Silvan – defined as a spirit that lives in or frequents the woods.
Perhaps my family should re-name me that. Instead of Patricia, call me Silvan.
Since moving back to Melbourne four years ago, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the woods, my spirit soaking up the energy there. Adventure races in the You Yangs, Lysterfield, and Daylesford with a team-mate introduced to me by a neighbour; Run Melbourne four times; and a number of trail races, the choice of which is driven by location and time.
The common factor in nearly all of these races is that this spirit who frequents the woods (me) has arrived alone, raced alone, and left alone. And that’s been okay. Because I’m an introvert (according to my neighbour) I get my energy from time spent alone. And this is true. I love to be alone in the car, in the house when the kids are at school, running along a trail with just my thoughts and songs. After I’m alone for a while, I’m good company again. Ask my family.
But this weekend was different. And I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.
Since I began blogging about the races I’ve been running, I’ve found a very welcoming community out there reading. Perhaps it is because we share the common ground of these trail experiences. I can almost hear the people reading thinking, oh yeah, I remember that big hill, that mud, that rain. What I hadn’t expected is that I’d get to know people through reading their blogs. Or that they’d get to know me.
Before the start of the Silvan race on Sunday, I met up with Scott Knabel (of recent video and blogging fame). My eyes met those of the man next to him, and then they lit up. “Banzai Adventurer!” I exclaimed, as if we’d known each other for years. Then I realised I didn’t even know his real name (it was Adam). But that didn’t matter, because his smile said the same thing as mine: I’d been reading his blogs; he’d been reading mine; we knew each other. Then there was Chris, from Trail Runner Magazine, who has been sharing my blogs with his readers. On being introduced, I felt like he was an old, old friend. And Scott? Well, I feel I know him better than some of my close friends from what he’s shared with all of us. Ben, who I met that day, being a runner, would soon be an old friend too.
But being the introvert, and embarrassed by my pre-race shenanigans (go to the toilet; go again; walk around like a dummy; contemplate removing gloves and ski jacket but don’t; return to car for water bottle, return to toilet; finally remove all the warm layers and check bag; etc, etc), I made myself scarce for a bit. But before the start, I found the group again, and got deep into conversation about a relay team for the 100km Surf Coast Ultra, and about magazine articles, and then, all of a sudden, I realised racers were lining up.
We said quick goodbyes and made our way to the line-up.
The race? Ah, wondrous! It began with a wide track that I’d tried and failed to find with my family weeks earlier; narrow downhills slick with mud and gumtree bark; a long, long firetrail that went on forever, going gently but heartbreakingly uphill. When we zipped off to the right, I was surprised, thinking that nice, long trail was going to take us all the way to the top, to Mount Evelyn. Map Reading Skills 101 – fail! I had this great plan, a gel on that long, flat section, but it was too late for that, and there we were at the water stop sooner than I expected. I gobbled my water and gel, which came not a moment too soon, but ten minutes sooner than I’d planned.
And then from tired, I suddenly had wings. Or maybe it was caffeine. Anyway, it was a buzz, like a kid on Smarties. Now, I’m not super-competitive, but sometimes someone passes me in a way that makes me think, uh-uh. Like a red flag before a bull (especially if it is a woman who passes me), I’ve got to chase. So when this particular woman passed me, I threw away my mantra (run your own race, run your own race you idiot, run your own race) and gave chase. And I pipped her, got back in front for at least ten seconds, right before she (seeing her own red flag) sprinted past me and left me in the dust. I let her go; she was right.
Anyway, we’d started going uphill, again. The hill where the man next to me said (at 7.5 km in, by my Garmin), “I really hope this is the killer hill they mentioned in the race briefing.” “Um, that one doesn’t happen until 9.5 km,” I gasped. We spoke no more, but plodded upwards, bodies slanting into the slope, feet slipping, smiles widening. Somewhere in there was a super-steep downhill, like the mudslide at the Plenty Gorge race, but steeper and with no grassy bits to speak of. After a big slip, I lost all confidence, and I swear I could have gotten down on hands and knees to make my way down, but didn’t. Male racers flew by me, courage personified, and I watched them, and feared for them, and admired them all at once.
And then the killer hill finally made itself known. I walked it, sweating, listening to birds caw, admiring the gum trees, ignoring my calves. But at some stage, I started thinking of Hong Kong, of Old Peak Road, climbing up the steepest slope I’d ever known while pushing a baby trolley with my toddler in it. “Is that all you got?” I said to the killer hill. I said it out loud, I think, a couple of times. Luckily, I don’t think anyone heard. The hubris gods, who would throw something much worse at me if they had, certainly didn’t. I got away with it.
And suddenly there was the downhill, that wonderful, flowing, flying downhill. It was the Yang to the Yin, sunshine after rain, champagne after bitter medicine. Oh, how my legs let go. Those people who’d passed me before, there they were, and I (forgetting my mantra again!) tried to reel them in. But they were on the same downhill, and our gap stayed the same. So I focused on the absolute pleasure of flying.
The last bit, the single track through the trees and ferns – I smile thinking of those logs that crossed the track. I leapt one like a horse I watched in the Olympics; I felt like a horse as I jumped it. Then I told myself that was way too scary, and stepped quickly and carefully over the others. We moved onto the road, which I didn’t realise was the road at first, then when I did, I put the pedal down, and raced for home. But the race turned back into the woods and I wanted to cry, I was done, I wanted to just run down that easy road.
The remainder in the woods was but a moment, and then I blazed through the finish, puffed and exhilarated.
After a quick change, I found the friends I had made. I found Jan, and Scott’s family, and Ben, and Chris, and Adam and we chatted and predicted Scott’s time, and listened to Jan win first place in her age category.
And I thought, standing there in the sun that had appeared, how very blessed I am. To be healthy, and fit, strong enough to run these wonderful races, see this terrain that would otherwise be hidden to me.
And now, with friends who, before knowing me, seem already to know me…well, as I said, I just can’t stop smiling.
We’ve formed a relay team for the Surfcoast Ultramarathon in four weeks time. I’ll let you know how it goes.