The 5am alarm goes off on Easter Sunday morning, and I’m up and about the house as quiet as possible to be sure not to wake anybody.
“You’re mad to be getting up so early for a race on any day, but on Easter Sunday? That’s just crazy,” were the words that echoed in my ears, as I showered. At this point, I was inclined to agree with my family and friends.
1 berocca, 2 pieces of toast, and 1 very strong coffee later, and I was on the Bruce Highway, heading to Wildhorse Lookout. I’d signed up for this trail run only a week before, unsure as to whether I’d even be able to run it on account of my constant Achilles Tendonitis injury. But here I was, doing it. Suddenly I felt excited.
Trail running is a new frontier for me. The unkown. Something I seemed to be quite good at (placed 6th in the Glasshouse 30km in 2010), but still a very new concept and adventure for me.
I arrived at the race start at 6am, and a few toilet stops later, a brief stop by the Salomon shoe stand, some last minute clothing adjustments, and I was ready to race.
We were off running.
I started close to the front, knowing that I had the pace to run, not quite with the leaders, but close just behind them, and that is exactly what I did.
The course was good. A mixture of compact gravel tracks, rough sandy 4wd paths, a couple of knee deep creek crosings, and a bit of an overgrown grassy track in the middle of it all. It was a 10km circuit, that you doubled back on to make up 20kms, and then doubled back on again to make up the final 1okms. I actually really liked this approach. I remember thinking to myself while I was running, why not just do 3 circuits? But, by re-tracing our steps, it kind of felt like a different course going back, and then re-aquainting oneself with an old friend for the last 10kms.
Unfortunately, I’m not one for faces it would seem. Or for a sense of direction! I was trailing Gaeten Oliver, a strong trail runner by the way he skipped around the huge puddles of water and smashed through the mud. He was a strong runner, and seemed to know where he was going. This didn’t stop me at the point where we turned off into grass, questioning his decision. We’d lost sight of the leaders, and the trail seemed to go straight ahead, but we’d taken a right turn. We re-traced our steps briefly until we met another runner, who confirmed that the right turn Gaeten had taken was indeed correct. We were back up and running, me feeling awful for interupting Gaeten’s pace.
That didn’t stop me from passing him, however, as he charged down the straight back towards the start/finish area, and the end of the first leg. We were not only keeping each other company, but we were really racing. He re-took me just as we hit the rougher final 2kms before the turn. He was stronger on the rough terrain, had better shoes, and seemed more adept. His sense of direction was not all that much better than mine, however, as he nearly decided to avoid the second of two creek crossings and dash under the Bruce Highway instead. I helped him stay on track, and felt we were now even, especially since he rounded the 10km turne a few meters ahead.
I was stuck in behind Gaeten as we completed the next 10kms. I was happy enough to follow for a time, what with my awful sense of direction, and it helped a bit by following someone through the obstacles and around the puddles. However, as he neared the 20km mark and the start/finish area once again, I sensed Gaeten was struggling. He’d slowed just a little, but also, I was feeling strong.
The Achilles injury had been hurting intimittently throughout the first 20kms. I also had managed to roll my right ankel quite badly in the first 10kms, feeling like I’d possibly even torn my other Achilles. That being said, I’d run through my soreness, and by 20kms, I was feeling better and stronger than I’d felt in the last 6 months since the Melbourne Marathon. I was running hot!
I dashed past Gaeten just before the 20km turn. I felt this was fare, considering he’d done the same to me at the 10km turn. I felt that high that I sometimes get during a run like this, and that burst of energy. I was off! I left Gaeten in the dust, pounding my way back into the last 10kms at a 4:15min/km pace.
It was great doubling back, hearing those coming towards you giving you a cheer, and also giving them a cheer back. We were all in our own races out there, but at the same time, connecting as runners as we passed one another. This was how running was meant to be, sprinting along dirt tracks, over crevices, around puddles, and through creeks. Running by yourself, but amongst friends, all of us trying to achieve the same result; finish!
I was smashing it, and loving ever minute of it. Gaeten by now, was long gone, as was any of the runners behind or in front of me. I took the first left turn, pleased with myself that I was navigating my way through this course on my own now. I was even more pleased with myself, that I’d left such a tough competitor behind in my dust. This was real running. This was real racing!
I had in the back of my mind one thing. Well, a couple of things. Don’t let Gaeten catch me, because I knew he’d smash me on the final 2kms if he did. Don’t go too fast, or else I’d crash and burn before the end, and don’t miss that damn right turn off into the grass! With that in mind, I came to the end of the path I was on and turned right, increasing my pace further. I looked over my shoulder as I rounded the corner and noted Gaeten nowhere in sight. In fact, there was no sight of anybody.
I pounded my way along the path, noting to myself as I went that this seemed like unchartered territory. Where was the long grass? Also, there were plenty of Mountain Bike tracks, but no foot prints. What was going on here? Why wasn’t I meeting anyone on their way back towards me? The real sign that I’d gone the wrong way was when I came to a burnt out car and the path’s end. Shit!
I couldn’t believe I’d gone the wrong way. I’d stuffed up, and covered a fair bit of distance too! At least 1.5 kms each way. That was something like 8 minutes at least that I’d blown. I felt like an absolute idiot. I turned and re-traced my steps, noting to myself that there were now foot prints on the path. My own!
Suddenly exhaustion kicked in. I was no longer feeling light as a feather. My legs felt heavy, my heart started to race. I made my way back to the turn, to see that I should have turned left, not right. The right turn was further up.
I pushed on, downing an endura carb shot to help bring me back up to speed mentally and physically. Gaeten was nowhere to be seen. I had to assume he was long gone. I’d come back to the creek crossing to see Tim right behind me now. I calculated that I’d lost at least 2 places. 5th to 7th, what a demoraliser. That being said, I’d be damned if I would lose any further placings. I was going to finish this race.
My pace slowed over the last 6kms. I hadn’t run anything over 26kms in more than 6 months. The muscles did not want to continue. But the heart and mind did. I pushed on, and charged my way over the finish line for 7th in 2hrs 38mins. I was just glad to have made it out of the Wildhorse Criterium Forrest! And the Cholcolate Easter Bunny sure made it worthwhile!
What a race, a real race. I couldn’t have enjoyed my first trail run for the year any more. And, as I say with every run I do, I’ll be back next year, perhaps next time around for the 5okm, hopefully with better shoes, and a better sense of dirrection!