, the unmanned drums of sweet, sweet, water were only 400m away. Since Milanesia Beach, I'd become sick of the liquid-based fuel I was using pretty much exclusively for this run. And that meant I hadn't been drinking as much as I wanted, which also meant I was not getting as many calories in as I had planned.
The night before, Andy had asked that we keep our consumption from this unmanned water drop to around 500ml, since he wanted to ensure there was enough for everyone and, anyway, the final aid station was only 5km away. It took every fibre of my being not to open the tap and sit under it with my mouth open. But instead, I filled one of my bottles and headed to the Gables.
Awesome photo of Nigel and the bovine spectator by Cassandra Gash
The section I had just finished between 65-75km was that part of an ultra where the demons made their appearance. The ones that tell you to pull out of the race at the next aid station, or interrogate you incessantly, asking why you would pay someone so you can put yourself through this. I'd got a bit cocky, particularly after that first climb from Johanna, and forgot that there's a world of difference between getting to 60km and getting to 100km.
But I'd been able to banish those demons by slowing down and focusing solely on forward momentum. I was in the red zone, but I had no reason to push it to breaking point. However, for all of my "I'm just here to enjoy the trail" pre-race rhetoric, I was also conscious that I was making decent progress and hadn't been passed by anyone on the course who I hadn't taken back (save for the fast runners who were in front of me on the start line and stayed out in front). There I was, in that compete v. cruise grey area that I wanted to be in.
The 5km to the Gables aid station was a hoot. Mostly downhill or flat, and with the promise of some food, more fresh water and a friendly face just around the corner. It's an inland section, so no stunning coastal views, but a very nice section of trail all the same.
"He was swearing a lot more at the Gables", Paul later told my wife. Yes, that 25km Johanna-Gables leg really took it out of me. I had a good chat with Paul, ate a Clif Bar and some orange segments and sat down for a few minutes. I really can't explain how grateful I am for Paul's presence on that day. To an outside observer, the importance of crew members may be hard to understand, especially on a course like GOW, where there are only three aid stations between the start and finish for them to offer support. But as a runner, they can be the reason for pushing onwards towards an aid station, or the difference between leaving an aid station on the trail or in a car. Paul had everything I needed and gave up his entire day to make sure of it.
I probably lingered a bit too long at The Gables, because I was a bit stiff when I left. And a little unfocused, too, going off course for a few hundred metres before realising my error when the trail I was on ended at the top of a cliff. This annoyed me more than it should have, but soon I was back on course and on my way to the finish line.
At 81km, my watch battery died. Having started running in the "If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen" generation, I started recording my run on my phone. With my phone tucked away in a pocket in my running pack, I no longer had the instant gratification of knowing how fast I was running, or how far to the finish. In fact, however, this soon became liberating. I knew I was on track to break 13 hours and now it was just a matter of running for a couple of hours at a comfortable pace.
On the last leg
The last 20km is almost exclusively along the coast. The sun was getting lower, but in no danger of setting before I finished. Instead, it just added something else to the memories from the day - shadows growing slightly longer and colours changing hue. With maybe 11km to go, a group of campers drinking beers gave me a rousing reception and it put the biggest smile on my face. Although, to be honest, the thought of joining them for a cold one did cross my mind.
Then I saw a sign which said the 12 Apostles were 7km away. 7km! That's less than a lunchtime run. The only landmark between here and the finish line I knew of was the Gibson Steps, which was around 1km before the finish, so that became my next focus, now less than 6km from where I was.
I loved those 6km. I took out my phone and confirmed that I was well under 13 hour pace, probably closer to 12.5 hours. The ocean was glinting in the late afternoon sunlight and the finish line was beckoning. Although I was still (mostly) running, I'd decided that I would walk the better part of the final kilometre, to give me time to soak it all in and reflect on the day that I'd had. It really couldn't have gone better and I wanted to remember as much of it as possible.
Just before the 12 Apostles visitor centre, where the finish line is located, the needle swung back to the 'competitive' side of the spectrum. "Since the first 10 metres of the race, nobody has been able to get past you and stay there.", said the voice. "You're not getting passed now, in the shadows of the finish line, because you're walking!"
So I started running, or, to be more precise, shuffling. At the entry to the visitor centre, there was a sign that advised runners to slow down. I laughed - that sign really wasn't applicable to me (or most runners, I suppose), at that point.
The emotions as I entered the finish chute and crossed the line are indescribable. Suffice to say, it was a completely different experience to my first 100km race. No more or less satisfying, but just… different. I had a great chat with 4th place getter and ultra running legend Dan Beard, who had finished about an hour and half ahead of me. I had finished in 13th place, in just under 12 hours and 25 minutes.
(Some of) the better reasons for toeing the line
I stayed at the finish line for about an hour and a half, enjoying the atmosphere, cheering the finishing runners and eating everything in sight. I collected my silver (sub 13 hour) belt buckle from Andy, who I chatted to briefly and thanked repeatedly. With so many races on the trail running calendar, some events can get lost in the noise, but this one should be on every ultra runner's list of must-do races.
As circumstances had it, Paul drove me back to Melbourne that night. I got into bed about 19 hours after ripping a hole in my short’s waistband with a steak knife in Apollo Bay that morning. I woke up the next morning in my own bed, had breakfast with my wife and kids and said "That won't be the last one."
Event website: https://sites.google.com/site/gow100s/home
Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1230505844