Two Bays 2018: can a trail mend me?

If I had tried to write this blog a few days ago.  Well.  Suffice it to say that when everyone else is annoying, it really is nothing to do with anyone else but me.  Perspective and time have taken the edge off the strongest of the emotions, along with a strangely calming session of acupuncture on my tender calves.  So here goes…

It was to be my third Two Bays 28km Trail Run.  My first, in 2013, was an adventure, the longest distance I’d ever run, and magical in the way that all new adventures are.  In 2015, I was unprepared, sucked into entering by a Facebook demon, whereupon I went for a 20k training run to prove to myself that December was not too late to begin training (it was), jumped into my pool overheated and fully clothed and wearing my (now dead) iPhone in a running belt.  I completed the 28k run that year in 3:09, grimacing in pain as my feet and calves cramped from about 22k, all the way through to the finish line.

2018 was about redemption.  And intelligence.

I had learned much since I began.  Trained and completed many arduous events.  I was going to do it right this time.  I began training in September, plotting out a plan that would see me strongly through the holidays, to peak at just the right time.  There were soccer weekends away I had to account for, there was the Marysville Half-Marathon smack bang in the middle of my plan, and there was, of course, the mayhem of Christmas with two young children.

I won’t give you the details of the plan- it would be boring, and my plan is not your plan.  I’m a 52-year-old woman who loves to cross-train, teaches Bodypump and swims twice a week.  I’ve also got floaters in both eyes (this means grey shadows that at times block a lot of my visual field, and make technical terrain a whole lot more hit-and-miss).  So what I do is probably not what you’d want to, need to, or should do.

In a nutshell though, my plan was to fight against cramping  by training on hills and over the full race distance.  In the Dandenongs, I managed three 28km runs, and on 25km run that lasted over four hours due to the elevation gain.  Here is a selection of training run photos – that’s the joy of training for long distance events – the magic of the trails happens a lot more often.

I also trained for flatter and faster, down on the Surfcoast Trail, mainly because we were in Ocean Grove for the two weeks prior to Two Bays.  I was nervous but more confident at the end of training than any year prior.  I did lots of tempo and interval runs as well, but swapped out some distance for swimming and weight training, averaging about 50k for many of the weeks.

Yes, I had trained well.  Physically, I was ready.

However, I’d forgotten about the other big issue in my life: stress.  One of my children has some severe developmental/behavioural challenges.  Sometimes things are kind of ok; sometimes they are a tsunami of a nightmare.  The day before Two Bays – well, the month before, to be honest – was a tsunami time.  Lots happened, but the peak of it was Saturday, the day before Two Bays, when a soccer ball was kicked, as hard as possible, straight at me and into my knee and upper thigh, by my child.  To say it hurt is silly.  That does nothing to explain the pain of what felt like a conscious attack by someone I love most in the world.  I screamed in pain, shouted words I won’t repeat here, and lost it completely for the rest of the day.  My world was black and ending and everything I had done to this point in my life had been an utter and complete mistake.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  At all.  Not pre-race insomnia.  Not like usual.  This was stare-at-the-ceiling-and-evaluate-my-life awfulness.  I was almost grateful when our dog went nuts at 4 am, as I was awake anyway.  I was up and dressed by 4:30, driving off in the dead of night by 5.

The darkness was a blanket, and the drizzle felt appropriate and grey.

I was not tired; I was too nervous driving to be tired, as I had a new navigator in my car that I was unsure of.  It coached me for the hour’s drive, most of which I knew well, and told me where to get off the road for Permien Street, Dromana.  Except this was not the exit I knew.  The navigator said turn left, and I said where?, and turned in the wrong place and got immediately lost in some strange suburb.  The horror of it.  Alone.  In the dark.  Trying desperately to get to the race headquarters for six am.  I was breathing fast and my hands were gripping the steering wheel in a death-grip.

I pulled back on the highway, thinking I was heading the right way, but the next exit was not Dromana, it was Rosebud.  It was like one of those nightmares where things get worse and worse.  I drove on, finally letting the navigator have the wheel, afraid I’d be routed to Sorrento and back.

Imagine – just imagine! – my relief when I recognised the road.  It was the road I knew from the Two Bays Run, the one we run up right at the start.  In fact, the race crew was out putting up event signs as I drove downhill, elated, knowing where I was.

Now, perhaps this doesn’t seem the most auspicious start to a trail run requiring some navigation.  But I forgot about it immediately after I parked.  I got out of my car, caught my breath, and gazed at the bay.  It required my presence more than race headquarters.  I made my way there and stared at the still waters.  Waters that I wished I could be more like.

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Still waters

I turned away: there was a race to be run, regardless of how I was feeling.  I knew, as well, the quickest way out of the quicksand of dark emotions: it was a trail, running full pelt for hours and hours and hours.

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Sunrise above Arthur’s Seat, Dromana

The time prior to a race is always the same.  Joy at seeing friends, nerves at what we’re about to do, general restlessness and preparation of my gear.  I saw Andrea and shared a quick hello, but quickly lost her in the crowd.  Found some fellow Dandenong Trail Runners and had a short chat.  Did some warm-up jogging.

I noted that I wasn’t afraid.  It was odd, as the first time I’d run this race, I’d been terrified, felt completely out-of-place and overwhelmed by the lean athletes surrounding me.  That was something, anyway, that quiet confidence, even though the weight of doom regarding my family life hung heavy.

We lined up in the starting chute.  All was ready.  I took a quick photo to remember the moment, checked that my Garmin was ready to go.

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Ready to go!

The crowd of us runners were so noisy, I couldn’t hear the countdown, and only knew to begin when the runners in front of me started moving forward.  We were off!

The race begins uphill on a road.  I love uphills; I eat hills for breakfast.  I found myself dodging around other runners, powering up the hill.  I was elated; this felt easy.  The Dandenongs hill training was really helping.  In no time, in much shorter time than I recalled in other years, we were at the trail head at Bunurong Track, forming a single line of runners to work our way up Arthur’s Seat.

Up and up and up we went, on the widish dirt trail.  It was punctuated with stone steps and riddled with tree roots and rocks.  We played hopscotch with one another, sometimes passing, sometimes being passed.  I knew this terrain well from training runs, and let the memories play over of talks I’d shared with friends about music and piano, about kids and grandkids.  I glanced now and again at the blueness of the bay, being sure to immerse myself in this magical landscape, all the while trying not to trip over my own two feet or the many roots and rocks that wanted me down.

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This might be Arthur’s Seat descent. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

We got to the top, and began the long, fast descent.

That bit about other people being annoying?  Yep.  It began here.  And it wasn’t them.  It was one-hundred percent me, and my aggro mood.  Still.  There was the runner who ran with elbows out, who seemed magnetically drawn to me, who seemed to find the exact line I was aiming for on the steep, slippery gravel, and then ran at the same pace as me.  If I sped up, she sped up; slowed, she slowed.  It would have been comical if I weren’t clenching my teeth and swearing in my head so loudly.  We didn’t crash, amazingly, and I didn’t say a word of what was going on in my head.

Soon, we were down by McLaren’s Dam, and I was too busy watching for snakes to wonder about any of the other runners (though by a video posted the next day, I would have been better watching for kangaroos trying to cross the path).

We ran along some suburban roads, then onto a section that had been full of thigh-high grass several weeks before.  It had been mown and was no longer a terror-filled snake pit!  There were dozens of happy, smiling, dressed-up volunteers, children to high-five, and a lot of passing and being passed by the same runners, some polite, some not so much, and before I knew it we were in the Greens Bush Section, a wonder world of beauty and nature.

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Happy on the trail. Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

Oh, but here was another one of those irritating other people!  This time it was someone behind me, and the tinny sound of their iPhone music, played loud without ear phones.  I could not believe it.  I had hungered for the peace of the bush, the sounds of nature, even the hush of the footfalls of runners.  Instead, I heard Emimem, angry, volatile, judgmental: You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you better never let it go go, you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow cause opportunity comes one in a lifetime…

I love this song.  I’ve played it hundreds of times teaching Bodypump, I’ve run to it, cycled to it, cried to it.  However, in that moment, in Two Bays, in Greens Bush, I hated it.  I wanted to grab the offender’s music device and smash it on a rock.  I wanted to smash him on a rock.  I wanted to run faster or slower or grab a helicopter out because I couldn’t bear it.  I couldn’t get away, though, bolting forward or slowing down.  He played the music loudly and chatted even louder to his friend.  Finally, I called out behind me: could you please turn the music down mate?

Me!  I said that.  Like an angry fishwife.

Please, fellow runner, accept my apology, and thank you for not responding out loud, and for simply turning down the music.  It wasn’t you; it was me.

Phew.  The dragon had reared its head.  I took a deep breath and ran on.

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Getting a bit technical.  Photo courtesy of Supersport Images.

This is where the run got tricky.  I was fit and fast and I could run the uphills without any issue.  But when the trail turned technical and dark and downhill, I was doomed.  I simply couldn’t see well enough to run fast, and I got passed by every runner and their dog (if dogs were allowed) and I began to wallow in the woe-is-me-I’m-so-slow-and-old-and-blind pit.  I let people by and passed them again on the uphills.  I fought hard to keep a place in the tribe of trail runners but I felt I was losing it, losing the joy and the ability to do this thing I had loved for so long.  I swiped at my eyes, and swallowed hard.

Then my foot began to cramp.  I gobbled down some gel, a few salt tablets, and consoled myself with the fact that we were already at 20km.  A fast girl ran past me and assured me we were nearly home, and I bit back the words I don’t want to go home, and ran on.

I’d planned to bolt at 23, to really race the last five to the finish.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, I kept my foot on the brake, trying to hold off the impending cramps, and instead focusing on the breathtaking views of the other side of the bay that appeared.  Some high-fives for children, and soon the finish arch was in sight.  Past me at speed ran three other runners; I did not chase.  I ran across my own finish line in 3:06, which I thought was three minutes slower than my target from 2015,  but in fact was a PB for this course.

Afterwards, I stared at the views of the bay, elated, sad, happy, tired, but no longer in that dark place from which I’d started.

When my friend Cissy invited me to join her group of friends for lunch, something I’d usually avoid because I’m shy around strangers, I decided it was time to try something new.  Even though I couldn’t get phone reception and I was alone and had to navigate somewhere I’d never been before I went.

Even when the outside of the place looked odd and like an industrial estate rather than a restaurant, in I went.

I sat with this group of runners, and chatted, and suddenly, I felt alive again, at home, and no one was irritating, and I was okay, I did make good choices, and I could do anything or be anything I wanted.  It was all going to be all right.

Sometimes the trail seems way too far, the world seems full of aggravating others, and then you simply put on your trail shoes, and run and run and run, and when you are done, the world has put on a brand new coat and looks shiny and beautiful again.

I got home and hugged my child and gave them the present I had bought them, and promised myself to add more joy to my running for the rest of 2018.

Thank you Two Bays, for reminding me why I run.

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The Trail Running Series Race 1: flying through Westerfolds Park

I’ve planned it very carefully, even as I slalom and smash my way through this 10.6km trail run.  The woman has been in front of me the same distance throughout the race, and I’ve consciously kept pace with her.  It’s been tough, and fast, and I haven’t run this hard in a race in years.  My pace is well below the 5-minute kilometre mark that I’ve deemed my fastest trail pace.

I wait until there’s one kilometre to go to make my move.  Unfortunately, some guy makes his move first and gets in front of me, between me and her.  I grimace, decide I’m going to have to pass him too.  It hurts like hell but I add the acceleration I need to get by him.

He, though, is not my prey.  I move on her next, carefully, as the terrain is criss-crossed by tree roots and single-track.  I’m passing her, pushing hard, totally breathless, and she says, “well done, terrific run,” and I grunt, “thanks, you too,” thinking this must be her way of making me speak to slow me down.  She must know we’re racing each other.  We’re in the same age category and there’s only one other woman in front of us in our age category.

I push hard.  That last kilometre is pure pain and pure bliss.  I feel her at my back and increase the pace.  I can hear cow bells being rung by spectators and know (pray) that this means the finish line is near.  I’m really struggling to hold the pace, to stay in front of this woman I know is trying to catch me.  We pass parked cars and I see the finish line and I hear a runner coming up behind me and I know it’s her and I can’t put anything more in and then right in front of me in the midst of the sprint the ground drops away in a small gully and I’m scared to death I’m going to trip but I don’t, I keep running and the person passes me and I’m overjoyed because it’s a man and I can let him go and I pound and push and drive myself across the finish line.

I’m smiling ear-to-ear, thrilled I’ve won this race, or at least second place on the podium in my age category.  I’ve fought hard for speed in the last three months and what’s making me smile most of all is I felt fast in myself.  I finally felt agile and strong and like the runner I used to be before I played around with ultra-marathons.  It’s taken me just under 48 minutes to run this 10.6km course.  This is nearing my 10k PB on the road.  I’m utterly delighted and thrilled with both the course and my performance.

I look for the woman to thank her for the race, and for helping me push my pace, but I can’t find her.  Instead, I find my friend Cissy, standing near the finish chute with her running friends.  By happy coincidence, the woman I’d raced is standing with her.  I smile at this stranger, and we greet each other.  I thank her for her pace.  And then I look at her more closely.  I’d only seen her from behind, just known she was a woman.  Assumed she was in my age category because she had short hair and only woman over 50 have short hair, right?  That’s when I first cut mine short.

Except when I looked at her now, she was gorgeous and young.  Blonde.  I asked the obvious question I’d never ask a woman except at a race: how old are you?  As in, are you in my age category?   She was not.  She was two categories below me.  I didn’t have to race her at all.  Funny.  Ha ha.  I’d still come 2nd in my age category.

Cissy and I went to check the computer for race results.  Usually, I have to wait ages for my race to come up, then my age category.  This time, it was right there on the screen.  As if the Gods of Racing were laughing at me.  There I was, not in 2nd or 3rd place in my age category, but in 4th!  Not only was I racing the wrong woman, there were two other women I should’ve been racing in front of me, and I didn’t even know about them.  Third place had beaten me by twenty seconds.  Silly, to let this wipe the smile from my face.  But it did.  Briefly.

Then I started laughing because it was really, really funny.  And I reminded myself that I am not actually racing anyone at all, right?  Funny how getting onto the podium can feel so important sometimes.

Turned out Cissy had won first in her age category, so I got to cheer for her anyway.

Happiness is great friends at a trail race

And it turned out that on this day of racing, the top 11 women (I was the 11th) were either in the age categories of 20-29 or 50-59.  Very strange, as usually the strongest women are 40-49.  Four of the top 11 were over 50.

Which brings me to my point.  I’ve always enjoyed getting older because I get moved up an age category and then sometimes get to step on the podium for a year or so.  What strange, awful world have I stumbled into, what parallel universe, where the women get faster as they age?  This is a terrible blow to my aging and racing strategy.  It will take some getting used to.

But let’s talk about the race, the wonderful race.

I arrived at our new race location for the first race in The Trail Series at Westerfolds Park in Templestowe, just in time to note that all the cars seemed to be heading out of the park.  I took this as a bad sign, but pushed on in search of the elusive-but-not-to-be-found close parking spot.  Giving up, I joined the others leaving and quickly turned into a final parking lot just before the park exit.  Win!  It was only a five-minute walk to the start across the fields, like orienteering where the chatter of the gathering runners was the mark I had to find.

Orienteering to get to the start line

Coming home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is always a homecoming of sorts, the start of The Trail Series.  The A-frame with the race description I feel compelled to study though I carry a printed copy in my race bag;   Richie’s Mexican food and wonderful salsa; the coffee truck; the cheese-toastie truck that sprinkles their toasties with rock salt in what might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted post-race in my entire life.  The man with the microphone entertains and scares me in equal measure.  The long line for the portable toilets that I feel I must join as soon as I see it.  Runners pinning on numbers, getting their Series t-shirts, chatting, warming up, huddled in groups of running teams, the PTRs and LTRs and DTRs and TXRs and Urban Trail Runners and Running Mums of Australia and so many others.  The joy on their faces, the expectation, the camaraderie.

The warm-up happens for the long course.  I join the toilet queue again, listen to others talk about work issues and race strategies.  I find my friend Cissy and meet some of her nice running buddies, see Ali and talk about her big puppy dog.  Say hi to Richie and think about post-race food.  I’m huddled in my down jacket, as if pretending I’m not running, and it takes a bit of determination when I go to the bag check to strip all the layers off down to my DTR (Dandenong Trail Runners) singlet and 2XU tights.  Cold.  Cold.  Cold.  So I bolt around the fields and tracks to warm up, feeling the strength in my legs.  Buoyant.  That’s how I feel today.

Several years ago, I fell in with a new crowd.  They had an odd compulsion, and I followed them blindly.  It was fun for a while, but it resulted in me losing my first love.

I’m talking about those ultra-marathoners!  I followed them, and I lost my speed!  I could run for miles and miles and miles, like the EverReady Bunny, but I’d lost my bounce and agility, and the thing that made me love running.  Adrenaline.  Speed.  Going around turns at break-neck pace, leaping and bounding over obstacles like superwoman.  There wasn’t time to go to the gym to lift heavy, as I love to do.

So I left ultra running, waved a fond farewell and put it away.

Here’s my revised training schedule (skip this bit if it bores you please).   Instead of running 50-60km per week, this is what I do:

Lunge and deadlift dumbbells

Squat weight for Thursday training

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday: Swim 2k with lots of intervals and different strokes.  Practice and teach one hour Bodypump class.  Jump-rope 200 jumps.

Tuesday: Trail run, 10k tempo training run along the flat, fast Bayside Coastal Track.

Wednesday: Swim 2k, Teach Bodypump.  Jump-rope 200 jumps.

Thursday: 6k treadmill interval training, 1 minute fast, 1 minute slow.  Followed by Very Heavy Weight training for one hour (squats, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg squats, chest, back and core work).

Friday: Long run.  Either 18-20 km Bayside Coastal Track, or 18km on Mount Dandenong.  I target one week for faster pace and the other for hill training.

What’s changed is I only run about 40km a week.  I do a lot more swimming and weight lifting.  I want to run FAST and with power and agility.  I still throw in the odd half-marathon but mostly to see new places and beautiful courses.  My body has returned to me, my muscles and my pace, but it has been really hard work, the pushing and the training and the runs in the cold rain when I haven’t felt so much like doing them.  But I had a goal: a fast 10k.

That was my mindset for this 10.6 race.  So I was delighted to hear it wasn’t going to be technical, but smooth single-track.  Am I the only one who was surprised by the number of tree roots?  The photographers seemed to be placed just at the most awkward spots – I was afraid to glance up at them and smile, as I was sure to face-plant if I did.  That would’ve made a great photo!

Here are my highlights of the Medium course, the 10.6 km run, the bits I could see when I dared to look up from my feet:

  • okay, a lot of views of my feet not tripping over tree roots.  I loved this part.

I will not look up at photographer and face plant= my mantra

  • the stairs, and the up-and-up hilly bits
  • the bridge over the Yarra with wild water running over rocks and the grey sky
  • the small uphills where my legs were powerful enough to push a few places ahead
  • the tree roots that threatened me but didn’t get me this time.  The agility they required and the mindfulness they engaged.
  • not getting taken out by the one unexpected roller-blader when I went to pass on a road section.
  • the same five or six runners being in my sights the entire race, knowing I’d found my sweet spot
  • the fact that I could run as fast as I wanted – and I wanted to run so fast – for the first time in years

Running as fast as I can!

At the finish, blazing across that finish line using up every drop in my tank and feeling utterly elated to have run that distance in 48 minutes (47:54 by official timing).

The friendships I have made, the shared laughter and hurting and joy at podium places and photos and the lovely man with a guitar singing my favourite songs (“You can go your own way…” which was utterly perfect just as I crossed the finish line).

My desk, Monday morning

Monday comes, and I find I can’t stop smiling.  My mind keeps returning to those trails, those people, the glorious memories of what we’ve done together.

My desk and laundry are full of race stuff and I don’t want to put it away, but the second race in The Trail Series is still three weeks away.

Thankfully, I have the little matter of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon on Saturday to keep me occupied!  More on this later.

Thanks for an awesome event Rapid Ascent!  See you at Race 2!

 

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.

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Hailstones atop Mount Dandenong!

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hoka One One Studley Park: Slippery When Wet

I had become airborne.  This was not something I’d intended.

The mighty, rain-swollen Yarra River flowed strongly on my right, just down below me, just a small slip away down the narrow hillside.  My arms flailed the air, as if I were doing some crazy dance move from the 80s.  The mud-slicked path was below me, a single-track studded with rocks and tree roots, the trail where I had witnessed numerous runners bite the dust.  Through the first five kilometres of this eleven kilometre course, I had been cautious, but I had been getting annoyed at being passed by other, more courageous runners.

So I sped up.  That’s about when I came to the slickest corner yet, slid around it, and became airborne.

Thankfully, the wild waving of my arms balanced me, and my feet landed solidly back on the muddy trail.  I laughed aloud and kept on running.

I did slow down a bit though: the vision of me sliding down the hill into Yarra River was strong.  I reminded myself (again) to run my own race.

It hadn’t been easy to get to the start line today.  Over the last few days, my youngest had begun swearing and throwing things at me again.  I had hoped we were beyond these things, and having them return brought back a surge of painful memories.  I knew the reasons for the behaviour, but it still hurt to be the target.  This wasn’t the ending I had planned, or how I’d imagined family life would turn out.  The night before the race I hadn’t slept well, and had woken with a feeling of despair about where things were at in my home and family, about the ongoing challenges of raising my particular child. And today, because of soccer commitments, I was going alone to this race.  My family couldn’t even come this time.

Race headquarters

Race headquarters

As I was doing the medium course (10.8 km), my race didn’t start until 9:45.  Having been here many times before, I knew if I came an hour before the race, I’d never get a decent park, so I opted for an early arrival, which meant around 8 am.  The trouble with this strategy was the waiting-around time.  On a good day, I’d enjoy this, watching the other runners, soaking up the atmosphere.  But today was not a good day.  Today I felt lonely and alone, sad that my family wasn’t there, bereft at the trouble at home. I wandered around, picked up my series t-shirt, smiled a forced smile, and contemplated running the long course just to get going.

IMG_3597

Early morning fog and gum trees

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Views from the Studley Park Boathouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In time, I ran into an acquaintance who took my mind off my own problems.  He told me he was having chest pains.  I didn’t tell him my father had died of a sudden heart attack, just listened, and hoped the Medics, when they turned up, would tell him to go home. Thankfully, they did, and even better, I heard from him later that all was fine, which was a huge relief.

The time came for the long course to start, and I watched them go from the other side of the river.  It was a view I’d not seen before, having always done the long or short course.  The colours of the racers shirts moving between the fog and gum trees was stunning.

Time passed.  I ate a banana, drank from the metal water fountain, and gradually began to remove layers.  I had arrived in a ski jacket, beanie, gloves, wool jacket, icebreaker, long-sleeved t-shirt and running tights.  Little by little, I stowed these layers in my backpack, checked it into the baggage check area, and was set to run in my singlet and tights, still wearing my wool jacket to throw in a tree at the last-minute at the Start.

The Yarra from the wobbly bridge

View of the Yarra River from the wobbly bridge

I wobbled my way across the bridge, noting the fog, the serenity of the kayaks, the gum trees.  There was plenty of time.  I remembered all the times my family had come to cheer me off at this race, good times, bad times, there was no grey.  I ran back and forth on the road near the start line, marvelling at how good my legs felt, how springy and alive after two rest days.

I approached the Start.  A loudspeaker was going, innocuous pop songs; I hardly heard them.

Then, a familiar tune began.  I could feel my knowledge of this song, how it had made me feel in the past.  The lyrics took a while coming, then, “Right here, right now, right here, right now…”.

I let the words echo in me, bring me right into the present moment.  Right here; right now.  Right here; right now.  It was all that mattered.  I let the stuff from home drift away, noticed where I was, began to feel a sense of peace and joy.

Race start approached.  I stowed my wool jacket in a rain-soaked tree, and enjoyed the cold, enjoyed how it felt elemental and real and made me feel alive.  The drizzle began as we did a warm-up in the start chute.  It felt fitting and right.

The countdown came all of a sudden, the last ten seconds, and then we were off!  I went Too Fast, of course, bolting behind the people towards the front, okay with the pace until I glanced at my Garmin to see 4:25, and then I backed off.  It wouldn’t do to blow out.

I’d run this course every year for the last six, but each year, it felt new.  The concrete path, the turn-off to the left.  The wide trail.  The grassy bits.  The bits along the empty road and across the highway.  I tried to notice things but was pushing the pace too hard to be able to sight-see.

It wasn’t long before the first man slipped.  I’d noticed him behind me, passing me in road shoes, noted that he was a big, tall guy.  He was fast, but he didn’t seem to understand or to respect the terrain.  This always made me nervous.  I ran past him when I could, playing it safe, not wanting to get taken out by him if he fell, and it wasn’t long before I heard the swear and thud of him slipping and falling on the slick, muddy trail.  I turned back and shouted, you okay?, but he was up again, looking abashed, saying he was good.

We ran on.  I put some distance between me and him, and kept my eyes out for others who weren’t wearing trail shoes.  On a normal, dry day, road shoes would be fine here.  But today wasn’t normal: today was a “Slippery When Wet” sort of day, and all around me, runners sloshed and fell, slipping, swearing, crashing.  I was grateful for my Brooks Pure Grit with the big lugs to hold me upright as I ran, but still wasn’t super-confident.  This was slick mud, on slick rocks.

I kept my pace slow, let others pass, passed some who were a bit less confident than me.  We ran across the pipe-bridge by Fairfield Boathouse, and there, I had no grip, and feared my feet sliding out from under me.  It wasn’t helped by the cyclists crossing the bridge, nor by the hiker with the gigantic backpack.  I made it across, then thankfully, turned off onto the narrow trail to the left.

That’s where the fun really began, the 5k along the river, on single-track.  The character of the mud was ever-changing, sometimes deep and sticky, other times, thin and slippery.  The path was full of large puddles, which could hide anything; I skirted them.  Kept my eyes on the trail, looking for the best ways through, navigating tree roots and rocks, puddles, and patches of mud already slicked by the slips of other runners.

One lovely man behind me coached me.  It seemed he ran there regularly and several times suggested the best route among a few choices (“go left here, it will be much easier”).  Usually, I rebel at others guidance, preferring to trust my own choices, but I trusted his kind voice for some reason, and each choice he made for me was spot-on perfect.  I never got to see his face; at some point he stopped guiding.  I’m not sure whether he passed me or I got further ahead, but I wish I could have thanked him for his kindness.

At this point, I was sure we were nearly done.  I hadn’t dared glance at my Garmin, for fear of looking away from the muddy trail and wiping out.  When I finally was able to, I was gutted to see we were only at 7.5 km.  Okay, I told myself, this is tough, but it’s not really far.  It was harder than usual, as I had been recently doing longer distance, slower paced races.  This felt like a full-on sprint for an hour.

I kept running.  Glanced now and again at the swollen river.  Felt the mud stick in my shoes.  The field had spread out by now, and there wasn’t much passing going on.  I was running my pace, and then someone passed me again.

I’d been passed by so many.  I didn’t like it.  So I sped up.

I came around a slick corner, sliding, then both my feet were suddenly off the ground, there was a full moment of silence as I hung in the air, and just as suddenly I had slammed back down onto my feet and ran on.

That’s when I laughed out loud.  Came back into my body, felt the joy of being on this trail, alive and agile and able to run.  Right here, right now, I told myself.  This was the joy of trail running, this having to be fully present, right in this moment and nowhere else.

A short road section appeared, I passed the runner who had passed me (ha!, I said to myself), but couldn’t catch any others.  I was hoping the road led to the finish but there was a final trail section. I had plenty in the tank to sprint but didn’t have the confidence in the slick mud, and before I knew it we were heading into the finish.

58:01, the time read.  Was it good or not?  Who knows?  It’s hard to evaluate race times on different days.  There is no such things as a PB that’s meaningful to me in racing.  My pace adjusts according to conditions, so a PB just means ideal running conditions and little more.

Though at the awards, my time was a good enough to earn me 2nd place in my age category.   Looking through my prize bag, I noticed they’d given me a tube of pain relief cream.

Perhaps this was a joke?  Perhaps they thought the oldies like me needed this pain relief cream?  (Okay, so they’re right.)  But then I noticed the bag itself said 60+ and realised they’d given me the wrong prize (I’m only 50).  I save the bag as a little trophy, so went to exchange it for the 50-59 category, hoping perhaps that it might contain a different prize (maybe a speed-me-up cream or a Gel or something performance-related).  But it still contained the pain relief cream.  Perhaps it’s any category over 40?  I wanted to know, wanted to ask the other younger runners if they’d gotten pain relief cream too, but it seemed too sad to do that.  The Hoka One One shoe bag – now that’s one thing I’ll be using loads, traveling to and from the rest of the Series.

Oh, I didn’t tell you the best moment.  How could I have forgotten?

There was a live singer with a  guitar.   Just as I walked by him after crossing the finish line, breathing hard, dripping sweat, feeling around inside for how I was feeling, he sang some impossibly appropriate lyrics about how “it was all going to be all right, it would just take some time”.  I wish I knew the song.  I would love to hear it again.

My eyes teared up, and I suddenly felt so very happy and sad and grateful and lucky to be here in this muddy, beautiful, rainy finish area.  I shared a stretching tree with another runner, joking about how we were both trying to push it over from opposite sides.

I wasn’t alone.  And this wasn’t the end.  Just another new beginning.

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I love mud! So does my wild puppy just to the left in this picture, leaping at me in joy

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Footprints in the mud

 

Two Bays 28k: tail of the snake (the final chapter).

“Are you okay?” several concerned runners asked.

“All good,” I replied, bouncing in the centre of the trail on one foot.

I kept trying to hop to the side so the other runners could go past, but I couldn’t put any weight onto my left foot, which had curled up into a tight ball, the toes tucked under, the calf a knot of cramped muscle that wouldn’t unclench.  It was hard to hop any distance without falling over.

Finally I succeeded in clearing the trail to let the other runners by, and swore under my breath.

I was 24k into the 28k Two Bays Trail run, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “okay’.

All this effort to get here, and now this.  Was this going to be the end of the trail?

My calf had been cramping for a couple of kilometres, but I’d held it at bay with a slightly slower pace, a few Salt Stick capsules, and some GU Gels, along with frequent sips of water. It was hot out on the Two Bays course, and I knew, from the people I saw sitting on the edge of the trail, stretching, suffering, that I wasn’t alone. I’d been offering encouragement to others for a long way now, but in truth, I was just hanging on  myself.

That was, until I stupidly kicked a rock in the centre of the trail. That’s when the cramp really hit, like a lighting bolt down the back of my leg.  I couldn’t Salt-Stick this one away.  I stood on the side of the trail, in pain, and took a deep breath as I quickly reflected on the moments that had gotten me here, to this final decision point.

It had begun with the Facebook lottery for second-chance entries into Two Bays in early December, which I’d won with my terrific (and fool-hardy) typing speed. I had followed this up shortly with my 20k Bayside training run (to prove to myself I could do the race), which culminated in the fatal (to my iPhone) leap into the pool after I’d overheated.  From there, I’d completed 16, 22, and 24k long runs in the subsequent weeks out at Mount Dandenong, and along the Surfcoast Trail, fighting to fit training in between Christmas, young children, and a brutal Melbourne heat wave, complete with bushfires and venomous snakes.  I’d found local hills in Ocean Grove to do hill repeats, and contemplated carefully whether I’d done enough.

Race morning had come. I drove alone, navigating the Mornington-Peninsula Freeway, second-guessing my exit as always, slightly panicking, and then choosing correctly. I watched the sun rise over Arthur’s Seat, and met my car-park neighbour Philip, who was in from New Zealand for his first Two Bays (he was notably fitter and braver and calmer than me).  For him, this was a training run for something even harder coming up.

Sunrise on race morning

Sunrise on race morning

I did the usual pre-race circuit between the toilets, running friends, and staring in dismay at the lean, tan, terrifying trail runners I would be sharing the trail with. They all looked fitter, faster, and braver than me, and all seemed to be sharing high-fives with multiple friends and family. I felt a bit alone, so was delighted when I met up with a few Dandenongs Trail Runners friends (Andrea, Sharee and Tami, as well as a few others).

The start came soon. I forgot to get really nervous and simply began running. The uphill road section was a pleasant surprise, as I’d remembered it as steeper than it was in reality.

I’d love to give a detailed account of the race, section by section, complete with views, but that would make for dull reading, and I was too busy not tripping over rocks and tree roots and other trail runners to notice that much. Funny – I’d decided I was going to run slowly and notice every detail. In reality, I bolted as fast as I could, and was completely focused on time, nutrition, cramps and simply running.  Oh, and in getting passed and passing the same four or five runners throughout the entire race (‘m great uphill and cowardly downhill).

Two moments stand out for me:

  • A small sign at the bottom on the stairs about 25k in that read, “And she’s buying…”. In my utter exhaustion, it took me several seconds to complete that sentence, but when I did, I laughed out loud, and sang Stairway to Heaven all the way to the top. Utter bliss.
  • The moment when the sea came into view near Cape Schanck. I was waiting for this, having recalled that moment from my first Two Bays. It was even more glorious this time. The grass was a dry yellow as far as I could see, yet in the distance, the sea was the bluest of blues. Small rock formations were visible, white foamy waves crashing into them. It reminded me of running in Hong Kong, on isolated trails where suddenly the world opens up and you realise the absolute beauty of the place.  And then I thought, I bet this would be a great spot for a grassfire to strike, and ran faster.

I didn’t stop for a photo.  I contemplated it, then kept running.

Oh, and then there was the calf cramp.

Let me take you back to that moment, where I’d been hopping on one foot, and wondering if I was going to make it to the finish line.

There I was 24k in, wondering if my run was over. Would all that work be for nothing?

My mind went back in time, to my first ever Adventure Race on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. I was running on coastal rocks and my foot had done a similar thing, cramped into a tiny, painful ball. Then, the only way home was to keep running. So I did.  I remembered the foot opened back up eventually.

So here on the Two Bays Trail, I gently placed weight on my foot, swore, took a few walking steps, then a few more. A minute or two went by, and I began jogging. The foot, true to form, released, as did my calf.

Knowing I was okay was delightful. But I was still tentative. I held back on the pace. All I wanted was to complete this race, to get to the finish line which had eluded me the last two years.  And I wanted to get there uninjured.

Several trail runners passed me. I kept going. The kilometres didn’t melt away.  We were in some sort of parallel universe where a kilometre was ten times as long as expected.  We ran on and on.

Until suddenly someone shouted my name, and someone else shouted, it’s only 200 metres to the finish line. We ran a little faster, a bit taller, and then the arch appeared. I didn’t sprint. I’d used up all my sprinting points already, just getting there. But I did a solid run across that finish line, completely finished.

The finishers medal hung heavy on my neck as I found a few friends to trade trail stories with. We sipped at lemonade and coca-cola, ate apples, and let the sweat dry.  We were dirty, far dirtier than I realised — my legs were almost black with dirt, and some of my friends shared face-planting stories that we all related to.

I couldn’t bring myself to leave right away, and went to stare out at the sea from the high viewpoint behind the race finish.

Views from Cape Schack

Views from Cape Schack

I had done it. Against the odds. Escaped uninjured.  Sharee took my photo and we talked of our lives.  I smiled with all my smile muscles for the first time in weeks.  We’d done it!

Delight!

Delight!

It was only in the week that followed that the reports of snakes along the trail reminded me of the other memorable moment during the race. The one where I was sure I saw something move on the ground just where I was about to plant my left foot. I’d let out a thin scream, jolted to the side, and landed ahead of the spot. I hadn’t looked back.

I don’t know whether it was a trick of the light or of my vision, or whether I had a very lucky escape.

And just like that it was over.

All the stress and angst, the worry, the thrill and the glory.

But I didn’t have time for post-race depression.

The 21k Roller Coaster Run was only six weeks away.

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

Training for the Roller Coaster Run at Mount Dandenong

(and now, as at this writing, it is just about two weeks off).

My focus was on recovery, and returning to training to be able to complete this next awesome event on my trail calendar.

Thanks for the memories Two Bays. I hope my legs have truly absorbed Arthur’s Seat in time for Mount Dandenong!

post-race celebration

post-race celebration

(The eagle and the fairy-wren?  I forgot to mention them.  They were sitting on the side of the trail during my race training, my totem bird and the feathery mascot for the Two Bays Trail Run.  I wanted to believe at the time it meant something.  But maybe I’d just been out trail running in the hot sun for too long.)

Into the fog: Salomon Trail Series 2014, Olinda Race

“Because I’m happpy…” , la, la, la, something “…a room without a roof…””

I’m careening downhill, and I can finally feel my feet again at the four kilometer mark of this winter half-marathon.  I’ve even managed to strip off my running gloves and stow them in my pack. I feel more agile than usual, and the sections that frightened me on this course last year seem tame and easy.  I let the playlist in my head stick on the Happy song, and enjoy the feeling of flying.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and I’ve got a new song on auto-repeat.  “Army of One”, by Bon Jovi.  “Never give up, never give up, never give up, never forget where you’re from (New York, I think to myself), never give up, you’re an army of one…”

We’re 18.2 kilometers into the 21k course, and I’m sure my Garmin has stopped working.  How else to explain the fact that it doesn’t seem to be measuring the distance I am covering?  And I am covering it.  Like a worn-out snail.  On a hill.  A steep, single-track hill.

I’m one in a long line of other snails, colorful in running gear and water backpacks.  We plod upwards, breathing heavily, occasionally groaning.

It must be the cold/flu I’ve been battling, I tell myself, that’s what making this seem so endless.  My left calf is threatening to cramp because I’ve been training to run up hills rather than walk.  I tell myself firmly (again), no excuses, don’t let this cold be an excuse to be soft.

“Can I pass please?” I say.

The person in front of me glances back with a look that says I am obviously insane, and steps graciously aside.  I plod up a bit faster, jogging where there is room, before falling into the snail line again.

A bit further on, a woman mutters under her breath, “Who are these crazy people running?”

I pass again, and I try to increase my pace beyond my slow plod to run, to be one of the crazies.  I engage my gluts, drive up, enjoy the sensation.  I steal a glance at my Garmin: 18.5 km.

No way!  It’s been ages since I last looked.  I try to do quick mental arithmetic to see how much is left of this race, but the .5 has my slow brain flummoxed.  I work it out.  About 3k left.  Yep.  Three.  One gel remains in my pack; I aim to ignore it because I want the Protein Revival at the finish line more.

It began, this big hill, last Wednesday.  That was when I caught the cold/flu my daughter brought home from school, the same day I had two back-to-back BodyPump classes to teach that evening.  I practiced for the classes as a large truck ran back and forth over my body, the world looking slightly askew.  Choreography wouldn’t stick in my head.  I turned the music extra-loud to hear the beat, as my ears weren’t functioning.  Later, I turned to my husband for advice:  “Should I get a fill-in for my classes tonight?  Do I seem sick enough for that?”  He said the equivalent of “don’t be soft”, so I wasn’t and I believe I taught those two classes.  It’s all a bit foggy now.

The next three days I took off exercise to cough, sneeze, make school lunches, and stand in drizzly soccer fields watching my son play in his under-10s team.  I guzzled Berroca like it was beer and slept with nighttime cold medicine.  By Saturday, my husband had contracted the man-flu version of the illness, and decided it would be smarter to stay at home with the kids than to drag them up to Olinda to cheer me on in the cold.

Me?  I decided if I was going to be sick anyway, I might as well be sick while running an amazing race.

“Can you see the start?” I said.

“Nope,” said Kim, with her customary nonchalance (she’s the friend with whom I’ve done this whole series, driving off monthly to race, leaving with our husbands our 5 children, 3 dogs, and 2 cats).

“It’s meant to be just over there, about twenty meters away.”  I held my hand up to shade my eyes but could see nothing.  “Never mind, let’s just follow these people.”

To say the fog was thick would be an understatement.  It was as if there were nothing left in the world but us, and the line of people we followed into the mist; the rest of the world was only fog.  The air was frigid, and though we’d parked close according to the map, we could barely see our feet, let alone race headquarters.  We huddled in together for a photo, and I was hugely grateful for my down jacket, beanie, and gloves.  Not ideal running gear, but perfect for an early morning race start in the town of Olinda, at a high point in the Dandenong Ranges, in the midst of a long, cold winter.

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Where is race headquarters?

For years, I’ve held onto a race in Hong Kong as my Gold-Medal-standard of the coldest start ever.  It was an adventure race in Repulse Bay that began, mid-winter, with a jump off a pier into the sea.  Whenever I’m cold at a race start, I think of that, and decide it’s not as cold as that was.  That was ten years ago; nothing has even come close.

Until Olinda.  It was colder in Olinda.

At the start

At the start

Through the fog, my friends from home appeared.  They were all running their first trail race, and I wondered if I should have suggested warmer clothing for the start.  We shivered briefly in each others presence, and then they fled to their car to rearrange race gear.  Kim and I made several trips to the porta-potties, as you do, and waited until the last possible minute to strip down to race gear

I love race starts on cold days.  The crowd of people generates, unconsciously, a delicious group heat.  While I battled to keep my Garmin from losing the satellite connection, I soaked up the warmth.  Still, I shivered freely, and when I tried to speak, I couldn’t form words.  I can’t recall the countdown, but somehow I pressed Start on my watch and ran across the starting line.

It was a long race, and I wasn’t worried about passing or being passed yet.  There were plenty of ankle-snapping holes in the grassy downhill, so I mainly focused on not stepping in them.

Ten minutes in, feeling had returned to my feet, and I had stripped off my running gloves.  That’s when “Happy” began playing in my head.  I was happy, just to have made it out onto this glorious course.  As we moved downhill, we ran out of the fog and the day cleared.  I found myself on a wide track, lined with autumn leaves.  I was home, and I felt more alive than I’d felt since the previous Tuesday.  Sick?  So what.  I was running in my favorite woods on earth.

I’d planned out gel, salt tablet, and drinks strategies.  But I was tiring early, so at the 5k mark, I was already sucking down my first gel, and feeling the welcome surge of energy it brought.  That helped me enjoy the downhill section by a fence, which had been on the way to the finish the year before.  I’d sprained my ankle four weeks prior to that event, and spent the race terrified of re-injury.  Then, this section has seemed very frightening, with lots of potential ankle-twisters.  Today, it felt easy and I was delighted by the progress I’d made.  I was gutted, though, when we turned onto Stoneyford Road.  In my mind, this was the way to the finish line with just a k or two to go.  That had been the course for the last two years.  This year, we were only 10k in!  Still, I love downhill on roads, and I leaned forward and flew.

The technical bit near Silvan was littered with logs to jump (for those tall and brave enough to jump); I stepped over.  Smaller obstacles like tree roots and rocks proved fun to navigate, and I was faster than I’d expected.  Somewhere, I downed a salt tablet, glugged some water, and ate a second gel.  The race continued in a blur of passing and being passed by the same three or four runners, which happens in all races, and always makes me laugh.  I was surprised when someone said we were at 11.5k; it had felt like no time at all had elapsed.  It had felt easy.

That was about when we joined up with the medium course runners, who were doing 15k today.  All of a sudden my familiar running mates were swamped by new people, and I had a hard time knowing if I was on pace or not.  Would the 15k runners be going faster than the 21’s?  I didn’t know.  I could only go by effort.  That worked well until we all hit the narrow single track that climbed the hill.  I’m not sure exactly where it began to go wrong, but it was somewhere in here.

It became most obvious to me at about 18.5k.  We’d become, as I said earlier, a line of very tired snails.  Every now and then, one would bound forward like the snail in Turbo, and disappear.  I tried to be Turbo a few times, but by 19.5k, it became obvious it was going to be either me or the almost-cramped calf.

I hadn’t planned a second salt tablet or a third gel, but that’s what it came down to.  There wasn’t much distance left, but then, there wasn’t much of me left either.  After succumbing to both salt and gel, I bolted off (I say bolted; what I really mean is shuffled faster).

We were in the Arboretum by then and I reminisced on having stones thrown at me there by my young daughter (ah, fond memories), and that helped me find a tiny bit more pace.  For the fourteenth time, I passed the girl in green who was running with her boyfriend  (they’d passed me thirteen times), and I could hear people clapping at the finish.

Then I could see it, the sprint to the finish.  Around me, stronger runners flashed past. “Go for it, sprint!” I cheered them.  I was not racing them.  I had no sprint today.  What I had was slow-burning determination to get across that line in one piece.  I finished in 2:22, and I was grateful it was a new course so I couldn’t compare my time to any prior year’s result.

I was breathless and elated, and quickly found some running friends to share the joy of the moment with.  We shivered together and took photos.

Friends at the finish line!

Friends at the finish line!

 

Happy

Happy!

The fog had lifted and the world was full of exhausted, joyous, shell-shocked runners.  It was like a giant party in the coldest place on earth, and it mattered not that I was still sick or that I hadn’t run as fast as I would have liked.

What mattered was I’d made it to both the start and the finish line.  And I had a new gold standard for the Coldest-Race-Start-Ever to use for future mental-toughness games.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, Volunteers, fellow racers and friends.  It was a glorious day out, and strangely enough, my cold seems much better now.