Driving to the inaugural Beerwah at night trail run on a stormy Queensland afternoon, news in that the nearby Sunshine Coast had just been smashed by golf ball size hail, the thought did cross my mind to just keep driving… back home. Indeed, I verbally cursed myself for signing up to this thing. There was no sane reason I needed to do it. It had been entirely my choice, completely within my control. And sure, perhaps on a nice cool summer evening, injury free, well trained up and prepared, it might still have been a good idea. But now, in these conditions, with my injuries and lack of training? It was madness. But that’s just me to a ‘t’. I made the turn. I headed to the race.
Alun and Run Queensland are a smooth operation, and they, with the help of all the wonderful volunteers, put on great, low key, medium sized trail runs that are truly a joy to participate in. Without being able to put my finger on it exactly, the true beauty of these events lies in the fact that they somehow find that nice middle ground between well organised and professional, and frontier-style trailblazing newness. Whatever it is, I love it and I thrive on it. That, in fact, is what got me to the event in the end.
The nerves kicked in as soon as I parked the car. Racing 30 kilometres on an ankle with no cartilage, in Vibrams, over a distance I hadn’t run in over two and a half years, through hilly unpaved terrain (again something I’d not done in nearly three years), it was certifiably insane. I’d signed up as I always do when training is going sweet and I have a rush of enthusiasm. Sure I can increase my distance to that by then, no worries. Unfortunately the opposite all too often happens, and it did on this occasion. I’d been forced to skip my long run the week before and a mid week run as well. I’d barely run in weeks. My legs were just too sore. I had pain in my shins, ankles, knees, toes, heels. Who said running barefoot helps avoid injury? Not with me it doesn’t! But with the nature of my left ankle injury, it’s either this way, or not at all.
I told myself it was my body enforcing a taper, something I mentally seem incapable of doing. I didn’t really believe myself. But I still put on my funny looking shoes and made my way to the start. It was too late now. I was here.
I hate not seeing things through. This was it. I was going to give it my best shot. I felt like it was running my first marathon all over again. It was probably going to take me that long. Everything I do in these Vibrams is like a brand new challenge. I have a pre-injury life, and a post injury running life.
This was it!
The start was announced. Not sure if it was a gun or a ‘get set go’. I missed all theses things chatting to a number of fellow running friends. It was great to be back among them. I felt like I was back where I belonged. Not out in the running wilderness where I’d been for the last two years. This was my first real test.
The crowd moved forward and we were off. I started from the back and went out gently with my good mate Steve, one of a couple of key people who has unknowingly helped me back into running with their continued encouragement and interest. We’d run the Wildhorse at night run together a few months earlier (a nice 17 kilometre run by the same race organisers). I’d gone along to that event purely for the social catch up and the new experience of running at night. I planned to do the same here.
Steve’s pace is great for me. Nice and consistent. I’m traditionally a bit all over the shop… especially since I broke my Garmin… but that’s another story… so starting out with him was definitely the right idea. And starting from the back of a field has it’s benefits. You aren’t forced in to an initial veritable sprint and you don’t feel pressured or disillusioned by huge numbers of people passing you. But it also has a huge disadvantage; you’re in among a crowd, and on uneven and challenging terrain this becomes all the more complex. For me, it became unbearable after about three or four kilometres. I had to get out of the crowd. Steve and I had been steadily passing people, but I made a move around some that required an acceleration. I still do have some speed in me! I liked that!
But once through, I looked for Steve, and noticed he hadn’t managed to come with me. I felt too good to slow down so I continued on alone. This was it. It was now me, the terrain and the night. No one there any longer to hold my hand.
I had a time goal in the back of my mind that I was chasing. The thing that had got me over the line in doing this race was the fact Alun had secured it as a 6ft Track qualifier. I’d wanted to do the 6ft Track for years. It’s considered one of Australia’s pre-eminent races and a must for any serious trail runner. I had had my sights set on a 2014 attempt, but had left qualifying way too late in the year due to all my setbacks earlier this year. So this was it. Under four hours would qualify me. Only thing is, since signing up to this race I’d discovered that I have a prior commitment on the same weekend and won’t actually be able to compete. Never mind, I’d set myself a four hour target. I had a goal. I was Running Against Time again! It felt good. It felt thrilling.
I really hit my straps, charging through the crowd of ten and 21 kilometre runners as the sun rapidly set. We had entered an area called ‘The Dungeon’, which was a huge technically challenging drop in altitude down into a canyon and then back out again. It was brutal and I found that I had to really be careful with my footing in the Vibrams. I couldn’t just slam my way down these hills like I used to. I had to be nimble and reactive to every bump and turn. It was harder and slower going, but also felt more swift, light and enjoyable. While I might be slower in these ‘shoes’ I felt more at one with the process of running and the terrain I was running in.
Just as the light faded , however, I took an inevitable tumble.
“Runner down!” someone shouted.
“Shit that’s me!” I thought as I stumbled about on my hands and knees. I hadn’t expected to fall, and worse, I hadn’t expected to draw attention to myself by falling. I pulled myself up and continued, but I’d hurt myself pretty bad. I’d smashed my knee hard into rock and not only grazed my skin but really jarred the bones and joint. Sudden images of me having to pull out after five kilometres flashed before me. I limped forward, tried to jog, limped a bit more, stumbled along and slowly shook out the stiffness and pain. I was a lot more cautious after that. The last thing I wanted was to have a DNF against my name on my first real race back since injury.
I came out of ‘The Dungeon’ at about the seven kilometre mark and was very thankful for the smooth gravel road I was now directed along. I continued to run smooth and strong and overtake a number of runners. Some were guys I’d chatted to at the start who recognised me, others new to the whole trail running experience full stop. I remember following a trail of headlamps for a while, and tried to take a photo but it didn’t really work. It looked so peaceful and for want of a better word, magical: little lights bobbing along the ridge spaced out evenly, all wrapped up in silence. This was an entirely new experience and a great one you don’t get from running during the day. I felt alone, yet united by a combined goal with others off there in the distance. Chasing those lights and catching them, some catching me, was really enjoyable and an unexpected positive to this experience.
The other un-expected positive was the variation in the terrain of this trail. It was just great. I had passed through rough steep 4WD tracks, onto flat gravel roads, on to single track pathways, and then into grassy wide paths. It never ceased to change and keep things interesting. There was even a fence/gate crossing mixed in there to really mess with My mind (I’ve become quite paranoid about going through fences ever since getting lost on a course years ago).
Indeed, my two main concerns for this race were not getting lost and not hurting my feet so much that I couldn’t get to the finish. So I paid very close attention to the trail markings all the way, and took my time to make sure that when I turned, I was turning the right way. It slowed me down a bit, but was well worth it as there were a couple of wrong turns I took along the way. I’m a shocker for going off course. The feet? Well they remained surprisingly resilient and while gradually growing more tender throughout the run, did not cause me any major grief. The actual surprise issue was the cramping I was struck down with.
I’d not expected to cramp up. It’s not something that has happened to me much over the years. And the night was cooler, due to the storms (although the clouds and rain had cleared for a perfectly fine evening), and I had plenty of water, but I didn’t have any Endura Gels with me or any sports drinks. I’d not needed this stuff leading up to the event. I’d not run far enough or hard enough to warrant it. Now, once I pushed past that 20 kilometre mark, my body started screaming for it, and in particular, my quads started seizing.
I made it to the next checkpoint and downed some supplied lollies in the hope the sugar would help. It was a nice flat four kilometre circuit from there on mostly grassy terrain, so I thought I’d be fine, but the cramping gradually got worse. The four kilometres started to feel like ten and I started desperately wishing to be at the finish. I didn’t really know at this point how much further I had to go. I just knew that if the finish didn’t come soon, I wasn’t going to make it!
Once I made it back to the checkpoint, I came across Steve, which helped spur me on a little. It was great to see a familiar face and great to see him still charging on well. I downed some salt and vinegar chips in the hope that they would help with the cramping and asked how much further I had to go. Six kilometres was the answer. It wasn’t the best news, but it was a hell of a lot better than I thought it was going to be; fearing it may have still been ten odd kilometres to go. I was similarly terrified that it might be back through ‘The Dungeon’. But thankfully that fear was also not realised. But the six kilometres did feel an awful long six kilometres… especially since there were some huge water hazards to contend with along the way. I ended up in one puddle, water up to my waist, and having to turn back and find another way around. It was impossible to judge water depth in the dark, so I just did my best to pick my way through, ending up very muddly and wet. But this was what trail running is all about! Despite the fatigue and soreness throughout my legs, I was still thoroughly enjoying myself. I was, however, ready now for it to end. When a moonlit Mount Beerwah came into view, I visibly sighed. I was home.
Lit by moonlight it was a truly awe-inspiring mountain, and knowing the finish was at its base I felt like I was home. Unfortunately, the trail lead me most of the way round the base, which seemed to go on forever and ever, before the finish line at long last came into sight.
I was shattered by this point. I’d run well beyond my capabilities and current fitness, and done it faster than I expected. I wish I could say I charged over that line, but more so I hobbled up to it and staggered across it, tears of pain held back just barely. It had hurt. It had really hurt. But with great pain comes great satisfaction. I’d done it. I’d done 30 kilometres in Vibram 5 fingers, post injury and in under three and a half hours. I’d even managed to finish 11th. What a race, and what an adventure
Post race, I instantly became paranoid about injury. Especially since I had to drive home which took me over 45 minutes. But at home I did my usual stretches as per the recommendation by Andy Dubois at mile27. The next day I was sore, but not injured. I continued to do his recommended dynamic stretching and a couple of my own as per my novel (primarily the heel drops). I also rested until Friday as well (very unlike me). This combination of rest and stretching, for the first time ever, has seen me pulled up from a huge race without a single niggle. I’m ecstatic. I’m primed and pumped for my next race.
And… I’m on my way to Greece and Mount Olympus mid 2014 (stay tuned for details)!