A lighter shade of grey: The Trail Running Series Race 2 (Smiths Gully)

It was completely dark when I left home. Often on race mornings, I’m blessed with a beautiful sunrise over the Dandenongs, red sky, clouds aglow. Not so this morning. There was no sunrise. The sky simply turned a lighter shade of grey.

It wasn’t raining though, which was a relief. After a week of running in heavy rain, I was feeling water-logged, though I always loved splashing through puddles, and laughing into the face of the wind. I’d been in Torquay down the Surfcoast Trail, amongst the rainbows and thunder in Ocean Grove, had proved that my windproof coat was not waterproof but still warm when drenched. So what if it rained during the race? So what if it was cold and muddy and arctic?

It was The Trail Running Series, race #2 at Smiths Gully, and there were hills to climb and trees to jump and switchbacks to throw myself around.

The parking lot. A whole lot of empty to the left, car-filled to the right!

I arrived at Smith’s Gully just in time to see a large black dog transform itself into a dark brown waddling wombat while it crossed the gravel road. Nice. There were no kangaroos out. They were having a lie-in, curled up somewhere warm, I supposed.

Me, I was dressed for skiing. Five layers on top, three on the bottom. Gloves, beanie, scarf. With an hour before the start, I wandered to race headquarters, did some gradual warmups, removing layers bit by bit. I’d decided to run this race without a pack, as it was only 14k, and was looking forward to feeling lighter as a result. I’d had to plan for hydration at the only waterstop, which was odd, as I rarely race without a pack. Good new challenge.

Race headquarters

In the past, when I tried to conjure up the Smiths Gully race in my mind’s eye, all that I could see was the bitumen hill, the strange concrete tire thing at the start, and the sausage sizzle. I had no memory at all of any trail after the first turn left. “Was it pretty?” people would ask and I’d have no answer. None at all. I promised myself to be more present today.

Then I missed the warmup running back to my car for a drink. I’d left the reusable cup in the car, and the only water was from the drinking taps that I’d have to lie on the ground and drip into my mouth.

I dashed back to the start, and soon we were off. We began running straight uphill. Rob Roy Hill Climb – what a smash! Other years, I’ve tried to run up the whole thing to the tire wall we climb over to get the actual trail. This year, I added some walk breaks, and strangely, had a PB on this Strava segment. Go figure. I could also climb over the nasty tire wall a little more easily.

Rocking great posture in the hill climb 😂

After the bitumen hill, I tried to look around a bit more, finally glancing up from my feet. We’d begin on easy trails, wide, groomed, with countryside (farms?) surrounding us. It was pretty. There were trees. I looked back down. Put my zoom on.

This was a flatter, faster beginning than Plenty Gorge a few weeks back, and I relished it. The crowds thinned a bit so I could run my pace, and sing in my head. Soundtrack of the day was Bon Jovi, I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, I am a rock not just another grain of sand, wanna be the one you run to when you need a shoulder, I ain’t a soldier but I’m here to make a stand, because we can, our love can move a mountain, we can… and so on. It was on repeat play in my head, punctuated with only an ‘on your right, thanks’ and ‘pass if you want’, alternating on the uphills where I’m strong and the downhills where I’m less so.

Getting my zoom on

I had a gel sometime around 7km, and thirsted for the water point until 8.5 km, where I guzzled two cups of water, wondered if I’d throw up, didn’t and ran on.

There were hills and trees and stuff and getting passed and talking to myself about my pace.

And then we hit the twisty-turn bit. Single-track, trees down, rocks, trippy places, and the three race distances converged. Some faster people were mildly aggressive as they passed (leaping up onto the verge where I’d be fearful of ankle sprains), so I stood aside. I was grateful when the courses split again, as there was less pressure.

Oh, that uphill section of switchbacks went on and on and on. I checked my watch a few times but I was gaining no distance. It seemed to be stuck with a k or two to go, and my fuel was running out. So I gobbled a second gel, knowing I’d be thirsty but I was close to the finish line anyway.

Then I saw this photographer. I don’t remember if he shouted ‘jump’. He may have. He may have lifted a hand or his eyes in some way. Every other downed tree I stepped over slowly and carefully, but whatever he did or said, suddenly I found myself airborne and laughing. Thank you Mr. Photographer! I’d forgotten I could jump!

I believe I can fly…

As all things do, the uphill switchback trails finally came to an end (like a long, slow car ride during school holidays with grumpy children comes to an end, very, very slowly and painfully). We came to the descent. There was a man in a Two Bays singlet (there he is, behind me in the jumping picture!). I complimented him – I love that race – and we began the descent together. He was braver than me downhill, and off he went. Off everyone went! I was solo on that gravel descent and I wanted to go faster and faster and here below is the image of me thinking uh oh, how fast is too fast!

We came to bitumen, ran across the little bridge and turned onto the gravel finish line. Oh, I could sense people behind me, wanting to catch me like in the last race. Like monsters in a scary movie, they were coming for me. I ran with my heart in front of me, pushing and pushing, I really didn’t want to be passed again. Gasping, hurting, pumping my arms, I ran from them.

And suddenly I was under the finish arch and I knew they hadn’t caught me! Hooray!

Sharing a smile with friends just after finishing.

And that’s when the cold blasted in, like someone had opened a door to Antartica or Siberia and we were suddenly in the coldest place on earth, and what in God’s name was I doing wearing a singlet and smiling? I quickly went for my checked bag then got chatting to Chris and Ella and Chris and Andrea and finally got changed back into the 5 layers on top and 3 layers on the bottom and gloves and scarf and beanie.

What a tremendous surprise to win 3rd in my age category. I’ve been reading a book called The Happy Runner about not linking self-worth to podium places, and training happy. That’s what I’ve been focused on the last month, and it was nice to find that by focusing on my own race, I’d done better than I expected.

Smiths Gully was a terrific experience to add to the hundreds of trail races run I’ve since I began this great sport at age 37 in Hong Kong. What a blast. What a blessing. I’m grateful for every single run my body allows me, for the twists and the turns and the zooms and the hills.

Dean Jackson winning his age category! The best part about being in this great trail community is celebrating our friend’s successes!

Thanks again Rapid Ascent. Still smiling a day later!

Oh, and if you read my last blog about laser eye surgery for floaters, I’ve had another treatment and am in the surgery writing this blog awaiting my next treatment!

Fun and games!

Hopefully by the time race 3 comes around, I’ll be able to see even more clearly! My doctor is following my progress carefully and hope to put me on the podium again!

Thanks to Photos4sale for many photos in this blog (photos4sale.co.nz), who did a great job of capturing us all in our madness.

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