The 2017 Wonderland Run 20k: onto the pinnacle

“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:

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I’ve qualified!

 

Oh.My.God.

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.

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Images from the Wonderland Run website. Gulp.

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.

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Course map from Garmin

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Course elevation profile

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Is it a hat?  No, it’s a snake that swallowed an elephant.  From Le Petit Prince – looks similar to our elevation profile, right?

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.

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During the Surfcoast Half-Marathon in June: “Just wait until the wave goes out…” (A photo borrowed from Facebook)

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.

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The view from our cabin. I thought we were running on this cliff!

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!

 

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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.

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This is what I came for…

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.

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But perhaps I just wasn’t looking closely enough. Looks like I could have slid off this rock to my death…hmmm.

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.

 

 

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The Trail Running Series Race 3 at Silvan: everywhere I see monsters

The book I chose for bedtime reading has not helped.  A thriller called Descent about a female runner set in the mountains of Colorado.  I should have known better.  But no, I had to start reading it in the weeks before this next trail race.  Fairly predictably, it didn’t end well for the female runner.  Well, it did, but it took several harrowing weeks of terror (mine, while I read of what bad men do) for it to end somewhat well.  Now I have this image in my head, and I won’t share it with you because I do not believe that every time a woman sets off alone running on a woody trail, it has to end badly.  Knock on wood, as they say.

Anyway.  There was the book.  Then there was the other monster in the room.  Well, more like outside the front gate, that I planned to invite in at the end of August:  The Wonderland 20k Run in the Grampians, that scares me senseless.  I imagine myself dropping off the edge of the trail there, like where the map runs out in maps of the world where the earth is flat: here there be monsters and all that.

The Trail Series Silvan 15 km Race is the last friendly obstacle between it and I.

Did I say friendly?  Please come in, Monster Number 3.  It is the night before the race, and the wind blows so hard my bedroom on the second floor of our home shakes.  It is two or three or four am.  Maybe close to five, almost when I’d planned to get up.  The time doesn’t matter; I’ve been awake all night anyway.  I usually am the night before a race, worried that I’ll miss the alarm so I watch the clock like it might creep away if I don’t keep an eye on it.

I’d noted the weather alerts before bed.  As if the mighty wind blowing the trees back and forth in the garden wouldn’t have been enough of a clue.  The prediction: rain; thunder; hail; frost; gale-force winds.  Perfect weather, then, for a 15 kilometre trail race.   In a forest.  In winter.  I spend the wee hours of the night composing my obituary: Patricia ran in the woods during 60 km/hour winds with gusts up to 100 on the hills, and a tree fell on her; she was an idiot.

When I finally get up, imagine my surprise to find it completely still.  The world is becalmed (my word of the day – I read it in a magazine and like the sound of it – I hope it means what I think); the wind is gone.  It is dark as night (it is night, at 5:15 am on a Sunday morning).  The dogs gaze at me sleepy but expectant as I wander downstairs and switch on the kitchen light, but quickly curl back into circle-dogs and go to sleep again (though Billy, the youngest, keeps one eye slightly open to watch me).

I’m in the car earlier than planned.  Half – no most – of my pre-race nerves come from contemplating driving.  My hour-long route includes three twisty single-lane road sections through the trees; perfect spots for courageous drivers to get annoyed by my cautious approach and tail-gate me in fury.  My strategy is to leave before anyone is on the road.

I haven’t counted on the absolute dark or the pouring rain though, and I finally have to learn how the high-beam lights work in my car (wonderfully, though switching them off  for oncoming vehicles while navigating twisty, wet, dark roads requires a degree of motor skills I hadn’t imagined).

I arrive alive.  Get a terrific park.  The best park ever in fact, in the car park right near the race start.  I am there before they’ve even finished setting up the finish chute, that’s how early I am.  I want a picture of the sunrise, but it doesn’t rise.  The sky just turns a slightly lighter shade of grey.  I am wearing (no joke): running tights with waterproof trousers on top, a Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet, a thin rain-jacket, a wool icebreaker top, a wool/fleece hoody, a 550-loft down jacket, a waterproof ski jacket, a fleece hat and gloves.  I look more ready for skiing than running, am perhaps even over-dressed for skiing, but I don’t care.  I am cozy-warm wandering around race headquarters, jogging to the start of the course, buying hoodies and buffs.

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The “sunrise”

By the time the race is about to start, I have stripped down to just the singlet and running tights, though, and I’m not cold at all.  It’s as if someone new has slipped into my body in the hour I have waited around, someone more gutsy and less cold-blooded than me.  Someone who is not scared of monsters.

Medium course runners are called to the Start line.  No one moves.  We are called again.  I glance around.  Think to ask the guy next to me where the start line is.  Finally the MC comes straight in front of us and marches us to the Start Line which was not obvious as to get there we had to walk through the Finishers Arch!  I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know where it was!

We warmed up; we went.  It wasn’t new to me.  My friends Cissy and Tony and I had done a reconnoissance of the course two weeks prior, so I knew where we were going.  I even knew the trail names, which was kind of cool, because usually I’m thinking things like, hey, there’s the “Hill from Hell” whereas today I was thinking, oh, Track 24, that’s the steep one with the unimaginative name.

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Ghost hill

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Checking out the course two weeks before the event

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Navigating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw little point in running the first hill.  The hero in me has left the house, to be replaced by the smarter racing strategist.  I wanted to be out in front before the single-track became bottle-necked but that was five kilometers away.  I ran some, and when it got too steep, I power-hiked fast, knowing that different muscles were working that way, and there were lots of hills to come.  I avoided the slicks of mud where other runners had slipped, stayed off the deadly clay in the center of the trail, and kept to the grassy sides where my feet got more purchase.  Yes, it hurt, but not more than my usual run at Mount Dandenong.  I like ups anyway, that’s where I make up for my downs.  I’m strong there, and can hold my place in the race rankings.

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

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It looks a bit worse looking up in Rapid Ascent’s other photo of the “Hill from Hell”

At the top, a breath of relief, then we fly down the other side.  Well, the runners around me fly.  I pick my way down as fast as I can which is too slow because my eyes don’t work so well these days, with these stupid grey shadows called floaters removing clarity so I can’t really see where the roots and rocks and branches are if I go too fast.  That stinks, that my body could certainly run down the hills faster than my eyes allow.

Down, down we go, across Olinda Creek Road, onto Georges Road.  I’m waiting for Rifle Range Gully Track and KC Track because these are the tough bits, the single track up and up and up, where we creep single-file and I feel like I am on an army mission into enemy territory.  The man behind me wheezes and gasps like he might die at any moment.  He won’t let me get away from him though – each time I try to surge forward when we both are power-hiking he breaks into a run too – with his heavy breathing, he’d give us away to the enemy and we’d all be dead.  I have compassion for him though, as I have my own hacking-cough issues, but still, his heavy breathing has me amused (it sounds a bit like a porno movie behind me), but desperate to move ahead because he’s making it sound really hard to climb this hill.

Oh, we go up and down and up and down, I stay with the same group, two men in orange vests or jackets (I only see orange as I’m trying not to trip so I don’t really look; I imagine they are wearing fluoro vests like construction workers but I’m sure they were in technical running gear), and a boy who is just as fast as me, and his father.  And the poor man who wheezes.  We are on a mission, the five of us; I pass them on the ups and they pass me on the downs and I kind of feel like maybe we should just hold our positions but none of us do.

It’s towards the last five k of so that I see her, my nemesis, my friend, the winner of each race I run, the friend I chat to always at the start but can never ever catch.  She’d bolted ahead and I had happily let her go so I wouldn’t waste my race racing her, but there I see her in front of me, like a carrot on a stick and I’m the hungry donkey and I suddenly think maybe I’ll be able to catch her this time.

All the while a part of me is going, yes, this is the way we went on our course reconnaissance , yes, that tree and that trail, and that’s where we went wrong and turned back, and yes.  And then – WAIT ONE DARNED MOMENT – we didn’t go this way at all!   There’s an extra side trail we didn’t find and a different way across the bottom of the National Rhododendron Garden than we took.

Ah, but that was where I had my favourite race moment.  The rain, which had held off, suddenly came down with a cold fury.  It was needly and sharp and the wind blew it straight into my face for several minutes.  I was all alone, and I said out loud, laughing, “And that’s how you know you’re alive!”

Then, like someone pressed Play, the movie kept going, and people started passing me going downhill again.  The young boy and his dad passed, the two guys in fluoro vests, the wheezing guy, they all went by me.  Cissy waved as she passed.  My nemesis/friend disappeared once again into the distance and I picked my way down the hill.

One more hill up, I knew, and I was struggling by then.  Is this the wall? I asked myself, before I sucked down a third energy gel and a big glug of water and continued to run.  Some single-track, I think, came next, then the slick clay by the fence line where my calf and foot began to play cramping games with me.  Ha ha, I thought, wind and rain and monsters and slick clay and calf cramps be damned and I kept running as fast as I could until I came to Stonyford Road.

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This could be Stonyford Road

Oh, it was so familiar, where I’d come undone during our rec’y run two weeks before, so tired, no time for walking today though, I passed a guy doing it harder than me, kept going, calves wanting to cramp but not so I kept the pace up, a woman behind me said well done Patricia but I was going too hard to glance back and said well done to you too as we both powered on.

The beautiful, wonderful finish line and friends calling my name and all monsters banished for that one gleeful moment, that crossing of the line, then hands on knees, breathless, pressing Stop on my Garmin, and suddenly finding myself immersed in a huge heaving party of exuberant runners, live music, and food everywhere.

After I changed back into my skiing clothes, Cissy found me and said, “Congratulations!” and I said “For what?” and she said “Didn’t you check the results? You came second in your age category!”

Joy.  So a fourth, third and now a second in the series.  By the time of the awards ceremony, many had left, including the first and third place winners in my age category (it was bitterly cold) so I got to stand on the podium alone in my ski wear.  This is my favourite photo – it looks like I’m talking to an invisible friend, though I’m really chatting with Sam, the Race Director.

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Me and my invisible friend with granola

What a terrific day!  No monsters anywhere.  Just a lot of trees and mud and awesome runners having the time of their lives.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, for putting on another terrific show!

And now there is nothing between me and the monster that is Wonderland…

 

 

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.

IMG_3010

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…

 

 

 

A sixty-minute beach run: of quicksand and coastal rocks

Running along the beach, I’d just found my stride, taking short quick steps, feeling good for the first time in the thirty minutes I’d been running.  I was contemplating this good feeling, glancing at the waves rolling in off the bay, when BAM! I came to an immediate halt and fell flat on my face.

I swore, loudly.  It took me a second to realise that I had sunk into the sand, almost up to my knees.  The knees that I’d landed hard upon.  I pulled my feet out quickly, checked that I wasn’t bleeding anywhere, then thought to look back for the deep footsteps I must have left behind.  Only there weren’t any footsteps!

The sand – just like before I’d run across it – was smooth and flat.

Quicksand!

On the beach in Sandringham.  Who would’ve guessed!  I looked up the beach to the offending storm-water drain and the pool of water that wasn’t linked to the tide as it sometimes was.  I had forgotten about the drain, and I hadn’t been paying enough attention to my surrounds.  I was now fully awake.

I ran on.  At least this sixty-minute sand run was proving something of an adventure.  The day, like many lately, hadn’t started well.  And I was all alone on this long stretch of beach.  So, like a lunatic (or perhaps just like a mother), I shouted into the wind about how awful everything felt, how that stretch of quicksand seemed just about right for the way my day had been going.  The wind took my words and swept them away.

I ran on.

The trouble with a sixty minute beach run where I live is there is no continuous stretch of beach.  I knew this when I set out, so I’d had a plan, courtesy of satellite view on Google Maps.  I would run from home, do a stretch of the Coastal Track, then drop down to the beach at Trey Bit Reserve by the Sandringham Yacht Club.  From there, I could see a long-ish stretch of beach, and I would run it as far as I could.  The sand was soft and slanted and it hurt to run on.  I kept sinking and wondering why I was doing this, but I get determined, and I keep going.

I came to the rock shelf where my son and I used to look for Dinosaur fossils when he was younger, and climbed up.  It felt good to challenge my stability, to be there in this wild spot alone.  I ran to the end of that shelf, where I intended to jump off and continue along the next stretch of beach, but the tide was in, so that was it, end of the line.  I turned around, but this time, I decided I’d try to stay on the beach until Hampton.

And that’s where the fun really began.  First, the quicksand. Once I’d brushed myself off, I continued along the beach towards home, with my eye on the road I’d run down by Trey Bit Reserve to get to the beach.  But I was bored with that route.  I glanced to the left, at the yacht club.  There seemed to be a concrete barrier between it and the sea – perhaps there was a small path there?  I’d never looked before.

I got close, and sure enough, a thin stretch of old broken bitumen ran there.  I expected it to connect to the beach on the far side.  I jogged along it, marveling that I’d lived here for six years, but never tried this trail.  The sea crashed a few feet below.  I was complimenting myself on my bravery when the path came to an abrupt end at some small coastal rocks.  I glanced down at them.  I’ve covered many a coastal rock in adventure racing, but always in an organised event.  I didn’t know where these rocks led.

Still, I found myself taking the first tentative steps onto them.  I went cautiously, alone, aware that I had no phone and no one knew where I was.  The rocks were small and would shift easily.

I swayed between two thoughts.  One, that this was a good stability challenge for my ankles, a good training exercise; the other, that this was remarkably like that movie 127 Hours (that’s the movie about the guy who gets stuck under a rock in the middle of nowhere for 127 hours).

Except the guy in the movie had water.

I had $50 and my house keys.

I stepped carefully, not putting my feet between any rocks.  It was about then that I saw the shoe.  The black shoe, wedged down between rocks.  I nearly laughed.  I stepped carefully around the gap.  Glancing forward, I couldn’t see where the rocks would end.  I checked the waves to the left, but they were far enough away not to be a worry.  The rocks grew larger, and I clambered on, using my hands for balance.

To the right was a grassy cliff and beyond it I could see the yacht club buildings.  I knew I could climb up that cliff if necessary but I didn’t want to.  I was scared of snakes in the grass.  And I wanted to see where these rocks ended.  Silly, stupid, crazy, but I was craving adventure.  It felt good to trust myself again.  A few steps further, and I came onto the continuation of the gravel path.  “Ha!” I said out loud.  “Take that beach!  Take that coastal rocks!  I’ve gotten through!”

It felt symbolic.

I jogged along the now-clear path behind the yacht club, slightly concerned by my isolation and the graffiti on the back of the building but still elated.  I looked for the upcoming beach.

It was then I realised that my track was leading out to sea!  I’d found my way onto the marina seawall.  If I continued on, I would end up in a lovely scenic spot, five-hundred meters out to sea, with no way but back to swim.

It looks less adventurous than it felt, but those are the rocks I ran along

The marina wall I was running along

Darn!  I turned back, reluctantly, and wondered what to do next.  I didn’t want to go back along the coastal rocks.  I didn’t want to climb over the building (yes, I did contemplate whether I’d have to).

Luckily, a few minutes later, I found the trail connected to the car park as well as the coastal rocks.  Normal people might just park their car and walk down this path to the boats.

I ran up the path, then in front of the yacht club onto the dog beach.  A few dogs played in the sunshine, chasing sticks and ignoring their owner’s calls.  At the end of that beach, I had to scramble over a rock wall (more fun!) to get to the next section.  From there, it was a nice, soft-sand five minutes out and back along Hampton Beach.

There were people around now, couples walking, children playing, people having a normal beach-side morning.

Me?  I was feeling elated by my unexpected adventure.  It felt like I had arrived on this beach from some other primitive, wilder world.  A world full of danger and thrills, where I could test myself, and prove myself worthy.

Take that, bad morning!  Take that, feelings of sorrow and anxiety!  Today, I topped you with one great adventure, and reminded myself of who I really am.

 

Salomon Trail Series Plenty Gorge 2014: my way

Woof woof, whine, whine.  It had started half-an-hour ago.  I knew because I’d been awake; I’d been awake every hour on the hour to check the time.  It was now 5:30 am; the clock was set to go off in twenty minutes.  I was trying to hold on for those final warm moments.  Woof.  WOOF.  She was only a puppy though.  Well, at nearly eight months old, she was kind of an adolescent in dog terms, and we’d been told not to go to her if she barked in her crate at night, or we’d be teaching her bad habits.  Still, guilt ate at me. I nudged my sleeping husband, who growled, “She’s fine.”  Snore, snore.  I held out for ten more minutes, then got up for a quick pre-race shower, timed perfectly for my planned 6:30 am departure.

I’m an organised racer, with my gear placed out the night before, backpack loaded, water carrier full of water and gels, shoes lined up and ready to go.  I have my routines, and they work, they get me early to races, so I can get a good park and pace up and down like a lunatic for at least an hour.

Except for today.  Today, I came downstairs and smelled something really bad.  The kids were up, playing on iPods, and didn’t appear to notice or be the source of the odor.  It was, of course, the puppy in her crate.  She had never soiled her crate in the four months she lived with us, poor thing, and she looked both guilty and very glad to see me.  I cooed at her, reassuring her.

Then I quickly shooed her outside, and stared in dismay at the mess of chewed-up blankets, and, well, smelly stuff.  My organized leaving time seemed suddenly a joke.  Determined, I swung into action, gagging, gathering up offensive doggy presents into rubbish bags, racing them out the door to the rubbish, then hefting the remains of her doggy blankets into the wash, dumping in loads of liquid, switching it the hot, intensive, and washing my hands really, really well.  The kids iPodded on in silence.  Sigh.

This morning was not going quite as planned.  I headed back to clean the base of the crate but was undone by the fact that it wouldn’t come apart.  “Quick, get your Dad,” I shouted to my son, who looked up, bleary-eyed, from iPod Soccer.  “Quick!”  It was hard to see the urgency, I admit, but it was 6:15 already.  My husband came down, less than pleased with me, and slumped onto the sofa near the children.  “Just go to your race, I’ll clean it up later.”

Okay.  So maybe it wasn’t so urgent.  I scarfed a bowl of cereal and mug of coffee, grabbed my gear and rushed out the door.  I tried to do my last-minute checks, but I was so distracted I feared I’d forget some essential item.

No matter – it was race day, and I even had a friend to travel with, who would do the navigating, making it easier than usual.  I’d gotten lost going to this race location before, so I’d be grateful for the help.  Kim and I have run together for a couple of years now, usually after I teach my Thursday morning BodyPump class.  Our pace is compatible, the talk is easy, and she lives a block away.  She’s also quite chilled out, which is a nice contrast to the Missy Stress-Pants driver (that’s me).  I pulled up outside her house at 6:38 for a 6:40 pickup and watched her racing back and forth inside with water bottles and kids and runners, and she appeared just on time, as always, and with a big smile.  And a half-drunk mug of tea.

I told her my tale of puppy despair; she shared her stories of similar child messes in her home.  Ah, parenthood.  Together, we have five children, two cats, three dogs, and two husbands.  It is amazing we can leave the house at all, much less for a 17.5 km trail race an hour’s drive away.

Well, it was meant to be an hour’s drive.  “Do you know the way?” she asked, innocently.  “Yes, mostly.  I’ll need some help towards the end,” I said, belying the truth of my nerves.  I ran through the route numbers in my mind: 17 to 44 to 44/46 to 46 to 57 to Memorial Drive to Goldsworthy Lane, like some crazy mantra from Lost.  “I’ve printed out the directions,” I added, handing her my well-notated Google Maps notes, holding back from passing over my iPhone with the route high-lighted and ready to use.  We set off.

All went well on the 17 bit of the route.  After all, it is pretty well one straight road for 40 minutes.  We managed the round-about third exit to 44 and I saw the sign for Rosanna Road and wanted to sing with joy.  Meanwhile, the real conversation that was going on with her and my calm-pretend-self continued apace.  We discussed kids and dogs and running and school and work and husbands, and I tried to stay focused on the cars around me, and the route.

We came to a turn.  46 was signed to the left.  I knew this bit of the route, had mentally rehearsed it.  We went first on 44, then 44/46, then 46.  I had memorized it to make sure I didn’t go the wrong way on this tricky bit.  “Are you sure we turn here?” she quizzed, “we haven’t gone through the round-about…”  “I think so,” I said.  There was traffic waiting, rushing the decision, and the sign said 46.  I turned left.

I wanted her to tell me firmly, “No, go this way,” but she didn’t and we drove on.  I glanced at the shops as we passed.  I began to feel uneasy.  “I don’t remember that strip of shops,” I mused aloud.  I’d been up here three times.  This was supposed to be looking rural.  Something was wrong.  We drove on, talking, but after ten minutes, I pulled over.  “Let’s have a look at the map on my phone,” I said, pulling it out, tapping the icon, looking for the blue dot that marked our place, for the red line that traced the route.

They’d disappeared!  I quickly typed in Yellow Gum Park, and asked for directions again from where we were.  But no – that couldn’t be!  The blue dot – where we were – us – was down near Fairfield!  How in God’s name could we be near Fairfield!  Instead of being 10 minutes from the race start for our planned 7:40 park, the directions said we were 35 (!) minutes away.  I quickly swore and closed the App, opened a different one (Google Map was obviously broken, the satellite GPS was getting it all wrong), but no, the blue dot on the second App was in the same spot.  Fairfield.  Oh God!

I told her, then handed her the phone to watch the progress of the blue dot when we pulled out.  “Yup,” she said calmly, “we’re going the wrong way.  You’ll have to turn around.”

“What!  Do a u-turn!  Really??”  I’d already pulled into the u-turn lane.

“Yup.”  How come she was so calm?  This was crazy.  We’d never make it now.   I fought the urge to cry and swear and simply did the u-turn.

Then we gunned it.  Ok, under-the-speed-limit gunned it.  We lost our way once more, but we were now vigilant and found it back, found Greensborough Highway, Memorial Drive, and Goldsworthy Lane.  We began to laugh.  “We can always do a shorter course if we’re late,” I quipped, half-meaning it.  The 17.5 km started at 8:40 am; it was now 7:55.  We’d make it okay.  Traffic backed up with other cars going to the race, and before we knew it, we were being directed to park in a muddy field.  Phew.  I felt like I’d already run a few races just getting to the start!

Turns out we had plenty of time for the usual pre-race toilets stops, bag check, removal of layers.  At 8:40 the race set off, and I was so grateful to be there, I forgot to even be stressed.  I simply started running.

And that’s where the real fun began.  Last race, I’d gone out too fast, so today I was determined to slow down and enjoy the views.  The trail was immediately rough and rock-studded.  I felt strong and agile.  I didn’t worry about racing for those first five minutes, just soaked up the joy of movement.  And then I began to bolt through gaps, to search out the sweet spot of the field where we were all about the same pace.  Once there, it was a matter of being passed on downhills and technical sections, and passing the same people on the ups.

This race had the added joy of four river crossings.  Unlike previous years where crossing the river had been swift (and scary, because everyone but me wanted to sprint down the slick downhill to the river), I got stuck behind a long line of people waiting to cross.  I eavesdropped on conversations around me, and waited, debating whether to run down the side of these people waiting (why were they waiting?), and realized that would be deemed rude, so shuffled my feet and glanced at my Garmin.  The woman behind me was nervous – she’d never done a water crossing in shoes before.  As we slid down the trail to the river, I gave her a few tips on how to plant her feet on the slick track, as she seemed in danger of sliding down, and was glad to see her keep her feet.

I’ve crossed many rivers in my shoes in my ten years of trail running, but I remember the fear of the first time, and was glad I could help her.  “Will I be cold?” she questioned.  “No, you’ll be fine,” I lied, “just ten feet from the river by that pink ribbon, and you’ll warm up.”  I pointed.  She smiled.  She’d know soon enough whether she’d be cold – I would be, but there was no need to worry her more.

I finally arrived at the crossing, reassured to see the familiar rope strung across to help racers.  Except no one was using it!  My mouth dropped open.  The racers were scrambling over the top of the falls, on the exposed rocks – slipping and sliding.  I couldn’t watch.  It was the most hazardous spot to cross the river, in my experience.

I looked at the rope again, and reached for it.  It was too high alone – it needed a bunch of us to be hanging on it to bring it down so it would work, but no one else was game, they all wanted to go the rock way across the top of the falls.  Maybe they were right, but I wasn’t too keen on slipping.

I let go of too-high-alone rope, and waded across below the rock bridge, putting my hands down for a bit of support (mistake, my sleeves got soaked).  But it was easy, and not slippery, and I scrambled up the bank and didn’t look back.  I have learned not to follow others, that the apparently easy way may not be easy for me.  But I think the others waiting didn’t know quite what to make of me.  I wonder if any others took my route.  I wonder what the scared woman thought – probably that she shouldn’t have taken advice from an obvious nutter.

No matter, we were off and running again.  Slippery grass, rocky trails, and my favorite switch-back sections of single-track were all to come.  All required agility and care, and I tried to keep my step light and quick.  I had found my sweet spot, and the same four or five runners clustered together, alternating who was first and who was second depending on the terrain.  Nearly all were polite, asking to pass, saying nice things, being considerate.

Then there was iPod guy.  Both headphones in.  Oblivious that others wanted to pass him.  That I wanted to pass him.  I said excuse me.  Said it louder.  Waited for a wider section of trail to pass.  And waited.  It was lots of single track.  Finally the chance came, but when I made my move, he sped up.  I tapped his shoulder.  He ignored me.  Now I was getting pissed off.  Was he being purposely obstructive, or didn’t he have a clue?  It began to seem like it was purposeful.  So finally, when there was enough of a trail, I blasted past him without saying thank you (not like me), and ran as fast as I could to not have to deal with him again.  Sadly, we were the same pace, and played this game several more times during the race.  I saw him at the finish and he had removed the headphones and was smiling and chatting, so I’ve recast him – he is no longer the obstructive villain, but the clueless iPod man.

In any case, that single track was glorious, the glimpses I had of nature in the moments I looked up were terrific.  I smiled for photographers, gloried in the hills I’ve gotten better at climbing, and ran as fast as I could while still enjoying myself.  Three more cold river crossings later, with about two kilometers to go, the words of my running coach came to mind.  This was the point in the race to begin “reeling people in”, so I tried to do that a bit, making up for some of the people who had passed me on rougher ground.  I got in front of Kim, who had passed me an hour earlier, then a few other women.  Then the trail became a steep gravel road, and I flew.  I’d practiced fast downhill running two weeks ago, so I tried to keep the technique right, fast feet, short strides, and passed a few more people.

A final two steep climbs, where most were swearing, and I was happy because I could “reel in” a few more who’d passed me, a glance at the Blue Lake, and suddenly we were at the Suunto Sprint sign.  “Yeah, right, sprint,” I thought.  I had no sprint left in me, but ran across that finish line in great joy anyway.

When I’d caught my breath, I let myself be swept up by the overflowing enthusiasm of the finish area, where everyone was sharing stories of adventure and mud, live music was playing, and finishers kept coming through to huge claps and cheers.

I found some friends, who looked at me strangely and gestured to my face.  I blushed.  I’d forgotten.  On one of the muddier climbs out of a river, I’d put my hands down to help myself up and come up mud-handed.  As I was completely alone, I decided to stripe my face on both sides, like Bear Grylls.  Because this was an adventure and it seemed appropriate.  Assuming it would sweat/wear off before the finish.  Apparently it hadn’t.

I laughed out loud.  It was just that sort of day.  A day with an upset puppy, a road trip that didn’t quite go to plan, a lot of glorious mud and single-track, and a day for muddy stripes of victory on my cheeks.

I came 12th in my age category in 2:06, slower than last year by 8 minutes.  I put that down to the river crossing waiting times, and to my deciding to consciously run slower and with more presence.  It was well worth it.

Just before we left, I picked up my “Tales from the Trail” prize that I won for my blog about the last race.  Terrific Salomon gear that I will certainly be using right away.  Thanks Rapid Ascent and Salomon, for the gear, and for an outstanding day of adventure.

"Tales from the Trail" prize!

“Tales from the Trail” prize!  Thanks Rapid Ascent and Salomon!

 

Riding the 2014 Roller Coaster: 21.5km of trail running pain and pleasure

It began in the dark.  And I mean the dark dark.  I was up at 4:50 am on race morning, and the house, for a change, was still.  I crept downstairs, trying not to wake the puppy, the cats, or my two young children.  My poor husband had been woken by the alarm but hopefully was already fast asleep.

It felt good to be up.  I hadn’t braved a really early run since injury back in November 2013.  There is something holy about the pre-dawn, and I cherished the silence as I got myself ready. By 5:15 am, I was pulling out for the hour-long drive.  I was apprehensive: my knee injury after the Marysville Marathon had been my worst and longest-lasting injury in thirty years of running.  I’d had six weeks without running, and had to rebuild as if I had zero base.  I hadn’t expected to get to do the Roller Coaster Run even though I’d signed up for it months ago.  It was just by luck (and some careful planning) that my long run distance had gotten up to 21k the week before.  There was no time to taper, so I was going in hot.  And nervous about re-injury.

I know most of the drive well, as I train at Mount Dandenong weekly, but I usually start at The Basin Theatre in Doongalla because I’m a scaredy-mouse on the narrow twisting roads that lead to Sky High, Mount Dandenong, where the Roller Coaster Run begins.  When I finally came to the smaller road forty minutes later, I gripped the steering wheel tightly, and noted that it was still pitch-dark.  Luckily, no one drove up behind me for a good long while.  I’m too scared to pull over to let people pass, especially in the dark on a road I don’t know.  But close to Olinda, I picked up some followers, gritted my teeth, and pulled to the side.  I waited while about ten cars passed me.  There goes my pole position parking, I thought.

I pulled out onto the dark road again and on I drove, twisting, turning, swearing, following my headlights.  Finally the turn-off for Observatory Road and Sky High came.  It was more long, scary, dark road.  More cars behind me.  I got there finally, drove through and was directed by a man with a torch to the right.  The man gestured for me to lower the window,  but I was so nervous I forgot how, and it took a couple of tries to get it down.  He told me to drive all the way to the back of the unpaved car park, and I’m sure my eyes were wide with terror.  But I drove on, thought there was going to be a turn-off, then saw a space right by the fence, which must have been where he meant.  This was fine until I’d parked, paused to draw breath, and switched off my headlights.

It was when I stepped out of the car that I noticed it was still the dead of night.  There was not a single light.  I couldn’t even see my feet.  I’ll admit I was flummoxed by this; I stood at the back of my car for a few moments, realised I couldn’t see to get my gear ready, so closed up and decided to register instead.

It was a long walk across that car park.  I could feel with my feet that the ground was uneven but couldn’t see what was coming next.  Caution slowed me: I didn’t want to sprain my ankle before the race even began.  When I saw the lights of registration, I began to relax.

 

Reassuring lights of registration

Reassuring lights of registration

Here was a place I knew well.  I had run last year in the same half-marathon, but what a different person I was a year later.

I didn’t reflect on the changes.  I simply navigated my way down the steep slippery steps and picked up my race number.  The clowns behind the desk (and I do mean clowns – that is the theme of the volunteers at the Roller Coaster Run, and they were doing it well, with wigs and makeup and costumes) made the darkness surreal.  Was I still at home dreaming?  I’d been having lots of bad dreams recently, so I hoped not.

I found my way carefully back to my car, where I realised the stranger parked next to me that I’d said good morning to in the dark earlier was actually Jon, a trail running friend.  It had been too dark to even see each other.  We shared a laugh, and then I focused on getting my gear organised, with the help of the torch I recalled I kept in the glove box.

It was cold; I was worried I’d drop the little connectors off my triathlon belt onto the ground and lose them in the dark.  With numb fingers I got my number attached to the belt and clipped it on, and slipped on my Salomon backpack.  It fit like an old friend.  I checked for gels and salt tablets, for the spare water bottle, then I stowed my car keys and mobile phone inside and wandered back to the start.

With no family with me, it was hard to keep rugged up enough to stay warm.  I usually toss my warmest layer (a down jacket) to my husband right before the start.  Today, I opted for a long-sleeved t-shirt topped by a wool icebreaker, thinking I’d stow them in my pack just before the start.  I was cold immediately.

At the start area, I ran into Travis from Dandenongs Trail Runners, another of the many lovely encounters with trail running friends that day.  We said hello, and I was so pleased to know someone in the middle of this large crowd.  We chatted about distances and training, and I shivered and quickly drank the Gatorade I was holding simply to make it gone, so I wouldn’t have to hold the cold bottle anymore.  Gradually, the sky lightened.  It dawned foggy so the lights of Melbourne were not visible this year.  I felt cocooned in the starting area.

Before the start

Before the start

Eventually, deciding it was dumb to carry extra gear, and that I could admit to the person at bag check I didn’t actually have a bag without too much shame, I reluctantly climbed the steps again to leave my long-sleeved tops hanging from the tent posts at bag check.  I began shivering uncontrollably.  Ah, but there was a crowd, and like a small penguin, I made for the center of it, and felt the temperature rise considerably.

Soon, the Jester (Rohan Day, Race Director) took to the microphone to warn us of sharp turns and gravelly downhills.  These didn’t surprise me, but reminded me of my worry about staying at my own slow, recently-injured pace among the crowds of runners.

I forgot the worry when Rohan began talking about the new addition for the 43km runners.  I listened with my mouth open as Rohan explained how it would work.  “You drop a ball in the clown (he pointed to a carnival-type clown like the ones you fire water into to make a balloon explode).  If you get an even number, you can deduct this from your marathon time.  If you get an odd number, you have to add it on.”  He had a volunteer demonstrate.  I could almost feel the unease grip the crowd: who would the winner be then?  Was this for real?  What if you got a really big number, what would happen?  He went on to reassure the runners: so, you’ll have Garmin time, Race time, and Clown time. Clown time!  I loved it.  I saw the serious marathon runners visibly relax; their time would be correctly measured.

 

Once the sun had risen enough to make the trails visible, Wave 1 set off.  I was in Wave 2, having downgraded from the marathon course a week ago.  I was strangely calm.  Perhaps because I’d run the course the week before, or maybe because I’d decided I wasn’t racing, there was little pressure.  The count down happened, we bolted off and a smile formed on my face that had been absent for some time.  I was racing again, and I was overjoyed.

We began on a road, and quickly turned left onto a steep downhill track.  I slowed.  Many passed me.  I tried not to care, but it was hard.  Downhill is my weakness, and I was concentrating on short, fast steps in my minimalist shoes.  I held onto the fact that uphill is my strength, and let the others go.  Soon we turned left and the trail – I was going to say flattened out – but it never really flattens out in the Roller Coaster Run.  It did its painful thing, it rolled.

Now I could give you a blow-by-blow of each bit of the race, with trail names and emotions, but I prefer to give you the highlights.

  • Flying down Zig Zag and Channel 10 tracks, twisting and turning, dancing around rocks and branches, keeping my balance.  Noticing the Japanese Maple that will soon glow with autumn leaves.
  • Dodd’s track, not the horrible bit, but the rocky bit that’s like a steep river bed.  Rocks in just the right places.  The spot where I found a white feather last year.  Sweat dripping down my face.  Hard, but not too hard.  The feel of muscles firing in my legs, of power.  Encouraging some runners who were doing it hard.
  • The hill along Banksia Track that I hate more than any hill on the course.  It is a subtle hill which looks unthreatening from the bottom, but ever since my friend Ben ran up it and I couldn’t run up it to save my life then or the many times I’ve tried since, I’ve hated that hill.  I hurled bad words at it in my mind as I climbed, and wondered if it would ever become easier.
  • The 13km marker on Stables Track, where last year, I did a superb face-plant Superman-style that nearly ended my race.  The marker, I noted this time, was on the other side of the track this year, and I carefully did not look at it.
  • Link Track, where the thunderstorm began last week, and I was afraid I was going to be hit by lightning.
  • The young guy who ran up Singleton Terrace behind me as I opened gel number 2, who looked fresh-faced and healthy, who asked if I was okay.  I thought that was kind of him, and said I was good.  Then I wondered if I looked really shaky.
  • Old Mountain Road, which goes on and on and on and on.  But I knew at the top were Claire, Sarah, and Scott, dressed as clowns, who made the whole thing feel like a great homecoming.
  • Trig Track and calf cramps.  I know I’m not alone here.  I felt them begin and was terrified they’d end my race (oops, run).  I’d had two gels and two salt tablets, along with a fair amount of water.  So I could only attribute the cramps to lack of fitness, which made sense given that my longest week in months was, well, this week at 43km.  Still, I ran on.  I was chasing, in my head, my 2:38 finish that I’d achieved last year and never since.  The cramps came and went, threatening, but never so much that I had to stop.
  • The 21km marker, where I suddenly realised that the race went to 21.5km where I had stupidly thought it was just 21, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it.  It was a painful, painful battle, that last 500 meters.  I wanted to run, I so wanted to run, but I could only do the zombie march up the hill, panting and swearing and watching 2:38 tick by, which was somehow a relief because I could stop chasing that goal.
  • The moment I crossed that elusive finish line, and Dion shouted “Go Patricia” and I felt known.  The race medal that was draped over my neck, that I’d so wanted, because injury had made it seem impossible to achieve. Chatting to Caroline, Dion, Liberty, Anthony and Jon and others afterwards, laughing and smiling.
After the fun!

The elusive medal!

  • The brunch that I faced alone, and lonely, until I struck up happy conversation with strangers, and reminded myself I could do such things.  And finding some friends after all to share the moment with.
  • The pain and the challenge, and the number of warriors I saw out on the course who were struggling and keeping going, who were doing it tough, but were doing it.
  • The clowns.  The people in dress-up.  The fog.  The cheers and the blood on some of the runners and the smell of gum trees in the dampness.  The long, winding hill as I drove home.
  • The feeling of utter joy at finishing what is surely one of the toughest half-marathons out there.

Roller Coaster Run, I am so glad I got the chance to run you this year, and that I remained injury-free.  I’m grateful to the other runners, the volunteers, the race organisers, and my wonderful family and friends for supporting and believing in me.

Now I’ll just have to be very smart about recovering because the Salomon Trail Series is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

You gotta know when to run: a very windy day.

Since noon, I’d been watching the weather.  The winds were howling, they’d been howling for days, and black clouds hovered on the horizon.  I’d wait, I thought; it was school holidays and I had until dark to fit in my 15km run.  I set some butter out to soften, had lunch, picked up the kids from their play-date, and then made our favorite Vanilla Swirl Cake (really banana bread but my daughter hates bananas so we don’t tell her they are in it; she loves the cake).

Still, the dark clouds lingered.  They moved along with the howling wind, closer, threatening, and then, as they do just before a really torrential rain, they lightened.  The storm hit.  I watched the heavy rain pit the pool water.  It was peaceful from inside, cozy, the smell of fresh-baked cake in the air, the kids not fighting too much, the cats happy, my husband brewing us fragrant cups of coffee.

Still, I watched the sky.

I had seen a quote earlier in the week on Facebook, linked to a photo of a runner in the snow.  “There is no bad weather.  There are only soft people.”

I was not going to be one of those soft people.  Not me.  I went upstairs and changed into my running tights and my favorite, ten-year-old orange long-sleeved running top.  Underneath, for good karma, I wore the yellow singlet from an Adventure Race series in Hong Kong.  I gathered the laundry to bring downstairs, killing time, waiting for the rain to stop, and as I was walking out, I saw a gleam of sunlight.  Sunlight!

I raced downstairs, grabbed my Garmin, slid into my Inov-8’s, said some loving goodbyes to my family, and fled into the wet sunshine.  Already, I could breath again.  Fresh, green, alive; the world shone in the sun and I knew I’d waited for just the right moment.  Down the hill I sang, crossing the street to the coastal track, stripping off the long-sleeved t-shirt already in heady jubilation of a glorious run.

The first hint that it might not be so glorious was the fallen tree blocking the track just one kilometre in.  Pah.  One tree; big deal.  I glanced out over the whitecaps of the bay, noted the sun shining.  There was one single, big black cloud just on the horizon.  Look away, I said to myself.  You’re out now.

And out I was.  Puddles abounded; I skirted them with joy.  I raced myself, using this shorter run to push it a bit faster.  Oh how I love to run, I kept thinking.

But I noted, with increasing uneasiness, just how many trees were down.  Some were lying across the path.  Others were toppled in the bush nearby.  Many appeared dead and dried out.  Most were heavy enough to do damage if they landed on a runner.

I began to hum a song that came into mind once in Hong Kong, when I ran just after a typhoon.  Kenny Rogers, The Gambler.  “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…”  Over and over, just those four lines.  Because sometimes it is right to pull the plug.

I kept going.  I was going out 7.5k and back the same way.  I was up to 6k when the wind began to howl again.  I certainly wasn’t going to quit there.  Was I?  I looked out at the bay.  The whitecaps had become waves, and the sky on the horizon had darkened.  It was coming back, this storm; I was just going to have to outrun it.

I reached the top of Red Bluff, and didn’t allow myself to look out, just scrambled down the hill, skirting my favorite tree roots, noting, just by a tricky section, a fallen tree that wasn’t usually there.  I took care.  By Black Rock, the wind had become a gale but it was behind me, pushing me forward.  I resisted the extra pace, wanting control.  Up along the cliffs I ran, the dead trees appearing like spears extending towards me, the wind howling, me trying to remember First Aid and what to do if one is impaled by a sharp object (don’t let anyone pull it out, wrap it, and get to the hospital – pulling it out could kill you real quick).

There is a concrete path down by the water.  I run down the bottom of a set of bluestone steps, to do my last one kilometre.  Usually, the bay is calm, the sea bed visible.  Today, the waves crashed into the rock wall, spraying over onto the path.  The bay is a mass of white water, brown sand, and seaweed.  I watched the waves and tried to time my dash between the bigger sprays, mostly succeeding.  It was all fine and good with the wind at my back – it was almost laughable, my legs were going so much faster than usual I felt like the Road Runner.

It was when I turned around to head back – that last 7.5k to get me home – that it really hit me.  The wind, that is.  It was head-on, in my face.  I was running as hard as I could, but it really felt like I wasn’t moving.  It was then I began to get scared.  There was no one else out (surprise, that!), and I could almost picture objects flying in the wind at me.  That sign there, it could blow right off.  That tree.  The sea did not want me there; the wind was angry in some primitive way, and I had displayed terrible hubris in coming out.

Instead of a run, it became a battle, an adventure, a live-or-die quest to get home.  I made it to the stone stairs, then along the wind-swept cliff tops.  I cringed each time I ran under a spindly tree waving madly in the wind, had my arms ready to protect my head if it fell.  I sucked down a gel quickly, to give myself more strength in the face of the terrible wind.  More trees had fallen since I’d run this trail a few minutes ago; it felt like more could fall at any time.  On and on I ran, praying to myself, thinking of obituaries and my family mourning my impaled-while-trail-running-in-the-wind death (“At least she died doing something she loved.  The idiot.”).

I battled and battled that wind.  At times it eased, under cover of the trees; at other times, it nearly blew me off my feet, and I thought to raise my arms to see if I could fly.

I had one ace up my sleeve: I’d noticed on the way out that the wind was in my face for the run downhill from home.  So it was going to fly me back for the last stretch, if I made it that far.  I pushed the pace as much as I could against the wind, contemplated motivational thoughts from other runners (running in the wind requires 20% more effort; some runners run in wind tunnels on purpose; if it is windy on race day, you’ll be prepared), and somehow, I made it back to the end of the trail unscathed.

When I crossed the street, the wind did, indeed, blow me back home.  As if it were saying, now go on, get out of here you dummy, and stay in your warm house for the rest of the day.

By the time I got back, my wonderful husband had made dinner for the kids.  They didn’t really get what I had to say about the wind.  It was kind of hard to put into words.

We all had a wonderfully piece of Vanilla Swirl Cake, and I said a silent Thank You to the wind gods for letting me make it all the way back home.

http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/melbourne-braces-for-more-wild-winds-20131001-2up7d.html