So much of life is mundane: buy the groceries, do the laundry, feed the kids, maintain the garden. But then there are the moments that make your heart soar. Like the night race of The Trail Running Series. A heart-soaring, adrenalin-pumping, crazy race to the soul.
It was the fully dark. The trail was narrow and studded with rocks that appeared unpredictability. Within the small pool of light from my head torch, I was running as fast as I could, slaloming around turns, dancing over rocks and tree roots, and once in a while, when the trail flattened, bolting like a racehorse out of the starting gate.
We were running Race 5 (medium course, 10.6km) of The Trail Running Series, the last of these epic blasts for the year. It was at Yarra Bend, a suburban park bisected by the Yarra River on a Saturday night, and there was a great big party going on in an open field, complete with lights, drink, food, music, and runners of every description whose point of commonality was their glowing smiles.
What were we doing, running trails in the dark? What form of group madness was this? And why was it so much fun?
Right before we set off, I admitted to my husband that I was nervous. He joked – “What of? Falling over and smashing your head on a rock in the dark?” Yup. Uh huh. Not so funny when that’s actually what you’re afraid of. Not when I’d face-planted a few weeks before in full daylight on a smooth trail. I put the fear to one side: there was no point in being scared. I wasn’t going to trip. Not tonight.
My vision is better than last year. And last year, I did the long course, after flying in from the Gold Coast the same day and having a huge battle with my kids to even get to the start. After finishing that race, I cried in the dark, alone, for the many difficulties of life, so I never blogged about it. And I didn’t even trip that year.
This year is looking promising. We’ve had two weeks of school holidays, where I’ve reduced my usual sport (no weight lifting or swimming), and have simply run. I feel energetic and light, and there have been no family fights this year. And 10 km is my favourite race distance.
We warm up, then move to the start line. Soon the countdown and start horn, and then we’re off fast. So fast I can’t breathe. We’re running on long, rough grass and when my friend Chris comes up behind me and says hi, I can’t look up at him for fear I’ll fall over a hundred meters into the race.
We run on. I’ve memorised the course and know it’s only about 2km to the Pipe Bridge so I go with the fast pace. The pack thins, and this section is smooth and runnable. A little later, I take the stairs up to the Pipe Bridge two at a time, feeling strong after the Wonderland Run in August, but I’m forced to slow down on the slippery metal bridge. I’m all alone on the bridge, but can see the lights of other runners on a trail down below. I can’t recall the route to get me there. Thankfully, the course is very well marked with reflective arrows and coloured ribbons. With a smaller field, I’m often alone during the race and keep a close eye on course markings to stay on track.
I love the solo running and feeling no pressure from behind. At about 3 km there’s a water stop, but I keep going. For the next five kilometres the course gets technical. Single-track, lots of rocks appearing from nowhere, undulations, twists and turns, overhanging vegetation, and a steep drop to the river on one side of the narrow trail. (I know this because a couple of years ago, I helped to rescue someone who’d fallen down there.) Some runners pass me, and a few stumble and fall, so I keep the pace conservative.
I’m slower on these sections, but I’m much faster than previous years and even if I’m being passed by other runners, I feel terrific. I’ve got more bounce, lifting my feet up higher over obstacles. I’m grateful for my improved vision and resulting agility – I could cheer aloud. Periodically, I step aside to let faster, braver runners by, and keep on at my pace.
It’s challenging terrain, but before long we come to the lovely smooth bitumen section. There, I quickly reel in some of the people who’d passed me. Soon I’m red-lining, gasping for breath, because now I am going absolutely as fast as I can. I want that guy in front of me, then the next guy, then the one after him, and then suddenly someone’s on my tail and I refuse, refuse, refuse to be passed here, on my strong section, so I put my foot down even harder and I fly, hold him at bay for a while.
Out of nowhere, we see a couple holding hands and walking (walking!) on the footpath in front of us. Romantic. We both leap down onto the road, then back up when we’re past them, and the other runners says “Let know if you need help, but I don’t think you do” and I smile at the compliment but I’m too out of breath to reply. Inevitably, he pulls ahead and I wish I’d had the breath to say thanks.
Instead, I run on in the dark. I know the last 2km is coming, where we head back on the trails, so I pull the pace back a little, and soon I turn down a gap in the fencing and on shaky legs, make my way down wooden stairs that end in rough rocks. Carefully, I cross, and then the track smooths and off I go again, foot down, racing, racing, laughing alone in the dark.
In the trees by the river I hear the rustling (possums, birds?) but I’m running too fast to see them. The trail is gravel and easy running, and I pass a few people, then I’m alone once more, flying in darkness. There’s not much distance left, but I’m running so hard I’m not sure I can maintain it the whole way. Soon we’re crossing the swing bridge across the Yarra, and I feel seasick as it wobbles.
We turn left and the gravel path widens but still some tree roots appear at random. In daylight, that would be fine, but in the full dark, it’s dangerous so I concentrate on foot placement. It’s only troublesome when I try to pass other runners,; it’s hard to pass and not trip.
I’m sure we’re close to the finish but I’ve gone so hard that I’m getting desperate. Suddenly, little glow lights on sticks appear on the ground and I know the finish is coming. I pass a young boy and his dad, just to avoid tripping and get some open trail.
On the grass, under the lights, towards the finish arch the young boy bolts by me, and I smile – good for you, I think, that’s terrific – and don’t try to catch him – I want him to get this – I’m not even sure I could catch him – then I cross the line and I’m shattered and done and finished in 1:01.
I’m still catching my breath when I hear Sam, the Race Director, announcing that I’ve just crossed the finish line – it makes me happy that he knows my name and that he mentions my blog.
I go to thank him and he holds the microphone out to me, and I’m breathless and lost for the words to answer his good questions. I blab a bit of nothing with a lot of enthusiasm and forget to say my thank you, so thank you Sam, for acknowledging me by name – it was really nice.
I also chat with Ben, who’s taking photos for Rapid Ascent. We talk blogs, writing and running and he tells me he’s about to participate in his first trail race. I’m beyond enthusiastic for him, and rapidly describe lots of great local events. Though I’m getting cold now and slurring my words with exhaustion, it’s cool to see someone about to join this crazy club. I’m looking forward to reading his write-up!
I find my friends and family and we gulp down lots of water and join in the party, loving the live music, the festival atmosphere full of happy, inspired, elated runners, some with bloody knees, but all with light in their eyes.
We wait for presentations – I’ve got my eyes on those curly potatoes on a stick, but I decide to wait – just in case…I’m too tired to check the race results, and I want to be surprised and not carrying potatoes on a stick if I’ve made the podium.
We listen to all the short course results, and then medium is up. Sam starts with the 70+ group and works his way down, so my 50-59 age group is soon up. I listen carefully: 3rd place finished in 1:03. That means I’m in with a chance at 1:01 and sure enough, my name is called for second place in my age category. I’m absolutely elated as this is the toughest of all the races for me.
The Series results are announced just after Race 5 results, and the winner in my age category is Sandra, who has definitively won every single race. Claire gets second, and I’m delighted to get third. We line up on the podium for photos. Our sparklers glitter in the dark and we’re all smiles.
Even better is to hear that Dean has taken 1st in his age category for Race 5 and 1st in the Series, and Andrea 2nd in her age category for Race 5 and 2nd in the Series. Wonderful results and very well-earned.
What a race; what a Series. Truly, much of life is mundane. How wonderful, then, to have this series of races each year to put light in our eyes, to provide a highlight reel of magical moments.
Thanks Rapid Ascent, volunteers, fellow runners and family. We ran the night, and it was bliss.