Golden wattle, a nervous heart, and 18km.

“You could always go on Tuesday,” my husband said.  I’d skipped Friday because my ankle wasn’t ready for real trails, we were away for the weekend, and I’d planned this 18km run for Monday morning.  But I was feeling nervous.  It was more than nervous.  It was a crisis of confidence.

Over the last five years, I’d run so many trails injury-free.  I’d somehow forgotten that I could get injured, that I could sprain ankles.  Because I’d gone all minimalist, I’d somehow thought I was invincible.  When it turned out I wasn’t, it came as a shock.  I’d spent the last three weeks rebuilding the tendons and muscles, but I hadn’t yet recovered my confidence.  All I kept thinking about was what I would do if I turned an ankle all alone, out in the middle of nowhere.  This hadn’t even occurred to me before – I’d been too busy being scared of bad guys and figuring out how I’d evade them to think about hurting myself.

But this worry – this lack of confidence in my ability –  it was really why I was questioning when to run in the Dandenongs again, and whether I should be doing the next race in the Salomon Trail Series in five days time.  Although last week I’d covered 26km, half of my usual training distance, and held up okay (with the help of a few Voltarin!), that was all in Bayside, and close to home.

This mountain run had me nervous.  I’d planned on heading out to the race course at Silvan on Friday, but couldn’t find a friend able to join me, and didn’t like the idea of navigating a new course alone with a partially healed ankle.  So I didn’t go.

Now, Monday morning had come, and I still hadn’t decided what to do.  Instead of contemplating it more, I just filled up my Salomon water reservoir, added a few gels and salt tablets, and tucked in the well-worn map of the trails around Mount Dandenong.  I didn’t need a map; I’d run these trails so often, I knew the way by heart.  I also knew that, although Tuesday was a possibility, if I didn’t go today, it was because I was scared, and that fear would only grow.  Soon, I would be a prisoner again, afraid to run alone when and where I wanted to.

Usually I enjoy the hour’s drive to get to the trail head.  Today, I didn’t.  I was nervous, my ankle hurting as I drove, and I was questioning the wisdom of what I was doing.  On the radio, the weatherman said:  “We’re expected snow today at elevations above 500 metres, at places like Mount Dandenong.”  He said it like it was of little consequence, just a tasty tidbit of news.  Snow.  I’d never run trails in snow.  I gripped the steering wheel a little tighter.

But the closer I got, the more my return to Mount Dandenong felt like a homecoming.  There was the mountain, the gum trees, the horses that grazed near where I parked.  I knew these roads, I knew these woods.

When I got out of the car, the air had a distinct bite.  I decided to run in my running gloves and thermal top, knowing I’d be slower than usual.  There was no other car, no other person, not even a dog barking.  The only sound was the wind, and the call of the sulfur-crested cockatoos.  I’d been hungering for solitude; it was perfect.

I set off gingerly on the tiny trail leading to the entrance to the woods, worried even there, where I never ever worried.  My ankle held out.  I continued on.

I’d like to tell you it was a luxuriant run back to freedom, but that would not be true.  I was fully conscious every step of how risky this was.  If my ankle turned, it would be a long way back to my car, up to ten kilometres away at the furthest point.  I went slowly.  Each rock, each tree root, each washed-out area of track kept my full attention.  I saw no one, not a single person, for more than an hour.  Then, out of nowhere a man appeared, the kind I fear most, a single man without a dog or a friend, coming towards me on a narrow trail.  And me, not fully able to run away.  I had a moment of panic, a “what should I do?”, and then slowed my pace and gave him a good looking over.  He looked normal enough and was wearing hiking boots.  I decided if he was a bad guy, I’d have to dart out of his way as we passed each other, and race away uphill.  As it turned out, he simply said, “good morning” and I said it back, and we passed each other.  I looked back once, but he was gone.  Phew.

By then I was ten kilometres in.  I coached myself to stay conscious, to watch my footing, but then the sun came out from behind a cloud and bathed me for a few minutes in warm, golden light, and I forgot to be nervous. Water was running down in sections, and the air smelled of spring, and the idea of snow suddenly seemed laughable.  It was then I noticed the golden wattle glowing amidst the olive and brown of the gum trees, and smiled when I realised I had made it to a new season, an unseen season, for me, in the Dandenongs.  It was golden wattle season, and I hadn’t missed it.  I stopped for a photo.

Photo: Golden wattle at Mount Dandenong this morning. Delighted to have managed a slow, stable 18km. Like coming home again. Snow was in the forecast for Mount Dandenong - unbelievable!

Golden wattle at Mount Dandenong this morning.

Soon I came to what I had been fearing most.  Trig Track is a narrow single track, studded with rocks and tree roots.  It is cambered in the exact wrong direction for my sprained ankle, and was the hardest section of the run.  I mainly hiked it, cautiously testing each step before committing.  From there, trail works had seen the steepest of uphills lined with slippery gravel, and it was nearly my undoing, as my feet slid out from under me several times.

But I had made it to the summit.  God, it was cold.  At some point, I’d stripped off my gloves and thermal top, and was now just in a long-sleeved running shirt.  I didn’t want to stop to put them back on.  I told the mountain that, if it was going to snow, now would be the time.  I willed that snow.  But it didn’t come.

All that came was a furious, biting wind that mocked my thoughts of spring, and along the trail, several felled trees and large branches that made me think the time had come for a bit of speed.  My ankle felt good, and my confidence was growing.  Still, I increased only a bit, recalling that my accidents tend to happen when the terrain has grown easier.  I wouldn’t be lulled.

Down, down, down I ran, past the burned-out trees from last summer’s planned burn, beyond the spot I stared into a wallaby’s eyes a few months ago, beyond the bare trees that had glowed red and golden in the autumn.  Camellias were in bloom at the old abandoned homestead, and a few trees nearby still held their autumn leaves.  Before I knew it, I was on the last single track towards my car.  Only one fallen tree along there, plus lots of deadly roots and rocks, but I had begun dancing around them like I used to.

After a little more than two hours, I made it safely back to my car.  Eighteen kilometers just one valley over from where Sunday’s race will be run.

But this is not about that race.  This is about celebrating the tiny bit of confidence that I grew back today.  It was a hard eighteen kilometres, the hardest I have run in a long time.  Every one of those kilometres will remain long in my memory as a time of healing, at this strange intersection between winter and spring.

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