I was alone on a high mountain trail, ten kilometers from where I’d parked my car. Twenty minutes ago, I’d somehow convinced myself that the loud crashing I kept hearing had to do with a mine down in the valley. That’s what it had to be. Because if that sound was actually thunder I was going to be in a whole world of trouble, and very soon.
I came to a clearing in the trees and stared, horror-struck, at the dark mass of roiling clouds. I did some quick calculations, based on where I was standing half-way into the Roller Coaster Run route. I’d already traversed Golf Course Track, Stables Track, Bills Track, and Edgar Track. I’d climbed up the steepest traverse in this section, and continued onto Camelia, Link Track, and was halfway along Singleton Terrace. Turning back wouldn’t help; I was already past the point where that would be of use, and I knew that there were houses coming up which could provide shelter. But they were a ways away, and the hill was steep.
I stopped for a photo.
I was thinking if I got struck by lightning, at least there would be proof that there had been a storm in the photos. It would help explain things. Still, I wasn’t really believing the storm was coming at that stage. I was sure it was going to blow over quickly and I’d be fine.
I continued on. The rumbling grew louder, startling me with the booms that seemed to echo around the empty trail. I’d not seen a soul since setting out more than an hour ago. I thought of Jurassic Park, how they had counted the length of time between thunder booms to see if the storm was moving closer. I counted as I ran. I got up to ten, then fifteen. I was feeling happier, less frightened. I remembered being out in an adventure race in Hong Kong when a huge lightning storm unexpectedly struck; I had survived that and that was way more exposed, right?
It was then I felt the change in the air, the one that presages rain. There were stalky plants on the side of the trail, and they looked to me like their leaves were somehow standing on end. I recalled a story of a father and daughter who narrowly escaped being struck by lightning out on a pier on Port Phillip Bay. They had taken a funny photo, a selfie, of their hair standing out from their heads. Then they realized what was about to happen, and ran like hell was on their heels. Lightning struck that pier moments later. They survived.
I ran on, up, my breath coming in gasps. It wasn’t the terrain that was making me breath hard. It was downright fear. I stopped counting the thunder. The rain began suddenly, in large, heavy drops, thudding into me. I tried to run faster but the hill was too steep. Still, I believed the storm wasn’t going to be too bad, that it would move quickly, as storms do in Melbourne. I was surrounded by tall trees so I certainly wasn’t the tallest thing in the landscape and the trail was relatively sheltered. And there was nothing else I could do.
With growing dread, I noted that the thunder had grown more frequent. The temperature dropped dramatically. I rubbed my bare arms and ran. Lightning flashed in the blackened sky, and I shouted out loud in fear. I am in so much trouble, I said aloud. It began to hail. I tried to recall the best thing to do when caught in a thunderstorm on a heavily wooded mountain but could only come up with keep on running. Get to shelter if you can. So I did, I kept running. Panic is not the right word for what I felt. Terror. Certainty that I was in over my head this time, that I couldn’t figure a way out other than keeping going. I’d messed up and this could be it for me.
I came to the first of the houses on the trail, but dismissed it as too scary to contemplate entering. I kept running, knowing the trail came to the top of the hill very shortly, and there was a yoga studio I could hide out in up there. Up and up, breathless, shaking with fear, I ran. Sometimes I walked, thinking to save my energy in case lightning struck and started a bushfire and I really needed to flee. The possibility felt very real. I came to the Old Mountain Road section of track and made my way up as fast as I could. The rain by now was pelting down, the track running with water.
Finally, I made it to the top. I looked around, noticed the closed cafe with a sheltered porch and darted across the road. There, I stood as the rain grew heavier. I was soaked, wearing just a singlet and running tights, but I wasn’t cold, not yet. I let my breathing slow, contemplating calling my husband but decided there wasn’t much he could do to help me, so I waited. Across the next valley, the sky was dark with storm clouds. I felt alone on top of the world, but safer than out on the trail. It took about ten minutes for the rain to lessen and the sky to lighten. I worried I’d grow cold standing around so when the opportunity came, I bolted back for the trail. The rain stopped and the sky was blue in the distance.
It was hard to believe I’d just survived what felt like a true life-threatening situation. I was soaked to the skin but not cold, so I continued onto Trig Track, walking, treading carefully on the saturated ground. I heard a slithery sound in the bush and thought snake but then it was gone.
I hadn’t been running long when I heard the sirens. I stopped in my tracks and scanned the sky for smoke, sniffed the air. Nothing. I feared that lightning had ignited a bushfire nearby, but nothing was noticeable. Still, I picked up the pace, ran fast along Kyeema Track, not stopping at the usual viewing point. A ParksVic truck came along towards me, and stopped to let me pass. I wanted to ask them about the storm and the sirens but the ranger was on his phone and I couldn’t see through to the driver. Surely they’d stop me if I were in danger. Then I realized, yet again, that I was the only one out there who could protect me.
I ran on, up, knowing I was only 13k into my planned 21k, ready to bail out if the storm came back. As if on cue, thunder suddenly boomed and the sky to the right of me was dark again. Not again, I said to myself. I had a terrible sinking feeling that I should have stayed put at the top of the mountain. This time, though, the storm did bypass me. I made it to Channel 10 Track, and zoomed down the side of the mountain, loving the speed, the feeling of growing safety as I got closer to my car.
By the time I was at the bottom, there was no sign of storm, except for the dampened trail and the intense smell of wet gum trees. The storm was done. The sky was blue.
So I decided I had no excuse, I would do the Dodds Track loop as well. I had had enough of drama, so was not thrilled by the sight of a large wallaby on the edge of the track junction. Usually, wallabies hopped quickly away and kept a safe distance from me. This one appeared angry. It shook its head at my approach, as if saying, no, don’t even think of coming closer. I stopped. Perhaps I could take its photo? I’d never gotten a photo of a wallaby.
Really, I was just stalling because that wallaby seemed so angry. I took the photo, put my phone away, and still, it shook its head at me. Okay, I said to myself. I picked up a stick, just in case. Go away wallaby I said, hop on. It didn’t move. I waved my arms a little, go away, please. It did then, it turned and hopped into the bush.
I continued up the stupidly steep Dodds Track, enjoying that it was a real trail with actual stones and dirt. It was hard to climb but wonderful in a way. The storm felt like it had happened in another lifetime by now.
But perhaps I was still spooked by all that had happened at this stage, because as I came to cross Basin-Olinda Road to make my way onto Banksia Track, a blue ute came along the road, and came to a quick stop just a few feet from me. Bad guy, kidnapper, killer, I thought, and I bolted off the road and down the trail. I was feeling fast and agile, and my first thought was I could simply run away. I turned around after a few minutes hard running and of course there was no one there.
But my hackles had risen, and I ran the last few kilometers fast. When I finally exited the trail on Doongalla Road, it was with a feeling of immense relief. I had run the Roller Coaster Run course, which was my immediate goal one week out from the actual race. And I had survived the massive thunderstorm, strangely savage wallaby, and the bad guy in the blue ute.
Now I just have to survive the clowns on race day, and all will be well.
By the way, the sirens I heard were for a fire that was started by a lightning strike in Healesville, some kilometers away, but I’m guessing sparked by the same storm.
Here’s wishing us all a less eventful day for the actual Roller Coaster Run!