The track was narrow and studded with rocks and tree-roots. I’d been running alone for fifteen minutes. The pack had really spread out in the later stages of this 23k run. I watched for the pink ribbons that marked the course to make sure I stayed on the right trails.
The track became more technical and turned downhill. The words of my neighbor ran through my mind: “Keep your wits about you,” she’d said, coaching me about the race.
I was, I thought defensively, taking her comment in a broader sense than she’d intended. Through all the ups and downs and turbulence of raising my young children. Through the tantrums and the throwing things, the swearing and “I hate you’s”. I was keeping my wits by running, sometimes alone in the Dandenongs for hours, sometimes bolting along the Bayside Coastal Track. It was hard, and I often wanted to continue the bolt long after the run was done, to run away from the pain and the continuous and daily nature of the challenges that had become my life.
I was keeping my wits about me, dammit! Now I was going to focus on this trail.
A moment later, BAM!
Like many times of recent years when I’m pushing the pace hard on technical trails and get lost in my thoughts, I went flying through the air and smashed hard onto the ground. My troublesome left calf cramped into a tight knot. I glanced at my elbow – it was grazed and bleeding. Jumping to my feet, I checked my painful left knee (the one I’d torn open a few months ago in a training run in the Dandenongs). Of course, I’d landed on same exact spot. But this time, there was no blood and my tights weren’t torn. Silent cheer. My palms stung where they’d caught my fall, and I was covered with dirt from head to foot, with a large smear on my new Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet.
It took just a couple of seconds to make this assessment. I spoke out loud. “You’re okay.”
I started running again. I glanced at my Garmin. I had run 15k; I had only 8 to go. The calf, surprisingly, loosened right away, but the knee was hurting with each step. I slowed a bit, and took more care on the rough terrain until it felt better.
We’d started this 23k trail run on the beach over an hour ago. I had decided to go out moderately fast, knowing this was risky on such a long race, but I wanted to avoid the bottlenecks I anticipated on the tougher sections.
This worked really well, especially when we came to my favorite bit of the race at about 4k, where rocks covered the beach from the cliff-tops to the ocean. They were about 5 meters high, rough and uneven. There was a slight back-up of runners carefully climbing up one by one. It was a great chance to catch my breath. It was not an easy climb, and required caution. I love the challenge of rocks like these, but I’m not fast on them. They test much more than running ability. They test guts, thinking, and balance. I made it safely over, climbed down carefully, then dashed off down the beach after the pack.
A while later, the hard sand softened and the going became harder. The early morning sun glare off the sea hurt my eyes. I checked my watch. We were nearing the exit at 7k off the beach at Point Addis. I slipped and slid in the deep sand, making my way to the wooden staircase that took us up. It was a tough, breathless climb. From there, he course led up a slightly uphill road, and then turned right onto the true trails. I’d decided to try hiking the hills in this race instead of attacking them, saving my speed for downhill sprinting. It didn’t hurt as much, and I had more fun, and probably more speed later in the event.
Unlike the other events in this series, the pack really did spread out on the course. Running alone, I didn’t feel pressured to any particular pace, but ran solely at the sweet spot I find when speed and agility come together. I was breathless and running hard, but just hard enough. Once in a while, I’d glimpse another runner in front of me, but not very often. On the downhills, I flew. Clumps of sharp grass lined the trail around eye height. I often couldn’t see further ahead than the next two or three steps This was 100% in-the-moment-or-fall-over running, and I loved it.
Until I did my face plant. Then I loved it, for a moment, just a little bit less.
But I’d been there before, tripping over both in actual races and in training runs. I knew my body well enough to keep pushing. I plowed on, hurting, but determined to finish strongly. Both my left calf and my left foot began cramping at some later stage, and at one section of boardwalk, my foot curled itself up so my toes were curled under, and I was really worried I’d have to walk. I downed a second salt tablet and a third GU Gel, and that forced the cramps away.
I finally hit the stretch I’d been longing for, the long red trail with the view of the sea to the left, and wildflowers to the right. I wanted to speed on this section, to fly with abandon.
And fly I did. I was passed by some, and I passed others, and because all three race distances came together at this stage, I couldn’t tell who were competitors of mine, and who weren’t. I decided to run my own race, and didn’t set out to chase anyone.
Finally, we came to the road that circled the caravan park, and I knew we were close to the finish. I tried to open up the throttle but there wasn’t much left in the tank. So I just kept on. I ran down the ramp to the beach, jumped onto the hard sand and made for the finish. This year there was no coastal river to splash through.
I got close, encouraged another runner who was struggling to run on, then paced it on up towards the finish chute. I heard shouts of “Go Patricia!” a few times, and I was overjoyed to be known. I couldn’t see who was shouting but waved and tried to sprint with what I had left.
I crossed the finish line in 2:14, coming in 7th in my age category, which was a huge improvement from the last few races, and fifteen minutes faster than I’d expected.
The finish of the race came together as always: finding my family, feeling euphoria, stretching, chatting to running friends, sharing war stories. We laughed at the dirt that coated me head-to-foot. I stayed for the presentation, where heroes of every age and description got to stand on the podium. It was inspiring to see the winners, to hear the cheers, to see the camaraderie of this wonderful group of trail runners.
I stayed until nearly the end when my family and our puppy finally called time. Then, like every year since this terrific series began, we loaded up the car and began the drive away. It is always a bittersweet feeling to see the Event Headquarters being dismantled, and the riverside being returned to its usual self. It is as if a home I’ve grown to love is being torn down, like when Christmas is over and the decorations have to come down.
What a wonderful series it has been. From the trees, the Yarra River and the pipe-bridge of Studley Park; the mud and river crossings of Plenty Gorge; the fog, frigid cold and beauty of Olinda; and finally, the bright sunshine and blueness of the beach at Anglesea.
So many challenges overcome, so much joy gathered up in a simple pair of trail shoes.
Thanks to my fellow runners, volunteers, and to Rapid Ascent. You’ve put on a great show for all of us this year, and I’m going to be soaking in the memories for quite a long time. Thanks to my family for letting me get out and do what I love.
Next event? I’m signed up for Two Bays 28K in January 2015 but I’m sure some other races will creep onto my calendar between now and then!