The Trail Running Series returns! Race 1, 2021

How are you? Feeling a little uncertain? Like we’ve been in four lockdowns, the last of which ended two days before our big race? Forgetting what day/week/month/year/season we’re in? Are we wearing masks and keeping within 5k? 25k? Regional Victoria? Am I even allowed out of my house this long?

Man. My mind won’t shut up…shut up…shut up.

So The Trail Series is happening, two weeks after it’s first schedule. Hooray! Of course, I’d not really planned it out. What with the uncertainty and a surgery on a family member and online school and my next-door-neighbours house being bulldozed.

Ok. We’re racing. I’ve done this one before, many times. We start at the boathouse by the Yarra. I do a quick Google map search for it, refresh my memory of the drive, and get my (very minor) gear packed. I’m doing the medium course. At 10.3 km, I don’t even need a pack.

So here I am, 8:20 on Sunday morning, walking from the Studley Park Boathouse to the start, stoked by my terrific parking position. I’d thought it would be busier. I stroll. My wave start isn’t until 9:55. I wobble across the swingy bridge, take photos of the sunrise,

turn left, walk a few hundred meters and Don’t See the Event Centre! Nothing. No one. Not even a bird. It’s not quiet though.

I can hear Sam, the Race Director, on a megaphone, somewhere in the distance. Ok. Other side of the oval. Just out of sight. Heart pounding, I walk along the road, towards the voice. Ten minutes, maybe? Around the curved road, to the other side.

No Sam. No event centre. Just the disembodied voice through the trees. I panic. Pull out my phone. Pull up the Event Program, the tiny map. Deep Rock Road! Google map it. Oh man! That’s not where I am! Where the heck is it?

That’s when I see a quick-walking woman with a number plate coming around the bend. Yes, she’s racing. 8:40 start. No, she’s not sure where to go. We bolt together, as if we’re already crossing the start line. Around a corner, down a hill, across the river. There’s a trail, the voice, we’ve found it! She’s off to make her wave start, and I start to breathe again. It’s 8:30. I pause. Think. Take a photo so I can find my way back to my car later!

The way back to the car. Just in case!

Wow. It’s good I have an hour to settle. Though I’m not meant to be here – the rules state clearly not to arrive until 20 minutes before our start time. I hang out in the grass, staying away from people. This is all so strange, with QR code’s and hand sanitizer and face masks. It’s meant to be fun and it is, but a sort of uneasy fun, an edgy-hope-we-don’t-die fun. Did I mention the Astra Zeneca shot I had on 10 June? I’m right in blood clot alley until 30 June, and the government just back-pedalled on over 50s like me even having it.

I’m surprised I’m even wearing shoes. My head spins with all this clutter.

But suddenly, as if I breathed in once and the time went in with that breath, it’s 9:55 and I’m at the start line. There are 15 people in a wave. We greet one another, stay apart. I say hi to Sam, who I last saw on my phone during the Virtual Race last year.

We count down, then boom, we go. We’re a tiny pack racing each other. I love it! Love how we can spread out, see the ground. There’s no one pressuring me on the technical bits. I race three women. We play leapfrog, passing, then being passed, over and over. I know them by their colours – rainbow tights and purple shirt and pink singlet.

It’s familiar and not. I realise this is the course I’ve mainly run at night in recent years, so I couldn’t see it. The Yarra is full and abundant.

Trails widen then narrow, smooth, then rocky, muddy and gravel.

Dancing in the rocks

Because it’s spread out, I really get my zoom on, using my road-honed speed. Oh I love the speed. The adrenaline. The race between our small group. Because we’re more spread out, following the right course becomes more interesting, more vital. This adds a nice zest to being front of the pack, moving quickly but carefully.

Finally we hit the downhill road section where I love to fly. In my head, I yell, go go go, pretend there’s an over 50s woman right there, catch her, earn your podium! Don’t hold back, it’s a race!

I start to reel in the women I’ve been racing. Carefully. One at a time. See you rainbow tights. Bye purple top. Great run, pink singlet but I’m bitter you passed me that last time, so eat dirt! Zoom!!

We turn off the road onto the last little trail section, not far to go now. But hey. No. Wait. The Finish Line is also not where the Start Line wasn’t! So instead of my 500 metre sprint, it’s more like 2kms. I don’t twig onto this until about 1.5, when I’m tiring. Still, I push the pace the entire way, afraid I’ll get caught by my wave buddies I passed on the road.

Close to the finish, normal people are out walking dogs, playing with kids, holding hands. We tear by them like lunatics (politely) and bolt for the Finish. Flying, heart and lungs searing I cross that line.

Full of joy, laughter, love for my racing friends, who I greet as they cross the line and thank for the race. What an absolute blast. What an antidote to the last year!

I find my car eventually, and at 8 pm settle on my chair for presentations. Dean has taken first in his age category, Andrea has scored a second, Chris third, and his daughter Ella first! I’m managed a third in my age category, which is nice, as I’m 55 and not at the start of the 50-59s anymore. But really, we’re all on the podium together, because that’s what trail racing is about. It takes guts to get out there, to tackle technical terrain, and sometimes, in these crazy times, even getting to the start line can be an achievement!

By the way, the course was marked perfectly, and the whole event, as always, run with such professionalism and passion. Thanks Rapid Ascent. Be assured my navigation errors were mine alone. The course maps and instructions were perfect, as always. See you in a few weeks for Race 2 at Smiths Gully!

Anaconda Adventure Race in Lorne 2012

It is nearly upon us – the wonderful Anaconda Adventure Race in Lorne.  I first found out about this race in 2009, when a group of trainers at my gym came in wearing race t-shirts.  I’d only lived in Melbourne for a little while at that stage, and I was missing my adventure races in Hong Kong.  Seeing their shirts, seeing the words “Adventure Race” – my pulse lifted.  I babbled some questions at the trainers, learning something that brought me great dismay.

A Hong Kong Sprint Adventure Race

“Adventure Race” in Australia didn’t mean the same thing as it did in Hong Kong.  In Hong Kong, the Action Sprint Series Adventure Races were flat-out trail running, interspersed with coastal rocks, climbing up waterfalls, swimming in reservoirs, jumping into the sea fully clothed and swimming ashore.  In Australia, more disciplines were added – mountain biking, kayaking, ocean swimming – and these were not my thing.  I was (am) a runner with a thirst for adventure.

Still, I gave it a go.  I took a kayaking lesson.  I bought a mountain bike.  I signed up for races that included orienteering and all the other disciplines.  But the Anaconda was elusive; I wasn’t strong enough to do all the disciplines myself (without dying), and I didn’t know enough athletes to field a team.  I watched the event go by, year after year, trying to find a way in.

Last year, the way in found me.  A friend I’d run with was chatted up by a team looking for a runner.  She hated trails but knew I loved them, and suggested me.  Oh the joy!  Though we left at 4 am, though we had never met before, though our kayaker was knocked out and we had a DNF though we really did finish, it was amazing (in 2011, the waves were huge, and most kayakers had trouble).  I drove home with my team, having just spend ten hours with them, elated, thrilled that I’d finally got to do this great adventure.

Our 2011 Anaconda Adventure Race Team – thanks for a great time guys!

Then 2012 came.  We formed Team Inspiration for the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon.  I was finally getting contacts, forming friendships.  Way back in May, I harassed a swimmer dad from my son’s soccer team until I got him to commit to the race.  I talked up kayakers, mentioned the race on Facebook, and everywhere else.  Ben from Team Inspiration finally gave in (thanks Ben!) and agreed to do the mountain bike; Martin (also Team Inspiration) would kayak.  All was in place, way back in September.

Then our swimmer got sick.  Martin decided to put in a pool, so wouldn’t have time to train.  He put Warren from Team Inspiration forward (thanks Warren!).  We were back to almost a full team.  I spent the next months chatting up all the swimmers I met, emailing swimming groups, doing all I could to get back out there.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, Mick, a friend of our original swimmer, put his hand up and said he’d swim for us (thanks Mick!).

So we are finally set.  I’ve got my gels and my Camelbak, my first aid kit.  My race gear is on the drying rack, and my Garmin is charging.

But wow, it has been a long, long journey to get here.   So now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the fact that we’re in, we’re ready (relatively), and I’ve been really training for a 28km race in January, so hopefully 15km of trail running won’t feel too bad at all.  I can picture the course from last year, the coastal rocks, the river crossing, the gorgeous uphill trail.  I do believe there was a rope to climb up too, which will add a little adventure to my adventure race.

So joy…the Anaconda Adventure Race in Lorne, 2012, is nearly upon us.  I can’t wait to get back to that glorious beach.  Thanks Team Inspiration, and Mick, for making it happen!

Doing it the hard way: Marysville Half-Marathon

Well, with only three sleeps before the Marysville Half-Marathon, I am fully physically prepared.

The trouble, now, is just in my mind!  It has been a fortnight full of turmoil, parenthood, health issues, and extreme weather.  Back in my hometown, Long Beach, New York, things went a bit crazy.  Hurricane Sandy hit with a vengeance, leaving the town underwater, and me in great fear for my friends and family.  The whole week was a series of Facebook and text messages back and forth, trying to find people, helping to rescue elderly parents who had gotten stuck without phones, water, or power.  Thankfully, all my loved ones were safe, though somewhat traumatized.  The photos of fallen trees and damaged homes are coming through now, and are both heartbreaking and chilling.

Then, perhaps in response to the stress of all this, a strange bump appeared above my eye.  It rapidly grew, then expanded into my eye itself.  I looked just like Bear Grylls on Man Vs Wild when he got stung by a swarm of bees.  But it wasn’t anaphylaxis, and I sure couldn’t run trails when I could only see out of one eye.  A quick trip to the doctor landed me with antibiotics (“You could end up in hospital with an IV drip,” is not what you want to hear a week before a half-marathon).  Of course, my BodyPump classes weren’t going to teach themselves, so on Halloween, I got to appear with a monster eye to teach.  Fun, fun!  I like to think no one noticed.

With a bit of a revised plan, I fit in my last 22km run with a full pack last Friday (just) and a few extra runs during the long holiday weekend.

My real challenge right now is the lack of detailed contour maps of the place I am running.  So far, I can only see that the terrain goes up to 1000 m with heights varying around 400 – 500, but not where my particular trails go.  Maybe I’ll ask for one of those whiz-bang navigation devices for Christmas, as this seems to be a hard thing to find here in Australia.

Oh, and then there’s the other real challenge – my six and eight year olds.  They are the light of my life, the center of my universe, but it is hard to make a race plan when every few minutes, one or the other comes down from bed with an emergency.  Tonight it was the Invasion of the Giant Moths, with one in each of my children’s rooms.  Man, they were big!  I managed to shoo one out the window, and caught the other in a mixing bowl with a magazine lid (I have a no-kill policy; it’s a karma thing).  So critters out, kids in bed, and not three seconds later, my wonderful husband appears with seventeen bags of groceries.  I’ve just put them away.

So…physically, I can certainly run 21.1km.  But I can’t get my head to focus on it with the family chaos that surrounds me.  I suppose it is business as usual in my family home.  And when I finally do get out on that trail, no matter what the terrain, the hills, the tracks, there will be just me and simplicity.

Which is why I fight so hard to fit these races in.  Because I know that come Sunday night, I will be more centered than I have been in weeks.  And more content.

Now, off to make dinner.  I wonder – do any of you have similar challenges?

Experience of a lifetime: my first ultramarathon completed!

It began impulsively, with a simple request on Facebook – did anyone want to join a relay team for the Surfcoast Ultramarathon, a 100km monster of a race, to be held in Anglesea, Australia, on 22 September?

Did I mean it when I posted it?  I’m not sure.  I’d posted such messages before, looking for Adventure Race teams, but nothing had come of it.  I suppose that’s what I thought – I’d post the message, and nothing would come of it.

Instead, within about three days, we’d formed Team Inspiration.

Team Inspiration: Dan, Patricia, Ben and Scott

None of us had ever run as far as we’d planned on running.  We’d certainly never run as a team; we’d only just met.  And yet, we were going to do this.  I fluctuated between terror and exhilaration, my training runs growing longer, my body growing tired but hopefully stronger.

Time does strange things when you are pursuing a goal – it slowed, then raced, and then suddenly, there I was at the start.  It was 8 am.  All around me were fit people in Camelbaks.  I didn’t have time to feel out of place – before I knew it, we were running beneath the Rapid Ascent flags, off down the beach.

I don’t want to tell you the details of the race course, the footsteps I followed.  You can read that anywhere.  What matters to me is how it felt, the moments that will never be forgotten. 

Running down the beach, I began too fast, and found I couldn’t catch my breath.  It was as if I had asthma, I couldn’t get the breath deep into my lungs.  Knowing myself, I kept that same pace, chasing others, running the first five kilometres along the sand.  The cold shock of crossing a tidal river woke me up, and I finally let myself drop back to my pace.

The moment I became present – that I began breathing again –  is etched in my mind.  The sun was to my right, glaring on the sand, reflecting into my eyes.  I put my sunnies on.  Runners stretched along the beach in a long, straight line.  It was misty, hard to see them.  We looked like the military, with our backpacks and serious expressions, just run-run-running as fast as we could.  The cliffs were high above me, and I kept slowing down to gape at them, open-mouthed, could it really be me here, running along this beach? 

I knew the course, knew where to expect the challenges.  So I was expecting pain early on in the soft sand sections.  To my joy, they were nothing like the soft sand I’d been training on at Rickett’s Point; this was easy, compared to that.  I kept waiting for it to get harder, but it didn’t.  I found myself smiling, breathing more easily.  A water stop up a set of stairs – my family and teammates waiting with high-fives and cameras – what pleasure to find them there – and then onto a too-steep hill to find our way back to the beach.

On the coastal rocks

I was expecting pain from the coastal rocks section, remembering how hard those rocks had been during my Hong Kong adventure races.  Imagine my delight when it was short, when I could step between rocks to stable sand, when the terror was not as great as I’d planned for.  Still, I gave the rocks and reefs great respect; I know what a sprained ankle can be like many kilometres from home.

It wasn’t long after this that a man caught up to me – “How many kilometres have you gone?” he asked.  I checked my Garmin.  “13.2 – about the same as you, I expect.”  Turned out he didn’t have a Garmin and just wanted to know how far we’d gone. We ran together for a few minutes, small talk about the beauty of the race, about how we felt, then a “have a great race” and he was gone.  Encounters like that were rare in this race, which was unusual in the trail running I’d done.  I think we all were working too hard to speak.

Later, we climbed a steep set of rocks, and once I’d reached the top, the other runners had gone.  I chose my course down, frightened but finding courage from the doing of this, jumped the last four feet to the sand, coaching myself to land well and preserve my knees.

Joyous Running

From here, I finally hit the zone.  My pack felt light, my body strong.  I was doing this, this thing I really didn’t know I could do, I was really going to make it.  Ankle-twisting pebbles the size of fists made me pay close attention, the sea washed over my runners, cooling me beyond measure.  And my two powergels gave my feet a spring.  I pretended to myself the race was 22 instead of 21 kilometres, playing a racers trick, trying to finish strongly.  I watched the surf break at Bells Beach, surfers out already, as I ran along the reef I’d read about.

Big seas at the Surfcoast Century

And this song I’d planned to sing in my mind played the soundtrack, loud and clear.  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, doesn’t mean I’m lonely cause I’m alone, what doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, step a little lighter…”  It brings tears to my eyes remembering that feeling.

At the end, I climbed a final ramp to meet my family and the other three members of Team Inspiration.  I had done it.  My first half-marathon-distance race, along the beaches and coastal rocks of Australia. 

I have much more to tell you about Team Inspiration and the rest of the 100km race.  This is just my first installment.  Suffice it to say, for now, that we all finished.  There was pain, courage, darkness and light.  My leg was only the beginning of an amazing journey for our team.  I am writing the full story for Trail Runner Magazine, to come out later this year.  But I promise I’ll give you a sample soon.

What did I learn?  That I can go further than I ever thought I could.  That each time I do one of these crazy, boundary-stretching things, my boundaries stay stretched forever.  That I will never look at the stretch of coastline from Anglesea to Torquay in the same way again; I will never look at myself in the same way again.

Thank you to Rapid Ascent and the members of Team Inspiration – together, you have changed me.

Team Inspiration: how to run an ultramarathon

Okay, so I’m sometimes impulsive.  Life will go along smoothly for years and years, I’ll have coffee at the same restaurant each day, ride to the gym the same way, sit in the same spot in our living room.  Then, all of a sudden, I must have change.

This time it began with my hair.  For the last few years, I’ve worn it long, lanky, hanging below my shoulders.  Low-maintenance.  I’d tell Paul, my hairdresser, the main thing was it had to be able to be tied up in a ponytail, so it didn’t annoy me when I ran.

But one day, Paul convinced me to have it layered.  He’d told me to use hairclips, but my daughter found my hairclips, and they vanished.  Those bits of hair that didn’t fit the ponytail hung out as I lifted weights, they stuck out like wings, making me feel unkempt and unattractive.  For three years, I fought with that style, hating it.  Was it coincidence that those three years lined up with the three years we’d been back in Australia, after leaving Hong Kong?  The three years where I lost my way a bit, wearing jeans with a hole in the knee, and too many layers because I didn’t know where to buy warm clothes?

Well, one day, I said, enough.  I visited Paul, and said, “Please, cut my hair short.” “How short are we talking?” he said.  “The last time you said that you screamed when you felt my cold scissors on the back of your neck.”  “Short.  Short as you can,” I said.  The hair fell away, snip, snip, snip.  It covered the floor around the chair.  I was surprised there was so much of it.  When it was gone, I smiled.  I felt like I’d got away with something slightly forbidden.  At school pickup, friends looked astonished.  “You look like another woman,” they said.  And that was kind of the point.

So when I posted the message on Facebook, it wasn’t really a surprise.  Not to me.  After all, I knew about the haircut, the new phone, the blog I’d begun.  The idea had been simmering there for a while, as I stealthily increased my long run from ten kilometres, to eleven, up and up, until eventually I’d run sixteen.  I didn’t want to declare anything aloud.  Perhaps I was afraid I’d jinx my new-found ability to run far, injury-free. 

But that day, the Facebook-post day, I noticed someone had posted a message looking for team mates for an ultramarathon.  The Surfcoast Ultramarathon to be held on 22 September, 2012 in Anglesea, to be precise.  It was a whopping one-hundred-kilometre behemoth, a monster, a dream, visual candy combined with a physical test.  Before I knew I really meant it, I’d typed up the message on my Facebook page: I’m looking for three other team mates to complete a relay team for the Surfcoast Ultramarathon.  Then I hit “Post”.

It didn’t take long.  Thirty seconds for Scott Knabel to raise his hand; Ben Clark joined us a few minutes later.  A fourth team mate, Dan Johnston, was offered for sacrifice, whoops, I mean for the race, when we met up at the Salomon Trail Series race in Silvan Reservoir a few days later.  I stood there that day, and Scott said, strongly, “That’s it then, we’re in, we have a team, right?”  I croaked out a “Yes” I didn’t quite believe, an evasive yes, an Aquarian yes (we are notoriously bad at commitment).  But it was a Yes, and once I said it, it was so.

We’ve decided to call ourselves Team Inspiration.  Other team names (Three Guys and a Girl; Whose Idea Was This?) were floated, but Team Inspiration captured what we were setting out to do.  None of us had run this far.  We wanted others to learn that they could too.

So, no more quietly increasing my kilometres.  I enlisted the aid of Julian Spence, one of the event ambassadors, sending an email and asking how I could possibly go from 16 to 21 kilometers in just a few short weeks.  His reply was detailed and reassuring; he thought I could do it, that my weight training would help me.  Eighteen kilometres one week, twenty the next, he suggested.  I nearly fell off my chair.  But because he believed I could do it, I did it.

Today, I completed my first twenty kilometre run ever.  My body didn’t think it could do it; neither did my brain.  And yet, here I sit after the run, still able to move, some aches but nothing broken.  Inside my head, I repeat this: I’ve just run twenty kilometres.  I plot where I could run to now – from Hampton to Melbourne, yes, tick, I could do that.  Completely astounding.

Change?  I hate change.  But then all of a sudden, I thirst for it; I must have it.  I must move countries, cut all my hair off, start running enormous distances, populate my head and home and heart with new terrain, unforseen and unexpected.

The next three weeks, I will explore places I’ve not yet been, say hello to a self that has been dormant for a while.

Because the time has come.  The time to be awake, aware, alive.  The time to once again live life like I once did, singing Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” at the top of my lungs running down a single-track, grinning ear to ear.

Team Inspiration it is!

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.

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.