The Trail Running Series Race 4, Anglesea (medium course)

I’m singing to myself as I run along the narrow trail: I am who I am, I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity…

We’re about 8 kilometres into this 15k event, and I’m moving fast, enjoying the flow of this single track for the first time in several years. I’m not sure if it’s my vision being better (the laser therapy for floaters has really helped me see the trail again), or if it’s because someone has dumped a heap of sand all along this once technical trail, and now it’s smooth and runnable. Either way, I love the feeling.

It’s unfamiliar, this confidence in my speed. It’s like finding myself as I was ten or fifteen years ago, feeling pleasure in descents, dancing a bit with danger.

We began on the beach, in sunshine. It was Race 4 of The Trail Running Series 2019 in glorious Anglesea in early spring.

Below the cliffs in Anglesea, magical

It was easy terrain but hard running, as I pushed the pace early. My favourite moment was when I saw the tide was in, and that we’d have to scramble through the ocean to upper-thigh height. In normal life, I’d never do this; alone, I’d think it was nuts. But here, today, I laugh and laugh and run straight in below the giant cathedral-like cliffs, foolish and fearless and joyful.

The beach section goes for five kilometres, and then we scramble over some rocks.

The once-scary rocks

This section used to scare me; it doesn’t today. Just as we hit the top, though, some guy smashes my arm with his watch as he passes and though he says sorry, I’m distracted, and turn the wrong way.

It takes a second for my brain to see the pink ribbon, to think, hey, that’s not green, I’m on the long course, not the medium course, and then I quickly turn back and get onto the green-ribboned marked medium course.

Phew! That was close! A few people had followed me, and I warn them, so we all got back on course.

I’d been pacing myself with a fit-looking woman in shorts, and now I caught her. I heard her telling a running mate she hadn’t trained on hills, so I lost her as I moved upward; I love uphills, as they allow me to make up for downhills. She’d catch me up again towards the end, as often happens. We were even caught at the finish line together in a photo!

A gel, a sip of water, running smoothly, climbing up and up. I know this course, having run here for many years but the trail had been smoothed and was easier than usual. Strangely, except for this bit by the Heart Foundation guy – I was too scared of tripping to high five him!

Narrowly escaping face plant – no high five possible- sorry Big Heart guy!

Details escape me now. I recall a water stop where I took a salt capsule and swallowed a cup of water at ten kilometres, and then we began to descend. It was easy at first, including some dirt road where I flew, but it soon became rough and more technical and I got passed and had to focus on myself and the song in my head.

It’s a funny thing – we’ve all got strengths and we’ve all got challenges. They differ person to person, but no one gets a free ride. It’s easy to have compassion for other people’s “weaknesses” but much harder to do so for our own. So I have to remind myself as I’m passed that this is my personal best and I’m not racing anyone but me. And I’m certainly better than last year, and this is pleasurable again and that’s what counts.

Of course, we get to the section by the caravan park and it’s smooth and easy and I put my foot down, zooming, enjoying my strength.

I love this bit!

There’s a real risk of cramping though – I can feel my feet and calves asking me questions and I drink more and slow down a bit.

Silly me, though, I’d been thinking of previous years courses, where we finish near here, but this year there are two endless kilometres to go.

I can see the finish area but it’s like a mirage: it’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s there again, as we wind back and forth on little tracks near the river.

Finally, I see the finish for real, but my calves and feet are cramping so I don’t speed up.

Finish line sprint with woman who I was pacing with at the start!

The guy behind me does though, and nails me with an elbow as he sprints his careless way home. I may have sworn at him but I quickly let it go and enjoyed the finish.

What a buzz it was, with athletes who’d done 50 and 100 kilometre events the day before, with short, medium and long course finishers. Hundreds of elated, exhausted people, with souls lighter after their experiences.

I waited for presentations with Andrea and Dean, and was delighted to see Andrea get second in her age category, and inspired by Dean, who’d done the Surfcoast Century 100 km solo, as well as the trail series long course.

Andrea takes second in her age category! But where’s the muesli??

Contenders for the Concrete Shoe, Jon, Dean, Stuart and others I didn’t know. Super-impressive!

Another woman I’ve chatted with named Kim also got on the podium. I promised her I’d post her photos here. And here’s Jo who warms us up looking like a star athlete too!

I came fourth in my age category, which was wonderful, especially after I’d had a huge face plant the week before the race and was not sure I’d be able to run at all. That’s my Osteoporosis check done again: at 53 I can fall flat on my shoulder and knee and nothing broke – woo hoo!

An hour after presentations, I sit with Andrea and Dean at Morgan’s in Anglesea as we gobble down the best burgers and the best fries ever. Food tastes extra good when you’ve really earned it. We talk about families and homes and things we don’t get to chat about on training runs. After several coffees and lots of great conversation, I’m off to meet my family in Ocean Grove, feeling completely soul-satisfied and ready for school holidays. Life is a balance of action and rest, hunger and satiation, running and stopping to recover. I love how the whole town of Anglesea seemed to be full of runners, like it was a special town made just for us.

Thanks for a great event as always Rapid Ascent. You’ve changed my life with your events – back in 2012, I’d never run further than 15km; after joining a Surfcoast Century relay team, my world opened up!

The night race is in just two weeks – it’s always a bittersweet one as it’s the end of our beautiful series for another year, so I’m aiming to be fully present and joyful for each moment.

Thanks to Photos4SaleNZ for the great race images!

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.

Two Bays 2018: can a trail mend me?

If I had tried to write this blog a few days ago.  Well.  Suffice it to say that when everyone else is annoying, it really is nothing to do with anyone else but me.  Perspective and time have taken the edge off the strongest of the emotions, along with a strangely calming session of acupuncture on my tender calves.  So here goes…

It was to be my third Two Bays 28km Trail Run.  My first, in 2013, was an adventure, the longest distance I’d ever run, and magical in the way that all new adventures are.  In 2015, I was unprepared, sucked into entering by a Facebook demon, whereupon I went for a 20k training run to prove to myself that December was not too late to begin training (it was), jumped into my pool overheated and fully clothed and wearing my (now dead) iPhone in a running belt.  I completed the 28k run that year in 3:09, grimacing in pain as my feet and calves cramped from about 22k, all the way through to the finish line.

2018 was about redemption.  And intelligence.

I had learned much since I began.  Trained and completed many arduous events.  I was going to do it right this time.  I began training in September, plotting out a plan that would see me strongly through the holidays, to peak at just the right time.  There were soccer weekends away I had to account for, there was the Marysville Half-Marathon smack bang in the middle of my plan, and there was, of course, the mayhem of Christmas with two young children.

I won’t give you the details of the plan- it would be boring, and my plan is not your plan.  I’m a 52-year-old woman who loves to cross-train, teaches Bodypump and swims twice a week.  I’ve also got floaters in both eyes (this means grey shadows that at times block a lot of my visual field, and make technical terrain a whole lot more hit-and-miss).  So what I do is probably not what you’d want to, need to, or should do.

In a nutshell though, my plan was to fight against cramping  by training on hills and over the full race distance.  In the Dandenongs, I managed three 28km runs, and on 25km run that lasted over four hours due to the elevation gain.  Here is a selection of training run photos – that’s the joy of training for long distance events – the magic of the trails happens a lot more often.

I also trained for flatter and faster, down on the Surfcoast Trail, mainly because we were in Ocean Grove for the two weeks prior to Two Bays.  I was nervous but more confident at the end of training than any year prior.  I did lots of tempo and interval runs as well, but swapped out some distance for swimming and weight training, averaging about 50k for many of the weeks.

Yes, I had trained well.  Physically, I was ready.

However, I’d forgotten about the other big issue in my life: stress.  One of my children has some severe developmental/behavioural challenges.  Sometimes things are kind of ok; sometimes they are a tsunami of a nightmare.  The day before Two Bays – well, the month before, to be honest – was a tsunami time.  Lots happened, but the peak of it was Saturday, the day before Two Bays, when a soccer ball was kicked, as hard as possible, straight at me and into my knee and upper thigh, by my child.  To say it hurt is silly.  That does nothing to explain the pain of what felt like a conscious attack by someone I love most in the world.  I screamed in pain, shouted words I won’t repeat here, and lost it completely for the rest of the day.  My world was black and ending and everything I had done to this point in my life had been an utter and complete mistake.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  At all.  Not pre-race insomnia.  Not like usual.  This was stare-at-the-ceiling-and-evaluate-my-life awfulness.  I was almost grateful when our dog went nuts at 4 am, as I was awake anyway.  I was up and dressed by 4:30, driving off in the dead of night by 5.

The darkness was a blanket, and the drizzle felt appropriate and grey.

I was not tired; I was too nervous driving to be tired, as I had a new navigator in my car that I was unsure of.  It coached me for the hour’s drive, most of which I knew well, and told me where to get off the road for Permien Street, Dromana.  Except this was not the exit I knew.  The navigator said turn left, and I said where?, and turned in the wrong place and got immediately lost in some strange suburb.  The horror of it.  Alone.  In the dark.  Trying desperately to get to the race headquarters for six am.  I was breathing fast and my hands were gripping the steering wheel in a death-grip.

I pulled back on the highway, thinking I was heading the right way, but the next exit was not Dromana, it was Rosebud.  It was like one of those nightmares where things get worse and worse.  I drove on, finally letting the navigator have the wheel, afraid I’d be routed to Sorrento and back.

Imagine – just imagine! – my relief when I recognised the road.  It was the road I knew from the Two Bays Run, the one we run up right at the start.  In fact, the race crew was out putting up event signs as I drove downhill, elated, knowing where I was.

Now, perhaps this doesn’t seem the most auspicious start to a trail run requiring some navigation.  But I forgot about it immediately after I parked.  I got out of my car, caught my breath, and gazed at the bay.  It required my presence more than race headquarters.  I made my way there and stared at the still waters.  Waters that I wished I could be more like.

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Still waters

I turned away: there was a race to be run, regardless of how I was feeling.  I knew, as well, the quickest way out of the quicksand of dark emotions: it was a trail, running full pelt for hours and hours and hours.

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Sunrise above Arthur’s Seat, Dromana

The time prior to a race is always the same.  Joy at seeing friends, nerves at what we’re about to do, general restlessness and preparation of my gear.  I saw Andrea and shared a quick hello, but quickly lost her in the crowd.  Found some fellow Dandenong Trail Runners and had a short chat.  Did some warm-up jogging.

I noted that I wasn’t afraid.  It was odd, as the first time I’d run this race, I’d been terrified, felt completely out-of-place and overwhelmed by the lean athletes surrounding me.  That was something, anyway, that quiet confidence, even though the weight of doom regarding my family life hung heavy.

We lined up in the starting chute.  All was ready.  I took a quick photo to remember the moment, checked that my Garmin was ready to go.

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Ready to go!

The crowd of us runners were so noisy, I couldn’t hear the countdown, and only knew to begin when the runners in front of me started moving forward.  We were off!

The race begins uphill on a road.  I love uphills; I eat hills for breakfast.  I found myself dodging around other runners, powering up the hill.  I was elated; this felt easy.  The Dandenongs hill training was really helping.  In no time, in much shorter time than I recalled in other years, we were at the trail head at Bunurong Track, forming a single line of runners to work our way up Arthur’s Seat.

Up and up and up we went, on the widish dirt trail.  It was punctuated with stone steps and riddled with tree roots and rocks.  We played hopscotch with one another, sometimes passing, sometimes being passed.  I knew this terrain well from training runs, and let the memories play over of talks I’d shared with friends about music and piano, about kids and grandkids.  I glanced now and again at the blueness of the bay, being sure to immerse myself in this magical landscape, all the while trying not to trip over my own two feet or the many roots and rocks that wanted me down.

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This might be Arthur’s Seat descent. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

We got to the top, and began the long, fast descent.

That bit about other people being annoying?  Yep.  It began here.  And it wasn’t them.  It was one-hundred percent me, and my aggro mood.  Still.  There was the runner who ran with elbows out, who seemed magnetically drawn to me, who seemed to find the exact line I was aiming for on the steep, slippery gravel, and then ran at the same pace as me.  If I sped up, she sped up; slowed, she slowed.  It would have been comical if I weren’t clenching my teeth and swearing in my head so loudly.  We didn’t crash, amazingly, and I didn’t say a word of what was going on in my head.

Soon, we were down by McLaren’s Dam, and I was too busy watching for snakes to wonder about any of the other runners (though by a video posted the next day, I would have been better watching for kangaroos trying to cross the path).

We ran along some suburban roads, then onto a section that had been full of thigh-high grass several weeks before.  It had been mown and was no longer a terror-filled snake pit!  There were dozens of happy, smiling, dressed-up volunteers, children to high-five, and a lot of passing and being passed by the same runners, some polite, some not so much, and before I knew it we were in the Greens Bush Section, a wonder world of beauty and nature.

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Happy on the trail. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

Oh, but here was another one of those irritating other people!  This time it was someone behind me, and the tinny sound of their iPhone music, played loud without ear phones.  I could not believe it.  I had hungered for the peace of the bush, the sounds of nature, even the hush of the footfalls of runners.  Instead, I heard Emimem, angry, volatile, judgmental: You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you better never let it go go, you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow cause opportunity comes one in a lifetime…

I love this song.  I’ve played it hundreds of times teaching Bodypump, I’ve run to it, cycled to it, cried to it.  However, in that moment, in Two Bays, in Greens Bush, I hated it.  I wanted to grab the offender’s music device and smash it on a rock.  I wanted to smash him on a rock.  I wanted to run faster or slower or grab a helicopter out because I couldn’t bear it.  I couldn’t get away, though, bolting forward or slowing down.  He played the music loudly and chatted even louder to his friend.  Finally, I called out behind me: could you please turn the music down mate?

Me!  I said that.  Like an angry fishwife.

Please, fellow runner, accept my apology, and thank you for not responding out loud, and for simply turning down the music.  It wasn’t you; it was me.

Phew.  The dragon had reared its head.  I took a deep breath and ran on.

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Getting a bit technical.  Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

This is where the run got tricky.  I was fit and fast and I could run the uphills without any issue.  But when the trail turned technical and dark and downhill, I was doomed.  I simply couldn’t see well enough to run fast, and I got passed by every runner and their dog (if dogs were allowed) and I began to wallow in the woe-is-me-I’m-so-slow-and-old-and-blind pit.  I let people by and passed them again on the uphills.  I fought hard to keep a place in the tribe of trail runners but I felt I was losing it, losing the joy and the ability to do this thing I had loved for so long.  I swiped at my eyes, and swallowed hard.

Then my foot began to cramp.  I gobbled down some gel, a few salt tablets, and consoled myself with the fact that we were already at 20km.  A fast girl ran past me and assured me we were nearly home, and I bit back the words I don’t want to go home, and ran on.

I’d planned to bolt at 23, to really race the last five to the finish.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, I kept my foot on the brake, trying to hold off the impending cramps, and instead focusing on the breathtaking views of the other side of the bay that appeared.  Some high-fives for children, and soon the finish arch was in sight.  Past me at speed ran three other runners; I did not chase.  I ran across my own finish line in 3:06, which I thought was three minutes slower than my target from 2015,  but in fact was a PB for this course.

Afterwards, I stared at the views of the bay, elated, sad, happy, tired, but no longer in that dark place from which I’d started.

When my friend Cissy invited me to join her group of friends for lunch, something I’d usually avoid because I’m shy around strangers, I decided it was time to try something new.  Even though I couldn’t get phone reception and I was alone and had to navigate somewhere I’d never been before I went.

Even when the outside of the place looked odd and like an industrial estate rather than a restaurant, in I went.

I sat with this group of runners, and chatted, and suddenly, I felt alive again, at home, and no one was irritating, and I was okay, I did make good choices, and I could do anything or be anything I wanted.  It was all going to be all right.

Sometimes the trail seems way too far, the world seems full of aggravating others, and then you simply put on your trail shoes, and run and run and run, and when you are done, the world has put on a brand new coat and looks shiny and beautiful again.

I got home and hugged my child and gave them the present I had bought them, and promised myself to add more joy to my running for the rest of 2018.

Thank you Two Bays, for reminding me why I run.