My shoes are wet anyway, so why not skip the rocky bit on the beach, and run around it instead, by running in the sea? That would surely be faster. Give me a tiny edge on those runners who are braver on rocks than me.
Right. Here we go. I dart out to sea splashing in several inches of water, going around the rocks, clever me, proud of myself, brave and smart and fast. Look at all those silly people, stepping carefully through the rocks on shore. Look at me, running like a gazelle. Ha!
That’s when I hit the hole.
What the heck? The sea bed drops straight away and I am in big trouble, my arms flailing, my feet stumbling, I am going to face-plant straight into the ocean and break a leg at the same time! Stumble-swear-stumble-swear…and I suddenly right myself.
Wow. That was close. It would have looked spectacular from shore. But nobody would have been looking anyway, as they all had to focus on those fist-sized rocks that wanted to sprain their ankles and have them bleeding (note: my friend Andrea was looking and wondering whether she should also run in the sea, but didn’t. Smart). I join the others on the rocks.
We run on. The rocks finally finish and we are back on hard sand. I love sand. Flat, smooth, predictable. I let loose, all those interval and tempo sessions coming into play, even though we are only in the first 5k of a 22.7k course and it is dumb to go fast so early. Every now and again, I glance at the waves – massive, crashing and roaring – I make sure I keep open sand to my left so I can dodge them if they come ashore.
It is Race 4 of The Trail Running Series, and I am in for the long course. It is also the Surfcoast Century weekend, so there is a huge buzz about the place, with tremendous 50 and 100k achievements being made.
Also in this beautiful place, slightly away from race headquarters, there is peace. I find it as I wait for the start an hour before the race.
My little run feels short and insignificant in comparison to the 50 and 100k runs. Except when I put it in context. Three weeks earlier I had completed the Wonderland Run 20k in Halls Gap. It wasn’t the distance, it was the driving solo there and back, and spending the weekend without my family for the first time. I’d found in the following few weeks, I was more tired than I’d been in my entire life. It was strange – I’m not used to that sort of tired, so I was being a bit careful today at Anglesea.
Well, I meant to be, anyway.
Truth be told, when they say go, I go. Fast as I can, always. I love fast.
The beach was wonderful. Soon we came to Bird Rock and clambered up and over, and then I was surprised to find (read the course description more carefully next time) that after we came up onto some nice bitumen, then single track, we went back to the beach for ages and ages. I think. Maybe. Someday, hours later (minutes, seconds?) we came to Point Addis and the soft sand ate my shoes, and I wondered at the woman who chose to pass me just then (why? when it is so soul-draining to run in soft sand, and we’ve got 13k to go?).
Up the stairs, memories of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon that began here on a king tide kind of a day, laughing all the way – I stopped and took a photo (I stopped in a race and took a photo! Who am I!) because it was just so beautiful.
Off we ran and here’s where it gets blurry and mixed up. I believe there was road. I ran downhill fast, loving the speed and the smoothness. No treachery there. Soon we turned onto that ‘flowing, fast single track’. Lots of rocks and roots, switchbacks, grass trees that made me raise my arms to protect my eyes. People passing me on the downs and me passing them on the ups. And glorious moments when it seemed I was the only runner out there, where I was utterly alone and there was no pressure to be faster than I was. The landscape hugged me tight. I was more agile than in the past few years, jumping fallen trees and spinning around the hairpin turns.
Gel after gel, because I was hungry as well as extra-tired. Loving the boost of sugar that briefly gave me wings. On and on that single track went, though. My feet were beginning to cramp and my eyes water. It took complete focus not to face-plant. I saw several runners go down and was grateful when they all got back up.
Late in the run, about 18k in, it was my turn. I was tired, and kicked a root. I tripped, swore, stumbled, felt my calves seizing up in both legs, and the stumble seemed to go on and on, like in a nightmare, step after step, pound, pound, stumble, and then suddenly, I righted myself and kept running without falling. It was amazing. I’ve fallen nearly every time I’ve run Anglesea but this time, I kept my feet. Hooray! No blood or grit to pick out of my hands and knees. And my calves hadn’t snapped. I ran on.
Surely that lovely downhill to Anglesea must be coming soon. I lived for that bit of this race. Flat, fast, down. I always made up time there. Except (read the course description more carefully), we seemed to be going down a technical and steep downhill this time. What had happened? Had rain destroyed my beautiful track? And where was the view of the sea? Oh god. Was it going to be this way all the way down? Pick my steps, let people pass, don’t stumble, don’t fall. Keep going. Down and down and there is no lovely smooth bit. Unfair, I want to shout. You tricked me. I run on.
Glance at my watch. What? It had said 16k – now it says 13? How did that happen? No no no! But this happened before the downhill, obviously – you know how the race moments merge into one long blur of trees going by and people passing you?
Damn my eyes. Damn the floaters that make it impossible to judge rough terrain quickly enough to react to it. Three years they’ve plagued me. Yes, my muscles and sinews can run faster, my heart and lungs, but I simply can’t see what’s right underneath me, and what you can’t see can twist an ankle and send you flying. Grrr. I think about being 52. How I began trail running at 37, and how I loved the technical stuff, the dancing at speed with danger. How I miss that. Then I give myself a mental shake and let this Bodypump song start to play in my mental and then my verbal playlist: I am here….I am here…I’ve already seen the bottom so there’s nothing to fear…I am here…
I belt out the words (I’m alone again for a few minutes) and I just revel in the fact that, although I can’t run the technical stuff as fast right now, damn it, I am out here doing this. 22.7k of twisty, technical trails, beach running, rock clambering, I just ran straight out into the ocean for two hundred metres and kept right on running, and I wasn’t at all worried. I am here. That’s what counts.
So when the next fifty or so people pass me on the downhill, I try to be gracious. We finally get to the flat bit near the caravan park, and I let go. Zoom-Zoom, like my Mazda. We’re at 21k, I can hear the shouts and cheers at the finish, I encourage a poor guy who’s walking. Not far now, I say.
I’m wrong though. Around a corner. Another corner. A glimpse of river. A boardwalk. Another k. 22.5. Hey. We’re still running. Another corner. Um. Hey?! 24k! We’re meant to be done! Where are you cheering people?? Did I take a wrong turn? What the heck? 24.2! Okay, now. This is like the maze they put rats in, and you cheering people are the cheese!
Suddenly I see the finish chute. People are cheering and I’m smiling and there is no one at all to race, but I race anyway. The kids have lined up for the Kids Race, and I move quick to get out of the way because they look eager and have Clint Eastwood eyes, pure focus and speed about to bolt.
Across the line, and spent. Utterly spent.
Afterwards, I join four friends for lunch. We laugh and eat and talk runners nonsense, drink coffee like it is nectar to the gods, share our stories and move slowly on sore feet and legs.
I finally get in the car to drive home alone, after this wonderful race. I sit still for a moment. The wonder of that lunch hits me all of a sudden: I enjoyed it! I never enjoy group things – I lose my ability to speak and am all awkward.
Except today. These people. They are real to me in a way that makes runners real. There is nothing to hide. no makeup needed, no pretense. I suddenly feel that this is what I was running towards all this time. These friendships and this laughter, and this sense that I am simply okay, whatever speed I can run.