(alternative title: 1 long road, 23km of scenery and all 4 seasons)
This particular quest started about a year ago when I met a fellow five30 runner visiting Balyang Sanctuary parkrun as a stop off on her way to the Great Ocean Road half marathon. We chatted and it sounded amazing although seemed like a far off dream. I’d only done one half marathon and that had been hard enough on the flat – the hills scared me.
Roll forward a year and I found myself packing my bags and racing to meet my friends for the trip to Apollo Bay to complete my 3rd half marathon – how things change! In particular, I was proud to be running this one to raise funds for the Indigenous Marathon Project and possibly wouldn’t have made it to the start line without that motivation.
We opted to drive the Great Ocean Road itself to check out the hills for ourselves and did a bit of a running commentary as we went – “Ok, so this is hill 1. It’s not too bad. Hmm, it does keep going though. Yeah, it’s quite high actually. Eeek.” By the time we got to Apollo Bay, I was feeling mildly carsick and more than nervous. We unpacked, met some friends for dinner then slept, trying not to think too much about what we were going to do.
Saturday brought glorious weather as more friends arrived for the 6km and 14km events. We started with some breakfast then took up our spots to cheer on our friends along the main street. I was surprised how emotional I was – it didn’t take much for me to tear up and, with runners giving it their best, kids & parents running and some runners clearly in pain, there were lots of cheering opportunities.
While we were waiting for the 14km runners to finish, we wandered the event village and generally soaked up the atmosphere. We also chatted to some parkrun friends which was wonderful for my nerves as they reminded me what a big and amazing thing it was to be doing this, regardless of the time it took me.
We wandered back to our caravan park for some chill time then back out for dinner which was a bit of a challenge with so many runners in a small town. We opted for pizza again which was tasty enough but I can’t say I enjoyed it – I was definitely eating for fuel, not fun and just wanted to go to bed.
Back at our cabin, we sorted our things for the morning, chatted a bit then jumped into our sleeping bags. I didn’t sleep much. The wind was whipping up and making me worry about the morning’s conditions and I was in a general state of ‘why am I doing this?’. I was actually glad when the alarm went off at 5am so
we could get it started and I could stop worrying about it.
At 5.45am, we headed down to the buses and the nervous energy around us was intense. We said goodbye and good luck to Geoff who was heading off to the marathon bus and boarded our own for the trip to Kennett River. It wasn’t great for my travel sickness to be sitting in the back of a bus travelling along a windy road in the dark but I couldn’t really tell what was travel sickness and what was nerves.
We arrived at Kennett River to the most beautiful sight – sunrise over the ocean. If anything could help me get into my usual zen like running mood, that was it.
Multiple toilet stops done and warm clothing bags dropped off, there was nothing left to do but get to our starting positions. At the back. I find the first few moments of a race are probably the worst for me as I don’t cope well with feeling like sheep in a pen and I wanted space as well as knowing I wouldn’t be overtaken by a few thousand people when the inevitable hills arrived.
Standing at the back, the start was pretty amazing. Before we even crossed the timing mats, we could see people streaming up the road and approaching the first hill, all with the incredible backdrop of the ocean. We were privileged to be able to run that road and that was the thought that stayed with me throughout.
I ran with my friend, Jill and we steadily approached the first hill, careful not to go out too fast, knowing there were more to come. Surprisingly, we reached the top of the first hill without really feeling it and I felt amazing. My nerves pre-event had been about two things – the fear of being alone at the back of the pack and the fear of massive hills. We had just conquered the first hill with minimal effort, were surrounded by heaps of people who were taking it at a similar pace and were having a ball.
As we ran inland a little, Jill started scanning for koalas and soon enough found one tucked sleepily away, letting the other runners around us know and turning it into the probably most photographed koala on the course. That moment epitomised what I love about the tail end of events – the people there are working hard but not taking themselves or the event too seriously and still have time to pause and enjoy the moment. The weather was glorious – only a breath of wind, blue skies and just enough crispness in the air to keep us cool.
Before long, we were heading up the second hill – Cape Patton. I kept picturing what this had looked like on the elevation map and comparing that to the real thing which was nowhere near as bad as I’d imagined. Again, we cruised up it fairly easily although were less than pleased at the race photographer who was perching near the top – downhill photos are much more flattering! Running down the other side, I felt fantastic and couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be. We were running on the Great Ocean Road! We had lots of excited moments celebrating this fact (as well as spreading our arms wide to acknowledge all the space we had at our disposal!).
Oddly, after the big hills were done, my energy levels dropped. It was as if I’d been working myself up for those challenges and hadn’t prepared myself for the long slog that came after them. The rest of the course is best described as ‘undulating’ with no big hills and with wonderful ocean and farmland views. We even had a kind farmer handing out jelly snakes (as well as many scattered on the road, a kind of unique roadkill) and locals scattered along for encouragement. However I was finding it harder, feeling a bit nauseous and finding various bits and pieces starting to hurt. The wind wasn’t terrible but there were a few bursts here and there and the clouds hanging out over Apollo Bay looked a bit unfriendly.
At Skenes Creek, with 6km to go, Jill & I parted and, just after that, the rain/hail hit. I love running in the rain but this came in heavy bursts and seemed directly angled to hit me in the eyes, making it hard to see. Yet still I smiled. Even though I hurt and was cold and wet, I still felt lucky and grateful to be able to do this, just kept focusing on the finish line.
With about 3km to go, the spectators were more frequent as were the marathoners coming up behind me which all provided good distractions. With the finish line finally in sight, I shuffled my way along and could hear people calling my name as they read it on my bib – very motivational and got me a bit emotional. I had friends at both sides of the course calling out as well and knew all of that would get me over the line. I gratefully accepted my medal and headed over to the water table, my mind empty and body numb. Two friends, Frank & Issy were there and were incredible – helping me with food and drink then collecting my bag and leading me to the others – all things I was rather incapable of thinking about after 23km.
We slowly made our way back to our car to change, cheering another friend in as he finished his first marathon, then we gathered for a well deserved lunch before the long drive home.
In a word, the weekend was amazing. The event itself is nothing short of spectacular -stunning scenery, meticulously organised, chirpy and encouraging volunteers and a wonderful atmosphere. However more than that, I’m grateful, as always, for the crowd of running friends I’ve fallen in with, who turn an amazing event into weekend of happy memories. Here’s to many more!