Running the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon

People running along a tarmac road with woods on the right and the sea on the left, and a bright rainbow in the sky overhead.
Running towards Apollo Bay along the Great Ocean Road

Achieving my 30 before 30 running goal

One of the big challenges I set myself for my 30 before 30 list was to put my years of casual running to the test, and complete a half-marathon. I’ve been training and running fairly informally for some years now, but I wanted to really put that to a proper purpose. Had I been really ambitious I might have aimed for a whole marathon, but looking at where I was in my training and hoping to ensure my goal was achievable, I settled for the half. I can confirm that this goal is now well and truly ticked off! On Sunday, 15 May 2021, I took part in and completed the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon. It was a strangely emotional experience, exhilarating and oddly moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Something about months of planning and training culminating in just you and a load of miles you have to run is simply really exciting.

In today’s post I’m going to talk through the training I did to prepare, general admin and organisation of the race, and the race itself. My main takeaway was that it was a really satisfying experience, and a friendly, well-organised event. I didn’t have a great deal of hope that I would enjoy the day – I thought it would be painful at the time and great in hindsight – but I actually had a great time. If you’re weighing the pros and cons of taking part in your first half-marathon, I’d say go for it! Don’t take yourself too seriously, pick one with good views, and you’ll doubtless have fun!

Training

I’ve certainly done more training for this half-marathon that for anything else I’ve done, including my first 10km race. It is a big step up, much bigger than from 5km to 10km (and not just in terms of actual distance!), so I wanted to treat it with the appropriate level of respect. The thing I most dreaded was struggling on race day knowing that I could have tried harder in training. So I went into it with a distinct plan to increase my time on feet, get more than the necessary distance under my belt, and know that when it came to the real thing I would feel prepared.

As far as timing and speed were concerned, registration for the race was split into two halves: over 2 hours 30 minutes, and under 2 hours 30 minutes. I’d run the half-marathon distance by myself in 2 hours 30, with not much training, so was confident that I could get under that with proper training and race day adrenaline. So that was what I aimed for. Beyond that, I tried not to worry too much about my pace and time. I used it more as a guide to keep myself on track with training, and to ensure that I was putting in the right effort, rather than a marker of success in its own right.

I started out working from a GTN Half-Marathon training plan (which you can find in the description of this video here). This is a nine week plan, but I started working to it basically from when the video was published, more than nine weeks out from the race. I think one of my mistakes with training was going too hard too early. I assumed that any training I could do would be beneficial (and it was to some extent), but I think it would have been better and more strategic to spend more time on my ‘easy’ training, building my base level of fitness, before progressing to more intensive sessions actually in the nine or so weeks prior to race day. The GTN plan is pretty full-on, perhaps too much for a relative beginner like me. Even the ex-professional cyclist it was designed for had to quit because of a stress injury, so I’m not sure I had much hope. The main flaw for me was that I found it hard to put in every session – I’d miss ones because I was late commuting back from work (back when that was a thing!), or I had swimming lessons. I’m a total completionist, so felt I had to do literally every session. Coupled with starting well before the nine week mark, this meant I re-started the plan several times before ultimately accepting I’d have to finish it ‘incomplete’. Another thing I would have liked was a bit more time for cross-training. Bike or strength sessions for rainy days would have been great to build in variety and make it easier to fit into a working week. I think this shows that I wasn’t quite using the plans as intended. But it did give me a good framework to build on, and a decent understanding of the training principles I should be working to.

Helen facing the camera under the start line of the race.
Waiting at the start line wondering if my training had paid off (with apologies for the glare)

Training, oddly, wasn’t actually all that difficult. It was satisfying ticking off sessions, and although some of them were pretty intense and knackering, feeling that I’d achieved them and was building towards a goal was great. The hard part was making room for them in my day; knowing that no matter how tired I felt from work, or how little I could be bothered, I still needed to get out and run. But honestly I think this appealed to my personality type, and the structure was welcome at a time when so much of the rest of life was uncertain. I did get a half-marathon distance in the month before the race, mainly as a confidence booster, but my normal runs ranged between about 6km and 13km.

My main reflection on training is to be more strategic next time, and appreciate the importance of long, easy runs, not just short hard ones.

Race Admin

The half-marathon was just one of several races that made up the Great Ocean Road Running Festival. The main attraction is the marathon, but there are also other distances including the ultra 66km and 13km. The whole event is based in Apollo Bay, a charming little town in regional Victoria, about 2 hours 30 minutes drive from Melbourne. With all the uncertainties around COVID, there didn’t seem to be much risk of the race selling out, so I actually didn’t sign up until 5 April, not much over a month before the event. I guess this must have also matched the loosening of some of our restrictions. It cost $130 to enter, and an extra $15 for the bus pass to the start line. I also ordered a festival running top, at $40. Not bad for running gear, and who could pass up such a momento?

Overall I thought the race was really well organised. My race pack was posted through to me in good time (including safety pins for your number bib – always a nice bonus as they’re the thing I’m most likely to forget!). I got a little anxious when we didn’t get race details that far in advance, but in the lead up to the race we were sent a digital brochure with so much information that even I was reassured and didn’t worry.

On the day admin was similarly well run, with lots of people to ask questions if you needed it, simple directions, and a generally friendly atmosphere. I don’t know if the months of restrictions made everything feel that more happy and friendly, but there was a real sense of camaraderie. You could take a bag with you to the start line for your warm gear, which would then be collected from the start line and taken to meet you at the finish, so you could layer up for the cold morning, which was great. The only suggestion I would make about how the day was organised is that there could have been more toilets. To be fair to them, there must have been hundreds at the race start, but there were still huge queues, and were were having to calculate whether we’d have time to go before the start. But they clearly tried hard to get this right, so I think I have to give them a pass.

Race Day

Image of people silhouetted on a beach looking out to sea watching the sunrise, with pink clouds and a light blue sky.
Watching the sun rise at Kennett River

My day started very early with a simple breakfast at about 4:30. I’m not a morning runner so was worried about digesting in time and making sure I was thoroughly awake and warmed up, so the earliest possible start seemed the best way to go. I’ve not paid a great deal of attention to the nutrition side of my training, but I chose a plain cereal that I knew would keep me going, and a yogurt – basically things I knew I could digest in time and wouldn’t upset my tummy. From then there was a while of weighing up how many layers to take, before walking down into Apollo Bay from our bed and breakfast to catch the bus to Kennett River and the half-marathon start line.

It wasn’t much above freezing when we set out, and as I said, I’m not a morning runner, so I did worry about wearing too few layers. I went for a long-sleeved top over the t-shirt, with long leggings, and although there were times when I felt too hot, I was grateful for the layers. The coaches were perfectly prompt, and it was a nervous journey in the dark to Kennett River, along the route we would be running mere hours later. I noticed every slight hill, worrying about what it would feel like under foot!

Once we arrived there was a long wait for the race to get going. This was spent between trying to stay warm, actually warming up, and queuing for the loos. Everyone was very friendly and quite chatty, and there was a general sense of excitement. The highlight was crossing the road in the dark down to the beach and watching the sunrise. Just spectacular, and honestly quite emotional. It really felt like I was about to reach the end a long journey.

People crowded together under the starting arch, with woods and a blue sky in the background.
Waiting to start

When we finally started lining up to go the sun had come out and we were raring to go. I can’t shy away from the fact that the race was long and hard. But the worst of the hills were accompanied by the best views, and the best weather, so it was easy to keep going. Racing to the next rainbow was amazingly motivational! I took a water bottle but no fuel, and really appreciated the fueling drinks offered at the hydration stops. These were frequent enough without being so numerous as to interrupt your rhthym.

As we reached the final kilometres and the terrain evened out, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we were consistently rained on – an added motivation to keep up a good pace. It’s actually a 23km race, but the final 2km are pretty much on the flat. This last rainy section was probably the hardest – the hills were smaller but with your clothes slowly getting wetter and your feet starting to get sore, the mental side of the challenge really took over. I’m pleased that I didn’t walk at any point, mostly from fear that I wouldn’t start running again if I did. Tough though it was, I think this made the sense of victory at the end, getting through both the physical and the mental aspects, all the sweeter.

I completed the race in 2 hours 22 minutes, with my Garmin recording a half-marathon time of 2 hours 10 minutes. My overall position was 1962 out of 2858. This may not seem much to crow about, but I’m really pleased with it. I was exhausted but kept going, beat the time I was aiming for (setting a personal best in the process), and achieved what feels like a really significant goal. I didn’t stop running until I was over the finish line, and managed to stay standing when I got there! I was so determined to sprint to the finish that I nearly missed my lovely partner cheering me on, waiting with a waterproof and warm clothes at the end of the long race. Getting over the line was a great feeling, and as emotional as the start – I had finally made it, and I’d never felt more pleased with my body and what it can do for me.

Conclusion

I’m so pleased that this is a goal I really pushed for over this past year. Having something finite to aim for has kept me grounded through some really tough times, and it’s helped me re-evaluate my relationship with my body. Though it is an objectively tough race, the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon was a great one to start with, and has set a high bar for future efforts. It’s difficult to compete with those views!

View over the end of the road out to see, with bushy hills on the right and blue sea on the left.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! I think the half-marathon distance might be about my limit in terms of what I can fit into my life, but it’s definitely one I’ll be repeating. Melbourne Half next perhaps?


Have you achieved any big fitness goals this year? It’s been such a hard time for feeling like getting anything done, or being allowed to get anything done, with lockdowns, restrictions, and the general stress of living through a global pandemic. But I’ve found unexpected comfort in prioritising my fitness and taking care to build what my body can do. I’d love to hear how you’re found fitness in COVID-times, so please do share in a comment. Perhaps you took part in the great Ocean Road Running Festival this year? It’d be great to hear what you thought of it!


Thanks for reading! You can read more about my fitness goals in my 30 before 30 post, or read about another race I took part in here, when I ran round a zoo after closing! What race do you think I should try next? Please let me know in a comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s