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.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.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.
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.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.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.