I’m lying broken on the sofa at 5:30 pm, almost exactly twelve hours since setting off on the glorious adventure that was the Marysville Marathon. My kind husband is making us dinner to the songs of the Eagles, who are singing one of my favorites, “Take it to the Limit”: You know I’ve always been a dreamer (spent my life running ’round), and it’s so hard to change (can’t seem to settle down). But the dreams I’ve seen lately keep on turning out and burning out and turning out the same. So put me on a highway, and show me a sign, and take it to the limit one more time…” A very appropriate choice.
Take it to the limit. What I love to do. Except when I hit it – the limit – it hits me back.
I don’t like to dance with the word limit – it makes an ugly tango partner. I shove it to one side, grind it into the dirt with my trail runners. But the Marysville Marathon – well, that put that little word right up into my face, where it kept on shouting at me: Stop running. It hurts. This is too far. You are too slow. Look, there goes another person past you. Just walk. I bet I’m not the only person who danced with limits on Sunday.
Let’s talk first about Red (freakin’) Hill, because it came up first. Just like that. We crossed a bridge, and bam, we were heading up. The woman beside me used some strong language to convey her emotions; I just laughed inside, as I’d known this one was going to hurt. But I didn’t take into account my recent ankle sprain, and how cautious I’d want to travel. A lot of people passed me up and down that hill – I didn’t like it, not one bit, but I knew there was a lot of terrain left to cover and I didn’t want my race to end too soon. I did the usual thing – coached myself to run my own race, stayed upright, and got to the top and bottom of Red (freakin’) Hill.
From there, it wasn’t too bad. A long (long, long) steady uphill beside a beautiful river, crystal-clear in the morning sun, flowing with power over fallen tree trunks. The trail was nothing technical, just a gravel road, and not too steep. I kept up a strong pace – but not strong enough to get in front of someone who chose to run two paces behind me for several kilometres. It gave me the heebie-jeebies – I didn’t want to turn around to see who it was, and everyone else had spread out with hundreds of meters between them. The person didn’t say a word. I sped up; I slowed down; I ate a gel. Still, this unknown person stayed step-for-step right behind me. It was unnerving. I was feeling distinctly unfriendly and wondering if I could blast off into the distance to lose them (I want a little solitude, just a little), when we caught up with another runner. We all began to chat then, and I moved ahead a bit, leaving the two of them talking. I didn’t have enough breath for talking. Problem solved, I thought. But then he caught me up again! At least I think it was him – I didn’t turn to look, but this other person dogged my steps again like a shadow. I thought I might be going nuts and imagining him, but no, he was there. He stayed with me until the first waterfall, and then moved off either ahead or behind. I still don’t know who he was, or why he followed me so closely. Go figure.
The trail to the waterfall – green, overgrown, littered with fallen trees that required climbing over or careful steps. It was magical, though steep. Front runners were already returning, and this marked one of the many wonderful moments of this race. Well done, great work, fantastic job, we all shouted to one another, encouraging, supporting, friendly. It was a single track, but people were polite going both ways. The waterfall at the top was breathtaking.
And I was glad for the moment to catch my breath! I took a photo, while enjoying the rest. In truth, I was pretty puffed by then, at about 14k. The pace had been much faster than my training runs. Still, when I turned around, it was reassuring not to be in last place, as I had thought I might be, given how hard it had felt. The downhill track was more fun than uphill, and I got some pace up, got some dance back in my legs.
I knew the course description by heart, mostly. Still, it came as a blow to realise that the really big hill didn’t start until after the falls. From about 14-18k was straight up. Hard, hot, lots of rocks underfoot. I wanted to run, ran most of it, but God it was hard. I must have checked my Garmin every km, wondering why it was taking so long, slogging and climbing and swearing inside. Unlike my Dandenong training runs, I didn’t want to break into a walk. I did a few times, but mostly, I pushed it into a slow jog. Finally, I made it up to the top, and turned to enjoy the flight downhill. But – ouch – that hurt too. My minimalist shoes didn’t have enough rock protection for my sore feet, so I had to choose my fast steps carefully. The field had really spread out by this point, about two hours in. I didn’t see anyone in front of me on that downhill, but encouraged a few runners who were running uphill.
After twenty minutes without a soul in sight, I was getting a bit nervous. I knew I was on the right course – but where was everyone? I kept the pedal down hard, pushing my pace on the downhill, enjoying (somewhat) the feeling of (slow) flying I was achieving.
Finally, in between admiring the river, and swearing at the rocks underfoot, I saw a blue runner in the distance. I chased him/her. I don’t know why. My husband asked me about the race afterwards, why it was so hard. “It was the pace,” I said. “It was much faster than North Face, much faster than I’ve been running.” He looked mildly amused. “I thought you said you were running alone for a lot of it?” Good point. I like to run as fast as I can – I just do. And I think I was worried that I’d been passed by so many runners at the start, that I’d better try to catch some of them. I did – I caught two or three. The blue runner stopped to chat at an aid station; the male runner stopped for a wee by the side of the trail. Passed them both, standing still.
Eventually, I did catch sight of some other runners. One guy in a bright yellow shirt and Inov8 shoes became my trail finder. I could keep him in sight, but couldn’t catch him. It was reassuring to know I was going the right way.
Well, I was struggling, I’ll be honest. I’d taken at least two salt tablets and three gels, drank plenty of water, but there was my body, going “limit, limit, can’t you see you are at your LIMIT, you idiot!”
And that’s when Red (freakin’) Hill reared its ugly little head again.
Oh, I’d known it was coming. Of course I did. But when it just rose up in front of me, like a tall red demon, I wanted to cry. The people in front of me weren’t loving it either (“This is not what I want right now,” one woman swore). Yellow-shirt man had slowed to a walk; everyone was walking. I was walking. Hiking the hill, I told myself. I jogged a bit, walked a bit, swore in my head in much stronger language than I’ll write here at that little stupid hill. Red like blood; red like anger. Red rocks, and red dirt, and up and up and up, until, thank heavens there was a little blue tent and two young teenage girls who were kind and offered big smiles. Someone snapped my photo. “Most tired photo of the event,” I said to the photographer, feeling broken.
But just ahead, at 33k, was the oval where we’d started, where my family might be. I ran on, got confused because there were no other runners anywhere, was well-directed by volunteers (thanks!), and found my way, and there my family were, cheering (well, asking me to get the lollies from the Aid Station but cheering in their own way). Some other friends shouted encouragement (thanks Sarah and Claire!) and I saw yellow-shirt man and followed him again.
Now it was up Falls Road, which I remembered well from the half-marathon the year before. I remembered I’d run that hill, felt strong, passed people. At 34k, it was a very different experience indeed. I caught up with yellow-shirt man, who had fallen into a walk. I tried to encourage him to keep running (“I’ve been following you, you can’t stop here,” I said. ” I”ll try,” he smiled, “I’ll try.”). Up and up we went, up that painful bitumen road. I willed it to end. I told myself to enjoy the trees, the blue sky, the surroundings, but I was pushing too hard. After a lifetime, I came to the top, and there was the lovely trail leading to the bridge over the falls. “Hey Patricia”, a friend yelled as he ran by – always a wonderful moment to be known, and I shouted hello back – and I ran on to the falls, where I took more photos (with the same women who had been at Keppel Falls!).
I did a quick self-check: I was well-hydrated, well-electrolyted, my gear was working perfectly, and I had enough water, gels and salt tablets to finish strong. But it was 37k in out of 43, and I was running on empty. Down the Fern Tree Gully Track we ran, those tiny pebbles blasting holes in the soles of my sore feet, and a women or two passing me (run your own race, run your own race, went my mantra).
And then there was Yellow Dog Road. That 1k out and back. A test of mental strength, if ever there was one. Me – Miss Do-the-right-thing – even I had this impulse to turn back part-way. But I didn’t – I ran all the way to the end, and curled around the turn-around markings on the ground and ran back.
From there, it was back to Tree Fern Gully Track, and it wasn’t far to the finish, just three kilometres. But I was done, really done. I’d pushed harder than before at this distance, and all the various parts of me were saying walk. Just walk. I did, just once, when a minor incline rose in front of me. Other than that, I slogged on. I wasn’t sure where the finish was but I could hear cheering. I crossed the last bridge, where my family was standing. My daughter began to run with me then. I thought the finish was right there, but I’d forgotten we had to do a loop of the oval. I thought it was too far for her – she’s only seven – but she was brave and strong, and ran the whole way. Across the finish, we held hands and crossed together.
And then it was done. I had completed my first trail marathon in 4:42, twenty minutes faster than I’d planned. The joyous parts I’ll remember:
The waterfalls, full and strong, cascading over black rocks.
The full river, flowing alongside Lady Talbot Drive.
The song of frogs, ribbetting in the small streams that ran beside some of the trails.
The small trees on the way uphill to Beeches Aid Station – because from below, it had looked barren and lifeless, but really, life was there all along.
Yellow shirt man in front of me, showing me the way.
The shouts of encouragement from all the other runners.
The knowledge that I could take it to the limit – and beyond – and then well beyond, and still complete what I had come to do.
The battles I fought up the steepest of hills, and the inner strength I remembered I had when I managed to complete them.
Take it to the limit, indeed.