It began in the dark. And I mean the dark dark. I was up at 4:50 am on race morning, and the house, for a change, was still. I crept downstairs, trying not to wake the puppy, the cats, or my two young children. My poor husband had been woken by the alarm but hopefully was already fast asleep.
It felt good to be up. I hadn’t braved a really early run since injury back in November 2013. There is something holy about the pre-dawn, and I cherished the silence as I got myself ready. By 5:15 am, I was pulling out for the hour-long drive. I was apprehensive: my knee injury after the Marysville Marathon had been my worst and longest-lasting injury in thirty years of running. I’d had six weeks without running, and had to rebuild as if I had zero base. I hadn’t expected to get to do the Roller Coaster Run even though I’d signed up for it months ago. It was just by luck (and some careful planning) that my long run distance had gotten up to 21k the week before. There was no time to taper, so I was going in hot. And nervous about re-injury.
I know most of the drive well, as I train at Mount Dandenong weekly, but I usually start at The Basin Theatre in Doongalla because I’m a scaredy-mouse on the narrow twisting roads that lead to Sky High, Mount Dandenong, where the Roller Coaster Run begins. When I finally came to the smaller road forty minutes later, I gripped the steering wheel tightly, and noted that it was still pitch-dark. Luckily, no one drove up behind me for a good long while. I’m too scared to pull over to let people pass, especially in the dark on a road I don’t know. But close to Olinda, I picked up some followers, gritted my teeth, and pulled to the side. I waited while about ten cars passed me. There goes my pole position parking, I thought.
I pulled out onto the dark road again and on I drove, twisting, turning, swearing, following my headlights. Finally the turn-off for Observatory Road and Sky High came. It was more long, scary, dark road. More cars behind me. I got there finally, drove through and was directed by a man with a torch to the right. The man gestured for me to lower the window, but I was so nervous I forgot how, and it took a couple of tries to get it down. He told me to drive all the way to the back of the unpaved car park, and I’m sure my eyes were wide with terror. But I drove on, thought there was going to be a turn-off, then saw a space right by the fence, which must have been where he meant. This was fine until I’d parked, paused to draw breath, and switched off my headlights.
It was when I stepped out of the car that I noticed it was still the dead of night. There was not a single light. I couldn’t even see my feet. I’ll admit I was flummoxed by this; I stood at the back of my car for a few moments, realised I couldn’t see to get my gear ready, so closed up and decided to register instead.
It was a long walk across that car park. I could feel with my feet that the ground was uneven but couldn’t see what was coming next. Caution slowed me: I didn’t want to sprain my ankle before the race even began. When I saw the lights of registration, I began to relax.
Here was a place I knew well. I had run last year in the same half-marathon, but what a different person I was a year later.
I didn’t reflect on the changes. I simply navigated my way down the steep slippery steps and picked up my race number. The clowns behind the desk (and I do mean clowns – that is the theme of the volunteers at the Roller Coaster Run, and they were doing it well, with wigs and makeup and costumes) made the darkness surreal. Was I still at home dreaming? I’d been having lots of bad dreams recently, so I hoped not.
I found my way carefully back to my car, where I realised the stranger parked next to me that I’d said good morning to in the dark earlier was actually Jon, a trail running friend. It had been too dark to even see each other. We shared a laugh, and then I focused on getting my gear organised, with the help of the torch I recalled I kept in the glove box.
It was cold; I was worried I’d drop the little connectors off my triathlon belt onto the ground and lose them in the dark. With numb fingers I got my number attached to the belt and clipped it on, and slipped on my Salomon backpack. It fit like an old friend. I checked for gels and salt tablets, for the spare water bottle, then I stowed my car keys and mobile phone inside and wandered back to the start.
With no family with me, it was hard to keep rugged up enough to stay warm. I usually toss my warmest layer (a down jacket) to my husband right before the start. Today, I opted for a long-sleeved t-shirt topped by a wool icebreaker, thinking I’d stow them in my pack just before the start. I was cold immediately.
At the start area, I ran into Travis from Dandenongs Trail Runners, another of the many lovely encounters with trail running friends that day. We said hello, and I was so pleased to know someone in the middle of this large crowd. We chatted about distances and training, and I shivered and quickly drank the Gatorade I was holding simply to make it gone, so I wouldn’t have to hold the cold bottle anymore. Gradually, the sky lightened. It dawned foggy so the lights of Melbourne were not visible this year. I felt cocooned in the starting area.
Eventually, deciding it was dumb to carry extra gear, and that I could admit to the person at bag check I didn’t actually have a bag without too much shame, I reluctantly climbed the steps again to leave my long-sleeved tops hanging from the tent posts at bag check. I began shivering uncontrollably. Ah, but there was a crowd, and like a small penguin, I made for the center of it, and felt the temperature rise considerably.
Soon, the Jester (Rohan Day, Race Director) took to the microphone to warn us of sharp turns and gravelly downhills. These didn’t surprise me, but reminded me of my worry about staying at my own slow, recently-injured pace among the crowds of runners.
I forgot the worry when Rohan began talking about the new addition for the 43km runners. I listened with my mouth open as Rohan explained how it would work. “You drop a ball in the clown (he pointed to a carnival-type clown like the ones you fire water into to make a balloon explode). If you get an even number, you can deduct this from your marathon time. If you get an odd number, you have to add it on.” He had a volunteer demonstrate. I could almost feel the unease grip the crowd: who would the winner be then? Was this for real? What if you got a really big number, what would happen? He went on to reassure the runners: so, you’ll have Garmin time, Race time, and Clown time. Clown time! I loved it. I saw the serious marathon runners visibly relax; their time would be correctly measured.
Once the sun had risen enough to make the trails visible, Wave 1 set off. I was in Wave 2, having downgraded from the marathon course a week ago. I was strangely calm. Perhaps because I’d run the course the week before, or maybe because I’d decided I wasn’t racing, there was little pressure. The count down happened, we bolted off and a smile formed on my face that had been absent for some time. I was racing again, and I was overjoyed.
We began on a road, and quickly turned left onto a steep downhill track. I slowed. Many passed me. I tried not to care, but it was hard. Downhill is my weakness, and I was concentrating on short, fast steps in my minimalist shoes. I held onto the fact that uphill is my strength, and let the others go. Soon we turned left and the trail – I was going to say flattened out – but it never really flattens out in the Roller Coaster Run. It did its painful thing, it rolled.
Now I could give you a blow-by-blow of each bit of the race, with trail names and emotions, but I prefer to give you the highlights.
- Flying down Zig Zag and Channel 10 tracks, twisting and turning, dancing around rocks and branches, keeping my balance. Noticing the Japanese Maple that will soon glow with autumn leaves.
- Dodd’s track, not the horrible bit, but the rocky bit that’s like a steep river bed. Rocks in just the right places. The spot where I found a white feather last year. Sweat dripping down my face. Hard, but not too hard. The feel of muscles firing in my legs, of power. Encouraging some runners who were doing it hard.
- The hill along Banksia Track that I hate more than any hill on the course. It is a subtle hill which looks unthreatening from the bottom, but ever since my friend Ben ran up it and I couldn’t run up it to save my life then or the many times I’ve tried since, I’ve hated that hill. I hurled bad words at it in my mind as I climbed, and wondered if it would ever become easier.
- The 13km marker on Stables Track, where last year, I did a superb face-plant Superman-style that nearly ended my race. The marker, I noted this time, was on the other side of the track this year, and I carefully did not look at it.
- Link Track, where the thunderstorm began last week, and I was afraid I was going to be hit by lightning.
- The young guy who ran up Singleton Terrace behind me as I opened gel number 2, who looked fresh-faced and healthy, who asked if I was okay. I thought that was kind of him, and said I was good. Then I wondered if I looked really shaky.
- Old Mountain Road, which goes on and on and on and on. But I knew at the top were Claire, Sarah, and Scott, dressed as clowns, who made the whole thing feel like a great homecoming.
- Trig Track and calf cramps. I know I’m not alone here. I felt them begin and was terrified they’d end my race (oops, run). I’d had two gels and two salt tablets, along with a fair amount of water. So I could only attribute the cramps to lack of fitness, which made sense given that my longest week in months was, well, this week at 43km. Still, I ran on. I was chasing, in my head, my 2:38 finish that I’d achieved last year and never since. The cramps came and went, threatening, but never so much that I had to stop.
- The 21km marker, where I suddenly realised that the race went to 21.5km where I had stupidly thought it was just 21, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it. It was a painful, painful battle, that last 500 meters. I wanted to run, I so wanted to run, but I could only do the zombie march up the hill, panting and swearing and watching 2:38 tick by, which was somehow a relief because I could stop chasing that goal.
- The moment I crossed that elusive finish line, and Dion shouted “Go Patricia” and I felt known. The race medal that was draped over my neck, that I’d so wanted, because injury had made it seem impossible to achieve. Chatting to Caroline, Dion, Liberty, Anthony and Jon and others afterwards, laughing and smiling.
- The brunch that I faced alone, and lonely, until I struck up happy conversation with strangers, and reminded myself I could do such things. And finding some friends after all to share the moment with.
- The pain and the challenge, and the number of warriors I saw out on the course who were struggling and keeping going, who were doing it tough, but were doing it.
- The clowns. The people in dress-up. The fog. The cheers and the blood on some of the runners and the smell of gum trees in the dampness. The long, winding hill as I drove home.
- The feeling of utter joy at finishing what is surely one of the toughest half-marathons out there.
Roller Coaster Run, I am so glad I got the chance to run you this year, and that I remained injury-free. I’m grateful to the other runners, the volunteers, the race organisers, and my wonderful family and friends for supporting and believing in me.
Now I’ll just have to be very smart about recovering because the Salomon Trail Series is just around the corner!