I’m on Yan Yean Road, near Plenty, sure I’ve somehow passed Memorial Drive. The road with the number 58 on it shouldn’t have been there. It really shouldn’t. I have a Garmin Navigator that I could have plugged in before leaving home, but I’m not skilled with it, and I prefer the old-school style of navigating, with printed directions and an open Melway. I’d memorised the route before driving, but I’d missed out on an important part – a landmark to let me know where the turnoff for Memorial Drive was. So I’d driven right by it. At least, I thought I had.
Pulling over onto an empty bit of tarmac, I find my heart racing, and panic setting in. Cars whiz by on the road beside my stopped car. Driving reminds me of trail racing – I wonder how others have the guts to go so fast. Calm down, breathe, don’t panic, I tell myself firmly. Grabbing the Melway, I flip through the pages until I come to Plenty. You’re not very lost, I tell myself.
Memorial Drive is tiny, and I can barely make it out on the map, but I find it. Sure enough, that 58 road is above where I’m meant to be. I do a hair-raising u-turn, and head back down the way I came. A few minutes later, I see the sign for Memorial Drive and my spirits rise. A Rapid Ascent sign with an arrow makes me want to sing out loud, and at the end of this bit of road – muddy, slick, pot-holed – I see a man directing cars, and for the first time in an hour, I take a deep breath.
He directs me through a narrow gate, up a muddy embankment, onto a field. I wish I could tell him: I’ve never done this before. I’m from Long Island, New York. There, we don’t have fields to park in; we don’t have mud. Not mud like this. And I learned to drive on the other side of the road. I grit my teeth and drive up into the field. I turn off the engine and take a very deep breath. The hard part – the drive – is over; trail running, I can do.
Hopping out, I make my way to the tents nearby. They reassure me. Mist is rising from the valley to the right, and water is everywhere, puddled and pooled, dripping intermittently from the sky.
On a megaphone, I hear the race organiser telling us that the planned river crossing today has been cancelled. The river is too high – chest high today – and the man who went into it to check it out was nearly swept away, even holding onto ropes. Well then. I’m glad they are keeping us safe, though I was looking forward to crossing that river. The new course is a 6.5km loop, done twice. I do the math in my head: 13k instead of 11.5. I’m glad I’ve been doing 14k training runs.
Time races by: shivery time; nervous time wandering from the toilet to the Salomon shoe stall, to the race description board (which is no longer of use); time in which I search for familiar faces and see Scott and Jan, racers I’ve met but who are busy with others. Returning to my car, I take a photo of race headquarters. I want something to remember this day, this moment. The man parked next to me offers to take a photo of me. “Otherwise it’s just a postcard,” he says. I offer a shivery smile and thank him. “Enjoy the race,” he says, “see you afterwards”. And then he is gone.
At the start, I set myself up in the Fast start area. Two girls are behind me, friends talking, and I am sure they are eyeing me up, saying to themselves, she doesn’t belong here in the Fast start, she should move back. Of course, they aren’t, they could care less where I place myself. It’s me talking to myself. To stop it, I chat to the man on my left about his minimalist shoes, and tell myself to shut up.
Then we’re off. A short track, and in moments, we are at the base of a mud slide. A steep mud slide and we’re going uphill. It is a surprise and I feel like a kid. Shoes slipping, thick gooey mud, finding the right bits of grass that will hold as I scramble up like a mountain goat. I’m loving my Salomon trail shoes, loving their grip as I watch other racers slide backwards, landing on hands and knees. We all make it up, laughing.
And so it goes.
The first loop is all new: easy gravel; a steep downhill that we all walk, backed up in a single line; sleek, flattened grass that invites speed and reminds me of cat fur; painful uphills; thin, single track high above the furiously flowing river; and mud and mud and mud. A few tiny streams cross the track, inviting leaps of faith. I hear later that bees appeared to speed some runners along – I did not see them, for which I am grateful.
I play cat-and-mouse with two fit women, one taller, the other strongly muscled and agile. Eventually, Muscles and I break away, and we end up talking, short, gasping sentences. She says it’s her first trail race. My heart sinks. Why is she so fast then! Not that I’m competitive, but I’ve done more than thirty – surely that should count for something. So I question her, subtly. What’s your 10k pace? She admits it’s around 43 minutes and my spirits lift. Then she says she’s really into triathlon. And she’s just, by accident, qualified for the Hawaii Iron Man. Suddenly, I feel heaps better at us running the same pace. She compliments me, says I look like I know where to step, and I love that, because this knowledge has come so hard. Eventually, she breaks away, flying down the trail in front of me.
We’re well into the second lap, and the mud is deeper, the dry sections fewer. The steep downhill is free though. I run down it, laughing aloud, my shoes holding so well, my eyes finding the stable rocks to aim for. Delight and mud and sweat and freedom.
Thick oozy mud
We can’t go over it
We can’t go under it
We’ve got to go through it!
Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch!
We’re all laughing now: laughing at the mud coating us up to our knees, under our fingernails; laughing at the difficulty, at our feet slipping backwards and shoes being nearly sucked off by thick mud.
I check my watch at 11.2 km, telling the man struggling behind me that we’re almost there. What feels like moments later, someone shouts, just 150 meters to the finish! Those are the toughest of the whole race, slightly uphill, the finish not in sight. I push and push, and plough through that finish, my shoes heavy with caked-on mud.
It takes me several minutes to catch my breath. This has been a tough run. After quickly changing into warm clothes, I wander among the other racers who have finished. Nearby, toddlers in gum boots splash in deep puddles. The racers are coated in mud, and are smiling, laughing. A few are in the St John Ambulance area, a few others with scrapes and bruises, bee stings. I’ve been there myself, and I feel for the injured.
Before leaving, I take a photo of my trail shoes. I want to keep this mud, this moment.
Then I leave quickly, afraid my car may get stuck. I look around, at the deep rut where another car got stuck moments before, and decide to pull out forwards. I find myself moving across the field, driving as if I am still running, aiming for the drier patches of grass, avoiding the thickest of the mud. At the gate, it’s a downhill mud bath, with no way to avoid it. Steeling myself, I drive through it, and I laugh out loud when I make it.
The way home requires decision after decision: which road to take, left or right, choose now, choose quickly. I do, and I swear I could cry when I get close to home and realise I have chosen right every single time.
I’ve made it. Again. I’ve done it. Alone and afraid, I’ve done it anyway.
Inside, I shower with my trail shoes. The mud spreads out all over the shower stall, the walls, the floor, the glass. I feel something like love for that mud, and when some is still there the next day I wash it away with reverence.