I’d reached the 13 km marker for the 21.5 km (aptly named) Roller Coaster Run. The Roller Coaster where we gained and lost about 1000 metres of elevation, where flat running was only a pleasant memory, and where every corner brought another up or downhill. I was pleased with how I was travelling at this point, though my feet were complaining a bit, and the black toenail on my right foot was surely going to be a bit blacker after that last downhill.
We were moving up a gentle incline. I believe I was smiling. The red 13km sign caught my eye, and I started thinking about the number 13. How it was unlucky, but my best friend had decided that she felt sorry for 13, and made it her favorite number. My best friend, Kathy, back in New York, and oh, wasn’t that her address, 13, something, 13 Ray…I hate when I can’t remember stuff like this, 13…
Suddenly, I was Superman. I was flying through the air with my arms outstretched in front of me, watching the ground whoosh along below me. Time slllooooowwwed wwwwayyyy dddddooowwwnnn as I stared at my outstretched arms, as I realised I was not going to be able to stumble through this trip. And then, as it does, time sped up again, and smash, slide, smash, I’d done my most spectacular face-plant ever, I’d crash-landed and slid a ways (and Superman never ever crash lands), and ouch, it hurt all over the front of my body. Before I was even up off the dirt, there were kind, deeply concerned voices all around me, are you okay? are you all right? are you hurt?
I leapt to my feet and said haltingly, “Yes, I’m fine, thanks…”
I tried to keep running, tried to pretend that didn’t just hurt as much as it did. I glanced at my right arm, and saw blood trickling along my elbow. My right knee was throbbing, as if I’d slid my kneecaps too far along the earth. My 2XU tights weren’t torn, so I couldn’t tell if I was bleeding. That was nice. But there was gravel embedded in my palms, and they hurt like hell. I walked for a pace, and said out loud to myself, “I’m not sure I am okay.” Then I started jogging again. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I was encrusted with dirt and sweat, all down the front of my body, dirt that wouldn’t brush off, dirt that marked the fact that I had fallen.
I wanted to swear out loud. “That was an unlucky place to put a km marker,” a kind soul says. Unlucky. Indeed.
I kept going. Kept jogging, then running. My knee could cope with the uphills, I found, and there were lots of those left. I tried to increase my pace, thinking if the knee was going to swell, I wanted to get to the finish line before it did. At 14km I was still able to run; it was hard to believe the fall had happened just one kilometre ago. The 15km marker went by. By 17km I’d forgotten about the fall as long as my knee didn’t twinge, but I was cautious with my footing, knowing one stumble usually presaged another.
But let’s go back to the beginning – before the Superman move – before the fall…
When we began, two hours ago, at 7:21 am (first light), the race started in the opposite direction to what I was expecting. After all of the training I’d done up here, this seemed somehow unfair. But shortly after we blazed down a steep hill, we turned and were suddenly on familiar ground.
Except that some bright spark had come along since the last time I’d run here, and dumped a foot of loose soil all over one of the steep downhills, soft dirt, dirt that camouflaged the hard stones I knew were hidden just below the surface, dirt that coughed up into our faces. I slowed down and focused, well aware that hitting a hidden rock would end things quickly. Flying down Zig Zag Track and Channel 10, and onto gravel, my sore toe complaining, and me wishing I’d bought slightly larger trail shoes. Then Dodd’s Track. Memories flooding back: my first run here with Bryan and Matt and Rachel; scores of Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos nesting on the rooftop of a mountain hut and me finding a single feather on the trail, that I brought home; realising that some trails cannot yet be run by me but must be walked; loving the feel of steep trail with rocks to clambour upon. All the training runs were playing through my mind, and I was lost in the joy of it. A quick turn down School Track and a steep, steep downhill, the road where I got lost alone appearing suddenly, and the comfort that I was not alone today, that I knew where I was. The road that led to the Basin Theatre where the Dandenongs Trail Runners group often parked, where I had often parked, and how it felt like home to me. Then up and up and up, Golf Course Track, Stables Track, Bills Track, all names and places I had navigated and knew, and had firm memories of.
I knew the hardest hills were done; perhaps that’s why I relaxed for a moment, and did my Superman thing.
After that 13 km kiss-of-the-earth, the race became a living thing; it was as if I were running atop the rolling back of a dragon, and the only way to survive was to get to the finish. I pounded through 17km and 18km and I was swearing under my breath as we made our way up Singleton Terrace and Old Mountain Road. I sucked down gels before I planned to, and ran up the hills whenever I could, using short strides, with running-on-hot-coals imagery in my mind to protect my feet in their minimalist shoes.
I knew there was a treat waiting for me at the 20km mark, that Claire and Scott would be there, fellow members of Team Inspiration, who had volunteered to support runners at this event. I hit the top of the hill, and there was Claire, resplendent in a giant yellow bow tie, her huge smile lighting the way forward.
She cheered for me by name; she cheered me. I looked for Scott but I didn’t know he was disguised as a clown and didn’t see him. But I heard him when he shouted my name from behind, and it cheered me to no end to hear him. I waved, and watched my feet, because we were in thick grass and heading for the most technical section of the run.
I ran this section alone two weeks before, well aware of the risk of snakes in the gathering dusk, and super-vigilant because I was the only runner out that day. It was treacherous footing, a thin single-track. Today, I slowed, offered the runner behind me the chance to pass, as my niggling knee and cramping calves were requiring care. She was happy; she was running 43km and didn’t mind going slowly. So we made our way, stepping over and onto small rocks, winding our way by a fallen tree trunk that I was certain harboured snakes, and eventually coming to the climb-from-hell. After devouring four gels in two-and-half-hours I was sure I’d had enough salt. Yet still my calf cramped, seized upon itself like fire, so tightly that I shouted out in pain, which I rarely do. Another runner said, “Your calves cramping too?” and I immediately felt better. I ran on, and it loosened, and we climbed. And we climbed. And we climbed.
We came out to the road near the finish, and I was passed by a woman running, while the rest of us walked. I had no strength left to try to run her down. I let her go and plowed upwards. A few moments later, she started walking too. I couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t bear it. “Come on, we’re almost there,” I called to her. “Run with me.” We ran onwards together, smiling, her thanking me for the last push, when really it was her who gave me the last push. We crossed the line together, and high-fived.
We made it. The clowns (really, they were dressed as clowns!) at the finish line gave me both a finisher’s medal, and a voucher for the Peninsula Hot Springs (they’d noticed I was caked in dirt and bleeding, I suppose).
So. I have learned that, while I still can’t fly, I can pick myself up from the hard, hard earth and keep on going. And it is true: it’s not whether you fall down. It’s whether you get back up that counts.
The Roller Coaster Run was a glorious, sweaty, steep, hellish, delightful, remarkable, soul-stirring event. The falling-over-Superman-bit added some drama, but my smiles in the photos tell the true story: there is nothing I love more than a dirty trail with lots of rocks. It is my meditation in motion, my cathedral, and I am grateful every day I get out and run these trails.
This morning, I got up and ran five kilometres. There was nothing broken after all.
- Decisions, Decisions: 21km or 43km (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)
- Lost…and then found. (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)
- Putting the dragon to rest: running in the Dandenongs (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)