Running in the sunshine bores me. Smooth trails and dry footing and calm smooth rivers: big, sullen yawns.
So when I woke to the ongoing rain on Sunday morning at four am (well, I say woke, I should say, when I glanced again at the clock), I was happy. I got up early, though, expecting the roads to be flooded and traffic heavy. I was headed for the long course (15km) in Race 1 of The Trail Running Series, held in Westerfolds Park, in a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria (Australia), in the dead of winter.
I arrived at Westerfolds Park before dawn, before even first light. I knew to turn right once I entered the park, but that’s all I knew. No one had arrived yet, and there was no signage up for the race. There were a few cars parked in a lonely section and I nearly parked near them, but I got scared, being a woman alone, and drove off. I navigated by Google Maps, trying out various pitch-dark areas, reading misleading signs and wondering where I was.
Then, in the distance: light!
Race Headquarters was glowing in the dark. I made my way towards it, staying somehow on the road, and finally parked just across from the tents. When I switched off my headlights, I was met with utter darkness, but for race headquarters.
I was even earlier than usual but this really didn’t matter. I sat in silence and watched the rain. I had nowhere to go until 8:30, and it was only 6:45. The rain fell hard and then softly, and began to flow in thin rivers through the wet park. The sky gradually turned a lighter shade of grey and a kookaburra appeared, soaked, in the tree branches in front of my car. It didn’t seem moved by the rain.
In time, a few friends texted that they were on the way, but none of us wanted to exit our cars into the rain. It was unlike any event I’ve ever attended in this way, and it was kind of neat. We were all hidden in the solitude of our cars in the pouring rain, gazing at race headquarters and wondering when to come out.
Finally, I decided to brave a toilet run, and was immediately soaked. My shoes filled with water, my socks were saturated and I was laughing my head off, jumping around the rivers that had formed in this grassy park. Thankfully, I still had my waterproof hiking pants and ski jacket on, so I didn’t really get wet.
Inside the car, at about 8 am, I stripped off all my outer layers, down to 2XU tights, a singlet, and a light rain jacket. I slipped my running pack on top, and became like that Kookaburra, unafraid of the rain. I got out about 8:10 am for an 8:20 warmup.
We warmed up, my friend Andrea and I next to one another, while the HIIT Factory encouraged us to stretch more than I ever do, and I jogged in place and got warm. I quickly removed my rain jacket and tucked it in my pack. Andrea said, monkey see, monkey do, and removed hers too.
It was still raining and we were already wet and cold, but it didn’t matter; this was what we’d come for, and the conditions were nearly identical to a training run we’d done a week before.
The race began. I didn’t have time to feel nervous; we were just off. Oh, it was blisteringly fun! I’ve never felt stronger in a run, especially on the smoother sections, where I could fly. Soon, we hit the puddles though. I say puddles; they were more like rivers. Sections where the entire trail became like a river-bed and we could only skirt the edges on either side or plow through the centre. I chose my plowing sections with care; the trails were often criss-crossed with tree roots that could be hidden under all the water, so I tended to skirt these, and plow through the ones on the road.
It was no matter: we were soaked and I was having the time of my life. I’d found my sweet spot where the same three or four of us kept passing each other (I’m slower on technical stuff but faster uphill and on the flat), and the field spread out enough to really open up the legs.
Several times we crossed bridges across the fast-flowing Yarra, whose turbulent waters were a delight, grey and white and wild and just what I had been longing to see. Around me were runners in various states of readiness for this weather. I’d not worn my new trail shoes in these conditions, and was delighted at their certain grip on the slipperier sections. Others had come in road shoes, and made slides back and forth, managing, somehow to stay on their feet. One young guy reminded me of Fred Astaire, sliding across the trails, arms in the air, nearly going down, but not; it was magical to watch, but I passed him as soon as I could, so as not to get taken out by a wayward slide.
A few times, the long, short, and medium courses merged, and the paces changed. Some faster runners bolted past us; other slower ones were slogging it out and I was so proud of the ones that were struggling and bravely pushing on.
Photographers appeared, and sometimes I could look up and smile, but often they were at a technical section, so I kept my eyes down and focused.
It was a race; I ran as fast as I possibly could, leaving nothing in the tank for later, and loving every single minute of it. The puddles and the mud, the rain lashing me, the feeling of being alive in the wildness of it and my capable body carrying me through the madness.
We finished. I was so wet and cold, I didn’t even notice my finish time, but heard Andrea shout well done and knew she’d beaten me (and she was in my age category). It didn’t matter somehow, not today. Today was for joy and not for winning.
We didn’t hang around long. Already, hypothermia was threatening. We hugged and laughed and went back to our cars. I contemplated changing my clothes in the change rooms but knew as soon as I stepped out in dry clothes, I’d be soaked again.
So I did what every real trail runner would do. I waited until my breath had fogged up my car windows, slunk down in the seat, and changed in the car. It took the whole way home to feel my hands again, but I was smiling the entire way.
Thanks for the wild ride, Rapid Ascent! We don’t get many chances to jump in puddles as adults, and I loved every minute of it! See you at Race 2.