Warburton Trail Fest: The highs, the lows and the blows…

I hadn’t raced a multi-day since Lara Pinta in 2017 – which is strange because to this day it’s been one of my favourite racing experiences.

I’d raced at the Warburton festival in 2020 and managed to take 2nd place in the Donna Double (22km) despite spraining my ankle at 17km. I wanted to do better this year, and hurt myself less. So, I signed up for the multi-day madness: 50km-22km-9km.

Of course.

With the exception of a mountain bike crash that ruined my bike and my hamstring, the training had gone really well – so I felt good going into the weekend.

Even when our Airbnb turned out to be a dorm with bunk beds and I opted to sleep on a trundle in the porch. It’s all part of the experience, right?

Compact but efficient, I laid out all my race gear.

Ready.

Saturday: Lumberjack 50km

I set my alarm for 5.45am but I was awake at 5am. Excited? Maybe, but also the porch didn’t have any curtains so I woke in a state of terror, which is also a great alarm clock.

I was up, eating my pre-cooked eggs and sweet potato with beetroot. And of course a coffee.

With my bag packed, I put on my new Salmon S/Lab Sense 8 trail shoes – they felt like gloves on my feet. I wondered whether I could moonwalk in them (I tried; I can’t).

We left at 6.20am; nervous energy in the car as we drove the 25 minutes to the start line.

The sun was rising as racers got ready, mingled and did their last-minute checks.

And so did I: toilet trip(s), gel checks and of course my #potatopower check.

Satisfied.

I thought about the race.

The aim – without knowing the course – was to get under six hours, ideally five and a half hours, and try to run without stopping, unless I needed more energy at an aid station…or fell over.

As with all multi day races I also knew it was important to not go out too hard on the first one – so pacing myself was essential.

We were treated to the legendary Beau Miles starting the race by chopping through a piece of wood with an axe.

No, really…

Then suddenly we were off.

As always, I tried not to look ahead of me, or count the women, the men. This was my race. My first race of 2021.

The Warburton trails are very different to Bright, or the You Yangs – thicker mud on the floor, ferns either side of the trail and a rain forest that towers above you allowing only glimpses of sunlight.

Quite magical.

Fast.

We started off fast and I had to stop myself so I wasn’t running under 5 minute kilometres, knowing the first 12km was relatively flat just undulating.

My legs felt good. A little tight – maybe from the bike crash maybe from the (failed attempt in decreasing) strength training – most likely from a combo of both.

But I was happy.

I ran onto my first wooden section and suddenly felt like Bambi on ice, slipping and almost ending up going over the side – we had been warned in the race briefing that the wood was slippery.

There was definitely flailing. Maybe a squeal.

I laughed at myself and continued, cautiously, almost stamping across it to avoid slipping again.

45 minutes in and I took a gel.

Clearly out of practice, I completely missed my mouth and emptied the contents onto my right leg.

A little baffled at my incompetence I pulled another one out of my race pack and successfully navigated the simplicity of eating a gel.

“Focus Jess”

And so I did for the remainder of the undulating trail, passing people and being passed. Enjoying the event atmopshere and the people as always.

There were a fair few fallen trees strewn across the track and I found myself constantly having to decide whether jumping over or squatting under would be less taxing on my body – and always feeling like I’d made the wrong choice regardless.

I thought about what position I might be in; I assumed there had been quite a few females ahead of me in the start line – I’d already seen Lucy Bartholomew speed towards the front of the pack when the wood had been chopped. Legend.

Maybe I was top five? Or top ten?

And maybe it didn’t matter.

I hit the first aid station (not literally) and decided not to stop. Mostly because I didn’t think I needed to, but also I didn’t know exactly where my mask and portable cup were that were required at aid stations.

Then the hill.

So steep it almost blocked out the sky.

I think I was the only one who was happy.

I started the lunging, catching up with some of those that had overtaken me. The track was slightly wider but still muddy and leafy.

I hit the 1:30 mark during the climb, which meant potato time.

Without thinking (common theme here) I put the potatoes straight into my mouth, forgetting that I would in fact also need to breathe.

And my feet refused to stop the climb.

So suddenly I was half suffocating on potato but refusing to stop to deal with it.

Luckily no one was around to see the terrified and confused look on my face as I continued to eat and choke on the potatoes.

The ordeal ended and I took a few deeper breaths and picked up the pace.

Eventually, after what seemed like forever (maybe also due to my near death potatoe choking experience), I reached the top of the climb. Relieved for my legs.

I continued on, allowing them to get used to the flat once again.

Single trail in the magical forest.

My legs must have been a little tired as I began to trip on fallen branches on the track. Or maybe it was just the amount of fallen branches there were on the track.

Suddenly I saw a runner come towards me.

Panic.

Had I gone the wrong way?

I asked him if he was ok, and he looked at me a little strangely and nodded. I wondered whether he was going back for a fallen friend, rationalised that that was the only explanation. How nice of him.

Then another runner came towards me.

More panic.

Then it hit me (not a tree this time).

I was on an out and back.

I had forgotten, or thought it would have been clearer. But maybe I had missed it.

I arrived at another aid station – the main section of the out and back, where we would continue on to the famous Ada tree before returning to this station and heading off in a different way.

“Great work – you’re the second female!”

Oh shit.

Unexpected. Really unexpected.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag of feelings when you hear you’re doing better than you thought. Happy, obviously, but nervous. A little terrified in fact.

The pressure? The fact that a podium spot was now mine to lose?

Yikes.

I smiled regardless and continued onto fire trail, wondering how far away the Ada tree was – nd how far away third place was. And forth. And fifth…

More people – volunteers. Legends. Cheering us on.

More gels and potatoes – eaten with a bit more dignity this time.

And more slippery wood covered in chicken wire, to trick you into continuing to run on it.

Then.

The Ada tree. Beautiful, huge.

The turning point of the out and back, and soon the start of the downhill.

30km in.

I was relieved that, by studying the elevation for all of two seconds, it looked like a gradual downhill. Less likely to fall over, less likely to sprain an ankle.

What the elevation (obviously) didn’t show was the terrain – freshly cut ferns that now lay on the track, offering little support and almost as much slipperiness as the wood, parts were on a sideways slope which is always going to be awkward to run on.

But the hardest part was more fallen branches and trees – thousands I think (maybe ten).

The trees had fallen across the path in regular enough intervals to just get up some speed then have to stop and climb over or clamber under.

And the branches, oh my.

Little pointy traps. If you didn’t lift your feet up high enough you would surely kick them.

And I did, often.

The worst of the branches caught my left foot and not only scraped all the way down from my toe to my ankle, but also sent my forward moving foot suddenly backwards. Which, when your body is also moving forwards, never ends well. 

I managed to flail enough that I caught myself before crashing to the floor.

But the pain was so much that I wanted to kick something.

Then I realised I had.

So I stamped in protest instead.

Did it help? Who knows.

I continued, wary. Weary.

This was hard.

There was negative self-talk, probably some swearing as I balanced the ferns, the branches and the unforgiving sideways slope of the track.

But I was getting lower, closer to the roads and ground level.

Then I heard it, a women’s voice behind me. Close. Third place female.

I knew who it was too. Assuming Lucy had taken the lead, it was Vic – the woman who had taken first place ahead of me at Surf Coast Century by a massive 30 minutes in my last 50km.

She had caught me on my rather poor effort of a descent, that I’d mostly spent kicking fallen trees.

But suddenly I was at the bottom and I didn’t care. I was happy to be on road.

41km in. My race.

I didn’t care.

But crikey it was hot. No shade on the road.

I looked at my watch and realised I could actually get under five hours if I kept going at this pace. A new goal.

Another aid station and the volunteer there asked me if I wanted anything.

“Glass of wine?”

We laughed.

I continued on and caught up with another runner who had stopped at the aid station and we chatted about the race, about our bodies – good conversation after over 4 hours that felt like I was on my own.

We got to the river crossing and I knew Vic was right behind me, I stepped aside knowing I wanted to take my time in the river, revive my muscles.

Oh, the water.

It was delightful. I wanted to dive in.

I exited just behind her and we chatted for a while then she moved into a comfortable pace just ahead of me. And maybe I just let her. Resigned to it.

We ran through a caravan park where most people must’ve thought we were mad. Some cheered.

We hit the 46km mark. My legs felt fine, heavy for good reason, but for some reason my glutes just hurt.

Vic was less than 100m ahead. I thought about whether I would have the energy for any sort of sprint finish to catch her, then I realised two things:

1.  I wasn’t focussing on the right thing, and that was not what this race was about

2. I didn’t have the energy anyway.

We came out of the caravan park and onto the river trail, and suddenly I could here the event village – the finish line.

Under 5 hours.

Something stupid in me chased the noise, the finish, the impending feeling of no longer running on tired legs.

48km

I ran straight towards it, through a gate that seemed to be in a silly position given there was a race going on.

And then I realised.

I’d come in the wrong way.

I watched as some of the men were finishing, coming through the finish line opposite me. The opposite way.

I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere.

I asked someone who looked official and he looked at me, mortified.

“You’ve missed the bridge turning, go back to the bridge and turn left and left again.”

Go back?

Back.

I wanted to cry, or stop. Or both.

I think I stamped my foot again.

No.

I started to move my legs again, back towards the bridge. I wasn’t sure which bridge or how far.

A guy had followed me and I shouted for him to turn around.

We ran back to the bridge together and crossed it, and realised how long the out and back was to get to the finish.

I wondered too, whether another female would have passed me and I’d stupidly given up a podium position.

Maybe it was the anger or the adrenaline, but my legs had a new lease of life and I picked up the pace.

Was under five hours still possible? I looked at my watch.

Probably not.

I ran past a bridge, hoping there would be arrows that took me up over it and back towards the finish line.

No arrows. I almost threw a tantru. Almost.

The next bridge surely.

Yes.

So so happy.

I crossed it.

Home stretch.

49km and five hours ticked over.

I was too tired to be angry at myself.

Maybe too happy too – I hadn’t stopped, I hadn’t fallen (completely).

I passed some runners of the 25km race as we hit some steps, none of us managing them particularly well.

We laughed.

I could hear the finish line again.

I went faster (I probably didn’t)

The finish line.

I sprinted (no extra speed was gained).

5 hours and 2 minutes.

Holy cow.

I was happy.

I didn’t care about the wrong turn, or the placing.

I was just happy.

But it was confirmed anyway – third place behind Lucy and Vic. Both legends. I was stoked.

So happy.

I sat in the river, soaking up the soothing feeling, then tried to keep moving on post-run restless legs.

And then?

Food time.

And maybe a drink or two.

Then all the stretching.

Donna Double – 22km

The second race of the weekend wasn’t until 8.30am the following day. In my eyes that’s a sleep: I woke at 7am.

I tried to get out of the trundle bed – my body resisted.

Everything hurt a little bit. I stretched, mobilised, stretched some more. I cooked breakfast and thought about the race, the mountain.

My nemesis.

This time last year I had raced up Donna, and down again before I’d caught my foot on something at 17km and badly sprained my ankle, my face almost clipping a tree on my way to the ground. It was spectacular.

Because I was 5km from the finish – on flat – I had decided to continue and somehow claimed second place. But the feeling of my ankle making that right angle shape – the pain – was still with me, still on my mind (does it ever go away?).

For that reason, my game plan for the multi day madness was to go harder (‘harder’) on the 50km and 9km night run and cruise the 22km – take the downhill easy and just finish. That was the plan anyway.

This time I chose to wear Salomon Speedcross 5’s – a slightly wider base that I figured would help both push me up the climb, and stabilise me on the descent.

I took a second to stare at the tape I knew I should use to strap my ankle. But for some reason chose not too – maybe I thought I didn’t need it if I was just going to cruise.

We made our way down to the start, for fresh coffee and to watch the first wave go off at 8.00am.

Then 8.30am was upon me.

Ready.

Maybe.

And we were off and suddenly my legs were moving, slowly, one foot in front of the other.

Slow. Achey.

I felt myself drop to the back as we turned onto the flatness of the river, needing time to warm up and loosen up properly.

Two problems surfaced very quickly – my right ITB flickered in pain, and my left knee…well it just hurt.

Oh dear.

I continued, cruising along the flat, hoping that the pain would subside on the ascents.

And we hit it – the steepest road in….maybe the world? It felt like the world.

But by golly it made me happy.

My legs stopped aching – the pain in my knees disappeared.

Hello up.

And soon I was over taking and passing people who had so easily moved ahead of me on the flat.

We came off the road and onto single track, undulating but still ascending. I passed the point I’d fallen over last year and could only smile, reminding myself to be careful.

And then we hit the vertical kilometre.

Potato time – and a caffeine gel. More successfully eaten than yesterday.

Ready.

All the lunging.

I joined a pack of runners and lunged with them, then passed them, and passed Vic – pretty certain I would see her again at some point.

My legs felt quite wonderful.  

Eventually I was out of the climb and onto fire trail – undulating and a little tricky on the knees. My pace slowed and I wished I was back on the vert as the ITB pain flickered again.

I wondered how it would go on the down. How my ankles would.

No point over thinking. Just run.

I continued – motivated by the fact that I knew I was near the loop at the top, and hit single track again. Narrow and the path covered by ferns leaning over it.

This is where I knew I needed to be careful. Take small steps, small careful steps.

The top.

An aid station.

“You’re the first girl!”

Holy moly.

Definitely unexpected.

Less pressure today – in a way I knew the ground I would make up on the ascent would easily be undone by the caution I needed to take on the way down.

Either way I was happy, and grateful. 

I passed friends as I started my descent, again into single track with rocks as obstacles and the ferns still innocently flailing across the path – just enough so it was tricky to see foot placement.

I kept telling myself – lean forwards and take small steps. On repeat. I was looking at the path as much as possible, leaping (that’s definitely an exaggeration) over the rocks.

I was surprised that my ITB pain seemed to have subsided.

This was ok, I could do this.

Then, a fern. Or something.

Something that I wouldn’t have suspected would have been my undoing.

Bang.

Pain.

Firstly, in my ankle – that awful right angle feeling, then just pain.

And my hand?

So confusing.

So devastating.

The impact of the twist of my ankle had sent me face first into the ferns on my right where I stayed for a few micro seconds, absorbing what had just happened.

Was my race over? Was my weekend over?

I rolled onto my back, noticing the blood on my arm and shoulder.

I looked at my watch (and yes, I stopped it).

13km.

I turned my hand over, expecting there to be a large cut, or something.

Nothing – it just hurt. Maybe I’d high fived the ground on the way down, or slapped it in anger. 

I tried to stand up and my ankle gave way again, sending me further into the ferns.

A runner stopped.

From the depths of the ferns I told him I was fine, to continue his race.

Then another stopped.

Without question they clambered into the ferns and pulled me up.

I wanted to hug them.

But I also wanted to cry.

I thanked them and told them to go, and so they left me.

More passed me, could tell from the dirt and the blood I’d taken a fall – always stopping to check I was ok. It blunted my devastation a little.

A breath.

I knew.

I could feel the angry pulsing of my ankle.

The shooting pains weren’t easing, and I was too far from the finish – too high up the mountain to continue on the steep down that I knew was coming. That would savage my sprained ankle.

My race was over – my weekend was over.

Another breath.

That was ok, because it had to be.

The universe had a reason.

“Are you okay?”

A voice, not a runner.

No.

I looked up to see a medic.

“They sent me to help you get down to the aid station.”

Karen.

Did I mention I love trail runners?

I nodded, unsure of my voice. And returned her smile.

“Thank you.”

We debated whether the aid station at the top of Donna was closer, but decided the down was easier with most of it being fire trail.

“Do you want to use my poles?”

Stubbornness.

“No thank you, I should be ok”

We started walking, slowly, and chatting.

But the pain.

I stopped – had a word with myself, and my pride.

“Can I use your poles?”

And so there I was, 2km down from the top of Mt Donna Buang, using a pole as a walking stick and beginning the slow descent down to the aid station.

The anger was subsiding, and I was more so grateful than anything. For the people. For the outdoors.

Karen, a Sport Scientist, told me not to take painkillers because of the toll on my kidneys, especially after the 50km yesterday.

“What about wine?”

“It’s an analgesic so….”

I took that as a yes. 

I was lucky enough that a friend was nearby to meet me at the aid station.

We drove back to the event village to watch the runners come in and I crawled straight in the river to try and cool the inflammation a little.

I reflected on whether I could’ve done anything different. Strapped the ankle? Yes. But I’d always found that the strapping became loose after a couple of kilometres anyway.

Been more careful? Probably not, I already felt like I was tip toeing down the mountain, focussed.

Maybe it was just not my time. Maybe it was third time lucky next year.

It would take some journaling and meditation to calm my soul.

But right then I was just grateful to have run any amount.

And I also knew there a bottle of prosecco waiting for me in the fridge.

And next?

Recovery – not just from the sprain, but also the 50km.

And practice – more downhill training, more ankle strengthening.

Then Buffalo Stampede? and maybe the Alpine Challenge 60km? And then sometime in May…maybe my first 100km?

Because why not?

#sorrylegs 

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