The decision to sign up for this year’s GOR marathon was somewhat unplanned. My original goal for this year was TNF 100, but silly me didn’t realise how popular that race was, so when I tried to sign up in January, I discovered that places had sold out within the first four days from opening day in November. So, after a few weeks of mulling around and contemplating other ultras, I popped in an entry for the GOR marathon just for kicks – the original intention was to treat it as a bit of a training run and to keep me focused while I searched for an alternative ultra. Co-incidentally it is on the same day as TNF, so as I type this up, the brave ultra runners who filled up my spot are also probably recovering over a well deserved pint somewhere up in the Blue Mountains.
As things would have it, a couple of injuries and an awesome last-minute trail running holiday in NZ meant that I did next to zero marathon specific training in the lead up to today. I was, however, very curious as to what state my body was in, and what sort of time I would post. My first and only road marathon prior to this was back in 2012, when I was just starting to discover the thrills of distance running. I posted 3:55:10 back then, a humble time but one I was more than happy with for my first marathon. Then I discovered trail running, and ultra running, and said goodbye to the road marathon forever. Or so I thought.
I had a few good milestones this year. First, just two months prior, I smashed out 5km and 10km PRs during the 17km Great Bellarine Rail Run, which I managed to run at around 4:45/km overall, and I felt very fresh at the end, though I did sprain my foot in the process. Next my tour of the Kepler Track in NZ was the most positive elevation gain I had ever covered on foot in one day. Lastly, that week’s double tour of the Kepler Track and the Routeburn Track crossing was a solid 112km on foot and a total of 4,400m in positive elevation – the most foot mileage I had ever covered in a week (not counting walking around town with J&E!). So, despite not having done any targeted training for this event, I was rather curious as to what I would be capable of pulling off.
In order to push myself, I set a target that I thought would be a stretch – 3h 40m for 42.2km. The main goal of course was simply to reach the 45km finish line, but 3h40m was the time I would hang at the back of my mind to spur me along the hilly course. Just to make things a little more challenging, I signed up for the 6km Marengo run with J & E just the day before that, so I didn’t get my customary day off prior to the main event. I had a great time doing that by the way, so no regrets there!
After going early to bed last night, excitement popped me awake at 3am, 2 hours before my alarm clock was due to go off. Determined to get as much rest as possible, I lazed in bed for those 2 hours, and hopped up rearing to go at 0500. Breakfast was bread spread with generous heaps of nutella, two bananas and an “Up and Go” (Caramel flavour, yuck. If you’re buying up and go, do yourself a favour and stick to the traditional flavours!). I took my time getting ready – no point stirring the nerves so soon, and I had plenty of time. At 5:50 sharp, I stepped out of the motel room, leaving J&E soundly snoring away, and stepped into total darkness and a gentle morning drizzle.
The overcast sky meant that temperatures were relatively warm, and the walk over to the bus departure area was uneventful. When I arrived, a crowd of groggy marathoners were waiting patiently for instructions to board. Before long, we were off!
The ride to Lorne took an hour and was one of the most unsettling pre-race experiences I have ever had to date. It felt like forever by bus, what on earth was it going to be like to run!? And gosh, look at all those hills! Any confidence I had getting on to the bus was slowly being eroded as the journey continued, and before I hit the mindset of surrender, I decided it was time for a strategic nap, so off to sleep I went.
As if on cue, I snapped awake just as we pulled in to the town of Lorne. The passengers disembarked, thanking the driver, and then all of us went our separate ways to try and kill the next 45 minutes or so to flag off. I filled the time with a visit to the toilet, followed by some of the glute activation warmup drills I was given by my new coach earlier in the week. I also met up with Trieu Nguyen and his friend Nep. Trieu was a random person I had met in an online running group. I only attended one of their meet ups, but somehow managed to keep in touch with Trieu, who was running his first ever marathon, and in a coincidental touch of similarity, had not done any running for a month before, and only yesterday had decided to upgrade from the half marathon to the full, just to keep his friend company. His longest run prior had been just 15km! Deep down, I thought he was nuts, but it was already done, so I decided it was best to encourage him anyway. Boy would he prove my doubts oh so wrong!
We hung around the back of the pack, unable to hear the commentator’s introductory speech over the chatter of the crowd, and so the starting horn took us a little by surprise. We strolled at the back of the pack towards the start line, and were one of the last ones to pass under the gantry. I wished Trieu and Nep best of luck, and began weaving through the slow moving throng.
My feet felt light and my legs felt strong – no traces at all of the little 6k run the day before. My tibialis anterior, which had been bothering me up to the week prior, also showed no indication of any trouble. In short, I felt awesome. I picked my way through the back end of the crowd, and just minutes later, managed to find my way into the front half where the pack had thinned out and I was able to set my pace on my own terms.
The first couple of hills went by smoothly – the glute activation drills worked, and I could feel the muscles in my butt driving me up the hills almost effortlessly at around 5:15/km. Ever priding myself on my downhill running, I let fly on the descents keeping my strides short, light and quick, and passing huge swaths of runners who were holding back in an attempt to save their quads and knees. The first 5km zipped by in almost exactly 25 minutes. I took my customary walk break at the drink station, and revved the engines back up before I lost too much momentum.
The next 5km leg was to include the first major climb of the day – an total of nearly 100m of ascent over 2km to the summit of Mt Defiance. Not exactly the steepest thing I have ever tackled, but then, my strategy for ultras is usually to walk the ups – something that was not going to work if I was to meet my 3h 40min goal. My legs did not let me down, and I managed to keep a good pace of around 5:50/km over the whole ascent. My reward for the effort was a delightful 1.5km descent down to the next drink station at the bottom of the hill.
The next 10km to Kennett River was best described as undulating – a series of 25m or so climbs and descents, and few real flat sections for recovery. The spectacular Great Ocean Road views more than made up for the monotony of going up and down on the tarmac, and eavesdropping on a few entertaining conversations along the way did give me a few silent giggles. The endless rolling hills did their job to filter the field, and by now I had found my spot in the long train of runners – the faces around me became familiar as we leapfrogged each other for most of the race. I rolled into Kennet River, clocking a half-marathon time of about 1:48 (per my watch anyway – the official times put me around 3 – 6 minutes slower at various points across the race), pretty near my PR of 1:45. I was still feeling decently strong, but couldn’t help feeling that maybe I had set out just a little too fast – I still had a decent 23km to clear, and the two biggest climbs of the day were just ahead.
I launched into the first climb, and my fears became reality. While the glute activation drills had helped in the first half of the race, the reality was that since they have pretty much been dormant throughout my running life, I have really wimpy glutes. And after 23km of hills, they had had enough! The first climb went decently well – I was able to hold around 5:45-6min/km, but I could feel the burn of fatiguing muscle deep in my butt. The second climb up to Mount Defiance, however, took every last ounce of my reserves. I fought the urge to walk, knowing that my target was slipping away, and went back to hill running 101 – small steady steps, high cadence and lean forward from the ankles. The climb was brutal – the chatter around me had stopped completely, replaced by the heavy, laboured breathing of a dozen tortured lungs. The 2km 100m ascent felt like an eternal punishment, and when we finally crested, I could sense the relief from my nearby companions almost as clearly as my own. The last big challenge (or so I thought) now over, I swooped into the final major 2km descent, my last chance to make up some time on my fading 3:40 goal.
To my surprise, I was still able to descend at a decent pace, hovering around 4:20/km. The benefit of my my glutes paying the price in the hills, meant that my quads were still relatively fresh, although their sprightliness was also beginning to fade. I rolled into aid station 6 at 2:42. 11 km to go and just 58 minutes left to clear it. If I could hold a decent pace on the relatively flat remainder of the run, and all the stars in the sky lined up, I might just make it.
It was not to be. The hills had taken their toll, and my whole body was starting to go into fatigue. To my dismay, I was also beginning to feel the effects of dehydration – clearly the two cups of drink I had been downing at each station were not enough to replace the fluids I had been losing in the warm and humid weather. My shoulders threatened to cramp whenever I lapsed in my steady arm swing, and my shoes started to feel as though someone had been slowly filling them with lead shot. The remaining road to the 42.2km mark was of course flat relative to the monstrous hills we had come through, but it was nonetheless made up of little undulations – each gaining and losing 3-5 metres or so, and none particularly steep, but in my fatigued state, they may as well have been that climb up Mt Defiance. I was now climbing at around 6:00-6:45/km, so I fought hard to regain lost time on the descents. I was also losing time on the flats now, only able to hold a paltry 5:45. My usual measured breathing was slowly becoming heavier, and as if all my suffering wasn’t enough, the thinning clouds allowed the sun to further warm the top of my head.
My ultra marathon brain kicked in, and I started picking little waypoints as mini goals – just run to the next tree, or just run round to the next bend – anything to keep the legs turning over. My glances at my watch became more frequent, and the incremental distances I saw at each glance were annoyingly small. Thankfully, by this time, we were approaching the more civilised end of the course, and the remote cliffside views were now replaced by enthusiastic and supportive spectators, cheering their hearts out and handing out lollies and jellybeans. Their timely encouragement was just the thing I needed to prop my falling spirits up. I lifted my head and shoulders, and drew on a reserve of energy I didn’t know I had. My pace quickened slightly and the fatigue in my legs seemed to lessen as I chased down the 42km line. It almost looked like I might make it, but sadly as the timer ticked over to 3:40, I was only at the 40.8km mark, 1.4km short of my goal. To rub it in, I was then presented with an annoying 500m (length not height) climb, which robbed me of all the momentum I had gained. I resolved to post the best possible time I could anyway – I still had a generous 15 minutes to cover the remaining 1.4km and still post a PR, so I did my best to brush aside the desperate protests from my screaming legs, and ploughed onwards.
The electronic 42km station was unmanned this time – no marshals or supporters were around, and so my crossing of the line at 3:47:46 (official time was 3:52 – no idea how they got that! Maybe it was based on gun time) was somewhat quiet. I was nearly 8 minutes shy of my original goal, but having bagged a PR nevertheless, I felt a wave of satisfaction surge over me, a little disappointed that there was no one there to celebrate with.
With that down, I turned my attention to the final goal – the finish line. Having put my all into the first 42.2km, I was now running on fumes and reduced to a 6min/km trot. A painful grimace was welded on to my face, though I did my best to give a smile and a cheery “thank you” to the lines of cheering spectators along the way.
The 2.8km felt like a marathon in itself, and just when I thought I was going to collapse, the finish line popped in to view – the final 300m stretch was upon me. The sight put a surge into my legs and adrenaline brought me back to a 5min/km pace. Just as I neared the final barriers, I saw a familiar round chubby face in the corner of my eye. It was J! Ok no just kidding, it was my loving son E, being held up high by my dear wife J. The cutest voice in the world went “Daddy!” and I couldn’t resist a brief pause to plant a kiss on his chubby little forehead, before skipping off towards the finish line. Big mistake – the small stop was enough for the entire day’s fatigue and dehydration to unleash their ill effects upon my tortured legs. I took three steps away and both calves and my right hamstring went into massive cramps. Of all the times!! The crowds were sympathetic to my plight and began roaring words of encouragement, as did the runners who had been just behind me, each patting me on the back and saying “Come on!!” as I frantically began to stretch out my cramping muscles.
Thankfully the damage wasn’t bad – a quick 10 seconds of stretching and I was sorted – I powered the last 100m across the line, delighted that the ordeal was now over. Total time: 4:02:58. My medal presenter was a young girl who looked about 10 – I had no issues with that, except that she was so short and bending over that low was something I didn’t really feel physically up to at that point. As I lowered my torso to let her loop the medal around my neck, I had to consciously fight a strong cramp coming on in my abs. I made a mental note to do some core strengthening work over the next few months, and then happily trotted off to the drink station to replenish the copious amounts of fluid I had lost during the day.
The rest of the day went relatively well. To my relief I was still able to walk, and other than a little niggling ache from my tibialis anterior, my legs seemed to be none the worse for the wear, in terms of injuries anyway. I shared a much needed lunch of pizza and fish and chips with the family, and came out just in time to see Trieu come in at around 5hrs 30min. He looked amazingly fresh for someone who had just run his first 45km event on next to zero training. Unfortunately, he had lost his friend Nep along the way, and was unable to get through on the mobile. He jokingly hoped that Nep wasn’t lying somewhere dead along the GOR, given he hadn’t seen him since before Kennet River! We spent a few minutes chatting, and resolved to stay in touch as Trieu hopes to one day try an ultra marathon too, so maybe I’ll have some company on my long runs in the coming months.
With the day’s ordeal done, our little clan retired back to our humble but comfy motel room, where I sit right now typing this report, happy to put my feet up and not having to move anywhere for a couple of hours. Hopefully I’ll be able to stand up when we go for dinner!