Night Moves: Race 5 of The Trail Running Series at Yarra Bend

So much of life is mundane: buy the groceries, do the laundry, feed the kids, maintain the garden. But then there are the moments that make your heart soar. Like the night race of The Trail Running Series. A heart-soaring, adrenalin-pumping, crazy race to the soul.

It was the fully dark. The trail was narrow and studded with rocks that appeared unpredictability. Within the small pool of light from my head torch, I was running as fast as I could, slaloming around turns, dancing over rocks and tree roots, and once in a while, when the trail flattened, bolting like a racehorse out of the starting gate.

We were running Race 5 (medium course, 10.6km) of The Trail Running Series, the last of these epic blasts for the year. It was at Yarra Bend, a suburban park bisected by the Yarra River on a Saturday night, and there was a great big party going on in an open field, complete with lights, drink, food, music, and runners of every description whose point of commonality was their glowing smiles.

What were we doing, running trails in the dark? What form of group madness was this? And why was it so much fun?

Right before we set off, I admitted to my husband that I was nervous. He joked – “What of? Falling over and smashing your head on a rock in the dark?” Yup. Uh huh. Not so funny when that’s actually what you’re afraid of. Not when I’d face-planted a few weeks before in full daylight on a smooth trail. I put the fear to one side: there was no point in being scared. I wasn’t going to trip. Not tonight.

My vision is better than last year. And last year, I did the long course, after flying in from the Gold Coast the same day and having a huge battle with my kids to even get to the start. After finishing that race, I cried in the dark, alone, for the many difficulties of life, so I never blogged about it. And I didn’t even trip that year.

This year is looking promising. We’ve had two weeks of school holidays, where I’ve reduced my usual sport (no weight lifting or swimming), and have simply run. I feel energetic and light, and there have been no family fights this year. And 10 km is my favourite race distance.

We warm up, then move to the start line. Soon the countdown and start horn, and then we’re off fast. So fast I can’t breathe. We’re running on long, rough grass and when my friend Chris comes up behind me and says hi, I can’t look up at him for fear I’ll fall over a hundred meters into the race.

We run on. I’ve memorised the course and know it’s only about 2km to the Pipe Bridge so I go with the fast pace. The pack thins, and this section is smooth and runnable. A little later, I take the stairs up to the Pipe Bridge two at a time, feeling strong after the Wonderland Run in August, but I’m forced to slow down on the slippery metal bridge. I’m all alone on the bridge, but can see the lights of other runners on a trail down below. I can’t recall the route to get me there. Thankfully, the course is very well marked with reflective arrows and coloured ribbons. With a smaller field, I’m often alone during the race and keep a close eye on course markings to stay on track.

I love the solo running and feeling no pressure from behind. At about 3 km there’s a water stop, but I keep going. For the next five kilometres the course gets technical. Single-track, lots of rocks appearing from nowhere, undulations, twists and turns, overhanging vegetation, and a steep drop to the river on one side of the narrow trail. (I know this because a couple of years ago, I helped to rescue someone who’d fallen down there.) Some runners pass me, and a few stumble and fall, so I keep the pace conservative.

I’m slower on these sections, but I’m much faster than previous years and even if I’m being passed by other runners, I feel terrific. I’ve got more bounce, lifting my feet up higher over obstacles. I’m grateful for my improved vision and resulting agility – I could cheer aloud. Periodically, I step aside to let faster, braver runners by, and keep on at my pace.

It’s challenging terrain, but before long we come to the lovely smooth bitumen section. There, I quickly reel in some of the people who’d passed me. Soon I’m red-lining, gasping for breath, because now I am going absolutely as fast as I can. I want that guy in front of me, then the next guy, then the one after him, and then suddenly someone’s on my tail and I refuse, refuse, refuse to be passed here, on my strong section, so I put my foot down even harder and I fly, hold him at bay for a while.

Out of nowhere, we see a couple holding hands and walking (walking!) on the footpath in front of us. Romantic. We both leap down onto the road, then back up when we’re past them, and the other runners says “Let know if you need help, but I don’t think you do” and I smile at the compliment but I’m too out of breath to reply. Inevitably, he pulls ahead and I wish I’d had the breath to say thanks.

Instead, I run on in the dark. I know the last 2km is coming, where we head back on the trails, so I pull the pace back a little, and soon I turn down a gap in the fencing and on shaky legs, make my way down wooden stairs that end in rough rocks. Carefully, I cross, and then the track smooths and off I go again, foot down, racing, racing, laughing alone in the dark.

In the trees by the river I hear the rustling (possums, birds?) but I’m running too fast to see them. The trail is gravel and easy running, and I pass a few people, then I’m alone once more, flying in darkness. There’s not much distance left, but I’m running so hard I’m not sure I can maintain it the whole way. Soon we’re crossing the swing bridge across the Yarra, and I feel seasick as it wobbles.

Still smiling over the wobbly bridge!

We turn left and the gravel path widens but still some tree roots appear at random. In daylight, that would be fine, but in the full dark, it’s dangerous so I concentrate on foot placement. It’s only troublesome when I try to pass other runners,; it’s hard to pass and not trip.

I’m sure we’re close to the finish but I’ve gone so hard that I’m getting desperate. Suddenly, little glow lights on sticks appear on the ground and I know the finish is coming. I pass a young boy and his dad, just to avoid tripping and get some open trail.

On the grass, under the lights, towards the finish arch the young boy bolts by me, and I smile – good for you, I think, that’s terrific – and don’t try to catch him – I want him to get this – I’m not even sure I could catch him – then I cross the line and I’m shattered and done and finished in 1:01.

I’m still catching my breath when I hear Sam, the Race Director, announcing that I’ve just crossed the finish line – it makes me happy that he knows my name and that he mentions my blog.

I go to thank him and he holds the microphone out to me, and I’m breathless and lost for the words to answer his good questions. I blab a bit of nothing with a lot of enthusiasm and forget to say my thank you, so thank you Sam, for acknowledging me by name – it was really nice.

I also chat with Ben, who’s taking photos for Rapid Ascent. We talk blogs, writing and running and he tells me he’s about to participate in his first trail race. I’m beyond enthusiastic for him, and rapidly describe lots of great local events. Though I’m getting cold now and slurring my words with exhaustion, it’s cool to see someone about to join this crazy club. I’m looking forward to reading his write-up!

I find my friends and family and we gulp down lots of water and join in the party, loving the live music, the festival atmosphere full of happy, inspired, elated runners, some with bloody knees, but all with light in their eyes.

We wait for presentations – I’ve got my eyes on those curly potatoes on a stick, but I decide to wait – just in case…I’m too tired to check the race results, and I want to be surprised and not carrying potatoes on a stick if I’ve made the podium.

We listen to all the short course results, and then medium is up. Sam starts with the 70+ group and works his way down, so my 50-59 age group is soon up. I listen carefully: 3rd place finished in 1:03. That means I’m in with a chance at 1:01 and sure enough, my name is called for second place in my age category. I’m absolutely elated as this is the toughest of all the races for me.

Night Race winners 50-59 age category

The Series results are announced just after Race 5 results, and the winner in my age category is Sandra, who has definitively won every single race. Claire gets second, and I’m delighted to get third. We line up on the podium for photos. Our sparklers glitter in the dark and we’re all smiles.

Series Winners 50-59

Even better is to hear that Dean has taken 1st in his age category for Race 5 and 1st in the Series, and Andrea 2nd in her age category for Race 5 and 2nd in the Series. Wonderful results and very well-earned.

What a race; what a Series. Truly, much of life is mundane. How wonderful, then, to have this series of races each year to put light in our eyes, to provide a highlight reel of magical moments.

Thanks Rapid Ascent, volunteers, fellow runners and family. We ran the night, and it was bliss.

The Trail Running Series Race 4, Anglesea (medium course)

I’m singing to myself as I run along the narrow trail: I am who I am, I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity…

We’re about 8 kilometres into this 15k event, and I’m moving fast, enjoying the flow of this single track for the first time in several years. I’m not sure if it’s my vision being better (the laser therapy for floaters has really helped me see the trail again), or if it’s because someone has dumped a heap of sand all along this once technical trail, and now it’s smooth and runnable. Either way, I love the feeling.

It’s unfamiliar, this confidence in my speed. It’s like finding myself as I was ten or fifteen years ago, feeling pleasure in descents, dancing a bit with danger.

We began on the beach, in sunshine. It was Race 4 of The Trail Running Series 2019 in glorious Anglesea in early spring.

Below the cliffs in Anglesea, magical

It was easy terrain but hard running, as I pushed the pace early. My favourite moment was when I saw the tide was in, and that we’d have to scramble through the ocean to upper-thigh height. In normal life, I’d never do this; alone, I’d think it was nuts. But here, today, I laugh and laugh and run straight in below the giant cathedral-like cliffs, foolish and fearless and joyful.

The beach section goes for five kilometres, and then we scramble over some rocks.

The once-scary rocks

This section used to scare me; it doesn’t today. Just as we hit the top, though, some guy smashes my arm with his watch as he passes and though he says sorry, I’m distracted, and turn the wrong way.

It takes a second for my brain to see the pink ribbon, to think, hey, that’s not green, I’m on the long course, not the medium course, and then I quickly turn back and get onto the green-ribboned marked medium course.

Phew! That was close! A few people had followed me, and I warn them, so we all got back on course.

I’d been pacing myself with a fit-looking woman in shorts, and now I caught her. I heard her telling a running mate she hadn’t trained on hills, so I lost her as I moved upward; I love uphills, as they allow me to make up for downhills. She’d catch me up again towards the end, as often happens. We were even caught at the finish line together in a photo!

A gel, a sip of water, running smoothly, climbing up and up. I know this course, having run here for many years but the trail had been smoothed and was easier than usual. Strangely, except for this bit by the Heart Foundation guy – I was too scared of tripping to high five him!

Narrowly escaping face plant – no high five possible- sorry Big Heart guy!

Details escape me now. I recall a water stop where I took a salt capsule and swallowed a cup of water at ten kilometres, and then we began to descend. It was easy at first, including some dirt road where I flew, but it soon became rough and more technical and I got passed and had to focus on myself and the song in my head.

It’s a funny thing – we’ve all got strengths and we’ve all got challenges. They differ person to person, but no one gets a free ride. It’s easy to have compassion for other people’s “weaknesses” but much harder to do so for our own. So I have to remind myself as I’m passed that this is my personal best and I’m not racing anyone but me. And I’m certainly better than last year, and this is pleasurable again and that’s what counts.

Of course, we get to the section by the caravan park and it’s smooth and easy and I put my foot down, zooming, enjoying my strength.

I love this bit!

There’s a real risk of cramping though – I can feel my feet and calves asking me questions and I drink more and slow down a bit.

Silly me, though, I’d been thinking of previous years courses, where we finish near here, but this year there are two endless kilometres to go.

I can see the finish area but it’s like a mirage: it’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s there again, as we wind back and forth on little tracks near the river.

Finally, I see the finish for real, but my calves and feet are cramping so I don’t speed up.

Finish line sprint with woman who I was pacing with at the start!

The guy behind me does though, and nails me with an elbow as he sprints his careless way home. I may have sworn at him but I quickly let it go and enjoyed the finish.

What a buzz it was, with athletes who’d done 50 and 100 kilometre events the day before, with short, medium and long course finishers. Hundreds of elated, exhausted people, with souls lighter after their experiences.

I waited for presentations with Andrea and Dean, and was delighted to see Andrea get second in her age category, and inspired by Dean, who’d done the Surfcoast Century 100 km solo, as well as the trail series long course.

Andrea takes second in her age category! But where’s the muesli??

Contenders for the Concrete Shoe, Jon, Dean, Stuart and others I didn’t know. Super-impressive!

Another woman I’ve chatted with named Kim also got on the podium. I promised her I’d post her photos here. And here’s Jo who warms us up looking like a star athlete too!

I came fourth in my age category, which was wonderful, especially after I’d had a huge face plant the week before the race and was not sure I’d be able to run at all. That’s my Osteoporosis check done again: at 53 I can fall flat on my shoulder and knee and nothing broke – woo hoo!

An hour after presentations, I sit with Andrea and Dean at Morgan’s in Anglesea as we gobble down the best burgers and the best fries ever. Food tastes extra good when you’ve really earned it. We talk about families and homes and things we don’t get to chat about on training runs. After several coffees and lots of great conversation, I’m off to meet my family in Ocean Grove, feeling completely soul-satisfied and ready for school holidays. Life is a balance of action and rest, hunger and satiation, running and stopping to recover. I love how the whole town of Anglesea seemed to be full of runners, like it was a special town made just for us.

Thanks for a great event as always Rapid Ascent. You’ve changed my life with your events – back in 2012, I’d never run further than 15km; after joining a Surfcoast Century relay team, my world opened up!

The night race is in just two weeks – it’s always a bittersweet one as it’s the end of our beautiful series for another year, so I’m aiming to be fully present and joyful for each moment.

Thanks to Photos4SaleNZ for the great race images!

The Trail Running Series, Silvan 2019: sliding in the mud!

‘Watch it there – that’s gotten super-slippery.’ The rain-soaked volunteer gestures to the slick bit of red mud that’s pretending to be a trail.

I glance down. ‘Yes, I see that, thanks!’ I quickly switch over to the side of the track that has a little bit of gravel. The runner behind me slides down through the mud. A second later, we’re on the same grassy hill, both upright. He takes off in front of me, leading the way.

It’s pouring rain and I’m utterly soaked; I couldn’t be wetter if I were swimming in the ocean. I laugh out loud. I follow down the trail as it winds between tall conical trees, splashing downhill in the grass. I open my arms wide in elation, overjoyed at the realness of it all, the rain, the grass, the mud, the movement.

It’s the 15 km medium course of The Trail Running Series, Race #3 at Silvan in the Dandenongs. And I bet it’s the only place in Melbourne on this cold, wet, winter’s morning where you can find hundreds of people laughing and smiling and high-fiving like little kids.

Race Headquarters in the early morning fog

Our race began up a great steep slippery hill. We were like soldiers going into battle, trudging upwards. I was testing some new trail shoes to see how they were in these conditions, so wasn’t confident yet. Choose the grassy edges or the smoother centre red mud? Runners were spread the width of the hill, some power-hiking, a few jogging, most laughing. I went everywhere I didn’t see slip-marks from other runners, criss-crossing the trail, driving up, breath hurting. With 15km there was no need to get out in front. I knew this course well, having run it many times. I waited until the downhill and then opened it up.

Loving the downhills

After four bouts of laser eye surgery to zap the floaters, my eyes are the best they’ve been in years, and though I was still passed downhill my confidence is growing.

Funny how moments go in races. The friendly battles with other runners, going faster up, being passed in the downs. It was less congested than it sometimes is, and I found myself alone a few times, as if it were a solo training run on a Sunday. Lovely to be amongst the trees in the fog. Nothing to think of but pace and foot placement, watching for course markings. Lulled by the rain.

Imagining I’m all alone amid the ferns and gum trees

Until the moment the man behind me asks, “What colour are the course markings for the medium and long courses?” I tell him, then feel a bolt of panic – is he saying there was an intersection? I didn’t see one – did we miss it? My heart thunders. It feels silly and panicky to ask so I don’t, and then I find I’ve left him behind so can’t ask and do panic. So, oh the relief when I see a green ribbon a few minutes later. Phew. Especially because the course has been slightly different this year, routed down an unfamiliar trail.

And so it goes. Passing; being passed. Playing leapfrog with fellow runners. Running by the nests of dragons and not noticing (as below!).

Here there be dragons…

It happens over a fallen tree. I’m climbing over on the left of the tree when a woman decides to climb over on the right, to pass me at the same exact moment. She steps into the only open spot right where I’m about to step and I feel my right calf cramp in protest. “Oh, sorry,” she says, as if she’s just realised she’s broken a trail rule (Don’t pass where it’s Dumb to pass, rule #849). “It’s ok,” I lie as she runs off.

My calf relaxes but I’m suddenly angry. Really? She had to pass me right there and not in the other 15km of the course? I study her from behind, memorise her hair and outfit, and paint a (perhaps unfair and grumpy) target on her back. See you before the finish, I think to myself.

I put the emotion away, and run on. Hugged by trees, shoes sinking into the mud. Joy and joy and fast-flowing down challenging trails and my body at 53 still able to do this well, my vision good and I’m agile again. We climb and climb until finally we turn onto the red clay downhill next to the fence: my nemesis. I’m better than previous years but it’s slippery so I’m cautious. Passed by a few people. Let them go. I know we’re coming to my favourite bit.

We hit the dirt road two kilometres from the finish and I put my foot down. Zoom-zoom like my Mazda! Ha! There she is – the girl from the tree incident! In my sights. I floor it, chase her like she’s the prey and I’m the big bad wolf! Fly by her for no real reason but it feels sooo good. I pass a few others who passed me on the technical downhills and give a silent cheer.

I’m burning out my legs with the pace and I pretend to myself that this road leads right to the finish, like I do every year, and every year, it breaks my heart when we turn right into more single track. Passing/passed, legs burning, stepping not jumping over little tree trunks. I hear cheering, see the car park, the finish cones, I go go go, forget everyone, then I hear someone cheer my name and I smile hugely, then Chris And Ella shout me too and I run to high-five them just after I cross the line.

Pouring rain at the finish
High-five that made my day!

The race photographer stops me to chat about my run and blog, but I’m frozen in my singlet and I can’t speak properly, slurring my words with the cold. Embarrassing and funny, all at once.

I grab my wind cheater from the bag check and then stand around listening to the man playing guitar and singing.  The rain is cold but I don’t really feel it as I squish and slide in the mud back to my car. In the Ladies, several of us women change at once and we chat while not meeting eyes, talking frozen nonsense while we battle our way out of soaked clothing.  I morphe back into a soccer mom with eighteen layers and wool-lined hiking boots.

Hiding under marquees, waiting for presentations, several people mistake me for staff and question me about the Surfcoast Century. I kind of feel like staff so I answer their questions.

Standing in the mud and rain in my eighteen layers, warm in the freezing cold, I listen to the live guitar and the great singer. I’m alone for a while, so I can just stand and observe. Everywhere, people are laughing and smiling, pride showing on the faces of parents, friends hugging, people standing close and talking. A small miracle how this little place in the woods brings out the smiles and camaraderie.

Presentations are smaller then usual with the cold conditions but I’m delighted to get third in my age category, and to see Dean Jackson take first in his.

It’s hard to put into words what these events have meant to me. They led me to the woods when I first returned to Australia, when I was too afraid to run solo in the Dandenongs. Now these woods feel like home to me. I know the courses like an old friend, and love them in all their many moods, from sun to wind to rain.

I didn’t slip and fall in the mud. And yet I did. It was two weeks back: I’d anxiously been awaiting an email from a literary agent for my new book. It didn’t come. No message equaled no interest. Knowing that was likely to happen did not lesson the blow.

But I anticipated it, just like I might anticipate slipping in the mud. The Friday before, I emailed my book designer and asked them to get started on a cover: I was going to self-publish again. Because within me, like within every runner out there on Sunday, there’s a person who doesn’t back down just because it’s cold and rainy and winter and the agents and publishers don’t like my book enough to take a risk.

I’ll take the risk and the falls and the puddles and the mud, because that’s who I am. That’s who we are.

I’m delighted to share with you the cover of my next book. The design was completed yesterday.

I’m sure I’ll take some falls along the way in this publishing game, just as I did on my first two books. But in the end, you’ve got to enter the race, stick with it even in the rain and wind and mud, and soak up all the joy along the way. I’m aiming to have it out in mid-October 2019. And yes, one of the main characters does love to run in the Dandenongs!

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.

IMG_6448

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.

IMG_6450

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.

IMG_6451

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.

9270616_main_5a5bfaa3918de

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.

9281338_main_5a5bfb1d4f642

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.

9272618_main_5a5bfadcea0e5

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.

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.

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.