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!

A lighter shade of grey: The Trail Running Series Race 2 (Smiths Gully)

It was completely dark when I left home. Often on race mornings, I’m blessed with a beautiful sunrise over the Dandenongs, red sky, clouds aglow. Not so this morning. There was no sunrise. The sky simply turned a lighter shade of grey.

It wasn’t raining though, which was a relief. After a week of running in heavy rain, I was feeling water-logged, though I always loved splashing through puddles, and laughing into the face of the wind. I’d been in Torquay down the Surfcoast Trail, amongst the rainbows and thunder in Ocean Grove, had proved that my windproof coat was not waterproof but still warm when drenched. So what if it rained during the race? So what if it was cold and muddy and arctic?

It was The Trail Running Series, race #2 at Smiths Gully, and there were hills to climb and trees to jump and switchbacks to throw myself around.

The parking lot. A whole lot of empty to the left, car-filled to the right!

I arrived at Smith’s Gully just in time to see a large black dog transform itself into a dark brown waddling wombat while it crossed the gravel road. Nice. There were no kangaroos out. They were having a lie-in, curled up somewhere warm, I supposed.

Me, I was dressed for skiing. Five layers on top, three on the bottom. Gloves, beanie, scarf. With an hour before the start, I wandered to race headquarters, did some gradual warmups, removing layers bit by bit. I’d decided to run this race without a pack, as it was only 14k, and was looking forward to feeling lighter as a result. I’d had to plan for hydration at the only waterstop, which was odd, as I rarely race without a pack. Good new challenge.

Race headquarters

In the past, when I tried to conjure up the Smiths Gully race in my mind’s eye, all that I could see was the bitumen hill, the strange concrete tire thing at the start, and the sausage sizzle. I had no memory at all of any trail after the first turn left. “Was it pretty?” people would ask and I’d have no answer. None at all. I promised myself to be more present today.

Then I missed the warmup running back to my car for a drink. I’d left the reusable cup in the car, and the only water was from the drinking taps that I’d have to lie on the ground and drip into my mouth.

I dashed back to the start, and soon we were off. We began running straight uphill. Rob Roy Hill Climb – what a smash! Other years, I’ve tried to run up the whole thing to the tire wall we climb over to get the actual trail. This year, I added some walk breaks, and strangely, had a PB on this Strava segment. Go figure. I could also climb over the nasty tire wall a little more easily.

Rocking great posture in the hill climb 😂

After the bitumen hill, I tried to look around a bit more, finally glancing up from my feet. We’d begin on easy trails, wide, groomed, with countryside (farms?) surrounding us. It was pretty. There were trees. I looked back down. Put my zoom on.

This was a flatter, faster beginning than Plenty Gorge a few weeks back, and I relished it. The crowds thinned a bit so I could run my pace, and sing in my head. Soundtrack of the day was Bon Jovi, I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean, I am a rock not just another grain of sand, wanna be the one you run to when you need a shoulder, I ain’t a soldier but I’m here to make a stand, because we can, our love can move a mountain, we can… and so on. It was on repeat play in my head, punctuated with only an ‘on your right, thanks’ and ‘pass if you want’, alternating on the uphills where I’m strong and the downhills where I’m less so.

Getting my zoom on

I had a gel sometime around 7km, and thirsted for the water point until 8.5 km, where I guzzled two cups of water, wondered if I’d throw up, didn’t and ran on.

There were hills and trees and stuff and getting passed and talking to myself about my pace.

And then we hit the twisty-turn bit. Single-track, trees down, rocks, trippy places, and the three race distances converged. Some faster people were mildly aggressive as they passed (leaping up onto the verge where I’d be fearful of ankle sprains), so I stood aside. I was grateful when the courses split again, as there was less pressure.

Oh, that uphill section of switchbacks went on and on and on. I checked my watch a few times but I was gaining no distance. It seemed to be stuck with a k or two to go, and my fuel was running out. So I gobbled a second gel, knowing I’d be thirsty but I was close to the finish line anyway.

Then I saw this photographer. I don’t remember if he shouted ‘jump’. He may have. He may have lifted a hand or his eyes in some way. Every other downed tree I stepped over slowly and carefully, but whatever he did or said, suddenly I found myself airborne and laughing. Thank you Mr. Photographer! I’d forgotten I could jump!

I believe I can fly…

As all things do, the uphill switchback trails finally came to an end (like a long, slow car ride during school holidays with grumpy children comes to an end, very, very slowly and painfully). We came to the descent. There was a man in a Two Bays singlet (there he is, behind me in the jumping picture!). I complimented him – I love that race – and we began the descent together. He was braver than me downhill, and off he went. Off everyone went! I was solo on that gravel descent and I wanted to go faster and faster and here below is the image of me thinking uh oh, how fast is too fast!

We came to bitumen, ran across the little bridge and turned onto the gravel finish line. Oh, I could sense people behind me, wanting to catch me like in the last race. Like monsters in a scary movie, they were coming for me. I ran with my heart in front of me, pushing and pushing, I really didn’t want to be passed again. Gasping, hurting, pumping my arms, I ran from them.

And suddenly I was under the finish arch and I knew they hadn’t caught me! Hooray!

Sharing a smile with friends just after finishing.

And that’s when the cold blasted in, like someone had opened a door to Antartica or Siberia and we were suddenly in the coldest place on earth, and what in God’s name was I doing wearing a singlet and smiling? I quickly went for my checked bag then got chatting to Chris and Ella and Chris and Andrea and finally got changed back into the 5 layers on top and 3 layers on the bottom and gloves and scarf and beanie.

What a tremendous surprise to win 3rd in my age category. I’ve been reading a book called The Happy Runner about not linking self-worth to podium places, and training happy. That’s what I’ve been focused on the last month, and it was nice to find that by focusing on my own race, I’d done better than I expected.

Smiths Gully was a terrific experience to add to the hundreds of trail races run I’ve since I began this great sport at age 37 in Hong Kong. What a blast. What a blessing. I’m grateful for every single run my body allows me, for the twists and the turns and the zooms and the hills.

Dean Jackson winning his age category! The best part about being in this great trail community is celebrating our friend’s successes!

Thanks again Rapid Ascent. Still smiling a day later!

Oh, and if you read my last blog about laser eye surgery for floaters, I’ve had another treatment and am in the surgery writing this blog awaiting my next treatment!

Fun and games!

Hopefully by the time race 3 comes around, I’ll be able to see even more clearly! My doctor is following my progress carefully and hope to put me on the podium again!

Thanks to Photos4sale for many photos in this blog (photos4sale.co.nz), who did a great job of capturing us all in our madness.

The 2018 Trail Running Series Race 4 (Anglesea)

My shoes are wet anyway, so why not skip the rocky bit on the beach, and run around it instead, by running in the sea?  That would surely be faster.  Give me a tiny edge on those runners who are braver on rocks than me.

Right.  Here we go.  I dart out to sea splashing in several inches of water, going around the rocks, clever me, proud of myself, brave and smart and fast.  Look at all those silly people, stepping carefully through the rocks on shore.  Look at me, running like a gazelle.  Ha!

That’s when I hit the hole.

What the heck?  The sea bed drops straight away and I am in big trouble, my arms flailing, my feet stumbling, I am going to face-plant straight into the ocean and break a leg at the same time!  Stumble-swear-stumble-swear…and I suddenly right myself.

Run on.

Wow.  That was close.  It would have looked spectacular from shore.  But nobody would have been looking anyway, as they all had to focus on those fist-sized rocks that wanted to sprain their ankles and have them bleeding (note: my friend Andrea was looking and wondering whether she should also run in the sea, but didn’t.  Smart).  I join the others on the rocks.

We run on.  The rocks finally finish and we are back on hard sand.  I love sand.  Flat, smooth, predictable.  I let loose, all those interval and tempo sessions coming into play, even though we are only in the first 5k of a 22.7k course and it is dumb to go fast so early.  Every now and again, I glance at the waves – massive, crashing and roaring – I make sure I keep open sand to my left so I can dodge them if they come ashore.

It is Race 4 of The Trail Running Series, and I am in for the long course.  It is also the Surfcoast Century weekend, so there is a huge buzz about the place, with tremendous 50 and 100k achievements being made.

Also in this beautiful place, slightly away from race headquarters, there is peace.  I find it as I wait for the start an hour before the race.

IMG_7114

Peaceful river before the race start

My little run feels short and insignificant in comparison to the 50 and 100k runs.  Except when I put it in context.  Three weeks earlier I had completed the Wonderland Run 20k in Halls Gap.  It wasn’t the distance, it was the driving solo there and back, and spending the weekend without my family for the first time.  I’d found in the following few weeks, I was more tired than I’d been in my entire life.  It was strange – I’m not used to that sort of tired, so I was being a bit careful today at Anglesea.

Well, I meant to be, anyway.

Truth be told, when they say go, I go.  Fast as I can, always.  I love fast.

IMG_7131

Towards the start of the beach section with Andrea and Chris nearby

The beach was wonderful.  Soon we came to Bird Rock and clambered up and over, and then I was surprised to find (read the course description more carefully next time) that after we came up onto some nice bitumen, then single track, we went back to the beach for ages and ages.  I think.  Maybe.  Someday, hours later (minutes, seconds?) we came to Point Addis and the soft sand ate my shoes, and I wondered at the woman who chose to pass me just then (why?  when it is so soul-draining to run in soft sand, and we’ve got 13k to go?).

Up the stairs, memories of the Surfcoast Trail Half-Marathon that began here on a king tide kind of a day, laughing all the way – I stopped and took a photo (I stopped in a race and took a photo!  Who am I!) because it was just so beautiful.

IMG_7117

Off we ran and here’s where it gets blurry and mixed up.  I believe there was road.  I ran downhill fast, loving the speed and the smoothness.  No treachery there.  Soon we turned onto that ‘flowing, fast single track’.  Lots of rocks and roots, switchbacks, grass trees that made me raise my arms to protect my eyes.  People passing me on the downs and me passing them on the ups.  And glorious moments when it seemed I was the only runner out there, where I was utterly alone and there was no pressure to be faster than I was.  The landscape hugged me tight.  I was more agile than in the past few years, jumping fallen trees and spinning around the hairpin turns.

Gel after gel, because I was hungry as well as extra-tired.  Loving the boost of sugar that briefly gave me wings.  On and on that single track went, though.  My feet were beginning to cramp and my eyes water.  It took complete focus not to face-plant.  I saw several runners go down and was grateful when they all got back up.

trailrun18-4_03219

Late in the run, about 18k in, it was my turn.  I was tired, and kicked a root.  I tripped, swore, stumbled, felt my calves seizing up in both legs, and the stumble seemed to go on and on, like in a nightmare, step after step, pound, pound, stumble, and then suddenly, I righted myself and kept running without falling.  It was amazing. I’ve fallen nearly every time I’ve run Anglesea but this time, I kept my feet.  Hooray!  No blood or grit to pick out of my hands and knees.  And my calves hadn’t snapped.  I ran on.

Surely that lovely downhill to Anglesea must be coming soon.  I lived for that bit of this race.  Flat, fast, down.  I always made up time there.  Except (read the course description more carefully), we seemed to be going down a technical and steep downhill this time.  What had happened?  Had rain destroyed my beautiful track?  And where was the view of the sea?  Oh god.  Was it going to be this way all the way down?  Pick my steps, let people pass, don’t stumble, don’t fall.  Keep going.  Down and down and there is no lovely smooth bit.  Unfair, I want to shout.  You tricked me.  I run on.

Glance at my watch.  What?  It had said 16k – now it says 13?  How did that happen?  No no no!  But this happened before the downhill, obviously – you know how the race moments merge into one long blur of trees going by and people passing you?

Damn my eyes.  Damn the floaters that make it impossible to judge rough terrain quickly enough to react to it.  Three years they’ve plagued me.  Yes, my muscles and sinews can run faster, my heart and lungs, but I simply can’t see what’s right underneath me, and what you can’t see can twist an ankle and send you flying.  Grrr.  I think about being 52.  How I began trail running at 37, and how I loved the technical stuff, the dancing at speed with danger.  How I miss that.  Then I give myself a mental shake and let this Bodypump song start to play in my mental and then my verbal playlist:  I am here….I am here…I’ve already seen the bottom so there’s nothing to fear…I am here…

I belt out the words (I’m alone again for a few minutes) and I just revel in the fact that, although I can’t run the technical stuff as fast right now, damn it, I am out here doing this.  22.7k of twisty, technical trails, beach running, rock clambering, I just ran straight out into the ocean for two hundred metres and kept right on running, and I wasn’t at all worried.  I am here.  That’s what counts.

So when the next fifty or so people pass me on the downhill, I try to be gracious.  We finally get to the flat bit near the caravan park, and I let go.  Zoom-Zoom, like my Mazda.  We’re at 21k, I can hear the shouts and cheers at the finish, I encourage a poor guy who’s walking.  Not far now, I say.

I’m wrong though.  Around a corner. Another corner.  A glimpse of river.  A boardwalk.  Another k.  22.5.  Hey.  We’re still running. Another corner.  Um.  Hey?!  24k!  We’re meant to be done!  Where are you cheering people??  Did I take a wrong turn?  What the heck?  24.2!  Okay, now.  This is like the maze they put rats in, and you cheering people are the cheese!

Suddenly I see the finish chute.  People are cheering and I’m smiling and there is no one at all to race, but I race anyway. The kids have lined up for the Kids Race, and I move quick to get out of the way because they look eager and have Clint Eastwood eyes, pure focus and speed about to bolt.

Across the line, and spent.  Utterly spent.

Afterwards, I join four friends for lunch.  We laugh and eat and talk runners nonsense, drink coffee like it is nectar to the gods, share our stories and move slowly on sore feet and legs.


I finally get in the car to drive home alone, after this wonderful race.  I sit still for a moment.  The wonder of that lunch hits me all of a sudden:  I enjoyed it!  I never enjoy group things – I lose my ability to speak and am all awkward.

Except today.  These people.  They are real to me in a way that makes runners real.  There is nothing to hide.  no makeup needed, no pretense.  I suddenly feel that this is what I was running towards all this time.  These friendships and this laughter, and this sense that I am simply okay, whatever speed I can run.

The Trail Running Series Race 5: we run the night

It was fully dark on a moonless night.  We were running on a narrow single-track in a long, thin line, the only light from our small head torches.  Suddenly, there was a bottle-neck.  I shouted to the runners behind to warn them to slow, thinking we were backing up around some technical terrain.  The next moment, shock hit me in the gut:  it wasn’t just a bottle-neck.  It was three or four men climbing up the steep bank from the river, arms linked, helping a woman who must have fallen over the edge.

I slid to a stop.  One of the man’s hands grasped at loose weeds on the edge of the trail.  I reached down and grabbed his wrist, leaning back, giving him leverage.  Another couple of runners joined in or waited around, I’m not sure which, as I was fully focused on helping the group get the woman back on solid ground.  Once, there, she sat on the edge of the trail, obviously shaken.  The group of us crowded around, asking inane questions, are you ok, can I help, can I make a call, to all of which she shook her head.  I waited a few more moments while a couple of the helpers settled her, then decided I was extraneous.  The pack of us ran on.  Phew.  That was a close call.

I was glad the woman who had remained with her had a phone; I had brought nothing with me on this night run, not even my usual crepe bandages, so I couldn’t be much use.  The group of us runners who had helped her up were unsettled.  We spoke over our shoulders in the dark as we ran, hoping she was ok. As we moved, I watched the footing carefully, and I noted aloud each time the trail seemed to drop away to the hungry river below.  Others shouted “tree root” or “look out overhead if you’re tall”.

We ran on.  The adventure continued.

It was the middle of the final race of The Trail Running Series, race 5 of 5, a 10.8 km odyssey along the banks of the Yarra River in the dark.  We had set off on this medium course event (there was a short and a longer course as well) just after eight pm.  Though I’d run this event last year, this year was different: this year, for me, was about speed.

After the starting countdown ended, I bolted.  I know my strengths and I know this course well.  We had about five-hundred meters of bitumen before the real trail began, and I wanted to get out in front.  I was mindful of my calf, which had been injured a few weeks ago, and cautious of the other runners around me, but I kept my foot down on the pace until the left turn onto trail.

The darkness engulfed us as bitumen became dirt.  The narrow beams of our head torches bobbed up and down, illuminating the rough trail, which was embedded with small rocks at random intervals.  Without caution, even the best runner would trip and sprain an ankle.

Soon we made our way back to the paved path over the highway on the Eastern Freeway Bridge.  I wondered what the rush-hour motorists made of our head-torches bobbing along above them, and was elated to be one of the runners and not one of the drivers.

We ran back to trail, to a loop before crossing under the freeway, but that’s a blur – I was running as fast as I possibly could, but trying to avoid obstacles with care, letting people pass me who were more confident, then bolting around them again when the path smoothed out, playing leap-frog.

Unlike most races, I couldn’t check my watch for pace or distance – taking my eyes off the trail for even a moment was impossible, so I ran blind, pacing by feel.  It felt old-school, like how I used to run in the days before GPS watches.

One of my friends was running nearby as we crossed under the bridge, and I worried for her pace, knowing the rocks and holes that hid in this section.  She tripped, righted herself, then disappeared into the dark – she is FAST!

trailrun17-5_00230

Under the freeway!

Before long we began to climb the steps to the pipe bridge near Fairfield Boathouse.  After my Wonderland Run in August, up is easy, so I took the steps two at a time, eased my way uphill onto the bridge, and took off.  The flat pipe bridge made for a fast pace, the metal thudding under my trail shoes.  I had open track in front of me for the first time, and I made the most of it, pushing hard until the water station at 4.5km, where I gulped a cup of water down, and raced off.

The next section I knew was tough.  Technical, rocky, single-track that wound it’s way along just above the river.  In the daylight, it’s obvious how dangerous a stumble would be – you’d simply slide downhill through the rough trees and bushes to the river. It’s that steep.  At night, you can’t see this, so you don’t even really know it’s there.  Unless you stop and turn your head torch to look, but no one could do that without falling.  I kept my eyes forward and dodged the rocks.

It was on this section that we came across the woman who’d fallen down to the river, which inspired greater caution in many of the runners who’d witnessed it.  I kept thinking of  her as I ran.

Still, many runners passed me on this section.  I let it happen.  I’m competitive but I know my strengths.  I make way.  Trail runners are usually a polite bunch, and it all worked well.  Still, I knew that there was a road section coming; in fact, I was counting on it.  There’s this song on the radio at the moment – maybe you know it – it’s got a sassy bit of attitude: “Baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry“.  I can’t get it out of my head, especially when I run.

When we finally got to the bitumen section, I could see the ten or so runners I had made way for running along in a glowing come-hither kind of line.  I began to pick them off, one by one.

When this wasn’t good enough, I moved off the sidewalk and onto the road, and ran as fast as I dared, passing three or four at a fast clip, then a few more, and a few more still, until I riskily leapt my way back onto the footpath with a jump that could’ve taken me out but didn’t.  I sang the song running through my head (baby I’m sorry I’m not sorry…) as I passed each runner.  A runner’s giggle, I knew; they’d take back the terrain on the next rough section, but I enjoyed those moments.

We soon descended back onto real trail.

Back to full darkness.  I became leader of a group of four or five runners who didn’t want to pass me.  We warned each other about hazards, chatting breathlessly.  It was difficult being in the lead.  I had to keep my eyes focused on the trail to not trip, while quickly scanning for ribbons and arrows to make sure we stayed on course.  I didn’t want to lead the group of us the wrong way and felt the weight of this responsibility even as I ran my heart out.

trailrun17-5_01214

Leading a group of runners home

My watch beeped but I had no idea how many kilometres we’d run.  I knew from the course we were close to the finish so kept pushing the pace, coaching myself not to get overconfident.  Cameras flashed, race photographers surprising candid expressions from all of us.

Then I could hear the sound of music and cheering and saw the cones and grass that led to the finish.  I raced for them, feeling the swish as a couple of runners sprinted by me. I wasn’t racing them tonight.  I was just glorying in the doing of this crazy thing, this running 10k in the dark, and making it back in one piece.

trailrun17-5_01749

Finish line glowing!

Across the finish line in 1:06, I had no idea of how I’d done.  My family found me, and I went to change clothes.  As I passed by the ambulance on the way to my car, I saw the woman who had fallen by the river being treated.  I thought to approach her and wish her well, but I didn’t want to interrupt.  I was very happy she seemed relatively unharmed.  I thought of the day I ended up in an ambulance in an adventure race on an outlying island in Hong Kong; I wanted to say it could happen to anyone.  I hope she is okay and will be back to tackle this trail again.

Once changed, I found my friend Cissy, who presented me with my Series prize – a balloon unicorn, running – the best prize I’ve ever won – and it lit up the night for me.

We sat together through the presentations in the cold night in our down jackets.  I loved the vibe of the race area in the dark, the party atmosphere, the fun of it all.  The last song before presentations, I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, was especially perfect, as it was my mantra during my ultra marathon phase.

Presentations started, first the Short Course, then the Medium Course.  When my age category was called (50-59), I had no idea if I’d placed.  I hadn’t even checked, as I assumed I hadn’t, being as cautious as I’d been.  Third was called – the time was slower than mine.  Second – ditto.  When my name was called for 1st in my age category, and I was so surprised and delighted and stunned, I think I was fairly glowing with happiness.  I stepped up on the highest podium to get a medal, the first time I’ve stood on the top step in this series, and shook hands with the other winners, and waited for the Series Result, where I found I’d taken out 2nd in the series in my age category.  The prize of a Trail Running Series glass and awesome Black Diamond Head Torch were wonderful, as was the gift certificate from Rise Health.

trailrun17-5_00604

Age category winners of the Medium Course

 

img_6114.jpg

The running unicorn and other great prizes! (Ok, the bag and medal says 60+ – but I’m really in the 50-59 age category! Anyone want to swap medals?)

It is the end of The Trail Running Series for the year, and, as always, it is a bittersweet feeling.  I’ve gathered so many memories.

I flip through them in my mind: Race 1 at Westerfolds Park in June, racing my heart out to place but just falling short of the podium; Race 2 at Smith’s Gully in July and the crazy fun Rob Roy Hill Climb; August’s Race 3 at Silvan in the woods, mud and fog and tricky twisty terrific trails; Race 4 on the beach at Anglesea with the sea and the cliffs and the delight of the river crossing with September’s spring in the air, and Race 5’s night race madness at Studley Park, all aglow.

This series: the moments, the memories, the beauty of the trails and terrain, the friendships and music and challenge and joy.  Each year, it is a homecoming.

The races themselves are the prizes, and we runners all share the podium, every single runner who has the guts to come out and challenge themselves at whatever distance, whatever pace.  Every single runner is a winner.

Thanks for the memories Rapid Ascent, and see you next year!

Next up for me: the Marysville Half-Marathon in November.  Time to get some distance and hills in these legs!