The Trail Running Series Race 1: flying through Westerfolds Park

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.

Happiness is great friends at a trail race

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.

Orienteering to get to the start line

Coming home










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:

Lunge and deadlift dumbbells

Squat weight for Thursday training










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.

I will not look up at photographer and face plant= my mantra

  • 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

Running as fast as I can!

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).

My desk, Monday morning

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!


“You’ve got your strangling hands on,” he said, jokingly.

I snorted; it was a perfect storm.  It was school holidays – long before we could consider them drawing to a close; I hadn’t been able to run due to injury; we’d had four back-to-back days of 40 degree plus weather, meaning no exercise at all was possible; I had a chest infection that was making me cough and cough; the kids were bouncing off the walls and each other; and we were making lunch together in our too-small kitchen.

I stepped away from the counter space where my husband was working – where I wanted to be working – and shook my hands out.  Strangling hands indeed!

I’d hurt my knee way back in November, after my first true marathon.  I’d expected a week to recover but that had stretched into six weeks.  Then I’d messed up my post-injury recovery by going out too fast, and hurting my other leg.  So I’d had to pull the plug on running for another week.  I was grumpy, sickish, in desperate need of solitude and writing time, hungering for the woods that heal me when I run.  And none of the things I needed were available.

Out of nowhere, my eight-year-old daughter declared she wanted to run around the block.  She never runs; she hates to even walk.  Before we got to seize this wonderful opportunity, she got angry though.  My son was going to run with her, and he strapped on the training watch I’d given him that came with my new Runner’s World subscription.  She wanted one too!  It wasn’t fair!  She stormed around shouting until my son found an old watch for her to wear, and only then could they get shoes on (my son ran in thongs, a true minimalist).

Watched and shod, off they ran.  My husband and I waited at the top of the hill for them to reappear, and they did, charging.  They were puffed, but my daughter wanted to go again.  So she did, with my husband beside her on a bike.  My son saved himself for our planned 1k around the streets, trying to rebuild his fitness from his 5k race back in July last year.  Later in the day, I finally made it, all by myself, to the gym.

Riding my bike down the hill, it occurred to me that it had been days and days since I’d been alone.  I felt the wind in my face, felt freedom, felt glad to be alive.  The treadmill at the gym rewarded me with a 2k run, with no pain, and my heavy weights, well, they made me feel strong and warrior-like.

I rode home, contemplating how to fix the mistake of not giving my daughter a running watch too.  Perhaps I had an old one she could borrow?

As soon as I walked in the door, my son ran up to me.  “She wants to run around the block again!”  I was too tired by then to join her, and determined to stick to my 3k plan for the day, so I let the rest of the family do the run.

In the meantime I found a Training Diary that had also come with my subscription.  As my daughter ran towards me, completing her third lap of the block, I held it out to her.  Her eyes lit up.  She grabbed my hand, pulled me inside to my office, and we sat down to record the details of her three laps around the block, including time, feelings, and the course. For her good night story, we read about hydrating drinks, and talked about how important sleep is to recovery.

She’s gone to sleep with her new training diary next to her pillow, and is already planning her next run.  My son is planning to do a 10k race this year.  And me?  I’m planning to get injury free, and then fly like the wind on my favorite trails.

Training through Illness

In my early twenties, when I didn’t know better, I would routinely turn up to the gym with a sniffle.  I’d take cold medicine first, so that the sniffle wouldn’t impact my workout as much.  Smart, hey?  When I kept training as hard as I could, that sniffle often became an upper respiratory infection that lasted for weeks.  I thought that was what happened to everyone when they caught a cold.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve studied all about training.  I became a qualified fitness instructor and personal trainer in the US and Australia, trained clients in the gym, taught BodyPump.  I learned exactly how to shape, change, enliven and invigorate my body, and my clients.  In the process, I learned about training through illness.  I learned it was dumb.

But still I did it.Image

I could believe the scientists in theory, but this was my body we were talking about.  And I’d worked hard to get where I was.  So, sniffle; train anyway.  That was still what I did.

It wasn’t until I started to notice the difference between what I told clients to do when ill, and what I was doing, that I began to change.

I began to discipline myself not to train at the first sign of illness.  And believe me, for someone who loves the gym and trail as much as I do, it was discipline.  I’d check my face in the mirror every few hours to see if I looked well enough to hit the gym yet, wonder if coughing counted as a real sign of illness.

To drop the belief that I had to keep training at all costs was a leap of faith – a real test of what personal training had taught me.  But I did.  I stopped training when ill, and I watched what happened to my body.  Closely.  The result floored me.  Nothing changed.  Nothing!  Yes, I felt lethargic and slower, but I would have felt that way anyway simply from being sick.  Did I gain weight?  I don’t know.  I’d stopped weighing myself.  Weight was not the factor by which I wanted to judge myself any more.  When I stayed still, sniffles lasted four days, then, like a miracle, would simply go away.  I could hit the gym as hard as I wanted after the sniffles were gone, and train for my next event with gusto.  My resting heart rate stayed the same; ditto for my pace on the treadmill.

Training through illness?  I don’t think so. 

We wouldn’t do it to a racehorse or a greyhound.  We wouldn’t recommend it to our clients or our children.

Why in the world would we do it to ourselves?

Karate Dojo then and now…

A few days ago, I watched my young children complete their first karate lesson.  It was “Buddy Day”.  But their buddies were not there.  It was 4:15 and the lesson was due to begin at 4:30.  The fear in the air was palpable, not just from my family, but from all the children doing this activity for the first time.  Our eyes moved back and forth from the clock, to the glass-walled Dojo, to the street.  We all wanted their friends to arrive.

At 4:25 the Sensei came to welcome in the new class.  Bravely, my kids joined the line.  Several of the children waiting to enter were crying, some because their clothing didn’t look like karate clothing, and some simply because they were afraid.  They were all, gently, encouraged to enter.  Not one gave up.

As I watched them practice, I felt each block, each kick, each punch.  Their shouts echoed deep in my belly.  I felt enormous pride for their courage, and something else.

It was a remembrance of a time long ago.

In honor of all the children there that night who overcame their fears, I share with you an excerpt from my book, In Pursuit of Joy: Life Lessons from Exhilaration.  The events I describe feel like they happened a life-time ago, and at the same time, feel like they happened just yesterday…

Rocket fuel for the soul.

Karate Dojo (Melbourne, Australia, 2001)

The long white belt still holds a place of honor, even though hidden away in my bedside table. It is wrapped carefully around the white suit with red and black Japanese letters, holding the “spirit” of my training.

I had sped by the place a hundred times, racing along to my up-market gym. I had seen, almost subliminally, pictures of women kicking hard into bags held by dark looking men. Their eyes stared, focused and intense. I had been jarred several times by the grainy photos of daggers, knives and fighting sticks.

It was next door to a heavy metal music store, in an old desolate tunnel lodged under the train station. A feeling of poverty and drug abuse sat heavy in the air. It was far, far away from the beautiful posh health club I belonged to, where women touched up their makeup before exercising, and shifted their noses a little higher in the air when I laughed too loud, or sweated too much.

I had been trying and trying and trying there, trying to fit in, trying to become a personal trainer, trying to become accepted somewhere I was not. I had been trying without success for so long, that it had become habitual to expect a “maybe next month” answer, to feel this burn in the pit of my stomach, to push it back down. This health club had become my battle ground; the stakes my self-esteem.

This day, I stopped. I stared at the pictures of the women, fighting. I had fears that needed to be faced; I had things I needed to leave behind.

I went beyond the glass door, walking past a vast range of weapons, deep into a mildewy tunnel. No loud dance music, no carpet, no “Natasha” to eye me coldly while smiling daggers at me.

A man stood, alone behind a high counter. About him, this aura of power, this gentleness concealing obvious strength. He smiled a warm welcome at me, spoke softly, explained what I needed to know. His eyes held mine, and I was not afraid.

The first night, I am in my gym clothes. I suddenly notice I am the only one in gym clothes! The rest of these people are in white suits, tied by long belts, and they all seem to know each other. I am in the back row, quietly cringing, wondering what I am doing here. He begins to speak – I do not know it then – but it is Japanese. The room, quietly chaotic, quickly – instantly – assembles into orderly rows. Suddenly I do not fit in, do not know what to do. He shouts “Hajime!” and everyone leaps into a new stance. Their answering shout of “OSU” echoes through the hall, and makes my heart jump.

The words of my Sensei still echo in my ears, after months of training. “We do the best we can.” He would say this after introducing a move I had no hope of following, in the intermediate class. I carry these words with me now, as I move through my life.

We do the best we can. Sometimes the beautiful places hide daggers, and the places full of daggers hide joy. I never became good at karate. But I re-found the belief in myself that I had lost at the “health” club. I found a battle worth fighting, and I found battle partners who respected me, exactly where I stood.

I found that real power is gentle, real strength considerate and kind.

Now, when I kick hard into a person-size red pad, held by another participant, I put my strength into it, and feel this strength flow right back. I feel power flow through my hands when I punch hard, when I spar. And yet, I feel the underlying softness necessary with all such power.

Yes, this white belt holds the spirit of my training. Symbol of a power I had forgotten I had. I hold it, and am grateful.

To be strong enough to carry the load

In the gym this morning, I was thinking about why I train.  I’d just finished a squat/lunge/swiss ball curl superset, and was moving onto training my chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Then I looked around.  I was the only woman in the free weights area.  There were five or six men — all were musclebound, young, wearing headphones.

The other women were all on the crosstrainers and treadmills, heads down.  I could see why — it was intimidating in the free weights area.  All metal and grey and dirty.  And we women are afraid of growing big, manly muscles.  What I’ve learned is it takes a great deal of work to grow a muscle, and if they get too big, you just reduce the weight you are using and they shrink right away.  It’s like magic.

But anyway, I was there to train.  Heavy.  Because heavy weights to me equates to strength.  To the ability to carry my six-year-old daughter up a flight of stairs when she’s too tired to walk.  To being able to kick a footy far enough for my son for him to be mildly impressed.  And most important of all, to me, to be able to run fast and far and with agility.

It’s not about the shape of my thighs, so much as what they can do for me.

Like this woman I watched in the gym on Friday night.  She’d set up a Reebok Step with about ten small platforms underneath.  Then she leapt off the ground and landed flat on top of that step!  Then leapt back down.  Ten times, she did that.  It was like a leap of faith.  I watched in quiet awe — that step was high.  That girl had guts.  I’ve added the idea of that leap to my training –not quite so high yet, as I’m a beginner, and I don’t want to do a face-plant in the gym.  But I gave it a go today.  The power in that move will propel me up many a hill in my upcoming trail series.

That’s what I train for.  For life.  For power.  For strength.

I wish more women would come join me in the free weights area.  Push heavy things hard.  Learn what they are capable of.  And then take the power they’ve found and go out and do amazing things in the world.

Like carry their daughters up the stairs.  Like kick a footy.

Or maybe join me in the Tough Bloke/Cool Chick Challenge next year, shown above.

Just because you can!