“Do you want a challenge?” he said.

“Hell no!” I replied.

The three of us had been running for about an hour.  A short while ago, my friend had shared the fact that he had won (WON!) the Marysville Marathon last year  He discounted the win right away, saying some others had gotten lost, blah blah blah, but I saw the writing on the wall.  He was fast.

In fact, I knew he was fast already.  I’d already run a couple of times with this friend.  Mostly what I remember of those runs was the sight of his calves and back as he bounded away uphill, and his kind smile while he waited for me to catch up at the top of another hill.  Another very fast friend had joined us today as well – his Trails+ ultramarathon t-shirt scared me in an almost visceral way, so much so that I could only read the You Yangs, and not the actual distances.

Here I was, little slow me, pacing myself against two super-strong male runners.  Did I want a challenge?  Seemed I already had one.  We were running 21k together and we weren’t even halfway.

They were kind to me, waiting at the top of the steepest hills, not rushing me, not judging me.  When we finally hit some downhills, I told them to go ahead, and I’d meet them at the bottom.  They were off like a pair of Jack Rabbits – I didn’t spot them at all after the first turn.

But that was okay.  I was a bit hungry for a little trail solitude too, so it worked out nicely.  It made a great change to run with friends on these trails, as I’d been going solo for a couple of months.  I’d like to say we passed the time with happy banter (they did), but my banter was limited to very short sentences to prompt long, detailed answers from them (I couldn’t breathe and run that fast and speak all at once!).  It worked well.  They chatted and cheetahed; I helped them feel better about themselves by being the slow one in the group.  At one stage, I was even singing Bon Jovi’s “No Apologies” out loud to myself, but I couldn’t keep that up very long and breathe too.

After a speedy descent, I saw my friends at the base of Dandenong Creek Trail.  One suggested we go this alternate route and skip the steep Dodd’s Track.  The control freak in me said no; the more flexible human said yes, and off we ran.  I was curious about where this trail ran out anyway, having wanted to expand my trail limits, so it worked out well.

It ended at Basin-Olinda Road, at which point I said, “where to next?” and our leader (alias Mountain Goat) led us off up a steep, rock-studded single-track.  I think there were stinging nettles, and the track was overgrown, but it was a great adventure.  I was almost disappointed when we emerged onto a trail I knew well.

We powered up another big hill, then blazed down School Track.  My friends ran ahead, and I enjoyed dancing among the leaf litter and small rocks, marvelling that a three-hour run could feel short (I’d been doing five-hour runs the last few weeks).  Down, down, down we ran.  My friends ran ahead; I enjoyed the solitude of my favorite grassy clearing where I like to imagine coming upon a herd of wild horses.  Finally, the hill ended, and I slid to a stop with my friends, who were next to a car whose driver was out looking for a waterfall.  Gratefully, I paused, and helped direct him to Olinda Falls.

Then across the road, onto our final track, Banksia.  The ups and downs were getting tougher; I hadn’t run at this pace for a long time, but I was very grateful for the need for extra speed and agility.  I’d missed running fast.

Before I knew it, we were on the final steep downhill, me wondering if we’d make our 21k with this course.  We got to the bottom, onto the bitumen and ran back to our cars.

The ultra runner’s watch read 21.2k and mine 20.7.  Alone, I would have jogged around until mine had turned over to 21 too, but I didn’t want to display that type of insanity with these new friends.

Instead, we stretched, shook hands, and expressed our joy in a great run.  They had gone easy; I was smashed!

Smashed and overjoyed.

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