The Trail Running Series, Silvan 2019: sliding in the mud!

‘Watch it there – that’s gotten super-slippery.’ The rain-soaked volunteer gestures to the slick bit of red mud that’s pretending to be a trail.

I glance down. ‘Yes, I see that, thanks!’ I quickly switch over to the side of the track that has a little bit of gravel. The runner behind me slides down through the mud. A second later, we’re on the same grassy hill, both upright. He takes off in front of me, leading the way.

It’s pouring rain and I’m utterly soaked; I couldn’t be wetter if I were swimming in the ocean. I laugh out loud. I follow down the trail as it winds between tall conical trees, splashing downhill in the grass. I open my arms wide in elation, overjoyed at the realness of it all, the rain, the grass, the mud, the movement.

It’s the 15 km medium course of The Trail Running Series, Race #3 at Silvan in the Dandenongs. And I bet it’s the only place in Melbourne on this cold, wet, winter’s morning where you can find hundreds of people laughing and smiling and high-fiving like little kids.

Race Headquarters in the early morning fog

Our race began up a great steep slippery hill. We were like soldiers going into battle, trudging upwards. I was testing some new trail shoes to see how they were in these conditions, so wasn’t confident yet. Choose the grassy edges or the smoother centre red mud? Runners were spread the width of the hill, some power-hiking, a few jogging, most laughing. I went everywhere I didn’t see slip-marks from other runners, criss-crossing the trail, driving up, breath hurting. With 15km there was no need to get out in front. I knew this course well, having run it many times. I waited until the downhill and then opened it up.

Loving the downhills

After four bouts of laser eye surgery to zap the floaters, my eyes are the best they’ve been in years, and though I was still passed downhill my confidence is growing.

Funny how moments go in races. The friendly battles with other runners, going faster up, being passed in the downs. It was less congested than it sometimes is, and I found myself alone a few times, as if it were a solo training run on a Sunday. Lovely to be amongst the trees in the fog. Nothing to think of but pace and foot placement, watching for course markings. Lulled by the rain.

Imagining I’m all alone amid the ferns and gum trees

Until the moment the man behind me asks, “What colour are the course markings for the medium and long courses?” I tell him, then feel a bolt of panic – is he saying there was an intersection? I didn’t see one – did we miss it? My heart thunders. It feels silly and panicky to ask so I don’t, and then I find I’ve left him behind so can’t ask and do panic. So, oh the relief when I see a green ribbon a few minutes later. Phew. Especially because the course has been slightly different this year, routed down an unfamiliar trail.

And so it goes. Passing; being passed. Playing leapfrog with fellow runners. Running by the nests of dragons and not noticing (as below!).

Here there be dragons…

It happens over a fallen tree. I’m climbing over on the left of the tree when a woman decides to climb over on the right, to pass me at the same exact moment. She steps into the only open spot right where I’m about to step and I feel my right calf cramp in protest. “Oh, sorry,” she says, as if she’s just realised she’s broken a trail rule (Don’t pass where it’s Dumb to pass, rule #849). “It’s ok,” I lie as she runs off.

My calf relaxes but I’m suddenly angry. Really? She had to pass me right there and not in the other 15km of the course? I study her from behind, memorise her hair and outfit, and paint a (perhaps unfair and grumpy) target on her back. See you before the finish, I think to myself.

I put the emotion away, and run on. Hugged by trees, shoes sinking into the mud. Joy and joy and fast-flowing down challenging trails and my body at 53 still able to do this well, my vision good and I’m agile again. We climb and climb until finally we turn onto the red clay downhill next to the fence: my nemesis. I’m better than previous years but it’s slippery so I’m cautious. Passed by a few people. Let them go. I know we’re coming to my favourite bit.

We hit the dirt road two kilometres from the finish and I put my foot down. Zoom-zoom like my Mazda! Ha! There she is – the girl from the tree incident! In my sights. I floor it, chase her like she’s the prey and I’m the big bad wolf! Fly by her for no real reason but it feels sooo good. I pass a few others who passed me on the technical downhills and give a silent cheer.

I’m burning out my legs with the pace and I pretend to myself that this road leads right to the finish, like I do every year, and every year, it breaks my heart when we turn right into more single track. Passing/passed, legs burning, stepping not jumping over little tree trunks. I hear cheering, see the car park, the finish cones, I go go go, forget everyone, then I hear someone cheer my name and I smile hugely, then Chris And Ella shout me too and I run to high-five them just after I cross the line.

Pouring rain at the finish
High-five that made my day!

The race photographer stops me to chat about my run and blog, but I’m frozen in my singlet and I can’t speak properly, slurring my words with the cold. Embarrassing and funny, all at once.

I grab my wind cheater from the bag check and then stand around listening to the man playing guitar and singing.  The rain is cold but I don’t really feel it as I squish and slide in the mud back to my car. In the Ladies, several of us women change at once and we chat while not meeting eyes, talking frozen nonsense while we battle our way out of soaked clothing.  I morphe back into a soccer mom with eighteen layers and wool-lined hiking boots.

Hiding under marquees, waiting for presentations, several people mistake me for staff and question me about the Surfcoast Century. I kind of feel like staff so I answer their questions.

Standing in the mud and rain in my eighteen layers, warm in the freezing cold, I listen to the live guitar and the great singer. I’m alone for a while, so I can just stand and observe. Everywhere, people are laughing and smiling, pride showing on the faces of parents, friends hugging, people standing close and talking. A small miracle how this little place in the woods brings out the smiles and camaraderie.

Presentations are smaller then usual with the cold conditions but I’m delighted to get third in my age category, and to see Dean Jackson take first in his.

It’s hard to put into words what these events have meant to me. They led me to the woods when I first returned to Australia, when I was too afraid to run solo in the Dandenongs. Now these woods feel like home to me. I know the courses like an old friend, and love them in all their many moods, from sun to wind to rain.

I didn’t slip and fall in the mud. And yet I did. It was two weeks back: I’d anxiously been awaiting an email from a literary agent for my new book. It didn’t come. No message equaled no interest. Knowing that was likely to happen did not lesson the blow.

But I anticipated it, just like I might anticipate slipping in the mud. The Friday before, I emailed my book designer and asked them to get started on a cover: I was going to self-publish again. Because within me, like within every runner out there on Sunday, there’s a person who doesn’t back down just because it’s cold and rainy and winter and the agents and publishers don’t like my book enough to take a risk.

I’ll take the risk and the falls and the puddles and the mud, because that’s who I am. That’s who we are.

I’m delighted to share with you the cover of my next book. The design was completed yesterday.

I’m sure I’ll take some falls along the way in this publishing game, just as I did on my first two books. But in the end, you’ve got to enter the race, stick with it even in the rain and wind and mud, and soak up all the joy along the way. I’m aiming to have it out in mid-October 2019. And yes, one of the main characters does love to run in the Dandenongs!

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A lighter shade of grey: The Trail Running Series Race 2 (Smiths Gully)

It was completely dark when I left home. Often on race mornings, I’m blessed with a beautiful sunrise over the Dandenongs, red sky, clouds aglow. Not so this morning. There was no sunrise. The sky simply turned a lighter shade of grey.

It wasn’t raining though, which was a relief. After a week of running in heavy rain, I was feeling water-logged, though I always loved splashing through puddles, and laughing into the face of the wind. I’d been in Torquay down the Surfcoast Trail, amongst the rainbows and thunder in Ocean Grove, had proved that my windproof coat was not waterproof but still warm when drenched. So what if it rained during the race? So what if it was cold and muddy and arctic?

It was The Trail Running Series, race #2 at Smiths Gully, and there were hills to climb and trees to jump and switchbacks to throw myself around.

The parking lot. A whole lot of empty to the left, car-filled to the right!

I arrived at Smith’s Gully just in time to see a large black dog transform itself into a dark brown waddling wombat while it crossed the gravel road. Nice. There were no kangaroos out. They were having a lie-in, curled up somewhere warm, I supposed.

Me, I was dressed for skiing. Five layers on top, three on the bottom. Gloves, beanie, scarf. With an hour before the start, I wandered to race headquarters, did some gradual warmups, removing layers bit by bit. I’d decided to run this race without a pack, as it was only 14k, and was looking forward to feeling lighter as a result. I’d had to plan for hydration at the only waterstop, which was odd, as I rarely race without a pack. Good new challenge.

Race headquarters

In the past, when I tried to conjure up the Smiths Gully race in my mind’s eye, all that I could see was the bitumen hill, the strange concrete tire thing at the start, and the sausage sizzle. I had no memory at all of any trail after the first turn left. “Was it pretty?” people would ask and I’d have no answer. None at all. I promised myself to be more present today.

Then I missed the warmup running back to my car for a drink. I’d left the reusable cup in the car, and the only water was from the drinking taps that I’d have to lie on the ground and drip into my mouth.

I dashed back to the start, and soon we were off. We began running straight uphill. Rob Roy Hill Climb – what a smash! Other years, I’ve tried to run up the whole thing to the tire wall we climb over to get the actual trail. This year, I added some walk breaks, and strangely, had a PB on this Strava segment. Go figure. I could also climb over the nasty tire wall a little more easily.

Rocking great posture in the hill climb 😂

After the bitumen hill, I tried to look around a bit more, finally glancing up from my feet. We’d begin on easy trails, wide, groomed, with countryside (farms?) surrounding us. It was pretty. There were trees. I looked back down. Put my zoom on.

This was a flatter, faster beginning than Plenty Gorge a few weeks back, and I relished it. The crowds thinned a bit so I could run my pace, and sing in my head. Soundtrack of the day was Bon Jovi, I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, I am a rock not just another grain of sand, wanna be the one you run to when you need a shoulder, I ain’t a soldier but I’m here to make a stand, because we can, our love can move a mountain, we can… and so on. It was on repeat play in my head, punctuated with only an ‘on your right, thanks’ and ‘pass if you want’, alternating on the uphills where I’m strong and the downhills where I’m less so.

Getting my zoom on

I had a gel sometime around 7km, and thirsted for the water point until 8.5 km, where I guzzled two cups of water, wondered if I’d throw up, didn’t and ran on.

There were hills and trees and stuff and getting passed and talking to myself about my pace.

And then we hit the twisty-turn bit. Single-track, trees down, rocks, trippy places, and the three race distances converged. Some faster people were mildly aggressive as they passed (leaping up onto the verge where I’d be fearful of ankle sprains), so I stood aside. I was grateful when the courses split again, as there was less pressure.

Oh, that uphill section of switchbacks went on and on and on. I checked my watch a few times but I was gaining no distance. It seemed to be stuck with a k or two to go, and my fuel was running out. So I gobbled a second gel, knowing I’d be thirsty but I was close to the finish line anyway.

Then I saw this photographer. I don’t remember if he shouted ‘jump’. He may have. He may have lifted a hand or his eyes in some way. Every other downed tree I stepped over slowly and carefully, but whatever he did or said, suddenly I found myself airborne and laughing. Thank you Mr. Photographer! I’d forgotten I could jump!

I believe I can fly…

As all things do, the uphill switchback trails finally came to an end (like a long, slow car ride during school holidays with grumpy children comes to an end, very, very slowly and painfully). We came to the descent. There was a man in a Two Bays singlet (there he is, behind me in the jumping picture!). I complimented him – I love that race – and we began the descent together. He was braver than me downhill, and off he went. Off everyone went! I was solo on that gravel descent and I wanted to go faster and faster and here below is the image of me thinking uh oh, how fast is too fast!

We came to bitumen, ran across the little bridge and turned onto the gravel finish line. Oh, I could sense people behind me, wanting to catch me like in the last race. Like monsters in a scary movie, they were coming for me. I ran with my heart in front of me, pushing and pushing, I really didn’t want to be passed again. Gasping, hurting, pumping my arms, I ran from them.

And suddenly I was under the finish arch and I knew they hadn’t caught me! Hooray!

Sharing a smile with friends just after finishing.

And that’s when the cold blasted in, like someone had opened a door to Antartica or Siberia and we were suddenly in the coldest place on earth, and what in God’s name was I doing wearing a singlet and smiling? I quickly went for my checked bag then got chatting to Chris and Ella and Chris and Andrea and finally got changed back into the 5 layers on top and 3 layers on the bottom and gloves and scarf and beanie.

What a tremendous surprise to win 3rd in my age category. I’ve been reading a book called The Happy Runner about not linking self-worth to podium places, and training happy. That’s what I’ve been focused on the last month, and it was nice to find that by focusing on my own race, I’d done better than I expected.

Smiths Gully was a terrific experience to add to the hundreds of trail races run I’ve since I began this great sport at age 37 in Hong Kong. What a blast. What a blessing. I’m grateful for every single run my body allows me, for the twists and the turns and the zooms and the hills.

Dean Jackson winning his age category! The best part about being in this great trail community is celebrating our friend’s successes!

Thanks again Rapid Ascent. Still smiling a day later!

Oh, and if you read my last blog about laser eye surgery for floaters, I’ve had another treatment and am in the surgery writing this blog awaiting my next treatment!

Fun and games!

Hopefully by the time race 3 comes around, I’ll be able to see even more clearly! My doctor is following my progress carefully and hope to put me on the podium again!

Thanks to Photos4sale for many photos in this blog (photos4sale.co.nz), who did a great job of capturing us all in our madness.

Plenty Gorge 2019: The Trail Running Series delivers

Ah, Plenty Gorge. Your single-tracks studded with rocks. Your tiny trails hugging the edge of a high drop into a river. Your river crossing itself, with its nasty little descent lined with tree-roots and mud, and beautiful cold winter water. You bring back memories; your create new ones.

Oh, but it wasn’t all bliss, was it? The roadworks were a surprise. I arrived so early that no one was turning into Memorial Drive and it looked like it was closed, so I drove on by. I was suddenly trapped alone on a 40km/hour nightmare road, alone in the half-light, corralled by concrete barriers with no way to turn around for two long heart-racing kilometres. My navigator berated me, “turn around”, “turn back”, “turn back at the roundabout”, but I couldn’t, and when I got to the roundabout hours later (exaggeration), it no longer existed (no exaggeration), it had been consumed by the roadworks. There was only a thin u-turn sign, pointing onto a new road which could have been two lanes of head-on traffic, or one lane for each direction. There was no one to follow; I was the only car in sight anywhere. I stared death in the eyes, crossed my fingers, and did the u-turn.

By the time I got back to Memorial Drive it was open, and I was still alive. Other cars were turning in, so down I went. Steered around the massive potholes, knowing my friends would be laughing at me (they were, they told me later), and finally found a volunteer in a vest who directed me, “turn right, then keep going until you see another person in a yellow vest”. So I did.

Drove right down a kind-of-road through an empty field, feeling a bit suspicious, but knowing we often park in weird places. I drove for maybe five-hundred metres, glanced in my rearview mirror and saw NO ONE following me; they were all turning off to the right. Swore. Contemplated keeping going because maybe I was right and they were all wrong? Did a quick u-turn, and joined the people parking in the correct field.

My heart was already going a thousand miles an hour, and I hadn’t run a metre. Jeez. Luckily I was early, so I could regain my composure for the 11km trial race that was coming.

Race Headquarters

Race 1 of The Trail Running Series at Plenty Gorge. I do this series every year, for the utter joy of it. This year, I’m doing the Medium length events.

Utter joy, I said. Mmm. Last few years, not so much joy. Did I mention the floaters? They’re floating in front of my computer screen as I type. But fewer of them than last year. I’ve tried this new laser treatment over the last month – like Star Wars for your eyes – they shoot the lasers straight into your eyeballs and try to melt the grey shadows away. Yep. Not one shot, like I’d expected, but 500 shots! Sure there are no bad side effects there.

However, I’ve been frustrated for five years by an inability to see technical trails, and by worsening in my ability to drive. Life is risky. After the first treatment, I was singing, “I can see clearly now the rain is gone…”. I even downloaded the song on iTunes. Then my vision cleared and I realised, I couldn’t actually see clearly. Just a little bit more clearly. Once in a while. The treatment takes three or four goes, so I’m not fully disheartened.

Anyway, Plenty Gorge was to be my first trail race with my new-ish vision. I had high hopes.

With my Salomon pack and blue buff, leading the charge of the runner army!

But I’d forgotten just how technical the course was. So while I could dance between rocks, there were still many others who could dance much faster. Eye-foot coordination will take time to improve, is what I’m telling myself. Here’s what I remember most.

The joy of the trails!

The twisty-turny single-tracks and the numerous rocks. Running powerfully uphill past people, then being passed by the same people on the downhills, numerous times. Tip-toeing across the river, not concerned in the least about wet shoes.

The thin plank of wood that was called a “bridge” and wondering if I could possibly crawl across it. The guy who passed me two metres before the finish line, saying “really?” to myself, and not chasing him. My friend Cissy buying me a coffee, and taking podium photos of her. Laughing with Andrea and Dean about driving around potholes. Andrea encouraging me to climb over red tape forbidding access to the toilets.

A friend commented on the professional photos, saying it looked a beautiful place to run. I wouldn’t know: I was watching my feet trying not to trip over the whole time.

But this one time…the pack had spread, there was no one right behind me: the trail was narrow and there were rocks just everywhere. And I began to dance. Just briefly, like I used to before my vision changed, before the floaters. My feet and eyes connected and I danced among those rocks and it was like playing a fast piece on the piano from memory. Intense and fluid and life-bringing, that dance, in the flow and of the flow and fast enough.

It lasted a few moments or minutes and then someone was behind me again, hurrying me, making me anxious.

But it happened and I’m hopeful with a few more laser-shots into my eyes, that it will happen more often.

I was fifth in my age category, 17 minutes behind brave number one, who I admire. But that doesn’t really matter, because we’re all on the podium, of course. It takes guts and grit and a bit of crazy to go running through rivers in winter, dancing between rocks and running wild. Thanks Rapid Ascent – it was an utter joy!

The 2018 Trail Running Series Race 4 (Anglesea)

My shoes are wet anyway, so why not skip the rocky bit on the beach, and run around it instead, by running in the sea?  That would surely be faster.  Give me a tiny edge on those runners who are braver on rocks than me.

Right.  Here we go.  I dart out to sea splashing in several inches of water, going around the rocks, clever me, proud of myself, brave and smart and fast.  Look at all those silly people, stepping carefully through the rocks on shore.  Look at me, running like a gazelle.  Ha!

That’s when I hit the hole.

What the heck?  The sea bed drops straight away and I am in big trouble, my arms flailing, my feet stumbling, I am going to face-plant straight into the ocean and break a leg at the same time!  Stumble-swear-stumble-swear…and I suddenly right myself.

Run on.

Wow.  That was close.  It would have looked spectacular from shore.  But nobody would have been looking anyway, as they all had to focus on those fist-sized rocks that wanted to sprain their ankles and have them bleeding (note: my friend Andrea was looking and wondering whether she should also run in the sea, but didn’t.  Smart).  I join the others on the rocks.

We run on.  The rocks finally finish and we are back on hard sand.  I love sand.  Flat, smooth, predictable.  I let loose, all those interval and tempo sessions coming into play, even though we are only in the first 5k of a 22.7k course and it is dumb to go fast so early.  Every now and again, I glance at the waves – massive, crashing and roaring – I make sure I keep open sand to my left so I can dodge them if they come ashore.

It is Race 4 of The Trail Running Series, and I am in for the long course.  It is also the Surfcoast Century weekend, so there is a huge buzz about the place, with tremendous 50 and 100k achievements being made.

Also in this beautiful place, slightly away from race headquarters, there is peace.  I find it as I wait for the start an hour before the race.

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Peaceful river before the race start

My little run feels short and insignificant in comparison to the 50 and 100k runs.  Except when I put it in context.  Three weeks earlier I had completed the Wonderland Run 20k in Halls Gap.  It wasn’t the distance, it was the driving solo there and back, and spending the weekend without my family for the first time.  I’d found in the following few weeks, I was more tired than I’d been in my entire life.  It was strange – I’m not used to that sort of tired, so I was being a bit careful today at Anglesea.

Well, I meant to be, anyway.

Truth be told, when they say go, I go.  Fast as I can, always.  I love fast.

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Towards the start of the beach section with Andrea and Chris nearby

The beach was wonderful.  Soon we came to Bird Rock and clambered up and over, and then I was surprised to find (read the course description more carefully next time) that after we came up onto some nice bitumen, then single track, we went back to the beach for ages and ages.  I think.  Maybe.  Someday, hours later (minutes, seconds?) we came to Point Addis and the soft sand ate my shoes, and I wondered at the woman who chose to pass me just then (why?  when it is so soul-draining to run in soft sand, and we’ve got 13k to go?).

Up the stairs, memories of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon that began here on a king tide kind of a day, laughing all the way – I stopped and took a photo (I stopped in a race and took a photo!  Who am I!) because it was just so beautiful.

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Off we ran and here’s where it gets blurry and mixed up.  I believe there was road.  I ran downhill fast, loving the speed and the smoothness.  No treachery there.  Soon we turned onto that ‘flowing, fast single track’.  Lots of rocks and roots, switchbacks, grass trees that made me raise my arms to protect my eyes.  People passing me on the downs and me passing them on the ups.  And glorious moments when it seemed I was the only runner out there, where I was utterly alone and there was no pressure to be faster than I was.  The landscape hugged me tight.  I was more agile than in the past few years, jumping fallen trees and spinning around the hairpin turns.

Gel after gel, because I was hungry as well as extra-tired.  Loving the boost of sugar that briefly gave me wings.  On and on that single track went, though.  My feet were beginning to cramp and my eyes water.  It took complete focus not to face-plant.  I saw several runners go down and was grateful when they all got back up.

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Late in the run, about 18k in, it was my turn.  I was tired, and kicked a root.  I tripped, swore, stumbled, felt my calves seizing up in both legs, and the stumble seemed to go on and on, like in a nightmare, step after step, pound, pound, stumble, and then suddenly, I righted myself and kept running without falling.  It was amazing. I’ve fallen nearly every time I’ve run Anglesea but this time, I kept my feet.  Hooray!  No blood or grit to pick out of my hands and knees.  And my calves hadn’t snapped.  I ran on.

Surely that lovely downhill to Anglesea must be coming soon.  I lived for that bit of this race.  Flat, fast, down.  I always made up time there.  Except (read the course description more carefully), we seemed to be going down a technical and steep downhill this time.  What had happened?  Had rain destroyed my beautiful track?  And where was the view of the sea?  Oh god.  Was it going to be this way all the way down?  Pick my steps, let people pass, don’t stumble, don’t fall.  Keep going.  Down and down and there is no lovely smooth bit.  Unfair, I want to shout.  You tricked me.  I run on.

Glance at my watch.  What?  It had said 16k – now it says 13?  How did that happen?  No no no!  But this happened before the downhill, obviously – you know how the race moments merge into one long blur of trees going by and people passing you?

Damn my eyes.  Damn the floaters that make it impossible to judge rough terrain quickly enough to react to it.  Three years they’ve plagued me.  Yes, my muscles and sinews can run faster, my heart and lungs, but I simply can’t see what’s right underneath me, and what you can’t see can twist an ankle and send you flying.  Grrr.  I think about being 52.  How I began trail running at 37, and how I loved the technical stuff, the dancing at speed with danger.  How I miss that.  Then I give myself a mental shake and let this Bodypump song start to play in my mental and then my verbal playlist:  I am here….I am here…I’ve already seen the bottom so there’s nothing to fear…I am here…

I belt out the words (I’m alone again for a few minutes) and I just revel in the fact that, although I can’t run the technical stuff as fast right now, damn it, I am out here doing this.  22.7k of twisty, technical trails, beach running, rock clambering, I just ran straight out into the ocean for two hundred metres and kept right on running, and I wasn’t at all worried.  I am here.  That’s what counts.

So when the next fifty or so people pass me on the downhill, I try to be gracious.  We finally get to the flat bit near the caravan park, and I let go.  Zoom-Zoom, like my Mazda.  We’re at 21k, I can hear the shouts and cheers at the finish, I encourage a poor guy who’s walking.  Not far now, I say.

I’m wrong though.  Around a corner. Another corner.  A glimpse of river.  A boardwalk.  Another k.  22.5.  Hey.  We’re still running. Another corner.  Um.  Hey?!  24k!  We’re meant to be done!  Where are you cheering people??  Did I take a wrong turn?  What the heck?  24.2!  Okay, now.  This is like the maze they put rats in, and you cheering people are the cheese!

Suddenly I see the finish chute.  People are cheering and I’m smiling and there is no one at all to race, but I race anyway. The kids have lined up for the Kids Race, and I move quick to get out of the way because they look eager and have Clint Eastwood eyes, pure focus and speed about to bolt.

Across the line, and spent.  Utterly spent.

Afterwards, I join four friends for lunch.  We laugh and eat and talk runners nonsense, drink coffee like it is nectar to the gods, share our stories and move slowly on sore feet and legs.


I finally get in the car to drive home alone, after this wonderful race.  I sit still for a moment.  The wonder of that lunch hits me all of a sudden:  I enjoyed it!  I never enjoy group things – I lose my ability to speak and am all awkward.

Except today.  These people.  They are real to me in a way that makes runners real.  There is nothing to hide.  no makeup needed, no pretense.  I suddenly feel that this is what I was running towards all this time.  These friendships and this laughter, and this sense that I am simply okay, whatever speed I can run.

Silvan (Race 3 The Trail Running Series): aka lowering the bar

‘I’m coming at you like a daaaark horse…’

I sang in my head as I drove my legs up the first real hill climb in Race 3 (long course, 21k for me) of The Trail Running Series.  My target was my close friend Andrea, who was twenty metres ahead of me.  She’d bolted past me on the technical single track a few minutes earlier.  She’s much nicer than me:  when she’d passed me, she’d said kind things, you can do it Patricia, you’ve got this, hugely supportive and welcome words.

Unlike me, pursuing her like a predator, Katy Perry’s song ringing in my ears.  I was predator, she was prey.

Though I was secretly smiling to myself:  I know I’m strong on the uphills, but I always get caught on the downs.  Andrea says she’s more reckless than me; I say she’s braver.

Most people are.  I know because all of them fly by me as I carefully pick my way along, memories of sprained ankles and face-plants echoing in my head.

So, yes, I was coming at her like a dark horse, but she’d be coming at me a few minutes later on the downhill.  Like a…I don’t know.  What’s a metaphor for someone much nicer than a dark horse?  Like a rainbow unicorn with a kind smile?  It was funny how we played cat-and-mouse-and-cat, each encouraging the other, and competing, my trail running buddy and I.

The race course?  Oh yes.  We began on single track just above the Silvan Reservoir Dam.  Easier than I recalled at first, with more visibility and less fallen trees.  I was running along, thinking, well, this isn’t so bad, enjoying the pace and the fun, wondering if I’d misremembered those tree hurdles.  Nope.  They came up eventually, but because I’d been box jumping at the gym, they didn’t seem quite as hard.  Hooray.

I was carrying a couple of injuries into this run, so was careful of foot placement.  Apparently, I had a tear in my ITB (not as easy thing to do, apparently, and it seems I must have run into the edge of something in the not so distant past), and a bit of knee tendonitis in the opposite knee (not a meniscal tear – another hooray!).  I asked the physio how to heal all this.  Rest.

Ha.  Rest.  I’m a fifty-two year-old woman with two kids, two dogs, and two cats.  I do the heavy lifting in my family.  Literally.  Rest was not going to happen.  I don’t do well on rest anyway, so I was going to be hopping and swearing a bit in this race no matter what.

To my pleasure though (or maybe because I was distracted by racing Andrea), nothing hurt.  Oh, yes, a twinge now and then, but no big deal.  Every chance I got, I bolted.  Down the smoother downhills.  Up the bigger hills.  Coaching my feet to a fast cadence, my posture to upright and looking ahead.

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I was smiling.  It was great fun, the twisting and turning, the agility.  But then there she was again, passing me, shouting her kind encouraging words, which did push me faster but made my dark horse song seem churlish in comparison.  I didn’t really mean it, I thought.  Go Andrea, go!

I knew this run well.  Knew the up on Rifle Range Gully Track was coming and knew it was going to hurt.  Oh, it did.  I played leapfrog with a few other runners in this section, and we were all considerate and nice, making it pleasant and almost fun.

Here and there a photographer appeared and I controlled the grimace of hard effort long enough to smile, and thought with envy of the runners who could jump up into poses.  One day, maybe.

10722763_main_5b67c6b578466.jpegSomewhere, I passed Andrea again.  I’d made up ground steadily.  I was sure of it.  Five minutes ahead, definitely.  If I could keep that gap, maybe I’d podium today after all.  We were about 10k in.  We ran across some lovely smooth grass between unlikely trees, then we were off downhill again on Manna Gum Track, and just like that, Andrea ran in front of me again.  Glowing kindness.  Damn damn damn.  I was cramping already, so I sucked down an electrolyte capsule.  I wasn’t going to catch her.  I’d thought to hold her off until the final downhill section, where I knew she’d get me, but if she was ahead here…

Well.

I subtly readjusted my goals.  Maybe I even said it aloud?  It is no good to have the sole goal of a race to be a podium finish.  It’s too easy to finish, and be disappointed.  There’s always likely to be someone faster.  So I began to play this game:  Okay.  She’s got me beaten.  What about I go for a PB instead?  I thought I knew my PB times on this course.  It was either 2:17 or 2:22.  Let’s say 2:22.  Okay?  I’m not looking back in my records now, not at this stage.

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So I was going for a PB now.  Not a podium.

Cool.  I ran and ran, as fast as I could.  No more dark horses on this trail.  Just a horse trying not to cramp up or face-plant or feel something in my ITB go SNAP before the finish.

Hey, maybe it was getting to be time to lower the bar again?  Success equaled finishing the race and not being broken at the end.  Yes.

Was that Andrea’s blue shirt up ahead?  Nope.  That was the woman in the next age category up that I’d been trying to keep pace with.  Darn it.  They were all in front of me.

Ah well.  Another gel.  Beautiful trees.  Blue sky.  Eagle Nest Road.  I’m like an eagle.  I wrote about an eagle once in my book Akilina.  This is my road.  I’m the eagle.  Fly like an eagle…Oh my lord, my blood sugar is getting low.  I have another (my last) gel.

I know what’s coming.  Intimately.  That nasty slippy section by the road and wire fence.  The one I can never run fast on because I’m not…wait, because I’m careful. That’s the word.  Here we go.  Slip slide.  Wishing I’d worn my shoes with bigger lugs instead of these worn-down ones with more cushioning.  There’s that girl in the tights.  I pass her – hooray – I passed someone.  But moments later, she flashes by me again and disappears down the hill.  Sigh.  Keep running.  Pass a walker.  Encourage her.  The guy I’ve seen throughout the race passes me.

No problem, I think.  Stonyford Road – that’s coming and that’s my playground.

Last year, my song was I’m sorry I’m not sorry.  I sang it in my head when I passed all the people who had passed me on this section.  I rehearse it in my mind as I plan to chase this guy.  I let him go but keep him in sight.

We’re on the road now, and I slowly reel him in.  Like a fish on a loose line.  I keep watch for potholes and shift side to side but I am on him (like a darkish horse) and I manage to pass him and am just congratulating myself, when we see the volunteer who directs us to the (terrible terrible awful whose idea was this) last little bit of single track instead of letting us run down that nice smooth road.

And of course, the guy I’d just passed, well, he passes me.

I have to laugh and I run and run, knowing it’s not far, I can hear the party going on just ahead.  We pull out onto the road, run through the tiny car park, and I hear someone behind me, and say come on, let’s finish together and he says what? and I repeat myself but by then he’s caught up and begins running next to me, then puts on a sudden burst and I’m left to cross the line alone.

Alone?  No.  I hear three or four friends cheering my name and I’m so happy they are there, but I don’t look at them, because I have seen the clock and it says 2:21 and I am going to beat that 2:22 – that’s suddenly my ultimate and final race goal and I push and push and push and the clock says 2:21:31 just as I pass the arch.

Success!  Victory!  I came at my PB like a dark horse.

Though I have this sudden uneasy feeling that maybe that PB was 2:17.  Maybe.  I’m not looking.

I go to check results.  I’ve come in 6th in my age category (How?  How?  It was only Andrea and I racing!) but Andrea has come third, and a smile breaks out on my face.  Yay for my friend!

Then I see Cissy, who has come 2nd.  And Janet, who has come 1st.

I stay for the awards ceremony and take tons of photos of all these wonderful friends, and the competition – well, it doesn’t even occur to me in those moments.  I’m simply happy to have friends, and be able to share in their joy.

Lowering the bar.  My husband laughs later when I tell him my thoughts during the race and mentions lowering the bar.  I laugh too.

It’s not until later, when another friend sends me this picture that I finally get the meaning behind this race.  It was not the race at all. It is the friendships and the woods and the camaraderie.

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My favourite photo: my capturing Cissy on the podium!

Andrea gave me her muesli prize for my 14-year-old son, who had loved it last time.  We held it together and had a photo.  And that photo and that bag of cereal means more to me than any win ever will.

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What a great race this woman ran! And she shared her muesli!

Singing in the rain: The Trail Running Series, Race 1, Westerfolds Park

Running in the sunshine bores me.  Smooth trails and dry footing and calm smooth rivers:  big, sullen yawns.

So when I woke to the ongoing rain on Sunday morning at four am (well, I say woke, I should say, when I glanced again at the clock), I was happy.  I got up early, though, expecting the roads to be flooded and traffic heavy.  I was headed for the long course (15km) in Race 1 of The Trail Running Series, held in Westerfolds Park, in a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria (Australia), in the dead of winter.

I arrived at Westerfolds Park before dawn, before even first light.  I knew to turn right once I entered the park, but that’s all I knew.  No one had arrived yet, and there was no signage up for the race.  There were a few cars parked in a lonely section and I nearly parked near them, but I got scared, being a woman alone, and drove off.  I navigated by Google Maps, trying out various pitch-dark areas, reading misleading signs and wondering where I was.

A ray of light in the darkness

Then, in the distance: light!

Race Headquarters was glowing in the dark.  I made my way towards it, staying somehow on the road, and finally parked just across from the tents.  When I switched off my headlights, I was met with utter darkness, but for race headquarters.

 

 

 

 

I was even earlier than usual but this really didn’t matter.  I sat in silence and watched the rain.  I had nowhere to go until 8:30, and it was only 6:45.  The rain fell hard and then softly, and began to flow in thin rivers through the wet park.  The sky gradually turned a lighter shade of grey and a kookaburra appeared, soaked, in the tree branches in front of my car. It didn’t seem moved by the rain.

In time, a few friends texted that they were on the way, but none of us wanted to exit our cars into the rain.  It was unlike any event I’ve ever attended in this way, and it was kind of neat.  We were all hidden in the solitude of our cars in the pouring rain, gazing at race headquarters and wondering when to come out.

A lighter shade of grey

Finally, I decided to brave a toilet run, and was immediately soaked.  My shoes filled with water, my socks were saturated and I was laughing my head off, jumping around the rivers that had formed in this grassy park.  Thankfully, I still had my waterproof hiking pants and ski jacket on, so I didn’t really get wet.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally the sun rises, and the rivers are revealed!

There are the other people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the car, at about 8 am, I stripped off all my outer layers, down to 2XU tights, a singlet, and a light rain jacket.  I slipped my running pack on top, and became like that Kookaburra, unafraid of the rain.  I got out about 8:10 am for an 8:20 warmup.

We warmed up, my friend Andrea and I next to one another, while the HIIT Factory encouraged us to stretch more than I ever do, and I jogged in place and got warm.  I quickly removed my rain jacket and tucked it in my pack.  Andrea said, monkey see, monkey do, and removed hers too.

It was still raining and we were already wet and cold, but it didn’t matter; this was what we’d come for, and the conditions were nearly identical to a training run we’d done a week before.

The race began.  I didn’t have time to feel nervous; we were just off.  Oh, it was blisteringly fun!  I’ve never felt stronger in a run, especially on the smoother sections, where I could fly.  Soon, we hit the puddles though.  I say puddles; they were more like rivers.  Sections where the entire trail became like a river-bed and we could only skirt the edges on either side or plow through the centre.  I chose my plowing sections with care; the trails were often criss-crossed with tree roots that could be hidden under all the water, so I tended to skirt these, and plow through the ones on the road.

It was no matter: we were soaked and I was having the time of my life.  I’d found my sweet spot where the same three or four of us kept passing each other (I’m slower on technical stuff but faster uphill and on the flat), and the field spread out enough to really open up the legs.

So much fun in the pouring rain!

Several times we crossed bridges across the fast-flowing Yarra, whose turbulent waters were a delight, grey and white and wild and just what I had been longing to see.  Around me were runners in various states of readiness for this weather.  I’d not worn my new trail shoes in these conditions, and was delighted at their certain grip on the slipperier sections.  Others had come in road shoes, and made slides back and forth, managing, somehow to stay on their feet.  One young guy reminded me of Fred Astaire, sliding across the trails, arms in the air, nearly going down, but not; it was magical to watch, but I passed him as soon as I could, so as not to get taken out by a wayward slide.

A few times, the long, short, and medium courses merged, and the paces changed.  Some faster runners bolted past us; other slower ones were slogging it out and I was so proud of the ones that were struggling and bravely pushing on.

Photographers appeared, and sometimes I could look up and smile, but often they were at a technical section, so I kept my eyes down and focused.

It was a race; I ran as fast as I possibly could, leaving nothing in the tank for later, and loving every single minute of it.  The puddles and the mud, the rain lashing me, the feeling of being alive in the wildness of it and my capable body carrying me through the madness.

We finished.  I was so wet and cold, I didn’t even notice my finish time, but heard Andrea shout well done and knew she’d beaten me (and she was in my age category).  It didn’t matter somehow, not today.  Today was for joy and not for winning.

We didn’t hang around long.  Already, hypothermia was threatening.  We hugged and laughed and went back to our cars.  I contemplated changing my clothes in the change rooms but knew as soon as I stepped out in dry clothes, I’d be soaked again.

So I did what every real trail runner would do.  I waited until my breath had fogged up my car windows, slunk down in the seat, and changed in the car.  It took the whole way home to feel my hands again, but I was smiling the entire way.

Thanks for the wild ride, Rapid Ascent!  We don’t get many chances to jump in puddles as adults, and I loved every minute of it!  See you at Race 2.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Age category winners of the Medium Course

 

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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!