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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Ready to ride the 21k Roller Coaster Run?

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

Did I mention planning the year?

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

If only I’d read it six months earlier.

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

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

Is it any wonder I’m a little tired?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A friend on the trail

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

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Tree ferns in dappled sun

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

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

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

But this weekend, I intend to fly.

And to feel this happy at the finish line…

IMG_3122

Leila enjoying a roll…

 

Great hopes and tremendous expectations

Quite a title, I know.

And not for any particular reason, other than I was paging through an old book I bought while in graduate school (Positive Thinking Every Day, by Norman Vincent Peale), and this was the inspiration of the day.  The book is old now, water-damaged, the spine breaking in places.  And still…

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Once upon a time, I was a poor graduate student in a tiny studio apartment in Times Square, New York.  I was twenty-three.  I had so much still to learn about love and life and the way of the world.

And I was so afraid.  Of everything.  The subway frightened me so much that I walked everywhere, for miles and miles and miles.  I would leave my apartment on 44th Street and 6th Avenue, and walk to graduate school down on 18th Street and Park.  I would only walk on Broadway, because I knew the way.  In the evening, before dark, I would walk back.

Afraid of being robbed (that was a valid fear in New York City in 1990), I didn’t carry a purse.  Instead, I wore a thick winter jacket with a zipper pocket high on the sleeve.  I placed my student ID and the little cash I had in that pocket, and felt safe.  No one would think of finding my money there.

In the pocket of this decidedly unfashionable olive-green ski jacket, I carried a small Walkman.  Cassettes were the thing in those days.  And batteries.  The music comforted me as I walked those lonely streets, searching for my path.  Mariah Carey: Hero.  Garth Brooks: Maverick.  Songs long-forgotten that, when I hear them, can make me tear up in memory.

Back then, I had lots of textbooks.  Enough to fill quite a few bookshelves.  But my furnished student housing didn’t contain bookshelves, just a bed, a desk, a broken wooden chair, and the industrial kind of grey carpeting that hurt the soles of your feet if you were brave enough to take your shoes off.

And wildlife.  It contained wildlife in the form of gigantic, New-York-oversized waterbugs.  Picture a cockroach on steroids that’s been pumping iron and you’ll get the idea.  My apartment wasn’t dirty; this was simply the way of things in New York, Times Square.

Once, in my tub, I found a small mouse.  It must have come up from the drain.  It couldn’t get out of the tub.  It would jump and slide; jump and slide.  It broke my heart.  That mouse reminded me of me.  Small and alone, and not really getting anywhere fast.  Instinct said to kill it, but I can’t kill anything without great regret.  I pondered that mouse and what to do.

I remembered how my Dad used to capture spiders and set them free.  A container on top; then a thick piece of cardboard gently slid under to lift them into the container; then flip it over (and make sure the make-shift lid didn’t slip off in the process or all hell would break loose).  Presto – a captured spider that could be set free in the garden.

So that’s what I did with the mouse.  Trouble was, I was twelve stories up in an apartment building.  I had no garden.  There was no way to release this little, scared mouse.  I sat down with the container and thought about it.

Then I left the apartment, took the elevator downstairs, holding my mouse-containing container, walked down 44th Street to 6th Avenue, crossed a few streets and entered Bryant Park, a small oasis in mid-town full of trees and gardens (and, in those days, drug users and thieves).

Carefully, I knelt down, placed the container on the ground and took the lid off.  The little mouse was huddled at the bottom.  I stared at its little pink paws; it stared back at me for a moment.  Then it scurried out into the park, disappearing into the bushes.  It was September, still warm enough for that mouse to be okay for several months before it had to find a new indoor hide-away.  I went back upstairs to study.

That was my home: mice and waterbugs and a bookshelf made from six yellow milk-crates stacked one-upon the other, because the $129 the real bookshelf cost was an impossible, laughable figure for me.

This small book I have just re-discovered – in 1990, it cost $9.00; back then, I could afford this.  I needed those affirmations.  Much time has passed since those days.  I’ve married, lived in many homes and several countries, published two books, adopted two children, numerous cats and a dog.

Then, seven years ago, we moved into our wonderful home in Australia.  The first home we ever owned.  I chose this room at the front of the house for my home office.  I had bookshelves; we’d bought IKEA ones years ago, and the movers shoved them into the wardrobe and filled them, as quickly as possible, and that was it.

For seven long years, I planned to fix it, to re-arrange my precious things, to paint the room something other than the mustard yellow that hurt my eyes and my heart.

For years, when I opened the wardrobe doors, I would gaze in despair at the mess of who I had been – all that schooling and work and writing and life  – all mixed up together, all lost in the chaos of mothering young children and just keeping life going.

Once, during a writing group, I invited another author into the office to show her where I worked.  She looked; she pronounced judgment: “You don’t take your work seriously, do you?”

As it was...

As it was…

She was right.  But that comment hurt.

I couldn’t back.  Not back then.  It was impossible, just as, in 1990,  buying a real bookshelf in Times Square was impossible.

But in 2015, this year, I was ready.  I was ripe for change.  Like that mouse in my long-ago tub in New York City, I was going to set myself free.  After seven long years, I got the guts up to renovate my home office, to make those hopes and expectations of so, so long ago come true.

It took six months.  Several quotes.  Some standing up for myself.  I hired a man to come tear out the wardrobe, chose a new color scheme, and found a wonderful bookshelf designer.  In its way, this was all as scary to me now as the subway was when I was 23.

And now it is done.

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My new soul-place, disguised as a bookshelf

This little book that I bought so long ago (in a day when all I could do was dream of the day I could be who I am now) holds a place of honour on my new shelves.  It reminds me of where I came from, how far I had to travel to get to where I am now.

Way back then, I had great hopes and tremendous expectations, kind of like that little mouse I set free.

Today, in this moment, I sit in gratitude for all the blessings that life has delivered me.

I still fall on my face sometimes…

Ah, Jessie J, you’ve got it so right tonight, I had tears streaming down my face as I listened to your wonderful song.  It gets to the heart of things.

There are confidences I cannot give away whilst blogging, and this makes it so hard to tell the truth.  Suffice it to say it has been a tough day.  One of those days where the dark cloud seemed to follow me around no matter how I tried to blow it away.  There are good reasons for the darkness, reasonable reasons, and yet, how I Hate IT.

So, when I’m sitting at home after finally getting the kids to bed after cooking two separate dinners and waiting for the third one to finish in the oven, well, everything seemed to sort of suck.  I’m too tired to come up with a poetic way to put it.  Everything sucked.

I spent three months renovating my home office so I could have a great place to finally write my masterpiece, but in the renovation, my computer got filled with dust, the internet broke, and I could no longer print to my printer.  In between, I spent a week in New York far-welling my elderly Aunt, a week in Sydney celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary, and lots of time soul-searching.

There is a book in me that is itching to be written.  I’ve started it three times, in three ways, and am now trying to merge them together to make a masterpiece.  What with family, and work, and pets, and laundry, it is so hard to find the time.  I keep falling on my face.

I think we’re doing okay, then a day comes like today, or yesterday, and pulls the rug out from under me, pulls me under like a rip-tide, and I know if I went for a run I’d run way too far to just run away from this black dog at my heels.

Instead, I’m going to breathe and blog, and accept that today was just one day.  I’ve had plenty of bad days, bad weeks, bad months, but I’ve always come through.  The dark I live in today will power my writing in the future.

I still fall on my face sometimes.  But it’s okay.  Because Jessie J does too, and she writes masterpieces that move me to tears.  I’m just going to dust myself off, put on Rachel Platten’s Fight Song, and get on with thinking about my new masterpiece.

Running?  It’s going okay.  But that’s a blog for another day.