Friday, November 8, 2013

Great Barrier Reef Marathon: A beachfront marathon isn’t without its hills

Or so I learned about 13 kilometers in to the Great BarrierReef Marathon in Port Douglas, Australia. This marathon, my 47th and last for 2013 was in the middle of a two-week Asian business trip and couldn’t have been a more beautiful respite. Port Douglas lies about an hour northwest of Cairns in Queensland, Australia, which is a gorgeous tropical state at the top of the continent down under. This quaint little fishing village turned top-notch vacation spot when Sheraton bought up several acres for a luxury golf resort. Since then several other resorts and vacation rentals have moved in along with a collection of admirable chefs to satisfy the foodie tourists (like me). The best part is that the resorts haven’t overtaken 4 Mile beach which is the main attraction here. Instead they have left it pristine with only palm trees and rainforest hills visible from this gorgeous stretch of sand. And it’s here that the 42-kilometer challenge began on a foggy pre-dawn morning at 5am.

Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas

When I found this treasure of a marathon I looked over the course elevation map on the event web site and saw a mostly flat course with a bump in the middle that rose a few hundred meters. It looked like an overpass or bridge at the most, so I signed on thinking this would be a nice, flat easy way to finish off my running year. Oops.

The race started on the sand of Four Mile Beach and covered about 80 percent of this distance. It was a glorious start as the sun barely rose over the water’s horizon and lit up the clouds that barred it from our view. The prior year’s race had started with clear skies which was a bad thing as that meant quickly rising temperatures that peaked in the high 80s and humidity above 60 percent nearly the whole time. Keeping the sun at bay was key to keeping this year’s race cool.

Near the end of the beach, we turned inland toward the outer suburbs of Port Douglas and from there faced the rainforest. There’s a small highway that runs along the coastline linking all the beach towns to Cairns. Instead of the headache it would be have been to close and cross this road, the marathon ducked underneath it giving us our first taste of why the term rainforest starts with rain. Thanks to ample showers the Saturday before, our underpass was completely flooded. Anyone with clean shoes at the start of the race was out of luck just 6 kilometers in.

Past the underpass the course stayed flat as it ran inland past several large farms and over a bridge crossing a murky creek – if you come to Queensland stay away from any waters like these; crocs love them. From here we ran further inland to a turn around point at 11 kilometers. We only backtracked about 3 kilometers before heading back toward the rainforest hills and up what was definitely not a bump, as I had perceived it on the elevation map. Instead we started climbing a steep, muddy hill at about a 30 degree angle. The Bump Trail as it is called is used in local triathlons, mountain biking events and other local activities. It’s steep, rocky, uneven and after a rain, definitely hazardous. The hill quickly got too steep to justify running up the hill, given the over 25 kilometers left in the race, so everyone switched to a walking pace. We slowly climbed for about 3 kilometers before it started to flatten out, climb again, then flatten. It was about 5 kilometers in before you could run consistently. At this point we were high in the rainforest surrounded by thick palms, vines and eucalyptus trees. The trail gave us some nice downhills, flats and short climbs the rest of the way toward the second turnaround point.

As I approached the turn, the leaders came streaming by. Local marathon hero and past Olympian Steve Moneghetti led them all by a wide margin on his way to a 3:15 finish – not bad for a guy in his mid 50s. Before you think that time’s a bit of a slouch for a marathon finish, remember the hills and mud I talked about. This is definitely not a PR course. Every runner who passed gave out a word of encouragement, “Good on ya, mate!” “There ya go,” “Great job,” were heard often. Many of the participants were local and knew each other, so you heard lots of first names and teasings in the banter too. An Aussie was on my tail with the turnaround just 200 meters ahead when a vine sticking just a bit too far out onto the trail grabbed my leg and held on. It wrapped around my lower thigh and dug in its barbs, bringing me to a near standstill. My new Aussie friend caught me and helped steady me as I unwound the offending plant. I had no idea what kind of vine it was nor what poisons might lie within its barbs so at the turnaround I asked if it was poisonous. The officials told me no and that the pain would subside quickly. A wiseacre local added, “only to tourists.” Guess I deserved that.

I smiled, sped up my gait and started the return along the muddy trail. I would have loved to pick up some time at this point and certainly would have down the hill but wasn’t able to do so fully due to the slippery conditions. Running on the trail itself was the most hazardous as the mud was thickest here. So I ran along the edges of the trail, footfalling on the leaves and plants that gave more grip. It’s this edge running that led to the vine catching me so I kept a watchful eye on the plants around me and hopped over any vine I saw for fear of being entangled again.

When we hit the bottom of the hill a practice more races should consider was seen. Instead of mile markers (kilometer markers in this part of the world) counting up to the finish, the signs counted down starting with 13 kilometers remaining. It was mostly flat from here on out and a repeat of the course back to the beach. The hills had wiped out my energy so I needed a few kilometers of flat to build back up my reserves. But even this was slow as the sun peaked out at this point for the first time all day.

We couldn’t have had better conditions for a topical marathon. Morning clouds kept the sun at bey most of the day and brought cooling rain showers four times during the run. As a result the full sun at 39kms was very short lived.

We returned to Four Mile Beach at high tide and most of the beachfront was gone which meant we had to run in the soft sands or at the water’s edge. I chose the latter as the surface was more firm but my shoes got soaked by the waves a few times. We didn’t go back the full length of the beach but cut in near the Sheraton resort. The course designers didn’t plan a visit to the center of town for us but instead skirted the main road for a different approach to The Esplanade where the finish line was placed. But it was here that the course got mentally cruel. As you entered the neighborhoods near the finish you could hear the finish line cheers and see the 2km to go sign before you. It felt good to be nearing the finish but once you could see the line you could also see the cones directing you right past it. Yep, ahead of you was the length of the Esplanade which you would be traversing first, going right past the finish line, turning at the end and then finally running the last 20 meters to the actual finish. For those of you who have completed the Nike Women’sMarathon, you know how cruel it is to emerge from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, look to your right and see the finish, then turn to your left to run the length of Ocean Boulevard. This was a similar feeling except running right past the finish felt worse. You could literally see the faces of the runners flip from relief to frustration as they went past the line. I wanted to reach out and knock over some cones so badly.

But there’s few feelings better than the one that comes from finishing a marathon – despite the pain, agony and frustration that comes in the final miles. And I wasn’t about to cheat myself by cutting it short. I crossed the line at 4:31 and a happy finish to a great running year. 

After stretching and taking in a few boxes of fruit juice, I stripped down to my shorts and walked into the ocean. Unlike San Francisco’s beach, the northern shore of Australia ain’t no ice bath. The water was in the low 70s but felt right. Trying to hold myself upright in the face of the waves wasn’t easy but it felt great to play in the waves after a hard run.

Jellyfish warnings and in the back, the white line is a jellyfish net
By the way, for those who are curious, yes I was safe in the waves. Spring and summer in Queensland (and most of Australia’s coasts) are jellyfish season which can be very dangerous. The stingers down here can be deadly if not very, very painful. However Port Douglas, like many other beach towns strings jellyfish nets in the waters or marks clearly the safe spots to swim. I chose a safe spot. And I clearly chose a gorgeous, challenging and fantastic marathon. While I still think the Maui Marathon is my favorite, The Great Barrier Reef Marathon is a very close second.

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