18.05.2014 - 18.05.2014 21 °C
The Great Ocean Road Marathon : I picked up the pace. I was running backwards along the course, desperately trying to get to the starting line on time after sleeping in. Ahead of me was a line of very serious marathon runners, crouching and holding their stopwatches; behind that were hundreds of others competitors hopping and stretching and adjusting their earphones. Media people focussed large zoom lenses on the starting line. I braced for the sound of the starting gun, and the inevitable headline “local idiot takes out 3 internationals in the first 0.3 seconds of the Great Ocean Road Marathon”
Over the years I have ridden, driven, swum, bushwalked and taken eco-tours along the Great Ocean Road. So when the Great Ocean Road Marathon started up about ten years ago, I couldn’t resist the challenge. Instead of being a flat circuitous urban course, this one went all the way from Lorne to Apollo Bay, along some stunning (and mountainous) terrain. Every year I entered the date of the Great Ocean Road marathon in my calendar. Most years I wouldn’t even get as far as putting on a pair of running shoes. But on my 42nd birthday in late February this year, I decided it was now or never.
My first training run was a half-marathon - I adopted a crash or crash through approach. My theory was given the frailness of my leg joints, and time constraints, I would probably enter the marathon under-prepared. If I could complete a half-marathon on no training at all, then maybe I could complete a marathon after some training. The week after I recovered from the half-marathon I began a regular programme running shorter distances every couple of days. In the end I had three months of preparation (if I include the two weeks I rested after an inevitable calf injury)
I did make it to the starting line, and I took off with the throng. There were plenty of light-framed young and sinewy runners. But there were many others who didn’t fit the marathon stereotype - old and young, male and female, tall and short. There was a diversity of accessories including hats, backpacks, utility belts and earphones. One guy took off in bare feet, (with a pair of runners tied by the shoelaces to his waist).
I felt fairly comfortable in the first 5km, and focussed on trying not to trip over other people. The first drink station, near Cumberland River, was arranged so that runners could snatch a cup of sports drink, scoff it down and deposit the cup in a bin down the road without missing a stride. I chose to stop at every drink station and celebrate the fact that I had survived another 5km. Normally I am famished by mid-morning, but I managed to survive all day on the jelly beans, sports drinks and bananas provided.
As I recommenced a guy pushing his pram hurtled past me. He must have had to start at the back of the field and wait for the crowds to thin out before making his move. I was confident I would make up time on him later when he was changing a nappy, but I never saw him again. The “barefoot runner” overtook me, although I noticed he was now wearing shoes.
Having a crowd surrounding me certainly made it easier to keep going. On my regular, solitary training runs, the brain had constantly played tricks, trying to convince me that I would be better off stopping or going back to bed. On that particular day there were people running with me everywhere I looked; running along the picturesque Great Ocean Road seemed the most natural thing in the world.
After Cumberland River we embarked on the first serious climb. Mt Defiance was aptly named, probably because the war veterans who built the Great Ocean Road had to hack into its near vertical cliffs with their picks. I felt okay on the ascent, but struggled coming back down. My legs thumped and jarred every time they struck the road. Many people around me, shaking their arms and loosening on the downhill but I was worried that if I tried an extravagant movement I would end up sprawled on the bitumen.
The next 5 kilometres to Separation Creek, and the 5 kilometres after that to Kennett River were flat or undulating. The constant pounding on my legs was taking its toll, but I was travelling within myself. Near Kennett River I went through a timing station which said I had completed the half-marathon in under two hours - not much slower than my training runs. I announced to the people around me that we were on target for a four hour marathon, but they laughed at me in a slightly unnerving way.
Beyond Kennett River we tackled the two biggest climbs of the day, including 3 kilometres of road ascending Cape Patton. I found the ups and downs equally unpleasant, but I managed to keep running. At the 30km mark, Cape Patton is the spiritual half-way point of the marathon. It marks the end of the rugged forested cliffs, and the beginning of the rolling cleared hills leading into Apollo Bay. In marathon terms it was the the half way point for effort - the last twelve kilometres are just as hard as the first thirty. For me it was the start of a voyage into the unknown, as I had never previously run further than 26km.
According to a previous participant, the course after Cape Patton was either downhill or flat. That was patently untrue. Never trust the memories of delirious marathon runners. The hills enveloping Smythes and Von Muellers Creek were not of the same order as Mt Defiance or Cape Patton, but they were too much for me. I swapped my hobbling uphill running gait for a steady walk, and probably didn’t lose too much time anyway.
I was now struggling on the hills and on the flat. My legs felt like rocks and were difficult to lift. I was doing a Cliff Young shuffle, but without his pace. The sun came out for the first time, and it was soon annoyingly hot. I alternated between looking down at my feet and peering in the distance for that elusive 35km drinks station which took an eternity to finally appear.
I knew I couldn’t stop at the drinks station for too long, or I would never recommence. There were helpers at two tables yelling out “sports drink!”, “water!” but I couldn’t work out which drink was at which table. I had one drink from each and I couldn’t even taste the difference. I didn’t want to get dehydrated, but if anything I was bloated with liquid.
The turning point came for me at the 37km mark. I had been shuffling along for a while longer, and I actually thought I was getting close to the finish line. Seeing “37km” painted on the road was a reality check for me. But knowing I had exactly 5km to go unlocked something inside me. The weight in my legs lifted, and I managed a fairly fluid jog. I no longer worried about re-injuring my fragile calves - I could limp to the line from here!
I was still running when I reached the 42km “marathon” mark. I was greeted by a strip across the road, and an electronic timing display. Technically the race finished 3km later in Apollo Bay. But clearly for me, and for many others, this was the finish line we had been waiting for. I watched as a line of people up ahead crossed the line and slowed to a walk. I too found it very difficult to keep running, although in the end I decided to get things over with more quickly.
Running a marathon along a car-free and majestic Great Ocean road was an unforgettable experience, but now it was time to rejoin the crowds and civilisation we had left behind in Lorne four and a half hours earlier. Each runner in the raggedy bunch approaching the official Apollo Bay finish line would have had their own story of preparation (probably more rigorous than mine), set-backs, pain barriers surmounted, mind games overcome and overwhelming gratification. We didn’t look impressive, but the crowds cheered enthusiastically. They must must have guessed some our stories too.