I coudn't possible go to Australia without running an Ultra. With the criteria of beautiful scenery and challenging course, I found the GOW's 100 online before leaving Canada and signed up. What a better place to run than the famous Great Ocean Walk?? Race Director Andy Hewitt was a star and put together a great little event in an amazing place. It was a wonderful way to connect with the Aussie Ultra community if only for an instant. The day before the race, Keith and I went out for a little preview and were immediately and simultaneously "wowed" by the scenery and "scared" by the wildlife.
Keith and I both screamed like little girls when we saw not only 1, but 2 and then 3 snakes within less than 10 minutes. I was pleased to hear that the forecast was going to be cooler on race day, if only to keep the snakes off the trail. :)
At the pre-race meeting, it was re-iterated that we needed to carry lots of cold weather gear as the weather in the region is notorious for volitility and changeability. We were also told that there were a few sections of muddy trail, which turned out to be the under-statement of the evening. Turned out there was many kilometres of Mud Boggy Goodness to keep us sharp on our toes, slipping and sliding our way through to the first aid station.
The race started at 6:00AM before sunrise, with balmy 17C temperatures. It didn't take long before the sun came up on the Great Ocean Walk, which is a pretty incredible place to be at sunrise and a damn fine way to start one's day.
In the beginning it was feeling hot and humid for this Canadian girl, but throughout the course of the day the sunshine came and went a couple dozen times, as did a few squalls of rain and wind interspersed with the sunshine. Changeable indeed!
The coastal scenery was fantastic, the trail was great and we danced across a few small beaches, wound our way through forests up and down on sweet singletrack.
Then we found the mud, deep and sticky, on the double track. There were many long sections of mud which was deep, slippery and unavoidable. It's all part of the fun, but there were many struggling through the muddy miles and I was glad for my poles to keep me safe and keep me upright. I joined up with Katie for a few of these miles before rocking into the first aid station at 25k.
The weather changed a few times in the next 25k, but just after the Otway lighthouse we were hit with our first windy rainy squall. The wind hammered at us as we made our way across the top of towering cliffs above the ocean. I tucked in with 3 others and we didn't talk much, but we did put our heads down and run.
There was lots of walking too, with sections of sand on the trail that made running a challenge.
Finally, we caught a glimpse of the Aire River and suddenly everyone had a spring in their stride as we descended into the Aire River Aid Station.
Keith was there to greet me as my personal cheering squad and sent me off down the trail happy and smiling. It was great to see him.
The section between Aire River and Johanna Beach was enjoyable and gorgeous. The first few kilometres were sheltered and in the trees, but the it was fun running. There were huge sections of diggins on the trail where the Echidnas and Wombats had been excavating at night. I was amazed at their handiwork. When we finally broke out of the trees we hit one of my favorite sections of trail - some gorgeous technical singletrack which rolled along between ocean and cliffside.
I was taking tons of photos, as the scenery kept stopping me dead in my tracks! We climbed again to the top of an escarpment, before the fun descent to Johanna Beach. Another squall hit us again on the beach, with headwinds and rain pounding us in all directions. The surf was incredible - the wind had whipped up the ocean into a frothing, foaming, angry state. Huge waves were crashing right on the beach and I was loving it.
I passed a lot of people on the beach, dancing along on the Hoka's. The Hoka's with their ridiculously huge platform are brilliant for running on the sand. Instead of sinking, I was moving well on top of the sand while most people I saw were struggling in the sand and working quite hard.
Rolling in to Johanna Beach, I was feeling great. Keith was there again and I took the time to change out of my shoes and socks. After a long day of mud, water and sand - the feet were fine but it was time to refresh.
Leaving Johanna Beach, I was surprised by the huge climb which took us out and away from the ocean. It was a double track road, which took us up and up and up into agricultural land which reminded me a lot of Ireland. The weather cleared up and it got hot again. I was still moving forward, but my mind was playing tricks on me on this small "road" section. I consulted my map a few times to make sure I was still "en route". I was all alone, except for a few relay folks who blazed by me. I didn't feel like I was progressing too quickly and was surprised when nobody caught up to me. I kept looking over my shoulder hoping someone would catch up to me because it was lonely out there! I was thrilled when this road section ended and we headed back into the bush and on to a proper trail again. I'm such a trail snob. :)
While I was thrilled to be back on the trail, this section of trail was kick-ass. Wow. The trail got tough and relentless, with massive elevation gains followed by big descents. Up and down and up and down with glimpses of the sea and more beautiful coastline. It was relentless, challenging terrain.
It's a good thing the scenery was so good, because this section was tough, tough and tough. I got passed by a relay girl like I was standing still as I power-hiked uphill. I also kept catching glimpses of a gal who had left Johanna about 5 minutes in front of me. It gave me a little "carrot" to keep chasing - not in a competitive way, but in a "I sure would enjoy some company" kind of way. I picked up the speed when I got a sniff of the last aid station and passed her along the way. I had a little momentum, so I just rolled with it.
I was definitely feeling a little glazed over when I hit the last aid station. I pulled some tights over my shorts to warm up my tired legs muscles which felt oh-so-good. Nothing like a little cozy hug for your legs! We were told that there was bad weather on it's way and we need to take pants, beanies and warm layers. We also had to put on our safety-glow-in-the-dark vests. There was lots of Mandatory Gear for this race, but I always appreciate race organizers with a "Safety First" attitude. I grabbed a ridiculous amount of food to go (3 potatos, 3 cookies and 2 bananas) to get me to the finish line. Believe it or not, I mowed through it ALL in the next 2 hours. I was making sure there wasn't going to be a late-in-the-race bonk. I ran out of the aid station munching away.
Things that make you laugh late in an Ultra
Shortly after, Helen caught up to me, blazed by me and promptly disappeared on the trail ahead of me. I ate another cookie and kept walking. We ran through sections of thick twisted ocean shrubbery, which protected us from the sea breeze and drizzle which was gaining momentum. I ate a banana. And a potato. And started moving quicker. I caught up with Helen again and we chatted a bit. I was amazed when she told me she was running her last Ultra before she was going in to have knee surgery, a forced time off and maybe, just maybe, have another baby. Oh, Ultra folk! You are good people. She mentioned that we should be able to get in before dark and that we could probably get in under 14 hours. Well. That put the wind in my sails and I took flight!
I left Helen and promptly caught up with Caitlyn, the relay girl who had blazed by me earlier. She was glad for the company, so we harnessed each others energy and took off running together. I gained momentum with her, knowing we had less than 11k to run and feeling good. In fact, I was running faster than I had all day. Zzzzzooom! We picked up the pace, stopped chatting and were Getting It Done. No more photos, the sun was going down and we were charging. Or at least it felt like it. I wanted to get done before it got dark. We caught a glimpse of the 12 Apostles of in the distance, but it was getting too dark for photo ops. Plus, at that point I wasn't stopping for anything. I did snap one last photo as the sun disappeared across the ocean. Again, it was a beautiful place to be.
We hit the road with 1.5km to go, at the same time as the storm hit. The drizzle turned to rain, the breeze turned to hammering wind and we put our heads down and ran into a headwind which almost stopped us dead in our tracks. Push, push, push and we were there. Yay! A happy, strong finish with my new friend and my day and a 100 kilometres were done. Phew! That was hard work. Keith was there with arms wide open at the finish line, to greet me with a hug and a big plate of food. Thanks, Keith! You are the best.
The Great Ocean Walk 100k was tough - such a challenging course! Such incredible scenery. The storm continued to gain momentum in the hours to come and I was feeling bad for those who were still out there. It was a truly epic storm howling outside, while I was relaxing at the Port Campbell Hostel. Afterwards, I learned that the wind gusts were blowing people right off the trail as they ran their way into the cold wet and windy night.
The next morning was awesome with a breakfast, awards and social at the hostel. It was fun to connect with people and swap stories. When the awards were being presented, I was surprised to find out that I was 3rd! That was a fun surprise. Keith had known, but he hadn't told me and me, well, I hadn't been paying any attention. We got buckles, custom-labelled bottles of red wine and bragging rights. :) It was quite an epic. Thanks to Andy for organizing such an awesome event! I was great to connect with the Aussie Ultra Community. Ultra Runners are good folks and Aussie Ultra folk are a warm and welcoming lot. It made my first Australian Ultra a stand-out experience, as did running the spectacular scenery of the Great Ocean Walk.
In the words of Keith: "This is so Awesome!!"