I dance the fine line of the trail, on the razor’s edge between pleasure and pain, between racing my best self and racing those around me. The single-track through the woods weaves and undulates, fast, studded by rocks and tree roots. It picks me up and throws me back down; I breathe it in, and it, in turn, breathes me out. Who I am when I run these trails is completely different to my everyday self. Here, I am a warrior, thundering fast, muscle and sinew, breath and courage and life. Here, I am my best me.
It is elemental and real and there is no after-image which can capture these moments of freedom. Here, in these woods, I am amongst kindred spirits; I am come home.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We hadn’t even begun.
It is the second race of The Trail Series (I’m in for the medium course again, at 13.6km), and we are at a new venue called Smiths Gully, and something called the Rob Roy Hill Climb. I get the general gist of things – that this 700 metre bitumen hill was purpose-built for cars to race, and that we will be running up it. Cool. I wish I had read the course description better several weeks ago though, as I’d not twigged onto the four-hundred or so meters of elevation gain. I’d been training for a flat fast half-marathon (the Surfcoast Half-Marathon) that I’d done just two weeks before, and hadn’t been up in the hills for about six weeks. No matter, I told myself. Muscle memory. And surely the heavy squats I’d been doing in the gym would help. Other runners were doing the short course (7 km) and the long course (18km); all three groups would have big hills to contend with.
I took the precaution of warming up, running up the gravel track to check out the hill with dozens of other runners. I stared up the steep road, feeling the tightness in my calves. After two rest days, they worried me. Would the tight muscles go snap when tested, like a rubber band pulled too hard?
Still, the hill made me laugh. Bitumen and all. I couldn’t see the top, just that it was steep, and that it curved around a bend so I couldn’t see how far it went. In the distance, my dog barked her “come back” call. I gave the hill a nod of respect, and jogged back down the gravel hill towards the event centre.
My family had come with me to the race today, a rare occurrence with the ongoing conflict between their soccer matches and my Sunday races. It was even more unlikely because it was school holidays, the time of epic battle in my home.
I’m a creature needing solitude; without it, my fuse grows shorter, and my sensitive nature becomes attuned to all manner of unreal digs and hurts. With exercise, I can keep the dragon inside at bay. But when tapering for a race, even for a day or two, a big wide abyss opens up inside me. Call it depression, moodiness, over-sensitivity. I see it coming, and duck and weave and run and swim, but during school holidays, the feeling curves over me like a giant wave, and sometimes we all get smashed in the white-water.
That was my week leading up to the race. It is somewhat better though, because my husband convinced the kids (11 and 13) somehow to come along and support me. He will take care of them and our two dogs while I disappear into the woods.
Again, like the last race of the series, I joined in with the warm-up at the start line, doing my own bounce-in-place thing as I couldn’t do many of the warm-up moves on a good day at the gym. I half-listened to the race briefing, as I’d studied the course closely this time (four hills, the race ending in a nice big descent that I’d like).
I glanced down at my waist in disgust: the issue was my stupid water carrier. I’d brought the waist pack which I swore I’d never run with again, but had trialed during the week’s training run. It went well, no bounce, but here, as soon as I strapped it on and began warming up on the gentle inclines, it bounced, irritating me, and I swore at it. I asked my husband’s opinion – should I run with it – and didn’t listen to his answer (bad wife), then carried it to the warm-up. Just before we took off, though, I abandoned it, strapped it to a bench like a naughty animal. I couldn’t bear it; I’d get water at the water stop at 8.5km and I tucked my two gels into the waistband of my running tights. I felt rebellious and wild and light and glad, seeing that stupid pack left alone there. Maybe someone would steal it.
Then off we went. Follow the green tape, I reminded myself. We turned up the Rob Roy Hill. I laugh, remembering. Up and up and up. I ran. The whole way. The incline was near exact to that going to the top of Mount Dandenong. It felt familiar and my muscles knew exactly what to do with it. Bitumen. Easy. Some walked; some ran. It didn’t really matter. I just did what my body enjoyed best. At the top (I think), we climbed over a strange wall made of milk crates and flat planks of wood that was an unusual puzzle, but fun at this stage in the run.
Just before we started, I’d noticed my favourite race competitor. I’d checked the competitor list earlier and thought she wasn’t running today, so was surprised (and dismayed) to see her – she ALWAYS beats me.
I didn’t see her when we started, but just after we got to the top of that mighty hill, someone came up behind me, said, “Well done on running the hill!” and blasted by me. Ah, there she was. I gave chase, trying to keep her in my sights, shouting out a “Well done to you too” as an afterthought. We were only one kilometre into the 13.6 km run. It was not time to race. But I didn’t want to let her out of my sight. I kept up for a few kilometres. Each time it turned technical downhill, though, I got left behind. I constantly battle between racing others and running my own race. Because I know this woman is in my age category, it is hard not to chase her. We’re both competitive. We joke and laugh at the finish and start, but on course, we both go hard. I have come undone in such situations in the past, ending up with sprained ankles, so I am terribly conscious of running to my strengths.
As always I go strong up, scaredy-cat down. I keep with the same group this way, don’t lose or gain ground, but I always want to be faster on the scary bits. It takes a lot of self-talk to protect myself. My vision isn’t good anymore, so with fast rough terrain I have to be careful. So she disappeared into the distance. I had to let her go. In a way, I was glad. I could focus on just the run now.
Those fast curving single tracks. They pulled at me like magnets and I flew.
We flew. I stayed with the same small group of runners, being passed downhill when it became technical, passing on the ups and the smooth downs. I counted the hills, one, two, three but somehow lost track and wondered was this the third or the fifth hill.
I kept those green ribbons in clear view, negotiating the trail splits until one awful moment I was alone on a small section and saw a single blue ribbon and thought I’d gone wrong but moments later re-joined a rainbow trail of red, green and blue. All the way, I was singing Bon Jovi in my head. My race refrain today was Have a Nice Day. If you don’t know it, it goes like this, “Why you want to tell me how to live my life, who are you to tell me if I’m wrong or I’m right…la la la…when the world gets in my face, I say HAVE A NICE DAAAY, Have a nice day…”
And so on. I’m not sure who I was singing to, but it made me run fast. And that felt glorious.
At 8.5 km, I drank down a full cup of water in one fast gulp, downed a get, and felt energy glowing through me. I’d been training for half-marathons; there was plenty in my tank. Boom, I ran. I can’t recall where the hills and single-tracks and bitumen and gravel sections were; it all blurs together into a glorious race between myself and myself, and all the great runners who pass me, and I pass back, or not. My body feels alive and I thunder along, every part of me alert and aware. Once, an errant tree root grabs my left foot and I stumble and nearly fall but right myself and run on, gleeful but more careful. I hear a man discussing me from behind: “That woman is very consistent,” he says. I think this is a compliment and soak it up.
By 13.5km, I hunger for the final downhill, which I assume will be down the bitumen road. Despair hits me when it is a gravel track and my feet threaten to cramp. I am passed by a bunch of runners here, and being passed on this kills me but I remind myself to run my own race. I have no water to fight cramp so have to listen carefully to my body.
Down we fly, coming to the “wall” again, which I had missed hearing of in the race briefing. I clamber over like I am 85, my bounce gone, reminding myself to train more for this sort of obstacle for the Wonderland run in August.
No matter. We make it over, then blast downhill on bitumen then onto the gravel where I had warmed up. I was not racing anyone, just flying across the line with joy.
Moments later, my family finds me. The dogs are gleeful, as if I’d been gone for months. My daughter is ready to shop for buffs and whatever else she can. My son is hungry and ready to go, and my husband ever-patient.
The MC mentioned my blog as I crossed the line, which was fun and odd and wonderful. It made me smile when he quoted the blog and I had to find him to try to explain that it was not him or his beard that were scary, but the details of the race he described before the start, which I always embellish in my imagination (the wall becomes the Great Wall and is seven feet high and studded with glass shards, that sort of thing).
He also mentioned I was provisionally third in my age category, which made the pain of chasing my competitors more worthwhile.
The after-party was, as always, magical. There is something about the shared experience of trail running that makes friends of strangers. Everyone seems to glow with joy and accomplishment, and the small things like egg-and-bacon rolls take on a new significance. The man sings and plays acoustic guitar and they are always songs I know and love, and seem to take on particular meaning in the moment, and then I forget what the song was later and wish I’d written it down.
We stayed for the awards ceremony, and I got to cheer for Cissy coming 2nd in her age category, and to stand on the podium for third. I’m delighted when Sam mentions my blog and wish again I was less socially awkward so I could introduce myself to him. One day.
Two terrific runs in The Trail Series done. Three remain. I am endlessly grateful for these moments of freedom.
And happy to report that school holidays has taken a turn for the better, with the dragon in me quieted and calm. Today, I had an eight kilometre recovery run in Ocean Grove, feeling the gravel trail beneath my feet, chasing a teenager on a bike who happened to be on the same trail.
Next up, Silvan 15km in four weeks time. Oh, and in seven weeks, the 20km Wonderland Run. I guess I’d better focus on recovery – if only I could convince our puppy that my spiky ball is mine and not his!