The Trail Running Series Race 5: we run the night

It was fully dark on a moonless night.  We were running on a narrow single-track in a long, thin line, the only light from our small head torches.  Suddenly, there was a bottle-neck.  I shouted to the runners behind to warn them to slow, thinking we were backing up around some technical terrain.  The next moment, shock hit me in the gut:  it wasn’t just a bottle-neck.  It was three or four men climbing up the steep bank from the river, arms linked, helping a woman who must have fallen over the edge.

I slid to a stop.  One of the man’s hands grasped at loose weeds on the edge of the trail.  I reached down and grabbed his wrist, leaning back, giving him leverage.  Another couple of runners joined in or waited around, I’m not sure which, as I was fully focused on helping the group get the woman back on solid ground.  Once, there, she sat on the edge of the trail, obviously shaken.  The group of us crowded around, asking inane questions, are you ok, can I help, can I make a call, to all of which she shook her head.  I waited a few more moments while a couple of the helpers settled her, then decided I was extraneous.  The pack of us ran on.  Phew.  That was a close call.

I was glad the woman who had remained with her had a phone; I had brought nothing with me on this night run, not even my usual crepe bandages, so I couldn’t be much use.  The group of us runners who had helped her up were unsettled.  We spoke over our shoulders in the dark as we ran, hoping she was ok. As we moved, I watched the footing carefully, and I noted aloud each time the trail seemed to drop away to the hungry river below.  Others shouted “tree root” or “look out overhead if you’re tall”.

We ran on.  The adventure continued.

It was the middle of the final race of The Trail Running Series, race 5 of 5, a 10.8 km odyssey along the banks of the Yarra River in the dark.  We had set off on this medium course event (there was a short and a longer course as well) just after eight pm.  Though I’d run this event last year, this year was different: this year, for me, was about speed.

After the starting countdown ended, I bolted.  I know my strengths and I know this course well.  We had about five-hundred meters of bitumen before the real trail began, and I wanted to get out in front.  I was mindful of my calf, which had been injured a few weeks ago, and cautious of the other runners around me, but I kept my foot down on the pace until the left turn onto trail.

The darkness engulfed us as bitumen became dirt.  The narrow beams of our head torches bobbed up and down, illuminating the rough trail, which was embedded with small rocks at random intervals.  Without caution, even the best runner would trip and sprain an ankle.

Soon we made our way back to the paved path over the highway on the Eastern Freeway Bridge.  I wondered what the rush-hour motorists made of our head-torches bobbing along above them, and was elated to be one of the runners and not one of the drivers.

We ran back to trail, to a loop before crossing under the freeway, but that’s a blur – I was running as fast as I possibly could, but trying to avoid obstacles with care, letting people pass me who were more confident, then bolting around them again when the path smoothed out, playing leap-frog.

Unlike most races, I couldn’t check my watch for pace or distance – taking my eyes off the trail for even a moment was impossible, so I ran blind, pacing by feel.  It felt old-school, like how I used to run in the days before GPS watches.

One of my friends was running nearby as we crossed under the bridge, and I worried for her pace, knowing the rocks and holes that hid in this section.  She tripped, righted herself, then disappeared into the dark – she is FAST!

trailrun17-5_00230

Under the freeway!

Before long we began to climb the steps to the pipe bridge near Fairfield Boathouse.  After my Wonderland Run in August, up is easy, so I took the steps two at a time, eased my way uphill onto the bridge, and took off.  The flat pipe bridge made for a fast pace, the metal thudding under my trail shoes.  I had open track in front of me for the first time, and I made the most of it, pushing hard until the water station at 4.5km, where I gulped a cup of water down, and raced off.

The next section I knew was tough.  Technical, rocky, single-track that wound it’s way along just above the river.  In the daylight, it’s obvious how dangerous a stumble would be – you’d simply slide downhill through the rough trees and bushes to the river. It’s that steep.  At night, you can’t see this, so you don’t even really know it’s there.  Unless you stop and turn your head torch to look, but no one could do that without falling.  I kept my eyes forward and dodged the rocks.

It was on this section that we came across the woman who’d fallen down to the river, which inspired greater caution in many of the runners who’d witnessed it.  I kept thinking of  her as I ran.

Still, many runners passed me on this section.  I let it happen.  I’m competitive but I know my strengths.  I make way.  Trail runners are usually a polite bunch, and it all worked well.  Still, I knew that there was a road section coming; in fact, I was counting on it.  There’s this song on the radio at the moment – maybe you know it – it’s got a sassy bit of attitude: “Baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry“.  I can’t get it out of my head, especially when I run.

When we finally got to the bitumen section, I could see the ten or so runners I had made way for running along in a glowing come-hither kind of line.  I began to pick them off, one by one.

When this wasn’t good enough, I moved off the sidewalk and onto the road, and ran as fast as I dared, passing three or four at a fast clip, then a few more, and a few more still, until I riskily leapt my way back onto the footpath with a jump that could’ve taken me out but didn’t.  I sang the song running through my head (baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry…) as I passed each runner.  A runner’s giggle, I knew; they’d take back the terrain on the next rough section, but I enjoyed those moments.

We soon descended back onto real trail.

Back to full darkness.  I became leader of a group of four or five runners who didn’t want to pass me.  We warned each other about hazards, chatting breathlessly.  It was difficult being in the lead.  I had to keep my eyes focused on the trail to not trip, while quickly scanning for ribbons and arrows to make sure we stayed on course.  I didn’t want to lead the group of us the wrong way and felt the weight of this responsibility even as I ran my heart out.

trailrun17-5_01214

Leading a group of runners home

My watch beeped but I had no idea how many kilometres we’d run.  I knew from the course we were close to the finish so kept pushing the pace, coaching myself not to get overconfident.  Cameras flashed, race photographers surprising candid expressions from all of us.

Then I could hear the sound of music and cheering and saw the cones and grass that led to the finish.  I raced for them, feeling the swish as a couple of runners sprinted by me. I wasn’t racing them tonight.  I was just glorying in the doing of this crazy thing, this running 10k in the dark, and making it back in one piece.

trailrun17-5_01749

Finish line glowing!

Across the finish line in 1:06, I had no idea of how I’d done.  My family found me, and I went to change clothes.  As I passed by the ambulance on the way to my car, I saw the woman who had fallen by the river being treated.  I thought to approach her and wish her well, but I didn’t want to interrupt.  I was very happy she seemed relatively unharmed.  I thought of the day I ended up in an ambulance in an adventure race on an outlying island in Hong Kong; I wanted to say it could happen to anyone.  I hope she is okay and will be back to tackle this trail again.

Once changed, I found my friend Cissy, who presented me with my Series prize – a balloon unicorn, running – the best prize I’ve ever won – and it lit up the night for me.

We sat together through the presentations in the cold night in our down jackets.  I loved the vibe of the race area in the dark, the party atmosphere, the fun of it all.  The last song before presentations, I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, was especially perfect, as it was my mantra during my ultra marathon phase.

Presentations started, first the Short Course, then the Medium Course.  When my age category was called (50-59), I had no idea if I’d placed.  I hadn’t even checked, as I assumed I hadn’t, being as cautious as I’d been.  Third was called – the time was slower than mine.  Second – ditto.  When my name was called for 1st in my age category, and I was so surprised and delighted and stunned, I think I was fairly glowing with happiness.  I stepped up on the highest podium to get a medal, the first time I’ve stood on the top step in this series, and shook hands with the other winners, and waited for the Series Result, where I found I’d taken out 2nd in the series in my age category.  The prize of a Trail Running Series glass and awesome Black Diamond Head Torch were wonderful, as was the gift certificate from Rise Health.

trailrun17-5_00604

Age category winners of the Medium Course

 

img_6114.jpg

The running unicorn and other great prizes! (Ok, the bag and medal says 60+ – but I’m really in the 50-59 age category! Anyone want to swap medals?)

It is the end of The Trail Running Series for the year, and, as always, it is a bittersweet feeling.  I’ve gathered so many memories.

I flip through them in my mind: Race 1 at Westerfolds Park in June, racing my heart out to place but just falling short of the podium; Race 2 at Smith’s Gully in July and the crazy fun Rob Roy Hill Climb; August’s Race 3 at Silvan in the woods, mud and fog and tricky twisty terrific trails; Race 4 on the beach at Anglesea with the sea and the cliffs and the delight of the river crossing with September’s spring in the air, and Race 5’s night race madness at Studley Park, all aglow.

This series: the moments, the memories, the beauty of the trails and terrain, the friendships and music and challenge and joy.  Each year, it is a homecoming.

The races themselves are the prizes, and we runners all share the podium, every single runner who has the guts to come out and challenge themselves at whatever distance, whatever pace.  Every single runner is a winner.

Thanks for the memories Rapid Ascent, and see you next year!

Next up for me: the Marysville Half-Marathon in November.  Time to get some distance and hills in these legs!

 

 

Advertisements

The Trail Running Series Race 3 at Silvan: everywhere I see monsters

The book I chose for bedtime reading has not helped.  A thriller called Descent about a female runner set in the mountains of Colorado.  I should have known better.  But no, I had to start reading it in the weeks before this next trail race.  Fairly predictably, it didn’t end well for the female runner.  Well, it did, but it took several harrowing weeks of terror (mine, while I read of what bad men do) for it to end somewhat well.  Now I have this image in my head, and I won’t share it with you because I do not believe that every time a woman sets off alone running on a woody trail, it has to end badly.  Knock on wood, as they say.

Anyway.  There was the book.  Then there was the other monster in the room.  Well, more like outside the front gate, that I planned to invite in at the end of August:  The Wonderland 20k Run in the Grampians, that scares me senseless.  I imagine myself dropping off the edge of the trail there, like where the map runs out in maps of the world where the earth is flat: here there be monsters and all that.

The Trail Series Silvan 15 km Race is the last friendly obstacle between it and I.

Did I say friendly?  Please come in, Monster Number 3.  It is the night before the race, and the wind blows so hard my bedroom on the second floor of our home shakes.  It is two or three or four am.  Maybe close to five, almost when I’d planned to get up.  The time doesn’t matter; I’ve been awake all night anyway.  I usually am the night before a race, worried that I’ll miss the alarm so I watch the clock like it might creep away if I don’t keep an eye on it.

I’d noted the weather alerts before bed.  As if the mighty wind blowing the trees back and forth in the garden wouldn’t have been enough of a clue.  The prediction: rain; thunder; hail; frost; gale-force winds.  Perfect weather, then, for a 15 kilometre trail race.   In a forest.  In winter.  I spend the wee hours of the night composing my obituary: Patricia ran in the woods during 60 km/hour winds with gusts up to 100 on the hills, and a tree fell on her; she was an idiot.

When I finally get up, imagine my surprise to find it completely still.  The world is becalmed (my word of the day – I read it in a magazine and like the sound of it – I hope it means what I think); the wind is gone.  It is dark as night (it is night, at 5:15 am on a Sunday morning).  The dogs gaze at me sleepy but expectant as I wander downstairs and switch on the kitchen light, but quickly curl back into circle-dogs and go to sleep again (though Billy, the youngest, keeps one eye slightly open to watch me).

I’m in the car earlier than planned.  Half – no most – of my pre-race nerves come from contemplating driving.  My hour-long route includes three twisty single-lane road sections through the trees; perfect spots for courageous drivers to get annoyed by my cautious approach and tail-gate me in fury.  My strategy is to leave before anyone is on the road.

I haven’t counted on the absolute dark or the pouring rain though, and I finally have to learn how the high-beam lights work in my car (wonderfully, though switching them off  for oncoming vehicles while navigating twisty, wet, dark roads requires a degree of motor skills I hadn’t imagined).

I arrive alive.  Get a terrific park.  The best park ever in fact, in the car park right near the race start.  I am there before they’ve even finished setting up the finish chute, that’s how early I am.  I want a picture of the sunrise, but it doesn’t rise.  The sky just turns a slightly lighter shade of grey.  I am wearing (no joke): running tights with waterproof trousers on top, a Dandenongs Trail Runner singlet, a thin rain-jacket, a wool icebreaker top, a wool/fleece hoody, a 550-loft down jacket, a waterproof ski jacket, a fleece hat and gloves.  I look more ready for skiing than running, am perhaps even over-dressed for skiing, but I don’t care.  I am cozy-warm wandering around race headquarters, jogging to the start of the course, buying hoodies and buffs.

IMG_5793

The “sunrise”

By the time the race is about to start, I have stripped down to just the singlet and running tights, though, and I’m not cold at all.  It’s as if someone new has slipped into my body in the hour I have waited around, someone more gutsy and less cold-blooded than me.  Someone who is not scared of monsters.

Medium course runners are called to the Start line.  No one moves.  We are called again.  I glance around.  Think to ask the guy next to me where the start line is.  Finally the MC comes straight in front of us and marches us to the Start Line which was not obvious as to get there we had to walk through the Finishers Arch!  I’m glad it wasn’t just me who didn’t know where it was!

We warmed up; we went.  It wasn’t new to me.  My friends Cissy and Tony and I had done a reconnoissance of the course two weeks prior, so I knew where we were going.  I even knew the trail names, which was kind of cool, because usually I’m thinking things like, hey, there’s the “Hill from Hell” whereas today I was thinking, oh, Track 24, that’s the steep one with the unimaginative name.

IMG_5757

Ghost hill

IMG_5763

Checking out the course two weeks before the event

IMG_5765

Navigating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I saw little point in running the first hill.  The hero in me has left the house, to be replaced by the smarter racing strategist.  I wanted to be out in front before the single-track became bottle-necked but that was five kilometers away.  I ran some, and when it got too steep, I power-hiked fast, knowing that different muscles were working that way, and there were lots of hills to come.  I avoided the slicks of mud where other runners had slipped, stayed off the deadly clay in the center of the trail, and kept to the grassy sides where my feet got more purchase.  Yes, it hurt, but not more than my usual run at Mount Dandenong.  I like ups anyway, that’s where I make up for my downs.  I’m strong there, and can hold my place in the race rankings.

20689798_681966375332123_2184642402542589797_o

Rapid Ascent’s photo of the “Hill from Hell” looking down

20626953_681966248665469_8870454624552217658_o

It looks a bit worse looking up in Rapid Ascent’s other photo of the “Hill from Hell”

At the top, a breath of relief, then we fly down the other side.  Well, the runners around me fly.  I pick my way down as fast as I can which is too slow because my eyes don’t work so well these days, with these stupid grey shadows called floaters removing clarity so I can’t really see where the roots and rocks and branches are if I go too fast.  That stinks, that my body could certainly run down the hills faster than my eyes allow.

Down, down we go, across Olinda Creek Road, onto Georges Road.  I’m waiting for Rifle Range Gully Track and KC Track because these are the tough bits, the single track up and up and up, where we creep single-file and I feel like I am on an army mission into enemy territory.  The man behind me wheezes and gasps like he might die at any moment.  He won’t let me get away from him though – each time I try to surge forward when we both are power-hiking he breaks into a run too – with his heavy breathing, he’d give us away to the enemy and we’d all be dead.  I have compassion for him though, as I have my own hacking-cough issues, but still, his heavy breathing has me amused (it sounds a bit like a porno movie behind me), but desperate to move ahead because he’s making it sound really hard to climb this hill.

Oh, we go up and down and up and down, I stay with the same group, two men in orange vests or jackets (I only see orange as I’m trying not to trip so I don’t really look; I imagine they are wearing fluoro vests like construction workers but I’m sure they were in technical running gear), and a boy who is just as fast as me, and his father.  And the poor man who wheezes.  We are on a mission, the five of us; I pass them on the ups and they pass me on the downs and I kind of feel like maybe we should just hold our positions but none of us do.

It’s towards the last five k of so that I see her, my nemesis, my friend, the winner of each race I run, the friend I chat to always at the start but can never ever catch.  She’d bolted ahead and I had happily let her go so I wouldn’t waste my race racing her, but there I see her in front of me, like a carrot on a stick and I’m the hungry donkey and I suddenly think maybe I’ll be able to catch her this time.

All the while a part of me is going, yes, this is the way we went on our course reconnaissance , yes, that tree and that trail, and that’s where we went wrong and turned back, and yes.  And then – WAIT ONE DARNED MOMENT – we didn’t go this way at all!   There’s an extra side trail we didn’t find and a different way across the bottom of the National Rhododendron Garden than we took.

Ah, but that was where I had my favourite race moment.  The rain, which had held off, suddenly came down with a cold fury.  It was needly and sharp and the wind blew it straight into my face for several minutes.  I was all alone, and I said out loud, laughing, “And that’s how you know you’re alive!”

Then, like someone pressed Play, the movie kept going, and people started passing me going downhill again.  The young boy and his dad passed, the two guys in fluoro vests, the wheezing guy, they all went by me.  Cissy waved as she passed.  My nemesis/friend disappeared once again into the distance and I picked my way down the hill.

One more hill up, I knew, and I was struggling by then.  Is this the wall? I asked myself, before I sucked down a third energy gel and a big glug of water and continued to run.  Some single-track, I think, came next, then the slick clay by the fence line where my calf and foot began to play cramping games with me.  Ha ha, I thought, wind and rain and monsters and slick clay and calf cramps be damned and I kept running as fast as I could until I came to Stonyford Road.

8614682_main_5987efd486b7a

This could be Stonyford Road

Oh, it was so familiar, where I’d come undone during our rec’y run two weeks before, so tired, no time for walking today though, I passed a guy doing it harder than me, kept going, calves wanting to cramp but not so I kept the pace up, a woman behind me said well done Patricia but I was going too hard to glance back and said well done to you too as we both powered on.

The beautiful, wonderful finish line and friends calling my name and all monsters banished for that one gleeful moment, that crossing of the line, then hands on knees, breathless, pressing Stop on my Garmin, and suddenly finding myself immersed in a huge heaving party of exuberant runners, live music, and food everywhere.

After I changed back into my skiing clothes, Cissy found me and said, “Congratulations!” and I said “For what?” and she said “Didn’t you check the results? You came second in your age category!”

Joy.  So a fourth, third and now a second in the series.  By the time of the awards ceremony, many had left, including the first and third place winners in my age category (it was bitterly cold) so I got to stand on the podium alone in my ski wear.  This is my favourite photo – it looks like I’m talking to an invisible friend, though I’m really chatting with Sam, the Race Director.

IMG_5798

Me and my invisible friend with granola

What a terrific day!  No monsters anywhere.  Just a lot of trees and mud and awesome runners having the time of their lives.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, for putting on another terrific show!

And now there is nothing between me and the monster that is Wonderland…

 

 

The 2017 Trail Running Series Beckons

This is not a promotional post; this is a heartfelt thank you to Rapid Ascent for setting me on the right trail again.

Hong Kong Adventure Race

Adventure racing in Hong Kong (2003)

It was the winter of 2011.  I had lived in Melbourne since 2008, moving here from Hong Kong when our children were just two and four.  In Hong Kong, I had been an Adventure Racer, an author, a coach, a personal trainer, a BodyPump instructor, and the host of a weekly radio program.  In Melbourne, I was a mother.  And I was afraid to run on trails alone.

I was bereft.  My soul was nourished by the wild places in the world, by the wildernesses where I could be one-hundred-percent myself.  In Hong Kong, I could run from my home and three minutes later be on the fifty-kilometre Hong Kong Trail.  I would run for hours and see no one, map in hand, water reservoir on my back.  In races, I would climb waterfalls, leap into reservoirs, scramble over coastal boulders.  In Melbourne, I ran along the bay, and raced on bitumen.

Each weekend, my husband would ask me, “What would you like to do?”

I would reply in my head, “Go to the Dandenongs.”

It was only in my head because one of my children had severe behavioural issues that meant we couldn’t really drive anywhere as a family.  We were grounded; my wings were clipped.

I slid into depression.  I kept going, as people do, smiled a fake smile, took the children to their activities and playdates but all the while, my soul was drying out.  I became irritable.  I contemplated escape.  Could I book a plane ticket and just leave?  But I loved my family.  I was blessed with so many good things.

Still, I longed for the thing I could not have: the wild.  “Long” is too mild a word; I was starving for the wild, thirsting for the woods, hungry for I knew not what other than flying free down a trail in a deep, dark forest.

One day, in 2011, I saw a flyer.  It was advertising a new Trail Series.  I think I was probably the first person to sign up.  The sponsor back then may have been Salomon but I might be wrong.  My memory of those days is hazy.  The first trail race – first trail run! – I did in three years was the Studley Park Race in Kew.  It was 10.8 km and I completed it in 56:18.  I know these details because I record each and every race in my handwritten diaries, which date back many years.  I treasure these records, the smily faces I add to race times, the details of my results in age category and gender.

The Race

2012 in Studley Park for the second Trail Series

I travelled to this race alone, navigating the roads for the first time by myself.  The second race of the series was in the Dandenongs at Silvan Reservoir Park.  I got lost on the way there, drove by the start and had to do a fast u-turn to get back there.  It was the first time I ran in the Dandenongs.  I fell in love.

IMG_3143

Every year since, I have signed up for every single race of The Trail Series.  I have been there on the steep hills, in the mud, in the fog, in the rain.  I have treasured memories of start lines, huddled together with other runners like penguins, bouncing up and down to warm up, listening to music (right here, right now, right here, right now, bursting from the loudspeakers), chatting with people who would become friends.

Following ribbons through the woods, learning each new place and route.  Finding that Melbourne had suddenly become wild, had become home.

Anglesea 2016 race start

2016 during the Anglesea Trail race, race 4 of The Trail Series

I wrote of most of the races in this blog, which I began around 2012, and you can find the write-ups in the archives.  A delight, each and every race.  Each and every memory.

Now, in 2017, my children are nearly teenagers.  We have two dogs and two cats, and I have two large boxes full of trail shoes.  Dirty, well-used, well-loved trail shoes.  My children laugh at me, and wonder that anyone could need so many shoes.  I tell them a girl needs shoes.  Lots of shoes.  And water reservoirs.  And tiny packets of GU Gels.  And of course, a Garmin.  A girl needs a Garmin.

I run alone in the Dandenongs once or twice a month, navigating solo, sometimes joining up with a friend or two for a long run and a two-hour chat about nothing.  Wallabies and Kookaburra’s are my friends, and I’ve even shared the trails briefly with a Tiger Snake and an Echidna, though not at the same time.  I’ve run in the rain, the hail, the mud, the blazing sun.  For 5k and for 50k.  On the coasts, and up the mountains.  I’ve run right back into who I am.  Now, when people ask how I am, I answer, “excellent”, and it is the truth.

IMG_5230

2017 at the peak of Mount Feathertop during the 22km Razorback Run

All this joy came from the fact that a company called Rapid Ascent decided back in 2011 to put on a trail series.

This is not a promotional blog.  This is a great big thank you for setting my life back on the right trail.

I’ll be doing the Medium Series this year.  And like many trail runners, I can’t wait to get started.

For more information: The Trail Running Series presented by The North Face

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?

 

 

 

Anglesea (2016): 16k in the Hoka One One Trail Series

At the top of the mountain, the temperature had dropped.  The rain came harder.  It must have been near freezing, as some of the rain was turning to hail. The numbness – begun in my feet after splashing into a puddle in the early stages of our run – had progressed to my hands, and finally, strangely, to my entire legs. This had not happened before. I was getting worried.  Earlier in the run, I had overheated and taken off my raincoat.  I was now in a soaking wet wool long-sleeved icebreaker shirt and skins.  I was also hatless.

The night before, the forecast had looked forbidding, with threats of thunderstorms and high winds, but I hadn’t wanted to let my new friend down by cancelling. Atop the mountain in the heavy hail, it had been a few minutes since she had spoken.  I was afraid we were in trouble, that we’d bitten off more than we could chew for our first run together.

Suddenly she stopped running.  Was she going to declare hypothermia, or worse?  But she seemed so calm and happy.  Silently, she reached into her lap belt. I watched, shivering.  She pulled out… her camera! She wanted a photo of the hailstones!

Together, we caught them in our soaking wet running gloves, and I thanked my luck that I had found someone just as crazy as I am to run with on this wet, cold 18k mountain run.

DCIM100MEDIA

Hailstones atop Mount Dandenong!

DCIM100MEDIA

Having the time of our lives!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was training. Not for this distance or this elevation, but for a 15k flattish run by the seaside in a couple of weeks time – the medium course of the Anglesea race in the Hoka One One Trail Series. I had decided I wanted to go in strong, to train beyond the distance and the elevation, so I could finish with more power than I had recently achieved.

Oh, and then there was the small matter of competition. This was race 4 of the series of 5 races. In the first three races of the series, my results in my age category were Second, First, Second. I wanted the First at Anglesea.  And I wanted the race series title, because I had moved up to the 50-59 category this year, and, well, the last time I’d won anything like that was when I moved up to the 40-49 category in Hong Kong.

Trouble was, there was this other woman in this category, who was five minutes faster than me, in every single race (she will always be five minutes faster than me, for the rest of my life). In race 2, she had been away, smashing out a marathon somewhere. That’s the only reason I got first.

The smarter part of me said to race myself, to aim for a PB, rather than to go for the win. I thought about this as I stood shivering atop Mount Dandenong two weeks before Anglesea. The race was certainly not the only reason I was standing there – I loved this mountain in all its varied seasons, and this wild weather was one of my favourite things, the testing myself against the elements, the thin edge between danger and safety.  My new friend and I pulled raincoats out of our packs, wiped the rain from our faces, and continued down the trail for the last 10 kilometres of the run.  Back at our cars more than an hour later, we fell out in near hysterical laughter – neither of us could undue our zips to get our car keys out of the packs – our fingers were frozen!  It was an epic first training run together.

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline - Bitumen is Boring!

Hoka One One Trail Series tagline – Bitumen is Boring!

Onto Anglesea. This is one of my favourite runs in the Hoka One One Trail Series, as it is usually warm, and the kids and husband and dogs can enjoy the beach while I run off into the distance. Just one week earlier than usual this year, the race fell on an atypical cold morning, and also on Father’s Day (oops, sorry honey!). What better way for a Dad to spend Father’s Day than in the company of his kids and dogs, shivering on a cold riverside without coffee or a wife?

I won’t describe the early morning drive to the race start in detail.  Suffice it to say the kids were fighting, and it was one of those mornings when I was craving the space in between family life and me – the long, thin trail into the woods that leads onwards into solitude, where I can fly alone and free, fully myself, but in the comforting knowledge that my home and family wait for me at the end of the trail.

We got to the race registration area alive.  Enough said.

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Before the start (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Red cliffs of Anglesea

Red cliffs of Anglesea

 

The race start, as always, is stunning. A long sandy beach, waves crashing, sun shining on red cliffs. The countdown comes and goes, and we runners bolt off down the sand, unleashed, running close together and too fast, sprinting around a single blue flag, and then spreading out.

I know this course like an old friend, and run it this way. The sand to the boat ramp is hard and easily runnable.  This year, I take the stairs up to the path instead of scrambling on the concrete ramp, and run along the familiar trail behind the caravan park. Half this section is bitumen, and half dirt-track. I stay to the dirt track side and try to pass as many people as I can. I need to make up some places, as I know the technical sections lose me ground. A yellow flat section, and then we begin the climb. It doesn’t hurt as much as usual, and I’m able to jog/run up most of it. Uphills are my strength and I don’t waste them.

I’ve studied the course description a bit more closely for this race and remember that it has two main peaks, but after around 8k, will just descend. So I go hard. I push my legs and lungs and heart just as fast as they will go, feeling strong and powerful, enjoying the speed. But I am wary as well. I know my weaknesses – my vision, running fast downhill on more technical trails. I use my nutrition to support me, even though this is quite a short race, taking in gels before I need them, and even a salt tablet at one stage.

We finish the first up, and dance our way along some beautiful single-track, which is just rocky enough to be fun, without being too hard.  The grass trees, tall as me, swish like water as I run through them.  I like the sound.  They make running fast risky, though, by hiding the terrain directly in front of them, which could have unexpected holes or rocks or roots to trip me up.  I take care but still stride out.

We come to the drinks station, and its only then I realise I’ve misread the distance on my Garmin, mistaking pace for distance, and where I thought we were at 6k, we were actually at 8.5k. I do a tiny dance of joy in my head. The hard bit is already over!  A little later, there is one more yellow dirt road to climb up. I run some, but whenever my breathing and body say enough, I walk, knowing that the tiny recovery will help my overall performance.

At the top of this hill, the fun begins. I’d been passed by many on the more technical sections. Now it was time to reel them in. I unleash my legs, and downhill I fly, passing runners, unsure if they are even doing my race, as the three distances all converge at this point. It doesn’t matter. I love the fast running, the feeling of flying over the terrain, the confidence in my legs. I have a glimpse of the sea, think, pretty, then look back down to the broken trail. Pretty can end badly when running fast on rough trails.

Down we fly, traversing a narrow boardwalk. I’d decided the course had changed, because the horrible rock staircase hadn’t come up yet. It must just be on the long course, I said to myself, right before we came to it.  And there it was. I’d saved a bit in my legs for it anyway, and began carefully down. I must have been further behind in the pack than usual because the typical stream of runners passing me didn’t happen. I, instead, passed a couple of people. One was a woman racing whilst holding her shoes in her hand. I asked if she was okay, thinking she might be hurt. Her shoes had been giving her pins and needles she said, so she was going to complete the race without them. Gutsy, I thought, and continued down. It always bothers me to be slow on the descents, but I am and it is what it is, so I wait until it flattens, and then put the pedal down.

Now I’m running for my life. I’m surprised: I still have a lot left in the tank and this feels terrific. We’re perhaps 2k from the finish, back on the bitumen/dirt track by the caravan park. I let loose, passing, darting in and out of slower runners, loving this feeling of power and strength.

Suddenly we come out to the concrete ramp that leads to the beach, and my thoughts about having a lot left come crashing down. We hit the soft sand and it hurts it hurts it hurts, but I’m not going to slow down because I want the win and I want the personal best, and I want to pass just this one last woman who’s in front of me, and I do, and still it hurts, and just as I get onto the concrete path, a young boy walks in front of me, and I have to skirt him and not knock him down, and I do, and there’s the finish and my kids with their hands out for high fives and people shouting go Patricia and I go go go, right across those timing mats, breathless, elated, alive.

Much later, I wait by the timing computer to see where I’ve placed, and am delighted to have taken out second in my age category with a time of 1:20. Because I ran with all I am and all I had, and that was enough.  That was my win.

Still later, I find Ali to give her the copy of my book that she’s purchased. She asks me about writing, something like, should she write, or should she wait. I’m gob-smacked by the question: it requires a bigger answer than I can come up with right then. It is as if she has asked me whether she should breathe, or not. Of course you should write, I want to say.  Write with everything you are and have. Say your piece because who will say these words, sing them out if you don’t?  Find the time; make the time; carve out this place for yourself because it will teach you who you are in a way nothing else can.

But there’s the nasty little gremlin inside me who says to me, all the time, why bother? Who will buy it? It’s hard to get published, and it’s hard to find time, and there are so many unread books in the world.  I see them piled high in second-hand books shops, in half-price racks in newsagents, and it breaks my heart.

I don’t say any of this. Or I do, but just in my head.  Because it’s the question that plagues me as I try to craft my third book into being, as I wrestle with doubt and topics and truth-telling.

Of course you should write, I want to say, but it is a rough, technical trail, and you have to be prepared to trip up over tree roots and rocks, to skin your knees and sprain your ankles, and get back up, over and over again.  You have to do it for yourself, first and foremost.  But write anyway.  Because they are your words and they mirror your soul and echo your breath.

Writing is not a race against anyone else. It is not even really a race against yourself for a PB, because you are not the same you that ran this race, wrote this book, before. Today’s challenges and injuries and illnesses and childcare issues and dogs and husbands are unique, so comparing one race to another makes no sense at all.

But we were speaking of writing, not running.  Or were we?  Sometimes the two seem so much the same.

My name was called during presentations, and I stood on the second step of the podium in delight, shaking hands with Carmel on the top step, and later, comparing our prizes and plans for the final race in the series (the night race).

Camaraderie (photo courtesy of Ali from Rapid Ascent)

Camaraderie on the podium

I didn’t win first, and I didn’t pb.  But that day, 4 September, 2016, my body did exactly the best it could.  The stress-fracture I feared in my foot two days before the race didn’t eventuate; my hip pain stayed (mostly away); my vision was clear enough; I didn’t get hurt; I didn’t face-plant.  It was a win.

We got home, exhausted, opened the Father’s Day presents, and had a nap.

Leila and Billy, at rest

Leila and Billy, at rest

Next up: my first night race!

Hoka One One Trail Series, Silvan 2016: coming home

We were playing cat and mouse; I just wasn’t sure who the cat was yet.

I eyed her yellow waist pack, this time from behind her.  It was different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to here in Melbourne, the Nathan’s and the Salomon’s, the backpacks and four-bottle waist belts.  The shape, colour and size or her pack was memorable, and I was going to keep my eye on it as we raced, so I knew I was still in the same place in the line of runners as before.

The trail began to climb, and once again, I edged in front of her (I have to use the uphills to gain ground, because I lose so much on the downhills).  We ran for a while.  Then, as always, the trail again descended, becoming rocky, rutted, lined with tree debris.  I slowed, and she politely make her way to the front again.  Cat?  Mouse?

Time would tell.

Except it didn’t.

Because what happened was more wonderful than the usual race high jinks.  At some particularly scenic spot, I came up behind her, surprised that she’d stopped to take a photo (I’d been looking at my feet, not the view).  She called to me, and waved to encourage me to join her photo.

It was kind, and utterly unexpected.  We spoke for the first time, smiling, exchanging names as we jogged on.  When she said her name, I paused, and looked at her more closely.

“Do I know you?  From Hong Kong?” I said.

I don’t know why I said it.  I had left there eight years ago, and it felt like a different world.  Except her face, and her name, and that waist pack.  She burst into a beautiful smile.  I was right!  We talked, and discovered we used to do Action Asia races together, the Sprint Series of Adventure Races that brought us all over the Hong Kong countryside.

How do I say this?

Finding I knew her, that I had known her in that long-ago time before my life had changed here in Melbourne…it was like finding a long-lost friend, even though we hadn’t really been friends, had just run the same races together.  But I knew her, and she knew me.  We chatted, elated.  Eventually, she ran ahead (another downhill), after asking me to find her at the finish for a photo.

That’s how this race was for me.  A day where new friendships began.

2013 was the last time the Silvan race began at the Silvan Reservoir.  I should call it what it is today:  the Hoka One One Trail Series, a series of five awesome trail races, with short, medium and long courses, in particularly beautiful trails about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.  The slogan way back in 2013 was Bitumen is Boring.  It was perfect; and the races were just what my soul longed for.

Back then, I was living a very different life.  Just surviving.  Using running as a band-aid for all of life’s challenges.  That year, I’d done my first ultra marathon, 50k in the Blue Mountains.  The (then named) Salomon Trail Series long courses had seemed short in comparison.  So short, in fact, that I had underestimated their challenge, done the Plenty Gorge 17.6km long course, and later that day, went for a 5k training run, where I promptly and definitively sprained my ankle.  I spent four weeks doing some serious recovery work on the ankle, and managed to do the 2013 Sylvan 21km race.  I felt unstable and scared, but I was determined to finish out every race of that series.  And so I did.

Fast-forward to 2016:  for the first time in many years, I am leaving on race morning, and all is right with my world.  There have been no fights with my young children, my husband and I have just returned from our 21st-anniversary night away in Olinda (our first trip without kids in many years), the dogs are grown enough to be trouble-free, and I know the way to Silvan.

The part of me that sits beside me observing my life while I live it claps and cheers for this wondrous time.  I am content; more than this – I am happy.

Driving alone, I navigate the roads I have taken to my training runs at Mount Dandenong so many times.  The route to Silvan is not so different, and I console the scaredy-cat driver in me with the reassuring thought that this drive also takes me past Grant’s Picnic Area in Sherbrooke Forest (I’ve driven here several times alone), and I’ve also driven this very road to Silvan in 2013.

That works, until the twisty-turny part of the road – the beautiful part when others are driving – comes up.  Of course, I drive too slowly, and someone, a big four-wheel drive with jutting metal crash bars, comes up right behind me.  Ok, drive my way, I tell myself, except he gets right up behind me, nearly nudging my bumper.  A cyclist appears; I slow; the jerk behind me honks; I swear.  It is the usual, twisty-turny road dialogue.  Eventually, the road widens and he blazes past me, and I breathe deeply in relief.

I arrive at race headquarters despite all this, where I am directed to drive my car up onto the curb to park.  I don’t know how to drive my car up on the curb without a driveway.  I should know how, but I don’t, and I’m all grown-up now and can refuse politely, so the race official kindly lets me drive further on, and park more easily on the road.  It’s ok to live within my own limits, I tell myself.  After all, the limits I set for me would be pretty challenging for some others.

Race Headquarters

Race Headquarters

I’ve signed up for the medium series this year, which is a perfect, delightful distance.  Today’s event is 15.5km, and I’ve been training up to 18k in my long run on lots of big hills to make sure I have enough in my tank to get me through strongly.

I’ll tell the truth here: at Plenty Gorge this year, I came in first in my age category.  First!  I was so excited I jumped up on the podium, clapping my hands in glee.  Later, I was too jet-lagged and troubled by this to even write a blog about that race.

I coach myself to always run my own race, to not race others, because when I’ve done this in the past, it’s ended in disaster (sprained ankles; falls; etc).  I do this right up to the point the race results come in, where I get obsessed about what place I’ve come by overall, gender, and age categories.  Winning my age category is awesome – for a minute or two.

Then I start this endless internal chatter: I wonder if I trained harder, if I might take first place again at the next race?  Maybe if I do more tempo runs?  More hill training?  More pilates?  I get stuck in this silly, unhelpful groove where winning becomes more important than the pleasure of the run.  Of course, I did all of this “more” stuff in the four weeks between Plenty Gorge and Silvan, so the night before Silvan, I found myself snappish, stressed, aware of this silly dialogue I was having.  I sat down at the piano.  Played Chopin, which I’ve been trying to master in my Very Easy piano book.  The music soothed me, reminding me I am not just a runner.  I do not have to judge my value by my placement in this race.

Back to race headquarters.  Here we are at the start of Silvan 2016.  We lined up for a wonderful warm-up, the best I’ve had in a race start, and I felt my sleeping muscles awaken.  Then, Boom – we were off.  Too fast, of course, as always.  But I kept my foot on the brake, knowing this to be the risky bit, the overcrowded start where it was hard to see the uneven terrain.  We had 15k; plenty of time to make up places.  I let the bolters bolt, and settled into my pace.

Quickly, we began ascending the “Hill from Hell”.  Not so hellish really, not after all the Mount Dandenong climbing I’d been doing, but I didn’t try to run it, just power-hiked it. I knew my body, my limits, my weaknesses and my strengths.  It didn’t matter if I got passed on the downhills; I’d pass again on the uphills, and stay with the same group anyway.

Up and up and up we went.  I knew we’d be climbing for nearly 8k, but this was all right, I was used to climbing.

There was this moment in pilates a few weeks ago.  I’ve not been doing this discipline for long, just eight weeks or so, in an attempt to cure the foot and hip pain that have been plaguing me for a couple of years.  I’m strong.  This is a simple fact; relative to most women, I can lift much heavier things.  Woop woop.  This talent comes in handy when I’m teaching Bodypump or helping move stage sets for my son’s production in Primary School.  Not really anywhere else.  But I like it and I rely on it.  So the fact that this simple lie-down-on-the-bed-and-shove-the-platform-away Reformer Pilates hurt – this was really odd.  So odd, the hurt, the challenge, that I began smiling, laughing silently.  The instructor noticed, and said “You’re smiling?”, puzzled.  “It really hurts,” I said, laughing out loud now.  “That’s an interesting response to pain,” she replied, and started smiling too.

But that’s me: when it gets hard, I laugh.  Because suddenly, there’s that enemy to stare down.  I recognise it, remember the battles I’ve fought, and I laugh.  The enemy of studying physics (briefly) at university; the one that said Central Park is too cold to run in winter; when the wind blows too hard, and the trees threaten to fall on me atop a mountain, there it is; when my child says, I wish you were dead, you’re not part of this family; when the rain begins mid-run, sideways, cold rain, and I’m forty-five minutes from home; in Pilates, it seems.

And today, at Silvan.  When the hills got so steep I had to walk instead of run.  There’s that pain, that enemy, that friend and foe, here again to teach me about my strength.

I had my gels, water, salt tablets.  I had trained enough.  I stared that enemy down and was satisfied.

But for me, the main challenge is always more technical downhills.  We had about 7k of these coming right after the uphills.  These days, I have floaters in both eyes (grey shadows in the centre of my visual field).  This makes running fast on technical downhills challenging, as its hard to make out the detail of what I’m stepping on, especially at speed.  I’m slower than I’d like to be, slower than the rest of my body could go if I could see properly, but that’s ok.  Its another enemy to stare down, in time.

The terrain details – which hill was where, the single tracks, the hairy-scary descents – they all merge together in my mind into a three-word course description: brutal but beautiful.  Some uphills were of my favourite sort, studded with rocks, genuine and ungroomed.  Downhills that reminded me of hills I ran in England’s Bradgate Park, grassy, with only a slight camber, easily runnable with eyes wide open.  Uphills through thin, tall trees, where I felt like I was in a line of soldiers climbing silently and breathlessly into enemy territory. Straggly, thin strips of tree bark ready to strangle my ankles and send me flying.  I didn’t look up much to see the scenery, except to grimace at photographers, because looking up usually means falling down.

A little like flying

A little like flying  (photo courtesy Supersport Images)

The last downhill of red clay near the fence line I always find memorable.  In 2013, with that four-week-old sprained ankle, I recall picking my way down in terror, committed to the race, but wanted to get home in one slightly broken piece. Today, 2016, I flew down it.  Not as fast as the three or four men who passed me, for sure, but flying for me.  But I hungered for Stonyford Road, the flat dirt road where I could open up and really let my legs go, where I could pass the people who’d passed me.

When I finally got there, though, everyone who had passed me had already disappeared.  It floored me.  I love to chase and there was no one to chase!  I was alone, like in a solo training run up Mount Dandenong.  I willed my legs to go faster, knowing each second counted in finish times, if nothing else.  Still, no one to chase.  Then I heard the footfalls behind me, and realised that this time, I was the prey.  Someone was hot on my heels.  I was having none of this, and I turned it up a few gears, and bolted away from them as fast as I could go.  I wouldn’t be passed here on flat ground!

We were near the finish.  I could hear the crowd cheering.  My legs were burning, tired, but I knew it was easy from here.  Except it wasn’t – the course turned up into the trees for one final fling of the enemy at me.  Just before I climbed up, I let Mr. Speedy go past me, knowing he would need to on the rougher trail.  More tentative, I heard another runner behind me, offered to let them pass, but they didn’t want to. On we ran, not for long, before the car park and the finish cones appeared.

When the tall, thin fast man flashed past me just before the finish line, I didn’t give chase.  He wasn’t a 50-plus woman.  I ran my own race, right across that beautiful finish line, puffed, panting and elated, and pressed stop on my Garmin.  1:38, I noted.  Respectable on such a tough course.

Friends from Dandenong Trail Runners had gathered in a group.  I joined them for a photo.

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Dandenong Trail Runners!

Seeing the “cat” from our cat-and-mouse game, I quickly joined her and shared a hug.  Somehow, seeing an old running friend from Hong Kong made this mountain run in Australia feel like home to me.  We exchanged laughs and phone numbers, made plans for future runs, and promised to catch up soon.

A friend from Hong Kong

A friend from Hong Kong

The singer with the acoustic guitar kept playing all my favourite songs.  I wanted to sit by him and just listen, but I was drawn to the results screen, where I saw I’d come in 2nd in my Age Category, to my great glee.

Wandering, I noticed the wonderful looking Mexican Food, Richie’s Fresh Salsa.  I can’t usually eat after races, but this looked just perfect.  And in my post-race euphoria, I was no longer shy, was able to make conversation with the couple running the stand, exchanging business cards with Richie, who turned out to be from America, and I suspect will turn out to be a friend.  Indeed, we spoke the day after the race, and he said something that sounded so familiar to me, about how finding people from ‘home’ was always wonderful.  I noted how we could speak the same language.  We made plans for a run and a coffee, to talk business and America.

And I was thinking, hang on, Australia is my home, yet I was elated to find an old friend from Hong Kong because that too is my home, and now here’s this American, and that’s home too.

And it occurs to me.  Home is not a place.  It is not where the heart is.  It is trail running. That’s my home.  The single-tracks and the hills, the trees and the reservoirs, the authentic smiles from all my fellow runners.

So, 2016 Hoka One One Trail Running Series at Silvan, thank you for bringing me home.

 

 

 

 

 

After the Roller Coaster (Run)…

The 2016 Roller Coaster 21k Trail Run: why has writing of you eluded me?  Did I love you, as I have in the past?  Or is our affair growing tenuous and thin?

The Sunday after the run, which I completed in 2:41 (six minutes faster than last year), I spent five hours cleaning my very dirty home.  We have two dogs, two cats, and two kids.  My husband does more than his fair share, and it was fair to say I’d been too tired to be much use around the home lately.  I’d completed a series of three half-marathons (Marysville 21k; Two Bays 28K; Roller Coaster 21k) in four months; the guilt over the dirty carpet had finally caught up with me, and I cleaned like a whirlwind.

On Sunday night,I sat back on the sofa, exhausted but feeling I’d accomplished two great big things in one weekend – an awesome trail race, and a clean home.

Monday, I awoke with a sore throat, a harbinger, a canary-in-the-coalmine.  Still, I taught my 7:30 pm Bodypump class.  It was too late to call for a fill-in instructor.  And really, if I was going to get sick, I figured I might as well go out with a bang.

On Tuesday the flu took me down at the knees.  I was sick for a full week.  No-exercise sick.  Don’t-even-contemplate-walking-down-the-road sick.  I got a fill-in instructor for my Wednesday class.  I slept in some, coughed a lot, and Life Went On.  It was recovery week anyway.

The second week, I gradually recovered.  Taught three Bodypump classes, swam, ran a total of 15k.

Now, in the third week post-race, I’m still coughing, still tired, but I’m world’s better than three weeks ago.  I’m back to my usual fitness schedule.

So why haven’t I written up the Roller Coaster Run?  Was it the illness?  Or something else?

Here’s the thing.  I’ve been listening to myself say the same things over and over since November last year:  I want my feet to feel great again;  I want speed and power;  I want to be able to jump high in the air and land without hurting.  I want to do something different.

And yet, I kept signing up for half-marathons.  The Roller Coaster Run was the last one I’d signed up for.  In a way, it was my line in the sand.

Did I love it?

21.5K Burkes Lookout-186Of course I did.

What I loved most is that I let go of expectation.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly it occurred to me, about five minutes into the run, that I had nothing to prove.  I didn’t want to kill myself running flat-out for three hours.  I wanted to push my pace, push my best, but I didn’t want to race anyone.

In my head, I was saying, I’m a 50-year-old trail running woman.  I’ve got nothing to prove.  I’ve run more than sixty trail races.  Adventure races.  Up and down mountains.  I’ve swam across tidal rivers the day after a typhoon.  Climbed waterfalls in a thunderstorm. I’ve navigated alone in the dark on trails.  Nearly stepped on snakes.  Abseiled down cliff faces on outlying islands in Hong Kong.  I’ve got nothing left that I have to prove.  I just want to run for the sheer pleasure of it.

And suddenly, running down the side of Mount Dandenong, I realised I wasn’t competing.  I wasn’t racing.  I was flying down my favourite trails, agile, confident, quick feet, no pain, and all was right with my world.  It didn’t matter if I got passed or if I passed someone.  I could afford to smile, to chat with volunteers, to high-five the kids cheering with the support crews.  Yes, the uphills were deadly tough.  That wasn’t a surprise.  I had the gels and salt tablets and water and confidence.  I’d run the whole course alone two weeks before.  I was going to be okay; I was going to be joyful.

My favourite moment of all in the run?  At about the 13k mark, right about where I tripped and flew threw the air during my first Roller Coaster Run, I saw a man stumble.

I was ten feet behind him, and watched him trip, then fly sideways through the air, and land hard.  Well, I thought he’d landed.  Just as I was shouting, “Are you okay?”, he, to my utter astonishment, continued rolling, all the way through, until he’d come around, landed on his feet, and simply kept right on running.  He is who I want to be when I grow up.

It turned out I’d met him a couple of weeks earlier on a training run (Ben and Brian were doing three loops of the Roller Coaster to my one that day), so when I caught up with him and congratulated him on his spectacular trip-and-roll-to-his-feet, it was like meeting up with an old friend.  That’s how this race is, how this mountain is.  We are all – in one instant, old friends.

21K KALLORAMA-156This photo was taken at about 20k into the run.  I can picture the section, right after a steep climb up gravel.  It’s where I’ve run alone so many times, staring at autumn foliage, or hidden by thick fog.  Usually, I’m elated that I’ve done the hard part of my training run (I typically start at the bottom of the mountain and it’s mostly downhill from this stage).

At this stage of the race, the 43k runners were headed back out in the opposite direction to us, and every now and then one of the front runners would bound by, mountain-goat-like, taking the downhill with greater speed than I could ever imagine.

But here, right in the moment this photo was taken during the Roller Coaster Run, I’m deep inside my head, feeling the flow of my feet on the single track, knowing the way I’m going intimately, because I’ve run it so many times.

On such a run, the oddity is the other runners everywhere, where usually I run in solitude.

And then there was the finish…

IMG_2650The race photographer captured these amazing moments.  Sharee encouraging me across the finish line in her amazing costume.

IMG_2651

And in the true spirit of the run, and her wonderful supportive nature, here she is, directing me homewards.  Kudos to the race photographers for capturing this moment.

IMG_2652

In the end though, we are all alone with our thoughts as we cross the finish line.

There is a moment, before we cross under the arch, before we collect our medal, where we know fully what we’ve just achieved. The challenges we’ve overcome to complete a big, gnarly mountain run.  I’d like to hold onto the sense of self this moment gives me, to take it out in challenging times in regular life, to say to myself, if you could do that, of course you can do this.  I’d like us all to hold onto that feeling.

Afterwards, after the changing of clothes, the brunch at Sky High sharing a table with seven women I’d never met who were celebrating a 40th birthday, after the elation, I stayed longer than I usually do.

I explored this wonderful secret garden, all alone.

IMG_3189

 

I felt a sense of calm descend on me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  A sense of certainty that everything was going to be okay.

Since the run, now that the flu has abated, I have finally done what I said I am going to do.  Got back to the gym to lift heavy weights.  Started interval training to regain my lost speed.  Not signed up for any more races.

Will I be back?  Of course.  Mount Dandenong calls to me.  It speaks to me of home.