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

Five weeks out from North Face 50km race

The North Race 50 km Race is coming at me like a freight train down a long dark tunnel.  No, wait.  I am meant to be thinking positive.  Same freight train, only I am Superman and I am going to fly over the top of it.  No, I don’t like that either, after my Superman move in my last race, flying through the air and slamming down into the hard earth.

Lets just say the North Face 50km race in Sydney’s Blue Mountains is not far off.

School holidays tried to play havoc with my training over the last week, with a two-day trip to Ballarat (a town that had a gold mining boom, and now has a gold mining theme park called Sovereign Hill, where the kids can pan for gold).  I knew I needed another ten kilometre run this week, and that this would be difficult being away from home.  I called upon my running group for ideas of places to run in Ballarat and they dangled some really juicy trails in front of me, up in the woods, single-track, twenty kilometres of glory.  But that meant a drive, and I had no time to drive anywhere, and no trail maps.

I researched all of the running groups ideas; I spent time Googling (obsessively) where to run in Ballarat; I even asked the landlady at the serviced apartment where we were staying (she mentioned some yellow creek track out the back of the property that she’d always wanted to run, and I stared out our window and could see it).

Wednesday came and went, with a fair bit of gold mined by our 9-year-old son, but no time for running.  The bottle of champagne came out after the kids went to bed (it was our first hotel stay in five years!), and my running plan for Thursday morning fell in a big, fat, bubbly heap.  I didn’t know where to run, and I wasn’t going.  That was that.

I woke up at 6 am with no hangover (good champagne!), and heard rain on our roof.  The kids turned on the tv and my husband stumbled downstairs to play with them.  I lay there awake, thinking of this quote I’d seen:  “I really regret that run”, said no runner ever.  The words played in my head.  I got up, got dressed, and stared at the hotel map I’d picked up.  Hell with it, I said to myself.  I’m going.  I’d plotted out a course to a lake that would take me through town – the hotel landlady said the lake was 6km around so it would do, with the run there and back.  My ever-patient husband agreed to mind the kids for the hour I’d be gone, and I grabbed the hotel map, my iPhone, and some cash, and ran out the door.

The plan was to run Main Road to Grant Street to Eyre Street, then to find my way to Lake Wendouree.  I repeated the directions in my head – I won’t lie; I was scared.  I don’t like running alone in new places – the New Yorker in me sees danger in solitude, danger in the unknown.  But I figured I could turn back if I needed to.  I got about 1km into the run, then looked right.  And there was a blue sign, saying Canadian Creek Trail – that was one I’d read about the night before, and my alternate plan if I could find it.  So I trotted off my original course (give me a trail before a road any day) and read the sign, 2.85 to somewhere in the city.  That would do.  The “trail” was bitumen to begin with, which seemed wrong, but I went on.  The trees had their autumn leaves on show, with reds, yellows, and golds.  Though the creek was really a concrete-lined two-inch wide bit of water at this point, I pretended otherwise and kept going, delighted I was finding my way.  I crossed a road or two, and was elated to see signs for the trail at each intersection.

Until the intersection where there wasn’t a sign.  I’d only gone 2km by then and hated the idea of turning back but I did.  For ten steps.  Then I turned around again and looked in front of me.  A road ran along the stream.  Surely I couldn’t get lost if I just stayed by the stream (Bear Grylls gave me that idea!).  So I did.  I ran on for three more blocks, nervous, vigilant, then all of a sudden a new trail sign appeared, this time for the Yarrowee Creek Trail.  I knew there were seven trails in a kind of network along here, thanks to my google research, so I just kept going.  Another runner bounded uphill towards me, and I was reassured by the sight of his fuel belt, and ran a bit faster.  The bitumen changed to gravel, the concrete-lined creek to an actual creek with rocks, pools, and ducks, and still I ran.  The trail changed names several more times but followed the same stream so it didn’t matter.  Uphill and down I ran, along this isolated but lovely autumn-leaved trail, forgetting for minutes at a time to be scared, remembering what another woman runner had said (“I just assume the bad guys are too lazy to come all the way out where I run”).  I held my map, which of course, was no use now, and just followed that creek.  I got to my 5km turnaround, and laughed out loud.  I’d done it; I followed the same creek back, only getting lost briefly when I came out on the road too soon and turned the wrong way, but the house numbers gave me the navigational clue I needed and I turned around and ran back home.

I’d done it; and now Ballarat holds a memory for me for always.  That creek trail, that only I saw, that will always be mine alone.

The next day, Friday, out in the Dandenongs, I overcame another barrier.  Here in Australia, it is Planned Burn season.  That’s where they set the forest on fire in a particular section for a short time to prevent bigger fires they can’t control.  Usually it is contained.  Planned Burns never impacted me directly before, not until I saw a photo of Mount Dandenong burning (that’s where I train) on Wednesday night.  Big-time burning.  I studied photos that seemed to show half the mountain a-flame.  This was the very mountain I was running on Friday morning.

After lots more research both on forestry sites and with local runners, I decided it would be safe by then, and a group of us made our way around a 38.3km course.  Part of it ran right through the burned forest.  Let me paint the picture for you:  me and three other runners alone on a hillside.  We come to the burned out section, take some photos of charred trees, think it is kind of cool, then run on.  There are lots and lots of charred trees.  Oh, and some of them are still smoking.  In fact, there is lots of smoke.  It feels a bit like Armageddon, and the smoke makes it seem surreal and dangerous and we run fast downhill until we hit a green section, relieved to be out of there.

But we had a second lap to go, which myself and a friend named Frankie completed alone.  By this time, the sun was out and the wind had picked up, and still the trees smoked.  I was alarmed, elated, terrified and brave all at once.  We ran it; got out of there, and our watches turned over to 38.3 km and Frankie high-fived me because this was the furthest I’d ever, ever run.

So the North Face race is five weeks away.  I am having the most extraordinary experiences in training.  I am learning that running long-distance races has an element I never understood.  That the journey to get to the starting line is just as compelling as the race itself.

This, to me, is a strange and wonderful thing.

Sunshine After The Rain: The Silvan Trail Race

Silvan – defined as a spirit that lives in or frequents the woods.

Perhaps my family should re-name me that.  Instead of Patricia, call me Silvan.

Since moving back to Melbourne four years ago, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the woods, my spirit soaking up the energy there.  Adventure races in the You Yangs, Lysterfield, and Daylesford with a team-mate introduced to me by a neighbour; Run Melbourne four times; and a number of trail races, the choice of which is driven by location and time.

The common factor in nearly all of these races is that this spirit who frequents the woods (me) has arrived alone, raced alone, and left alone.  And that’s been okay.  Because I’m an introvert (according to my neighbour) I get my energy from time spent alone.  And this is true.  I love to be alone in the car, in the house when the kids are at school, running along a trail with just my thoughts and songs.  After I’m alone for a while, I’m good company again.  Ask my family.

But this weekend was different.  And I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.

Since I began blogging about the races I’ve been running, I’ve found a very welcoming community out there reading.  Perhaps it is because we share the common ground of these trail experiences.  I can almost hear the people reading thinking, oh yeah, I remember that big hill, that mud, that rain.  What I hadn’t expected is that I’d get to know people through reading their blogs.  Or that they’d get to know me.

Before the start of the Silvan race on Sunday, I met up with Scott Knabel (of recent video and blogging fame).  My eyes met those of the man next to him, and then they lit up.  “Banzai Adventurer!” I exclaimed, as if we’d known each other for years.  Then I realised I didn’t even know his real name (it was Adam).  But that didn’t matter, because his smile said the same thing as mine: I’d been reading his blogs; he’d been reading mine; we knew each other.  Then there was Chris, from Trail Runner Magazine, who has been sharing my blogs with his readers.  On being introduced, I felt like he was an old, old friend.  And Scott?  Well, I feel I know him better than some of my close friends from what he’s shared with all of us.  Ben, who I met that day, being a runner, would soon be an old friend too.

But being the introvert, and embarrassed by my pre-race shenanigans (go to the toilet; go again; walk around like a dummy; contemplate removing gloves and ski jacket but don’t; return to car for water bottle, return to toilet; finally remove all the warm layers and check bag; etc, etc), I made myself scarce for a bit. But before the start, I found the group again, and got deep into conversation about a relay team for the 100km Surf Coast Ultra, and about magazine articles, and then, all of a sudden, I realised racers were lining up.

We said quick goodbyes and made our way to the line-up.

The race?  Ah, wondrous!  It began with a wide track that I’d tried and failed to find with my family weeks earlier; narrow downhills slick with mud and gumtree bark; a long, long firetrail that went on forever, going gently but heartbreakingly uphill.  When we zipped off to the right, I was surprised, thinking that nice, long trail was going to take us all the way to the top, to Mount Evelyn.  Map Reading Skills 101 – fail!  I had this great plan, a gel on that long, flat section, but it was too late for that, and there we were at the water stop sooner than I expected.  I gobbled my water and gel, which came not a moment too soon, but ten minutes sooner than I’d planned.

And then from tired, I suddenly had wings.  Or maybe it was caffeine.  Anyway, it was a buzz, like a kid on Smarties.  Now, I’m not super-competitive, but sometimes someone passes me in a way that makes me think, uh-uh.  Like a red flag before a bull (especially if it is a woman who passes me), I’ve got to chase.  So when this particular woman passed me, I threw away my mantra (run your own race, run your own race you idiot, run your own race) and gave chase.  And I pipped her, got back in front for at least ten seconds, right before she (seeing her own red flag) sprinted past me and left me in the dust.  I let her go; she was right.

Anyway, we’d started going uphill, again.  The hill where the man next to me said (at 7.5 km in, by my Garmin), “I really hope this is the killer hill they mentioned in the race briefing.”  “Um, that one doesn’t happen until 9.5 km,” I gasped.  We spoke no more, but plodded upwards, bodies slanting into the slope, feet slipping, smiles widening.  Somewhere in there was a super-steep downhill, like the mudslide at the Plenty Gorge race, but steeper and with no grassy bits to speak of.  After a big slip, I lost all confidence, and I swear I could have gotten down on hands and knees to make my way down, but didn’t.  Male racers flew by me, courage personified, and I watched them, and feared for them, and admired them all at once.

And then the killer hill finally made itself known.  I walked it, sweating, listening to birds caw, admiring the gum trees, ignoring my calves.  But at some stage, I started thinking of Hong Kong, of Old Peak Road, climbing up the steepest slope I’d ever known while pushing a baby trolley with my toddler in it.  “Is that all you got?” I said to the killer hill.  I said it out loud, I think, a couple of times.  Luckily, I don’t think anyone heard.  The hubris gods, who would throw something much worse at me if they had, certainly didn’t.  I got away with it.

And suddenly there was the downhill, that wonderful, flowing, flying downhill.  It was the Yang to the Yin, sunshine after rain, champagne after bitter medicine.  Oh, how my legs let go.  Those people who’d passed me before, there they were, and I (forgetting my mantra again!) tried to reel them in.  But they were on the same downhill, and our gap stayed the same.  So I focused on the absolute pleasure of flying.

The last bit, the single track through the trees and ferns – I smile thinking of those logs that crossed the track.  I leapt one like a horse I watched in the Olympics; I felt like a horse as I jumped it.  Then I told myself that was way too scary, and stepped quickly and carefully over the others.  We moved onto the road, which I didn’t realise was the road at first, then when I did, I put the pedal down, and raced for home.  But the race turned back into the woods and I wanted to cry, I was done, I wanted to just run down that easy road.

The remainder in the woods was but a moment, and then I blazed through the finish, puffed and exhilarated.

After a quick change, I found the friends I had made.  I found Jan, and Scott’s family, and Ben, and Chris, and Adam and we chatted and predicted Scott’s time, and listened to Jan win first place in her age category.

And I thought, standing there in the sun that had appeared, how very blessed I am.  To be healthy, and fit, strong enough to run these wonderful races, see this terrain that would otherwise be hidden to me.

And now, with friends who, before knowing me, seem already to know me…well, as I said, I just can’t stop smiling.

We’ve formed a relay team for the Surfcoast Ultramarathon in four weeks time.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Getting ready to race

So…Friday night has arrived.  The Sunday morning trail race is looming large for me about now, as I run down my list of things I want to be sure I’ve gotten ready:  2XU running tights; my fave blue singlet with pockets for gels; my gels; maps and driving directions printed and ready to go; rehearsing the driving route in my mind because I drive alone without a navigator and that part is scary.  Then planning the actual race itself, where I’ll go hard, where I’ll hold back, whether I need to bring water or not.  And then I get scared.

I take a deep breath, and remember just how many races I have done.  I do this to remind myself not to be afraid.  Sometimes it works.  I recall taking a ferry to an outlying island off Hong Kong for my first ever adventure race; the minibus up to Sai Kung on a rainy Tuesday just so I would know where I was going on raceday; drives to Lysterfield and the You Yangs; drives to the Wombat State Forest where the speed limit on the way was 120 km/hour; learning to drive up a mountain in the fog at six am.

In regular life, I avoid risks.  I let my  husband drive.  It is only when I race that I force myself to step up and become the person I really want to be.  Confident; assured; unafraid.  Well, not unafraid, really.  But not afraid to face up to the fear.

Someone asked me today if I was doing the Surfcoast Ultra (I think that is what it is called).  It is 100km.  I nearly fell off my chair.  I’d need two weeks and a few B&B’s to accomplish that one.  But this fellow thought I might be doing it.  That makes me pause.  Makes me wonder, could I, one day, do that?

Once, I wouldn’t walk a trail that didn’t have a railing.  Bear Mountain in New York was my sole hiking experience.  It is interesting to note how I have changed since those days, how life has shaped me, how I have shaped my life.

So, as I prepare for the 14.2 Salomon Trail Series Race #3 out in Silvan, the Dandenongs, Melbourne, Australia, I think about all this.  I think about how I began on Long Island, in a tiny town with no hills, surrounded by sea.  I was a 400-metre runner on the track; fast, flat, and painful, that was.  Once, I ran 2km in a high school race.  That felt like forever.  I left Long Island seventeen years ago; I’ve run 15km in one go in the mountains of Hong Kong.  I’ve become someone I wouldn’t have even recognised.

This I owe to trail running, adventure racing, living in two different countries.  In these places I forced my own limits, and found a new self.

Silvan on Sunday.  I can’t wait to see what I find out there this time.

Dangerous Creatures

“Mom, there are these little worms on my leg.  I keep brushing them off, but they keep coming back…,” said my eight-year-old son.  His sister, six, tramped on ahead.  Behind us, my husband was using two hiking sticks to keep himself upright on the slippery downhill.

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.  Let me see.  Let’s just brush that one off too.”  The Dangerous Creatures book I’d bought when we first moved to Australia appeared before my eyes, a photograph of a hiking sock and a bloody ankle.  Leeches!

It took great effort to control the heebie-jeebies that suddenly took hold of me, to quietly inspect the ankles, socks, and wrists of my family members and myself.  For an outdoorsy person, I have an unnatural hatred of worms.  And these leeches were like tiny inch-worms, working their way up our socks, onto any exposed skin they could find.

It all began with a Call for the Wild.  From me.  In a suburban playground.  Life was going by, and I felt I was missing it.  We’d gone nowhere since moving back to Melbourne, except to Ocean Grove and back.  The reasons were complex (those of you who are parents of young children will understand), but the outcome was this trapped-in-a-box too small for me.  I longed for nature, fresh air, woods.  The forest was my cathedral, and without it, my soul was drying out.  I wanted my life to be adventurous, full, exciting.  So in that suburban playground, I drew a line in the sand, and declared that I was no longer going to live this small life.  It was killing me.

My husband, ever patient, understood.  Between us, we got the maps, the extra shoes, the snacks for the kids, the backpacks.  I gathered compass, first aid kit, emergency blanket, waterproof phone and map case; gear from adventure racing I felt compelled to carry.  A bit overkill you might think, but that’s how I am.

Ferntree Gulley

The first walk was meant to be easy.  Ferntree Gulley in the Dandenongs. Trouble was the trails were under construction.  So instead, we climbed the Thousand Steps.  The kids didn’t climb them though.  They danced up them, oblivious to slippery stone steps in drizzle.  On the side of the trail, we saw our first wildish wallaby.  I soaked up the gum trees, their height and breadth, their endlessness.  I could breathe again.  At the end we were all elated, triumphant.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

The next weekend we searched out Sherbrooke Forest.  A bird-feeding area at the trail head meant magic before we even began.  Hundreds of birds, alighting on shoulders, flying in gigantic flocks.  But when we set off, the map was hard to read, the distances not obvious.  We chose the best route, loving the kookaburra boldly sitting next to the trail, the lyrebirds which crossed our path at speed.  On the steep uphills my daughter hung onto my backpack to be towed.  “Where’s the car?  I want to go home,” she began to say at the 6 km mark, but we made it to the end at 7.1 km.  I was proud of them; so proud.

Then we got bolder, Silvan Reservoir, where I was racing in a month’s time.  I searched but couldn’t find a good contour map of the area, so we arrived with a map torn from the Melway.  The trails were not maintained.  The wind howled above, and on the ground was much evidence that trees did, indeed, fall here.  We stepped over and around dozens of trees, until one too large forced us to turn around.  We had taken a circular route, but suddenly, as time ticked on, the route in front of me didn’t match my map.  I fought to breathe, aligned the map with the compass, shook the compass to try to make North point to where I wanted it to be, then despaired.

This was the wrong trail.  No choice but to back-track, and the car park would be closed within the hour.  Then a bug bit my daughter and fear turned to howls and tears and we tramped on, feeling bad parents and feeling scared we’d be stuck here.  Just before we found our way out of the woods, my husband slipped on mud-slick grass, and went straight down.  As he flailed, unable to get to his feet, and I ran back to help, our daughter howled even louder, scared by the sight of her dad down.  When he got back up, he was mud-covered from ankle to hip, and we both laughed, a little.  What relief when we found the car, to my daughter’s firm pronouncement, “I am never coming here again!”

Olinda Falls

So today – the day of the leeches – we chose an easier track, a 5 km loop by Olinda Falls.  The track down to the falls was easy to follow, with upper and lower lookouts.  The water thundered down the rocks, a perfect scene with few tourists and happy kids.  It reminded me of exploring gorges at Cornell University when I was a freshman there, a lifetime ago.  The sounds and the smells brought me right back, and for a second, I was at home.  Then we found the trail we’d aimed for, Cascade Track, with no trouble, and began to descend.  It was steep, muddy, slippery.

Bark from gum trees had landed in strips in the centre of the trail, and was incredibly slick when stepped on.  I had on a thirty-pound backpack – emergency supplies, jackets, water, all the things a family needs – and nearly unbalanced a few times.  My daughter slipped down on her bottom, surprise in her face, then picked herself back up.  My son tramped happily along, speaking of Star Wars and weapons.  My husband, less stable than the rest of us, found two perfect-sized walking sticks and kept his feet.

And all went well.  Until the mention of the leeches.  We were nearly at the end of the downhill trail, onto a road.  Having run out of time, we decided against our planned circuit, and retreated back up the steep hill.  Water poured down the hillside from the creek next to us, and views of open waterfall delighted me.  We gazed upwards at impossibly tall trees, skirted deep holes in the trail.  There was plenty of time, water and food.

We made it to the top without drama, and with promises of a chocolate shop and playground, got back to the car.  I carefully stripped the family down, checking for hidden leeches, not using that word except in silent speech to my husband.  The chocolate shop, twenty minutes later, felt like the best place in the world.  Clean, dry, safe, warm.

As I washed our clothes and shoes later at home, I recalled the joy of the woods, but it was tempered by the great feeling of responsibility I felt for our young children.  It is my job to keep them safe out there.  In this, I have succeeded.  But the cost is high.  It is stressful and harder than the days I race by myself.

But I see in them my love for the wild; for the mud; for the green; for the trees; for nature.  Outside, they become who they are meant to be; young, savage and able.  They walk more strongly, complaining less about going out into the woods than during our first walk.

So I will keep practicing my map-reading and navigating, plan well.  Take us on adventures and keep us safe.  Because life is meant to be a grand adventure.  Even if there are dangerous creatures out there.

For the Love of Mud: Plenty Gorge

I’m on Yan Yean Road, near Plenty, sure I’ve somehow passed Memorial Drive.  The road with the number 58 on it shouldn’t have been there.  It really shouldn’t.  I have a Garmin Navigator that I could have plugged in before leaving home, but I’m not skilled with it, and I prefer the old-school style of navigating, with printed directions and an open Melway.  I’d memorised the route before driving, but I’d missed out on an important part – a landmark to let me know where the turnoff for Memorial Drive was.  So I’d driven right by it.  At least, I thought I had.

Pulling over onto an empty bit of tarmac, I find my heart racing, and panic setting in.  Cars whiz by on the road beside my stopped car.  Driving reminds me of trail racing – I wonder how others have the guts to go so fast.  Calm down, breathe, don’t panic, I tell myself firmly.  Grabbing the Melway, I flip through the pages until I come to Plenty.  You’re not very lost, I tell myself.

Memorial Drive is tiny, and I can barely make it out on the map, but I find it.  Sure enough, that 58 road is above where I’m meant to be.  I do a hair-raising u-turn, and head back down the way I came.  A few minutes later, I see the sign for Memorial Drive and my spirits rise.  A Rapid Ascent sign with an arrow makes me want to sing out loud, and at the end of this bit of road – muddy, slick, pot-holed – I see a man directing cars, and for the first time in an hour, I take a deep breath.

He directs me through a narrow gate, up a muddy embankment, onto a field.  I wish I could tell him:  I’ve never done this before.  I’m from Long Island, New York.  There, we don’t have fields to park in; we don’t have mud.  Not mud like this.  And I learned to drive on the other side of the road.  I grit my teeth and drive up into the field.  I turn off the engine and take a very deep breath.  The hard part – the drive – is over; trail running, I can do.

Hopping out, I make my way to the tents nearby.  They reassure me.  Mist is rising from the valley to the right, and water is everywhere, puddled and pooled, dripping intermittently from the sky.

On a megaphone, I hear the race organiser telling us that the planned river crossing today has been cancelled.  The river is too high – chest high today – and the man who went into it to check it out was nearly swept away, even holding onto ropes.  Well then.  I’m glad they are keeping us safe, though I was looking forward to crossing that river.  The new course is a 6.5km loop, done twice.  I do the math in my head: 13k instead of 11.5.  I’m glad I’ve been doing 14k training runs.

Time races by:  shivery time; nervous time wandering from the toilet to the Salomon shoe stall, to the race description board (which is no longer of use); time in which I search for familiar faces and see Scott and Jan, racers I’ve met but who are busy with others.  Returning to my car, I take a photo of race headquarters.  I want something to remember this day, this moment.  The man parked next to me offers to take a photo of me.  “Otherwise it’s just a postcard,” he says.  I offer a shivery smile and thank him.  “Enjoy the race,” he says, “see you afterwards”.  And then he is gone.

At the start, I set myself up in the Fast start area.  Two girls are behind me, friends talking, and I am sure they are eyeing me up, saying to themselves, she doesn’t belong here in the Fast start, she should move back.  Of course, they aren’t, they could care less where I place myself.  It’s me talking to myself.  To stop it, I chat to the man on my left about his minimalist shoes, and tell myself to shut up.

Then we’re off.  A short track, and in moments, we are at the base of a mud slide.  A steep mud slide and we’re going uphill.  It is a surprise and I feel like a kid.  Shoes slipping, thick gooey mud, finding the right bits of grass that will hold as I scramble up like a mountain goat.  I’m loving my Salomon trail shoes, loving their grip as I watch other racers slide backwards, landing on hands and knees.  We all make it up, laughing.

And so it goes.

The first loop is all new:  easy gravel; a steep downhill that we all walk, backed up in a single line; sleek, flattened grass that invites speed and reminds me of cat fur; painful uphills; thin, single track high above the furiously flowing river; and mud and mud and mud.  A few tiny streams cross the track, inviting leaps of faith.  I hear later that bees appeared to speed some runners along – I did not see them, for which I am grateful.

I play cat-and-mouse with two fit women, one taller, the other strongly muscled and agile.  Eventually, Muscles and I break away, and we end up talking, short, gasping sentences.  She says it’s her first trail race.  My heart sinks.  Why is she so fast then!  Not that I’m competitive, but I’ve done more than thirty – surely that should count for something.  So I question her, subtly.  What’s your 10k pace?  She admits it’s around 43 minutes and my spirits lift.  Then she says she’s really into triathlon.  And she’s just, by accident, qualified for the Hawaii Iron Man.  Suddenly, I feel heaps better at us running the same pace.  She compliments me, says I look like I know where to step, and I love that, because this knowledge has come so hard.  Eventually, she breaks away, flying down the trail in front of me.

We’re well into the second lap, and the mud is deeper, the dry sections fewer.  The steep downhill is free though.  I run down it, laughing aloud, my shoes holding so well, my eyes finding the stable rocks to aim for.  Delight and mud and sweat and freedom.

A song starts playing in my head.  We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the children’s book by Michael Rosen.  My kids like to sing it aloud:

Uh oh
Mud
Thick oozy mud
We can’t go over it
We can’t go under it
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch!

We’re all laughing now: laughing at the mud coating us up to our knees, under our fingernails; laughing at the difficulty, at our feet slipping backwards and shoes being nearly sucked off by thick mud.

I check my watch at 11.2 km, telling the man struggling behind me that we’re almost there.  What feels like moments later, someone shouts, just 150 meters to the finish! Those are the toughest of the whole race, slightly uphill, the finish not in sight.  I push and push, and plough through that finish, my shoes heavy with caked-on mud.

The finish at Plenty Gorge

It takes me several minutes to catch my breath.  This has been a tough run.  After quickly changing into warm clothes, I wander among the other racers who have finished.  Nearby, toddlers in gum boots splash in deep puddles.  The racers are coated in mud, and are smiling, laughing.  A few are in the St John Ambulance area, a few others with scrapes and bruises, bee stings.  I’ve been there myself, and I feel for the injured.

Before leaving, I take a photo of my trail shoes.  I want to keep this mud, this moment.

Then I leave quickly, afraid my car may get stuck.  I look around, at the deep rut where another car got stuck moments before, and decide to pull out forwards.  I find myself moving across the field, driving as if I am still running, aiming for the drier patches of grass, avoiding the thickest of the mud.  At the gate, it’s a downhill mud bath, with no way to avoid it.  Steeling myself, I drive through it, and I laugh out loud when I make it.

The way home requires decision after decision: which road to take, left or right, choose now, choose quickly.  I do, and I swear I could cry when I get close to home and realise I have chosen right every single time.

I’ve made it.  Again.  I’ve done it.  Alone and afraid, I’ve done it anyway.

Inside, I shower with my trail shoes.  The mud spreads out all over the shower stall, the walls, the floor, the glass.  I feel something like love for that mud, and when some is still there the next day I wash it away with reverence.