‘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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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!