Wouldn’t it be nice…if I were no longer scared?

Here’s what I wanted to write on my blog tonight:  I have found my inner confidence.  I have dug down deep since last Monday night, contemplated all the things I have achieved, overcome, faced down, and now I’m no longer scared of the North Face 50km race that happens in four days time in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

Not quite.

I will say I have tried.  Ok.  I haven’t.  I haven’t even been able to try.  This is one of the scariest things I have ever done, and I feel a bit rabbit-in-the-headlights-ish, to tell the truth.  Like it is too scary to even really contemplate.

Sure, I’ve been studying the maps and exploring blogs that go into detail about the trails we’ll travel.  I watched the North Face 100 DVD that has sat on my bookshelf for a month (I kept meaning to watch it over dinner at night, but it made me feel sick to my stomach each time I thought about it, so I watched it after school drop-off last Tuesday morning – the first time I have ever watched TV in the day!  And watching it was a good and bad idea – good that some of the trails didn’t look too hard; bad that some of the people looked like they might die, but thankfuly, didn’t).  I’ve tried on and put away the new Salomon backpack I panic-ordered last week (great idea, to consider using a new pack on race day – glad I came to my senses quickly on that one!).  I’ve done all the last-minute checks (salt tablets in abundance, lots of gels, sunscreen, BodyGlide, etc).  I’ve even bought two portable DVD players to entertain my non-travelling kids in the car for the ten-hour drive to the Blue Mountains (I’m sure I’ll be ready to run screaming into the woods after that drive!).  I bought new jeans today to put in my after-race bag, assuming I’ll need one, because my only other pair has the knee fully torn-out from a face-plant on the playground at my kids’ school when I was running too fast for my own good.  So I am truly ultra-organised (I didn’t even mean that as a play on words).

But I am also ultra-terrified!  This was the tipping point – the Facebook post from the North Face race organisers page, warning runners not to train on the course early this week because the powers-that-be were planning to SET FIRE TO THE WOODS in the areas where the race will be held.  Okay, here in Australia, we call it a “planned burn” and I’m sure it won’t even be smouldering by the time we drive up, but really?

(The actual post from the Facebook Page: Alert from National Parks: For any 100km runners planning a run on course from now until at least Monday, you won’t be able to do Leg 2 as there are hazard reduction burns occurring in the Wild Dogs (the area directly to your left as you run between Medlow Gap and Dunphy’s Camp). The Medlow Gap firetrail is closed for at least the next 3 days and will be reopened once the area is safe again.

For updates on track closures check the National Parks website or contact the NPWS Heritage Centre, phone 02 4787 8877 (open seven days 9.00am to 4.30pm).)

In full panic mode, I downloaded the New South Wales Fire App to my iPhone, and have been studying the little icon that says, “planned burn alight, under control”.  I’m waiting for it to say, “it is now out”.  Oh, and then I read the Emergency Instructions again about how there is really no mobile phone service down in the valleys we will be running in – gulp. So I won’t be able to check my FireApp to see where the fire is?

Today, the race organisers posted a picture of the Blue Mountains on their Facebook Page in a get-us-all-excited moment, and I swear there was a plume of smoke in that picture.

Photo: Cracking morning in the Bluies, course setting well under way. Track looking good, 5 days to go!

The actual picture from the North Face Page – see, doesn’t it look smoky?

Can I type any faster to tell you all how cowardly and scaredy-cat I feel right now?  When I took my maps to OfficeWorks to get them laminated (I know, overkill) I was too nervous to wait in the long non-moving line for service, and bought contact paper like you use for kids projects, and laminated the thing at home.  Of course, my husband walked through the house during the lamination, and my hand shook, and I didn’t get it perfect, and I nearly, very nearly, shouted at him, like a crazy, mad fish-wife (“Why did you have to walk by just then?  Don’t you know I’m doing something critical to my survival and now I’ve just messed it up and your children will have no Mom and I’ll freeze to death lost in the woods because of this stupid crease that obscures OBSCURES the trail name???).  Or some such thing.  I believe it is to my great credit that I said nothing, and put the map away.

So, no, I don’t have a non-panicked self to share with you tonight.

All I can say is that fear has not stopped me ever before, and this monster certainly won’t stop me this time.  I’ll keep having the stupid dream where I’ve forgotten to pack my gear until five minutes before the race, and the other one where the tidal wave is coming but no one notices but me (“Ah, hey guys, do you see that wave?”).  I know, there is no ocean near the Blue Mountains, but I was raised by the Atlantic, and I see waves when stressed.

In a few days time, I will front up to the start line of the North Face 50km race in the Blue Mountains.  I will face down this demon-fear again.  Until then, please bear with me.  Bear?  No, there are no bears here in Australia.  Don’t get me started on the other venomous creatures though…

Adventures on the trail: 30 and 35km runs

I have been silent, but I have not been still.  School holidays always causes a long absence from my blog, but I’ve saved up some stories to share over the last ten days – sort of a “highlights of the trail”.  So here goes…

You might recall I’ve been training for the North Face 50km Race in Sydney’s Blue Mountains in May.  The last two weekends I’ve finally managed to break through a distance barrier, clocking up 30km on Good Friday, and 35km just yesterday.  The distances baffle my mind; to run that long seems insane, and yet, each moment varies so much – the emotions, the terrain, the sense of time passing – that while doing it, it seems normal.  I think partly it is the joy of the trail.  Having to be constantly aware of foot placement, of ascent and descent, of navigating and finding the right track.

But the last two weeks, there’s been an extra element.  I’ve run with groups of mainly men (and a few very fast women).  I’ve been the back-of-the-pack runner, the one that the others wait for at the top of the hills, and the bottom of steep descents.  Does this hurt my pride?  No.  It hurts my lungs, and my legs, and my butt, as I try to keep up with them.  Sometimes, during the course of the runs, it made me want to curse and swear and throw rocks at the group leader standing so calmly at the top of the hill, laughing and gesturing and not out of breath at all.

I envied (and seethed at) the look of his feet on the uphills, dancing away from me, making it look effortless.  But I loved him, and all of them, for waiting for me, for not making me feel less than them.  Emotions went all around, up and down, and back again.

The second run was with two men and me, and again, I was back of the pack.  They chatted, and I ran behind, and this was okay, because I was helping to navigate, and really, we were running so very far, that just getting there at all felt a tremendous accomplishment.

And now to the memorable moments – my two favorites anyway.

The first one was on Good Friday.  We were about 28km into the 30km run, and the leader decided on one more short-cut down this super-cool, narrow, single-track trail.  It was darker than most of the woods, moist, full of tree ferns, and it looked seldom used, like a secret trail.

This wasn’t the trail, but it looks like it!

Then one of our group (one who had kindly run with me at the back of the pack a few times) needed a rest stop.  He told me to go on ahead.  But I didn’t like the thought of leaving him.  He didn’t have a map; we didn’t know the route.  So I ran slowly, hanging back, trying to keep the last of the line of our group in sight, glancing over my shoulder to see if the other guy was behind me.  I turned down a mossy, steep staircase, and stopped.  I waited until he caught up, thinking this was a place he could easily go wrong.  We began running but the group had gone.  It was okay, there was only one track, and all was good, until we came to a four-way fork in the trail.  I stopped.  We had no idea which way to go.  We discussed what to do, and then I took out my phone and tried to call Ben, who was with the group.  No answer.  We shouted, loudly, and heard an answering woop woop, and then my mobile rang and it was Ben, who talked us down from the hill.  It was a heart-pounding, panic-inducing five minutes, but we found them, and continued on.  And I added another moment in my Journal of Memories of Scary Moments surmounted on trails.

The second highlight came yesterday, on a washed-out section of trail.  My husband called what the three of us did “dumb and irresponsible”, and then he admitted he would have done it too.  We climbed down over the broken section, scrambled across the stream, and pulled ourselves up the muddy bank on the other side.  One of the men reached down a large hand to help pull me up the slope, which I thought was very gallant.  The scramble was the highlight of the run for me, the moment where we broke through what we should be doing, and ventured into a bit of a risk, an unknown, an adventure.

Today, my headtorch for the North Face race arrived.

I ran around the playground in it, pondered life.  How ten years ago, I bought my first headtorch for an adventure race training weekend on Lamma Island, a small island a ferry ride away from Hong Kong island.

English: Ling Kok Sha, Lamma Island, Hong Kong...

English: Ling Kok Sha, Lamma Island, Hong Kong, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had no idea who I would turn into then.  How different the course of my life was about to become.

Ten years on, dozens of adventure races later, so many beautiful trails run.  I am 47 years old and about to run the furthest I ever have in my whole life.  Indeed, when I think about it, just yesterday, I ran the furthest I ever have in my whole life!

This new headtorch, my second, seems to be shining a light forward, and it makes me wonder what the next ten years of adventure will bring.  Life is good and I am still growing.

Oh, and very hungry and a little bit tired!

Monster Feet: my journey into barefoot running

I’ve been increasing my running distance each week, and today I hit 16 kilometres for the first time.  I am not sure what my long-term goal is.

Reading Born to Run last year, I got this image in my mind of running pain-free, and shortly after went out to buy my Teva Five-Finger Shoes.  I wore them around the house for weeks.  Cooking dinner each night, I wore my “monster feet” for an hour or so.  It helped make cooking dinner more bearable.

As my feet got stronger, I took my monster feet outside, ran 50 metres on the footpath.  At first, I was so self-conscious, I’d only wear them in the dark.  After several weeks, I could run around the block, in full daylight.  I started wearing them to TR-X, to the amused stare of the instructor (freak, he was thinking), then running on the treadmill afterwards.  I started wearing them to the grocery store (super-freak, the check-out boy was thinking).  In six months, I could run four kilometres in my monster feet.  My old shoes, the top-of-the-line physiotherapist-recommended ones, felt strange and awkward; I bought a new pair that were lower to the earth to make a full transition easier.  I began to read everything I could on barefoot running: blogs; books; websites; and some advice that I wasn’t prepared to follow.  I tried to change my running style to forefoot landing, and my ITB pain went right away.  It was replaced by Achilles pain.  I read more, learning to land on my forefoot and let my heel land.

And now?

Now, I just want to know how far I can go.  I keep adding on .2 of a kilometre, week after week.  Travelling further onto terrain I’ve never seen.  With no pain.  Soreness, tiredness, yes.  But no pain.

It is very strange, when the pain of ITB used to hit me forty minutes into every single run, and I’d have to limp for the last ten minutes to get home.  In road races, I used to aim for the center line to minimise any camber that would flare up the ITB.  No more.

So how far can I go?

How far do I want to go?  There is much talk of ultra-running, half-marathons.  I am an adventure racer at heart, loving the varying terrain and mental challenge of taking myself beyond my limits.  Am I also an ultra-runner?  Time will tell, I suppose.

I suspect my mind will give up before my body at this stage.  Because my body, at 46, just seems to go on and on.  My husband’s caution – “At some point, you may have to pay a big price for all this extra running…” – frightens me, but doesn’t really ring true.  I feel like I am getting stronger and stronger, like my muscles and bones have just re-discovered how to run, even though I’ve run for thirty years.

Today, I saw a man running on my trail absolutely barefoot.  I saw him last week too.  He looked light as a feather.  That’s what I’m aiming for.  One day.  I suppose the distance doesn’t really matter, in the end.

Thank you, barefoot running advocates, for allowing me to run like a child again.

Now to figure out how to combine barefoot running with trail running…