Roller Coaster Run 2015: the elusive start line

It was dark when we arrived: head-torch dark; can’t see your feet dark.  Luckily this year I had remembered my head torch, and I could shine the light for my friends Kim and Damian as we made our way to registration.  It was a few minutes after six, and I needed every layer I had – the thermal leggings, the down jacket, the wool icebreaker underneath it all.  The air was still and dry.  I stood in front of the registration desk and asked for my number, half-asleep but keen to remember every single moment of this cold dawn.

Cold dawn at the Roller Coaster Run

Cold dawn at the Roller Coaster Run

It had taken a lot of work to get here.  Back in 2013, when I did this race for the first time, I was training for the North Face 50.  It was a lead-up to the bigger event, and I’d dropped back from the 43 to 21k option a few weeks before the race.  I certainly had the miles in my legs to complete it.  In 2014, I was recovering from a knee injury, and this race was a much bigger deal.  I was several minutes slower than 2013, but finished (with no face-plants too).

2015?  I was five months post-surgery, carrying plantar fascitis and posterior tibialis tendon troubles.  The last three months, nearly every step I’d run had hurt.  I was being held together with Rock Tape and mental commitment.  This was going to be a whole new run.

Still, I was feeling somewhat confident, having completed an 18k along the Surfcoast Trail from Torquay to Bells Beach two weeks prior, and a 20k circuit around Lysterfield just the previous Friday.  However, neither of those routes had much elevation to speak of, and this was the Roller Coaster 21k we were talking about – there was hardly a flat section in the whole course.  I knew – I trained out here once a week (when uninjured).  Some of the hills had to be walked/power-hiked, and the whole event was one of the toughest I’ve done.

But my only goal was to complete the course, and arrive home uninjured.  I was handed my registration envelope, and noted the yellow sticker.  I had been placed in Wave 2.  For a moment, a Zen moment that I never am able to hold onto, this seemed nice.  There would be less pressure for a fast pace; it would fit my goal of simply finishing to not start with the fastest of the pack.

But of course I’m a Wave 1 sort of runner, stressing about getting stuck at the back, competing even when I’m not meant to be competing, checking my Garmin for pace and lap time.  While the idea of starting slower was nice, I knew in my heart I’d slip into the back of Wave 1 (which was allowed in the rules), and take off with the fasties.

Before the start, there was the joyous time of finding friends from the Dandenong Trail Runners.  They were resplendent in their green singlets, fit bodies, and gigantic smiles.  Someone calling for a group photo, and we all tried to sneak over into the front of the gigantic arch.  The race director, who was giving a very important race briefing at the time, took it well – “Now we’re going to pause while the Dandenong Trail Runners take their pre-race photo…” he joked.  “…thanks for supporting this event in such great numbers!”  We quickly took the photo and scurried back to our places, feeling rather embarrassed.

Dandenong Trail Runners before the start (thanks for the photo DTR!)

Dandenong Trail Runners before the start (thanks for the photo DTR!)

Before the start (yes, I did sneak into Wave 1), I took myself to the back of the pack.  I wanted no pressure, especially on the first four kilometers of downhill running.  I’d been there before, and no pace in that section would make up for a sprained ankle so early in the race.

It was hard to hear the countdown with the nervous excitement around me, and I just caught the 5,4,3,2,1 before we were suddenly moving, through the gigantic mouth, onto the paved downhill road.  I knew we turned sharply to the left down a steep rocky slope, and I steeled myself.  I’m not courageous on downhills – I accept this, but it still bugs me to get passed.  I continually have to tell myself to run my own race, and let people go. That I make up for it on the uphills where I’m strong and don’t have to be brave.  It happened as usual, I got passed, but I accepted my speed with more grace than usual.  I was just happy to be there.  And happy also that it was so cold that my feet were numb!  I wasn’t feeling the heel pain that had dogged me for the last three months, and I was loving the freedom of running my favorite trail.

A blow-by-blow of the course can make for dull reading.  Here are my highlights:

  • Finding myself, throughout the whole event, with the same group of five or six runners.  There was the “Where’s Wally” woman in the red-striped shirt reassuringly in front.  And Five-Finger Man who ran lightly and well, with a big smile.  There was the loving couple who could not bear to run in front or behind one another, who took some work (and teasing) to get around.  Oli from DTR, who said he liked my blogs (that was a lovely moment).  And my friend Kim – of course Kim.  We’ve raced together many times – our paces are nearly identical.  So we kept coming back together throughout the run, with one or the other of us going forward on certain sections.  I didn’t see Damian at all, but I knew he was far in front of me.
  • Flying down Channel 10 track after the first few minutes of worry, realising that my foot didn’t hurt – it was too cold to hurt – and laughing aloud that I’d make it across the start line.
  • Sweat dripping down my face on Dodd’s Track, forcing my legs up the massively steep rock-strewn trail, loving every moment of it.
  • Hearing the kookaburras and thinking of all the wallabies I’ve seen on the trails.
  • Knowing the way the entire run without looking at the trail markers, having run it alone so very many times.
  • The strangeness of so many people being out on “my” mountain.  Often on my Friday runs, I’ll go three hours without seeing a single person.  This was a whole different place.
  • Realising at 15k that I was going to make it.  Remembering what the feeling of achieving something terribly difficult felt like.  Soaking it up with joy.
  • Singing Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” in my head, instead of out loud as I’d usually do.  Feeling oddly compelled to ask others to sing with me but fighting it, and laughing inside at the impulse.

When, at 19k, my foot finally started complaining, I thought it was fair, justified, but was able to ignore it.  I began the day aiming at 3:15 for my finish time.  I hadn’t been looking at my elapsed time, until about that moment; it was then I realised I wasn’t far off my PB for this course.

Then the battle began.  I had to stay safe, but that elusive PB pulled at me.  I resisted, went conservative, but still faster than I’d intended.  I managed to save myself for the last 2k’s, which I knew were the hardest of the entire run, being nearly straight uphill.

And those last 2k’s didn’t disappoint.  They hurt just as much as I remembered, but this year, I’d kept enough in the tank to jog a bit.  When one of the volunteers said, “Look, there’s someone sprinting!” pointing at me, I was pretty chuffed.  I was jogging, really.  And the jog quickly slowed to a power-hike up the hardest final rocky slope.

Up and up and surely there must be a top in sight, but there wasn’t.  Around me, the other runners battled on and looked how I felt.  Knowing we were almost there didn’t help.  It was just going to hurt until we made it.  With a final push we were on the uphill paved road, the one we’d started on, staying inside the traffic cones.  That’s when I tripped on a cone with my left foot and nearly face-planted, but in a delightful change from the status quo, I kept my feet!

From there, it was only 100 meters.  I could see the finish.  I ran.  I saw Andrea Jackson and she cheered me and inspired me, and I pounded across that line in 2:47, nearly half-an-hour faster than I’d planned.

I won’t lie – I had tears in my eyes as I was in that final stretch.  I had made it.  Five months after surgery, despite injuries, I had crossed the line and I was okay.

How I felt at the finish

How I felt at the finish

Is there any better feeling than the way you feel after completing an event like this?  The elation; the emotion; the rawness of the physical pain; the sense of accomplishment.  All of this, with the delight of being with friends, and like-minded strangers, sharing the moment.

Myself, Damian and Kim, representing Hampton at the Roller Coaster Run!

Myself, Damian and Kim, representing Hampton at the Roller Coaster Run!

We settled into a lovely, warm brunch in Sky-High, but I couldn’t really eat anything.  I spoke with my friends and soaked up the blue sky and the views from the large circular windows.  I noticed the warm glow of contentment coming from the other runners.  The happiness; the glory of making it through a very tough event; the stiff walking and the smiling, and the laughter.

It had been a roller coaster ride just getting to the start line this year, but I finished on a huge high, and spent the rest of the day watching others photos being uploaded onto Facebook, reliving the glory of the experience we’d all shared.

Huge thanks to the race organisers, the volunteers, the other runners, and my family for making this all happen.  What a terrific day!

The future?  Some rest and recovery.  Some cross-training. Getting strong and fit and healthy.  I just had my first 5k post-race run and felt pretty terrific, so the long-term outcome is even better than I could have hoped.

Shall I run?

Rain pouring down at 4:15 pm on a cold Melbourne winter day. The puppy, cats, kids and husband are curled up inside and the heat is on.

I stand under cover on the porch waiting for my Garmin to find the satellites and will the rain away. It gets harder and starts blowing sideways. I count to ten. Then thirty. Then ten again. The rain lightens for a moment, then, as if it was just catching it’s breath, comes down in abundance. I glance at the door, hear the kids laughing. I’m near to reaching for my key, but I don’t. I wait ten more seconds, then step off the porch into the rain. As I open the gate, I say the required swear words that are the underlying truth behind Nike’s “just do it” and begin.

Funnily, it isn’t raining as heavily once I’m moving. Cars pass me, headlights on, wipers moving fast. I can’t see anyone as I run downhill to Service Street.

There, I begin my hill reps, running up the 200 meter hill, jogging down. I’d anticipated 12 reps, but it took me 14 to use up my planned 35 minutes. The rain came and went, gusting, then calming. Halfway through a man without a raincoat or umbrella came up the street. He looked at me. I was soaked, rain dripping down my face, my legs, into my eyes. “It’s raining,” he said. I guffawed. “Yes, it is!” I kept running down the hill, passing him twice more on the next reps. He seemed gob-smacked each time, asking me how far I was going but never quite getting out the words are you insane?

After the hills, I ran another 25 minutes at moderate pace (
Thanks, Coach!), skirting home by various sidestreets.

It was on the homestretch I finally began to laugh out loud, completely soaked but warm and fully alive.

So if you are facing a day like this, well, I assure you it will be worth it. Wet shoes dry; we don’t melt; and there is no better feeling than stepping back through your door at the end.

That was one of the toughest mental challenges I’ve faced with running lately. Thanks Melbourne!

The downs and the ups.

It has been an up-and-down roller coaster sort of a week since I last wrote, with a few more downs than ups, to be honest.  But running, as usual, has kept me hanging on through the steeper dives.

And running – well, thanks to my new running coach, Shaun Brewster – running has felt like a completely new sport.  I clocked 53 kilometers last week, my largest in quite a while, but I don’t really feel like I ran all of that because of the massive diversity in training.  Monday was an 18k long slow run up on Mount Dandenong, amongst the fern trees and eucalypts, with just mud for company.  Tuesday was a fast 10k along my Bayside Coastal Track.  Wednesday I taught two BodyPump classes back-to-back, which nearly killed me, so Thursday I only ran with the kids (1k with my daughter; 3 with my son) before driving us all to Ocean Grove for a short family holiday.  Friday I learned about Fast Downhill training, racing to the base of a steepish hill on a cliff in Ocean Grove, and walking back up, maybe 12 times, followed by 20 minutes of flat-out fast running.  Saturday, I ran 25 minutes fast, then practiced uphill running, driving up the cliffs on the bluff above Barwon Heads, running up as hard as I could, jogging down.  It all added up to 53 kilometers, but it didn’t feel like it.  And that was the joy of it.  It wasn’t any hard slogging down trails I didn’t enjoy; it was fast and fun and diverse, and just what my heart, soul, and body had been craving.

That’s the running part of last week.  And the running certainly helped me cope with the nose-dives of bringing young, emotional children to a different house.  I could share the downs that came with those emotions, but rather than focus there, I’d like to tell you about the ups.

There’s Leila, our seven-month-old Labrador Kelpie.  You might recall we adopted her from Labrador Rescue back in February, and I was a tiny bit dubious about the decision.  How wrong I was.  She’s the light of our lives.  Last week in Ocean Grove, she spent many hours off lead down at the beach, and if ever you want to see absolute joy, that’s where to look.

Leila loving the beach

Leila loving the beach

She loves every dog and every human she sees, so much so, that she tends to follow whichever dog happens along, in whatever direction it happens to be going.  Her whole body wags and is full of enthusiasm for the simplest of things.  A stick – oh my God – a stick!  And look – seaweed!  Do you see it?  Seaweed!  Dogs!!  People!!  Dogs!! We spent a lot of time walking back and forth along the same stretch of beautiful coastline in Ocean Grove, with the ongoing call of Leeillaa.  Sometimes she’d come running back to us like a racehorse, tongue hanging from the side of her mouth, joy in every inch of her body, as she buzzed us, and kept running.  If hungry though, she’d drop into a sit directly in front of me and fix me with her lovely brown eyes saying treat, treat, look I’m sitting, treat…

Then there were the cats, Jakie and Mini.  Both black-and-white, like Leila, though Jake is fat and lazy, and Mini is, well, Mini.  Fast, skittish, but hugely affectionate, standing on her back paws and reaching up to be petted.  I found them curled up together on our sofa, a picture of contentment on a cold Ocean Grove day.

Mini and Jakie content

Mini and Jakie content

They even get along with Leila now, which is a staggering thing to see after the initial fear they had of her.

Oh, and then there were the four of us, in a rare moment of family harmony, playing Scrabble on our small oak dining table, me noting how well my daughter is able to spell, and how clever my son is at using strategy to score extra points.  And how patient my husband is with our young children, under all circumstances.  The simple pleasure of no electronics, just family, playing an age-old board game.

The hours after the kids bedtime, where my husband and I curled up with books and beer and Leila, with the warmth of the gas heater filling our tiny living room, the curtains drawn, and rain falling on the tin roof.

The absolute beauty of the shoreline in Ocean Grove, which mesmerized me as I did my downhill running at sunset, watching the sky change color, the waves roll in, the surfers gather in the last of the day’s rides.  The wildish view from the top of the Bluff in Barwon Heads, with storm clouds in the distance, mist in the air, large waves rolling onto wild shore as far as the eye could see.  The green of the grass and yellow of the wildflowers.  The white of the crushed shell underfoot, and the small undulations and curves of the trail that made me be present.

 

Ocean Grove from the picnic spot where I did my downhill training

Ocean Grove from the picnic spot where I did my downhill training

And finally, the great joy of arriving home just one hour before dark, and my husband saying, I’ll empty the car, why don’t you go for a run.  My running clothes hanging dry in the laundry room, my watch charged.  I bolted out the door, ten minutes easy, then 7 intervals with 2 minutes fast, 1 slow, then 25 minutes of moderate (ok, fast as I could) running to return home, elated, and to notice that my average pace was faster than it has been in years.  And that it hardly felt like I had run at all, it was so much fun.

Now, my whole body is saying ouch, that’s a lot of running in two days, and I’m delighted that the kids are in bed, the dog is in her basket by me snoring as I type, the cats have curled up somewhere warm, and my husband has gone to the gym.  I have had one golden hour to share with you, reflecting on all that’s been good for the last six days.  Downs? I can’t seem to recall any downs anymore.

 

Salomon Trail Series Studley Park Race: remembering the fun.

I set out with an agenda.  That turned out to be a mistake.

I figured that since I’d been doing speed training for a month or so, it was realistic to attempt to beat the time I’d achieved in last year’s Studley Park race.  And there was the hidden agenda too, to place higher than third in my age category.  I forgot to take into account how I’d feel if I wasn’t able to do this.

It was, as always, a gorgeous course – well, at least the bits of it I was able to see!  I have to admit I spent much of this race focused on the ground, which seemed to be almost continuously studded with rocks and roots, ruts and twists and turns.  It was fabulous for coordination and focus; for viewing the scenery, not so much.  I did glance up at the river once or twice, and noticed how serene the kayaks appeared on the water.  They made for a marked contrast to how I was feeling.  I was going as fast as I possibly could, holding nothing back, and it hurt.

For the first nine kilometers of this awesome race, I was going strong, really strong, with my pace dropping down to 4:45, which is crazy for me on a trail (usually, I’d be more like 6:00).  But I was still passing people and wanting to speed on.  The terrain flew by: grassy stretches; rocky four-wheel drive tracks under freeways; bridges across freeways; a slippery but beautiful run across the Fairfield Boathouse pipebridge.  It was only when things got more gnarly at about the ten kilometer mark that I had to slow down.

This was single track, with a drop-off to the river on one side, and a tall cliff-face on the other.  I’d started out towards the front of the field, which is where I’d usually begin, had passed some and been passed by others.

But this was the section that both exhilarated and troubled me.  When the way in front was clear, I could dance around rocks and feel agile.  It was when, as often happened, people ran up behind me too closely, so when I slowed on rough descents they nearly crashed through me.  I was frightened of injury, not wanting the fall-out of a sprained ankle, and wanting to run my pace.  I stood aside to let more courageous runners past several times, but this was not always possible on such a narrow track, and I wanted to run my race as well.  My pace dropped back to 5:30ish on these sections, and though I wanted to push faster, my heart and lungs and legs had no more left to give.

I greatly enjoyed the flat, downhill road section that came between this technical stuff, and the next bit of technical stuff.  There, reminiscent of Hong Kong hills, I could fly, passing some of those who had passed me, letting my legs go full throttle where nothing was holding me back (oh, except for the calf that was threatening to cramp, that was holding me back just a little).

I knew from past, bitter experience that this section ended with a final one kilometer dash on single track.  Bitter I say, because my legs were truly blown out by this stage, and my coordination faltering.  Here I knew to be my personal danger zone and I coached myself towards greater care, with visions of face-plants clear in my mind.

I made it through there, and the finish line loomed sooner than I anticipated.  One man burned me on that last hundred meters but I didn’t have it in me to chase, and anyway, I was looking out for my kids and husband because they had come along today, and they were my great joy.  I saw them and shouted and they replied and I contemplated high-fives but bolted for the finish line instead.

Which was when I looked up and saw 1:18 instead of 1:15, and was disappointed.  I had given all I had but it hadn’t been enough to achieve my goal.

It took only a moment for me to question this emotion, to recognise that such goals should not be set at all, that they only serve to ruin the joy of a great day out in the woods.  Last year, I had placed third in my age group; this year I was eighth, which again, was a silly thing to disappoint me, and in clear hind-sight I’ve realised I was looking at this race all wrong.

Instead of joying in the delight of the woods and my ability to run fast on technical terrain, I was comparing myself both to who I had been last year, and to all the others around me.  I was forgetting that in that day, in that moment, I was the best runner I could possibly me.  I had overcome so many obstacles to get out on the course at all:  sick children; sick husband; new puppy; injuries earlier in the year; family blowups the day before; a drive that once would have terrified me.  I had finished in the top ten women in my age category, and 32nd out of 187 brave women.  Each one of us had done our absolute best.  My pace for the race turned out to be 5:12, which was twenty seconds faster than any of my training runs had been.

Who I am right now, I have decided –  the runner, the pace, the agility – all that is enough.  It is not about the watch or the time, or beating anyone else.  It is about being there.  In joy; in the spirit of the run.

The Salomon Series offers superbly organised races, with lots of friendliness and fun, all trails well-marked, and all of the boxes ticked: great course, helpful staff, always enough water at rest stops, and a wonderful live performer singing songs I longed to throw myself down on the grass and listen to all day.  They even had ice baths at the finish – but I was certainly not brave enough for that!

As the kids and the puppy and the husband called, I quickly changed out of my wet, muddy gear and drove us home.  With us was my friend Kim, who “loved every minute of the run” and who helped remind me of the real reason I run these races every year.

So…come Plenty Gorge in a month’s time, I shall be running for the experience, for the glow, for the woods.  Phew.  I suppose we have to do it wrong once in a while to remember how it feels to do it right.

Going fast.

Ahh, that felt good.  And I mean really good.  The best running has felt for me in quite some time.  It was simple really: a 15km run, starting with a 2k warm-up, then 1k intervals at my fastest, and 1k recovery intervals at my marathon/long-slow-run pace.  Suddenly, the euphoria returned.  I was dancing over tree roots and rocks, up stairs, down stairs, like my legs had remembered who they were.  Like I had remembered who I was.  The funny part was how sllloooowww the slow intervals felt, how much I felt like an old, dragging donkey.  No surprise then, that with the majority of my running at that slower pace, I’d been losing the plot a bit.

With speed, there is no sense of time dragging, no wondering when it will be over, no think-think-thinking about my or the world’s problems.  There is only my watch and my legs, turning over as fast as I can turn them, the terrain, and my breathing.

While I transitioned to minimalist footwear and ultra-distances, I’d put speed on hold.  In doing so, I lost an essential element of running.  Intensity.  That has been my driving force since I was a teenager, when I realised it was central to who I am.  I need speed for running to give me joy.

Now I have a great, big smile. And sore legs!

Give me no safe harbours…

It is the wild sea I crave.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/TomCorser_Wild_sea_IMG_5974.JPG

“Photo by Tom Corser http://www.tomcorser.com. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales (UK) Licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en_GB

Last weekend, my family and I visited an art exhibition in a small coastal town.  I anticipated seascapes, and I went there hungry for the wild; hungry for intensity.  My father used to paint amazing pictures of the sea, in dark, ferocious oil paint.  He captured something of my childhood home by the Atlantic Ocean in New York which still resonates in me.  We preferred the winter at the beach, my Dad and I, when the tourists had packed up and left, when the storms came.

I searched the exhibition.  Many of the pictures were beautiful; scenic, accurate, blue and yellow and white.  But they were tame.  I moved quickly.  I knew what I sought; I could feel it there somewhere.  Finally, I found it.  The painting was of a dark, stormy day; a wild sea with large waves.  Small ships riding.  Storm clouds.  I stared, moved.  I searched the painting by its exhibition number in the catalog, as the paintings were not titled and no prices were visible.  But when  I found it, my heart sank.  It was titled, “Safe Harbour”.

I closed the catalog sadly, looked at the painting once more, and left.  A Safe Harbour when I longed for the wild.  As much as I loved the painting, I couldn’t get beyond the name.  I would always see it that way, I knew.

Today, in the pouring rain, I ran ten kilometers.  It was absolutely joyful.  Only runners, and people walking dogs actually smile in the pouring rain.  I was grateful for the rain.  It made me contemplate that painting again, and safe harbours.  The wind blew and the rain lashed.  I glanced at the steely grey water of the bay, stirred up in places into small whitecaps.  I marvelled at the solitude, having seen no other person on the trail the entire way.  These lines came to me, and I spoke them aloud as I ran:

Give me no safe harbour.

Give me the wild sea with waves as big as houses.

I will stand at the helm, and then I will be brave.

Give me the abandoned ones, the feral ones.

The wildish ones.

Let them come to live with me.

I will not seek to tame them.

I will seek, instead to understand.

 

I do not like calm, clear days, or runs around flat lakes.  Running on sunshine and blue-sky days bores me; it requires nothing essential of me. I want the wild, the slightly dangerous, the wooded, rock-studded trails.  I want the things that are the essence of life.  Give me the situations that make me be courageous, because then I can remember that I am, indeed, brave.

And so this week, I am embracing the chaos of my crazy wild home, the one with the five-month-old puppy chasing the two black-and-white cats, while the two children dance madly and shout and laugh.

Because I crave – I live for – the wild.

Give me no safe harbours.  Give me the wild sea.  And I too will run and dance with abandon and joy.

 

Telling the truth.

How funny.  I never have writer’s block.  But I’ve started this post three different ways, and erased all of them.  I keep starting and stopping, staring at the blank screen, trying to think of the right way to put this.

Six years ago I returned to Melbourne with our young family.  The kids were 3 and 4 then, and I knew, even back then, something wasn’t quite right.  It has taken those six years to finally get a diagnosis of what the problem is with one of my children.  I won’t share the label/diagnosis here, or the gender of that child, because that is private and it is not mine to share.

What I will share is the impact those six long years has had on me.  Because it’s the truth, and not telling the truth is making me leave big, vacant holes in my stories, holes that make me feel inauthentic, and holes that need to be filled.

The first few years back in Australia, I was very near the edge.  I couldn’t see a way out, a way forward.  Each morning, I woke up to blackness and despair.  Was it post-natal depression?  Post-traumatic stress?  I don’t know.  It was probably both.  My husband had finished work and had been diagnosed with a spinal tumor.  The surgery left him with a permanent limp, and a tendency to fall over.  Instead of working, I was home with my kids for the first time.  So was he.  We’d had two domestic helpers in Hong Kong; now it was the two of us, and I didn’t know how to do this role.

One of my children was wonderful, loving, smart, all the things a parent could want.  The other, who I tried desperately to love, would greet me with, well, would greet me with violence.  They had no words.  They were severely speech-delayed.  But they did have fists and feet, and they used them on me; I was the punching bag, and I had nowhere to run because I was Mom and alone in this foreign country.  My parents had died; I was born in New York but had left there fifteen years ago; our friends in our small town in Australia were new, and I couldn’t share the truth with them.  It was me and my husband facing this battle, and though he did his best to help, he couldn’t fix what was wrong.  I was the target for the aggression, and I couldn’t explain how bad it made me feel.  I felt I’d done something wrong as a parent, and that I deserved it.  On the darkest days, I’d hold onto the fence of the level crossing as a train went by, afraid of myself, afraid I’d step in front of it if I let go of the fence.

I took my child to various doctors but was told the same things I already knew: speech delays; behavioral difficulties; an inability to express emotion or to empathize.  A child psychologist was suggested but they were an hour’s drive away, and my child screamed during every car ride, and took off their seat belt.  Nothing could get them to put it back on.  It was impossible.  I went on; we went on.

It took me two years but I found a caring psychologist who supported me, who helped build me back up.  She was perplexed by the behaviors I described in my child and saw how difficult my life had become.  She let me cry, and told me I was courageous.  She stood by me, and listened.  But she was not a child psychologist, so a piece of the puzzle was missing.

One day, the Salomon Trail Series was announced.  I missed trail running deep in my soul.  It had been my passion while living in Hong Kong, and suddenly there seemed a light here in Melbourne, a hope.  I began to run towards it.

Since then, I’ve kept running.  Through three Salomon Trail Series, a few half-marathons, adventure races, a marathon, and finally the North Face 50km Ultramarathon last year.   Each step, each trail run, has brought me peace in the face of the disaster that much of the rest of my life, periodically, seems to become.  The strength I found through running helped me finally seek the support of a child psychologist, and find some answers.

I can’t lie.  Some days with my child are just so hard.  I get told “I hate you”; I get spit at; I get rocks thrown at me when we go for family walks; the child whispers things in my ear so my husband can’t hear and scold her, whispers horrible scalding words that make my eyes fill with tears.  We didn’t travel for five years because we were too afraid our child would sneak out of a hotel room and disappear.  We have to hide things in our home because boundaries are meaningless and unenforceable.

Some days, I want to run away and I study airplane flight schedules.  During school holidays, I take an extra hour in bed to shorten the day.  I look in the mirror and I wonder where the self I worked so hard to create has gone.  The PhD in psychology, the two books I’ve published, the classes and seminars and radio shows I’ve done.  I long to see joy in my eyes, for my husband and I to stop snapping at each other because we’re both under such stress.

I hold on.  I try to notice flowers and autumn leaves.  I pet my cats and take our dog for walks.

I run.  Sometimes I’ve run too far and injured myself, and my last bastion of support and strength has crumbled beneath me and I have to hold on by my fingernails to survive.  I am teaching myself to play piano because I find I can lose myself in the music and this also acts as a salve.

The dark days have become less regular, but they are no less dark when they do occur.  School holidays brings on a lot of them, because there is a lot more time for conflict to occur. I go quiet then on my blog, because the truth is hard to share.

I study the label that has been applied to my child by several psychologists now and see some truth in it, but I know that people change and that this label may not fit in the future, and I don’t want to stick my child with it forever because then that child may feel they have to live up to it somehow.  I keep seeking help for us, through Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Psychologists, through aid at school.

I am not alone in this battle.  Hundreds of parents face it.  This I know.  I hope by sharing my truth of how hard it has been, I help one of you.  I get knocked down.  Regularly.  But I’m going to keep right on getting back up.

Trail running is one place I go to salve my wounds, to fill my soul, to howl the tears that need to be howled.  Sometimes I go quiet.  Please know that it is hardest to write when times are most dark.  I am still here, fighting the good fight, and I will write for you again.  I will tell you stories of joy and running, of battling, of courage in the face of great disasters.

And I will tell you the truth.

 

Riding the 2014 Roller Coaster: 21.5km of trail running pain and pleasure

It began in the dark.  And I mean the dark dark.  I was up at 4:50 am on race morning, and the house, for a change, was still.  I crept downstairs, trying not to wake the puppy, the cats, or my two young children.  My poor husband had been woken by the alarm but hopefully was already fast asleep.

It felt good to be up.  I hadn’t braved a really early run since injury back in November 2013.  There is something holy about the pre-dawn, and I cherished the silence as I got myself ready. By 5:15 am, I was pulling out for the hour-long drive.  I was apprehensive: my knee injury after the Marysville Marathon had been my worst and longest-lasting injury in thirty years of running.  I’d had six weeks without running, and had to rebuild as if I had zero base.  I hadn’t expected to get to do the Roller Coaster Run even though I’d signed up for it months ago.  It was just by luck (and some careful planning) that my long run distance had gotten up to 21k the week before.  There was no time to taper, so I was going in hot.  And nervous about re-injury.

I know most of the drive well, as I train at Mount Dandenong weekly, but I usually start at The Basin Theatre in Doongalla because I’m a scaredy-mouse on the narrow twisting roads that lead to Sky High, Mount Dandenong, where the Roller Coaster Run begins.  When I finally came to the smaller road forty minutes later, I gripped the steering wheel tightly, and noted that it was still pitch-dark.  Luckily, no one drove up behind me for a good long while.  I’m too scared to pull over to let people pass, especially in the dark on a road I don’t know.  But close to Olinda, I picked up some followers, gritted my teeth, and pulled to the side.  I waited while about ten cars passed me.  There goes my pole position parking, I thought.

I pulled out onto the dark road again and on I drove, twisting, turning, swearing, following my headlights.  Finally the turn-off for Observatory Road and Sky High came.  It was more long, scary, dark road.  More cars behind me.  I got there finally, drove through and was directed by a man with a torch to the right.  The man gestured for me to lower the window,  but I was so nervous I forgot how, and it took a couple of tries to get it down.  He told me to drive all the way to the back of the unpaved car park, and I’m sure my eyes were wide with terror.  But I drove on, thought there was going to be a turn-off, then saw a space right by the fence, which must have been where he meant.  This was fine until I’d parked, paused to draw breath, and switched off my headlights.

It was when I stepped out of the car that I noticed it was still the dead of night.  There was not a single light.  I couldn’t even see my feet.  I’ll admit I was flummoxed by this; I stood at the back of my car for a few moments, realised I couldn’t see to get my gear ready, so closed up and decided to register instead.

It was a long walk across that car park.  I could feel with my feet that the ground was uneven but couldn’t see what was coming next.  Caution slowed me: I didn’t want to sprain my ankle before the race even began.  When I saw the lights of registration, I began to relax.

 

Reassuring lights of registration

Reassuring lights of registration

Here was a place I knew well.  I had run last year in the same half-marathon, but what a different person I was a year later.

I didn’t reflect on the changes.  I simply navigated my way down the steep slippery steps and picked up my race number.  The clowns behind the desk (and I do mean clowns – that is the theme of the volunteers at the Roller Coaster Run, and they were doing it well, with wigs and makeup and costumes) made the darkness surreal.  Was I still at home dreaming?  I’d been having lots of bad dreams recently, so I hoped not.

I found my way carefully back to my car, where I realised the stranger parked next to me that I’d said good morning to in the dark earlier was actually Jon, a trail running friend.  It had been too dark to even see each other.  We shared a laugh, and then I focused on getting my gear organised, with the help of the torch I recalled I kept in the glove box.

It was cold; I was worried I’d drop the little connectors off my triathlon belt onto the ground and lose them in the dark.  With numb fingers I got my number attached to the belt and clipped it on, and slipped on my Salomon backpack.  It fit like an old friend.  I checked for gels and salt tablets, for the spare water bottle, then I stowed my car keys and mobile phone inside and wandered back to the start.

With no family with me, it was hard to keep rugged up enough to stay warm.  I usually toss my warmest layer (a down jacket) to my husband right before the start.  Today, I opted for a long-sleeved t-shirt topped by a wool icebreaker, thinking I’d stow them in my pack just before the start.  I was cold immediately.

At the start area, I ran into Travis from Dandenongs Trail Runners, another of the many lovely encounters with trail running friends that day.  We said hello, and I was so pleased to know someone in the middle of this large crowd.  We chatted about distances and training, and I shivered and quickly drank the Gatorade I was holding simply to make it gone, so I wouldn’t have to hold the cold bottle anymore.  Gradually, the sky lightened.  It dawned foggy so the lights of Melbourne were not visible this year.  I felt cocooned in the starting area.

Before the start

Before the start

Eventually, deciding it was dumb to carry extra gear, and that I could admit to the person at bag check I didn’t actually have a bag without too much shame, I reluctantly climbed the steps again to leave my long-sleeved tops hanging from the tent posts at bag check.  I began shivering uncontrollably.  Ah, but there was a crowd, and like a small penguin, I made for the center of it, and felt the temperature rise considerably.

Soon, the Jester (Rohan Day, Race Director) took to the microphone to warn us of sharp turns and gravelly downhills.  These didn’t surprise me, but reminded me of my worry about staying at my own slow, recently-injured pace among the crowds of runners.

I forgot the worry when Rohan began talking about the new addition for the 43km runners.  I listened with my mouth open as Rohan explained how it would work.  “You drop a ball in the clown (he pointed to a carnival-type clown like the ones you fire water into to make a balloon explode).  If you get an even number, you can deduct this from your marathon time.  If you get an odd number, you have to add it on.”  He had a volunteer demonstrate.  I could almost feel the unease grip the crowd: who would the winner be then?  Was this for real?  What if you got a really big number, what would happen?  He went on to reassure the runners: so, you’ll have Garmin time, Race time, and Clown time. Clown time!  I loved it.  I saw the serious marathon runners visibly relax; their time would be correctly measured.

 

Once the sun had risen enough to make the trails visible, Wave 1 set off.  I was in Wave 2, having downgraded from the marathon course a week ago.  I was strangely calm.  Perhaps because I’d run the course the week before, or maybe because I’d decided I wasn’t racing, there was little pressure.  The count down happened, we bolted off and a smile formed on my face that had been absent for some time.  I was racing again, and I was overjoyed.

We began on a road, and quickly turned left onto a steep downhill track.  I slowed.  Many passed me.  I tried not to care, but it was hard.  Downhill is my weakness, and I was concentrating on short, fast steps in my minimalist shoes.  I held onto the fact that uphill is my strength, and let the others go.  Soon we turned left and the trail – I was going to say flattened out – but it never really flattens out in the Roller Coaster Run.  It did its painful thing, it rolled.

Now I could give you a blow-by-blow of each bit of the race, with trail names and emotions, but I prefer to give you the highlights.

  • Flying down Zig Zag and Channel 10 tracks, twisting and turning, dancing around rocks and branches, keeping my balance.  Noticing the Japanese Maple that will soon glow with autumn leaves.
  • Dodd’s track, not the horrible bit, but the rocky bit that’s like a steep river bed.  Rocks in just the right places.  The spot where I found a white feather last year.  Sweat dripping down my face.  Hard, but not too hard.  The feel of muscles firing in my legs, of power.  Encouraging some runners who were doing it hard.
  • The hill along Banksia Track that I hate more than any hill on the course.  It is a subtle hill which looks unthreatening from the bottom, but ever since my friend Ben ran up it and I couldn’t run up it to save my life then or the many times I’ve tried since, I’ve hated that hill.  I hurled bad words at it in my mind as I climbed, and wondered if it would ever become easier.
  • The 13km marker on Stables Track, where last year, I did a superb face-plant Superman-style that nearly ended my race.  The marker, I noted this time, was on the other side of the track this year, and I carefully did not look at it.
  • Link Track, where the thunderstorm began last week, and I was afraid I was going to be hit by lightning.
  • The young guy who ran up Singleton Terrace behind me as I opened gel number 2, who looked fresh-faced and healthy, who asked if I was okay.  I thought that was kind of him, and said I was good.  Then I wondered if I looked really shaky.
  • Old Mountain Road, which goes on and on and on and on.  But I knew at the top were Claire, Sarah, and Scott, dressed as clowns, who made the whole thing feel like a great homecoming.
  • Trig Track and calf cramps.  I know I’m not alone here.  I felt them begin and was terrified they’d end my race (oops, run).  I’d had two gels and two salt tablets, along with a fair amount of water.  So I could only attribute the cramps to lack of fitness, which made sense given that my longest week in months was, well, this week at 43km.  Still, I ran on.  I was chasing, in my head, my 2:38 finish that I’d achieved last year and never since.  The cramps came and went, threatening, but never so much that I had to stop.
  • The 21km marker, where I suddenly realised that the race went to 21.5km where I had stupidly thought it was just 21, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it.  It was a painful, painful battle, that last 500 meters.  I wanted to run, I so wanted to run, but I could only do the zombie march up the hill, panting and swearing and watching 2:38 tick by, which was somehow a relief because I could stop chasing that goal.
  • The moment I crossed that elusive finish line, and Dion shouted “Go Patricia” and I felt known.  The race medal that was draped over my neck, that I’d so wanted, because injury had made it seem impossible to achieve. Chatting to Caroline, Dion, Liberty, Anthony and Jon and others afterwards, laughing and smiling.
After the fun!

The elusive medal!

  • The brunch that I faced alone, and lonely, until I struck up happy conversation with strangers, and reminded myself I could do such things.  And finding some friends after all to share the moment with.
  • The pain and the challenge, and the number of warriors I saw out on the course who were struggling and keeping going, who were doing it tough, but were doing it.
  • The clowns.  The people in dress-up.  The fog.  The cheers and the blood on some of the runners and the smell of gum trees in the dampness.  The long, winding hill as I drove home.
  • The feeling of utter joy at finishing what is surely one of the toughest half-marathons out there.

Roller Coaster Run, I am so glad I got the chance to run you this year, and that I remained injury-free.  I’m grateful to the other runners, the volunteers, the race organisers, and my wonderful family and friends for supporting and believing in me.

Now I’ll just have to be very smart about recovering because the Salomon Trail Series is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

The dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Perhaps.

On Wednesday last week, after two months of searching, learning, exploring and deciding, a twelve-week old puppy arrived on our doorstep.  She was in the care of a foster mom at Labrador Rescue up in Queensland, having been saved from a shelter.  I knew she was the one the moment I saw her photo and I pursued her, well, like a Labrador pursues anything.  Doggedly, until she was ours, and we were hers.

image

She flew from Brisbane to Melbourne in the care of Jet Pets, and was handed to me (me who had never held a puppy before) in front of my house at 3:42 pm.  The kids got home at 4:00.  The cats?  They were seen once or twice shaking their heads in dismay through the windows.  I quickly captured and brought them in, so they wouldn’t disappear.  They cowered in their laundry room, disbelief in their eyes.

Leila, the pup, is good as gold, and behaving exactly as a puppy should behave.  In other words, peeing on the floor, crying for half the night, terrorizing the cats, and eating everything in sight.  She is like a living vacuum cleaner with no off switch.

Of course she is adorable and her ears as soft as silk, her wagging tail a delight to behold.

But here’s the thing:  life was already a challenge.  My youngest child has some serious learning issues, and does not respond well to change.  This means that the week we had of peace in my home – the first week of peace in eight years – has been suddenly replaced by dog toys being thrown at my head, and chants of “You’re a loser” copied direct from some TV show.  Saturday morning, I cleaned the kitchen and did six loads of laundry.  This is never a good sign.

A good friend found me walking the neighborhood on Saturday (I’d needed a breath of fresh air), pulled her car over, and said, “You look like you need a drink!”  I didn’t go with her – that would be a Pandora’s Box for sure, but my tight shoulders said she was right.

Monday has come, and the kids are at school.  Our little pup had a tummy ache but a race to the vet proves it is nothing too serious, and she settles down for a nap.

And I, after two sedentary days following this pup around my house (did I mention she can’t leave for another two weeks because she needs another vaccination?), I got my running shoes on.

Somewhere along that 7k of solitude, I found the strength to continue on.  My head cleared; I felt a sense of hope.  This is not the end.  This is only the beginning.  My cats and my children and I will all stretch a bit to accommodate this new creature.  I will open my heart and love her.

So…is it the dumbest thing I’ve ever done?  Ask me in a year, when my new Labrador/Kelpie is able to run with me.  Ask me in six months when she comes to the beach to chase balls.  Ask me later today when her whole body wags when she sees me.

I suppose great things do not come without great risks.  A lesson I have had to learn yet again.

I’ve also re-learnt the lesson about running, how it puts things in perspective and makes sane the crazy in me.

Magic trail running.

I hadn’t known I’d be away so long.  The woods are a healing place where solitude is my gentle companion, the trees are my friends, and the wildlife my only witnesses.

The last time I’d run in the woods, though. was the end of October, and now it was February of the following year.  Injury had followed injury, and, at 48, I was starting to believe what the other people were saying, how we all got older, how we had to slow down.  It broke my heart.  They had to be wrong.  They just had to be.

Slowly, after a couple of false starts, I had been building the distance back up.  My long run for several weeks was 3k.  Increases felt frightening, and I was so conscious of any pains, conscious of setting myself back.  I didn’t even want to run around the block with my children, afraid of the extra distance.

Finally, though, on this warm summer Friday, I was ready.  I planned to run 9k up around Mount Dandenong, doing part of the course for the Roller Coaster Run which is coming up in March.  I’ve run those trails so many times, they have become my playground.  I plotted a course, and set off at the civilized time of 9 am, all alone.

The simple track seemed treacherous after months away, tree roots and rocks threatening sprains and further injury.  I stepped carefully, walking in places I’d never walked before.  Later, on wider tracks, I noted that the places where it had been muddy were completely dried out.  Flowers I had anticipated watching bloom had already bloomed and withered. And the old nervousness I felt of being alone in the woods had returned.  I was anxious and scared of strange men, on high alert.

The first thing that I saw, though, instead of a scary man, was a brown wallaby hopping quickly off my trail.  I stopped and watched him for a few moments, thanked him for his presence.  Then I ran on.

It took a while to find my flow.  But at Stables Track there it was, waiting for me like an old friend.  I danced down the trail in quick, short strides.  It didn’t hurt.  My body remembered what to do.  That’s when my eyes teared up a bit – I was back.  I was home.

IMG_1400My friends were numerous:  Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos; Kookaburras; two Magpies; and two Rainbow Lorikeets.

Just before I injured myself last year, I had a great solo run (a long, long run) around the same trails.  All was grey and olive and dry that day, the colors subdued, the world quiet.  I was getting tired, and feeling just a little bit lonely.  Suddenly, from out of a hollow in a tree, two Rainbow Lorikeets appeared, bright points of color on the dull landscape.  The contrast was sudden and wonderful.  A feeling of life soared through me.  It was simple joy.

The following week at an art exhibition, I purchased an oil painting that reminded me of those Lorikeets.  I’ve looked at it for months, recalling the independence I’d felt that day, the freedom, the wild.

And today, today, there they were again, my old friends.  I stopped and spoke with them and they didn’t fly away.

I ran for just over an hour.  A perfect, joyous hour.

Perhaps next week, it will be more.  I don’t really care how far or long I go anymore.  I just want to be present for each stride, each magic memory of the woods.

Happy

Happy to be alive again!