We were playing cat and mouse; I just wasn’t sure who the cat was yet.
I eyed her yellow waist pack, this time from behind her. It was different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to here in Melbourne, the Nathan’s and the Salomon’s, the backpacks and four-bottle waist belts. The shape, colour and size or her pack was memorable, and I was going to keep my eye on it as we raced, so I knew I was still in the same place in the line of runners as before.
The trail began to climb, and once again, I edged in front of her (I have to use the uphills to gain ground, because I lose so much on the downhills). We ran for a while. Then, as always, the trail again descended, becoming rocky, rutted, lined with tree debris. I slowed, and she politely make her way to the front again. Cat? Mouse?
Time would tell.
Except it didn’t.
Because what happened was more wonderful than the usual race high jinks. At some particularly scenic spot, I came up behind her, surprised that she’d stopped to take a photo (I’d been looking at my feet, not the view). She called to me, and waved to encourage me to join her photo.
It was kind, and utterly unexpected. We spoke for the first time, smiling, exchanging names as we jogged on. When she said her name, I paused, and looked at her more closely.
“Do I know you? From Hong Kong?” I said.
I don’t know why I said it. I had left there eight years ago, and it felt like a different world. Except her face, and her name, and that waist pack. She burst into a beautiful smile. I was right! We talked, and discovered we used to do Action Asia races together, the Sprint Series of Adventure Races that brought us all over the Hong Kong countryside.
How do I say this?
Finding I knew her, that I had known her in that long-ago time before my life had changed here in Melbourne…it was like finding a long-lost friend, even though we hadn’t really been friends, had just run the same races together. But I knew her, and she knew me. We chatted, elated. Eventually, she ran ahead (another downhill), after asking me to find her at the finish for a photo.
That’s how this race was for me. A day where new friendships began.
2013 was the last time the Silvan race began at the Silvan Reservoir. I should call it what it is today: the Hoka One One Trail Series, a series of five awesome trail races, with short, medium and long courses, in particularly beautiful trails about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The slogan way back in 2013 was Bitumen is Boring. It was perfect; and the races were just what my soul longed for.
Back then, I was living a very different life. Just surviving. Using running as a band-aid for all of life’s challenges. That year, I’d done my first ultra marathon, 50k in the Blue Mountains. The (then named) Salomon Trail Series long courses had seemed short in comparison. So short, in fact, that I had underestimated their challenge, done the Plenty Gorge 17.6km long course, and later that day, went for a 5k training run, where I promptly and definitively sprained my ankle. I spent four weeks doing some serious recovery work on the ankle, and managed to do the 2013 Sylvan 21km race. I felt unstable and scared, but I was determined to finish out every race of that series. And so I did.
Fast-forward to 2016: for the first time in many years, I am leaving on race morning, and all is right with my world. There have been no fights with my young children, my husband and I have just returned from our 21st-anniversary night away in Olinda (our first trip without kids in many years), the dogs are grown enough to be trouble-free, and I know the way to Silvan.
The part of me that sits beside me observing my life while I live it claps and cheers for this wondrous time. I am content; more than this – I am happy.
Driving alone, I navigate the roads I have taken to my training runs at Mount Dandenong so many times. The route to Silvan is not so different, and I console the scaredy-cat driver in me with the reassuring thought that this drive also takes me past Grant’s Picnic Area in Sherbrooke Forest (I’ve driven here several times alone), and I’ve also driven this very road to Silvan in 2013.
That works, until the twisty-turny part of the road – the beautiful part when others are driving – comes up. Of course, I drive too slowly, and someone, a big four-wheel drive with jutting metal crash bars, comes up right behind me. Ok, drive my way, I tell myself, except he gets right up behind me, nearly nudging my bumper. A cyclist appears; I slow; the jerk behind me honks; I swear. It is the usual, twisty-turny road dialogue. Eventually, the road widens and he blazes past me, and I breathe deeply in relief.
I arrive at race headquarters despite all this, where I am directed to drive my car up onto the curb to park. I don’t know how to drive my car up on the curb without a driveway. I should know how, but I don’t, and I’m all grown-up now and can refuse politely, so the race official kindly lets me drive further on, and park more easily on the road. It’s ok to live within my own limits, I tell myself. After all, the limits I set for me would be pretty challenging for some others.
I’ve signed up for the medium series this year, which is a perfect, delightful distance. Today’s event is 15.5km, and I’ve been training up to 18k in my long run on lots of big hills to make sure I have enough in my tank to get me through strongly.
I’ll tell the truth here: at Plenty Gorge this year, I came in first in my age category. First! I was so excited I jumped up on the podium, clapping my hands in glee. Later, I was too jet-lagged and troubled by this to even write a blog about that race.
I coach myself to always run my own race, to not race others, because when I’ve done this in the past, it’s ended in disaster (sprained ankles; falls; etc). I do this right up to the point the race results come in, where I get obsessed about what place I’ve come by overall, gender, and age categories. Winning my age category is awesome – for a minute or two.
Then I start this endless internal chatter: I wonder if I trained harder, if I might take first place again at the next race? Maybe if I do more tempo runs? More hill training? More pilates? I get stuck in this silly, unhelpful groove where winning becomes more important than the pleasure of the run. Of course, I did all of this “more” stuff in the four weeks between Plenty Gorge and Silvan, so the night before Silvan, I found myself snappish, stressed, aware of this silly dialogue I was having. I sat down at the piano. Played Chopin, which I’ve been trying to master in my Very Easy piano book. The music soothed me, reminding me I am not just a runner. I do not have to judge my value by my placement in this race.
Back to race headquarters. Here we are at the start of Silvan 2016. We lined up for a wonderful warm-up, the best I’ve had in a race start, and I felt my sleeping muscles awaken. Then, Boom – we were off. Too fast, of course, as always. But I kept my foot on the brake, knowing this to be the risky bit, the overcrowded start where it was hard to see the uneven terrain. We had 15k; plenty of time to make up places. I let the bolters bolt, and settled into my pace.
Quickly, we began ascending the “Hill from Hell”. Not so hellish really, not after all the Mount Dandenong climbing I’d been doing, but I didn’t try to run it, just power-hiked it. I knew my body, my limits, my weaknesses and my strengths. It didn’t matter if I got passed on the downhills; I’d pass again on the uphills, and stay with the same group anyway.
Up and up and up we went. I knew we’d be climbing for nearly 8k, but this was all right, I was used to climbing.
There was this moment in pilates a few weeks ago. I’ve not been doing this discipline for long, just eight weeks or so, in an attempt to cure the foot and hip pain that have been plaguing me for a couple of years. I’m strong. This is a simple fact; relative to most women, I can lift much heavier things. Woop woop. This talent comes in handy when I’m teaching Bodypump or helping move stage sets for my son’s production in Primary School. Not really anywhere else. But I like it and I rely on it. So the fact that this simple lie-down-on-the-bed-and-shove-the-platform-away Reformer Pilates hurt – this was really odd. So odd, the hurt, the challenge, that I began smiling, laughing silently. The instructor noticed, and said “You’re smiling?”, puzzled. “It really hurts,” I said, laughing out loud now. “That’s an interesting response to pain,” she replied, and started smiling too.
But that’s me: when it gets hard, I laugh. Because suddenly, there’s that enemy to stare down. I recognise it, remember the battles I’ve fought, and I laugh. The enemy of studying physics (briefly) at university; the one that said Central Park is too cold to run in winter; when the wind blows too hard, and the trees threaten to fall on me atop a mountain, there it is; when my child says, I wish you were dead, you’re not part of this family; when the rain begins mid-run, sideways, cold rain, and I’m forty-five minutes from home; in Pilates, it seems.
And today, at Silvan. When the hills got so steep I had to walk instead of run. There’s that pain, that enemy, that friend and foe, here again to teach me about my strength.
I had my gels, water, salt tablets. I had trained enough. I stared that enemy down and was satisfied.
But for me, the main challenge is always more technical downhills. We had about 7k of these coming right after the uphills. These days, I have floaters in both eyes (grey shadows in the centre of my visual field). This makes running fast on technical downhills challenging, as its hard to make out the detail of what I’m stepping on, especially at speed. I’m slower than I’d like to be, slower than the rest of my body could go if I could see properly, but that’s ok. Its another enemy to stare down, in time.
The terrain details – which hill was where, the single tracks, the hairy-scary descents – they all merge together in my mind into a three-word course description: brutal but beautiful. Some uphills were of my favourite sort, studded with rocks, genuine and ungroomed. Downhills that reminded me of hills I ran in England’s Bradgate Park, grassy, with only a slight camber, easily runnable with eyes wide open. Uphills through thin, tall trees, where I felt like I was in a line of soldiers climbing silently and breathlessly into enemy territory. Straggly, thin strips of tree bark ready to strangle my ankles and send me flying. I didn’t look up much to see the scenery, except to grimace at photographers, because looking up usually means falling down.
The last downhill of red clay near the fence line I always find memorable. In 2013, with that four-week-old sprained ankle, I recall picking my way down in terror, committed to the race, but wanted to get home in one slightly broken piece. Today, 2016, I flew down it. Not as fast as the three or four men who passed me, for sure, but flying for me. But I hungered for Stonyford Road, the flat dirt road where I could open up and really let my legs go, where I could pass the people who’d passed me.
When I finally got there, though, everyone who had passed me had already disappeared. It floored me. I love to chase and there was no one to chase! I was alone, like in a solo training run up Mount Dandenong. I willed my legs to go faster, knowing each second counted in finish times, if nothing else. Still, no one to chase. Then I heard the footfalls behind me, and realised that this time, I was the prey. Someone was hot on my heels. I was having none of this, and I turned it up a few gears, and bolted away from them as fast as I could go. I wouldn’t be passed here on flat ground!
We were near the finish. I could hear the crowd cheering. My legs were burning, tired, but I knew it was easy from here. Except it wasn’t – the course turned up into the trees for one final fling of the enemy at me. Just before I climbed up, I let Mr. Speedy go past me, knowing he would need to on the rougher trail. More tentative, I heard another runner behind me, offered to let them pass, but they didn’t want to. On we ran, not for long, before the car park and the finish cones appeared.
When the tall, thin fast man flashed past me just before the finish line, I didn’t give chase. He wasn’t a 50-plus woman. I ran my own race, right across that beautiful finish line, puffed, panting and elated, and pressed stop on my Garmin. 1:38, I noted. Respectable on such a tough course.
Friends from Dandenong Trail Runners had gathered in a group. I joined them for a photo.
Seeing the “cat” from our cat-and-mouse game, I quickly joined her and shared a hug. Somehow, seeing an old running friend from Hong Kong made this mountain run in Australia feel like home to me. We exchanged laughs and phone numbers, made plans for future runs, and promised to catch up soon.
The singer with the acoustic guitar kept playing all my favourite songs. I wanted to sit by him and just listen, but I was drawn to the results screen, where I saw I’d come in 2nd in my Age Category, to my great glee.
Wandering, I noticed the wonderful looking Mexican Food, Richie’s Fresh Salsa. I can’t usually eat after races, but this looked just perfect. And in my post-race euphoria, I was no longer shy, was able to make conversation with the couple running the stand, exchanging business cards with Richie, who turned out to be from America, and I suspect will turn out to be a friend. Indeed, we spoke the day after the race, and he said something that sounded so familiar to me, about how finding people from ‘home’ was always wonderful. I noted how we could speak the same language. We made plans for a run and a coffee, to talk business and America.
And I was thinking, hang on, Australia is my home, yet I was elated to find an old friend from Hong Kong because that too is my home, and now here’s this American, and that’s home too.
And it occurs to me. Home is not a place. It is not where the heart is. It is trail running. That’s my home. The single-tracks and the hills, the trees and the reservoirs, the authentic smiles from all my fellow runners.
So, 2016 Hoka One One Trail Running Series at Silvan, thank you for bringing me home.