Hoka One One Trail Series Studley Park 2016: the dark side

The world has shrunk. Only myself, the trail, and the small circle of light from my head torch remains.  Darkness surrounds me like a cocoon.  I’m running, but I’m not breathless. I could go faster but the trail is littered with rocks and tree roots.  They appear without warning; in the dark, there is no margin for error, no gazing ahead to see what might be coming.  Obstacles are there immediately, and my reaction must be urgent or I will fall.  The running is risky and intense.  My eyes hurt from the effort.

There are other runners, of course.  This is, after all, a race.

It is the night race, the fifth in the series of trail runs that make up the Hoka One One Trail Series. I’m doing the Medium Courses, which have ranged from 10 to 16k.  Tonight is 10k, a repeat of race one at Studley Park, which last time we ran in the light. Tonight, we see the dark side.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’d planned to begin this blog with what happened ten days before the race.  The moment when I stepped out of the pool after a 2k swim, and felt a sharp pain in my left hip.  Suddenly, I was limping.  It surprised me. Swimming is the safest activity in the world, the injured runner’s paradise. I couldn’t hurt myself swimming.  It wasn’t even possible.

The Physio the next day assured me, however, that it was. It was the backstroke that did it. Or maybe it was carrying my ten-year-old daughter up the stairs a few days before.  Or Bodypump. Or running in my new shoes the day before, puddle hopping in the rain.  Whatever it was, I was unable to walk a single normal step. I couldn’t even put weight on my leg.  Running was out of the question.

This was Thursday, nine days out from race night. I’d run the last four races as fast as I could, because I was suddenly in a new age category and had a slim chance of getting on the podium.  But really, it was because I’d been running longer distances in the past, and I just wanted to feel the elation of running fast.  I’d come second, first, second, and second in the previous races.  Another runner had won every single one of the races, so I knew she had the Series win.  No matter how I tried to add up the numbers, I wasn’t going to get it, even if I won this night race outright.  Now, I wasn’t even sure I’d get to the start line.  I wanted to cry, swear, stomp. I wanted to run and do Pilates and lift weights. What I didn’t want to do, especially with school holidays looming, was be injured.

I began the physio exercises with gusto, once a day, calf raises with a Pilates ball between my ankles, bridges with a Pilates ball between my thighs, using a spiky ball to massage out the tight muscles causing the hip pain.  I did what I was told for a change, even though I become a lunatic without regular exercise.  I waited to run. Days and days and grumpy days.

Finally, Monday, I managed a slow, hobbling 5k. I took some more Voltarin.  And I set a target – if I could run 8 on Wednesday, I could do my race. I did. That 8k was fantastic, like a returning to myself.  Only an injured runner can understand the elation that comes from running after injury.

On Friday evening,me and the family drove to Studley Park.  We were there about two hours early.  I wanted a good park, as I knew we wouldn’t leave until 10 pm and the kids would be shattered.  At race headquarters, I chatted with a few friends, studied the course map, and contemplated nutrition.  I’d never run at night before, so this was new territory.  I sat in the back of our four-wheel-drive and ate a banana, then I toyed with my head torch.  My pulse rose. I had planned to have a few runs in the dark with the torch prior to race day, but injury had prevented that.  Should I run with a cap?  Bare-headed?  I was realising belatedly that this was scary. And I hadn’t been scared at a race in a long time. I tried a buff under the torch, worried it would slide, jogged about, and decided this was the best choice.

It was still light.  But my nerves were on edge.  Race organisers were handing out glow sticks, and runners were making bracelets and necklaces of them.  They were smiling. Was I the only one slightly terrified?  I gave my glow sticks to the kids, who proceeded to decorate their bodies and shoes.

We made our way across the wobbly bridge towards the start line. The sun had set and the light was fading.  I practised jogging up and down the road with my head torch, nearly getting nailed by a bicycle in the gathering dark.  This fear felt odd.  It was familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in a while.  The 50k in the Blue Mountains, I’d felt like this; jumping off a pier into a bay fully clothed mid-winter at a trail race in Hong Kong; teaching Bodypump for the first time; driving to all the races alone the first few years I lived in Australia.  This fear was familiar.  I let it settle with my breath.  I knew the fear didn’t matter.  It was just part of the event.

We warmed up.  Rather, the people around me did.  I didn’t want to test my hip too soon.  And then suddenly, the countdown, and we were off.

I knew the course, knew we began on bitumen, that quickly turned into rocky track.  I ran with care.  It was already pitch dark, and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be different from any run I’d done before.

The trail came, and I held my pace steady.  Kept my eyes fixed within the narrow pool of light my head torch gave me.  We were a silent pack.  Usually, there was banter, chatter amongst trail runners.  Tonight, I felt like we were a wolf pack on the hunt.  We moved as one, silently, stealthily, in the dark, dark night.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to see my Garmin.  I could only hear it beep when a kilometre had passed, but I couldn’t risk taking my eyes from the trail to look at it.  It was freeing, I quickly realised, not racing the pace, not even knowing the pace.  I could tell I wasn’t running fast, because it didn’t feel hard and painful.  But not knowing the speed – knowing this was as fast as I could safely run – it made running slowly acceptable.

We did the usual cat-and-mouse passing games, but again this was different from usual.  I couldn’t lift my eyes from the trail to see who was passing, and we were all utterly silent.  As if by unspoken agreement, this was a solitary experience within a group trail race.  The dark and the silence felt holy somehow.  The shrinking of the world to the next footfall within the small pool of light.

In the darkness, alone

In the darkness, alone

We came to the pipe bridge at Fairfield Boathouse much quicker than I expected, and this was the first place I felt comfortable running fast.  I passed a few people here – one who had stopped to take photos – but very soon we were back on single-track with rocks.  The field had spread out now, and I was often running alone.  Or at the front of a small group.  This was odd.  I sensed the other runners didn’t want to pass me, and I could see why.

Or rather – I couldn’t.  Navigating in the dark was much harder than in the day.  I had to shine my head torch right on the directional arrows to make sure they were the right color, as they were grey in the dark, and I asked for directions from the race marshalls at confusing intersections.  I kept my eyes out for ribbons dangling from the trees and felt a warm glow of reassurance each time I saw one.

There was only once – and this was a real moment of terror – that I came to the end of a trail and saw no directional arrow.  I slid to a stop, me and the small group following me.  Together, we stumbled around until we found the arrow, and then bolted onto the flat road that was close to the finish line.  Finally, I unleashed my legs, running downhill, enjoying this flying in the dark.  I passed a few people, but I knew we still had one other technical section to come.

We made the final right turn, and in my mind, we were nearly home.  I was surprised at how long this final section lasted, but this was my favourite bit.  I was behind a gentlemen festooned in blue Christmas lights for some of the way, but when I passed him, I was utterly alone.  Running on a dark trail, in suburban Melbourne, near the blackened river to my right, a woman alone, running in the dark, and I was unafraid.  It was a wondrous, delightful feeling.  I heard a bird cry across the river, and then no other sounds but my footfalls on the gravel, and my breathing

Later, in the distance, I heard the celebrations at the finish line.  I heard them long before I arrived, and I love every moment in that cocoon of darkness.  I had found my pace, my agility.  Nothing hurt.  I was running fast enough but not too fast.  It was like being in a perfectly warm bath.  Or like being alone in the fog atop a mountain.  It felt safe.

I kept my feet.  Made it to the final grassy section lined with cones, where I could see the finish line.  I cheered myself through, thrilled to have made it, thrilled to not have fallen or hurt myself, joyous to have once again done something that had scared the life out of me, and in doing so, came back to life.

Cheering over the finish line

Cheering over the finish line


The finish chute with fairy lights

The finish chute with fairy lights

Later, my family sat eating dim sums and chips, listening to the presentations. I’d already checked the screens, and seen I’d come in third in my age category.  This was wonderful, as I’d really thought I was out of the running with injury, and I was going to get to stand on the podium a final time.

My name was called for third place in the 50-59 female age category, and I accepted my bag of goodies with glee.  It came with a sparkler, which seemed a wonderful touch in the cold, dark night.

Sharing the elation

Sharing the elation

Then the series results were read.  I heard them read second place.  It wasn’t me.  I wondered why there wasn’t a third place, and while I was lost in this wonder, my name was read as Series Winner of the 50-59 female category.  Both myself, and Carmel on the top step were puzzled.  The Series win was hers – she’d won four of five races.  We paused, she leaned over and asked Sam, and Sam said, did you enter the series, and she said no, she’d entered the individual races, and Sam said something, and I had won the series.

I smiled for the cameras but felt very odd about the whole thing.  It took a few friends telling me this was how it worked for me to finally feel happy about it, and Carmel came up and congratulated me, and I felt I should hand the Series medal over to her, but she graciously said no, it was mine.

The win?  The win was getting to do these five wonderful races.  Studley Park in the daylight in June.  Plenty Gorge, after just arriving back from the UK the day before.  Sylvan, the cold, the hills, the pleasure.  Anglesea, celebrating on the beach with the Surfcoast Century people.  And this run – the final – the night run at Studley Park, alight with head torches and glow sticks, with terror and elation.

The kids fell sound asleep on the drive home, and I played with the medal hanging around my neck as my husband drove.

Series Winner

Series Winner

We are all winners.  That’s what I’ve decided.  Every single one of us who turned up and did these awesome trail races.  Every one who had the courage to stand up and begin.

 

Two Bays 2016: a tail of a snake, a wedge-tailed eagle and a fairy-wren (part 1)

My action foretold disaster.  Like in horror movies, when the hero says, “I’m just going to check outside (after a strange scream. in the dark. all alone. when there are clowns around).”

I had acted too quickly, without forethought.  That’s what happens with Facebook groups.  Especially when a race is sold out, and suddenly registrations become available on a first-come first-served basis.  At least that’s how I react.  Especially when I’m not sure I’m up to the distance.

I’d completed the Marysville Half-Marathon about seven weeks prior to this, and was studying my recovery closely, trying to be wise, trying not to do the same stupid things which had led to injury in previous years.  I’d completed the Two Bays 28k race only in 2013, but had signed up and pulled out of both the 2014 and 2015 Two Bays so far, both due to injury.  So for 2016, I was checking the Two Bays website periodically, but not signing up.  Not yet, I told myself.  I’d only done 14k for my long run since Marysville.  Nothing hurt, but I was going slowly.

Then one day, I checked the website, and the race had SOLD OUT!  What!  But I hadn’t decided yet.  I scrolled down.  There was an option of placing my name on the second- chance list on the Facebook Group page, so I did what any fool runner would do, and typed my name in straight away.  I’d be notified if a place became available.  So would all the others on the list.  The fastest typist would get the spot.

I used to type for a living.  In the olden days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and people had to type on actual type-writers with perfect accuracy, or type the entire document again from scratch.  I took typing speed tests, and aced them.  I was not a hunt-and-peck girl.  This was one event I could win.

And BOOM, I did.

Scored myself an entry the first week.  I cheered aloud, alone in my office.  Over lunch, I told my husband the wonderful news, and when I went to teach, I shared my delight with the members of my BodyPump class.  They all looked at me with the same dumb-founded expressions, and some even repeated my words back to me:  you said you weren’t going to do that race, you were going to train to get stronger and faster.  Remember?  Do a fast 10k?  That’s what you said.

Yes, but…

Oh the error of my ways.  I knew they were right – they were speaking my own words – but I had to prove they were wrong.  Or I was a complete moron who simply followed the herd.

So I went out for a long training run in the very hot sun, my longest since Marysville, 20k along the Bayside Coastal Track on 4 December.  I wore my Hippy-Chick running belt to hold my valuables, because I didn’t want to wear a big pack in the heat.  I also wore my Two Bays singlet I’d bought for the 2015 race.  Because it seemed fitting if I was going to do this.

And off I ran.  It was 35 degrees, and it was a tough run, but I made it.  I was so overheated when I got home, that I went straight to the back and leapt into the swimming pool fully clothed, stopping only long enough to take off my runners and my Garmin.  The relief was enormous.

I swam a few laps, floated on my back, contemplated the distance I had run, and whether it was far enough assure a 28k race.  My husband gave me “the look”, the one he always gave me when I did idiotic things, which is too often than I’d like to admit, and anyway, I call it pushing the boundaries.

I climbed out of the pool, and went to get a towel from the line, and to hang up my wet running clothes.

You’ll have seen this coming long before I did.  As I stripped off the Two Bays singlet and went to hang it on the line, I noticed with horror that I was still wearing my Hippy Chick running belt.  Which contained my house keys, my $50 in emergency taxi money.  And my iPhone.

And no, it wasn’t waterproof.

Did it presage disaster, this rash jumping into the pool with my phone?

Or was it something I would overcome and laugh about as I danced across the 2016 Two Bays finish line?  Was it the path to a new phone that I wanted anyway, or confirmation that I was a complete and utter idiot?

Only time would tell.

“For one white singing hour of joy… (the Marysville Marathon Festival)

I’m running down the wide gravel bike trail, feeling nearly airborne.  It’s been years since I’ve run this fast, years since it hasn’t hurt.  Flying, I pass the runners who left me behind on the steep uphill, as well as the ones who blew by me on the rough downhill.  I don’t mean to pass them.  I’m simply running free for the first time in two years.

Still, we’re only four kilometers into the 21k Marysville Half-Marathon, and I think to check my pace.  I gasp: I’m running a 4:10 kilometer!  My training pace varies from 5:30 for my fast intervals, to 8:30 on the steep hills.  What in God’s name am I doing, running this fast!  I tell myself to slow down, to conserve my energy for the many kilometers to come.

But I don’t; not right away.

I continue to run just as fast as I can because it feels so tremendously – so life-affirmingly – good.

There’s a lot of water under this bridge.

I’m 49 years old.  At the top end of my 40-49 year age category.  I began this category Adventure Racing in Hong Kong, a lifetime ago.  Now, nearly ten years later, I’m back in Australia, and my passion is trail running.  It’s been good to me.

But since 2013, since my last Marysville Marathon Festival, in fact, I’ve been injured in various ways.  I hurt my knee the week after the marathon, then my ankle, then my foot.  I had a bit of surgery to remove a dodgy vein in the middle of all that, and thought I thought all had healed, it hadn’t.  I ended up with a severe case of Plantar Faschiitis, and a damaged Posterior Tibialis.

After doing the 2015 Roller Coaster 21k Run in March, I took a break.  Though I completed that race, I did it the hard way, in pain most of the way, and just dragging myself over the finish line.

Since, I’ve cross-trained, rehab-ed, grown stronger, and hopefully grown smarter.  And I’d set my sights on Marysville for my comeback run.  On the way, I had the joy of the Salomon Trail Series in the middle of the season, where I did a 5k as well as a 15k race, loving both, feeling my strength and speed return.

Marysville though, felt elusive.  Things kept hurting as I went longer, until about two weeks before the race.  Then, during a 20k solo training run in the Dandenongs, I felt it all come together.  My gluts woke up (ha, funny the way runners talk!), and I found myself running with much shorter, faster, powerful strides.

But in the clever way I have of adding a stir to the pot just when it is setting and cooking nicely, I decided to bring home a new puppy three weeks before Marysville.  So what, I hear you say.  What does a puppy have to do with a half-marathon?

Well, here’s the thing.  If you read my last blog, you know that I wasn’t afraid of running this time.  I was afraid of driving!  (See https://patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/the-long-road-to-marysville-half-marathon-2015/

The puppy meant my husband and children weren’t coming; he wasn’t driving.  I was.

Turns out my fear of the drive was well-founded.  I missed the first major turn off of East-Link and drove through a strange, long tunnel I didn’t even know existed, practically crying, as I thought I’d never find my way back.  I talked to myself aloud all the way through that tunnel, telling myself it would be ok, I’d find my way back, and I did.

The trip to Marysville, though,  involves a two-hour drive for me, with the last 15k of that on a single-lane twisty-turny terrifying mountain road.  That was the bit I was most worried about.  I did ok.  But still, cars backed up behind me, tailgating, forcing me faster than my confidence allowed, and I was often too scared to even pull over to let them pass.  When I did, I would count one, two, three, maybe ten cars go by, and then I’d pull back on the road to drive alone for a while.  But I made it there, with white hands from gripping the steering wheel so tightly!

Image result for black spur

Black Spur, image from mapio.cz as I couldn’t possibly take a photo on this road!

The actual race I remember in the moments.

The flying downhill at the bike trail; Red Hill being just as horrible and painful as I remembered from the Marathon in 2013; passing and being passed by the same three or four people again and again.

There was the mean woman, who when I politely asked to pass, snarled at me and said, “Sure, you can pass”, saying clearly, “if you are able to” and being unwilling to let me by on the rough single track where passing without her stepping slightly aside was impossible.  That saddened me; that doesn’t tend to happen in these friendly country races, that degree of nasty competitiveness.  We all want to run our own pace; I always let people by, stepping to the side, knowing the joy in moving at one’s own best on whatever terrain we can.

Forget her, though.

There was the delight of children cheering me through by the oval, and my ability to run up the steep road (short stride, gluts firing, power in me I’d forgotten), and the utter joy when we turned off into the woods, unlike the first year I’d run here, when we ran all the way up the road to the falls.

Coming back on the road, steep uphill, fighting to keep running, being told how well I was doing by others, pushing and pushing, knowing the top was coming soon, then the turn-off to the waterfall, stopping a moment to gaze at the water flowing, to say a quiet, I love you to the waterfall, because I was just so thrilled to have made it there.

Steavenson Falls close-up

Steavenson Falls close-up from my 2013 race

And then…

The last 3k to the finish line.  The downhill gravel track, where two years ago, my feet were hurting so badly I could barely run, where I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Today…God, today.  My white singing hour of joy.  I flew down that trail.  My feet found their way.  Nothing hurt.  Not my knee or my foot or my ankle.  I had plenty left in the tank.  I felt unstoppable and alive and young and free.

There was a final stretch through the woods.  After being surrounded by so many people as the different race distances had converged, I was surprised to find myself alone, with perhaps one kilometer to go.  I could hear the crowd at the finish, cheers and cowbells and music, but I was utterly alone in the green of the trees.  I began to sing,  Bon Jovi, of course, “I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, I am a rock, not another grain of sand, wanna be the one you run to when you need a shoulder, I ain’t a soldier but I’m here to take a stand, because we can…”

That’s how good I felt.

Right before the finish, I saw the girl in pink shorts in front of me; we had passed each other a hundred times during the race.  I suddenly wanted to catch her.  So I bolted.  I passed her, and it took me a little while to realise that this wasn’t the finish line.  I had to keep right on bolting for the full 3/4 lap around the oval and I don’t even now know where the finish line was!  I do believe I stayed in front, though I can’t be sure.

All I know is I found my one white singing hour of joy.  My moments of delight that come from dancing in this glorious body, fully well, feeling courageous and full of light.

By the way, the poem I began this blog with is called Barter, by  Sara Teasdale.  I memorised it in college when I was 21, and often recite it to myself when I run.  Funny thing though – I was looking up the original poem for this blog, and realised I’d altered some words in my memory.  She says, “one white singing hour of peace”.  I say joy.

I utterly love the last two lines:

“For a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been, or could be.”

Thank you, Marysville, for my breath of ecstasy.

 

Here’s the full poem:

Barter

Sara Teasdale, 18841933

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And childrens’s faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.


This poem is in the public domain.

The long road to Marysville Half-Marathon 2015

Screw your courage to the sticking place.

That’s what I’m telling myself a few days before the Marysville Half-Marathon.  And oddly, it’s not even the running that has me scared.

It’s the two-hour solo drive.

I wish I could be one of those fearless people who just do things.  Like drive solo to a trail race without terror.  But I’m not from around these parts.  I’m from New York.  Place names and road names don’t mean as much and navigating alone to a new place is hard for me.

But so what?

I’ve been aiming at this race ever since the Roller Coaster Run Half-Marathon back in March.  Back then, I was running with a bad case of heel and calf pain, and right afterwards, I commenced a six-week break from running.  The plan was to cross-train and get strong again, in all the ways I had lost over my last two years of long-distance running.

A very gradual build from a 3k walk/run in late April has finally got me to the 20k mark, and relatively healthy.  My heel still hurts now and again, but the strength has returned to my gluts so I can power up hills in a brand-new way.  I managed my favorite run at Mount Dandenong two weeks ago, for 20k in 2:47 (heaps of elevation, though I was consciously going slow, I say defensively).  So I’m ready.

But always, at the back of my mind, there are these niggling doubts. Which hydration device to use?  Will there be snakes around and will I step on one?  Is Red Hill as bad as I remember from the Marathon a few years ago?  Will the roads be twisty and windy and scary to nagivate?  Will the cars back up behind me and beep and force me to go faster than I want?  Was substituting two swims a week for two runs a good cross-training plan or utter stupidity? Blah, blah, blah.

Usually, my family would go with me to Marysville.  My husband would drive, and I’d relax and nagivate.  This year, we’ve added a ten-week old Cavoodle to our home, an adorable puppy named Billy (a Cavoodle is a poodle and King Charles Cavalier cross – he looks like a tiny black teddy bear with sharp teeth but he thinks he is a Labrador-Kelpie because that’s what his sister is). He was going to the source of a blog called “The Stupidest Thing I’ve ever done: Part 2” but I’ve been too busy cleaning up after him, and laughing at the antics of the two dogs playing to write.

Anyway, strangely, my husband doesn’t fancy shepherding the two kids and two dogs around Marysville while I gallivant in the woods for a few hours. Go figure.

So I’m on my own (except for all the cool trail running friends I can’t wait to see!).

Trouble is, those cool friends won’t be in my car with me to tell me where to turn.  And where not to. So I’m going to have to harden up and do this on my own.

Screw my courage to the sticking place.  That quote is from Lady Macbeth, according to my Google search.  If I recall my Shakespeare from college correctly, that story didn’t turn out so well .

Perhaps I’ll think of this other old favorite from Mark Twain, that I’ve borrowed from http://www.quotegarden.com

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.  Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.  ~Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, 1894

Please be kind if you see me on the road (I’ll be the one backing up traffic), and know I’m summoning up all my courage to get to the start line.

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!

The Injured Runners’ Swimming Club

Seems like every second thing I read from a friend these days has to do with a running-related injury.  We’ve all been pushing the limits, testing them, finding them.  The trouble comes when we have to accept that we have over-stepped the line.  How are we to know where the line is, if we never over-step it?  I’ve done my share of over-stepping in the last year or so, and I know well the emotions that stalk the injured runner.

For me, it starts this way:

Oh, that was an odd little niggle.  Ouch.  Not so sure about that pain.  I think it will go away if I keep running on it a little longer.  And it does.

The next run.  OUCH.  It hurts again.  Maybe I’ll try shortening my stride.  Increasing the cadence.  Ah, the pain isn’t so bad.  I’ll keep running.

Two weeks later.  I’ve become accustomed to this pain.  It happens every time I run.  If I wait it out, maybe in 5k it will lesson.  Ow, ow, ow.  Now it’s gone numb.  That’s better.

Three weeks later.  OW!  How come it hurts to cook my kids’ dinner?  I’m not even running!  Maybe if I balance on one foot whilst cooking, it will challenge my stabilisers and fix things.

Three months later.  It hurts all the time.  Okay, maybe I’ll change shoes.  Still hurts.  Where are the anti-inflammatories?  Oh good, a large box.  That’ll last me a bit.

Six months later.  La la la.  If I sing loud enough while I run, maybe I won’t notice that every step is agony because my goal race is coming up and I can’t miss my goal race.  I wonder if I have a stress fracture?

Eight months later.  My physio says I should take some time off running and do some cross-training.  He/she’s obviously not a runner.  And an idiot.  Both, non-runner and idiot.  I hate him/her now and will have to find a new physio.

Eight and a bit months later.  How come all the physio’s don’t get it?  They seem to think I can just STOP running and be okay with this?  Time to Google this injury and really get on top of it.  Must be some YouTube videos on how to fix it instantly.

Finally, I meet a running-oriented physio who doesn’t tell me to stop.  She gets it.  In fact, she’s training for a big race herself.  And she gets injured.  And stops running.  It’s after she’s helped me hobble my way through my goal race, to achieve what I’ve set out to, that she stays stop.  And I do.  Because if someone like her – a runner, who has run herself into injury – if she says stop, I know I must.

So I do.  And I don’t even miss it!  That’s the irony.  It’s a relief to not have to run in pain anymore.  I miss my mountain trails and the woods, but it’s okay.  I realise this is needed, necessary, vital, this rest.

Fast forward: eight weeks later.  I’ve taken seven solid weeks off running.  I’ve begun swimming twice a week, and can feel my strength and speed sky-rocketing.  There’s power in me I forgot about.  I’m back to lifting heavy weights at the gym.  I’d forgotten how meditative weight-lifting can be.  I’ve downloaded a mindfulness App to my phone and am meditating in five minute intervals, three times a day.  I’m playing piano better than ever, and my foot doesn’t hurt to press the pedals anymore.  I’m happy.  Content.  Healthy.  With a vitality (and muscles) that had gone while I was running too far for my body.

Here’s who I don’t want to be anymore: a runner who can’t stop running even when injured.  Who uses running to meet all these super-important mental-health and physical-health needs, all whilst not noticing that running has actually become a problem in itself.  An out-of-balance runner who loses perspective on health in pursuit of a race goal.

With time off, I have found a new perspective.

Last week, the physio told me I could run again, for  up to 3k, 2 minutes running, 1 minute walking.  And I was scared.  Scared I’d go right back to who I was, running too far, running over injuries, forgetting that my health is my most sacred value.  So I kept the brake on for a few extra days, to remind myself that it is me who is in charge of when and how I run.  That running is an add-on to an exceptional life, and not the key to it.  I want to run mindfully, and notice what hurts, and respond to it, instead of trying to mask it or wish it away.

I ran my 3k.  My foot hurt afterwards.  Then felt better.  So I tried again on the treadmill last night.  It began to hurt at 1.5k.  I stopped the treadmill.  I got off.  I listened.

There is wisdom here.  I can feel it.  When I stop long enough to hear what my body – indeed, what my mind – is saying.  Stop, it is saying.  Rest.  Please.  Listening and responding to this wonderful machine that I live in feels so much better than pounding it into the ground.

The future?  Balance.  Running with mindfulness.  Running without pain.  And doing other cool stuff too.

I joke with my running friends that I have started a new club, called the Injured Runners’ Swimming Club.  It is growing rapidly.  But somewhere along the way, I discovered something.  I like swimming.  And cycling.  And weight lifting.  The world is a much bigger place than it was eight weeks ago.  And I’m going to keep it this way.