What’s next? After the 50…

Ah, that is the question.  Three weeks or so after the North Face 50km race, and my recovery is finally coming along.  It took some strong words from the Dandenongs Running Group to get me back on track, to realise I needed to slow down and heal, as I had come out pretty fast and hard.  The irony – in formulating my question the group, I almost laughed out loud:

“Okay experienced ultra-runners, can you help? It’s been nearly 3 weeks since North Face 50 and I am still so tired. I spent the first week after recovering and only ran 7k in total, last week I ramped it back up to 47k plus teaching 2 pump classes and 1 weight training day. This week I’m only up to 30k and 2 pump classes, and exhausted. What do I do? Should I be recovered yet? Feeling a bit of a dummy and wondering whether I am doing this right. (oh, and trying to gently train for the Surfcoast Century that will happen in September too). Any advice?”

Duh.  Slow down, they said, loud, kindly, and in unison.  I guess I kind of knew that, but somehow having real ultrarunners to validate my tiredness enabled me to take three days off running, to do a yoga session, and to finally, finally leap out of bed in the morning with a spring in my step.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still going slow for the next couple of weeks, with my only real challenge the first race in the Salomon Trail Series, a 15km romp in some lovely woods near home.

But my heart and soul are calling out for the next goal.  And I don’t just mean running.  I have been contemplating the fact that it is June already, and that novel, my second, that I’d promised to get started, well, I haven’t got started.  I’ve already written a non-fiction book, and a novel about a woman lost in the woods.  This third book has been harder to birth.  It began as a book called White Bird of Freedom, about a woman whose marriage had dissolved.  It featured a cowboy named Jake Wyoming (a hottie of course, and very good with horses), and lots of soul-searching.  The trouble was, I set out to write it as a call to environmentalism (the husband was the bad guy, destroying the environment while the wife wrung her hands in despair before he left her), and it became kind of talking-headish.  At least the bits that weren’t a love story did.  The bits about Jake and Carol sung.  I don’t want to leave those characters, but I can’t write about the environment, just like I couldn’t write a book about Life Coaching.  I can only write what I know.

Lately I’ve been contemplating making one of the characters an ultra-runner.  But where is the conflict?  And that is where my fingers stop moving, and I can’t go forward.

Similar to my choice of my next serious event.  I feel the ideas simmering (Two Bays 56km; Surfcoast Century 100km; Roller Coaster 43km; events in New Zealand) away, but find it hard to unleash them, to let them flow away from my control.

Perhaps, like the autumn here in Melbourne, things are astir under the soil, getting ready to bloom.  Like when we bought our lovely home, and the first spring, these wonderful bulbs burst forth that I hadn’t known were there.  They were bluebells, and they were everywhere.

Perhaps White Bird of Freedom is like that.  I need to let it simmer, and eventually it will flow freely.  Or maybe I need to start writing.  Build in some time when the kids are at school, lock my husband out of my office and find my soul-space again.

The words, just like the words of my blog, do not sing except in solitude.  And being a wife and a parent makes that solitude hard to come by.

Truth or excuses.  I found the time to train for a 50km trail race.  I think the truth is I am afraid to birth a book in today’s world without an avenue to sell it.  But that is not why we write – we don’t just write to sell.  We write because what we say needs saying, for both our spirit and the spirits who find the words just when they need them.  I’m going to write anyway, scared or not, just like I run.  The words will come.  It will take some work, but I am going to sing this book into life.  Just you watch…

(Not) Going Down In A Blaze of Glory: Two weeks out from the North Face 50km Race

Jon Bon Jovi

Doing speedwork on the treadmill this morning to my favorite Bon Jovi songs, I was letting the lyrics do the work of lifting the pace, trying not to sing out loud because there were other people running too.  “Blaze of Glory” came on – I was nearly at my maximum pace, flying, lip singing, holding back on punching my fist in the air, “I’m going dooowwwnnn in a blaze of glory…”, having a heck of a time, and then it hit me:

It is thirteen days until the North Face 50km Race in the Blue Mountains.  I don’t actually want to go down in a blaze of glory.  No blazing, no end, no “dying like a man” or woman, for that matter.  I want to finish this race strong, powerful, tired but capable of doing it again another day.  Maybe even going further.

So, I’m changing my playlist, especially the outdoor one.  Outdoors, I don’t use an iPod, but  I do run with an internal playlist going at all times, sometimes in my head (when I’m with a group, or passing other runners), but when I’m alone, I sing out loud.  As I told my husband, it’s so much easier to change the song than on an iPod.

One day recently, at the back of the pack, climbing a steep hill with the Dandenongs Trail Runners, about 25km into our 30km run, the song went something like this (from Bon Jovi’s new album): “Does anybody want, does anybody need, does anybody want what’s left of me…”.  Wasn’t much left at that stage – that’s why it was so perfect.  During the 28km Two Bays Trail Run, my longest race at the time, the song was by Frank Sinatra, My Way, but just the bit where he sings, “there were times, I’m sure you knew, when I bit off more than I could chew…”  I didn’t choose that one; it began playing in my head all by itself.  During the Surfcoast Century, which we did as a relay team of four:  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.  What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, footsteps even lighter, doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone…”

The playlist matters.

It is thirteen days and counting down to the big day.  I have hit a more subdued frame of mind, where I am having faith that the training I have done is correct, and will pay off.  As I have begun tapering, dropping back from my longest run of 43km in training, to 30, and then 22 last week, I have noticed a new energy flowing in me.  I feel a bit like a coiled spring.  My fast runs have become lighter, more flowing, and the aches in my hips have mostly subsided.

Then, today, my race number (5113) arrived in the mail, along with a lengthy Emergency Instructions card, and a massive map.  I could barely read the Emergency Card, it was so frightening, though it was slightly reassuring that I’d thought of most of the potential emergencies already.  I even had a couple they hadn’t thought of!

I do wonder about the auspiciousness of my race number 5113.  It was at the 13km mark on the Roller Coaster Run back in March that I tripped and went flying through the air during my superman stunt.  But perhaps I have already used up the bad luck associated with that number?  In any case, it is better than the number 5114.  When I lived in Hong Kong, I learned that the numbers 14 and 4 were very unlucky, because they sounded, in Cantonese, like the phrases “certain death” and “death”.  So there are a few numbers that would be worse for me (sorry to those of you who got them, but if you’ve never lived in Hong Kong, I don’t think the unlucky bit counts!).

A typical elevator bank in Hong Kong – notice what numbers are missing?

So, this is how it feels two weeks out from the biggest race of my life, the race that I have spent eight months building for, that terrifies me one moment, and thrills me the next.  I have to remind myself that I have stood at many, many start lines, wondering what I was doing, wondering how I was going to face the challenge I had set for myself.

Each time, I have come through.

The theme song for this race?  Army of One, again from Bon Jovi’s latest album.  This will be my mantra, “Never give up, never give up, never, never give up, never let up, ever, never give in, never give up, never give up, never forget where you’re from, you’re an army of one….”  Set on repeat play in my head.  Find it on YouTube and listen.

The other words I’m tucking into my subconscious are by Malcom Law, author of “One Step Beyond”.  When he was running ridiculous distances in New Zealand, and the going got tough, his mantra was  “relentless forward motion”.  I like the feel of those words.  Thanks, Malcolm.  http://runningwildnz.com/

1stepbeyond_cvr

Now I’m off to laminate my map…and Emergency Card…

Of waterfalls, trails, and water reservoirs: the Marysville Half-Marathon

hydration reservoir

hydration reservoir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Big Decision on the hot spring day at the start of the Marysville Half-Marathon: should I, or should I not, carry my water reservoir.

This is a half-marathon in the hills, a distance I’d only accomplished once, where the water reservoir was a mandatory piece of gear.  This puzzled me: the other course was the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon, where I first ran 21.1 km.  It was much more simple, and less risky, than the one I’d tackle today.

The Surfcoast was on the beach from Anglesea to Torquay, 21km straight out, with no real way to get lost, as long as you kept the sea on your right.  Marysville was 21km of twisty, turny trails, darting back and forth, and up and down.  It was also the site of the terrible Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and the images of that day have never left my mind.  When I race, I do so fully prepared, with all the gear I’ll need.  Seemed to me a mobile phone, space blanket, and $50 were a good idea, plus at least 1 litre of water.  What if I got lost?  What if there were another fire?  What if…well, you see the fear.

Trouble was, looking around, most of the other 250 runners didn’t seem to agree.  There were aid stations every 3km and few others were carrying water reservoirs.  I took the pack on and off, toyed with handing it off to my husband, but in the end, the conservative part of me won out.  I kept it on.

The race began with a start between two pink tractors – there must have been some symbolism there, but I didn’t know it.  In any case, we bolted away fast, and my pack felt heavy, along with the trail shoes I’d not been running in.  In my quest to go minimalist, I’ve been swapping low-slung Asics with Teva Five Fingers for most of my runs; my Salomon’s haven’t seen the light of day since September.  But neither of my current shoes had enough grip for this course, so I put the Salomon’s on.  Almost immediately, my hips started hurting.  I felt like I had two blocks of concrete on my feet.  But we were off.

We began so fast. My second kilometre clocked in at 4:32, way faster than I should have been running.  But it was fun to run fast, and somehow I’d placed myself at the front of the pack, lost in conversation with Ben right before the start.  So that pace, the pace of those around me, seemed like it should be right.

It was about that time I felt something dripping down my leg.  Hmm, sweat?  I reached around and touched the back of my shirt – it was ice-cold, and water was dripping onto my hand.  My hydration pack had sprung a leak – a big leak!  From 4km to 10km, all I could think of was the cold water soaking through my running tights, my shirt.  A fellow runner pointed it out to me – “You have a HUGE hole in your pack,” he said, “And you dropped this.”  He handed me the gel that had fallen out, and I smiled sheepishly.  “Thanks!  Yep, it is keeping me cool,” I replied.  Luckily it was a hot day, so all that cold water wasn’t too bad.  And I knew at 10km we were running back to the race start, where my family would be waiting to cheer me on, and I could ditch the pack.  I counted each minute.  When my kids came into sight, I shouted to the tiny figure of my daughter in purple, threw her the broken pack and said a silent cheer.  I felt so much lighter!

But the big hill was coming, the one I’d only seen on the elevation profile on a Garmin map.  This was the one I was worried about, having not trained many hills in the last six weeks.  It went from about 10 – 14.5 km.  What I didn’t know was it was on a road.  That road, steep uphill in the hot sun, transported me back to Hong Kong, to the Morning Trail, the steepest of steep hills, that I used to run up weekly.  The thing was, this was easier than that; it was certainly easier than Old Peak Road.  And I was lighter without my pack.  I ran up, passing people, cheering inside, making friends with Stuart, who had warned me about my pack, and was then puzzled to see me without it, who declared he’d still be doing this when he was 85, old and wrinkly.  “Me too, I’ll see you here,” I said.  When we got near the top of that hill, we saw the falls.  Stevenson’s Falls, Marysville.

I knew we were going to see waterfalls, but this was one I’d not expected, out on this dry, hot, sunny day.  We ran out onto a lookout, I stared for a moment, feeling blessed, then raced away.  We ran down the same bitumen road for a short while, then we turned right and blazed down a steep, gravelly downhill track.  My legs turned over faster than I knew they could.  The trail was punctuated at intervals by tiny speedbumps, designed to slow the flow of water, I suppose.  I landed on these, flew off the top of them.

But something was going wrong.  Badly wrong.  I’d grabbed a drink from the aid station at the top of the hill.  It was not water; not Gatorade; it was something sweet and sticky and liquid that did not quench my thirst.  And my left calf had begun to cramp.  The next aid station was 3km away, I’d already had one Powergel, and the last thing I wanted was more salt.  But it was all I had, so I downed a second gel, hoping that it would ease the calf.  We were at 16km by then, and I knew if I just held off the cramp I would make it.  Thankfully, it worked, and I reached the next aid station, downed a full cup of water, and flew away down the rest of the trails.  On one of the last legs, I was feeling sorry for other runners who were only heading up the hill; they still had so far to go.  Turned out it was my mistake, as they were the ones who were nearly done, and I would end up turning around at the end of that Yellow Dog Road, and following in their footsteps.  My consolation was that there were still other half-marathon runners following in my footsteps!

From there, it was a downhill track through tree ferns, fast running with small bits of technical challenge, and the calf that still threatened to cramp.  By 20km, I could hear cheering, and in moments, came back to the familiar track we had begun upon.  We were to finish with a final lap of the grassy oval.  As soon as I hit the grass, my calf spasmed but it loosened after a few steps.  I was passed by a few runners, something I’d usually not allow without a fight, especially because they were women, but I didn’t race, conscious that my body had had enough today.  When one of the race volunteers shouted “You’re near the finish, SPRINT!” I simply smiled and kept the same steady pace.

Once through the finish gates, I pressed my watch to stop the timer.  And saw that I had blown away my personal best for this distance — by sixteen minutes!  No wonder it had felt so tough!

Afterwards, I gazed around at the fire-damaged trees that were returning to life, the vacant places where homes and shops once stood.  The amount of green, growing life surprised me.  Life returns after great damage.  Marysville, you are still beautiful.

Celebrating with Team Inspiration afterwards, we reflect on how far we’ve come since we met in August.  Twenty-one kilometres was a goal we could barely imagine back then.  Now we are wanting to do it faster.  And setting our sights on our first 50km ultramarathon.

Photo: Four members of Team Inspiration who completed the Marysville Half-marathon (Scott, Me, and Ben), and Claire who did the 10km. Congrats guys, enjoy the feeling!

Four members of Team Inspiration: Scott, me, Claire, and Ben

But first, I will throw out the broken water reservoir, and retire my stabilizing shoes.  And then, I’ll truly be able to fly.

Planning for the next big thing: The North Face 100?

So…last time I wrote, I was concerned that my mood had dropped since the completion of Team Inspiration’s first ultramarathon.  I didn’t have a big, gnarly goal to aim at anymore.  But I knew I’d find one!

I’d been toying with the idea of a 50km run since January, when I began finding I could run further and further without pain.  Seeing how far I could go became a sort of a game.  Yes, I’d heard of ultra-marathons.  And marathons.  But strangely, the idea of completing a “regular” marathon had never appealed to me.  Call it a short attention span; a resistance to doing what others were doing; a lack of interest.  I didn’t want to have to give up BodyCombat, or Spinning, or weight training, or BodyPump, just to train for one thing alone.  I still don’t.  Maybe it was the word “ultra” that lured me.  But I think it is the terrain that’s done it.  Marathons, in the old days, were run just on the road, and the road bores me to tears.  I can barely manage the 1 km it takes me to get to my favorite trail.

But now…well, they run the things on trails!  Beautiful, wooded, rocky, waterfally trails.  And they are trails that, due to family life, I’d otherwise never get to see.  Picture this:

Me:  Hey kids, want to come on a 50km hike today?  We’ll be done by, well, maybe in a few days.  No…hmmm.

or this:

Me:  Love of my life, would you mind watching our two young children for the next week or so while I go traipsing off into the mountains?  No…hmmm.

Not going to work.  But what will work is me going like a screaming bullet down the trails, running flat-out as fast as I can go, surrounded by hundreds of other trail lunatics, who all make it safe for one another.  Call it trail racing if you will.  I call it freedom.

Back to the next big gnarly goal.  My team mate Ben from Team Inspiration (this is him, looking pretty cool on his 28km leg of the Surfcoast Century) suggested we might try the North Face 100 in the Blue Mountains in Sydney in May next year.  Well, I sort of suggested it first, but I didn’t really know what I was talking about.  I could have been suggesting we fly to Mars – I do this sort of thing, jump in without thinking too much.  Makes for some interesting moments.

Ben Clark

We’ve sort of agreed to try it, and now I’m scrambling to find 50km training plans (we’re going to do it as Marathon pairs, meaning we split it).  The plans are confusing.  They are often written in miles, where I use km – an easy conversion, but it hurts my head.  They also vary a great deal, some suggesting straight weekly increases in distance, others alternating hard with easy weeks.  And none tell me where to fit in all the other activities I do – I need my weight training to keep me stable and strong, I’ve got to teach my BodyPump classes, but where do I put all this extra stuff?  And will I be too tired to do it?

As a personal trainer, I plan to approach this pretty scientifically but the fear is getting in my way a bit.  The word “Mountain” gives me a cold chill, as does the list of mandatory gear, which includes a fleece and a hat.  Don’t get me started on the scary blog accounts of people who have actually done the thing.  I want to keep my head in the sand for just a little bit longer.

So I’ve wished for a big goal and it has landed on me, and I can’t sleep for thinking about climbing these silly mountains.  Will I be strong enough to even cope with the training?  Will I get myself to the start?  I’ve got six months to get there.  I have never tried going so far.

But then again, as Ben reminded me, the Surfcoast Century, at 21km, was really scary, before I did it.  One day at a time.  That’s what I’ll have to remind myself.

Because, really, I’d do just about anything to put myself into this picture…

Sudden Drop in Mood After Ultramarathon

Am I the only one to experience this?  I complete an amazing event, I am super-uplifted (I am thinking of the Surfcoast Ultramarathon and the Salomon Trail Series final race), but shortly afterwards, the bottom falls out of my world.

I am great when I have a huge goal to aim at – a PhD, publishing a book, doing my first ultramarathon – but when these goals are accomplished, I fall into despair.  I don’t know what to aim at next, or the thing I am aiming at just doesn’t seem big enough or bad enough to inspire me.

And this, from someone whose job it is to inspire others!  Such a wonderful job, I have, but on days like today – when the big goals have been achieved, and my race kit is hung up to wait for the next big thing – it is a difficult job.

How to uplift when I am not uplifted?  Tomorrow I return to teaching my BodyPump classes after a week away, and I am struggling with what to tell the classes.  They’ve been there through this whole journey, from when I could only run 10km to when I finally managed 22km.  What I feel like telling them tomorrow night feels so very different from what I would have told them Sunday night after those races, when I was glowing with the achievement that we all had made happen.  I want that feeling back, is what I want to say.  Give me that feeling back.  Right now.

So my question (and I think I know the answer already), is do any of you feel this sudden down once your goals have been nailed?  And if you do, what do you do about it?

I suspect it is a case of Yin and Yang, where I am a Yang sort of girl, a go-go-go adrenalin junkie who needs to live a bit on the edge to feel fully alive.  It’s the opposite of this, the slowing, the being, the deep breathing I sometimes have trouble with.  Give me a big goal, give me a mountain to climb, a new country to settle in, a huge change – this I can manage.  But slowing down, waiting for the next thing with grace.  Uh uh.

So perhaps that is what this time in between events is meant to teach me.  To learn to slow with a bit more grace.

I am off to try meditation now.  I’ve been long away from a quiet space.

Send me your thoughts, and the ways you use to get out of this place, if, indeed, you get into it too…

What to do once you’ve run in an Ultramarathon: a race the next day???

This is what happens when you start hanging around people who run a lot.  You start to think the really crazy stuff is somehow normal.  Like running 21 km in the Surfcoast Century Ultramarathon on Saturday, then turning up the next morning to run 14.6 km in the final leg of the Salomon Trail Series, starting on the same exact beach.

During the Ultramarathon the day before

But I had to do it!  I just had to.

Saturday I’ve written about already.  It was a joyous day, surrounded by family and friends, doing what I love to do most of all – running fast and far in the glorious outdoors.  But the thing was, I’d signed up for all four of the Salomon Trail Series races, long, long ago.

I stupidly (okay, impulsively) raised my hand for the Ultramarathon relay team thinking both races were going to be run on Sunday.  They were both organised by the same team of talented race organisers, Rapid Ascent.  Of course, they wouldn’t plan them on separate days. Who would be crazy enough to want to do both?  Silly me!  Of course, when I realised my error, that the races would be held back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, I thought, okay, I’ll just do the Saturday one.  Crazy to think I could do both.  Especially when I’d never run as far as I’d planned to on Saturday.

And then the conversations on Facebook, Twitter and phones started.  Oh yes, all my other teammates planned on doing both.  Then there was the Banzai Adventurer, who was going to do the full 100km and then do the 14.6 km run the next day.  I admit, at first it seemed crazy.  But, well, after a little while, it didn’t seem so crazy.  That’s what I mean; you have to be careful who you hang about with.

So there I was on Sunday morning, again.  All smiles and raring to go.  I’d pasta-loaded for the second time on Saturday night – and that pasta, after the long Ultra day – it was heaven!  Not to mention the garlic bread, which I ordered because I just had to.  My husband rolled his eyes (internally, not for real, but I still saw him), knowing I was ordering too much.  But it was to die for, that garlic bread, the best I’ve ever had.

Anyway, I was re-fueled, and I’d really, really lowered my expectations of myself.  I was expecting so little, after having used my body to the full the day before, that, for the first time ever in my racing life, I lined up at the start and I was not nervous.  Me, nervous Nellie, the one who runs to the toilet eighty-five times before each race.  Not nervous.  Not aiming for anything, other than seeing the sights of this not-to-be-missed trail race.  I set myself up at the back of the Fast start, fulling planning to stay there.

The race began, and we set off down that same beach, the one I’d run on the day before, when I was going all out to run hard and fast.  Today, I had no Camelbak, no extra weight, no expectations.  I was light as a feather.  We ran down the beach, and splashed across the tidal river, reminding me of the wet shoes of the day before.  I almost laughed – I’d spent the night before trying to dry them by the heater, as I only had one pair of trail shoes, stuffing them with newspaper, and turning them around every few hours.  And here they were, were wet again almost immediately!

It was up on a trail from there, the one I hadn’t got to run the day before, the one I didn’t want to miss.  How do I describe it?  I want to use lots of adjectives: lovely, wonderful, joyous, inspiring, the reason I’m alive.

Smiling All The Way

In trail terms, it was technical, not too steep, full of lovely twisted trees roots to hop through, sharp switch-backs where I let other runners pass me.  I didn’t care; not today.  Today, I was going easy on myself, protecting my body which had done so much for me.  I didn’t want a twisted ankle and I didn’t care if others were faster.

Although there was this one woman…there is always one woman.  She of the purple shorts and big smile, who passed me downhill half-a-dozen times, who I passed uphill the equal number.  We were the same overall pace, she was braver down the steep, technical trails, I was stronger up the same ones.  A set of steep rock steps slowed me, and she bounded ahead.  I stayed true to my plan and made safety paramount.  My stabilising muscles had done enough for me in the last twenty-four hours.

Purple Shorts Friend

It was pure joy, that run.

Until it wasn’t.

That was the moment at a fork in the trail where ribbons were tied on both forks, the ribbons that were our only guide, as the pack had spread out and I was with a group of three runners who had no idea which trail was the correct one.  A fast man dashed up behind us, assessed the two trails, shouted, “This way!” and ran down the left fork.  We were all still running, and we all followed.  I hung back, looking for other ribbons to signal we’d come the right way, feeling deeply uneasy, recalling following other runners down the wrong route back in Repulse Bay in Hong Kong.  My heart rate rose, and I marked the distance we were travelling, ready to turn back to that fork.  Happily, within four minutes, a ribbon appeared and I relaxed and sped up.

The trail was suddenly smooth, slightly downhill.  Easy to fly.  I turned up the speed a notch, loving the help of gravity.  Behind me, someone shouted, Hello Patricia!  Who’s that? I called back.  Andrew!  he answered.  Andrew who’d I’d just met at the start, I realised.  We small-talked as he raced by me, long, lean legs in a red shirt with a great smile.  It made me smile, being known, and knowing others.

A few moments later, the blue sky changed.  The wind picked up, and began to howl.  A squally rain began, the rain that had been promised by the early morning clouds.  There wasn’t far to go, but those views I had been looking forward to were suddenly forgotten as I pushed against that wind and rain, as I encouraged other runners along who were struggling.  Mothers and daughters; runners in the shorter course; runners who had had enough.  You’re doing great, I called to them, not far to go now, great effort!  Their heads lifted and they moved faster and so did I.

The last smooth section of road came, and I edged onto the dirt track that ran next to it, near the bushes, running flat out.  There was the woman in the purple shorts again!  We spoke, trail runner nonsensical talk that I don’t recall, and powered on together but apart.

The beach appeared again, and that magically cold river crossing and then I was running along the finish chute, thinking of the Ultramarathoners who had run this leg the day before.  Soft sand, through the crowds, through the finish.

The presentations after the race were poignant.  I sat and watched the winning runners gather their prizes for the Ultramarathon the day before, for the race today, and for the whole Salomon Trail Series.  Faces that had grown familiar over the last four months, friends I had made, runners who had shared the trails with such genuine kindness, such good humor.  I reflected on how we’d all changed.  How I’d changed.  From an individual, lone runner, I had helped to found Team Inspiration.  I had friends here now, friends who knew me, who had shared the intensity of the experiences of the last two days.  The race results were not important.  What was important was the camaraderie, the glory of the trails we had run, the changes those trails had wrought in all of us.

Later in the day, we drove by the river that had housed Race Headquarters.  It was almost all packed up, and it was surprising how little the space looked that had housed such magic.  I was full of mixed emotion, joy and delight that it had happened, sorrow that it was now over.

Unpacking my race gear last night, after a week’s holiday following the races, I felt those same mixed emotions.  How to come down after the pinnacle we had all been on, after the challenges we’d faced together and conquered?  It was hard, more painful than racing.

So, I did what I had to do.

In fact, I did it in anticipation of this coming-down feeling a few days before.  I signed up for the Marysville Half-Marathon on 11 November.  Because members of Team Inspiration will be out there again.  Because I live to run, to race, to see the glorious terrain that only trail racing can show me.

There is talk, rumblings, murmurs, about Team Inspiration taking on the North Face 100 one day.  I had a look at some magazine photos of the 2009 race, contemplated the word “Mountain” in the phrase “Blue Mountains”.  Time will tell.  But once you get involved with a crowd like these runners, you can be sure that something crazy is going to happen.  Sooner not later.

My great thanks go out to the team at Rapid Ascent for five awesome races that I will never forget.  To the members of Team Inspiration (Scott Knabel, Benjamin Clark, and Daniel Johnston), Chris Ord of Trail Runner Magazine, the Banzai Adventurer, and Stu Russell, thank you for believing in me, and for inspiring me to be more than I thought I could.  And to my family, for being there with me through all the training and races – your support and love means everything to me.

To have run a leg in an Ultramarathon, back-to-back with a 14.6 km trail race the next day: I’m still smiling at the audacity.

Experience of a lifetime: my first ultramarathon completed!

It began impulsively, with a simple request on Facebook – did anyone want to join a relay team for the Surfcoast Ultramarathon, a 100km monster of a race, to be held in Anglesea, Australia, on 22 September?

Did I mean it when I posted it?  I’m not sure.  I’d posted such messages before, looking for Adventure Race teams, but nothing had come of it.  I suppose that’s what I thought – I’d post the message, and nothing would come of it.

Instead, within about three days, we’d formed Team Inspiration.

Team Inspiration: Dan, Patricia, Ben and Scott

None of us had ever run as far as we’d planned on running.  We’d certainly never run as a team; we’d only just met.  And yet, we were going to do this.  I fluctuated between terror and exhilaration, my training runs growing longer, my body growing tired but hopefully stronger.

Time does strange things when you are pursuing a goal – it slowed, then raced, and then suddenly, there I was at the start.  It was 8 am.  All around me were fit people in Camelbaks.  I didn’t have time to feel out of place – before I knew it, we were running beneath the Rapid Ascent flags, off down the beach.

I don’t want to tell you the details of the race course, the footsteps I followed.  You can read that anywhere.  What matters to me is how it felt, the moments that will never be forgotten. 

Running down the beach, I began too fast, and found I couldn’t catch my breath.  It was as if I had asthma, I couldn’t get the breath deep into my lungs.  Knowing myself, I kept that same pace, chasing others, running the first five kilometres along the sand.  The cold shock of crossing a tidal river woke me up, and I finally let myself drop back to my pace.

The moment I became present – that I began breathing again –  is etched in my mind.  The sun was to my right, glaring on the sand, reflecting into my eyes.  I put my sunnies on.  Runners stretched along the beach in a long, straight line.  It was misty, hard to see them.  We looked like the military, with our backpacks and serious expressions, just run-run-running as fast as we could.  The cliffs were high above me, and I kept slowing down to gape at them, open-mouthed, could it really be me here, running along this beach? 

I knew the course, knew where to expect the challenges.  So I was expecting pain early on in the soft sand sections.  To my joy, they were nothing like the soft sand I’d been training on at Rickett’s Point; this was easy, compared to that.  I kept waiting for it to get harder, but it didn’t.  I found myself smiling, breathing more easily.  A water stop up a set of stairs – my family and teammates waiting with high-fives and cameras – what pleasure to find them there – and then onto a too-steep hill to find our way back to the beach.

On the coastal rocks

I was expecting pain from the coastal rocks section, remembering how hard those rocks had been during my Hong Kong adventure races.  Imagine my delight when it was short, when I could step between rocks to stable sand, when the terror was not as great as I’d planned for.  Still, I gave the rocks and reefs great respect; I know what a sprained ankle can be like many kilometres from home.

It wasn’t long after this that a man caught up to me – “How many kilometres have you gone?” he asked.  I checked my Garmin.  “13.2 – about the same as you, I expect.”  Turned out he didn’t have a Garmin and just wanted to know how far we’d gone. We ran together for a few minutes, small talk about the beauty of the race, about how we felt, then a “have a great race” and he was gone.  Encounters like that were rare in this race, which was unusual in the trail running I’d done.  I think we all were working too hard to speak.

Later, we climbed a steep set of rocks, and once I’d reached the top, the other runners had gone.  I chose my course down, frightened but finding courage from the doing of this, jumped the last four feet to the sand, coaching myself to land well and preserve my knees.

Joyous Running

From here, I finally hit the zone.  My pack felt light, my body strong.  I was doing this, this thing I really didn’t know I could do, I was really going to make it.  Ankle-twisting pebbles the size of fists made me pay close attention, the sea washed over my runners, cooling me beyond measure.  And my two powergels gave my feet a spring.  I pretended to myself the race was 22 instead of 21 kilometres, playing a racers trick, trying to finish strongly.  I watched the surf break at Bells Beach, surfers out already, as I ran along the reef I’d read about.

Big seas at the Surfcoast Century

And this song I’d planned to sing in my mind played the soundtrack, loud and clear.  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, doesn’t mean I’m lonely cause I’m alone, what doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, step a little lighter…”  It brings tears to my eyes remembering that feeling.

At the end, I climbed a final ramp to meet my family and the other three members of Team Inspiration.  I had done it.  My first half-marathon-distance race, along the beaches and coastal rocks of Australia. 

I have much more to tell you about Team Inspiration and the rest of the 100km race.  This is just my first installment.  Suffice it to say, for now, that we all finished.  There was pain, courage, darkness and light.  My leg was only the beginning of an amazing journey for our team.  I am writing the full story for Trail Runner Magazine, to come out later this year.  But I promise I’ll give you a sample soon.

What did I learn?  That I can go further than I ever thought I could.  That each time I do one of these crazy, boundary-stretching things, my boundaries stay stretched forever.  That I will never look at the stretch of coastline from Anglesea to Torquay in the same way again; I will never look at myself in the same way again.

Thank you to Rapid Ascent and the members of Team Inspiration – together, you have changed me.