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The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Great Ocean Road International Marathon in Australia The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Great Ocean Road International Marathon in Australia
by Murray Hunter
2014-06-03 09:24:15
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On a slightly overcast May Sunday morning, more than 3,000 people lined up to run the Great Ocean Road Marathon and Half Marathon, at Lorne and Kennet River respectively, along some of the most beautiful and scenic parts of the Southern coastline of Victoria, Australia. The Great Ocean Road Marathon offers one of the most scenic routes of any marathon in the world.

It has taken the writer almost two weeks since being one of those people who took up the challenge to work up the courage to write about this race. The personal impact it had upon myself and all the other participants who decided to take this extreme challenge certainly changes one's attitude to running.

The Great Ocean Road Marathon is no ordinary marathon. For a start, it's 45 KMs rather than the traditional 42.125 KMs, where the course runs along some of the most challenging stretches of hills between Lorne and Apollo Bay. That makes it one of the most challenging marathons in the world (see the elevation map)

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The Great Ocean Road Marathon represents the transference point from marathon to ultra running. Although not in the extreme category of marathons like the Great Wall Marathon in China and Pikes creek marathon in the United States, the Great Ocean Road Marathon offers an ultra experience for those who want to run something more than just a standard marathon.

During the summer months the towns along the Great Ocean Road host thousands of tourists who flock to the region for sun and fun. The Great Ocean Road is host to events like the Otway Cycling Classic in March, the world famous Bells Beach Surf Classic during Easter , and the Lorne Pier to Pub Swim each January.

The Great Ocean Road International Marathon was conceived as a way to boost tourism along the great Ocean Road in Victoria during the 'off season', and has strong support by the local communities.  Since its conceptualization in 2005, the Great Ocean Road Marathon has turned into a mammoth running carnival attracting more than 6,000 runners this year to participate in one or more of the six events on offer, offering more than AUD 60000 in prize monies.

The two day carnival begins on a Saturday a 6.5KM fun run. Then a 1.5 KM kiddy run commences to promote running and fitness with children. In the afternoon a 14KM wheelchair challenge attracts some of the best wheel chair athletes in the country. The final event of Saturday is the 14KM Paradise run, which is now a super competitive race, with athletes of the caliber of Festus Talam competing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Rp5bmHXnWI

The weekend even boasts a traditional carbo loading pasta night on Saturday where diners listened to motivation talks by world class marathoners like the event's patron Steve Monegetti.

Sunday morning is marathon (and half marathon) day, where both races start simultaneously from different locations to both finish at Apollo Bay. More than 1200 people lined up for the 45 KM event, including small contingents from Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand,  and over 2000 for the 23 KM half marathon. Mild conditions are assured each year which are perfectly suited for marathon running with the temperature between 12-18° C.

This is the only time of the year that the Great Ocean Road is completely closed to motor vehicles, which is advantageous for runners. The only drawback is that it is difficult, if not impossible for friends and family to follow the progress of the race. Thus much of the run in this respect is lonely, except for the crowds that gather in each town along the route.

This is however compensated by the comradely that develops between runners during the race. This race bonds strangers together who are sharing this challenge, with many friendships being created along the way.

The 45 KM run begins outside the Lorne Hotel at 8.00am in a jovial mood. The first kilometer is concerned with leaving the town, while the next four kilometers provide some of the most breathtaking views of the run, as the road winds around the coast. At this point participants are close together and the adrenaline is running high, which makes for a fast pace.

This part of the race is extremely fast, where people are unaware of the demands the sheer distance and hills will make upon them later on during the course of the race. Most participants don't actually comprehend the distance and toughness until they make the trip back to the start at Lorne from Apollo Bay by road after the race (see the video of the course).

At the 5 KM point you run onto the first aid station which is run extremely well by an army of volunteers. Water, Gatorade , energy supplements, and bananas are available, where the volunteers unlike many marathons actually make the effort to hand them to runners passing by. Portable toilets have also been set at each of the aid stations along every 5 KM point of the course.

One continues to be captivated by the atmosphere and panoramic scenery right up until the 20KM point of the race. This even makes the 80 meter ascent up Mount Defiance go mostly unnoticed. The downhill run from Wye River at the 15KM point until Kennet River where the half marathon starts at the 20KM point disguises any fatigue you have accumulated.

 Once you have passed the half marathon start, the fatigue starts to set in and those who have gone out too fast (and this is most people according to the race statistics), start to pay the piper.

The climb up Cape Patton around the 27 KM point is totally unforgiving. And when you get past that, there is another 5 KM long climb to Van Mueller Creek, which breaks the spirit of many a runner, taking away their motivation. For many, if not most here, the objective of the run turns to just finishing, regardless of time.

Although the last 15 KM of the race is primarily downhill, with some undulations, most runners are just too tired to take advantage of this. Depleted of energy, the road is just a long grind, where spirits lift as runners pass through small villages where the residents cheer runners on. Apollo Bay can be seen far in the distance across the water, indicating that to reach there is still a major challenge.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpSgU96m80o

The 42.2 KM or full marathon mark is what most runners are thinking about from the 35 KM point onwards. People mentally focus on reaching that point which is actually 3 KM short of the finish. However passing the marathon mark gives a great sense of achievement when the marshal at the timing gate tells the runners, "you have just completed 42.2 K, a marathon".

The downside of passing the full marathon mark is that you are now mentally and physically exhausted and the next 3 KM is not going to be as easy as contemplated. Every step for most is just so tough.

The only consolation now is that many people will keep telling you that you are almost there, and this keeps you going. About a kilometer out from the finish the crowd starts to gather on both sides of the road and cheer on each and every runner who look the worse for wear. In Apollo Bay it's the crowd that talk many to the finish line.

What an achievement you feel once you have completed the whole course. You are now not just a marathon runner, but you have completed one of the toughest marathons around, and run an extra 3 KM on top of that. You greatly value the medal given to you because it's not just any old marathon. You have beaten the road and done something very special in running.

For the next 10 days after running the Great Ocean Road marathon, I pledged never to return and run it. However I feel the challenge still there. I feel that I want to return and see if I can't improve over this year's run after having one run under my belt.

Such was the experience, something that the big city marathons can't give you. For a marathoner, there is something spiritual about the Great Ocean Road Marathon. Approaching the challenge with so many others and facing the distance and mountains is humbling for a runner.

You can run Penang Bridge, you can run Bangkok, you can run Boston, New York, London, and Melbourne. But your marathon set of medals will never be complete until you have your great Ocean Road Marathon medal.

The course was accurate taken from the middle of the road, although some of the signage earlier on the road was a couple of hundred meters out. If you cut corners like all runners did, then you will probably end up running only 44.50 KM, due to the winding roads.

Transport to and from the start and finish was excellent and the atmosphere at Lorne during the Saturday was excellent. The only drawback was the traffic. Due to the complete blocking of the Great Ocean Road, friends and family, as mentioned will not be able to see you along the course, and may just barely make it to the finish line in time with the backlog of traffic along the inland route to Apollo Bay. This is perhaps the cost of having no traffic for the whole course, which is a godsend for runners.

If I had to rate this marathon, it is truly worth a 5 star rating. It is a marathon with a difference, and because of that deserves to be one of the best 'runners' marathons in the world. Organization, timing, and aid station were all first class.

I would expect this race to keep increasing in popularity each year, and once it has been discovered by the Asian running community, the Great Ocean Road Marathon will become one of the 'must run' events around the world.

See you next year.

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