“If a race makes you nervous,” counselled a running friend from Facebook whom I had never met, “you should do it. It’s good to step out of your comfort zone.”
Now, this person didn’t know me. I had no business choosing his advice from the myriad of other potential sources of advice available. My 11-year-old daughter, for instance, who declared that “no one should do activities that put their lives at risk”.
There was this pull, though. I hate comfort zones; they bore me, dull my senses, make me lose the will to live. Though much of my family life exists along the lines of what some might call ruts, I can’t bear for my running to be so flat-lined.
This year, I had declared the year of adventure. I’d begun with my highest-altitude race ever, the Razorback 20km Run back in March. It was meant, in my rather uninformed mind, to take about 3:30 to complete; it took 4:47 and was the most frightening experience I’d had to date, with its jaw-dropping beauty composed of a plummeting cliffside run, snake-infested trails , heat-exhaustion and bushfire-potential course that was an immense leap outside of my “comfort” zone.
Nonetheless, I made it to the summit and back. My friend Sally, who walked the course in considerably less distress and much the same time that I ran-walked it, suggested that if Mount Feathertop had scared the bejesus out of me, then the Wonderland Run might not be such a good idea .
Who to listen to: my own child; a close friend who had just completed a similar challenge with me; or a complete stranger from Facebook?
Yep. Complete stranger, thank you for resetting my compass back to where I want it to be. Slightly wild and uncomfortable, here we come.
Though I had not officially qualified for the Wonderland Run with my 4:47 at the Razorback Run (there are strict qualification standards, and my four-plus hour odyssey did not meet them), I managed to convince Judge&Jury (an anonymous person who decides these things for the Wonderland Race Director) that my trail record of faster runs in the past was good enough. I received the email:
I immediately went to the race website and began to familiarise myself again with the trail maps. The images looked deadly. It appeared that we ran at least five kilometres on the edge of a thousand-foot-drop, along slippery rocks.
The elevation gain graph reminded me of something, a picture from Le Petit Prince. If you’ve read this children’s story you’ll know the one I mean.
I ran the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon in June to convince myself that I was fast enough to do Wonderland, even though I’d already convinced Judge&Jury. For a half-marathon to qualify, you have to run it in 2:15. I finished the Surfcoast Trail Half in 2:18 but it was a trail half-marathon during a king tide where much of it was run in the ocean, so I decided it was good enough. I was going to do this crazy thing.
In the meantime, The Trail Series had begun. I chose the medium course this year, with distances of 10-15 km and a lot of elevation change. These races were too short to prepare me for Wonderland, so I threw in a bunch of runs up at Mount Dandenong of 18-20 km to make up both the distance and elevation change. After studying the training methods on the Wonderland website, I quickly decided that they’d leave me injured rather than ready, so I adopted the principles they advocated, and moved the workouts to the gym instead. Lots of skipping rope. Climbing stairs on the Stepmill machine. Squats and lunges and single leg deadlifts. Heaps of fast interval and tempo training (trying to win my age category at The Trail Series at the same time). Swimming. Teaching Bodypump.
In the back of my mind, at all times, through every race and every training session, Wonderland loomed. As I cooked the children dinner; as I taught my classes; as I worked on my novel. I couldn’t picture the cliff edges. Didn’t know whether we’d be teetering on the edge of death or not. I was going, and that was that.
We were about two weeks out when we were hit by the epic storm; it had hit much of Melbourne this year. The flu. I became a tiny person in a little metal rowing boat, surrounded on all sides by an immense sea of illness. This was the timeline:
- 9 August my son sick w cold
- 15 August my daughter sick w flu
- 16/17 August my husband sick w flu
- 18 August my daughter sick w flu again
- 23-25 August my daughter sick with vomit-type illness (don’t get me started)
- 24 August my husband sick with flu again
- the whole month of August – everyone I knew, sick with varied awful and terrible illness. And they all seemed to cough right on me as soon as I said hello.
Back in February, before I even entered Wonderland, I booked our accommodation, a little lovely cabin at the Halls Gap Tourist Park. It was confirmed. The dogs were booked into the kennel. The cats were to be minded by a neighbour. But here, the night before we were due to leave, I didn’t even know if I’d be going.
All seemed to be conspiring against me. Would we go as a family? Would I go alone? Would I have to miss the race entirely because everyone was too sick to leave? Would I get sick too? Was the “universe trying to tell me something”, like if I went, I’d fall off a cliff and die?
In the end, we “soldiered on”. Got everyone in the car, and hoped for the best. My daughter travelled with a vomit bag we’d nicked from sickbay at school when I brought her home sick on Wednesday. It was well after dark when we checked in to our cabin. In the morning, I opened the curtains and saw a mountain I hadn’t even known was there the night before.
We were truly in the Grampians, and I stared out our window with a mixture of awe and terror. I shivered with the cold as the temperature was hovering near freezing as well.
Still, it was only Saturday. It wasn’t real yet. I picked up my race number at the strange little Centenary Hall and chatted to friends who were all much calmer than me. Found the wonderful Absolute Outdoors Australia store nearly next door (Absolute Outdoors Australia), and slipped in for a new seam-sealed raincoat. The staff there were terrific and kind, and helped me choose my perfect new (unexpectedly pink) Salomon running jacket, and wished me well. Thanks for your help Cass!
I’d bought the new jacket because it was an easy purchase to justify at this event: serious rain could be deadly, I promised my husband, not expecting anything of the sort. Because it was only going to “shower” and be “cloudy” in Halls Gap. Except as we all found out, it rained the entire day on Saturday. Everywhere we walked, we squelched. It was cold, hard, unforgiving rain and I cursed the Bureau of Meteorology for their lies.
Shortly before dark, we received a message from the Race Director that all mandatory gear would be required for the 36km run, and advised for the 20k run. No matter, I planned on carrying it all anyway, as I always do in the hills.
Race morning came. After the all-night rain, it was bitterly cold, but dry. I dressed in every layer I owned to get from the cabin to the car to be dropped at the start line, then stripped down to my race gear in the parking lot. The only concession I made to the cold was to wear my new rain jacket, and my running gloves. I chatted to some fellow Dandenongs Trail Runners (Go DTR!), and huddled for warmth with the other hundreds of runners near the start line.
After a race briefing, off we went. I chose the first wave, not wanting to get stuck in bottlenecks at the early sections. I’m going to get the order of things wrong – please forgive me, as it all becomes blurry in a race.
We began in the Botanic Gardens, running uphill on a neatly groomed track. It was pretty; it was laughable. I remember thinking it was awesome to begin this way, to be lured in, like (please forgive me) Alice going down the rabbit hole. She didn’t know what was coming next either.
Up and up we went, and sneakily, a rock snuck in here and there. They multiplied, grew larger, and before we knew it, we were really climbing up a rocky trail, legs lifted high like they recommended in that training video. It was slippery but not too much and I kept stealing glances to the left, floored by the beauty and then conscious I was going to fall on my face if I kept looking.
Somewhere up there, we crossed under two gigantic boulders, which looked poised to crush me to death. Part of me stalled and said I’m not going under there, but the physical part of me kept going. A beautiful section came with stepping stones next to a small waterfall on the right; I stepped to the side to pause to admire it.
I loved the ups. There is nothing scary about up to me. I’m strong and can go up all day long. Even pass people. I don’t know the proper names for the section that went right between two canyon walls on slippery stepping stones. I felt hugged by the land in that section, despite momentarily thinking of the earth moving and crushing me flat. I think the Pinnacle came next. Jaw-dropping. Everyone with any sense stopped for photos. I kept thinking if I was in a hurry, I’d do a road marathon; I’d come to see these places so I gave them time.
Onto an elephant-hide section, broken by small gullies like crevices in a glacier. I stayed on the upraised dry bits of rock, steered clear of any black or green to prevent slipping. This took time and caution and a lot of my fellow runners were racing, bolting around me, risk-takers. I admired them but I couldn’t be them, and I tried to stay out of their way. What drives me bonkers is when someone is a risk-taker and they get up right behind me on slippery descents. I know they are going to slip and take me out with them, so I lose a fair few race places letting them pass me.
I’d taken off my gloves somewhere on the up, and at the top, it was suddenly blisteringly cold. Thankfully, my new raincoat was slightly long in the sleeves so I wasn’t too badly off. I think the descent began here. In my memory, it is just slick rock after slick rock. The front-runners had muddied things up a bit and there were huge puddles in the centre of many of the trails. I wasn’t fast here; I never am.
Still. This young guy bolted by me, flying down on my right, then slowed ten feet in front of me. I was puzzled. I thought he might be the sweeper, there keeping an eye on us. I kept catching him up. Eventually I asked him, saying I know you’re faster than me. He was young. Maybe new to trail running. He told me he was waiting for his girlfriend who was somewhere behind me, and said if I could get out of the way, she could get by. I paused, asked how far she was behind me, but he didn’t know. Hmm. I decided against letting the random number of racers by me and kept on going. A little while later she passed me anyway but the experience was odd and off-putting. I pondered later – should I have given them the trail? – but decided, no, part of this is race strategy and placing yourself appropriately at the start. Tricky decisions.
In any case, we kept descending, until at about 13km we moved onto a path above the reservoir that was not at all scary. The young couple passed me about this stage, but I was in my element and bolting down that relatively smooth trail, noting the lake to the right, keeping my feet dancing between rocks. Somewhere here was a photographer. There had been a few but this was the first one I saw in a section where I knew I had done the hard stuff. I had made it. Tears came into my eyes, unexpectedly. Could it be I was going to do this thing? I quickly cautioned myself. We were nowhere near done.
We came to a bitumen section pretty shortly after this. Oh, I flew. I’ve been doing my long runs just like this, 16k hard and slow, then the last 2 or 3 on firetrail where I simply fly. So my body was tuned for this. I saw the “mean couple” in front of me and smiled: I was too slow, was I? I turned the pace up high, and I burned them, adding a kind “you’re doing well” with a Mr. Bean feeling inside. Really, I wanted to turn and laugh ha ha ha I’m not so slow now am I? But I didn’t.
Instead, I kept running as fast as I could and passed a few other people who had passed hapless cautious me on the downhill. I loved it. We were going to run on the road all the way to the finish. Easy.
Except we didn’t. We moved back through a field where there should have been kangaroos, then onto a technical single-track lined with rocks and tree roots and I paid for my spitefulness as my calves threatened to cramp. I talked them out of it, passed a few more people, contemplated what the sign meant that said “Don’t be the cheese” and tripped and nearly sprained my ankle, did a loop around and over a bridge, and found myself on the final footpath section into town. The wind blew hard in my face, like it was trying to blow me backwards, but I pushed and pushed and swore at that wind. It wasn’t going to slow me down. Kids were holding their hands out for high-fives, and I made sure I touched them all, including my daughter’s, and I got so excited that I ran right past the finish chute and the race director had to grab me and send me back the right way so I could pass the actual finish line.
3:10, my watch said, right before it died and lost the record of this amazing run I had just done. Eighth in my age category.
It took a few moments to sink in. I had faced down this terrible monster that I had grown over large in my mind. And it was not, in the end, that scary at all! No sense that I could plummet off a cliff at any time. What a glorious surprise.
Today is only Monday, but the event feels like it was weeks ago. I stare at videos and photos of where we ran and am absolutely gobsmacked. I did that. I DID THAT. We all did that amazing thing. Wow. Just wow.
Thank you race organisers, volunteers and my family. That is an experience I will remember forever.