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

Bright Run Fest: 10 days of 10kms

I’d given myself an ‘easy week’ leading up to the running Festival, but after two days of rest I was itching to get back, which was a bad idea. Because something in my calf was hurting and I prayed it wasn’t shin splints. So, I rested. And waited.

And then Friday finally came.

Day 1: Happiness.

I mobilised, had my beetroot juice and coffee on my balcony and journaled. Excited.

A slow warm up told me that the problem with my calf hadn’t gone away, but actually got less painful when my speed increased. Right then, faster it was then.  

And I was off, down the Upfield bike path. I hit Princes Park – early enough to not be busy, and glorious sunshine. Happy.

I continued, trying only to look at my heart rate and not my pace, enjoying. Just running.

I jumped out of Princes Park and onto the Capital City Trail, suddenly I was on 6km already – only 4km to go. A huge difference from the 13kms I’d been running last week (for UTMB Virtual), where 6km wasn’t even halfway.

Happy.

At 8km my brain went into overdrive. Only 2km left so of course I should pick up the pace, right? So I did, regardless of the sudden hills I came across at the Merri Creek Trail.

500m was an all-out sprint. I realised I had no control over my legs, they just went.

10km and done 45:11 minutes. Not too bad for the first run. Not too uncomfortable.

Coffee and the walk home in the sunshine. Best way to start the day.

Home to yoga and a cold bath.

Yikes.

But grateful.

Friday night. I had my one day of wine I’ve given myself per week over a zoom call with my twin sister in Hong Kong. As with me and wine, somehow the whole bottle magically disappeared.

Day 2: I’ve never said I had any common sense.

Day 2 was upon me and I chose a different route: just Merri Creek up to Hardings Bridge then down past Arthurton Road. A loop I often used for some speed work, and the tiniest sections of trail I could access within my 5km radius.

I did actually have a game plan for the ten days – to run one day ‘faster’, then the next day slower, to ensure I lasted the ten days.

But this was not to be. The route, though a little hillier and more ‘technical’ (erm… much more technical compared to just concrete, but the only way I get my trail fix). I landed on exactly the same time as Day 1: 45:11. Very happy.

I realised I’d bonked a little bit at 7km, not sure whether it was the wine (unlikely – I always see this is carb loading with added antioxidants), or just that I needed to fuel my runs differently given that  they were faster than normal.

At 8km though my legs kicked in and the sprint home happened… and so did some bodyweight exercises consisting of burpees, air squats and sit ups.  150 of each of them to be precise.

I’ve never said I have any common sense.

Yoga, cold bath. Gin.

Wait…gin?

Saturday, a friend’s birthday (Zoom) gin tasting. Five bottles of 50ml of beautiful gin.

 Glorious.

Day 3: Crikey.

I expected to feel more than a little dusty (we didn’t really stop after the tasting). But my 9pm (ahem, actually 8.30pm…) bed time and the ten hours of sleep I had given my body seemed to have worked. Hello Sunday sleep-in.

Awake, mobility, coffee and more coffee, and the decision to fuel – sweet potato and beetroot juice. And water to negate the dehydration of yesterday.

Merri Creek, Princes Park then home, the opposite direction to day one.

60 seconds of strides and warm up seemed to ease the calf / shin pain in my right leg. Seemed to.

I was going to take it slowly, but I hit the Merri Creek and felt good, picked up the pace, felt the sun on my skin and Slash playing in my ears. Happy.

I hit Merri Creek and realised I was going quicker than day one and day two. Oops. But I continued and again, picked up the pace at 8km, then 9km and then suddenly I was sprinting up the Upfield bike path, grateful for the lack of traffic.

10km in 44:17. Crikey. I laughed. Not fast by some people’s standards I’m sure, but four minutes off my PB. And I’d felt comfortable. Maybe ten hours of sleep was the secret, or maybe gin was.

I stopped for an Acoustico coffee. Put on a podcast and shuffled home within my hour.

Happy Sunday (until I got back in the ice bath).

Day 4: It’s the little things.

I promised myself I’d go easy – just chill. Not look at my watch and just enjoy.

I paid extra attention to my calves, rolling them out, aware that the pain was still there front and back.

More strides, and some dosey does (haha is that what you call them?)… I’ve only done line dancing once in my life*

(*this is a lie)

I hadn’t eaten this time but took a Koda gel when I hit Princes Park, banana. One of my favourites, that seemed to do the trick. No walls were hit.

Zig zags of Princes Park, not too busy, beautiful sunshine.

I took myself out of Princes Park and back to Upfield just in time for a train to turn all the lights to green for me. It’s the little things.

281 Project coffee, podcast, and shuffle home.

Day 4 done.

Day 5: A huge wind tunnel.

The wind that kept me up through the night – that I knew would continue into the morning – was howling. Strong. Everything rattled.

I drank my coffee and ate some pan-fried pumpkin as fuel, while I watched a bright red sunrise appear then quickly disappear, swept away by the wind.

Golly.

I decided to mix up the 10km this session, by adding in 15 x 1-minute effort and 1 min tempo, for both my body and my sanity. And because Tuesday’s were my usual speed sessions and I like to stick to plans 🙂

I shouldn’t have though. I should have reconsidered the wind.

The first 2km was a warm-up along streets – anything North-facing was a wind tunnel, so I zig zagged my way to Allard Park that leads to the Merri Creek.

Holy Moly.

The oval was an open battlefield against the wind, and I think I almost got blown off it.

I persevered, ducked down onto the Creek itself in seek of shelter, and started my first effort.

So far so good, body felt good.

My right calf felt ok, and my speed for the efforts felt comfortably uncomfortable as I’d expected.

Further up and I could see the Creek was closed, trees blown over maybe? Directions to the road, up and more up until I was eventually diverted onto Nicholson Street.

A huge north-facing wind tunnel.

I dug deep and pushed on, not knowing how long I had to endure the wind pushing me backwards.

Forever apparently – or at least that’s how long that section took.

I saw the diversion route pointing back down to the trail, and my jazz hands came out in excitement.

Once back on track the efforts continued. My lungs were trying to catch up with my pace as they recovered from the street running.

Suddenly I was on 5km, and 22 minutes. Not as bad as I thought, given the wind.

I continued, tried to find something flat but failed. Undulating would have to do.

I headed South, the wind behind me, and I enjoyed the brief sensation of flying before I turned back into the fury of the wind.

8km. Usually where I was able to pick up the pace for the sprint finish.

Not today.

After 1km, I literally felt like I wasn’t moving, wasn’t gaining ground.

I ducked off the Creek into a street, ran along it. This was better.

I continued, sheltered. 400m to go.

I was faced with either Allard Park hill or heading back down the street and facing the wind.

I chose the wind and started my slow motion 400m run.

Forever passed, and I hit 10km.

Under 45 minutes.

I was surprised to say the least.

Day 5 done. Halfway.

Sorry legs.

And lungs.

Day 6: I’m getting better at not screaming.

I did a body check, everything felt good except the twinge in my calf. Twinge? More like a mild stabbing. But only during the first 30-60 seconds of warm up again.

My options within my 5km are quite limited; parts of the Upfield track north are closed due to track works and to try and find 10 different runs that don’t involve too much road (and therefore traffic) was going to be a challenge.

So today I decided to choose my favourite route of the five I’d already run, knowing that my body had endured enough in the last five days – especially the wind yesterday. Merri Creek, Capital City, Princes Park.

Beetroot juice, mobility, coffee and a gel – in that order.

I was off, so grateful for the lack of wind.

My body felt good, really good actually so I picked up the pace. Just a little.

I sprinted for any green man at the traffic lights I saw – and the ones I missed I ran up and down the pavement (yes like a madman) until I could get across.

Princes Park was beautiful, sunny, not too busy.

I looked at my watch again, 8km.

Golly.

Time to pick it up (forgetting I already had).

9km.

Under five minutes to go Jess, keep going. Faster.

10km.

43:58 – my fastest time so far.

Not expected.

I spent the 2.5km home jogging to a coffee shop then walking home listening to Chasing Excellence. Happy.

Until I got into the ice bath of course.

But I’m getting better at not screaming.

That day I also managed some gymnastics and strength work because I felt like my body was missing movements that didn’t involve running.

The gymnastics largely involved upper body, and the intention with the strength was the same, or at least to go lighter on the weights. But whenever I program deadlifts… somehow, they just end up really quite heavy.

Sorry legs.

Day 7: Madness.

I hadn’t slept well (well – my sleep app had told me I hadn’t slept well) And I think I figured things would start to hurt more from today, start to get slower.

I spent a little longer on mobility, then rolling my calves to try and ease the building pain. There was tenderness around my right Achilles, which made me think (hope) it hadn’t been or wasn’t the shin splints I originally thought.

Beetroot juice, coffee (I even made a second cup but decided against it) and my Koda banana gel.

Ready.

The plan today (as is always on a Thursday) was a tempo session – warm up during the 1km to Clissold Park, then run 2km laps with increasing speed on each lap.

I wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea – either to do laps again after the mental battle I’d endured doing the same for the UTMB race, or to try and get faster on tired legs.

I reasoned with myself that I wouldn’t clock watch, I would increase speed by feel.

Deal.

I started off by easing my body into running. Feeling out the aches and twinges and trying to stretch my calves out a little.

I got to the track and maintained the warm up pace, reasoning with myself that I probably need to start slower if I was going to increase efforts.

The park was beautiful, lively with people walking their dogs and sunshine.

I looked at my watch after the second lap. 5km and 24 minutes.

I was behind.

Was I? Didn’t I need to go a little slower to start? Yes.

Either way, I picked up the pace for the third lap – my body felt good, my lungs felt good. Everything was ok, or more than ok.

It’s strange how you notice the smallest elevations when you’re trying to do a tempo sessions and running through the same park multiple times – the smallest inclines become mountains to avoid. Or maybe that’s me.

By lap four I had caught up with myself, and as usual at 8km I nodded to myself, most likely spoke to myself. Time to go.

At 9km I realised I could actually get a faster time than yesterday, which was madness to me.

Limp Bizkit came on (don’t ask). Game on.

My version of sprinting probably looked like someone else’s casual jog at that point. But I felt like I was flying.

Faster (again, probably still a casual jog).

10km.

43:38.

Fastest time yet.

Crikey.

I stopped, checked my watch. Thanked my body.

The jog home was a slow jog in the sunshine, again happy to be out and have run and to have felt good running.

Yoga, longer holds, deeper breathing.

The bath – deeper than normal (it’s really when it hits my belly button that I lose my sh*t for some reason).

And then some upper body strength training with Imogen.

Because why not?

As the day went on my legs became stiffer, and I wasn’t sure whether it was the strength training, or the weights – or both.

I did some more stretching, and rubbing and rolling.

The shin pain had shifted round to the back of my calf – which almost confirmed it wasn’t shin splints – and just some muscular knotting. Did it though?

Day 8: Do you know how hard it is to get out of bed with legs like planks?

Blue skies and a little bit of wind. Knowing the weather was going to turn to crap over the weekend, I wanted to end at my favourite place for some yoga and meditation before returning to the daily grind.

Upfield, Princes Park to Merri Creek.

Hello Friday.

When I woke my legs still felt stiff, like planks. Do you know how hard it is to get out of bed with legs as planks?

Well, I do.

Mobility – I jumped on my spin bike to loosen up.

Better.

Coffee and gel (not together, although banana coffee actually sounds quite nice)

The warm up still felt like I was running with straight legs, toy soldier style. But as my mind relaxed into it, so did my body.

And I was off.

I hit a few traffic lights, which led to me running up and down the pavement until it was clear to cross. I put it down as agility training.

Princes Park, oh my so busy. So busy. People running on both sides at me.

More agility training.

One lap and I was out, onto the Capital City Trail, more traffic lights, more agility training.

Beautiful sunshine.

Before I knew it, I was at 8km and 35 ish minutes.

Golly.

I picked up the pace, my legs felt strong.

I had a choice between a steep descent or a gradual descent onto the Merri Creek. I chose gradual, and suddenly realised as I picked up my pace that this was where I needed to reign in my stride, shorten it and tip my body forwards – I’d sprained one to many ankles on long strides down a hill, essentially exposing my outstretched ankles at their weakest point, with little support.

Short strides, leaning forwards.

Less steep descent, 1km to go.

I took off.

The river was beside me, the sun gleaming off it. I was happy.

Happy to run, and happy to almost finish.

10km.

43:29.

My fastest time, which again baffled me. But I went with it.

Yoga in the sun, bliss.

Some meditation.

More bliss.

Happy Friday.

And Friday always has a place for gin.

Happier Friday.

Day 9: Shut up, Jess.

I knew a storm was coming, BOM radar said 95% chance of rain from 10m, which had shifted overnight to 95% chance of rain from 7am.

I’d set my alarm for 6.15am to assess the damage, but for some reason I was awake at 5.30am, waiting for daylight? Waiting for the storm.

I was awake, so I figured I might as well get up and get out when it was light enough.

Mobility, rolling the calves – they felt tight but I had spent some time massaging them the night before. (yes, even after the gin)

Coffee.

A cola gel – not my favourite, and I made a ‘why am I eating sugar at 6am face’ which didn’t disappear for at least five minutes.

I stepped out onto my balcony, reasoned with myself that it was light enough to run safely.

I was off.

My route had changed – not knowing whether Merri Creek had been flooded with the rain overnight,  I headed towards Princes Park.

I had it to myself, the trail, Brunswick. Beautifully eerie.

Still, I managed to mistime a traffic light and run circles up and down the street. There were cars out this early at least.

I hit Princes Park, other runners, maybe five in total.

The lights were on and the sun was rising, it was almost romantic.

No sign of the rain so I picked up the pace – the sooner I finished the less chance of rain and wind beating me up.

The East side of the park was great but turning to face West then North was headwind galore. I knuckled down, tried to maintain my pace. Just slightly uncomfortable. 

And I continued, in the slight humidity, clouds looming. Spits of rain.

Back down the East side, 7km.

I hit 8km turning back up North, the wind grew stronger, the storm closer.

Marilyn Manson came on. Game on.

I pushed through, got to the top of the park.

Realised my time – I could go under 43 minutes… no wait, under 42 minutes.

More power.

Down the East, the lights, the sunrising, the romance.

Shut up, Jess.

I was near sprint. That’s what I felt like.

10km.

41:57

I checked and checked again.

90 seconds away from my PB.

90 seconds – with 8 days of running behind me.

Happy.

Exhausted.

Farmers shuffle home to a Science of Ultra podcast.

No coffee shops open this early. The only fail of the morning.

Longer yoga, longer bath.

All the breakfast.

Day 10: I did a little jig.

The rain through the night confirmed that I wouldn’t be running the Merri Creek for my last run – there would be flooding for sure.

Safest option? Same as yesterday.

Physically, a good route. Mentally, a battle to repeat.

I was awake before my alarm, which may or may not have had something to do with the wine from the night before.

Up.

Mobility. I creaked. My calves – or my right calf – was on fire. Just a little, maybe embers. Enough for me to notice.

I warmed up for 100m. My calves weren’t really playing ball. Less like embers, more like tiny little fires.

I persisted. And started.

Upfield path was fairly empty, so it surprised me to meet traffic each time I hit a road. Grrr.

Finally, I was at Princes Park, free. No traffic lights, but lots of people.

I kept my head and down and pushed through. Less wind today and I was so grateful. More colour in the sky.

Last day, I told myself repeatedly.

I felt heavy though, or heavier than yesterday. But I still felt like I was going ok.

I passed a few runners a few times, we smiled, appreciated each other’s efforts.

I knew this course now… and I also knew I didn’t want to run it for a few weeks after this.

Yes, I was grateful it was flat. But I craved the trails, the mountains, the air. Maybe not on day 10 of a ten-day race though.

I remained grateful.

At 8km I moved to go faster. Moved.

I think I did.

Go faster I mean, I definitely moved.

I knew the last km was going to be painful, from experience. From multi-day races. When you’re so close, yet so far.

I tried to push through.

When I say I tried, I mean I did. With everything I had left in my legs. I pushed.

I even changed my song – which never happens – to Skrillex, for my last km.

Game on.

I looked at the time, realising I was going to be outside the 42 minutes, but inside 43 if I continued (I had wanted between 42 and 44 minutes for my last day).

Son 43 minutes sounded pretty good.

Last 500m. I stupidly thought I’d turn around and head back towards home.

Head wind.

I changed my mind very quickly and suddenly didn’t care how far I was from home. Turned back around and continued.

People must’ve thought I was mad – mostly because I was chastising myself out loud.

I continued.

200m.

All out sprint.

10km.

42:57. Second fastest time.

Done.

I stopped.

I looked around, wanting to high five someone, anyone.

Not going to happen.

I did a jig.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Farmers shuffle home to a Nike Trained podcast.

So grateful.

So mangled.

Yoga.

Long bath.

Wine.

Happy Sunday.

First place female, first place overall.

#sorryl

UTMB Virtual 50km Race

It’s been almost a year since I ran my first 50km race (Surf Coast Century in Australia with Jessica Short), which was a beautiful and brutal experience. I remember very vividly the excitement, atmosphere and the feeling of crossing the finish line.

The UTMB Virtual 50km in Hong Kong would be very different. It would be solo. It would be more elevation. There would be no aid stations. No finish line. No twin sister. It would also be 30 degrees and 85% humidity.

For most parts, it would be hell…

4am: I was up for mobility and coffee with Jess in Australia (and our new rescue pup Zeus, who enjoyed the downward dog on my yoga mat )

5am: I started the run with 15km on Hong Kong’s waterfront which was amazing. Cool, quiet and flat, with the sun and city rising around me. My legs felt good and I felt ready for what was ahead (spoiler alert: I wasn’t)

Feeling ready on the waterfront

15km: I made a quick pit stop at home to change my shoes and refill water, before heading up to the Bowen Road and then Parkview. The next 15km felt pretty dreamy. I had the trails to myself and most importantly, someone had run before me and cleared the way of spiders. Yey. Even Violet hill didn’t feel as violent as it usually does.

Feeling less ready on Violet Hill.

30km: I hit The Twins, twice. And this is really where things started to fall apart. I’d been making pretty good progress on the kms until that point. But the Twins made me think that my Garmin was broken, because the kms stopped moving (I don’t know why this was such a surprise: I’ve done the twins so many times before). I lay on the floor at the top of Twin 1 in a metaphorical pain cave.

32km: I made a pit stop at Repulse Bay and picked up 2litres of water and four bottles of Lucozade.

32.2km: I vomited Lucozade

33km: Back at Tze Kong Bridge I took the single trail towards Tai Tam Reservoir, which is one of my favourite, before hitting the steep concrete incline towards Quarry Pass. Up and up and up and up. And very little shade. The sun was fully out, and the humidity was high

40km / 1,500m+: my Garmin started blinking low battery so I knew I had to crack on and get this done, or the race wouldn’t register. So, I altered the last 10km of the course to do hill repeats on Mount Parker. Hill repeats. After 40km. Talk about pain cave. And existential crisis. And self-yodelling.

45km / 2,000m+: My Garmin was still blinking at me. The hill repeats hurt. I had to lie down in the shade every couple of kms. But I was close.

48km / 2,300m+: Garmin on 5% battery. I was at the top of Mount Parker and just started running in 50m loops. It rained, I think. I’m pretty sure I was swearing the whole way. Lucy and Jess were the steady voices in my head (aka on whatsapp) telling me to just keep going. Because I honestly thought about stopping. At 48km.

50km / 2,500m+: I’m pretty sure I burst into tears and then realised that a guy had been watching my entire 2km mania . It hurt all over. I had to lie down. I couldn’t speak on the phone.

Done.

 50km: I was at the top of a mountain. In a place where taxis couldn’t reach me. I had to walk 5km back down. Farmers shuffle. Pain cave.

5pm: Epsom salt bath. Burgers. Restless legs but a dawning sense of achievement (somewhere in the fog). I had finished.

UTMB Race results: 3rd in category, 7th female overall, 59th (out of 3,501).

Worth all the pain.

ATG Vertical Challenge – max elevation in Stage 4 lockdown

I’d love to say that when I was asked to join a team for the Asia Trail Girls Vertical Challenge, I didn’t know I would be in Stage 4 lockdown.

But no, I knew. I knew I’d only have one hour of power to smash out as much elevation as I could, within a 5km radius of my house.

I do thrive on challenges (especially in lockdown… and in winter). They give me the motivation I need to get out of my warm cosy bed, throw on my sports gear and get out into the cold dark morning (via some mobility, journaling and a really strong coffee, of course).

And if there’s a team involved? Accountability shoots up and I’m usually awake even before the alarm goes off

(…this is gin-dependent).

Ready.

The challenge was: teams of four, based around Asia, trying to complete as much elevation between them in ten days.

Imogen called me to ask if I would join two of the girls she regularly climbed the trails of Hong Kong with – I was definitely keen, my only doubt was that I would hold them back because I couldn’t get to the trails in Victoria.

We discussed. And I joined anyway. Super grateful.

I did some research, googled hills and steps around me (steps generally give you more bang for your buck on the elevation front) and asked a few running groups.

Suggestions came in: Hope street, a 400m stretch of road from Mooney Valley Creek Trail to Melville Road. I plotted it out – up to 27m gain for every 400m effort. Not a mountain, but enough.

I also had Allard Park where I usually did my hills training.

Game on.

On the first day of the challenge I had to contend with the small matter of a (flat) 10km virtual race to do (Lululemon SeaWheeze). One big fat spoonful of overload anyone? Oops.

The run went reasonably well – my optimism in trying to get a PB was a little skewed given the two hours of workouts I’d done the day before (running, Crossfit and Nike Training), and the zero rest days before that.

Optimism is always good though: I realised with only 600m to go that I wasn’t going to get my PB. 600m. That was a good enough effort for me (sub 40 mins, I’ll get you next time).

Feeling a little bad that the 10km only gave me 35m elevation I headed home to complete some steps and step ups in my apartment…for 4km, for 45 minutes.

All the sweat and some really quite tender calve muscles…

Day 1 done.

On Day 2 I thought I’d try this Hope Street to see what it felt like.

I can tell you, there was nothing hopeful about it. Long and steep.

Hope Street, no Hope

I started, leaning forwards, pushing off with small steps on the slight incline.

Angry music on. Not so bad.

I tried to fly down the hill as fast as possible – sometimes closing my eyes and imagining I was back on the trails (not advisable on a road).

50 minutes later I reached 10km of up and down – 12 hill repeats? My legs were done.

So of course, I went home and did some more steps and step ups inside. Juist for fun.   

Mondays are usually my rest days. But when there’s a challenge on…there’s no rest

#sorrylegs

My calves were pretty sore from the 2000% increase in hill training, so I rolled them out and put more focus on them in my morning mobility.

I woke and biked out to Allard Park, and the climbing began – around 220m of path up to the lookout point, and the view of Melbourne CBD is always beautiful incentive.

Views worth climbing for

55 minutes done and then home… for more steps, which I broke into two twenty-minute sessions. For the sake of my legs, and my sanity.

This time it was podcasts that got me through and I was able to zone out and tune in to voices (a mild risk of distraction and face planting, but I took my chances).

For some reason – maybe because it was my rest day and I was going rogue – I also chose to do Crossfit that evening.

Luckily, it was mostly arms. But in the bath afterwards there was a moment when I thought I might not actually be able to pull my body out of it….

The bath must’ve helped though (and staying in it longer because I couldn’t get out), because there was less pain in my calves afterwards.

Or maybe it was just masked by the pain everywhere else.

Day 4 – Tuesday, was hills with a friend. A real person to talk to (at 1.5m distance).

The session was shorter (I don’t think she would train with me again if I made her do a full hour).

More steps and step ups.

Yoga, rolling, cold baths.

Calves getting used to it now – or just giving up the protest.

Six days to go. Eek.

By Day 5 I was craving some flat running… anything. Just flat.

So, I rationalised with myself that I could take a day off, be ‘normal’. Run normal.

I chose the Mona Fartlek – my favourite workout. Short efforts, short recoveries – but lots of them.

I finished it, exhilarated (and exhausted).

And I found myself at the bottom of Allard Hill.

I sighed. Might as well.

And so the climbs began again; long at first, then shorter, then the steepest part I could find over and over again. Was I addicted? Maybe.

I looked at my watch: I had eight minutes to get home before my hour was up. I left the hills and the view, left the pain in my lungs and legs.

I was happy.

When I got home, naturally I did some steps and step ups.

Confirmed. Addicted.

Day 6.

When the alarm went off, I rationalised again with myself that I could take a rest day. Should take a rest day.

I peeked outside, blue skies.

Not today.

Suddenly I was up, mobilising, journaling, drinking my pre-run coffee.

Ready.

Then suddenly I was at the bottom of Hope Street with 400m of uphill in front of me.

I started, with angry music, and angry calves. But the sun, the sun was rising, the rays broke onto my skin, pushing me to go faster, to run towards it. Beautifulness.

Sunrise on Hope Street

10km, and I was done. Beautifully done.

Home.

The steps and step ups waited until lunchtime, then suddenly I’d done 3km of them.

Legs ached, arms ached (erm, jealous?).

Day six was done.

By Day 7 I actually think my legs were used to the hills, or maybe I just hurt all over even more.

I needed to mix it up so I went out to Allard Park. I knew I had 40 minutes (plus time to get there and back). So the first ten I went up and down 80m, steady pace. For the second 10 I swapped to a shorter steeper hill that I considered just rolling down on many occasions. For the third 10-minute set, I went back to the 80m. The last one – and I have no idea why I put this last – I went up to the 160m mark on the hill, the top.

Allard Park hill

Silliness.

Home, strength. Work. Steps. Work.

Gin.

Day 8 was my biggest day. The government introduced a new ruling that meant we could drive to where we train, so I could get to Fairfield (literally just within my 5km radius). I was so excited by the change of scenery.

From the top of the steps I could see the trails in the distance, the beautiful trails I had biked and run so many times on the other side of the river.

Soon.

Today though, I had 100 beautiful steps from the river to the top.

All the steps

There was one other girl doing them – either as training or punishment (we can never be sure right?). I promised myself I wouldn’t compete with her….

…but when you haven’t had any competition for months you pretty much make competition out of anything (or is that just me?), I chased her, passed her (safely) and began again.

24 repeats. 2400 steps. 40 minutes. Heart pumping, full of blood and full of joy, to be outside near trails.

Home. Breakfast, more step ups. Water. Then a crossfit charge WOD which included over 1,000 step ups.

1,600m elevation.

Sorry legs.

I took every opportunity throughout the rest of the day to duck down to the floor and get into pigeon pose + the world’s greatest stretch + corpse pose (my favourite). Anything I thought would be give my legs more life for the last two days…. not to mention the 75km virtual UTMB challenge I had planned for the following week. 

Sunday, Day 9. The home straight.

Torrential rain.

I waited.

More rain.

Steps it was.

One hour up and down up and down.

In all honesty it was supposed to be 30 minutes, but the podcast I was listening to was so damn good I forgot, and continued. (thank you Chasing Excellence)

Breakfast.

Second breakfast.

My legs were twitching for some flat running (they definitely weren’t, but I was), so I took myself out for a very chilled 7km.

A few tweaks and twinges, but otherwise happy.

Home to do steps… nothing left in my legs.

No steps.

Bath. Epsom salts. Aromatherapy oils, anything.

Day 10: the final day!!

I gave myself a beautiful sleep in…and even managed to turn off the alarm and sleep more.

Double training takes its toll. Hills take their toll.

Suddenly I was up and coffee-d, I had journaled and meditated, and found myself doing steps again, with my podcasts, followed by another one. Until I had done 5km of steps.

Work.

Lunchtime came. More steps. Up to 8km.

Was I satisfied? I rationalised with myself that I would do some more later, after work.

I went to make lunch, realised squatting down to get my saucepan out of the cupboard would take a while for me to get back up from.

No more steps.

Challenge completed.

Happy.

So grateful.

75km over five days starts tomorrow.

Our team managed 44,450m elevation, coming in second female team and 20th overall.

The results

So proud.

So grateful.

And next?

UTMB starts tomorrow…

Running Hong Kong’s big four trails (298km)

Running Hong Kong’s big four trails has been a goal of mine for a while now, so I’ve loved having the opportunity to explore them over the last couple of months. An adventure of epic proportions… but not without a few hiccups (boars, monkeys, snakes, stupidity, humidity, dehydration, more stupidity that led to more dehydration etc). Even in 80-90% humidity, it was the most fun ever.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Wilson Trail (78km, 3,800m elevation, South to North)
  • Maclehose Trail (100km, 4,500m elevation, East to West)
  • Hong Kong Trail (50km, 1,200m elevation, top to bottom)
  • Lantau Trail (70km, 3,700m elevation, loop on Lantau island)

Wilson (78km, 3,800m elevation, from South to North)

Sections 1 + 2 (11km)

Because The Twins 👯‍♀️ are the beasts of the first section, you kind of forget that there’s another (bigger) hill after them, right up until it’s towering over you at Tze Kong Bridge. But it’s not as bad. And once you get to Parkview you know you’re half-way. And hopefully the shaking in your thighs will get better, right?

The Twins

Jardine’s Lookout is a more gradual incline with amazing views of the city, until you turn left onto Braemar Hill Peak and then your knees really do start trembling (physically and emotionally). Just focus on the views, because they really just get better and better. The descent to Mount Parker Road is pretty straight forward (for people with fully functioning knees, not me) and then you turn right into The Tree Walk which, despite my reservations, is a fun single trail.

The trail spits you out somewhere random in Taikoo and you have to keep running until you get to the MTR, because otherwise you haven’t really done the whole trail, have you? Cold drinks and snacks at Circle K have never tasted so good.

Sections 3 + 4 (17km)

It was only a matter of time before I fell on my backside on this adventure, and this was the day for it. It was also a day for testing my navigation skills because I struggled to find the beginning of the Wilson 3. Luckily for me, Yau Tong’s shouty village dogs kept me on the straight and narrow by barking every time I went wrong. Fear is a great incentive to navigate, it turns out.

The first part of the trail is also a fitness trail with amazing views back across Hong Kong Island, and a Tai Chi fitness group rocking out to hip hop.

It got hotter and higher as I went up Devil’s Peak – beautiful views and lots of steps, and then colder and lower during the descent until it was really just a tiny road… which got so narrow and obscure that I had to stop to consult the map (aka become easy prey for mosquitos).

After a few wrong turns and a lot of greenhouses, I reached Section 4, which throws you straight into a wonderful kind of jungle. It’s as far away from Hong Kong’s cityscape as you can imagine 😍. There are also a lot tree trunks, which are snakes until proven otherwise, in my opinion.

A light rain made everything slippery, which I learnt the hard way – losing focus for a moment only to find myself in a heap on the rocks. Elbows and knees everywhere. Even though I hadn’t seen another person in ages, I still looked around to see if anyone had seen me 😂

The massive ascent up towards Tates Cairn is supposed to be rewarded with amazing views of Hebe Haven and then Kowloon, but the rolling fog had become so bad that I could barely see my own feet. So, to keep myself entertained on the concrete descent to Shatin Pass, I took a jumping selfie (as you do), just as an entire family turned the corner to watch me.

A classic jumping photo, with a full audience.

By the end of the trail, my entire right leg (hip, hamstring, knee, ankle) was calling for an Epsom bath. And I was starving. But it’s okay to eat lunch in the bath, right?

Sections 5 + 6 (13km)

I was ready for the snakes (football socks pulled to knees) and spiders (stick in hand), but not for monkeys. Never for the monkeys.

And in my defence, they lured me into a false sense of security for the first 5km. They were quite cute and mostly ignored me. And the trail itself was wonderful – a massive catchwater through Lion Rock Country Park.

Good monkey.
Bad monkey (top right hand corner)

But when I got to section 6, things got bad. I could see a gang of about twenty monkeys in the distance in some kind of feeding frenzy. I attempted to walk through the group but had to turn back when a couple of big ones bared their teeth at me (see photo above). I tried to remember some basic rules of survival: do not run, do not look scared etc etc. But these MFs were pretty scary and I really wanted to leg it.

There was no way around them if I wanted to continue the trail, so my only option was to go through the monkey gauntlet or give up completely. And then a bus arrived on the road next to me as if to say, here you go. Just give up. But that wasn’t the plan. A kind man got off and offered to walk through the monkeys with me. Yes, you read that right.

He was cool as a cucumber, even when a monkey hissed from the floor and then darted to a branch overhead to hiss closer to our faces (I’m not even going to describe the noise I made as I grabbed the kind stranger’s shoulders and marched him through the rest of the monkeys). I couldn’t thank him enough, but I think he found the whole thing amusing.

For the next few kms I was questioning my decision to carry on. The monkeys were still everywhere, albeit mostly ignoring me again. But the fear was still there. Until I passed a friendly group of hikers, one of whom yelled that I looked like Wonder Woman. That made me smile, even though I’m pretty sure I looked like a hot mess. But Wonder Woman can fight off monkeys, right?

I was super glad that I’d decided to continue because the rest of the trail was stunning 😍. I took a wrong turn down a very big hill which took me a while to forgive myself for, but we’ll just call that part of the adventure.

At last, Shing Mun reservoir came into sight, my departure point from the trail. For now. Back home to Epsom salt, heaps of water (I ran out at 12km) and an amazing amount of calories.

Sections 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 (37km)

I wasn’t really planning on doing a marathon over a mountain range, but that’s just kind of how this part of the trail went. It started back at Shing Mun reservoir on a beautiful single trail next to the water. Breath-taking. And the best part? Not a monkey in sight.

There was quite a bit of concrete after the reservoir and then a lot of navigating through Yuen Tun Ha village to get to section 8, which is where the real work starts. Up and up and up. The reward is stunning – Plover Cove on one side and Shenzhen on the other – views for miles and miles. That is, until you get so high you’re in the clouds.

Up and up and up.

Section 8 finishes at Cloudy Hill, which I thought might be a cute little village with a snack shop and a road with a taxi… but which is in fact, just a cloudy hill. In the middle of nowhere.

Faced with the decision to try to leave the trail here (20km in) or just carry on (16km to go), I made the questionable decision to keep going. My legs felt good. I had enough food. What could go wrong, right?

Well. I perhaps didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the mountain range ahead. Not just one mountain, but several. A total of 1,700m elevation. Oh, and I ran out of water with three hours to go until the end. Yikes.

But. It was stunning. The clouds rolled over the hills (and me) as I went, shifting the views with it. My legs held on, even if a bit of dehydration kicked in. The series of peaks make you feel like you’re running on the edge of the earth – it’s definitely one of the most stunning trails in Hong Kong.

On the edge of the earth (Pat Sin Leng)

At last, I hit the final peak of the range and began the descent down. And thankfully I was so delirious from the exertion that I didn’t even flinch when a bamboo viper snake (highly venomous) wriggled on the path next to me – I just kept going.

The last few kilometres were a rather ungraceful farmers shuffle with a lot of self-talk and checking maps (how much further?!). When I finally reached Nam Chung, I found a vending machine and emptied out all the sports drinks 😂

And when I finally got home, I sank into an Epsom salt bath that was as much salt as it was water, and sat there for ages.

Best bits: Sections 9 + 10: Pat Sin Leng mountain range. Despite the elevation and complete lack of water, this is beautiful.

Not my favourite: Section 5: Did I mention the monkeys?

——-

Maclehose Trail (100km, 4,500m elevation, from East to West)

Section 1 + 2 (24km)

With weather like we’d been having in HK, it was only a matter of time before I got steamrolled by a thunderstorm. This was the trail for it.

The morning sun over High Land Reservoir was an immense experience – the water was so still that it looked like a mirror. In fact, everything was still. Apart from the cicadas, which were so loud that it felt like being electrocuted.

Section One

Most of Mac’s Section One is on concrete roads, which can be hard on the knees, but the views make up for it. Also, it’s a slalom of cow poo (and sometimes cows) so you have to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet.

Then you hit the coast and it’s a sea views for miles and miles… and also steps for miles and miles. There’s a bit of relief when you descend to Long Ke Wan and then Sai Wan, where you can drink your body weight in cold drinks (which I did, because I’d lost my body weight in sweat).

And then when you hit Ham Tin beach you really are in heaven. White sand and clear water. Breaking waves and blue skies. And not a soul in sight 😍

Ham Tin beach

As I ran the rest of Section 2 through the jungle-like trail (neon fiddler crabs on the floor and frog noises coming from the wetlands), I started to feel the closeness of a changing weather system. And before I could do anything about it, I was suddenly running through sheets of torrential rain. And then before anyone else around me knew it, I was trail running with an umbrella. A classic look.

Nailed the look.

The last few kms to Pak Tam Au felt longer than they were. Probably a combination of subtle gradient and not-so-subtle torrential rain. But it was pretty wonderful to suddenly find myself on the road and in a cab and then in an Epsom salt bath and then eating Thai for lunch, because I needed to replenish 2000 calories.

Sections 3 + 4 + 5 (34km)

“Fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind”.

And that’s exactly where it took refuge during Section 3.

Which is a real shame because I finally felt like I’d got everything else right: extra water and salts, sweet potato wedges in a bag (which turned into mash, of course), neon snake-protecting socks and a giant sense of adventure.

But I started Section 3 with quite a bit of doubt in my mind, not helped by the super claustrophobic fog and the solitude of a jungle ascent.

The reward at the summit was supposed to be amazing views, but the fog was too close. Instead, I came face to face with a large black shape in the path ahead, which made my heart stop. Definitely mammal, but not human. Ah yes, the cows were back. And they refused to budge so I had to tip toe around them on the trail. If you’ve ever been warned not to walk behind an animal with hooves, this really isn’t for you.

Not quite what I was expecting to run into (literally).

The jungle got denser and my sense of existential despair got worse, and then I reached a plateau at Cheung Sheung. Which was harmless but had all the makings of a low budget horror film (abandoned buildings, thick jungle, blinding fog, and me). The fog was closing in. The Fear was closing in.

And I didn’t know which way to go, which was the worst part because I was about to charge into a dead-end trail in thick jungle, armed with a stick to ward off the spiders. Surely this couldn’t be right?

And then I heard a noise from behind me. Voices. People.

Hope.

I followed them onto the right trail, at last. And then I was so happy to be going the right way and out of the jungle, that I didn’t mind running through sheets of spiderwebs. Kind of.

I was soon distracted from The Fear by exertion as I started the ascent at Section 4 to Ma On Shan (700m), and then stayed along the mountain ridge for the next few kms. The fog returned but it felt lighter, more open.

Section 4 takes you through many different types of trail, which is wonderful. Birdsong, cicadas, crabs, more cows, more spiders. And then it abandons you in the middle of nowhere without a hope of getting a taxi. So, I carried on through Section 5 until I reached Lion’s Rock. And then was very glad to get in an air-conditioned taxi.

Sections 6-10 (37km)

“When you’re going through hell, keep going”.

And to be fair, it wasn’t hell until the last 7km, which was really when everything fell apart.

Needle Hill

The best part of Maclehose Section 7 is Needle Hill, where you’re rewarded for climbing 532m of stony staircase with sweeping views of Sha Tin and Lions Rock. After that, it’s pretty heavy going on a concrete service road, with a subtle gradient that makes you work a little bit harder than you think you are. And then a massive gradient that makes you want to cry 😂

At last you reach the start of Tai Mo Shan, Hong King’s largest peak (957m). It’s not as bad as it sounds and feels a bit like rambling in welsh countryside – rolling green hills, a nice cool breeze in the clouds… and lots of cow poo. The views from the top are epic, and definitely deserve a selfie or two.

Hong Kong’s highest peak (957m)

The descent down is a series of concrete hairpin bends, which can make you feel dizzy after a while. But it’s a nice way to descend from the clouds. Also, you’re now so far north that your phone tries to switch to data roaming in Mainland China.

Section 9 and 10 take you through Tai Lam Country Park and is A LOT of paved concrete running. But the views of the reservoir are stunning 😍.

At 30km my Garmin died. And I think that’s where everything else started to die. Hope, for instance. And muscle elasticity.

And then the sun came out, which on an unshaded stretch of concrete catch water, proved pretty lethal. It was hell.

Quick lie down.

Luckily, there were multiple BBQ sites along the way, which provided much needed shade and an opportunity to lie down every so often… regardless of the families that were picnicking around me.

With 3km to go I ran out of water, which in itself wasn’t too bad because there’s only 3km to go, right? Except as soon as I ran out, all I wanted was water. And for the second time in a month, I wondered how bad drinking a puddle could really be (spoiler alert: pretty f-ing bad).

In dire straits, I rang Jess for moral support and she gave me a pep talk that was a bit like the scene in Airplane! where the Air Traffic Control talks Ted Striker through landing a plane full of passengers, even though it’s falling apart.

  • Me: “I’ve run out of water”
  • Jess: “You’re doing really well, keep going”
  • Me: “My Garmin died so this part doesn’t even exist”
  • Jess: “You don’t need Garmin, just get to the finish”
  • Me: “ITBs are finished”
  • Jess: “You can crawl if you have to”

And so on…

The last 500m takes you through a residential area and spits you out on a massive main road. There’s a sign to mark your achievement (I celebrated by practicing my yoga Corpse Pose) but you have to walk even further to get to a taxi or a drink, which might have been the slowest steps I’ve ever taken.

An air-conditioned seat on the MTR was a real treat, but probably not for anyone sitting anywhere near me. Sorry.

Best bits: Sections 1 + 2: A coastal run that goes straight over Tai Long Wan, one of the most beautiful beaches in Hong Kong.

Worst bits: Section 10: A catch water that goes on forever. And normal people having picnics while you hallucinate about Gatorade. Also, the puddles start to look drinkable.

——-

Hong Kong Trail (50km, 1,200m elevation, top of HK island to the bottom)

Sections 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 (25.5km)

I’d had a mildly terrifying animal encounter on every single one of the big four trails and the HK Trail was no different.

For the first few kms I was pretty much running around the side of Victoria Peak, so the views were incredible and constantly changing 😍

A couple of country parks later, I was on single track in Aberdeen which was beautiful. The embankment to my left was about head height and the trail dropped off to my right into masses of woods.

I think my peripheral vision had been used up trying to avoid spider webs, so when something started running on the embankment next to my head, I freaked out a little.

And then when the entire embankment of shrubbery started moving, I freaked out a lot. It took me a few seconds to work out what it was, but the grunting gave it away. Wild boars. A massive family of them (it felt like 10,000, but was probably more like 7-8).

And then suddenly they were dropping down from the embankment onto the trail around me, before charging into the jungle.

It was a bit like if Disney made horror films.

And then the strangest part of all. There was a half-naked man in the shrubbery following them.

I ran a bit faster after that 😂

Outrunning a few wild boars.

The rest of Section 4 was a mixture of single trail and paved path. And sunshine. Lots of that too. And no more boars or naked men, which was pretty nice too.

Sections 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 (24.5km)

Section 5 takes you to the top of Mount Butler (456m) and then descends via Jacob’s Ladder (steep steps that feel very much like going down a ladder facing forwards) and tarmac road into Tai Tam. There’s a sharp turn left that takes you through a wonderful single trail until you reach a road, where you take your life in your hands trying to dodge double decker buses veering around the corner.

Yellow orbs.

Section 7 was my least favourite – it’s basically a gauntlet of spider webs along a narrow catch water. The only redeeming feature is the secluded beach you can detour to right at the end, which is quite nice for potato and egg snacks in the sunshine.

Dragon’s Back

It’s good time to get some carbs into your body because section 8 begins with a steep incline until you reach Dragon’s Back, which is one of Hong Kong’s most famous trails. And you can see why. The views either side of the ridge are breath-taking – ocean and islands for miles and miles. And at some point, you spot Big Wave Bay, the end destination, which promises cold drinks (x5,000) and a dip in the sea.

The final section is just stunning and worth doing on its own, again and again. And then comes the beach.

I think I pretty much changed into my bikini while I was sprinting across the beach, and then walked face first into the sea.

Big Wave Bay

Best bits: Section 8: Hong Kong’s famous Dragon’s Back, followed by a dip at Big Wave Bay beach.

Not my favourite: Section 7: Do you like eating spiders? You might enjoy this catch water.

——-

Lantau Trail (70km, 3,700m elevation, circular loop on Lantau island)

Sections 1+ 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 (25km)

I was lucky enough to be joined by a couple of friends for the Lantau Trail, which made the adventure even more fun. And we entered our respective pain caves at different times, so we were able to help each other through… mostly with the promise of cold beers at the end.

The first part of the Lantau Trail is all elevation. Just when you think you’re at the top, you see the next peak. The bigger peak. But it’s amazing.

Sunset Peak

The incredible views took my mind off the fact that my thighs were burning. The ascent up Sunset Peak (869m) was gradual and littered with stone huts that made for nice wind-breakers when the clouds rolled over the ridge.

Lantau Peak (934m) literally loomed in the distance and promised even more thigh-busting-ness. The ascent into the clouds meant that the views disappeared and there was definitely nothing to break the wind, which made me want to crawl on hands and knees at some points 😂

Lantau Peak

The descent down was steep and endless, but the view of the Big Buddha and ocean beyond is worth it. And the knowledge that we’d be able to get our hands on some overpriced cold drinks at one of the souvenir shops at Ngong Ping.

We sat down with cold drinks and watched an elderly man take a selfie with a cow.

Undulating elevation.

Sections 5 and 6 were a huge surprise, both in terms of how beautiful they are and also how much elevation there is… because we kind of assumed that Lantau Peak would be ALL the elevation. The undulating hills (and views) are stunning, but they seem to go on forever, especially when you can see Tai O in the distance (our destination) which didn’t seem to get any closer. We took it in turns to hit our pains caves and had a merry old time trying to cool down in cold springs along the way.

The final descent to Tai O is pretty brutal – a lot of downhill concrete and the threat of yellow orb spiders in your face to keep you on your toes. But it’s worth it once you get there – we ran straight into an air-conditioned restaurant and ordered just about everything on the menu.

The icing on the cake was a sun-filled ferry back to Tung Chung, which was pretty dreamy, even if we did have to sit on the floor to make the throbbing in our legs subside.

Sections 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 (29km)

Rural villages and rice paddies

Section 7 is made up of a beautiful single track that takes you along the coastline and through rural villages and rice paddies. It kind of feels like you’re backpacking in South East Asia.

Section 8 is catchwater, which sucks, but as you carry on through 9 and 10, you can see Lantau Peak looming over you. And you feel very grateful to be running on the flat. We took a Diet Coke break at the end of section nine, which was wonderful. And then we stopped at Cheung Sha beach to have lunch, but it was closed due to Covid, so we jumped in a cab to Mui Wo and had a socially distanced lunch (and beer) there instead.

Sections 11 + 12 (14km)

We thought that the majority of this would be catch water, but we were pleasantly surprised to finish the concrete by the time we got to Pui O where we took a sharp right (missed it completely but found it eventually) onto the beach and then carried on around the coast until we found ourselves on a single track that took us inland.

On account of there being so many spider webs, we took in it turns to run at the front of the pack, which didn’t lessen the amount of screaming and laughing every time someone hit a spider web (or thought they’d hit one).

There’s a final ascent in section 12 but once you’re at the top, you know it’s basically a steeple chase down to the pub at Mui Wo for a well-deserved beer and bite to eat.

Best bits: Sections 2 – 7 are pretty epic, if you don’t mind not being able to feel your legs the next day

Not my favourite: Sections 8 and 10 are mostly catch water, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But at least they’re too wide for spider webs.

Double Donna 22km: It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves… (and sometimes the mountain conquers us too, for a few minutes)

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.

 Yikes.

 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.

 The down.

 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.

 Yikes.

 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.

 Bang.

 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 didn’t.

 I couldn’t.

 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.

 “Yes”

 “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.

You Yangs Running Festival: Lessons on Hitting the Wall

I took my weirdly swollen ankle to the Doctors the Monday after UTA50km

“X-Ray.”

The results confirmed a loose bone fragment (Betty) with it’s little jazz hands, having a party of it’s own – well away from the rest of my ankle bones.

My Doctor told me that the rounded edges of the bone fragment meant that it was an old fracture that hadn’t healed.

He asked me when I could have done it.

I knew.

I remembered the soccer game – the first and last I ever tried to play in Melbourne. We were 75 minutes in, I had scored, we were winning. I was one on one with the goalie. Then bang, someone else’s foot pushed the position of mine awkwardly enough for that all too familiar right angle an ankle shouldn’t make.

The pain.

Golly. Like nothing else, no other sprain.

I knew it was bad.

There was one problem – my Mum was watching.

The first (and last) time she had watched me played soccer in Australia, she had watched me dislocate my shoulder, then watched my twin sister relocate it. Then sat in the Emergency Department waiting to see whether the tingling in my fingers was nerve damage.

No no, just a Hill Sachs lesion in the humerus.

Back to the game,  I was half carried off the pitch – my mum hadn’t seen me go down. Ice. Elevation.

She made her way over, and I was up, walking. Limping slightly.

“Have you injured yourself?”

I shook my head, “old injury.”

We walked to the car….straight to Ikea…then carried 17 packs of flat pack laminate flooring up four flights of stairs.

Sorry ankle.

Sorry Mum.

The doctor told me it would always be fragile now, and likely to flare up when running.

Not ideal.

I rested – given that it was my first 50km my body wasn’t actually capable of any form of….movement, anyway.

The next few weeks the familiar pre-UTA lethargy also continued and I went back to the docs. Bill and Bob – my parasites – were still there.

The antibiotics hadn’t worked.

I lost a small mental battle at that point – parasites and a weakened ankle. I’m pretty sure I allowed myself one day to wallow.

But I know, other people have gone through far worse – far worse – and picked themselves back up. And come back stronger.

I continued to train, allowing for the 8-9 hours’ sleep my body now seemed to need.

I also recently acquired two new foster cats – supposed to be a shy pair of sisters.

Shy, they told me.

I was woken around 3.00am by Trudy (the tiger) wanting to play, then sit on my neck, then poke me in the face. I didn’t have the heart to kick her out.

6.00am – my alarm went off long after I had woken up to feed them, and play with them. Tired? Of course, but definitely good for the soul, and great for pre-race nerves.

I ate the usual sweet potato and eggs, had coffee, then more coffee. Cooked my potatoes, counted my gels. Packed my race gear, repacked my race gear. Mobilised my body.

As I approached the You Yangs I became excited, love this place.

I walked to the start, the familiar feeling of being in a place I belonged, with people whom I belonged with.

30 km.

I hadn’t raced this distance before. I had thought long and hard about pace – not as quick as a half and not as slow as a 50km. Surely.

I checked myself, feeling at around 80% of myself. But no pain from my ankle.

Grateful.

Caffeine gel. Focus.

We lined up, and  started. I began running, and suddenly I realised I had brought the wrong race vest – the one too big for me. It bounced up and down on my shoulders as I ran.

How??

I laughed. It was all I could do.

I managed to take two safety pins off my race bib and safety pin the vest together to fit better. It seemed to work.

We were on fire trails – flat, fast. An out and back. I looked at my watch. 4.10min/km. All my unfavourite things.

Crikey.

I wasn’t sure my legs could sustain this pace for 30km, I prayed for hills, for Flinders Peak. That was my jam.

We continued and turned back on ourselves, and I saw the females in front of me – I counted three but couldn’t be sure.

w more km, fast and furious (everyone else, not me) and we hit it – the most beautiful part of You Yangs…undulating single track.

Heaven.

I squealed and flew, my lower body moving with the hills, jumping, running, skipping, climbing.

So. Much. Fun.

I had joined a pack, some guys in front of me, pacing me.

I overtook one of the girls, third female.

Another gel, whilst trying to run. Clearly out of practice. Choking ensued, and stickiness.

We left the single track, back onto fire trail, a long stretch of open, fire trail.

The pace picked up again.

We were on 12km and my legs were not doing so well – some sort of weird pain and tingling in my right thigh. I pushed it away.

I knew I wasn’t in peak shape, and the negative self-talk began: why hadn’t I trained harder, faster. Or even trained less, and rested. I threw so many what ifs through my head to try and understand why I was struggling. The parasites? I wasn’t sure.

I kept going.

Another female over took me – a different one, back to third. I tried to maintain her pace, 4.10/km again. If she could do it, so could I.

Stupidity.

One of the pack.

“how you pulling up?”

“I’m over the flat ness”

He laughed. “yeah, this is fast and flat hey”

It wasn’t just me.

We ran together, entering some more single track – heading up towards Flinders Peak.

First, a long steep climb. Time for some aggressive lunging.

Hells yes.

I looked at my watch. Potato time.

I took them out of my race vest, out of their sandwich bag and tried, in between gulps of breath, to eat the potato.

I guess you could liken it to trying to eat food during burpees. It wasn’t my wisest choice to do It during the climb, but I knew I needed them for Flinders Peak.

Ooooo, Flinders Peak.

I got excited.

Flinders Peak is 1.5km of mountain, peak, steps, rocks, climbing. Heaven.

I began the ascent- others walking. I ran. This was freedom, this was my jam.

I climbed the steps – two at a time where I could.

We were greeted by some of the 50km and 100km runners, we cheered. Legends.

Three females passed me on their way down already, I had miscounted. I was forth.

Could I catch up?

I picked up the pace.

The top, the views, the feeling. My favourite place – usually because it’s where I would stop to have food and refuel during long runs.

And down.

I’ve run the descent many times before.

I began. Fast at first, trying to make up some time lost on the flats.

Pain.

Flashes at first, my ankle.

The downhill impact was too much? I shook my head. No, not possible. Not now.

I slowed. Landed more on my left foot.

The female I’d overtaken before, overtook me.

Fifth.

I couldn’t give up hope, I couldn’t slow any more. I could not let my head drop.

I know it’s these times, these moments where I try, really try, to remind myself to run my own race and not other people’s. I shouldn’t care where I was, I shouldn’t care that I was fifth. It was about the running, the moment. Where my feet were.

Deep breaths and a mental slap around the face.

Pipe down Jess, just run.

I continued down. Carefully.

More 50km and 100km runners on their climb up – and more of the 30km runners heading on their way up.

Amazing vibe.

I was grateful again.

Suddenly I was at the bottom, and we turned back on ourselves at the bottom – into single trail again.

My legs….were heavy from the ascent, but the pain in my ankle had lessened.

And oh the trails.

More grateful.

17km.

We descended again, down towards the bike trails for the second half of the run.

I knew them well, having rode (into trees) on them quite a few times. I was excited.  I picked up the pace.

I was with the pack again, a few new members. And glimpses of the woman in forth ahead.

Easy Jess, run your race.

One of the guys up ahead I’d ran with earlier, walking.

I ran past “come on, let’s move”

He ran, we ran.

The trails were….they’re better on a bike – more zig zags and corners than hills.

But god damn it was beautiful.

Another gel.

23km.

Heavy legs, heavy.

My right thigh tingles were back.

I managed for 2km.

At 25km I knew I was hitting a wall. Maybe I’d gone out too fast – too fast on the fire trails. Maybe it was the Mexican I’d had last night, or maybe it was just Bill and Bob kicking around in my stomach.

I slowed to a farmers shuffle. I wanted to stop.

Almost, I almost stopped.

I choked down a mini sob, it wasn’t supposed to feel this hard.

The only time I’d felt like this was on the third day of the four day Lara Pinta race – I hadn’t warmed down or rested enough the day before, and everything was hurt and effort.

That was the now. I was back there, willing there not to be 5km left. Willing for that extra energy.

The fix?

The people.

“Move, we run together” Same guy I’d told to move.

A god send.

We ran.

Another guy, in a blue shirt was behind us, with us.

“Let’s pace each other”

And so we did.

I cranked up my music, Skrillex, Slash, The Prodigy.

Gel. Another badly taken gel. But I didn’t care.

I imagined I was just out for a casual 5km run, in the You Yangs – did I mention it was my favourite place?

I remembered my gratefuls.

I got to run this.

I nodded to myself, and picked up the pace. Caffeine and sugar kicking in.

We came off the trails, back onto fire trail – and I was finally grateful for them. I knew where we were.

2km to go and everyone we were running with knew, it was almost the finish.

We ran and we laughed, we encouraged and we cheered. How could we not?

The last 500m.

I could see the finish. I sprinted – or tried to. Rock solid legs. Sprinting with rock solid legs.

Righto.

Everything hurt, but I picked up the pace.

200m.

Faster.

100m.

Usain Bolt (probably not)

Done.

Finish line.

I laughed, probably manically. And shook the hands of those I’d run with.

They had no idea how grateful I was for them, all my thank yous and high fives could not convey how they had saved me. Had picked me up and thrown me over the wall.

I sat, legs shakey, tingling.

Sugar. Snakes – all of them.

I watched others come in, some of them the 50km finishers, others were 100kms doing another lap, amazingness.

I was grateful.

________________________________________________________

And next?

A team duathlon involving two 4km runs – in the You Yangs.

And then? The 50km running next to my twin sister. The excitement and pride is….hard to explain.

Epicness.

Oh…then the OCR World Champs in England.

Yikes.

#sorrylegs

 

UTA50: 50km, 4,000 steps, 2,500m elevation… and one sprained ankle.

With just two weeks until my first 50km, a trip to the doctors confirmed my worst fear – the fatigue and nausea I’d been feeling since TSP was not one but TWO types of parasites I’d picked up. Suddenly the struggle to get out of bed (not just the darker, colder mornings) made a bit more sense.

The Doctor gave me antibiotics.

“Jess, no alcohol whilst you take these”

I didn’t think about it.

Then, when the pharmacist handed me the antibiotics, she paused and looked at them.

“No alcohol…”

She looked at me.

“Jessica. None.”

So terrifying. I nodded to appease her.

The next week was an uncomfortable blur of a different kind of fatigue and nausea – and many failed attempts at drinking red wine.

Would this affect my running? Had it already? I felt good physically – strong. And mentally, that I would last the 6+ hours it would take me to run 50km.

I didn’t think so. So long as the fatigue disappeared before the race, right?

Friday came around quickly and I was suddenly on a plane, and then in the Blue Mountains.

Blue Skies, beautiful mountains, and 7,000 trail runners who were just as excited to be here as me. Heaven.

I checked into my hotel, laid out all my gear on the floor – a huge pile of mandatory gear and all the food I would be carrying with me. I rearranged multiple times, as if that would make it seem like a smaller, lighter load to carry. No good. It was all coming with me.

I wandered down to the Three Sisters, talked to other runners, took photos, laughed, then headed to the race briefing.

There was mention of research around the negative effects of taking anti-inflammatory drugs before or during an ultra-run – it placed too much strain on the kidneys, which were already undergoing something entirely out of their comfort zone by trying to carry you through such a long distance.

With peroneal tendonitis in my right foot, I had planned on taking some to ease any inflammation – but decided that strapping would have to do.

Back at the hotel I wrote out the race schedule – mostly around my food and the times I would need to be reaching the aid stations to run under 6 hours. I knew the course was hilly – 4,000 steps and 2,500m elevation. The first half was a mixture of undulating fire track and trail, the second was a heavy and hard combination of steep downhill fire trail, and all the steps back up.

I was planning to run 5.30min/km when I could – faster if I felt good – then pull back on the ups, and let go on the downs. The danger was to go out too fast in the first half where the trails were ‘easier’ then kill your legs for the harder second half. Yikes.

I wrote the plan out again and again, as though I would forget that I was simply eating a gel and either a banana or some boiled potatoes every 45 minutes. Nerves.

Melatonin. Sleep. It felt like Christmas – which is something I’ve not felt before a race for a while – a new experience? A new challenge that I had no idea how it would pan out. Exciting.

4am and my alarm went off.

I was up and eating a gluten free avocado sandwich and egg whites, with a tea bag coffee (just FYI  this is my kind of travel heaven…)

I showered – something I never normally do pre-race (because why would you?).

Another coffee.

I strapped my ankles in what’s called a heel lock strap – to ease any pressure on the peroneal tendons during the race. (No, I have no idea what I’m talking about)

I was wired.

I packed the food and mandatory gear into my new Ultimate Direction race vest (a birthday present to myself).

Bloody hell it was heavy. I laughed, knowing I was probably taking too much food (four bananas, 800g of boiled potatoes, 500g of dates, 200g of jelly beans, two bars, two litres of Gatorade and some water. Plus 12 gels….).

Hanger would not be an issue.

I walked to the start line at Scenic World, to watch the first group of 100km runners go off.

Electric – the vibe was amazing. I wanted to stay here forever, around these people. Everyone was excited, happy, inspiring.

Four trips to the toilet and I was ready, five minutes until my group started at 6.39am.

I knew I couldn’t listen to music until the aid station at 28.2km. A challenge, but I understood. The trails, the people, the fact that there would be members of the public on the trail too.

The guy with the mic was counting us down.

“60 seconds to go Group 2. Remember: don’t be a hero in the first half, don’t be a wimp in the second.”

Righto.

I took a gel, and we were off. A 6km out-and-back along road and fire track – undulating but not too steep.

I looked at my watch 4.20min/km – it actually felt slow, but I knew it was too fast. I pulled back to 5.00min/km. Better.

I found a steady pace, found people running my pace – my pack. We chatted, cheered, waved at bystanders. Amazing.

We passed the starting section again and headed towards the infamous Three Sisters. Yikes.

Stairs – down. Steep, steep stairs, over hanging… absolutely nothing. It was beautifully terrifying. And – at moments – just terrifying. Walking these stairs at a normal pace was scary but trying to race down them….

We hit the bottom, straight into forest, rainforest, beautiful greens and a cool breeze to greet us.

10km had passed so suddenly and I ate my first gel and banana.

I remained with the same pack, all on the pain train, following the leader, shouting out obstacles and trying our hardest to admire our surroundings without tripping up.

We hit stairs. All of them. Someone had found all the stairs in the world and put them into a 2km stretch. We climbed.

I ate my first potatoes, which was an unsuccessful balance of trying to climb stairs, breath, and chew. But energy I needed.

Finally, we were at the top – my legs were shaky. We were now running single track along the mountains, clear blue skies, and clouds (fog, Jess) lingered in the forests below. Suddenly I forgot about the shakiness.

We ran through the first check point at 17.2km. Water, chips and lollies.

No salt – I thought there would be salt. Of all the things I was carrying, that was something I didn’t have.

I don’t normally suffer from cramps, but with a distance I’d never run before, I wasn’t sure. I grabbed the chips; they’d have salt on them. I clearly need to practice running and eating chips.

I checked my watch: I was on for my six hours.

I was still with the same pack and we hit some downhill fire trail. I debated having more potato, but instead decided to pick up the pace and use the slight downhill to carry me.

We hit 20km.

Then BANG.

I heard a crack, and suddenly I was on the floor.

There was pain…and blood.

Everyone stopped. The pack.

The pain.

My ankle. My bloody ankle

“Cramp?” One of the guys asked.

“Her ankle went.”

He knew. He saw.

I crawled to the side of the track, if anything trying to crawl away from the pain in my ankle.

I knew that pain. I knew what had just happened to my ligaments – the unnatural right angle my ankle had just made.

And the blood – on my hand, my arms…then I saw it. The deep cut on my left knee.

What the bloody hell had happened?

“Shall we call emergency?”

“No. You guys go. I’m finishing this race, I just need a minute”

“Bloody oath you are.” Legend.

I told them again to go, and every runner that stopped to help, to go.

I still have so much gratitude for them all.

I choked down tears – of frustration? And helplessness.

I knew if I didn’t get up soon, I wouldn’t be able too.

I had some strong words with myself. I would finish this.

I’d heard earlier that morning there are three types of fun that happen on a trail:

  1. Fun to do and fun to tell
  2. Not fun to do but fun to tell
  3. Not fun to do, not fun to tell

This would not be a number 3.

I got up. Put weight on my foot. I might have whimpered…maybe.

I walked. I could do this.

Jogging.

Running. Sharp pain.

Bollocks.

But it faded.

If I could just get to the aid station in 8km to get ice and strapping…

I continued. Determined. A farmer’s shuffle with a slight right hand drop – almost a jig. I’d created a new dance for sure.

I thought about what had been said about taking painkillers in the race briefing. I debated. I had some with me. Was it worth the risk?

A sharp pain.

Yes.

I took one.

The fire trail continued – then open road.

Perfect.

I caught up with the pack. “You’re back!” I nodded.

Then I remembered my plan, I needed to eat, I needed a gel. I needed to keep my focus on the race. My body was hurting, my quads, my hip flexors. Expected a this point, but maybe not as bad as I thought it would be.

We continued, and somehow, I pulled away from them, said my goodbyes and continued on.

I knew I wasn’t going to make the six hours I’d planned, but suddenly the pressure was off, I just wanted to finish. So, I ran, with no pressure.

28.2km. CP501. The main Aid Station.

“First Aid is that way” A woman told me as I approached.

Blood had literally covered my left knee

I ran into the tent.

I was greeted by smiles and warmth.

“I need….” A new ankle.

“…I fell.” Words escaped me.

Deep breaths.

A woman, a nurse, guided me to a seat. “Let’s clean up your knee.”

I nodded.

They offered me everything – food, water, tea.

The warmth. The smiles.

“I think I sprained my ankle”

She looked down at it, you could already see the swelling. She nodded.

“I’m going to finish the race, do you have ice?” She nodded again, and another woman went to get ice.

We made small talk, almost banter. I was calmed.

“I’m going to put some iodine on your knee…it might sting a little.”

We laughed – my whole body hurt and I think she knew that.

“This doesn’t look fresh.”

I shrugged.

“Made of nails, hey?”

Or just stupid.

We decided to leave the cut open to the air, to breath. And to not take my shoe off – to contain the swelling, so I put the ice down my sock, immediate soothing.

I thanked them repeatedly – the laughter, the kindness. The beautifulness. My heart was filled.

I hobbled outside to a guy who was holding a bag of salt sachets.

“Salt!” Higher pitched than I’d intended.

He gave me some sachets.

“You just open it and…down it.”

“No tequila?”

We laughed.

The taste was peculiar.

I grabbed some lollies too, to take away the taste.

I continued.

22km to go.

We went out onto open rolling road. This was good. Only flickers of pain.

And music!! I could listen to music. I debated: the encouragement and the chatter had been so warming, so encouraging. Did I really need music?

My ankle hit a loose rock. Nausea.

I needed music – hardcore, adrenaline pumping music. Slash, Skrillex. Anything.

And another painkiller.

Then we hit it – the steep fire trail. Too steep to run up (cue aggressive lunging) and too painful to run down on a sprained ankle.

I began slow. Really slow.

I was three hours in at this point and this was the first time my mind struggled. The first time I questioned myself, whether I could do this. My quads were on fire and my calves felt like they were one wrong movement from cramping…. and I was getting a weird random chaffing in my right armpit. Not my left though.

The runners around me encouraged – all struggling the same. Tiredness, cramping, stitch, old injuries, all beginning to materialise.

I decided to play with some intervals – ninety seconds of light jogging alternating with ninety seconds of aggressive lunging (when I was on an uphill… otherwise that would have been an incredible waste of energy).

20 minutes passed…. then 40. Slowly – and painfully – but it was progress either way. Music, scenery, blue skies. I focused on the good.

Before I knew it, we hit forest – single track. And a sign: 5km to go.

5km.

To go.

I know I squealed.

I somehow managed to pick up the pace and ran with another pack.

It definitely wasn’t my fastest running – tree roots meant I had to be super careful with my ankle.

Then, I thought I felt pain in my lower back – around my kidneys. I shook my head, couldn’t be. Was it just my mind playing tricks on me or had the painkillers taken their toll? Was it just lower back pain from the up and downhill?

I pushed through.

My whole body now definitely hurt. Not unbearable, not unpleasant… almost a good hurt. One you’d expect from 45km of Blue Mountain trail. No cramping though, no ITB pain.

Grateful.

Another sign: 1km to go.

I choked back a cry. Happy tears. It was at that point I knew I’d make it.

I knew I could finish.

Just 951 steps in my way….

But, for some unknown reason, I love steps. That’s where strength training comes in to play so well.

I climbed, even overtook, continued. Heaven.

“Three more sets of steps” a volunteer shouted out.

Home straight.

I heard the finish, I climbed faster, and suddenly the turning to the finish.

“Girl power!” A young girl shouted.

Inspired (or terrified) I picked up the pace to the finish.

Crowds, people. Excitement. Amazingness.

I crossed the line.

Tears.

50km.

I was an ultra-runner.

The medal, the crowd.

My legs, jelly.

My ankle, throbbing.

A woman approached me, smiling but serious. “Mandatory equipment checks”. I nodded. I had everything. I opened my bag; she could see that. She nodded.

“Just get yourself to the aid tent….” I’m not sure whether she saw the blood on my knee, the swelling around my ankle, or just the slight craziness in my eyes.

I shuffled along, waited for the pack I’d run with and high fived them. All as grateful as me.

I walked through the food and water tent. My legs, they hurt. I collapsed into the nearest chair I could find.

“My love” A woman was crouching beside me, concerned.

“What can I get you? Food? Water? Tea?”

I couldn’t answer.

“I just need to sit for a while.”

She nodded and smiled. She knew.

Five minutes later and I had found the medical tent. I explained to a doctor what had happened. I took my shoe off for the first time, took off the strapping from my tendinitis.

The swelling looked… strange.

The doctor felt it, pressed it, watched my reactions. She shook her head.

“The pain and swelling are over the bone, not the ligaments.”

I didn’t register.

“We can’t rule out a break, you need to get an x-ray.”

I nodded. Not really taking it in.

“Tomorrow.”

For now? I just wanted to soak up being there. Being around 7,000 trail runners, having finished. Everything.

They strapped me up, cleaned and dressed my knee.

More gratitude.

6 hours 30 minutes – only 30 minutes off the time I’d wanted.

14th female in category.

30th female overall – in 920.

I was happy.

Despite everything – the parasites, the antibiotics, the sprain – that had been some of the best trail running of my life. Just beautifulness, and beautiful people. Some of the biggest challenges too, which only added to it.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat.

I’m already planning the Surf Coast Century 50km – with the aim to qualify for UTMB if I’m lucky enough.

And what now?

I haven’t yet had an x-ray, but I have taken at least the week off running.

You’re welcome, legs.

Next week, I have an adventure race coming up – with my twin sister. It’ll be the first time we’ve ever raced as a team, and the first time we’ve run ‘competitively’ together since doing the 9km harbour bridge run in Sydney, some seven years ago (yep, dressed as Batman and Robin….).

Pure madness I’m sure.

I might also have signed up for another Crossfit competition in July – a two day event. Team of six.

Because why not?

#sorrylegs

     

   

The Speed Project – 550km of high, lows and everything in between. And some running too.

I arrived in LA at 6.00am on the Saturday morning, a week before TSP.

Sleep deprived, I wondered whether I’d over committed myself by trying to get to a 5km run organised by Blue Ribbon Sports (the original Nike)…at 10.00am…on the other side of LA.

I went anyway, surrounded by beautifully passionate runners – many of whom were racing in the LA Marathon the next day.

Hello Los Angeles.

The Speed Project had finally arrived.

TSP started five years ago when two runners decided to start…running together. Initially to each other’s houses, then further, challenging themselves, each time upping the distance. Finally they ran – from LA to Vegas, then created a race around it…because why not?

To compete for the win, or the challenge of setting a new record, you entered as a team of six – four males, two females or six females. Otherwise you could enter teams of as many as you liked, to race for the challenge. No rules, just get from LA to Vegas, non-stop, on foot. You were allowed a crew and vehicles to assist transporting those that weren’t running.

Crew members were, in essence, essential – to drive RVs and plan logistics, provide motivation, water, accompany runners when needed.

AM PM were an all-female team of six – Annabelle (Bramwell), me, Pip, Emily, Annabel (Fendall) and Julia.

We had four crew – Ben (photographer), Sam S, American Sam (local) and Dylan (training for an Ironman the week after the race – legend), and an RV to accommodate up to eight people…

I had only met Emily, Fendall – whom I’d trained with in Melbourne, and Sam S and Ben. This was going to be an interesting race for sure.

I spent the rest of the weekend running, exploring, walking, eating (hello Wholefoods) – and taking in LA and its beautiful madness.

Mesmerising.

Monday came and I was the first to check into our TSP Airbnb – greeted by Mary, who spent an hour debriefing me on how to use the house. And feed the fish.

Two of the girls and one of our crew arrived that afternoon – Em, Bramwell and Dylan, and we went for dinner in Venice Beach.

Em also brought all the kit Nike had given our team, so much, so beautiful. So grateful.

The next day we ventured out for a gentle 10km run…that turned out to be 15km after a few wrongs turns, and included two ascents to some epic lookouts. Sorry legs.

I promised myself I would rest tomorrow.

The next day, the rest of the girls and crew arrived – Julia, Pip and Fendall, Sam and Ben, mild hysteria and a disbelief that we were here, about to run The Speed Project.

We were a beautiful mixture of New Zealand and Australian (ahem, and English) runners. We all had the passion, and knew the freedom of running. We had all put in the training, made the sacrifices, and all been exponentially hungrier and mildly sleep deprived ever since we said yes.

Wednesday – we ran along the beach – our first run out all together, initially a slow 5km that turned into a faster than expected 7km. Yikes. We decided to spend the rest of the day on electric scooters to rest our legs. And eat donuts….to carb load, of course.

Thursday – the day before the race, we sat down and planned the race. No running allowed.

There were 39 stages of maps to review that covered the 550km race. The organisers had ranked the stages with varying degrees of difficulty 1 to 4. Then they had assigned the six runners to each leg based on their running strength.

I was runner 2 – my runs would include the more technical trails, mostly during the night – through the desert. Excitedly terrifying. I had done night runs before but not on my own in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night.

The order to start: Bramwell, me, Pip, Em, Fendall and Julia.

We only planned the first few stages, and a few of the tougher ones. We knew that anything could happen out there and plans would need to be flexible and adaptable. That was the importance of the crew.

Then, we shopped. We would be on the road in the RV with limited stops for at least 45 hours, if not more. We needed food, water, energy, comfort, and we needed to pimp our ride.

We returned home, prepped our food – for me 2kg of baked sweet potato, almond butter and jam sandwiches (on GF bread) – 16 of them, and all the bananas in the world. My plan was to finish a run, have a sandwich straight after, then alternate between a banana or sweet potato an hour before I ran again, and a gel or coffee just before the run.

That was the plan.

We set up the RV (pillows, blankets, duvets), and went for one last meal at Whole Foods before an early night.

Friday – 2.00am.

My alarm went off, no sleep. Coffee (tea bag) and mobility. The house was nervous excitement. I was nervous excitement. Six months in the making was two hours away.

I ate – pre cooked sweet potato, eggs and avo as standard.

We packed our food, packed our RV, and set off for Santa Monica pier.

The vibe – electric. 43 teams, 43 RVs, at least 400 runners and crew. The count down was on.

I definitely wasn’t used to spending time with people the night before a race, let alone the morning of. My usual routine of drinking a few glasses of wine (self-sabotage I’m sure), sleeping, then listening to Slash all morning as race prep was nowhere to be seen.

This was different, this was a team event. There were six of us now, not just me. Ten of us in fact. It was important to communicate, and at least try to act relatively normal.

Terrifying.

3.55am, Bramwell, our first runner lined up, under the Santa Monica pier entrance.

4.00am, she was off. We watched as she flew, then raced to our RV to keep up with her, and get to the next check point to swap runners, 10km away, me.

We followed her when we could, cheering her, and others. The energy was amazing. The race was fast.

We arrived at the changeover, where Bramwell would tag me in. We waited, god she was quick.

We watched the road where she would be coming from, then heard shouts from her – coming from the road above the highway, she was manically climbing down the stairs to us. We laughed, this is how it would roll.

She held her hand out. I touched it.

My turn.

I turned and ran, energy in my legs, wanting to do well for the team, to run for them.

I knew some of the streets from running them over the weekend, and kept my pace with another runner, another female. I tried to take photos, failed.

The RV was there, the team were cheering, then it was gone, 10km, I didn’t want to get lost, so I stayed with the other runner, up a hill, right onto Sunset Boulevard. I knew the way from here, so I pulled away and ran the empty streets of LA, mesmerising.

I ran towards where I knew the RV would be. People lined the streets, waiting for their runner, but cheering others. Pip was waiting, ready to be tagged in, we touched hands, and she was off. Flying.

I climbed back into the RV, a hot sweaty mess. This was amazing.

And we ran. Fast and hard through LA, with the rising sun.

My next leg was not planned. We hit a hit, a windy hill. The kind of wind that takes your breath away even just walking in it, let alone running.

We swapped in and out for a few kms, to maintain pace and rest each other until the hills ended and we were more sheltered.

And we continued. The girls ran, strong, hard, tagged in and out, supported, cheered. Amazingness.

When we weren’t running we jumped out and high fived, gave water when we could. Then we rested, rolled, and used the Hypervolt to keep our muscles alive and kicking.

My next run was just before 9.00am, still windy, 7km. I had some sandwiches and gels, I needed my inhaler but that was expected. Dylan joined me on the bike we had brought, providing shelter from the wind.

We pulled off the highway and onto the long stretches of highway that would be our friend for the next few hours. Nothing but road and desert.

It was midday – and we were at 115km of the 550km when I had my next run – 8km.

I tried some new gels.

Something was wrong. My legs were fine, felt strong. My mind, strong.

My stomach.

Something was wrong with my stomach. I began to run, and it felt like I was running with a watermelon in my stomach, then suddenly like I’d eaten something that had disagreed with me. Neither were pleasant feelings.

I continued to run, hoping, praying it would pass.

I tagged out, talked to the others, the same, dodgy stomachs, gastro. This could not be trained for.

And so it happened, my first bush poo (sorry Mum). The RV had a toilet – but it had been filled already. So I disappeared into the desert.

We rotated through runners, kept eating despite the stomach cramps, because the fuel was important. And laughed through it, because that was all we could do.

We sat down, and the boys went through the plan for the next few stages. A few more runs along the wide open road. Then into a sketchy neighbourhood known for wild dogs, and wild people. Then we hit a petrol station where we could fill up gas, and dump our waste. Yikes.

The order of runners was staying the same. The first three – Bramwell, me and Pip, would do slightly longer runs throughout the rotations, and we would see how we went – we were also dropping the distances down to account for the growing heat, and would probably drop to shorter once night time hit.

Everyone was killing it.

My next run was through the sketchy neighbourhood.

I was on 26km so far, legs felt good. Stomach? Stomach was no good, and there was nothing I could do, or wanted to do, but run through it. I would not let the team down.

I tagged in for my first 5km, had the compulsory pepper spray, and one of the crew, Sam S, on the bike in front of me as we approached. One storey houses with large yards and gates around them – the kind you see in movies I guess with furniture and broken cars in the yard. These were real.

We turned into the town, nervous. I ran, a relatively slow pace to try and tame my stomach cramps – not ideal in a not ideal town. But it was that or literally lose my stomach in the not so ideal town, on the side of the road.

We continued, with the RV close by. A few dogs, a few people but nothing close to what we had planned, or expected. Relief.

A small dog ran over towards us, separated by a fence, cute. Then a huge, angry looking dog sprinted over shortly after, not so cute. Manically barking, definitely not so cute. I pulled the mace out of my pocket.

We continued.

5km passed relatively quickly and I tagged Pip in, and Sam stayed on the bike. A boy ran up to me. “Miss what’s your name?” “Jess:”, “And your number?” Yikes. “Runner number 2” He seemed satisfied.

Another boy shouted towards the RV “Are you really running to Vegas?”, Ben, our photographer nodded. “Why would you want to do that??”

Good point.

They were fun and we relaxed a little. Just a little.

Then we were through the sketchy area and back onto open road. Another 5km.

I got back onto the RV, went to the toilet, again. I had been feeling fine between races, but the first maybe 200-400m in I would need the toilet, and that would continue until I finished running, and I could disappear into the bush. Yikes. I couldn’t imagine doing this for another 40 or so hours.

The sun was beginning to set and we were about to hit the tougher trails.

We were leading into our first night of running. Em had brought us a reflective vest to switch over so the cars on the freeway could see us.

It wasn’t until we dropped down into the 3.5kms that I realised the only way this was going to get any more manageable, was to start running, to wait for the cramps and the need to go, and just go, in the desert.

8.30pm – my next 3.5km. 200m in, cramps. I ducked into the bush, behind a small tree…did the deed.

Sprang back onto the road.

Sprang. Jigged.

Immediately better, no cramps, lighter, faster. Shit just got real. Literally.

I picked up the pace and ran towards the sunset, shades on, reflective vest on and head torch ready.

Sunsets in America are…epic, flat land means they wrap around the entire sky and last a long time.

Now that I had worked out how to manage the cramps, I was happy. Running into the sunset. Bliss.

The girls and crew were in such good spirits, cheering us, cheering others. High fives, water. True team work.

280km in, along Ghost Town Road, we began to hit the more technical trails. Separate instructions accompanied the maps TSP had given us, detailing…detail.

One more 3.5km before I had a 6 hour rest. 43.5km in my legs, and with a 2.00am start, I was grateful.

But it was strange to think, as I was laying down to try and sleep, that the girls were out there running, continuing, in the dark.

I managed around 40 minutes in the whole six hours, restless. I got up. Baby wiped my body and changed into my third running kit.

It was dark in the RV, three of the crew were getting some much needed sleep. I sat down to look at my next leg, converted the miles to km to try and follow the instructions.

Cold brew was needed.

Section 30 was next for me, at 2.00am.

My legs felt rested, my stomach felt somewhat good. For now.

I put on my head torch, my bright yellow jumper and headed outside to be tagged in. I could see her head torch in the distance. We tagged and I was off, into the desert, in the dark.

I turned on my music, mainly so I couldn’t hear what was going on around me – and made sure I could only see the trail a few metres in front of me, that was fine by me.

I upped my pace and immediately felt the familiar stomach pains.

I stopped, dipped to the side of the trail, not too far off, turned my head torch off. Eight seconds later (approximately) I was back on the trail, ready.

I continued, buzzing.

My instructions told me to look out for a gully, and cross it. I wandered exactly what I was looking out for. Then I saw it, well, I saw darkness.

The trail dipped down, into complete darkness, like the edge of a cliff, into a gully.

I don’t think I slowed so much as maybe skipped a little, in nervous excitement. There was maybe even a heel click. Nervous indeed.

I entered the darkness, the gully. The temperature dropped and the crossing was deep and vast. I looked around in morbid fascination at what might be around me, lurking in the gully. Luckily not much. The trail turned to sand and my legs slowed.

I moved through it and ascended the other side, back onto the dirt trail. I picked up the pace, still no one else around me.

One more gully, smaller, then I was nearing the end of my run.

I could see a head torch in front of me. No stomach pain, just running, just trails, and the desert.

I was grateful. I was happy.

I returned to the RV, excitedly exhausted. I’d be racing again in a few hours, 10km through harder terrain – ankle breaking according to the section instructions.

Yikes.

Definitely no skipping.

I sat down with Pip, and we worked out distances for the instructions for my leg and her leg – a 15km trail run after mine.

One of us would be lucky enough to be running when the sun rose over the Nevada desert.

My instructions mentioned it being a long slow run, with rocks, boulders and loose stones. Challenge accepted. I was excited. More trails.

We drove through a small town and Sam S, the driver, shouted back to us that there was a crazy guy on the road and we should get out and support Julia, who was now running.

Dylan and I jumped out, my quads pinged as I shuffled along the road and we spotted the crazy guy, dancing and fist fighting to himself on the side of the road, and spotted Julia running towards him. We ran down the road, almost crossed the road to avoid him, and led Julia out in to the middle of the road with us – without explaining at all what was going on except to follow us. Probably not the best planning.

She followed us in time for the crazy guy to run out into the road towards us.

“Just keep running” and we did.

Back to the RV. And continued.

Night time in the desert indeed.

The girls continued to smash it, these were longer sections, in the dark, in the middle of the night. No one kicked up a fuss, we got up, we get out and we got around each other. It was amazing to be part of.

So proud, so in awe.

5.00am came and we arrived at the change over point for my next trail run. A quick gel.

Ben, the driver at the time, wound down the window. “God it smells like something is dead or dying out there”

Nice. I jumped out, and agreed, but warmed up anyway, ignoring the smell.

Dylan left on the bike to locate Emily and steer her towards me and soon I saw a familiar head torch bobbing up and down.

My legs were on 49.7km, my body physically felt good. My stomach was still doing somersaults and cramping – nothing a bit of trail wouldn’t sort out I’m sure.

We tagged, and I ran, along a dirt road, then cut up into the desert, keeping the telegraph poles on my right as the instructions said.

Hills – rocky, stoney hills to start. Fun. I picked up the pace.

The familiar stomach cramps began and I pulled over, not wanting to veer too far from the main trail, turned off my head torch.

Back on the trails, much better. And nothing ate me. Winning.

More rocks, buried into the ground – like running along a river bed, then soft sand and loose stones, tricky. But god this was fun.

Limp Bizkit came on, and I was rolling.

I saw a head torch in the distance, confirming I was heading the right way. I looked at the instructions, at 9.3km I had to duck right under the telegraph poles and follow what we would assume was the head lights of our RV.

I caught up with the other head torch – the Kings Cross team he was a little lost and couldn’t find the right turn. I looked at my watch, we hadn’t hit the distance yet. We ran together, Brad, and found the right turn. We both slowly got faster, a silent race. I provided encouragement, to him or me, I’m not sure.

I looked at the sky, turning orange, getting lighter. Beautiful.

Then we saw head torches up ahead, and somehow both picked up the pace to near sprinting.

“Pip!” I shouted out. “Jess!” Phew.

She was with Sam S, ready to run the 15km, her second long run that morning. Legendary. I tagged her in, wished her good luck and watched them run off into the sunrise.

Brad and I high fived, the energy from the pitch black trail run in the Nevada Desert still in us.

I looked up at the sky, grateful. Then headed back to the RV. Onwards.

The girls continued to run, to smash through tiredness, aches and gastro.

I tried to rest, tried to eat – terrified my stomach would get worse.

Daylight arrived in Death Valley – along with the heat and a never ending straight road that would lead us through the Valley into Vegas.

We had survived the night time desert.

We were 420km in, 130km to go.

Sam explained the revised plan to accommodate the heat and the monotony of running on a long straight road.

Three of us would do 4km stints – me, Bramwell and Pip, and three would do 2.4kms – Em, Fendall and Julia. If we needed to rest or sleep (some of the girls hadn’t had the chance) we would rotate among five of us whilst they did. We needed to be sensible, and honest about any niggles, conditions, struggles etc.

My next run was just before 9.00am, the heat hadn’t fully consumed the desert so it was bare able temperature.

My stomach? Still mild cramping, but better than yesterday

I stepped out of the RV, my quads. Oh dear lord my quads. From the trails, the downhill. The microscopic tears that running downhill or on uneven surface caused. I hadn’t cooled down, foolish.

I did some loose stretching, before I could see Bramwell in the distance, running towards the RV at pace. Incredible stamina.

She tagged me in, and I was off. I waited a few minutes until the RV had passed me then ducked into the bush. I had got the timing down to a tee, then I was back and running and felt so much better.

We rotated through twice on those distances before the heat came through thick and fast and we dropped down to 3.2km and 2km.

Shorter runs meant shorter rests, we made sure we had water, had our nuun, refuelled as much as we could, and rested as much as we could. Changed our outfits if we wanted, and baby wiped our bodies.

Our stomachs were still relatively unsettled, but we agreed that we needed to eat to fuel our runs, rather than not eat to rest our stomachs. It was a fine balance.

On one of the shorter runs, Sam joined me on the bike. I jumped out and started running, and suddenly I was battling something else – my breathing.

Short sharp breaths, I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, the Vegas air was dry, and our ascension had made it thinner too – less oxygen.

I told Sam, and he biked ahead to get my inhaler. I kept it with me.

I had had a spirometry test before TSP, to check whether I needed another inhaler. The results showed my lungs actually performed better without the inhaler.

Oh the irony.

Early afternoon came and so did the gradual inclines leading up to the mountain we would be going over to get to Vegas.

The crew dropped our distances down to 1km runs, then 500m, depending on the hills.

My breathing struggles continued.

I felt like I was breaking, and had no control over it. I did not want to let the team down.

On the next run – 1.6km along the flat, it should have been a breeze. I had gone through my usual routine, taken my inhaler, but I knew the crew were worried about dehydration from the gastro, and now my breathing.

Fendall jumped out as I was running.

“They want to pull you in”

“I’m fine.”

I wasn’t.

I was broken.

Pride.

I continued, angry at my body.

I tagged Pip in and headed into the RV, I needed to be sensible – this was more than just about me. My quads were rocks and I knew I was dehydrated from the gastro, and eating less as a result. I rested, tried to eat, tried to breath. Got the hypovolt onto my quads.

An hour later, I was back on again, and told Sam could do 2km – at least I thought I had.

My legs were on around 85km at that point. My lungs were probably working at around 20%.

You couldn’t train for this.

I was tagged in and started running, slowly, and the RV pulled off along the straight road, into the distance.

1.6km in, only 400m left. I was in agony. Probably the worst I’d felt on any of the runs. So far.

Only 400m to go Jess. You can do this then you need to rest. I promised myself.

But the RV kept going. Past 400m, past 600m, to the 2.5km mark way into the distance. Sam had misheard me. Or I hadn’t said 2km clear enough.

It was the first time during any of the runs I literally stopped in my tracks. Stopped dead still, in disbelief? Maybe. In abandonment? Maybe.

I let out a small cry, and I think I stamped my foot at least once.

Defeat. But also surprise that this was the first time I’d let emotion consume me on such a big event.

No Jess.

Team.

You can do this for the team. You have to.

I shook my head, shook myself. A grown adult having a tantrum.

I took a step, then another, and knocked myself out of my pity party.

The girls. The crew.

I ran.

I was humbled – and ashamed. We had agreed to be sensible, and I hadn’t been.

I got to the RV, still teary. But more sensible.

Rest.

And food.

I ate, something proper. And drank as much water as I could, then stretched and rested.

Dylan went out on the bike, asking whether anyone would want hot chips or anything else if he could find a shop.

Hot chips. Oh my.

It didn’t occur to us that we were in the middle of the desert and there would actually literally be nowhere to buy hot chips. But the hype and the idea raised our spirits and provided some laughter when he came back empty handed.

I spoke with Em, about just getting the kms and going easy. We were still 40km out.

An hour later I ran again, relaxed, fuelled. 2.5km. Not a breeze, but no tears or tantrums.

I suggested we get the champagne out of my bag, and put it into the fridge.

Nobody refused.

Almost out of nowhere it got dark, and very cold. Colder than usual. Maybe because we were climbing?

We hit the ascent into Vegas, the last hill. 1,300m up. We dropped down to 1kms to accommodate the climb.

Then we hit the roadworks.

We knew up ahead that the road would suddenly have no side areas to for the runners for at least 1.6km – so the RV would have to follow the runner, or the runner would have to find another way, or hope there was one, then pull it at the next available place to stop – which was likely to be further than 1.6km.

We were advised by the organisers not to run, and to just drive the distance then make up the distance another way.

Not happening.

Bramwell jumped out and started running up the side of the freeway – in the road works section.

Safety was an issue, so it was agreed there should be two runners.

And I was next in line.

In hindsight I should have rested, should have been sensible. Should have listened to my body. I wasn’t ready, didn’t have my inhaler and hadn’t eaten.

“Sure.”

Stupidity.

I jumped out, it was fresh, cold. Colder than cold, and we were high.

Bramwell was already 200-300m away. God she was quick.

I started to run.

Breathe Jess.

I struggled.

The cold, the air.

I turned and waited for the RV, ready to tell them I couldn’t catch her.

“I’ll drive ahead and tell her to wait.”

Not the result I was looking for – totally my fault. The RV drove off and caught Bramwell.

So I continued up the hill until I was with her.

“I reckon we can run this side of the concrete all the way.” I nodded.

So we started.

And the breathing got worse, almost painful. So sharp and so shallow.

No inhaler.

“Are you ok?”

I looked at her. Shook my head. Had literally never experienced this before.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t get air into my lungs”

We slowed. She told me to relax and take my time.

“In through the nose, out through the mouth” her voice was calming, and I was calmed.

We picked up the pace until my lungs reached their capacity again.

“Easy pace, go easy.”

We jogged, picking up the pace when we could, then brought it back down until my breathing was under control again.

We knew there was no phone signal, we knew I had no inhaler and we knew the RV was long gone. It was mildly terrifying, and stupid on my part.

She directed me, pointed out objects on the floor – pipes and rocks from the roadwork.

I was grateful. All I could do was focus on breathing.

“When we get to the top I promise we will be able to see the Vegas lights.”

I nodded, maybe laughed, and we continued.

“Nice…Easy” She slowed us when I tried to pick up the pace. Sensible. Restrained.

Calming.

We got to the top, and the only lights we saw were the continued road works.

We definitely laughed. Which caused a coughing fit, but was still much needed.

“Downhill now.”

And we had signal.

“The RV is just past that yellow post.” About 500m away.

I had never loved the RV more.

We picked up the pace for the downhill. It seemed like slow motion – and probably was to Bramwell. But we made it, 3.2km later.

I thanked her.

In all my races I have never been so grateful and so indebted to someone for pulling me through a dark patch. A wall.

Humbled again.

Inhaler. Rest.

I skipped the next rotation of runs – and the girls absolutely smashed the downhill into Vegas, into the lights.

Beyond proud.

We were 20km out.

An hour later, around 10.30pm I had felt like I’d recovered – as much as I could. And jumped out onto the freeway for my turn at the 1km.

My legs were on 94km, my breathing felt much better, more oxygen, more salbutamol. I ran, as fast as I could on rock quads.

The gastro? Still there definitely, and nowhere to duck off really, so I turned my head torch off and found a place just off the freeway, forgetting I still had my high vis reflective vest on. Oops.

Better. Running felt good again.

We were amongst civilisation again, in Vegas, and so excited that we actually forgot to look at the directions that would lead us home. We got lost.

Concentration.

We decided to run the last 1.7km together, as a team, to the finish.

The finish.

I was mortified that I wouldn’t be able to keep up if my chest played up, but we agreed to go slow. I wasn’t the only one suffering at that point. We were all battling.

To run together, alongside each other was epic. We were exhausted, battered, bruised.

And four of us still had gastro.

But we were there, running in Vegas, five minutes from finishing.

Suddenly the Welcome to Vegas sign was in sight. I almost cried. Maybe I did.

We squealed (that might have just been me).

Touched the sign. The finish.

11.37pm.

43 hours, 36 minutes.

550km.

I had run 97.5km.

We high fived and hugged, and waited for our crew.

No more running. No more planning, or waiting.

It felt weird.

We opened the champagne, laughed, took photos, said thank yous. Drank the champagne, laughed some more, took more photos, said more thank yous.

 

I took a moment, between the madness.

Within the madness.

Consumed by emotion, consumed by pride for the team – and most likely delirious from sleep deprivation.

We had done it. The six of us, the ten of us. We had run 550km non-stop. Through the darkness, through the heat, through the desert. Against the odds.

This was everything – this was huge. This had been bigger than I could have possibly imagined.

My heart was full.

If I hadn’t been so dehydrated I would’ve cried.

I checked back in. More photos under the Vegas sign. Together.

We all agreed what our next stop was – burgers and chips. All the calories.

Hello Vegas.

Hello Mandalay Hotel.

Hello sleep.

**************

TSP was like nothing I’d ever done before, nothing my body had ever experienced – not just the amount of kilometres, but the eating and sleeping (or lack of both), the mental and emotional. Having a team around me, the support through the highs and the lows.

It still brings me to tears how magical it was, and yet still mildly traumatising.

 

And the learnings?

So many. Team work, gratitude, humility – they’re just a few.

I know I broke my body. But now I feel like those broken parts have been fixed stronger.

And I know I could not have done any of without every single person on our team.

I will be forever grateful and proud of to be part of AM PM.

 

And next?

UTA50 – my first 50km in six weeks time.

Sorry legs.

 

Spartan Elite – Trails, Obstacles, and all the Burpees

My training for Spartan mostly involved ramping up my mileage to account for the 13km+ trail running elements, and CrossFit workouts to help with the 29+ obstacles that would be on the course. A large part of which consisted of working on my (lack of) shoulder strength – stemming from a few too many sport related dislocations.

The week before, I felt strong – if not a little damaged. My ankle was still a little tender and puffy, but not overly painful, but I’d sprained my wrist trying to do a heavy (just the bar) snatch. I like to think I had just been way too explosive in my movement…but it was most likely just bad technique.

As a result, I hadn’t trained as hard as I wanted, but I was happy.

My aim was to get top 10 in the Elite Female Super to qualify for Spartan Regionals. And top 5 to qualify for OCR World Championships, both next year.

Yikes.

The Sunday before, I thought it’d be a good idea to get out on the Merri Creek trail and do a 20km run.

Righto Jess.

At around 15km I felt a few twinges in my ankle (not just the blisters from the support I was wearing). And then at 16km that all to familiar knee pain flickered through my left leg.

I stopped. Stretched. Carried on – mainly because I had to get home.

The pain began to increase but was still bearable.

Just.

I got home. Rolled out (everywhere). Iced (everywhere). Then spent the day trying to stretch and walk it off.

The next day I woke up. Pain.

I couldn’t get out of bed.

If anyone had to describe ITB pain they would probably relate it to feeling like someone was hacking at their knee with an axe.

It’s unpleasant.

I could barely walk without shooting pains – let alone run. There were long periods at work of just spending a few minutes bent over with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath after the pain struck.

Sorry work. And people who may have seen me.

Same again on the Tuesday, and I wondered whether I’d ruined my Spartan race.

I booked in to see a Physio – the head physio for Melbourne Victory Women’s team. He looked at me, at my ankle, then felt my knee and shook his head.

“All related”

I told him about that Spartan race in four days.

He left the room and came back with a cupping device.

Oh golly.

My ITB got ‘cupped’ – the toxins literally sucked out of the muscle.

It doesn’t even sound aggressive, but it is. Not quite as painful as dry needling. But still borderline scream worthy.

Then he put me in to a leg recovery pumps (like zip up trousers that sporadically fill up with air to flush out inflammation in the legs). I wondered what it would be like to dance in them.

Then I remembered I can’t dance.

I left with a black and blue quad, but the pain had lessened significantly.

I saw him two days later for more of the same. Less swelling, less pain. I mentioned Spartan again, and he looked at me, I couldn’t tell whether it was admiration, or sympathy. He told me I would need to strap up both ankles, tape my wrist, and monitor any pain in my knee and adjust my pace accordingly.

Was top 5 still possible?

Either way I was grateful to be walking.

Always grateful.

I drove to Bright on the Friday afternoon, in preparation for the 7am Elite race the next day.

I love Bright. It’s magical. Even if injury had completely ruled me out of racing, I’d have still gone up.

I picked up my bib, drank wine with other runners and generally just enjoyed being in Bright.

We checked into our Airbnb in Tawonga, laid out our race gear (I think I was the only person who did that) and drank more wine.

4.00am arrived. Yikes.

I was up. Eggs, sweet potato and beetroot.

Coco coffee.

I rolled, everywhere, but mostly my knee. Then strapped up both my ankles, and my wrist.

I was nervous.

I drove the winding 30 minutes over Tawonga Gap, listening to a Nike Trained podcast.

“Stop and breathe, take ten seconds to focus. And be where your feet are.”

So I did. I stopped at the top of the mountain, looked out over Bright.

Deep breaths. Focus.

I could only do today what my body was capable of. That would be enough. It would have to be. I was grateful.

I got back in Betsy. Less nervous.

The race festival was a mixture nervousness and excitement.

And seriousness.

People looked serious. This was Elite.

6.55am. Gel.

To get to the start we had to jump a 5ft wall, of course. I ran at it, didn’t quite make it, slid down.

Fail.

I laughed at myself and remembered to focus.

Second attempt. Easily over.

I had no race watch (we were encouraged to not use technology – but everyone else was wearing them), no headphones (I read the rules at least ten times) and no race vest – in case I got stuck in / under obstacles. Just me, two gels conveniently stored in my sports bra and at least one whole roll of sports tape to keep me in one piece.

The count down began, and we were off.

Straight over three small walls and then into the mountains. The trails. Single track around the mountains of Bright.

I was happy, my knee was happy.

I overtook a few people. Race etiquette was different to trail running, I tried to pass a few guys and they appeared reluctant to let me.

I had no idea where the girls were but knew there were a few that had flown off at the start.

First obstacle – crawling under a cargo net in mud.

Caked.

Across rivers.

Soaked.

I saw a woman, overtook, Then the next up ahead. Pigtails. Game on.

We went up into the forest, still single track. Our first significant obstacle – we had to carry sandbags up through the mountain, then back again, drop them off then continue on our run. I picked mine up, carried on running. Not sure why people were walking with them. I passed pigtails.

Beautifulness. Then uphill – the sandbag became heavy, but I refused to walk.

Downhill, careful. Aware that that’s when knee pain might kick in. I squealed a little and threw my sandbag across each shoulder to split the weight. This was fun. Exhaustingly fun.

Back to where we picked them up, I threw the sandbag down, grateful for the freedom, then continued.

More walls to climb over and a river to run along, not over, along.

Caked and soaking again.

We came to a clearing, back near the start of the festival.

I had no idea how far we’d gone or for how long – but was quite enjoying not knowing, and surprisingly enjoying not have music.

Even though Slash would have been a great soundtrack.

The Traverse Wall. My least favourite. A wall you had to climb sideways, with only awkward circles for hand holds – nowhere to put your feet, you just had to get them high enough to provide balance, and try and shuffle across.

I watched a guy do it, quite easily – tried to copy. Got my hands into the holes, and jumped my legs up, then fell almost straight away.

I knew what was coming.

The Marshall took me to the side.

“30 burpees, full hip extension and hands over your head at the jump. You’re being filmed so make sure you do them all properly.”

Yikes.

I began, and saw pigtails complete the traverse wall. Damn it.

20 burpees in quick succession is quite an acceptable number, 30 just pushes you into the hating your life zone where your body generally questions what the bloody hell you’re doing.

I ignored it. Done.

I ran on to the next obstacle where pigtails was. The barbed wire crawl. A zig zag of ankle height barbed wire to get through . I got down, crawled, rolled, scrambled through. Trying to make up ground.

I felt something in my knee, a flash of pain. Barbed wire of course. I looked down and suddenly there was blood everywhere. I tutted at myself. Inconvenient. I pulled up my knee sleeve and continued on.

Out the other side.

I continued, through wooden tunnels, over cargo nets – no burpees.

Then the route took us away from the obstacles, and back into the mountains.

I knew what was coming.

Mystic hill.

It’s not a hill. It’s a damn near-vertical never ending mountain.

I was probably the only one excited by it. This was my jam. I could gain some ground here. I also knew that the hill was 7.5km into the race. Halfway.

I began. Couldn’t even see the top. The sun beat down on us.

Aggressive lunging.

Now I could hear my own breathing. Now I wanted a soundtrack – or anything. I considered singing. But settled for talking to myself about…anything. Most likely which Prosecco I would be buying afterwards.

I refused to stop. 2km of uphill. I managed to pass people.

It was beautiful.

The top. A perfect picnic place. With my Prosecco.

If only.

I took it in for a second, you could see the whole of Bright, maybe even Victoria. I was happy.

And in a race. Oops.

I took a gel and began running along the path, grateful to be at the top – heavy legs and arms.

In the distance I could see a large wall. Like, twice the height of me. Maybe 8ft? Really tall.

Blimey.

The Marshall there was chirpy, and could clearly sense my unease. And probably the terrified look on my face.

“You can do it, you can take a run up”

So I did. And I jumped, pushed off and caught the top. It felt like I hung there forever.

Pull yourself up Jess.

So I did, and I growled. Climbed my feet up, got one elbow over, and a boob. Then the other arm and boob. I worked myself onto the top. This was not glamorous. I squealed – and I think the Marshall did too. Then jumped down.

Hello downhill.

I began carefully, then realised it would be better for my knees to not jar them with the stopping action. So I let go. And flew (probably slow motion to most).

All the way down into forest single track. Heaven. Flying.

An opening, and another obstacle.

An uphill tyre drag.

I grabbed the rope and began to run, the rope over my shoulder pulling me down. It was probably 500m of up before I saw the place we could turn and go back.

Lungs and legs aching.

I dropped the tyre off and continued down. Back towards the festival area – for more of the major obstacles.

I saw pigtails ahead of me on an A frame cargo net. I picked up my pace and threw myself into it. Onto it.

Another cargo net climb, trickier.

Then a rope climb.

I looked at the top and jumped up, pulled my legs as a high as I could and climbed, before my body could complain how tired it was. I hit the bell at the top and lowered myself down. Thank you Crossfit.

Then a sandbag attached to a rope you had to pull upwards to the top of the frame it was on. I lay down and pulled, no stopping.

Back to back obstacles.

The the atlas stone – I’d caught pigtails. We had to carry it about 20 metres, do five burpees, then carry it back.

I lifted the stone onto my knees and rolled it up my body, walked it to the other end, five burpees. Then picked it up again and walked back. Not too bad.

We both got to the next barbed wire crawl together – this one was a horse shoe shape, but you had to carry a 14kg 1-metre long torsion bar with you.

We began, scrambling, rolling. Dizzy, dirty. The end could not have come sooner.

A guy watching, filming, told us we were fourth and fifth girl.

I was top 5.

We were out at the same time and onto the zig zagged balance beam – surely not too hard.

I didn’t stop, didn’t take my time and literally jumped on and fell straight off. The wood was thinner than it looked, my legs were not as responsive as I thought they would be.

Silly Jess.

30 burpees whilst I watched pigtails take her time and complete the obstacle.

Silly.

Burpees over, I ran on to the next obstacle – wide monkey bars. I died inside. I had practiced monkey bars, but not ones that were almost a metre apart.

I jumped up to the first bar, the second one looked like it was a mile away.

I began to swing, to attempt to jump.

What if I caught the bar and my shoulder dislocated? Race over.

I dropped to the floor.

More bloody burpees.

Two failed obstacles in a row. 60 burpees, six minutes.

Dang.

Next, another traverse wall – this time with leg holds. Thank golly gosh. I took my time, rung the bell. Happy.

One final obstacle before we went back into the mountain – the bucket carry.

We had to fill it with stones, carry it across rough terrain then around a maze and back again. No dropping, no spilling, and front carry only.

The guy told me where to fill it too and said if the stones had sunk below the line by the time I got back I’d have to do it again. I filled it to the top, to the men’s line.

God damn it was heavy.

I began, as fast as I could. Tired arms, this was uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

Any technique went out the window I just had to not drop it, that was hard. I may have cried for a few seconds.

Heavy breathing, arms aching. I was on the return.

Back to the start, I emptied the bucket and the guy commented on how full it had been. I stared at him, dazed.

Back to running. Rolling single track.

My arms were fried, everything hurt, the terrain was rough.

I was aware that if I was tired my form might be suffering and the last thing I needed was my knee to flare up. I was careful, purposeful. There was no sign of pigtails ahead or anyone behind me, so I enjoyed. The feel of running with no pacer and running with no music. Just me and Bright countryside, my favourite. Heaven.

Exhausted heaven.

Then.

A flicker. Some pain in my knee. I slowed, stopped, stretched. Pleaded with my knee to be ok.

Cautiously, I continued.

The trail took me back into the festival area, for more obstacles – then the finish.

I had no idea how long I’d been running for, or how far I’d gone.

I saw the festival area.

First, three walls each about 6ft high, one you had to climb over, one under (there were holes), one through (a raised hole).

Over and under – easy.

The ‘through’ wall. Well, I must have been delirious. An elevated hole – most people would’ve grabbed the plank above the hole and swung their legs through. Me? Well I grabbed the plank above it and tried to get my bottom through first.

I must have been stuck for at least ten seconds wondering what the bloody hell I’d been thinking, before I somehow managed to get my legs through.

No idea.

The Marshalls laughed “Never seen that before”

Confirmed. I was delirious.

We laughed.

The next? Hard to describe. Two vertical poles with 5 horizontal poles between them, starting from about 6ft high about half a metre apart. The whole structure leant back towards me. Just that little bit trickier.

You had to scale and climb over. But jump up to first.

Two of them.

Eek.

This is where my wrist might struggle. I breathed, focused.

I could do this.

I jumped, for the bottom bar. I swung, lifted my legs up and caught the bar with my feet.

Cramp threatened in my calves.

I pulled myself up, grabbed the next bar up, then the next. Two more. The top.

More squealing. I did this.

I climbed over and down, conquered the next one the same way.

So happy.

More running. Flashes of familiar knee pain.

Just flashes though.

Then I saw the next obstacle, monkey rings. Damn.

I tried to push down the fear of more burpees.

A guy started to shout encouragement, much needed.

“Take your time, just swing.”

Kind of useful. Technically correct.

So I did just that. Grabbed one ring, swung, the next, swung. Shoulder felt ok, wrist felt ok, I continued. The bell.

I made it. I did a little jig, High fived myself.

It happened.

Next? The spear throw. Literally. You throw a spear at a circular target about 10 metres in front of you.

How do you practice a spear throw? I don’t know any….javelinists? And I definitely don’t own a spear. Yet.

I steadied myself, I could see the finish line.

I had even watched a you tube video, raised my arm to aim, and threw.

Just short.

I missed.

The Marshall “Damn that was close”

I know.

“30 burpees”

I know.

I could see the finish line.

I smashed them out (probably didn’t)

Then, one last obstacle – ten metres of cargo net that was literally pinned down to the ground. I struggled to even get into or under it. This would take my last remaining energy.

I felt claustrophobic just moving through it, the resistance of it pushing me to the ground.

I struggled through, spurred on by the cheers, by the finish line.

Rope burn, everywhere. I continued.

Then suddenly I was free.

The finish.

I literally threw myself over.

2 hours and 9 minutes.

Happy.

Delirious.

Deliriously happy.

Grateful.

“Cider?”

Anything.

My legs, jelly.

I checked my placing.

5th Female, Elite Super.

I’d done it, the minimum to qualify for the OCR World Championships, and Spartan Regionals.

Despite all the hurt, the setbacks.

Despite everything.

I would be able to recover, regroup, retrain. And give Regionals and Worlds a proper shot next year.

Thank you body.

I drank my cider and watched everyone else race.

So happy.

So exhausted.

Then I rememberd. My knee, the barbed wire. I rolled down my knee sleeve, and went to the First Aid tent

“Oh gosh, that needs cleaning and closing”.

I didn’t disagree.

Three butterfly stitches and I was done.

I ate, everything.

Drank, Prosecco. Then everything else.

And next?

Two Bays is on the horizon. Maybe.

But for now I’m switching my training to focus on The Speed Project 5.0 in March 2019 – a team of six female runners running in relay from LA to Vegas.

550km.

Non stop until you get there.

Sorry legs.