What do I do now?

I’ve spent most of today playing avoid-the-computer and I suspect I have something to say that I don’t want to say, so I’m sitting down now, at 8:04 pm just after the kids are in bed, and I’m going to say it.

Ah, but what is it?  A gnawing sense of “it’s not fair”?  The North Face 50 (TNF 50) trail race is happening this weekend, and like the Two Bays 56k in January, and the Buffalo Stampede 43k, it will be happening without me.  I’ve known that for ages, but I somehow kept hoping.  Hoping that despite the knee injury I suffered in November last year, the calf-strain in January, and the face-plant a week ago, that I’d get the mileage up to be able to do it.  I’ve done the math again and again (and again) and such an outing would no doubt lead to injury.  My biggest week since November has been 44km, and my longest outright run 23km.  That’s far short of what TNF 50 requires.

So it stinks.  And it isn’t fair (well, it is really, no one can hurt us but ourselves).  Last year’s TNF 50 was life-changing for me and my family.  We hadn’t stayed in a hotel in five years; we hadn’t traveled anywhere other than our beach house and back.  I finally managed to break us out of that pattern, by booking a race that required us to break it, and suddenly the world opened up for us again.

But part of me, to be honest, didn’t see the sense in returning to do it again.  It was a challenge I’d conquered already.  I had learned what the race had to teach me, and put the lessons into play by seeking the help I and my family required.  I’d seen what I went there to see.

Right after the race, I decided I needed an even bigger adventure, and planned that it would be racing somewhere in New Zealand.  There were places there that were calling me, vistas I longed to see.

Somewhere I’d love to see in New Zealand…3 ASICS Kepler Challenge 60K trail race in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

 

But I never sought out the races.  I got scared.  Time slipped by.  It seemed too big of a stretch.  And I’m a creature of habit; I tend to sign up for races I’ve done before, simply because I know them.  When TNF 50 registrations came up, I was one of the first to enter.

I’m at a funny place in my running, and I was even when I signed up for the events of the last year.  I’m not really enjoying the super long-distance stuff and I’m missing my speed.  For me, running has always been about an endorphin blast.  Today, I ran for 5k on the treadmill for the first time in ages, and did my favorite speed workout, one minute fast, one minute recovery, getting faster in speed by .2 for about 10 cycles.  I’d been too injured to do it recently.  My new “normal” pace has been 6 minute kilometers: that’s the one I’ve used for my long, slow distance, and it is comfortable and easy.  But my body doesn’t like it.

And when I translate that into the numbers I’m used to on the treadmill, I want to cry.  I used to run at a speed of 12 as a baseline and went only up from there.  This pace is more like 10.  Numbers matter to me; speed matters.  Today, I crept back up to 12, then did my one minute intervals, increasing by .2 up to 13.8, with rest intervals of 11 in between.  And suddenly, I came alive again.  The cadence felt right, my feet were flying, and I’d found the flow that has been absent for so long.

Now the question weighs heavy on me: what do I want to do?

I’ve signed up for the Surfcoast Century 50k (SCC 50) in September, but the thought of it fills me with dread.  I don’t want to run slow; I want to sprint like a Cheetah.  I’ve also signed up for all four long courses in the Salomon Trail Series, but “long” tops out at 23km, which is just a nice distance.  I’m planning to be fast in those, so that’s fine.  But do I do the SCC 50?  I’ve seen half of it already, having done the first amazing leg as part of a relay team; will the second leg and the extra time add so much?

I’ve been debating this question since the Marysville Marathon, when I declared at about 38k that it sucked and I was never going to do that kind of distance again.  I haven’t.  Due to injury.

Now it comes down to choice.  I think that is what I’m struggling with.  Not so much despair at the race I’m going to miss on Saturday, but where I’m going to next.

The other thing I did at the gym was lift some big heavy weights, to try to wake up the muscles that have disappeared from my arms.  It seems I’ve burned them off, an unwelcome side-effect of running far.

Where to next?  A question I’ll be contemplating carefully in the coming weeks…

Do I run far or fast or can I do both?

Funny, I thought the sense of unease I was feeling all day was about not doing the TNF 50 this weekend.  Really, that was the line I’d drawn in the sand to call an end to the ultra-running.  Because I don’t get to jump over that line, it seems I’ve drawn a new one in September.  Do I really want to do it though?

No answers right now, just questions…

And here’s the other thing:  I’m afraid the followers I’ve built up through my blog and other social media won’t find me interesting or inspiring if I cut back on my distances. That’s a hard thing to admit.

 

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Recovery (the restlessness of a caged tiger)

So, the North Face 50km is over.  Saturday, 18 May, the day I ran my first ultramarathon.  We stayed up in the Blue Mountains for two more nights, with the idea that I’d have mental energy to enjoy the holiday after the race.

Sunday morning was comical.  We went to the buffet breakfast in our hotel, which had been fully booked out by runners the night before.  You could pick the runners out very easily from the “normal” folk.  They were the ones who grimaced when they stood up, and moved very, very slowly towards the buffet, if they moved at all.  Some lucky few, like me, were waited upon by their spouses, who delivered wonderful coffee, as well as the best bacon, eggs and toast I have ever tasted.  Watching all of us, I had to laugh.  We were hungry, stiff, sore, but elated.  There was an air of celebration at that breakfast buffet.  And not much food left at the end. I even ran into an old running friend from Hong Kong, Jeremy, with whom I had attended an Adventure Race training weekend in 2003.  He was looking fit, lean, and content; he had completed the North Face 100.  I felt slightly weak admitting I’d only done the 50.

That day, we drove back to Echo Point, and I was mesmerised by the remaining blue arrows and pink ribbons that had not yet been removed.  Did I really run there? I thought to myself.  With stiff legs, I explored with my family, showing them some of the trails. This couldn’t last long though, as my daughter quickly remembered the “run at cliffs to scare Mom” game; I hadn’t really noticed the potential drop-offs the day before.  We fled the scene quickly, kids intact.

Monday was quieter in Katoomba, less stiff runners, less exuberance.  The time had come to begin the long journey home.  I enjoyed the sitting still in the car very much – the drive from the Blue Mountains to our home in Melbourne takes about ten hours in total, and I was happy as a lark not moving for most of that time.

So, I managed three days with minimal exercise after the race.  I was recovering well, listening to my body, being smart.  Of course, when we arrived back in Melbourne, and the kids went to school on Wednesday, things were going to change.  I went straight to the gym, and found to my wonderment and delight that my 5k run on the treadmill was still possible – I could still run!  I did light weights as well, stretched, and was mightily relieved that I’d not broken myself.  Thursday was a slow, meandering bike ride with my husband for a couple of hours.  Friday I planned a great big trail run up in the Dandenongs, 20k would be easy.  Surely I’d be recovered enough by then, was my reasoning.  It would be six whole days after the race.

Well, as Thursday evening drew to a close, I reassessed myself.  I was exhausted.  So tired that even filling my CamelBak seemed too hard.  I reluctantly accepted that I’d have to miss the trail run, that it was stupid to push so hard so soon.  Perhaps I’d run an easy 10k down at the beach instead?  Except my hips were aching, my calf hurt, and my neck felt like fire when I turned my head.  Just about then a Facebook Ad popped up from Muscle Fix, the massage place that does “serious massage”.  Quicker than lightning, I traded the run for a muscle fix, which did, indeed fix all my muscles.

I was fixed, so I planned to run in the Dandenongs on Sunday morning.  Except – guess what? – I was still too exhausted to get up at 5 am, and slept in instead.  Seeing a pattern here?  I was.

My poor family.  I spent the weekend pacing the house like an angry, captive tiger, my claws on show for everyone to see.  Growl, roar, growl.  Or maybe like a dragon, with wisps of smoke curling all around me.

I know running hard requires recovery time.  I know.  I googled it several times to see what smart people recommended after running 50km of trails.  I just hate that it applies to me too.

I did manage to get the gym today, did my 5km on the treadmill and heavier weights.  The hip pain has gone, the neck now turns, but my left calf is still twingy.  So it will still be a slow recovery week this week.

Heaven help my family.

Growl…

Oh, and the obsessive exploration of what the next big thing is going to be is not helping.  100k?  45k?  The Six-Foot Track?  New Zealand? No goal at all?

My husband said to enjoy this phase, that it is part of racing.  He is very wise.  I will try.

Completing the North Face 50km Race: elation, exhaustion, and elation

Friday night before the race; we arrived in Leura, in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, checked into our hotel (and let it be known that the Waldorf in Leura bears no relationship to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City)…

The Waldorf Astoria, New York. What I was hoping for, but it didn’t quite turn out this way!

and then walked straight to race headquarters with kids in tow (“I don’t want to walk, this is stupid, I hate walking, you’re so mean…”).  I paced on ahead, leaving my husband towing the kids, feeling my pulse rate rise with each step.

On entering the Fairmont, my mouth dropped open.  Literally.  Right in front of me was a glass window with a view onto the majestic mountain range.

View from the Fairmont

View from the Fairmont

A cold finger of fear ran down my spine.  Surely this was just a photograph, surely I wasn’t really going to run out there.  How could I possibly get down those sheer cliffs?  I turned away, marvelling at the runners who were sitting in the atrium below, calming drinking coffee.  Other runners prowled the hotel, looking thin, wired, nervous, or, alternatively, surreally calm.  I went to explore.

I found the site of the finish line, stood and tried to picture myself crossing the line the next day; I couldn’t.  The kids were naughty, jumping into the giant North Face float, picking up on my nervous energy.  We went back to the car to go look at the mountains.  Someone at the hotel had mentioned there were fantastic views from Sublime Point and it was great for kids.  We drove there, parked, walked down a short trail, and suddenly, all around us were teetering cliff-edges.  My seven-year-old daughter loves to play “Scare Mom” and pretend to run at these edges.  We arm-wrestled her back to the car, and locked the door.  Not a good pulse-settler.  Driving further, we found Echo Point, which appeared to have a good view of the Three Sisters, and was a bit safer with young kids.  Having never felt a biting cold wind before, my daughter ran howling into the gift shop.  My son stood contemplating the view quietly.  I stood next to him, looking out on the mountain range.

Of course, I’d read all the course descriptions and scary disclaimers about how difficult this trail race was, but standing there on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff looking down into a limitless green valley, it all became rather awfully real.

Fear in my eyes

Fear in my eyes

The wind blew cold, and my eyes searched in vain for steps up the sheer cliff face.  I couldn’t wait to get back into the car.  Later that night, I tried to explain my fear to my husband but I couldn’t put that cold sense of terror into words.  He told me to stop driving myself crazy, which I took to mean he believed I could do this thing.  There was nowhere to go but the starting line.

The next morning came quickly.  I had found a new psychological place by then, one of quiet determination.  It was almost as if my body had taken over, and knew what to do.  I walked alone to the Fairmont, dropped off my after-race bag, and shortly met up with my family and Ben Clark, a fellow Melbourne runner.

Ben and I at the start

Ben and I at the start

Ben and I had decided back in November to do the North Face 100 as Marathon Pairs, but this option was replaced by race organisers with the solo 50 km event.  Ben was much faster than me, and we went into our respective starting waves, him in Wave 1, myself in Wave 2.  Being in Wave 2 was a slight triumph for me, as I’d expected to be in the slowest wave.  Having never run this far, I just assumed I’d be slower than most.  But my race results had been reviewed by the race organisers, and here I was in Wave 2!  Expected finish time between 7:30 and 9:15.

Ben’s Wave took off, and I stood there alone on the cold hill, checking my Garmin, trying not to think about the course.  I was here; the course would come and I would face it as I had planned.  The countdown began, but the person counting skipped a few numbers – it went something like 10,9,8,7,6,5  GO! – seems she was misreading her watch.  I liked this – I had less time to worry.

So off we ran on the golf course, green grass, my pack feeling way too heavy, my untried triathlon strap impeding my breathing.  I was suddenly doubting my training.  Why was everyone else not having trouble breathing?  I watched for treacherous changes in footing, trying not to race others, just getting a flow going.  That feeling came soon, thankfully, and in a few minutes, we were off the golf course and onto some real trails.  I’d love to be able to describe every trail in detail, the footing, the views, the shrubbery.  The truth is, I was focused mainly on my feet, and in those early stages, on letting lots of people pass me.  It was disheartening, all these people who were faster than me, but I was conscious of the 47km in front of us, not wanting to get hurt in the early stages of what would be a long battle.  So I stood aside and let lines of runners by me, and talked kindly to myself, trying not to judge.  The steps here were difficult.  Instead of the gradual inclines I’d been training on, this trail had been broken up with wooden steps every five feet or so, requiring continual attention to land well and not trip.  This type of footing was to be a feature of much of the course, and it was a challenge.

But, delightfully, the trail soon became a dirt road.  I was running much faster than I’d expected, flying downhill, the kilometres ticking by, the first checkpoint coming fast.  I was a full thirty minutes ahead of schedule, and the fear I had been feeling was subsiding.  Perhaps I was really going to do this.  The first 11km passed in 1:21.  But here was where I knew the downhill began in earnest, the place where much of my worry had centered.  If it were highly technical, it would be hard.  But, in fact, in great joyous fact, it wasn’t!  It was more like a four-wheel-drive trail or firetrail for much of the way, and I was right back in Hong Kong in my head, flying down the hills.  Though I shortened my stride because of my minimalist footwear, I was still tearing it up.  So much so that I began passing people!  Me!  I came up behind a group of five or six runners, some with hiking poles, and skirted my way between them.  Suddenly I found I was alone on the trail, flying fast downhill, and this sound just burst out from me, one of my favorite Bon Jovi songs – “We weren’t born to follow, come on get up off your knees, when life is a bitter pill to swallow you gotta hold on to what you believe…”.  I was smiling, laughing, singing, crying, all at once.  I was doing this, this thing that had terrified me, that I had been planning for and training for and waking at 5 am for – I was doing it!  And life over the last five years had held a few bitter pills.  This race, this trip, was a form of breaking free, of proving that we could travel as a family, and break free of the box that our lives had become.  It wasn’t just a race; it was a returning to the person I intended to be.

We crossed some watercourses, tiptoeing on cement blocks.  At one, the blocks looked unstable so I just plowed across in the water.  As it filled my shoes, the coldness of that water took my breath away.  For a moment, I doubted the choice to get wet feet, then I just got on with it.  I’d run in many races with wet feet.

We turned uphill and I suddenly couldn’t remember the course’s elevation profile – a big mental blank where it should have been.  All I knew was it was going to be tough, and that the toughest climb was at around 35km.  I walked many of the larger hills, being sure to take in the spectacular scenery.  I shared words with many runners, just moments in time where we ran shoulder to shoulder, shared our stories, and then separated.  Most were friendly, elated.  Some were battling cramps and fatigue.  A few wore headphones, isolating themselves in their own worlds.

But all the way, we followed the blue arrows and pink ribbons, which, when they occurred, were the most reassuring thing I’d ever seen in my life. Once, a man and I began running together, chatted, took some photos,

Magic scenery

turned up a hillside, and ages went by without a ribbon.  I was afraid we were lost; when that ribbon appeared, it was like a ray of sunshine.  And we needed sunshine.  The trails, possibly overhung by a cliff, were dark, like we had lost several hours and the sun had begun setting.  I checked my watch: still daytime.

But we were headed straight for my second big worry of this race: the Furber Steps.  I knew they climbed up a cliff-face; I just didn’t whether they exposed us to a drop.  To my delight, they were fully fenced in.  They were physically challenging, but nothing as scary as I’d expected.  Especially because I would not allow myself to look down.  Up to the top, climb, swear, climb, high-fives from agile children with smiling, cheering parents, and suddenly we broke free of the trails and began to climb on the road towards the second checkpoint.  I was thrilled with my time, heading towards 35km, because I could see it was only just nearing 2:00, and at this rate I’d be back before dark.  But the road stretched upwards forever, cruel, sunny, bitumen.  Oh, I hated that road, how it went on and on and on.  We turned a corner, I was sure we were at the checkpoint, but we weren’t, there was more horrid road.  Up we went.  And then, just outside the checkpoint, I saw, with more delight than I can describe, my husband and children.  It was as if I was on the front line of some great and dangerous battle, and there, just there, was home.  I wanted to cry, but I was so elated, I couldn’t.  I made sure to high-five both of my kids, to shout “I love you” to my husband, and then I continued on into the checkpoint.

A strange moment.  All I wanted was water for my pack, having decided not to try anything I’d not tried in training.  But it was like there was a party going on in there.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to eat noodles and sit down by a heat lamp.  Instead, I filled my pack, and ran out the door, where again, I saw my family, felt like crying with joy, and ran off, shouting, “See you at the finish!”.

IMG_0964

Beginning the last 14 km

Up until then, the race had been easier than I expected.  My worst fears had not occurred:  I was not suffering hypothermia; my nutrition was working great with water, gels, salt tablets, and bananas; my feet felt fine; and it looked like I’d be back before dark.  I ran off, reminding myself that it wasn’t over yet, there were still 14k to go, and I had only ever run 43km once in my life.  Good words of wisdom, it turned out.  That last 14 was the toughest of all.  Lots of stairs, gathering dusk, tired legs.  Tourists cheered us, I followed the ribbons, and coached myself not to trip.  By this point, I’d been running 5 and a half hours.  That was okay.  It was just the incessant visits down to waterfalls and back up the stairs that began to kill me. It was beautiful, ferny, waterfally, but God, I was having trouble not tripping, keeping my feet placed well within each step.

At some stage, I shared a salt tablet with a struggling female runner, and we ran near each other for much of the last 8 km.  It was tough.  My Garmin had lost the satellite feed at some point, so I didn’t know how much further we had to go.  I couldn’t use my usual tricks of just going one more kilometre.  I kept singing Bon Jovi’s Army of One, “never give up, never give up, never give up, you’re an army on one…” to myself.  Keep going; I just had to keep going.  I had packed a second banana, and feeling exhausted, downed half, took a fifth salt tablet, and later, at what I guessed to be about 46 km, downed the second half of the banana.  The increase in energy was immediate and reassuring.  I wanted to finish strong.

On the final ascent, a rocky, technical climb, there stood a young boy who must have been six or seven.  He cheered, clapped, gave me a high-five.  For that last climb, he gave me wings.

Suddenly, we were on the road, on the final ascent to the finish line.  The woman I’d helped with the salt tablet passed me, but that was okay, I was only racing myself, and I let her go, passed her anyway when she started walking, and then she passed me again.  All I knew was the finish line was near, that I was doing it, was going to make it.  On I ran, into the resort, up a path (‘Five-hundred metres to go,” someone shouted, which seemed forever, and broke my heart).  I ran on, hurting, pushing.  And there they were, my family, just one hundred metres from the finish.  Out ran my daughter to run with me, out ran my son.  Together we sprinted that last one hundred metres, my arms outstretched to them, theirs to me.

We crossed together.  I had done it; we had done it!  Run fifty kilometres through the Blue Mountains, faced down the doubts which had threatened me, the fears which had chilled me.  So many obstacles overcome.

To say I became someone new when I crossed that line would not be true.  I became someone new the night before, when I decided that I was going to do this race no matter how scared I was.

IMG_0963Today, someone asked me how the race was.  I had to pause.  I cannot put into words, for someone who has not done it, how the race was.  But I will try.  It was a tremendous battle.  It was a joyous dance in magnificent mountains.  In the course of that seven-and-a-half hours, I felt every emotion possible.  I sang, I laughed out loud, I cried.  I learned.

The journey began eight months ago.  It began as a dream, a fantasy.  With the help, advice and training with many another runner (thanks to the Dandenongs Trail Runners for the long, hard runs; to Hanny Allston of Find Your Feet for training advice; thanks to Scott Knable for the inspiration; thanks to Ben Clark for long training runs), and with the support of my wonderful family, I have done it.

How was the race?  Life-altering.  Astonishing.

What next?  Standing still and celebrating.

Oh, and the little matter of the Salomon Trail Series beginning in June!

Salomon Trail Series 2012: Anglesea Race, smiling all the way

Salomon Trail Series 2012: Anglesea Race, smiling all the way

Wouldn’t it be nice…if I were no longer scared?

Here’s what I wanted to write on my blog tonight:  I have found my inner confidence.  I have dug down deep since last Monday night, contemplated all the things I have achieved, overcome, faced down, and now I’m no longer scared of the North Face 50km race that happens in four days time in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

Not quite.

I will say I have tried.  Ok.  I haven’t.  I haven’t even been able to try.  This is one of the scariest things I have ever done, and I feel a bit rabbit-in-the-headlights-ish, to tell the truth.  Like it is too scary to even really contemplate.

Sure, I’ve been studying the maps and exploring blogs that go into detail about the trails we’ll travel.  I watched the North Face 100 DVD that has sat on my bookshelf for a month (I kept meaning to watch it over dinner at night, but it made me feel sick to my stomach each time I thought about it, so I watched it after school drop-off last Tuesday morning – the first time I have ever watched TV in the day!  And watching it was a good and bad idea – good that some of the trails didn’t look too hard; bad that some of the people looked like they might die, but thankfuly, didn’t).  I’ve tried on and put away the new Salomon backpack I panic-ordered last week (great idea, to consider using a new pack on race day – glad I came to my senses quickly on that one!).  I’ve done all the last-minute checks (salt tablets in abundance, lots of gels, sunscreen, BodyGlide, etc).  I’ve even bought two portable DVD players to entertain my non-travelling kids in the car for the ten-hour drive to the Blue Mountains (I’m sure I’ll be ready to run screaming into the woods after that drive!).  I bought new jeans today to put in my after-race bag, assuming I’ll need one, because my only other pair has the knee fully torn-out from a face-plant on the playground at my kids’ school when I was running too fast for my own good.  So I am truly ultra-organised (I didn’t even mean that as a play on words).

But I am also ultra-terrified!  This was the tipping point – the Facebook post from the North Face race organisers page, warning runners not to train on the course early this week because the powers-that-be were planning to SET FIRE TO THE WOODS in the areas where the race will be held.  Okay, here in Australia, we call it a “planned burn” and I’m sure it won’t even be smouldering by the time we drive up, but really?

(The actual post from the Facebook Page: Alert from National Parks: For any 100km runners planning a run on course from now until at least Monday, you won’t be able to do Leg 2 as there are hazard reduction burns occurring in the Wild Dogs (the area directly to your left as you run between Medlow Gap and Dunphy’s Camp). The Medlow Gap firetrail is closed for at least the next 3 days and will be reopened once the area is safe again.

For updates on track closures check the National Parks website or contact the NPWS Heritage Centre, phone 02 4787 8877 (open seven days 9.00am to 4.30pm).)

In full panic mode, I downloaded the New South Wales Fire App to my iPhone, and have been studying the little icon that says, “planned burn alight, under control”.  I’m waiting for it to say, “it is now out”.  Oh, and then I read the Emergency Instructions again about how there is really no mobile phone service down in the valleys we will be running in – gulp. So I won’t be able to check my FireApp to see where the fire is?

Today, the race organisers posted a picture of the Blue Mountains on their Facebook Page in a get-us-all-excited moment, and I swear there was a plume of smoke in that picture.

Photo: Cracking morning in the Bluies, course setting well under way. Track looking good, 5 days to go!

The actual picture from the North Face Page – see, doesn’t it look smoky?

Can I type any faster to tell you all how cowardly and scaredy-cat I feel right now?  When I took my maps to OfficeWorks to get them laminated (I know, overkill) I was too nervous to wait in the long non-moving line for service, and bought contact paper like you use for kids projects, and laminated the thing at home.  Of course, my husband walked through the house during the lamination, and my hand shook, and I didn’t get it perfect, and I nearly, very nearly, shouted at him, like a crazy, mad fish-wife (“Why did you have to walk by just then?  Don’t you know I’m doing something critical to my survival and now I’ve just messed it up and your children will have no Mom and I’ll freeze to death lost in the woods because of this stupid crease that obscures OBSCURES the trail name???).  Or some such thing.  I believe it is to my great credit that I said nothing, and put the map away.

So, no, I don’t have a non-panicked self to share with you tonight.

All I can say is that fear has not stopped me ever before, and this monster certainly won’t stop me this time.  I’ll keep having the stupid dream where I’ve forgotten to pack my gear until five minutes before the race, and the other one where the tidal wave is coming but no one notices but me (“Ah, hey guys, do you see that wave?”).  I know, there is no ocean near the Blue Mountains, but I was raised by the Atlantic, and I see waves when stressed.

In a few days time, I will front up to the start line of the North Face 50km race in the Blue Mountains.  I will face down this demon-fear again.  Until then, please bear with me.  Bear?  No, there are no bears here in Australia.  Don’t get me started on the other venomous creatures though…

(Not) Going Down In A Blaze of Glory: Two weeks out from the North Face 50km Race

Jon Bon Jovi

Doing speedwork on the treadmill this morning to my favorite Bon Jovi songs, I was letting the lyrics do the work of lifting the pace, trying not to sing out loud because there were other people running too.  “Blaze of Glory” came on – I was nearly at my maximum pace, flying, lip singing, holding back on punching my fist in the air, “I’m going dooowwwnnn in a blaze of glory…”, having a heck of a time, and then it hit me:

It is thirteen days until the North Face 50km Race in the Blue Mountains.  I don’t actually want to go down in a blaze of glory.  No blazing, no end, no “dying like a man” or woman, for that matter.  I want to finish this race strong, powerful, tired but capable of doing it again another day.  Maybe even going further.

So, I’m changing my playlist, especially the outdoor one.  Outdoors, I don’t use an iPod, but  I do run with an internal playlist going at all times, sometimes in my head (when I’m with a group, or passing other runners), but when I’m alone, I sing out loud.  As I told my husband, it’s so much easier to change the song than on an iPod.

One day recently, at the back of the pack, climbing a steep hill with the Dandenongs Trail Runners, about 25km into our 30km run, the song went something like this (from Bon Jovi’s new album): “Does anybody want, does anybody need, does anybody want what’s left of me…”.  Wasn’t much left at that stage – that’s why it was so perfect.  During the 28km Two Bays Trail Run, my longest race at the time, the song was by Frank Sinatra, My Way, but just the bit where he sings, “there were times, I’m sure you knew, when I bit off more than I could chew…”  I didn’t choose that one; it began playing in my head all by itself.  During the Surfcoast Century, which we did as a relay team of four:  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.  What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, footsteps even lighter, doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone…”

The playlist matters.

It is thirteen days and counting down to the big day.  I have hit a more subdued frame of mind, where I am having faith that the training I have done is correct, and will pay off.  As I have begun tapering, dropping back from my longest run of 43km in training, to 30, and then 22 last week, I have noticed a new energy flowing in me.  I feel a bit like a coiled spring.  My fast runs have become lighter, more flowing, and the aches in my hips have mostly subsided.

Then, today, my race number (5113) arrived in the mail, along with a lengthy Emergency Instructions card, and a massive map.  I could barely read the Emergency Card, it was so frightening, though it was slightly reassuring that I’d thought of most of the potential emergencies already.  I even had a couple they hadn’t thought of!

I do wonder about the auspiciousness of my race number 5113.  It was at the 13km mark on the Roller Coaster Run back in March that I tripped and went flying through the air during my superman stunt.  But perhaps I have already used up the bad luck associated with that number?  In any case, it is better than the number 5114.  When I lived in Hong Kong, I learned that the numbers 14 and 4 were very unlucky, because they sounded, in Cantonese, like the phrases “certain death” and “death”.  So there are a few numbers that would be worse for me (sorry to those of you who got them, but if you’ve never lived in Hong Kong, I don’t think the unlucky bit counts!).

A typical elevator bank in Hong Kong – notice what numbers are missing?

So, this is how it feels two weeks out from the biggest race of my life, the race that I have spent eight months building for, that terrifies me one moment, and thrills me the next.  I have to remind myself that I have stood at many, many start lines, wondering what I was doing, wondering how I was going to face the challenge I had set for myself.

Each time, I have come through.

The theme song for this race?  Army of One, again from Bon Jovi’s latest album.  This will be my mantra, “Never give up, never give up, never, never give up, never let up, ever, never give in, never give up, never give up, never forget where you’re from, you’re an army of one….”  Set on repeat play in my head.  Find it on YouTube and listen.

The other words I’m tucking into my subconscious are by Malcom Law, author of “One Step Beyond”.  When he was running ridiculous distances in New Zealand, and the going got tough, his mantra was  “relentless forward motion”.  I like the feel of those words.  Thanks, Malcolm.  http://runningwildnz.com/

1stepbeyond_cvr

Now I’m off to laminate my map…and Emergency Card…

Not Panicking: 19 Days Out From The North Face 50km Race

Image from The North Face 100 Race Info Website

I am not panicking.  Deep breath, I tell myself.  But my stomach hurts in a queasy sort of way.  I’ve just spent the last hour scouring the North Face 50km race maps and course descriptions.  Five pages of maps and three pages of details about what tracks to run on, roads to cross, waterfalls to skip across, creeks to ford.  Trying to get my head around this massive undertaking while trying not to scare the bejesus out of myself is tricky.

I’ve done the training.  Five months of greater than 50km per weeks.  Long runs increasing from 27, 30, 35, 38, and 43 km.  Hill training.  Interval training.  Training to get the hydration and fuel right, to make sure my pack will carry all my gear, and that I can carry my pack for 7 or 8 hours.  I’ve gotten up every Friday at 5 am and driven an hour to the woods, sometimes to run with friends, sometimes to clock up the distance all alone.  I’ve navigated, cursed, laughed, sung out loud, got lost, got found, and marvelled at the beauty of the Dandenongs as summer has shifted to Autumn.  I’ve run through bushfire-ravaged forest after planned burnoffs, climbed over washed-out tracks, seen at least seven wallabees, one goanna lizard, hundreds of sulphur-crested cockatoos, scores of magpies, and lots of fast-moving skinks.  I’ve felt very blessed that my body has held out through all this training.  Sure, I have a couple of black toenails, but a little extra length in my newest pair of Inov-8 TrailRocs has sorted out the pain.  My hips have been grumbling loudly with the longest of runs, and afterwards I’ve been walking like an 85-year-old for several days.  But I’ve done the training.

Still, my brain seizes up when I consider the magnitude of what I have chosen to undertake.  I’ve never run in real mountains.  Hills, I think I’d have to call them.  Though Mount Dandenong sounds kind of mountain-like, and Wikipedia calls it a mountain, so that is reassuring.  And there was the 700m climb I did once on Lantau Island off of Hong Kong.  Here’s what I’m afraid of: hypothermia; of my training perhaps not being enough; of something going terribly wrong with my body; of not being sure how to use my head torch.  I could go on but I’m scaring myself more.

So.  Deep breath.  It is only fear.  I have felt fear before, many times.  At the start of each and every adventure and trail race.  At talks about my books, like last year at the Bayside Literary Festival Opening Gala, where I stood on the highest stage I’d ever been on, and spoke to hundreds of people.  That was fear.  Even driving to remote locations to race scared me.  Getting lost alone on a trail at dusk.  Having a bamboo snake slide across our path on an outlying island.  Facing the fact that trails have snakes and still running them.

Fear is my friend.  It is the wise part of me saying, hey, be careful, this is not a joke.  Still, I know I can rely on myself because I have before so many times.  I know I do not go into events half-heartedly, or half-trained.  Because this fear makes me prepare myself very well.  The race is now nineteen days away.  Plenty of time to get comfortable with this fear, to let it be, to let it rest.

For now, I will study the maps and make myself a mental picture of the easy bits, the harder bits, and the bits where I will run like the wind.  It would be foolish to be unafraid right now.  Disrespectful.  But under this fear, I must dig into the deeper layer of self-belief that I am sure is there.

And I will ponder the glory of what I will get to see.

All will be well.  I am off now to warm my slightly cold hands!  And if I’m brave enough, to watch the North Face 100 DVD that just arrived in the mail…

The Three Sisters

File:Mount Solitary From Ruined Castle.jpg

View of Mount Solitary

Five weeks out from North Face 50km race

The North Race 50 km Race is coming at me like a freight train down a long dark tunnel.  No, wait.  I am meant to be thinking positive.  Same freight train, only I am Superman and I am going to fly over the top of it.  No, I don’t like that either, after my Superman move in my last race, flying through the air and slamming down into the hard earth.

Lets just say the North Face 50km race in Sydney’s Blue Mountains is not far off.

School holidays tried to play havoc with my training over the last week, with a two-day trip to Ballarat (a town that had a gold mining boom, and now has a gold mining theme park called Sovereign Hill, where the kids can pan for gold).  I knew I needed another ten kilometre run this week, and that this would be difficult being away from home.  I called upon my running group for ideas of places to run in Ballarat and they dangled some really juicy trails in front of me, up in the woods, single-track, twenty kilometres of glory.  But that meant a drive, and I had no time to drive anywhere, and no trail maps.

I researched all of the running groups ideas; I spent time Googling (obsessively) where to run in Ballarat; I even asked the landlady at the serviced apartment where we were staying (she mentioned some yellow creek track out the back of the property that she’d always wanted to run, and I stared out our window and could see it).

Wednesday came and went, with a fair bit of gold mined by our 9-year-old son, but no time for running.  The bottle of champagne came out after the kids went to bed (it was our first hotel stay in five years!), and my running plan for Thursday morning fell in a big, fat, bubbly heap.  I didn’t know where to run, and I wasn’t going.  That was that.

I woke up at 6 am with no hangover (good champagne!), and heard rain on our roof.  The kids turned on the tv and my husband stumbled downstairs to play with them.  I lay there awake, thinking of this quote I’d seen:  “I really regret that run”, said no runner ever.  The words played in my head.  I got up, got dressed, and stared at the hotel map I’d picked up.  Hell with it, I said to myself.  I’m going.  I’d plotted out a course to a lake that would take me through town – the hotel landlady said the lake was 6km around so it would do, with the run there and back.  My ever-patient husband agreed to mind the kids for the hour I’d be gone, and I grabbed the hotel map, my iPhone, and some cash, and ran out the door.

The plan was to run Main Road to Grant Street to Eyre Street, then to find my way to Lake Wendouree.  I repeated the directions in my head – I won’t lie; I was scared.  I don’t like running alone in new places – the New Yorker in me sees danger in solitude, danger in the unknown.  But I figured I could turn back if I needed to.  I got about 1km into the run, then looked right.  And there was a blue sign, saying Canadian Creek Trail – that was one I’d read about the night before, and my alternate plan if I could find it.  So I trotted off my original course (give me a trail before a road any day) and read the sign, 2.85 to somewhere in the city.  That would do.  The “trail” was bitumen to begin with, which seemed wrong, but I went on.  The trees had their autumn leaves on show, with reds, yellows, and golds.  Though the creek was really a concrete-lined two-inch wide bit of water at this point, I pretended otherwise and kept going, delighted I was finding my way.  I crossed a road or two, and was elated to see signs for the trail at each intersection.

Until the intersection where there wasn’t a sign.  I’d only gone 2km by then and hated the idea of turning back but I did.  For ten steps.  Then I turned around again and looked in front of me.  A road ran along the stream.  Surely I couldn’t get lost if I just stayed by the stream (Bear Grylls gave me that idea!).  So I did.  I ran on for three more blocks, nervous, vigilant, then all of a sudden a new trail sign appeared, this time for the Yarrowee Creek Trail.  I knew there were seven trails in a kind of network along here, thanks to my google research, so I just kept going.  Another runner bounded uphill towards me, and I was reassured by the sight of his fuel belt, and ran a bit faster.  The bitumen changed to gravel, the concrete-lined creek to an actual creek with rocks, pools, and ducks, and still I ran.  The trail changed names several more times but followed the same stream so it didn’t matter.  Uphill and down I ran, along this isolated but lovely autumn-leaved trail, forgetting for minutes at a time to be scared, remembering what another woman runner had said (“I just assume the bad guys are too lazy to come all the way out where I run”).  I held my map, which of course, was no use now, and just followed that creek.  I got to my 5km turnaround, and laughed out loud.  I’d done it; I followed the same creek back, only getting lost briefly when I came out on the road too soon and turned the wrong way, but the house numbers gave me the navigational clue I needed and I turned around and ran back home.

I’d done it; and now Ballarat holds a memory for me for always.  That creek trail, that only I saw, that will always be mine alone.

The next day, Friday, out in the Dandenongs, I overcame another barrier.  Here in Australia, it is Planned Burn season.  That’s where they set the forest on fire in a particular section for a short time to prevent bigger fires they can’t control.  Usually it is contained.  Planned Burns never impacted me directly before, not until I saw a photo of Mount Dandenong burning (that’s where I train) on Wednesday night.  Big-time burning.  I studied photos that seemed to show half the mountain a-flame.  This was the very mountain I was running on Friday morning.

After lots more research both on forestry sites and with local runners, I decided it would be safe by then, and a group of us made our way around a 38.3km course.  Part of it ran right through the burned forest.  Let me paint the picture for you:  me and three other runners alone on a hillside.  We come to the burned out section, take some photos of charred trees, think it is kind of cool, then run on.  There are lots and lots of charred trees.  Oh, and some of them are still smoking.  In fact, there is lots of smoke.  It feels a bit like Armageddon, and the smoke makes it seem surreal and dangerous and we run fast downhill until we hit a green section, relieved to be out of there.

But we had a second lap to go, which myself and a friend named Frankie completed alone.  By this time, the sun was out and the wind had picked up, and still the trees smoked.  I was alarmed, elated, terrified and brave all at once.  We ran it; got out of there, and our watches turned over to 38.3 km and Frankie high-fived me because this was the furthest I’d ever, ever run.

So the North Face race is five weeks away.  I am having the most extraordinary experiences in training.  I am learning that running long-distance races has an element I never understood.  That the journey to get to the starting line is just as compelling as the race itself.

This, to me, is a strange and wonderful thing.