King Tide: The 2017 Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon

A few hundred racers were huddled together on the sand, awaiting the start of the Surfcoast Half-Marathon.  We had just been advised to move back from the shoreline in case of a surge.

“What’s a surge?” the runner next to me said.

I glanced at him; the waves just off-shore were four feet high.  They were the things of nightmares.

“The ocean…” I said, gesturing.

I moved fast uphill, away from the shoreline.  A few moments later, the waves rolled in.  A bunch more runners dashed up into the dunes amidst general nervous laughter.

This was looking interesting.

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Half-marathon runners awaiting the start. (Borrowed from a Facebook post.)

 

Here’s what the FAQ section said on the race website:

“Do I have to cross any rivers or roads?

No, the only section of the course that is bitumen is a short stretch leading up to the car park at Point Addis and there will be course marshal at this section. There are no rivers to cross, nor mountains to climb (beyond your own mental ones). There are a few car park entrances to cross – please do so with care. They will all be marshalled for runner safety.

What about beach sections?

There will be several beach sections to run on, and depending on the tides and what time you reach particular sections, the tide may be high. There will always be sand to run on, although if tide is high, the sand will be softer and present more difficult running conditions. Beach sections are:

  • Fisherman’s Beach (1.5km)
  • Bells Beach (300m)
  • Point Addis beach (900m)
  • Guvvos-Urquhart’s Beach (3.3km)
  • Sunnymead (100m)
  • Fairhaven Beach (finish – 200m)”

 

The Surfcoast Trail Marathon (SCTM) held in Victoria, Australia has been on my list of awesome races to do for a couple of years.  It is held the week after start of The Trail Series, so in past years I’ve missed it.

This year, I decided to do it anyway.  I needed a half-marathon qualifier for the Wonderland 20k, and this event was perfect.  Though I had just run the first race of The Trail Series (10.6 km) six days earlier in a near PB time, I convinced myself that the SCTM would be an “easy” half-marathon, full of fun.  Compared to my last half-marathon on Mount Feathertop which took nearly five hours, this seemed reasonable.

The slogan for the SCTM is “Where the Wild Things Run”.  That has drawn me to the event for years:  I’m wild (well, mildly); I was raised seaside; I run the surf coast for fun, but I’d only seen the Torquay to Anglesea sections.  This race would give me some new terrain to see, from Point Addis to Fairhaven.  I’d wanted to see this area for a long time.

There, I was convinced this was a rational decision, to race two weekends in a row.

My family and I drove down to Point Addis Saturday morning.  Not early enough to score a parking space, so they dropped me at the start and drove away.

I explored the raised wooden viewing areas with delight, taking photo after photo, but being sure I actually stopped and saw the views as well.  The sun glinting off the ocean; the waves rolling in to high cliffs; the other runners laughing and taking selfies; the odd tourist looking bemused by the group of hundreds of runners lining up to register; the marathon runners going by to great cheers.

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Views from the boardwalks above the start line.  This is a view of the first beach section we traversed.  Note the waves.

At 10:27, I was waiting for the 10:30 race briefing on the top of the cliffs when it occurred to me that it might be down on the beach.  I asked and quickly made my way down the steep wooden staircase, feeling doomed, as I thought we had to climb back up as the race start (should’ve read the course description better).

Down on the beach, I joined the huddle of runners.  I eyed the waves; they were big.  Really big.  Much larger than I’d expected, even though I knew the race would be taking place at high tide.

I noticed another woman runner then, who looked a bit nervous standing alone, so I started to chat with her.  It was her first trail half.  I reassured her that this was a good, easy one to start with.  Nothing too difficult, and a great crowd of people.  A few Dandenong Trail Runners arrived, looking resplendent in their singlets (Chris and Lauren, with John as support crew), and Chris from Bayside; we chatted, shared laughter.  I kept one eye on the surf, as anyone raised by the beach tends to do.

Shortly after the “step back from the water” warning, another wave rolled in, and the runners darted higher up into the dunes.

It was race briefing time.  A tall man stood on the dunes and spoke to us.  I confess:  I blacked it out.  Something about the waves coming into shore.  Arg.  Okay.  People racing move to the front.  I was; I did.  I asked the woman next to me, do we run out and back on the beach?  We only ran one way she said, and continued on to the trail from there.  A relief that we didn’t have to climb the steep stairs to the start then.

We lined up, then, bang, we were off.

The beach?  It was a few feet wide.  Some of the way.  I quickly found myself darting away from the encroaching tide, trying to make sure I had no one running to my right to block a dash away.  This beach section didn’t last long, maybe a kilometre.  After only a few minutes, we climbed up to a gravel track.  It was easy, fast running.  For a few kilometres, I dropped below my target of 5:30/km and felt really strong.  Except on the horrible stone staircase, where I inexplicably began singing Stairway to Heaven in my head, even though we were running down the stairs.  That song that would accompany me for many kilometres.

It was when we came to Anglesea that the fun began.  I’d read the course description.  We would run on the bitumen path.  I was used to slogging across the river in other races, and was slightly disappointed that we’d go bitumen this time.  Except when I got there, the course seemed to be going straight across the wide, tidal river.  Usually, runners would just get their shoes wet.  Today, the water went up to my knees.  I laughed the entire way across – it was the absolute highlight of the day.  Though I still wonder – was I meant to go the bitumen way?  Never mind.

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Near one of the bitumen sections, I think the Anglesea River. (Photo borrowed from Facebook post of another trail runner. Is this you? You were smart to take off your shoes!)

The rest gets a bit hazy in my memory.  I can’t give you a blow-by-blow course and race description.  Because suddenly it became, as one friend described it, more of a duathlon.

Those soft stretches of sandy beach?

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Another photo borrowed from a Facebook post. Note the runners in the water…

From Guvvo’s to Urquahart’s beach was meant to be about four kilometres.

Really?  It seemed further.  Perhaps it was the moments when I dove face first into the dunes as the waves rolled under my feet?  Or the water washing relentlessly over my shoes?  Soft sand became small, wobbly coastal rocks, which finally became a “watch the wave go out then run as fast as you can on the beach until the next one comes in” – a game I call Mickey Mouse with my kids – you shout Mickey Mouse as the wave comes at you and you run to not get your feet wet.  I played that game for about three of the four kilometres – awesome fun!

I don’t know where the staircase was.  But I remember it well.  There was a kind volunteer on the staircase, talking to me about timing my run to the waves, going under the stairs and then along the fence.  It felt wild and reckless and fun and insane and the best thing I’ve done in years.

I got to the bottom of the stairs, ran, just beat the wave, and then ran under the staircase.  We followed the inside of a small fence as the waves licked at the ledge that kept the sea at bay, and then as they broke over that ledge.  My shoes were full of sand and water and after a while I didn’t really care if the waves rolled over me or not.  The fence gave me this false feeling of security, like if a big wave came, at least I was on the far side of the fence and it would keep me from being washed away.  Except the fence ended and there were still some kilometres to go.  So we went.

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“Just wait until the wave goes out…” (Another photo borrowed from Facebook – thank you for sharing this amazing memory!)

 

Finally we climbed up to the “winding fun trail weaving through heathland and clifftop landscapes all the way to Split Point Lighthouse and Airey’s Inlet”.

The only trouble was, by this point, my body had been trashed by the soft sand running.  My feet suddenly decided to cramp up into tiny balls, with the toes tucking under, and my pace dropped to a seven-minute kilometre,  Ouch!  I could barely walk.  I tried water, salt tablets, gels, swearing, stretching.

Eventually, I just ran on my silly cramped-up feet and told them to loosen up and they finally did, though I was very conscious that I might not be able to finish this mad run if they really cramped badly so I held back on the pace.

The views coming into the lighthouse went straight to my soul.  I’d once visited the Great Ocean Road, many years ago, as a newcomer to Australia.  I vividly remember being depressed and lonely and that these magnificent views could not get through to me.

Today they did; today, those views were home and I smiled and laughed and kept right on running, straight towards them.

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Okay, another borrowed photo. I could barely walk here, much less take photos. Thanks for sharing this on Facebook!

With 1.5 km to go to the finish line at the Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club, I tried to pick up the pace.  But I’d given all I had on those beach sections, and could only succeed in moving a little quicker.  Seeing the finish arch at the top of a set of stairs made me kind of want to cry.  Another runner and I began climbing together.  I said, let’s finish together okay, but when we got to the arch he gestured me through first, and I said, no, and reached out a hand, and we went across together.  Tremendous.  Everything about it was a tremendous run.

I’d targeted a finish between 2 and 2:30 and came in at 2:18.

The party at the finish was like what I imagine a party would’ve been like when peace was declared after a big, gnarly war.  Runners were there with their shoes off, eyes glazed, big, hazy smiles.  Laughter was everywhere.  The Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club was heaving with runners eating and drinking and sharing stories of waves and oceans and king tides.  Somewhere a band played, but me, I made my way straight to Shane’s massage tables, and made a big donation for the lovely Mill to massage my feet out (“How long did you have your shoes off?”she asks with concern.  I glanced back. “Why?  Are my feet blue? Don’t worry.  They’re always blue.”).  It was painful bliss but finally the cramps began to subside.

Afterwards, my daughter and I bought t-shirts (hers was to be a nightshirt, Run Like a Tiger, it read.  Mine was Where the Wild Things Run.  I’m wearing it right now).  I gathered myself a vegetarian turkish bread, which ranks as almost the best thing I’ve ever eaten, topped only by the cheese toastie with salt at my last race.  We watched the presentations and I marvelled at how fast the winners were – how do they do it?

Bliss.

That’s how I’d sum up the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon.  The king tide really made it adventurous and super-fun, which is how I like my runs to be.  Thanks to Tour de Trails, Chris Ord and the awesome volunteers who kept the waves from washing us out to sea.  I’ll be remembering this one for many years!

 

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Where the wild things ran…

 

What to do once you’ve run in an Ultramarathon: a race the next day???

This is what happens when you start hanging around people who run a lot.  You start to think the really crazy stuff is somehow normal.  Like running 21 km in the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon on Saturday, then turning up the next morning to run 14.6 km in the final leg of the Salomon Trail Series, starting on the same exact beach.

During the Ultramarathon the day before

But I had to do it!  I just had to.

Saturday I’ve written about already.  It was a joyous day, surrounded by family and friends, doing what I love to do most of all – running fast and far in the glorious outdoors.  But the thing was, I’d signed up for all four of the Salomon Trail Series races, long, long ago.

I stupidly (okay, impulsively) raised my hand for the Ultramarathon relay team thinking both races were going to be run on Sunday.  They were both organised by the same team of talented race organisers, Rapid Ascent.  Of course, they wouldn’t plan them on separate days. Who would be crazy enough to want to do both?  Silly me!  Of course, when I realised my error, that the races would be held back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, I thought, okay, I’ll just do the Saturday one.  Crazy to think I could do both.  Especially when I’d never run as far as I’d planned to on Saturday.

And then the conversations on Facebook, Twitter and phones started.  Oh yes, all my other teammates planned on doing both.  Then there was the Banzai Adventurer, who was going to do the full 100km and then do the 14.6 km run the next day.  I admit, at first it seemed crazy.  But, well, after a little while, it didn’t seem so crazy.  That’s what I mean; you have to be careful who you hang about with.

So there I was on Sunday morning, again.  All smiles and raring to go.  I’d pasta-loaded for the second time on Saturday night – and that pasta, after the long Ultra day – it was heaven!  Not to mention the garlic bread, which I ordered because I just had to.  My husband rolled his eyes (internally, not for real, but I still saw him), knowing I was ordering too much.  But it was to die for, that garlic bread, the best I’ve ever had.

Anyway, I was re-fueled, and I’d really, really lowered my expectations of myself.  I was expecting so little, after having used my body to the full the day before, that, for the first time ever in my racing life, I lined up at the start and I was not nervous.  Me, nervous Nellie, the one who runs to the toilet eighty-five times before each race.  Not nervous.  Not aiming for anything, other than seeing the sights of this not-to-be-missed trail race.  I set myself up at the back of the Fast start, fulling planning to stay there.

The race began, and we set off down that same beach, the one I’d run on the day before, when I was going all out to run hard and fast.  Today, I had no Camelbak, no extra weight, no expectations.  I was light as a feather.  We ran down the beach, and splashed across the tidal river, reminding me of the wet shoes of the day before.  I almost laughed – I’d spent the night before trying to dry them by the heater, as I only had one pair of trail shoes, stuffing them with newspaper, and turning them around every few hours.  And here they were, were wet again almost immediately!

It was up on a trail from there, the one I hadn’t got to run the day before, the one I didn’t want to miss.  How do I describe it?  I want to use lots of adjectives: lovely, wonderful, joyous, inspiring, the reason I’m alive.

Smiling All The Way

In trail terms, it was technical, not too steep, full of lovely twisted trees roots to hop through, sharp switch-backs where I let other runners pass me.  I didn’t care; not today.  Today, I was going easy on myself, protecting my body which had done so much for me.  I didn’t want a twisted ankle and I didn’t care if others were faster.

Although there was this one woman…there is always one woman.  She of the purple shorts and big smile, who passed me downhill half-a-dozen times, who I passed uphill the equal number.  We were the same overall pace, she was braver down the steep, technical trails, I was stronger up the same ones.  A set of steep rock steps slowed me, and she bounded ahead.  I stayed true to my plan and made safety paramount.  My stabilising muscles had done enough for me in the last twenty-four hours.

Purple Shorts Friend

It was pure joy, that run.

Until it wasn’t.

That was the moment at a fork in the trail where ribbons were tied on both forks, the ribbons that were our only guide, as the pack had spread out and I was with a group of three runners who had no idea which trail was the correct one.  A fast man dashed up behind us, assessed the two trails, shouted, “This way!” and ran down the left fork.  We were all still running, and we all followed.  I hung back, looking for other ribbons to signal we’d come the right way, feeling deeply uneasy, recalling following other runners down the wrong route back in Repulse Bay in Hong Kong.  My heart rate rose, and I marked the distance we were travelling, ready to turn back to that fork.  Happily, within four minutes, a ribbon appeared and I relaxed and sped up.

The trail was suddenly smooth, slightly downhill.  Easy to fly.  I turned up the speed a notch, loving the help of gravity.  Behind me, someone shouted, Hello Patricia!  Who’s that? I called back.  Andrew!  he answered.  Andrew who’d I’d just met at the start, I realised.  We small-talked as he raced by me, long, lean legs in a red shirt with a great smile.  It made me smile, being known, and knowing others.

A few moments later, the blue sky changed.  The wind picked up, and began to howl.  A squally rain began, the rain that had been promised by the early morning clouds.  There wasn’t far to go, but those views I had been looking forward to were suddenly forgotten as I pushed against that wind and rain, as I encouraged other runners along who were struggling.  Mothers and daughters; runners in the shorter course; runners who had had enough.  You’re doing great, I called to them, not far to go now, great effort!  Their heads lifted and they moved faster and so did I.

The last smooth section of road came, and I edged onto the dirt track that ran next to it, near the bushes, running flat out.  There was the woman in the purple shorts again!  We spoke, trail runner nonsensical talk that I don’t recall, and powered on together but apart.

The beach appeared again, and that magically cold river crossing and then I was running along the finish chute, thinking of the Ultramarathoners who had run this leg the day before.  Soft sand, through the crowds, through the finish.

The presentations after the race were poignant.  I sat and watched the winning runners gather their prizes for the Ultramarathon the day before, for the race today, and for the whole Salomon Trail Series.  Faces that had grown familiar over the last four months, friends I had made, runners who had shared the trails with such genuine kindness, such good humor.  I reflected on how we’d all changed.  How I’d changed.  From an individual, lone runner, I had helped to found Team Inspiration.  I had friends here now, friends who knew me, who had shared the intensity of the experiences of the last two days.  The race results were not important.  What was important was the camaraderie, the glory of the trails we had run, the changes those trails had wrought in all of us.

Later in the day, we drove by the river that had housed Race Headquarters.  It was almost all packed up, and it was surprising how little the space looked that had housed such magic.  I was full of mixed emotion, joy and delight that it had happened, sorrow that it was now over.

Unpacking my race gear last night, after a week’s holiday following the races, I felt those same mixed emotions.  How to come down after the pinnacle we had all been on, after the challenges we’d faced together and conquered?  It was hard, more painful than racing.

So, I did what I had to do.

In fact, I did it in anticipation of this coming-down feeling a few days before.  I signed up for the Marysville Half-Marathon on 11 November.  Because members of Team Inspiration will be out there again.  Because I live to run, to race, to see the glorious terrain that only trail racing can show me.

There is talk, rumblings, murmurs, about Team Inspiration taking on the North Face 100 one day.  I had a look at some magazine photos of the 2009 race, contemplated the word “Mountain” in the phrase “Blue Mountains”.  Time will tell.  But once you get involved with a crowd like these runners, you can be sure that something crazy is going to happen.  Sooner not later.

My great thanks go out to the team at Rapid Ascent for five awesome races that I will never forget.  To the members of Team Inspiration (Scott Knabel, Benjamin Clark, and Daniel Johnston), Chris Ord of Trail Runner Magazine, the Banzai Adventurer, and Stu Russell, thank you for believing in me, and for inspiring me to be more than I thought I could.  And to my family, for being there with me through all the training and races – your support and love means everything to me.

To have run a leg in an Ultramarathon, back-to-back with a 14.6 km trail race the next day: I’m still smiling at the audacity.

Full moon over the ocean

It was a rough day.  School holidays in the rain with two young, restless children.  A mostly successful day out at the waterfront in Geelong had gone rapidly downhill on the drive home.  I was cranky, wound tightly, pacing our small home like a panther, back and forth, back and forth.  Outside, storm clouds hovered in the place on the horizon that meant certain rain.  The wind was howling, and it was 4:30.  It would be dark soon.  

When my husband suggested the run, by rights  my answer should have been no.  Yet I was out the door moments later, two layers between me and the wind.

It rained immediately, cold, blowy rain, but I didn’t care.  I was free and my sneakers scritch-scritched on the gravel road.  My plan was 14km, further than I’d run here before.  The trail was pocked with puddles, with only a few cold parents struggling along.  

But I felt light as a feather, sprinting and sliding down my favorite trail, then dashing across the Barwon River Bridge.  My turn-around point was further than I’d expected, and I found myself alone on an empty trail as it rapidly grew dark.  I’m from New York.  Dark and alone equal danger to me, and I was suddenly scared.  I raced along the shipwreck coast,feeling haunted by ghosts long gone.  My pace saved me, and soon I left the fear of empty dirt track behind, re-tracking my way across the bridge.  

Faced with a further dark woody trail, I chose the beach that ran alongside instead.  Fear disappeared, replaced by joy.  Waves crashed, dogs leapt after balls, all was safe again.  At 10k, I assessed my body, and was pleased all was good.  For a little while then, I was just in the zone, not noticing much but the growing dark. 

All of a sudden, I was drawn to look at the sky. That instant, a huge, bright full moon shone through the clouds.  It was like a second sun had appeared to light my way home.  It felt like a blessing.  

When I came to the final trail section, it was fully dark, but that moon shone straight down my trail, lighting up the puddles and holes, and I sprinted, loving this unknown running in the dark, the solitude, the sense of being wrapped in a warm,, safe blanket.

The final hill appeared, steep, dark.  The rain, which had stopped long before, suddenly began again.  It was cold, and wet, and a super-steep climb.  It should have felt awful.  But it didn’t.  There was no place in the world I would rather be in that moment.  The moon disappeared then, as if it were winking.  

When it came back out later, I was warm and dry, in my lovely home with my perfect family.  I showed it to the children, that moon, but I couldn’t quite explain why it felt like my moon, and my moon alone.