Evening races have never been my jam – the last time I participated I almost swore I’d never do it again. The anticipation throughout the day is a killer, and I can never quite get the nutrition right.
The 10km Buffalo Stampede, however, was upon us (ahem, more like 12.6km). Short, but tough: up Emily Spur and down some of the double black mountain bike trails of Bright.
But why not? I hadn’t raced a shorter distance for a while and there were plenty of people I knew doing it… it was also a good test for my ankle for the impending 60km Alpine Challenge. It could be fun, right?
The event atmosphere was electric – music, runners and good vibes. Good times.
I took a caffeine gel, my ankle strapped. I was ready.
And suddenly 5pm came and we were off – facing 3.5km of flat trail before the climb up Emily Spur.
We were running and it was fast – for trail. I was with a pack – mostly girls. 4.25min/km.
But my stubbornness to stay with the pack overrode any race plan I’d had (cruise the flats, smash the up and go careful on the downs).
Even when I couldn’t contain or control my breathing, I just kept going.
Suddenly there were conflicting thoughts going through my head – my race prep had been poor, maybe I’d eaten too much that day, or maybe I just wasn’t cut out for faster races anymore.
I rationalised with myself: I was only 3.5km in, you can hold this.
And so I did, somehow. I managed to find a comfortably uncomfortable rhythm in my stride and my breathing.
I was not racing to win – I’d seen who I was up against and seen most of them sprint off at the start. This was more about proving to myself that I could still go faster and shorter. And maybe find some pleasure in evening races. Maybe.
We continued along at pace – through campsites, over bridges, along the river. All beautiful.
I knew the trails, and I knew that we were coming to the Emily.
For various reasons I’d already done Emily Spur twice that week (again, questioning my race prep…). It’s one of my favourite runs (‘runs’) – different grades of climbs, beautiful views and multiple choices to get back down to the bottom.
We started the climb.
Some around me slowed (as most would given the gradient), and I took the opportunity to try and push forward and gain some ground before the downhill that I knew would slow me down.
Cue aggressive lunging.
Emily Spur is a jaggered and steep 1.5km long firetail leading up to Mystic Hill Launch Pad. Many break the length of the climb down into sections of either quarters or thirds to make it easier on the mind and body to tackle.
As we ascended I noticed my breathing was still an issue and I was taking huge breaths just to try and get enough oxygen into my lungs to account for the steepness of the climb.
Head down. Get up.
I passed a few people and we exchanged words of encouragement – everyone in their own little pain cave trying to push through.
Having done the climb a fair few times, I know you have a fair amount of time to try and distract yourself from the lactic acid build in your legs, and the burn in your lungs – especially without music. So, I thought about the race, and at this point I figured I might even be third female – (which explained the inability to breath properly). I knew there were many close behind me though; I could hear them and knew they were strong runners.
Could I hold third? Was I even third? Could I even breathe?
I decided to think about something else.
Happy, I continued on up.
I stopped once to look at the view as the sunset on us – a reminder of how lucky we were to be doing this.
We hit Gaps Jump (I think it’s called that, but I may also have made that up. There’s a jump there, and it has a gap in it so…) and I knew this was the final part. The final up.
Part of that excited me, part of that terrified me.
We were reaching the downhill.
Everyone has their weakness, I know that.
(one of) Mine is on the downhill. Which surprises me because I used to not be too bad at it. But maybe too many falls, sprains, near misses (hello trees)…or maybe I had just become too cautious and risk adverse? Either way, they were no longer my friend.
I could see the top – see people I knew. Legends, who had made the climb to support runners when they most needed it.
They cheered and shouted support.
That, coupled with the sun setting over Mystic Hill, I almost wanted to cry. A reminder of the beauty of trail running, nature and people in general.
“Small steps and get low on the downhill” one of the girls supporting commented – she could clearly read the panic in my face at what was to come.
I could do this.
I ran across the top of Mystic Hill with the sun setting before me – and more beautiful people, cheering.
I could do this.
World Cup Downhill is a double black mountain bike trail that defies me how anyone could possibly ride down without a) hitting a tree b) coming off at any of the multiple humongous drops c) being absolutely terrified and running away. Huge kudos.
I began the descent as the darkness of the forest encapsulated me.
“Small steps” I repeated, and managed to find a rhythm in between the drops and roots. Small fast steps.
Like a ninja.
Be a ninja Jess.
I found a pace in the zig zagging of the trail that I was comfortable with – fast enough to not feel like it was slow motion, slow enough to feel in control. Tap dancing almost.
A happy tap-dancing ninja indeed.
The expected happened – people caught me.
First one of the guys I’d overtaken on Emily and I watched in awe as he almost jigged merrily down the steep trail.
Then a girl; the girl I knew had been the closest behind me on Emily spur.
I stepped to the side and let her pass.
She was flying.
Had I lost third? Was I even third? Did it even matter?
I decided it didn’t.
Finishing without injury mattered, improving my downhill just a little bit mattered.
The tap-dancing ninja.
And something strange happened – I began to enjoy it, picking up speed where I could and sliding down on my backside when I needed too. It was actually fun.
I got to the bottom of World Cup DH, pleased with the effort (but also pleased it was over) and ran towards Down DJ – another mountain bike trail that was more forgiving that World Cup with large open trails, less roots and drops and less steep.
It was also beginning to get darker not only as I descended deeper into the forest, but as the sun properly set – not quite enough to get my head torch out, but enough to appreciate the beauty and peace of the forest at night.
Erm Jess, you’re in a race.
So, I started and was able to go faster and let loose a little more on the easier trails. Still taking smaller steps and staying low – still present and watching the trail.
Golly this was fun.
The huge berms on Down DJ are mildly terrifying on a bike, but to run become like a big adventure playground, fun and fast.
I realised there was no one around me – those who had overtaken me on World Cup had long gone, and those who I had managed to pass on Emily appeared to be some way off.
Alone with the forest and the trails.
An overwhelming gratefulness settled in me.
I was nearing the bottom of Down DJ when I could feel my legs become just that little bit heavier. And it occurred to me I’d been running for almost an hour – my body needed fuel.
A gel. Berry. Done.
Sugar coursed through me and I could feel my legs come back to life (I don’t actually think it happens that quickly, most likely the placebo effect…)
Down DJ was suddenly over and straight into Grevid’s Way (via a link track maybe? I just followed the pink ribbons) – it was flatter but more rooty. Darker still.
But. I had done the descent, survived, enjoyed – and not as slow as I thought I would’ve.
Single track now, beautiful single track, undulating.
I laughed a lot I think, and made a few noises that I can’t even describe. The trails were awesome.
And then I was back out in the open, at the bottom of Emily Spur where we had started the climb – more people cheering.
It was almost a shock to be back in civilisation.
3.5km to go. Flat.
I had energy – I could go.
So I did.
Not as hard as the beginning 3.5km. A slightly more comfortable 4.35min/km, not dictated by others.
Across a bridge, back through the campsite.
I turned my head torch on, holding it to light my path.
A sign – 1km to go.
I pushed. Could taste the Prosecco.
I heard the event finish – the atmosphere, music, people.
I mustered up what sprint I had left and crossed the line to familiar faces.
1 hour 20 minutes.
13th overall and 4th female.
I was happy.
I was exhausted.
I was grateful.
Ooo, free beer.
I caught up with others – those that had finished already, those that had come to watch. And we watched as more runners came in.
I took away three things from the race:
- Run your own race – otherwise it could ruin you
- Trust yourself and your body’s capabilities (and become a tap-dancing ninja if needed)
- Be present – always. Be where your feet are
My longest run so far – the 60km Alpine Challenge.
It’ll be tough for sure. But watching other runners smashing out the 10km, 75km and the 42km over the Buffalo Stampede weekend, I have learned so much about what tough truly means – and what strength truly looks like.
I am inspired.