How are you? Feeling a little uncertain? Like we’ve been in four lockdowns, the last of which ended two days before our big race? Forgetting what day/week/month/year/season we’re in? Are we wearing masks and keeping within 5k? 25k? Regional Victoria? Am I even allowed out of my house this long?
Man. My mind won’t shut up…shut up…shut up.
So The Trail Series is happening, two weeks after it’s first schedule. Hooray! Of course, I’d not really planned it out. What with the uncertainty and a surgery on a family member and online school and my next-door-neighbours house being bulldozed.
Ok. We’re racing. I’ve done this one before, many times. We start at the boathouse by the Yarra. I do a quick Google map search for it, refresh my memory of the drive, and get my (very minor) gear packed. I’m doing the medium course. At 10.3 km, I don’t even need a pack.
So here I am, 8:20 on Sunday morning, walking from the Studley Park Boathouse to the start, stoked by my terrific parking position. I’d thought it would be busier. I stroll. My wave start isn’t until 9:55. I wobble across the swingy bridge, take photos of the sunrise,
turn left, walk a few hundred meters and Don’t See the Event Centre! Nothing. No one. Not even a bird. It’s not quiet though.
I can hear Sam, the Race Director, on a megaphone, somewhere in the distance. Ok. Other side of the oval. Just out of sight. Heart pounding, I walk along the road, towards the voice. Ten minutes, maybe? Around the curved road, to the other side.
No Sam. No event centre. Just the disembodied voice through the trees. I panic. Pull out my phone. Pull up the Event Program, the tiny map. Deep Rock Road! Google map it. Oh man! That’s not where I am! Where the heck is it?
That’s when I see a quick-walking woman with a number plate coming around the bend. Yes, she’s racing. 8:40 start. No, she’s not sure where to go. We bolt together, as if we’re already crossing the start line. Around a corner, down a hill, across the river. There’s a trail, the voice, we’ve found it! She’s off to make her wave start, and I start to breathe again. It’s 8:30. I pause. Think. Take a photo so I can find my way back to my car later!
Wow. It’s good I have an hour to settle. Though I’m not meant to be here – the rules state clearly not to arrive until 20 minutes before our start time. I hang out in the grass, staying away from people. This is all so strange, with QR code’s and hand sanitizer and face masks. It’s meant to be fun and it is, but a sort of uneasy fun, an edgy-hope-we-don’t-die fun. Did I mention the Astra Zeneca shot I had on 10 June? I’m right in blood clot alley until 30 June, and the government just back-pedalled on over 50s like me even having it.
I’m surprised I’m even wearing shoes. My head spins with all this clutter.
But suddenly, as if I breathed in once and the time went in with that breath, it’s 9:55 and I’m at the start line. There are 15 people in a wave. We greet one another, stay apart. I say hi to Sam, who I last saw on my phone during the Virtual Race last year.
We count down, then boom, we go. We’re a tiny pack racing each other. I love it! Love how we can spread out, see the ground. There’s no one pressuring me on the technical bits. I race three women. We play leapfrog, passing, then being passed, over and over. I know them by their colours – rainbow tights and purple shirt and pink singlet.
It’s familiar and not. I realise this is the course I’ve mainly run at night in recent years, so I couldn’t see it. The Yarra is full and abundant.
Trails widen then narrow, smooth, then rocky, muddy and gravel.
Because it’s spread out, I really get my zoom on, using my road-honed speed. Oh I love the speed. The adrenaline. The race between our small group. Because we’re more spread out, following the right course becomes more interesting, more vital. This adds a nice zest to being front of the pack, moving quickly but carefully.
Finally we hit the downhill road section where I love to fly. In my head, I yell, go go go, pretend there’s an over 50s woman right there, catch her, earn your podium! Don’t hold back, it’s a race!
I start to reel in the women I’ve been racing. Carefully. One at a time. See you rainbow tights. Bye purple top. Great run, pink singlet but I’m bitter you passed me that last time, so eat dirt! Zoom!!
We turn off the road onto the last little trail section, not far to go now. But hey. No. Wait. The Finish Line is also not where the Start Line wasn’t! So instead of my 500 metre sprint, it’s more like 2kms. I don’t twig onto this until about 1.5, when I’m tiring. Still, I push the pace the entire way, afraid I’ll get caught by my wave buddies I passed on the road.
Close to the finish, normal people are out walking dogs, playing with kids, holding hands. We tear by them like lunatics (politely) and bolt for the Finish. Flying, heart and lungs searing I cross that line.
Full of joy, laughter, love for my racing friends, who I greet as they cross the line and thank for the race. What an absolute blast. What an antidote to the last year!
I find my car eventually, and at 8 pm settle on my chair for presentations. Dean has taken first in his age category, Andrea has scored a second, Chris third, and his daughter Ella first! I’m managed a third in my age category, which is nice, as I’m 55 and not at the start of the 50-59s anymore. But really, we’re all on the podium together, because that’s what trail racing is about. It takes guts to get out there, to tackle technical terrain, and sometimes, in these crazy times, even getting to the start line can be an achievement!
By the way, the course was marked perfectly, and the whole event, as always, run with such professionalism and passion. Thanks Rapid Ascent. Be assured my navigation errors were mine alone. The course maps and instructions were perfect, as always. See you in a few weeks for Race 2 at Smiths Gully!
This was no ordinary race. But then, this has been no ordinary year. 2020 has been a dystopian future flick – the kind of film where you leave the theatre, look up, and heave a sigh of relief that it was only a movie.
Except it wasn’t and it isn’t, and this is real, strange new normal.
What to do?
Back in March, Jon Bon Jovi recorded himself, from his home, discussing 2020 while writing a song for these times. It was called “Do What You Can”, the message being: when you can’t do what you do, you do what you can. It brought tears to my eyes. In the ensuing months of semi-lockdown and isolation, I found myself humming it, as I rode my stationary bike to nowhere, as I taught my Bodypump classes from my home office by livestream, as I did piano lessons via Zoom, and watched my kids negotiate online learning. We’ve all had to be flexible, innovative, resilient – we’ve had to survive. We do what we can.
In the terrible interim time before restrictions lifted, when none of us were not allowed to drive anywhere except the grocery store or the doctor, and we didn’t know if the world was going to end, life was missing so much, but nothing has helped me cope with trouble like running.
Now, though, I couldn’t go to my Dandenongs, and my local trail was full of walkers, dogs, and children. Runners were looked on with terror – we were breathing too hard – that must be dangerous! Running became an extra stress, so I moved my running to the road and the local athletic track, and I coped. We all coped.
That was about when Rapid Ascent announced that two of the races of their Trail Running Series were going virtual. I didn’t know how to feel. This great series of events structures my year, gives form to my training and light to my winter – and it was changing too. I felt simultaneously a terrible sense of loss – yet another thing to be destroyed by this virus – as well as heartfelt admiration for the people of Rapid Ascent. They weren’t going to be beaten; they wouldn’t leave us out in the cold, alone and without an event.
Oh no. We were going to be together. It was the first time they’d had a virtual event, the first time we’d do one, but still I knew it would be incredible. I signed up for the 15 km option. So did my close friend Andrea. We wouldn’t be together, but we’d be together.
I’m not sure why I feel like it’s spring. It’s really just the beginning of winter, but something in the air rings of spring. Perhaps it is the doors opening again, the trails becoming available. There is still fear and anxiety, but there is also a bigger slab of hope on the other side of the seesaw.
Yesterday was the first Virtual Trail Race of The Trail Running Series. I’m still smiling. Here’s how it was:
I’m at home at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. It’s cold in my home so I’ve got the heat on. The race starts in thirty minutes – and there is no line at all for the toilets! I keep my extra layers on. There is no need to drive and navigate, lock my car, check my bag. It is all so simple and so very strange. My daughter wanders in – I thought you were going to a race this morning? I am. Here. She looks puzzled and wanders off.
I sit down at my desk and open my phone to Facebook. The race organisers are live on their page (or group?) and there’s Sam standing outside somewhere. It’s like seeing a dear old friend. He stands alone next to a Start Arch.
He’s talking to someone on Zoom, so I switch over to that, type in some code, and suddenly I’m part of the party. It’s disconcerting to suddenly see myself on my phone screen and funny too, because I’ve got my visor and sunglasses on, as well as my reading glasses so I can see the phone.
None of us racers know how to turn the volume or videos on, and there’s a bit of, can you hear me, we can’t hear you, until we get it right, and then suddenly I’m there by that arch with them, chatting away about nothing and connected to a group in a way I’ve not been in months.
I flick through the Zoom screens, smile at the other runners who are there in their tiny boxes, in a world of different places. A man rings in from Scotland – he’s running at midnight his time, and the edge of a horizon is visible in the dark background. I open Racemap to figure out how to start Live Tracking and I don’t know what it means, but I do it anyway.
Then I have my fifteenth trip to the toilet – still no line! – and finally take off my outer layers. At 8:55 I step out my front door to my Start Line (my front gate).
In the driveway, I watch Sam on Facebook Live do his countdown with the airhorn, get my finger on my Garmin start button, and when he says go, I go, shoving my phone into my pack, and I’m off.
This is a route I’ve run hundreds of times. Run down the footpath, turn left and head downhill, in two blocks turn left again, continue downhill, eventually cross Hampton Street, dodge pedestrians down Small Street, cross Beach Road while avoiding cars and bikes, and then onto the Bayside Coastal Track.
Today, it’s empty until Hampton Street. Then suddenly there are people everywhere, walkers and dogs, families and bicycles. Down at Beach Road, the cyclists are out in Sunday force and I wait for the pedestrian crossing.
I’m not giving you the right sense of this though. I’m racing. There is no one running but me, but I’m racing. In the front pocket of my Salomon backpack, my phone is glowing with all you other runners. Your energy is with me as I bolt across the street, turn left and race off. Zoom zoom! The track twists and turns, dirt and pebbles, tree roots and rocks. The bay is to my right, visible in glimpses between the trees.
But I’m not looking for bay views. I’m running flat out, leaning into the turns like I’m in a velodrome. What is so familiar is suddenly brand-new, as I move with higher octane and dart and twist and dance. It becomes a mad combination of trail and obstacle race, with the other path users being the obstacles. I don’t resent them; I don’t wish them away; I’m polite and say excuse me and thank you; but I bolt around them as if they are bollards or speed cones, like I’m the quarter-horse and they’re the barrels.
I slow right down for dogs though. On this track, dogs are meant to be on lead, but dogs are like runners – we don’t want to be tied down, and neither do they. I respect their kindred desire for freedom. With the twisty-turny trail, it’s the small dogs I have to watch out for. The ones that appear out of nowhere in the center of the trail, the older dogs who don’t hear me coming. I always slow for them, give them space, and then rocket away to make up the millisecond lost.
Because this is a race, right? Except when I to skid to stop for photos (I must – I see little when racing and it’s nice to see where I’ve been, when I haven’t seen where I’ve been). This adds maybe five seconds to my whole run. Worth it.
Three kilometres into the race, I come across a man, his wife, and his daughter. They’re all running, and they are fast. Trouble is they’re in front of me, and if I want to speed up it will be hard to get past them on the narrow trail. I say excuse me, pass them with an all-out burst of fuel; like a rocket leaving earth, I burn it all up.
Then I’m in front of them and the trail is clear, except they are still behind me and they remain fast. So I burn that fuel to try to stay in front of them – burn, baby, burn – and go far too fast for a 15 kilometre race. I can’t check my watch to see how fast I’m going, but I don’t need to. It’s too fast. It doesn’t take long, maybe two more kilometres, until they pass me. It’s only the father and daughter now, though. I wonder where the wife has gone. The next five kilometres I can see them weaving in and out of trees in front of me, but I never catch them again.
I must slow down a bit because I can breathe again. I’m nearly 6k in, on the slight downhill with a couple of tree roots. I try to take them big, as if they are massive obstacles and this is a highly technical track (it’s not; they’re not) but it’s fun. The track narrows and this section is high up on the cliff, embraced by low shrubs, safe but with great visibility.
Soon I come to the blue-stone staircase, the uneven stairs slowing me, and my covid-fear of touching the railings keeping me to the centre. At the base of the stairs, the bay is a brilliant blue and I run along the smooth path along the water’s edge. There are small outcroppings of red and black stone, littered with black and white birds, too far away to identify.
I see little and smell nothing. I’m running flat out, checking my watch for my turnaround point.
At Rickett’s Point, I turn back for home. I’d usually stop here and take a few more photos, have a gel, chill, but today, I spin and sprint back up the path to the stairs. I take them two at a time, preparing for the maybe of the Wonderland Run in Halls Gap in August, stretching and climbing.
Then I’m back to the narrow single track. The wind’s in my face – I hadn’t noticed I had a tailwind on the way out. Damn. I press down the gas pedal but nothing happens, no more speed, damn that man and his daughter, I’ve burned up my fuel!
Ah, but my gel! I grab it, suck it down, and re-ignite. Kind of. In fact, my legs are burning, far more than usual, more than they would in a race. Will this be my first DNF? That would be funny, failing to win a race in which I am the sole runner on the course! I slow a tad but not really, just decide to ignore the pain in my legs, it’s not so bad. I zoom on.
It’s a blur from here. I stop at Red Bluff, my special lookout spot, but only long enough to take a photo this time.
From here, it’s five kilometres home. I know them intimately. I’ve lived here for twelve years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere since childhood. Like the bumps in my childhood sidewalks, the tree roots rise up where I expect them. Each step evokes a memory, a history, a song I’ve sung over and over. So many seasons and moments, and now this new one, this racing memory. On I go, across the road that leads to the dog beach, watching for cars as I run without pause. Through the section below the football club, up the only up on a little ramp, then along the newly-compressed section with a recently installed safely fence. People are sight-seeing, staring out at the bay, and we are incongruent, me the racing runner, them the languid walkers.
Onwards, down the uneven steps where once I sprained an ankle, then onto the final sprint on trail before Beach Road. I sprint, then skid to a stop, press the crossing button with my elbow, gasping for breath. When the light changes, I make for the road instead of the pedestrian-loaded footpath. Zooming up Small Street, a break in the traffic lets me flow straight across Hampton Street and across the train tracks. Uphill now, on Service Street. Past the restaurants and the library (still closed), past the doctors where I got tested in the parking lot for Covid-19 (I didn’t have it), past the Church (still closed) and across the roundabout.
Oh, Service Street, how I love and loathe you. The only uphill in Hampton, that gets more up the further you run. Walkers are on the footpath, so I’m driven into the road again. Breathless, aching, glancing at my watch, nearly 15 km but not yet, 14.5, and I push, and god it hurts, why is this hill so steep, who chose this route, will this give me the 300 metres elevation gain I need, nonsense thoughts, and this song in my head, spinning round and round, Boston, I think, More than a feeling, and then there’s the top, and Sargood Street and no cars so I dash across, the last four hundred metres to home.
It’s all home, the streets, the neighbours, the dogs, the friends. Yet I see it with new eyes as I run as fast as I can. Bing goes my watch as I turn onto my street – I’ve finished the 15km! I press stop and start to walk, but like any real runner, this is unacceptable and I press start again, and finish the run at the finish line – my driveway, at 15.13 kilometres.
I’m utterly spent. I lean against the fence and stretch as if this is just my usual training run. Then I glance at the gate. “THE WINNER!!!” the cardboard sign reads, placed by my husband while I ran. God, I love that man.
Smiling, I get the code for the Zoom meeting, type it into my phone. I’ve barely caught my breath but I must be with others, this is how races finish, so I enter the code and join the Zoom meeting. Sam unmutes me, and we chat – I can only see myself on my phone for some reason, which is really weird, as if I’m talking to myself, which in a way I am, and I’m so enthusiastic and elated, the first time I’ve felt this way in months. I call Andrea then, who’s on the way home and is equally elated.
Later, I hear my daughter ask my husband when I’ll be home from my race. It’s half an hour later, and Im in my office, watching the race organisers on Facebook live and loving the sense of community from afar. She’s in her office, my husband says. But I thought she was racing?
Ah, what a strange world.
We do what we can.
And what we did! Wasn’t it incredible? We were apart but oh so together. The strange became the wonderful, the usual became astonishing.
Thank you Rapid Ascent. You came through, and you gave us back what was missing – elation, community, a shared experience we’ll remember forever. One day, I’ll get to say thank you in person. Until then, please accept my ZOOM, Facebook Live and Blog thanks.
And to all the other winners of your own races, well done to you. Thank you for being the best part of my Sunday! Until we meet again…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
‘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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
Ah, Plenty Gorge. Your single-tracks studded with rocks. Your tiny trails hugging the edge of a high drop into a river. Your river crossing itself, with its nasty little descent lined with tree-roots and mud, and beautiful cold winter water. You bring back memories; your create new ones.
Oh, but it wasn’t all bliss, was it? The roadworks were a surprise. I arrived so early that no one was turning into Memorial Drive and it looked like it was closed, so I drove on by. I was suddenly trapped alone on a 40km/hour nightmare road, alone in the half-light, corralled by concrete barriers with no way to turn around for two long heart-racing kilometres. My navigator berated me, “turn around”, “turn back”, “turn back at the roundabout”, but I couldn’t, and when I got to the roundabout hours later (exaggeration), it no longer existed (no exaggeration), it had been consumed by the roadworks. There was only a thin u-turn sign, pointing onto a new road which could have been two lanes of head-on traffic, or one lane for each direction. There was no one to follow; I was the only car in sight anywhere. I stared death in the eyes, crossed my fingers, and did the u-turn.
By the time I got back to Memorial Drive it was open, and I was still alive. Other cars were turning in, so down I went. Steered around the massive potholes, knowing my friends would be laughing at me (they were, they told me later), and finally found a volunteer in a vest who directed me, “turn right, then keep going until you see another person in a yellow vest”. So I did.
Drove right down a kind-of-road through an empty field, feeling a bit suspicious, but knowing we often park in weird places. I drove for maybe five-hundred metres, glanced in my rearview mirror and saw NO ONE following me; they were all turning off to the right. Swore. Contemplated keeping going because maybe I was right and they were all wrong? Did a quick u-turn, and joined the people parking in the correct field.
My heart was already going a thousand miles an hour, and I hadn’t run a metre. Jeez. Luckily I was early, so I could regain my composure for the 11km trial race that was coming.
Race 1 of The Trail Running Series at Plenty Gorge. I do this series every year, for the utter joy of it. This year, I’m doing the Medium length events.
Utter joy, I said. Mmm. Last few years, not so much joy. Did I mention the floaters? They’re floating in front of my computer screen as I type. But fewer of them than last year. I’ve tried this new laser treatment over the last month – like Star Wars for your eyes – they shoot the lasers straight into your eyeballs and try to melt the grey shadows away. Yep. Not one shot, like I’d expected, but 500 shots! Sure there are no bad side effects there.
However, I’ve been frustrated for five years by an inability to see technical trails, and by worsening in my ability to drive. Life is risky. After the first treatment, I was singing, “I can see clearly now the rain is gone…”. I even downloaded the song on iTunes. Then my vision cleared and I realised, I couldn’t actually see clearly. Just a little bit more clearly. Once in a while. The treatment takes three or four goes, so I’m not fully disheartened.
Anyway, Plenty Gorge was to be my first trail race with my new-ish vision. I had high hopes.
But I’d forgotten just how technical the course was. So while I could dance between rocks, there were still many others who could dance much faster. Eye-foot coordination will take time to improve, is what I’m telling myself. Here’s what I remember most.
The twisty-turny single-tracks and the numerous rocks. Running powerfully uphill past people, then being passed by the same people on the downhills, numerous times. Tip-toeing across the river, not concerned in the least about wet shoes.
The thin plank of wood that was called a “bridge” and wondering if I could possibly crawl across it. The guy who passed me two metres before the finish line, saying “really?” to myself, and not chasing him. My friend Cissy buying me a coffee, and taking podium photos of her. Laughing with Andrea and Dean about driving around potholes. Andrea encouraging me to climb over red tape forbidding access to the toilets.
A friend commented on the professional photos, saying it looked a beautiful place to run. I wouldn’t know: I was watching my feet trying not to trip over the whole time.
But this one time…the pack had spread, there was no one right behind me: the trail was narrow and there were rocks just everywhere. And I began to dance. Just briefly, like I used to before my vision changed, before the floaters. My feet and eyes connected and I danced among those rocks and it was like playing a fast piece on the piano from memory. Intense and fluid and life-bringing, that dance, in the flow and of the flow and fast enough.
It lasted a few moments or minutes and then someone was behind me again, hurrying me, making me anxious.
But it happened and I’m hopeful with a few more laser-shots into my eyes, that it will happen more often.
I was fifth in my age category, 17 minutes behind brave number one, who I admire. But that doesn’t really matter, because we’re all on the podium, of course. It takes guts and grit and a bit of crazy to go running through rivers in winter, dancing between rocks and running wild. Thanks Rapid Ascent – it was an utter joy!
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.
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.
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.
The Wonderland 20k, three weeks earlier
Well, I meant to be, anyway.
Truth be told, when they say go, I go. Fast as I can, always. I love fast.
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.
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.
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.
Great friends make for a terrific experience!
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.
I sang in my head as I drove my legs up the first real hill climb in Race 3 (long course, 21k for me) of The Trail Running Series. My target was my close friend Andrea, who was twenty metres ahead of me. She’d bolted past me on the technical single track a few minutes earlier. She’s much nicer than me: when she’d passed me, she’d said kind things, you can do it Patricia, you’ve got this, hugely supportive and welcome words.
Unlike me, pursuing her like a predator, Katy Perry’s song ringing in my ears. I was predator, she was prey.
Though I was secretly smiling to myself: I know I’m strong on the uphills, but I always get caught on the downs. Andrea says she’s more reckless than me; I say she’s braver.
Most people are. I know because all of them fly by me as I carefully pick my way along, memories of sprained ankles and face-plants echoing in my head.
So, yes, I was coming at her like a dark horse, but she’d be coming at me a few minutes later on the downhill. Like a…I don’t know. What’s a metaphor for someone much nicer than a dark horse? Like a rainbow unicorn with a kind smile? It was funny how we played cat-and-mouse-and-cat, each encouraging the other, and competing, my trail running buddy and I.
The race course? Oh yes. We began on single track just above the Silvan Reservoir Dam. Easier than I recalled at first, with more visibility and less fallen trees. I was running along, thinking, well, this isn’t so bad, enjoying the pace and the fun, wondering if I’d misremembered those tree hurdles. Nope. They came up eventually, but because I’d been box jumping at the gym, they didn’t seem quite as hard. Hooray.
I was carrying a couple of injuries into this run, so was careful of foot placement. Apparently, I had a tear in my ITB (not as easy thing to do, apparently, and it seems I must have run into the edge of something in the not so distant past), and a bit of knee tendonitis in the opposite knee (not a meniscal tear – another hooray!). I asked the physio how to heal all this. Rest.
Ha. Rest. I’m a fifty-two year-old woman with two kids, two dogs, and two cats. I do the heavy lifting in my family. Literally. Rest was not going to happen. I don’t do well on rest anyway, so I was going to be hopping and swearing a bit in this race no matter what.
To my pleasure though (or maybe because I was distracted by racing Andrea), nothing hurt. Oh, yes, a twinge now and then, but no big deal. Every chance I got, I bolted. Down the smoother downhills. Up the bigger hills. Coaching my feet to a fast cadence, my posture to upright and looking ahead.
I was smiling. It was great fun, the twisting and turning, the agility. But then there she was again, passing me, shouting her kind encouraging words, which did push me faster but made my dark horse song seem churlish in comparison. I didn’t really mean it, I thought. Go Andrea, go!
I knew this run well. Knew the up on Rifle Range Gully Track was coming and knew it was going to hurt. Oh, it did. I played leapfrog with a few other runners in this section, and we were all considerate and nice, making it pleasant and almost fun.
Here and there a photographer appeared and I controlled the grimace of hard effort long enough to smile, and thought with envy of the runners who could jump up into poses. One day, maybe.
Somewhere, I passed Andrea again. I’d made up ground steadily. I was sure of it. Five minutes ahead, definitely. If I could keep that gap, maybe I’d podium today after all. We were about 10k in. We ran across some lovely smooth grass between unlikely trees, then we were off downhill again on Manna Gum Track, and just like that, Andrea ran in front of me again. Glowing kindness. Damn damn damn. I was cramping already, so I sucked down an electrolyte capsule. I wasn’t going to catch her. I’d thought to hold her off until the final downhill section, where I knew she’d get me, but if she was ahead here…
I subtly readjusted my goals. Maybe I even said it aloud? It is no good to have the sole goal of a race to be a podium finish. It’s too easy to finish, and be disappointed. There’s always likely to be someone faster. So I began to play this game: Okay. She’s got me beaten. What about I go for a PB instead? I thought I knew my PB times on this course. It was either 2:17 or 2:22. Let’s say 2:22. Okay? I’m not looking back in my records now, not at this stage.
So I was going for a PB now. Not a podium.
Cool. I ran and ran, as fast as I could. No more dark horses on this trail. Just a horse trying not to cramp up or face-plant or feel something in my ITB go SNAP before the finish.
Hey, maybe it was getting to be time to lower the bar again? Success equaled finishing the race and not being broken at the end. Yes.
Was that Andrea’s blue shirt up ahead? Nope. That was the woman in the next age category up that I’d been trying to keep pace with. Darn it. They were all in front of me.
Ah well. Another gel. Beautiful trees. Blue sky. Eagle Nest Road. I’m like an eagle. I wrote about an eagle once in my book Akilina. This is my road. I’m the eagle. Fly like an eagle…Oh my lord, my blood sugar is getting low. I have another (my last) gel.
I know what’s coming. Intimately. That nasty slippy section by the road and wire fence. The one I can never run fast on because I’m not…wait, because I’m careful. That’s the word. Here we go. Slip slide. Wishing I’d worn my shoes with bigger lugs instead of these worn-down ones with more cushioning. There’s that girl in the tights. I pass her – hooray – I passed someone. But moments later, she flashes by me again and disappears down the hill. Sigh. Keep running. Pass a walker. Encourage her. The guy I’ve seen throughout the race passes me.
No problem, I think. Stonyford Road – that’s coming and that’s my playground.
Last year, my song was I’m sorry I’m not sorry. I sang it in my head when I passed all the people who had passed me on this section. I rehearse it in my mind as I plan to chase this guy. I let him go but keep him in sight.
We’re on the road now, and I slowly reel him in. Like a fish on a loose line. I keep watch for potholes and shift side to side but I am on him (like a darkish horse) and I manage to pass him and am just congratulating myself, when we see the volunteer who directs us to the (terrible terrible awful whose idea was this) last little bit of single track instead of letting us run down that nice smooth road.
And of course, the guy I’d just passed, well, he passes me.
I have to laugh and I run and run, knowing it’s not far, I can hear the party going on just ahead. We pull out onto the road, run through the tiny car park, and I hear someone behind me, and say come on, let’s finish together and he says what? and I repeat myself but by then he’s caught up and begins running next to me, then puts on a sudden burst and I’m left to cross the line alone.
Alone? No. I hear three or four friends cheering my name and I’m so happy they are there, but I don’t look at them, because I have seen the clock and it says 2:21 and I am going to beat that 2:22 – that’s suddenly my ultimate and final race goal and I push and push and push and the clock says 2:21:31 just as I pass the arch.
Success! Victory! I came at my PB like a dark horse.
Though I have this sudden uneasy feeling that maybe that PB was 2:17. Maybe. I’m not looking.
I go to check results. I’ve come in 6th in my age category (How? How? It was only Andrea and I racing!) but Andrea has come third, and a smile breaks out on my face. Yay for my friend!
Then I see Cissy, who has come 2nd. And Janet, who has come 1st.
I stay for the awards ceremony and take tons of photos of all these wonderful friends, and the competition – well, it doesn’t even occur to me in those moments. I’m simply happy to have friends, and be able to share in their joy.
Lowering the bar. My husband laughs later when I tell him my thoughts during the race and mentions lowering the bar. I laugh too.
It’s not until later, when another friend sends me this picture that I finally get the meaning behind this race. It was not the race at all. It is the friendships and the woods and the camaraderie.
My favourite photo: my capturing Cissy on the podium!
Andrea gave me her muesli prize for my 14-year-old son, who had loved it last time. We held it together and had a photo. And that photo and that bag of cereal means more to me than any win ever will.
What a great race this woman ran! And she shared her muesli!
Running in the sunshine bores me. Smooth trails and dry footing and calm smooth rivers: big, sullen yawns.
So when I woke to the ongoing rain on Sunday morning at four am (well, I say woke, I should say, when I glanced again at the clock), I was happy. I got up early, though, expecting the roads to be flooded and traffic heavy. I was headed for the long course (15km) in Race 1 of The Trail Running Series, held in Westerfolds Park, in a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria (Australia), in the dead of winter.
I arrived at Westerfolds Park before dawn, before even first light. I knew to turn right once I entered the park, but that’s all I knew. No one had arrived yet, and there was no signage up for the race. There were a few cars parked in a lonely section and I nearly parked near them, but I got scared, being a woman alone, and drove off. I navigated by Google Maps, trying out various pitch-dark areas, reading misleading signs and wondering where I was.
A ray of light in the darkness
Then, in the distance: light!
Race Headquarters was glowing in the dark. I made my way towards it, staying somehow on the road, and finally parked just across from the tents. When I switched off my headlights, I was met with utter darkness, but for race headquarters.
I was even earlier than usual but this really didn’t matter. I sat in silence and watched the rain. I had nowhere to go until 8:30, and it was only 6:45. The rain fell hard and then softly, and began to flow in thin rivers through the wet park. The sky gradually turned a lighter shade of grey and a kookaburra appeared, soaked, in the tree branches in front of my car. It didn’t seem moved by the rain.
In time, a few friends texted that they were on the way, but none of us wanted to exit our cars into the rain. It was unlike any event I’ve ever attended in this way, and it was kind of neat. We were all hidden in the solitude of our cars in the pouring rain, gazing at race headquarters and wondering when to come out.
A lighter shade of grey
Finally, I decided to brave a toilet run, and was immediately soaked. My shoes filled with water, my socks were saturated and I was laughing my head off, jumping around the rivers that had formed in this grassy park. Thankfully, I still had my waterproof hiking pants and ski jacket on, so I didn’t really get wet.
Finally the sun rises, and the rivers are revealed!
There are the other people!
Inside the car, at about 8 am, I stripped off all my outer layers, down to 2XU tights, a singlet, and a light rain jacket. I slipped my running pack on top, and became like that Kookaburra, unafraid of the rain. I got out about 8:10 am for an 8:20 warmup.
We warmed up, my friend Andrea and I next to one another, while the HIIT Factory encouraged us to stretch more than I ever do, and I jogged in place and got warm. I quickly removed my rain jacket and tucked it in my pack. Andrea said, monkey see, monkey do, and removed hers too.
It was still raining and we were already wet and cold, but it didn’t matter; this was what we’d come for, and the conditions were nearly identical to a training run we’d done a week before.
The race began. I didn’t have time to feel nervous; we were just off. Oh, it was blisteringly fun! I’ve never felt stronger in a run, especially on the smoother sections, where I could fly. Soon, we hit the puddles though. I say puddles; they were more like rivers. Sections where the entire trail became like a river-bed and we could only skirt the edges on either side or plow through the centre. I chose my plowing sections with care; the trails were often criss-crossed with tree roots that could be hidden under all the water, so I tended to skirt these, and plow through the ones on the road.
It was no matter: we were soaked and I was having the time of my life. I’d found my sweet spot where the same three or four of us kept passing each other (I’m slower on technical stuff but faster uphill and on the flat), and the field spread out enough to really open up the legs.
So much fun in the pouring rain!
Several times we crossed bridges across the fast-flowing Yarra, whose turbulent waters were a delight, grey and white and wild and just what I had been longing to see. Around me were runners in various states of readiness for this weather. I’d not worn my new trail shoes in these conditions, and was delighted at their certain grip on the slipperier sections. Others had come in road shoes, and made slides back and forth, managing, somehow to stay on their feet. One young guy reminded me of Fred Astaire, sliding across the trails, arms in the air, nearly going down, but not; it was magical to watch, but I passed him as soon as I could, so as not to get taken out by a wayward slide.
A few times, the long, short, and medium courses merged, and the paces changed. Some faster runners bolted past us; other slower ones were slogging it out and I was so proud of the ones that were struggling and bravely pushing on.
Photographers appeared, and sometimes I could look up and smile, but often they were at a technical section, so I kept my eyes down and focused.
It was a race; I ran as fast as I possibly could, leaving nothing in the tank for later, and loving every single minute of it. The puddles and the mud, the rain lashing me, the feeling of being alive in the wildness of it and my capable body carrying me through the madness.
We finished. I was so wet and cold, I didn’t even notice my finish time, but heard Andrea shout well done and knew she’d beaten me (and she was in my age category). It didn’t matter somehow, not today. Today was for joy and not for winning.
We didn’t hang around long. Already, hypothermia was threatening. We hugged and laughed and went back to our cars. I contemplated changing my clothes in the change rooms but knew as soon as I stepped out in dry clothes, I’d be soaked again.
So I did what every real trail runner would do. I waited until my breath had fogged up my car windows, slunk down in the seat, and changed in the car. It took the whole way home to feel my hands again, but I was smiling the entire way.
Thanks for the wild ride, Rapid Ascent! We don’t get many chances to jump in puddles as adults, and I loved every minute of it! See you at Race 2.