ALL IN THE MIND – by Jess Hone

My introduction to trail running and the half marathon.

“Are you doing the Sri Chinmoy half next weekend?” A casual message from my new friend and fellow RMA Faye. I had not even heard of this race, so my mind automatically threw up all the reasons why I couldn’t: Never run a trail before, never run a half before, longest run ever was 17km, haven’t been specifically training for a half, and most importantly of all – the logistical nightmare of organising babysitting and actually getting to the event. I quickly messaged her back a negative response.

But her question and my instant response played on my mind all day. I decided to break it down. First – never run a trail before. Hmmm. Well, that hadnt stopped me from signing up for the Coastal Classic, an epic 29k trail run scheduled for September this year. Second – never run a half before. I was planning on tackling that distance later in the year, so why not now? Why not go out and see what I could do – I already knew I could run 17km and finish feeling strong (there, that was point 3 taken care of as well!) Next – haven’t been specifically training for a half. Ive just been running for fun but have been finding so much joy in longer and longer distances. And if I can run long on the road, why not the trail? Seeing as I had now found answers for all my negative self-talk, I thought Id better start tackling the logistical issues. This I managed to do, and so I took this as a sign that yes I could – and should! – jump in. I felt that I was up to the challenge and I was confident in my ability as I registered.

I messaged Faye back and looked forward to the day all week. After rushing out to a sale to buy a pair of trail shoes I wore them day and night to get comfy in them before the race. Im sure I looked silly running errands in my everyday clothes and a pair of distinctive fluro trail shoes but I didnt care. A quick 8k trot left me feeling confident they were the right shoes for me. I was happy and excited as I packed the rest of my gear on the morning of the race. I filled my water bottles and tucked a small bag of glucogels into the pocket of my brand new hydration vest and set off to pick up my running buddy.

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When we arrived at the event, we were thrilled to pick up our bibs and see that we were numbers 226 and 227. We were less thrilled to find that parts of the trail were literally underwater, and thick mud lay all over the ground, sucking our shoes down and making it hard to traverse the track. I told myself that it didnt matter – this was not a race but an adventure! I knew I could do this, it was just a matter of getting out there and actually doing it. But first we spotted a few other RMAs (instantly recogniseable by their fabulous singlets!) and of course we introduced ourselves and posed for pics together. I felt like I was surrounded by friends as we lined up at the start.

We set off, and I was immediately struck by how much more difficult this was than road running. I am naturally fairly fast, but had trouble passing the herd at the start because it was hard to find a safe place to put my feet down. I got out about 500m in and found a man with a similar pace to follow for a few k, until we were well and truly away from the pack. We couldnt see the leaders but we couldnt hear anyone behind us either. He dropped me after a while, and from this point on I virtually ran the distance on my own. Rarely did I see another runner, except for the point approaching the turnaround. This made for an unexpectedly lonely and mentally challenging run right from the start. Luckily I had my unshakeable belief that I could do this to keep me company.

The first 5 k were so tough on my legs. I was following the guy in front closely but I could not believe how hard my muscles were working to maintain my normally comfortable sub 5 minute pace. After half an hour, I realised that I would need to slow down or I wouldnt be able to keep going. I was really missing the steady rhythm of the road and struggling with the fact that I had to concentrate on safe olaces to tread. My hydration vest seemed to weigh a tonne and my new shoes were great for grip but low on support. In these circumstances, it was impossible to get into The Zone. I told myself to regroup, have a jelly bean, take a drink and settle in for a couple of hours of digging deep. Now, I hadnt fuelled on the run before either – so after nearly choking on my first glucogel, I quickly realised that I would need to chew in time with my footsteps in order to safely consume those vital calories! Ditto drinking – time it right or face the spluttery consequences.

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I slowed my pace, watched where I was going, admired the scenery where I could, and tried not to obsess about my poor form and heel striking. Running was running and I had to do what I had to do. I ploughed on, sort of enjoying myself, and wondering what it was going to feel like to do 21.1 k of this.

At 8k, I was suddenly doing it really tough and I actually wondered if my legs would hold out for the distance. I was so unused to the slippery, rocky surface and huige deep dirty puddles that had to be crossed. All my muscles seemed to be working overtime just to keep moving forward. I grit my teeth and carried on, thanking my lucky stars for my light and sturdy new shoes, and concentrating on placing them down one in front of the other. At one point I actually found myself disappointed to be running down a hill, because I knew Id have to run back up on the way back! I caught myself almost wistfully thinking “oh well, dont worry about it now – there’s always a chance I might fall and break my ankle before then!”

At 9.5k I hit a high. I looked at my Garmin and thought “Im just 1k away from being halfway through a half marathon! I can do it!” I snapped out of my funk and was able to straighten up and enjoy the breeze that could occasionally be felt on the otherwise muggy trail. I powered on, not seeing another soul but generally feeling positive and enjoying myself. Unfortunately this only lasted a couple of kilometers, the turnaround was not where I expected it to be and took forever to reach. At just shy of 12km it had to be approached via a long steep unsteady hill. I rounded it and soon passed Faye going the other way which gave me a temporary boost. She took pics of me cavorting down the hill as I jokingly told her to shoot me if I ever said I wanted to do this again.

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At 13k, I wanted to stop running. The climb and descent to the turnaround had taken a toll on my legs. Id been going for over an hour and had hit a slump. But even more that I wanted to stop running, I wanted to do this. This realisation steeled my resolve, and when my watch finally ticked over to 14k, my mood lifted. I felt strong for the next few kilometres, even though I was passed by four people. It didnt matter to me that I was slowing down, what mattered was that I was still running. (Note: a review of the run via Garmin Connect later revealed that I was actually still moving fairly quickly at this point, it just felt like I was going so much slower because of how hard I was finding it!) I told myself to just keep moving at any pace I could maintain, and I let my mind wander onto various other subjects to distract me. I thought about Faye and the other RMA girls, and my 3 kids, especially my baby. I was so happy to be a running mum right then, and very proud to be doing this. The next 5k were the best yet, a scenic, cool, strong run. I was loving the trail at last. I knew I would finish, and finish strong.

Right before 19k, my legs “frankensteined” on me. I had been so looking forward to this particular milestone – I had told myself that it would be my last long slow slog before a euphoric sprint to the finish. But my legs werent with me. They stiffened up, making it difficult to bend, which made it very hard to keep going. This was my slowest kilometer yet – so close to the finish but my pace had dropped by over a minute! There was no way I was going to quit running this close to the end, so on I went. I told myself not to be disappointed, to keep running no matter what. Finally, after my slowest k, there was only 1 to go! Something wonderful happened as my Garmin hit 20. I picked up my pace without effort and felt amazing. I knew I could do this – I was doing it. I had this. When I saw the finish, I was so excited. Someone called out “Come on! Make it a big finish!” so I put my head down and pumped my arms until I crossed that line, whereupon my legs decided to frankenstein again so I lurched around comically while receiving my congratulations.

The bloke I had paced myself off in the early stages of the race came up and thanked me for pushing him, he had felt me on his back and run faster than he had planned, then managed to keep it up for the distance! The funniest thing that happened was that while I was lumbering around trying to get my legs to work properly, a couple of people yelled out “Your watch! Your watch! Dont forget to stop your watch!” I just love how we runners prioritise after a race!

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I was surprised and happy to find that I had managed to to finish in a respectable 2.02.14, and had placed 4th in the “female under 50” category. I was a bit overwhelmed by this and it didnt really sink in until I showed my trophy to my hubby that afternoon. In the meantime I enjoyed a feast of trademark Sri Chinmoy pancakes and one of Faye’s homemade protein balls (delicious).

Looking back, I think my lack of preparation was both a bad thing and a good thing – bad because I suffered for lacking technique and condition, and good because if I had known how much harder than road running it was going to be I might have psyched myself out! I was pleased with my time, and the trophy was great, but the thing I was most proud of was the fact that I had not stopped running once. This to me was proof that my belief in myself was not mistaken. I was so happy Id done it and Im already forgetting the tough parts. I will definitely be back for more – after all, I know I can do it!

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