The (Virtual) Trail Running Series, Race 1

This was no ordinary race. But then, this has been no ordinary year. 2020 has been a dystopian future flick – the kind of film where you leave the theatre, look up, and heave a sigh of relief that it was only a movie.

Except it wasn’t and it isn’t, and this is real, strange new normal.

What to do?

Back in March, Jon Bon Jovi recorded himself, from his home, discussing 2020 while writing a song for these times. It was called “Do What You Can”, the message being: when you can’t do what you do, you do what you can. It brought tears to my eyes. In the ensuing months of semi-lockdown and isolation, I found myself humming it, as I rode my stationary bike to nowhere, as I taught my Bodypump classes from my home office by livestream, as I did piano lessons via Zoom, and watched my kids negotiate online learning. We’ve all had to be flexible, innovative, resilient – we’ve had to survive. We do what we can.

In the terrible interim time before restrictions lifted, when none of us were not allowed to drive anywhere except the grocery store or the doctor, and we didn’t know if the world was going to end, life was missing so much, but nothing has helped me cope with trouble like running.

Now, though, I couldn’t go to my Dandenongs, and my local trail was full of walkers, dogs, and children. Runners were looked on with terror – we were breathing too hard – that must be dangerous! Running became an extra stress, so I moved my running to the road and the local athletic track, and I coped. We all coped.

That was about when Rapid Ascent announced that two of the races of their Trail Running Series were going virtual. I didn’t know how to feel. This great series of events structures my year, gives form to my training and light to my winter – and it was changing too. I felt simultaneously a terrible sense of loss – yet another thing to be destroyed by this virus – as well as heartfelt admiration for the people of Rapid Ascent. They weren’t going to be beaten; they wouldn’t leave us out in the cold, alone and without an event.

Oh no. We were going to be together. It was the first time they’d had a virtual event, the first time we’d do one, but still I knew it would be incredible. I signed up for the 15 km option. So did my close friend Andrea. We wouldn’t be together, but we’d be together.

I’m not sure why I feel like it’s spring. It’s really just the beginning of winter, but something in the air rings of spring. Perhaps it is the doors opening again, the trails becoming available. There is still fear and anxiety, but there is also a bigger slab of hope on the other side of the seesaw.

Yesterday was the first Virtual Trail Race of The Trail Running Series. I’m still smiling. Here’s how it was:

I’m at home at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. It’s cold in my home so I’ve got the heat on. The race starts in thirty minutes – and there is no line at all for the toilets! I keep my extra layers on. There is no need to drive and navigate, lock my car, check my bag. It is all so simple and so very strange. My daughter wanders in – I thought you were going to a race this morning? I am. Here. She looks puzzled and wanders off.

I sit down at my desk and open my phone to Facebook. The race organisers are live on their page (or group?) and there’s Sam standing outside somewhere. It’s like seeing a dear old friend. He stands alone next to a Start Arch.

He’s talking to someone on Zoom, so I switch over to that, type in some code, and suddenly I’m part of the party. It’s disconcerting to suddenly see myself on my phone screen and funny too, because I’ve got my visor and sunglasses on, as well as my reading glasses so I can see the phone.

None of us racers know how to turn the volume or videos on, and there’s a bit of, can you hear me, we can’t hear you, until we get it right, and then suddenly I’m there by that arch with them, chatting away about nothing and connected to a group in a way I’ve not been in months.

I flick through the Zoom screens, smile at the other runners who are there in their tiny boxes, in a world of different places. A man rings in from Scotland – he’s running at midnight his time, and the edge of a horizon is visible in the dark background. I open Racemap to figure out how to start Live Tracking and I don’t know what it means, but I do it anyway.

Then I have my fifteenth trip to the toilet – still no line! – and finally take off my outer layers. At 8:55 I step out my front door to my Start Line (my front gate).

In the driveway, I watch Sam on Facebook Live do his countdown with the airhorn, get my finger on my Garmin start button, and when he says go, I go, shoving my phone into my pack, and I’m off.

This is a route I’ve run hundreds of times. Run down the footpath, turn left and head downhill, in two blocks turn left again, continue downhill, eventually cross Hampton Street, dodge pedestrians down Small Street, cross Beach Road while avoiding cars and bikes, and then onto the Bayside Coastal Track.

Today, it’s empty until Hampton Street. Then suddenly there are people everywhere, walkers and dogs, families and bicycles. Down at Beach Road, the cyclists are out in Sunday force and I wait for the pedestrian crossing.

I’m not giving you the right sense of this though. I’m racing. There is no one running but me, but I’m racing. In the front pocket of my Salomon backpack, my phone is glowing with all you other runners. Your energy is with me as I bolt across the street, turn left and race off. Zoom zoom! The track twists and turns, dirt and pebbles, tree roots and rocks. The bay is to my right, visible in glimpses between the trees.

But I’m not looking for bay views. I’m running flat out, leaning into the turns like I’m in a velodrome. What is so familiar is suddenly brand-new, as I move with higher octane and dart and twist and dance. It becomes a mad combination of trail and obstacle race, with the other path users being the obstacles. I don’t resent them; I don’t wish them away; I’m polite and say excuse me and thank you; but I bolt around them as if they are bollards or speed cones, like I’m the quarter-horse and they’re the barrels.

I slow right down for dogs though. On this track, dogs are meant to be on lead, but dogs are like runners – we don’t want to be tied down, and neither do they. I respect their kindred desire for freedom. With the twisty-turny trail, it’s the small dogs I have to watch out for. The ones that appear out of nowhere in the center of the trail, the older dogs who don’t hear me coming. I always slow for them, give them space, and then rocket away to make up the millisecond lost.

Because this is a race, right? Except when I to skid to stop for photos (I must – I see little when racing and it’s nice to see where I’ve been, when I haven’t seen where I’ve been). This adds maybe five seconds to my whole run. Worth it.

Three kilometres into the race, I come across a man, his wife, and his daughter. They’re all running, and they are fast. Trouble is they’re in front of me, and if I want to speed up it will be hard to get past them on the narrow trail. I say excuse me, pass them with an all-out burst of fuel; like a rocket leaving earth, I burn it all up.

Then I’m in front of them and the trail is clear, except they are still behind me and they remain fast. So I burn that fuel to try to stay in front of them – burn, baby, burn – and go far too fast for a 15 kilometre race. I can’t check my watch to see how fast I’m going, but I don’t need to. It’s too fast. It doesn’t take long, maybe two more kilometres, until they pass me. It’s only the father and daughter now, though. I wonder where the wife has gone. The next five kilometres I can see them weaving in and out of trees in front of me, but I never catch them again.

I must slow down a bit because I can breathe again. I’m nearly 6k in, on the slight downhill with a couple of tree roots. I try to take them big, as if they are massive obstacles and this is a highly technical track (it’s not; they’re not) but it’s fun. The track narrows and this section is high up on the cliff, embraced by low shrubs, safe but with great visibility.

Soon I come to the blue-stone staircase, the uneven stairs slowing me, and my covid-fear of touching the railings keeping me to the centre. At the base of the stairs, the bay is a brilliant blue and I run along the smooth path along the water’s edge. There are small outcroppings of red and black stone, littered with black and white birds, too far away to identify.

I see little and smell nothing. I’m running flat out, checking my watch for my turnaround point.

At Rickett’s Point, I turn back for home. I’d usually stop here and take a few more photos, have a gel, chill, but today, I spin and sprint back up the path to the stairs. I take them two at a time, preparing for the maybe of the Wonderland Run in Halls Gap in August, stretching and climbing.

Then I’m back to the narrow single track. The wind’s in my face – I hadn’t noticed I had a tailwind on the way out. Damn. I press down the gas pedal but nothing happens, no more speed, damn that man and his daughter, I’ve burned up my fuel!

Ah, but my gel! I grab it, suck it down, and re-ignite. Kind of. In fact, my legs are burning, far more than usual, more than they would in a race. Will this be my first DNF? That would be funny, failing to win a race in which I am the sole runner on the course! I slow a tad but not really, just decide to ignore the pain in my legs, it’s not so bad. I zoom on.

It’s a blur from here. I stop at Red Bluff, my special lookout spot, but only long enough to take a photo this time.

From here, it’s five kilometres home. I know them intimately. I’ve lived here for twelve years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere since childhood. Like the bumps in my childhood sidewalks, the tree roots rise up where I expect them. Each step evokes a memory, a history, a song I’ve sung over and over. So many seasons and moments, and now this new one, this racing memory. On I go, across the road that leads to the dog beach, watching for cars as I run without pause. Through the section below the football club, up the only up on a little ramp, then along the newly-compressed section with a recently installed safely fence. People are sight-seeing, staring out at the bay, and we are incongruent, me the racing runner, them the languid walkers.

Onwards, down the uneven steps where once I sprained an ankle, then onto the final sprint on trail before Beach Road. I sprint, then skid to a stop, press the crossing button with my elbow, gasping for breath. When the light changes, I make for the road instead of the pedestrian-loaded footpath. Zooming up Small Street, a break in the traffic lets me flow straight across Hampton Street and across the train tracks. Uphill now, on Service Street. Past the restaurants and the library (still closed), past the doctors where I got tested in the parking lot for Covid-19 (I didn’t have it), past the Church (still closed) and across the roundabout.

Oh, Service Street, how I love and loathe you. The only uphill in Hampton, that gets more up the further you run. Walkers are on the footpath, so I’m driven into the road again. Breathless, aching, glancing at my watch, nearly 15 km but not yet, 14.5, and I push, and god it hurts, why is this hill so steep, who chose this route, will this give me the 300 metres elevation gain I need, nonsense thoughts, and this song in my head, spinning round and round, Boston, I think, More than a feeling, and then there’s the top, and Sargood Street and no cars so I dash across, the last four hundred metres to home.

It’s all home, the streets, the neighbours, the dogs, the friends. Yet I see it with new eyes as I run as fast as I can. Bing goes my watch as I turn onto my street – I’ve finished the 15km! I press stop and start to walk, but like any real runner, this is unacceptable and I press start again, and finish the run at the finish line – my driveway, at 15.13 kilometres.

I’m utterly spent. I lean against the fence and stretch as if this is just my usual training run. Then I glance at the gate. “THE WINNER!!!” the cardboard sign reads, placed by my husband while I ran. God, I love that man.

Smiling, I get the code for the Zoom meeting, type it into my phone. I’ve barely caught my breath but I must be with others, this is how races finish, so I enter the code and join the Zoom meeting. Sam unmutes me, and we chat – I can only see myself on my phone for some reason, which is really weird, as if I’m talking to myself, which in a way I am, and I’m so enthusiastic and elated, the first time I’ve felt this way in months. I call Andrea then, who’s on the way home and is equally elated.

Later, I hear my daughter ask my husband when I’ll be home from my race. It’s half an hour later, and Im in my office, watching the race organisers on Facebook live and loving the sense of community from afar. She’s in her office, my husband says. But I thought she was racing?

Ah, what a strange world.

We do what we can.

And what we did! Wasn’t it incredible? We were apart but oh so together. The strange became the wonderful, the usual became astonishing.

Thank you Rapid Ascent. You came through, and you gave us back what was missing – elation, community, a shared experience we’ll remember forever. One day, I’ll get to say thank you in person. Until then, please accept my ZOOM, Facebook Live and Blog thanks.

And to all the other winners of your own races, well done to you. Thank you for being the best part of my Sunday! Until we meet again…

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