The Trail Running Series Race 2: taking to the hills

I dance the fine line of the trail, on the razor’s edge between pleasure and pain, between racing my best self and racing those around me.  The single-track through the woods weaves and undulates, fast, studded by rocks and tree roots.  It picks me up and throws me back down; I breathe it in, and it, in turn, breathes me out.  Who I am when I run these trails is completely different to my everyday self.  Here, I am a warrior, thundering fast, muscle and sinew, breath and courage and life.  Here, I am my best me.

It is elemental and real and there is no after-image which can capture these moments of freedom.  Here, in these woods, I am amongst kindred spirits; I am come home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We hadn’t even begun.

It is the second race of The Trail Series (I’m in for the medium course again, at 13.6km), and we are at a new venue called Smiths Gully, and something called the Rob Roy Hill Climb.  I get the general gist of things – that this 700 metre bitumen hill was purpose-built for cars to race, and that we will be running up it.  Cool. I wish I had read the course description better several weeks ago though, as I’d not twigged onto the four-hundred or so meters of elevation gain.  I’d been training for a flat fast half-marathon (the Surfcoast Half-Marathon) that I’d done just two weeks before, and hadn’t been up in the hills for about six weeks.  No matter, I told myself.  Muscle memory.  And surely the heavy squats I’d been doing in the gym would help.  Other runners were doing the short course (7 km) and the long course (18km); all three groups would have big hills to contend with.

I took the precaution of warming up, running up the gravel track to check out the hill with dozens of other runners.  I stared up the steep road, feeling the tightness in my calves.  After two rest days, they worried me. Would the tight muscles go snap when tested, like a rubber band pulled too hard?

Still, the hill made me laugh.  Bitumen and all.  I couldn’t see the top, just that it was steep, and that it curved around a bend so I couldn’t see how far it went.  In the distance, my dog barked her “come back” call.  I gave the hill a nod of respect, and jogged back down the gravel hill towards the event centre.

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My family had come with me to the race today, a rare occurrence with the ongoing conflict between their soccer matches and my Sunday races.  It was even more unlikely because it was school holidays,  the time of epic battle in my home.

I’m a creature needing solitude; without it, my fuse grows shorter, and my sensitive nature becomes attuned to all manner of unreal digs and hurts.  With exercise, I can keep the dragon inside at bay.  But when tapering for a race, even for a day or two, a big wide abyss opens up inside me.  Call it depression, moodiness, over-sensitivity.  I see it coming, and duck and weave and run and swim, but during school holidays, the feeling curves over me like a giant wave, and sometimes we all get smashed in the white-water.

That was my week leading up to the race.  It is somewhat better though, because my husband convinced the kids (11 and 13) somehow to come along and support me.  He will take care of them and our two dogs while I disappear into the woods.

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My wonderful support crew

 

Again, like the last race of the series, I joined in with the warm-up at the start line, doing my own bounce-in-place thing as I couldn’t do many of the warm-up moves on a good day at the gym.  I half-listened to the race briefing, as I’d studied the course closely this time (four hills, the race ending in a nice big descent that I’d like).

I glanced down at my waist in disgust:  the issue was my stupid water carrier.  I’d brought the waist pack which I swore I’d never run with again, but had trialed during the week’s training run.  It went well, no bounce, but here, as soon as I strapped it on and began warming up on the gentle inclines, it bounced, irritating me, and I swore at it.  I asked my husband’s opinion – should I run with it – and didn’t listen to his answer (bad wife), then carried it to the warm-up.  Just before we took off, though, I abandoned it, strapped it to a bench like a naughty animal.  I couldn’t bear it; I’d get water at the water stop at 8.5km and I tucked my two gels into the waistband of my running tights.  I felt rebellious and wild and light and glad, seeing that stupid pack left alone there.  Maybe someone would steal it.

Then off we went.  Follow the green tape, I reminded myself.  We turned up the Rob Roy Hill.  I laugh, remembering.  Up and up and up.  I ran.  The whole way.  The incline was near exact to that going to the top of Mount Dandenong.  It felt familiar and my muscles knew exactly what to do with it.  Bitumen.  Easy.  Some walked; some ran.  It didn’t really matter.  I just did what my body enjoyed best.  At the top (I think), we climbed over a strange wall made of milk crates and flat planks of wood that was an unusual puzzle, but fun at this stage in the run.

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Rob Roy Hill Climb. Up and up and up!

Just before we started, I’d noticed my favourite race competitor.  I’d checked the competitor list earlier and thought she wasn’t running today, so was surprised (and dismayed) to see her – she ALWAYS beats me.

I didn’t see her when we started, but just after we got to the top of that mighty hill, someone came up behind me, said, “Well done on running the hill!” and blasted by me.  Ah, there she was.  I gave chase, trying to keep her in my sights, shouting out a “Well done to you too” as an afterthought.  We were only one kilometre into the 13.6 km run.  It was not time to race.  But I didn’t want to let her out of my sight.  I kept up for a few kilometres.  Each time it turned technical downhill, though, I got left behind.  I constantly battle between racing others and running my own race.  Because I know this woman is in my age category, it is hard not to chase her.  We’re both competitive.  We joke and laugh at the finish and start, but on course, we both go hard.  I have come undone in such situations in the past, ending up with sprained ankles, so I am terribly conscious of running to my strengths.

As always I go strong up, scaredy-cat down.  I keep with the same group this way, don’t lose or gain ground, but I always want to be faster on the scary bits.  It takes a lot of self-talk to protect myself.  My vision isn’t good anymore, so with fast rough terrain I have to be careful.  So she disappeared into the distance.  I had to let her go.  In a way, I was glad.  I could focus on just the run now.

Those fast curving single tracks.  They pulled at me like magnets and I flew.

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Runners having fun on the twisty-turny bits!

We flew. I stayed with the same small group of runners, being passed downhill when it became technical, passing on the ups and the smooth downs.  I counted the hills, one, two, three but somehow lost track and wondered was this the third or the fifth hill.

I kept those green ribbons in clear view, negotiating the trail splits until one awful moment I was alone on a small section and saw a single blue ribbon and thought I’d gone wrong but moments later re-joined a rainbow trail of red, green and blue.  All the way, I was singing Bon Jovi in my head.  My race refrain today was Have a Nice Day.  If you don’t know it, it goes like this, “Why you want to tell me how to live my life, who are you to tell me if I’m wrong or I’m right…la la la…when the world gets in my face, I say HAVE A NICE DAAAY, Have a nice day…”

And so on.  I’m not sure who I was singing to, but it made me run fast.  And that felt glorious.

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Have a nice day…

At 8.5 km, I drank down a full cup of water in one fast gulp, downed a get, and felt energy glowing through me.  I’d been training for half-marathons; there was plenty in my tank.  Boom, I ran.  I can’t recall where the hills and single-tracks and bitumen and gravel sections were; it all blurs together into a glorious race between myself and myself, and all the great runners who pass me, and I pass back, or not.  My body feels alive and I thunder along, every part of me alert and aware.  Once, an errant tree root grabs my left foot and I stumble and nearly fall but right myself and run on, gleeful but more careful.  I hear a man discussing me from behind: “That woman is very consistent,” he says.  I think this is a compliment and soak it up.

By 13.5km, I hunger for the final downhill, which I assume will be down the bitumen road. Despair hits me when it is a gravel track and my feet threaten to cramp. I am passed by a bunch of runners here, and being passed on this kills me but I remind myself to run my own race.  I have no water to fight cramp so have to listen carefully to my body.

Down we fly, coming to the “wall” again, which I had missed hearing of in the race briefing. I clamber over like I am 85, my bounce gone, reminding myself to train more for this sort of obstacle for the Wonderland run in August.

No matter. We make it over, then blast downhill on bitumen then onto the gravel where I had warmed up. I was not racing anyone, just flying across the line with joy.

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Finish line 14.2 in 1:24

Moments later, my family finds me.  The dogs are gleeful, as if I’d been gone for months. My daughter is ready to shop for buffs and whatever else she can. My son is hungry and ready to go, and my husband ever-patient.

The MC mentioned my blog as I crossed the line, which was fun and odd and wonderful. It made me smile when he quoted the blog and I had to find him to try to explain that it was not him or his beard that were scary, but the details of the race he described before the start, which I always embellish in my imagination (the wall becomes the Great Wall and is seven feet high and studded with glass shards, that sort of thing).

He also mentioned I was provisionally third in my age category, which made the pain of chasing my competitors more worthwhile.

The after-party was, as always, magical. There is something about the shared experience of trail running that makes friends of strangers. Everyone seems to glow with joy and accomplishment, and the small things like egg-and-bacon rolls take on a new significance.  The man sings and plays acoustic guitar and they are always songs I know and love, and seem to take on particular meaning in the moment, and then I forget what the song was later and wish I’d written it down.

We stayed for the awards ceremony, and I got to cheer for Cissy coming 2nd in her age category, and to stand on the podium for third.  I’m delighted when Sam mentions my blog and wish again I was less socially awkward so I could introduce myself to him.  One day.

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3rd in age category!

Two terrific runs in The Trail Series done.  Three remain. I am endlessly grateful for these moments of freedom.

And happy to report that school holidays has taken a turn for the better, with the dragon in me quieted and calm.  Today, I had an eight kilometre recovery run in Ocean Grove, feeling the gravel trail beneath my feet, chasing a teenager on a bike who happened to be on the same trail.

Next up, Silvan 15km in four weeks time.  Oh, and in seven weeks, the 20km Wonderland Run.  I guess I’d better focus on recovery – if only I could convince our puppy that my spiky ball is mine and not his!

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King Tide: The 2017 Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon

A few hundred racers were huddled together on the sand, awaiting the start of the Surfcoast Half-Marathon.  We had just been advised to move back from the shoreline in case of a surge.

“What’s a surge?” the runner next to me said.

I glanced at him; the waves just off-shore were four feet high.  They were the things of nightmares.

“The ocean…” I said, gesturing.

I moved fast uphill, away from the shoreline.  A few moments later, the waves rolled in.  A bunch more runners dashed up into the dunes amidst general nervous laughter.

This was looking interesting.

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Half-marathon runners awaiting the start. (Borrowed from a Facebook post.)

 

Here’s what the FAQ section said on the race website:

“Do I have to cross any rivers or roads?

No, the only section of the course that is bitumen is a short stretch leading up to the car park at Point Addis and there will be course marshal at this section. There are no rivers to cross, nor mountains to climb (beyond your own mental ones). There are a few car park entrances to cross – please do so with care. They will all be marshalled for runner safety.

What about beach sections?

There will be several beach sections to run on, and depending on the tides and what time you reach particular sections, the tide may be high. There will always be sand to run on, although if tide is high, the sand will be softer and present more difficult running conditions. Beach sections are:

  • Fisherman’s Beach (1.5km)
  • Bells Beach (300m)
  • Point Addis beach (900m)
  • Guvvos-Urquhart’s Beach (3.3km)
  • Sunnymead (100m)
  • Fairhaven Beach (finish – 200m)”

 

The Surfcoast Trail Marathon (SCTM) held in Victoria, Australia has been on my list of awesome races to do for a couple of years.  It is held the week after start of The Trail Series, so in past years I’ve missed it.

This year, I decided to do it anyway.  I needed a half-marathon qualifier for the Wonderland 20k, and this event was perfect.  Though I had just run the first race of The Trail Series (10.6 km) six days earlier in a near PB time, I convinced myself that the SCTM would be an “easy” half-marathon, full of fun.  Compared to my last half-marathon on Mount Feathertop which took nearly five hours, this seemed reasonable.

The slogan for the SCTM is “Where the Wild Things Run”.  That has drawn me to the event for years:  I’m wild (well, mildly); I was raised seaside; I run the surf coast for fun, but I’d only seen the Torquay to Anglesea sections.  This race would give me some new terrain to see, from Point Addis to Fairhaven.  I’d wanted to see this area for a long time.

There, I was convinced this was a rational decision, to race two weekends in a row.

My family and I drove down to Point Addis Saturday morning.  Not early enough to score a parking space, so they dropped me at the start and drove away.

I explored the raised wooden viewing areas with delight, taking photo after photo, but being sure I actually stopped and saw the views as well.  The sun glinting off the ocean; the waves rolling in to high cliffs; the other runners laughing and taking selfies; the odd tourist looking bemused by the group of hundreds of runners lining up to register; the marathon runners going by to great cheers.

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Views from the boardwalks above the start line.  This is a view of the first beach section we traversed.  Note the waves.

At 10:27, I was waiting for the 10:30 race briefing on the top of the cliffs when it occurred to me that it might be down on the beach.  I asked and quickly made my way down the steep wooden staircase, feeling doomed, as I thought we had to climb back up as the race start (should’ve read the course description better).

Down on the beach, I joined the huddle of runners.  I eyed the waves; they were big.  Really big.  Much larger than I’d expected, even though I knew the race would be taking place at high tide.

I noticed another woman runner then, who looked a bit nervous standing alone, so I started to chat with her.  It was her first trail half.  I reassured her that this was a good, easy one to start with.  Nothing too difficult, and a great crowd of people.  A few Dandenong Trail Runners arrived, looking resplendent in their singlets (Chris and Lauren, with John as support crew), and Chris from Bayside; we chatted, shared laughter.  I kept one eye on the surf, as anyone raised by the beach tends to do.

Shortly after the “step back from the water” warning, another wave rolled in, and the runners darted higher up into the dunes.

It was race briefing time.  A tall man stood on the dunes and spoke to us.  I confess:  I blacked it out.  Something about the waves coming into shore.  Arg.  Okay.  People racing move to the front.  I was; I did.  I asked the woman next to me, do we run out and back on the beach?  We only ran one way she said, and continued on to the trail from there.  A relief that we didn’t have to climb the steep stairs to the start then.

We lined up, then, bang, we were off.

The beach?  It was a few feet wide.  Some of the way.  I quickly found myself darting away from the encroaching tide, trying to make sure I had no one running to my right to block a dash away.  This beach section didn’t last long, maybe a kilometre.  After only a few minutes, we climbed up to a gravel track.  It was easy, fast running.  For a few kilometres, I dropped below my target of 5:30/km and felt really strong.  Except on the horrible stone staircase, where I inexplicably began singing Stairway to Heaven in my head, even though we were running down the stairs.  That song that would accompany me for many kilometres.

It was when we came to Anglesea that the fun began.  I’d read the course description.  We would run on the bitumen path.  I was used to slogging across the river in other races, and was slightly disappointed that we’d go bitumen this time.  Except when I got there, the course seemed to be going straight across the wide, tidal river.  Usually, runners would just get their shoes wet.  Today, the water went up to my knees.  I laughed the entire way across – it was the absolute highlight of the day.  Though I still wonder – was I meant to go the bitumen way?  Never mind.

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Near one of the bitumen sections, I think the Anglesea River. (Photo borrowed from Facebook post of another trail runner. Is this you? You were smart to take off your shoes!)

The rest gets a bit hazy in my memory.  I can’t give you a blow-by-blow course and race description.  Because suddenly it became, as one friend described it, more of a duathlon.

Those soft stretches of sandy beach?

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Another photo borrowed from a Facebook post. Note the runners in the water…

From Guvvo’s to Urquahart’s beach was meant to be about four kilometres.

Really?  It seemed further.  Perhaps it was the moments when I dove face first into the dunes as the waves rolled under my feet?  Or the water washing relentlessly over my shoes?  Soft sand became small, wobbly coastal rocks, which finally became a “watch the wave go out then run as fast as you can on the beach until the next one comes in” – a game I call Mickey Mouse with my kids – you shout Mickey Mouse as the wave comes at you and you run to not get your feet wet.  I played that game for about three of the four kilometres – awesome fun!

I don’t know where the staircase was.  But I remember it well.  There was a kind volunteer on the staircase, talking to me about timing my run to the waves, going under the stairs and then along the fence.  It felt wild and reckless and fun and insane and the best thing I’ve done in years.

I got to the bottom of the stairs, ran, just beat the wave, and then ran under the staircase.  We followed the inside of a small fence as the waves licked at the ledge that kept the sea at bay, and then as they broke over that ledge.  My shoes were full of sand and water and after a while I didn’t really care if the waves rolled over me or not.  The fence gave me this false feeling of security, like if a big wave came, at least I was on the far side of the fence and it would keep me from being washed away.  Except the fence ended and there were still some kilometres to go.  So we went.

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“Just wait until the wave goes out…” (Another photo borrowed from Facebook – thank you for sharing this amazing memory!)

 

Finally we climbed up to the “winding fun trail weaving through heathland and clifftop landscapes all the way to Split Point Lighthouse and Airey’s Inlet”.

The only trouble was, by this point, my body had been trashed by the soft sand running.  My feet suddenly decided to cramp up into tiny balls, with the toes tucking under, and my pace dropped to a seven-minute kilometre,  Ouch!  I could barely walk.  I tried water, salt tablets, gels, swearing, stretching.

Eventually, I just ran on my silly cramped-up feet and told them to loosen up and they finally did, though I was very conscious that I might not be able to finish this mad run if they really cramped badly so I held back on the pace.

The views coming into the lighthouse went straight to my soul.  I’d once visited the Great Ocean Road, many years ago, as a newcomer to Australia.  I vividly remember being depressed and lonely and that these magnificent views could not get through to me.

Today they did; today, those views were home and I smiled and laughed and kept right on running, straight towards them.

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Okay, another borrowed photo. I could barely walk here, much less take photos. Thanks for sharing this on Facebook!

With 1.5 km to go to the finish line at the Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club, I tried to pick up the pace.  But I’d given all I had on those beach sections, and could only succeed in moving a little quicker.  Seeing the finish arch at the top of a set of stairs made me kind of want to cry.  Another runner and I began climbing together.  I said, let’s finish together okay, but when we got to the arch he gestured me through first, and I said, no, and reached out a hand, and we went across together.  Tremendous.  Everything about it was a tremendous run.

I’d targeted a finish between 2 and 2:30 and came in at 2:18.

The party at the finish was like what I imagine a party would’ve been like when peace was declared after a big, gnarly war.  Runners were there with their shoes off, eyes glazed, big, hazy smiles.  Laughter was everywhere.  The Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club was heaving with runners eating and drinking and sharing stories of waves and oceans and king tides.  Somewhere a band played, but me, I made my way straight to Shane’s massage tables, and made a big donation for the lovely Mill to massage my feet out (“How long did you have your shoes off?”she asks with concern.  I glanced back. “Why?  Are my feet blue? Don’t worry.  They’re always blue.”).  It was painful bliss but finally the cramps began to subside.

Afterwards, my daughter and I bought t-shirts (hers was to be a nightshirt, Run Like a Tiger, it read.  Mine was Where the Wild Things Run.  I’m wearing it right now).  I gathered myself a vegetarian turkish bread, which ranks as almost the best thing I’ve ever eaten, topped only by the cheese toastie with salt at my last race.  We watched the presentations and I marvelled at how fast the winners were – how do they do it?

Bliss.

That’s how I’d sum up the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon.  The king tide really made it adventurous and super-fun, which is how I like my runs to be.  Thanks to Tour de Trails, Chris Ord and the awesome volunteers who kept the waves from washing us out to sea.  I’ll be remembering this one for many years!

 

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Where the wild things ran…

 

The 2017 Trail Running Series Beckons

This is not a promotional post; this is a heartfelt thank you to Rapid Ascent for setting me on the right trail again.

Hong Kong Adventure Race

Adventure racing in Hong Kong (2003)

It was the winter of 2011.  I had lived in Melbourne since 2008, moving here from Hong Kong when our children were just two and four.  In Hong Kong, I had been an Adventure Racer, an author, a coach, a personal trainer, a BodyPump instructor, and the host of a weekly radio program.  In Melbourne, I was a mother.  And I was afraid to run on trails alone.

I was bereft.  My soul was nourished by the wild places in the world, by the wildernesses where I could be one-hundred-percent myself.  In Hong Kong, I could run from my home and three minutes later be on the fifty-kilometre Hong Kong Trail.  I would run for hours and see no one, map in hand, water reservoir on my back.  In races, I would climb waterfalls, leap into reservoirs, scramble over coastal boulders.  In Melbourne, I ran along the bay, and raced on bitumen.

Each weekend, my husband would ask me, “What would you like to do?”

I would reply in my head, “Go to the Dandenongs.”

It was only in my head because one of my children had severe behavioural issues that meant we couldn’t really drive anywhere as a family.  We were grounded; my wings were clipped.

I slid into depression.  I kept going, as people do, smiled a fake smile, took the children to their activities and playdates but all the while, my soul was drying out.  I became irritable.  I contemplated escape.  Could I book a plane ticket and just leave?  But I loved my family.  I was blessed with so many good things.

Still, I longed for the thing I could not have: the wild.  “Long” is too mild a word; I was starving for the wild, thirsting for the woods, hungry for I knew not what other than flying free down a trail in a deep, dark forest.

One day, in 2011, I saw a flyer.  It was advertising a new Trail Series.  I think I was probably the first person to sign up.  The sponsor back then may have been Salomon but I might be wrong.  My memory of those days is hazy.  The first trail race – first trail run! – I did in three years was the Studley Park Race in Kew.  It was 10.8 km and I completed it in 56:18.  I know these details because I record each and every race in my handwritten diaries, which date back many years.  I treasure these records, the smily faces I add to race times, the details of my results in age category and gender.

The Race

2012 in Studley Park for the second Trail Series

I travelled to this race alone, navigating the roads for the first time by myself.  The second race of the series was in the Dandenongs at Silvan Reservoir Park.  I got lost on the way there, drove by the start and had to do a fast u-turn to get back there.  It was the first time I ran in the Dandenongs.  I fell in love.

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Every year since, I have signed up for every single race of The Trail Series.  I have been there on the steep hills, in the mud, in the fog, in the rain.  I have treasured memories of start lines, huddled together with other runners like penguins, bouncing up and down to warm up, listening to music (right here, right now, right here, right now, bursting from the loudspeakers), chatting with people who would become friends.

Following ribbons through the woods, learning each new place and route.  Finding that Melbourne had suddenly become wild, had become home.

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2016 during the Anglesea Trail race, race 4 of The Trail Series

I wrote of most of the races in this blog, which I began around 2012, and you can find the write-ups in the archives.  A delight, each and every race.  Each and every memory.

Now, in 2017, my children are nearly teenagers.  We have two dogs and two cats, and I have two large boxes full of trail shoes.  Dirty, well-used, well-loved trail shoes.  My children laugh at me, and wonder that anyone could need so many shoes.  I tell them a girl needs shoes.  Lots of shoes.  And water reservoirs.  And tiny packets of GU Gels.  And of course, a Garmin.  A girl needs a Garmin.

I run alone in the Dandenongs once or twice a month, navigating solo, sometimes joining up with a friend or two for a long run and a two-hour chat about nothing.  Wallabies and Kookaburra’s are my friends, and I’ve even shared the trails briefly with a Tiger Snake and an Echidna, though not at the same time.  I’ve run in the rain, the hail, the mud, the blazing sun.  For 5k and for 50k.  On the coasts, and up the mountains.  I’ve run right back into who I am.  Now, when people ask how I am, I answer, “excellent”, and it is the truth.

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2017 at the peak of Mount Feathertop during the 22km Razorback Run

All this joy came from the fact that a company called Rapid Ascent decided back in 2011 to put on a trail series.

This is not a promotional blog.  This is a great big thank you for setting my life back on the right trail.

I’ll be doing the Medium Series this year.  And like many trail runners, I can’t wait to get started.

For more information: The Trail Running Series presented by The North Face

The Razorback Run 22km (2017): I’m on the edge

I’m crouched low, hanging onto the thin vertical slabs of rock with my fingertips. I’ve just begun scaling the granite dome to the peak of Mount Feathertop.  Water is dripping from my Salomon flask, distracting me at this critical moment.  My heart is pounding.  I’m all alone.  “I don’t want to do this,” I say out loud.  My voice sounds as shaken as I feel.

I don’t look around and I certainly don’t look down.  I keep climbing, trying to breathe, keeping my body pressed close to the rock.  I have to traverse this sharp angle of rock to get to the next section, and I have no idea what the next section is going to be, or even if I’m really on the trail itself.  Up until now,  the trail was obvious, but this seems more like some random slab of rock rather than a trail.  My reserves are low.   My water is in danger of running out.  And this trail, this 11 km there-and-back trail, is reportedly full of venomous snakes.  How am I going to get myself out of this? I wonder.

Is this where I’m going to die?

The Razorback Run is an event held by Running Wild Australia, and offers distances ranging from 64, 40 and 22 kilometres.  That’s right – the 22 km run is the short course. This short course is a run along a ridge-line trail to the top of the second highest peak in Victoria, Australia (Mount Feathertop), in a place know as the Victorian Alps, and back along the same trail.  When I first read the description early in January, hungry for a new adventure, I was captivated:  (see http://runningwild.net.au/razorback-run-about-the-run.html for more details)

“This classic Alpine run offers three challenging distances in some of the most spectacular country in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. The 64 km Razorback Ridge run takes in the entire length of the Razorback to offer some of the most stunning ridge running and scenery in the Australian Alps, the 40 km Razorback Circuit and the 22 km short course Razorback Ridge—a delightful day out up to the Summit of Mt Feathertop and back along the Razorback.

Set in the heart of Victoria’s high country, the Razorback Run is one of the most amazing high altitude runs that Australia has to offer.”

But then I moved onto the “About the Run” page, and immediately dismissed the run as lunacy for the likes of me.  It was this bit in particular that gave me pause:

“Weather Conditions/Experience: The run takes place in an exposed Alpine environment that can be subject to sudden and severe changes in weather. Rain, fog, high winds, sleet and snow as well as hot sunny days can occur during March/April. Do not take this run lightly, runners have died in this region. Hypothermia, dehydration and heat exhaustion are serious risks and all runners should be prepared for any weather conditions.

The 64km Razorback Run should only be attempted by experienced trail runners with good navigation experience. As a minimum, runners attempting this distances must have successfully completed at least one organised trail run over 30 km in the previous 6 months.”

To tell the truth, pretty much every single word in the “About the Run” section frightened me:  Self-supported solo navigation; a ten-kilometre ridgeline trail; mandatory equipment because a snake might bite you, you might get caught in a snow or lightning-storm, lost; you must have the ability to navigate an alternative route back in case of emergency.  Oh, and fire season.  Of course, it might still be fire season.

Then Sally messaged me.  Did I want to do a new adventure this year? Yes, of course I did.  How about the Razorback Run? I suggested.

Two weeks before the race, I knew I could run the distance.  I’d trained up for it on Mount Dandenong.  I’d calculated the elevation gain and done more than necessary.  I’d done speed work to keep my legs fast, strength training in the gym, hill training.  As a veteran of more than fifty trail races, I was nervous but confident in my abilities.  Adventure racing had taken me out of my comfort zone many times, climbing waterfalls, belaying down cliffs.  I’d felt fear before; it hadn’t stopped me.

But I’d never been to Harrietville, and could not really picture the trail.  I’d heard it was beautiful.  And rocky.  From maps and photos, it didn’t look too bad.  Pretty flat but with the elevation gain coming from a big climb right in the middle to get to the peak.  I respected the run, but I wasn’t actually afraid of it.  I was afraid of the drive, the snakes, the weather, the dark, fire, snow, elevation, pretty much everything, but I wasn’t afraid of the run.

The Razorback, from the Starting Line

At 7:30 am Saturday morning, the group of us runners stood shivering.  We had silently declared the toilet block to be behind the small shack on the Mount Feathertop side of the road (there was no actual toilet block), and people sheepishly made their way behind it with boxes of tissues and averted eyes.  We were already at an elevation of 1600 metres; the peak of Mount Feathertop would take me to my highest elevation in my life at 1922 metres.  It was my personal Everest.

I studied the sunrise, and watched the colour of Mount Feathertop change from dark grey to glowing gold at first light.  It was cold, and I’d layered up in my down jacket and lots of wool to await the race start.  I’d traveled up with two friends who were walking the trail, and because I was running, I expected to finish a couple of hours before them.  I studied the other runners to see who I might beg for a ride back to Harrietville and hid my after-race backpack under the car as the walkers were taking the car keys with them.

Before sunrise

Golden

The prior night’s race briefing was playing on my nerves.  Paul, the Race Director, had very calmly informed us, in the manner of a true mountain man, that snakes had been sighted on the trail as early as 9:30 that morning.  His advice was to make sure our snake bite bandages were right at the top of our packs, for easy access.  I had just tested applying my snake bandage for the first time before leaving Melbourne.  The process had made me decidedly uneasy.  I’d been surprised by snakes before, both in Hong Kong and here in Melbourne, but over time, I’d come to a kind of truce with them; they were there, but I could usually avoid them by the time of day I ran, and by route choice.

It was 7:55 am.  We crossed the road as a group, and the countdown to run was brief.  There were seventy of us running the 22km course today, about forty more than I expected.  The others looked fit, strong, stony characters.  Only I was afraid, that was for sure.

Off we ran.

I was puzzled by the first section – instead of climbing along the ridge-back, it ran along a very thin trail on a contour line at the bottom of the hill.  It was rockier than I’d expected, and I was breathing fast.  My hands were numb, as I’d stripped to a singlet and shorts just before we ran, and the drop to the right led straight down into a deep valley.  I tried not to look, tried not to be afraid.  But everyone was faster than me, they were bolting around me, faster, much faster than I dare run.  My visual system has a new problem – grey shadows in both eyes in the centre of the visual field.  I see okay, except on shadowy technical trail where I try to run fast but I can’t capture the rocks quick enough in sight to respond to them.

So I was slow.  So slow; so afraid. Breathing too fast and attacking myself for lack of pace.  I was fit enough but this didn’t matter.  This track – its narrowness, its precipitous drop, the rocks – I hadn’t expected it so early.  It seemed like every single runner in the race passed me and I was certain I could hear my walking friends chatting and catching up to me.

Run your own race, I told myself.  You’re not racing them.  You’re here to see this place.  Enjoy it.

But every time I tried to calm myself to “enjoy it” I tripped on a rock, stumbled, swore.  I was 4.5km in, when a man came barreling back down the trail towards me.  Surely not, I said to myself.  But yes, he had already run the whole 11 km out, and most of the way back.  And here I was, stumbling along at 4.5km.  Jesus.  I felt so inept.  Well done, I shouted to him, truly impressed.  Gob-smacked really, that he could run it so fast.

On I went.  I ran when I could, when the trail edged away from the cliff side, but my heart was still going too fast.  The thought of snakes had grown huge in my mind.  Because now I was running alone, all the others well ahead of me, and there was plenty of time for a snake to come back to sun itself.  The trail twisted and turned, into shadow and under tree branches, and I was conscious that any section I could not see could hold a venomous snake that wouldn’t know I was coming.  Still I ran, slowly, conscious that I needed to complete the race in 3:30 to quality for the upcoming Wonderland Run in the Grampians.

Somewhere on the Razorback Trail

The sun was up now, and it was getting hot.  My watch must have stopped working because the kilometres were ticking over way too slowly.  Then the Twin Knobs finally appeared, and some trail where I wasn’t afraid, that I could actually run.  Because I’d calmed a bit, I made sure to glance around, take photos.  It was becoming clear to me that my target time was completely wrong, that this run was going to take me someplace I hadn’t been in a long time.

Now the rest of the runners were coming back.  Most cheered me on, said well done, terrific work, and I responded the same.  Some, though, were silent, and when I spoke, they dismissed my comments, blanked me, gave me no encouraging smile.  They were lost in their own race but for me, at the back of the pack this time, their silence hurt.

On I ran.

I’d wondered what “the cross” was in the race description.  It sounded faintly biblical.  It was obvious when I arrived.  Someone had plunked a large backpack next to it, and it marked the junction for the way to the top of Mount Feathertop, and another trail that descended to Federation Hut.  Ha, I said to myself, I know the way to go, I can navigate this.

The cross

Then I looked up at Mount Feathertop and burst out laughing.  I’d already been running for nearly 90 minutes.  This was like a terrible, awful mirage, this thin trail rising up in front of me along the narrow ridge.  No way, I said to myself, no way.

I took some photos; I knew I was going to do this, and I also knew just how scared I was going to be.

The trail to the peak

Laughing on seeing the trail to the peak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started up.  The first bit wasn’t too bad.  Not runnable, but certainly climbable. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been for the last 9 kilometres.  Still, I felt sick to my stomach.  I knew going down would be the hard bit.  I tried not to look around. I got to the top of this, thinking, I know it’s kind of two peaks and I have to get to the second one to get to the top.  The trail climbed along the centre of this first peak, and though it was scary, I was okay.

It was the next peak that did me in.

I couldn’t see the trail anymore.  Just a small cone of rock.  The trail could be that bit on the left, I said to myself.  That bit right on the edge.  Jesus.  No one was there but me.  Not a single soul.  My heart was pounding.  I took a step up.  My leaking water tube dripped down my leg, and I worried I was losing too much water, that I wouldn’t have enough for the return trip.  It was an unwelcome distraction; I pushed the valve closed.

Suddenly, I was so deadly scared.  Almost too scared to move.  I swore in my head, repeating the same curse word silently, and then aloud.  That’s when I said it: “I don’t want to do this.”

There was no one there to hear me, or to help.

I grasped the thin vertical rocks slabs, didn’t look around, stepped a little higher. A little higher.  I was certain I was about to slip off and plummet to my death.

And then – suddenly, wonderfully, gratefully – I was at the top!  I was on the second peak.  I had made it.  A smile of joy began to spread across my face.

Then the smile slowed.  Stopped.  I looked outwards in utter horror.  There was a thin – a supremely thin – ridgeline about twenty meters long, and it led to another peak.  A higher peak.  A peak ever scarier than this last one.  My stomach fell to my feet.  I was not a quitter.  I never gave up.  But God – could I do this?  How could I do this?

Just then, like a miracle, two runners appeared on that next peak.  A bearded man and a fit-looking woman, moving smoothly towards me, like there was nothing terrible at all happening at that moment.

“Hi,” they said.  “How are you?”

“Utterly terrified,” I replied.

“Oh no.  Do you want us to walk out there with you?  We’re not in any hurry…”

“Would you?”  I couldn’t believe their kindness.  Usually, I am fiercely independent, but I said, “Yes, please, that would be great.”

The woman went in front, me in the middle, the bearded man behind me.  They talked calmly to me, told me about themselves, distracted me across that terrible, terrible ridge-line, until suddenly I was across it.  Together, they climbed, I crab-crawled and swore, and they helped and spoke to me, and we made it.  Like a miracle, like I’d been lifted by angels wings, we made it to the top of that final peak.

I felt like crying, laughing, hugging them.  Instead, we took photos, them of me, me of them (I promised not to share their photo on the blog I told them I’d write), of the views.  I wanted to linger, to be alone on the summit, but I saw the wisdom in returning with them.  One day, perhaps I’d be brave enough to go alone.  Today, I was very grateful for their helping hands.

At the peak of Mount Feathertop, elevation 1922 metres

Because as scary as the way up had been, I knew the way down was going to be much worse.  They laughed at me kindly as I crab-walked my way down the peaks, staying as close to the ground as possible.  I knew it looked funny; I didn’t care.  I remember doing the same silly move down a thin trail in Hong Kong, knew I’d make it down alive if I went this slow way.

It worked.  First one, then two, and finally three horrendous rocky peaks were done, and we were back on more solid ground.  They expected me to move off quickly, as they were walking and I was running, but the terrain made most of my running more like walking, and we were about the same pace.  Kate and Andrew and I were together most of the way back, sometimes them in front, sometimes me.  I tried to give them space, to run faster so as not to bother them, but they were happy and kind.

Eventually, I pulled away.  I had perhaps five kilometres left.  My water was running low.  The sun was high in the sky and the day had really heated up.  The track that had frightened me on the way out wasn’t so scary on the way back, but I could almost feel the snakes around me.  It was perfect snake weather, hot and dry, and my eyes nearly watered with the effort of looking out for them.  Four hours had gone by.  Four gels and two salt tablets.

I continued on the thin trail, until it came to the final section.  I was overheating, losing coordination now, stumbling, nearly falling.  All I wanted was to get back alive.  I could see the cars in the distance, the metal hut, but each turn led to another trail.  I felt like I was marching across a desert.  I kept glancing down into the valley to the left, worried that my stumbling could trigger a fall and a slide downhill, and disaster.  The trail split unexpectedly, one branch going steeply up a final hill, the other the contour trail we’d begun on.  Uncertain, I took the lower trail.

A 64km runner came along, reassuring me that I was on the right trail.  He was dancing along; I was plodding but still moving.

On and on, 20km, 21km, 21.5.  Surely I should be there.  My Garmin warned its battery was running low.  I swore at it, and told it so was mine, and we had to finish this thing together.

Suddenly, there it was.  The final stretch that led straight to the finish line.  God, I felt stupid, uncoordinated, like all the people at the finish line were watching my stumbling, slow gait, and judging me.

I gave myself a stern talking to then.  I was, in fact, incredible, I reminded myself.  I was doing this amazing thing.  I kept going, followed some small pink flags and the finish line flag across the road, up a thin final trail, to the final hut.

There, a kind man in sunglasses and baseball cap wrote down my finishing time, as if it were the most unexpected thing in the world, as if it weren’t a huge surprise that I had arrived back alive.

He offered me water and electrolytes, oranges and watermelon. I fought back the urge to cry.  To tell him what I had just gone through.

Shortly afterwards, Andrew and Kate joined me at the finish line.  I got them dixie cups of water, and thanked them.  It was hard to say clearly the gift that they had given me.  I would have gotten to that second peak on my own.  But my gratitude for their help – for making it a thing of angels wings rather than terror.  Well, I’ve had to save my words for now.  Thank you Andrew and Kate.  You made it a joy.

The Razorback Run 22km in 4:47 instead of 3:30 as I planned.  The overcoming of some terrible terrific fear.  The stretching of my comfort zone much further than I had intended.  The realisation that at age 51, I can still find new things, and new places, grow and challenge myself.

I am full of gratitude and grace and joy that I did this thing.  It turned out so very differently than I had planned.  But that is what we mean by the word “adventure”, isn’t it?

 

 

 

Hoka One One Trail Series Studley Park 2016: the dark side

The world has shrunk. Only myself, the trail, and the small circle of light from my head torch remains.  Darkness surrounds me like a cocoon.  I’m running, but I’m not breathless. I could go faster but the trail is littered with rocks and tree roots.  They appear without warning; in the dark, there is no margin for error, no gazing ahead to see what might be coming.  Obstacles are there immediately, and my reaction must be urgent or I will fall.  The running is risky and intense.  My eyes hurt from the effort.

There are other runners, of course.  This is, after all, a race.

It is the night race, the fifth in the series of trail runs that make up the Hoka One One Trail Series. I’m doing the Medium Courses, which have ranged from 10 to 16k.  Tonight is 10k, a repeat of race one at Studley Park, which last time we ran in the light. Tonight, we see the dark side.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’d planned to begin this blog with what happened ten days before the race.  The moment when I stepped out of the pool after a 2k swim, and felt a sharp pain in my left hip.  Suddenly, I was limping.  It surprised me. Swimming is the safest activity in the world, the injured runner’s paradise. I couldn’t hurt myself swimming.  It wasn’t even possible.

The Physio the next day assured me, however, that it was. It was the backstroke that did it. Or maybe it was carrying my ten-year-old daughter up the stairs a few days before.  Or Bodypump. Or running in my new shoes the day before, puddle hopping in the rain.  Whatever it was, I was unable to walk a single normal step. I couldn’t even put weight on my leg.  Running was out of the question.

This was Thursday, nine days out from race night. I’d run the last four races as fast as I could, because I was suddenly in a new age category and had a slim chance of getting on the podium.  But really, it was because I’d been running longer distances in the past, and I just wanted to feel the elation of running fast.  I’d come second, first, second, and second in the previous races.  Another runner had won every single one of the races, so I knew she had the Series win.  No matter how I tried to add up the numbers, I wasn’t going to get it, even if I won this night race outright.  Now, I wasn’t even sure I’d get to the start line.  I wanted to cry, swear, stomp. I wanted to run and do Pilates and lift weights. What I didn’t want to do, especially with school holidays looming, was be injured.

I began the physio exercises with gusto, once a day, calf raises with a Pilates ball between my ankles, bridges with a Pilates ball between my thighs, using a spiky ball to massage out the tight muscles causing the hip pain.  I did what I was told for a change, even though I become a lunatic without regular exercise.  I waited to run. Days and days and grumpy days.

Finally, Monday, I managed a slow, hobbling 5k. I took some more Voltarin.  And I set a target – if I could run 8 on Wednesday, I could do my race. I did. That 8k was fantastic, like a returning to myself.  Only an injured runner can understand the elation that comes from running after injury.

On Friday evening,me and the family drove to Studley Park.  We were there about two hours early.  I wanted a good park, as I knew we wouldn’t leave until 10 pm and the kids would be shattered.  At race headquarters, I chatted with a few friends, studied the course map, and contemplated nutrition.  I’d never run at night before, so this was new territory.  I sat in the back of our four-wheel-drive and ate a banana, then I toyed with my head torch.  My pulse rose. I had planned to have a few runs in the dark with the torch prior to race day, but injury had prevented that.  Should I run with a cap?  Bare-headed?  I was realising belatedly that this was scary. And I hadn’t been scared at a race in a long time. I tried a buff under the torch, worried it would slide, jogged about, and decided this was the best choice.

It was still light.  But my nerves were on edge.  Race organisers were handing out glow sticks, and runners were making bracelets and necklaces of them.  They were smiling. Was I the only one slightly terrified?  I gave my glow sticks to the kids, who proceeded to decorate their bodies and shoes.

We made our way across the wobbly bridge towards the start line. The sun had set and the light was fading.  I practised jogging up and down the road with my head torch, nearly getting nailed by a bicycle in the gathering dark.  This fear felt odd.  It was familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in a while.  The 50k in the Blue Mountains, I’d felt like this; jumping off a pier into a bay fully clothed mid-winter at a trail race in Hong Kong; teaching Bodypump for the first time; driving to all the races alone the first few years I lived in Australia.  This fear was familiar.  I let it settle with my breath.  I knew the fear didn’t matter.  It was just part of the event.

We warmed up.  Rather, the people around me did.  I didn’t want to test my hip too soon.  And then suddenly, the countdown, and we were off.

I knew the course, knew we began on bitumen, that quickly turned into rocky track.  I ran with care.  It was already pitch dark, and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be different from any run I’d done before.

The trail came, and I held my pace steady.  Kept my eyes fixed within the narrow pool of light my head torch gave me.  We were a silent pack.  Usually, there was banter, chatter amongst trail runners.  Tonight, I felt like we were a wolf pack on the hunt.  We moved as one, silently, stealthily, in the dark, dark night.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to see my Garmin.  I could only hear it beep when a kilometre had passed, but I couldn’t risk taking my eyes from the trail to look at it.  It was freeing, I quickly realised, not racing the pace, not even knowing the pace.  I could tell I wasn’t running fast, because it didn’t feel hard and painful.  But not knowing the speed – knowing this was as fast as I could safely run – it made running slowly acceptable.

We did the usual cat-and-mouse passing games, but again this was different from usual.  I couldn’t lift my eyes from the trail to see who was passing, and we were all utterly silent.  As if by unspoken agreement, this was a solitary experience within a group trail race.  The dark and the silence felt holy somehow.  The shrinking of the world to the next footfall within the small pool of light.

In the darkness, alone

In the darkness, alone

We came to the pipe bridge at Fairfield Boathouse much quicker than I expected, and this was the first place I felt comfortable running fast.  I passed a few people here – one who had stopped to take photos – but very soon we were back on single-track with rocks.  The field had spread out now, and I was often running alone.  Or at the front of a small group.  This was odd.  I sensed the other runners didn’t want to pass me, and I could see why.

Or rather – I couldn’t.  Navigating in the dark was much harder than in the day.  I had to shine my head torch right on the directional arrows to make sure they were the right color, as they were grey in the dark, and I asked for directions from the race marshalls at confusing intersections.  I kept my eyes out for ribbons dangling from the trees and felt a warm glow of reassurance each time I saw one.

There was only once – and this was a real moment of terror – that I came to the end of a trail and saw no directional arrow.  I slid to a stop, me and the small group following me.  Together, we stumbled around until we found the arrow, and then bolted onto the flat road that was close to the finish line.  Finally, I unleashed my legs, running downhill, enjoying this flying in the dark.  I passed a few people, but I knew we still had one other technical section to come.

We made the final right turn, and in my mind, we were nearly home.  I was surprised at how long this final section lasted, but this was my favourite bit.  I was behind a gentlemen festooned in blue Christmas lights for some of the way, but when I passed him, I was utterly alone.  Running on a dark trail, in suburban Melbourne, near the blackened river to my right, a woman alone, running in the dark, and I was unafraid.  It was a wondrous, delightful feeling.  I heard a bird cry across the river, and then no other sounds but my footfalls on the gravel, and my breathing

Later, in the distance, I heard the celebrations at the finish line.  I heard them long before I arrived, and I love every moment in that cocoon of darkness.  I had found my pace, my agility.  Nothing hurt.  I was running fast enough but not too fast.  It was like being in a perfectly warm bath.  Or like being alone in the fog atop a mountain.  It felt safe.

I kept my feet.  Made it to the final grassy section lined with cones, where I could see the finish line.  I cheered myself through, thrilled to have made it, thrilled to not have fallen or hurt myself, joyous to have once again done something that had scared the life out of me, and in doing so, came back to life.

Cheering over the finish line

Cheering over the finish line


The finish chute with fairy lights

The finish chute with fairy lights

Later, my family sat eating dim sums and chips, listening to the presentations. I’d already checked the screens, and seen I’d come in third in my age category.  This was wonderful, as I’d really thought I was out of the running with injury, and I was going to get to stand on the podium a final time.

My name was called for third place in the 50-59 female age category, and I accepted my bag of goodies with glee.  It came with a sparkler, which seemed a wonderful touch in the cold, dark night.

Sharing the elation

Sharing the elation

Then the series results were read.  I heard them read second place.  It wasn’t me.  I wondered why there wasn’t a third place, and while I was lost in this wonder, my name was read as Series Winner of the 50-59 female category.  Both myself, and Carmel on the top step were puzzled.  The Series win was hers – she’d won four of five races.  We paused, she leaned over and asked Sam, and Sam said, did you enter the series, and she said no, she’d entered the individual races, and Sam said something, and I had won the series.

I smiled for the cameras but felt very odd about the whole thing.  It took a few friends telling me this was how it worked for me to finally feel happy about it, and Carmel came up and congratulated me, and I felt I should hand the Series medal over to her, but she graciously said no, it was mine.

The win?  The win was getting to do these five wonderful races.  Studley Park in the daylight in June.  Plenty Gorge, after just arriving back from the UK the day before.  Sylvan, the cold, the hills, the pleasure.  Anglesea, celebrating on the beach with the Surfcoast Century people.  And this run – the final – the night run at Studley Park, alight with head torches and glow sticks, with terror and elation.

The kids fell sound asleep on the drive home, and I played with the medal hanging around my neck as my husband drove.

Series Winner

Series Winner

We are all winners.  That’s what I’ve decided.  Every single one of us who turned up and did these awesome trail races.  Every one who had the courage to stand up and begin.

 

Anglesea (2016): 16k in the Hoka One One Trail Series

At the top of the mountain, the temperature had dropped.  The rain came harder.  It must have been near freezing, as some of the rain was turning to hail. The numbness – begun in my feet after splashing into a puddle in the early stages of our run – had progressed to my hands, and finally, strangely, to my entire legs. This had not happened before. I was getting worried.  Earlier in the run, I had overheated and taken off my raincoat.  I was now in a soaking wet wool long-sleeved icebreaker shirt and skins.  I was also hatless.

The night before, the forecast had looked forbidding, with threats of thunderstorms and high winds, but I hadn’t wanted to let my new friend down by cancelling. Atop the mountain in the heavy hail, it had been a few minutes since she had spoken.  I was afraid we were in trouble, that we’d bitten off more than we could chew for our first run together.

Suddenly she stopped running.  Was she going to declare hypothermia, or worse?  But she seemed so calm and happy.  Silently, she reached into her lap belt. I watched, shivering.  She pulled out… her camera! She wanted a photo of the hailstones!

Together, we caught them in our soaking wet running gloves, and I thanked my luck that I had found someone just as crazy as I am to run with on this wet, cold 18k mountain run.

DCIM100MEDIA

Hailstones atop Mount Dandenong!

DCIM100MEDIA

Having the time of our lives!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was training. Not for this distance or this elevation, but for a 15k flattish run by the seaside in a couple of weeks time – the medium course of the Anglesea race in the Hoka One One Trail Series. I had decided I wanted to go in strong, to train beyond the distance and the elevation, so I could finish with more power than I had recently achieved.

Oh, and then there was the small matter of competition. This was race 4 of the series of 5 races. In the first three races of the series, my results in my age category were Second, First, Second. I wanted the First at Anglesea.  And I wanted the race series title, because I had moved up to the 50-59 category this year, and, well, the last time I’d won anything like that was when I moved up to the 40-49 category in Hong Kong.

Trouble was, there was this other woman in this category, who was five minutes faster than me, in every single race (she will always be five minutes faster than me, for the rest of my life). In race 2, she had been away, smashing out a marathon somewhere. That’s the only reason I got first.

The smarter part of me said to race myself, to aim for a PB, rather than to go for the win. I thought about this as I stood shivering atop Mount Dandenong two weeks before Anglesea. The race was certainly not the only reason I was standing there – I loved this mountain in all its varied seasons, and this wild weather was one of my favourite things, the testing myself against the elements, the thin edge between danger and safety.  My new friend and I pulled raincoats out of our packs, wiped the rain from our faces, and continued down the trail for the last 10 kilometres of the run.  Back at our cars more than an hour later, we fell out in near hysterical laughter – neither of us could undue our zips to get our car keys out of the packs – our fingers were frozen!  It was an epic first training run together.

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline - Bitumen is Boring!

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline – Bitumen is Boring!

Onto Anglesea. This is one of my favourite runs in the Hoka One One Trail Series, as it is usually warm, and the kids and husband and dogs can enjoy the beach while I run off into the distance. Just one week earlier than usual this year, the race fell on an atypical cold morning, and also on Father’s Day (oops, sorry honey!). What better way for a Dad to spend Father’s Day than in the company of his kids and dogs, shivering on a cold riverside without coffee or a wife?

I won’t describe the early morning drive to the race start in detail.  Suffice it to say the kids were fighting, and it was one of those mornings when I was craving the space in between family life and me – the long, thin trail into the woods that leads onwards into solitude, where I can fly alone and free, fully myself, but in the comforting knowledge that my home and family wait for me at the end of the trail.

We got to the race registration area alive.  Enough said.

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Red cliffs of Anglesea

Red cliffs of Anglesea

 

The race start, as always, is stunning. A long sandy beach, waves crashing, sun shining on red cliffs. The countdown comes and goes, and we runners bolt off down the sand, unleashed, running close together and too fast, sprinting around a single blue flag, and then spreading out.

I know this course like an old friend, and run it this way. The sand to the boat ramp is hard and easily runnable.  This year, I take the stairs up to the path instead of scrambling on the concrete ramp, and run along the familiar trail behind the caravan park. Half this section is bitumen, and half dirt-track. I stay to the dirt track side and try to pass as many people as I can. I need to make up some places, as I know the technical sections lose me ground. A yellow flat section, and then we begin the climb. It doesn’t hurt as much as usual, and I’m able to jog/run up most of it. Uphills are my strength and I don’t waste them.

I’ve studied the course description a bit more closely for this race and remember that it has two main peaks, but after around 8k, will just descend. So I go hard. I push my legs and lungs and heart just as fast as they will go, feeling strong and powerful, enjoying the speed. But I am wary as well. I know my weaknesses – my vision, running fast downhill on more technical trails. I use my nutrition to support me, even though this is quite a short race, taking in gels before I need them, and even a salt tablet at one stage.

We finish the first up, and dance our way along some beautiful single-track, which is just rocky enough to be fun, without being too hard.  The grass trees, tall as me, swish like water as I run through them.  I like the sound.  They make running fast risky, though, by hiding the terrain directly in front of them, which could have unexpected holes or rocks or roots to trip me up.  I take care but still stride out.

We come to the drinks station, and its only then I realise I’ve misread the distance on my Garmin, mistaking pace for distance, and where I thought we were at 6k, we were actually at 8.5k. I do a tiny dance of joy in my head. The hard bit is already over!  A little later, there is one more yellow dirt road to climb up. I run some, but whenever my breathing and body say enough, I walk, knowing that the tiny recovery will help my overall performance.

At the top of this hill, the fun begins. I’d been passed by many on the more technical sections. Now it was time to reel them in. I unleash my legs, and downhill I fly, passing runners, unsure if they are even doing my race, as the three distances all converge at this point. It doesn’t matter. I love the fast running, the feeling of flying over the terrain, the confidence in my legs. I have a glimpse of the sea, think, pretty, then look back down to the broken trail. Pretty can end badly when running fast on rough trails.

Down we fly, traversing a narrow boardwalk. I’d decided the course had changed, because the horrible rock staircase hadn’t come up yet. It must just be on the long course, I said to myself, right before we came to it.  And there it was. I’d saved a bit in my legs for it anyway, and began carefully down. I must have been further behind in the pack than usual because the typical stream of runners passing me didn’t happen. I, instead, passed a couple of people. One was a woman racing whilst holding her shoes in her hand. I asked if she was okay, thinking she might be hurt. Her shoes had been giving her pins and needles she said, so she was going to complete the race without them. Gutsy, I thought, and continued down. It always bothers me to be slow on the descents, but I am and it is what it is, so I wait until it flattens, and then put the pedal down.

Now I’m running for my life. I’m surprised: I still have a lot left in the tank and this feels terrific. We’re perhaps 2k from the finish, back on the bitumen/dirt track by the caravan park. I let loose, passing, darting in and out of slower runners, loving this feeling of power and strength.

Suddenly we come out to the concrete ramp that leads to the beach, and my thoughts about having a lot left come crashing down. We hit the soft sand and it hurts it hurts it hurts, but I’m not going to slow down because I want the win and I want the personal best, and I want to pass just this one last woman who’s in front of me, and I do, and still it hurts, and just as I get onto the concrete path, a young boy walks in front of me, and I have to skirt him and not knock him down, and I do, and there’s the finish and my kids with their hands out for high fives and people shouting go Patricia and I go go go, right across those timing mats, breathless, elated, alive.

Much later, I wait by the timing computer to see where I’ve placed, and am delighted to have taken out second in my age category with a time of 1:20. Because I ran with all I am and all I had, and that was enough.  That was my win.

Still later, I find Ali to give her the copy of my book that she’s purchased. She asks me about writing, something like, should she write, or should she wait. I’m gob-smacked by the question: it requires a bigger answer than I can come up with right then. It is as if she has asked me whether she should breathe, or not. Of course you should write, I want to say.  Write with everything you are and have. Say your piece because who will say these words, sing them out if you don’t?  Find the time; make the time; carve out this place for yourself because it will teach you who you are in a way nothing else can.

But there’s the nasty little gremlin inside me who says to me, all the time, why bother? Who will buy it? It’s hard to get published, and it’s hard to find time, and there are so many unread books in the world.  I see them piled high in second-hand books shops, in half-price racks in newsagents, and it breaks my heart.

I don’t say any of this. Or I do, but just in my head.  Because it’s the question that plagues me as I try to craft my third book into being, as I wrestle with doubt and topics and truth-telling.

Of course you should write, I want to say, but it is a rough, technical trail, and you have to be prepared to trip up over tree roots and rocks, to skin your knees and sprain your ankles, and get back up, over and over again.  You have to do it for yourself, first and foremost.  But write anyway.  Because they are your words and they mirror your soul and echo your breath.

Writing is not a race against anyone else. It is not even really a race against yourself for a PB, because you are not the same you that ran this race, wrote this book, before. Today’s challenges and injuries and illnesses and childcare issues and dogs and husbands are unique, so comparing one race to another makes no sense at all.

But we were speaking of writing, not running.  Or were we?  Sometimes the two seem so much the same.

My name was called during presentations, and I stood on the second step of the podium in delight, shaking hands with Carmel on the top step, and later, comparing our prizes and plans for the final race in the series (the night race).

Camaraderie (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Camaraderie on the podium

I didn’t win first, and I didn’t pb.  But that day, 4 September, 2016, my body did exactly the best it could.  The stress-fracture I feared in my foot two days before the race didn’t eventuate; my hip pain stayed (mostly away); my vision was clear enough; I didn’t get hurt; I didn’t face-plant.  It was a win.

We got home, exhausted, opened the Father’s Day presents, and had a nap.

Leila and Billy, at rest

Leila and Billy, at rest

Next up: my first night race!

Hoka One One Trail Series, Silvan 2016: coming home

We were playing cat and mouse; I just wasn’t sure who the cat was yet.

I eyed her yellow waist pack, this time from behind her.  It was different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to here in Melbourne, the Nathan’s and the Salomon’s, the backpacks and four-bottle waist belts.  The shape, colour and size or her pack was memorable, and I was going to keep my eye on it as we raced, so I knew I was still in the same place in the line of runners as before.

The trail began to climb, and once again, I edged in front of her (I have to use the uphills to gain ground, because I lose so much on the downhills).  We ran for a while.  Then, as always, the trail again descended, becoming rocky, rutted, lined with tree debris.  I slowed, and she politely make her way to the front again.  Cat?  Mouse?

Time would tell.

Except it didn’t.

Because what happened was more wonderful than the usual race high jinks.  At some particularly scenic spot, I came up behind her, surprised that she’d stopped to take a photo (I’d been looking at my feet, not the view).  She called to me, and waved to encourage me to join her photo.

It was kind, and utterly unexpected.  We spoke for the first time, smiling, exchanging names as we jogged on.  When she said her name, I paused, and looked at her more closely.

“Do I know you?  From Hong Kong?” I said.

I don’t know why I said it.  I had left there eight years ago, and it felt like a different world.  Except her face, and her name, and that waist pack.  She burst into a beautiful smile.  I was right!  We talked, and discovered we used to do Action Asia races together, the Sprint Series of Adventure Races that brought us all over the Hong Kong countryside.

How do I say this?

Finding I knew her, that I had known her in that long-ago time before my life had changed here in Melbourne…it was like finding a long-lost friend, even though we hadn’t really been friends, had just run the same races together.  But I knew her, and she knew me.  We chatted, elated.  Eventually, she ran ahead (another downhill), after asking me to find her at the finish for a photo.

That’s how this race was for me.  A day where new friendships began.

2013 was the last time the Silvan race began at the Silvan Reservoir.  I should call it what it is today:  the Hoka One One Trail Series, a series of five awesome trail races, with short, medium and long courses, in particularly beautiful trails about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.  The slogan way back in 2013 was Bitumen is Boring.  It was perfect; and the races were just what my soul longed for.

Back then, I was living a very different life.  Just surviving.  Using running as a band-aid for all of life’s challenges.  That year, I’d done my first ultra marathon, 50k in the Blue Mountains.  The (then named) Salomon Trail Series long courses had seemed short in comparison.  So short, in fact, that I had underestimated their challenge, done the Plenty Gorge 17.6km long course, and later that day, went for a 5k training run, where I promptly and definitively sprained my ankle.  I spent four weeks doing some serious recovery work on the ankle, and managed to do the 2013 Sylvan 21km race.  I felt unstable and scared, but I was determined to finish out every race of that series.  And so I did.

Fast-forward to 2016:  for the first time in many years, I am leaving on race morning, and all is right with my world.  There have been no fights with my young children, my husband and I have just returned from our 21st-anniversary night away in Olinda (our first trip without kids in many years), the dogs are grown enough to be trouble-free, and I know the way to Silvan.

The part of me that sits beside me observing my life while I live it claps and cheers for this wondrous time.  I am content; more than this – I am happy.

Driving alone, I navigate the roads I have taken to my training runs at Mount Dandenong so many times.  The route to Silvan is not so different, and I console the scaredy-cat driver in me with the reassuring thought that this drive also takes me past Grant’s Picnic Area in Sherbrooke Forest (I’ve driven here several times alone), and I’ve also driven this very road to Silvan in 2013.

That works, until the twisty-turny part of the road – the beautiful part when others are driving – comes up.  Of course, I drive too slowly, and someone, a big four-wheel drive with jutting metal crash bars, comes up right behind me.  Ok, drive my way, I tell myself, except he gets right up behind me, nearly nudging my bumper.  A cyclist appears; I slow; the jerk behind me honks; I swear.  It is the usual, twisty-turny road dialogue.  Eventually, the road widens and he blazes past me, and I breathe deeply in relief.

I arrive at race headquarters despite all this, where I am directed to drive my car up onto the curb to park.  I don’t know how to drive my car up on the curb without a driveway.  I should know how, but I don’t, and I’m all grown-up now and can refuse politely, so the race official kindly lets me drive further on, and park more easily on the road.  It’s ok to live within my own limits, I tell myself.  After all, the limits I set for me would be pretty challenging for some others.

Race Headquarters

Race Headquarters

I’ve signed up for the medium series this year, which is a perfect, delightful distance.  Today’s event is 15.5km, and I’ve been training up to 18k in my long run on lots of big hills to make sure I have enough in my tank to get me through strongly.

I’ll tell the truth here: at Plenty Gorge this year, I came in first in my age category.  First!  I was so excited I jumped up on the podium, clapping my hands in glee.  Later, I was too jet-lagged and troubled by this to even write a blog about that race.

I coach myself to always run my own race, to not race others, because when I’ve done this in the past, it’s ended in disaster (sprained ankles; falls; etc).  I do this right up to the point the race results come in, where I get obsessed about what place I’ve come by overall, gender, and age categories.  Winning my age category is awesome – for a minute or two.

Then I start this endless internal chatter: I wonder if I trained harder, if I might take first place again at the next race?  Maybe if I do more tempo runs?  More hill training?  More pilates?  I get stuck in this silly, unhelpful groove where winning becomes more important than the pleasure of the run.  Of course, I did all of this “more” stuff in the four weeks between Plenty Gorge and Silvan, so the night before Silvan, I found myself snappish, stressed, aware of this silly dialogue I was having.  I sat down at the piano.  Played Chopin, which I’ve been trying to master in my Very Easy piano book.  The music soothed me, reminding me I am not just a runner.  I do not have to judge my value by my placement in this race.

Back to race headquarters.  Here we are at the start of Silvan 2016.  We lined up for a wonderful warm-up, the best I’ve had in a race start, and I felt my sleeping muscles awaken.  Then, Boom – we were off.  Too fast, of course, as always.  But I kept my foot on the brake, knowing this to be the risky bit, the overcrowded start where it was hard to see the uneven terrain.  We had 15k; plenty of time to make up places.  I let the bolters bolt, and settled into my pace.

Quickly, we began ascending the “Hill from Hell”.  Not so hellish really, not after all the Mount Dandenong climbing I’d been doing, but I didn’t try to run it, just power-hiked it. I knew my body, my limits, my weaknesses and my strengths.  It didn’t matter if I got passed on the downhills; I’d pass again on the uphills, and stay with the same group anyway.

Up and up and up we went.  I knew we’d be climbing for nearly 8k, but this was all right, I was used to climbing.

There was this moment in pilates a few weeks ago.  I’ve not been doing this discipline for long, just eight weeks or so, in an attempt to cure the foot and hip pain that have been plaguing me for a couple of years.  I’m strong.  This is a simple fact; relative to most women, I can lift much heavier things.  Woop woop.  This talent comes in handy when I’m teaching Bodypump or helping move stage sets for my son’s production in Primary School.  Not really anywhere else.  But I like it and I rely on it.  So the fact that this simple lie-down-on-the-bed-and-shove-the-platform-away Reformer Pilates hurt – this was really odd.  So odd, the hurt, the challenge, that I began smiling, laughing silently.  The instructor noticed, and said “You’re smiling?”, puzzled.  “It really hurts,” I said, laughing out loud now.  “That’s an interesting response to pain,” she replied, and started smiling too.

But that’s me: when it gets hard, I laugh.  Because suddenly, there’s that enemy to stare down.  I recognise it, remember the battles I’ve fought, and I laugh.  The enemy of studying physics (briefly) at university; the one that said Central Park is too cold to run in winter; when the wind blows too hard, and the trees threaten to fall on me atop a mountain, there it is; when my child says, I wish you were dead, you’re not part of this family; when the rain begins mid-run, sideways, cold rain, and I’m forty-five minutes from home; in Pilates, it seems.

And today, at Silvan.  When the hills got so steep I had to walk instead of run.  There’s that pain, that enemy, that friend and foe, here again to teach me about my strength.

I had my gels, water, salt tablets.  I had trained enough.  I stared that enemy down and was satisfied.

But for me, the main challenge is always more technical downhills.  We had about 7k of these coming right after the uphills.  These days, I have floaters in both eyes (grey shadows in the centre of my visual field).  This makes running fast on technical downhills challenging, as its hard to make out the detail of what I’m stepping on, especially at speed.  I’m slower than I’d like to be, slower than the rest of my body could go if I could see properly, but that’s ok.  Its another enemy to stare down, in time.

The terrain details – which hill was where, the single tracks, the hairy-scary descents – they all merge together in my mind into a three-word course description: brutal but beautiful.  Some uphills were of my favourite sort, studded with rocks, genuine and ungroomed.  Downhills that reminded me of hills I ran in England’s Bradgate Park, grassy, with only a slight camber, easily runnable with eyes wide open.  Uphills through thin, tall trees, where I felt like I was in a line of soldiers climbing silently and breathlessly into enemy territory. Straggly, thin strips of tree bark ready to strangle my ankles and send me flying.  I didn’t look up much to see the scenery, except to grimace at photographers, because looking up usually means falling down.

A little like flying

A little like flying  (photo courtesy Supersport Images)

The last downhill of red clay near the fence line I always find memorable.  In 2013, with that four-week-old sprained ankle, I recall picking my way down in terror, committed to the race, but wanted to get home in one slightly broken piece. Today, 2016, I flew down it.  Not as fast as the three or four men who passed me, for sure, but flying for me.  But I hungered for Stonyford Road, the flat dirt road where I could open up and really let my legs go, where I could pass the people who’d passed me.

When I finally got there, though, everyone who had passed me had already disappeared.  It floored me.  I love to chase and there was no one to chase!  I was alone, like in a solo training run up Mount Dandenong.  I willed my legs to go faster, knowing each second counted in finish times, if nothing else.  Still, no one to chase.  Then I heard the footfalls behind me, and realised that this time, I was the prey.  Someone was hot on my heels.  I was having none of this, and I turned it up a few gears, and bolted away from them as fast as I could go.  I wouldn’t be passed here on flat ground!

We were near the finish.  I could hear the crowd cheering.  My legs were burning, tired, but I knew it was easy from here.  Except it wasn’t – the course turned up into the trees for one final fling of the enemy at me.  Just before I climbed up, I let Mr. Speedy go past me, knowing he would need to on the rougher trail.  More tentative, I heard another runner behind me, offered to let them pass, but they didn’t want to. On we ran, not for long, before the car park and the finish cones appeared.

When the tall, thin fast man flashed past me just before the finish line, I didn’t give chase.  He wasn’t a 50-plus woman.  I ran my own race, right across that beautiful finish line, puffed, panting and elated, and pressed stop on my Garmin.  1:38, I noted.  Respectable on such a tough course.

Friends from Dandenong Trail Runners had gathered in a group.  I joined them for a photo.

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Seeing the “cat” from our cat-and-mouse game, I quickly joined her and shared a hug.  Somehow, seeing an old running friend from Hong Kong made this mountain run in Australia feel like home to me.  We exchanged laughs and phone numbers, made plans for future runs, and promised to catch up soon.

A friend from Hong Kong

A friend from Hong Kong

The singer with the acoustic guitar kept playing all my favourite songs.  I wanted to sit by him and just listen, but I was drawn to the results screen, where I saw I’d come in 2nd in my Age Category, to my great glee.

Wandering, I noticed the wonderful looking Mexican Food, Richie’s Fresh Salsa.  I can’t usually eat after races, but this looked just perfect.  And in my post-race euphoria, I was no longer shy, was able to make conversation with the couple running the stand, exchanging business cards with Richie, who turned out to be from America, and I suspect will turn out to be a friend.  Indeed, we spoke the day after the race, and he said something that sounded so familiar to me, about how finding people from ‘home’ was always wonderful.  I noted how we could speak the same language.  We made plans for a run and a coffee, to talk business and America.

And I was thinking, hang on, Australia is my home, yet I was elated to find an old friend from Hong Kong because that too is my home, and now here’s this American, and that’s home too.

And it occurs to me.  Home is not a place.  It is not where the heart is.  It is trail running. That’s my home.  The single-tracks and the hills, the trees and the reservoirs, the authentic smiles from all my fellow runners.

So, 2016 Hoka One One Trail Running Series at Silvan, thank you for bringing me home.

 

 

 

 

 

Hoka One One Studley Park: Slippery When Wet

I had become airborne.  This was not something I’d intended.

The mighty, rain-swollen Yarra River flowed strongly on my right, just down below me, just a small slip away down the narrow hillside.  My arms flailed the air, as if I were doing some crazy dance move from the 80s.  The mud-slicked path was below me, a single-track studded with rocks and tree roots, the trail where I had witnessed numerous runners bite the dust.  Through the first five kilometres of this eleven kilometre course, I had been cautious, but I had been getting annoyed at being passed by other, more courageous runners.

So I sped up.  That’s about when I came to the slickest corner yet, slid around it, and became airborne.

Thankfully, the wild waving of my arms balanced me, and my feet landed solidly back on the muddy trail.  I laughed aloud and kept on running.

I did slow down a bit though: the vision of me sliding down the hill into Yarra River was strong.  I reminded myself (again) to run my own race.

It hadn’t been easy to get to the start line today.  Over the last few days, my youngest had begun swearing and throwing things at me again.  I had hoped we were beyond these things, and having them return brought back a surge of painful memories.  I knew the reasons for the behaviour, but it still hurt to be the target.  This wasn’t the ending I had planned, or how I’d imagined family life would turn out.  The night before the race I hadn’t slept well, and had woken with a feeling of despair about where things were at in my home and family, about the ongoing challenges of raising my particular child. And today, because of soccer commitments, I was going alone to this race.  My family couldn’t even come this time.

Race headquarters

Race headquarters

As I was doing the medium course (10.8 km), my race didn’t start until 9:45.  Having been here many times before, I knew if I came an hour before the race, I’d never get a decent park, so I opted for an early arrival, which meant around 8 am.  The trouble with this strategy was the waiting-around time.  On a good day, I’d enjoy this, watching the other runners, soaking up the atmosphere.  But today was not a good day.  Today I felt lonely and alone, sad that my family wasn’t there, bereft at the trouble at home. I wandered around, picked up my series t-shirt, smiled a forced smile, and contemplated running the long course just to get going.

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Early morning fog and gum trees

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Views from the Studley Park Boathouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In time, I ran into an acquaintance who took my mind off my own problems.  He told me he was having chest pains.  I didn’t tell him my father had died of a sudden heart attack, just listened, and hoped the Medics, when they turned up, would tell him to go home. Thankfully, they did, and even better, I heard from him later that all was fine, which was a huge relief.

The time came for the long course to start, and I watched them go from the other side of the river.  It was a view I’d not seen before, having always done the long or short course.  The colours of the racers shirts moving between the fog and gum trees was stunning.

Time passed.  I ate a banana, drank from the metal water fountain, and gradually began to remove layers.  I had arrived in a ski jacket, beanie, gloves, wool jacket, icebreaker, long-sleeved t-shirt and running tights.  Little by little, I stowed these layers in my backpack, checked it into the baggage check area, and was set to run in my singlet and tights, still wearing my wool jacket to throw in a tree at the last-minute at the Start.

The Yarra from the wobbly bridge

View of the Yarra River from the wobbly bridge

I wobbled my way across the bridge, noting the fog, the serenity of the kayaks, the gum trees.  There was plenty of time.  I remembered all the times my family had come to cheer me off at this race, good times, bad times, there was no grey.  I ran back and forth on the road near the start line, marvelling at how good my legs felt, how springy and alive after two rest days.

I approached the Start.  A loudspeaker was going, innocuous pop songs; I hardly heard them.

Then, a familiar tune began.  I could feel my knowledge of this song, how it had made me feel in the past.  The lyrics took a while coming, then, “Right here, right now, right here, right now…”.

I let the words echo in me, bring me right into the present moment.  Right here; right now.  Right here; right now.  It was all that mattered.  I let the stuff from home drift away, noticed where I was, began to feel a sense of peace and joy.

Race start approached.  I stowed my wool jacket in a rain-soaked tree, and enjoyed the cold, enjoyed how it felt elemental and real and made me feel alive.  The drizzle began as we did a warm-up in the start chute.  It felt fitting and right.

The countdown came all of a sudden, the last ten seconds, and then we were off!  I went Too Fast, of course, bolting behind the people towards the front, okay with the pace until I glanced at my Garmin to see 4:25, and then I backed off.  It wouldn’t do to blow out.

I’d run this course every year for the last six, but each year, it felt new.  The concrete path, the turn-off to the left.  The wide trail.  The grassy bits.  The bits along the empty road and across the highway.  I tried to notice things but was pushing the pace too hard to be able to sight-see.

It wasn’t long before the first man slipped.  I’d noticed him behind me, passing me in road shoes, noted that he was a big, tall guy.  He was fast, but he didn’t seem to understand or to respect the terrain.  This always made me nervous.  I ran past him when I could, playing it safe, not wanting to get taken out by him if he fell, and it wasn’t long before I heard the swear and thud of him slipping and falling on the slick, muddy trail.  I turned back and shouted, you okay?, but he was up again, looking abashed, saying he was good.

We ran on.  I put some distance between me and him, and kept my eyes out for others who weren’t wearing trail shoes.  On a normal, dry day, road shoes would be fine here.  But today wasn’t normal: today was a “Slippery When Wet” sort of day, and all around me, runners sloshed and fell, slipping, swearing, crashing.  I was grateful for my Brooks Pure Grit with the big lugs to hold me upright as I ran, but still wasn’t super-confident.  This was slick mud, on slick rocks.

I kept my pace slow, let others pass, passed some who were a bit less confident than me.  We ran across the pipe-bridge by Fairfield Boathouse, and there, I had no grip, and feared my feet sliding out from under me.  It wasn’t helped by the cyclists crossing the bridge, nor by the hiker with the gigantic backpack.  I made it across, then thankfully, turned off onto the narrow trail to the left.

That’s where the fun really began, the 5k along the river, on single-track.  The character of the mud was ever-changing, sometimes deep and sticky, other times, thin and slippery.  The path was full of large puddles, which could hide anything; I skirted them.  Kept my eyes on the trail, looking for the best ways through, navigating tree roots and rocks, puddles, and patches of mud already slicked by the slips of other runners.

One lovely man behind me coached me.  It seemed he ran there regularly and several times suggested the best route among a few choices (“go left here, it will be much easier”).  Usually, I rebel at others guidance, preferring to trust my own choices, but I trusted his kind voice for some reason, and each choice he made for me was spot-on perfect.  I never got to see his face; at some point he stopped guiding.  I’m not sure whether he passed me or I got further ahead, but I wish I could have thanked him for his kindness.

At this point, I was sure we were nearly done.  I hadn’t dared glance at my Garmin, for fear of looking away from the muddy trail and wiping out.  When I finally was able to, I was gutted to see we were only at 7.5 km.  Okay, I told myself, this is tough, but it’s not really far.  It was harder than usual, as I had been recently doing longer distance, slower paced races.  This felt like a full-on sprint for an hour.

I kept running.  Glanced now and again at the swollen river.  Felt the mud stick in my shoes.  The field had spread out by now, and there wasn’t much passing going on.  I was running my pace, and then someone passed me again.

I’d been passed by so many.  I didn’t like it.  So I sped up.

I came around a slick corner, sliding, then both my feet were suddenly off the ground, there was a full moment of silence as I hung in the air, and just as suddenly I had slammed back down onto my feet and ran on.

That’s when I laughed out loud.  Came back into my body, felt the joy of being on this trail, alive and agile and able to run.  Right here, right now, I told myself.  This was the joy of trail running, this having to be fully present, right in this moment and nowhere else.

A short road section appeared, I passed the runner who had passed me (ha!, I said to myself), but couldn’t catch any others.  I was hoping the road led to the finish but there was a final trail section. I had plenty in the tank to sprint but didn’t have the confidence in the slick mud, and before I knew it we were heading into the finish.

58:01, the time read.  Was it good or not?  Who knows?  It’s hard to evaluate race times on different days.  There is no such things as a PB that’s meaningful to me in racing.  My pace adjusts according to conditions, so a PB just means ideal running conditions and little more.

Though at the awards, my time was a good enough to earn me 2nd place in my age category.   Looking through my prize bag, I noticed they’d given me a tube of pain relief cream.

Perhaps this was a joke?  Perhaps they thought the oldies like me needed this pain relief cream?  (Okay, so they’re right.)  But then I noticed the bag itself said 60+ and realised they’d given me the wrong prize (I’m only 50).  I save the bag as a little trophy, so went to exchange it for the 50-59 category, hoping perhaps that it might contain a different prize (maybe a speed-me-up cream or a Gel or something performance-related).  But it still contained the pain relief cream.  Perhaps it’s any category over 40?  I wanted to know, wanted to ask the other younger runners if they’d gotten pain relief cream too, but it seemed too sad to do that.  The Hoka One One shoe bag – now that’s one thing I’ll be using loads, traveling to and from the rest of the Series.

Oh, I didn’t tell you the best moment.  How could I have forgotten?

There was a live singer with a  guitar.   Just as I walked by him after crossing the finish line, breathing hard, dripping sweat, feeling around inside for how I was feeling, he sang some impossibly appropriate lyrics about how “it was all going to be all right, it would just take some time”.  I wish I knew the song.  I would love to hear it again.

My eyes teared up, and I suddenly felt so very happy and sad and grateful and lucky to be here in this muddy, beautiful, rainy finish area.  I shared a stretching tree with another runner, joking about how we were both trying to push it over from opposite sides.

I wasn’t alone.  And this wasn’t the end.  Just another new beginning.

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I love mud! So does my wild puppy just to the left in this picture, leaping at me in joy

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Footprints in the mud

 

Ready to ride the 21k Roller Coaster Run?

Planning the year.  What a great idea.  Not being swayed by social media and offers of reduced entry fees for Early Bird registration.  Creating a periodised training plan with only one or two peak races.

Did I mention planning the year?

Such good advice.  I read it last week in an expert coach’s approach to his clients’ race plans.

If only I’d read it six months earlier.

It’s been six weeks since the 28k Two Bays Trail Run.  And this Saturday is the 21k Roller Coaster Run (RCR).  Planning?  Not so much.  My only justification is that the RCR was traditionally in late March, so I assumed I’d have enough time between events when I jumped on board the Fairy Floss Special price six or eight months ago.

Only this year, the RCR is hot on the heels of Two Bays, which was already uncomfortably close to the Marysville Half-Marathon in November 2015.  Within four months, I’m doing three half-marathons.

Is it any wonder I’m a little tired?

However, I’ve been very careful in the last six weeks to adequately recover from Two Bays, as well as train enough for RCR.  Given the base I’d built, I only took one real recovery week with a 12k long run, then went back to a 20k long run, followed in the next two weeks by 18, and 21.5 (the full Roller Coaster Course) two weeks ago.  I’ve kept the total km’s per week at between 35 and 40, supplementing running with two 2k swims each week, and teaching three Bodypump classes per week as well.  All in all, I’ve held up ok.  My feet have been sore, but they’ve been sore for more than a year.  And I’ve been a little tired.

I’m feeling quietly confident for this RCR, given I’ve completed the whole course many times over.  Yes, it is steep, hard, unforgiving.  Yes, I’m going to take the downhills slowly, as I always do, and push hard on the uphills.  Without much flat terrain to worry about, my pace won’t be fast, but that’s okay.  This is my first race in the 50-59 age category.  I’m not worried about pace – I want to complete this event injury-free and elated.

This is, after all, more than a race for me.  Over the last few years, Mount Dandenong has become my soul-place.  I used to pine for the woods, saying each weekend, “I wish I could go to the Dandenongs.”

I had young children and a husband who could not hike.  I was afraid it wouldn’t be safe alone.  But I finally opened up that door, with the help of some trail running friends, who showed me the trails, which I eventually got courageous enough to run alone.

I drive up alone, often after school drop-off or late in the day on a weekend. The drive takes an hour, and is one of the few hours of solitude I have in my busy family life.  After not driving for six years in Hong Kong, that drive gave me back my driving confidence, and opened many other roads to me.

I often run just the top loop of the Roller Coaster Run.  My companions are the wallabies, the sulphur-crested cockatoos, and Fern Trees.  Once in a while, I see echidnas.  Sometimes people out riding horses or hiking, but not very often.  More often, there are brilliant orange butterflies or blue and red Rosellas.  Kookaburras laugh at me.  I sweat my way uphill, and fly on the downhills.

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A friend on the trail

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

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Tree ferns in dappled sun

I have spent solitary hours here singing in joy, and others howling in despair, when life has seemed to much to bear.  This mountain has sheltered me under its blanket of fog, and warmed me with the winter sunrise.  I have been scared senseless by the boom of its thunderstorms, lost on its flanks, and challenged to keep going when I wanted, more than anything, to stop.

I am a little lost for words, trying to say what the Roller Coaster Run itself means to me.  I suppose it is but one chapter in my long relationship with this mountain, and will be one of the few occasions I push myself to run fast here.  It is also one of the few times the mountain is peopled with friends, with laughter, with adrenalin.  The contrast is always a surprise.

Then there is the matter of my goals for the rest of 2016.  I want pain-free running.  Speed. Power. Agility.  After this race, I’m re-jigging my training to get all this back.  I’m not succumbing to any offers of cheap early-bird entries for several months, at least.  I’m heading back into the gym to lift big heavy things, and do some plyometrics.

But this weekend, I intend to fly.

And to feel this happy at the finish line…

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Leila enjoying a roll…

 

Two Bays 28k: tail of the snake ( part 3)

I was nervous.  To be honest, I was frightened.  It was nearly dusk, and I’d gone further along this trail than I’d ever gone before.  The summer crowds had thinned, and in this, the final kilometre of my outbound journey, I had seen no one at all.

Worse still, the terrain had changed dramatically, becoming a narrow single-track, bordered on both sides by scrubland, with low grass and dead-looking bushes.  It was hot.  And it was nearly dusk.

And it was snake season.

I continued onwards.

I started suddenly, jumping up in the air and to the side, with a shout of fear – a small lizard was on the track right next to me, but I had mistaken it for a snake.

I took a deep breath and coached myself to calm down.  Soon, the narrow track came to an end by a shoe-cleaning station, and I dutifully scraped down my trail runners, and studied the four-way intersection.  My way along the Surfcoast Trail was clear, but I made sure to look at it from the return direction, as several of the tracks went onto other areas, and I didn’t want to get confused.  I was carrying a phone with solid GPS, but no printed map; I would be able to find my way again if I got lost, but not as easily as with a paper map.  So I was careful on this one unfamiliar intersection.

On I went.  Towards Ironbark Basin.  It must have been named after the thin, lonely trees that had littered the trail with thin strips of bark.

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A place for snake, without doubt

They made me edgy.

I ran on.  I had only 700 metres before my planned turnaround at 12k, to make the run a 24k roundtrip.  I wasn’t going to turn back early, even if I was nervous.

I was breathing too fast.  It wasn’t just worry about snakes.  There was no one around.  I’m a New Yorker; I feel most afraid alone, where there may be people.  From the distance, I heard the sound of a group of people, celebrating.  They sounded young, and male.  I ran faster and, I hoped, more quietly.  I was really psyching myself out now.

Finally, my Garmin read the right distance, and I quickly turned back.  It was 4:45 pm, plenty of time before dark, but the light had changed.  I ran slowly, carefully, watching the earth.  I didn’t like the look of things.  In my head, I said to myself, if ever there was going to be a snake, this would be the place.  But I’d lived here for nearly eight years, and never seen one.  That’s what the rational part of me told myself, to keep myself running.

I came to the four-way intersection; I knew the way back and felt slightly better.

The good feeling disappeared as soon as I entered the single-track section (the one bordered too closely on both sides with low grass and small shrubs).  I was in shorts, a singlet, ankle socks and trail runners.  I felt decidedly vulnerable.  My pace slowed to a jog.  I had my eyes so wide open they hurt, and the slight imperfection in my vision (I’m missing a bit of vision in my left eye, and see a grey shadow where the world should be) made it worse.  Still, it was only a kilometre on this track.

That’s when I saw it.

Stretched out about eight inches onto the trail.

The long, striped back of a Tiger Snake.

I stopped in my tracks.

From my mouth came a whole string of curse words, but no one was there to hear.  I stared at the snake, studied it.  I couldn’t see its head.  It definitely had striped.  It was thick in diameter, which made me guess it could be long.  But I couldn’t see if it was curled to face the track, or positioned to slide away.

I back-tracked several steps, carefully, keeping my eyes on it.  Then I stomped on the ground, expecting the vibrations to send it fleeing into the woods.  Except it didn’t move.  I muttered my useless curse words again and considered my options.

I could try to sneak by it.  I shook my head.  It could strike me easily if I scared it. I was all alone here, and Tiger Snake bites could kill.  Though I always carry a compression bandage and have studied what to do in case of a bite, it wasn’t worth the risk.

I could back-track and try to find another trail.  But I hadn’t been here before, and I’d seen no other tracks that went back the way I wanted to go.  That meant bush-bashing and trying to get to a road.  Way too scary all alone at dusk.

I could stay right where I was.  And wait it out.

My heart was racing.  I paced back and forth, unsure of what to do, willing that snake to move.  It felt like an eternity.  The snake just stayed there.

It hadn’t occurred to me that someone else might come up the trail.

But suddenly, like a vision, a mountain-biker appeared, heading towards me.  He would have to ride by the snake to get to me, but there was no way to warn him.  I stood in the centre of the track, ten feet away from the snake, and waved him down as he got close to me.  He’d already ridden fast by the snake when he got to me.  But his face said no; he didn’t want to stop.  I saw indecision flicker there, the good-samaritan fighting with the fear of what I was going to say.  He slid to a halt, questioning me with his eyes.

“Can you help me?” I said fast.  “There’s a snake…”

“Where?”

He looked around with fear in his eyes.

“Back there, behind us.  Can you help me get by it?  Use your bike?”

Now he really wished he hadn’t stopped.

Brave man, he agreed.

We walked gingerly, side-by-side, away from the scary-snake side.  We didn’t speak.  When we’d covered maybe twenty feet, and not seen any snake, when I knew that we must have passed where it had been, I shouted in joy, “It’s gone, it’s gone, thank you so much!” I began running again. I was too scared to even look back at him, in case another snake appeared at my feet.

“Thank you,” I shouted again.  But I suspected he was long gone.

I still had that last kilometre of single-track to traverse alone.  Aloud I said, “if I survive this, I am never, ever, ever coming here again.”  I walked rather than ran, with my eyes wide-open, my heart in my throat.  It was the longest walk of my life.

When I finally emerged onto the wide, gravel, blessed, populated trail with the sea views and the other people, I could have cried with relief.

People were just going about their picnics and surfing, enjoying a warm Monday evening.  I wanted to tell everyone I saw what had happened.  I wanted to warn the people out walking their dogs to watch out for snakes, but realised how crazy that would make me sound.

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After the snake, still with fear in my eyes.  I stopped for a photo to convince myself it was safe.

So I simply ran the 11 kilometres back to my car, with my eyes very wide open, looking out for other snakes.

 

It was the 4th of January.  Two Bays was less than two weeks away.

It was summer.  Bushfire-and-snake season in Australia.  I had done everything I could do to be ready for the 28k start line.

But the encounter with the Tiger Snake so close to race day left me shaken.  This was a race that was well-known for its snakes.

The clock was ticking.  I was going to have to commit, one way or another.

To be continued…