I’ve planned it very carefully, even as I slalom and smash my way through this 10.6km trail run. The woman has been in front of me the same distance throughout the race, and I’ve consciously kept pace with her. It’s been tough, and fast, and I haven’t run this hard in a race in years. My pace is well below the 5-minute kilometre mark that I’ve deemed my fastest trail pace.
I wait until there’s one kilometre to go to make my move. Unfortunately, some guy makes his move first and gets in front of me, between me and her. I grimace, decide I’m going to have to pass him too. It hurts like hell but I add the acceleration I need to get by him.
He, though, is not my prey. I move on her next, carefully, as the terrain is criss-crossed by tree roots and single-track. I’m passing her, pushing hard, totally breathless, and she says, “well done, terrific run,” and I grunt, “thanks, you too,” thinking this must be her way of making me speak to slow me down. She must know we’re racing each other. We’re in the same age category and there’s only one other woman in front of us in our age category.
I push hard. That last kilometre is pure pain and pure bliss. I feel her at my back and increase the pace. I can hear cow bells being rung by spectators and know (pray) that this means the finish line is near. I’m really struggling to hold the pace, to stay in front of this woman I know is trying to catch me. We pass parked cars and I see the finish line and I hear a runner coming up behind me and I know it’s her and I can’t put anything more in and then right in front of me in the midst of the sprint the ground drops away in a small gully and I’m scared to death I’m going to trip but I don’t, I keep running and the person passes me and I’m overjoyed because it’s a man and I can let him go and I pound and push and drive myself across the finish line.
I’m smiling ear-to-ear, thrilled I’ve won this race, or at least second place on the podium in my age category. I’ve fought hard for speed in the last three months and what’s making me smile most of all is I felt fast in myself. I finally felt agile and strong and like the runner I used to be before I played around with ultra-marathons. It’s taken me just under 48 minutes to run this 10.6km course. This is nearing my 10k PB on the road. I’m utterly delighted and thrilled with both the course and my performance.
I look for the woman to thank her for the race, and for helping me push my pace, but I can’t find her. Instead, I find my friend Cissy, standing near the finish chute with her running friends. By happy coincidence, the woman I’d raced is standing with her. I smile at this stranger, and we greet each other. I thank her for her pace. And then I look at her more closely. I’d only seen her from behind, just known she was a woman. Assumed she was in my age category because she had short hair and only woman over 50 have short hair, right? That’s when I first cut mine short.
Except when I looked at her now, she was gorgeous and young. Blonde. I asked the obvious question I’d never ask a woman except at a race: how old are you? As in, are you in my age category? She was not. She was two categories below me. I didn’t have to race her at all. Funny. Ha ha. I’d still come 2nd in my age category.
Cissy and I went to check the computer for race results. Usually, I have to wait ages for my race to come up, then my age category. This time, it was right there on the screen. As if the Gods of Racing were laughing at me. There I was, not in 2nd or 3rd place in my age category, but in 4th! Not only was I racing the wrong woman, there were two other women I should’ve been racing in front of me, and I didn’t even know about them. Third place had beaten me by twenty seconds. Silly, to let this wipe the smile from my face. But it did. Briefly.
Then I started laughing because it was really, really funny. And I reminded myself that I am not actually racing anyone at all, right? Funny how getting onto the podium can feel so important sometimes.
Turned out Cissy had won first in her age category, so I got to cheer for her anyway.
And it turned out that on this day of racing, the top 11 women (I was the 11th) were either in the age categories of 20-29 or 50-59. Very strange, as usually the strongest women are 40-49. Four of the top 11 were over 50.
Which brings me to my point. I’ve always enjoyed getting older because I get moved up an age category and then sometimes get to step on the podium for a year or so. What strange, awful world have I stumbled into, what parallel universe, where the women get faster as they age? This is a terrible blow to my aging and racing strategy. It will take some getting used to.
But let’s talk about the race, the wonderful race.
I arrived at our new race location for the first race in The Trail Series at Westerfolds Park in Templestowe, just in time to note that all the cars seemed to be heading out of the park. I took this as a bad sign, but pushed on in search of the elusive-but-not-to-be-found close parking spot. Giving up, I joined the others leaving and quickly turned into a final parking lot just before the park exit. Win! It was only a five-minute walk to the start across the fields, like orienteering where the chatter of the gathering runners was the mark I had to find.
It is always a homecoming of sorts, the start of The Trail Series. The A-frame with the race description I feel compelled to study though I carry a printed copy in my race bag; Richie’s Mexican food and wonderful salsa; the coffee truck; the cheese-toastie truck that sprinkles their toasties with rock salt in what might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted post-race in my entire life. The man with the microphone entertains and scares me in equal measure. The long line for the portable toilets that I feel I must join as soon as I see it. Runners pinning on numbers, getting their Series t-shirts, chatting, warming up, huddled in groups of running teams, the PTRs and LTRs and DTRs and TXRs and Urban Trail Runners and Running Mums of Australia and so many others. The joy on their faces, the expectation, the camaraderie.
The warm-up happens for the long course. I join the toilet queue again, listen to others talk about work issues and race strategies. I find my friend Cissy and meet some of her nice running buddies, see Ali and talk about her big puppy dog. Say hi to Richie and think about post-race food. I’m huddled in my down jacket, as if pretending I’m not running, and it takes a bit of determination when I go to the bag check to strip all the layers off down to my DTR (Dandenong Trail Runners) singlet and 2XU tights. Cold. Cold. Cold. So I bolt around the fields and tracks to warm up, feeling the strength in my legs. Buoyant. That’s how I feel today.
Several years ago, I fell in with a new crowd. They had an odd compulsion, and I followed them blindly. It was fun for a while, but it resulted in me losing my first love.
I’m talking about those ultra-marathoners! I followed them, and I lost my speed! I could run for miles and miles and miles, like the EverReady Bunny, but I’d lost my bounce and agility, and the thing that made me love running. Adrenaline. Speed. Going around turns at break-neck pace, leaping and bounding over obstacles like superwoman. There wasn’t time to go to the gym to lift heavy, as I love to do.
So I left ultra running, waved a fond farewell and put it away.
Here’s my revised training schedule (skip this bit if it bores you please). Instead of running 50-60km per week, this is what I do:
Monday: Swim 2k with lots of intervals and different strokes. Practice and teach one hour Bodypump class. Jump-rope 200 jumps.
Tuesday: Trail run, 10k tempo training run along the flat, fast Bayside Coastal Track.
Wednesday: Swim 2k, Teach Bodypump. Jump-rope 200 jumps.
Thursday: 6k treadmill interval training, 1 minute fast, 1 minute slow. Followed by Very Heavy Weight training for one hour (squats, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg squats, chest, back and core work).
Friday: Long run. Either 18-20 km Bayside Coastal Track, or 18km on Mount Dandenong. I target one week for faster pace and the other for hill training.
What’s changed is I only run about 40km a week. I do a lot more swimming and weight lifting. I want to run FAST and with power and agility. I still throw in the odd half-marathon but mostly to see new places and beautiful courses. My body has returned to me, my muscles and my pace, but it has been really hard work, the pushing and the training and the runs in the cold rain when I haven’t felt so much like doing them. But I had a goal: a fast 10k.
That was my mindset for this 10.6 race. So I was delighted to hear it wasn’t going to be technical, but smooth single-track. Am I the only one who was surprised by the number of tree roots? The photographers seemed to be placed just at the most awkward spots – I was afraid to glance up at them and smile, as I was sure to face-plant if I did. That would’ve made a great photo!
Here are my highlights of the Medium course, the 10.6 km run, the bits I could see when I dared to look up from my feet:
- okay, a lot of views of my feet not tripping over tree roots. I loved this part.
- the stairs, and the up-and-up hilly bits
- the bridge over the Yarra with wild water running over rocks and the grey sky
- the small uphills where my legs were powerful enough to push a few places ahead
- the tree roots that threatened me but didn’t get me this time. The agility they required and the mindfulness they engaged.
- not getting taken out by the one unexpected roller-blader when I went to pass on a road section.
- the same five or six runners being in my sights the entire race, knowing I’d found my sweet spot
- the fact that I could run as fast as I wanted – and I wanted to run so fast – for the first time in years
At the finish, blazing across that finish line using up every drop in my tank and feeling utterly elated to have run that distance in 48 minutes (47:54 by official timing).
The friendships I have made, the shared laughter and hurting and joy at podium places and photos and the lovely man with a guitar singing my favourite songs (“You can go your own way…” which was utterly perfect just as I crossed the finish line).
Monday comes, and I find I can’t stop smiling. My mind keeps returning to those trails, those people, the glorious memories of what we’ve done together.
My desk and laundry are full of race stuff and I don’t want to put it away, but the second race in The Trail Series is still three weeks away.
Thankfully, I have the little matter of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon on Saturday to keep me occupied! More on this later.
Thanks for an awesome event Rapid Ascent! See you at Race 2!