I set out with an agenda. That turned out to be a mistake.
I figured that since I’d been doing speed training for a month or so, it was realistic to attempt to beat the time I’d achieved in last year’s Studley Park race. And there was the hidden agenda too, to place higher than third in my age category. I forgot to take into account how I’d feel if I wasn’t able to do this.
It was, as always, a gorgeous course – well, at least the bits of it I was able to see! I have to admit I spent much of this race focused on the ground, which seemed to be almost continuously studded with rocks and roots, ruts and twists and turns. It was fabulous for coordination and focus; for viewing the scenery, not so much. I did glance up at the river once or twice, and noticed how serene the kayaks appeared on the water. They made for a marked contrast to how I was feeling. I was going as fast as I possibly could, holding nothing back, and it hurt.
For the first nine kilometers of this awesome race, I was going strong, really strong, with my pace dropping down to 4:45, which is crazy for me on a trail (usually, I’d be more like 6:00). But I was still passing people and wanting to speed on. The terrain flew by: grassy stretches; rocky four-wheel drive tracks under freeways; bridges across freeways; a slippery but beautiful run across the Fairfield Boathouse pipebridge. It was only when things got more gnarly at about the ten kilometer mark that I had to slow down.
This was single track, with a drop-off to the river on one side, and a tall cliff-face on the other. I’d started out towards the front of the field, which is where I’d usually begin, had passed some and been passed by others.
But this was the section that both exhilarated and troubled me. When the way in front was clear, I could dance around rocks and feel agile. It was when, as often happened, people ran up behind me too closely, so when I slowed on rough descents they nearly crashed through me. I was frightened of injury, not wanting the fall-out of a sprained ankle, and wanting to run my pace. I stood aside to let more courageous runners past several times, but this was not always possible on such a narrow track, and I wanted to run my race as well. My pace dropped back to 5:30ish on these sections, and though I wanted to push faster, my heart and lungs and legs had no more left to give.
I greatly enjoyed the flat, downhill road section that came between this technical stuff, and the next bit of technical stuff. There, reminiscent of Hong Kong hills, I could fly, passing some of those who had passed me, letting my legs go full throttle where nothing was holding me back (oh, except for the calf that was threatening to cramp, that was holding me back just a little).
I knew from past, bitter experience that this section ended with a final one kilometer dash on single track. Bitter I say, because my legs were truly blown out by this stage, and my coordination faltering. Here I knew to be my personal danger zone and I coached myself towards greater care, with visions of face-plants clear in my mind.
I made it through there, and the finish line loomed sooner than I anticipated. One man burned me on that last hundred meters but I didn’t have it in me to chase, and anyway, I was looking out for my kids and husband because they had come along today, and they were my great joy. I saw them and shouted and they replied and I contemplated high-fives but bolted for the finish line instead.
Which was when I looked up and saw 1:18 instead of 1:15, and was disappointed. I had given all I had but it hadn’t been enough to achieve my goal.
It took only a moment for me to question this emotion, to recognise that such goals should not be set at all, that they only serve to ruin the joy of a great day out in the woods. Last year, I had placed third in my age group; this year I was eighth, which again, was a silly thing to disappoint me, and in clear hind-sight I’ve realised I was looking at this race all wrong.
Instead of joying in the delight of the woods and my ability to run fast on technical terrain, I was comparing myself both to who I had been last year, and to all the others around me. I was forgetting that in that day, in that moment, I was the best runner I could possibly me. I had overcome so many obstacles to get out on the course at all: sick children; sick husband; new puppy; injuries earlier in the year; family blowups the day before; a drive that once would have terrified me. I had finished in the top ten women in my age category, and 32nd out of 187 brave women. Each one of us had done our absolute best. My pace for the race turned out to be 5:12, which was twenty seconds faster than any of my training runs had been.
Who I am right now, I have decided – the runner, the pace, the agility – all that is enough. It is not about the watch or the time, or beating anyone else. It is about being there. In joy; in the spirit of the run.
The Salomon Series offers superbly organised races, with lots of friendliness and fun, all trails well-marked, and all of the boxes ticked: great course, helpful staff, always enough water at rest stops, and a wonderful live performer singing songs I longed to throw myself down on the grass and listen to all day. They even had ice baths at the finish – but I was certainly not brave enough for that!
As the kids and the puppy and the husband called, I quickly changed out of my wet, muddy gear and drove us home. With us was my friend Kim, who “loved every minute of the run” and who helped remind me of the real reason I run these races every year.
So…come Plenty Gorge in a month’s time, I shall be running for the experience, for the glow, for the woods. Phew. I suppose we have to do it wrong once in a while to remember how it feels to do it right.