I’ve done lots of races.
But none before that required knowledge of emergency exits in case of fire, or detailed action to take in the event of snake bite. But here I was at the start of the Two Bays trail race, running 28km from Dromana on one side of the Mornington Peninsula, to Cape Schanck, on the other. It began with a hill that looked like an upside-down shark’s tooth on the elevation map. The other racers around me obviously knew more than me, were fitter than me, and had better gear than me. There was lots to fear at the start of this race.
When I set out for my first half-marathon in the Surfcoast Century back in September 2012, I sung a song to myself: Stronger – as in, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Uplifting, cheerful, positive. At Two Bays, a different song began to play in my head. It was Frank Sinatra, and one particular line from My Way, as if I were playing an old LP record and it was stuck on a scratch – “There were times, I’m sure you knew, when I bit off, more than I could chew…”.
It didn’t help that one minute before the race start, I was stuck in a queue for the toilet. If the speed of my pee was any indication, I was going to be very fast though. I got to the start, and joined the line-up of awfully fit people with thirty seconds to go. I couldn’t catch my breath, and a moment later we were off. I was thankful it took time for the field of runners to get moving.
We began on the road, on a slight incline. I couldn’t help but compare it to a similar road start in Sai Kung in Hong Kong; that one was much more painful, and that reassured me. This hill hurt, but not as much as that. Once I’d calmed down (the man turning cartwheels on the side of the road and shouting to his friend, “Go Faster, Go Faster” really helped with that, making a whole crowd of us giggle), my pace settled and I was off.
The hill climb up Arthur’s Seat hurt. I ran as long as I could, walked where I had to. Partway up, I realised it wasn’t so bad, and I thought my favorite mantra: “Is that all you got?”
Well, it wasn’t, but even the extra bit wasn’t so bad. The downhill became technical, and though I enjoyed the speed, I slowed, let others pass me. I’d learned from hard experience to run my own race and not risk sprained ankles. I went just as fast as I was confident to go, and that was fast enough. Around then, I realised I wouldn’t need the maps I’d carefully put together in my Camelbak – the trails were well-marked and the field didn’t spread out too much. Still, I mentally ran through the map as we crossed various sections. I thought we were in Greens Bush several times before we actually arrived there, as all seemed rather green and bushy.
Volunteers at road crossings and water stations were cheerful and shouted encouraging things, and made the whole event like a celebration. Just seeing them there was reassuring after so long running on the trail.
Here are the moments I recall most vividly: the boardwalks, with grippy metal footing, and treacherous steps. The short, spiky plants (I don’t know their name) in Greens Bush, that whispered as we passed through them. The barrier gates that created long lines of runners waiting and provided a welcome rest. The runner who ran with one intact leg, and one blade like in the olympic games; I was so astonished by his agility I think my mouth dropped open – he was courage and grace personified. The group of three male runners who could carry on a full-fledged conversation while running as hard as I was (when they started talking about the ‘bird’ who owned the local coffee shop I had to pass them!). The stunningly beautiful view of the sea when it became visible near Cape Schanck. The horses and alpacas watching us with bemusement. The woman who tripped three times in front of me, and saved herself from falling twice.
As I ran, I thought of the frightening warnings on the race website. The Fire Escape plans: the snakebite advice section; the what to do if you get lost. I’d spent a long time reading all of these scary bits, lost some sleep over them, obsessively cut out and pasted race directions all over the map I carried in my pack. And there was nothing to fear! How absolutely delightful that was, after all the worry.
We travelled the trails in a thin, single line of runners. For much of the race, it was hard to pass, but for one section, I was alone with perhaps five-hundred metres of trail open in front of me. This was just after I’d had gel number four, and perhaps that’s why my legs opened up. I flew down this section, feeling better than I’d felt for at least an hour, feeling strong, and recalling why I loved this crazy thing called trail running. Well, the Staircase From Hell soon put an end to my euphoria. Someone said, “I don’t remember this in the race description” and made the line of us laugh, and we slogged our way up.
It was at that point that it hit me — I’d used up all my tricks: the gels every 45 minutes were gone; three of the 7km segments I’d broken the race down to were over; I’d gone past the halfway point; past the half-marathon distance.
For those last five kilometres, when I’d run further in a race than I’d ever run before, the only trick I had left was to say, “Just get to the next kilometre”. I was afraid of the cramping in my calves and hamstrings, afraid of hurting myself by stumbling on tired legs, afraid of not finishing this grand quest I’d set out upon at 7 am that morning. And then I smelled the sea. To the left was the grandest view of cliffs and breaking surf – the other bay in the Two Bays – and I knew, I was going to make it.
Still I was aware of my left calf. I was at 26km when I remembered the PowerGel handed to me at the first Aid station. I’d only planned four gels, and that might be enough. But I tore through that last gel with my teeth just in case, and sucked it down. The calf eased off.
And that’s when the girl in pink came up from behind and passed me. I don’t mind being passed. But she stayed within sight. And that bothered me. I wanted my clear trail again. So I passed her. And then she passed me. And we played a wonderfully distracting game of cat-and-mouse all the way home. I could hear a crowd cheering before I could see them, and the finish line appeared before I expected it. And there was that girl in pink, within arms reach, within catching distance. I bolted after her, determined that this should end as a race. With joy I passed her, thinking I’d won, then I saw a second timing mat. Where was the finish line? I pushed hard and kept in front over that one. She glanced at me, with a, “You again!” look, and pushed harder and pipped me by one stride over the final timing mat. I don’t know which one mattered really; I think we both won. In the race results, there is one woman who has the exact same time as me. That made me smile.
The greatest joy was finding my family, and my friends Scott and Ben of Team Inspiration at the finish. The joy of finishing a difficult race is multiplied so much by having friends and family to share it at the end.
So I did it. Ran my first 28km trail race. I was scared at the start, elated at the end. It didn’t kill me. It made me stronger. And it turned out that the next line in My Way was true too – “and through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out…”
Next stop: the 43km Roller Coaster Run in March. Oh. My. God.
- We Did It! Team Inspiration Tackles the Anaconda (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)
- 28km and 43km races: oh my (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)