As unaccustomed as I am to public speaking… – Kerry Suter
Some flight delays have given me this opportunity to pen a bit of a weekend wrap up following a massive few days for the Australasian SQUADRUN team.
Ali and I were back on the west island for a brief trip of the southern coast and the Great Ocean Walk 100.
A lot can be said about this event and it probably should be shouted from roof tops but with GOW’s crowning glory being it’s earthy low-key feel perhaps it best be kept a secret lest word get out… (sshh don’t tell anyone!)
As full time coaches Ali and I don’t often get much opportunity to put our own athletic ambition above that of our athletes and with us on most major finish lines welcoming our runners home it’s rare we get to race. Something like 15mths had passed since my last race. This, a reflection on the massive life changes of my last year and an injury-plagued period of frustration and pain. Little training had been banked in recent months and I’d refer to my running as ‘intermittent’ and ‘casual’ at best. Literally one week passed muster mid-September with a meagre 150-odd easy kms being put in over 7 days in a month that would not total much more than 200. Further frustration two weeks out with some foolish Strava shenanigans aggravating the age old Achilles injury. I couldn’t have imagined a worse build up to an ultra though I oft remark to faltering athletes that “you’re the sum of all your training, and everything you’ve learned”. It would be this vague confidence that I’d take to Australia with the hope of holding it together for 100km of rolling Aussie coastline.
My three race goals were simple – don’t get bit by a snake, don’t get bit by a spider, don’t get bit by a shark.
I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person that can approach something and be totally happy with the success of simply completing it but for reasons I don’t fully understand I can’t resist the urge to set impossible standards for myself and kill myself trying to achieve them. I wish i could jog my way through an event and take photos and laugh and finish comfortably somewhere in the ranks of those beautiful humans who see the world in a way I truly envy. I realise these events primarily exist for them and not the one nerd out the front that takes his or her sh1t too serious.
Knowing this fire would burn and I’d be powerless to deny it fuel I needed a race plan that would make most of what little fitness I brought to Apollo Bay. A simple plan. One even I could follow. And here it is,
“You’re older slower and heavier than just about as long as memory serves. You’d be an idiot to lead the race and try and grind everyone into the ground because it simply won’t work. Fatty.”
Without fanfare the race starts in a reserve and smartly I avoided all that ego crap that would have come from me mincing around on the front row. I’m at the back, almost dead last with a small mob of awesome squaddies I’ll speak of later. Immediately the line thins out and I’m settled on what feels like 6min kms.
The first few kms pass and fractures appear in the train as I can see up ahead about half of the field cruising away comfortably as I float around making light conversation to runners around me.
“5:40” is the response I get when I ask someone how we’re tracking. I’d chosen not to use a GPS today, rather aiming to jog it in on feel. “6s would win this” I’d told myself knowing that 10hrs would be a competitive enough time and sufficient a setup should I want a battle in the last 20km.
And so it rolled on. 5:40-6s into the first Blanket Bay checkpoint (22km). I was slowly moving through the field and my consistent pace was not suffering the easy runnable terrain as others appeared to slow around me.
At some stage I encountered GOW legend ‘Beardy’ returning to the track after one of those unscheduled ‘ultra runner pitstops’. It was great to have the company of someone who knew the trails so well but it seemed my presence had him increase the pace to a point I didn’t really want to be at but I settled there, stupidly. Just below threshold. I asked how many runners were ahead expecting the answer to be half dozen or so but I was surprised to hear only 1 person in the ultra was between us and the 12 Apostles finish. At some point Beardy dropped off as I carried on now at an established intensity I was saving for the later stages of the race. Shit. I knew I needed to settle back but I didn’t.
Somewhere around the 34th km I started catching glimpses of a runner on the trail ahead. “That’s exactly where I want him to be” I thought, content to let it play out exactly as it was until the final 10km. But no, like a complete mug I closed at what was probably 30s/km faster than I should have.
By 40kms I found myself chatting to another GOW legend and perennial bridesmaid ‘Damo’ (Damian Smith). Second at GNW100mi only four weeks prior he had everything from fitness and experience to good looks and charm. I’ve met few nicer people on the trail and I will always appreciate the short distance we shared on the way to Aire River checkpoint (42km). My incredible ‘squad-crew’ Maegan greeted me amongst a small gathering of volunteers and I was recharged and departing in moments while Damian went rummaging among drop bags. A fleeting glance at a Koala and her baby (awww) as I left the CP, alone now leading the race. About 40kms too early…
I waited a moment on the trail and called out to Damo hoping he’d join me but when I got no response I started that lonely solo battle of race leader vs distance. I’ve been here before and I hate it.
Johanna beach and the 55th km greeted me just as I ran out of talent. The lack of ‘long run’ conditioning was starting to surface in the shape of muscle fatigue and I was reminded that you can’t bluff 100km. I was hot and going through almost 800ml/hr plus the usual cocktail of gels (SIS, Isostar, Winners), electrolytes (Nuun) and Tailwind with my: “a little bit of all the right things and none of the wrong things” approach. If you’re burning brightly it’s a matter of processing as much as you can comfortably absorb in the form of water, glucose and electrolytes (and that’s pretty much it). I felt like the engine room was constantly at almost full – right where I wanted it. If I was thirsty, Id drink. If I could tolerate another gel, I’d choke another one down.
The climb out of Johanna Beach is no joke and at what we call ‘Dick Gradient’. Long open stretches had me looking back for ‘Daimo’ and I’d stretch my calves after each farm gate thinking I’d see him climbing the farm track below me. I wasn’t in a great way and almost welcomed the opportunity to yield to a better runner and nicer guy. But being the total bastard he is, he never showed up, so and I suffered on.
The 15 kms that preceded Moonlight were way way harder than I had anticipated and I’d long run out of fluids and contemplated drinking deeply from beige waterways that crossed my crooked path. I was walking anything that tended uphill now and making audible old-man noises. I wiped my face and the white sandy texture indicated I had been sweating so much I now resembled some sort of disgusting frosted donut. I was thirsty enough to drink an Aussie beer and pretend to like it.
You can say I didn’t respect the course and didn’t prepare for that tough third quarter of GOW but no elevation profile really tells you much of anything other than where the major climbs are. The running surface? The pitch and transition of relentless undulation? The shitty little stone block stair things I couldn’t fit my fat paddles on to? The tiny bugs that kept flying into my mouth and nose (why you little…!!! *shakes fist*). It’s fair to say I got mugged between Johanna and Moonlight. Many times I looked at a grassy area with the thought of sitting down and feeding some leeches but the emphasis I’d put on a half dozen beautiful squaddies behind me to finish no matter what spurred me on. Slowly. Just.
Something happened during the 5kms into The Gables (80km). My legs came back and I was running again. And running well. Where I staggered out of Johanna in what felt like 12min kms, I was now back under 6s and the trail was welcoming it with gradual single track. Weeeeeee!!!
Maegan was again at my service as I greeted race director Andy Hewitt and the volunteers at The Gables. A heap of water and some coke (stimulants late in a race, never early), and I was away happily shredding trail to the finish.
About 10kms of genuine fast running followed and while I felt comfortable with my lead as I played out the scenario of being caught but reassured
myself noone could possibly be running the trail as fast as I was. I felt like I was just trashing it for fun. Running at a pace that felt good despite being on supremely tired legs.
A sign read 7km to the info centre and heli tours that would serve as the race finish. I had hoped it would read 5km but it didn’t. “Screw you sign, no one likes you”
All of a sudden I tanked. It’s a funny thing ultra running, the peaks and troughs that seem to come and go almost uncontrollably and without warning. I’d hope I’d ride it out and it would pass but I didn’t and it wouldn’t.
After what felt like an age I crested a rise and in the distance I could see a haze of car roofs and thought “no way, thats too far, no one can run that far, it can’t be” but a passing helicopter headed directly towards it as if to say “oh yes it is!”
It was probably my lack of ‘anything-that-makes-a-good-ultra-runner’ rather than the sand and weird post & chain steps that made this last section take what felt like a lifetime. Almost completely spent I staggered through Gibson Steps carpark and looked back to see ‘Daimo’ rolling off the final hill some few hundred metres behind me. With an unknown distance between me and the finish line and not much separating me and some guy on a tear, it was time to run hard. – Ergh.
And so it finished with me eeking out a small margin over a guy that probably deserved it more and would certainly have won it had he not run 100mi a month ago. Legendary.
10:21 certainly nothing that set the trail on fire but probably all i could’ve asked of myself. Everything, just enough and nothing more is how I’d describe the run. An ordinary time but a result that I’d appreciate even if it had resulted in an off-podium experience.
All of the cliches are true – Ali Pottinger
Middle of last week my mum sent me a motivational quote which had a swimmer pushing through concrete saying ‘you can keep going long after you think you can’t’
You see them all the time on the internet ‘you’re stronger than you think you are’ ‘your body is capable of amazing things if your mind makes it’. Thinking about it I guess a lot of people don’t really ever get to experience it unless they have to, I’m sure childbirth is one example of where these cliches ring true. Anyway I knew that the one mum sent me was true and that I needed to remember it on my ‘big day out’, my ‘get it done’ day.
As race day loomed both myself and Kerry were questioning our abilities. We had started the kilometre counter in our car and said ‘start running now’ and drove, and drove and drove. We drove from the city we live in through countryside and villages and would say ‘we are still running’ and look at each other with a sense of doom ‘what the hell have we got ourselves in for?’ ‘that’s a bloody long way’. So many times when working with the runners we coach I’ve said ‘the only person who doubts you can do it is yourself’. I knew Kerry could run it with his eyes closed, he’s a Blimmin amazing runner but could I??
Friday, driving down to Apollo Bay Kerry again shared his doubts with me and after a bit of a pep talk I asked him ‘why do you run ultras?’ we debated it a bit and I thought you know what? I’ll ask the group. So I put the question out there to Facebook land and was soon given an amazing plethora of responses.
The responses ranged from ‘To me, running an ultra is the way to step outside your known boundaries and challenge yourself, both physically and mentally. It is standing on the start line, knowing that you are not guaranteed a finish, but that’s why we train so hard and why we accept the
challenge. As a famous man once said ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, then you always get what you’ve always got‘. Brett Sammut
to ‘For me it’s about the challenge, adventure, camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment. I’m at my happiest when I’m running ultras. Plus it will be rude not to run it when someone has taken the time to organise the race.‘ Ganesh Vengdasalam
to ‘I tell my wife its survival practice so if we ever need it I can spend the day chasing down dinner. Day 714 of Trail Running: we still go the supermarket‘ Adrian Cobb
The responses reassured me and made me laugh.
Not long after said conversation we arrived in Apollo Bay. Apollo bay had a lovely relaxed, authentic small town seaside feel. We saw the giant white anchor where our race would be starting and headed to gear check and briefing. The warm and friendly volunteers soon calmed any pre-race jitters and we were reunited with friends whom we hadn’t seen since UTA. The briefing was a laid back affair and we headed to the pub for a quick meal. One last check that my pack was ok, all fuel and water bottles sorted and we hit the hay.
No alarm needed there.
Coffee and that all important pre-race poop,
glide applied EVERYWHERE, sunscreen on, clothes on, pack on and I was ready to go. The ‘Big Day Out’ was ready to begin.
We told team GOW that we were there and at 6:30 underneath a buzzing drone Andy said ‘Go’ and we set off.
We ran along a footpath beside the sea, I watched the waves and felt them soothe the nerves and I settled into an easy rhythm. The footpath turned into trail and we skirted the beach and eventually crossed down onto the sand and started climbing. The sun was rising and we were treated to a rosy hued sky. The trail climbed and we ran through some stunning bush. I inhaled, savouring the smell of eucalypts, and thought about how much I enjoyed being back in Aussie Bush. Some of the trail reminded me of Mt Irvine and I half expected to see my running buddy Amanda popping up ahead of me on the trail. I wished she was there to enjoy the experience with.
I soon saw a girl ahead of me who was running very similarly to me, running the flats and walking the inclines. I caught up with her and got chatting. Ellen knew some friends of mine and we had a good old chat. Soon we arrived at the first checkpoint and Andy kindly informed me that Kerry was 3rd place going into CP1 and was in around 2 hours. I was pleased to hear that he’d been running ‘to plan’ as we’d discussed. I had a piece of orange and we set off again. The conversation continued and we soon rolled into another beautiful beach, crossed a stream and climbed up a staircase. More pretty eucalypts’ and a glimpse of the Cape Otway lighthouse in the distance. I was introduced to Ellen’s family who were waiting there to cheer her on. Roughly 30km done. From here I think there were some fairly sandy trails, funny in Australia you still get sand at the top of cliffs! The day warmed up and the sweat trickled. I fought waves of nausea, for some reason I still can’t get my fueling right. Poor Ellen listened to a chorus of my burps, its a glamorous sport this ultra running. It is pretty cool though that you can be at your worst and still end up becoming friends with someone!
Soon we crested a (Sandy) hill and down in the distance was the glittering Aire River. Oh the Kiwi in me wished that this was the end so that I could do some post race bombs off the bridge into that sweet cool water but alas this was ‘only’ the marathon distance CP. I saw my brother Gareth and his girlfriend Ella’s friendly faces and was super happy to see them, they informed me that Kerry had been in first place through there in around 4 hours, nice. I didn’t end up wanting the spare shoes or socks, I refilled with water and listened to the ‘get it done’ voice in my head. I could feel that I was nearly there. Roughly 14km to go, ‘that’s a standard run’ I thought of a local run that I do and got going, Ellen joined me and we cruised along. I was feeling happy and comfortable. Another gel and… More nausea, I said to Ellen, ‘go ahead’ I didn’t want to hold her up. Around this time I started climbing towards Johanna beach.
There were the big spiky grasses that I love and some more gorgeous bush. I’ll be honest though, that part of the trail I thought was a bit of a [email protected] It wound around and I was so hoping for a glimpse of that long, sandy Johanna beach but each turn lead to more bush. Oh and to add insult to injury there were seats and benches, at one point I laughed and said out loud ‘what sicko puts them there?!’ It took a lot of willpower not to have a sit or lie down on them. It brought back memories from Ultra Trail Australia this year where I ‘caught’ a bunch of people hanging by the bench halfway up furber steps at the 99.5km point of the race. They were all crowded around this bench looking like naughty kids hanging out smoking behind the bike sheds. I approached them with a ‘what are you doing?! You’re nearly there’ the looks on their faces were priceless and they soon started moving.
At some point I caught up with Ellen and was SO happy to have her company again. She’d run GOW before and I hesitantly asked her ‘when you get to Johanna is the campground at the start of the beach or the other end?’ ‘the other end’ she replied. Oh darn. We rolled down the hill into Johanna and hit the soft sand. The beach stretched as far as the eye could see. I channeled my inner Terminator and thoughts drifted to Kerry and wanting to see him finish and I knew that I’d better move my butt. I crossed the stream which met with the sea, a big wave was rolling in but I went anyway and welcomed the cool water which was so strong and high it wet the bottom of my shorts. Once on the other side of the stream I did an oopsy laugh as I noticed lots of blue bottles washed up on the shore. It looked like they were pretty old but that could’ve been a crappy end to my race. With cool legs and a couple of kms of solid sand trudging I got to Johanna campground with a huge grin on my face and my relay buddy Rachel headed off.
55km done on some of the most beautiful coastal trail I’ve been on. I sat and talked to Brett who was in a bit of a hole and encouraged him to head off, had a chat with Gareth and Ella and then jumped in the car and drove to the finish. After a nervous wait Kerry crossed the line in first place in a time of 10 hours and 21 minutes and I was so proud of him. We chatted and waited for one of our youngest Squaddies Meghann who flew across the line in 4th (female) place in a time of 12 hours 44 minutes. She’s a little ripper.
I then headed off with Maegan to The Gables to meet Sammo at the 80km mark. Ellen came in there looking amazing, she said she’d got a second wind and was running well. She said Sammo was planning on pulling so I prepped myself for a ‘get him to the finish’ battle. Not long after he came running in to massive whoops and ‘you’re on the home stretch’ comments. I was relieved to see a look of determination on his face and I knew that he was going to get this done. A quick refuel and he was out. I was BUZZING to know that he was going to do it. That elusive hundred was happening. We hit the road back to Apollo Bay and I cuddled Anne and Fridja and Rachel who’d all come in in my absence. Yes!!!!
The wind picked up and the night got cool. 15 minutes before cut off, around 1am, Sammo ran in to hugs and cheers. We all headed home tired and content.
Reflecting now I’m thinking ‘why do we run ultras?’ and I think I’ve got it.
It really is about finding out what you’re really capable of. It’s about pushing through the inevitable troughs and seeing how strong you really are.
It’s about beauty.
The people that you meet on the trails are some of the most real, beautifully honest, strong and gritty people you’ll meet.
And of course the scenery. Thats a massive drawcard, I reckon there’s no place like the bush. It’s good for the soul. A view that’s been earned through a foot journey is more beautiful than one that you can drive up to.
And finally its about achievement, chipping away at your training, steadily improving your fitness and doing something that you thought was impossible. And so it is, all of the cliches are true because it’s there, Impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible‘.
To all out awesome SQUADDIES that attended and raced this event – THANK YOU! You are dear friends and we are so proud of you all. 100% completion in a race with pretty tough cut-offs. YEWWW!
Maegan for travelling from Melbourne to crew me. Thank you SO MUCH, having your cool head at the checkpoints saved me more than just a little time. I am so appreciative of your support. A large part of my result is owed to your help.
Lachlan (aka Spuds) your body warmth was a welcome fortification against the chilly Apostles wind and your manly aroma will linger in my memory longer than it will the clothes I have had to wash twice.
Anne (aka Cankles), I was worried about you most of all. Debut 100 after a patchy summer of injuries and mixed winter of training. I knew you had the head for it I was just worried you’d have one of those ‘you-would-never-believe-it-but’ injuries. Thank you for bringing it home. Well done.
Fridja (Freej-yah) BOOM! And you were uncertain you’d finish because the East Coast was making you soft. You reached out to Ali and I uncertain about even coming along. But you came, you saw and you smashed it. I love seeing your smile and Im glad I saw a heap of it over the weekend. Your enthusiasm is a poison to which there is no anti-venom. Never stop spreading joy.
Rachel and my beautiful partner Ali who were always gonna boss that relay. I am proud of you Ali, that’s the greatest distance you’ve ever run and the longest duration you’ve run for. You inspire me to be a better me. Rachel – what a boss.
Meghann, it’s great to see someone else hobbling after a race. You are so amazingly talented and I dont say that lightly. You run with the courage and intellect of someone twice your age. I have high hopes for your future and will relentlessly support you on your path to achieving them. Remember to be patient. You have all the ingredients of greatness but must choose patience and find it within yourself. We want to see you doing this in ten years time.
Did I forget anyone?
Oh yes…. Sammo…. What can I say mate. You bloody made me cry you dick. You kept us up all night with worry but we never doubted your resolve. Instead of bringing me hard work and headaches as an athlete you’ve brought me nothing less than joy and salty salty tears. Proudest coach moments are when you see people achieve that thing they themselves thought impossible. You did everything right and trained with passion and commitment throughout winter. When Ali departed to find you at Gables I said “get that boy to the finish line no matter what” and I contemplated trying to complete the last 20km with you even though I could barely stand. You are an inspiration to me and many others who dare to dream. Thank you.