Hoka One One Trail Series, Silvan 2016: coming home

We were playing cat and mouse; I just wasn’t sure who the cat was yet.

I eyed her yellow waist pack, this time from behind her.  It was different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to here in Melbourne, the Nathan’s and the Salomon’s, the backpacks and four-bottle waist belts.  The shape, colour and size or her pack was memorable, and I was going to keep my eye on it as we raced, so I knew I was still in the same place in the line of runners as before.

The trail began to climb, and once again, I edged in front of her (I have to use the uphills to gain ground, because I lose so much on the downhills).  We ran for a while.  Then, as always, the trail again descended, becoming rocky, rutted, lined with tree debris.  I slowed, and she politely make her way to the front again.  Cat?  Mouse?

Time would tell.

Except it didn’t.

Because what happened was more wonderful than the usual race high jinks.  At some particularly scenic spot, I came up behind her, surprised that she’d stopped to take a photo (I’d been looking at my feet, not the view).  She called to me, and waved to encourage me to join her photo.

It was kind, and utterly unexpected.  We spoke for the first time, smiling, exchanging names as we jogged on.  When she said her name, I paused, and looked at her more closely.

“Do I know you?  From Hong Kong?” I said.

I don’t know why I said it.  I had left there eight years ago, and it felt like a different world.  Except her face, and her name, and that waist pack.  She burst into a beautiful smile.  I was right!  We talked, and discovered we used to do Action Asia races together, the Sprint Series of Adventure Races that brought us all over the Hong Kong countryside.

How do I say this?

Finding I knew her, that I had known her in that long-ago time before my life had changed here in Melbourne…it was like finding a long-lost friend, even though we hadn’t really been friends, had just run the same races together.  But I knew her, and she knew me.  We chatted, elated.  Eventually, she ran ahead (another downhill), after asking me to find her at the finish for a photo.

That’s how this race was for me.  A day where new friendships began.

2013 was the last time the Silvan race began at the Silvan Reservoir.  I should call it what it is today:  the Hoka One One Trail Series, a series of five awesome trail races, with short, medium and long courses, in particularly beautiful trails about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.  The slogan way back in 2013 was Bitumen is Boring.  It was perfect; and the races were just what my soul longed for.

Back then, I was living a very different life.  Just surviving.  Using running as a band-aid for all of life’s challenges.  That year, I’d done my first ultra marathon, 50k in the Blue Mountains.  The (then named) Salomon Trail Series long courses had seemed short in comparison.  So short, in fact, that I had underestimated their challenge, done the Plenty Gorge 17.6km long course, and later that day, went for a 5k training run, where I promptly and definitively sprained my ankle.  I spent four weeks doing some serious recovery work on the ankle, and managed to do the 2013 Sylvan 21km race.  I felt unstable and scared, but I was determined to finish out every race of that series.  And so I did.

Fast-forward to 2016:  for the first time in many years, I am leaving on race morning, and all is right with my world.  There have been no fights with my young children, my husband and I have just returned from our 21st-anniversary night away in Olinda (our first trip without kids in many years), the dogs are grown enough to be trouble-free, and I know the way to Silvan.

The part of me that sits beside me observing my life while I live it claps and cheers for this wondrous time.  I am content; more than this – I am happy.

Driving alone, I navigate the roads I have taken to my training runs at Mount Dandenong so many times.  The route to Silvan is not so different, and I console the scaredy-cat driver in me with the reassuring thought that this drive also takes me past Grant’s Picnic Area in Sherbrooke Forest (I’ve driven here several times alone), and I’ve also driven this very road to Silvan in 2013.

That works, until the twisty-turny part of the road – the beautiful part when others are driving – comes up.  Of course, I drive too slowly, and someone, a big four-wheel drive with jutting metal crash bars, comes up right behind me.  Ok, drive my way, I tell myself, except he gets right up behind me, nearly nudging my bumper.  A cyclist appears; I slow; the jerk behind me honks; I swear.  It is the usual, twisty-turny road dialogue.  Eventually, the road widens and he blazes past me, and I breathe deeply in relief.

I arrive at race headquarters despite all this, where I am directed to drive my car up onto the curb to park.  I don’t know how to drive my car up on the curb without a driveway.  I should know how, but I don’t, and I’m all grown-up now and can refuse politely, so the race official kindly lets me drive further on, and park more easily on the road.  It’s ok to live within my own limits, I tell myself.  After all, the limits I set for me would be pretty challenging for some others.

Race Headquarters

Race Headquarters

I’ve signed up for the medium series this year, which is a perfect, delightful distance.  Today’s event is 15.5km, and I’ve been training up to 18k in my long run on lots of big hills to make sure I have enough in my tank to get me through strongly.

I’ll tell the truth here: at Plenty Gorge this year, I came in first in my age category.  First!  I was so excited I jumped up on the podium, clapping my hands in glee.  Later, I was too jet-lagged and troubled by this to even write a blog about that race.

I coach myself to always run my own race, to not race others, because when I’ve done this in the past, it’s ended in disaster (sprained ankles; falls; etc).  I do this right up to the point the race results come in, where I get obsessed about what place I’ve come by overall, gender, and age categories.  Winning my age category is awesome – for a minute or two.

Then I start this endless internal chatter: I wonder if I trained harder, if I might take first place again at the next race?  Maybe if I do more tempo runs?  More hill training?  More pilates?  I get stuck in this silly, unhelpful groove where winning becomes more important than the pleasure of the run.  Of course, I did all of this “more” stuff in the four weeks between Plenty Gorge and Silvan, so the night before Silvan, I found myself snappish, stressed, aware of this silly dialogue I was having.  I sat down at the piano.  Played Chopin, which I’ve been trying to master in my Very Easy piano book.  The music soothed me, reminding me I am not just a runner.  I do not have to judge my value by my placement in this race.

Back to race headquarters.  Here we are at the start of Silvan 2016.  We lined up for a wonderful warm-up, the best I’ve had in a race start, and I felt my sleeping muscles awaken.  Then, Boom – we were off.  Too fast, of course, as always.  But I kept my foot on the brake, knowing this to be the risky bit, the overcrowded start where it was hard to see the uneven terrain.  We had 15k; plenty of time to make up places.  I let the bolters bolt, and settled into my pace.

Quickly, we began ascending the “Hill from Hell”.  Not so hellish really, not after all the Mount Dandenong climbing I’d been doing, but I didn’t try to run it, just power-hiked it. I knew my body, my limits, my weaknesses and my strengths.  It didn’t matter if I got passed on the downhills; I’d pass again on the uphills, and stay with the same group anyway.

Up and up and up we went.  I knew we’d be climbing for nearly 8k, but this was all right, I was used to climbing.

There was this moment in pilates a few weeks ago.  I’ve not been doing this discipline for long, just eight weeks or so, in an attempt to cure the foot and hip pain that have been plaguing me for a couple of years.  I’m strong.  This is a simple fact; relative to most women, I can lift much heavier things.  Woop woop.  This talent comes in handy when I’m teaching Bodypump or helping move stage sets for my son’s production in Primary School.  Not really anywhere else.  But I like it and I rely on it.  So the fact that this simple lie-down-on-the-bed-and-shove-the-platform-away Reformer Pilates hurt – this was really odd.  So odd, the hurt, the challenge, that I began smiling, laughing silently.  The instructor noticed, and said “You’re smiling?”, puzzled.  “It really hurts,” I said, laughing out loud now.  “That’s an interesting response to pain,” she replied, and started smiling too.

But that’s me: when it gets hard, I laugh.  Because suddenly, there’s that enemy to stare down.  I recognise it, remember the battles I’ve fought, and I laugh.  The enemy of studying physics (briefly) at university; the one that said Central Park is too cold to run in winter; when the wind blows too hard, and the trees threaten to fall on me atop a mountain, there it is; when my child says, I wish you were dead, you’re not part of this family; when the rain begins mid-run, sideways, cold rain, and I’m forty-five minutes from home; in Pilates, it seems.

And today, at Silvan.  When the hills got so steep I had to walk instead of run.  There’s that pain, that enemy, that friend and foe, here again to teach me about my strength.

I had my gels, water, salt tablets.  I had trained enough.  I stared that enemy down and was satisfied.

But for me, the main challenge is always more technical downhills.  We had about 7k of these coming right after the uphills.  These days, I have floaters in both eyes (grey shadows in the centre of my visual field).  This makes running fast on technical downhills challenging, as its hard to make out the detail of what I’m stepping on, especially at speed.  I’m slower than I’d like to be, slower than the rest of my body could go if I could see properly, but that’s ok.  Its another enemy to stare down, in time.

The terrain details – which hill was where, the single tracks, the hairy-scary descents – they all merge together in my mind into a three-word course description: brutal but beautiful.  Some uphills were of my favourite sort, studded with rocks, genuine and ungroomed.  Downhills that reminded me of hills I ran in England’s Bradgate Park, grassy, with only a slight camber, easily runnable with eyes wide open.  Uphills through thin, tall trees, where I felt like I was in a line of soldiers climbing silently and breathlessly into enemy territory. Straggly, thin strips of tree bark ready to strangle my ankles and send me flying.  I didn’t look up much to see the scenery, except to grimace at photographers, because looking up usually means falling down.

A little like flying

A little like flying  (photo courtesy Supersport Images)

The last downhill of red clay near the fence line I always find memorable.  In 2013, with that four-week-old sprained ankle, I recall picking my way down in terror, committed to the race, but wanted to get home in one slightly broken piece. Today, 2016, I flew down it.  Not as fast as the three or four men who passed me, for sure, but flying for me.  But I hungered for Stonyford Road, the flat dirt road where I could open up and really let my legs go, where I could pass the people who’d passed me.

When I finally got there, though, everyone who had passed me had already disappeared.  It floored me.  I love to chase and there was no one to chase!  I was alone, like in a solo training run up Mount Dandenong.  I willed my legs to go faster, knowing each second counted in finish times, if nothing else.  Still, no one to chase.  Then I heard the footfalls behind me, and realised that this time, I was the prey.  Someone was hot on my heels.  I was having none of this, and I turned it up a few gears, and bolted away from them as fast as I could go.  I wouldn’t be passed here on flat ground!

We were near the finish.  I could hear the crowd cheering.  My legs were burning, tired, but I knew it was easy from here.  Except it wasn’t – the course turned up into the trees for one final fling of the enemy at me.  Just before I climbed up, I let Mr. Speedy go past me, knowing he would need to on the rougher trail.  More tentative, I heard another runner behind me, offered to let them pass, but they didn’t want to. On we ran, not for long, before the car park and the finish cones appeared.

When the tall, thin fast man flashed past me just before the finish line, I didn’t give chase.  He wasn’t a 50-plus woman.  I ran my own race, right across that beautiful finish line, puffed, panting and elated, and pressed stop on my Garmin.  1:38, I noted.  Respectable on such a tough course.

Friends from Dandenong Trail Runners had gathered in a group.  I joined them for a photo.

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Seeing the “cat” from our cat-and-mouse game, I quickly joined her and shared a hug.  Somehow, seeing an old running friend from Hong Kong made this mountain run in Australia feel like home to me.  We exchanged laughs and phone numbers, made plans for future runs, and promised to catch up soon.

A friend from Hong Kong

A friend from Hong Kong

The singer with the acoustic guitar kept playing all my favourite songs.  I wanted to sit by him and just listen, but I was drawn to the results screen, where I saw I’d come in 2nd in my Age Category, to my great glee.

Wandering, I noticed the wonderful looking Mexican Food, Richie’s Fresh Salsa.  I can’t usually eat after races, but this looked just perfect.  And in my post-race euphoria, I was no longer shy, was able to make conversation with the couple running the stand, exchanging business cards with Richie, who turned out to be from America, and I suspect will turn out to be a friend.  Indeed, we spoke the day after the race, and he said something that sounded so familiar to me, about how finding people from ‘home’ was always wonderful.  I noted how we could speak the same language.  We made plans for a run and a coffee, to talk business and America.

And I was thinking, hang on, Australia is my home, yet I was elated to find an old friend from Hong Kong because that too is my home, and now here’s this American, and that’s home too.

And it occurs to me.  Home is not a place.  It is not where the heart is.  It is trail running. That’s my home.  The single-tracks and the hills, the trees and the reservoirs, the authentic smiles from all my fellow runners.

So, 2016 Hoka One One Trail Running Series at Silvan, thank you for bringing me home.

 

 

 

 

 

Hoka One One Studley Park: Slippery When Wet

I had become airborne.  This was not something I’d intended.

The mighty, rain-swollen Yarra River flowed strongly on my right, just down below me, just a small slip away down the narrow hillside.  My arms flailed the air, as if I were doing some crazy dance move from the 80s.  The mud-slicked path was below me, a single-track studded with rocks and tree roots, the trail where I had witnessed numerous runners bite the dust.  Through the first five kilometres of this eleven kilometre course, I had been cautious, but I had been getting annoyed at being passed by other, more courageous runners.

So I sped up.  That’s about when I came to the slickest corner yet, slid around it, and became airborne.

Thankfully, the wild waving of my arms balanced me, and my feet landed solidly back on the muddy trail.  I laughed aloud and kept on running.

I did slow down a bit though: the vision of me sliding down the hill into Yarra River was strong.  I reminded myself (again) to run my own race.

It hadn’t been easy to get to the start line today.  Over the last few days, my youngest had begun swearing and throwing things at me again.  I had hoped we were beyond these things, and having them return brought back a surge of painful memories.  I knew the reasons for the behaviour, but it still hurt to be the target.  This wasn’t the ending I had planned, or how I’d imagined family life would turn out.  The night before the race I hadn’t slept well, and had woken with a feeling of despair about where things were at in my home and family, about the ongoing challenges of raising my particular child. And today, because of soccer commitments, I was going alone to this race.  My family couldn’t even come this time.

Race headquarters

Race headquarters

As I was doing the medium course (10.8 km), my race didn’t start until 9:45.  Having been here many times before, I knew if I came an hour before the race, I’d never get a decent park, so I opted for an early arrival, which meant around 8 am.  The trouble with this strategy was the waiting-around time.  On a good day, I’d enjoy this, watching the other runners, soaking up the atmosphere.  But today was not a good day.  Today I felt lonely and alone, sad that my family wasn’t there, bereft at the trouble at home. I wandered around, picked up my series t-shirt, smiled a forced smile, and contemplated running the long course just to get going.

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Early morning fog and gum trees

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Views from the Studley Park Boathouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In time, I ran into an acquaintance who took my mind off my own problems.  He told me he was having chest pains.  I didn’t tell him my father had died of a sudden heart attack, just listened, and hoped the Medics, when they turned up, would tell him to go home. Thankfully, they did, and even better, I heard from him later that all was fine, which was a huge relief.

The time came for the long course to start, and I watched them go from the other side of the river.  It was a view I’d not seen before, having always done the long or short course.  The colours of the racers shirts moving between the fog and gum trees was stunning.

Time passed.  I ate a banana, drank from the metal water fountain, and gradually began to remove layers.  I had arrived in a ski jacket, beanie, gloves, wool jacket, icebreaker, long-sleeved t-shirt and running tights.  Little by little, I stowed these layers in my backpack, checked it into the baggage check area, and was set to run in my singlet and tights, still wearing my wool jacket to throw in a tree at the last-minute at the Start.

The Yarra from the wobbly bridge

View of the Yarra River from the wobbly bridge

I wobbled my way across the bridge, noting the fog, the serenity of the kayaks, the gum trees.  There was plenty of time.  I remembered all the times my family had come to cheer me off at this race, good times, bad times, there was no grey.  I ran back and forth on the road near the start line, marvelling at how good my legs felt, how springy and alive after two rest days.

I approached the Start.  A loudspeaker was going, innocuous pop songs; I hardly heard them.

Then, a familiar tune began.  I could feel my knowledge of this song, how it had made me feel in the past.  The lyrics took a while coming, then, “Right here, right now, right here, right now…”.

I let the words echo in me, bring me right into the present moment.  Right here; right now.  Right here; right now.  It was all that mattered.  I let the stuff from home drift away, noticed where I was, began to feel a sense of peace and joy.

Race start approached.  I stowed my wool jacket in a rain-soaked tree, and enjoyed the cold, enjoyed how it felt elemental and real and made me feel alive.  The drizzle began as we did a warm-up in the start chute.  It felt fitting and right.

The countdown came all of a sudden, the last ten seconds, and then we were off!  I went Too Fast, of course, bolting behind the people towards the front, okay with the pace until I glanced at my Garmin to see 4:25, and then I backed off.  It wouldn’t do to blow out.

I’d run this course every year for the last six, but each year, it felt new.  The concrete path, the turn-off to the left.  The wide trail.  The grassy bits.  The bits along the empty road and across the highway.  I tried to notice things but was pushing the pace too hard to be able to sight-see.

It wasn’t long before the first man slipped.  I’d noticed him behind me, passing me in road shoes, noted that he was a big, tall guy.  He was fast, but he didn’t seem to understand or to respect the terrain.  This always made me nervous.  I ran past him when I could, playing it safe, not wanting to get taken out by him if he fell, and it wasn’t long before I heard the swear and thud of him slipping and falling on the slick, muddy trail.  I turned back and shouted, you okay?, but he was up again, looking abashed, saying he was good.

We ran on.  I put some distance between me and him, and kept my eyes out for others who weren’t wearing trail shoes.  On a normal, dry day, road shoes would be fine here.  But today wasn’t normal: today was a “Slippery When Wet” sort of day, and all around me, runners sloshed and fell, slipping, swearing, crashing.  I was grateful for my Brooks Pure Grit with the big lugs to hold me upright as I ran, but still wasn’t super-confident.  This was slick mud, on slick rocks.

I kept my pace slow, let others pass, passed some who were a bit less confident than me.  We ran across the pipe-bridge by Fairfield Boathouse, and there, I had no grip, and feared my feet sliding out from under me.  It wasn’t helped by the cyclists crossing the bridge, nor by the hiker with the gigantic backpack.  I made it across, then thankfully, turned off onto the narrow trail to the left.

That’s where the fun really began, the 5k along the river, on single-track.  The character of the mud was ever-changing, sometimes deep and sticky, other times, thin and slippery.  The path was full of large puddles, which could hide anything; I skirted them.  Kept my eyes on the trail, looking for the best ways through, navigating tree roots and rocks, puddles, and patches of mud already slicked by the slips of other runners.

One lovely man behind me coached me.  It seemed he ran there regularly and several times suggested the best route among a few choices (“go left here, it will be much easier”).  Usually, I rebel at others guidance, preferring to trust my own choices, but I trusted his kind voice for some reason, and each choice he made for me was spot-on perfect.  I never got to see his face; at some point he stopped guiding.  I’m not sure whether he passed me or I got further ahead, but I wish I could have thanked him for his kindness.

At this point, I was sure we were nearly done.  I hadn’t dared glance at my Garmin, for fear of looking away from the muddy trail and wiping out.  When I finally was able to, I was gutted to see we were only at 7.5 km.  Okay, I told myself, this is tough, but it’s not really far.  It was harder than usual, as I had been recently doing longer distance, slower paced races.  This felt like a full-on sprint for an hour.

I kept running.  Glanced now and again at the swollen river.  Felt the mud stick in my shoes.  The field had spread out by now, and there wasn’t much passing going on.  I was running my pace, and then someone passed me again.

I’d been passed by so many.  I didn’t like it.  So I sped up.

I came around a slick corner, sliding, then both my feet were suddenly off the ground, there was a full moment of silence as I hung in the air, and just as suddenly I had slammed back down onto my feet and ran on.

That’s when I laughed out loud.  Came back into my body, felt the joy of being on this trail, alive and agile and able to run.  Right here, right now, I told myself.  This was the joy of trail running, this having to be fully present, right in this moment and nowhere else.

A short road section appeared, I passed the runner who had passed me (ha!, I said to myself), but couldn’t catch any others.  I was hoping the road led to the finish but there was a final trail section. I had plenty in the tank to sprint but didn’t have the confidence in the slick mud, and before I knew it we were heading into the finish.

58:01, the time read.  Was it good or not?  Who knows?  It’s hard to evaluate race times on different days.  There is no such things as a PB that’s meaningful to me in racing.  My pace adjusts according to conditions, so a PB just means ideal running conditions and little more.

Though at the awards, my time was a good enough to earn me 2nd place in my age category.   Looking through my prize bag, I noticed they’d given me a tube of pain relief cream.

Perhaps this was a joke?  Perhaps they thought the oldies like me needed this pain relief cream?  (Okay, so they’re right.)  But then I noticed the bag itself said 60+ and realised they’d given me the wrong prize (I’m only 50).  I save the bag as a little trophy, so went to exchange it for the 50-59 category, hoping perhaps that it might contain a different prize (maybe a speed-me-up cream or a Gel or something performance-related).  But it still contained the pain relief cream.  Perhaps it’s any category over 40?  I wanted to know, wanted to ask the other younger runners if they’d gotten pain relief cream too, but it seemed too sad to do that.  The Hoka One One shoe bag – now that’s one thing I’ll be using loads, traveling to and from the rest of the Series.

Oh, I didn’t tell you the best moment.  How could I have forgotten?

There was a live singer with a  guitar.   Just as I walked by him after crossing the finish line, breathing hard, dripping sweat, feeling around inside for how I was feeling, he sang some impossibly appropriate lyrics about how “it was all going to be all right, it would just take some time”.  I wish I knew the song.  I would love to hear it again.

My eyes teared up, and I suddenly felt so very happy and sad and grateful and lucky to be here in this muddy, beautiful, rainy finish area.  I shared a stretching tree with another runner, joking about how we were both trying to push it over from opposite sides.

I wasn’t alone.  And this wasn’t the end.  Just another new beginning.

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I love mud! So does my wild puppy just to the left in this picture, leaping at me in joy

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Footprints in the mud

 

After the Roller Coaster (Run)…

The 2016 Roller Coaster 21k Trail Run: why has writing of you eluded me?  Did I love you, as I have in the past?  Or is our affair growing tenuous and thin?

The Sunday after the run, which I completed in 2:41 (six minutes faster than last year), I spent five hours cleaning my very dirty home.  We have two dogs, two cats, and two kids.  My husband does more than his fair share, and it was fair to say I’d been too tired to be much use around the home lately.  I’d completed a series of three half-marathons (Marysville 21k; Two Bays 28K; Roller Coaster 21k) in four months; the guilt over the dirty carpet had finally caught up with me, and I cleaned like a whirlwind.

On Sunday night,I sat back on the sofa, exhausted but feeling I’d accomplished two great big things in one weekend – an awesome trail race, and a clean home.

Monday, I awoke with a sore throat, a harbinger, a canary-in-the-coalmine.  Still, I taught my 7:30 pm Bodypump class.  It was too late to call for a fill-in instructor.  And really, if I was going to get sick, I figured I might as well go out with a bang.

On Tuesday the flu took me down at the knees.  I was sick for a full week.  No-exercise sick.  Don’t-even-contemplate-walking-down-the-road sick.  I got a fill-in instructor for my Wednesday class.  I slept in some, coughed a lot, and Life Went On.  It was recovery week anyway.

The second week, I gradually recovered.  Taught three Bodypump classes, swam, ran a total of 15k.

Now, in the third week post-race, I’m still coughing, still tired, but I’m world’s better than three weeks ago.  I’m back to my usual fitness schedule.

So why haven’t I written up the Roller Coaster Run?  Was it the illness?  Or something else?

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been listening to myself say the same things over and over since November last year:  I want my feet to feel great again;  I want speed and power;  I want to be able to jump high in the air and land without hurting.  I want to do something different.

And yet, I kept signing up for half-marathons.  The Roller Coaster Run was the last one I’d signed up for.  In a way, it was my line in the sand.

Did I love it?

21.5K Burkes Lookout-186Of course I did.

What I loved most is that I let go of expectation.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly it occurred to me, about five minutes into the run, that I had nothing to prove.  I didn’t want to kill myself running flat-out for three hours.  I wanted to push my pace, push my best, but I didn’t want to race anyone.

In my head, I was saying, I’m a 50-year-old trail running woman.  I’ve got nothing to prove.  I’ve run more than sixty trail races.  Adventure races.  Up and down mountains.  I’ve swam across tidal rivers the day after a typhoon.  Climbed waterfalls in a thunderstorm. I’ve navigated alone in the dark on trails.  Nearly stepped on snakes.  Abseiled down cliff faces on outlying islands in Hong Kong.  I’ve got nothing left that I have to prove.  I just want to run for the sheer pleasure of it.

And suddenly, running down the side of Mount Dandenong, I realised I wasn’t competing.  I wasn’t racing.  I was flying down my favourite trails, agile, confident, quick feet, no pain, and all was right with my world.  It didn’t matter if I got passed or if I passed someone.  I could afford to smile, to chat with volunteers, to high-five the kids cheering with the support crews.  Yes, the uphills were deadly tough.  That wasn’t a surprise.  I had the gels and salt tablets and water and confidence.  I’d run the whole course alone two weeks before.  I was going to be okay; I was going to be joyful.

My favourite moment of all in the run?  At about the 13k mark, right about where I tripped and flew threw the air during my first Roller Coaster Run, I saw a man stumble.

I was ten feet behind him, and watched him trip, then fly sideways through the air, and land hard.  Well, I thought he’d landed.  Just as I was shouting, “Are you okay?”, he, to my utter astonishment, continued rolling, all the way through, until he’d come around, landed on his feet, and simply kept right on running.  He is who I want to be when I grow up.

It turned out I’d met him a couple of weeks earlier on a training run (Ben and Brian were doing three loops of the Roller Coaster to my one that day), so when I caught up with him and congratulated him on his spectacular trip-and-roll-to-his-feet, it was like meeting up with an old friend.  That’s how this race is, how this mountain is.  We are all – in one instant, old friends.

21K KALLORAMA-156This photo was taken at about 20k into the run.  I can picture the section, right after a steep climb up gravel.  It’s where I’ve run alone so many times, staring at autumn foliage, or hidden by thick fog.  Usually, I’m elated that I’ve done the hard part of my training run (I typically start at the bottom of the mountain and it’s mostly downhill from this stage).

At this stage of the race, the 43k runners were headed back out in the opposite direction to us, and every now and then one of the front runners would bound by, mountain-goat-like, taking the downhill with greater speed than I could ever imagine.

But here, right in the moment this photo was taken during the Roller Coaster Run, I’m deep inside my head, feeling the flow of my feet on the single track, knowing the way I’m going intimately, because I’ve run it so many times.

On such a run, the oddity is the other runners everywhere, where usually I run in solitude.

And then there was the finish…

IMG_2650The race photographer captured these amazing moments.  Sharee encouraging me across the finish line in her amazing costume.

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And in the true spirit of the run, and her wonderful supportive nature, here she is, directing me homewards.  Kudos to the race photographers for capturing this moment.

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In the end though, we are all alone with our thoughts as we cross the finish line.

There is a moment, before we cross under the arch, before we collect our medal, where we know fully what we’ve just achieved. The challenges we’ve overcome to complete a big, gnarly mountain run.  I’d like to hold onto the sense of self this moment gives me, to take it out in challenging times in regular life, to say to myself, if you could do that, of course you can do this.  I’d like us all to hold onto that feeling.

Afterwards, after the changing of clothes, the brunch at Sky High sharing a table with seven women I’d never met who were celebrating a 40th birthday, after the elation, I stayed longer than I usually do.

I explored this wonderful secret garden, all alone.

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I felt a sense of calm descend on me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  A sense of certainty that everything was going to be okay.

Since the run, now that the flu has abated, I have finally done what I said I am going to do.  Got back to the gym to lift heavy weights.  Started interval training to regain my lost speed.  Not signed up for any more races.

Will I be back?  Of course.  Mount Dandenong calls to me.  It speaks to me of home.

 

 

 

Coming soon: Roller Coaster 2016 Run Report

Bear with me please. After an awesome run last Saturday, and a full day of cleaning my very dirty home Sunday, Monday saw me laid low with the flu! Surprise, I know, that after three great races in four months, at the end of it all, like after university exams, my body shouted “enough!”.

I’ll have to give you the full report next week when I’m not sick, but here are a couple of my fave photos in the meantime…

And now I’m off to rest.

Hope all of you are keeping well!

   
    
 

Ready to ride the 21k Roller Coaster Run?

Planning the year.  What a great idea.  Not being swayed by social media and offers of reduced entry fees for Early Bird registration.  Creating a periodised training plan with only one or two peak races.

Did I mention planning the year?

Such good advice.  I read it last week in an expert coach’s approach to his clients’ race plans.

If only I’d read it six months earlier.

It’s been six weeks since the 28k Two Bays Trail Run.  And this Saturday is the 21k Roller Coaster Run (RCR).  Planning?  Not so much.  My only justification is that the RCR was traditionally in late March, so I assumed I’d have enough time between events when I jumped on board the Fairy Floss Special price six or eight months ago.

Only this year, the RCR is hot on the heels of Two Bays, which was already uncomfortably close to the Marysville Half-Marathon in November 2015.  Within four months, I’m doing three half-marathons.

Is it any wonder I’m a little tired?

However, I’ve been very careful in the last six weeks to adequately recover from Two Bays, as well as train enough for RCR.  Given the base I’d built, I only took one real recovery week with a 12k long run, then went back to a 20k long run, followed in the next two weeks by 18, and 21.5 (the full Roller Coaster Course) two weeks ago.  I’ve kept the total km’s per week at between 35 and 40, supplementing running with two 2k swims each week, and teaching three Bodypump classes per week as well.  All in all, I’ve held up ok.  My feet have been sore, but they’ve been sore for more than a year.  And I’ve been a little tired.

I’m feeling quietly confident for this RCR, given I’ve completed the whole course many times over.  Yes, it is steep, hard, unforgiving.  Yes, I’m going to take the downhills slowly, as I always do, and push hard on the uphills.  Without much flat terrain to worry about, my pace won’t be fast, but that’s okay.  This is my first race in the 50-59 age category.  I’m not worried about pace – I want to complete this event injury-free and elated.

This is, after all, more than a race for me.  Over the last few years, Mount Dandenong has become my soul-place.  I used to pine for the woods, saying each weekend, “I wish I could go to the Dandenongs.”

I had young children and a husband who could not hike.  I was afraid it wouldn’t be safe alone.  But I finally opened up that door, with the help of some trail running friends, who showed me the trails, which I eventually got courageous enough to run alone.

I drive up alone, often after school drop-off or late in the day on a weekend. The drive takes an hour, and is one of the few hours of solitude I have in my busy family life.  After not driving for six years in Hong Kong, that drive gave me back my driving confidence, and opened many other roads to me.

I often run just the top loop of the Roller Coaster Run.  My companions are the wallabies, the sulphur-crested cockatoos, and Fern Trees.  Once in a while, I see echidnas.  Sometimes people out riding horses or hiking, but not very often.  More often, there are brilliant orange butterflies or blue and red Rosellas.  Kookaburras laugh at me.  I sweat my way uphill, and fly on the downhills.

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A friend on the trail

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

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Tree ferns in dappled sun

I have spent solitary hours here singing in joy, and others howling in despair, when life has seemed to much to bear.  This mountain has sheltered me under its blanket of fog, and warmed me with the winter sunrise.  I have been scared senseless by the boom of its thunderstorms, lost on its flanks, and challenged to keep going when I wanted, more than anything, to stop.

I am a little lost for words, trying to say what the Roller Coaster Run itself means to me.  I suppose it is but one chapter in my long relationship with this mountain, and will be one of the few occasions I push myself to run fast here.  It is also one of the few times the mountain is peopled with friends, with laughter, with adrenalin.  The contrast is always a surprise.

Then there is the matter of my goals for the rest of 2016.  I want pain-free running.  Speed. Power. Agility.  After this race, I’m re-jigging my training to get all this back.  I’m not succumbing to any offers of cheap early-bird entries for several months, at least.  I’m heading back into the gym to lift big heavy things, and do some plyometrics.

But this weekend, I intend to fly.

And to feel this happy at the finish line…

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Leila enjoying a roll…

 

Two Bays 28k: tail of the snake (the final chapter).

“Are you okay?” several concerned runners asked.

“All good,” I replied, bouncing in the centre of the trail on one foot.

I kept trying to hop to the side so the other runners could go past, but I couldn’t put any weight onto my left foot, which had curled up into a tight ball, the toes tucked under, the calf a knot of cramped muscle that wouldn’t unclench.  It was hard to hop any distance without falling over.

Finally I succeeded in clearing the trail to let the other runners by, and swore under my breath.

I was 24k into the 28k Two Bays Trail run, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “okay’.

All this effort to get here, and now this.  Was this going to be the end of the trail?

My calf had been cramping for a couple of kilometres, but I’d held it at bay with a slightly slower pace, a few Salt Stick capsules, and some GU Gels, along with frequent sips of water. It was hot out on the Two Bays course, and I knew, from the people I saw sitting on the edge of the trail, stretching, suffering, that I wasn’t alone. I’d been offering encouragement to others for a long way now, but in truth, I was just hanging on  myself.

That was, until I stupidly kicked a rock in the centre of the trail. That’s when the cramp really hit, like a lighting bolt down the back of my leg.  I couldn’t Salt-Stick this one away.  I stood on the side of the trail, in pain, and took a deep breath as I quickly reflected on the moments that had gotten me here, to this final decision point.

It had begun with the Facebook lottery for second-chance entries into Two Bays in early December, which I’d won with my terrific (and fool-hardy) typing speed. I had followed this up shortly with my 20k Bayside training run (to prove to myself I could do the race), which culminated in the fatal (to my iPhone) leap into the pool after I’d overheated.  From there, I’d completed 16, 22, and 24k long runs in the subsequent weeks out at Mount Dandenong, and along the Surfcoast Trail, fighting to fit training in between Christmas, young children, and a brutal Melbourne heat wave, complete with bushfires and venomous snakes.  I’d found local hills in Ocean Grove to do hill repeats, and contemplated carefully whether I’d done enough.

Race morning had come. I drove alone, navigating the Mornington-Peninsula Freeway, second-guessing my exit as always, slightly panicking, and then choosing correctly. I watched the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat, and met my car-park neighbour Philip, who was in from New Zealand for his first Two Bays (he was notably fitter and braver and calmer than me).  For him, this was a training run for something even harder coming up.

Sunrise on race morning

Sunrise on race morning

I did the usual pre-race circuit between the toilets, running friends, and staring in dismay at the lean, tan, terrifying trail runners I would be sharing the trail with. They all looked fitter, faster, and braver than me, and all seemed to be sharing high-fives with multiple friends and family. I felt a bit alone, so was delighted when I met up with a few Dandenongs Trail Runners friends (Andrea, Sharee and Tami, as well as a few others).

The start came soon. I forgot to get really nervous and simply began running. The uphill road section was a pleasant surprise, as I’d remembered it as steeper than it was in reality.

I’d love to give a detailed account of the race, section by section, complete with views, but that would make for dull reading, and I was too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots and other trail runners to notice that much. Funny – I’d decided I was going to run slowly and notice every detail. In reality, I bolted as fast as I could, and was completely focused on time, nutrition, cramps and simply running.  Oh, and in getting passed and passing the same four or five runners throughout the entire race (‘m great uphill and cowardly downhill).

Two moments stand out for me:

  • A small sign at the bottom on the stairs about 25k in that read, “And she’s buying…”. In my utter exhaustion, it took me several seconds to complete that sentence, but when I did, I laughed out loud, and sang Stairway to Heaven all the way to the top. Utter bliss.
  • The moment when the sea came into view near Cape Schanck. I was waiting for this, having recalled that moment from my first Two Bays. It was even more glorious this time. The grass was a dry yellow as far as I could see, yet in the distance, the sea was the bluest of blues. Small rock formations were visible, white foamy waves crashing into them. It reminded me of running in Hong Kong, on isolated trails where suddenly the world opens up and you realise the absolute beauty of the place.  And then I thought, I bet this would be a great spot for a grassfire to strike, and ran faster.

I didn’t stop for a photo.  I contemplated it, then kept running.

Oh, and then there was the calf cramp.

Let me take you back to that moment, where I’d been hopping on one foot, and wondering if I was going to make it to the finish line.

There I was 24k in, wondering if my run was over. Would all that work be for nothing?

My mind went back in time, to my first ever Adventure Race on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I was running on coastal rocks and my foot had done a similar thing, cramped into a tiny, painful ball. Then, the only way home was to keep running. So I did.  I remembered the foot opened back up eventually.

So here on the Two Bays Trail, I gently placed weight on my foot, swore, took a few walking steps, then a few more. A minute or two went by, and I began jogging. The foot, true to form, released, as did my calf.

Knowing I was okay was delightful. But I was still tentative. I held back on the pace. All I wanted was to complete this race, to get to the finish line which had eluded me the last two years.  And I wanted to get there uninjured.

Several trail runners passed me. I kept going. The kilometres didn’t melt away.  We were in some sort of parallel universe where a kilometre was ten times as long as expected.  We ran on and on.

Until suddenly someone shouted my name, and someone else shouted, it’s only 200 metres to the finish line. We ran a little faster, a bit taller, and then the arch appeared. I didn’t sprint. I’d used up all my sprinting points already, just getting there. But I did a solid run across that finish line, completely finished.

The finishers medal hung heavy on my neck as I found a few friends to trade trail stories with. We sipped at lemonade and coca-cola, ate apples, and let the sweat dry.  We were dirty, far dirtier than I realised — my legs were almost black with dirt, and some of my friends shared face-planting stories that we all related to.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave right away, and went to stare out at the sea from the high viewpoint behind the race finish.

Views from Cape Schack

Views from Cape Schack

I had done it. Against the odds. Escaped uninjured.  Sharee took my photo and we talked of our lives.  I smiled with all my smile muscles for the first time in weeks.  We’d done it!

Delight!

Delight!

It was only in the week that followed that the reports of snakes along the trail reminded me of the other memorable moment during the race. The one where I was sure I saw something move on the ground just where I was about to plant my left foot. I’d let out a thin scream, jolted to the side, and landed ahead of the spot. I hadn’t looked back.

I don’t know whether it was a trick of the light or of my vision, or whether I had a very lucky escape.

And just like that it was over.

All the stress and angst, the worry, the thrill and the glory.

But I didn’t have time for post-race depression.

The 21k Roller Coaster Run was only six weeks away.

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

(and now, as at this writing, it is just about two weeks off).

My focus was on recovery, and returning to training to be able to complete this next awesome event on my trail calendar.

Thanks for the memories Two Bays. I hope my legs have truly absorbed Arthur’s Seat in time for Mount Dandenong!

post-race celebration

post-race celebration

(The eagle and the fairy-wren?  I forgot to mention them.  They were sitting on the side of the trail during my race training, my totem bird and the feathery mascot for the Two Bays Trail Run.  I wanted to believe at the time it meant something.  But maybe I’d just been out trail running in the hot sun for too long.)

Two Bays 28k: tail of the snake ( part 3)

I was nervous.  To be honest, I was frightened.  It was nearly dusk, and I’d gone further along this trail than I’d ever gone before.  The summer crowds had thinned, and in this, the final kilometre of my outbound journey, I had seen no one at all.

Worse still, the terrain had changed dramatically, becoming a narrow single-track, bordered on both sides by scrubland, with low grass and dead-looking bushes.  It was hot.  And it was nearly dusk.

And it was snake season.

I continued onwards.

I started suddenly, jumping up in the air and to the side, with a shout of fear – a small lizard was on the track right next to me, but I had mistaken it for a snake.

I took a deep breath and coached myself to calm down.  Soon, the narrow track came to an end by a shoe-cleaning station, and I dutifully scraped down my trail runners, and studied the four-way intersection.  My way along the Surfcoast Trail was clear, but I made sure to look at it from the return direction, as several of the tracks went onto other areas, and I didn’t want to get confused.  I was carrying a phone with solid GPS, but no printed map; I would be able to find my way again if I got lost, but not as easily as with a paper map.  So I was careful on this one unfamiliar intersection.

On I went.  Towards Ironbark Basin.  It must have been named after the thin, lonely trees that had littered the trail with thin strips of bark.

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A place for snake, without doubt

They made me edgy.

I ran on.  I had only 700 metres before my planned turnaround at 12k, to make the run a 24k roundtrip.  I wasn’t going to turn back early, even if I was nervous.

I was breathing too fast.  It wasn’t just worry about snakes.  There was no one around.  I’m a New Yorker; I feel most afraid alone, where there may be people.  From the distance, I heard the sound of a group of people, celebrating.  They sounded young, and male.  I ran faster and, I hoped, more quietly.  I was really psyching myself out now.

Finally, my Garmin read the right distance, and I quickly turned back.  It was 4:45 pm, plenty of time before dark, but the light had changed.  I ran slowly, carefully, watching the earth.  I didn’t like the look of things.  In my head, I said to myself, if ever there was going to be a snake, this would be the place.  But I’d lived here for nearly eight years, and never seen one.  That’s what the rational part of me told myself, to keep myself running.

I came to the four-way intersection; I knew the way back and felt slightly better.

The good feeling disappeared as soon as I entered the single-track section (the one bordered too closely on both sides with low grass and small shrubs).  I was in shorts, a singlet, ankle socks and trail runners.  I felt decidedly vulnerable.  My pace slowed to a jog.  I had my eyes so wide open they hurt, and the slight imperfection in my vision (I’m missing a bit of vision in my left eye, and see a grey shadow where the world should be) made it worse.  Still, it was only a kilometre on this track.

That’s when I saw it.

Stretched out about eight inches onto the trail.

The long, striped back of a Tiger Snake.

I stopped in my tracks.

From my mouth came a whole string of curse words, but no one was there to hear.  I stared at the snake, studied it.  I couldn’t see its head.  It definitely had striped.  It was thick in diameter, which made me guess it could be long.  But I couldn’t see if it was curled to face the track, or positioned to slide away.

I back-tracked several steps, carefully, keeping my eyes on it.  Then I stomped on the ground, expecting the vibrations to send it fleeing into the woods.  Except it didn’t move.  I muttered my useless curse words again and considered my options.

I could try to sneak by it.  I shook my head.  It could strike me easily if I scared it. I was all alone here, and Tiger Snake bites could kill.  Though I always carry a compression bandage and have studied what to do in case of a bite, it wasn’t worth the risk.

I could back-track and try to find another trail.  But I hadn’t been here before, and I’d seen no other tracks that went back the way I wanted to go.  That meant bush-bashing and trying to get to a road.  Way too scary all alone at dusk.

I could stay right where I was.  And wait it out.

My heart was racing.  I paced back and forth, unsure of what to do, willing that snake to move.  It felt like an eternity.  The snake just stayed there.

It hadn’t occurred to me that someone else might come up the trail.

But suddenly, like a vision, a mountain-biker appeared, heading towards me.  He would have to ride by the snake to get to me, but there was no way to warn him.  I stood in the centre of the track, ten feet away from the snake, and waved him down as he got close to me.  He’d already ridden fast by the snake when he got to me.  But his face said no; he didn’t want to stop.  I saw indecision flicker there, the good-samaritan fighting with the fear of what I was going to say.  He slid to a halt, questioning me with his eyes.

“Can you help me?” I said fast.  “There’s a snake…”

“Where?”

He looked around with fear in his eyes.

“Back there, behind us.  Can you help me get by it?  Use your bike?”

Now he really wished he hadn’t stopped.

Brave man, he agreed.

We walked gingerly, side-by-side, away from the scary-snake side.  We didn’t speak.  When we’d covered maybe twenty feet, and not seen any snake, when I knew that we must have passed where it had been, I shouted in joy, “It’s gone, it’s gone, thank you so much!” I began running again. I was too scared to even look back at him, in case another snake appeared at my feet.

“Thank you,” I shouted again.  But I suspected he was long gone.

I still had that last kilometre of single-track to traverse alone.  Aloud I said, “if I survive this, I am never, ever, ever coming here again.”  I walked rather than ran, with my eyes wide-open, my heart in my throat.  It was the longest walk of my life.

When I finally emerged onto the wide, gravel, blessed, populated trail with the sea views and the other people, I could have cried with relief.

People were just going about their picnics and surfing, enjoying a warm Monday evening.  I wanted to tell everyone I saw what had happened.  I wanted to warn the people out walking their dogs to watch out for snakes, but realised how crazy that would make me sound.

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After the snake, still with fear in my eyes.  I stopped for a photo to convince myself it was safe.

So I simply ran the 11 kilometres back to my car, with my eyes very wide open, looking out for other snakes.

 

It was the 4th of January.  Two Bays was less than two weeks away.

It was summer.  Bushfire-and-snake season in Australia.  I had done everything I could do to be ready for the 28k start line.

But the encounter with the Tiger Snake so close to race day left me shaken.  This was a race that was well-known for its snakes.

The clock was ticking.  I was going to have to commit, one way or another.

To be continued…