Great Ocean Walk 100s, Apollo Bay to Twelve Apostles, Victoria – Chris Gippel
Race Date: October 31st Results: 2019
This was my third running of GOW100s, a race that runs along the 5-day hiking trail from Apollo Bay to Port Campbell, over mostly single trail and a significant length of sand. National Parks and Wildlife limit the number of runners to 100, so company is sparse, but the runners are all qualified and keen. In 2016 I had a good go at a sub-13 hour time, which is the cut-off for a silver buckle award, and managed 12:55 hr. In 2017 I’d agreed to run with a mate, again trying for sub-13 hours, but we met with very wet ground conditions and Mick had GI issues, so I walked the second half, conscious of my impending appointment with the 180 km GSER. This year, I was keen to get back to 13 hour standard, if possible. My knees had become much more fragile since the ill-fated GSER attempt, and then life took an unexpected turn which meant extra duties. I simplified my commitments by maintaining a base training routine and imposing a temporary suspension on racing. If you’ve been competing all your life (including racing across the tarmac to be first to board a plane, among other imagined contests), that moratorium can only last so long, and by mid-2019 I was itching for a race. I have an ongoing project at Budj Bim in southwest Victoria, so got the idea of coordinating a field trip with the GOW100s. Given my various constraints, including chronic arthritis in both knees and left foot, I had to apply the short preparation approach. I’ve structured this report into Base Training, Race Preparation, and Race Execution.
To me, base training refers to the sort of training that I can consistently do, and want to do, for my lifetime. It is a routine part of daily life, not perceived as a hardship, not a source of resentment from colleagues or family members, and not a cause of chronic injury. Base training fundamentally defines who you are. For me it involves 35 – 75 km running per week, more often on the high end of that range, run in 5 – 6 sessions, ideally two interval sessions, one long run, and the others are variable depending how I feel. I mix in a moderate amount of simple body weight exercises (pushups, pullups, squats, lunges, situps, etc), not especially for running, just to maintain physique. I sometimes include or switch emphasis to other sports for periods of time. I’ve been doing something like that, or more, for as long as I can remember, with the exception of one notable extended period following major surgeries on my knees. My injuries stem from high speed impacts, not regular running. There is no way to compensate for a lack of base training. I find that I can rapidly increase base training mileage to race preparation mileage without any effects other than fatigue. The 10% rule does not always apply.
I have reached the point where race preparation is not sustainable for any longer than 5 or 6 weeks, without an unacceptable risk of overuse injury. There is no point in me following standard training plans that stretch out over 12 weeks or more. For GOW100s I was rather constrained and could only commit to 4 weeks race preparation training, and one week of taper. The previous 12 weeks I averaged 61.4 km, with the last week of that period only 32 km as I was busy getting ready to go on holidays for 3 weeks. Fortunately, we went on holidays with another family of runners, so I wasn’t regarded as a total weirdo. Race preparation included training my upper body for endurance and strength with running poles, and I wore a loaded running vest on every run. In the first week I was in the mountains, at altitude, so kicked things off by ramping up the weekly mileage to 114.3 km (1,177 m), with three hard long runs. I had company on the first one, but then the novelty wore off. Week 2 was 93.4 km (304 m) on flat terrain, and week 3 was 97.2 km (1,073 m), both in very hot weather. Week 4 I was home, and I substituted some distance for elevation, managing 80.7 km (1,936 m). Taper week I did three runs of less than 10 km, but hundreds of tricep strengthening repeats, pulling rubber resistance cords, several sets per day. Encouragingly, Garmin metrics told me I was “Peaking” in taper week.
There are many things a runner can do, other than run training, to prepare for a long, difficult trail race. In this period I thoroughly tested and decided gear and clothing, with wet and dry weather options sorted. I compress my mandatory gear into a thin dry-bag, then jam it into the smallest, most comfortable vest I have, which for me, has the option of rear or front bottle storage. Food is an individual matter that each runner has to work out for themselves. I have a genetically narrow nasal passage, which means I have to temporarily hold my breath whilst taking in food and drink, which explains my preference for bottles over soft flasks or a bladder. In the race I planned to use a Turbo (internal nose expander) to improve nose breathing capacity so I could more easily eat and drink while running. Finally, anything that will reduce total weight will make you go faster for the same effort. I’d made my gear as light as practically possible, so I reduced kilojoule intake for 2 weeks and lost 3 – 4 kg, which is more than the weight of a loaded vest. I understand that this is not for everyone, but there is nothing shocking or dangerous about this – I still ate, and my body composition was within normal range. I was pretty much ready to race 100 km, with the objectives of sub-13 hours, first old codger, and no permanent damage.
Provided base training and race preparation go well, race execution should be straightforward. In the case of GOW100s, this was essentially true, but it did require drawing on the full range of options. Two days before the race I was getting a sense from the Race Director that cancellation was a real possibility. It had been raining all week, and race day was forecast to rain all day, with gale force winds. More significantly, the swell from the Southern Ocean was forecast to rise to 5 – 6 m, making the 2.6 km length of Johanna Beach impassable, or at least risky, at high tide. There are a few other beach sections in the race that could be marginal under big seas. Fortunately, on Friday, the day before the race, Andy and Brett came up with an acceptable alternative plan which involved running from Apollo Bay to Blanket Bay checkpoint, then to Aire River checkpoint, as normal, but then instead of going on to Port Campbell, we would turn around and return to finish at Marengo, not far from Apollo Bay, a total distance of about 80 km. Andy scotched the silver medal incentive, which was understandable, although it removed one of my objectives.
There were a few predictable things I could prepare for. I knew from 2017 that the first 20 km were going to be a slog through mud. I’m not talking about fun splashy puddles. The track becomes a passage of spongy wet grass, bark and sticks, with intermittent lengths of deep, sticky, slippery, clay bog. It is inescapable, covering the full width of the track. We would need to take the wet weather mandatory gear, so the vest would be heavier. I’d already modified my preferred vest with some added shock cord that increased its capacity. Also, rain and cold were certainties. I don’t get blisters or chafing because I train in my race gear, but knowing my shoes would be wet all day, I would apply Fixomull to alternate toes, and Body Glide to potential sensitive spots. I decided to start with mid-weight trail shoes, poles stowed, head torch (the race starts before sunrise), thick gloves and arm warmers, 200 mL of water, and 2 gels (it was cold, so no need to lug 1.5 litres of water up a big hill). At Blanket Bay checkpoint (21 km) I planned to leave my poles, then pick them up on the way back. I also had a pair of light road shoes in my drop bag which I would wear if the track wasn’t too bad. I would also swap my regular head torch (91 g) for my other Petzl E+lite (26 g), so I ran most of the way with two featherweight torches.
Maya was volunteering, so we headed to the registration hall early, at 3:30 PM Friday. She got busy selling race merchandise while I renewed friendships with some of the runners I knew. Got my gear checked, listened to the briefing, waited for Maya to finish her duties, then headed back to the motel by 8 PM. I don’t normally go to the dinners at these kinds of races, as it takes too long, the food is not ideal, and most people are too nervous to hold a meaningful conversation.
Race morning it was very cold and raining, with a fierce wind, and no shelter available at the start line. I opted for insulated waterproof gloves, which are heavier, but my fingers have poor circulation since an operation I had a few years ago to save my right hand. The rain jacket was going to be critical, but possibly intermittently. I was surprised to see nearly everyone had their vest over their rain jacket. I put my jacket on the outside, and I could easily stuff it in a space I’d left in a side pocket of my vest. After a short countdown we were off. I knew Maya would be at the halfway turnaround checkpoint, so that was something to look forward to. After 1 km the rain started to ease as we crossed over a small road bridge out of town. Strangely enough, a koala was sitting on the walkway of the bridge. It didn’t seem to be even slightly perturbed as we all filed straight past it.
The run to Blanket Bay went as expected, taking my gloves off after about 10 km, and putting my jacket on and off a few times for squalls and one hailstorm. I was using my poles on most of the uphills, and they helped me stay upright in the mud. We had two short beach sections to run, with the inevitable creek to cross. Looking at my Strava segments after the race, my times were very similar to 2017, when it was also muddy, but not raining or hailing, although slower than 2016, when the track was dry. That makes sense, as my effort felt about the same. I left my poles and thick gloves at Blanket Bay. Changing shoes was not feasible, as my legs and shoes were covered in thick mud and I feared I would not be able to put those shoes back on if I took them off. Also, there was more mud ahead over the next 5 km.
The run to Aire River is on a different kind of track. Much of it is exposed heath or low trees. The track winds up and down through small valleys, and some of the inclines are steep. Further on the track gets very sandy in places, which is marginally better than mud. I am always amazed how much time I spend running alone in these races, going stretches of 10 km or more without seeing anyone. There is a long, steep, loose-sand descent off the headland down to Aire River, and I was not looking forward to running back up it.
Runners were greeted to a surprise gear inspection at the Aire River checkpoint. We had to pull out a map, and waterproof pants. I was informed that the guy in second place was DQ’d due to no map – no sympathy from me. I should have repacked my vest myself, but I was keen to see how Maya was getting on, get a few gels from my drop bag, and fill my bottles. To my surprise, Maya was running the food tent. I had a couple of her handmade sandwiches and got going, but immediately felt something poking into my back. I didn’t suffer it for long, stopping to repack my vest. Maya later reported that the most popular sandwich filling was avocado, then peanut butter, with jam a distant third. Coke was the most popular drink by far. There was a gender bias with the chocolate, with few men choosing it, but popular among women. As I said before, it’s a matter of personal choice.
At about 50 km I felt a serious fatigue set in, barely able to summon a jog. That lasted for about 15 km. While fatigue is to be expected, it’s easy to get negative feelings in that situation. One good thing about slowing down is food has a chance to digest and some power eventually returns to your legs. A lot of people say they are going to walk the hills and run the flats and downhills. It can be a trap at times like this, when your mind will readily interpret any positive gradient as a hill. Again, I hadn’t seen anyone for an hour or so, so this difficult period passed without discussion. The way back to Apollo Bay is not the normal track direction, so we didn’t have directional signs facing us. Quite a few runners lost concentration and took wrong turns.
A couple of runners I knew came up behind me a few kilometres out of Blanket Bay. The track was narrow or on boardwalk, so I upped the pace to keep in front of them and have a chat. I was surprised how easily I was able to do that. We got into Blanket Bay and didn’t need to do much, just pick up my poles, and refuel. I knew the next 8 km was going to be serious climbing, with mud, then 11 km downhill, with mud, with three additional steep uphills for good measure. At least I was able to run again, even if it was not especially fast. At this stage, it was no surprise to come across a couple of sorry-looking souls out on course.
The finish arch at Marengo was hidden behind a fence, so even though I knew it was very close, it was a slight surprise to reach it. I thought my time of 10:52 hr in 37th place was not too shabby for an old codger. Unlike 2017, my main old codger rival turned up exactly 2 hours later – final objective achieved. In contrast to the 100 km finish at Port Campbell in previous years, there was no carnage, with the other runners there looking chipper, tucking into the hot food being dished out by my wonderful daughter. By this time, she was in full control of the mess tent, the most important job.
On Sunday we drove to Budj Bim World Cultural Heritage Site, and ran/hiked 5 km around the crater. I ran with Maya in the following days, pretty slow, and less than 10 km, but I had no sign of DOMS. Maya turned 15 yro on the Tuesday and we enjoyed a bit of a celebration in our cabin at Heywood. Overall, it was a great road trip with my daughter, with a bit of work and a solid 80 km run thrown in.