As I stared at blue arch illuminated by my headlamp that marked the start line of the 2013 Surf Coast Century, there was just one thought going through my head, “Where is everyone? ”. Despite there being only 10 minutes until the start of the race I could only see 5 other people on Anglesea Main Beach. Two of them were my parents, who were to be my loyal support crew for day, and the other three were Race Officials putting the finishing touches on the starting area. Suddenly an army of glowing lights came marching around the corner, ready to do battle with 100km of sand and single track. My faith my ability to tell the time had been restored and I was relieved that I had not woken up at 3.30am for nothing! As the gallant runners took their place behind the starting chute, I shared a few words with Brendan Davies, who was still recovering from a hard 50km the week before. Personally I couldn’t have felt more prepared, but knew that the flat nature and even surface of the course would not play to my strengths. My race plan was simple: try to hang on to the fast guys for as long as possible and see what happens! Although this tactic was going to be risky, I wouldn’t have been on the start line of a 100km run if I wanted to stay in my comfort zone!
Following my aforementioned plan, I tucked in behind Brendan as the starting gun went off. The course commenced with a 4km loop that involved running along the beach before climbing up the cliffs and heading back to start line. It was along this first 2km of beach running that I learnt a valuable lesson that would be repeated numerous times during the first 21km; it’s very difficult to tell how deep streams of water are by the light of a headlamp! Although these unexpected knee deep puddles didn’t cause me any falls, they did dash any hopes I had of keeping my feet dry. Thankfully, a combination of preemptive Bodyglide and Injinji Run 2.0 Lightweight Crew socks protected my feet nicely from blisters. I also had my Compressport R2 calf sleeves pulled over the top of my socks to ensure no sand got in them (and look after my calves of course!). As we came back through the starting chute I almost missed my Dad in the dim light of dawn but managed to throw my headlamp at him just in time (I hope it was him!).
A lead pack consisting of Brendan, Andy Lee, James Roberts, defending champion Rowan Walker and myself ran along the hard packed sand underneath the majestic Angelsea cliffs. The sand was much firmer than anything I had run on before along the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast beaches. I was both grateful for and daunted by the prospect of having world class road runners like Brendan and Rowan setting the pace. I knew I was going too fast but a combination of competitiveness and freshness drove me to stick to my race plan. When my nutrition alarm went off, I downed my first of many Hammer gels. The commencement of that well rehearsed nutrition routine seemed to really help put me into my “ultramarathon” mind set. For me, time passes at a different rate while running an ultra. Those short but regular time intervals between gels are all that I focus on and it seems somewhat surprising when I eventually realise that those short timeframes have added up to become hours of running. Coming into the first checkpoint, I was the only one in the front group who stopped to refill a water bottle.
The sections of rock hoping that were scattered throughout the first 21km reminded me of the many hours spent as a child seeing how fast I could move along the rocks at Burleigh Heads. While my heart wanted to approach these sections with similar childish recklessness, my head could see the moss that covered many of the rocks. Deciding it was better to exercise caution, I let Brendan and Andy speed off ahead.
By the time I entered the second checkpoint (but the first checkpoint which allowed crew access) at the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club at the 21km mark, Brendan and Andy already had a couple of hundred meter lead on Rowan and I, while James was not far behind us. I felt like an F1 during a pit stop as I chugged down a combination of Red Bull and Endurolytes Fizz, while my parents replaced my water bottles and clipped my Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential stocked with gels around my waist. By the time I was finished drinking, they were finished reloading me and I was out of the checkpoint in well under a minute.
Despite a fast transition, Rowan’s had been even faster and he was already over 100m in front of me and flying. Part of me wanted try to catch up, but a wiser part told me to let him go and simply “run my own race” (sorry for the cliché!). I knew I could not sustain the pace I had been running at along the beach and decided just to enjoy myself while running along the cliff tops at a comfortable pace. The views out to ocean were spectacular, so that “enjoy myself” part came easily!
Along the gravel path that lined the cliff tops I had been able to occasionally see glimpses of Rowan, Brendan and Andy up ahead. However, as the course turned into single track through the bush I lost all sight of those up ahead. For some reason I always feel as though I am running faster when on single track and the smooth footing underneath only enhanced this feeling. I love such moments when I feel like a toy car being pushed around a track, revelling in every hairpin turn and slight bumb along the way. Apart from the brief stops to scrub my shoes (to prevent the spread of Dieback) and to pick up my filled water bottles from the third checkpoint’s table, this sensation was otherwise not disrupted.
Dispersed amongst the single track were sections of dirt road and it was on such a section that I glimpsed the blue shirt of a team runner up ahead (there were teams of 2-4 people simultaneously running the course in a relay). Taking this as a sign I must be catching up with people, I slightly quickened my pace. Thus I was greatly surprised when not long afterwards I heard the voice of competitor behind me. “Has James caught me?” I wondered. It turned out the voice belonged to another team runner and we briefly chatted as I tried to keep up with him.
I was incredibly surprised when up ahead I saw not the blue shirt of the team runner I had seen earlier, but instead Brendan and Andy. While Andy’s voice was still quite cheerful, Brendan was clearly hurting but trying to remain positive. Apparently Rowan had flown past them before the third checkpoint. I was still feeling great and they say that a tiger is most dangerous when wounded, so I knew there was a good chance of Brendan bouncing back (and people don’t come more gutsy than Andy!). Hence I kept on the team runner’s shoulder, who help push me along towards the halfway checkpoint.
After another rapid restocking at the forth checkpoint, the course wound under a bridge. Now there would have been only half a meter of clearance underneath the bridge and I didn’t feel like scraping my knees by crawling on them. Instead I performed an awkward sideways crab shuffle on my hands and feet and was simply grateful for my short genes.
I think it was a combination of the awkward shuffle after 50km of running, combined with the fact that terrain immediately afterward took place on a dirt road rather than flowing single track that caused me start to feel the lowest I had felt all day. Having said that, I was still feeling relatively good but didn’t feel like pushing the pace up the rolling hills despite knowing this was a good opportunity to try to catch Rowan. There was still a long way to go and I figured pushing while I wasn’t feeling great would probably do more harm than good. So I continued at what felt like a comfortable pace when suddenly I could see the dirt road head down a gradual hill then up another. Near the top of the next hill was a black dot I could only assume was Rowan. This was just the kick I needed to snap me out of my slight slump and I began to chase with more purpose.
Much to my delight, the course turned back into single track at the top of the next hill. I just let myself go and allowed my Hokas to fly over the winding gradual descent. I knew I had to be gaining on Rowan now and for the first time the possibility of winning entered my head. As I rolled along the small undulations the lead into the fifth checkpoint, I kept telling myself I would see Rowan any minute now. Of course, I was kidding myself and didn’t see Rowan before reached the next checkpoint, where the kind aid station volunteers refilled one of my water bottles for me.
When the Painkalac Reservoir (it seemed kind of ironic the word ‘pain’ was in the name) came into sight, so too did Rowan. He was walking up the slight hill and I could tell he was in pain. When I caught up and asked him how he was, he was still being positive, but was walking up the slightest incline. I was devastated for him to hear after the race that he had to pull out due to a hamstring problem, but I’m sure it was the right decision. However, at the time there was still a race on and I continued running up the hill, knowing that I would be building up a lead.
I was shocked. I had come to this race with no expectations; this was a flat course and I was a mountain runner. As the very gradual descent into checkpoint 7 began, I assessed the situation and decided that if I just kept up a comfortable and enjoyable pace then I would more than likely win. Rather than risk blowing up and being passed, I reasoned it would be smarter to save a little for a final surge if required.
There was a look of pride and surprise on my parents face when I ran into checkpoint 6 in the lead. One final time, they went through the restocking routine while I gulped down my drink. Spurred on by a combination of Red Bull and cheers I left the checkpoint feeling better than ever and ready to tackle the final leg.
After winding through the timber forest, the ocean suddenly sprawled out before me. From the top of Ocean Views Ridge I gazed out across the coastline to the Aireys Inlet Lighthouse knowing that was where I was headed. This was the spot I had heard stories about and the view did not disappoint! The endorphin high that 80km of running brings causes the beauty of such locations to transcend their normal charm and enter into a realm which cannot otherwise be experienced. It was lucky that the descent towards the inlet wasn’t technical because my eyes were not focused on the trail!
After passing under another bridge (this time with a more reasonable clearance!), I soon was at the final checkpoint where my mother passed on my coach (and friend) Andy Dubois’ words of encouragement. As I then ran around the lighthouse, my Dad popped out the from the other side with a camera and shouted yet more encouraging words. As I made my way along the top of the cliffs, there was just one small thing nagging in the back of my mind. “There’s still 5km of soft sand coming up.”
Sure enough, the soft sand came. The next few kilometres were more a mental battle than a physical one. Up ahead I could see the headland towards which I was headed, but I felt like I was running on the spot! For some reason whenever I try to run in dreams it feels as though I am running on ice and unable to progress forward. The kilometres along that last stretch of beach seemed spookily reminiscent of such dreams. At the bottom of a glorious set of stairs were a large red arrow and the smiling race director. I have never enjoyed going up a flight of stairs so much!
The final couple of kilometres headed back along dirt roads and paths before dropping onto the beach right next to where we started. The elation I was feeling meant I didn’t even care there was some more soft sand before I reach the grass that lead into the finishing chute. After a few celebratory high fives I crossed the blue arch of the finishing line 8.28.14 and was embraced by my parents waiting on the other side. James Roberts and Brendan Davies finished second and third respectively, while Whitney Dagg, Lucy Bartholomew and Sonia Condron made up the female podium.
Looking back on the race I couldn’t be happier with how the day unfolded for me; I felt strong pretty much all day and had no stomach or other nutritional problems. Thank you so much to everyone who made the day as wonderful as it was; from the race officials (who kept the event running smoothly and did an excellent job of marking the course!), to the volunteers (who can never be thanked enough), to the spectators (who always seem to provide that motivational boost right when you need it), to the other runners (who are automatically awesome people in my books!) to everyone else I missed! I am incredible grateful for all the support I receive from my friends, family, sponsors, coach and Kokoda Spirit Racing running buddies! It is the wonderful nature of the people involved and beauty of the landscapes that make trail running such an enjoyable past time. The Surf Coast Century was certainly an exemplar of both of these things!