“Are you okay?” several concerned runners asked.
“All good,” I replied, bouncing in the centre of the trail on one foot.
I kept trying to hop to the side so the other runners could go past, but I couldn’t put any weight onto my left foot, which had curled up into a tight ball, the toes tucked under, the calf a knot of cramped muscle that wouldn’t unclench. It was hard to hop any distance without falling over.
Finally I succeeded in clearing the trail to let the other runners by, and swore under my breath.
I was 24k into the 28k Two Bays Trail run, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “okay’.
All this effort to get here, and now this. Was this going to be the end of the trail?
My calf had been cramping for a couple of kilometres, but I’d held it at bay with a slightly slower pace, a few Salt Stick capsules, and some GU Gels, along with frequent sips of water. It was hot out on the Two Bays course, and I knew, from the people I saw sitting on the edge of the trail, stretching, suffering, that I wasn’t alone. I’d been offering encouragement to others for a long way now, but in truth, I was just hanging on myself.
That was, until I stupidly kicked a rock in the centre of the trail. That’s when the cramp really hit, like a lighting bolt down the back of my leg. I couldn’t Salt-Stick this one away. I stood on the side of the trail, in pain, and took a deep breath as I quickly reflected on the moments that had gotten me here, to this final decision point.
It had begun with the Facebook lottery for second-chance entries into Two Bays in early December, which I’d won with my terrific (and fool-hardy) typing speed. I had followed this up shortly with my 20k Bayside training run (to prove to myself I could do the race), which culminated in the fatal (to my iPhone) leap into the pool after I’d overheated. From there, I’d completed 16, 22, and 24k long runs in the subsequent weeks out at Mount Dandenong, and along the Surfcoast Trail, fighting to fit training in between Christmas, young children, and a brutal Melbourne heat wave, complete with bushfires and venomous snakes. I’d found local hills in Ocean Grove to do hill repeats, and contemplated carefully whether I’d done enough.
Race morning had come. I drove alone, navigating the Mornington-Peninsula Freeway, second-guessing my exit as always, slightly panicking, and then choosing correctly. I watched the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat, and met my car-park neighbour Philip, who was in from New Zealand for his first Two Bays (he was notably fitter and braver and calmer than me). For him, this was a training run for something even harder coming up.
I did the usual pre-race circuit between the toilets, running friends, and staring in dismay at the lean, tan, terrifying trail runners I would be sharing the trail with. They all looked fitter, faster, and braver than me, and all seemed to be sharing high-fives with multiple friends and family. I felt a bit alone, so was delighted when I met up with a few Dandenongs Trail Runners friends (Andrea, Sharee and Tami, as well as a few others).
The start came soon. I forgot to get really nervous and simply began running. The uphill road section was a pleasant surprise, as I’d remembered it as steeper than it was in reality.
I’d love to give a detailed account of the race, section by section, complete with views, but that would make for dull reading, and I was too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots and other trail runners to notice that much. Funny – I’d decided I was going to run slowly and notice every detail. In reality, I bolted as fast as I could, and was completely focused on time, nutrition, cramps and simply running. Oh, and in getting passed and passing the same four or five runners throughout the entire race (‘m great uphill and cowardly downhill).
Two moments stand out for me:
- A small sign at the bottom on the stairs about 25k in that read, “And she’s buying…”. In my utter exhaustion, it took me several seconds to complete that sentence, but when I did, I laughed out loud, and sang Stairway to Heaven all the way to the top. Utter bliss.
- The moment when the sea came into view near Cape Schanck. I was waiting for this, having recalled that moment from my first Two Bays. It was even more glorious this time. The grass was a dry yellow as far as I could see, yet in the distance, the sea was the bluest of blues. Small rock formations were visible, white foamy waves crashing into them. It reminded me of running in Hong Kong, on isolated trails where suddenly the world opens up and you realise the absolute beauty of the place. And then I thought, I bet this would be a great spot for a grassfire to strike, and ran faster.
I didn’t stop for a photo. I contemplated it, then kept running.
Oh, and then there was the calf cramp.
Let me take you back to that moment, where I’d been hopping on one foot, and wondering if I was going to make it to the finish line.
There I was 24k in, wondering if my run was over. Would all that work be for nothing?
My mind went back in time, to my first ever Adventure Race on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I was running on coastal rocks and my foot had done a similar thing, cramped into a tiny, painful ball. Then, the only way home was to keep running. So I did. I remembered the foot opened back up eventually.
So here on the Two Bays Trail, I gently placed weight on my foot, swore, took a few walking steps, then a few more. A minute or two went by, and I began jogging. The foot, true to form, released, as did my calf.
Knowing I was okay was delightful. But I was still tentative. I held back on the pace. All I wanted was to complete this race, to get to the finish line which had eluded me the last two years. And I wanted to get there uninjured.
Several trail runners passed me. I kept going. The kilometres didn’t melt away. We were in some sort of parallel universe where a kilometre was ten times as long as expected. We ran on and on.
Until suddenly someone shouted my name, and someone else shouted, it’s only 200 metres to the finish line. We ran a little faster, a bit taller, and then the arch appeared. I didn’t sprint. I’d used up all my sprinting points already, just getting there. But I did a solid run across that finish line, completely finished.
The finishers medal hung heavy on my neck as I found a few friends to trade trail stories with. We sipped at lemonade and coca-cola, ate apples, and let the sweat dry. We were dirty, far dirtier than I realised — my legs were almost black with dirt, and some of my friends shared face-planting stories that we all related to.
I couldn’t bring myself to leave right away, and went to stare out at the sea from the high viewpoint behind the race finish.
I had done it. Against the odds. Escaped uninjured. Sharee took my photo and we talked of our lives. I smiled with all my smile muscles for the first time in weeks. We’d done it!
It was only in the week that followed that the reports of snakes along the trail reminded me of the other memorable moment during the race. The one where I was sure I saw something move on the ground just where I was about to plant my left foot. I’d let out a thin scream, jolted to the side, and landed ahead of the spot. I hadn’t looked back.
I don’t know whether it was a trick of the light or of my vision, or whether I had a very lucky escape.
And just like that it was over.
All the stress and angst, the worry, the thrill and the glory.
But I didn’t have time for post-race depression.
The 21k Roller Coaster Run was only six weeks away.
(and now, as at this writing, it is just about two weeks off).
My focus was on recovery, and returning to training to be able to complete this next awesome event on my trail calendar.
Thanks for the memories Two Bays. I hope my legs have truly absorbed Arthur’s Seat in time for Mount Dandenong!
(The eagle and the fairy-wren? I forgot to mention them. They were sitting on the side of the trail during my race training, my totem bird and the feathery mascot for the Two Bays Trail Run. I wanted to believe at the time it meant something. But maybe I’d just been out trail running in the hot sun for too long.)