Hoka One One Trail Series Studley Park 2016: the dark side

The world has shrunk. Only myself, the trail, and the small circle of light from my head torch remains.  Darkness surrounds me like a cocoon.  I’m running, but I’m not breathless. I could go faster but the trail is littered with rocks and tree roots.  They appear without warning; in the dark, there is no margin for error, no gazing ahead to see what might be coming.  Obstacles are there immediately, and my reaction must be urgent or I will fall.  The running is risky and intense.  My eyes hurt from the effort.

There are other runners, of course.  This is, after all, a race.

It is the night race, the fifth in the series of trail runs that make up the Hoka One One Trail Series. I’m doing the Medium Courses, which have ranged from 10 to 16k.  Tonight is 10k, a repeat of race one at Studley Park, which last time we ran in the light. Tonight, we see the dark side.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

Photo courtesy Rapid Ascent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’d planned to begin this blog with what happened ten days before the race.  The moment when I stepped out of the pool after a 2k swim, and felt a sharp pain in my left hip.  Suddenly, I was limping.  It surprised me. Swimming is the safest activity in the world, the injured runner’s paradise. I couldn’t hurt myself swimming.  It wasn’t even possible.

The Physio the next day assured me, however, that it was. It was the backstroke that did it. Or maybe it was carrying my ten-year-old daughter up the stairs a few days before.  Or Bodypump. Or running in my new shoes the day before, puddle hopping in the rain.  Whatever it was, I was unable to walk a single normal step. I couldn’t even put weight on my leg.  Running was out of the question.

This was Thursday, nine days out from race night. I’d run the last four races as fast as I could, because I was suddenly in a new age category and had a slim chance of getting on the podium.  But really, it was because I’d been running longer distances in the past, and I just wanted to feel the elation of running fast.  I’d come second, first, second, and second in the previous races.  Another runner had won every single one of the races, so I knew she had the Series win.  No matter how I tried to add up the numbers, I wasn’t going to get it, even if I won this night race outright.  Now, I wasn’t even sure I’d get to the start line.  I wanted to cry, swear, stomp. I wanted to run and do Pilates and lift weights. What I didn’t want to do, especially with school holidays looming, was be injured.

I began the physio exercises with gusto, once a day, calf raises with a Pilates ball between my ankles, bridges with a Pilates ball between my thighs, using a spiky ball to massage out the tight muscles causing the hip pain.  I did what I was told for a change, even though I become a lunatic without regular exercise.  I waited to run. Days and days and grumpy days.

Finally, Monday, I managed a slow, hobbling 5k. I took some more Voltarin.  And I set a target – if I could run 8 on Wednesday, I could do my race. I did. That 8k was fantastic, like a returning to myself.  Only an injured runner can understand the elation that comes from running after injury.

On Friday evening,me and the family drove to Studley Park.  We were there about two hours early.  I wanted a good park, as I knew we wouldn’t leave until 10 pm and the kids would be shattered.  At race headquarters, I chatted with a few friends, studied the course map, and contemplated nutrition.  I’d never run at night before, so this was new territory.  I sat in the back of our four-wheel-drive and ate a banana, then I toyed with my head torch.  My pulse rose. I had planned to have a few runs in the dark with the torch prior to race day, but injury had prevented that.  Should I run with a cap?  Bare-headed?  I was realising belatedly that this was scary. And I hadn’t been scared at a race in a long time. I tried a buff under the torch, worried it would slide, jogged about, and decided this was the best choice.

It was still light.  But my nerves were on edge.  Race organisers were handing out glow sticks, and runners were making bracelets and necklaces of them.  They were smiling. Was I the only one slightly terrified?  I gave my glow sticks to the kids, who proceeded to decorate their bodies and shoes.

We made our way across the wobbly bridge towards the start line. The sun had set and the light was fading.  I practised jogging up and down the road with my head torch, nearly getting nailed by a bicycle in the gathering dark.  This fear felt odd.  It was familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in a while.  The 50k in the Blue Mountains, I’d felt like this; jumping off a pier into a bay fully clothed mid-winter at a trail race in Hong Kong; teaching Bodypump for the first time; driving to all the races alone the first few years I lived in Australia.  This fear was familiar.  I let it settle with my breath.  I knew the fear didn’t matter.  It was just part of the event.

We warmed up.  Rather, the people around me did.  I didn’t want to test my hip too soon.  And then suddenly, the countdown, and we were off.

I knew the course, knew we began on bitumen, that quickly turned into rocky track.  I ran with care.  It was already pitch dark, and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be different from any run I’d done before.

The trail came, and I held my pace steady.  Kept my eyes fixed within the narrow pool of light my head torch gave me.  We were a silent pack.  Usually, there was banter, chatter amongst trail runners.  Tonight, I felt like we were a wolf pack on the hunt.  We moved as one, silently, stealthily, in the dark, dark night.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to see my Garmin.  I could only hear it beep when a kilometre had passed, but I couldn’t risk taking my eyes from the trail to look at it.  It was freeing, I quickly realised, not racing the pace, not even knowing the pace.  I could tell I wasn’t running fast, because it didn’t feel hard and painful.  But not knowing the speed – knowing this was as fast as I could safely run – it made running slowly acceptable.

We did the usual cat-and-mouse passing games, but again this was different from usual.  I couldn’t lift my eyes from the trail to see who was passing, and we were all utterly silent.  As if by unspoken agreement, this was a solitary experience within a group trail race.  The dark and the silence felt holy somehow.  The shrinking of the world to the next footfall within the small pool of light.

In the darkness, alone

In the darkness, alone

We came to the pipe bridge at Fairfield Boathouse much quicker than I expected, and this was the first place I felt comfortable running fast.  I passed a few people here – one who had stopped to take photos – but very soon we were back on single-track with rocks.  The field had spread out now, and I was often running alone.  Or at the front of a small group.  This was odd.  I sensed the other runners didn’t want to pass me, and I could see why.

Or rather – I couldn’t.  Navigating in the dark was much harder than in the day.  I had to shine my head torch right on the directional arrows to make sure they were the right color, as they were grey in the dark, and I asked for directions from the race marshalls at confusing intersections.  I kept my eyes out for ribbons dangling from the trees and felt a warm glow of reassurance each time I saw one.

There was only once – and this was a real moment of terror – that I came to the end of a trail and saw no directional arrow.  I slid to a stop, me and the small group following me.  Together, we stumbled around until we found the arrow, and then bolted onto the flat road that was close to the finish line.  Finally, I unleashed my legs, running downhill, enjoying this flying in the dark.  I passed a few people, but I knew we still had one other technical section to come.

We made the final right turn, and in my mind, we were nearly home.  I was surprised at how long this final section lasted, but this was my favourite bit.  I was behind a gentlemen festooned in blue Christmas lights for some of the way, but when I passed him, I was utterly alone.  Running on a dark trail, in suburban Melbourne, near the blackened river to my right, a woman alone, running in the dark, and I was unafraid.  It was a wondrous, delightful feeling.  I heard a bird cry across the river, and then no other sounds but my footfalls on the gravel, and my breathing

Later, in the distance, I heard the celebrations at the finish line.  I heard them long before I arrived, and I love every moment in that cocoon of darkness.  I had found my pace, my agility.  Nothing hurt.  I was running fast enough but not too fast.  It was like being in a perfectly warm bath.  Or like being alone in the fog atop a mountain.  It felt safe.

I kept my feet.  Made it to the final grassy section lined with cones, where I could see the finish line.  I cheered myself through, thrilled to have made it, thrilled to not have fallen or hurt myself, joyous to have once again done something that had scared the life out of me, and in doing so, came back to life.

Cheering over the finish line

Cheering over the finish line

The finish chute with fairy lights

The finish chute with fairy lights

Later, my family sat eating dim sums and chips, listening to the presentations. I’d already checked the screens, and seen I’d come in third in my age category.  This was wonderful, as I’d really thought I was out of the running with injury, and I was going to get to stand on the podium a final time.

My name was called for third place in the 50-59 female age category, and I accepted my bag of goodies with glee.  It came with a sparkler, which seemed a wonderful touch in the cold, dark night.

Sharing the elation

Sharing the elation

Then the series results were read.  I heard them read second place.  It wasn’t me.  I wondered why there wasn’t a third place, and while I was lost in this wonder, my name was read as Series Winner of the 50-59 female category.  Both myself, and Carmel on the top step were puzzled.  The Series win was hers – she’d won four of five races.  We paused, she leaned over and asked Sam, and Sam said, did you enter the series, and she said no, she’d entered the individual races, and Sam said something, and I had won the series.

I smiled for the cameras but felt very odd about the whole thing.  It took a few friends telling me this was how it worked for me to finally feel happy about it, and Carmel came up and congratulated me, and I felt I should hand the Series medal over to her, but she graciously said no, it was mine.

The win?  The win was getting to do these five wonderful races.  Studley Park in the daylight in June.  Plenty Gorge, after just arriving back from the UK the day before.  Sylvan, the cold, the hills, the pleasure.  Anglesea, celebrating on the beach with the Surfcoast Century people.  And this run – the final – the night run at Studley Park, alight with head torches and glow sticks, with terror and elation.

The kids fell sound asleep on the drive home, and I played with the medal hanging around my neck as my husband drove.

Series Winner

Series Winner

We are all winners.  That’s what I’ve decided.  Every single one of us who turned up and did these awesome trail races.  Every one who had the courage to stand up and begin.


Going fast.

Ahh, that felt good.  And I mean really good.  The best running has felt for me in quite some time.  It was simple really: a 15km run, starting with a 2k warm-up, then 1k intervals at my fastest, and 1k recovery intervals at my marathon/long-slow-run pace.  Suddenly, the euphoria returned.  I was dancing over tree roots and rocks, up stairs, down stairs, like my legs had remembered who they were.  Like I had remembered who I was.  The funny part was how sllloooowww the slow intervals felt, how much I felt like an old, dragging donkey.  No surprise then, that with the majority of my running at that slower pace, I’d been losing the plot a bit.

With speed, there is no sense of time dragging, no wondering when it will be over, no think-think-thinking about my or the world’s problems.  There is only my watch and my legs, turning over as fast as I can turn them, the terrain, and my breathing.

While I transitioned to minimalist footwear and ultra-distances, I’d put speed on hold.  In doing so, I lost an essential element of running.  Intensity.  That has been my driving force since I was a teenager, when I realised it was central to who I am.  I need speed for running to give me joy.

Now I have a great, big smile. And sore legs!

Magic trail running.

I hadn’t known I’d be away so long.  The woods are a healing place where solitude is my gentle companion, the trees are my friends, and the wildlife my only witnesses.

The last time I’d run in the woods, though. was the end of October, and now it was February of the following year.  Injury had followed injury, and, at 48, I was starting to believe what the other people were saying, how we all got older, how we had to slow down.  It broke my heart.  They had to be wrong.  They just had to be.

Slowly, after a couple of false starts, I had been building the distance back up.  My long run for several weeks was 3k.  Increases felt frightening, and I was so conscious of any pains, conscious of setting myself back.  I didn’t even want to run around the block with my children, afraid of the extra distance.

Finally, though, on this warm summer Friday, I was ready.  I planned to run 9k up around Mount Dandenong, doing part of the course for the Roller Coaster Run which is coming up in March.  I’ve run those trails so many times, they have become my playground.  I plotted a course, and set off at the civilized time of 9 am, all alone.

The simple track seemed treacherous after months away, tree roots and rocks threatening sprains and further injury.  I stepped carefully, walking in places I’d never walked before.  Later, on wider tracks, I noted that the places where it had been muddy were completely dried out.  Flowers I had anticipated watching bloom had already bloomed and withered. And the old nervousness I felt of being alone in the woods had returned.  I was anxious and scared of strange men, on high alert.

The first thing that I saw, though, instead of a scary man, was a brown wallaby hopping quickly off my trail.  I stopped and watched him for a few moments, thanked him for his presence.  Then I ran on.

It took a while to find my flow.  But at Stables Track there it was, waiting for me like an old friend.  I danced down the trail in quick, short strides.  It didn’t hurt.  My body remembered what to do.  That’s when my eyes teared up a bit – I was back.  I was home.

IMG_1400My friends were numerous:  Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos; Kookaburras; two Magpies; and two Rainbow Lorikeets.

Just before I injured myself last year, I had a great solo run (a long, long run) around the same trails.  All was grey and olive and dry that day, the colors subdued, the world quiet.  I was getting tired, and feeling just a little bit lonely.  Suddenly, from out of a hollow in a tree, two Rainbow Lorikeets appeared, bright points of color on the dull landscape.  The contrast was sudden and wonderful.  A feeling of life soared through me.  It was simple joy.

The following week at an art exhibition, I purchased an oil painting that reminded me of those Lorikeets.  I’ve looked at it for months, recalling the independence I’d felt that day, the freedom, the wild.

And today, today, there they were again, my old friends.  I stopped and spoke with them and they didn’t fly away.

I ran for just over an hour.  A perfect, joyous hour.

Perhaps next week, it will be more.  I don’t really care how far or long I go anymore.  I just want to be present for each stride, each magic memory of the woods.


Happy to be alive again!

A heartwarming post of great joy.

I woke up for the fourth time on that long night, having had a different version of the same dream I’d had the other three times.  She had returned, unharmed, and my family was celebrating with tears of joy.  Was it real this time?  Had she really returned?  I glanced over at my sleeping husband, and realised, yet again, that it had just been a dream.  The knowledge was shattering.

This had happened before, and I knew that if she had not appeared by morning, the chances were very slim that she would reappear at all.  Wasn’t that just what had happened with Lucky?  He’d gone out at dusk, and had never been seen again.  I tried to bring my mind back to the present.  This would turn out differently.  It had to turn out differently.

The next morning, my husband went downstairs first.  I asked him to come straight back and tell me if she’d returned.  I couldn’t bear to see the empty porch.  He didn’t come.  Instead, my young daughter appeared.

“Is she back?”

“No.  Are you going to cry?”

“Yes, I think I am.  See you after showers.”

The morning was bleak.  I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  The kids were chatty and oblivious, for the most part.  I hid in the pantry and Googled who to contact.  And I listened to the growling of the dog next door.  Could he have her pinned and injured in there?

We got the kids off to school, I called the local council, dead inside, already knowing what they’d say.  No, she’d not been turned in.  Call this other number.  No and no and no.  And a “we don’t open until ten, please call back then.”  I coached a client, leaving the pain alone for almost a full hour, though every sound on the porch outside my office made me jump up and stare out the window.

Once I was done coaching, my husband I wandered the neighborhood, calling, calling, Minnniii,  Minnniii, looking into bushes, afraid of seeing the battered remains of her on nature strips, listening for cries that would alert us to where she was.  Just like when Lucky disappeared, the streets were empty.  The absence of her was a physical thing.  It filled all the space around me, pressed me heavily onto the concrete.  We’d been playing around with the idea of adopting a dog, full of hope for this new year.  Now it seemed so pointless and futile.  Everything seemed that way.

We went to lunch and couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t meet each others eyes.  Racing home afterwards, the streets and sidewalks were still achingly empty.  No one came to greet us in our garden, no small creature stood on hind paws to kiss our hands.  I went to the back garden and called and called, in a softer, less hopeful voice.  The time had passed.  She was truly gone.

I sat staring at my computer screen, not doing anything, called a few more shelters and cried.

And then…


It was a small cry.

Mew, again.

I leapt to my feet.  Standing there, unbelievably standing there, in all her small, black-and-white beautiful glory was our baby cat.  She had come home!  Against all odds, she had come home.

And the world is suddenly full of color again, and there is a point and a rhythm to the universe and everything is going to be okay.

All because a small black-and-white cat found her way home.

Photo: She has returned, oh happy day! :)

Salomon Trail Series Studley Park: you are a winner!

It was the first weekend of school holidays, and the kids had told me in very clear terms: “We don’t want to go to your stupid race.” My husband said something about supporting one another as a family, to which my seven-year-old replied, “What does ‘support’ mean?” Fair enough. They’d all spent a long time supporting me in the North Face 50 just six weeks ago. I understood.

Still, come race day, they were up early anyway, my five-am risers, and after a few ‘hurry-ups’, we drove off right on time. Well, five minutes late, but that was ok. Except that we got ten minutes down the road before I realised I’d left my Garmin behind. My lifeline; my everything; my Garmin. At first, I said, keep going, but a moment later, I said, with a kind of desperation, “No, turn back, please”. We got back, I raced in the door, scared the cats, grabbed the watch, and jumped back in the car. My pre-race nerves on high alert now, as we were twenty minutes past departure time, and I knew we’d miss the pole-position parking I aim for. The kids were noisy, playing Slap-Taxi, and Spot the Yellow Car, and my exhuberant husband joined in with enthusiasm. I willed quiet to settle, but only found it in my breath.

On arrival, we parked well up the road, and I was advised by my family to go on ahead, as there were many snacks and race-time entertainment items to prepare. Not one to miss the offer of an open gate, off I bolted down the hill, Salomon pack flapping in the wind, enjoying the feeling of running after two rest days. I darted around families, testing my agility, enjoying the moment to myself, but at the bottom, a woman runner, said, “Oh there you are! I wanted to tell you, you dropped a gel back at the top of the hill. I left it on a bench – you were going too fast to shout you.” Darn. Well, at least I’d packed three; that left two for a 15k race. A moment later, I ran into Claire, who was proud to display her new Garmin that had come as a early birthday present. How lovely to get a hug from a friend, just when I needed it. It also helped to bring me back into the moment, and let go of the silly gel.

I went on to do the usual pre-race stuff: visit the toilet several times; look for friends – I found a few Dandenongs Trail Runners members and chatted; I found my family and dragged all of us to the starting line. There, I realised it was warmer than I expected, and stripped off the thermal top and North Face running gloves, and was back to my ten-year-old orange long-sleeved t-shirt, an old friend that has seen me through many adventures. Pack on, amused by the antics of the Race Ambassador, and somewhat gleeful I had not won that role, because I could never be that cool before a race, and moments later, after an I-love-you sign language display with my family, the countdown began, and we in the “Fast” group were off.

Last year, I recall questioning which group I should be part of, what to wear, what to carry. This year, I was quieter, more confident in my choices. Perhaps it was making it through the North Face 50 six weeks ago, but I wasn’t scared this morning.

We began on the road, and I couldn’t go fast enough. I knew this was a short race for the distances I’d been training, and I simply didn’t hold back. It felt strangely wonderful. The pace was certainly quicker than my training pace, clocking 4:30 km’s and less, but I felt good. I won’t bore you with the details of the terrain we travelled – those of you who did the race know it, and I can never really remember all the various trails well enough to describe them.

What struck me in this race, though, were a few things. First was the pace. Having run more slowly of late to go very long distances, the open-up-the-throttle pace felt incredible. I held nothing back. The race photos will not show my usual smile; I didn’t even have the ability to look up to see the photographers, I was going so fast. I had to be one-hundred percent in the moment on the rougher tracks, of which there were many, to go fast, and be agile enough not to trip and face-plant. It takes enormous discipline for me not to get into races with other runners in these sections, because many are faster than me there. I have to let others by, and I hate that, but keeping myself injury-free is far too important to risk it by racing. However, I do find that on flat terrain and downhills, I often make up the distance and catch the runners who have passed me, so that’s okay.

The second thing I found – which sort of belies what I just said – is that I felt oddly competitive in this race. Maybe it’s because I get passed on the rougher stuff, but a few times in this race, I got passed, and then the passer seemed to, well hang around, like right next to, or right in front of me. This bugs me. I feel the need to pass back then, and I ended up playing cat-and-mouse with one woman several times, before I got really fed up with her running three inches from me, and kind of blew away down the trail. I never saw her again. I fear I took out some frustration on her that had nothing to do with her, like I just wanted to be alone for a little while, and there she was. I do like the ability to bolt away, to let out the little bit that is always in reserve. Strangely, I didn’t do this at the finish line, but only when other runners seemed too close. I suppose I have gotten used to the running solo in the Dandenongs for hours on end, and perhaps having other runners so close simply feels wrong.

The third thing was just how fast 15k goes when you’ve been running 30, 40, 50k’s. It was like taking the runs I’d been doing, and showing them on TV at triple-speed. I wanted more time to enjoy it all. Instead, I spent most of the race watching my feet. Good thing I love my shoes! And the simply being in the moment that such pace requires.

I pounded and pushed, and finished the race strongly in 1:16, well under my planned 1:30 – 2 hour time-frame. This was the first I’d run this particular course, so that doesn’t say so much, but I felt faster than usual. We left to come home shortly after the finish, the kids restless. It wasn’t until much later in the day, through a Facebook friend, that I Iearned that I’d come third in my age category. That hasn’t happened once since I’ve lived in Australia, so I was absolutely delighted.

Also, today I can walk. Nothing is really sore. I promised myself a rest day, and yet, I could have run. All the long runs and extra training is truly paying off.

Having delayed posting this by one extra day, I can also tell you post-race recovery is going well. I ran 5k with my son today, then an additional 15k for myself. I was up on a cliff in Barwon Heads at dusk, just as a big, black storm was rolling in from the sea. It was raining over the water, but a glorious golden sky over the land. In between were the blackest of clouds. I was absolutely alone, awestruck. Running fast and racing is glorious; of equal joy is the solitude of a long, empty trail.

Running hot and slow; Running cool and fast.

Bayside Coastal Track by Rickett's Point

The hot, hot trail

A few days ago it was 32 degrees celsius when I set off for my run.  It was like Armageddon: blistering sun; swarms of nasty orange bugs filling the air; horseflies buzzing in my ears, and tiny little bugs flying into my eyes.  At each water fountain, I filled my running cap with water and plopped it on my head.  My pace was slower than a tortoise, slower than a snail, slower than…well, you get the idea.  I pushed and shoved my way along that trail.  I did what I had to do.  Arriving back at the gym where I began the run, I hid in the car park so the ladies I’d taught BodyPump an hour before wouldn’t see my red face.  They caught me anyway.  One of them (she’s 74) told me if I were her daughter, she’d smack my bottom for running when it was so hot.

The very next day, the cool change came.  I slipped on my sneakers, and I ran down that same trail like the wind.  The bugs were gone, there was a cool breeze off the bay, and man, I was flying.  I love that feeling – it’s as if my body becomes something else, something stronger and faster, something more able than I usually am.  My feet don’t pound they earth; they kiss the earth.  I dance the run.  Someone asked me recently why I run.  That is why.  Because most of the time, that’s how good it feels.

Great Joy at Silvan Reservoir Race

Great Joy at Silvan Reservoir Race

And either way, hot and slow, or cool and fast, at the end of the run, after the cooldown and stretches and shower, I feel the same thing: I feel as if I have accomplished something powerful, something primal, something that no one can take away from me.  In the hours after I run, I walk with more dignity, I speak with more self-assurance, and the little things don’t bother me as much.

It is strange, the immense difference something as simple as a run can make.  Yet there it is – a wonder-drug, an instant uplift, self-confidence that lasts for hours and hours.

Hot, cold, dry, wet.  Any run is a good run.  Eventually.

Full moon over the ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast, Medium or Leisurely?

“Because so many of you have turned out this morning, we’ve split the start into three waves: fast, medium, and leisurely. You choose your wave, but please…be honest with yourself…”

We’re at the starting line of the Salomon Trail Series, Race 1, in Studley Park, Melbourne, Australia. I listen to the Race Director’s words. Another decision to make, in a race full of tough decisions. Usually, I know exactly what to do, what gear to wear, what to carry, where to place myself.

But today, I have unnerved myself, and become indecisive. It began at home, when choosing what to carry during the race. I spent six years doing Sprint Adventure Races in Hong Kong. There, I’d learned to carry a CamelBak, with house keys, money, a phone, gels. Just in case I got lost in the wilderness, I’d have a way home. The climate was steamy, humid, dangerous. We scrambled up waterfalls, along riverbeds, into the sea.

I’m in Australia now, in winter. I’ve been here four years, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Anyway, this race in only 10 km. There are no waterfalls to climb, no rocks to scramble over. And I don’t want the extra weight. Last year at this race, I was the only person in a CamelBak. It felt heavy and cumbersome, and unnecessary.

And yet…I filled it up and brought it anyway.

Now, here, at the starting area, I’ve changed my shirt twice, re-pinning the golden number to the front of first the long-sleeved running shirt, then the singlet. It’s cold today but the sun is just rising, and once I choose I’m stuck with it.

And now the pacing, which wave to choose?

Leisurely is not an option – I’ve never run a leisurely race in my life, though it does sound pleasant. Medium? I don’t want to underestimate myself, so I set myself at the back of the fast wave, noting the physiques of the others around me, deciding that I fit in ok. The worst thing on these races is to be too slow, to be hounded by others on my heels on the rough terrain. I’m slow on downhill, cautious after sprained ankles. When pressed, I panic and go even slower. So choosing the right place to start is pretty key.

Decisions made, long-sleeved t-shirt tossed into a nearby tree for pickup later, the countdown begins, and then we’re running.

The track is muddy from days of rain, studded with small and large rocks. It narrows considerably near the river, where a slip could mean a slide downhill into the brown and fast-flowing Yarra. Some pass me, and then I pass them. Eucalypts slide by, my breathing comes fast and I am absolutely focused on the now. Each puddle I jump, each downhill I traverse, each decision I make comes fast and furious. No time for second-guessing.

It is only towards the end of the race that it happens. Someone gets right behind me, right on my heels. Step-for-step they follow me. By now, the field has spread out and there is no runner in front of me. I’m following ribbons on trees to stay on course, slowing at intersections, then bounding downwards at full pace. I want to say, pass me if you like, but I’m short of breath and we’re nearly there. After a few minutes, I sense that this person doesn’t want to pass anyway, wants me to set the pace. So I do. Speeding up, gaining assurance. Suddenly my legs feel strong and up to the challenge.

I turn a last corner, hear cheers, and suddenly see the finish line fifty metres in front of me. Her voice comes from behind.

“You go,” she shouts, “I never wanted to pass you.”

I glance back, see her, shout back, “Let’s finish together, come on.” Then, “Go go go!”

And then we are running next to each other, stride for stride, fast as we can, not racing but supporting one another through this moment. Someone shouts, “Go Patricia!”, and I smile, wondering who it is, as we pound across the finish line.

This stranger and I hug, a sweaty, real honest hug, huge smiles and delight. We’ve both chosen well.

On the way home, I turn up Bon Jovi on the car stereo. The song is Lost Highway. I used to play it on the treadmill at Pure Fitness in Hong Kong, wishing I felt what the song was saying.

“In my rearview mirror, my life is getting clearer…its Independence Day on this lost highway…”

Suddenly I realise. This is exactly how I feel right now. Everything is clear. Decisions are easy. I sit up straighter and drive down these roads, which, after four long years, are finally home.