hydration reservoir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Big Decision on the hot spring day at the start of the Marysville Half-Marathon: should I, or should I not, carry my water reservoir.
This is a half-marathon in the hills, a distance I’d only accomplished once, where the water reservoir was a mandatory piece of gear. This puzzled me: the other course was the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon, where I first ran 21.1 km. It was much more simple, and less risky, than the one I’d tackle today.
The Surfcoast was on the beach from Anglesea to Torquay, 21km straight out, with no real way to get lost, as long as you kept the sea on your right. Marysville was 21km of twisty, turny trails, darting back and forth, and up and down. It was also the site of the terrible Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and the images of that day have never left my mind. When I race, I do so fully prepared, with all the gear I’ll need. Seemed to me a mobile phone, space blanket, and $50 were a good idea, plus at least 1 litre of water. What if I got lost? What if there were another fire? What if…well, you see the fear.
Trouble was, looking around, most of the other 250 runners didn’t seem to agree. There were aid stations every 3km and few others were carrying water reservoirs. I took the pack on and off, toyed with handing it off to my husband, but in the end, the conservative part of me won out. I kept it on.
The race began with a start between two pink tractors – there must have been some symbolism there, but I didn’t know it. In any case, we bolted away fast, and my pack felt heavy, along with the trail shoes I’d not been running in. In my quest to go minimalist, I’ve been swapping low-slung Asics with Teva Five Fingers for most of my runs; my Salomon’s haven’t seen the light of day since September. But neither of my current shoes had enough grip for this course, so I put the Salomon’s on. Almost immediately, my hips started hurting. I felt like I had two blocks of concrete on my feet. But we were off.
We began so fast. My second kilometre clocked in at 4:32, way faster than I should have been running. But it was fun to run fast, and somehow I’d placed myself at the front of the pack, lost in conversation with Ben right before the start. So that pace, the pace of those around me, seemed like it should be right.
It was about that time I felt something dripping down my leg. Hmm, sweat? I reached around and touched the back of my shirt – it was ice-cold, and water was dripping onto my hand. My hydration pack had sprung a leak – a big leak! From 4km to 10km, all I could think of was the cold water soaking through my running tights, my shirt. A fellow runner pointed it out to me – “You have a HUGE hole in your pack,” he said, “And you dropped this.” He handed me the gel that had fallen out, and I smiled sheepishly. “Thanks! Yep, it is keeping me cool,” I replied. Luckily it was a hot day, so all that cold water wasn’t too bad. And I knew at 10km we were running back to the race start, where my family would be waiting to cheer me on, and I could ditch the pack. I counted each minute. When my kids came into sight, I shouted to the tiny figure of my daughter in purple, threw her the broken pack and said a silent cheer. I felt so much lighter!
But the big hill was coming, the one I’d only seen on the elevation profile on a Garmin map. This was the one I was worried about, having not trained many hills in the last six weeks. It went from about 10 – 14.5 km. What I didn’t know was it was on a road. That road, steep uphill in the hot sun, transported me back to Hong Kong, to the Morning Trail, the steepest of steep hills, that I used to run up weekly. The thing was, this was easier than that; it was certainly easier than Old Peak Road. And I was lighter without my pack. I ran up, passing people, cheering inside, making friends with Stuart, who had warned me about my pack, and was then puzzled to see me without it, who declared he’d still be doing this when he was 85, old and wrinkly. “Me too, I’ll see you here,” I said. When we got near the top of that hill, we saw the falls. Stevenson’s Falls, Marysville.
I knew we were going to see waterfalls, but this was one I’d not expected, out on this dry, hot, sunny day. We ran out onto a lookout, I stared for a moment, feeling blessed, then raced away. We ran down the same bitumen road for a short while, then we turned right and blazed down a steep, gravelly downhill track. My legs turned over faster than I knew they could. The trail was punctuated at intervals by tiny speedbumps, designed to slow the flow of water, I suppose. I landed on these, flew off the top of them.
But something was going wrong. Badly wrong. I’d grabbed a drink from the aid station at the top of the hill. It was not water; not Gatorade; it was something sweet and sticky and liquid that did not quench my thirst. And my left calf had begun to cramp. The next aid station was 3km away, I’d already had one Powergel, and the last thing I wanted was more salt. But it was all I had, so I downed a second gel, hoping that it would ease the calf. We were at 16km by then, and I knew if I just held off the cramp I would make it. Thankfully, it worked, and I reached the next aid station, downed a full cup of water, and flew away down the rest of the trails. On one of the last legs, I was feeling sorry for other runners who were only heading up the hill; they still had so far to go. Turned out it was my mistake, as they were the ones who were nearly done, and I would end up turning around at the end of that Yellow Dog Road, and following in their footsteps. My consolation was that there were still other half-marathon runners following in my footsteps!
From there, it was a downhill track through tree ferns, fast running with small bits of technical challenge, and the calf that still threatened to cramp. By 20km, I could hear cheering, and in moments, came back to the familiar track we had begun upon. We were to finish with a final lap of the grassy oval. As soon as I hit the grass, my calf spasmed but it loosened after a few steps. I was passed by a few runners, something I’d usually not allow without a fight, especially because they were women, but I didn’t race, conscious that my body had had enough today. When one of the race volunteers shouted “You’re near the finish, SPRINT!” I simply smiled and kept the same steady pace.
Once through the finish gates, I pressed my watch to stop the timer. And saw that I had blown away my personal best for this distance — by sixteen minutes! No wonder it had felt so tough!
Afterwards, I gazed around at the fire-damaged trees that were returning to life, the vacant places where homes and shops once stood. The amount of green, growing life surprised me. Life returns after great damage. Marysville, you are still beautiful.
Celebrating with Team Inspiration afterwards, we reflect on how far we’ve come since we met in August. Twenty-one kilometres was a goal we could barely imagine back then. Now we are wanting to do it faster. And setting our sights on our first 50km ultramarathon.
Four members of Team Inspiration: Scott, me, Claire, and Ben
But first, I will throw out the broken water reservoir, and retire my stabilizing shoes. And then, I’ll truly be able to fly.