I wasn’t nervous. I was more worried about not being nervous. I was definitely excited. It had been a long journey to get the to the start line of my first 100km Ultra Marathon. I had run several 50km trail runs and even a 62km trail run, but never into three figures. This was the culmination of a lot of training…a celebration of completing it.
The alarm went off at 4am. I had gotten to bed early the night before, yet it still seemed like the night went by in a flash. Shovel in some pre-race carbs. Honey, a toasted crumpet and some chocolate Hammer Perpetuem. After a quick shower, I got into my gear. Suzie and I had dropped off all my Checkpoint Bags the night before, but the final finish bag needed to be dropped off before the start. Making a last-minute check, we grabbed everything and piled it into the car to head down to the Apollo Bay Hotel for check-in.
After visiting the toilet a couple of times (you know…just in case), we gathered around the large white anchor on the grassed foreshore area. It reminded me of a video that I had recently watched about the Barkley Marathons. In fact there were quite a lot of similarities. This was a small, iconic race with limited entry places. Whilst not as eccentric as the Barkley Marathons, it had that unique and special feeling. The course would not be marked (apart from where it needed to be) and there would not be marshalls at every turn. It was easy to follow (being a government marked trail), but what an awesome feeling being part of a small group of like-minded trail runners about to run from the dark and into daylight. So I touched the anchor in the same way the Barkley Marathoners need to touch the yellow gate at the start. That made it “officially” official.
Three, two, one. Everyone’s headlights bounded off across the grass. Still had 100kms in front, don’t go out hard, just cruise. Someone had said, “You’re not going to win by going hard in the first 20kms, but you can lose it…”
So I run off with the crowd and soon we were spread out along the footpath heading up the road. There was a footpath covered in sand drift. Good old sand, stops the momentum just like…well, just like sand. It didn’t last very long thankfully and we turned off the road onto some single trail that ran along the coast behind a row of houses. I was surprised at how lush the grass was along the coast here and as the sun gradually rose over the ocean, I could see it was bright green and lush. In fact, at times it was like running across someone’s lawn. Beautiful…soft, cool, lush.
TO CP1 (Blanket Bay) – 21kms
I was running strong, a little rock hopping as the trail wound down to the beach and back up. Soon enough we wound our way around through the forest trails. This was the stuff I was used to. I ran alone and at times I ran with other runners. I chatted, I enjoyed. I noticed that most were running the flats and down and walking the hills. The hills were not significant, but I considered the strategy sound. There was a long way to go and I needed to take things easy, although I felt guilty for not running the hills, there was no point fatiguing myself so early on, so I adopted the same approach.
The trail wound its way around and eventually there was an intersection. I followed three runners in front of me, but as I passed the sign, I noticed the trail arrow was pointing off the track I was on. I thought, this must be the Blanket Bay bypass so relied upon the runners in front of me knowing where they were going. As I pondered my choice, someone behind me shouted “Hey you’re going the wrong way.” I shouted the same message to the runners in front of me and turned around to go back to the turnoff a couple of hundred metres down the path. Could have been much worse.
The track lead up to one of two highest points on the course before we headed down to the first checkpoint at Blanket Bay taking a detour across the beach before heading up to the checkpoint. I didn’t really notice the beach that much, but do recall that there was some large flat rocks in sand. Small pools of sea water glistened in the morning sun. Glorious.
I headed into CP1, grabbed my drop bag, cleaned out my nutrition from Leg 1 and replaced it with my second leg nutrients. I refilled by hydration flasks and headed off. I had planned to be in CP1 at around 2:30 to 3:00 and arrived after 2:38 so was on plan and I was looking forward to seeing Suzie at the 30km mark at Otway Light station.
TO CP2 (Aire River) – 42kms
The trail was undulating to Aire River with some great coastline vistas and we headed toward Cape Otway. The quality of the trail differed from clay trails through to very soft fine sand. Some of the sand was midway up hills and away from the beach. I caught glimpses of the light station and it reminded me of the run toward Cape Schank on Two Bays – the light station that just doesn’t get any closer!
I was still feeling strong although I could feel that my shoes were slipping on the back of my heels. At around the 27km mark my adductors started their usual threat of cramping up. I dropped my pace and focussed on deloading them as much as possible but they would give me a flick from time to time to remind me that they were tired would be happy to go home. Unfortunately at about 30% in, that wasn’t going to be happening. So I hydrated, continued to take my electrolytes, chewed down a couple of salt tablets and kept my nutrition up, however I really wanted to tighten my shoe to stop the sloppiness.
Each time I bent to tighten my laces, my adductor would cramp. People ran past me and with the usual trail mantra: “You okay?” “Yep, it’s just a cramp…” And I would stand back up and start running again shoes still feeling loose.
Eventually the cramping subsided. I put it down to a combination of hydration intake, some salt and paying close attention to nutrition. I wasn’t forcing anything down, but as it was hot, I had increased my fluid intake. I was able to bend down and tighten my shoes, but my heels were hurting anyway.
A few kilometres down the road, Suzie was waiting for me at the light station. It was great to see her. I gave her a sweaty kiss and posed for a photo before heading off. She noticed that I had some blood on my knee. “Just fell over…all good.”
I kept going, no time to stop. I was still feeling strong and had another 12kms before CP2 and was keen to get some Ginger Ale into me.
After a few more climbs up and down, a bit more sand, I eventually came down a large sand dune to a sandy road. Suzie was waiting for me and together we ran across the bridge into CP2. 42kms were under the belt! I was estimating that I would come in at around 11.00am and came in at 11.09am. I was going great at my outside time, but things were becoming unstuck…mainly the skin on my heels and back.
Suzie and I ran together over the Aire River (Image: Michelle Knoll)
TO CP3 (Joanna Beach) – 55kms
Thirteen kilometres to the next check point. Suzie had laid out all my gear so the operation to swap out my old nutrition and refill my hydration flasks was complete in a flash. She had a chair for me in the shade and I drank some watered down Ginger Beer. What an awesome drink. I also munched into about 3 or 4 slices of orange, they tasted so good.
But soon it was time to go again. I think I spent about 5 – 10 minutes in the checkpoint before hitting the trails again.
As I approached 50kms thoughts crept into my head. It was hot, it was dry, it was exposed. What did I need to prove? I had run further than this before. Sure there was 100kms at the end which I hadn’t, but there was always the option of putting this one down to experience and picking that goal up at UTA100 in May next year. But Suzie and I had met Linda in Apollo Bay yesterday and she had hiked 75kms of the trail over four days so at least I had to beat that in one day. Ok, so there’s an interim goal for me to aim; beat Linda.
As the heels started to bite, I started to slow. The terrain was up and down and side to side. It was ok, I ran below cliffs, up and down some hills and down again. It was nice single trail. I think I had even managed to tighten my shoelaces without cramping!
Suzie suddenly appeared as I neared a road. I didn’t know where I was, but Suzie took a photo of me in front of the Castle Cove sign…and it wasn’t long before the trail led down to Joanna Beach…
Joanna Beach seems to stretch out for roughly one million kilometres. I had Andy Hewat’s briefing in my ears…there’s a turn of, so it’s not necessarily a run to the end of the beach before you turn off so keep your eyes open for the path up to Joanna Beach CP3. Right I’ll do that. The figures in the distance were no doubt just out for a walk or fishing on the beach. I’ll plod along.
The sand was soft, very soft. I ran along the wet sand to try to find traction, but it sloped steeply into the water. I kept an eye on the waves to avoid getting my feet too wet and gradually made my way along the beach kicking up sand as I went and stacking it up on the front of my shoe. I couldn’t see any turn off. I could see runners in the distance, I could see what were other people, I could see fishermen. Surely the turn off was soon. Nope, kept running, nothing but sand dunes to my right and ocean to my left…and sand in between. My heels were really starting to hurt.
Eventually I ran up to the fishermen and here was the path up to the camp ground, but it was on the other side of a small river. I could see that on my side, it was shallow, but on the other side, where it was washed out, a small sandy drop off had formed as the river cut its’ way through the beach. I waded into the water. It was nice and cool. I thought that I would be happy just to stand here all day and cool my legs. I would have been happy to sit down and spend a while in the river as well, but I didn’t. I followed the trodden path up the sandy wall and headed up to the checkpoint. My heels let me know that they were now sandy and wet as I put my safety vest on for the run along the road to the checkpoint.
Based upon my normal field placement (around 50% of the field), I had estimated to be at Joanna Beach at somewhere around 12:30-1:30pm and came in at 1:46pm so wasn’t too far out, but now the wheels had started to really fall off.
I sat down and after replacing hydration and nutrition, I pulled my socks off. There were torn blisters on my heels. Well, I guess that explained the pain I had been feeling.
For the next 40 minutes or so, Suzie and I cleaned and dried my feet. We patched the blisters with Compeed Blister patches and covered it with some Fixomul.
I drank two Ginger Beers while we performed the pit stop rebuild my skin. There were others around me who were laying on the ground, their race was done or they had completed the first leg of the relay.
I changed my sock, put my vest back on and together with Suzie dragged myself back onto the trail. Suzie said there was a hill I needed to go up and that she had been up there before. I wanted to stop.
I told Suzie that my feet hurt and asked her if I should just stop. She told me “no” and told me to “go” before she ran back down the hill to the checkpoint. Dejectedly I turned and went. I had my poles now to help me walk and so I walked up the hill. I realised as I walked that my back was hurting and there was chaffing that we hadn’t even looked at.
I walked up to the trail and stopped. I took my pack off and hung it on a tree. I found my Compeed Blister Blaren stick in my med-kit and rubbed it on my back as best as I could. I shifted my Heart Rate strap higher up my back. Hopefully that would do the trick. It didn’t really. My heels hurt, my back hurt. It was a hurt competition…a suffer fest. I just walked. I walked up the hill towards CP4…the last checkpoint. I had spent over 45 minutes at CP3 plus added a bit more at my stop on the trail.
TO CP4 (The Gables) – 80kms
The Hill out of CP3 was verdant green. It was lush grass and beautiful. As the trail rose, the pasture rolled across the countryside like a green blanket. In the background was the coast and ocean. On the left were sheer cliffs where the sea had snapped off the edge of the land. The trail was heading away from the coast. The coast would have been extremely rugged. I had my vest on as the track through this farm would shortly turn into a side road and we needed the vest for safety. I could see a newly constructed house tucked behind the protection of the hill, yet the hill kept on giving. On I climbed, poles in hand, hiking with purpose and ever up. Eventually I came to a gate and climbed over it onto the public road. This wound around a little before climbing once again. There was a group of four of us making this little journey upwards. One had happened upon a myofascial therapist at CP3 and was able to continue after having his race destroying calf injury fixed and two others who were doing their first 100’s as well. (One of which turned out to be the photographer, Michelle Knoll’s daughter)
Eventually we came to a road junction and the trail went left. We had come quite a way inland and there was now no sight of the ocean or coastline. We were on a road with a few houses on acreage. We passed a group of hikers and we saw a dinghy upended with the manikin of a sea-captain in it. The sign said something like “Help yourself” and there was some large containers of water. I was almost through a litre by this stage and still had quite a way to go so I gratefully accepted some water. I had heard that the sea chest was full of apples, but didn’t investigate that. We progressed down the hill toward a dead-end. This is where the trail restarted and the track wound back down to the coast. I was probably around the 60km+ mark.
The trail started to go down and up. There were steep declines as I approached the coast. These would stop at a little creek and ferny green glade before the trail rose sharply back up again. The trail was generally following the coastline and I think it dud duck down onto a beach for a bit. Yay…more sand.
However this geography was very ancient. Water and creeks had worn crevices into the cliffs as it made its’ way to the ocean. Over the millennia, it had worn these crevices into “The Headlands”. I believe that the name headland can be traced back to the way it does one’s head in trying to cross this roller coaster landscape. One minute you’re going up steeply, the next minute, sharply down. The trail was formed from a track switchbacks (if lucky), from steep board walks that were obviously engineered to protect the trail integrity from erosion rather than being made for someone to walk or run across, to stone steps set at random tread depth and rises, to just plain steep dirt trail and stairs. As the trail went up and down, it was punctuated with ocean views at the top and cool ferny glades at the base. And if particularly unlucky, beach.
I had no idea how long this ‘topsy -turvy’ trail would continue. All I knew was that I had a gutfull of it. At the crest of several hills, an echo rung out “Oh, for Fuck’s Sake!!” as the trail took a steep drop off on the other side. In the cool of the ferny glade, further echos could be heard, “Fuck me!” Fortunately the group had long run off and I was free to express my opinion, hopefully not offending anyone in the process. After sometime a runner caught me as I pushed through the pain of my heels and back. He said he had done the course before, so I asked the obvious question (with some exasperation in my voice and not wanting to know the answer…”How much more of these (something whispered under my breath) of these hills…?” “About 7.5 kms more. That meant I done about half. There were 13 or so of these inclines and declines.
I didn’t take many photographs during this section. I just wanted it to be finished, however one photo I did take kind of sums it up. There was no sense of humour. This had been replaced by “terrain grumpiness.” I was pointing into the distance where I had seen Cape Otway Light Station. It was far off in the distance. I had run from there and I had run 30 kms to get there as well! I was a long long way from the start now!
Eventually we came across a massive set of wooden stairs. The guy I was running with said he would take advantage of the seat half way up. I said I’d take advantage of the hand rail and pulled myself up yet another incline, but it turned out that we were near the end of it and I remember there was a little kink in the trail as it turned right along a fence line and up (yep up a little more) a dried out muddy incline that looked like it was a kangaroo freeway (or at least that’s what the trodden patterns in the ground looked like).
And then…a gate and a car! And I could see water. This was Moonlight Head. I was out of water. I was grumpy. I was thirsty. There was now about 5kms left. I instantly felt better. I grabbed some desperately needed water and refilled a couple of flasks. I hadn’t been able to run much in the last section due to my heels, but my companion told me that the track started to drop down to the Gables and that section was quite runable. I took a Shotz caffeine gel to give me a kick up the bum and started a slow run. It later turned out that my companion had run every race for the last ten years and had to get his run on as had seeing problems to contend with as it was getting dark. He was able to run off. I was able to get a little pace up and ran with my poles to help me close the distance through the forest to the Gables. Fortunately the track did exactly what he said. It was heading down. It was flat. It was easy to run, even in my state of pain.
Time did not go fast, but I was able to reign in some kilometers. The path again had no visibility of the coast and seemed to be heading toward the setting sunset but not getting and closer to the ocean. My watch ran out of battery at 75kms and had turned off. All I knew was that I was hurting and I was getting closer to 80kms. Would I stop? I had a constant thought in my head that I should not even contemplate doing my next planned run at the UTA100 and that I had already signed up and that I would drop this back to the 22km run. I would now just be a short distance runner. Screw it, I was done doing anything longer than that.
Then a couple of paramedics ran past me. It reminded me that I was actually going ok and I hoped that whoever they were going out for was ok. They said someone was waiting for me up ahead as I passed. I hoped it wasn’t other paramedics! It wasn’t as shortly I saw Suzie on the trail and she ran with me up to Checkpoint #4 at the Gables. I had come 80kms! My longest ever run! I had arrived at around 7:37pm, now well behind where I expected to be, but I saw runners in camp that had left me before and now were wrapped in space blankets and struggling to stay warm. I guess I wasn’t doing too bad really. It had taken me around 4.5 hours to run the last 25 kms.
To the finish line (The Twelve Apostles – 100.3kms)
I was still feeling my back and was in significant pain from the chaffing. I decided that I should change my shirt and get my back fixed. Suzie helped me get sorted with Ally and Jamie Moxam providing some desperately needed patching up. They cut a wide piece of tape about 500mm long and stuck it across my back. It was about 120mm wide so covered a fair chunk of my back. I asked how it looked and it turned out that Suzie had been making hand gestures behind me so that they wouldn’t reveal the growing community of blisters and raw skin behind me. “All looks fine. That tape should help” And it did. Instant relief. I pulled on my Victorian Ultra Runners shirt, pulled off my heart rate strap which had been folded in half (and no doubt contributing to my back wearing away), topped up my flasks and replaced my nutrition. I grabbed some lentils from the aid station and may have smashed down a Ginger Beer.
Although I felt good, I could have been easily convinced to withdraw. I wasn’t sure that I could get through the next 20 kms if it was anything like the last 20 kms, particularly given the pain coming from the back of my feet.
George Mihalakellis from Team George was volunteering at the checkpoint. I congratulated on his recent 256km run from Sparta to Athens in Greece and he congratulated my on getting to the Gables. It was great seeing him here. He kept me chatting and distracting me so I didn’t focus on the obvious “Stop…or Go?” question. Instead he invited me to go running around the Dandenongs for 16 hours one Friday night when I was recovered from this. He also escorted me back to the turn off. I didn’t really focus on what was going on, soon I just found that I was back on the trail with his words in my ears “you’ll love the next bit, it down and flat and best views for the next couple of hours.” As the sun set in the next 10 minutes and I was enveloped by pitch blackness, I wondered how I would see the views… That wasn’t really the point though, because I was back on the trail. I was committed. I was running and the track was going down. It was on board walks and on nice trails. I had spent about 25 to 30 minutes in the checkpoint and was about 2 hours behind where I thought I would be. These were all key learnings for me for next time…What? Was I even thinking next time??
My Ay-ups lit a small pool of light in front of me. I ran with my poles and eventually after winding down and around, came across a sign. This was the best sign I had seen all day and I am sure it said 15.5 kms or so to the Twelve Apostles. The last 4.5kms had gone by in a flash. If I could do this another three times, I would be done!
That wasn’t to be the case and my pace slowed as I struggled to work out whether my quads or heels hurt more. My pace slowed. I could see the head torches of runners who were catching up to me from behind and I tried to keep my pace up so that they would at least stay behind me.
It was dark. It was really dark. And the trail just kept going. As advertised on the box, it went down, it was flat, it had a few manageable hills. It was all good, but it just kept going. Was it going to end. Surely I was somewhere near the end. Where was the end? I heard cars. That must be the Great Ocean Road. I heard music. That must be the finish line. The cars and the music disappeared. Was that a camp? Was that a serial killer’s hut in the bush? What was that. I kept going.
The forest drew back and turned to coastal scrub, tough and exposed. The wind picked up. It was a little chilly, but it was ok as I was so hot from the day. I pressed on. My pace had slowed. Runners had caught and passed me. My feet hurt significantly. I pressed onwards…forever onwards. I could see the headlights of runners across the landscape as I crested sandy dunes or clambered across sharp rocks. Where were we running? Were we there yet? How far was it? What time was it? I had my phone set for 20 minute reminders for nutrition, but had turned that off after the third reminder. I must be close. I had slowed so my nutrition need was also not as high.
But wait! What was that on the crest of a hill? Was that car lights? Was that the light of a building? There was nothing else man-made out here and I recalled that the visitor centre at Twelve Apostles was isolated. Those building lights must be the visitor centre, I’m nearly there. I took my final Shotz Caffeine Gel and picked up my pace. I was running flats and downhills and hiking at speed uphills. It felt like I was going fast. I was powering along the trails and leaving my new companions behind me. I drew closer, I saw a building. Yes! This was it! I had done it. As I got closer, I saw a fire. That was confusing. A fire? Is that a caravan? That’s a toilet block, it isn’t the visitor centre at all! Shit, where was I? I was disappointed, but now I was heading over a bridge across a river. I didn’t recall any river near the Twelve Apostles. What was this place. I came across a marshall and asked how far? She said about 7.5kms.
What!! Remember that sign that said 15kms ages ago, I had only done half of that and had half as much still left! Grrr. The guy behind me drew my attention to the fact that the trail was now going up and that was not what they had told him. I just grumbled, yeah I know. The other guy behind me was telling me about a runner who had fallen in this section into a bush and impaled himself on a branch and was not able to finish. We should be careful. Yep hills and the likelihood of being stabbed. Sore feet, exhausted quads, flat watch battery, no landmarks anywhere…arrrrggghhhh!
In any event I pressed on. We traveled as three. We were keeping a running in sight just in front of us. Couldn’t catch her, but we kept her in check. On and on the track went. It was a small pool of light keeping it illuminated and it went up and it went down, but mainly up and sand. One of the followers said there was about 4 kms left so he was going for it. I couldn’t do it. I was hiking now. I was hiking at pace, but couldn’t find it in my feet to carry me any faster.
Eventually there was a car park at Gibson’s Stairs. The marshall said ‘1.5kms’, I thought, ‘Man I was almost done.’ We were almost done. My pace quickened and soon we were in the viaduct under the road. Yes, this was it. Funnily enough there was still no lights and no sound to indicate that we were close. But now, finally, I recognised this place and I powered up the hill. I was hiking fast. I had no idea what time it was or how much time I had left of 18:30 cut off, but I was going to do this now matter what. Suzie was waiting for me. I powered on. The visitor centre! It was real! I hiked around it and the car park. I could see the finish line! Sweet, sweet finish! There was a small sign to remove the fluro vest and headlight for photos and I struggled to coordinate these fine motor movements at the business end of the race, but I just managed to ditch them before coming across the finish line.
I was done and within cut off as well! I had done it in 18 hours and 4 minutes! Suzie was there to greet me. She wrapped me in a blanket and I took off my vest and dropped my poles. I gave her a sweaty hug of thanks.
I walked around a little, had some lentils again was feeling a little light-headed, so I rested for a bit on a bench before struggling over and into the car to get some urgent bed rest.
In the hotel room, we cut off my calf compression. I couldn’t save them as I couldn’t get them over my heels. The blister plasters had come off and rolled up. They had shredded the skin completely across the back of my heels. After a shower, we dressed them as best we could and fell into a coma-like sleep. That was a quite a big day!
The next morning was the award ceremony. It was like a gathering of Frankensteins and Robots. Everyone was walking a little stiff-legged and were impressed about climbing stairs to breakfast. We all gathered there. Most battle weary from the day before. Most having an incredible experience to tell. Most, in hindsight enjoying the day immensely and with individual memories and stories to recount.
The breakfast was awesome. I had planned to eat and eat and eat, however I found that I could just barely get down one breakfast and struggled on the second one!
After breakfast, the awards were presented for placeholders. Wow, some had done this course in just over half the time I had completed it. Yet I finished…it was a valuable proof point for me. I could run a 100km trail run. RD Andy Hewatt made the awards. A bronze belt buckle for me!
I’d like to thank my wife Suzie for volunteering the whole day. She laid out my gear, welcomed me to each check point and sometimes appearing in between. I felt guilty that she had probably been waiting hours and then spent a brief moment together before continuing on. She then had to pack everything up, navigate to the next spot, set up and wait. It was my first 100kms and it was her first crew experience. Thank you, without you and your love and support, I could not have made it through.
I’d also like to thank my family. You don’t just turn up to an event like this and run it, there is a significant investment of time and that means time on the trails and away from the family. Thanks to James, Sarah and Grace for your love and support.
Thanks to Andy Hewatt, his wife, team and all the volunteers. This was such a special event for me. I am so glad I chose it as my first 100kms. I wanted an iconic run and I got it. The starting line being an anchor. Understated, yet significant. The run, oh what views, so beautiful. To be so lucky and see so many of these during the day simply leaves me without words. Seeing Andy and Brett at so many of the checkpoints was also great. The awards ceremony was a fantastic wrap up. It looks like 70 people started and 70 people finished.
Special thanks to Ally and Jamie Moxham for patching me up and to George for distracting me from my dark thoughts and getting me moving without my debate or question.
Also big thanks to my coach, Mark Green, The Body Mechanic Locker Room , my super coach who planned out my training program, no matter how brutal at times. I stuck to it and it got me through. And also to the magic hands of Peter Sweeney (Physio) and Mick Culpitt (Sports Massage) both also of the Body Mechanic who helped tune me up for my run.
© Copyright Shane Smedley 2018. All rights reserved.