About Patricia A Bowmer

Psychologist, Author, Adventure Racer, Inspirer

Silvan (Race 3 The Trail Running Series): aka lowering the bar

‘I’m coming at you like a daaaark horse…’

I sang in my head as I drove my legs up the first real hill climb in Race 3 (long course, 21k for me) of The Trail Running Series.  My target was my close friend Andrea, who was twenty metres ahead of me.  She’d bolted past me on the technical single track a few minutes earlier.  She’s much nicer than me:  when she’d passed me, she’d said kind things, you can do it Patricia, you’ve got this, hugely supportive and welcome words.

Unlike me, pursuing her like a predator, Katy Perry’s song ringing in my ears.  I was predator, she was prey.

Though I was secretly smiling to myself:  I know I’m strong on the uphills, but I always get caught on the downs.  Andrea says she’s more reckless than me; I say she’s braver.

Most people are.  I know because all of them fly by me as I carefully pick my way along, memories of sprained ankles and face-plants echoing in my head.

So, yes, I was coming at her like a dark horse, but she’d be coming at me a few minutes later on the downhill.  Like a…I don’t know.  What’s a metaphor for someone much nicer than a dark horse?  Like a rainbow unicorn with a kind smile?  It was funny how we played cat-and-mouse-and-cat, each encouraging the other, and competing, my trail running buddy and I.

The race course?  Oh yes.  We began on single track just above the Silvan Reservoir Dam.  Easier than I recalled at first, with more visibility and less fallen trees.  I was running along, thinking, well, this isn’t so bad, enjoying the pace and the fun, wondering if I’d misremembered those tree hurdles.  Nope.  They came up eventually, but because I’d been box jumping at the gym, they didn’t seem quite as hard.  Hooray.

I was carrying a couple of injuries into this run, so was careful of foot placement.  Apparently, I had a tear in my ITB (not as easy thing to do, apparently, and it seems I must have run into the edge of something in the not so distant past), and a bit of knee tendonitis in the opposite knee (not a meniscal tear – another hooray!).  I asked the physio how to heal all this.  Rest.

Ha.  Rest.  I’m a fifty-two year-old woman with two kids, two dogs, and two cats.  I do the heavy lifting in my family.  Literally.  Rest was not going to happen.  I don’t do well on rest anyway, so I was going to be hopping and swearing a bit in this race no matter what.

To my pleasure though (or maybe because I was distracted by racing Andrea), nothing hurt.  Oh, yes, a twinge now and then, but no big deal.  Every chance I got, I bolted.  Down the smoother downhills.  Up the bigger hills.  Coaching my feet to a fast cadence, my posture to upright and looking ahead.

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I was smiling.  It was great fun, the twisting and turning, the agility.  But then there she was again, passing me, shouting her kind encouraging words, which did push me faster but made my dark horse song seem churlish in comparison.  I didn’t really mean it, I thought.  Go Andrea, go!

I knew this run well.  Knew the up on Rifle Range Gully Track was coming and knew it was going to hurt.  Oh, it did.  I played leapfrog with a few other runners in this section, and we were all considerate and nice, making it pleasant and almost fun.

Here and there a photographer appeared and I controlled the grimace of hard effort long enough to smile, and thought with envy of the runners who could jump up into poses.  One day, maybe.

10722763_main_5b67c6b578466.jpegSomewhere, I passed Andrea again.  I’d made up ground steadily.  I was sure of it.  Five minutes ahead, definitely.  If I could keep that gap, maybe I’d podium today after all.  We were about 10k in.  We ran across some lovely smooth grass between unlikely trees, then we were off downhill again on Manna Gum Track, and just like that, Andrea ran in front of me again.  Glowing kindness.  Damn damn damn.  I was cramping already, so I sucked down an electrolyte capsule.  I wasn’t going to catch her.  I’d thought to hold her off until the final downhill section, where I knew she’d get me, but if she was ahead here…

Well.

I subtly readjusted my goals.  Maybe I even said it aloud?  It is no good to have the sole goal of a race to be a podium finish.  It’s too easy to finish, and be disappointed.  There’s always likely to be someone faster.  So I began to play this game:  Okay.  She’s got me beaten.  What about I go for a PB instead?  I thought I knew my PB times on this course.  It was either 2:17 or 2:22.  Let’s say 2:22.  Okay?  I’m not looking back in my records now, not at this stage.

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So I was going for a PB now.  Not a podium.

Cool.  I ran and ran, as fast as I could.  No more dark horses on this trail.  Just a horse trying not to cramp up or face-plant or feel something in my ITB go SNAP before the finish.

Hey, maybe it was getting to be time to lower the bar again?  Success equaled finishing the race and not being broken at the end.  Yes.

Was that Andrea’s blue shirt up ahead?  Nope.  That was the woman in the next age category up that I’d been trying to keep pace with.  Darn it.  They were all in front of me.

Ah well.  Another gel.  Beautiful trees.  Blue sky.  Eagle Nest Road.  I’m like an eagle.  I wrote about an eagle once in my book Akilina.  This is my road.  I’m the eagle.  Fly like an eagle…Oh my lord, my blood sugar is getting low.  I have another (my last) gel.

I know what’s coming.  Intimately.  That nasty slippy section by the road and wire fence.  The one I can never run fast on because I’m not…wait, because I’m careful. That’s the word.  Here we go.  Slip slide.  Wishing I’d worn my shoes with bigger lugs instead of these worn-down ones with more cushioning.  There’s that girl in the tights.  I pass her – hooray – I passed someone.  But moments later, she flashes by me again and disappears down the hill.  Sigh.  Keep running.  Pass a walker.  Encourage her.  The guy I’ve seen throughout the race passes me.

No problem, I think.  Stonyford Road – that’s coming and that’s my playground.

Last year, my song was I’m sorry I’m not sorry.  I sang it in my head when I passed all the people who had passed me on this section.  I rehearse it in my mind as I plan to chase this guy.  I let him go but keep him in sight.

We’re on the road now, and I slowly reel him in.  Like a fish on a loose line.  I keep watch for potholes and shift side to side but I am on him (like a darkish horse) and I manage to pass him and am just congratulating myself, when we see the volunteer who directs us to the (terrible terrible awful whose idea was this) last little bit of single track instead of letting us run down that nice smooth road.

And of course, the guy I’d just passed, well, he passes me.

I have to laugh and I run and run, knowing it’s not far, I can hear the party going on just ahead.  We pull out onto the road, run through the tiny car park, and I hear someone behind me, and say come on, let’s finish together and he says what? and I repeat myself but by then he’s caught up and begins running next to me, then puts on a sudden burst and I’m left to cross the line alone.

Alone?  No.  I hear three or four friends cheering my name and I’m so happy they are there, but I don’t look at them, because I have seen the clock and it says 2:21 and I am going to beat that 2:22 – that’s suddenly my ultimate and final race goal and I push and push and push and the clock says 2:21:31 just as I pass the arch.

Success!  Victory!  I came at my PB like a dark horse.

Though I have this sudden uneasy feeling that maybe that PB was 2:17.  Maybe.  I’m not looking.

I go to check results.  I’ve come in 6th in my age category (How?  How?  It was only Andrea and I racing!) but Andrea has come third, and a smile breaks out on my face.  Yay for my friend!

Then I see Cissy, who has come 2nd.  And Janet, who has come 1st.

I stay for the awards ceremony and take tons of photos of all these wonderful friends, and the competition – well, it doesn’t even occur to me in those moments.  I’m simply happy to have friends, and be able to share in their joy.

Lowering the bar.  My husband laughs later when I tell him my thoughts during the race and mentions lowering the bar.  I laugh too.

It’s not until later, when another friend sends me this picture that I finally get the meaning behind this race.  It was not the race at all. It is the friendships and the woods and the camaraderie.

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My favourite photo: my capturing Cissy on the podium!

Andrea gave me her muesli prize for my 14-year-old son, who had loved it last time.  We held it together and had a photo.  And that photo and that bag of cereal means more to me than any win ever will.

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What a great race this woman ran! And she shared her muesli!

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Singing in the rain: The Trail Running Series, Race 1, Westerfolds Park

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.

A ray of light in the darkness

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.

A lighter shade of grey

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally the sun rises, and the rivers are revealed!

There are the other people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

So much fun in the pouring rain!

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.

Two Bays 2018: can a trail mend me?

If I had tried to write this blog a few days ago.  Well.  Suffice it to say that when everyone else is annoying, it really is nothing to do with anyone else but me.  Perspective and time have taken the edge off the strongest of the emotions, along with a strangely calming session of acupuncture on my tender calves.  So here goes…

It was to be my third Two Bays 28km Trail Run.  My first, in 2013, was an adventure, the longest distance I’d ever run, and magical in the way that all new adventures are.  In 2015, I was unprepared, sucked into entering by a Facebook demon, whereupon I went for a 20k training run to prove to myself that December was not too late to begin training (it was), jumped into my pool overheated and fully clothed and wearing my (now dead) iPhone in a running belt.  I completed the 28k run that year in 3:09, grimacing in pain as my feet and calves cramped from about 22k, all the way through to the finish line.

2018 was about redemption.  And intelligence.

I had learned much since I began.  Trained and completed many arduous events.  I was going to do it right this time.  I began training in September, plotting out a plan that would see me strongly through the holidays, to peak at just the right time.  There were soccer weekends away I had to account for, there was the Marysville Half-Marathon smack bang in the middle of my plan, and there was, of course, the mayhem of Christmas with two young children.

I won’t give you the details of the plan- it would be boring, and my plan is not your plan.  I’m a 52-year-old woman who loves to cross-train, teaches Bodypump and swims twice a week.  I’ve also got floaters in both eyes (this means grey shadows that at times block a lot of my visual field, and make technical terrain a whole lot more hit-and-miss).  So what I do is probably not what you’d want to, need to, or should do.

In a nutshell though, my plan was to fight against cramping  by training on hills and over the full race distance.  In the Dandenongs, I managed three 28km runs, and on 25km run that lasted over four hours due to the elevation gain.  Here is a selection of training run photos – that’s the joy of training for long distance events – the magic of the trails happens a lot more often.

I also trained for flatter and faster, down on the Surfcoast Trail, mainly because we were in Ocean Grove for the two weeks prior to Two Bays.  I was nervous but more confident at the end of training than any year prior.  I did lots of tempo and interval runs as well, but swapped out some distance for swimming and weight training, averaging about 50k for many of the weeks.

Yes, I had trained well.  Physically, I was ready.

However, I’d forgotten about the other big issue in my life: stress.  One of my children has some severe developmental/behavioural challenges.  Sometimes things are kind of ok; sometimes they are a tsunami of a nightmare.  The day before Two Bays – well, the month before, to be honest – was a tsunami time.  Lots happened, but the peak of it was Saturday, the day before Two Bays, when a soccer ball was kicked, as hard as possible, straight at me and into my knee and upper thigh, by my child.  To say it hurt is silly.  That does nothing to explain the pain of what felt like a conscious attack by someone I love most in the world.  I screamed in pain, shouted words I won’t repeat here, and lost it completely for the rest of the day.  My world was black and ending and everything I had done to this point in my life had been an utter and complete mistake.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  At all.  Not pre-race insomnia.  Not like usual.  This was stare-at-the-ceiling-and-evaluate-my-life awfulness.  I was almost grateful when our dog went nuts at 4 am, as I was awake anyway.  I was up and dressed by 4:30, driving off in the dead of night by 5.

The darkness was a blanket, and the drizzle felt appropriate and grey.

I was not tired; I was too nervous driving to be tired, as I had a new navigator in my car that I was unsure of.  It coached me for the hour’s drive, most of which I knew well, and told me where to get off the road for Permien Street, Dromana.  Except this was not the exit I knew.  The navigator said turn left, and I said where?, and turned in the wrong place and got immediately lost in some strange suburb.  The horror of it.  Alone.  In the dark.  Trying desperately to get to the race headquarters for six am.  I was breathing fast and my hands were gripping the steering wheel in a death-grip.

I pulled back on the highway, thinking I was heading the right way, but the next exit was not Dromana, it was Rosebud.  It was like one of those nightmares where things get worse and worse.  I drove on, finally letting the navigator have the wheel, afraid I’d be routed to Sorrento and back.

Imagine – just imagine! – my relief when I recognised the road.  It was the road I knew from the Two Bays Run, the one we run up right at the start.  In fact, the race crew was out putting up event signs as I drove downhill, elated, knowing where I was.

Now, perhaps this doesn’t seem the most auspicious start to a trail run requiring some navigation.  But I forgot about it immediately after I parked.  I got out of my car, caught my breath, and gazed at the bay.  It required my presence more than race headquarters.  I made my way there and stared at the still waters.  Waters that I wished I could be more like.

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Still waters

I turned away: there was a race to be run, regardless of how I was feeling.  I knew, as well, the quickest way out of the quicksand of dark emotions: it was a trail, running full pelt for hours and hours and hours.

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Sunrise above Arthur’s Seat, Dromana

The time prior to a race is always the same.  Joy at seeing friends, nerves at what we’re about to do, general restlessness and preparation of my gear.  I saw Andrea and shared a quick hello, but quickly lost her in the crowd.  Found some fellow Dandenong Trail Runners and had a short chat.  Did some warm-up jogging.

I noted that I wasn’t afraid.  It was odd, as the first time I’d run this race, I’d been terrified, felt completely out-of-place and overwhelmed by the lean athletes surrounding me.  That was something, anyway, that quiet confidence, even though the weight of doom regarding my family life hung heavy.

We lined up in the starting chute.  All was ready.  I took a quick photo to remember the moment, checked that my Garmin was ready to go.

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Ready to go!

The crowd of us runners were so noisy, I couldn’t hear the countdown, and only knew to begin when the runners in front of me started moving forward.  We were off!

The race begins uphill on a road.  I love uphills; I eat hills for breakfast.  I found myself dodging around other runners, powering up the hill.  I was elated; this felt easy.  The Dandenongs hill training was really helping.  In no time, in much shorter time than I recalled in other years, we were at the trail head at Bunurong Track, forming a single line of runners to work our way up Arthur’s Seat.

Up and up and up we went, on the widish dirt trail.  It was punctuated with stone steps and riddled with tree roots and rocks.  We played hopscotch with one another, sometimes passing, sometimes being passed.  I knew this terrain well from training runs, and let the memories play over of talks I’d shared with friends about music and piano, about kids and grandkids.  I glanced now and again at the blueness of the bay, being sure to immerse myself in this magical landscape, all the while trying not to trip over my own two feet or the many roots and rocks that wanted me down.

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This might be Arthur’s Seat descent. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

We got to the top, and began the long, fast descent.

That bit about other people being annoying?  Yep.  It began here.  And it wasn’t them.  It was one-hundred percent me, and my aggro mood.  Still.  There was the runner who ran with elbows out, who seemed magnetically drawn to me, who seemed to find the exact line I was aiming for on the steep, slippery gravel, and then ran at the same pace as me.  If I sped up, she sped up; slowed, she slowed.  It would have been comical if I weren’t clenching my teeth and swearing in my head so loudly.  We didn’t crash, amazingly, and I didn’t say a word of what was going on in my head.

Soon, we were down by McLaren’s Dam, and I was too busy watching for snakes to wonder about any of the other runners (though by a video posted the next day, I would have been better watching for kangaroos trying to cross the path).

We ran along some suburban roads, then onto a section that had been full of thigh-high grass several weeks before.  It had been mown and was no longer a terror-filled snake pit!  There were dozens of happy, smiling, dressed-up volunteers, children to high-five, and a lot of passing and being passed by the same runners, some polite, some not so much, and before I knew it we were in the Greens Bush Section, a wonder world of beauty and nature.

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Happy on the trail. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

Oh, but here was another one of those irritating other people!  This time it was someone behind me, and the tinny sound of their iPhone music, played loud without ear phones.  I could not believe it.  I had hungered for the peace of the bush, the sounds of nature, even the hush of the footfalls of runners.  Instead, I heard Emimem, angry, volatile, judgmental: You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you better never let it go go, you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow cause opportunity comes one in a lifetime…

I love this song.  I’ve played it hundreds of times teaching Bodypump, I’ve run to it, cycled to it, cried to it.  However, in that moment, in Two Bays, in Greens Bush, I hated it.  I wanted to grab the offender’s music device and smash it on a rock.  I wanted to smash him on a rock.  I wanted to run faster or slower or grab a helicopter out because I couldn’t bear it.  I couldn’t get away, though, bolting forward or slowing down.  He played the music loudly and chatted even louder to his friend.  Finally, I called out behind me: could you please turn the music down mate?

Me!  I said that.  Like an angry fishwife.

Please, fellow runner, accept my apology, and thank you for not responding out loud, and for simply turning down the music.  It wasn’t you; it was me.

Phew.  The dragon had reared its head.  I took a deep breath and ran on.

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Getting a bit technical.  Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

This is where the run got tricky.  I was fit and fast and I could run the uphills without any issue.  But when the trail turned technical and dark and downhill, I was doomed.  I simply couldn’t see well enough to run fast, and I got passed by every runner and their dog (if dogs were allowed) and I began to wallow in the woe-is-me-I’m-so-slow-and-old-and-blind pit.  I let people by and passed them again on the uphills.  I fought hard to keep a place in the tribe of trail runners but I felt I was losing it, losing the joy and the ability to do this thing I had loved for so long.  I swiped at my eyes, and swallowed hard.

Then my foot began to cramp.  I gobbled down some gel, a few salt tablets, and consoled myself with the fact that we were already at 20km.  A fast girl ran past me and assured me we were nearly home, and I bit back the words I don’t want to go home, and ran on.

I’d planned to bolt at 23, to really race the last five to the finish.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, I kept my foot on the brake, trying to hold off the impending cramps, and instead focusing on the breathtaking views of the other side of the bay that appeared.  Some high-fives for children, and soon the finish arch was in sight.  Past me at speed ran three other runners; I did not chase.  I ran across my own finish line in 3:06, which I thought was three minutes slower than my target from 2015,  but in fact was a PB for this course.

Afterwards, I stared at the views of the bay, elated, sad, happy, tired, but no longer in that dark place from which I’d started.

When my friend Cissy invited me to join her group of friends for lunch, something I’d usually avoid because I’m shy around strangers, I decided it was time to try something new.  Even though I couldn’t get phone reception and I was alone and had to navigate somewhere I’d never been before I went.

Even when the outside of the place looked odd and like an industrial estate rather than a restaurant, in I went.

I sat with this group of runners, and chatted, and suddenly, I felt alive again, at home, and no one was irritating, and I was okay, I did make good choices, and I could do anything or be anything I wanted.  It was all going to be all right.

Sometimes the trail seems way too far, the world seems full of aggravating others, and then you simply put on your trail shoes, and run and run and run, and when you are done, the world has put on a brand new coat and looks shiny and beautiful again.

I got home and hugged my child and gave them the present I had bought them, and promised myself to add more joy to my running for the rest of 2018.

Thank you Two Bays, for reminding me why I run.

The Trail Running Series Race 5: we run the night

It was fully dark on a moonless night.  We were running on a narrow single-track in a long, thin line, the only light from our small head torches.  Suddenly, there was a bottle-neck.  I shouted to the runners behind to warn them to slow, thinking we were backing up around some technical terrain.  The next moment, shock hit me in the gut:  it wasn’t just a bottle-neck.  It was three or four men climbing up the steep bank from the river, arms linked, helping a woman who must have fallen over the edge.

I slid to a stop.  One of the man’s hands grasped at loose weeds on the edge of the trail.  I reached down and grabbed his wrist, leaning back, giving him leverage.  Another couple of runners joined in or waited around, I’m not sure which, as I was fully focused on helping the group get the woman back on solid ground.  Once, there, she sat on the edge of the trail, obviously shaken.  The group of us crowded around, asking inane questions, are you ok, can I help, can I make a call, to all of which she shook her head.  I waited a few more moments while a couple of the helpers settled her, then decided I was extraneous.  The pack of us ran on.  Phew.  That was a close call.

I was glad the woman who had remained with her had a phone; I had brought nothing with me on this night run, not even my usual crepe bandages, so I couldn’t be much use.  The group of us runners who had helped her up were unsettled.  We spoke over our shoulders in the dark as we ran, hoping she was ok. As we moved, I watched the footing carefully, and I noted aloud each time the trail seemed to drop away to the hungry river below.  Others shouted “tree root” or “look out overhead if you’re tall”.

We ran on.  The adventure continued.

It was the middle of the final race of The Trail Running Series, race 5 of 5, a 10.8 km odyssey along the banks of the Yarra River in the dark.  We had set off on this medium course event (there was a short and a longer course as well) just after eight pm.  Though I’d run this event last year, this year was different: this year, for me, was about speed.

After the starting countdown ended, I bolted.  I know my strengths and I know this course well.  We had about five-hundred meters of bitumen before the real trail began, and I wanted to get out in front.  I was mindful of my calf, which had been injured a few weeks ago, and cautious of the other runners around me, but I kept my foot down on the pace until the left turn onto trail.

The darkness engulfed us as bitumen became dirt.  The narrow beams of our head torches bobbed up and down, illuminating the rough trail, which was embedded with small rocks at random intervals.  Without caution, even the best runner would trip and sprain an ankle.

Soon we made our way back to the paved path over the highway on the Eastern Freeway Bridge.  I wondered what the rush-hour motorists made of our head-torches bobbing along above them, and was elated to be one of the runners and not one of the drivers.

We ran back to trail, to a loop before crossing under the freeway, but that’s a blur – I was running as fast as I possibly could, but trying to avoid obstacles with care, letting people pass me who were more confident, then bolting around them again when the path smoothed out, playing leap-frog.

Unlike most races, I couldn’t check my watch for pace or distance – taking my eyes off the trail for even a moment was impossible, so I ran blind, pacing by feel.  It felt old-school, like how I used to run in the days before GPS watches.

One of my friends was running nearby as we crossed under the bridge, and I worried for her pace, knowing the rocks and holes that hid in this section.  She tripped, righted herself, then disappeared into the dark – she is FAST!

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Under the freeway!

Before long we began to climb the steps to the pipe bridge near Fairfield Boathouse.  After my Wonderland Run in August, up is easy, so I took the steps two at a time, eased my way uphill onto the bridge, and took off.  The flat pipe bridge made for a fast pace, the metal thudding under my trail shoes.  I had open track in front of me for the first time, and I made the most of it, pushing hard until the water station at 4.5km, where I gulped a cup of water down, and raced off.

The next section I knew was tough.  Technical, rocky, single-track that wound it’s way along just above the river.  In the daylight, it’s obvious how dangerous a stumble would be – you’d simply slide downhill through the rough trees and bushes to the river. It’s that steep.  At night, you can’t see this, so you don’t even really know it’s there.  Unless you stop and turn your head torch to look, but no one could do that without falling.  I kept my eyes forward and dodged the rocks.

It was on this section that we came across the woman who’d fallen down to the river, which inspired greater caution in many of the runners who’d witnessed it.  I kept thinking of  her as I ran.

Still, many runners passed me on this section.  I let it happen.  I’m competitive but I know my strengths.  I make way.  Trail runners are usually a polite bunch, and it all worked well.  Still, I knew that there was a road section coming; in fact, I was counting on it.  There’s this song on the radio at the moment – maybe you know it – it’s got a sassy bit of attitude: “Baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry“.  I can’t get it out of my head, especially when I run.

When we finally got to the bitumen section, I could see the ten or so runners I had made way for running along in a glowing come-hither kind of line.  I began to pick them off, one by one.

When this wasn’t good enough, I moved off the sidewalk and onto the road, and ran as fast as I dared, passing three or four at a fast clip, then a few more, and a few more still, until I riskily leapt my way back onto the footpath with a jump that could’ve taken me out but didn’t.  I sang the song running through my head (baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry…) as I passed each runner.  A runner’s giggle, I knew; they’d take back the terrain on the next rough section, but I enjoyed those moments.

We soon descended back onto real trail.

Back to full darkness.  I became leader of a group of four or five runners who didn’t want to pass me.  We warned each other about hazards, chatting breathlessly.  It was difficult being in the lead.  I had to keep my eyes focused on the trail to not trip, while quickly scanning for ribbons and arrows to make sure we stayed on course.  I didn’t want to lead the group of us the wrong way and felt the weight of this responsibility even as I ran my heart out.

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Leading a group of runners home

My watch beeped but I had no idea how many kilometres we’d run.  I knew from the course we were close to the finish so kept pushing the pace, coaching myself not to get overconfident.  Cameras flashed, race photographers surprising candid expressions from all of us.

Then I could hear the sound of music and cheering and saw the cones and grass that led to the finish.  I raced for them, feeling the swish as a couple of runners sprinted by me. I wasn’t racing them tonight.  I was just glorying in the doing of this crazy thing, this running 10k in the dark, and making it back in one piece.

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Finish line glowing!

Across the finish line in 1:06, I had no idea of how I’d done.  My family found me, and I went to change clothes.  As I passed by the ambulance on the way to my car, I saw the woman who had fallen by the river being treated.  I thought to approach her and wish her well, but I didn’t want to interrupt.  I was very happy she seemed relatively unharmed.  I thought of the day I ended up in an ambulance in an adventure race on an outlying island in Hong Kong; I wanted to say it could happen to anyone.  I hope she is okay and will be back to tackle this trail again.

Once changed, I found my friend Cissy, who presented me with my Series prize – a balloon unicorn, running – the best prize I’ve ever won – and it lit up the night for me.

We sat together through the presentations in the cold night in our down jackets.  I loved the vibe of the race area in the dark, the party atmosphere, the fun of it all.  The last song before presentations, I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, was especially perfect, as it was my mantra during my ultra marathon phase.

Presentations started, first the Short Course, then the Medium Course.  When my age category was called (50-59), I had no idea if I’d placed.  I hadn’t even checked, as I assumed I hadn’t, being as cautious as I’d been.  Third was called – the time was slower than mine.  Second – ditto.  When my name was called for 1st in my age category, and I was so surprised and delighted and stunned, I think I was fairly glowing with happiness.  I stepped up on the highest podium to get a medal, the first time I’ve stood on the top step in this series, and shook hands with the other winners, and waited for the Series Result, where I found I’d taken out 2nd in the series in my age category.  The prize of a Trail Running Series glass and awesome Black Diamond Head Torch were wonderful, as was the gift certificate from Rise Health.

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Age category winners of the Medium Course

 

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The running unicorn and other great prizes! (Ok, the bag and medal says 60+ – but I’m really in the 50-59 age category! Anyone want to swap medals?)

It is the end of The Trail Running Series for the year, and, as always, it is a bittersweet feeling.  I’ve gathered so many memories.

I flip through them in my mind: Race 1 at Westerfolds Park in June, racing my heart out to place but just falling short of the podium; Race 2 at Smith’s Gully in July and the crazy fun Rob Roy Hill Climb; August’s Race 3 at Silvan in the woods, mud and fog and tricky twisty terrific trails; Race 4 on the beach at Anglesea with the sea and the cliffs and the delight of the river crossing with September’s spring in the air, and Race 5’s night race madness at Studley Park, all aglow.

This series: the moments, the memories, the beauty of the trails and terrain, the friendships and music and challenge and joy.  Each year, it is a homecoming.

The races themselves are the prizes, and we runners all share the podium, every single runner who has the guts to come out and challenge themselves at whatever distance, whatever pace.  Every single runner is a winner.

Thanks for the memories Rapid Ascent, and see you next year!

Next up for me: the Marysville Half-Marathon in November.  Time to get some distance and hills in these legs!

 

 

The 2017 Trail Running Series Race 4, Anglesea: I feel glorious

 

“I feel glorious, glorious, a chance to start again.  I was born for this, born for this.  It’s who I am, how could I forget.  I made it through the darkest part of the night and now I see the sunrise.  Now I feel glorious, glorious.  I feel glorious, glorious.”  I’m singing along with Macklemore as I drive alone down the freeway at dawn on my way to Anglesea, to the start of The Trail Series Race 4.

It’s true: the glorious bit.  I wasn’t sure I’d even make it to the start line of this run a few days ago.  The sun is just rising, and these words might have been written just for me.

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Last Saturday I ran my favourite Bayside trail, an easy recovery run after the Wonderland 20k Trail Run in the Grampians.  I felt it when it happened, after just two kilometres; the “ouch” sensation sent a chill through me.  Surely not, I thought.  That twinge in my left calf will go away after I warm up.  This is not an injury.

I kept running, as you do.  I finished the 10k run, even though I knew that the ouch had not faded.  Not one little bit.

It was exactly six days after I’d completed Wonderland, and another eight until I’d stand at the start of the fourth race in The Trail Series at Anglesea, a 15k beauty.

I waited until Tuesday to try running again.  Another 10k; another ouch.  I’m not really a learning creature.  I taught my pump classes, swam, changed nothing except for limping a little.  I booked a physio, then squeezed in one last run and weights session at the gym (6k on the treadmill, ouch ouch ouch), before confessing to the physio how utterly stupid I had been.  She was kind.  Compassionate.  She gave me heel lifts to put in my shoes and prescribed isometric calf raises 3x a day; she was very clear that if I raced without the heel lifts, I’d be at risk of further injury.  Worried, I asked if I should trial them before the race.  Yes, do 1k with them in, she said, certainly.  Dutifully, I did my exercises, wore my heel lifts, felt taller and wobblier as a result.  I tried the 1k the night before The Trail Series.  All was good, until half an hour later, when my foot hurt so much I couldn’t walk.  After a desperate message to my physio at 7 pm on Saturday (yes, she’s that good), we decided risking my foot was too dangerous.  I wouldn’t wear the heel lifts, choosing to risk my Achilles over my foot.

I was worried, not a good mental state the night before a trail run.  Add to this that my husband had been very ill for two weeks, and the kids had their final soccer on Sunday, so I was going to have to drive alone to Anglesea and back (two hours each way) on race morning; I was a bit of a wreck.

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It was a good thing that our bedroom clock was twenty minutes fast.  I got up on race morning, thinking it was 4:50 am, but really it was 4:30 and I had all the time in the world.  I drove alone on the M1 from Hampton; I chose my mantra after I noticed my hands were growing numb from gripping the steering wheel too tightly.  I said it aloud now and again – “I am capable” – because I get scared driving alone to new places.

It was dark when I set out; halfway there, somewhere near Bacchus Marsh, the sky was growing light.  That’s when Glorious came on the radio, and I awakened to the fact that I was going to make it, at least to the start line.

I feel glorious, glorious…

Oh the joy when I arrived, just at 7 am, and got my favourite parking position, right by the race headquarters.

It was cold and empty and I was delighted by the serenity.  I began to wander, soaking in the quiet and the sunrise.  I meandered by the river to the beach, where the sun was just kissing the cliffs golden below the lifesaving club.  The surf rolled in, unconcerned about my calf and this race.  I was there before the start line flags were up, when the dog walkers still owned the place.  A lone runner jogged back and forth from the sea’s edge up to the soft sand; another man stood and watched the sea.  I didn’t make eye contact; this was soul time, alone time, and I treasured it.  If all I had done that day was this, it would have been enough.

 

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Serene beach

Time passed.  I tucked these personal moments away to savour later, and began my circuit between race headquarters, my car, and the toilets.  Amazing how an hour can disappear.  I found Cissy and Les and Tony, who I had been looking forward to seeing, chatted, and allowed myself to slowly wind up to race pace.

It didn’t seem long at all until we made our way to the beach to watch the long course runners go. Moments later, we gathered for the Medium Course and I stood to the side with some friends as the more limber runners did a terrific warm up.  Bouncing up and down was beyond me this morning; I was saving all the bounce my calf had for the 5k on the beach.

 

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Warming up before the race start.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

We set off, racing down the beach and around the flag.  I kept the pace conservative, testing how my ankle felt without the heel rise.  Before long, we were splashing our way across Anglesea River, and I was relishing the cold, numbing water.

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We’re off, short sprint down the beach and back.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Ah, the beach run; how to describe the beauty of running below the towering cliffs, the sun just rising, runners stretched as far as I could see into the hazy distance?  It was magical.

Of course, there were those rocks to dash to earth all of the beauty-talk, all of this airy-fairness.  They were eminently trip-able, and I danced between them with care, following the smooth tracks worn in the sand by runners over the last two days.  I pondered the other runners who ran just below the cliffs where it was more rocky; I stayed on the firmer sand by the sea.  Each runner has their happy place, and I’ve learned not to follow others.  I didn’t care if the tide washed over me; others did.

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Below the towering cliffs of Anglesea.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

We climbed a few rocky outcrops; I was slow but it was fun.  We were faced with a choice at this stage: soft sand running, or the steeply angled harder sand where the tide was rolling in.  I opted for seaside and played dash-away from the waves, but soon all the hard sand ran out and we were left bogged down in soft sand making our way onto the largest rock crossing  It reared up with two potential paths; I was confused but it seemed both paths led to the same trail that led off the beach and up the hill.  I chose the left track and up I went.

Now, hills and I have a deal.  I win the ups and they win the downs.  Going up only takes strength and determination, not courage, and I can go up all day long, because I’m nothing if not determined.  My best friend used to say I was like Monica in Friends, the one who could get stuck on something crazy and be unable to let it go.  Yes, highly offensive and absolutely true.  That’s what hills are like for me; stick one in front of me and I’ll keep climbing it as fast as I can until I die.

So I enjoyed the climbs up to the 12k point.  There were a  few descents thrown in for good measure, and on the more technical ones of these, I gave way, as usual.  On the smoother ones I did my usual bolt-and-burn to catch up with those awful people who had been able to pass me.

Only today, because my calf was still saying ouch, I couldn’t go quite as fast.  Well, I could.  I decided about ten kilometres in to just go.  If I was going to be injured, I might as well enjoy this last race before I had to focus on rehabilitation.  So I let loose.  If the calf hurt, I fed it a gel or a salt tablet, tried to keep my stride light and short, and just went for my life.

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Me in the green buff, in utter joy

My blow-by-blow of the course gets lost in my head, because I spend so much of these runs trying not to fall on my face.  I had a beautiful glimpse of the sea once; there was a lot of yellow wattle in bloom; the grass trees went swish like water as I parted them whilst running; the tree roots captured my attention, crisscrossing the paths with ankle-breaking regularity, keeping me in the moment; the two men in blue who I kept passing and who kept passing me; the woman in the pink singlet who I couldn’t catch; the woman who asked how far we had gone because I had a Garmin on and I had to tell her to wait a minute because I couldn’t look at my watch without face-planting just then; the man I said hello to who I only then realised I knew, who told me he’d just had a fall and was a little shaken up then ran fast away; the final section.  Beardy Runner, fellow blogger, was that you?  You were so fast, I wasn’t sure.

Oh, I always remember the final section; it’s engraved in my memory from many, many events.

We run near the caravan park on a path that is trail to the left and rough bitumen to the right.  I’ve stayed on the trail side in past races, in a bitumen-is-boring purist attitude, but today I lapped up the bitumen, blazing myself as fast as I could along that path, making up the places, then up the yellow hill, along the final flat section, down to the staircase, and onto the beach.  The guy next to me kept getting too close on the beach, driving me to the softer sand, so I upped the pace and blazed past him too.  We splashed across the river a final time, me thinking about holes in the seabed and going cautiously.

Then, like in a nightmare, the soft sand reappeared.  It was miles and miles long but it was only ten meters.  My shoes sunk in and my Achilles screamed in foul language and the guy I had just passed blazed by me and kids were playing on the river and I was afraid they’d step in front of wobbling me and I’d fall over them but I tried to step lightly and ignore the ouch in my calf and I finally got onto that wonderful little bit of concrete path and people were cheering but not for me so I decided I would grab the cheers for their friend and have them anyway, and I ran my heart out to get over that finish line.

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Crossing the line

The man at the mic said my name and said he thought I’d got second in my age category, and I have to admit I was disappointed because I hadn’t seen the woman who usually beats me that day and was hoping she’d stayed home, but now I knew she hadn’t and she had won again!

No matter, I was telling myself, when this lovely woman named Kate came up and told me she loved my blog, and that made my day, even as I gasped and tried to catch my breath to thank her.  We chatted and later I found some friends and we shared our race day stories.

Afterwards, my feet cramped and I was all limpy and gimpy and I didn’t care one bit.  I had made it here to the party of the year, where the Surfcoast Century and The Trail Series come together to make a phenomenal weekend of trail joy for so many people.

All around me, I saw warriors dressed as runners, some nursing sore legs from 50 or 100km runs the day before, some carrying wounds like sprained ankles, or cuts and bruises, but all wearing the elated expression that comes from these wonderful races.  The outdoor eyes of athletes who have just had an extraordinary experience in the wild of our world.

I got to chat with the number 1 winner of my age category – we’ve become friends – and to laugh about how far behind her I was today.  On the podium, I smiled, quietly thrilled that even though I was a little broken, I was still able to compete well.

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Delighted to be on the podium with 2nd in my age category.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Now, a day later, I’m still feeling, frankly, glorious.  Though this is my desk view as I work, with physio exercises staring me straight in the eye.

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The heel raisers have not way their way back into my shoes though.  I taught a body pump class last night in my minimalist shoes, and oddly, my calf felt better afterwards.

This week is rest and recovery, and hopefully getting this injury gone.

In the meantime, I will continue to live like this lovely dog below, on the edge, enjoying the views and every wonderful moment that the trails throw at me.

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We’re on the edge.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Which reminds me, it’s only a few weeks until Race 5 in The Trail Series, where we take to the technical single-track above the Yarra River in Studley Park, in the dark!

I’m smiling, just thinking about it.  I must get a theme song sorted for the drive there.

Thanks again Rapid Ascent, for a glorious day out at Anglesea!

Oh – one more thing – I’ve just finished the first draft of my third book, a novel called Running Wild, and will be coming out soon!  It’s a wilderness adventure story of four women who go to compete in a 50km trail run in the Blue Mountains, and what goes wrong.

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The 2017 Wonderland Run 20k: onto the pinnacle

“If a race makes you nervous,” counselled a running friend from Facebook whom I had never met, “you should do it.  It’s good to step out of your comfort zone.”

Now, this person didn’t know me.  I had no business choosing his advice from the myriad of other potential sources of advice available.  My 11-year-old daughter, for instance, who declared that “no one should do activities that put their lives at risk”.

There was this pull, though.  I hate comfort zones; they bore me, dull my senses, make me lose the will to live.  Though much of my family life exists along the lines of what some might call ruts, I can’t bear for my running to be so flat-lined.

This year, I had declared the year of adventure.  I’d begun with my highest-altitude race ever, the Razorback 20km Run back in March.  It was meant, in my rather uninformed mind, to take about 3:30 to complete; it took 4:47 and was the most frightening experience I’d had to date, with its jaw-dropping beauty composed of a plummeting cliffside run, snake-infested trails , heat-exhaustion and bushfire-potential course that was an immense leap outside of my “comfort” zone.

Nonetheless, I made it to the summit and back.  My friend Sally, who walked the course in considerably less distress and much the same time that I ran-walked it, suggested that if Mount Feathertop had scared the bejesus out of me, then the Wonderland Run might not be such a good idea .

Who to listen to:  my own child; a close friend who had just completed a similar challenge with me; or a complete stranger from Facebook?

Yep.  Complete stranger, thank you for resetting my compass back to where I want it to be.  Slightly wild and uncomfortable, here we come.

Though I had not officially qualified for the Wonderland Run with my 4:47 at the Razorback Run (there are strict qualification standards, and my four-plus hour odyssey did not meet them), I managed to convince Judge&Jury (an anonymous person who decides these things for the Wonderland Race Director) that my trail record of faster runs in the past was good enough.  I received the email:

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I’ve qualified!

 

Oh.My.God.

I immediately went to the race website and began to familiarise myself again with the trail maps.  The images looked deadly.  It appeared that we ran at least five kilometres on the edge of a thousand-foot-drop, along slippery rocks.

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Images from the Wonderland Run website. Gulp.

The elevation gain graph reminded me of something, a picture from Le Petit Prince.  If you’ve read this children’s story you’ll know the one I mean.

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Course map from Garmin

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Course elevation profile

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Is it a hat?  No, it’s a snake that swallowed an elephant.  From Le Petit Prince – looks similar to our elevation profile, right?

I ran the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon in June to convince myself that I was fast enough to do Wonderland, even though I’d already convinced Judge&Jury.  For a half-marathon to qualify, you have to run it in 2:15.  I finished the Surfcoast Trail Half in 2:18 but it was a trail half-marathon during a king tide where much of it was run in the ocean, so I decided it was good enough.  I was going to do this crazy thing.

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During the Surfcoast Half-Marathon in June: “Just wait until the wave goes out…” (A photo borrowed from Facebook)

In the meantime, The Trail Series had begun.  I chose the medium course this year, with distances of 10-15 km and a lot of elevation change.  These races were too short to prepare me for Wonderland, so I threw in a bunch of runs up at Mount Dandenong of 18-20 km to make up both the distance and elevation change.  After studying the training methods on the Wonderland website, I quickly decided that they’d leave me injured rather than ready, so I adopted the principles they advocated, and moved the workouts to the gym instead.  Lots of skipping rope.  Climbing stairs on the Stepmill machine.  Squats and lunges and single leg deadlifts.  Heaps of fast interval and tempo training (trying to win my age category at The Trail Series at the same time).  Swimming.  Teaching Bodypump.

In the back of my mind, at all times, through every race and every training session, Wonderland loomed.  As I cooked the children dinner; as I taught my classes; as I worked on my novel.  I couldn’t picture the cliff edges.  Didn’t know whether we’d be teetering on the edge of death or not.  I was going, and that was that.

We were about two weeks out when we were hit by the epic storm; it had hit much of Melbourne this year.  The flu.  I became a tiny person in a little metal rowing boat, surrounded on all sides by an immense sea of illness.  This was the timeline:

  • 9 August my son sick w cold
  • 15 August my daughter sick w flu
  • 16/17 August my husband sick w flu
  • 18 August my daughter sick w flu again
  • 23-25 August my daughter sick with vomit-type illness (don’t get me started)
  • 24 August my husband sick with flu again
  • the whole month of August – everyone I knew, sick with varied awful and terrible illness.  And they all seemed to cough right on me as soon as I said hello.

Back in February, before I even entered Wonderland, I booked our accommodation, a little lovely cabin at the Halls Gap Tourist Park.  It was confirmed.  The dogs were booked into the kennel.  The cats were to be minded by a neighbour.  But here, the night before we were due to leave, I didn’t even know if I’d be going.

All seemed to be conspiring against me.  Would we go as a family?  Would I go alone?  Would I have to miss the race entirely because everyone was too sick to leave?  Would I get sick too?  Was the “universe trying to tell me something”, like if I went, I’d fall off a cliff and die?

In the end, we “soldiered on”.  Got everyone in the car, and hoped for the best.  My daughter travelled with a vomit bag we’d nicked from sickbay at school when I brought her home sick on Wednesday.  It was well after dark when we checked in to our cabin.  In the morning, I opened the curtains and saw a mountain I hadn’t even known was there the night before.

We were truly in the Grampians, and I stared out our window with a mixture of awe and terror.  I shivered with the cold as the temperature was hovering near freezing as well.

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The view from our cabin. I thought we were running on this cliff!

Still, it was only Saturday.  It wasn’t real yet.  I picked up my race number at the strange little Centenary Hall and chatted to friends who were all much calmer than me.  Found the wonderful Absolute Outdoors Australia store nearly next door (Absolute Outdoors Australia), and slipped in for a new seam-sealed raincoat.  The staff there were terrific and kind, and helped me choose my perfect new (unexpectedly pink) Salomon running jacket, and wished me well.  Thanks for your help Cass!

 

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I’d bought the new jacket because it was an easy purchase to justify at this event: serious rain could be deadly, I promised my husband, not expecting anything of the sort.  Because it was only going to “shower” and be “cloudy” in Halls Gap.  Except as we all found out, it rained the entire day on Saturday.  Everywhere we walked, we squelched.  It was cold, hard, unforgiving rain and I cursed the Bureau of Meteorology for their lies.

Shortly before dark, we received a message from the Race Director that all mandatory gear would be required for the 36km run, and advised for the 20k run.  No matter, I planned on carrying it all anyway, as I always do in the hills.

Race morning came.  After the all-night rain, it was bitterly cold, but dry.  I dressed in every layer I owned to get from the cabin to the car to be dropped at the start line, then stripped down to my race gear in the parking lot.  The only concession I made to the cold was to wear my new rain jacket, and my running gloves.  I chatted to some fellow Dandenongs Trail Runners (Go DTR!), and huddled for warmth with the other hundreds of runners near the start line.

After a race briefing, off we went.  I chose the first wave, not wanting to get stuck in bottlenecks at the early sections.  I’m going to get the order of things wrong – please forgive me, as it all becomes blurry in a race.

We began in the Botanic Gardens, running uphill on a neatly groomed track.  It was pretty; it was laughable.  I remember thinking it was awesome to begin this way, to be lured in, like (please forgive me) Alice going down the rabbit hole.  She didn’t know what was coming next either.

Up and up we went, and sneakily, a rock snuck in here and there.  They multiplied, grew larger, and before we knew it, we were really climbing up a rocky trail, legs lifted high like they recommended in that training video.  It was slippery but not too much and I kept stealing glances to the left, floored by the beauty and then conscious I was going to fall on my face if I kept looking.

Somewhere up there, we crossed under two gigantic boulders, which looked poised to crush me to death.  Part of me stalled and said I’m not going under there, but the physical part of me kept going.  A beautiful section came with stepping stones next to a small waterfall on the right; I stepped to the side to pause to admire it.

I loved the ups.  There is nothing scary about up to me.  I’m strong and can go up all day long.  Even pass people.  I don’t know the proper names for the section that went right between two canyon walls on slippery stepping stones.  I felt hugged by the land in that section, despite momentarily thinking of the earth moving and crushing me flat.   I think the Pinnacle came next.  Jaw-dropping.  Everyone with any sense stopped for photos.  I kept thinking if I was in a hurry, I’d do a road marathon; I’d come to see these places so I gave them time.

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This is what I came for…

Onto an elephant-hide section, broken by small gullies like crevices in a glacier.  I stayed on the upraised dry bits of rock, steered clear of any black or green to prevent slipping.  This took time and caution and a lot of my fellow runners were racing, bolting around me, risk-takers.  I admired them but I couldn’t be them, and I tried to stay out of their way.  What drives me bonkers is when someone is a risk-taker and they get up right behind me on slippery descents.  I know they are going to slip and take me out with them, so I lose a fair few race places letting them pass me.

I’d taken off my gloves somewhere on the up, and at the top, it was suddenly blisteringly cold.  Thankfully, my new raincoat was slightly long in the sleeves so I wasn’t too badly off.  I think the descent began here.  In my memory, it is just slick rock after slick rock.  The front-runners had muddied things up a bit and there were huge puddles in the centre of many of the trails.  I wasn’t fast here; I never am.

Still.  This young guy bolted by me, flying down on my right, then slowed ten feet in front of me.  I was puzzled.  I thought he might be the sweeper, there keeping an eye on us.  I kept catching him up.  Eventually I asked him, saying I know you’re faster than me.  He was young.  Maybe new to trail running.  He told me he was waiting for his girlfriend who was somewhere behind me, and said if I could get out of the way, she could get by.  I paused, asked how far she was behind me, but he didn’t know.  Hmm. I decided against letting the random number of racers by me and kept on going.  A little while later she passed me anyway but the experience was odd and off-putting.  I pondered later – should I have given them the trail? – but decided, no, part of this is race strategy and placing yourself appropriately at the start.  Tricky decisions.

In any case, we kept descending, until at about 13km we moved onto a path above the reservoir that was not at all scary.  The young couple passed me about this stage, but I was in my element and bolting down that relatively smooth trail, noting the lake to the right, keeping my feet dancing between rocks.  Somewhere here was a photographer.  There had been a few but this was the first one I saw in a section where I knew I had done the hard stuff.  I had made it.  Tears came into my eyes, unexpectedly.  Could it be I was going to do this thing?  I quickly cautioned myself.  We were nowhere near done.

We came to a bitumen section pretty shortly after this.  Oh, I flew.  I’ve been doing my long runs just like this, 16k hard and slow, then the last 2 or 3 on firetrail where I simply fly.  So my body was tuned for this.  I saw the “mean couple” in front of me and smiled:  I was too slow, was I?  I turned the pace up high, and I burned them, adding a kind “you’re doing well” with a Mr. Bean feeling inside.  Really, I wanted to turn and laugh ha ha ha I’m not so slow now am I? But I didn’t.

Instead, I kept running as fast as I could and passed a few other people who had passed hapless cautious me on the downhill.  I loved it.  We were going to run on the road all the way to the finish.  Easy.

Except we didn’t.  We moved back through a field where there should have been kangaroos, then onto a technical single-track lined with rocks and tree roots and I paid for my spitefulness as my calves threatened to cramp.  I talked them out of it, passed a few more people, contemplated what the sign meant that said “Don’t be the cheese” and tripped and nearly sprained my ankle, did a loop around and over a bridge, and found myself on the final footpath section into town.  The wind blew hard in my face, like it was trying to blow me backwards, but I pushed and pushed and swore at that wind.  It wasn’t going to slow me down. Kids were holding their hands out for high-fives, and I made sure I touched them all, including my daughter’s, and I got so excited that I ran right past the finish chute and the race director had to grab me and send me back the right way so I could pass the actual finish line.

3:10, my watch said, right before it died and lost the record of this amazing run I had just done.  Eighth in my age category.

It took a few moments to sink in.  I had faced down this terrible monster that I had grown over large in my mind.  And it was not, in the end, that scary at all!  No sense that I could plummet off a cliff at any time.  What a glorious surprise.

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But perhaps I just wasn’t looking closely enough. Looks like I could have slid off this rock to my death…hmmm.

Today is only Monday, but the event feels like it was weeks ago.  I stare at videos and photos of where we ran and am absolutely gobsmacked.  I did that.  I DID THAT.  We all did that amazing thing.  Wow.  Just wow.

Thank you race organisers, volunteers and my family.  That is an experience I will remember forever.

 

 

The Trail Running Series Race 3 at Silvan: everywhere I see monsters

The book I chose for bedtime reading has not helped.  A thriller called Descent about a female runner set in the mountains of Colorado.  I should have known better.  But no, I had to start reading it in the weeks before this next trail race.  Fairly predictably, it didn’t end well for the female runner.  Well, it did, but it took several harrowing weeks of terror (mine, while I read of what bad men do) for it to end somewhat well.  Now I have this image in my head, and I won’t share it with you because I do not believe that every time a woman sets off alone running on a woody trail, it has to end badly.  Knock on wood, as they say.

Anyway.  There was the book.  Then there was the other monster in the room.  Well, more like outside the front gate, that I planned to invite in at the end of August:  The Wonderland 20k Run in the Grampians, that scares me senseless.  I imagine myself dropping off the edge of the trail there, like where the map runs out in maps of the world where the earth is flat: here there be monsters and all that.

The Trail Series Silvan 15 km Race is the last friendly obstacle between it and I.

Did I say friendly?  Please come in, Monster Number 3.  It is the night before the race, and the wind blows so hard my bedroom on the second floor of our home shakes.  It is two or three or four am.  Maybe close to five, almost when I’d planned to get up.  The time doesn’t matter; I’ve been awake all night anyway.  I usually am the night before a race, worried that I’ll miss the alarm so I watch the clock like it might creep away if I don’t keep an eye on it.

I’d noted the weather alerts before bed.  As if the mighty wind blowing the trees back and forth in the garden wouldn’t have been enough of a clue.  The prediction: rain; thunder; hail; frost; gale-force winds.  Perfect weather, then, for a 15 kilometre trail race.   In a forest.  In winter.  I spend the wee hours of the night composing my obituary: Patricia ran in the woods during 60 km/hour winds with gusts up to 100 on the hills, and a tree fell on her; she was an idiot.

When I finally get up, imagine my surprise to find it completely still.  The world is becalmed (my word of the day – I read it in a magazine and like the sound of it – I hope it means what I think); the wind is gone.  It is dark as night (it is night, at 5:15 am on a Sunday morning).  The dogs gaze at me sleepy but expectant as I wander downstairs and switch on the kitchen light, but quickly curl back into circle-dogs and go to sleep again (though Billy, the youngest, keeps one eye slightly open to watch me).

I’m in the car earlier than planned.  Half – no most – of my pre-race nerves come from contemplating driving.  My hour-long route includes three twisty single-lane road sections through the trees; perfect spots for courageous drivers to get annoyed by my cautious approach and tail-gate me in fury.  My strategy is to leave before anyone is on the road.

I haven’t counted on the absolute dark or the pouring rain though, and I finally have to learn how the high-beam lights work in my car (wonderfully, though switching them off  for oncoming vehicles while navigating twisty, wet, dark roads requires a degree of motor skills I hadn’t imagined).

I arrive alive.  Get a terrific park.  The best park ever in fact, in the car park right near the race start.  I am there before they’ve even finished setting up the finish chute, that’s how early I am.  I want a picture of the sunrise, but it doesn’t rise.  The sky just turns a slightly lighter shade of grey.  I am wearing (no joke): running tights with waterproof trousers on top, a Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet, a thin rain-jacket, a wool icebreaker top, a wool/fleece hoody, a 550-loft down jacket, a waterproof ski jacket, a fleece hat and gloves.  I look more ready for skiing than running, am perhaps even over-dressed for skiing, but I don’t care.  I am cozy-warm wandering around race headquarters, jogging to the start of the course, buying hoodies and buffs.

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The “sunrise”

By the time the race is about to start, I have stripped down to just the singlet and running tights, though, and I’m not cold at all.  It’s as if someone new has slipped into my body in the hour I have waited around, someone more gutsy and less cold-blooded than me.  Someone who is not scared of monsters.

Medium course runners are called to the Start line.  No one moves.  We are called again.  I glance around.  Think to ask the guy next to me where the start line is.  Finally the MC comes straight in front of us and marches us to the Start Line which was not obvious as to get there we had to walk through the Finishers Arch!  I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know where it was!

We warmed up; we went.  It wasn’t new to me.  My friends Cissy and Tony and I had done a reconnoissance of the course two weeks prior, so I knew where we were going.  I even knew the trail names, which was kind of cool, because usually I’m thinking things like, hey, there’s the “Hill from Hell” whereas today I was thinking, oh, Track 24, that’s the steep one with the unimaginative name.

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Ghost hill

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Checking out the course two weeks before the event

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Navigating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw little point in running the first hill.  The hero in me has left the house, to be replaced by the smarter racing strategist.  I wanted to be out in front before the single-track became bottle-necked but that was five kilometers away.  I ran some, and when it got too steep, I power-hiked fast, knowing that different muscles were working that way, and there were lots of hills to come.  I avoided the slicks of mud where other runners had slipped, stayed off the deadly clay in the center of the trail, and kept to the grassy sides where my feet got more purchase.  Yes, it hurt, but not more than my usual run at Mount Dandenong.  I like ups anyway, that’s where I make up for my downs.  I’m strong there, and can hold my place in the race rankings.

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Rapid Ascent’s photo of the “Hill from Hell” looking down

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It looks a bit worse looking up in Rapid Ascent’s other photo of the “Hill from Hell”

At the top, a breath of relief, then we fly down the other side.  Well, the runners around me fly.  I pick my way down as fast as I can which is too slow because my eyes don’t work so well these days, with these stupid grey shadows called floaters removing clarity so I can’t really see where the roots and rocks and branches are if I go too fast.  That stinks, that my body could certainly run down the hills faster than my eyes allow.

Down, down we go, across Olinda Creek Road, onto Georges Road.  I’m waiting for Rifle Range Gully Track and KC Track because these are the tough bits, the single track up and up and up, where we creep single-file and I feel like I am on an army mission into enemy territory.  The man behind me wheezes and gasps like he might die at any moment.  He won’t let me get away from him though – each time I try to surge forward when we both are power-hiking he breaks into a run too – with his heavy breathing, he’d give us away to the enemy and we’d all be dead.  I have compassion for him though, as I have my own hacking-cough issues, but still, his heavy breathing has me amused (it sounds a bit like a porno movie behind me), but desperate to move ahead because he’s making it sound really hard to climb this hill.

Oh, we go up and down and up and down, I stay with the same group, two men in orange vests or jackets (I only see orange as I’m trying not to trip so I don’t really look; I imagine they are wearing fluoro vests like construction workers but I’m sure they were in technical running gear), and a boy who is just as fast as me, and his father.  And the poor man who wheezes.  We are on a mission, the five of us; I pass them on the ups and they pass me on the downs and I kind of feel like maybe we should just hold our positions but none of us do.

It’s towards the last five k of so that I see her, my nemesis, my friend, the winner of each race I run, the friend I chat to always at the start but can never ever catch.  She’d bolted ahead and I had happily let her go so I wouldn’t waste my race racing her, but there I see her in front of me, like a carrot on a stick and I’m the hungry donkey and I suddenly think maybe I’ll be able to catch her this time.

All the while a part of me is going, yes, this is the way we went on our course reconnaissance , yes, that tree and that trail, and that’s where we went wrong and turned back, and yes.  And then – WAIT ONE DARNED MOMENT – we didn’t go this way at all!   There’s an extra side trail we didn’t find and a different way across the bottom of the National Rhododendron Garden than we took.

Ah, but that was where I had my favourite race moment.  The rain, which had held off, suddenly came down with a cold fury.  It was needly and sharp and the wind blew it straight into my face for several minutes.  I was all alone, and I said out loud, laughing, “And that’s how you know you’re alive!”

Then, like someone pressed Play, the movie kept going, and people started passing me going downhill again.  The young boy and his dad passed, the two guys in fluoro vests, the wheezing guy, they all went by me.  Cissy waved as she passed.  My nemesis/friend disappeared once again into the distance and I picked my way down the hill.

One more hill up, I knew, and I was struggling by then.  Is this the wall? I asked myself, before I sucked down a third energy gel and a big glug of water and continued to run.  Some single-track, I think, came next, then the slick clay by the fence line where my calf and foot began to play cramping games with me.  Ha ha, I thought, wind and rain and monsters and slick clay and calf cramps be damned and I kept running as fast as I could until I came to Stonyford Road.

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This could be Stonyford Road

Oh, it was so familiar, where I’d come undone during our rec’y run two weeks before, so tired, no time for walking today though, I passed a guy doing it harder than me, kept going, calves wanting to cramp but not so I kept the pace up, a woman behind me said well done Patricia but I was going too hard to glance back and said well done to you too as we both powered on.

The beautiful, wonderful finish line and friends calling my name and all monsters banished for that one gleeful moment, that crossing of the line, then hands on knees, breathless, pressing Stop on my Garmin, and suddenly finding myself immersed in a huge heaving party of exuberant runners, live music, and food everywhere.

After I changed back into my skiing clothes, Cissy found me and said, “Congratulations!” and I said “For what?” and she said “Didn’t you check the results? You came second in your age category!”

Joy.  So a fourth, third and now a second in the series.  By the time of the awards ceremony, many had left, including the first and third place winners in my age category (it was bitterly cold) so I got to stand on the podium alone in my ski wear.  This is my favourite photo – it looks like I’m talking to an invisible friend, though I’m really chatting with Sam, the Race Director.

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Me and my invisible friend with granola

What a terrific day!  No monsters anywhere.  Just a lot of trees and mud and awesome runners having the time of their lives.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, for putting on another terrific show!

And now there is nothing between me and the monster that is Wonderland…