The Trail 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!

 

The 2017 Trail Running Series Beckons

This is not a promotional post; this is a heartfelt thank you to Rapid Ascent for setting me on the right trail again.

Hong Kong Adventure Race

Adventure racing in Hong Kong (2003)

It was the winter of 2011.  I had lived in Melbourne since 2008, moving here from Hong Kong when our children were just two and four.  In Hong Kong, I had been an Adventure Racer, an author, a coach, a personal trainer, a BodyPump instructor, and the host of a weekly radio program.  In Melbourne, I was a mother.  And I was afraid to run on trails alone.

I was bereft.  My soul was nourished by the wild places in the world, by the wildernesses where I could be one-hundred-percent myself.  In Hong Kong, I could run from my home and three minutes later be on the fifty-kilometre Hong Kong Trail.  I would run for hours and see no one, map in hand, water reservoir on my back.  In races, I would climb waterfalls, leap into reservoirs, scramble over coastal boulders.  In Melbourne, I ran along the bay, and raced on bitumen.

Each weekend, my husband would ask me, “What would you like to do?”

I would reply in my head, “Go to the Dandenongs.”

It was only in my head because one of my children had severe behavioural issues that meant we couldn’t really drive anywhere as a family.  We were grounded; my wings were clipped.

I slid into depression.  I kept going, as people do, smiled a fake smile, took the children to their activities and playdates but all the while, my soul was drying out.  I became irritable.  I contemplated escape.  Could I book a plane ticket and just leave?  But I loved my family.  I was blessed with so many good things.

Still, I longed for the thing I could not have: the wild.  “Long” is too mild a word; I was starving for the wild, thirsting for the woods, hungry for I knew not what other than flying free down a trail in a deep, dark forest.

One day, in 2011, I saw a flyer.  It was advertising a new Trail Series.  I think I was probably the first person to sign up.  The sponsor back then may have been Salomon but I might be wrong.  My memory of those days is hazy.  The first trail race – first trail run! – I did in three years was the Studley Park Race in Kew.  It was 10.8 km and I completed it in 56:18.  I know these details because I record each and every race in my handwritten diaries, which date back many years.  I treasure these records, the smily faces I add to race times, the details of my results in age category and gender.

The Race

2012 in Studley Park for the second Trail Series

I travelled to this race alone, navigating the roads for the first time by myself.  The second race of the series was in the Dandenongs at Silvan Reservoir Park.  I got lost on the way there, drove by the start and had to do a fast u-turn to get back there.  It was the first time I ran in the Dandenongs.  I fell in love.

IMG_3143

Every year since, I have signed up for every single race of The Trail Series.  I have been there on the steep hills, in the mud, in the fog, in the rain.  I have treasured memories of start lines, huddled together with other runners like penguins, bouncing up and down to warm up, listening to music (right here, right now, right here, right now, bursting from the loudspeakers), chatting with people who would become friends.

Following ribbons through the woods, learning each new place and route.  Finding that Melbourne had suddenly become wild, had become home.

Anglesea 2016 race start

2016 during the Anglesea Trail race, race 4 of The Trail Series

I wrote of most of the races in this blog, which I began around 2012, and you can find the write-ups in the archives.  A delight, each and every race.  Each and every memory.

Now, in 2017, my children are nearly teenagers.  We have two dogs and two cats, and I have two large boxes full of trail shoes.  Dirty, well-used, well-loved trail shoes.  My children laugh at me, and wonder that anyone could need so many shoes.  I tell them a girl needs shoes.  Lots of shoes.  And water reservoirs.  And tiny packets of GU Gels.  And of course, a Garmin.  A girl needs a Garmin.

I run alone in the Dandenongs once or twice a month, navigating solo, sometimes joining up with a friend or two for a long run and a two-hour chat about nothing.  Wallabies and Kookaburra’s are my friends, and I’ve even shared the trails briefly with a Tiger Snake and an Echidna, though not at the same time.  I’ve run in the rain, the hail, the mud, the blazing sun.  For 5k and for 50k.  On the coasts, and up the mountains.  I’ve run right back into who I am.  Now, when people ask how I am, I answer, “excellent”, and it is the truth.

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2017 at the peak of Mount Feathertop during the 22km Razorback Run

All this joy came from the fact that a company called Rapid Ascent decided back in 2011 to put on a trail series.

This is not a promotional blog.  This is a great big thank you for setting my life back on the right trail.

I’ll be doing the Medium Series this year.  And like many trail runners, I can’t wait to get started.

For more information: The Trail Running Series presented by The North Face

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?

 

 

 

Anglesea (2016): 16k in the Hoka One One Trail Series

At the top of the mountain, the temperature had dropped.  The rain came harder.  It must have been near freezing, as some of the rain was turning to hail. The numbness – begun in my feet after splashing into a puddle in the early stages of our run – had progressed to my hands, and finally, strangely, to my entire legs. This had not happened before. I was getting worried.  Earlier in the run, I had overheated and taken off my raincoat.  I was now in a soaking wet wool long-sleeved icebreaker shirt and skins.  I was also hatless.

The night before, the forecast had looked forbidding, with threats of thunderstorms and high winds, but I hadn’t wanted to let my new friend down by cancelling. Atop the mountain in the heavy hail, it had been a few minutes since she had spoken.  I was afraid we were in trouble, that we’d bitten off more than we could chew for our first run together.

Suddenly she stopped running.  Was she going to declare hypothermia, or worse?  But she seemed so calm and happy.  Silently, she reached into her lap belt. I watched, shivering.  She pulled out… her camera! She wanted a photo of the hailstones!

Together, we caught them in our soaking wet running gloves, and I thanked my luck that I had found someone just as crazy as I am to run with on this wet, cold 18k mountain run.

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Hailstones atop Mount Dandenong!

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Having the time of our lives!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was training. Not for this distance or this elevation, but for a 15k flattish run by the seaside in a couple of weeks time – the medium course of the Anglesea race in the Hoka One One Trail Series. I had decided I wanted to go in strong, to train beyond the distance and the elevation, so I could finish with more power than I had recently achieved.

Oh, and then there was the small matter of competition. This was race 4 of the series of 5 races. In the first three races of the series, my results in my age category were Second, First, Second. I wanted the First at Anglesea.  And I wanted the race series title, because I had moved up to the 50-59 category this year, and, well, the last time I’d won anything like that was when I moved up to the 40-49 category in Hong Kong.

Trouble was, there was this other woman in this category, who was five minutes faster than me, in every single race (she will always be five minutes faster than me, for the rest of my life). In race 2, she had been away, smashing out a marathon somewhere. That’s the only reason I got first.

The smarter part of me said to race myself, to aim for a PB, rather than to go for the win. I thought about this as I stood shivering atop Mount Dandenong two weeks before Anglesea. The race was certainly not the only reason I was standing there – I loved this mountain in all its varied seasons, and this wild weather was one of my favourite things, the testing myself against the elements, the thin edge between danger and safety.  My new friend and I pulled raincoats out of our packs, wiped the rain from our faces, and continued down the trail for the last 10 kilometres of the run.  Back at our cars more than an hour later, we fell out in near hysterical laughter – neither of us could undue our zips to get our car keys out of the packs – our fingers were frozen!  It was an epic first training run together.

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline - Bitumen is Boring!

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline – Bitumen is Boring!

Onto Anglesea. This is one of my favourite runs in the Hoka One One Trail Series, as it is usually warm, and the kids and husband and dogs can enjoy the beach while I run off into the distance. Just one week earlier than usual this year, the race fell on an atypical cold morning, and also on Father’s Day (oops, sorry honey!). What better way for a Dad to spend Father’s Day than in the company of his kids and dogs, shivering on a cold riverside without coffee or a wife?

I won’t describe the early morning drive to the race start in detail.  Suffice it to say the kids were fighting, and it was one of those mornings when I was craving the space in between family life and me – the long, thin trail into the woods that leads onwards into solitude, where I can fly alone and free, fully myself, but in the comforting knowledge that my home and family wait for me at the end of the trail.

We got to the race registration area alive.  Enough said.

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Red cliffs of Anglesea

Red cliffs of Anglesea

 

The race start, as always, is stunning. A long sandy beach, waves crashing, sun shining on red cliffs. The countdown comes and goes, and we runners bolt off down the sand, unleashed, running close together and too fast, sprinting around a single blue flag, and then spreading out.

I know this course like an old friend, and run it this way. The sand to the boat ramp is hard and easily runnable.  This year, I take the stairs up to the path instead of scrambling on the concrete ramp, and run along the familiar trail behind the caravan park. Half this section is bitumen, and half dirt-track. I stay to the dirt track side and try to pass as many people as I can. I need to make up some places, as I know the technical sections lose me ground. A yellow flat section, and then we begin the climb. It doesn’t hurt as much as usual, and I’m able to jog/run up most of it. Uphills are my strength and I don’t waste them.

I’ve studied the course description a bit more closely for this race and remember that it has two main peaks, but after around 8k, will just descend. So I go hard. I push my legs and lungs and heart just as fast as they will go, feeling strong and powerful, enjoying the speed. But I am wary as well. I know my weaknesses – my vision, running fast downhill on more technical trails. I use my nutrition to support me, even though this is quite a short race, taking in gels before I need them, and even a salt tablet at one stage.

We finish the first up, and dance our way along some beautiful single-track, which is just rocky enough to be fun, without being too hard.  The grass trees, tall as me, swish like water as I run through them.  I like the sound.  They make running fast risky, though, by hiding the terrain directly in front of them, which could have unexpected holes or rocks or roots to trip me up.  I take care but still stride out.

We come to the drinks station, and its only then I realise I’ve misread the distance on my Garmin, mistaking pace for distance, and where I thought we were at 6k, we were actually at 8.5k. I do a tiny dance of joy in my head. The hard bit is already over!  A little later, there is one more yellow dirt road to climb up. I run some, but whenever my breathing and body say enough, I walk, knowing that the tiny recovery will help my overall performance.

At the top of this hill, the fun begins. I’d been passed by many on the more technical sections. Now it was time to reel them in. I unleash my legs, and downhill I fly, passing runners, unsure if they are even doing my race, as the three distances all converge at this point. It doesn’t matter. I love the fast running, the feeling of flying over the terrain, the confidence in my legs. I have a glimpse of the sea, think, pretty, then look back down to the broken trail. Pretty can end badly when running fast on rough trails.

Down we fly, traversing a narrow boardwalk. I’d decided the course had changed, because the horrible rock staircase hadn’t come up yet. It must just be on the long course, I said to myself, right before we came to it.  And there it was. I’d saved a bit in my legs for it anyway, and began carefully down. I must have been further behind in the pack than usual because the typical stream of runners passing me didn’t happen. I, instead, passed a couple of people. One was a woman racing whilst holding her shoes in her hand. I asked if she was okay, thinking she might be hurt. Her shoes had been giving her pins and needles she said, so she was going to complete the race without them. Gutsy, I thought, and continued down. It always bothers me to be slow on the descents, but I am and it is what it is, so I wait until it flattens, and then put the pedal down.

Now I’m running for my life. I’m surprised: I still have a lot left in the tank and this feels terrific. We’re perhaps 2k from the finish, back on the bitumen/dirt track by the caravan park. I let loose, passing, darting in and out of slower runners, loving this feeling of power and strength.

Suddenly we come out to the concrete ramp that leads to the beach, and my thoughts about having a lot left come crashing down. We hit the soft sand and it hurts it hurts it hurts, but I’m not going to slow down because I want the win and I want the personal best, and I want to pass just this one last woman who’s in front of me, and I do, and still it hurts, and just as I get onto the concrete path, a young boy walks in front of me, and I have to skirt him and not knock him down, and I do, and there’s the finish and my kids with their hands out for high fives and people shouting go Patricia and I go go go, right across those timing mats, breathless, elated, alive.

Much later, I wait by the timing computer to see where I’ve placed, and am delighted to have taken out second in my age category with a time of 1:20. Because I ran with all I am and all I had, and that was enough.  That was my win.

Still later, I find Ali to give her the copy of my book that she’s purchased. She asks me about writing, something like, should she write, or should she wait. I’m gob-smacked by the question: it requires a bigger answer than I can come up with right then. It is as if she has asked me whether she should breathe, or not. Of course you should write, I want to say.  Write with everything you are and have. Say your piece because who will say these words, sing them out if you don’t?  Find the time; make the time; carve out this place for yourself because it will teach you who you are in a way nothing else can.

But there’s the nasty little gremlin inside me who says to me, all the time, why bother? Who will buy it? It’s hard to get published, and it’s hard to find time, and there are so many unread books in the world.  I see them piled high in second-hand books shops, in half-price racks in newsagents, and it breaks my heart.

I don’t say any of this. Or I do, but just in my head.  Because it’s the question that plagues me as I try to craft my third book into being, as I wrestle with doubt and topics and truth-telling.

Of course you should write, I want to say, but it is a rough, technical trail, and you have to be prepared to trip up over tree roots and rocks, to skin your knees and sprain your ankles, and get back up, over and over again.  You have to do it for yourself, first and foremost.  But write anyway.  Because they are your words and they mirror your soul and echo your breath.

Writing is not a race against anyone else. It is not even really a race against yourself for a PB, because you are not the same you that ran this race, wrote this book, before. Today’s challenges and injuries and illnesses and childcare issues and dogs and husbands are unique, so comparing one race to another makes no sense at all.

But we were speaking of writing, not running.  Or were we?  Sometimes the two seem so much the same.

My name was called during presentations, and I stood on the second step of the podium in delight, shaking hands with Carmel on the top step, and later, comparing our prizes and plans for the final race in the series (the night race).

Camaraderie (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Camaraderie on the podium

I didn’t win first, and I didn’t pb.  But that day, 4 September, 2016, my body did exactly the best it could.  The stress-fracture I feared in my foot two days before the race didn’t eventuate; my hip pain stayed (mostly away); my vision was clear enough; I didn’t get hurt; I didn’t face-plant.  It was a win.

We got home, exhausted, opened the Father’s Day presents, and had a nap.

Leila and Billy, at rest

Leila and Billy, at rest

Next up: my first night race!

Hoka One One Studley Park: Slippery When Wet

I had become airborne.  This was not something I’d intended.

The mighty, rain-swollen Yarra River flowed strongly on my right, just down below me, just a small slip away down the narrow hillside.  My arms flailed the air, as if I were doing some crazy dance move from the 80s.  The mud-slicked path was below me, a single-track studded with rocks and tree roots, the trail where I had witnessed numerous runners bite the dust.  Through the first five kilometres of this eleven kilometre course, I had been cautious, but I had been getting annoyed at being passed by other, more courageous runners.

So I sped up.  That’s about when I came to the slickest corner yet, slid around it, and became airborne.

Thankfully, the wild waving of my arms balanced me, and my feet landed solidly back on the muddy trail.  I laughed aloud and kept on running.

I did slow down a bit though: the vision of me sliding down the hill into Yarra River was strong.  I reminded myself (again) to run my own race.

It hadn’t been easy to get to the start line today.  Over the last few days, my youngest had begun swearing and throwing things at me again.  I had hoped we were beyond these things, and having them return brought back a surge of painful memories.  I knew the reasons for the behaviour, but it still hurt to be the target.  This wasn’t the ending I had planned, or how I’d imagined family life would turn out.  The night before the race I hadn’t slept well, and had woken with a feeling of despair about where things were at in my home and family, about the ongoing challenges of raising my particular child. And today, because of soccer commitments, I was going alone to this race.  My family couldn’t even come this time.

Race headquarters

Race headquarters

As I was doing the medium course (10.8 km), my race didn’t start until 9:45.  Having been here many times before, I knew if I came an hour before the race, I’d never get a decent park, so I opted for an early arrival, which meant around 8 am.  The trouble with this strategy was the waiting-around time.  On a good day, I’d enjoy this, watching the other runners, soaking up the atmosphere.  But today was not a good day.  Today I felt lonely and alone, sad that my family wasn’t there, bereft at the trouble at home. I wandered around, picked up my series t-shirt, smiled a forced smile, and contemplated running the long course just to get going.

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Early morning fog and gum trees

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Views from the Studley Park Boathouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In time, I ran into an acquaintance who took my mind off my own problems.  He told me he was having chest pains.  I didn’t tell him my father had died of a sudden heart attack, just listened, and hoped the Medics, when they turned up, would tell him to go home. Thankfully, they did, and even better, I heard from him later that all was fine, which was a huge relief.

The time came for the long course to start, and I watched them go from the other side of the river.  It was a view I’d not seen before, having always done the long or short course.  The colours of the racers shirts moving between the fog and gum trees was stunning.

Time passed.  I ate a banana, drank from the metal water fountain, and gradually began to remove layers.  I had arrived in a ski jacket, beanie, gloves, wool jacket, icebreaker, long-sleeved t-shirt and running tights.  Little by little, I stowed these layers in my backpack, checked it into the baggage check area, and was set to run in my singlet and tights, still wearing my wool jacket to throw in a tree at the last-minute at the Start.

The Yarra from the wobbly bridge

View of the Yarra River from the wobbly bridge

I wobbled my way across the bridge, noting the fog, the serenity of the kayaks, the gum trees.  There was plenty of time.  I remembered all the times my family had come to cheer me off at this race, good times, bad times, there was no grey.  I ran back and forth on the road near the start line, marvelling at how good my legs felt, how springy and alive after two rest days.

I approached the Start.  A loudspeaker was going, innocuous pop songs; I hardly heard them.

Then, a familiar tune began.  I could feel my knowledge of this song, how it had made me feel in the past.  The lyrics took a while coming, then, “Right here, right now, right here, right now…”.

I let the words echo in me, bring me right into the present moment.  Right here; right now.  Right here; right now.  It was all that mattered.  I let the stuff from home drift away, noticed where I was, began to feel a sense of peace and joy.

Race start approached.  I stowed my wool jacket in a rain-soaked tree, and enjoyed the cold, enjoyed how it felt elemental and real and made me feel alive.  The drizzle began as we did a warm-up in the start chute.  It felt fitting and right.

The countdown came all of a sudden, the last ten seconds, and then we were off!  I went Too Fast, of course, bolting behind the people towards the front, okay with the pace until I glanced at my Garmin to see 4:25, and then I backed off.  It wouldn’t do to blow out.

I’d run this course every year for the last six, but each year, it felt new.  The concrete path, the turn-off to the left.  The wide trail.  The grassy bits.  The bits along the empty road and across the highway.  I tried to notice things but was pushing the pace too hard to be able to sight-see.

It wasn’t long before the first man slipped.  I’d noticed him behind me, passing me in road shoes, noted that he was a big, tall guy.  He was fast, but he didn’t seem to understand or to respect the terrain.  This always made me nervous.  I ran past him when I could, playing it safe, not wanting to get taken out by him if he fell, and it wasn’t long before I heard the swear and thud of him slipping and falling on the slick, muddy trail.  I turned back and shouted, you okay?, but he was up again, looking abashed, saying he was good.

We ran on.  I put some distance between me and him, and kept my eyes out for others who weren’t wearing trail shoes.  On a normal, dry day, road shoes would be fine here.  But today wasn’t normal: today was a “Slippery When Wet” sort of day, and all around me, runners sloshed and fell, slipping, swearing, crashing.  I was grateful for my Brooks Pure Grit with the big lugs to hold me upright as I ran, but still wasn’t super-confident.  This was slick mud, on slick rocks.

I kept my pace slow, let others pass, passed some who were a bit less confident than me.  We ran across the pipe-bridge by Fairfield Boathouse, and there, I had no grip, and feared my feet sliding out from under me.  It wasn’t helped by the cyclists crossing the bridge, nor by the hiker with the gigantic backpack.  I made it across, then thankfully, turned off onto the narrow trail to the left.

That’s where the fun really began, the 5k along the river, on single-track.  The character of the mud was ever-changing, sometimes deep and sticky, other times, thin and slippery.  The path was full of large puddles, which could hide anything; I skirted them.  Kept my eyes on the trail, looking for the best ways through, navigating tree roots and rocks, puddles, and patches of mud already slicked by the slips of other runners.

One lovely man behind me coached me.  It seemed he ran there regularly and several times suggested the best route among a few choices (“go left here, it will be much easier”).  Usually, I rebel at others guidance, preferring to trust my own choices, but I trusted his kind voice for some reason, and each choice he made for me was spot-on perfect.  I never got to see his face; at some point he stopped guiding.  I’m not sure whether he passed me or I got further ahead, but I wish I could have thanked him for his kindness.

At this point, I was sure we were nearly done.  I hadn’t dared glance at my Garmin, for fear of looking away from the muddy trail and wiping out.  When I finally was able to, I was gutted to see we were only at 7.5 km.  Okay, I told myself, this is tough, but it’s not really far.  It was harder than usual, as I had been recently doing longer distance, slower paced races.  This felt like a full-on sprint for an hour.

I kept running.  Glanced now and again at the swollen river.  Felt the mud stick in my shoes.  The field had spread out by now, and there wasn’t much passing going on.  I was running my pace, and then someone passed me again.

I’d been passed by so many.  I didn’t like it.  So I sped up.

I came around a slick corner, sliding, then both my feet were suddenly off the ground, there was a full moment of silence as I hung in the air, and just as suddenly I had slammed back down onto my feet and ran on.

That’s when I laughed out loud.  Came back into my body, felt the joy of being on this trail, alive and agile and able to run.  Right here, right now, I told myself.  This was the joy of trail running, this having to be fully present, right in this moment and nowhere else.

A short road section appeared, I passed the runner who had passed me (ha!, I said to myself), but couldn’t catch any others.  I was hoping the road led to the finish but there was a final trail section. I had plenty in the tank to sprint but didn’t have the confidence in the slick mud, and before I knew it we were heading into the finish.

58:01, the time read.  Was it good or not?  Who knows?  It’s hard to evaluate race times on different days.  There is no such things as a PB that’s meaningful to me in racing.  My pace adjusts according to conditions, so a PB just means ideal running conditions and little more.

Though at the awards, my time was a good enough to earn me 2nd place in my age category.   Looking through my prize bag, I noticed they’d given me a tube of pain relief cream.

Perhaps this was a joke?  Perhaps they thought the oldies like me needed this pain relief cream?  (Okay, so they’re right.)  But then I noticed the bag itself said 60+ and realised they’d given me the wrong prize (I’m only 50).  I save the bag as a little trophy, so went to exchange it for the 50-59 category, hoping perhaps that it might contain a different prize (maybe a speed-me-up cream or a Gel or something performance-related).  But it still contained the pain relief cream.  Perhaps it’s any category over 40?  I wanted to know, wanted to ask the other younger runners if they’d gotten pain relief cream too, but it seemed too sad to do that.  The Hoka One One shoe bag – now that’s one thing I’ll be using loads, traveling to and from the rest of the Series.

Oh, I didn’t tell you the best moment.  How could I have forgotten?

There was a live singer with a  guitar.   Just as I walked by him after crossing the finish line, breathing hard, dripping sweat, feeling around inside for how I was feeling, he sang some impossibly appropriate lyrics about how “it was all going to be all right, it would just take some time”.  I wish I knew the song.  I would love to hear it again.

My eyes teared up, and I suddenly felt so very happy and sad and grateful and lucky to be here in this muddy, beautiful, rainy finish area.  I shared a stretching tree with another runner, joking about how we were both trying to push it over from opposite sides.

I wasn’t alone.  And this wasn’t the end.  Just another new beginning.

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I love mud! So does my wild puppy just to the left in this picture, leaping at me in joy

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Footprints in the mud

 

After the Roller Coaster (Run)…

The 2016 Roller Coaster 21k Trail Run: why has writing of you eluded me?  Did I love you, as I have in the past?  Or is our affair growing tenuous and thin?

The Sunday after the run, which I completed in 2:41 (six minutes faster than last year), I spent five hours cleaning my very dirty home.  We have two dogs, two cats, and two kids.  My husband does more than his fair share, and it was fair to say I’d been too tired to be much use around the home lately.  I’d completed a series of three half-marathons (Marysville 21k; Two Bays 28K; Roller Coaster 21k) in four months; the guilt over the dirty carpet had finally caught up with me, and I cleaned like a whirlwind.

On Sunday night,I sat back on the sofa, exhausted but feeling I’d accomplished two great big things in one weekend – an awesome trail race, and a clean home.

Monday, I awoke with a sore throat, a harbinger, a canary-in-the-coalmine.  Still, I taught my 7:30 pm Bodypump class.  It was too late to call for a fill-in instructor.  And really, if I was going to get sick, I figured I might as well go out with a bang.

On Tuesday the flu took me down at the knees.  I was sick for a full week.  No-exercise sick.  Don’t-even-contemplate-walking-down-the-road sick.  I got a fill-in instructor for my Wednesday class.  I slept in some, coughed a lot, and Life Went On.  It was recovery week anyway.

The second week, I gradually recovered.  Taught three Bodypump classes, swam, ran a total of 15k.

Now, in the third week post-race, I’m still coughing, still tired, but I’m world’s better than three weeks ago.  I’m back to my usual fitness schedule.

So why haven’t I written up the Roller Coaster Run?  Was it the illness?  Or something else?

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been listening to myself say the same things over and over since November last year:  I want my feet to feel great again;  I want speed and power;  I want to be able to jump high in the air and land without hurting.  I want to do something different.

And yet, I kept signing up for half-marathons.  The Roller Coaster Run was the last one I’d signed up for.  In a way, it was my line in the sand.

Did I love it?

21.5K Burkes Lookout-186Of course I did.

What I loved most is that I let go of expectation.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly it occurred to me, about five minutes into the run, that I had nothing to prove.  I didn’t want to kill myself running flat-out for three hours.  I wanted to push my pace, push my best, but I didn’t want to race anyone.

In my head, I was saying, I’m a 50-year-old trail running woman.  I’ve got nothing to prove.  I’ve run more than sixty trail races.  Adventure races.  Up and down mountains.  I’ve swam across tidal rivers the day after a typhoon.  Climbed waterfalls in a thunderstorm. I’ve navigated alone in the dark on trails.  Nearly stepped on snakes.  Abseiled down cliff faces on outlying islands in Hong Kong.  I’ve got nothing left that I have to prove.  I just want to run for the sheer pleasure of it.

And suddenly, running down the side of Mount Dandenong, I realised I wasn’t competing.  I wasn’t racing.  I was flying down my favourite trails, agile, confident, quick feet, no pain, and all was right with my world.  It didn’t matter if I got passed or if I passed someone.  I could afford to smile, to chat with volunteers, to high-five the kids cheering with the support crews.  Yes, the uphills were deadly tough.  That wasn’t a surprise.  I had the gels and salt tablets and water and confidence.  I’d run the whole course alone two weeks before.  I was going to be okay; I was going to be joyful.

My favourite moment of all in the run?  At about the 13k mark, right about where I tripped and flew threw the air during my first Roller Coaster Run, I saw a man stumble.

I was ten feet behind him, and watched him trip, then fly sideways through the air, and land hard.  Well, I thought he’d landed.  Just as I was shouting, “Are you okay?”, he, to my utter astonishment, continued rolling, all the way through, until he’d come around, landed on his feet, and simply kept right on running.  He is who I want to be when I grow up.

It turned out I’d met him a couple of weeks earlier on a training run (Ben and Brian were doing three loops of the Roller Coaster to my one that day), so when I caught up with him and congratulated him on his spectacular trip-and-roll-to-his-feet, it was like meeting up with an old friend.  That’s how this race is, how this mountain is.  We are all – in one instant, old friends.

21K KALLORAMA-156This photo was taken at about 20k into the run.  I can picture the section, right after a steep climb up gravel.  It’s where I’ve run alone so many times, staring at autumn foliage, or hidden by thick fog.  Usually, I’m elated that I’ve done the hard part of my training run (I typically start at the bottom of the mountain and it’s mostly downhill from this stage).

At this stage of the race, the 43k runners were headed back out in the opposite direction to us, and every now and then one of the front runners would bound by, mountain-goat-like, taking the downhill with greater speed than I could ever imagine.

But here, right in the moment this photo was taken during the Roller Coaster Run, I’m deep inside my head, feeling the flow of my feet on the single track, knowing the way I’m going intimately, because I’ve run it so many times.

On such a run, the oddity is the other runners everywhere, where usually I run in solitude.

And then there was the finish…

IMG_2650The race photographer captured these amazing moments.  Sharee encouraging me across the finish line in her amazing costume.

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And in the true spirit of the run, and her wonderful supportive nature, here she is, directing me homewards.  Kudos to the race photographers for capturing this moment.

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In the end though, we are all alone with our thoughts as we cross the finish line.

There is a moment, before we cross under the arch, before we collect our medal, where we know fully what we’ve just achieved. The challenges we’ve overcome to complete a big, gnarly mountain run.  I’d like to hold onto the sense of self this moment gives me, to take it out in challenging times in regular life, to say to myself, if you could do that, of course you can do this.  I’d like us all to hold onto that feeling.

Afterwards, after the changing of clothes, the brunch at Sky High sharing a table with seven women I’d never met who were celebrating a 40th birthday, after the elation, I stayed longer than I usually do.

I explored this wonderful secret garden, all alone.

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I felt a sense of calm descend on me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  A sense of certainty that everything was going to be okay.

Since the run, now that the flu has abated, I have finally done what I said I am going to do.  Got back to the gym to lift heavy weights.  Started interval training to regain my lost speed.  Not signed up for any more races.

Will I be back?  Of course.  Mount Dandenong calls to me.  It speaks to me of home.

 

 

 

Two Bays 28k: tail of the snake (the final chapter).

“Are you okay?” several concerned runners asked.

“All good,” I replied, bouncing in the centre of the trail on one foot.

I kept trying to hop to the side so the other runners could go past, but I couldn’t put any weight onto my left foot, which had curled up into a tight ball, the toes tucked under, the calf a knot of cramped muscle that wouldn’t unclench.  It was hard to hop any distance without falling over.

Finally I succeeded in clearing the trail to let the other runners by, and swore under my breath.

I was 24k into the 28k Two Bays Trail run, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “okay’.

All this effort to get here, and now this.  Was this going to be the end of the trail?

My calf had been cramping for a couple of kilometres, but I’d held it at bay with a slightly slower pace, a few Salt Stick capsules, and some GU Gels, along with frequent sips of water. It was hot out on the Two Bays course, and I knew, from the people I saw sitting on the edge of the trail, stretching, suffering, that I wasn’t alone. I’d been offering encouragement to others for a long way now, but in truth, I was just hanging on  myself.

That was, until I stupidly kicked a rock in the centre of the trail. That’s when the cramp really hit, like a lighting bolt down the back of my leg.  I couldn’t Salt-Stick this one away.  I stood on the side of the trail, in pain, and took a deep breath as I quickly reflected on the moments that had gotten me here, to this final decision point.

It had begun with the Facebook lottery for second-chance entries into Two Bays in early December, which I’d won with my terrific (and fool-hardy) typing speed. I had followed this up shortly with my 20k Bayside training run (to prove to myself I could do the race), which culminated in the fatal (to my iPhone) leap into the pool after I’d overheated.  From there, I’d completed 16, 22, and 24k long runs in the subsequent weeks out at Mount Dandenong, and along the Surfcoast Trail, fighting to fit training in between Christmas, young children, and a brutal Melbourne heat wave, complete with bushfires and venomous snakes.  I’d found local hills in Ocean Grove to do hill repeats, and contemplated carefully whether I’d done enough.

Race morning had come. I drove alone, navigating the Mornington-Peninsula Freeway, second-guessing my exit as always, slightly panicking, and then choosing correctly. I watched the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat, and met my car-park neighbour Philip, who was in from New Zealand for his first Two Bays (he was notably fitter and braver and calmer than me).  For him, this was a training run for something even harder coming up.

Sunrise on race morning

Sunrise on race morning

I did the usual pre-race circuit between the toilets, running friends, and staring in dismay at the lean, tan, terrifying trail runners I would be sharing the trail with. They all looked fitter, faster, and braver than me, and all seemed to be sharing high-fives with multiple friends and family. I felt a bit alone, so was delighted when I met up with a few Dandenongs Trail Runners friends (Andrea, Sharee and Tami, as well as a few others).

The start came soon. I forgot to get really nervous and simply began running. The uphill road section was a pleasant surprise, as I’d remembered it as steeper than it was in reality.

I’d love to give a detailed account of the race, section by section, complete with views, but that would make for dull reading, and I was too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots and other trail runners to notice that much. Funny – I’d decided I was going to run slowly and notice every detail. In reality, I bolted as fast as I could, and was completely focused on time, nutrition, cramps and simply running.  Oh, and in getting passed and passing the same four or five runners throughout the entire race (‘m great uphill and cowardly downhill).

Two moments stand out for me:

  • A small sign at the bottom on the stairs about 25k in that read, “And she’s buying…”. In my utter exhaustion, it took me several seconds to complete that sentence, but when I did, I laughed out loud, and sang Stairway to Heaven all the way to the top. Utter bliss.
  • The moment when the sea came into view near Cape Schanck. I was waiting for this, having recalled that moment from my first Two Bays. It was even more glorious this time. The grass was a dry yellow as far as I could see, yet in the distance, the sea was the bluest of blues. Small rock formations were visible, white foamy waves crashing into them. It reminded me of running in Hong Kong, on isolated trails where suddenly the world opens up and you realise the absolute beauty of the place.  And then I thought, I bet this would be a great spot for a grassfire to strike, and ran faster.

I didn’t stop for a photo.  I contemplated it, then kept running.

Oh, and then there was the calf cramp.

Let me take you back to that moment, where I’d been hopping on one foot, and wondering if I was going to make it to the finish line.

There I was 24k in, wondering if my run was over. Would all that work be for nothing?

My mind went back in time, to my first ever Adventure Race on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I was running on coastal rocks and my foot had done a similar thing, cramped into a tiny, painful ball. Then, the only way home was to keep running. So I did.  I remembered the foot opened back up eventually.

So here on the Two Bays Trail, I gently placed weight on my foot, swore, took a few walking steps, then a few more. A minute or two went by, and I began jogging. The foot, true to form, released, as did my calf.

Knowing I was okay was delightful. But I was still tentative. I held back on the pace. All I wanted was to complete this race, to get to the finish line which had eluded me the last two years.  And I wanted to get there uninjured.

Several trail runners passed me. I kept going. The kilometres didn’t melt away.  We were in some sort of parallel universe where a kilometre was ten times as long as expected.  We ran on and on.

Until suddenly someone shouted my name, and someone else shouted, it’s only 200 metres to the finish line. We ran a little faster, a bit taller, and then the arch appeared. I didn’t sprint. I’d used up all my sprinting points already, just getting there. But I did a solid run across that finish line, completely finished.

The finishers medal hung heavy on my neck as I found a few friends to trade trail stories with. We sipped at lemonade and coca-cola, ate apples, and let the sweat dry.  We were dirty, far dirtier than I realised — my legs were almost black with dirt, and some of my friends shared face-planting stories that we all related to.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave right away, and went to stare out at the sea from the high viewpoint behind the race finish.

Views from Cape Schack

Views from Cape Schack

I had done it. Against the odds. Escaped uninjured.  Sharee took my photo and we talked of our lives.  I smiled with all my smile muscles for the first time in weeks.  We’d done it!

Delight!

Delight!

It was only in the week that followed that the reports of snakes along the trail reminded me of the other memorable moment during the race. The one where I was sure I saw something move on the ground just where I was about to plant my left foot. I’d let out a thin scream, jolted to the side, and landed ahead of the spot. I hadn’t looked back.

I don’t know whether it was a trick of the light or of my vision, or whether I had a very lucky escape.

And just like that it was over.

All the stress and angst, the worry, the thrill and the glory.

But I didn’t have time for post-race depression.

The 21k Roller Coaster Run was only six weeks away.

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

(and now, as at this writing, it is just about two weeks off).

My focus was on recovery, and returning to training to be able to complete this next awesome event on my trail calendar.

Thanks for the memories Two Bays. I hope my legs have truly absorbed Arthur’s Seat in time for Mount Dandenong!

post-race celebration

post-race celebration

(The eagle and the fairy-wren?  I forgot to mention them.  They were sitting on the side of the trail during my race training, my totem bird and the feathery mascot for the Two Bays Trail Run.  I wanted to believe at the time it meant something.  But maybe I’d just been out trail running in the hot sun for too long.)