I had become airborne. This was not something I’d intended.
The mighty, rain-swollen Yarra River flowed strongly on my right, just down below me, just a small slip away down the narrow hillside. My arms flailed the air, as if I were doing some crazy dance move from the 80s. The mud-slicked path was below me, a single-track studded with rocks and tree roots, the trail where I had witnessed numerous runners bite the dust. Through the first five kilometres of this eleven kilometre course, I had been cautious, but I had been getting annoyed at being passed by other, more courageous runners.
So I sped up. That’s about when I came to the slickest corner yet, slid around it, and became airborne.
Thankfully, the wild waving of my arms balanced me, and my feet landed solidly back on the muddy trail. I laughed aloud and kept on running.
I did slow down a bit though: the vision of me sliding down the hill into Yarra River was strong. I reminded myself (again) to run my own race.
It hadn’t been easy to get to the start line today. Over the last few days, my youngest had begun swearing and throwing things at me again. I had hoped we were beyond these things, and having them return brought back a surge of painful memories. I knew the reasons for the behaviour, but it still hurt to be the target. This wasn’t the ending I had planned, or how I’d imagined family life would turn out. The night before the race I hadn’t slept well, and had woken with a feeling of despair about where things were at in my home and family, about the ongoing challenges of raising my particular child. And today, because of soccer commitments, I was going alone to this race. My family couldn’t even come this time.
As I was doing the medium course (10.8 km), my race didn’t start until 9:45. Having been here many times before, I knew if I came an hour before the race, I’d never get a decent park, so I opted for an early arrival, which meant around 8 am. The trouble with this strategy was the waiting-around time. On a good day, I’d enjoy this, watching the other runners, soaking up the atmosphere. But today was not a good day. Today I felt lonely and alone, sad that my family wasn’t there, bereft at the trouble at home. I wandered around, picked up my series t-shirt, smiled a forced smile, and contemplated running the long course just to get going.
In time, I ran into an acquaintance who took my mind off my own problems. He told me he was having chest pains. I didn’t tell him my father had died of a sudden heart attack, just listened, and hoped the Medics, when they turned up, would tell him to go home. Thankfully, they did, and even better, I heard from him later that all was fine, which was a huge relief.
The time came for the long course to start, and I watched them go from the other side of the river. It was a view I’d not seen before, having always done the long or short course. The colours of the racers shirts moving between the fog and gum trees was stunning.
Time passed. I ate a banana, drank from the metal water fountain, and gradually began to remove layers. I had arrived in a ski jacket, beanie, gloves, wool jacket, icebreaker, long-sleeved t-shirt and running tights. Little by little, I stowed these layers in my backpack, checked it into the baggage check area, and was set to run in my singlet and tights, still wearing my wool jacket to throw in a tree at the last-minute at the Start.
I wobbled my way across the bridge, noting the fog, the serenity of the kayaks, the gum trees. There was plenty of time. I remembered all the times my family had come to cheer me off at this race, good times, bad times, there was no grey. I ran back and forth on the road near the start line, marvelling at how good my legs felt, how springy and alive after two rest days.
I approached the Start. A loudspeaker was going, innocuous pop songs; I hardly heard them.
Then, a familiar tune began. I could feel my knowledge of this song, how it had made me feel in the past. The lyrics took a while coming, then, “Right here, right now, right here, right now…”.
I let the words echo in me, bring me right into the present moment. Right here; right now. Right here; right now. It was all that mattered. I let the stuff from home drift away, noticed where I was, began to feel a sense of peace and joy.
Race start approached. I stowed my wool jacket in a rain-soaked tree, and enjoyed the cold, enjoyed how it felt elemental and real and made me feel alive. The drizzle began as we did a warm-up in the start chute. It felt fitting and right.
The countdown came all of a sudden, the last ten seconds, and then we were off! I went Too Fast, of course, bolting behind the people towards the front, okay with the pace until I glanced at my Garmin to see 4:25, and then I backed off. It wouldn’t do to blow out.
I’d run this course every year for the last six, but each year, it felt new. The concrete path, the turn-off to the left. The wide trail. The grassy bits. The bits along the empty road and across the highway. I tried to notice things but was pushing the pace too hard to be able to sight-see.
It wasn’t long before the first man slipped. I’d noticed him behind me, passing me in road shoes, noted that he was a big, tall guy. He was fast, but he didn’t seem to understand or to respect the terrain. This always made me nervous. I ran past him when I could, playing it safe, not wanting to get taken out by him if he fell, and it wasn’t long before I heard the swear and thud of him slipping and falling on the slick, muddy trail. I turned back and shouted, you okay?, but he was up again, looking abashed, saying he was good.
We ran on. I put some distance between me and him, and kept my eyes out for others who weren’t wearing trail shoes. On a normal, dry day, road shoes would be fine here. But today wasn’t normal: today was a “Slippery When Wet” sort of day, and all around me, runners sloshed and fell, slipping, swearing, crashing. I was grateful for my Brooks Pure Grit with the big lugs to hold me upright as I ran, but still wasn’t super-confident. This was slick mud, on slick rocks.
I kept my pace slow, let others pass, passed some who were a bit less confident than me. We ran across the pipe-bridge by Fairfield Boathouse, and there, I had no grip, and feared my feet sliding out from under me. It wasn’t helped by the cyclists crossing the bridge, nor by the hiker with the gigantic backpack. I made it across, then thankfully, turned off onto the narrow trail to the left.
That’s where the fun really began, the 5k along the river, on single-track. The character of the mud was ever-changing, sometimes deep and sticky, other times, thin and slippery. The path was full of large puddles, which could hide anything; I skirted them. Kept my eyes on the trail, looking for the best ways through, navigating tree roots and rocks, puddles, and patches of mud already slicked by the slips of other runners.
One lovely man behind me coached me. It seemed he ran there regularly and several times suggested the best route among a few choices (“go left here, it will be much easier”). Usually, I rebel at others guidance, preferring to trust my own choices, but I trusted his kind voice for some reason, and each choice he made for me was spot-on perfect. I never got to see his face; at some point he stopped guiding. I’m not sure whether he passed me or I got further ahead, but I wish I could have thanked him for his kindness.
At this point, I was sure we were nearly done. I hadn’t dared glance at my Garmin, for fear of looking away from the muddy trail and wiping out. When I finally was able to, I was gutted to see we were only at 7.5 km. Okay, I told myself, this is tough, but it’s not really far. It was harder than usual, as I had been recently doing longer distance, slower paced races. This felt like a full-on sprint for an hour.
I kept running. Glanced now and again at the swollen river. Felt the mud stick in my shoes. The field had spread out by now, and there wasn’t much passing going on. I was running my pace, and then someone passed me again.
I’d been passed by so many. I didn’t like it. So I sped up.
I came around a slick corner, sliding, then both my feet were suddenly off the ground, there was a full moment of silence as I hung in the air, and just as suddenly I had slammed back down onto my feet and ran on.
That’s when I laughed out loud. Came back into my body, felt the joy of being on this trail, alive and agile and able to run. Right here, right now, I told myself. This was the joy of trail running, this having to be fully present, right in this moment and nowhere else.
A short road section appeared, I passed the runner who had passed me (ha!, I said to myself), but couldn’t catch any others. I was hoping the road led to the finish but there was a final trail section. I had plenty in the tank to sprint but didn’t have the confidence in the slick mud, and before I knew it we were heading into the finish.
58:01, the time read. Was it good or not? Who knows? It’s hard to evaluate race times on different days. There is no such things as a PB that’s meaningful to me in racing. My pace adjusts according to conditions, so a PB just means ideal running conditions and little more.
Though at the awards, my time was a good enough to earn me 2nd place in my age category. Looking through my prize bag, I noticed they’d given me a tube of pain relief cream.
Perhaps this was a joke? Perhaps they thought the oldies like me needed this pain relief cream? (Okay, so they’re right.) But then I noticed the bag itself said 60+ and realised they’d given me the wrong prize (I’m only 50). I save the bag as a little trophy, so went to exchange it for the 50-59 category, hoping perhaps that it might contain a different prize (maybe a speed-me-up cream or a Gel or something performance-related). But it still contained the pain relief cream. Perhaps it’s any category over 40? I wanted to know, wanted to ask the other younger runners if they’d gotten pain relief cream too, but it seemed too sad to do that. The Hoka One One shoe bag – now that’s one thing I’ll be using loads, traveling to and from the rest of the Series.
Oh, I didn’t tell you the best moment. How could I have forgotten?
There was a live singer with a guitar. Just as I walked by him after crossing the finish line, breathing hard, dripping sweat, feeling around inside for how I was feeling, he sang some impossibly appropriate lyrics about how “it was all going to be all right, it would just take some time”. I wish I knew the song. I would love to hear it again.
My eyes teared up, and I suddenly felt so very happy and sad and grateful and lucky to be here in this muddy, beautiful, rainy finish area. I shared a stretching tree with another runner, joking about how we were both trying to push it over from opposite sides.
I wasn’t alone. And this wasn’t the end. Just another new beginning.