“Because so many of you have turned out this morning, we’ve split the start into three waves: fast, medium, and leisurely. You choose your wave, but please…be honest with yourself…”
We’re at the starting line of the Salomon Trail Series, Race 1, in Studley Park, Melbourne, Australia. I listen to the Race Director’s words. Another decision to make, in a race full of tough decisions. Usually, I know exactly what to do, what gear to wear, what to carry, where to place myself.
But today, I have unnerved myself, and become indecisive. It began at home, when choosing what to carry during the race. I spent six years doing Sprint Adventure Races in Hong Kong. There, I’d learned to carry a CamelBak, with house keys, money, a phone, gels. Just in case I got lost in the wilderness, I’d have a way home. The climate was steamy, humid, dangerous. We scrambled up waterfalls, along riverbeds, into the sea.
I’m in Australia now, in winter. I’ve been here four years, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Anyway, this race in only 10 km. There are no waterfalls to climb, no rocks to scramble over. And I don’t want the extra weight. Last year at this race, I was the only person in a CamelBak. It felt heavy and cumbersome, and unnecessary.
And yet…I filled it up and brought it anyway.
Now, here, at the starting area, I’ve changed my shirt twice, re-pinning the golden number to the front of first the long-sleeved running shirt, then the singlet. It’s cold today but the sun is just rising, and once I choose I’m stuck with it.
And now the pacing, which wave to choose?
Leisurely is not an option – I’ve never run a leisurely race in my life, though it does sound pleasant. Medium? I don’t want to underestimate myself, so I set myself at the back of the fast wave, noting the physiques of the others around me, deciding that I fit in ok. The worst thing on these races is to be too slow, to be hounded by others on my heels on the rough terrain. I’m slow on downhill, cautious after sprained ankles. When pressed, I panic and go even slower. So choosing the right place to start is pretty key.
Decisions made, long-sleeved t-shirt tossed into a nearby tree for pickup later, the countdown begins, and then we’re running.
The track is muddy from days of rain, studded with small and large rocks. It narrows considerably near the river, where a slip could mean a slide downhill into the brown and fast-flowing Yarra. Some pass me, and then I pass them. Eucalypts slide by, my breathing comes fast and I am absolutely focused on the now. Each puddle I jump, each downhill I traverse, each decision I make comes fast and furious. No time for second-guessing.
It is only towards the end of the race that it happens. Someone gets right behind me, right on my heels. Step-for-step they follow me. By now, the field has spread out and there is no runner in front of me. I’m following ribbons on trees to stay on course, slowing at intersections, then bounding downwards at full pace. I want to say, pass me if you like, but I’m short of breath and we’re nearly there. After a few minutes, I sense that this person doesn’t want to pass anyway, wants me to set the pace. So I do. Speeding up, gaining assurance. Suddenly my legs feel strong and up to the challenge.
I turn a last corner, hear cheers, and suddenly see the finish line fifty metres in front of me. Her voice comes from behind.
“You go,” she shouts, “I never wanted to pass you.”
I glance back, see her, shout back, “Let’s finish together, come on.” Then, “Go go go!”
And then we are running next to each other, stride for stride, fast as we can, not racing but supporting one another through this moment. Someone shouts, “Go Patricia!”, and I smile, wondering who it is, as we pound across the finish line.
This stranger and I hug, a sweaty, real honest hug, huge smiles and delight. We’ve both chosen well.
On the way home, I turn up Bon Jovi on the car stereo. The song is Lost Highway. I used to play it on the treadmill at Pure Fitness in Hong Kong, wishing I felt what the song was saying.
“In my rearview mirror, my life is getting clearer…its Independence Day on this lost highway…”
Suddenly I realise. This is exactly how I feel right now. Everything is clear. Decisions are easy. I sit up straighter and drive down these roads, which, after four long years, are finally home.