It had been five months since I broke my foot. Since I’d realised that I’d fractured it by dropping a 10kg weight onto it, then completely broken it during the Surf Coast Century 50km. The placement of the break made so much more sense – as the Sport Physician and Surgeon had pointed out that this was not the usual place of a stress fracture. This was a silver lining because a stress fracture meant… well, stress.
Five months of cycling, and rowing and upper body strength later and I felt strong, albeit a bit top heavy from the increase in strength training.
I’d entered the Warburton Trails Fest on a bit of a whim, wanting something challenging but not too far; something I could ease myself into.
So, I chose a 22km trail run up and down Mount Donna Buang, with an incline of 1250m – 1000m over 8km.
Logic clearly defies me.
The race was on the Sunday of a long weekend, so we spent the Saturday up in Warburton volunteering and cheering on the 50km and 25km runners.
Our (last minute) accommodation was a gypsy wagon in the back of someone’s garden, which hadn’t quite survived a massive cyclone earlier that week. Oops.
We made do, and cooked what would be our race day breakfast on the fire pit the night before – packing our race vests before darkness hit and where we would be limited to headtorches and the light from the Kmart lamp in the wagon.
Race day was upon us.
I was up – before the alarm, in the darkness. Excited nervous.
I turned on the lamp (pretty much still darkness) and woke Bex – who was racing her first 14km.
We had our breakfast and got ready, packing and repacking and counting and checking. All the checks.
We drove to the start line and I ordered a large coffee – which appeared to contain at least five coffee shots. Winning.
The vibe was electric as the sun rose over the mountains and people started to arrive. The start and finish line were also the festival hub – a mixture of excitement, nerves and the beautiful-people-that-are-trail-runners sharing stories of past runs and what was about to happen.
There were two waves to the 22km ‘Double Donna’. The 8am wave contained the not so fast runners and the 8.30am wave contained the faster runners – the idea being that the faster runners would overtake the not so fast runners on the up, rather than face colliding and chaos on the steep downhills.
The earlier wave set off, and suddenly my race was looming.
I did a body check – everything appeared to be working. I was testing out my new Nike Terra Kiger 5’s – they felt good, comfortable, very light.
My plan was to run the flats comfortably at pace – because there weren’t actually that many, then try and smash the uphills as fast as I could (cue aggressive lunging) to make up for the fact that my downhill speed and ability was lacking, and this is where I would most likely get overtaken or face plant. Most likely both. At the same time.
I wanted to get under 3 hours, that was my ultimate goal.
I took a caffeine gel.
Race briefing – the cyclone earlier that week had caused quite a bit of mud and stickiness on course (not just in our gypsy wagon), the advice was to be really careful and lean forward on the downs. ..but mostly to have fun and enjoy climbing a mountain. And no music, for safety reasons. I died a little inside, but understood and didn’t want to risk another disqualification like Wonderland.
8.30am. Off we went.
Single track along the river walk trail. I felt good at 4.30min/km. Everyone was excited and in good spirits.
I saw one girl up ahead of me shoot off towards the front of the pack, I told myself not to chase her. This was my own race, to test out the lungs and the foot.
I knew it was round 2.5km of undulating single track before we hit the uphill – all the ups. 2.5km marked the beginning of the ascent.
And we turned off the track, and onto one of the steepest streets in the Southern Hemisphere (unconfirmed but definitely felt like it). We had volunteered at this location the day before, watched the athletes faces as they looked up, as they climbed up – some running some walking.
I began the aggressive lunging, getting into a rhythm.
Two females decided to overtake me, jogging up the hill. I nodded to them, good efforts.
I reasoned with myself not to go any faster, if it was meant to be I would catch them on the trail – on the climb up the mountain.
The hill seemed never ending, and my lungs were working harder than they had done in the last five months, maybe longer.
But we got there, me and a few others who had also taken to the lunging idea. A small flat section before we hit the uphill trail.
And then it began, at first it was jogable and the terrain seemed relatively easy and friendly. We climbed a little further through single trail. I overtook one of the females I’d seen on the hill, and a few minutes later the other one (with some resistance).
We hit a road that marked where the 14km runners would turn left instead of continuing the ascent.
Oh, the ascent.
What had been an easy single-track trail now turned into thicker wet mud. Rainforest and jungle like. There was dampness in the air and in the trees. Fallen branches and leaves lay strewn across the track, making it slippier than normal.
I wanted to put some distance between myself and the other females, get as much distance on the up – which is my strength in this kind of race.
Head down, and I went. Lunging, using my arms to push off my thighs and take the pressure off my lower back (note to self, this is what walking poles do, you fool).
I wanted to be able to hear the birds and the outdoors, but all I could hear was my heavy and deep breathing.
My (prescription) sunglasses fogged up constantly and I took them off – everything was slightly blurry, but I reasoned with myself that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Up and up, mud and more mud, grabbing onto trees and branches, scrambling in parts. I looked at my watch and realised I’d only gone 1km in maybe 15 minutes. I laughed to myself and began to visualise getting to the stop.
At 45 minutes I knew I needed to get some fuel in me. I pulled out my potatoes and tried to eat them whilst still climbing upwards. Maybe only half ended up in my mouth, in my stomach. I laughed but was too stubborn to stop. I took a gel too and made the mistake of involuntarily breathing out heavily as soon as I’d emptied the packet into my mouth. The gel ended up mostly on my legs, again I laughed. I stopped and tried to swallow what little was left in my mouth.
Bloody hell I was out of practice.
I started to pass the first wave of runners, encouraging – all fighting the same battle.
Some of the sections we hit were still flooded with water in large puddles, we were scrambling over trees, under trees, over rocks. Downhill was going to be tricky.
My watch read 5.5km and I almost threw a hissy fit (yep, happened), this climb was long. But suddenly I hit another road and the first aid station. I was confused, this wasn’t supposed to be until 7km.
“Lollies?” the woman smiled.
“Is this the 7km aid station?” I asked, maybe with a little bit of a wild look in my eyes.
“It sure is”
I wanted to hug her – my watch hadn’t been tracking some of the distance because the ascent had been so steep. I was at 7km, with 4km to the top. Ka boom.
I continued, lighter on my feet.
At around 8.5km the trail became less steep, turned back into single track and sunlight broken through – I was near the top.
I nearly shrieked. Maybe I did.
My legs were jelly on the flats, but I jogged, then picked up pace, and I was running, on flat. This felt bloody good.
More of a climb, gentler but still not runnable (for me anyway) in parts.
I heard a cow bell and some laughter and voices.
The top? I got excited.
I turned the corner and instead it turned out to be spectators, with a cow bell, cheering people on.
I couldn’t be mad because they were there to support us – even though I wanted to tell them that people might actually think it’s the top.
“Almost there!” they cheered. I thought I bloody well was.
I mentally slapped myself and remembered where I was and what I was doing, and I was grateful once again.
At this point the lead guy came flying past me the other way, I stopped and clapped – amazing speed to get up the top and be on the way back down already. Literally amazing.
I hit the loop to get to the top – 2km to go, and then no more climbing, no more quad and calf burn (that was a lie, that’s mostly what downhill is, but a different kind I guess).
I was able to run some more, stretch out the legs and get up a little bit of pace – and I was also able to appreciate my surroundings. What had once been thick dark muddy forests was now beautifully green undergrowth and trees, and sun rays breaking through intermittently across the forest. Literally breath-taking.
Worth the lung and leg ache.
Another gel – caffeine to get to me to the top, and taken better this time.
I climbed towards the sunlight and turned to see a large table of feasts (ahem, aid station), and car parks and toilets.
“Is this the top?” I asked the girls at the table.
“Yes!!” They were almost more excited than me. “You’ve done it!”
My heart was full, and I thanked them, and continued.
I had not practiced downhill as much as I had wanted, if at all. I knew I needed to let go a little and trust my shoes and my legs to guide me.
The first section was relatively gentle single track, so I picked up the pace – willing my aching legs to continue. I hit a pace of 3.40min/km which was quite ridiculous.
This was actually quite fun.
I slowed to pass people on the up, encouraged, it wasn’t that far.
I was happy with my pace, still running without my sunshades and still a little blind. But it seemed to be working.
Then I hit the rainforest again.
I began the slippery downhill, trying to land more on the ball of my foot as I descended, and trying to lean forwards as much as my body would allow – it felt alien, but seemed to work.
On some parts, I flew, and I was amazing at how fast I could actually get, occasionally grabbing a tree or branch to push off into a direction change or maybe slow me a little.
I hit the thicker forest, thicker mud under feet and had my first fall – stepping onto a branch that my other foot was under and, as a result, flying forwards down the hill and rolling through the mud.
I covered at least five metres on my face – not the worst way to travel indeed. I laughed.
I checked myself out and seemed ok, so I continued – a little more cautious.
I continued, legs free and leaning forwards again – to the point where my stomach muscles were actually getting tired.
I hit the aid station – 7km to go. “You’re second girl, you’re doing fantastic!” I thanked her and continued.
The next fall (I was definitely expecting more than one) came maybe ten minutes later when cramp in my right hamstring caused my right leg to inexplicably buckle.
Before I knew it, I was rolling down the hill again – and I even considered just continuing in that fashion, now that I was caked in mud anyway.
But I laughed and picked myself up: “Pay attention Jess”.
Again, slower. I needed to slow down.
The trail became slightly less muddy, drier.
I must have relaxed, too much. Lost my concentration. Something.
That familiar feeling of my right ankle cracking into the right angle it should never need to go into (but always did).
Instead of falling down the path, the sudden motion of my ankle twisting caused me to fall sideways into the trees and shrubbery and I was suddenly scrambling to stop myself rolling further off the track.
Pain, blinding pain.
I shook my head and pulled / rolled myself back to the track.
I tried to stand up, the pain flickered through my ankle and made me feel a little dizzy.
I was up at least.
I looked at my watch – 17km, only 4km to go, of which 2.5km was flat.
I wanted to be angry.
I thought about it – about stopping, about finally just sitting down where I was and waiting for the next runner, or texting Bex to tell her it was over and my ankle had gone.
I wanted to be angry, I had pushed myself so hard to get up to the top, and tried so hard to get down in good time.
I just couldn’t be, I was grateful I had gotten this far this fast (in my eyes).
I’d have to go down anyway, to get to help – if that’s what I wanted.
I had done this before, been here before.
I took a few steps and it was my left ankle that gave way this time, in protest – in jealousy?
I was down again, in the shrubbery and I chose that moment to find it incredibly funny – ironic maybe. And maybe it was laughter or tears, so I chose laughter.
I sighed and got up, suddenly noticing that my knee was covered in blood. I don’t even think it was from these two falls, maybe the one before. Had I just been going so hard on myself I hadn’t even noticed cuts and scrapes? Probably.
And this was my comeuppance.
Thanks body – message received.
I gathered myself, I knew I was shaking, knew I’d been shaken.
I began the descent, slowly at first. A couple of jolts but it was ok. I felt like I was almost skipping.
A thick jolt of pain and I stopped and grabbed a nearby tree, as if that would help or lessen the pain.
I shook myself off and continued down, slower, more focussed movements.
I hit the road where the aqueduct turn off was.
“Are you ok? The woman there asked.
Caked in blood and mud… I nodded “I took a fall”
“You’re almost there, keep going”
I was and I would, that kept me going a little longer.
I was in the less steep single track now, there were families walking up the track, a little surprised to see such a beaten-up runner no doubt.
Their encouragement filled my heart, even when my hamstring cramped again and my right leg gave away.
“Whoopsy! Just gotta pick yourself back up and keep moving love” One guy said with a smile. And that’s exactly what I did.
Suddenly I was back on the road, the steepest street, and I joined another runner.
“Are you doing the 22km?” She asked.
“You’re smashing it, I’m just on my way back from the 14km”
We chatted whilst we ran a little, I was grateful to keep my mind off…everything that hurt.
I left her when the hill got steep “You go on, you’re almost there. Good luck!”. And I let my legs carry me a little.
I was at the bottom, no more hills, no more ups or downs.
I remember thinking on the Saturday when I was looking up at the hill, how happy I’d be to reach this point – only flat left.
I stumbled a little, wobbled – which was unusual.
Then it dawned on me.
I hadn’t kept to my nutrition plan, the haste to get down, then the fall had distracted me.
I had gone an hour without fuelling at all, and only during the whole race had I had half a bag of potatoes and 1.5 gels.
I started to feel it, the weakness, the wall.
I began to run and realised I had no energy, in fact I was shaking, my hands and my legs were shaking.
This wasn’t good.
I took a gel, inhaled it. I just had to get to the finish, 2km away.
I jogged, then stopped, with literally no energy. I walked. Almost tears, stupidity.
I jogged again, leaning as far forwards as I could without falling, to give my body as much momentum as possible.
I can honestly say I lost my sh*t – whether it was the adrenaline from the injury that had masked it temporarily I don’t know, but I totally bonked.
I felt like a child throwing their toys out of their pram.
I reasoned with my manic mind – walk for ten seconds then jog, and repeat.
This was supposed to be the best part of the race, the flat to the finish.
So I started the improvised interval running.
There were other runners around completing the 14km run, they cheered and I cheered them and I couldn’t stop.
I crossed a bridge – walked over it, not sure if it was the bridge wobbling, or me.
I was so sure I was going to lose second place female any minute, and I wasn’t sure I had the fight left in me to race it out to the end.
I passed a runner who seemed like they were struggling too.
“We’re almost there” I said. She nodded “Hell yes we are. Let’s do this.”
The gel must have kicked in at last and I found strength. From her and from the sugar, and picked up the pace. Remembering the race, the run, the love of it all.
Then I could hear the end, I could hear the finish line. Nathan (an old friend) on the mic, who had promised me a drink on the finish line.
I ran faster (it probably wasn’t any faster, but in my mind it counted).
400 metres away. I looked behind me, no other runners except the ones I’d passed.
I could do this.
“We have another female, come on let’s see you finish it off strongly.” Nathan again.
So I did, I picked up the pace (again, probably didn’t).
“And this completes the podium, Jess in third place.” I was confused but didn’t care.
I crossed the line at 2 hours 30 minutes – a combination of happiness and dizzy exhaustion. And Bex looking at me with pride…and concern. But had most likely seen me in worst condition after Surf Coast Century.
I heard over the mic – Nathan again. “Anyone who knows Jess knows she would’ve left everything she had out on that mountain.”
I had, I really had.
I sat down, finally, finally able to stop and rest. Everything was still shaking.
I sat for quite a while, my brain and body slowly resembling normality. I listened to Bex as she told me about her race. So proud. And we watched as other runners came through, equally elated to have finished.
They called the presentation. It turned out someone from wave 1 had crossed the line before me and they’d mistaken them for wave 2. I’d finished second – five minutes ahead of the third-place female, who we cheered in.
I got ice from first aid then, after showering and discovering many more scratches, headed to the river to drop my legs into the water.
Tomorrow was going to hurt. Today hurt already.
Right now, I was grateful and happy. So happy.
Gin o’clock indeed.