The Razorback Run 22km (2017): I’m on the edge

I’m crouched low, hanging onto the thin vertical slabs of rock with my fingertips. I’ve just begun scaling the granite dome to the peak of Mount Feathertop.  Water is dripping from my Salomon flask, distracting me at this critical moment.  My heart is pounding.  I’m all alone.  “I don’t want to do this,” I say out loud.  My voice sounds as shaken as I feel.

I don’t look around and I certainly don’t look down.  I keep climbing, trying to breathe, keeping my body pressed close to the rock.  I have to traverse this sharp angle of rock to get to the next section, and I have no idea what the next section is going to be, or even if I’m really on the trail itself.  Up until now,  the trail was obvious, but this seems more like some random slab of rock rather than a trail.  My reserves are low.   My water is in danger of running out.  And this trail, this 11 km there-and-back trail, is reportedly full of venomous snakes.  How am I going to get myself out of this? I wonder.

Is this where I’m going to die?

The Razorback Run is an event held by Running Wild Australia, and offers distances ranging from 64, 40 and 22 kilometres.  That’s right – the 22 km run is the short course. This short course is a run along a ridge-line trail to the top of the second highest peak in Victoria, Australia (Mount Feathertop), in a place know as the Victorian Alps, and back along the same trail.  When I first read the description early in January, hungry for a new adventure, I was captivated:  (see http://runningwild.net.au/razorback-run-about-the-run.html for more details)

“This classic Alpine run offers three challenging distances in some of the most spectacular country in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. The 64 km Razorback Ridge run takes in the entire length of the Razorback to offer some of the most stunning ridge running and scenery in the Australian Alps, the 40 km Razorback Circuit and the 22 km short course Razorback Ridge—a delightful day out up to the Summit of Mt Feathertop and back along the Razorback.

Set in the heart of Victoria’s high country, the Razorback Run is one of the most amazing high altitude runs that Australia has to offer.”

But then I moved onto the “About the Run” page, and immediately dismissed the run as lunacy for the likes of me.  It was this bit in particular that gave me pause:

“Weather Conditions/Experience: The run takes place in an exposed Alpine environment that can be subject to sudden and severe changes in weather. Rain, fog, high winds, sleet and snow as well as hot sunny days can occur during March/April. Do not take this run lightly, runners have died in this region. Hypothermia, dehydration and heat exhaustion are serious risks and all runners should be prepared for any weather conditions.

The 64km Razorback Run should only be attempted by experienced trail runners with good navigation experience. As a minimum, runners attempting this distances must have successfully completed at least one organised trail run over 30 km in the previous 6 months.”

To tell the truth, pretty much every single word in the “About the Run” section frightened me:  Self-supported solo navigation; a ten-kilometre ridgeline trail; mandatory equipment because a snake might bite you, you might get caught in a snow or lightning-storm, lost; you must have the ability to navigate an alternative route back in case of emergency.  Oh, and fire season.  Of course, it might still be fire season.

Then Sally messaged me.  Did I want to do a new adventure this year? Yes, of course I did.  How about the Razorback Run? I suggested.

Two weeks before the race, I knew I could run the distance.  I’d trained up for it on Mount Dandenong.  I’d calculated the elevation gain and done more than necessary.  I’d done speed work to keep my legs fast, strength training in the gym, hill training.  As a veteran of more than fifty trail races, I was nervous but confident in my abilities.  Adventure racing had taken me out of my comfort zone many times, climbing waterfalls, belaying down cliffs.  I’d felt fear before; it hadn’t stopped me.

But I’d never been to Harrietville, and could not really picture the trail.  I’d heard it was beautiful.  And rocky.  From maps and photos, it didn’t look too bad.  Pretty flat but with the elevation gain coming from a big climb right in the middle to get to the peak.  I respected the run, but I wasn’t actually afraid of it.  I was afraid of the drive, the snakes, the weather, the dark, fire, snow, elevation, pretty much everything, but I wasn’t afraid of the run.

The Razorback, from the Starting Line

At 7:30 am Saturday morning, the group of us runners stood shivering.  We had silently declared the toilet block to be behind the small shack on the Mount Feathertop side of the road (there was no actual toilet block), and people sheepishly made their way behind it with boxes of tissues and averted eyes.  We were already at an elevation of 1600 metres; the peak of Mount Feathertop would take me to my highest elevation in my life at 1922 metres.  It was my personal Everest.

I studied the sunrise, and watched the colour of Mount Feathertop change from dark grey to glowing gold at first light.  It was cold, and I’d layered up in my down jacket and lots of wool to await the race start.  I’d traveled up with two friends who were walking the trail, and because I was running, I expected to finish a couple of hours before them.  I studied the other runners to see who I might beg for a ride back to Harrietville and hid my after-race backpack under the car as the walkers were taking the car keys with them.

Before sunrise

Golden

The prior night’s race briefing was playing on my nerves.  Paul, the Race Director, had very calmly informed us, in the manner of a true mountain man, that snakes had been sighted on the trail as early as 9:30 that morning.  His advice was to make sure our snake bite bandages were right at the top of our packs, for easy access.  I had just tested applying my snake bandage for the first time before leaving Melbourne.  The process had made me decidedly uneasy.  I’d been surprised by snakes before, both in Hong Kong and here in Melbourne, but over time, I’d come to a kind of truce with them; they were there, but I could usually avoid them by the time of day I ran, and by route choice.

It was 7:55 am.  We crossed the road as a group, and the countdown to run was brief.  There were seventy of us running the 22km course today, about forty more than I expected.  The others looked fit, strong, stony characters.  Only I was afraid, that was for sure.

Off we ran.

I was puzzled by the first section – instead of climbing along the ridge-back, it ran along a very thin trail on a contour line at the bottom of the hill.  It was rockier than I’d expected, and I was breathing fast.  My hands were numb, as I’d stripped to a singlet and shorts just before we ran, and the drop to the right led straight down into a deep valley.  I tried not to look, tried not to be afraid.  But everyone was faster than me, they were bolting around me, faster, much faster than I dare run.  My visual system has a new problem – grey shadows in both eyes in the centre of the visual field.  I see okay, except on shadowy technical trail where I try to run fast but I can’t capture the rocks quick enough in sight to respond to them.

So I was slow.  So slow; so afraid. Breathing too fast and attacking myself for lack of pace.  I was fit enough but this didn’t matter.  This track – its narrowness, its precipitous drop, the rocks – I hadn’t expected it so early.  It seemed like every single runner in the race passed me and I was certain I could hear my walking friends chatting and catching up to me.

Run your own race, I told myself.  You’re not racing them.  You’re here to see this place.  Enjoy it.

But every time I tried to calm myself to “enjoy it” I tripped on a rock, stumbled, swore.  I was 4.5km in, when a man came barreling back down the trail towards me.  Surely not, I said to myself.  But yes, he had already run the whole 11 km out, and most of the way back.  And here I was, stumbling along at 4.5km.  Jesus.  I felt so inept.  Well done, I shouted to him, truly impressed.  Gob-smacked really, that he could run it so fast.

On I went.  I ran when I could, when the trail edged away from the cliff side, but my heart was still going too fast.  The thought of snakes had grown huge in my mind.  Because now I was running alone, all the others well ahead of me, and there was plenty of time for a snake to come back to sun itself.  The trail twisted and turned, into shadow and under tree branches, and I was conscious that any section I could not see could hold a venomous snake that wouldn’t know I was coming.  Still I ran, slowly, conscious that I needed to complete the race in 3:30 to quality for the upcoming Wonderland Run in the Grampians.

Somewhere on the Razorback Trail

The sun was up now, and it was getting hot.  My watch must have stopped working because the kilometres were ticking over way too slowly.  Then the Twin Knobs finally appeared, and some trail where I wasn’t afraid, that I could actually run.  Because I’d calmed a bit, I made sure to glance around, take photos.  It was becoming clear to me that my target time was completely wrong, that this run was going to take me someplace I hadn’t been in a long time.

Now the rest of the runners were coming back.  Most cheered me on, said well done, terrific work, and I responded the same.  Some, though, were silent, and when I spoke, they dismissed my comments, blanked me, gave me no encouraging smile.  They were lost in their own race but for me, at the back of the pack this time, their silence hurt.

On I ran.

I’d wondered what “the cross” was in the race description.  It sounded faintly biblical.  It was obvious when I arrived.  Someone had plunked a large backpack next to it, and it marked the junction for the way to the top of Mount Feathertop, and another trail that descended to Federation Hut.  Ha, I said to myself, I know the way to go, I can navigate this.

The cross

Then I looked up at Mount Feathertop and burst out laughing.  I’d already been running for nearly 90 minutes.  This was like a terrible, awful mirage, this thin trail rising up in front of me along the narrow ridge.  No way, I said to myself, no way.

I took some photos; I knew I was going to do this, and I also knew just how scared I was going to be.

The trail to the peak

Laughing on seeing the trail to the peak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started up.  The first bit wasn’t too bad.  Not runnable, but certainly climbable. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been for the last 9 kilometres.  Still, I felt sick to my stomach.  I knew going down would be the hard bit.  I tried not to look around. I got to the top of this, thinking, I know it’s kind of two peaks and I have to get to the second one to get to the top.  The trail climbed along the centre of this first peak, and though it was scary, I was okay.

It was the next peak that did me in.

I couldn’t see the trail anymore.  Just a small cone of rock.  The trail could be that bit on the left, I said to myself.  That bit right on the edge.  Jesus.  No one was there but me.  Not a single soul.  My heart was pounding.  I took a step up.  My leaking water tube dripped down my leg, and I worried I was losing too much water, that I wouldn’t have enough for the return trip.  It was an unwelcome distraction; I pushed the valve closed.

Suddenly, I was so deadly scared.  Almost too scared to move.  I swore in my head, repeating the same curse word silently, and then aloud.  That’s when I said it: “I don’t want to do this.”

There was no one there to hear me, or to help.

I grasped the thin vertical rocks slabs, didn’t look around, stepped a little higher. A little higher.  I was certain I was about to slip off and plummet to my death.

And then – suddenly, wonderfully, gratefully – I was at the top!  I was on the second peak.  I had made it.  A smile of joy began to spread across my face.

Then the smile slowed.  Stopped.  I looked outwards in utter horror.  There was a thin – a supremely thin – ridgeline about twenty meters long, and it led to another peak.  A higher peak.  A peak ever scarier than this last one.  My stomach fell to my feet.  I was not a quitter.  I never gave up.  But God – could I do this?  How could I do this?

Just then, like a miracle, two runners appeared on that next peak.  A bearded man and a fit-looking woman, moving smoothly towards me, like there was nothing terrible at all happening at that moment.

“Hi,” they said.  “How are you?”

“Utterly terrified,” I replied.

“Oh no.  Do you want us to walk out there with you?  We’re not in any hurry…”

“Would you?”  I couldn’t believe their kindness.  Usually, I am fiercely independent, but I said, “Yes, please, that would be great.”

The woman went in front, me in the middle, the bearded man behind me.  They talked calmly to me, told me about themselves, distracted me across that terrible, terrible ridge-line, until suddenly I was across it.  Together, they climbed, I crab-crawled and swore, and they helped and spoke to me, and we made it.  Like a miracle, like I’d been lifted by angels wings, we made it to the top of that final peak.

I felt like crying, laughing, hugging them.  Instead, we took photos, them of me, me of them (I promised not to share their photo on the blog I told them I’d write), of the views.  I wanted to linger, to be alone on the summit, but I saw the wisdom in returning with them.  One day, perhaps I’d be brave enough to go alone.  Today, I was very grateful for their helping hands.

At the peak of Mount Feathertop, elevation 1922 metres

Because as scary as the way up had been, I knew the way down was going to be much worse.  They laughed at me kindly as I crab-walked my way down the peaks, staying as close to the ground as possible.  I knew it looked funny; I didn’t care.  I remember doing the same silly move down a thin trail in Hong Kong, knew I’d make it down alive if I went this slow way.

It worked.  First one, then two, and finally three horrendous rocky peaks were done, and we were back on more solid ground.  They expected me to move off quickly, as they were walking and I was running, but the terrain made most of my running more like walking, and we were about the same pace.  Kate and Andrew and I were together most of the way back, sometimes them in front, sometimes me.  I tried to give them space, to run faster so as not to bother them, but they were happy and kind.

Eventually, I pulled away.  I had perhaps five kilometres left.  My water was running low.  The sun was high in the sky and the day had really heated up.  The track that had frightened me on the way out wasn’t so scary on the way back, but I could almost feel the snakes around me.  It was perfect snake weather, hot and dry, and my eyes nearly watered with the effort of looking out for them.  Four hours had gone by.  Four gels and two salt tablets.

I continued on the thin trail, until it came to the final section.  I was overheating, losing coordination now, stumbling, nearly falling.  All I wanted was to get back alive.  I could see the cars in the distance, the metal hut, but each turn led to another trail.  I felt like I was marching across a desert.  I kept glancing down into the valley to the left, worried that my stumbling could trigger a fall and a slide downhill, and disaster.  The trail split unexpectedly, one branch going steeply up a final hill, the other the contour trail we’d begun on.  Uncertain, I took the lower trail.

A 64km runner came along, reassuring me that I was on the right trail.  He was dancing along; I was plodding but still moving.

On and on, 20km, 21km, 21.5.  Surely I should be there.  My Garmin warned its battery was running low.  I swore at it, and told it so was mine, and we had to finish this thing together.

Suddenly, there it was.  The final stretch that led straight to the finish line.  God, I felt stupid, uncoordinated, like all the people at the finish line were watching my stumbling, slow gait, and judging me.

I gave myself a stern talking to then.  I was, in fact, incredible, I reminded myself.  I was doing this amazing thing.  I kept going, followed some small pink flags and the finish line flag across the road, up a thin final trail, to the final hut.

There, a kind man in sunglasses and baseball cap wrote down my finishing time, as if it were the most unexpected thing in the world, as if it weren’t a huge surprise that I had arrived back alive.

He offered me water and electrolytes, oranges and watermelon. I fought back the urge to cry.  To tell him what I had just gone through.

Shortly afterwards, Andrew and Kate joined me at the finish line.  I got them dixie cups of water, and thanked them.  It was hard to say clearly the gift that they had given me.  I would have gotten to that second peak on my own.  But my gratitude for their help – for making it a thing of angels wings rather than terror.  Well, I’ve had to save my words for now.  Thank you Andrew and Kate.  You made it a joy.

The Razorback Run 22km in 4:47 instead of 3:30 as I planned.  The overcoming of some terrible terrific fear.  The stretching of my comfort zone much further than I had intended.  The realisation that at age 51, I can still find new things, and new places, grow and challenge myself.

I am full of gratitude and grace and joy that I did this thing.  It turned out so very differently than I had planned.  But that is what we mean by the word “adventure”, isn’t it?

 

 

 

On the road (trail) again….

I always begin in fear.  Always.

At Mount Dandenong on the 31st of July, after nearly three months away, it was no different.  I’d been playing games with myself for days, wondering whether it was the right time for me to re-visit my mountain playground.  I’d been back from my New York trip for a week.  I was feeling distinctly unsettled.  Each night, deep in the middle of the darkness, I’d wake up and not know where I was.  I’d look at the outlines of pictures on the bedroom wall, and wonder why my wedding picture was above the bed in the hotel room.  Why the small picture of the Dandenongs was where it was.  I would panic, not knowing where I was, or even which country I was in.

My foot was mostly healed, and I’d built up to 9k on the gentler trails of home, the treadmill, and Central Park, New York.  But I still wasn’t sure I was up to the bigger hills at Mount Dandenong.

Then I got the news that my Aunt had died.  This Aunt who was the last survivor of my parents’ generation.  She who had bought me a tiny bottle of Chanel #5 when I was 14, telling me without telling me, that I had become a woman.  When hurricanes hit our low-lying beach suburb, we used to flee to her high-rise apartment in New York City.  She would cook Yorkshire Pudding and Brussel Sprouts for Christmas dinner, serving while drinking vodka on the rocks that she would mix with her little finger.  On my bookshelf is an entire collection of Charles Dickens she bought for me one book at a time.  She was elegant; an actress in New York doing one-woman shows, living on her own in her apartment for the forty years of my awareness.  And now, she was gone.

I was full of jet-lagged exhaustion, contemplation about where home was, worry about my foot being hurt, and profound sorrow at the loss of my Aunt.

I go to the woods when I need soothing, when I need to meditate and reflect on things.

So early on Friday, I went.  It is an hour’s drive from home, plenty of time to let my nerves get jangly.  The parking area at The Basin Theatre was more populated than usual.  This played on me too.  I like it deserted.  It feels safer somehow.

I trotted off into the woods in quest of a 9k run.  The thin, technical trail from the car park helped me to focus my mind on the physical.  I slid down a steep incline at its end, to cross a road and join Edgars Track.  This is my least favorite section.  It’s so close to the road that I almost expect bad guys to jump out from the trees.  I have to coach myself to run and not look behind me, to be in the moment.

A short while later, I turn right onto Golf Course Track, slanting uphill, working harder.  This leads me back to the hard-packed dirt road, which I follow uphill to the Stables car park.  Here’s where my heart settles.  The track is rocky and slants downhill.  It’s studded with rocks and littered with gum-tree bark in long strips.  It smells of earth and trees and life.  I fly down, leaving fear behind, galloping in joy.

At the end, a steep uphill makes me walk, and links me to Bill’s Track, which reminds me every time of an old New York friend who died (his name was Bill), and I think of him, miss him, then shimmy-shammy my way down the trail, trying not to face-plant, and find myself back on Edgars Trail again at the bottom.  I know the steepest hill is coming and I plan to walk it, but don’t plan for how unfit I feel after months away.  It is surprising and joyous because I know I’m on the comeback now.

At the top, I turn right onto Camelia Track, which is my favorite part of this run.  It is so lovely, it’s unbelievable no one else is here.  White birds of Freedom (some call them Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos) heckle me from the side of the trail, but wait for me until I’m right  up close before flying up into the trees.  I say hello because they are friends of a sort, and I’ve missed them.  They belt out their raucous cry, the one I love, full of abandon and noise and so lacking in self-consciousness it makes me wish I could be them.

The trail takes me gently downhill, not too technical, and I soak up the colors and smells and think of nothing but the next footfall.

At the end of Camelia Track are a few small trails I’ve not yet explored.  I bookmark them in my mind to explore another day when I have more km’s available in my healing legs.

At the end of the trail, I exit through a gate, and turn back onto the hard-packed dirt road that will take me back to my car.  The ground feels hard after the gentle trail and I’m aware that my foot is not fully healed so I go slowly until I’m back at my car.

Beautiful Mount Dandenong

Beautiful Mount Dandenong

The nine kilometers has given me the perspective I needed on the big events I’ve been facing.  It is a simple but priceless thing, a run in the woods.  Time and again, the trail takes me out of myself and then delivers me back home.

 

Surgery!

Please excuse my long absence – school holidays came and went, along with the usual chaos/fun they involve, followed by two weeks of cleaning up the mess.  I did lots of great running meanwhile, including a beautiful 21km run from Torquay to Bells Beach and back along the Surfcoast Walking Trail

image

Views along the Surfcoast Walking Track near Torquay

 

a few great ones up at Mount Dandenong on my favorite roller coaster loop

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

and a wonderful adventure down on the Two Bays Trail last Friday.

View from Arthur's Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

View from Arthur’s Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

Which brings you kind of up to date.

And me just one week (gasp!) away from surgery.  Voluntary surgery, no less.

I’ve had this vein-gone-wrong in my left leg (okay, lets call it what it is, a varicose vein) since I was 32.  I remember the day I noticed it.  A lump appeared down low on my thigh.  I was convinced it was cancer.  In complete panic, I called my then-Doctor, got in to see him straight away (these were the days I worked in a suit in Melbourne and went to city doctors!), and found out I wasn’t dying.  That was a great relief.

But to be told I had a varicose vein?  Suddenly, I felt very, very old.  Now, varicose veins are genetic.  I hadn’t somehow caused it by walking or exercising too much, the doctor assured me.  But that didn’t matter.  Old people had varicose veins; therefore, I was old. Old.  At 32, that belief mattered.  It crushed me for a bit.

It took a couple of months, but I got over it.  Decided that as long as I was fully functional, so be it, I had a vein-gone-wonky.  That has worked a treat for the last sixteen years.  But during those many years, the vein grew and grew, became twisted and began to work less and less well.  I started to trip up more often on trail runs, always on that leg.  I got terrible cramps in that calf at night, that would wake me up and keep me up for hours.  And not-so-kind people began to comment (“Oh, look at your leg.  That must hurt.  It looks awful!”), so I started to hide it in long running tights.  I’m not about looks, I’m about performance.  But I’m human too.

Last year, I finally got the guts up to see a Vascular Surgeon, and she suggested all was not well.  And not just visually.  Such a messed up vein could cause blood clots.  And serious bleeding if I cut it (like, perhaps, by tripping over in the middle of a long trail run).  These things were important.  I planned to have surgery the next month, September 2013.  To address this thing once and for all.

Except I didn’t.  There were too many cool races to complete.  There was Marysville and Lorne and Two Bays and the Roller Coaster Run, and the Buffalo Stampede.  North Face too.  I didn’t make all of them due to a knee injury, but I did a lot.  These were followed swiftly by the four races of the Salomon Trail Series.  Where to fit surgery requiring four weeks off running?  I decided quietly in my head that September 2014 would be it.  Just before the whole thing kicked off again, in an endless, thrilling cycle of trail racing.

Just prior to the last race of the Salomon Trail Series (23k down in Anglesea) in September, 2014, I finally called the surgeon.  I wanted surgery right away, I’d decided ages ago, I said (thinking about the 28km Two Bays Trail Race I’d already booked for January, 2015).

“Perhaps you should have told me…” the receptionist/surgery booker replied.  I laughed and admitted I’d been putting it off for rather a long time.  She tried to squeeze me in before the surgeon’s next holiday, which was a week off.  While this did seem a bit risky (perhaps she’d be thinking of margarita’s instead of veins?), I gave the go ahead, but it didn’t work out anyway.

Instead, we arranged for 27 October.  Which seemed ages and ages away at the time.  For the last month, I’ve been kicking up my heels in joy along every trail I’ve run, like I’ve been given an extra month of freedom.

But now here I am, a week away from something I’ve put off for, oh, fourteen years or so.

While I can be courageous when I’m controlling the risks (long trail runs alone but fully prepared), when someone else is in charge my inner wimp climbs right out of the back seat and plonks herself down firmly in the front.  And makes me think about everything that could go wrong.  I’ve Googled all the surgery risks (mistake), examined posts in Forums about surgery gone wrong (bigger mistake), driven my husband nuts talking about the chances of me dying (he’s a very patient man).

Finally, I’ve come to terms with it.  Kind of.

Here’s the good stuff that I’m trying to focus on:  perhaps I’ll trip over less frequently.  My leg won’t be swollen and cramp at night.  I will wear shorts to teach again without feeling self-conscious.  Most importantly, I won’t be worrying about a potential blood clot having some serious impact on my life down the track.  Or bleeding out on a solo trail run (not that I worried much about that, but humor me please).

All that said, please send me some kind thoughts next Monday because I’m sure to be a little bit of a scaredy-mouse come the actual surgery.

The rest of this week holds some terrific training to get me in my final peak shape before Monday, and I’m going to soak up every little bit of it, starting with a couple of hours in the Dandenongs tomorrow.

 

“This could be the end of me,” I said out loud…

I was alone on a high mountain trail, ten kilometers from where I’d parked my car.  Twenty minutes ago, I’d somehow convinced myself that the loud crashing I kept hearing had to do with a mine down in the valley.  That’s what it had to be.  Because if that sound was actually thunder I was going to be in a whole world of trouble, and very soon.

I came to a clearing in the trees and stared, horror-struck, at the dark mass of roiling clouds.  I did some quick calculations, based on where I was standing half-way into the Roller Coaster Run route.  I’d already traversed Golf Course Track, Stables Track, Bills Track, and Edgar Track.  I’d climbed up the steepest traverse in this section, and continued onto Camelia, Link Track, and was halfway along Singleton Terrace.  Turning back wouldn’t help; I was already past the point where that would be of use, and I knew that there were houses coming up which could provide shelter.  But they were a ways away, and the hill was steep.

I stopped for a photo.

The approaching storm

The approaching storm

I was thinking if I got struck by lightning, at least there would be proof that there had been a storm in the photos.  It would help explain things.  Still, I wasn’t really believing the storm was coming at that stage.  I was sure it was going to blow over quickly and I’d be fine.

I continued on.  The rumbling grew louder, startling me with the booms that seemed to echo around the empty trail.  I’d not seen a soul since setting out more than an hour ago.  I thought of Jurassic Park, how they had counted the length of time between thunder booms to see if the storm was moving closer.  I counted as I ran.  I got up to ten, then fifteen.  I was feeling happier, less frightened.  I remembered being out in an adventure race in Hong Kong when a huge lightning storm unexpectedly struck; I had survived that and that was way more exposed, right?

It was then I felt the change in the air, the one that presages rain.  There were stalky plants on the side of the trail, and they looked to me like their leaves were somehow standing on end.  I recalled a story of a father and daughter who narrowly escaped being struck by lightning out on a pier on Port Phillip Bay.  They had taken a funny photo, a selfie, of their hair standing out from their heads.  Then they realized what was about to happen, and ran like hell was on their heels.  Lightning struck that pier moments later.  They survived.

I ran on, up, my breath coming in gasps.  It wasn’t the terrain that was making me breath hard.  It was downright fear.  I stopped counting the thunder.  The rain began suddenly, in large, heavy drops, thudding into me.  I tried to run faster but the hill was too steep.  Still, I believed the storm wasn’t going to be too bad, that it would move quickly, as storms do in Melbourne.  I was surrounded by tall trees so I certainly wasn’t the tallest thing in the landscape and the trail was relatively sheltered.  And there was nothing else I could do.

With growing dread, I noted that the thunder had grown more frequent.  The temperature dropped dramatically.  I rubbed my bare arms and ran.  Lightning flashed in the blackened sky, and I shouted out loud in fear.  I am in so much trouble, I said aloud.  It began to hail.  I tried to recall the best thing to do when caught in a thunderstorm on a heavily wooded mountain but could only come up with keep on running.  Get to shelter if you can.  So I did, I kept running.  Panic is not the right word for what I felt.  Terror.  Certainty that I was in over my head this time, that I couldn’t figure a way out other than keeping going.  I’d messed up and this could be it for me.

I came to the first of the houses on the trail, but dismissed it as too scary to contemplate entering.  I kept running, knowing the trail came to the top of the hill very shortly, and there was a yoga studio I could hide out in up there.  Up and up, breathless, shaking with fear, I ran.  Sometimes I walked, thinking to save my energy in case lightning struck and started a bushfire and I really needed to flee.  The possibility felt very real.  I came to the Old Mountain Road section of track and made my way up as fast as I could.  The rain by now was pelting down, the track running with water.

Finally, I made it to the top.  I looked around, noticed the closed cafe with a sheltered porch and darted across the road.  There, I stood as the rain grew heavier.  I was soaked, wearing just a singlet and running tights, but I wasn’t cold, not yet.  I let my breathing slow, contemplating calling my husband but decided there wasn’t much he could do to help me, so I waited.  Across the next valley, the sky was dark with storm clouds.  I felt alone on top of the world, but safer than out on the trail.  It took about ten minutes for the rain to lessen and the sky to lighten.  I worried I’d grow cold standing around so when the opportunity came, I bolted back for the trail.  The rain stopped and the sky was blue in the distance.

It was hard to believe I’d just survived what felt like a true life-threatening situation.  I was soaked to the skin but not cold, so I continued onto Trig Track, walking, treading carefully on the saturated ground.  I heard a slithery sound in the bush and thought snake but then it was gone.

I hadn’t been running long when I heard the sirens.  I stopped in my tracks and scanned the sky for smoke, sniffed the air.  Nothing.  I feared that lightning had ignited a bushfire nearby, but nothing was noticeable.  Still, I picked up the pace, ran fast along Kyeema Track, not stopping at the usual viewing point.  A ParksVic truck came along towards me, and stopped to let me pass.  I wanted to ask them about the storm and the sirens but the ranger was on his phone and I couldn’t see through to the driver.  Surely they’d stop me if I were in danger.  Then I realized, yet again, that I was the only one out there who could protect me.

I ran on, up, knowing I was only 13k into my planned 21k, ready to bail out if the storm came back.  As if on cue, thunder suddenly boomed and the sky to the right of me was dark again.  Not again, I said to myself.  I had a terrible sinking feeling that I should have stayed put at the top of the mountain.  This time, though, the storm did bypass me.  I made it to Channel 10 Track, and zoomed down the side of the mountain, loving the speed, the feeling of growing safety as I got closer to my car.

By the time I was at the bottom, there was no sign of storm, except for the dampened trail and the intense smell of wet gum trees.  The storm was done.  The sky was blue.

So I decided I had no excuse, I would do the Dodds Track loop as well.  I had had enough of drama, so was not thrilled by the sight of a large wallaby on the edge of the track junction.  Usually, wallabies hopped quickly away and kept a safe distance from me.  This one appeared angry.  It shook its head at my approach, as if saying, no, don’t even think of coming closer.  I stopped.  Perhaps I could take its photo?  I’d never gotten a photo of a wallaby.

The wallaby who said no.

The wallaby who said no.

Really, I was just stalling because that wallaby seemed so angry.  I took the photo, put my phone away, and still, it shook its head at me.  Okay, I said to myself.  I picked up a stick, just in case.  Go away wallaby I said, hop on.  It didn’t move.  I waved my arms a little, go away, please.  It did then, it turned and hopped into the bush.

I continued up the stupidly steep Dodds Track, enjoying that it was a real trail with actual stones and dirt.  It was hard to climb but wonderful in a way.  The storm felt like it had happened in another lifetime by now.

But perhaps I was still spooked by all that had happened at this stage, because as I came to cross Basin-Olinda Road to make my way onto Banksia Track, a blue ute came along the road, and came to a quick stop just a few feet from me.  Bad guy, kidnapper, killer, I thought, and I bolted off the road and down the trail.  I was feeling fast and agile, and my first thought was I could simply run away.  I turned around after a few minutes hard running and of course there was no one there.

But my hackles had risen, and I ran the last few kilometers fast.  When I finally exited the trail on Doongalla Road, it was with a feeling of immense relief.  I had run the Roller Coaster Run course, which was my immediate goal one week out from the actual race.  And I had survived the massive thunderstorm, strangely savage wallaby, and the bad guy in the blue ute.

Now I just have to survive the clowns on race day, and all will be well.

By the way, the sirens I heard were for a fire that was started by a lightning strike in Healesville, some kilometers away, but I’m guessing sparked by the same storm.

Here’s wishing us all a less eventful day for the actual Roller Coaster Run!

Trail markings up for the Roller Coaster Run

Trail markings up for the Roller Coaster Run

Three great things…

The sun is shining outside in the true Melbourne autumn way.  That means blue skies, perfect temperatures and a light breeze off the bay.  It is the sort of day that recharges everything, and I’m feeling content right now.  So I thought I’d share a few of the beautiful moments that life has created for me recently…

– Just now, I took our lovely Leila (our four-month old rescue Labrador) for a walk around the block.  She was a bit tired from a great play at the beach this morning, where she had her first real socializing with other dogs.  Around the block, for the first time, she walked next to me on a loose lease, stopping to sniff now and then, not pulling, not dragging me behind her. It was such a contrast to our drag-and-tow walk on Sunday, from which my hands are still healing.  It was a magical twenty minutes with my first ever dog, and as I type this, she wanders in, contentedly licks my hand, and wanders out again.

Lovely Leila

Lovely Leila

– On Friday last week, I took a friend for a run in Sherbrooke Forest.  That sounds simple enough, but for me it was an epic journey.  I didn’t want to admit it to her, but I’d never driven to Belgrave alone, and was terrified.  Even finding the train station to pick her up was a big deal, as I was navigating alone and the signs were not good.

But I found her, drove her up the long, scary, single lane road, and found my way to Grant’s Picnic Area.  I’d been wanting to drive here for a year, but chickened out each time, going back to Mount Dandenong because I knew the way.  I led her on a 7.5k loop through tall gum trees, pointing out Lyrebirds and Kookaburras, Wallabies, Rosellas and Magpies.  Afterwards I drove us to Olinda for lunch down small roads I had never traveled.

The drive home took us down a twisty, turny, single-lane road.  If I’d been alone, I probably would have pulled over to still my shaking hands, but with her, I kept going, and drove us the hour home, finding the way without help.

Stepping beyond my comfort zones is never, well, comfortable, but once my territory is expanded, I have found it never shrinks back to the same size again.  So I’m grateful to her in so many ways, because now Sherbrooke Forest is mine too.  I know I can drive there without such great fear, and this opens the door.

Photo

Me running downhill in Sherbrooke Forest

– The same friend, it turned out, is an accomplished pianist.  She came home with me, and I asked her to show me something on the piece that had stalled me in my forward progress.  She pointed out that “both hands played in the Bass Clef”, and I knew just what she meant, and suddenly the mystery became clear and I could play the piece and move forward again.  I’ve only been playing for three months, teaching myself from children’s books, so each step forward is a small miracle.

– Yesterday, I went to train in the free weights area at the gym.  These two gigantic young men were training there too.  Next to them, someone had set up the squat rack with 60 kg of plates.  I asked them if they were using it.  They said no, but would not meet my eye, and I felt suddenly invisible.  One of them pointed out to me that there was a water bottle near the rack, so someone must be using it.  Go away, he was saying, some big guy like me is using that squat rack.  You’re too old and female to work out here next to us big blokes.  I looked around the room.  There was one elderly gentlemen, the two men I had spoken to, and one woman with a trainer.  No one was using that squat rack, and so I proceeded to unload it and use it, while the two muscle-men alternated between pretending I didn’t exist, and scowling at me.  No one came back to the rack, and I felt, somehow, that I had forced a space for us women in the free weights area that had not been there before I arrived.  Later, one of the men came and asked me to use a grip on a machine I’d just finished with.  This time, he met my eye, and I was no longer invisible.

So, three great things.  On this glorious blue-sky day, the world is seeming a whole lot brighter than it did a few weeks ago.

Oh, and the Roller Coaster Run is about ten days away.  I’ve dropped back to the 21km option, and I’m thrilled I’m going to get to do this wonderful race that had seemed out of reach when I was injured back in January.

Wishing you a day of blue skies and sunshine…

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

Golden wattle, a nervous heart, and 18km.

“You could always go on Tuesday,” my husband said.  I’d skipped Friday because my ankle wasn’t ready for real trails, we were away for the weekend, and I’d planned this 18km run for Monday morning.  But I was feeling nervous.  It was more than nervous.  It was a crisis of confidence.

Over the last five years, I’d run so many trails injury-free.  I’d somehow forgotten that I could get injured, that I could sprain ankles.  Because I’d gone all minimalist, I’d somehow thought I was invincible.  When it turned out I wasn’t, it came as a shock.  I’d spent the last three weeks rebuilding the tendons and muscles, but I hadn’t yet recovered my confidence.  All I kept thinking about was what I would do if I turned an ankle all alone, out in the middle of nowhere.  This hadn’t even occurred to me before – I’d been too busy being scared of bad guys and figuring out how I’d evade them to think about hurting myself.

But this worry – this lack of confidence in my ability –  it was really why I was questioning when to run in the Dandenongs again, and whether I should be doing the next race in the Salomon Trail Series in five days time.  Although last week I’d covered 26km, half of my usual training distance, and held up okay (with the help of a few Voltarin!), that was all in Bayside, and close to home.

This mountain run had me nervous.  I’d planned on heading out to the race course at Silvan on Friday, but couldn’t find a friend able to join me, and didn’t like the idea of navigating a new course alone with a partially healed ankle.  So I didn’t go.

Now, Monday morning had come, and I still hadn’t decided what to do.  Instead of contemplating it more, I just filled up my Salomon water reservoir, added a few gels and salt tablets, and tucked in the well-worn map of the trails around Mount Dandenong.  I didn’t need a map; I’d run these trails so often, I knew the way by heart.  I also knew that, although Tuesday was a possibility, if I didn’t go today, it was because I was scared, and that fear would only grow.  Soon, I would be a prisoner again, afraid to run alone when and where I wanted to.

Usually I enjoy the hour’s drive to get to the trail head.  Today, I didn’t.  I was nervous, my ankle hurting as I drove, and I was questioning the wisdom of what I was doing.  On the radio, the weatherman said:  “We’re expected snow today at elevations above 500 metres, at places like Mount Dandenong.”  He said it like it was of little consequence, just a tasty tidbit of news.  Snow.  I’d never run trails in snow.  I gripped the steering wheel a little tighter.

But the closer I got, the more my return to Mount Dandenong felt like a homecoming.  There was the mountain, the gum trees, the horses that grazed near where I parked.  I knew these roads, I knew these woods.

When I got out of the car, the air had a distinct bite.  I decided to run in my running gloves and thermal top, knowing I’d be slower than usual.  There was no other car, no other person, not even a dog barking.  The only sound was the wind, and the call of the sulfur-crested cockatoos.  I’d been hungering for solitude; it was perfect.

I set off gingerly on the tiny trail leading to the entrance to the woods, worried even there, where I never ever worried.  My ankle held out.  I continued on.

I’d like to tell you it was a luxuriant run back to freedom, but that would not be true.  I was fully conscious every step of how risky this was.  If my ankle turned, it would be a long way back to my car, up to ten kilometres away at the furthest point.  I went slowly.  Each rock, each tree root, each washed-out area of track kept my full attention.  I saw no one, not a single person, for more than an hour.  Then, out of nowhere a man appeared, the kind I fear most, a single man without a dog or a friend, coming towards me on a narrow trail.  And me, not fully able to run away.  I had a moment of panic, a “what should I do?”, and then slowed my pace and gave him a good looking over.  He looked normal enough and was wearing hiking boots.  I decided if he was a bad guy, I’d have to dart out of his way as we passed each other, and race away uphill.  As it turned out, he simply said, “good morning” and I said it back, and we passed each other.  I looked back once, but he was gone.  Phew.

By then I was ten kilometres in.  I coached myself to stay conscious, to watch my footing, but then the sun came out from behind a cloud and bathed me for a few minutes in warm, golden light, and I forgot to be nervous. Water was running down in sections, and the air smelled of spring, and the idea of snow suddenly seemed laughable.  It was then I noticed the golden wattle glowing amidst the olive and brown of the gum trees, and smiled when I realised I had made it to a new season, an unseen season, for me, in the Dandenongs.  It was golden wattle season, and I hadn’t missed it.  I stopped for a photo.

Photo: Golden wattle at Mount Dandenong this morning. Delighted to have managed a slow, stable 18km. Like coming home again. Snow was in the forecast for Mount Dandenong - unbelievable!

Golden wattle at Mount Dandenong this morning.

Soon I came to what I had been fearing most.  Trig Track is a narrow single track, studded with rocks and tree roots.  It is cambered in the exact wrong direction for my sprained ankle, and was the hardest section of the run.  I mainly hiked it, cautiously testing each step before committing.  From there, trail works had seen the steepest of uphills lined with slippery gravel, and it was nearly my undoing, as my feet slid out from under me several times.

But I had made it to the summit.  God, it was cold.  At some point, I’d stripped off my gloves and thermal top, and was now just in a long-sleeved running shirt.  I didn’t want to stop to put them back on.  I told the mountain that, if it was going to snow, now would be the time.  I willed that snow.  But it didn’t come.

All that came was a furious, biting wind that mocked my thoughts of spring, and along the trail, several felled trees and large branches that made me think the time had come for a bit of speed.  My ankle felt good, and my confidence was growing.  Still, I increased only a bit, recalling that my accidents tend to happen when the terrain has grown easier.  I wouldn’t be lulled.

Down, down, down I ran, past the burned-out trees from last summer’s planned burn, beyond the spot I stared into a wallaby’s eyes a few months ago, beyond the bare trees that had glowed red and golden in the autumn.  Camellias were in bloom at the old abandoned homestead, and a few trees nearby still held their autumn leaves.  Before I knew it, I was on the last single track towards my car.  Only one fallen tree along there, plus lots of deadly roots and rocks, but I had begun dancing around them like I used to.

After a little more than two hours, I made it safely back to my car.  Eighteen kilometers just one valley over from where Sunday’s race will be run.

But this is not about that race.  This is about celebrating the tiny bit of confidence that I grew back today.  It was a hard eighteen kilometres, the hardest I have run in a long time.  Every one of those kilometres will remain long in my memory as a time of healing, at this strange intersection between winter and spring.