The North Race 50 km Race is coming at me like a freight train down a long dark tunnel. No, wait. I am meant to be thinking positive. Same freight train, only I am Superman and I am going to fly over the top of it. No, I don’t like that either, after my Superman move in my last race, flying through the air and slamming down into the hard earth.
Lets just say the North Face 50km race in Sydney’s Blue Mountains is not far off.
School holidays tried to play havoc with my training over the last week, with a two-day trip to Ballarat (a town that had a gold mining boom, and now has a gold mining theme park called Sovereign Hill, where the kids can pan for gold). I knew I needed another ten kilometre run this week, and that this would be difficult being away from home. I called upon my running group for ideas of places to run in Ballarat and they dangled some really juicy trails in front of me, up in the woods, single-track, twenty kilometres of glory. But that meant a drive, and I had no time to drive anywhere, and no trail maps.
I researched all of the running groups ideas; I spent time Googling (obsessively) where to run in Ballarat; I even asked the landlady at the serviced apartment where we were staying (she mentioned some yellow creek track out the back of the property that she’d always wanted to run, and I stared out our window and could see it).
Wednesday came and went, with a fair bit of gold mined by our 9-year-old son, but no time for running. The bottle of champagne came out after the kids went to bed (it was our first hotel stay in five years!), and my running plan for Thursday morning fell in a big, fat, bubbly heap. I didn’t know where to run, and I wasn’t going. That was that.
I woke up at 6 am with no hangover (good champagne!), and heard rain on our roof. The kids turned on the tv and my husband stumbled downstairs to play with them. I lay there awake, thinking of this quote I’d seen: “I really regret that run”, said no runner ever. The words played in my head. I got up, got dressed, and stared at the hotel map I’d picked up. Hell with it, I said to myself. I’m going. I’d plotted out a course to a lake that would take me through town – the hotel landlady said the lake was 6km around so it would do, with the run there and back. My ever-patient husband agreed to mind the kids for the hour I’d be gone, and I grabbed the hotel map, my iPhone, and some cash, and ran out the door.
The plan was to run Main Road to Grant Street to Eyre Street, then to find my way to Lake Wendouree. I repeated the directions in my head – I won’t lie; I was scared. I don’t like running alone in new places – the New Yorker in me sees danger in solitude, danger in the unknown. But I figured I could turn back if I needed to. I got about 1km into the run, then looked right. And there was a blue sign, saying Canadian Creek Trail – that was one I’d read about the night before, and my alternate plan if I could find it. So I trotted off my original course (give me a trail before a road any day) and read the sign, 2.85 to somewhere in the city. That would do. The “trail” was bitumen to begin with, which seemed wrong, but I went on. The trees had their autumn leaves on show, with reds, yellows, and golds. Though the creek was really a concrete-lined two-inch wide bit of water at this point, I pretended otherwise and kept going, delighted I was finding my way. I crossed a road or two, and was elated to see signs for the trail at each intersection.
Until the intersection where there wasn’t a sign. I’d only gone 2km by then and hated the idea of turning back but I did. For ten steps. Then I turned around again and looked in front of me. A road ran along the stream. Surely I couldn’t get lost if I just stayed by the stream (Bear Grylls gave me that idea!). So I did. I ran on for three more blocks, nervous, vigilant, then all of a sudden a new trail sign appeared, this time for the Yarrowee Creek Trail. I knew there were seven trails in a kind of network along here, thanks to my google research, so I just kept going. Another runner bounded uphill towards me, and I was reassured by the sight of his fuel belt, and ran a bit faster. The bitumen changed to gravel, the concrete-lined creek to an actual creek with rocks, pools, and ducks, and still I ran. The trail changed names several more times but followed the same stream so it didn’t matter. Uphill and down I ran, along this isolated but lovely autumn-leaved trail, forgetting for minutes at a time to be scared, remembering what another woman runner had said (“I just assume the bad guys are too lazy to come all the way out where I run”). I held my map, which of course, was no use now, and just followed that creek. I got to my 5km turnaround, and laughed out loud. I’d done it; I followed the same creek back, only getting lost briefly when I came out on the road too soon and turned the wrong way, but the house numbers gave me the navigational clue I needed and I turned around and ran back home.
I’d done it; and now Ballarat holds a memory for me for always. That creek trail, that only I saw, that will always be mine alone.
The next day, Friday, out in the Dandenongs, I overcame another barrier. Here in Australia, it is Planned Burn season. That’s where they set the forest on fire in a particular section for a short time to prevent bigger fires they can’t control. Usually it is contained. Planned Burns never impacted me directly before, not until I saw a photo of Mount Dandenong burning (that’s where I train) on Wednesday night. Big-time burning. I studied photos that seemed to show half the mountain a-flame. This was the very mountain I was running on Friday morning.
After lots more research both on forestry sites and with local runners, I decided it would be safe by then, and a group of us made our way around a 38.3km course. Part of it ran right through the burned forest. Let me paint the picture for you: me and three other runners alone on a hillside. We come to the burned out section, take some photos of charred trees, think it is kind of cool, then run on. There are lots and lots of charred trees. Oh, and some of them are still smoking. In fact, there is lots of smoke. It feels a bit like Armageddon, and the smoke makes it seem surreal and dangerous and we run fast downhill until we hit a green section, relieved to be out of there.
But we had a second lap to go, which myself and a friend named Frankie completed alone. By this time, the sun was out and the wind had picked up, and still the trees smoked. I was alarmed, elated, terrified and brave all at once. We ran it; got out of there, and our watches turned over to 38.3 km and Frankie high-fived me because this was the furthest I’d ever, ever run.
So the North Face race is five weeks away. I am having the most extraordinary experiences in training. I am learning that running long-distance races has an element I never understood. That the journey to get to the starting line is just as compelling as the race itself.
This, to me, is a strange and wonderful thing.