Woof woof, whine, whine. It had started half-an-hour ago. I knew because I’d been awake; I’d been awake every hour on the hour to check the time. It was now 5:30 am; the clock was set to go off in twenty minutes. I was trying to hold on for those final warm moments. Woof. WOOF. She was only a puppy though. Well, at nearly eight months old, she was kind of an adolescent in dog terms, and we’d been told not to go to her if she barked in her crate at night, or we’d be teaching her bad habits. Still, guilt ate at me. I nudged my sleeping husband, who growled, “She’s fine.” Snore, snore. I held out for ten more minutes, then got up for a quick pre-race shower, timed perfectly for my planned 6:30 am departure.
I’m an organised racer, with my gear placed out the night before, backpack loaded, water carrier full of water and gels, shoes lined up and ready to go. I have my routines, and they work, they get me early to races, so I can get a good park and pace up and down like a lunatic for at least an hour.
Except for today. Today, I came downstairs and smelled something really bad. The kids were up, playing on iPods, and didn’t appear to notice or be the source of the odor. It was, of course, the puppy in her crate. She had never soiled her crate in the four months she lived with us, poor thing, and she looked both guilty and very glad to see me. I cooed at her, reassuring her.
Then I quickly shooed her outside, and stared in dismay at the mess of chewed-up blankets, and, well, smelly stuff. My organized leaving time seemed suddenly a joke. Determined, I swung into action, gagging, gathering up offensive doggy presents into rubbish bags, racing them out the door to the rubbish, then hefting the remains of her doggy blankets into the wash, dumping in loads of liquid, switching it the hot, intensive, and washing my hands really, really well. The kids iPodded on in silence. Sigh.
This morning was not going quite as planned. I headed back to clean the base of the crate but was undone by the fact that it wouldn’t come apart. “Quick, get your Dad,” I shouted to my son, who looked up, bleary-eyed, from iPod Soccer. “Quick!” It was hard to see the urgency, I admit, but it was 6:15 already. My husband came down, less than pleased with me, and slumped onto the sofa near the children. “Just go to your race, I’ll clean it up later.”
Okay. So maybe it wasn’t so urgent. I scarfed a bowl of cereal and mug of coffee, grabbed my gear and rushed out the door. I tried to do my last-minute checks, but I was so distracted I feared I’d forget some essential item.
No matter – it was race day, and I even had a friend to travel with, who would do the navigating, making it easier than usual. I’d gotten lost going to this race location before, so I’d be grateful for the help. Kim and I have run together for a couple of years now, usually after I teach my Thursday morning BodyPump class. Our pace is compatible, the talk is easy, and she lives a block away. She’s also quite chilled out, which is a nice contrast to the Missy Stress-Pants driver (that’s me). I pulled up outside her house at 6:38 for a 6:40 pickup and watched her racing back and forth inside with water bottles and kids and runners, and she appeared just on time, as always, and with a big smile. And a half-drunk mug of tea.
I told her my tale of puppy despair; she shared her stories of similar child messes in her home. Ah, parenthood. Together, we have five children, two cats, three dogs, and two husbands. It is amazing we can leave the house at all, much less for a 17.5 km trail race an hour’s drive away.
Well, it was meant to be an hour’s drive. “Do you know the way?” she asked, innocently. “Yes, mostly. I’ll need some help towards the end,” I said, belying the truth of my nerves. I ran through the route numbers in my mind: 17 to 44 to 44/46 to 46 to 57 to Memorial Drive to Goldsworthy Lane, like some crazy mantra from Lost. “I’ve printed out the directions,” I added, handing her my well-notated Google Maps notes, holding back from passing over my iPhone with the route high-lighted and ready to use. We set off.
All went well on the 17 bit of the route. After all, it is pretty well one straight road for 40 minutes. We managed the round-about third exit to 44 and I saw the sign for Rosanna Road and wanted to sing with joy. Meanwhile, the real conversation that was going on with her and my calm-pretend-self continued apace. We discussed kids and dogs and running and school and work and husbands, and I tried to stay focused on the cars around me, and the route.
We came to a turn. 46 was signed to the left. I knew this bit of the route, had mentally rehearsed it. We went first on 44, then 44/46, then 46. I had memorized it to make sure I didn’t go the wrong way on this tricky bit. “Are you sure we turn here?” she quizzed, “we haven’t gone through the round-about…” “I think so,” I said. There was traffic waiting, rushing the decision, and the sign said 46. I turned left.
I wanted her to tell me firmly, “No, go this way,” but she didn’t and we drove on. I glanced at the shops as we passed. I began to feel uneasy. “I don’t remember that strip of shops,” I mused aloud. I’d been up here three times. This was supposed to be looking rural. Something was wrong. We drove on, talking, but after ten minutes, I pulled over. “Let’s have a look at the map on my phone,” I said, pulling it out, tapping the icon, looking for the blue dot that marked our place, for the red line that traced the route.
They’d disappeared! I quickly typed in Yellow Gum Park, and asked for directions again from where we were. But no – that couldn’t be! The blue dot – where we were – us – was down near Fairfield! How in God’s name could we be near Fairfield! Instead of being 10 minutes from the race start for our planned 7:40 park, the directions said we were 35 (!) minutes away. I quickly swore and closed the App, opened a different one (Google Map was obviously broken, the satellite GPS was getting it all wrong), but no, the blue dot on the second App was in the same spot. Fairfield. Oh God!
I told her, then handed her the phone to watch the progress of the blue dot when we pulled out. “Yup,” she said calmly, “we’re going the wrong way. You’ll have to turn around.”
“What! Do a u-turn! Really??” I’d already pulled into the u-turn lane.
“Yup.” How come she was so calm? This was crazy. We’d never make it now. I fought the urge to cry and swear and simply did the u-turn.
Then we gunned it. Ok, under-the-speed-limit gunned it. We lost our way once more, but we were now vigilant and found it back, found Greensborough Highway, Memorial Drive, and Goldsworthy Lane. We began to laugh. “We can always do a shorter course if we’re late,” I quipped, half-meaning it. The 17.5 km started at 8:40 am; it was now 7:55. We’d make it okay. Traffic backed up with other cars going to the race, and before we knew it, we were being directed to park in a muddy field. Phew. I felt like I’d already run a few races just getting to the start!
Turns out we had plenty of time for the usual pre-race toilets stops, bag check, removal of layers. At 8:40 the race set off, and I was so grateful to be there, I forgot to even be stressed. I simply started running.
And that’s where the real fun began. Last race, I’d gone out too fast, so today I was determined to slow down and enjoy the views. The trail was immediately rough and rock-studded. I felt strong and agile. I didn’t worry about racing for those first five minutes, just soaked up the joy of movement. And then I began to bolt through gaps, to search out the sweet spot of the field where we were all about the same pace. Once there, it was a matter of being passed on downhills and technical sections, and passing the same people on the ups.
This race had the added joy of four river crossings. Unlike previous years where crossing the river had been swift (and scary, because everyone but me wanted to sprint down the slick downhill to the river), I got stuck behind a long line of people waiting to cross. I eavesdropped on conversations around me, and waited, debating whether to run down the side of these people waiting (why were they waiting?), and realized that would be deemed rude, so shuffled my feet and glanced at my Garmin. The woman behind me was nervous – she’d never done a water crossing in shoes before. As we slid down the trail to the river, I gave her a few tips on how to plant her feet on the slick track, as she seemed in danger of sliding down, and was glad to see her keep her feet.
I’ve crossed many rivers in my shoes in my ten years of trail running, but I remember the fear of the first time, and was glad I could help her. “Will I be cold?” she questioned. “No, you’ll be fine,” I lied, “just ten feet from the river by that pink ribbon, and you’ll warm up.” I pointed. She smiled. She’d know soon enough whether she’d be cold – I would be, but there was no need to worry her more.
I finally arrived at the crossing, reassured to see the familiar rope strung across to help racers. Except no one was using it! My mouth dropped open. The racers were scrambling over the top of the falls, on the exposed rocks – slipping and sliding. I couldn’t watch. It was the most hazardous spot to cross the river, in my experience.
I looked at the rope again, and reached for it. It was too high alone – it needed a bunch of us to be hanging on it to bring it down so it would work, but no one else was game, they all wanted to go the rock way across the top of the falls. Maybe they were right, but I wasn’t too keen on slipping.
I let go of too-high-alone rope, and waded across below the rock bridge, putting my hands down for a bit of support (mistake, my sleeves got soaked). But it was easy, and not slippery, and I scrambled up the bank and didn’t look back. I have learned not to follow others, that the apparently easy way may not be easy for me. But I think the others waiting didn’t know quite what to make of me. I wonder if any others took my route. I wonder what the scared woman thought – probably that she shouldn’t have taken advice from an obvious nutter.
No matter, we were off and running again. Slippery grass, rocky trails, and my favorite switch-back sections of single-track were all to come. All required agility and care, and I tried to keep my step light and quick. I had found my sweet spot, and the same four or five runners clustered together, alternating who was first and who was second depending on the terrain. Nearly all were polite, asking to pass, saying nice things, being considerate.
Then there was iPod guy. Both headphones in. Oblivious that others wanted to pass him. That I wanted to pass him. I said excuse me. Said it louder. Waited for a wider section of trail to pass. And waited. It was lots of single track. Finally the chance came, but when I made my move, he sped up. I tapped his shoulder. He ignored me. Now I was getting pissed off. Was he being purposely obstructive, or didn’t he have a clue? It began to seem like it was purposeful. So finally, when there was enough of a trail, I blasted past him without saying thank you (not like me), and ran as fast as I could to not have to deal with him again. Sadly, we were the same pace, and played this game several more times during the race. I saw him at the finish and he had removed the headphones and was smiling and chatting, so I’ve recast him – he is no longer the obstructive villain, but the clueless iPod man.
In any case, that single track was glorious, the glimpses I had of nature in the moments I looked up were terrific. I smiled for photographers, gloried in the hills I’ve gotten better at climbing, and ran as fast as I could while still enjoying myself. Three more cold river crossings later, with about two kilometers to go, the words of my running coach came to mind. This was the point in the race to begin “reeling people in”, so I tried to do that a bit, making up for some of the people who had passed me on rougher ground. I got in front of Kim, who had passed me an hour earlier, then a few other women. Then the trail became a steep gravel road, and I flew. I’d practiced fast downhill running two weeks ago, so I tried to keep the technique right, fast feet, short strides, and passed a few more people.
A final two steep climbs, where most were swearing, and I was happy because I could “reel in” a few more who’d passed me, a glance at the Blue Lake, and suddenly we were at the Suunto Sprint sign. “Yeah, right, sprint,” I thought. I had no sprint left in me, but ran across that finish line in great joy anyway.
When I’d caught my breath, I let myself be swept up by the overflowing enthusiasm of the finish area, where everyone was sharing stories of adventure and mud, live music was playing, and finishers kept coming through to huge claps and cheers.
I found some friends, who looked at me strangely and gestured to my face. I blushed. I’d forgotten. On one of the muddier climbs out of a river, I’d put my hands down to help myself up and come up mud-handed. As I was completely alone, I decided to stripe my face on both sides, like Bear Grylls. Because this was an adventure and it seemed appropriate. Assuming it would sweat/wear off before the finish. Apparently it hadn’t.
I laughed out loud. It was just that sort of day. A day with an upset puppy, a road trip that didn’t quite go to plan, a lot of glorious mud and single-track, and a day for muddy stripes of victory on my cheeks.
I came 12th in my age category in 2:06, slower than last year by 8 minutes. I put that down to the river crossing waiting times, and to my deciding to consciously run slower and with more presence. It was well worth it.
Just before we left, I picked up my “Tales from the Trail” prize that I won for my blog about the last race. Terrific Salomon gear that I will certainly be using right away. Thanks Rapid Ascent and Salomon, for the gear, and for an outstanding day of adventure.