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?

 

 

 

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.

IMG_3007

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…

 

 

 

Great hopes and tremendous expectations

Quite a title, I know.

And not for any particular reason, other than I was paging through an old book I bought while in graduate school (Positive Thinking Every Day, by Norman Vincent Peale), and this was the inspiration of the day.  The book is old now, water-damaged, the spine breaking in places.  And still…

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Once upon a time, I was a poor graduate student in a tiny studio apartment in Times Square, New York.  I was twenty-three.  I had so much still to learn about love and life and the way of the world.

And I was so afraid.  Of everything.  The subway frightened me so much that I walked everywhere, for miles and miles and miles.  I would leave my apartment on 44th Street and 6th Avenue, and walk to graduate school down on 18th Street and Park.  I would only walk on Broadway, because I knew the way.  In the evening, before dark, I would walk back.

Afraid of being robbed (that was a valid fear in New York City in 1990), I didn’t carry a purse.  Instead, I wore a thick winter jacket with a zipper pocket high on the sleeve.  I placed my student ID and the little cash I had in that pocket, and felt safe.  No one would think of finding my money there.

In the pocket of this decidedly unfashionable olive-green ski jacket, I carried a small Walkman.  Cassettes were the thing in those days.  And batteries.  The music comforted me as I walked those lonely streets, searching for my path.  Mariah Carey: Hero.  Garth Brooks: Maverick.  Songs long-forgotten that, when I hear them, can make me tear up in memory.

Back then, I had lots of textbooks.  Enough to fill quite a few bookshelves.  But my furnished student housing didn’t contain bookshelves, just a bed, a desk, a broken wooden chair, and the industrial kind of grey carpeting that hurt the soles of your feet if you were brave enough to take your shoes off.

And wildlife.  It contained wildlife in the form of gigantic, New-York-oversized waterbugs.  Picture a cockroach on steroids that’s been pumping iron and you’ll get the idea.  My apartment wasn’t dirty; this was simply the way of things in New York, Times Square.

Once, in my tub, I found a small mouse.  It must have come up from the drain.  It couldn’t get out of the tub.  It would jump and slide; jump and slide.  It broke my heart.  That mouse reminded me of me.  Small and alone, and not really getting anywhere fast.  Instinct said to kill it, but I can’t kill anything without great regret.  I pondered that mouse and what to do.

I remembered how my Dad used to capture spiders and set them free.  A container on top; then a thick piece of cardboard gently slid under to lift them into the container; then flip it over (and make sure the make-shift lid didn’t slip off in the process or all hell would break loose).  Presto – a captured spider that could be set free in the garden.

So that’s what I did with the mouse.  Trouble was, I was twelve stories up in an apartment building.  I had no garden.  There was no way to release this little, scared mouse.  I sat down with the container and thought about it.

Then I left the apartment, took the elevator downstairs, holding my mouse-containing container, walked down 44th Street to 6th Avenue, crossed a few streets and entered Bryant Park, a small oasis in mid-town full of trees and gardens (and, in those days, drug users and thieves).

Carefully, I knelt down, placed the container on the ground and took the lid off.  The little mouse was huddled at the bottom.  I stared at its little pink paws; it stared back at me for a moment.  Then it scurried out into the park, disappearing into the bushes.  It was September, still warm enough for that mouse to be okay for several months before it had to find a new indoor hide-away.  I went back upstairs to study.

That was my home: mice and waterbugs and a bookshelf made from six yellow milk-crates stacked one-upon the other, because the $129 the real bookshelf cost was an impossible, laughable figure for me.

This small book I have just re-discovered – in 1990, it cost $9.00; back then, I could afford this.  I needed those affirmations.  Much time has passed since those days.  I’ve married, lived in many homes and several countries, published two books, adopted two children, numerous cats and a dog.

Then, seven years ago, we moved into our wonderful home in Australia.  The first home we ever owned.  I chose this room at the front of the house for my home office.  I had bookshelves; we’d bought IKEA ones years ago, and the movers shoved them into the wardrobe and filled them, as quickly as possible, and that was it.

For seven long years, I planned to fix it, to re-arrange my precious things, to paint the room something other than the mustard yellow that hurt my eyes and my heart.

For years, when I opened the wardrobe doors, I would gaze in despair at the mess of who I had been – all that schooling and work and writing and life  – all mixed up together, all lost in the chaos of mothering young children and just keeping life going.

Once, during a writing group, I invited another author into the office to show her where I worked.  She looked; she pronounced judgment: “You don’t take your work seriously, do you?”

As it was...

As it was…

She was right.  But that comment hurt.

I couldn’t back.  Not back then.  It was impossible, just as, in 1990,  buying a real bookshelf in Times Square was impossible.

But in 2015, this year, I was ready.  I was ripe for change.  Like that mouse in my long-ago tub in New York City, I was going to set myself free.  After seven long years, I got the guts up to renovate my home office, to make those hopes and expectations of so, so long ago come true.

It took six months.  Several quotes.  Some standing up for myself.  I hired a man to come tear out the wardrobe, chose a new color scheme, and found a wonderful bookshelf designer.  In its way, this was all as scary to me now as the subway was when I was 23.

And now it is done.

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My new soul-place, disguised as a bookshelf

This little book that I bought so long ago (in a day when all I could do was dream of the day I could be who I am now) holds a place of honour on my new shelves.  It reminds me of where I came from, how far I had to travel to get to where I am now.

Way back then, I had great hopes and tremendous expectations, kind of like that little mouse I set free.

Today, in this moment, I sit in gratitude for all the blessings that life has delivered me.

On the road (trail) again….

I always begin in fear.  Always.

At Mount Dandenong on the 31st of July, after nearly three months away, it was no different.  I’d been playing games with myself for days, wondering whether it was the right time for me to re-visit my mountain playground.  I’d been back from my New York trip for a week.  I was feeling distinctly unsettled.  Each night, deep in the middle of the darkness, I’d wake up and not know where I was.  I’d look at the outlines of pictures on the bedroom wall, and wonder why my wedding picture was above the bed in the hotel room.  Why the small picture of the Dandenongs was where it was.  I would panic, not knowing where I was, or even which country I was in.

My foot was mostly healed, and I’d built up to 9k on the gentler trails of home, the treadmill, and Central Park, New York.  But I still wasn’t sure I was up to the bigger hills at Mount Dandenong.

Then I got the news that my Aunt had died.  This Aunt who was the last survivor of my parents’ generation.  She who had bought me a tiny bottle of Chanel #5 when I was 14, telling me without telling me, that I had become a woman.  When hurricanes hit our low-lying beach suburb, we used to flee to her high-rise apartment in New York City.  She would cook Yorkshire Pudding and Brussel Sprouts for Christmas dinner, serving while drinking vodka on the rocks that she would mix with her little finger.  On my bookshelf is an entire collection of Charles Dickens she bought for me one book at a time.  She was elegant; an actress in New York doing one-woman shows, living on her own in her apartment for the forty years of my awareness.  And now, she was gone.

I was full of jet-lagged exhaustion, contemplation about where home was, worry about my foot being hurt, and profound sorrow at the loss of my Aunt.

I go to the woods when I need soothing, when I need to meditate and reflect on things.

So early on Friday, I went.  It is an hour’s drive from home, plenty of time to let my nerves get jangly.  The parking area at The Basin Theatre was more populated than usual.  This played on me too.  I like it deserted.  It feels safer somehow.

I trotted off into the woods in quest of a 9k run.  The thin, technical trail from the car park helped me to focus my mind on the physical.  I slid down a steep incline at its end, to cross a road and join Edgars Track.  This is my least favorite section.  It’s so close to the road that I almost expect bad guys to jump out from the trees.  I have to coach myself to run and not look behind me, to be in the moment.

A short while later, I turn right onto Golf Course Track, slanting uphill, working harder.  This leads me back to the hard-packed dirt road, which I follow uphill to the Stables car park.  Here’s where my heart settles.  The track is rocky and slants downhill.  It’s studded with rocks and littered with gum-tree bark in long strips.  It smells of earth and trees and life.  I fly down, leaving fear behind, galloping in joy.

At the end, a steep uphill makes me walk, and links me to Bill’s Track, which reminds me every time of an old New York friend who died (his name was Bill), and I think of him, miss him, then shimmy-shammy my way down the trail, trying not to face-plant, and find myself back on Edgars Trail again at the bottom.  I know the steepest hill is coming and I plan to walk it, but don’t plan for how unfit I feel after months away.  It is surprising and joyous because I know I’m on the comeback now.

At the top, I turn right onto Camelia Track, which is my favorite part of this run.  It is so lovely, it’s unbelievable no one else is here.  White birds of Freedom (some call them Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos) heckle me from the side of the trail, but wait for me until I’m right  up close before flying up into the trees.  I say hello because they are friends of a sort, and I’ve missed them.  They belt out their raucous cry, the one I love, full of abandon and noise and so lacking in self-consciousness it makes me wish I could be them.

The trail takes me gently downhill, not too technical, and I soak up the colors and smells and think of nothing but the next footfall.

At the end of Camelia Track are a few small trails I’ve not yet explored.  I bookmark them in my mind to explore another day when I have more km’s available in my healing legs.

At the end of the trail, I exit through a gate, and turn back onto the hard-packed dirt road that will take me back to my car.  The ground feels hard after the gentle trail and I’m aware that my foot is not fully healed so I go slowly until I’m back at my car.

Beautiful Mount Dandenong

Beautiful Mount Dandenong

The nine kilometers has given me the perspective I needed on the big events I’ve been facing.  It is a simple but priceless thing, a run in the woods.  Time and again, the trail takes me out of myself and then delivers me back home.

 

And so three months have passed…

I’ve kept quiet.  This journey back to health seems to have silenced me rather abruptly.  Perhaps a part of me thought it would make dull reading, which underestimates my reading audience – I expect many of you runners have been injured and felt much of what I’ve felt in the process.  Maybe you would have liked to share my journey?

Here’s what’s happened, in a nutshell: I maintained my commitment to returning to running slowly and healthfully, beginning with a small 3k walk/run as a dip-my-toe in strategy.  The increase has been super-slow, to a 4.5k week, then the following weeks total km of 6, 8.2, 10.7, 12, 13.3, 15.2, and 16.85.  Then I dropped back again, to 15, and 15.76, a forced decrease due to travel.  I’m still running in shoes with a slight heel lift, which I hate, and make my hips hurt, but I’m going to do this until my foot feels perfect.  I’ve done one race since the Roller Coaster half-marathon, the Salomon Trail Series Studley Park 5k, a fast and thrilling run, that reminded me why I love speed!

In the midst of all this return to running, the momentum I had long wished to sweep me off my feet finally showed up.  Kind of like a tsunami.  After seven years of planning, I spent June having my office torn apart.  It was an ugly mustard-yellow, with huge built-in robes that I’d stuffed full when we moved, and left alone in dismay all this time.  It was a mess and not a place that inspired me.  So I hired someone to design a brand-new bookcase, and someone else to tear out the ugly old wardrobe, re-plaster the wall, and paint the room a warm, clean white (I’ll share the photos in another blog).  The bookshelf is due to arrive in September, and I’m still on the search for a beautiful reading chair in aqua, and a warm charcoal-grey rug.  It is feeling more like home, more like me, than ever before.  The bonus was I got to go through all my old books and papers, and revisit my roots, and think again about who I am, and who I intend to be.

I saw this on a stall outside of Central Park, walking alone, thinking...

I saw this on a stall outside of Central Park, where I was walking alone, thinking…

Only trouble was, my computer got full of construction dust, and died.  It took a week or two to get it fixed, and with that, time slipped away.  No writing on my new novel; no blogging.  Just a lot of vacuuming up construction dust and choosing paint.  But all for a good cause.

Just when I was getting back on my feet, I learned, to my great sadness, that my favorite Aunt was dying of cancer back in New York.  I had let my passport expire, so spent a few weeks chasing up a new one, and then, just last week, had an emergency trip back to see my Aunt and say goodbye.

It was wonderful to see my friends and family after eleven long years away.  I had a sense of homecoming, of being surrounded by familiar accents, food and places.  I ran around the local neighborhood on Long Island where my brother lives,

 

A run along on Long Island

A run along on Long Island

in a nature reserve with my best friend, on the treadmill in my hotel on 57th Street, and finally, in a small, lovely touch of home, with a friend from Australia who happened to be in New York, on a 9k loop around Central Park.

Central Park, New York

Central Park, New York

Those running moments were my touchstone, my way of finding my way home again.  Yet I missed my family in Australia with a terrible ache.

Six days ago, I returned to Australia.  I’ve felt unsettled and uncertain where home really is.  Yesterday I got the news that my Aunt had passed away.  I’ve been pondering life and death and home.  I’ve been running and swimming and lifting weights, and hugging my children, husband, dog and cats.

In the next few weeks, I hope to get back to blogging more regularly.  Please excuse my long absence.  Life seemed to whisk me away from my computer, and my blogging skills feel rusty and strange.  If I think too much before I press publish, I’ll scare myself out of telling the truth so bear with me as I learn to write compelling, exciting prose again.

Seems I have to stumble around a bit in writing as in life to get back on my feet…

My new Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes...

My new Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes…hope they help me find my feet again!

Recovery

I’m alive! That’s the first thought I had upon awakening from surgery to have a bad varicose vein removed yesterday. The second was delight that I had not actually experienced any surgery. Haven’t not had surgery before, I was certain that some part of me would have been aware of what was happening. So delight on two fronts.

I’m home now and facing a few slow weeks of recovery. The surgeon had said I must walk a minimum of 30 minutes a day this week. To which I quickly replied, what’s the maximum? She remembered me then as “the runner” and allowed me up to two hours!

Today I’ve managed 3 x 20 minute walks, which feels terrific and gives me hope that the Two Bays 28k race in early January may still be in reach.

I put off this surgery so many times because great races just couldn’t be missed. It is a huge relief to have it done.

I’ll leave you with a couple of impressions. My anaesthetist reminded somehow of  Robin Williams; this was strangely reassuring. Food and coffee are wonderful things, especially after fasting. Nurses should never push wheelchairs quickly down crowded corridors when patients have leg injuries. Recovering from surgery is a bit like training for an ultramarathon. Rest is a hard thing to sink my teeth into, but it is part of recovery and I must do that too.

Best news of all? The doctor told me I can run again in just seven short days! So I’m off to enjoy some rest while I can!

 

 

Surgery!

Please excuse my long absence – school holidays came and went, along with the usual chaos/fun they involve, followed by two weeks of cleaning up the mess.  I did lots of great running meanwhile, including a beautiful 21km run from Torquay to Bells Beach and back along the Surfcoast Walking Trail

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Views along the Surfcoast Walking Track near Torquay

 

a few great ones up at Mount Dandenong on my favorite roller coaster loop

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

and a wonderful adventure down on the Two Bays Trail last Friday.

View from Arthur's Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

View from Arthur’s Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

Which brings you kind of up to date.

And me just one week (gasp!) away from surgery.  Voluntary surgery, no less.

I’ve had this vein-gone-wrong in my left leg (okay, lets call it what it is, a varicose vein) since I was 32.  I remember the day I noticed it.  A lump appeared down low on my thigh.  I was convinced it was cancer.  In complete panic, I called my then-Doctor, got in to see him straight away (these were the days I worked in a suit in Melbourne and went to city doctors!), and found out I wasn’t dying.  That was a great relief.

But to be told I had a varicose vein?  Suddenly, I felt very, very old.  Now, varicose veins are genetic.  I hadn’t somehow caused it by walking or exercising too much, the doctor assured me.  But that didn’t matter.  Old people had varicose veins; therefore, I was old. Old.  At 32, that belief mattered.  It crushed me for a bit.

It took a couple of months, but I got over it.  Decided that as long as I was fully functional, so be it, I had a vein-gone-wonky.  That has worked a treat for the last sixteen years.  But during those many years, the vein grew and grew, became twisted and began to work less and less well.  I started to trip up more often on trail runs, always on that leg.  I got terrible cramps in that calf at night, that would wake me up and keep me up for hours.  And not-so-kind people began to comment (“Oh, look at your leg.  That must hurt.  It looks awful!”), so I started to hide it in long running tights.  I’m not about looks, I’m about performance.  But I’m human too.

Last year, I finally got the guts up to see a Vascular Surgeon, and she suggested all was not well.  And not just visually.  Such a messed up vein could cause blood clots.  And serious bleeding if I cut it (like, perhaps, by tripping over in the middle of a long trail run).  These things were important.  I planned to have surgery the next month, September 2013.  To address this thing once and for all.

Except I didn’t.  There were too many cool races to complete.  There was Marysville and Lorne and Two Bays and the Roller Coaster Run, and the Buffalo Stampede.  North Face too.  I didn’t make all of them due to a knee injury, but I did a lot.  These were followed swiftly by the four races of the Salomon Trail Series.  Where to fit surgery requiring four weeks off running?  I decided quietly in my head that September 2014 would be it.  Just before the whole thing kicked off again, in an endless, thrilling cycle of trail racing.

Just prior to the last race of the Salomon Trail Series (23k down in Anglesea) in September, 2014, I finally called the surgeon.  I wanted surgery right away, I’d decided ages ago, I said (thinking about the 28km Two Bays Trail Race I’d already booked for January, 2015).

“Perhaps you should have told me…” the receptionist/surgery booker replied.  I laughed and admitted I’d been putting it off for rather a long time.  She tried to squeeze me in before the surgeon’s next holiday, which was a week off.  While this did seem a bit risky (perhaps she’d be thinking of margarita’s instead of veins?), I gave the go ahead, but it didn’t work out anyway.

Instead, we arranged for 27 October.  Which seemed ages and ages away at the time.  For the last month, I’ve been kicking up my heels in joy along every trail I’ve run, like I’ve been given an extra month of freedom.

But now here I am, a week away from something I’ve put off for, oh, fourteen years or so.

While I can be courageous when I’m controlling the risks (long trail runs alone but fully prepared), when someone else is in charge my inner wimp climbs right out of the back seat and plonks herself down firmly in the front.  And makes me think about everything that could go wrong.  I’ve Googled all the surgery risks (mistake), examined posts in Forums about surgery gone wrong (bigger mistake), driven my husband nuts talking about the chances of me dying (he’s a very patient man).

Finally, I’ve come to terms with it.  Kind of.

Here’s the good stuff that I’m trying to focus on:  perhaps I’ll trip over less frequently.  My leg won’t be swollen and cramp at night.  I will wear shorts to teach again without feeling self-conscious.  Most importantly, I won’t be worrying about a potential blood clot having some serious impact on my life down the track.  Or bleeding out on a solo trail run (not that I worried much about that, but humor me please).

All that said, please send me some kind thoughts next Monday because I’m sure to be a little bit of a scaredy-mouse come the actual surgery.

The rest of this week holds some terrific training to get me in my final peak shape before Monday, and I’m going to soak up every little bit of it, starting with a couple of hours in the Dandenongs tomorrow.