Silvan. In 2012, the long option for the Salomon Trail Series at Silvan was 14.3km. This year, the long option had lengthened to 21km. That distance would have once been terrifying, unthinkable.
But last year changed me. From the moment I did my first half-marathon as part of a relay team in the Surfcoast Century, my measure of what I could and could not do was irrevocably changed. So much so that 21km was now my usual weekly long run. I had completed several more half-marathons, a 28km race, and the 50km North Face in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Twenty-one kilometres was very do-able now. That is, it was until four weeks ago.
Four weeks ago, on the exact day of the last Salomon Trail Series race, in an exercise in stupidity, I sprained my ankle doing a training run four hours after a big trail race. As my husband wisely told me, you are sick of hearing about the ankle sprain. But the last four weeks has revolved solely around getting myself to both the start and finish line of Silvan, so bear with me just one more time.
Perhaps it was history which overtook me. Back in Hong Kong, nearly six years ago, I had done the same thing, sprained my ankle on the third race of the Sprint Adventure Race Series; so I had to miss out on the last race in the series, and the last race I was meant to do in Hong Kong. It devastated me not getting to see my favorite terrain one last time. Perhaps it was this that made Silvan so important. Or maybe I’m just a little bit stubborn.
In any case, Sunday morning, at 6 am, I got into my car and began the hour-long drive to the start of the Silvan race. It was dark but not too cold, a nice change from my dawn runs in the Dandenongs this winter. I chose a familiar way to drive, because I’m a scaredy-mouse on highways, and I didn’t need extra stress. It’s the same way I go each time I run at Mount Dandenong, and the extra bit led me through Sherbrooke Forest and Grant’s Picnic Area, familiar places where I’ve taken my family hiking. All this, to ease my anxiety.
Because I was anxious. Not because of the distance. Because I knew the folks at Rapid Ascent, the race organisers, favored technical single track, and I’d run most of this particular course the year before. At the bottom of this post, there is a great video by Todd Keating shows a lot of the course (thanks Todd!). The bit that had me nervous was the first five kilometres, which I knew would be crowded, single-track, and with lots of trippable bits. I planned to set myself towards the back of the Fast wave start, so I could go at my own pace in that section, without getting in people’s way.
Of course, lining up in the Start chute, I began towards the back, then my feet, of their own accord, kind of worked their way up to where I always start. I didn’t want to get stuck behind runners on the hills, right?
Off we went, and I was even nervous about the first one hundred metres of grass, each little bump and hole a risk for my ankle. Those first five kilometres were about as I expected; I was tense, vigilant, cautious, but surprisingly, not too slow. Here’s what I see when I try to remember it: my feet, rocks, roots, and fallen trees. I don’t think I looked up once! I was super-relieved to come out of the single-track onto the wider pebble-lined trail.
What I’d forgotten was how many rocks studded that trail. Last year, they didn’t matter to me – they’d seemed easy and fun. This year, they were treacherous. I danced my way amongst them, sucked down the first of my GU gels, and kept a strong pace up the gradual incline.
Too soon, we moved off the wide trail, onto another narrow single-track, and that’s when the fit girl with the headphones passed me for the first time. There is this voice inside my head – it went like this: she just passed you; she’s wearing headphones; she shouldn’t be wearing headphones, they said no headphones; how will I tell her I want to pass when I’m faster uphill and she’s faster downhill; I’m mad she’s got those headphones on; I want to pass her, but I’m scared to on this stupid track with my untrusted ankle.
And then I passed her. And then she passed me. And we played that little game for the next five or six kilometres, but without my usual, um, aggression (?), where I’d dart out and go for it. This was much more of a, now, be careful, you aren’t racing her, you’re not racing anyone today, remember, but...
and then I’d make my move. Eventually, I lost sight of her on a big downhill and let her go.
Shall we talk about the hills? I favoured them, the uphills in particular. I could power-hike or jog them, and because I was so cautious on the downs, it was the only way I could make up some places. Not that I was racing today, no sirree!
On the steepest of the hills, there was a big, tall guy in front of me, directly on the less slick line I was taking. Except he didn’t have trail shoes and kept slipping backwards, falling down onto his hands, his feet scrabbling behind him. It was kind of like a cartoon, except I was going to be the one squished if he slid a bit too far. I didn’t want to move onto the slicker section to pass him, because I was scared my feet would slide out and my ankle wouldn’t take the pressure. But I did it anyway, scrambled up, and jogged away.
It continued much the same until the turn-out point for the 14.3km medium course. I gave that blue arrow quite a long look, glanced down the trail to the left, the way home, giving myself the out if I thought my ankle wouldn’t make the full 21.
And then I ran off down my red-arrowed trail. That trail was the high-point of the race. It was the first time I took my eyes off my feet and saw just how lovely this place was, the gum trees lining the trail, the golden wattle shining against the blue sky. I was home again. By the 18km mark, I was tired but confident, as I’d run this far in training on Monday on the next hill over. I would be able to make it, if I kept my cool. I had another gel, a salt tablet, and a swig of water.
We came soon to a path that ran near the reservoir, what would usually be an easy, danceable downhill. It killed me to run it slow, to let people pass me, but I was determined to finish this race safe, to be able to drive myself home without injury. I picked my way down, telling myself, again and again, you aren’t racing her, or him, or her, or any of them.
And then we came to Stonyford Road, flat, fast, pebble-lined, headed home for the last 2km. And I was, then – most decidedly – racing everyone who had just passed me. I could finally open the throttle, fly as I love to fly, dance around the potholes, and feel the strength I have fought so hard to rebuild. And I did; I flew. It felt tremendously good not to be passed anymore.
Five minutes later, the race course took us off to the right, up a final narrow single-track; I was terrified this would be my undoing, that I’d finally turn my tired ankle. I talked out loud to myself, go slow, take care, don’t jump the trees, just step over them. That section didn’t last long though, and we were suddenly crossing the road again, going through the parking area where I’d parked last year, and I was running for the finish. I made it, safe and sound, in 2:18.
Finding friends afterwards, I tried to convey how relieved I felt, but I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I went to check my place in my age group. For the last two races in this series, I’d placed third, which was extraordinary – I hadn’t placed in trail races since I left Hong Kong.
I knew my place would be worse because I’d consciously gone slower, but I was still sad to learn I’d come eighth this time. The guy at the computer said congratulations and I said thanks even though I was wishing I’d been faster It was stupid really, I should have been pleased I’d been able to do the race at all, but there it was. I’d lost a lot of speed in these four weeks of injury. And I knew, because a friend had told me, I’d been in 2nd place in the race series up until then. I was fairly certain 8th place in the 3rd race would knock me out of contention. It didn’t really matter, but somehow it did.
I waited around to hear the results. I waited through the short course results, the medium course results, the long course results. I waited until they got to the results for the series of three long races I’d done, ready to be disappointed, but wanting to know. They read through the 3rd place winner, the 2nd place winner. That was it; I was done; I had done my best but I hadn’t placed. I got ready to go. Then they read the name of the 1st place winner – and it was surreal, because it was my name they read!
My eyes kind of teared up. I had worked so very hard to get out here that day, to get my ankle strong enough to race, to not hurt myself in the race itself, to not have a DNF against my name. The last four weeks played in front of me as I walked up to collect my prize. The race organiser put the heavy medal around my neck, and I felt like I’d won Gold at the Olympics.
But really, what I have won is the ability to get back out this week, to dance in joy along the trails that lift my spirit and give me wings. That’s really what that medal meant. That’s why it made me cry a little bit, and smile the biggest smile I have smiled in the last four weeks.
- Silvan update (toddkeating.wordpress.com)
- (Not) feeling sorry for myself…of races, sprained ankles, and spring flowers. (patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com)