The book I chose for bedtime reading has not helped. A thriller called Descent about a female runner set in the mountains of Colorado. I should have known better. But no, I had to start reading it in the weeks before this next trail race. Fairly predictably, it didn’t end well for the female runner. Well, it did, but it took several harrowing weeks of terror (mine, while I read of what bad men do) for it to end somewhat well. Now I have this image in my head, and I won’t share it with you because I do not believe that every time a woman sets off alone running on a woody trail, it has to end badly. Knock on wood, as they say.
Anyway. There was the book. Then there was the other monster in the room. Well, more like outside the front gate, that I planned to invite in at the end of August: The Wonderland 20k Run in the Grampians, that scares me senseless. I imagine myself dropping off the edge of the trail there, like where the map runs out in maps of the world where the earth is flat: here there be monsters and all that.
The Trail Series Silvan 15 km Race is the last friendly obstacle between it and I.
Did I say friendly? Please come in, Monster Number 3. It is the night before the race, and the wind blows so hard my bedroom on the second floor of our home shakes. It is two or three or four am. Maybe close to five, almost when I’d planned to get up. The time doesn’t matter; I’ve been awake all night anyway. I usually am the night before a race, worried that I’ll miss the alarm so I watch the clock like it might creep away if I don’t keep an eye on it.
I’d noted the weather alerts before bed. As if the mighty wind blowing the trees back and forth in the garden wouldn’t have been enough of a clue. The prediction: rain; thunder; hail; frost; gale-force winds. Perfect weather, then, for a 15 kilometre trail race. In a forest. In winter. I spend the wee hours of the night composing my obituary: Patricia ran in the woods during 60 km/hour winds with gusts up to 100 on the hills, and a tree fell on her; she was an idiot.
When I finally get up, imagine my surprise to find it completely still. The world is becalmed (my word of the day – I read it in a magazine and like the sound of it – I hope it means what I think); the wind is gone. It is dark as night (it is night, at 5:15 am on a Sunday morning). The dogs gaze at me sleepy but expectant as I wander downstairs and switch on the kitchen light, but quickly curl back into circle-dogs and go to sleep again (though Billy, the youngest, keeps one eye slightly open to watch me).
I’m in the car earlier than planned. Half – no most – of my pre-race nerves come from contemplating driving. My hour-long route includes three twisty single-lane road sections through the trees; perfect spots for courageous drivers to get annoyed by my cautious approach and tail-gate me in fury. My strategy is to leave before anyone is on the road.
I haven’t counted on the absolute dark or the pouring rain though, and I finally have to learn how the high-beam lights work in my car (wonderfully, though switching them off for oncoming vehicles while navigating twisty, wet, dark roads requires a degree of motor skills I hadn’t imagined).
I arrive alive. Get a terrific park. The best park ever in fact, in the car park right near the race start. I am there before they’ve even finished setting up the finish chute, that’s how early I am. I want a picture of the sunrise, but it doesn’t rise. The sky just turns a slightly lighter shade of grey. I am wearing (no joke): running tights with waterproof trousers on top, a Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet, a thin rain-jacket, a wool icebreaker top, a wool/fleece hoody, a 550-loft down jacket, a waterproof ski jacket, a fleece hat and gloves. I look more ready for skiing than running, am perhaps even over-dressed for skiing, but I don’t care. I am cozy-warm wandering around race headquarters, jogging to the start of the course, buying hoodies and buffs.
By the time the race is about to start, I have stripped down to just the singlet and running tights, though, and I’m not cold at all. It’s as if someone new has slipped into my body in the hour I have waited around, someone more gutsy and less cold-blooded than me. Someone who is not scared of monsters.
Medium course runners are called to the Start line. No one moves. We are called again. I glance around. Think to ask the guy next to me where the start line is. Finally the MC comes straight in front of us and marches us to the Start Line which was not obvious as to get there we had to walk through the Finishers Arch! I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know where it was!
We warmed up; we went. It wasn’t new to me. My friends Cissy and Tony and I had done a reconnoissance of the course two weeks prior, so I knew where we were going. I even knew the trail names, which was kind of cool, because usually I’m thinking things like, hey, there’s the “Hill from Hell” whereas today I was thinking, oh, Track 24, that’s the steep one with the unimaginative name.
I saw little point in running the first hill. The hero in me has left the house, to be replaced by the smarter racing strategist. I wanted to be out in front before the single-track became bottle-necked but that was five kilometers away. I ran some, and when it got too steep, I power-hiked fast, knowing that different muscles were working that way, and there were lots of hills to come. I avoided the slicks of mud where other runners had slipped, stayed off the deadly clay in the center of the trail, and kept to the grassy sides where my feet got more purchase. Yes, it hurt, but not more than my usual run at Mount Dandenong. I like ups anyway, that’s where I make up for my downs. I’m strong there, and can hold my place in the race rankings.
At the top, a breath of relief, then we fly down the other side. Well, the runners around me fly. I pick my way down as fast as I can which is too slow because my eyes don’t work so well these days, with these stupid grey shadows called floaters removing clarity so I can’t really see where the roots and rocks and branches are if I go too fast. That stinks, that my body could certainly run down the hills faster than my eyes allow.
Down, down we go, across Olinda Creek Road, onto Georges Road. I’m waiting for Rifle Range Gully Track and KC Track because these are the tough bits, the single track up and up and up, where we creep single-file and I feel like I am on an army mission into enemy territory. The man behind me wheezes and gasps like he might die at any moment. He won’t let me get away from him though – each time I try to surge forward when we both are power-hiking he breaks into a run too – with his heavy breathing, he’d give us away to the enemy and we’d all be dead. I have compassion for him though, as I have my own hacking-cough issues, but still, his heavy breathing has me amused (it sounds a bit like a porno movie behind me), but desperate to move ahead because he’s making it sound really hard to climb this hill.
Oh, we go up and down and up and down, I stay with the same group, two men in orange vests or jackets (I only see orange as I’m trying not to trip so I don’t really look; I imagine they are wearing fluoro vests like construction workers but I’m sure they were in technical running gear), and a boy who is just as fast as me, and his father. And the poor man who wheezes. We are on a mission, the five of us; I pass them on the ups and they pass me on the downs and I kind of feel like maybe we should just hold our positions but none of us do.
It’s towards the last five k of so that I see her, my nemesis, my friend, the winner of each race I run, the friend I chat to always at the start but can never ever catch. She’d bolted ahead and I had happily let her go so I wouldn’t waste my race racing her, but there I see her in front of me, like a carrot on a stick and I’m the hungry donkey and I suddenly think maybe I’ll be able to catch her this time.
All the while a part of me is going, yes, this is the way we went on our course reconnaissance , yes, that tree and that trail, and that’s where we went wrong and turned back, and yes. And then – WAIT ONE DARNED MOMENT – we didn’t go this way at all! There’s an extra side trail we didn’t find and a different way across the bottom of the National Rhododendron Garden than we took.
Ah, but that was where I had my favourite race moment. The rain, which had held off, suddenly came down with a cold fury. It was needly and sharp and the wind blew it straight into my face for several minutes. I was all alone, and I said out loud, laughing, “And that’s how you know you’re alive!”
Then, like someone pressed Play, the movie kept going, and people started passing me going downhill again. The young boy and his dad passed, the two guys in fluoro vests, the wheezing guy, they all went by me. Cissy waved as she passed. My nemesis/friend disappeared once again into the distance and I picked my way down the hill.
One more hill up, I knew, and I was struggling by then. Is this the wall? I asked myself, before I sucked down a third energy gel and a big glug of water and continued to run. Some single-track, I think, came next, then the slick clay by the fence line where my calf and foot began to play cramping games with me. Ha ha, I thought, wind and rain and monsters and slick clay and calf cramps be damned and I kept running as fast as I could until I came to Stonyford Road.
Oh, it was so familiar, where I’d come undone during our rec’y run two weeks before, so tired, no time for walking today though, I passed a guy doing it harder than me, kept going, calves wanting to cramp but not so I kept the pace up, a woman behind me said well done Patricia but I was going too hard to glance back and said well done to you too as we both powered on.
The beautiful, wonderful finish line and friends calling my name and all monsters banished for that one gleeful moment, that crossing of the line, then hands on knees, breathless, pressing Stop on my Garmin, and suddenly finding myself immersed in a huge heaving party of exuberant runners, live music, and food everywhere.
After I changed back into my skiing clothes, Cissy found me and said, “Congratulations!” and I said “For what?” and she said “Didn’t you check the results? You came second in your age category!”
Joy. So a fourth, third and now a second in the series. By the time of the awards ceremony, many had left, including the first and third place winners in my age category (it was bitterly cold) so I got to stand on the podium alone in my ski wear. This is my favourite photo – it looks like I’m talking to an invisible friend, though I’m really chatting with Sam, the Race Director.
What a terrific day! No monsters anywhere. Just a lot of trees and mud and awesome runners having the time of their lives.
Thanks Rapid Ascent, for putting on another terrific show!
And now there is nothing between me and the monster that is Wonderland…