At the top of the mountain, the temperature had dropped. The rain came harder. It must have been near freezing, as some of the rain was turning to hail. The numbness – begun in my feet after splashing into a puddle in the early stages of our run – had progressed to my hands, and finally, strangely, to my entire legs. This had not happened before. I was getting worried. Earlier in the run, I had overheated and taken off my raincoat. I was now in a soaking wet wool long-sleeved icebreaker shirt and skins. I was also hatless.
The night before, the forecast had looked forbidding, with threats of thunderstorms and high winds, but I hadn’t wanted to let my new friend down by cancelling. Atop the mountain in the heavy hail, it had been a few minutes since she had spoken. I was afraid we were in trouble, that we’d bitten off more than we could chew for our first run together.
Suddenly she stopped running. Was she going to declare hypothermia, or worse? But she seemed so calm and happy. Silently, she reached into her lap belt. I watched, shivering. She pulled out… her camera! She wanted a photo of the hailstones!
Together, we caught them in our soaking wet running gloves, and I thanked my luck that I had found someone just as crazy as I am to run with on this wet, cold 18k mountain run.
I was training. Not for this distance or this elevation, but for a 15k flattish run by the seaside in a couple of weeks time – the medium course of the Anglesea race in the Hoka One One Trail Series. I had decided I wanted to go in strong, to train beyond the distance and the elevation, so I could finish with more power than I had recently achieved.
Oh, and then there was the small matter of competition. This was race 4 of the series of 5 races. In the first three races of the series, my results in my age category were Second, First, Second. I wanted the First at Anglesea. And I wanted the race series title, because I had moved up to the 50-59 category this year, and, well, the last time I’d won anything like that was when I moved up to the 40-49 category in Hong Kong.
Trouble was, there was this other woman in this category, who was five minutes faster than me, in every single race (she will always be five minutes faster than me, for the rest of my life). In race 2, she had been away, smashing out a marathon somewhere. That’s the only reason I got first.
The smarter part of me said to race myself, to aim for a PB, rather than to go for the win. I thought about this as I stood shivering atop Mount Dandenong two weeks before Anglesea. The race was certainly not the only reason I was standing there – I loved this mountain in all its varied seasons, and this wild weather was one of my favourite things, the testing myself against the elements, the thin edge between danger and safety. My new friend and I pulled raincoats out of our packs, wiped the rain from our faces, and continued down the trail for the last 10 kilometres of the run. Back at our cars more than an hour later, we fell out in near hysterical laughter – neither of us could undue our zips to get our car keys out of the packs – our fingers were frozen! It was an epic first training run together.
Onto Anglesea. This is one of my favourite runs in the Hoka One One Trail Series, as it is usually warm, and the kids and husband and dogs can enjoy the beach while I run off into the distance. Just one week earlier than usual this year, the race fell on an atypical cold morning, and also on Father’s Day (oops, sorry honey!). What better way for a Dad to spend Father’s Day than in the company of his kids and dogs, shivering on a cold riverside without coffee or a wife?
I won’t describe the early morning drive to the race start in detail. Suffice it to say the kids were fighting, and it was one of those mornings when I was craving the space in between family life and me – the long, thin trail into the woods that leads onwards into solitude, where I can fly alone and free, fully myself, but in the comforting knowledge that my home and family wait for me at the end of the trail.
We got to the race registration area alive. Enough said.
The race start, as always, is stunning. A long sandy beach, waves crashing, sun shining on red cliffs. The countdown comes and goes, and we runners bolt off down the sand, unleashed, running close together and too fast, sprinting around a single blue flag, and then spreading out.
I know this course like an old friend, and run it this way. The sand to the boat ramp is hard and easily runnable. This year, I take the stairs up to the path instead of scrambling on the concrete ramp, and run along the familiar trail behind the caravan park. Half this section is bitumen, and half dirt-track. I stay to the dirt track side and try to pass as many people as I can. I need to make up some places, as I know the technical sections lose me ground. A yellow flat section, and then we begin the climb. It doesn’t hurt as much as usual, and I’m able to jog/run up most of it. Uphills are my strength and I don’t waste them.
I’ve studied the course description a bit more closely for this race and remember that it has two main peaks, but after around 8k, will just descend. So I go hard. I push my legs and lungs and heart just as fast as they will go, feeling strong and powerful, enjoying the speed. But I am wary as well. I know my weaknesses – my vision, running fast downhill on more technical trails. I use my nutrition to support me, even though this is quite a short race, taking in gels before I need them, and even a salt tablet at one stage.
We finish the first up, and dance our way along some beautiful single-track, which is just rocky enough to be fun, without being too hard. The grass trees, tall as me, swish like water as I run through them. I like the sound. They make running fast risky, though, by hiding the terrain directly in front of them, which could have unexpected holes or rocks or roots to trip me up. I take care but still stride out.
We come to the drinks station, and its only then I realise I’ve misread the distance on my Garmin, mistaking pace for distance, and where I thought we were at 6k, we were actually at 8.5k. I do a tiny dance of joy in my head. The hard bit is already over! A little later, there is one more yellow dirt road to climb up. I run some, but whenever my breathing and body say enough, I walk, knowing that the tiny recovery will help my overall performance.
At the top of this hill, the fun begins. I’d been passed by many on the more technical sections. Now it was time to reel them in. I unleash my legs, and downhill I fly, passing runners, unsure if they are even doing my race, as the three distances all converge at this point. It doesn’t matter. I love the fast running, the feeling of flying over the terrain, the confidence in my legs. I have a glimpse of the sea, think, pretty, then look back down to the broken trail. Pretty can end badly when running fast on rough trails.
Down we fly, traversing a narrow boardwalk. I’d decided the course had changed, because the horrible rock staircase hadn’t come up yet. It must just be on the long course, I said to myself, right before we came to it. And there it was. I’d saved a bit in my legs for it anyway, and began carefully down. I must have been further behind in the pack than usual because the typical stream of runners passing me didn’t happen. I, instead, passed a couple of people. One was a woman racing whilst holding her shoes in her hand. I asked if she was okay, thinking she might be hurt. Her shoes had been giving her pins and needles she said, so she was going to complete the race without them. Gutsy, I thought, and continued down. It always bothers me to be slow on the descents, but I am and it is what it is, so I wait until it flattens, and then put the pedal down.
Now I’m running for my life. I’m surprised: I still have a lot left in the tank and this feels terrific. We’re perhaps 2k from the finish, back on the bitumen/dirt track by the caravan park. I let loose, passing, darting in and out of slower runners, loving this feeling of power and strength.
Suddenly we come out to the concrete ramp that leads to the beach, and my thoughts about having a lot left come crashing down. We hit the soft sand and it hurts it hurts it hurts, but I’m not going to slow down because I want the win and I want the personal best, and I want to pass just this one last woman who’s in front of me, and I do, and still it hurts, and just as I get onto the concrete path, a young boy walks in front of me, and I have to skirt him and not knock him down, and I do, and there’s the finish and my kids with their hands out for high fives and people shouting go Patricia and I go go go, right across those timing mats, breathless, elated, alive.
Much later, I wait by the timing computer to see where I’ve placed, and am delighted to have taken out second in my age category with a time of 1:20. Because I ran with all I am and all I had, and that was enough. That was my win.
Still later, I find Ali to give her the copy of my book that she’s purchased. She asks me about writing, something like, should she write, or should she wait. I’m gob-smacked by the question: it requires a bigger answer than I can come up with right then. It is as if she has asked me whether she should breathe, or not. Of course you should write, I want to say. Write with everything you are and have. Say your piece because who will say these words, sing them out if you don’t? Find the time; make the time; carve out this place for yourself because it will teach you who you are in a way nothing else can.
But there’s the nasty little gremlin inside me who says to me, all the time, why bother? Who will buy it? It’s hard to get published, and it’s hard to find time, and there are so many unread books in the world. I see them piled high in second-hand books shops, in half-price racks in newsagents, and it breaks my heart.
I don’t say any of this. Or I do, but just in my head. Because it’s the question that plagues me as I try to craft my third book into being, as I wrestle with doubt and topics and truth-telling.
Of course you should write, I want to say, but it is a rough, technical trail, and you have to be prepared to trip up over tree roots and rocks, to skin your knees and sprain your ankles, and get back up, over and over again. You have to do it for yourself, first and foremost. But write anyway. Because they are your words and they mirror your soul and echo your breath.
Writing is not a race against anyone else. It is not even really a race against yourself for a PB, because you are not the same you that ran this race, wrote this book, before. Today’s challenges and injuries and illnesses and childcare issues and dogs and husbands are unique, so comparing one race to another makes no sense at all.
But we were speaking of writing, not running. Or were we? Sometimes the two seem so much the same.
My name was called during presentations, and I stood on the second step of the podium in delight, shaking hands with Carmel on the top step, and later, comparing our prizes and plans for the final race in the series (the night race).
I didn’t win first, and I didn’t pb. But that day, 4 September, 2016, my body did exactly the best it could. The stress-fracture I feared in my foot two days before the race didn’t eventuate; my hip pain stayed (mostly away); my vision was clear enough; I didn’t get hurt; I didn’t face-plant. It was a win.
We got home, exhausted, opened the Father’s Day presents, and had a nap.
Next up: my first night race!