The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering so wildly, and I was beginning to feel giddy.
Yet it seemed as though everyone seated around me on the bus was buzzing with talk of their “PB”, or “personal best” timing in runners lingo. By the sound of it, they were all faster than me. Way faster.
In the five years since I started road-running, I have completed quite a few half-marathons back in Kuala Lumpur. But the Great Ocean Road Marathon (GOR) in Australia was a different beast altogether. With its undulating (read: hilly) route, I wasn’t prepared for it to be so competitive.
After all, the GOR Marathon isn’t part of the six renowned World Marathon Majors. It doesn’t attract many elite runners simply because the challenging route isn’t conducive for speed.
So I’d assumed, quite complacently, that this would be somewhat more of a leisure run – I mean, I was determined to try my best but I was most definitely going to slow down along the way to marvel at nature. Heck, I even planned for short stops to take a photo or two (a definite faux pas in professional runs, I’d think).
Still, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to handle the hills and end up the only one walking.
Scenic seaside towns
In its entirety, The Great Ocean Road (GOR) stretches 243km along Australia’s southern coast, from Torquay (home to surf brand Rip Curl, about an hour from Melbourne) eastwards to Warrnambool. The marathon covers only a small portion of the route and misses the main attraction of the GOR – the 12 Apostles, which is located at almost the tail end of the route.
The full marathon kicks off at Lorne, a quaint seaside town (about 50km from Torquay) with a population of just over 1,200 people (though this figure swells up to 13,000 come New Year’s Eve during the Falls Music and Arts Festival).
Kennett River, the start of the half-marathon, is another small seaside town that’s famous for wild koala bears which you can literally see on the trees. Along the way, the route passes other little picturesque towns where locals are known to come out to cheer runners on from the roadside. Sometimes they even offer treats.
We got to Kennett River on the bus just before sunrise; it was freezing and the winds were blistering. There was still an hour to the start of the race, so I made my way to the beach with many other runners to catch the sunrise. As I started talking to the others, I realised, to my relief, that it was a motley group that I’d be running with – there were even a few Malaysians. I began to feel more at ease.
Dr Hielmi Syaiful Nizam Shamsuddin was one of them. He had seen a video on the “must go” marathons around the world and since the Great Ocean Road Marathon was on the top of the list, he and his friends decided to sign up.
Before long, the dark pre-dawn sky began to slowly flush with colour and slowly, the brilliant orange sun showed itself from beneath the horizon, radiating gorgeous streaks of vermilion across the sky. It was magical and spectacular – suddenly, I felt a burst of confidence.
“Let’s do this,” I told myself as I trudged up the hill (the first of many) to the starting area.
The race started just after eight and once my feet got moving, I was a lot more comfortable. The cool weather (it was a pleasant 16˚C) made running under the sun ideal. I was pumped.
The scenery was breathtaking and it remained that way throughout the run. The course was tough, there was no sugar-coating that fact: it was winding and hilly for most of the route, and, at 23km, it was a good two kilometers longer than a typical half-marathon.
At times it took some serious mental strength to keep going, but it helped that I was constantly surrounded by stunning, postcard-worthy views. The Great Ocean Road is truly all it’s hyped up to be. Having driven through it once before some 15 years ago, I knew what to expect.
But going through it (well, even just this small portion of it) on foot was a totally different experience. Painful, but wondrous. Also, the cool fall air and the sea breeze were invigorating – that took some effort out of the run.
The road Down Under
Apart from its natural beauty, the GOR has a history that makes it all the more significant for Australians. It was built between 1919 and 1932 by returning servicemen as a memorial to honour their comrades who had died in the First World War. Till now, the road is the world’s largest war memorial – isn’t that something?
I was glad that I had done some reading on the place before my trip because imagining the huge engineering feat of building the road actually helped take my mind off some of the never-ending hill climbs.
With no machinery, some 3,000 servicemen worked on the road using just pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows and horse-drawn carts. With its rugged coastline and temperamental weather (rain – no, actually storms – are not uncommon along the coast which accounts for a GOR stretch now known as “the Shipwreck Coast”), constructing the road was treacherous and progress was slow in the beginning – a mere 3km in a month!
But when it was completed, the road breathed life into the coastal towns which had been largely cut off. Eventually it became what it is today: one of Australia’s main tourist attractions.
Back to the run. I’ve never been good at running hills. Often, by the 16km mark of a half-marathon, I’d feel exhausted and walk the very steep hills. But not this time.
Despite what seemed like an unending sequence of hills, I managed to run the entire course, stopping only at the water stations and to take a few photos of the amazing scenes – I tried to resist, but I didn’t want to regret not capturing parts of the route to show my running mates back home.
The water stations were strategically placed along the route although there could have been a few more porta-potties at each station – because there were only two per stop, I had to queue for quite a while at two points and this was a little frustrating as I was starting to cool down when there was still a distance to go. This was, however, the only grouse I had.
There wasn’t one stretch on the 23km route that wasn’t Instagram-worthy. The coast, the hills, the bits of farmland we ran past – and the double rainbow in the sky through the rain.
Yes, it rained.
Somewhere after the 16km mark, just when my legs were starting to tire, I felt huge droplets of water on my head and arms. Before I could look up to confirm my fears, raindrops were pelting me non-stop.
Huge droplets were coming down hard and I had to avert my face and look down at the road instead of at the coast. The rain persisted for the last seven kilometres to the end – this was definitely the most challenging stretch of the race. I won’t lie, that last bit was no fun at all. By then the coast had lost its appeal and all I wanted was to reach the finish line as quickly as I could.
Hielmi, who took part in the full marathon, said, “I would definitely recommend this run! The views were spectacular and I was smiling most of the time. The route was tough and it isn’t something that you can do without preparation but it was worth it.”
As for me, I reached the 23km finishing mark after two hours and 52 minutes and claimed my medal.
I’d done it! And save for the rain, I’d actually enjoyed it.