The Good, the Gap, and the Heartbreak of the Headphones

After realising my time and distance in the Tussock Traverse and Run Larapinta qualified me for the infamous 36km Wonderland Run at Halls Gap, it took me a couple of glasses of wine to book it… it was only three weeks away and my training had been mainly focused on duathlons.

My legs were grateful when I chose the 20km trail run instead of the 36km.

Still, there were mountains and pinnacles involved, and the duathlon training precedence as it was the week before.

In the three weeks I had, I upped my running distance (…I did two runs over 15km), and carefully monitored any knee pain.

The Monday after the duathlon, my legs felt almost normal, so I was back training by Tuesday (did I mention I’m awful at resting?). Knee pain flickered.

I saw a physio and he suggested that the location of the pain could only really be arthritis…but I also think he thought the pain was just in my head, and also just wanted to see how far he could bend my knee in all the wrong directions.

Anyway, I’ve heard wine is good for arthritis so that was the plan.

Friday – yep arms days again, which made the three hour drive up to the Grampians the next day that little bit more….fun? #sorryarms

I arrived to blue skies and checked into my hostel (I left it late to find anything except the YHA to stay at….which is actually incredible) and laid out my running gear for a 4.30am start on Sunday.

By 4.30am start, I mean my first meal.

I talked myself out of an afternoon hike and instead walked to where the race began, checked where I needed to be, grabbed my racing bib and took note of the compulsory equipment – a mobile phone, something to carry 500ml of water in and a compression bandage.

Check, had them all.

As I walked back, I saw the 19km marker they’d laid out for tomorrow’s race and wondered how I’d feel when I reached that point. How my body would feel. Relief probably, but also like collapsing and crying.

Back at the hostel there were blue skies, wilderness, a mixture of people who had run the shorter races that day celebrating their achievements….and an open fire – all good excuses to enjoy some wine (not to mention my arthritis).

I cooked dinner (and tomorrow’s breakfast – very important) with them, tasted their version of an espresso martini (very important), then headed to bed.

4.30am. Alarm. Argh.

Bleary-eyed I ate my pre-made brekkie (beetroot, sweet potato, boiled eggs and fish…yep) and had my tea bag coffee.

It was cold and dark outside.

I got ready, put everything on, made my gels, put all the compulsory gear in my bag. And then felt the race nerves kick in. So much so, I made it to the start line 45 minutes before the race started (7.00am). Oops.

The cold air made me change from a vest into thermals and a fleece, and I may even have put my pjs back on over the top of everything. It could pass as running gear anyway.

The hunt for real coffee began.

A coffee van.

I waited as the guy set up. His worrying looks meant I must have been staring a little manically at him. But who doesn’t when they need coffee?

6.55am. I made my way to the start, reluctantly took off my joggers / pjs.

Race plan? The first 10km was up hill so around 6min/km would be ideal, on the flats I’d push to below 5min/km if I could, and downhill I would fly as fast as my legs would take me without rolling down the side of a mountain.

Headphones in. Slash on. Game on.

We started, and I sprinted off – I’d been told there was a bottleneck in the first 500 metres so it was important to get ahead. So that’s what I did. 500m of sprinting. I was buggered, but continued.

I followed the only woman in front of me for the first 1km then moved to overtake… right when the hills started. Good one Jess. Sorry legs.

I was first female – mine to lose with 19km to go. The thought sounded horrendously daunting, so I picked up my pace as we hopped up boulders and steps and through single tracks.

It was all uphill. 10km and no exaggeration. We scrambled, we climbed, tight squeezes and large boulders. And steep drops. But absolutely beautiful.

I stopped briefly to take a photo of the ‘clouds’ resting above the lakes, we were above the clouds (it was condensation, I realise that now).

We hit the pinnacle, leaping between boulders, and traversed across.

I took a gel, and then spent at least five minutes choking on it. Clever.

We hit some flat single track and I wondered whether we were at the top. My watch said 10km, so maybe, just maybe.

Definitely flat single track. I flew along, my legs carrying me – just running.

Then the downhill. At first it was boulders, then came more track, wider track, track with small rocks on. Mini hazards everywhere.

My knee flickered in pain – it turns out putting the brakes on to slow down actually caused more pain. So…no brakes. I bounded, like a gazelle (probably not) and leapt down the mountain (I probably didn’t).

This was so much fun.

There was a pack of us, the pain train, running and gliding down along single track. We hit the flats and then back into single trail. Three of us, encouraging each other, motivating each other.

I love trail runners.

18km. A bridge onto cycle paths across the river from where we’d just run, back on ourselves. I looked for other runners, there were none.

Suddenly I was at the 19km mark I’d walked past. 1000m glorious metres left, I could do this. I might even get under 2 hours? Very few women had managed that.

As far as I knew I was still first, and I knew the prize – new trail running shoes. I needed new trail running shoes. I ran faster.

Impossibly possible. I picked up my pace and suddenly I was into Halls Gap village, people cheering. I ran faster. My legs carried me.

The finish line.

Usually I take my headphones off so I get to enjoy the atmosphere, but it just came upon me so suddenly that I didn’t have time.

I stopped my watch, 1:59:59. Happy.

A guy grabbed me “you’re the first girl and you’re well ahead”

Someone took my photo.

I needed water. Or wine.

Then a guy in a rabbit suit came up to me – looking too serious for the outfit he was wearing. There was bad news.

“Great time Jess, but I’m going to have to disqualify you”

I thought it was a joke, I waited for him to laugh.

“You’re wearing headphones. Headphones aren’t allowed. You’re disqualified.”

I waited again for him to tell me he was joking. It didn’t come.

I shook my head in disbelief. I asked, argued, disputed. Other runners were stunned, they didn’t know either.

My legs started to shake for all the wrong reasons.

I had all the compulsory gear. I had read the rules, hadn’t I?

Mr Rabbit guy told me he’d confirm with the event organizer.

I was speechless.

My legs hurt, my body hurt. And I literally went numb. Mr Rabbit guy was clearly not going to fight my case.

I asked to speak to the event organiser myself but he was out on course.

I checked the rules “No ipods or mp3 players” but no mention of phones or headphones, or that it would result in disqualification, but I was clutching at straws.

A woman told me they’d posted it all over Facebook. I hadn’t looked; I wasn’t following the event. I’d just come to race.

The race organiser eventually came across, wearing a top hat and suit. I knew straight away it was a no, I was disqualified.

Sub 2 hours. First female. 12th overall from 292 runners. Three minutes from the course record for a woman.

Devastation.

A harsh lesson.

There was nothing I could do.

Shoulders back, head up, this would not ruin my time in the Grampians. So, I spoke to other runners about the race and the course, what else could I do but try and enjoy and be positive?

Funnily enough (actually the opposite), the woman who came second was also disqualified – no compression bandage. We laughed and agreed to take photos on the podium anyway.

Third place female was going to take first place. She said she felt bad, but she still accepted the first place gift voucher of trail running shoes. I needed those shoes.

In all the numbness, someone asked me my surname: “Short”.

“Oh yes, I’ve heard of you. Your names been circulated in quite a few circles, you get to know the good ones”

Suddenly my day was made. I had run, I knew my time. And someone recognised my name.

We took our photos in the sun. I chatted and laughed and decided to see the funny side, and the lesson.

I’ll admit, pangs of disappointment still washed over me, but I reminded myself of where I was and it was hard not to just be grateful.

I made the mistake of not cooling down before I got in the car, and suddenly I was home after a three hour drive, after a two hour race.

I opened my car door and had to almost fall out, then slowly tried to stand up. Stiff jelly legs – if there’s such a thing. Oh dear.

The afternoon and evening were spent drinking prosecco – a celebration and consideration.

I knew already Monday would be agony.

Sorry legs.

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