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.

IMG_5649

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.

IMG_5640IMG_5641

IMG_5642

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.

IMG_5650

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?

IMG_5660

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.

19399747_10155094467052107_8031887932975577015_n

“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.

IMG_5659

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!

 

img_5666-1.jpg

Where the wild things ran…

 

Ready to ride the 21k Roller Coaster Run?

Planning the year.  What a great idea.  Not being swayed by social media and offers of reduced entry fees for Early Bird registration.  Creating a periodised training plan with only one or two peak races.

Did I mention planning the year?

Such good advice.  I read it last week in an expert coach’s approach to his clients’ race plans.

If only I’d read it six months earlier.

It’s been six weeks since the 28k Two Bays Trail Run.  And this Saturday is the 21k Roller Coaster Run (RCR).  Planning?  Not so much.  My only justification is that the RCR was traditionally in late March, so I assumed I’d have enough time between events when I jumped on board the Fairy Floss Special price six or eight months ago.

Only this year, the RCR is hot on the heels of Two Bays, which was already uncomfortably close to the Marysville Half-Marathon in November 2015.  Within four months, I’m doing three half-marathons.

Is it any wonder I’m a little tired?

However, I’ve been very careful in the last six weeks to adequately recover from Two Bays, as well as train enough for RCR.  Given the base I’d built, I only took one real recovery week with a 12k long run, then went back to a 20k long run, followed in the next two weeks by 18, and 21.5 (the full Roller Coaster Course) two weeks ago.  I’ve kept the total km’s per week at between 35 and 40, supplementing running with two 2k swims each week, and teaching three Bodypump classes per week as well.  All in all, I’ve held up ok.  My feet have been sore, but they’ve been sore for more than a year.  And I’ve been a little tired.

I’m feeling quietly confident for this RCR, given I’ve completed the whole course many times over.  Yes, it is steep, hard, unforgiving.  Yes, I’m going to take the downhills slowly, as I always do, and push hard on the uphills.  Without much flat terrain to worry about, my pace won’t be fast, but that’s okay.  This is my first race in the 50-59 age category.  I’m not worried about pace – I want to complete this event injury-free and elated.

This is, after all, more than a race for me.  Over the last few years, Mount Dandenong has become my soul-place.  I used to pine for the woods, saying each weekend, “I wish I could go to the Dandenongs.”

I had young children and a husband who could not hike.  I was afraid it wouldn’t be safe alone.  But I finally opened up that door, with the help of some trail running friends, who showed me the trails, which I eventually got courageous enough to run alone.

I drive up alone, often after school drop-off or late in the day on a weekend. The drive takes an hour, and is one of the few hours of solitude I have in my busy family life.  After not driving for six years in Hong Kong, that drive gave me back my driving confidence, and opened many other roads to me.

I often run just the top loop of the Roller Coaster Run.  My companions are the wallabies, the sulphur-crested cockatoos, and Fern Trees.  Once in a while, I see echidnas.  Sometimes people out riding horses or hiking, but not very often.  More often, there are brilliant orange butterflies or blue and red Rosellas.  Kookaburras laugh at me.  I sweat my way uphill, and fly on the downhills.

IMG_3103

A friend on the trail

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

IMG_3143.JPG

Tree ferns in dappled sun

I have spent solitary hours here singing in joy, and others howling in despair, when life has seemed to much to bear.  This mountain has sheltered me under its blanket of fog, and warmed me with the winter sunrise.  I have been scared senseless by the boom of its thunderstorms, lost on its flanks, and challenged to keep going when I wanted, more than anything, to stop.

I am a little lost for words, trying to say what the Roller Coaster Run itself means to me.  I suppose it is but one chapter in my long relationship with this mountain, and will be one of the few occasions I push myself to run fast here.  It is also one of the few times the mountain is peopled with friends, with laughter, with adrenalin.  The contrast is always a surprise.

Then there is the matter of my goals for the rest of 2016.  I want pain-free running.  Speed. Power. Agility.  After this race, I’m re-jigging my training to get all this back.  I’m not succumbing to any offers of cheap early-bird entries for several months, at least.  I’m heading back into the gym to lift big heavy things, and do some plyometrics.

But this weekend, I intend to fly.

And to feel this happy at the finish line…

IMG_3122

Leila enjoying a roll…

 

“For one white singing hour of joy… (the Marysville Marathon Festival)

I’m running down the wide gravel bike trail, feeling nearly airborne.  It’s been years since I’ve run this fast, years since it hasn’t hurt.  Flying, I pass the runners who left me behind on the steep uphill, as well as the ones who blew by me on the rough downhill.  I don’t mean to pass them.  I’m simply running free for the first time in two years.

Still, we’re only four kilometers into the 21k Marysville Half-Marathon, and I think to check my pace.  I gasp: I’m running a 4:10 kilometer!  My training pace varies from 5:30 for my fast intervals, to 8:30 on the steep hills.  What in God’s name am I doing, running this fast!  I tell myself to slow down, to conserve my energy for the many kilometers to come.

But I don’t; not right away.

I continue to run just as fast as I can because it feels so tremendously – so life-affirmingly – good.

There’s a lot of water under this bridge.

I’m 49 years old.  At the top end of my 40-49 year age category.  I began this category Adventure Racing in Hong Kong, a lifetime ago.  Now, nearly ten years later, I’m back in Australia, and my passion is trail running.  It’s been good to me.

But since 2013, since my last Marysville Marathon Festival, in fact, I’ve been injured in various ways.  I hurt my knee the week after the marathon, then my ankle, then my foot.  I had a bit of surgery to remove a dodgy vein in the middle of all that, and thought I thought all had healed, it hadn’t.  I ended up with a severe case of Plantar Faschiitis, and a damaged Posterior Tibialis.

After doing the 2015 Roller Coaster 21k Run in March, I took a break.  Though I completed that race, I did it the hard way, in pain most of the way, and just dragging myself over the finish line.

Since, I’ve cross-trained, rehab-ed, grown stronger, and hopefully grown smarter.  And I’d set my sights on Marysville for my comeback run.  On the way, I had the joy of the Salomon Trail Series in the middle of the season, where I did a 5k as well as a 15k race, loving both, feeling my strength and speed return.

Marysville though, felt elusive.  Things kept hurting as I went longer, until about two weeks before the race.  Then, during a 20k solo training run in the Dandenongs, I felt it all come together.  My gluts woke up (ha, funny the way runners talk!), and I found myself running with much shorter, faster, powerful strides.

But in the clever way I have of adding a stir to the pot just when it is setting and cooking nicely, I decided to bring home a new puppy three weeks before Marysville.  So what, I hear you say.  What does a puppy have to do with a half-marathon?

Well, here’s the thing.  If you read my last blog, you know that I wasn’t afraid of running this time.  I was afraid of driving!  (See https://patriciaabowmer.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/the-long-road-to-marysville-half-marathon-2015/

The puppy meant my husband and children weren’t coming; he wasn’t driving.  I was.

Turns out my fear of the drive was well-founded.  I missed the first major turn off of East-Link and drove through a strange, long tunnel I didn’t even know existed, practically crying, as I thought I’d never find my way back.  I talked to myself aloud all the way through that tunnel, telling myself it would be ok, I’d find my way back, and I did.

The trip to Marysville, though,  involves a two-hour drive for me, with the last 15k of that on a single-lane twisty-turny terrifying mountain road.  That was the bit I was most worried about.  I did ok.  But still, cars backed up behind me, tailgating, forcing me faster than my confidence allowed, and I was often too scared to even pull over to let them pass.  When I did, I would count one, two, three, maybe ten cars go by, and then I’d pull back on the road to drive alone for a while.  But I made it there, with white hands from gripping the steering wheel so tightly!

Image result for black spur

Black Spur, image from mapio.cz as I couldn’t possibly take a photo on this road!

The actual race I remember in the moments.

The flying downhill at the bike trail; Red Hill being just as horrible and painful as I remembered from the Marathon in 2013; passing and being passed by the same three or four people again and again.

There was the mean woman, who when I politely asked to pass, snarled at me and said, “Sure, you can pass”, saying clearly, “if you are able to” and being unwilling to let me by on the rough single track where passing without her stepping slightly aside was impossible.  That saddened me; that doesn’t tend to happen in these friendly country races, that degree of nasty competitiveness.  We all want to run our own pace; I always let people by, stepping to the side, knowing the joy in moving at one’s own best on whatever terrain we can.

Forget her, though.

There was the delight of children cheering me through by the oval, and my ability to run up the steep road (short stride, gluts firing, power in me I’d forgotten), and the utter joy when we turned off into the woods, unlike the first year I’d run here, when we ran all the way up the road to the falls.

Coming back on the road, steep uphill, fighting to keep running, being told how well I was doing by others, pushing and pushing, knowing the top was coming soon, then the turn-off to the waterfall, stopping a moment to gaze at the water flowing, to say a quiet, I love you to the waterfall, because I was just so thrilled to have made it there.

Steavenson Falls close-up

Steavenson Falls close-up from my 2013 race

And then…

The last 3k to the finish line.  The downhill gravel track, where two years ago, my feet were hurting so badly I could barely run, where I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Today…God, today.  My white singing hour of joy.  I flew down that trail.  My feet found their way.  Nothing hurt.  Not my knee or my foot or my ankle.  I had plenty left in the tank.  I felt unstoppable and alive and young and free.

There was a final stretch through the woods.  After being surrounded by so many people as the different race distances had converged, I was surprised to find myself alone, with perhaps one kilometer to go.  I could hear the crowd at the finish, cheers and cowbells and music, but I was utterly alone in the green of the trees.  I began to sing,  Bon Jovi, of course, “I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, I am a rock, not another grain of sand, wanna be the one you run to when you need a shoulder, I ain’t a soldier but I’m here to take a stand, because we can…”

That’s how good I felt.

Right before the finish, I saw the girl in pink shorts in front of me; we had passed each other a hundred times during the race.  I suddenly wanted to catch her.  So I bolted.  I passed her, and it took me a little while to realise that this wasn’t the finish line.  I had to keep right on bolting for the full 3/4 lap around the oval and I don’t even now know where the finish line was!  I do believe I stayed in front, though I can’t be sure.

All I know is I found my one white singing hour of joy.  My moments of delight that come from dancing in this glorious body, fully well, feeling courageous and full of light.

By the way, the poem I began this blog with is called Barter, by  Sara Teasdale.  I memorised it in college when I was 21, and often recite it to myself when I run.  Funny thing though – I was looking up the original poem for this blog, and realised I’d altered some words in my memory.  She says, “one white singing hour of peace”.  I say joy.

I utterly love the last two lines:

“For a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been, or could be.”

Thank you, Marysville, for my breath of ecstasy.

 

Here’s the full poem:

Barter

Sara Teasdale, 18841933

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And childrens’s faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.


This poem is in the public domain.

The long road to Marysville Half-Marathon 2015

Screw your courage to the sticking place.

That’s what I’m telling myself a few days before the Marysville Half-Marathon.  And oddly, it’s not even the running that has me scared.

It’s the two-hour solo drive.

I wish I could be one of those fearless people who just do things.  Like drive solo to a trail race without terror.  But I’m not from around these parts.  I’m from New York.  Place names and road names don’t mean as much and navigating alone to a new place is hard for me.

But so what?

I’ve been aiming at this race ever since the Roller Coaster Run Half-Marathon back in March.  Back then, I was running with a bad case of heel and calf pain, and right afterwards, I commenced a six-week break from running.  The plan was to cross-train and get strong again, in all the ways I had lost over my last two years of long-distance running.

A very gradual build from a 3k walk/run in late April has finally got me to the 20k mark, and relatively healthy.  My heel still hurts now and again, but the strength has returned to my gluts so I can power up hills in a brand-new way.  I managed my favorite run at Mount Dandenong two weeks ago, for 20k in 2:47 (heaps of elevation, though I was consciously going slow, I say defensively).  So I’m ready.

But always, at the back of my mind, there are these niggling doubts. Which hydration device to use?  Will there be snakes around and will I step on one?  Is Red Hill as bad as I remember from the Marathon a few years ago?  Will the roads be twisty and windy and scary to nagivate?  Will the cars back up behind me and beep and force me to go faster than I want?  Was substituting two swims a week for two runs a good cross-training plan or utter stupidity? Blah, blah, blah.

Usually, my family would go with me to Marysville.  My husband would drive, and I’d relax and nagivate.  This year, we’ve added a ten-week old Cavoodle to our home, an adorable puppy named Billy (a Cavoodle is a poodle and King Charles Cavalier cross – he looks like a tiny black teddy bear with sharp teeth but he thinks he is a Labrador-Kelpie because that’s what his sister is). He was going to the source of a blog called “The Stupidest Thing I’ve ever done: Part 2” but I’ve been too busy cleaning up after him, and laughing at the antics of the two dogs playing to write.

Anyway, strangely, my husband doesn’t fancy shepherding the two kids and two dogs around Marysville while I gallivant in the woods for a few hours. Go figure.

So I’m on my own (except for all the cool trail running friends I can’t wait to see!).

Trouble is, those cool friends won’t be in my car with me to tell me where to turn.  And where not to. So I’m going to have to harden up and do this on my own.

Screw my courage to the sticking place.  That quote is from Lady Macbeth, according to my Google search.  If I recall my Shakespeare from college correctly, that story didn’t turn out so well .

Perhaps I’ll think of this other old favorite from Mark Twain, that I’ve borrowed from http://www.quotegarden.com

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.  Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.  ~Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, 1894

Please be kind if you see me on the road (I’ll be the one backing up traffic), and know I’m summoning up all my courage to get to the start line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reassuring lights of registration

Reassuring lights of registration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the start

Before the start

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The elusive medal!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

28km and 43km races: oh my

two bays                       header

Dandenong Ranges 21 (Photo credit: Abeeeer)

Well, I’ve gone and done it.  Even after downloading the rather terrifying Two Bays Trail Race training plan for the 28 km race, studying it carefully, pulling out my calculator and scratching my head.  Though the training numbers don’t quite line up with what I am doing, judging by the times of women runners last year, I’ll complete the 28km option in a time I’m sure I can handle.  Because I’ve been on the go for five hours in adventure races, gone hard-core flat-out in trail races for 2 1/2 hours at a time (and those involved climbing up waterfalls!).

But the scarier one, that one I can’t even contemplate yet, is the 43km Roller Coaster Run in March in the Dandenongs.

Dandenong Ranges 21

That one, I’m not going to think about.  I’m just going to gradually, subtly, sneakily, keep trying to trick my body into thinking these insane distances really are not so far.

There is so much to learn between now and then that my head is spinning.  But by God it is wonderful to have a big, far, gnarly goal to gnaw away at again.  It makes the everyday, mundane stuff of life bearable (oh, there’s another school lunch box to wash, that’s ok…).

Strangely, two years ago, I was awaiting a specialist to discuss hip surgery for a torn labrum in my hip.  Because the doctor’s appointment took six months to arrange, I bought some Teva Five Fingers and tried to fix the problem myself.  It worked!  It was like discovering gold.  Because I could run further without hurting, I ran further.  And further.  Until suddenly I had completed two half-marathons.  Until the boundaries of what I am capable of had expanded.  Until I no longer recognised myself in the mirror.

So.  The gauntlet is thrown down again.  I suppose I should be grateful that the North Face 100 is not accepting people into its 50km race option yet.  Because that’s the one my heart is set on.  First, I’ve got to convince my body that we can do this.

January 13th, 2013.  The Two Bays Trail Run from Dromana to Cape Schanck.  28km.  Oh my…

How many kilometers per week do you think I’ve got to run to be able to do this?

Of waterfalls, trails, and water reservoirs: the Marysville Half-Marathon

hydration reservoir

hydration reservoir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Big Decision on the hot spring day at the start of the Marysville Half-Marathon: should I, or should I not, carry my water reservoir.

This is a half-marathon in the hills, a distance I’d only accomplished once, where the water reservoir was a mandatory piece of gear.  This puzzled me: the other course was the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon, where I first ran 21.1 km.  It was much more simple, and less risky, than the one I’d tackle today.

The Surfcoast was on the beach from Anglesea to Torquay, 21km straight out, with no real way to get lost, as long as you kept the sea on your right.  Marysville was 21km of twisty, turny trails, darting back and forth, and up and down.  It was also the site of the terrible Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and the images of that day have never left my mind.  When I race, I do so fully prepared, with all the gear I’ll need.  Seemed to me a mobile phone, space blanket, and $50 were a good idea, plus at least 1 litre of water.  What if I got lost?  What if there were another fire?  What if…well, you see the fear.

Trouble was, looking around, most of the other 250 runners didn’t seem to agree.  There were aid stations every 3km and few others were carrying water reservoirs.  I took the pack on and off, toyed with handing it off to my husband, but in the end, the conservative part of me won out.  I kept it on.

The race began with a start between two pink tractors – there must have been some symbolism there, but I didn’t know it.  In any case, we bolted away fast, and my pack felt heavy, along with the trail shoes I’d not been running in.  In my quest to go minimalist, I’ve been swapping low-slung Asics with Teva Five Fingers for most of my runs; my Salomon’s haven’t seen the light of day since September.  But neither of my current shoes had enough grip for this course, so I put the Salomon’s on.  Almost immediately, my hips started hurting.  I felt like I had two blocks of concrete on my feet.  But we were off.

We began so fast. My second kilometre clocked in at 4:32, way faster than I should have been running.  But it was fun to run fast, and somehow I’d placed myself at the front of the pack, lost in conversation with Ben right before the start.  So that pace, the pace of those around me, seemed like it should be right.

It was about that time I felt something dripping down my leg.  Hmm, sweat?  I reached around and touched the back of my shirt – it was ice-cold, and water was dripping onto my hand.  My hydration pack had sprung a leak – a big leak!  From 4km to 10km, all I could think of was the cold water soaking through my running tights, my shirt.  A fellow runner pointed it out to me – “You have a HUGE hole in your pack,” he said, “And you dropped this.”  He handed me the gel that had fallen out, and I smiled sheepishly.  “Thanks!  Yep, it is keeping me cool,” I replied.  Luckily it was a hot day, so all that cold water wasn’t too bad.  And I knew at 10km we were running back to the race start, where my family would be waiting to cheer me on, and I could ditch the pack.  I counted each minute.  When my kids came into sight, I shouted to the tiny figure of my daughter in purple, threw her the broken pack and said a silent cheer.  I felt so much lighter!

But the big hill was coming, the one I’d only seen on the elevation profile on a Garmin map.  This was the one I was worried about, having not trained many hills in the last six weeks.  It went from about 10 – 14.5 km.  What I didn’t know was it was on a road.  That road, steep uphill in the hot sun, transported me back to Hong Kong, to the Morning Trail, the steepest of steep hills, that I used to run up weekly.  The thing was, this was easier than that; it was certainly easier than Old Peak Road.  And I was lighter without my pack.  I ran up, passing people, cheering inside, making friends with Stuart, who had warned me about my pack, and was then puzzled to see me without it, who declared he’d still be doing this when he was 85, old and wrinkly.  “Me too, I’ll see you here,” I said.  When we got near the top of that hill, we saw the falls.  Stevenson’s Falls, Marysville.

I knew we were going to see waterfalls, but this was one I’d not expected, out on this dry, hot, sunny day.  We ran out onto a lookout, I stared for a moment, feeling blessed, then raced away.  We ran down the same bitumen road for a short while, then we turned right and blazed down a steep, gravelly downhill track.  My legs turned over faster than I knew they could.  The trail was punctuated at intervals by tiny speedbumps, designed to slow the flow of water, I suppose.  I landed on these, flew off the top of them.

But something was going wrong.  Badly wrong.  I’d grabbed a drink from the aid station at the top of the hill.  It was not water; not Gatorade; it was something sweet and sticky and liquid that did not quench my thirst.  And my left calf had begun to cramp.  The next aid station was 3km away, I’d already had one Powergel, and the last thing I wanted was more salt.  But it was all I had, so I downed a second gel, hoping that it would ease the calf.  We were at 16km by then, and I knew if I just held off the cramp I would make it.  Thankfully, it worked, and I reached the next aid station, downed a full cup of water, and flew away down the rest of the trails.  On one of the last legs, I was feeling sorry for other runners who were only heading up the hill; they still had so far to go.  Turned out it was my mistake, as they were the ones who were nearly done, and I would end up turning around at the end of that Yellow Dog Road, and following in their footsteps.  My consolation was that there were still other half-marathon runners following in my footsteps!

From there, it was a downhill track through tree ferns, fast running with small bits of technical challenge, and the calf that still threatened to cramp.  By 20km, I could hear cheering, and in moments, came back to the familiar track we had begun upon.  We were to finish with a final lap of the grassy oval.  As soon as I hit the grass, my calf spasmed but it loosened after a few steps.  I was passed by a few runners, something I’d usually not allow without a fight, especially because they were women, but I didn’t race, conscious that my body had had enough today.  When one of the race volunteers shouted “You’re near the finish, SPRINT!” I simply smiled and kept the same steady pace.

Once through the finish gates, I pressed my watch to stop the timer.  And saw that I had blown away my personal best for this distance — by sixteen minutes!  No wonder it had felt so tough!

Afterwards, I gazed around at the fire-damaged trees that were returning to life, the vacant places where homes and shops once stood.  The amount of green, growing life surprised me.  Life returns after great damage.  Marysville, you are still beautiful.

Celebrating with Team Inspiration afterwards, we reflect on how far we’ve come since we met in August.  Twenty-one kilometres was a goal we could barely imagine back then.  Now we are wanting to do it faster.  And setting our sights on our first 50km ultramarathon.

Photo: Four members of Team Inspiration who completed the Marysville Half-marathon (Scott, Me, and Ben), and Claire who did the 10km. Congrats guys, enjoy the feeling!

Four members of Team Inspiration: Scott, me, Claire, and Ben

But first, I will throw out the broken water reservoir, and retire my stabilizing shoes.  And then, I’ll truly be able to fly.