If you could travel to only one spot in the world to run a marathon, the Great Ocean Road should be it.
The Great Ocean Road Run has been held annually since 2005, with the longest distance category, the 60-kilometre Ultra Marathon, going along the coastline from the idyllic town of Lorne and ending in Apollo Bay, where the shorter runs take place and where all runs end.
The whole Great Ocean Road, however, is much longer, stretching from the town of Torquay, a.k.a. Surfing HQ, going past Anglesea, Lorne and Apollo Bay, even going through the Great Otway National Park, all the way to Allansford town in the west. Built by returning servicemen after World War I and dedicated to their fallen comrades, the road is essentially the world’s largest War Memorial.
Landing at the nearest airport, Melbourne Airport, it’s a 75-minute drive to Torquay, the starting point of the Great Ocean Road. With a late flight, it’s better to settle in at Torquay for the day, before tackling another one-hour-plus drive to Lorne or Apollo Bay, two sites on the Great Ocean Road Run circuit.
Peppers The Sands Resort in Torquay is available for transiting visitors, and even warrants an extra night’s stay or two if you have the time, as both the golfing resort with its 18-hole championship course and the town of Torquay are a pleasure to explore at leisure.
While modern and even a bit upscale, Torquay exudes a laid-back vibe more commonly experienced at sleepy fishing villages. Perhaps this is due to its proximity to the sea. Or it could be because Torquay is one of the surfing capitals of the world.
Leading surf brands Quiksilver and Rip Curl both originated here, with the latter having its global headquarters in this very town. This is also where the Australian National Surfing Museum is, where visitors can learn a lot about the sport, gaining more appreciation for it even if you have never surfed a wave. A tour of the museum would also give more insight into the beaches to be seen later, coasting on the Great Ocean Road.
From Torquay, Anglesea is a short drive away, and here is where you can find McGains Nursery and Organic Foodstore – definitely worth a stop for the delicious vegetarian meals served in its rustic cafe, expertly decorated with mismatched tables and chairs that add to the charm of this husband-and-wife-run establishment.
Back on the highway, the coastline is in view again as driving resumes toward Apollo Bay. Magnificent vistas of the ocean accompany the drive, even from Torquay, going past Bells Beach – the setting for the final scene in the 1991 movie Point Break starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze – and the Split Point Lighthouse. Look out for the Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch, and be prepared to slow down and find a safe spot to park if you’d like to take a photo. Elsewhere on the road, there are several lookout points you can stop at to take in the breathtaking scenery or snap a picture or two.
Arriving in Lorne, accommodation should not be a problem with many quaint bed-and-breakfast lodges alongside grand hotels as well as newer resorts and motels. Many offer family rooms and apartments for larger holiday groups.
Now that the run has had a rebrand as the Great Ocean Road Running Festival, even non-runners would be able to enjoy the fun. Free activities for runners and supporters alike run throughout the weekend, with live music shows by Australian artists, free movie screenings at the Lorne Theatre, magic shows and mini golf for the kids, yoga classes, and a kite festival.
Meanwhile, an hour’s drive away in Apollo Bay, the festival atmosphere continues with food trucks and merchandise stalls set up in the greens next to the beautiful beach, yoga sessions accompanied by acoustic guitar strums on the beach foreshore, and the bustling environment on the main street, with its sidewalk cafes, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. If you’re looking to stay here, the Apollo Bay Hotel is very popular for its sidewalk cafe and live band performances, while the Best Western Apollo Bay is great for families as it offers one- or two-room apartment options with a kitchenette for self-catering.
As Apollo Bay is the main location for all the running events, being the finishing point for the Ultra Marathon, the 44-kilometre Marathon and the 23-kilometre Half-Marathon, as well as the start and finish line for the 14-kilometre Paradise Run, the 6-kilometre Mizuno Run and the 1.5-kilometre Kids Gallop, it’s a high energy atmosphere here, especially on the second and final day of the festival. The inaugural Pub To Pub Waiters’ Challenge, with waiters from various F&B outlets running in their aprons, balancing bottles on their trays racing each other, is very entertaining. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm of the runners and the cheers by supporters certainly lift the excitement.
The Great Ocean Road Run is picturesque, as you go along the coast, taking in the calming greens and blues of the ocean and the sky. The winding terrains ensure a change of landscape every now and then, so the view isn’t monotonous. However, the run is also said to be one of the toughest in the world, the very same terrains being punishing for those traversing it on foot, coupled with the mainly uphill orientation of the route.
Being able to enjoy the scenic panorama helps any tired runner regain motivation, but one of the best elements about the Great Ocean Road Run is how supportive random strangers can be, giving words of encouragement to participants, especially near the finish line. It’s this great camaraderie that makes the Great Ocean Road Run even greater, and perhaps what keeps most runners coming back to join the race year after year.
After the races have ended, there is more to explore in nearby areas as well as farther out. The Treetop Walk at Otway Fly Treetop Adventures lets you experience the green side of the Great Ocean Road, taking you through the trees of Otway’s rainforest – zip-lining adventure optional.
Meanwhile, for a taste of country living, the Otway Fields cabin is highly recommended, as hosts Frans and Ami welcome you to their cosy cabin for rent, situated just across their own home. The cabin overlooks a vast field that gives you stunning views in the morning as you enjoy the hosts’ gift of a breakfast hamper filled with organic goodies, before going round the adjacent farm to feed the cows some hay.
Early entry is now open for the Great Ocean Road Run Festival 2018. Register at greatoceanroadrunfest.com.au.