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!

 

 

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The 2017 Trail Running Series Race 4, Anglesea: I feel glorious

 

“I feel glorious, glorious, a chance to start again.  I was born for this, born for this.  It’s who I am, how could I forget.  I made it through the darkest part of the night and now I see the sunrise.  Now I feel glorious, glorious.  I feel glorious, glorious.”  I’m singing along with Macklemore as I drive alone down the freeway at dawn on my way to Anglesea, to the start of The Trail Series Race 4.

It’s true: the glorious bit.  I wasn’t sure I’d even make it to the start line of this run a few days ago.  The sun is just rising, and these words might have been written just for me.

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Last Saturday I ran my favourite Bayside trail, an easy recovery run after the Wonderland 20k Trail Run in the Grampians.  I felt it when it happened, after just two kilometres; the “ouch” sensation sent a chill through me.  Surely not, I thought.  That twinge in my left calf will go away after I warm up.  This is not an injury.

I kept running, as you do.  I finished the 10k run, even though I knew that the ouch had not faded.  Not one little bit.

It was exactly six days after I’d completed Wonderland, and another eight until I’d stand at the start of the fourth race in The Trail Series at Anglesea, a 15k beauty.

I waited until Tuesday to try running again.  Another 10k; another ouch.  I’m not really a learning creature.  I taught my pump classes, swam, changed nothing except for limping a little.  I booked a physio, then squeezed in one last run and weights session at the gym (6k on the treadmill, ouch ouch ouch), before confessing to the physio how utterly stupid I had been.  She was kind.  Compassionate.  She gave me heel lifts to put in my shoes and prescribed isometric calf raises 3x a day; she was very clear that if I raced without the heel lifts, I’d be at risk of further injury.  Worried, I asked if I should trial them before the race.  Yes, do 1k with them in, she said, certainly.  Dutifully, I did my exercises, wore my heel lifts, felt taller and wobblier as a result.  I tried the 1k the night before The Trail Series.  All was good, until half an hour later, when my foot hurt so much I couldn’t walk.  After a desperate message to my physio at 7 pm on Saturday (yes, she’s that good), we decided risking my foot was too dangerous.  I wouldn’t wear the heel lifts, choosing to risk my Achilles over my foot.

I was worried, not a good mental state the night before a trail run.  Add to this that my husband had been very ill for two weeks, and the kids had their final soccer on Sunday, so I was going to have to drive alone to Anglesea and back (two hours each way) on race morning; I was a bit of a wreck.

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It was a good thing that our bedroom clock was twenty minutes fast.  I got up on race morning, thinking it was 4:50 am, but really it was 4:30 and I had all the time in the world.  I drove alone on the M1 from Hampton; I chose my mantra after I noticed my hands were growing numb from gripping the steering wheel too tightly.  I said it aloud now and again – “I am capable” – because I get scared driving alone to new places.

It was dark when I set out; halfway there, somewhere near Bacchus Marsh, the sky was growing light.  That’s when Glorious came on the radio, and I awakened to the fact that I was going to make it, at least to the start line.

I feel glorious, glorious…

Oh the joy when I arrived, just at 7 am, and got my favourite parking position, right by the race headquarters.

It was cold and empty and I was delighted by the serenity.  I began to wander, soaking in the quiet and the sunrise.  I meandered by the river to the beach, where the sun was just kissing the cliffs golden below the lifesaving club.  The surf rolled in, unconcerned about my calf and this race.  I was there before the start line flags were up, when the dog walkers still owned the place.  A lone runner jogged back and forth from the sea’s edge up to the soft sand; another man stood and watched the sea.  I didn’t make eye contact; this was soul time, alone time, and I treasured it.  If all I had done that day was this, it would have been enough.

 

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Serene beach

Time passed.  I tucked these personal moments away to savour later, and began my circuit between race headquarters, my car, and the toilets.  Amazing how an hour can disappear.  I found Cissy and Les and Tony, who I had been looking forward to seeing, chatted, and allowed myself to slowly wind up to race pace.

It didn’t seem long at all until we made our way to the beach to watch the long course runners go. Moments later, we gathered for the Medium Course and I stood to the side with some friends as the more limber runners did a terrific warm up.  Bouncing up and down was beyond me this morning; I was saving all the bounce my calf had for the 5k on the beach.

 

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Warming up before the race start.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

We set off, racing down the beach and around the flag.  I kept the pace conservative, testing how my ankle felt without the heel rise.  Before long, we were splashing our way across Anglesea River, and I was relishing the cold, numbing water.

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We’re off, short sprint down the beach and back.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Ah, the beach run; how to describe the beauty of running below the towering cliffs, the sun just rising, runners stretched as far as I could see into the hazy distance?  It was magical.

Of course, there were those rocks to dash to earth all of the beauty-talk, all of this airy-fairness.  They were eminently trip-able, and I danced between them with care, following the smooth tracks worn in the sand by runners over the last two days.  I pondered the other runners who ran just below the cliffs where it was more rocky; I stayed on the firmer sand by the sea.  Each runner has their happy place, and I’ve learned not to follow others.  I didn’t care if the tide washed over me; others did.

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Below the towering cliffs of Anglesea.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

We climbed a few rocky outcrops; I was slow but it was fun.  We were faced with a choice at this stage: soft sand running, or the steeply angled harder sand where the tide was rolling in.  I opted for seaside and played dash-away from the waves, but soon all the hard sand ran out and we were left bogged down in soft sand making our way onto the largest rock crossing  It reared up with two potential paths; I was confused but it seemed both paths led to the same trail that led off the beach and up the hill.  I chose the left track and up I went.

Now, hills and I have a deal.  I win the ups and they win the downs.  Going up only takes strength and determination, not courage, and I can go up all day long, because I’m nothing if not determined.  My best friend used to say I was like Monica in Friends, the one who could get stuck on something crazy and be unable to let it go.  Yes, highly offensive and absolutely true.  That’s what hills are like for me; stick one in front of me and I’ll keep climbing it as fast as I can until I die.

So I enjoyed the climbs up to the 12k point.  There were a  few descents thrown in for good measure, and on the more technical ones of these, I gave way, as usual.  On the smoother ones I did my usual bolt-and-burn to catch up with those awful people who had been able to pass me.

Only today, because my calf was still saying ouch, I couldn’t go quite as fast.  Well, I could.  I decided about ten kilometres in to just go.  If I was going to be injured, I might as well enjoy this last race before I had to focus on rehabilitation.  So I let loose.  If the calf hurt, I fed it a gel or a salt tablet, tried to keep my stride light and short, and just went for my life.

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Me in the green buff, in utter joy

My blow-by-blow of the course gets lost in my head, because I spend so much of these runs trying not to fall on my face.  I had a beautiful glimpse of the sea once; there was a lot of yellow wattle in bloom; the grass trees went swish like water as I parted them whilst running; the tree roots captured my attention, crisscrossing the paths with ankle-breaking regularity, keeping me in the moment; the two men in blue who I kept passing and who kept passing me; the woman in the pink singlet who I couldn’t catch; the woman who asked how far we had gone because I had a Garmin on and I had to tell her to wait a minute because I couldn’t look at my watch without face-planting just then; the man I said hello to who I only then realised I knew, who told me he’d just had a fall and was a little shaken up then ran fast away; the final section.  Beardy Runner, fellow blogger, was that you?  You were so fast, I wasn’t sure.

Oh, I always remember the final section; it’s engraved in my memory from many, many events.

We run near the caravan park on a path that is trail to the left and rough bitumen to the right.  I’ve stayed on the trail side in past races, in a bitumen-is-boring purist attitude, but today I lapped up the bitumen, blazing myself as fast as I could along that path, making up the places, then up the yellow hill, along the final flat section, down to the staircase, and onto the beach.  The guy next to me kept getting too close on the beach, driving me to the softer sand, so I upped the pace and blazed past him too.  We splashed across the river a final time, me thinking about holes in the seabed and going cautiously.

Then, like in a nightmare, the soft sand reappeared.  It was miles and miles long but it was only ten meters.  My shoes sunk in and my Achilles screamed in foul language and the guy I had just passed blazed by me and kids were playing on the river and I was afraid they’d step in front of wobbling me and I’d fall over them but I tried to step lightly and ignore the ouch in my calf and I finally got onto that wonderful little bit of concrete path and people were cheering but not for me so I decided I would grab the cheers for their friend and have them anyway, and I ran my heart out to get over that finish line.

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Crossing the line

The man at the mic said my name and said he thought I’d got second in my age category, and I have to admit I was disappointed because I hadn’t seen the woman who usually beats me that day and was hoping she’d stayed home, but now I knew she hadn’t and she had won again!

No matter, I was telling myself, when this lovely woman named Kate came up and told me she loved my blog, and that made my day, even as I gasped and tried to catch my breath to thank her.  We chatted and later I found some friends and we shared our race day stories.

Afterwards, my feet cramped and I was all limpy and gimpy and I didn’t care one bit.  I had made it here to the party of the year, where the Surfcoast Century and The Trail Series come together to make a phenomenal weekend of trail joy for so many people.

All around me, I saw warriors dressed as runners, some nursing sore legs from 50 or 100km runs the day before, some carrying wounds like sprained ankles, or cuts and bruises, but all wearing the elated expression that comes from these wonderful races.  The outdoor eyes of athletes who have just had an extraordinary experience in the wild of our world.

I got to chat with the number 1 winner of my age category – we’ve become friends – and to laugh about how far behind her I was today.  On the podium, I smiled, quietly thrilled that even though I was a little broken, I was still able to compete well.

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Delighted to be on the podium with 2nd in my age category.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Now, a day later, I’m still feeling, frankly, glorious.  Though this is my desk view as I work, with physio exercises staring me straight in the eye.

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The heel raisers have not way their way back into my shoes though.  I taught a body pump class last night in my minimalist shoes, and oddly, my calf felt better afterwards.

This week is rest and recovery, and hopefully getting this injury gone.

In the meantime, I will continue to live like this lovely dog below, on the edge, enjoying the views and every wonderful moment that the trails throw at me.

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We’re on the edge.  Photo credit: Rapid Ascent

Which reminds me, it’s only a few weeks until Race 5 in The Trail Series, where we take to the technical single-track above the Yarra River in Studley Park, in the dark!

I’m smiling, just thinking about it.  I must get a theme song sorted for the drive there.

Thanks again Rapid Ascent, for a glorious day out at Anglesea!

Oh – one more thing – I’ve just finished the first draft of my third book, a novel called Running Wild, and will be coming out soon!  It’s a wilderness adventure story of four women who go to compete in a 50km trail run in the Blue Mountains, and what goes wrong.

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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.

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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.

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Ghost hill

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Checking out the course two weeks before the event

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!