Surf Coast Century 50km: Redemption

My first race since March, and I really didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did…

After weeks of not knowing whether it would go ahead, Surf Coast Century 50km was upon us. Different rules to last year, to any year: limited support crew and crowds, different start location, adjusted aid station rules. Different everything, just like everything else this year.

Either way, I was grateful that racing was back on.

I had worked hard to recover from the shin splints and various other foot issues after a few back-to-back virtual races and little rest… a learning in itself that even in stage 4 lockdown there was such a thing as too much. 

But I felt good, just residual foot niggles.

The biggest change for me was that I’d be running it alone, without Imogen. Last year’s race experience would be hard to top. Oh and also, I’d be running it without a broken metatarsal, which would be nice 😊

I was excited. Beyond excited.

I tried to rest for the race, but the lure of mountain biking and some strength training (sorry coach) got the best of me. I promised myself that Thursday and Friday would be complete rest days – for my feet that is… not necessarily for my liver…

I picked up my race bib on the Friday night. There was a buzz and an excitement, other runners, all grateful, all excited.

I loved it.

Race Day: Butterflies for breakfast

I was up early (5am) to make coffee and eat the breakfast I’d made the night before. Sweet potatoes, beetroot and eggs. Hello race day breakfast, I’ve missed you.

I mobilised everywhere – but had forgotten my roller so couldn’t roll out my calves or ITBs. Eek. I also strapped both ankles (I knew these were my weakest points, especially on the downhills), which I’m sure woke the rest of the house up.

I packed my race vest full of mandatory gear, potatoes and gels. And then I repacked It maybe three more times and made sure my food and salt were fully accessible.

The race plan? Run the flats comfortably uncomfortable, cruise on the downhills and then aggressive lunging on the up hills.

The nutrition plan? Eat every 45 minutes – swapping between a caffeine gel and a normal gel with salted potatoes and a salt packet (yep, like the ones you find in pubs… because that’s where I found them).

I was ready… and it was only 6.15am, and the race didn’t start until 7.30am. Righto.

I drove the ten minutes to Anglesea and found a park near the start line – Coogoorah Reserve.

It was pretty cold (because it was 6.30am), so I chose to wear my running jumper, knowing I would probably be too hot in the first ten minutes – always a tough one for me (I’m English, always cold…)

The start line was just being set up and there were a few people around stretching and prepping. I sat down, put on a guided meditation to calm the butterflies in my stomach.

Race day butterflies. Hello stranger.

Runners were starting in two-minute waves, organised by what you thought your predicted finish time would be. I was hoping for six hours so I was in Wave 2.

7.30am and Wave 1 left. I made myself not look at how many women were in the wave – I reminded myself I was not chasing them (…but also, it was my fourth nervous toilet trip)

Two minutes.

I lined up, no music, just me and Wave 2, and the trails.

We were off. I think my first few steps with either skipping or jigging – which was silly considering I was trying to protect my ankles.

Five minutes in and my legs felt good and I increased my pace, almost to the front of the wave, trying not to get excited. And yes, I was already overheating with my jumper on, but too stubborn to take it off.

Two girls up ahead of me, I passed them and suddenly I was at the front of Wave 2.

We hit beautiful single track and I picked up my pace, trying to remind myself that I was out here for at least six hours. At least.

Uh oh.

Suddenly there were runners in front of me: Wave 1.

Me and another female (let’s call her Rachel) had caught them, and we weaved past them.

We hit downhill and Rachel passed me. I held back and chatted to some of the Wave 1 runners – some new, some returning. We laughed and swapped stories.

Then came the hill, the big one. One that looked like it went into the clouds.

I caught up with Rachel, and we passed another as we climbed. The change in pace was welcome.

The views from the top – sweeping coastal sealine with my favourite lighthouse ahead – were worth the climb.

It was photo time for everyone there.

For the next 10km Rachel and I swapped places like we were dancing, her passing me on the downhill (where I was basically trying watching every step I took which actually takes a lot of focus and time…) and me passing her on the ups.

At 45 minutes, I was on a downhill (of all places) and decided to have my first round of potatoes – trying to eat them while concentrating on my line, the path, the rocks.

So naturally, I started choking.

Huge fail.

I laughed and tried again – this time with more breaths in-between bites. A bit more successful.

We hit fire trail then we turned into more single track… and a climb.

I passed Rachel again, and told her I would see on the next down, we laughed. But that was the last time we danced together. So to speak. .

My dream trail: Beautiful single track through beautiful forest, so grateful.

At that point everything felt ok, I could feel a blister on my right foot emerging to remind me that I probably butchered my ankle strapping in the darkness this morning.

Generally, when I don’t listen to music when I’m running, I talk to myself. A lot. Mostly telling myself to pay attention or be present, sometimes to tell myself off (for not taking enough breaths between potatoes for example). This was no different.

The climb continued and I passed another runner from Wave 1, another female.

Her breathing was… well she sounded like she was in labour? Although more controlled maybe, either way very loud.

We’ll call her Donna.  

Distracted, I tried to pull away, which I think only made her increase her speed so we would run together. Which in turn made her breath louder.

So, I figured, if you can’t beat them join them, right? I focussed on my breathing; breathing from the stomach (as so many podcasts have told me too), and suddenly my breathing drowned out hers – and we were in labour together.

Or something.

19km: we hit the first manned check point.

The volunteers (who are amazing people) placed a heaped teaspoon of Tailwind in my cup of water. And Donna ran straight past me, not stopping and not looking back.

Righto.

Game on then Donna (purely in my head of course)

I downed my Tailwind and thanked the volunteers then hurried on.

We entered more single-track forest, and I found Donna and overtook her. Thanking the Tailwind and brief rest for the extra wings, and also grateful to escape the sound of the breathing and head into the tranquillity of the forest.

Good Memories

I was finding it strange that I didn’t recognise any of the course from last year – maybe it was because Imogen and I was talking or laughing, or maybe my mind had compartmentalised the memory of running on a broken foot for seven hours. Maybe both.

But then I hit it: the spot where Imogen had clipped a tree root last year and face planted so hard and so fast into the ground that we had spent five minutes in hysterics.

I laughed, motivated. And then called her and we laughed together, even from where she was in Hong Kong – about to head off on her own 50km race.

I hit more fire trail and more elevation, and we remembered the section I was running through.

I wished so badly she was beside me. Next time.

She asked me how I was and I realised I hadn’t checked in with myself for a while. I remembered the blister I’d felt, had now gone. I was over 20km in, everything was starting to hurt a little bit – my hips and feet mostly. But nothing too bad. Yet.

We said our goodbyes and good lucks and I continued to climb up the hill I was on, heading back into rocky single track, up and up gradually.

Breath-taking.

I looked at my watch: 25km and 2.5 hours in, I was making good time. Really good time. I was a little worried I’d gone out too fast – but that quickly disappeared and I continued.

I hit the next check point: 27km and more volunteers and some supporters and crew.

I decided I was ok to go on, to grab more Tailwind and do a Donna and head straight through.

I think that’s when (and probably why) the pain started to get worse. Everywhere.

I’d expected my feet and ankles to hurt, but it was my hips that started to hurt the most, maybe from the elevation, or maybe from the way I was crouching on the downhills to stabilise myself – maybe both? Probably both.

There was pain in my ITBs too – only on the downhills, and I regretted again forgetting my foam roller.

I expected that though – pain everywhere from the waist below, to kick in from at least halfway.

This was now both a physical and mental battle.

To take my mind off it I had another round of potatoes (did I mention I love potatoes?) …and some salt straight from the packet.

Gross.

But my mind was distracted.

I came out of the single track, passed a runner and headed up another long fire track. I promised myself I would stretch at the top.

And I did.

Crouching, stretching, swinging, whatever I thought my body would need to keep moving.

Bad Memories (kind of)

I was soon on the Great Ocean Walk track next to the sea. Photo worthy. And a welcome breeze in the humidity, still too stubborn to take my jumper off.

We were heading towards Aireys Inlet, to the lighthouse.

Down.

Crikey. The down was really starting to hurt my knees – my ITBs threatened to flare up like they had two years ago during Lara Pinta. Excruciating.

I was grateful to hit the flat and the bridge to cross the Great Ocean Road – we were directed to go under.

A welcome change in using my arms instead of my legs as I rocked climbed along the underside of the bridge. I was more than tempted to jump into the water.

The next check point: 35km.

The women asked what I needed. New legs. But I settled for Tailwind and ducked into a hip opening stretch as they asked me about the race.

“Beautiful”

But I knew the beach was coming, and that was where we fell apart a little last year – my broken foot and Imogen’s ITB pain on soft sand were almost race-ending. It was only the thought of prosecco, and lots of hugs, that kept us going.

“At least the beach is flat” one of the women pointed out.

Excellent point.

Back onto the Great Ocean Walk trail, up a little, past the lighthouse then down towards the beach. There were tourists, clapping and cheering, probably not expecting to see weary, beaten-up runners on their travels.

They were epic.

40km.

My ITBs felt like they were being dragged back and forth across bone with every downhill step… which I actually think they were.

I got to the bottom of a hill (walking backwards which was amazing but may have looked a little strange) and tried to stretch my ITBs out, then squatted into a hip opening stretch – which was immediately followed by the threat of cramp in the front of my shins. Which is strange, because there’s not a lot of muscle there to cramp.

I continued on, knowing I was only 10km away. I found a pack of other runners, who were also struggling a little. We played tag with each other, stopping to stretch out and then catching up as others stopped. It was quite beautiful. The pain train indeed.

Magical Music

I was on four hours and coming up to 42km – the beach. We were heading down to the beach.

I needed music.

Slash came on and I continued, happier.

I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t fallen yet, had I been too cautious? Was my caution causing the pain?

It was, of course, at that moment I slipped down a step, my heel not quite planting firmly on it.

I’m not sure how I’d describe the noise I made, but it was unique. Maybe like a cockatoo.

I managed to catch myself in something like a ninja fighting stance, which must have looked like I was getting ready to beat up the steps that had tripped me.

I laughed, and the relief was welcome. Technically not a fall.

The beach.

The sand …was hard. And the breeze off the sea was …nice?

The beach was comfortable. I had music, and the beach goers were bloody brilliant at cheering us on. This was so different to last year.

I could also see the storm that was predicted coming in in the form of dark clouds, and I was grateful we had started early, and that I was nearing the finish.

The pack ran within maybe 30 metres of each other. On the occasions that I stopped to stretch or performed a slightly exaggerated (slow motion) walking lunge, they were there.

“Come on Jess, don’t let us beat you.”

So much love for them.

The 4km on the beach went quickly.

We came off the beach, up more stairs, which gave my legs some more stretching. Roads now, and we continued, passing each other still as we continued to stretch and rest and run.

I reached a downhill so steep that I had to stop and walk backwards again because of the pain in my knees and hips. Which was a welcome reprieve from the pounding of running. I laughed at myself, and I’m sure the others did too.

One of the guys caught up (I mean it was hard not too – I was walking backwards).

“Don’t stop, we’re almost there”

He was right. We were.

I took a caffeine gel, hoping it would get me through the last few kms.

The End…or the beginning…

We turned back onto the beach, and that was when I realised we were actually almost there: 50km, not the 52.9km we had run last year.  

My heart filled with joy and the pain floated out of my body.

We were 2km away from finishing.

I took my music out and we ran, almost together.

People on the beach cheered.

“You’re the first female we’ve seen in ages!”

I nodded to them; I hadn’t even thought about that – or wondered about who was ahead of me.

I guess I’d found out soon…

We came off the beach, one of the pack was ahead of me, one was behind. Close enough, but not too close that we would cross the line together.

I could hear the cowbells, the event HQ.

The finish.

I picked up the pace as much as my legs would allow – still in shock that we were so close, and I turned the corner and could suddenly see the crowds.

I looked at my watch; I was 10 seconds from 5 hours.

Could I make under five hours?

I started to sprint and my legs literally laughed at me.

No chance.

The home straight – I was so happy, I think I almost cried.

The people, the line.

I crossed it, stopped my watch.

Words cannot describe how grateful I was.

“And hear is our second-place female.”

What.

WHAT?

They were looking at me.

“Really?” Nods to confirm.

Holy.

I laughed, and the Event Director came over to me and we chatted.

I regrouped with the pack, thanked them, then tried to find a place to stretch. Or just lie down.

Anything.

I started to stretch, unable to find a comfortable position to put my legs, and was overcome with dizziness.

Not good – not experienced before.

I took out the rest of my potatoes and realised I’d only eaten maybe a third of what I was supposed to eat.

Oops.

I found juice and water, and was stopped by a woman.

“I just wanted to tell you, I saw you out there and you looked so strong, it was amazing. Well done”

That was obviously in the first part of the race.

I wanted to hug her, but I thought I might collapse onto her. So, I thanked her.

So grateful for people. These people.

I had missed these people so much.

Then suddenly there were friends, with beer. And burgers.

And prosecco – lots of prosecco.

Happiness.

And next?

As much as the pain was towards the end – my engine was fine and my mind (though sometimes questionable) was intact. It was all manageable and, with practice and patience (and remembering my foam roller), I know I can go faster. Maybe even further. Faster further.

Buffalo Sunriser 60km in February it is then – only 4000m elevation, so what could possibly go wrong….?

#sorrylegs

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