This is what happens when you start hanging around people who run a lot. You start to think the really crazy stuff is somehow normal. Like running 21 km in the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon on Saturday, then turning up the next morning to run 14.6 km in the final leg of the Salomon Trail Series, starting on the same exact beach.
But I had to do it! I just had to.
Saturday I’ve written about already. It was a joyous day, surrounded by family and friends, doing what I love to do most of all – running fast and far in the glorious outdoors. But the thing was, I’d signed up for all four of the Salomon Trail Series races, long, long ago.
I stupidly (okay, impulsively) raised my hand for the Ultramarathon relay team thinking both races were going to be run on Sunday. They were both organised by the same team of talented race organisers, Rapid Ascent. Of course, they wouldn’t plan them on separate days. Who would be crazy enough to want to do both? Silly me! Of course, when I realised my error, that the races would be held back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, I thought, okay, I’ll just do the Saturday one. Crazy to think I could do both. Especially when I’d never run as far as I’d planned to on Saturday.
And then the conversations on Facebook, Twitter and phones started. Oh yes, all my other teammates planned on doing both. Then there was the Banzai Adventurer, who was going to do the full 100km and then do the 14.6 km run the next day. I admit, at first it seemed crazy. But, well, after a little while, it didn’t seem so crazy. That’s what I mean; you have to be careful who you hang about with.
So there I was on Sunday morning, again. All smiles and raring to go. I’d pasta-loaded for the second time on Saturday night – and that pasta, after the long Ultra day – it was heaven! Not to mention the garlic bread, which I ordered because I just had to. My husband rolled his eyes (internally, not for real, but I still saw him), knowing I was ordering too much. But it was to die for, that garlic bread, the best I’ve ever had.
Anyway, I was re-fueled, and I’d really, really lowered my expectations of myself. I was expecting so little, after having used my body to the full the day before, that, for the first time ever in my racing life, I lined up at the start and I was not nervous. Me, nervous Nellie, the one who runs to the toilet eighty-five times before each race. Not nervous. Not aiming for anything, other than seeing the sights of this not-to-be-missed trail race. I set myself up at the back of the Fast start, fulling planning to stay there.
The race began, and we set off down that same beach, the one I’d run on the day before, when I was going all out to run hard and fast. Today, I had no Camelbak, no extra weight, no expectations. I was light as a feather. We ran down the beach, and splashed across the tidal river, reminding me of the wet shoes of the day before. I almost laughed – I’d spent the night before trying to dry them by the heater, as I only had one pair of trail shoes, stuffing them with newspaper, and turning them around every few hours. And here they were, were wet again almost immediately!
It was up on a trail from there, the one I hadn’t got to run the day before, the one I didn’t want to miss. How do I describe it? I want to use lots of adjectives: lovely, wonderful, joyous, inspiring, the reason I’m alive.
In trail terms, it was technical, not too steep, full of lovely twisted trees roots to hop through, sharp switch-backs where I let other runners pass me. I didn’t care; not today. Today, I was going easy on myself, protecting my body which had done so much for me. I didn’t want a twisted ankle and I didn’t care if others were faster.
Although there was this one woman…there is always one woman. She of the purple shorts and big smile, who passed me downhill half-a-dozen times, who I passed uphill the equal number. We were the same overall pace, she was braver down the steep, technical trails, I was stronger up the same ones. A set of steep rock steps slowed me, and she bounded ahead. I stayed true to my plan and made safety paramount. My stabilising muscles had done enough for me in the last twenty-four hours.
It was pure joy, that run.
Until it wasn’t.
That was the moment at a fork in the trail where ribbons were tied on both forks, the ribbons that were our only guide, as the pack had spread out and I was with a group of three runners who had no idea which trail was the correct one. A fast man dashed up behind us, assessed the two trails, shouted, “This way!” and ran down the left fork. We were all still running, and we all followed. I hung back, looking for other ribbons to signal we’d come the right way, feeling deeply uneasy, recalling following other runners down the wrong route back in Repulse Bay in Hong Kong. My heart rate rose, and I marked the distance we were travelling, ready to turn back to that fork. Happily, within four minutes, a ribbon appeared and I relaxed and sped up.
The trail was suddenly smooth, slightly downhill. Easy to fly. I turned up the speed a notch, loving the help of gravity. Behind me, someone shouted, Hello Patricia! Who’s that? I called back. Andrew! he answered. Andrew who’d I’d just met at the start, I realised. We small-talked as he raced by me, long, lean legs in a red shirt with a great smile. It made me smile, being known, and knowing others.
A few moments later, the blue sky changed. The wind picked up, and began to howl. A squally rain began, the rain that had been promised by the early morning clouds. There wasn’t far to go, but those views I had been looking forward to were suddenly forgotten as I pushed against that wind and rain, as I encouraged other runners along who were struggling. Mothers and daughters; runners in the shorter course; runners who had had enough. You’re doing great, I called to them, not far to go now, great effort! Their heads lifted and they moved faster and so did I.
The last smooth section of road came, and I edged onto the dirt track that ran next to it, near the bushes, running flat out. There was the woman in the purple shorts again! We spoke, trail runner nonsensical talk that I don’t recall, and powered on together but apart.
The beach appeared again, and that magically cold river crossing and then I was running along the finish chute, thinking of the Ultramarathoners who had run this leg the day before. Soft sand, through the crowds, through the finish.
The presentations after the race were poignant. I sat and watched the winning runners gather their prizes for the Ultramarathon the day before, for the race today, and for the whole Salomon Trail Series. Faces that had grown familiar over the last four months, friends I had made, runners who had shared the trails with such genuine kindness, such good humor. I reflected on how we’d all changed. How I’d changed. From an individual, lone runner, I had helped to found Team Inspiration. I had friends here now, friends who knew me, who had shared the intensity of the experiences of the last two days. The race results were not important. What was important was the camaraderie, the glory of the trails we had run, the changes those trails had wrought in all of us.
Later in the day, we drove by the river that had housed Race Headquarters. It was almost all packed up, and it was surprising how little the space looked that had housed such magic. I was full of mixed emotion, joy and delight that it had happened, sorrow that it was now over.
Unpacking my race gear last night, after a week’s holiday following the races, I felt those same mixed emotions. How to come down after the pinnacle we had all been on, after the challenges we’d faced together and conquered? It was hard, more painful than racing.
So, I did what I had to do.
In fact, I did it in anticipation of this coming-down feeling a few days before. I signed up for the Marysville Half-Marathon on 11 November. Because members of Team Inspiration will be out there again. Because I live to run, to race, to see the glorious terrain that only trail racing can show me.
There is talk, rumblings, murmurs, about Team Inspiration taking on the North Face 100 one day. I had a look at some magazine photos of the 2009 race, contemplated the word “Mountain” in the phrase “Blue Mountains”. Time will tell. But once you get involved with a crowd like these runners, you can be sure that something crazy is going to happen. Sooner not later.
My great thanks go out to the team at Rapid Ascent for five awesome races that I will never forget. To the members of Team Inspiration (Scott Knabel, Benjamin Clark, and Daniel Johnston), Chris Ord of Trail Runner Magazine, the Banzai Adventurer, and Stu Russell, thank you for believing in me, and for inspiring me to be more than I thought I could. And to my family, for being there with me through all the training and races – your support and love means everything to me.
To have run a leg in an Ultramarathon, back-to-back with a 14.6 km trail race the next day: I’m still smiling at the audacity.