The Trail Running Series Race 5: we run the night

It was fully dark on a moonless night.  We were running on a narrow single-track in a long, thin line, the only light from our small head torches.  Suddenly, there was a bottle-neck.  I shouted to the runners behind to warn them to slow, thinking we were backing up around some technical terrain.  The next moment, shock hit me in the gut:  it wasn’t just a bottle-neck.  It was three or four men climbing up the steep bank from the river, arms linked, helping a woman who must have fallen over the edge.

I slid to a stop.  One of the man’s hands grasped at loose weeds on the edge of the trail.  I reached down and grabbed his wrist, leaning back, giving him leverage.  Another couple of runners joined in or waited around, I’m not sure which, as I was fully focused on helping the group get the woman back on solid ground.  Once, there, she sat on the edge of the trail, obviously shaken.  The group of us crowded around, asking inane questions, are you ok, can I help, can I make a call, to all of which she shook her head.  I waited a few more moments while a couple of the helpers settled her, then decided I was extraneous.  The pack of us ran on.  Phew.  That was a close call.

I was glad the woman who had remained with her had a phone; I had brought nothing with me on this night run, not even my usual crepe bandages, so I couldn’t be much use.  The group of us runners who had helped her up were unsettled.  We spoke over our shoulders in the dark as we ran, hoping she was ok. As we moved, I watched the footing carefully, and I noted aloud each time the trail seemed to drop away to the hungry river below.  Others shouted “tree root” or “look out overhead if you’re tall”.

We ran on.  The adventure continued.

It was the middle of the final race of The Trail Running Series, race 5 of 5, a 10.8 km odyssey along the banks of the Yarra River in the dark.  We had set off on this medium course event (there was a short and a longer course as well) just after eight pm.  Though I’d run this event last year, this year was different: this year, for me, was about speed.

After the starting countdown ended, I bolted.  I know my strengths and I know this course well.  We had about five-hundred meters of bitumen before the real trail began, and I wanted to get out in front.  I was mindful of my calf, which had been injured a few weeks ago, and cautious of the other runners around me, but I kept my foot down on the pace until the left turn onto trail.

The darkness engulfed us as bitumen became dirt.  The narrow beams of our head torches bobbed up and down, illuminating the rough trail, which was embedded with small rocks at random intervals.  Without caution, even the best runner would trip and sprain an ankle.

Soon we made our way back to the paved path over the highway on the Eastern Freeway Bridge.  I wondered what the rush-hour motorists made of our head-torches bobbing along above them, and was elated to be one of the runners and not one of the drivers.

We ran back to trail, to a loop before crossing under the freeway, but that’s a blur – I was running as fast as I possibly could, but trying to avoid obstacles with care, letting people pass me who were more confident, then bolting around them again when the path smoothed out, playing leap-frog.

Unlike most races, I couldn’t check my watch for pace or distance – taking my eyes off the trail for even a moment was impossible, so I ran blind, pacing by feel.  It felt old-school, like how I used to run in the days before GPS watches.

One of my friends was running nearby as we crossed under the bridge, and I worried for her pace, knowing the rocks and holes that hid in this section.  She tripped, righted herself, then disappeared into the dark – she is FAST!

trailrun17-5_00230

Under the freeway!

Before long we began to climb the steps to the pipe bridge near Fairfield Boathouse.  After my Wonderland Run in August, up is easy, so I took the steps two at a time, eased my way uphill onto the bridge, and took off.  The flat pipe bridge made for a fast pace, the metal thudding under my trail shoes.  I had open track in front of me for the first time, and I made the most of it, pushing hard until the water station at 4.5km, where I gulped a cup of water down, and raced off.

The next section I knew was tough.  Technical, rocky, single-track that wound it’s way along just above the river.  In the daylight, it’s obvious how dangerous a stumble would be – you’d simply slide downhill through the rough trees and bushes to the river. It’s that steep.  At night, you can’t see this, so you don’t even really know it’s there.  Unless you stop and turn your head torch to look, but no one could do that without falling.  I kept my eyes forward and dodged the rocks.

It was on this section that we came across the woman who’d fallen down to the river, which inspired greater caution in many of the runners who’d witnessed it.  I kept thinking of  her as I ran.

Still, many runners passed me on this section.  I let it happen.  I’m competitive but I know my strengths.  I make way.  Trail runners are usually a polite bunch, and it all worked well.  Still, I knew that there was a road section coming; in fact, I was counting on it.  There’s this song on the radio at the moment – maybe you know it – it’s got a sassy bit of attitude: “Baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry“.  I can’t get it out of my head, especially when I run.

When we finally got to the bitumen section, I could see the ten or so runners I had made way for running along in a glowing come-hither kind of line.  I began to pick them off, one by one.

When this wasn’t good enough, I moved off the sidewalk and onto the road, and ran as fast as I dared, passing three or four at a fast clip, then a few more, and a few more still, until I riskily leapt my way back onto the footpath with a jump that could’ve taken me out but didn’t.  I sang the song running through my head (baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry…) as I passed each runner.  A runner’s giggle, I knew; they’d take back the terrain on the next rough section, but I enjoyed those moments.

We soon descended back onto real trail.

Back to full darkness.  I became leader of a group of four or five runners who didn’t want to pass me.  We warned each other about hazards, chatting breathlessly.  It was difficult being in the lead.  I had to keep my eyes focused on the trail to not trip, while quickly scanning for ribbons and arrows to make sure we stayed on course.  I didn’t want to lead the group of us the wrong way and felt the weight of this responsibility even as I ran my heart out.

trailrun17-5_01214

Leading a group of runners home

My watch beeped but I had no idea how many kilometres we’d run.  I knew from the course we were close to the finish so kept pushing the pace, coaching myself not to get overconfident.  Cameras flashed, race photographers surprising candid expressions from all of us.

Then I could hear the sound of music and cheering and saw the cones and grass that led to the finish.  I raced for them, feeling the swish as a couple of runners sprinted by me. I wasn’t racing them tonight.  I was just glorying in the doing of this crazy thing, this running 10k in the dark, and making it back in one piece.

trailrun17-5_01749

Finish line glowing!

Across the finish line in 1:06, I had no idea of how I’d done.  My family found me, and I went to change clothes.  As I passed by the ambulance on the way to my car, I saw the woman who had fallen by the river being treated.  I thought to approach her and wish her well, but I didn’t want to interrupt.  I was very happy she seemed relatively unharmed.  I thought of the day I ended up in an ambulance in an adventure race on an outlying island in Hong Kong; I wanted to say it could happen to anyone.  I hope she is okay and will be back to tackle this trail again.

Once changed, I found my friend Cissy, who presented me with my Series prize – a balloon unicorn, running – the best prize I’ve ever won – and it lit up the night for me.

We sat together through the presentations in the cold night in our down jackets.  I loved the vibe of the race area in the dark, the party atmosphere, the fun of it all.  The last song before presentations, I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, was especially perfect, as it was my mantra during my ultra marathon phase.

Presentations started, first the Short Course, then the Medium Course.  When my age category was called (50-59), I had no idea if I’d placed.  I hadn’t even checked, as I assumed I hadn’t, being as cautious as I’d been.  Third was called – the time was slower than mine.  Second – ditto.  When my name was called for 1st in my age category, and I was so surprised and delighted and stunned, I think I was fairly glowing with happiness.  I stepped up on the highest podium to get a medal, the first time I’ve stood on the top step in this series, and shook hands with the other winners, and waited for the Series Result, where I found I’d taken out 2nd in the series in my age category.  The prize of a Trail Running Series glass and awesome Black Diamond Head Torch were wonderful, as was the gift certificate from Rise Health.

trailrun17-5_00604

Age category winners of the Medium Course

 

img_6114.jpg

The running unicorn and other great prizes! (Ok, the bag and medal says 60+ – but I’m really in the 50-59 age category! Anyone want to swap medals?)

It is the end of The Trail Running Series for the year, and, as always, it is a bittersweet feeling.  I’ve gathered so many memories.

I flip through them in my mind: Race 1 at Westerfolds Park in June, racing my heart out to place but just falling short of the podium; Race 2 at Smith’s Gully in July and the crazy fun Rob Roy Hill Climb; August’s Race 3 at Silvan in the woods, mud and fog and tricky twisty terrific trails; Race 4 on the beach at Anglesea with the sea and the cliffs and the delight of the river crossing with September’s spring in the air, and Race 5’s night race madness at Studley Park, all aglow.

This series: the moments, the memories, the beauty of the trails and terrain, the friendships and music and challenge and joy.  Each year, it is a homecoming.

The races themselves are the prizes, and we runners all share the podium, every single runner who has the guts to come out and challenge themselves at whatever distance, whatever pace.  Every single runner is a winner.

Thanks for the memories Rapid Ascent, and see you next year!

Next up for me: the Marysville Half-Marathon in November.  Time to get some distance and hills in these legs!

 

 

Advertisements

The 2017 Wonderland Run 20k: onto the pinnacle

“If a race makes you nervous,” counselled a running friend from Facebook whom I had never met, “you should do it.  It’s good to step out of your comfort zone.”

Now, this person didn’t know me.  I had no business choosing his advice from the myriad of other potential sources of advice available.  My 11-year-old daughter, for instance, who declared that “no one should do activities that put their lives at risk”.

There was this pull, though.  I hate comfort zones; they bore me, dull my senses, make me lose the will to live.  Though much of my family life exists along the lines of what some might call ruts, I can’t bear for my running to be so flat-lined.

This year, I had declared the year of adventure.  I’d begun with my highest-altitude race ever, the Razorback 20km Run back in March.  It was meant, in my rather uninformed mind, to take about 3:30 to complete; it took 4:47 and was the most frightening experience I’d had to date, with its jaw-dropping beauty composed of a plummeting cliffside run, snake-infested trails , heat-exhaustion and bushfire-potential course that was an immense leap outside of my “comfort” zone.

Nonetheless, I made it to the summit and back.  My friend Sally, who walked the course in considerably less distress and much the same time that I ran-walked it, suggested that if Mount Feathertop had scared the bejesus out of me, then the Wonderland Run might not be such a good idea .

Who to listen to:  my own child; a close friend who had just completed a similar challenge with me; or a complete stranger from Facebook?

Yep.  Complete stranger, thank you for resetting my compass back to where I want it to be.  Slightly wild and uncomfortable, here we come.

Though I had not officially qualified for the Wonderland Run with my 4:47 at the Razorback Run (there are strict qualification standards, and my four-plus hour odyssey did not meet them), I managed to convince Judge&Jury (an anonymous person who decides these things for the Wonderland Race Director) that my trail record of faster runs in the past was good enough.  I received the email:

fullsizeoutput_28af

I’ve qualified!

 

Oh.My.God.

I immediately went to the race website and began to familiarise myself again with the trail maps.  The images looked deadly.  It appeared that we ran at least five kilometres on the edge of a thousand-foot-drop, along slippery rocks.

fullsizeoutput_2a15

Images from the Wonderland Run website. Gulp.

The elevation gain graph reminded me of something, a picture from Le Petit Prince.  If you’ve read this children’s story you’ll know the one I mean.

fullsizeoutput_2a14

Course map from Garmin

fullsizeoutput_2a13

Course elevation profile

fullsizeoutput_2a16

Is it a hat?  No, it’s a snake that swallowed an elephant.  From Le Petit Prince – looks similar to our elevation profile, right?

I ran the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon in June to convince myself that I was fast enough to do Wonderland, even though I’d already convinced Judge&Jury.  For a half-marathon to qualify, you have to run it in 2:15.  I finished the Surfcoast Trail Half in 2:18 but it was a trail half-marathon during a king tide where much of it was run in the ocean, so I decided it was good enough.  I was going to do this crazy thing.

19399747_10155094467052107_8031887932975577015_n

During the Surfcoast Half-Marathon in June: “Just wait until the wave goes out…” (A photo borrowed from Facebook)

In the meantime, The Trail Series had begun.  I chose the medium course this year, with distances of 10-15 km and a lot of elevation change.  These races were too short to prepare me for Wonderland, so I threw in a bunch of runs up at Mount Dandenong of 18-20 km to make up both the distance and elevation change.  After studying the training methods on the Wonderland website, I quickly decided that they’d leave me injured rather than ready, so I adopted the principles they advocated, and moved the workouts to the gym instead.  Lots of skipping rope.  Climbing stairs on the Stepmill machine.  Squats and lunges and single leg deadlifts.  Heaps of fast interval and tempo training (trying to win my age category at The Trail Series at the same time).  Swimming.  Teaching Bodypump.

In the back of my mind, at all times, through every race and every training session, Wonderland loomed.  As I cooked the children dinner; as I taught my classes; as I worked on my novel.  I couldn’t picture the cliff edges.  Didn’t know whether we’d be teetering on the edge of death or not.  I was going, and that was that.

We were about two weeks out when we were hit by the epic storm; it had hit much of Melbourne this year.  The flu.  I became a tiny person in a little metal rowing boat, surrounded on all sides by an immense sea of illness.  This was the timeline:

  • 9 August my son sick w cold
  • 15 August my daughter sick w flu
  • 16/17 August my husband sick w flu
  • 18 August my daughter sick w flu again
  • 23-25 August my daughter sick with vomit-type illness (don’t get me started)
  • 24 August my husband sick with flu again
  • the whole month of August – everyone I knew, sick with varied awful and terrible illness.  And they all seemed to cough right on me as soon as I said hello.

Back in February, before I even entered Wonderland, I booked our accommodation, a little lovely cabin at the Halls Gap Tourist Park.  It was confirmed.  The dogs were booked into the kennel.  The cats were to be minded by a neighbour.  But here, the night before we were due to leave, I didn’t even know if I’d be going.

All seemed to be conspiring against me.  Would we go as a family?  Would I go alone?  Would I have to miss the race entirely because everyone was too sick to leave?  Would I get sick too?  Was the “universe trying to tell me something”, like if I went, I’d fall off a cliff and die?

In the end, we “soldiered on”.  Got everyone in the car, and hoped for the best.  My daughter travelled with a vomit bag we’d nicked from sickbay at school when I brought her home sick on Wednesday.  It was well after dark when we checked in to our cabin.  In the morning, I opened the curtains and saw a mountain I hadn’t even known was there the night before.

We were truly in the Grampians, and I stared out our window with a mixture of awe and terror.  I shivered with the cold as the temperature was hovering near freezing as well.

IMG_5859

The view from our cabin. I thought we were running on this cliff!

Still, it was only Saturday.  It wasn’t real yet.  I picked up my race number at the strange little Centenary Hall and chatted to friends who were all much calmer than me.  Found the wonderful Absolute Outdoors Australia store nearly next door (Absolute Outdoors Australia), and slipped in for a new seam-sealed raincoat.  The staff there were terrific and kind, and helped me choose my perfect new (unexpectedly pink) Salomon running jacket, and wished me well.  Thanks for your help Cass!

 

fullsizeoutput_2a0d

IMG_5893

I’d bought the new jacket because it was an easy purchase to justify at this event: serious rain could be deadly, I promised my husband, not expecting anything of the sort.  Because it was only going to “shower” and be “cloudy” in Halls Gap.  Except as we all found out, it rained the entire day on Saturday.  Everywhere we walked, we squelched.  It was cold, hard, unforgiving rain and I cursed the Bureau of Meteorology for their lies.

Shortly before dark, we received a message from the Race Director that all mandatory gear would be required for the 36km run, and advised for the 20k run.  No matter, I planned on carrying it all anyway, as I always do in the hills.

Race morning came.  After the all-night rain, it was bitterly cold, but dry.  I dressed in every layer I owned to get from the cabin to the car to be dropped at the start line, then stripped down to my race gear in the parking lot.  The only concession I made to the cold was to wear my new rain jacket, and my running gloves.  I chatted to some fellow Dandenongs Trail Runners (Go DTR!), and huddled for warmth with the other hundreds of runners near the start line.

After a race briefing, off we went.  I chose the first wave, not wanting to get stuck in bottlenecks at the early sections.  I’m going to get the order of things wrong – please forgive me, as it all becomes blurry in a race.

We began in the Botanic Gardens, running uphill on a neatly groomed track.  It was pretty; it was laughable.  I remember thinking it was awesome to begin this way, to be lured in, like (please forgive me) Alice going down the rabbit hole.  She didn’t know what was coming next either.

Up and up we went, and sneakily, a rock snuck in here and there.  They multiplied, grew larger, and before we knew it, we were really climbing up a rocky trail, legs lifted high like they recommended in that training video.  It was slippery but not too much and I kept stealing glances to the left, floored by the beauty and then conscious I was going to fall on my face if I kept looking.

Somewhere up there, we crossed under two gigantic boulders, which looked poised to crush me to death.  Part of me stalled and said I’m not going under there, but the physical part of me kept going.  A beautiful section came with stepping stones next to a small waterfall on the right; I stepped to the side to pause to admire it.

I loved the ups.  There is nothing scary about up to me.  I’m strong and can go up all day long.  Even pass people.  I don’t know the proper names for the section that went right between two canyon walls on slippery stepping stones.  I felt hugged by the land in that section, despite momentarily thinking of the earth moving and crushing me flat.   I think the Pinnacle came next.  Jaw-dropping.  Everyone with any sense stopped for photos.  I kept thinking if I was in a hurry, I’d do a road marathon; I’d come to see these places so I gave them time.

IMG_5903

This is what I came for…

Onto an elephant-hide section, broken by small gullies like crevices in a glacier.  I stayed on the upraised dry bits of rock, steered clear of any black or green to prevent slipping.  This took time and caution and a lot of my fellow runners were racing, bolting around me, risk-takers.  I admired them but I couldn’t be them, and I tried to stay out of their way.  What drives me bonkers is when someone is a risk-taker and they get up right behind me on slippery descents.  I know they are going to slip and take me out with them, so I lose a fair few race places letting them pass me.

I’d taken off my gloves somewhere on the up, and at the top, it was suddenly blisteringly cold.  Thankfully, my new raincoat was slightly long in the sleeves so I wasn’t too badly off.  I think the descent began here.  In my memory, it is just slick rock after slick rock.  The front-runners had muddied things up a bit and there were huge puddles in the centre of many of the trails.  I wasn’t fast here; I never am.

Still.  This young guy bolted by me, flying down on my right, then slowed ten feet in front of me.  I was puzzled.  I thought he might be the sweeper, there keeping an eye on us.  I kept catching him up.  Eventually I asked him, saying I know you’re faster than me.  He was young.  Maybe new to trail running.  He told me he was waiting for his girlfriend who was somewhere behind me, and said if I could get out of the way, she could get by.  I paused, asked how far she was behind me, but he didn’t know.  Hmm. I decided against letting the random number of racers by me and kept on going.  A little while later she passed me anyway but the experience was odd and off-putting.  I pondered later – should I have given them the trail? – but decided, no, part of this is race strategy and placing yourself appropriately at the start.  Tricky decisions.

In any case, we kept descending, until at about 13km we moved onto a path above the reservoir that was not at all scary.  The young couple passed me about this stage, but I was in my element and bolting down that relatively smooth trail, noting the lake to the right, keeping my feet dancing between rocks.  Somewhere here was a photographer.  There had been a few but this was the first one I saw in a section where I knew I had done the hard stuff.  I had made it.  Tears came into my eyes, unexpectedly.  Could it be I was going to do this thing?  I quickly cautioned myself.  We were nowhere near done.

We came to a bitumen section pretty shortly after this.  Oh, I flew.  I’ve been doing my long runs just like this, 16k hard and slow, then the last 2 or 3 on firetrail where I simply fly.  So my body was tuned for this.  I saw the “mean couple” in front of me and smiled:  I was too slow, was I?  I turned the pace up high, and I burned them, adding a kind “you’re doing well” with a Mr. Bean feeling inside.  Really, I wanted to turn and laugh ha ha ha I’m not so slow now am I? But I didn’t.

Instead, I kept running as fast as I could and passed a few other people who had passed hapless cautious me on the downhill.  I loved it.  We were going to run on the road all the way to the finish.  Easy.

Except we didn’t.  We moved back through a field where there should have been kangaroos, then onto a technical single-track lined with rocks and tree roots and I paid for my spitefulness as my calves threatened to cramp.  I talked them out of it, passed a few more people, contemplated what the sign meant that said “Don’t be the cheese” and tripped and nearly sprained my ankle, did a loop around and over a bridge, and found myself on the final footpath section into town.  The wind blew hard in my face, like it was trying to blow me backwards, but I pushed and pushed and swore at that wind.  It wasn’t going to slow me down. Kids were holding their hands out for high-fives, and I made sure I touched them all, including my daughter’s, and I got so excited that I ran right past the finish chute and the race director had to grab me and send me back the right way so I could pass the actual finish line.

3:10, my watch said, right before it died and lost the record of this amazing run I had just done.  Eighth in my age category.

It took a few moments to sink in.  I had faced down this terrible monster that I had grown over large in my mind.  And it was not, in the end, that scary at all!  No sense that I could plummet off a cliff at any time.  What a glorious surprise.

8753272_main_59a39b045f803

But perhaps I just wasn’t looking closely enough. Looks like I could have slid off this rock to my death…hmmm.

Today is only Monday, but the event feels like it was weeks ago.  I stare at videos and photos of where we ran and am absolutely gobsmacked.  I did that.  I DID THAT.  We all did that amazing thing.  Wow.  Just wow.

Thank you race organisers, volunteers and my family.  That is an experience I will remember forever.

 

 

The Trail Running Series Race 3 at Silvan: everywhere I see monsters

The book I chose for bedtime reading has not helped.  A thriller called Descent about a female runner set in the mountains of Colorado.  I should have known better.  But no, I had to start reading it in the weeks before this next trail race.  Fairly predictably, it didn’t end well for the female runner.  Well, it did, but it took several harrowing weeks of terror (mine, while I read of what bad men do) for it to end somewhat well.  Now I have this image in my head, and I won’t share it with you because I do not believe that every time a woman sets off alone running on a woody trail, it has to end badly.  Knock on wood, as they say.

Anyway.  There was the book.  Then there was the other monster in the room.  Well, more like outside the front gate, that I planned to invite in at the end of August:  The Wonderland 20k Run in the Grampians, that scares me senseless.  I imagine myself dropping off the edge of the trail there, like where the map runs out in maps of the world where the earth is flat: here there be monsters and all that.

The Trail Series Silvan 15 km Race is the last friendly obstacle between it and I.

Did I say friendly?  Please come in, Monster Number 3.  It is the night before the race, and the wind blows so hard my bedroom on the second floor of our home shakes.  It is two or three or four am.  Maybe close to five, almost when I’d planned to get up.  The time doesn’t matter; I’ve been awake all night anyway.  I usually am the night before a race, worried that I’ll miss the alarm so I watch the clock like it might creep away if I don’t keep an eye on it.

I’d noted the weather alerts before bed.  As if the mighty wind blowing the trees back and forth in the garden wouldn’t have been enough of a clue.  The prediction: rain; thunder; hail; frost; gale-force winds.  Perfect weather, then, for a 15 kilometre trail race.   In a forest.  In winter.  I spend the wee hours of the night composing my obituary: Patricia ran in the woods during 60 km/hour winds with gusts up to 100 on the hills, and a tree fell on her; she was an idiot.

When I finally get up, imagine my surprise to find it completely still.  The world is becalmed (my word of the day – I read it in a magazine and like the sound of it – I hope it means what I think); the wind is gone.  It is dark as night (it is night, at 5:15 am on a Sunday morning).  The dogs gaze at me sleepy but expectant as I wander downstairs and switch on the kitchen light, but quickly curl back into circle-dogs and go to sleep again (though Billy, the youngest, keeps one eye slightly open to watch me).

I’m in the car earlier than planned.  Half – no most – of my pre-race nerves come from contemplating driving.  My hour-long route includes three twisty single-lane road sections through the trees; perfect spots for courageous drivers to get annoyed by my cautious approach and tail-gate me in fury.  My strategy is to leave before anyone is on the road.

I haven’t counted on the absolute dark or the pouring rain though, and I finally have to learn how the high-beam lights work in my car (wonderfully, though switching them off  for oncoming vehicles while navigating twisty, wet, dark roads requires a degree of motor skills I hadn’t imagined).

I arrive alive.  Get a terrific park.  The best park ever in fact, in the car park right near the race start.  I am there before they’ve even finished setting up the finish chute, that’s how early I am.  I want a picture of the sunrise, but it doesn’t rise.  The sky just turns a slightly lighter shade of grey.  I am wearing (no joke): running tights with waterproof trousers on top, a Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet, a thin rain-jacket, a wool icebreaker top, a wool/fleece hoody, a 550-loft down jacket, a waterproof ski jacket, a fleece hat and gloves.  I look more ready for skiing than running, am perhaps even over-dressed for skiing, but I don’t care.  I am cozy-warm wandering around race headquarters, jogging to the start of the course, buying hoodies and buffs.

IMG_5793

The “sunrise”

By the time the race is about to start, I have stripped down to just the singlet and running tights, though, and I’m not cold at all.  It’s as if someone new has slipped into my body in the hour I have waited around, someone more gutsy and less cold-blooded than me.  Someone who is not scared of monsters.

Medium course runners are called to the Start line.  No one moves.  We are called again.  I glance around.  Think to ask the guy next to me where the start line is.  Finally the MC comes straight in front of us and marches us to the Start Line which was not obvious as to get there we had to walk through the Finishers Arch!  I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know where it was!

We warmed up; we went.  It wasn’t new to me.  My friends Cissy and Tony and I had done a reconnoissance of the course two weeks prior, so I knew where we were going.  I even knew the trail names, which was kind of cool, because usually I’m thinking things like, hey, there’s the “Hill from Hell” whereas today I was thinking, oh, Track 24, that’s the steep one with the unimaginative name.

IMG_5757

Ghost hill

IMG_5763

Checking out the course two weeks before the event

IMG_5765

Navigating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw little point in running the first hill.  The hero in me has left the house, to be replaced by the smarter racing strategist.  I wanted to be out in front before the single-track became bottle-necked but that was five kilometers away.  I ran some, and when it got too steep, I power-hiked fast, knowing that different muscles were working that way, and there were lots of hills to come.  I avoided the slicks of mud where other runners had slipped, stayed off the deadly clay in the center of the trail, and kept to the grassy sides where my feet got more purchase.  Yes, it hurt, but not more than my usual run at Mount Dandenong.  I like ups anyway, that’s where I make up for my downs.  I’m strong there, and can hold my place in the race rankings.

20689798_681966375332123_2184642402542589797_o

Rapid Ascent’s photo of the “Hill from Hell” looking down

20626953_681966248665469_8870454624552217658_o

It looks a bit worse looking up in Rapid Ascent’s other photo of the “Hill from Hell”

At the top, a breath of relief, then we fly down the other side.  Well, the runners around me fly.  I pick my way down as fast as I can which is too slow because my eyes don’t work so well these days, with these stupid grey shadows called floaters removing clarity so I can’t really see where the roots and rocks and branches are if I go too fast.  That stinks, that my body could certainly run down the hills faster than my eyes allow.

Down, down we go, across Olinda Creek Road, onto Georges Road.  I’m waiting for Rifle Range Gully Track and KC Track because these are the tough bits, the single track up and up and up, where we creep single-file and I feel like I am on an army mission into enemy territory.  The man behind me wheezes and gasps like he might die at any moment.  He won’t let me get away from him though – each time I try to surge forward when we both are power-hiking he breaks into a run too – with his heavy breathing, he’d give us away to the enemy and we’d all be dead.  I have compassion for him though, as I have my own hacking-cough issues, but still, his heavy breathing has me amused (it sounds a bit like a porno movie behind me), but desperate to move ahead because he’s making it sound really hard to climb this hill.

Oh, we go up and down and up and down, I stay with the same group, two men in orange vests or jackets (I only see orange as I’m trying not to trip so I don’t really look; I imagine they are wearing fluoro vests like construction workers but I’m sure they were in technical running gear), and a boy who is just as fast as me, and his father.  And the poor man who wheezes.  We are on a mission, the five of us; I pass them on the ups and they pass me on the downs and I kind of feel like maybe we should just hold our positions but none of us do.

It’s towards the last five k of so that I see her, my nemesis, my friend, the winner of each race I run, the friend I chat to always at the start but can never ever catch.  She’d bolted ahead and I had happily let her go so I wouldn’t waste my race racing her, but there I see her in front of me, like a carrot on a stick and I’m the hungry donkey and I suddenly think maybe I’ll be able to catch her this time.

All the while a part of me is going, yes, this is the way we went on our course reconnaissance , yes, that tree and that trail, and that’s where we went wrong and turned back, and yes.  And then – WAIT ONE DARNED MOMENT – we didn’t go this way at all!   There’s an extra side trail we didn’t find and a different way across the bottom of the National Rhododendron Garden than we took.

Ah, but that was where I had my favourite race moment.  The rain, which had held off, suddenly came down with a cold fury.  It was needly and sharp and the wind blew it straight into my face for several minutes.  I was all alone, and I said out loud, laughing, “And that’s how you know you’re alive!”

Then, like someone pressed Play, the movie kept going, and people started passing me going downhill again.  The young boy and his dad passed, the two guys in fluoro vests, the wheezing guy, they all went by me.  Cissy waved as she passed.  My nemesis/friend disappeared once again into the distance and I picked my way down the hill.

One more hill up, I knew, and I was struggling by then.  Is this the wall? I asked myself, before I sucked down a third energy gel and a big glug of water and continued to run.  Some single-track, I think, came next, then the slick clay by the fence line where my calf and foot began to play cramping games with me.  Ha ha, I thought, wind and rain and monsters and slick clay and calf cramps be damned and I kept running as fast as I could until I came to Stonyford Road.

8614682_main_5987efd486b7a

This could be Stonyford Road

Oh, it was so familiar, where I’d come undone during our rec’y run two weeks before, so tired, no time for walking today though, I passed a guy doing it harder than me, kept going, calves wanting to cramp but not so I kept the pace up, a woman behind me said well done Patricia but I was going too hard to glance back and said well done to you too as we both powered on.

The beautiful, wonderful finish line and friends calling my name and all monsters banished for that one gleeful moment, that crossing of the line, then hands on knees, breathless, pressing Stop on my Garmin, and suddenly finding myself immersed in a huge heaving party of exuberant runners, live music, and food everywhere.

After I changed back into my skiing clothes, Cissy found me and said, “Congratulations!” and I said “For what?” and she said “Didn’t you check the results? You came second in your age category!”

Joy.  So a fourth, third and now a second in the series.  By the time of the awards ceremony, many had left, including the first and third place winners in my age category (it was bitterly cold) so I got to stand on the podium alone in my ski wear.  This is my favourite photo – it looks like I’m talking to an invisible friend, though I’m really chatting with Sam, the Race Director.

IMG_5798

Me and my invisible friend with granola

What a terrific day!  No monsters anywhere.  Just a lot of trees and mud and awesome runners having the time of their lives.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, for putting on another terrific show!

And now there is nothing between me and the monster that is Wonderland…

 

 

The Trail Running Series Race 2: taking to the hills

I dance the fine line of the trail, on the razor’s edge between pleasure and pain, between racing my best self and racing those around me.  The single-track through the woods weaves and undulates, fast, studded by rocks and tree roots.  It picks me up and throws me back down; I breathe it in, and it, in turn, breathes me out.  Who I am when I run these trails is completely different to my everyday self.  Here, I am a warrior, thundering fast, muscle and sinew, breath and courage and life.  Here, I am my best me.

It is elemental and real and there is no after-image which can capture these moments of freedom.  Here, in these woods, I am amongst kindred spirits; I am come home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We hadn’t even begun.

It is the second race of The Trail Series (I’m in for the medium course again, at 13.6km), and we are at a new venue called Smiths Gully, and something called the Rob Roy Hill Climb.  I get the general gist of things – that this 700 metre bitumen hill was purpose-built for cars to race, and that we will be running up it.  Cool. I wish I had read the course description better several weeks ago though, as I’d not twigged onto the four-hundred or so meters of elevation gain.  I’d been training for a flat fast half-marathon (the Surfcoast Half-Marathon) that I’d done just two weeks before, and hadn’t been up in the hills for about six weeks.  No matter, I told myself.  Muscle memory.  And surely the heavy squats I’d been doing in the gym would help.  Other runners were doing the short course (7 km) and the long course (18km); all three groups would have big hills to contend with.

I took the precaution of warming up, running up the gravel track to check out the hill with dozens of other runners.  I stared up the steep road, feeling the tightness in my calves.  After two rest days, they worried me. Would the tight muscles go snap when tested, like a rubber band pulled too hard?

Still, the hill made me laugh.  Bitumen and all.  I couldn’t see the top, just that it was steep, and that it curved around a bend so I couldn’t see how far it went.  In the distance, my dog barked her “come back” call.  I gave the hill a nod of respect, and jogged back down the gravel hill towards the event centre.

IMG_5690


My family had come with me to the race today, a rare occurrence with the ongoing conflict between their soccer matches and my Sunday races.  It was even more unlikely because it was school holidays,  the time of epic battle in my home.

I’m a creature needing solitude; without it, my fuse grows shorter, and my sensitive nature becomes attuned to all manner of unreal digs and hurts.  With exercise, I can keep the dragon inside at bay.  But when tapering for a race, even for a day or two, a big wide abyss opens up inside me.  Call it depression, moodiness, over-sensitivity.  I see it coming, and duck and weave and run and swim, but during school holidays, the feeling curves over me like a giant wave, and sometimes we all get smashed in the white-water.

That was my week leading up to the race.  It is somewhat better though, because my husband convinced the kids (11 and 13) somehow to come along and support me.  He will take care of them and our two dogs while I disappear into the woods.

IMG_5691

My wonderful support crew

 

Again, like the last race of the series, I joined in with the warm-up at the start line, doing my own bounce-in-place thing as I couldn’t do many of the warm-up moves on a good day at the gym.  I half-listened to the race briefing, as I’d studied the course closely this time (four hills, the race ending in a nice big descent that I’d like).

I glanced down at my waist in disgust:  the issue was my stupid water carrier.  I’d brought the waist pack which I swore I’d never run with again, but had trialed during the week’s training run.  It went well, no bounce, but here, as soon as I strapped it on and began warming up on the gentle inclines, it bounced, irritating me, and I swore at it.  I asked my husband’s opinion – should I run with it – and didn’t listen to his answer (bad wife), then carried it to the warm-up.  Just before we took off, though, I abandoned it, strapped it to a bench like a naughty animal.  I couldn’t bear it; I’d get water at the water stop at 8.5km and I tucked my two gels into the waistband of my running tights.  I felt rebellious and wild and light and glad, seeing that stupid pack left alone there.  Maybe someone would steal it.

Then off we went.  Follow the green tape, I reminded myself.  We turned up the Rob Roy Hill.  I laugh, remembering.  Up and up and up.  I ran.  The whole way.  The incline was near exact to that going to the top of Mount Dandenong.  It felt familiar and my muscles knew exactly what to do with it.  Bitumen.  Easy.  Some walked; some ran.  It didn’t really matter.  I just did what my body enjoyed best.  At the top (I think), we climbed over a strange wall made of milk crates and flat planks of wood that was an unusual puzzle, but fun at this stage in the run.

looking-up-the-hill-2

Rob Roy Hill Climb. Up and up and up!

Just before we started, I’d noticed my favourite race competitor.  I’d checked the competitor list earlier and thought she wasn’t running today, so was surprised (and dismayed) to see her – she ALWAYS beats me.

I didn’t see her when we started, but just after we got to the top of that mighty hill, someone came up behind me, said, “Well done on running the hill!” and blasted by me.  Ah, there she was.  I gave chase, trying to keep her in my sights, shouting out a “Well done to you too” as an afterthought.  We were only one kilometre into the 13.6 km run.  It was not time to race.  But I didn’t want to let her out of my sight.  I kept up for a few kilometres.  Each time it turned technical downhill, though, I got left behind.  I constantly battle between racing others and running my own race.  Because I know this woman is in my age category, it is hard not to chase her.  We’re both competitive.  We joke and laugh at the finish and start, but on course, we both go hard.  I have come undone in such situations in the past, ending up with sprained ankles, so I am terribly conscious of running to my strengths.

As always I go strong up, scaredy-cat down.  I keep with the same group this way, don’t lose or gain ground, but I always want to be faster on the scary bits.  It takes a lot of self-talk to protect myself.  My vision isn’t good anymore, so with fast rough terrain I have to be careful.  So she disappeared into the distance.  I had to let her go.  In a way, I was glad.  I could focus on just the run now.

Those fast curving single tracks.  They pulled at me like magnets and I flew.

img_5729-1

Runners having fun on the twisty-turny bits!

We flew. I stayed with the same small group of runners, being passed downhill when it became technical, passing on the ups and the smooth downs.  I counted the hills, one, two, three but somehow lost track and wondered was this the third or the fifth hill.

I kept those green ribbons in clear view, negotiating the trail splits until one awful moment I was alone on a small section and saw a single blue ribbon and thought I’d gone wrong but moments later re-joined a rainbow trail of red, green and blue.  All the way, I was singing Bon Jovi in my head.  My race refrain today was Have a Nice Day.  If you don’t know it, it goes like this, “Why you want to tell me how to live my life, who are you to tell me if I’m wrong or I’m right…la la la…when the world gets in my face, I say HAVE A NICE DAAAY, Have a nice day…”

And so on.  I’m not sure who I was singing to, but it made me run fast.  And that felt glorious.

img_5726

Have a nice day…

At 8.5 km, I drank down a full cup of water in one fast gulp, downed a get, and felt energy glowing through me.  I’d been training for half-marathons; there was plenty in my tank.  Boom, I ran.  I can’t recall where the hills and single-tracks and bitumen and gravel sections were; it all blurs together into a glorious race between myself and myself, and all the great runners who pass me, and I pass back, or not.  My body feels alive and I thunder along, every part of me alert and aware.  Once, an errant tree root grabs my left foot and I stumble and nearly fall but right myself and run on, gleeful but more careful.  I hear a man discussing me from behind: “That woman is very consistent,” he says.  I think this is a compliment and soak it up.

By 13.5km, I hunger for the final downhill, which I assume will be down the bitumen road. Despair hits me when it is a gravel track and my feet threaten to cramp. I am passed by a bunch of runners here, and being passed on this kills me but I remind myself to run my own race.  I have no water to fight cramp so have to listen carefully to my body.

Down we fly, coming to the “wall” again, which I had missed hearing of in the race briefing. I clamber over like I am 85, my bounce gone, reminding myself to train more for this sort of obstacle for the Wonderland run in August.

No matter. We make it over, then blast downhill on bitumen then onto the gravel where I had warmed up. I was not racing anyone, just flying across the line with joy.

img_5727

Finish line 14.2 in 1:24

Moments later, my family finds me.  The dogs are gleeful, as if I’d been gone for months. My daughter is ready to shop for buffs and whatever else she can. My son is hungry and ready to go, and my husband ever-patient.

The MC mentioned my blog as I crossed the line, which was fun and odd and wonderful. It made me smile when he quoted the blog and I had to find him to try to explain that it was not him or his beard that were scary, but the details of the race he described before the start, which I always embellish in my imagination (the wall becomes the Great Wall and is seven feet high and studded with glass shards, that sort of thing).

He also mentioned I was provisionally third in my age category, which made the pain of chasing my competitors more worthwhile.

The after-party was, as always, magical. There is something about the shared experience of trail running that makes friends of strangers. Everyone seems to glow with joy and accomplishment, and the small things like egg-and-bacon rolls take on a new significance.  The man sings and plays acoustic guitar and they are always songs I know and love, and seem to take on particular meaning in the moment, and then I forget what the song was later and wish I’d written it down.

We stayed for the awards ceremony, and I got to cheer for Cissy coming 2nd in her age category, and to stand on the podium for third.  I’m delighted when Sam mentions my blog and wish again I was less socially awkward so I could introduce myself to him.  One day.

IMG_5705

3rd in age category!

Two terrific runs in The Trail Series done.  Three remain. I am endlessly grateful for these moments of freedom.

And happy to report that school holidays has taken a turn for the better, with the dragon in me quieted and calm.  Today, I had an eight kilometre recovery run in Ocean Grove, feeling the gravel trail beneath my feet, chasing a teenager on a bike who happened to be on the same trail.

Next up, Silvan 15km in four weeks time.  Oh, and in seven weeks, the 20km Wonderland Run.  I guess I’d better focus on recovery – if only I could convince our puppy that my spiky ball is mine and not his!

img_5730

The Trail Running Series Race 1: flying through Westerfolds Park

I’ve planned it very carefully, even as I slalom and smash my way through this 10.6km trail run.  The woman has been in front of me the same distance throughout the race, and I’ve consciously kept pace with her.  It’s been tough, and fast, and I haven’t run this hard in a race in years.  My pace is well below the 5-minute kilometre mark that I’ve deemed my fastest trail pace.

I wait until there’s one kilometre to go to make my move.  Unfortunately, some guy makes his move first and gets in front of me, between me and her.  I grimace, decide I’m going to have to pass him too.  It hurts like hell but I add the acceleration I need to get by him.

He, though, is not my prey.  I move on her next, carefully, as the terrain is criss-crossed by tree roots and single-track.  I’m passing her, pushing hard, totally breathless, and she says, “well done, terrific run,” and I grunt, “thanks, you too,” thinking this must be her way of making me speak to slow me down.  She must know we’re racing each other.  We’re in the same age category and there’s only one other woman in front of us in our age category.

I push hard.  That last kilometre is pure pain and pure bliss.  I feel her at my back and increase the pace.  I can hear cow bells being rung by spectators and know (pray) that this means the finish line is near.  I’m really struggling to hold the pace, to stay in front of this woman I know is trying to catch me.  We pass parked cars and I see the finish line and I hear a runner coming up behind me and I know it’s her and I can’t put anything more in and then right in front of me in the midst of the sprint the ground drops away in a small gully and I’m scared to death I’m going to trip but I don’t, I keep running and the person passes me and I’m overjoyed because it’s a man and I can let him go and I pound and push and drive myself across the finish line.

I’m smiling ear-to-ear, thrilled I’ve won this race, or at least second place on the podium in my age category.  I’ve fought hard for speed in the last three months and what’s making me smile most of all is I felt fast in myself.  I finally felt agile and strong and like the runner I used to be before I played around with ultra-marathons.  It’s taken me just under 48 minutes to run this 10.6km course.  This is nearing my 10k PB on the road.  I’m utterly delighted and thrilled with both the course and my performance.

I look for the woman to thank her for the race, and for helping me push my pace, but I can’t find her.  Instead, I find my friend Cissy, standing near the finish chute with her running friends.  By happy coincidence, the woman I’d raced is standing with her.  I smile at this stranger, and we greet each other.  I thank her for her pace.  And then I look at her more closely.  I’d only seen her from behind, just known she was a woman.  Assumed she was in my age category because she had short hair and only woman over 50 have short hair, right?  That’s when I first cut mine short.

Except when I looked at her now, she was gorgeous and young.  Blonde.  I asked the obvious question I’d never ask a woman except at a race: how old are you?  As in, are you in my age category?   She was not.  She was two categories below me.  I didn’t have to race her at all.  Funny.  Ha ha.  I’d still come 2nd in my age category.

Cissy and I went to check the computer for race results.  Usually, I have to wait ages for my race to come up, then my age category.  This time, it was right there on the screen.  As if the Gods of Racing were laughing at me.  There I was, not in 2nd or 3rd place in my age category, but in 4th!  Not only was I racing the wrong woman, there were two other women I should’ve been racing in front of me, and I didn’t even know about them.  Third place had beaten me by twenty seconds.  Silly, to let this wipe the smile from my face.  But it did.  Briefly.

Then I started laughing because it was really, really funny.  And I reminded myself that I am not actually racing anyone at all, right?  Funny how getting onto the podium can feel so important sometimes.

Turned out Cissy had won first in her age category, so I got to cheer for her anyway.

Happiness is great friends at a trail race

And it turned out that on this day of racing, the top 11 women (I was the 11th) were either in the age categories of 20-29 or 50-59.  Very strange, as usually the strongest women are 40-49.  Four of the top 11 were over 50.

Which brings me to my point.  I’ve always enjoyed getting older because I get moved up an age category and then sometimes get to step on the podium for a year or so.  What strange, awful world have I stumbled into, what parallel universe, where the women get faster as they age?  This is a terrible blow to my aging and racing strategy.  It will take some getting used to.

But let’s talk about the race, the wonderful race.

I arrived at our new race location for the first race in The Trail Series at Westerfolds Park in Templestowe, just in time to note that all the cars seemed to be heading out of the park.  I took this as a bad sign, but pushed on in search of the elusive-but-not-to-be-found close parking spot.  Giving up, I joined the others leaving and quickly turned into a final parking lot just before the park exit.  Win!  It was only a five-minute walk to the start across the fields, like orienteering where the chatter of the gathering runners was the mark I had to find.

Orienteering to get to the start line

Coming home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is always a homecoming of sorts, the start of The Trail Series.  The A-frame with the race description I feel compelled to study though I carry a printed copy in my race bag;   Richie’s Mexican food and wonderful salsa; the coffee truck; the cheese-toastie truck that sprinkles their toasties with rock salt in what might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted post-race in my entire life.  The man with the microphone entertains and scares me in equal measure.  The long line for the portable toilets that I feel I must join as soon as I see it.  Runners pinning on numbers, getting their Series t-shirts, chatting, warming up, huddled in groups of running teams, the PTRs and LTRs and DTRs and TXRs and Urban Trail Runners and Running Mums of Australia and so many others.  The joy on their faces, the expectation, the camaraderie.

The warm-up happens for the long course.  I join the toilet queue again, listen to others talk about work issues and race strategies.  I find my friend Cissy and meet some of her nice running buddies, see Ali and talk about her big puppy dog.  Say hi to Richie and think about post-race food.  I’m huddled in my down jacket, as if pretending I’m not running, and it takes a bit of determination when I go to the bag check to strip all the layers off down to my DTR (Dandenong Trail Runners) singlet and 2XU tights.  Cold.  Cold.  Cold.  So I bolt around the fields and tracks to warm up, feeling the strength in my legs.  Buoyant.  That’s how I feel today.

Several years ago, I fell in with a new crowd.  They had an odd compulsion, and I followed them blindly.  It was fun for a while, but it resulted in me losing my first love.

I’m talking about those ultra-marathoners!  I followed them, and I lost my speed!  I could run for miles and miles and miles, like the EverReady Bunny, but I’d lost my bounce and agility, and the thing that made me love running.  Adrenaline.  Speed.  Going around turns at break-neck pace, leaping and bounding over obstacles like superwoman.  There wasn’t time to go to the gym to lift heavy, as I love to do.

So I left ultra running, waved a fond farewell and put it away.

Here’s my revised training schedule (skip this bit if it bores you please).   Instead of running 50-60km per week, this is what I do:

Lunge and deadlift dumbbells

Squat weight for Thursday training

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday: Swim 2k with lots of intervals and different strokes.  Practice and teach one hour Bodypump class.  Jump-rope 200 jumps.

Tuesday: Trail run, 10k tempo training run along the flat, fast Bayside Coastal Track.

Wednesday: Swim 2k, Teach Bodypump.  Jump-rope 200 jumps.

Thursday: 6k treadmill interval training, 1 minute fast, 1 minute slow.  Followed by Very Heavy Weight training for one hour (squats, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg squats, chest, back and core work).

Friday: Long run.  Either 18-20 km Bayside Coastal Track, or 18km on Mount Dandenong.  I target one week for faster pace and the other for hill training.

What’s changed is I only run about 40km a week.  I do a lot more swimming and weight lifting.  I want to run FAST and with power and agility.  I still throw in the odd half-marathon but mostly to see new places and beautiful courses.  My body has returned to me, my muscles and my pace, but it has been really hard work, the pushing and the training and the runs in the cold rain when I haven’t felt so much like doing them.  But I had a goal: a fast 10k.

That was my mindset for this 10.6 race.  So I was delighted to hear it wasn’t going to be technical, but smooth single-track.  Am I the only one who was surprised by the number of tree roots?  The photographers seemed to be placed just at the most awkward spots – I was afraid to glance up at them and smile, as I was sure to face-plant if I did.  That would’ve made a great photo!

Here are my highlights of the Medium course, the 10.6 km run, the bits I could see when I dared to look up from my feet:

  • okay, a lot of views of my feet not tripping over tree roots.  I loved this part.

I will not look up at photographer and face plant= my mantra

  • the stairs, and the up-and-up hilly bits
  • the bridge over the Yarra with wild water running over rocks and the grey sky
  • the small uphills where my legs were powerful enough to push a few places ahead
  • the tree roots that threatened me but didn’t get me this time.  The agility they required and the mindfulness they engaged.
  • not getting taken out by the one unexpected roller-blader when I went to pass on a road section.
  • the same five or six runners being in my sights the entire race, knowing I’d found my sweet spot
  • the fact that I could run as fast as I wanted – and I wanted to run so fast – for the first time in years

Running as fast as I can!

At the finish, blazing across that finish line using up every drop in my tank and feeling utterly elated to have run that distance in 48 minutes (47:54 by official timing).

The friendships I have made, the shared laughter and hurting and joy at podium places and photos and the lovely man with a guitar singing my favourite songs (“You can go your own way…” which was utterly perfect just as I crossed the finish line).

My desk, Monday morning

Monday comes, and I find I can’t stop smiling.  My mind keeps returning to those trails, those people, the glorious memories of what we’ve done together.

My desk and laundry are full of race stuff and I don’t want to put it away, but the second race in The Trail Series is still three weeks away.

Thankfully, I have the little matter of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon on Saturday to keep me occupied!  More on this later.

Thanks for an awesome event Rapid Ascent!  See you at Race 2!

 

The Razorback Run 22km (2017): I’m on the edge

I’m crouched low, hanging onto the thin vertical slabs of rock with my fingertips. I’ve just begun scaling the granite dome to the peak of Mount Feathertop.  Water is dripping from my Salomon flask, distracting me at this critical moment.  My heart is pounding.  I’m all alone.  “I don’t want to do this,” I say out loud.  My voice sounds as shaken as I feel.

I don’t look around and I certainly don’t look down.  I keep climbing, trying to breathe, keeping my body pressed close to the rock.  I have to traverse this sharp angle of rock to get to the next section, and I have no idea what the next section is going to be, or even if I’m really on the trail itself.  Up until now,  the trail was obvious, but this seems more like some random slab of rock rather than a trail.  My reserves are low.   My water is in danger of running out.  And this trail, this 11 km there-and-back trail, is reportedly full of venomous snakes.  How am I going to get myself out of this? I wonder.

Is this where I’m going to die?

The Razorback Run is an event held by Running Wild Australia, and offers distances ranging from 64, 40 and 22 kilometres.  That’s right – the 22 km run is the short course. This short course is a run along a ridge-line trail to the top of the second highest peak in Victoria, Australia (Mount Feathertop), in a place know as the Victorian Alps, and back along the same trail.  When I first read the description early in January, hungry for a new adventure, I was captivated:  (see http://runningwild.net.au/razorback-run-about-the-run.html for more details)

“This classic Alpine run offers three challenging distances in some of the most spectacular country in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. The 64 km Razorback Ridge run takes in the entire length of the Razorback to offer some of the most stunning ridge running and scenery in the Australian Alps, the 40 km Razorback Circuit and the 22 km short course Razorback Ridge—a delightful day out up to the Summit of Mt Feathertop and back along the Razorback.

Set in the heart of Victoria’s high country, the Razorback Run is one of the most amazing high altitude runs that Australia has to offer.”

But then I moved onto the “About the Run” page, and immediately dismissed the run as lunacy for the likes of me.  It was this bit in particular that gave me pause:

“Weather Conditions/Experience: The run takes place in an exposed Alpine environment that can be subject to sudden and severe changes in weather. Rain, fog, high winds, sleet and snow as well as hot sunny days can occur during March/April. Do not take this run lightly, runners have died in this region. Hypothermia, dehydration and heat exhaustion are serious risks and all runners should be prepared for any weather conditions.

The 64km Razorback Run should only be attempted by experienced trail runners with good navigation experience. As a minimum, runners attempting this distances must have successfully completed at least one organised trail run over 30 km in the previous 6 months.”

To tell the truth, pretty much every single word in the “About the Run” section frightened me:  Self-supported solo navigation; a ten-kilometre ridgeline trail; mandatory equipment because a snake might bite you, you might get caught in a snow or lightning-storm, lost; you must have the ability to navigate an alternative route back in case of emergency.  Oh, and fire season.  Of course, it might still be fire season.

Then Sally messaged me.  Did I want to do a new adventure this year? Yes, of course I did.  How about the Razorback Run? I suggested.

Two weeks before the race, I knew I could run the distance.  I’d trained up for it on Mount Dandenong.  I’d calculated the elevation gain and done more than necessary.  I’d done speed work to keep my legs fast, strength training in the gym, hill training.  As a veteran of more than fifty trail races, I was nervous but confident in my abilities.  Adventure racing had taken me out of my comfort zone many times, climbing waterfalls, belaying down cliffs.  I’d felt fear before; it hadn’t stopped me.

But I’d never been to Harrietville, and could not really picture the trail.  I’d heard it was beautiful.  And rocky.  From maps and photos, it didn’t look too bad.  Pretty flat but with the elevation gain coming from a big climb right in the middle to get to the peak.  I respected the run, but I wasn’t actually afraid of it.  I was afraid of the drive, the snakes, the weather, the dark, fire, snow, elevation, pretty much everything, but I wasn’t afraid of the run.

The Razorback, from the Starting Line

At 7:30 am Saturday morning, the group of us runners stood shivering.  We had silently declared the toilet block to be behind the small shack on the Mount Feathertop side of the road (there was no actual toilet block), and people sheepishly made their way behind it with boxes of tissues and averted eyes.  We were already at an elevation of 1600 metres; the peak of Mount Feathertop would take me to my highest elevation in my life at 1922 metres.  It was my personal Everest.

I studied the sunrise, and watched the colour of Mount Feathertop change from dark grey to glowing gold at first light.  It was cold, and I’d layered up in my down jacket and lots of wool to await the race start.  I’d traveled up with two friends who were walking the trail, and because I was running, I expected to finish a couple of hours before them.  I studied the other runners to see who I might beg for a ride back to Harrietville and hid my after-race backpack under the car as the walkers were taking the car keys with them.

Before sunrise

Golden

The prior night’s race briefing was playing on my nerves.  Paul, the Race Director, had very calmly informed us, in the manner of a true mountain man, that snakes had been sighted on the trail as early as 9:30 that morning.  His advice was to make sure our snake bite bandages were right at the top of our packs, for easy access.  I had just tested applying my snake bandage for the first time before leaving Melbourne.  The process had made me decidedly uneasy.  I’d been surprised by snakes before, both in Hong Kong and here in Melbourne, but over time, I’d come to a kind of truce with them; they were there, but I could usually avoid them by the time of day I ran, and by route choice.

It was 7:55 am.  We crossed the road as a group, and the countdown to run was brief.  There were seventy of us running the 22km course today, about forty more than I expected.  The others looked fit, strong, stony characters.  Only I was afraid, that was for sure.

Off we ran.

I was puzzled by the first section – instead of climbing along the ridge-back, it ran along a very thin trail on a contour line at the bottom of the hill.  It was rockier than I’d expected, and I was breathing fast.  My hands were numb, as I’d stripped to a singlet and shorts just before we ran, and the drop to the right led straight down into a deep valley.  I tried not to look, tried not to be afraid.  But everyone was faster than me, they were bolting around me, faster, much faster than I dare run.  My visual system has a new problem – grey shadows in both eyes in the centre of the visual field.  I see okay, except on shadowy technical trail where I try to run fast but I can’t capture the rocks quick enough in sight to respond to them.

So I was slow.  So slow; so afraid. Breathing too fast and attacking myself for lack of pace.  I was fit enough but this didn’t matter.  This track – its narrowness, its precipitous drop, the rocks – I hadn’t expected it so early.  It seemed like every single runner in the race passed me and I was certain I could hear my walking friends chatting and catching up to me.

Run your own race, I told myself.  You’re not racing them.  You’re here to see this place.  Enjoy it.

But every time I tried to calm myself to “enjoy it” I tripped on a rock, stumbled, swore.  I was 4.5km in, when a man came barreling back down the trail towards me.  Surely not, I said to myself.  But yes, he had already run the whole 11 km out, and most of the way back.  And here I was, stumbling along at 4.5km.  Jesus.  I felt so inept.  Well done, I shouted to him, truly impressed.  Gob-smacked really, that he could run it so fast.

On I went.  I ran when I could, when the trail edged away from the cliff side, but my heart was still going too fast.  The thought of snakes had grown huge in my mind.  Because now I was running alone, all the others well ahead of me, and there was plenty of time for a snake to come back to sun itself.  The trail twisted and turned, into shadow and under tree branches, and I was conscious that any section I could not see could hold a venomous snake that wouldn’t know I was coming.  Still I ran, slowly, conscious that I needed to complete the race in 3:30 to quality for the upcoming Wonderland Run in the Grampians.

Somewhere on the Razorback Trail

The sun was up now, and it was getting hot.  My watch must have stopped working because the kilometres were ticking over way too slowly.  Then the Twin Knobs finally appeared, and some trail where I wasn’t afraid, that I could actually run.  Because I’d calmed a bit, I made sure to glance around, take photos.  It was becoming clear to me that my target time was completely wrong, that this run was going to take me someplace I hadn’t been in a long time.

Now the rest of the runners were coming back.  Most cheered me on, said well done, terrific work, and I responded the same.  Some, though, were silent, and when I spoke, they dismissed my comments, blanked me, gave me no encouraging smile.  They were lost in their own race but for me, at the back of the pack this time, their silence hurt.

On I ran.

I’d wondered what “the cross” was in the race description.  It sounded faintly biblical.  It was obvious when I arrived.  Someone had plunked a large backpack next to it, and it marked the junction for the way to the top of Mount Feathertop, and another trail that descended to Federation Hut.  Ha, I said to myself, I know the way to go, I can navigate this.

The cross

Then I looked up at Mount Feathertop and burst out laughing.  I’d already been running for nearly 90 minutes.  This was like a terrible, awful mirage, this thin trail rising up in front of me along the narrow ridge.  No way, I said to myself, no way.

I took some photos; I knew I was going to do this, and I also knew just how scared I was going to be.

The trail to the peak

Laughing on seeing the trail to the peak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started up.  The first bit wasn’t too bad.  Not runnable, but certainly climbable. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been for the last 9 kilometres.  Still, I felt sick to my stomach.  I knew going down would be the hard bit.  I tried not to look around. I got to the top of this, thinking, I know it’s kind of two peaks and I have to get to the second one to get to the top.  The trail climbed along the centre of this first peak, and though it was scary, I was okay.

It was the next peak that did me in.

I couldn’t see the trail anymore.  Just a small cone of rock.  The trail could be that bit on the left, I said to myself.  That bit right on the edge.  Jesus.  No one was there but me.  Not a single soul.  My heart was pounding.  I took a step up.  My leaking water tube dripped down my leg, and I worried I was losing too much water, that I wouldn’t have enough for the return trip.  It was an unwelcome distraction; I pushed the valve closed.

Suddenly, I was so deadly scared.  Almost too scared to move.  I swore in my head, repeating the same curse word silently, and then aloud.  That’s when I said it: “I don’t want to do this.”

There was no one there to hear me, or to help.

I grasped the thin vertical rocks slabs, didn’t look around, stepped a little higher. A little higher.  I was certain I was about to slip off and plummet to my death.

And then – suddenly, wonderfully, gratefully – I was at the top!  I was on the second peak.  I had made it.  A smile of joy began to spread across my face.

Then the smile slowed.  Stopped.  I looked outwards in utter horror.  There was a thin – a supremely thin – ridgeline about twenty meters long, and it led to another peak.  A higher peak.  A peak ever scarier than this last one.  My stomach fell to my feet.  I was not a quitter.  I never gave up.  But God – could I do this?  How could I do this?

Just then, like a miracle, two runners appeared on that next peak.  A bearded man and a fit-looking woman, moving smoothly towards me, like there was nothing terrible at all happening at that moment.

“Hi,” they said.  “How are you?”

“Utterly terrified,” I replied.

“Oh no.  Do you want us to walk out there with you?  We’re not in any hurry…”

“Would you?”  I couldn’t believe their kindness.  Usually, I am fiercely independent, but I said, “Yes, please, that would be great.”

The woman went in front, me in the middle, the bearded man behind me.  They talked calmly to me, told me about themselves, distracted me across that terrible, terrible ridge-line, until suddenly I was across it.  Together, they climbed, I crab-crawled and swore, and they helped and spoke to me, and we made it.  Like a miracle, like I’d been lifted by angels wings, we made it to the top of that final peak.

I felt like crying, laughing, hugging them.  Instead, we took photos, them of me, me of them (I promised not to share their photo on the blog I told them I’d write), of the views.  I wanted to linger, to be alone on the summit, but I saw the wisdom in returning with them.  One day, perhaps I’d be brave enough to go alone.  Today, I was very grateful for their helping hands.

At the peak of Mount Feathertop, elevation 1922 metres

Because as scary as the way up had been, I knew the way down was going to be much worse.  They laughed at me kindly as I crab-walked my way down the peaks, staying as close to the ground as possible.  I knew it looked funny; I didn’t care.  I remember doing the same silly move down a thin trail in Hong Kong, knew I’d make it down alive if I went this slow way.

It worked.  First one, then two, and finally three horrendous rocky peaks were done, and we were back on more solid ground.  They expected me to move off quickly, as they were walking and I was running, but the terrain made most of my running more like walking, and we were about the same pace.  Kate and Andrew and I were together most of the way back, sometimes them in front, sometimes me.  I tried to give them space, to run faster so as not to bother them, but they were happy and kind.

Eventually, I pulled away.  I had perhaps five kilometres left.  My water was running low.  The sun was high in the sky and the day had really heated up.  The track that had frightened me on the way out wasn’t so scary on the way back, but I could almost feel the snakes around me.  It was perfect snake weather, hot and dry, and my eyes nearly watered with the effort of looking out for them.  Four hours had gone by.  Four gels and two salt tablets.

I continued on the thin trail, until it came to the final section.  I was overheating, losing coordination now, stumbling, nearly falling.  All I wanted was to get back alive.  I could see the cars in the distance, the metal hut, but each turn led to another trail.  I felt like I was marching across a desert.  I kept glancing down into the valley to the left, worried that my stumbling could trigger a fall and a slide downhill, and disaster.  The trail split unexpectedly, one branch going steeply up a final hill, the other the contour trail we’d begun on.  Uncertain, I took the lower trail.

A 64km runner came along, reassuring me that I was on the right trail.  He was dancing along; I was plodding but still moving.

On and on, 20km, 21km, 21.5.  Surely I should be there.  My Garmin warned its battery was running low.  I swore at it, and told it so was mine, and we had to finish this thing together.

Suddenly, there it was.  The final stretch that led straight to the finish line.  God, I felt stupid, uncoordinated, like all the people at the finish line were watching my stumbling, slow gait, and judging me.

I gave myself a stern talking to then.  I was, in fact, incredible, I reminded myself.  I was doing this amazing thing.  I kept going, followed some small pink flags and the finish line flag across the road, up a thin final trail, to the final hut.

There, a kind man in sunglasses and baseball cap wrote down my finishing time, as if it were the most unexpected thing in the world, as if it weren’t a huge surprise that I had arrived back alive.

He offered me water and electrolytes, oranges and watermelon. I fought back the urge to cry.  To tell him what I had just gone through.

Shortly afterwards, Andrew and Kate joined me at the finish line.  I got them dixie cups of water, and thanked them.  It was hard to say clearly the gift that they had given me.  I would have gotten to that second peak on my own.  But my gratitude for their help – for making it a thing of angels wings rather than terror.  Well, I’ve had to save my words for now.  Thank you Andrew and Kate.  You made it a joy.

The Razorback Run 22km in 4:47 instead of 3:30 as I planned.  The overcoming of some terrible terrific fear.  The stretching of my comfort zone much further than I had intended.  The realisation that at age 51, I can still find new things, and new places, grow and challenge myself.

I am full of gratitude and grace and joy that I did this thing.  It turned out so very differently than I had planned.  But that is what we mean by the word “adventure”, isn’t it?

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the darkness, alone

In the darkness, alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheering over the finish line

Cheering over the finish line


The finish chute with fairy lights

The finish chute with fairy lights

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

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

Sharing the elation

Sharing the elation

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

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

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

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

Series Winner

Series Winner

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