It was dark when we arrived: head-torch dark; can’t see your feet dark. Luckily this year I had remembered my head torch, and I could shine the light for my friends Kim and Damian as we made our way to registration. It was a few minutes after six, and I needed every layer I had – the thermal leggings, the down jacket, the wool icebreaker underneath it all. The air was still and dry. I stood in front of the registration desk and asked for my number, half-asleep but keen to remember every single moment of this cold dawn.
It had taken a lot of work to get here. Back in 2013, when I did this race for the first time, I was training for the North Face 50. It was a lead-up to the bigger event, and I’d dropped back from the 43 to 21k option a few weeks before the race. I certainly had the miles in my legs to complete it. In 2014, I was recovering from a knee injury, and this race was a much bigger deal. I was several minutes slower than 2013, but finished (with no face-plants too).
2015? I was five months post-surgery, carrying plantar fascitis and posterior tibialis tendon troubles. The last three months, nearly every step I’d run had hurt. I was being held together with Rock Tape and mental commitment. This was going to be a whole new run.
Still, I was feeling somewhat confident, having completed an 18k along the Surfcoast Trail from Torquay to Bells Beach two weeks prior, and a 20k circuit around Lysterfield just the previous Friday. However, neither of those routes had much elevation to speak of, and this was the Roller Coaster 21k we were talking about – there was hardly a flat section in the whole course. I knew – I trained out here once a week (when uninjured). Some of the hills had to be walked/power-hiked, and the whole event was one of the toughest I’ve done.
But my only goal was to complete the course, and arrive home uninjured. I was handed my registration envelope, and noted the yellow sticker. I had been placed in Wave 2. For a moment, a Zen moment that I never am able to hold onto, this seemed nice. There would be less pressure for a fast pace; it would fit my goal of simply finishing to not start with the fastest of the pack.
But of course I’m a Wave 1 sort of runner, stressing about getting stuck at the back, competing even when I’m not meant to be competing, checking my Garmin for pace and lap time. While the idea of starting slower was nice, I knew in my heart I’d slip into the back of Wave 1 (which was allowed in the rules), and take off with the fasties.
Before the start, there was the joyous time of finding friends from the Dandenong Trail Runners. They were resplendent in their green singlets, fit bodies, and gigantic smiles. Someone calling for a group photo, and we all tried to sneak over into the front of the gigantic arch. The race director, who was giving a very important race briefing at the time, took it well – “Now we’re going to pause while the Dandenong Trail Runners take their pre-race photo…” he joked. “…thanks for supporting this event in such great numbers!” We quickly took the photo and scurried back to our places, feeling rather embarrassed.
Before the start (yes, I did sneak into Wave 1), I took myself to the back of the pack. I wanted no pressure, especially on the first four kilometers of downhill running. I’d been there before, and no pace in that section would make up for a sprained ankle so early in the race.
It was hard to hear the countdown with the nervous excitement around me, and I just caught the 5,4,3,2,1 before we were suddenly moving, through the gigantic mouth, onto the paved downhill road. I knew we turned sharply to the left down a steep rocky slope, and I steeled myself. I’m not courageous on downhills – I accept this, but it still bugs me to get passed. I continually have to tell myself to run my own race, and let people go. That I make up for it on the uphills where I’m strong and don’t have to be brave. It happened as usual, I got passed, but I accepted my speed with more grace than usual. I was just happy to be there. And happy also that it was so cold that my feet were numb! I wasn’t feeling the heel pain that had dogged me for the last three months, and I was loving the freedom of running my favorite trail.
A blow-by-blow of the course can make for dull reading. Here are my highlights:
- Finding myself, throughout the whole event, with the same group of five or six runners. There was the “Where’s Wally” woman in the red-striped shirt reassuringly in front. And Five-Finger Man who ran lightly and well, with a big smile. There was the loving couple who could not bear to run in front or behind one another, who took some work (and teasing) to get around. Oli from DTR, who said he liked my blogs (that was a lovely moment). And my friend Kim – of course Kim. We’ve raced together many times – our paces are nearly identical. So we kept coming back together throughout the run, with one or the other of us going forward on certain sections. I didn’t see Damian at all, but I knew he was far in front of me.
- Flying down Channel 10 track after the first few minutes of worry, realising that my foot didn’t hurt – it was too cold to hurt – and laughing aloud that I’d make it across the start line.
- Sweat dripping down my face on Dodd’s Track, forcing my legs up the massively steep rock-strewn trail, loving every moment of it.
- Hearing the kookaburras and thinking of all the wallabies I’ve seen on the trails.
- Knowing the way the entire run without looking at the trail markers, having run it alone so very many times.
- The strangeness of so many people being out on “my” mountain. Often on my Friday runs, I’ll go three hours without seeing a single person. This was a whole different place.
- Realising at 15k that I was going to make it. Remembering what the feeling of achieving something terribly difficult felt like. Soaking it up with joy.
- Singing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” in my head, instead of out loud as I’d usually do. Feeling oddly compelled to ask others to sing with me but fighting it, and laughing inside at the impulse.
When, at 19k, my foot finally started complaining, I thought it was fair, justified, but was able to ignore it. I began the day aiming at 3:15 for my finish time. I hadn’t been looking at my elapsed time, until about that moment; it was then I realised I wasn’t far off my PB for this course.
Then the battle began. I had to stay safe, but that elusive PB pulled at me. I resisted, went conservative, but still faster than I’d intended. I managed to save myself for the last 2k’s, which I knew were the hardest of the entire run, being nearly straight uphill.
And those last 2k’s didn’t disappoint. They hurt just as much as I remembered, but this year, I’d kept enough in the tank to jog a bit. When one of the volunteers said, “Look, there’s someone sprinting!” pointing at me, I was pretty chuffed. I was jogging, really. And the jog quickly slowed to a power-hike up the hardest final rocky slope.
Up and up and surely there must be a top in sight, but there wasn’t. Around me, the other runners battled on and looked how I felt. Knowing we were almost there didn’t help. It was just going to hurt until we made it. With a final push we were on the uphill paved road, the one we’d started on, staying inside the traffic cones. That’s when I tripped on a cone with my left foot and nearly face-planted, but in a delightful change from the status quo, I kept my feet!
From there, it was only 100 meters. I could see the finish. I ran. I saw Andrea Jackson and she cheered me and inspired me, and I pounded across that line in 2:47, nearly half-an-hour faster than I’d planned.
I won’t lie – I had tears in my eyes as I was in that final stretch. I had made it. Five months after surgery, despite injuries, I had crossed the line and I was okay.
Is there any better feeling than the way you feel after completing an event like this? The elation; the emotion; the rawness of the physical pain; the sense of accomplishment. All of this, with the delight of being with friends, and like-minded strangers, sharing the moment.
We settled into a lovely, warm brunch in Sky-High, but I couldn’t really eat anything. I spoke with my friends and soaked up the blue sky and the views from the large circular windows. I noticed the warm glow of contentment coming from the other runners. The happiness; the glory of making it through a very tough event; the stiff walking and the smiling, and the laughter.
It had been a roller coaster ride just getting to the start line this year, but I finished on a huge high, and spent the rest of the day watching others photos being uploaded onto Facebook, reliving the glory of the experience we’d all shared.
Huge thanks to the race organisers, the volunteers, the other runners, and my family for making this all happen. What a terrific day!
The future? Some rest and recovery. Some cross-training. Getting strong and fit and healthy. I just had my first 5k post-race run and felt pretty terrific, so the long-term outcome is even better than I could have hoped.