A few hundred racers were huddled together on the sand, awaiting the start of the Surfcoast Half-Marathon. We had just been advised to move back from the shoreline in case of a surge.
“What’s a surge?” the runner next to me said.
I glanced at him; the waves just off-shore were four feet high. They were the things of nightmares.
“The ocean…” I said, gesturing.
I moved fast uphill, away from the shoreline. A few moments later, the waves rolled in. A bunch more runners dashed up into the dunes amidst general nervous laughter.
This was looking interesting.
Here’s what the FAQ section said on the race website:
“Do I have to cross any rivers or roads?
No, the only section of the course that is bitumen is a short stretch leading up to the car park at Point Addis and there will be course marshal at this section. There are no rivers to cross, nor mountains to climb (beyond your own mental ones). There are a few car park entrances to cross – please do so with care. They will all be marshalled for runner safety.
What about beach sections?
There will be several beach sections to run on, and depending on the tides and what time you reach particular sections, the tide may be high. There will always be sand to run on, although if tide is high, the sand will be softer and present more difficult running conditions. Beach sections are:
- Fisherman’s Beach (1.5km)
- Bells Beach (300m)
- Point Addis beach (900m)
- Guvvos-Urquhart’s Beach (3.3km)
- Sunnymead (100m)
- Fairhaven Beach (finish – 200m)”
The Surfcoast Trail Marathon (SCTM) held in Victoria, Australia has been on my list of awesome races to do for a couple of years. It is held the week after start of The Trail Series, so in past years I’ve missed it.
This year, I decided to do it anyway. I needed a half-marathon qualifier for the Wonderland 20k, and this event was perfect. Though I had just run the first race of The Trail Series (10.6 km) six days earlier in a near PB time, I convinced myself that the SCTM would be an “easy” half-marathon, full of fun. Compared to my last half-marathon on Mount Feathertop which took nearly five hours, this seemed reasonable.
The slogan for the SCTM is “Where the Wild Things Run”. That has drawn me to the event for years: I’m wild (well, mildly); I was raised seaside; I run the surf coast for fun, but I’d only seen the Torquay to Anglesea sections. This race would give me some new terrain to see, from Point Addis to Fairhaven. I’d wanted to see this area for a long time.
There, I was convinced this was a rational decision, to race two weekends in a row.
My family and I drove down to Point Addis Saturday morning. Not early enough to score a parking space, so they dropped me at the start and drove away.
I explored the raised wooden viewing areas with delight, taking photo after photo, but being sure I actually stopped and saw the views as well. The sun glinting off the ocean; the waves rolling in to high cliffs; the other runners laughing and taking selfies; the odd tourist looking bemused by the group of hundreds of runners lining up to register; the marathon runners going by to great cheers.
At 10:27, I was waiting for the 10:30 race briefing on the top of the cliffs when it occurred to me that it might be down on the beach. I asked and quickly made my way down the steep wooden staircase, feeling doomed, as I thought we had to climb back up as the race start (should’ve read the course description better).
Down on the beach, I joined the huddle of runners. I eyed the waves; they were big. Really big. Much larger than I’d expected, even though I knew the race would be taking place at high tide.
I noticed another woman runner then, who looked a bit nervous standing alone, so I started to chat with her. It was her first trail half. I reassured her that this was a good, easy one to start with. Nothing too difficult, and a great crowd of people. A few Dandenong Trail Runners arrived, looking resplendent in their singlets (Chris and Lauren, with John as support crew), and Chris from Bayside; we chatted, shared laughter. I kept one eye on the surf, as anyone raised by the beach tends to do.
Shortly after the “step back from the water” warning, another wave rolled in, and the runners darted higher up into the dunes.
It was race briefing time. A tall man stood on the dunes and spoke to us. I confess: I blacked it out. Something about the waves coming into shore. Arg. Okay. People racing move to the front. I was; I did. I asked the woman next to me, do we run out and back on the beach? We only ran one way she said, and continued on to the trail from there. A relief that we didn’t have to climb the steep stairs to the start then.
We lined up, then, bang, we were off.
The beach? It was a few feet wide. Some of the way. I quickly found myself darting away from the encroaching tide, trying to make sure I had no one running to my right to block a dash away. This beach section didn’t last long, maybe a kilometre. After only a few minutes, we climbed up to a gravel track. It was easy, fast running. For a few kilometres, I dropped below my target of 5:30/km and felt really strong. Except on the horrible stone staircase, where I inexplicably began singing Stairway to Heaven in my head, even though we were running down the stairs. That song that would accompany me for many kilometres.
It was when we came to Anglesea that the fun began. I’d read the course description. We would run on the bitumen path. I was used to slogging across the river in other races, and was slightly disappointed that we’d go bitumen this time. Except when I got there, the course seemed to be going straight across the wide, tidal river. Usually, runners would just get their shoes wet. Today, the water went up to my knees. I laughed the entire way across – it was the absolute highlight of the day. Though I still wonder – was I meant to go the bitumen way? Never mind.
The rest gets a bit hazy in my memory. I can’t give you a blow-by-blow course and race description. Because suddenly it became, as one friend described it, more of a duathlon.
Those soft stretches of sandy beach?
From Guvvo’s to Urquahart’s beach was meant to be about four kilometres.
Really? It seemed further. Perhaps it was the moments when I dove face first into the dunes as the waves rolled under my feet? Or the water washing relentlessly over my shoes? Soft sand became small, wobbly coastal rocks, which finally became a “watch the wave go out then run as fast as you can on the beach until the next one comes in” – a game I call Mickey Mouse with my kids – you shout Mickey Mouse as the wave comes at you and you run to not get your feet wet. I played that game for about three of the four kilometres – awesome fun!
I don’t know where the staircase was. But I remember it well. There was a kind volunteer on the staircase, talking to me about timing my run to the waves, going under the stairs and then along the fence. It felt wild and reckless and fun and insane and the best thing I’ve done in years.
I got to the bottom of the stairs, ran, just beat the wave, and then ran under the staircase. We followed the inside of a small fence as the waves licked at the ledge that kept the sea at bay, and then as they broke over that ledge. My shoes were full of sand and water and after a while I didn’t really care if the waves rolled over me or not. The fence gave me this false feeling of security, like if a big wave came, at least I was on the far side of the fence and it would keep me from being washed away. Except the fence ended and there were still some kilometres to go. So we went.
Finally we climbed up to the “winding fun trail weaving through heathland and clifftop landscapes all the way to Split Point Lighthouse and Airey’s Inlet”.
The only trouble was, by this point, my body had been trashed by the soft sand running. My feet suddenly decided to cramp up into tiny balls, with the toes tucking under, and my pace dropped to a seven-minute kilometre, Ouch! I could barely walk. I tried water, salt tablets, gels, swearing, stretching.
Eventually, I just ran on my silly cramped-up feet and told them to loosen up and they finally did, though I was very conscious that I might not be able to finish this mad run if they really cramped badly so I held back on the pace.
The views coming into the lighthouse went straight to my soul. I’d once visited the Great Ocean Road, many years ago, as a newcomer to Australia. I vividly remember being depressed and lonely and that these magnificent views could not get through to me.
Today they did; today, those views were home and I smiled and laughed and kept right on running, straight towards them.
With 1.5 km to go to the finish line at the Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club, I tried to pick up the pace. But I’d given all I had on those beach sections, and could only succeed in moving a little quicker. Seeing the finish arch at the top of a set of stairs made me kind of want to cry. Another runner and I began climbing together. I said, let’s finish together okay, but when we got to the arch he gestured me through first, and I said, no, and reached out a hand, and we went across together. Tremendous. Everything about it was a tremendous run.
I’d targeted a finish between 2 and 2:30 and came in at 2:18.
The party at the finish was like what I imagine a party would’ve been like when peace was declared after a big, gnarly war. Runners were there with their shoes off, eyes glazed, big, hazy smiles. Laughter was everywhere. The Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club was heaving with runners eating and drinking and sharing stories of waves and oceans and king tides. Somewhere a band played, but me, I made my way straight to Shane’s massage tables, and made a big donation for the lovely Mill to massage my feet out (“How long did you have your shoes off?”she asks with concern. I glanced back. “Why? Are my feet blue? Don’t worry. They’re always blue.”). It was painful bliss but finally the cramps began to subside.
Afterwards, my daughter and I bought t-shirts (hers was to be a nightshirt, Run Like a Tiger, it read. Mine was Where the Wild Things Run. I’m wearing it right now). I gathered myself a vegetarian turkish bread, which ranks as almost the best thing I’ve ever eaten, topped only by the cheese toastie with salt at my last race. We watched the presentations and I marvelled at how fast the winners were – how do they do it?
That’s how I’d sum up the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon. The king tide really made it adventurous and super-fun, which is how I like my runs to be. Thanks to Tour de Trails, Chris Ord and the awesome volunteers who kept the waves from washing us out to sea. I’ll be remembering this one for many years!