It’s 4:30am – yes, 4:30! And I’m up – it’s the first day of Tassie Trailfest 2017 and we’re entered in the ‘Find Your Feet’ half marathon – one of the first races of the weekend.
In its second year, this long weekend of trail running is a unique opportunity to run the world class mountain bike trails at Derby, a teensy sleepy old tin mining town in North East Tasmania. I mean, this place is small – only a main street and a couple of houses dotted up in the bushy hills surrounding and that’s it – well it was until a couple of years ago. After construction of the mountain bike trails – and there are endless kms of them – the town is waking up, spurred on by the huge numbers of avid adventurers on 2 wheels who fill the trails every weekend. Needless to say, it’s busy.
But during Trailfest races, these tracks are for runners only; you can hurl yourself down a hillside without worrying about ending up face first in someone’s handlebars. And the opportunity to do this draws a crowd.
Most people who enter Trailfest do so for the whole weekend, entering numerous trail runs over varying tracks at distances between 6 and 44kms – day and night. Whether camping or shacking up in the newly emerging accommodation options, these guys immerse themselves in trails all weekend. With the program including seminars with guest speakers on topics such as transitioning to Ultra running, and every possible feature of the Suunto range (we were sorry to be missing that one!), and night time movies (all running themed of course), it’s a trail runners dream weekend away. That’s definitely next year for us! But this year Gabby and I, being up to our eyeballs in personal lives right now, could only manage to do the one race this time – and we chose the same race we completed last year, where we had a ball!
The trip from Devonport (for me) takes almost 2.5 hours so at 5am, Stu and I set off, bleary eyed, in darkness. We’re meeting Gabby in Launceston and continuing the remaining 1.5 hour trip all together. Gabby and I’ve both packed our pre-race smoothies (breakfast) to have in the car on the way. The road to Derby goes through the town of Scottsdale, which is preceded by the Sidling – a fairly challenging road with plenty of twists and turns and hairpin bends – and in the back seat, Gabby is using all of her ab strength to stay upright – and to keep that shake down!
We eventually arrive at Derby at 7:45am after making an emergency coffee stop at Scottsdale for Stu who, 2 hours into the trip, had still not really woken up. But Derby certainly had. Driving down the main street, the campground is a hive of activity. People are making their way along either side of the street to the trailhead at the far end of town.
It’s a constant stream of compression socks, gaiters, hydration vests and all things fluoro.
Our race is due to get underway at 8:30am – so there’s plenty of time to get organised. And with Stu’s offroad abilities (?) we get a carpark very close to the start of the race. There’s a marathon heading off at 8am which has a few competitors from Sole Mates running group competing as well as many others we know – including the Ultrain crew from Launceston – so we want to be there to see them off. After that time, we plan to get our gear out and on, have our pre-race fuel, and get to the front of the starting pack for the half marathon. The trail is neat and clear, but passing people is the same as it always is on the trails – it takes patience and timing to do it with any manners – and we want to get as clear a start as possible.
We are chatting with friends at the start area half-listening to the race brief for the marathoners, and I keep hearing one word mentioned many times “snake”. Such is the likelihood of encountering one of these guys out on the course – especially in March, the height of the mating season where the deadly tiger snakes are known to be a little ‘aggressive’ – that the organisers have placed snake bandages on the “must have” list. Gabby’s comment in the car on the way of “damn, I’ve left the snake bandage in my car” pops into my head. She needs one. Thankfully, we have some pretty awesome friends at this event – and within 5 minutes, Gabby has one to pop into her pocket for the race.
The marathoners head off at 8am so Gabby and I begin to get organised. Toilet first (gosh, who doesn’t love a porta-loo at a race), then to the car to get kitted up. I’ve already put my ankle strapping on at home before leaving, so I grab my trusty Camelbak with a litre of water, 2 caffeine gels and the goPro. Gabby organises her race belt with water and we both mix up a pre-race fuel to have 15 mins before the race. I can hear the race organiser speaking into his microphone and figure the race brief has started early. We will miss a bit of it (it’s 8:15am) but I figure I heard the important bits from the marathon brief “snake…..snake…….snake….”
Then Stu appears about 50 m away from us and yells that they’re going to start the race. What the…? It’s 8:20am – there’s still 10 mins to go!
Gabby hasn’t even started to drink her pre-race fuel (I’ve just finished mine) so she grabs it and we run to the start line. Just as we hit the carpark, the air horn sounds and we’re off. Our super-reliable Suunto Ambit 3 Sapphire Sports locate a satellite within seconds and as we cross the start mat, we’re able to start recording our run. But we are at the very back of the pack. Except for those people who probably haven’t even arrived at the start line yet
Scowling just a little, we just take off, doing the best we can. The race begins the way last year’s race ended – with the loop of despair. It’s about 700m of open ‘practise trail’ for beginner mountain bikers – and doing it at the start of the race this year is supposed to assist with seeding the race and finding a good space before the trail narrows. We spend this entire time trying to pass people to get to a position where we would have preferred to start the race – toward the front. Gabby is gone within seconds – she gets a lucky break (or has pointier elbows) and gets through about 20 people very quickly. I take some corners very sharply and spend this 700m passing people where perhaps I wouldn’t normally do so. Not ideal.
I reckon I spend the first 4km negotiating people. Following a little too close at times to one particular runner, I’ve copped ferns and branches to the face twice. Sucking in oxygen to assist with the deficit I’m experiencing, a rather large bug takes a chance and flies straight into my mouth. Oh god it’s a big one – I mean I can feel its legs. Not wanting to swallow it, I have to try to reach into my mouth to retrieve it….trail running isn’t feeling very glamourous right now. Add to this, the workout fuel felt prominently at the back of my mouth – I don’t know whether it even reached my stomach before I started running. It doesn’t feel good. I wonder how Gabby is getting on knowing she started the race carrying a bottle of it!
Speaking of Gabby, she’s nowhere to be seen. As soon as we are off the loop of despair, we’re in dense bush. At each turn, she’s already gone. Despite the stress at the start of the race, and the fact that I’m already breathless, I can’t help but notice how incredibly beautiful this place is. Man ferns towering twice as tall as me stand like sentries at either side of a rocky crossing over a tiny stream. Being designed as mountain bike trails, the track doesn’t sharply climb across contours, it rises with them – there are endless switchbacks – which make climbing a whole lot easier. We open into a clearing where the track snakes like a, well, snake up the hillside and I can see Gabby above me travelling in the opposite direction – ponytail action off the charts – she’s in serious race mode. I decide to keep trying to catch her so that we can run together (it’s so much easier in pairs), and push on. The first half of this race is up. We are on one side of the Cascade River, every so often there’s a glimpse of it and we really are climbing. The track is ridiculously well maintained and running along it is such a treat. I realised I’ve passed all the people I’m going to for a while, as suddenly I’m out on my own. It’s serenely quiet except for the sound of my breathing and footfalls in the dirt (both of which are pretty loud, really, as I’ve pushed it so far). But at that point, I welcome being alone and having some space for the first time in the race – being able to see the full stretch of track in front of me, instead of someone else’s feet. I find a rhythm of sorts and enjoy it.
After about 6km of mostly up – but some down – we come out onto an old fire trail or mining road perhaps? Derby was established due to its tin mine and all around these hills are evidence of that past. We’ve run across a narrow stone wall that appears from nowhere – and just as quickly are on the other side, but it leaves a thought. What was that for? Who built it all the way up in these hills?
Without warning, we come out alongside a dam – Cascade Dam – it was manmade in the mining times and dead trees still stand in the calm water that is bathed in early morning sunshine that has decided just now to peek through the clouds. It’s stunning. I pass a couple of marathoners who are taking it in and we smile at each other, just that acknowledgement of what we are getting to experience, how lucky we are. It’s a moment that I let soak in to my soul, too good to let slip by.
Continuing on, I recall a little of last year’s race, and this road we’re on becomes pretty straight and steep in places so I drop the pace to walk up it.
At the first long stretch I catch up to a friend. He mentions he thought I was in front of him – I have to smile when once again, someone has mistakenly thought Gabby is me, or vice versa. I actually laugh when he comments that he wondered why she didn’t acknowledge him when he greeted her! As we round a corner, there’s a second stretch of road – still steeply going up for about 100m – but at the top there’s that ponytail – Gabby is almost at the top of it, with a crew of about 4. It’s the first time I’ve sighted her in about 4kms, and when I reach the top, I have renewed energy to try to catch her.
Getting bearings of where we are exactly is difficult in the bush, especially with all the switchbacks changing our direction, but after a drink station at 8km, and a while after that turning off from the course we have been sharing with the marathoners until this time, I get a definite sense that we are heading back towards Derby. Still, we’re only 10 or so km into the race, so I know we won’t be heading back in a hurry. Grouping in a little too comfortably with that thought, is the nagging ache I’ve got in my hips, and the fatigue from starting the toughest part of the race like a crazy woman.
I have taken my first caffeine gel at 9km and this picks me up again. I’ve been going on alone for some time since no longer sharing the course with the marathoners and so I get a little surprised to hear soft footfalls behind me. The sound comes and goes as the trees and bush block the sound as we weave through it on the trail. I turn (on a smooth part of the trail) and see a female competitor coming up behind me through the trees. Recognising her from previous trail races we’ve competed in, I know that she’s an amazing runner….and it takes me a moment to wonder why she’s been behind me until now – about 12km in. Oh right, the start – 10 minutes early. She probably started 5 minutes behind the rest of us. It makes sense. She comments how beautiful the scenery is, glides past me like she’s running on air (although she doesn’t appear to be inhaling it as loudly as me) and then disappears off through the trees like an apparition. Wow.
I keep trudging on. The trail here has crossed around the end of the dam and we are now on the other side, treated to just as beautiful scenery from trails that are soft underfoot – almost mossy, and sheltered. As the pain in my hip flexors, and tiredness increases, I am still making sure I’m appreciating the beauty of this place – which would have remained hidden to me without having access to these trails.
And then we descend. Probably my favourite part of last year’s race was running the berms that are a feature of mountain bike trails.
We drop 200m of elevation in under 2km.
It’s literally like running on a race track, the steepness and the camber of the track at each turn makes them a challenge, but running like a kid is just too tempting and I let loose and allow gravity to do its thing – much to the horror of my toenails who are again, being pounded into the front of my shoes. I don’t mind if they’re black to be honest – but I’d like them to stay intact. I don’t know how I’d cope with taking off my socks post-race and discovering toenails have come off with them….still, I came here to run the trails and I do just that.
All too quickly, though, the berms are over and we need to do a little more climbing. And things begin to fall apart for me. I still haven’t encountered anyone else, and am wishing more and more that I had caught Gabby and was running with her. I’m getting pretty tired and the old hips took an absolute beating during the descent, so when I call on the hip flexors to assist with lifting my legs to climb again, they protest. I stop due to fatigue for the first time in the race and take my remaining caffeine gel. I know it won’t assist with the pain, but I am running very low on energy and hope it will give me a little kick of sorts.
At 16km, there’s a big drink station that will service both the half and full marathoners.
As I come into the clearing that is a huge rocky valley of sorts that looks like a dry riverbed – amazingly, these huge rocks were ‘washed clean’ in a flood in the 1920s when an old dam wall collapsed. They still haven’t fully recovered. One of the volunteers standing on a rock calls out to me “Hey, haven’t you been through here already? How did you get back here? Is everything okay?” It cheers me up in my tiredness – she’s mistaken me for Gabby (theme of the day!) I laugh and tell her I’m fine and that was my sister. She enthusiastically cheers me on – as all the volunteers have during the day – and I disappear back into the bush.
I tell myself there’s only a parkrun to go and keep on running – although a fair bit slower than before. I mentally tick off the next couple of the kms as they pass, as those of my local parkrun – just to try and get through this. I don’t check my pace, but I’m definitely shuffling up these switchbacks. There are a couple of tricky turns at this point of the track and after turning off the track as directed by the red arrows, I stop after about 200m and doubt myself. What if I took the wrong turn? I’m so tired, I can’t actually remember whether I did and am too tired to go the extra distance back to check. So I just wait for a moment or two – I’m not sure how long – and thankfully someone else comes up behind me on the trail. Either we’ve both taken the wrong turn or we are on the right track – either way, it’s good enough for me and I turn and keep running. He stays a distance behind me for now.
I won’t lie – the last 3kms of this run are excruciating. I am well and truly spent.
It’s hot (I probably haven’t drunk enough fluid), and my hips have gone on strike.
In addition, this hamstring/glute mystery I’ve been carrying since September has decided to chime in and it’s as though my left hamstring doesn’t exist. There’s no assistance from it whatsoever. As I’m running I get a feeling in the middle of my chest – like an anxiety pain and before I know what’s happening, tears run down my face. It’s odd because I’m not sad – but this emotion wells up out of nowhere and more than ever, I just want to be at the finish line. I don’t want to run any more of this race – I feel as though I can’t. Hello ‘wall’ you found me….
My watch beeps 19km and I stop. Again. This time alongside an ancient wooden fence perched high on the side of a steep hill that runs down to the river, the one that runs right alongside the start/finish. I gather myself while a group of 4 people run past me. They all check I’m okay, and I say I am. I now have 1.6km to go and need to get to that finish line. So I go. Still shuffling, cursing my useless hamstring and vowing to strengthen my hip flexors with whatever means necessary.
I make it. I don’t really have anything to bring to the finish line – no sprint, or strong finish. I just look for Gabby and Stu and know I’m there.
I think I’ve finished about 10 minutes quicker than last year – which is a bonus – and so is the watermelon and numerous cups of water Stu grabs for me. Gabby and I hug tight. It takes a bit for us to let go and I get the sense that she’s had a tough run also. Now all I want to hear about is how it was for her……
Gabby – Well there’s a first time for everything and when this race had us sprinting for the start line while trying to get a satellite on the Suunto it was a strange feeling. With our plan to start up the front this year out the window I took to the trails with determination in my eye, I knew that about 600m away the trail would narrow so I excused myself and apologised as I snuck past as many runners as possible. As we duck and weave through the thick bush and up into the trails a smile spreads across my face….. we’ve been looking forward to this race all year after attending the inaugural event in 2016 and having an absolute blast. My only hope now is that Bec is close behind so we can regroup and run together.
As the first km clicks over I fall closely behind a group of five or so runners and we’re all pushing a solid pace as we start to climb the beautiful switchbacks this track is famous for. I eagerly look over my shoulder a few times for any sign of that ‘Runphoria’ Ponytail but soon realise this could end very badly so decide to keep my eyes front and centre as we hop, skip and jump over what is now becoming quite a technical trail.
Over the next two Km I take the opportunity to overtake another eight people and it’s with hesitation that I pass the ninth as I really don’t want to be the person up front or should I say ‘The Snake Scarer’. Before long I’m running solo and I start to wonder how many people are in front of me.
I take in the spectacular surrounds over the next few km but there’s quite a bit of climbing involved so I’m focussed on navigating the berms while trying to keep up pace.
As I hit the 8km mark I notice I’m definitely more fatigued than expected so as we reach the height of our climbing it’s a welcome change to start tearing down through these man made trail delights.
I’m wearing my Saucony Peregrene 6s and I couldn’t think of a better ride to give me the flexibility needed to dance over the rocks and down the wicked berms. At the 9.5Km mark I decide to take in a caffeine gel, I’ve only got one on me but I feel like I really need the pick me up and it’s not far from the 11km mark I was intending to have it at.
I momentarily lose myself in the surrounds as I see a high jump in my path (remember this is a mountain bike trail) and take a leap off only to pay for it very shortly as I come plummeting to the ground. I feel my toes brutally shoved into the end of my shoes…. There goes toenail number one. Cursing loudly I surge forward in excruciating pain but I soon break into laughter at my foolishness. I remember this is why Bec and I fell in love with trail running, it brings us right back to our childhood. Recklessly tearing through the bush without a care in the world. That moment when we can really let go of all our responsibilities, the busy lives waiting for us beyond the trails, and just run, like a tiger, through breathtaking scenery.
Kilometre 13 comes around slowly and I know I’m tired because the last time I looked at my watch it said 12:97km and the time before that it was 12:87km when it felt like hours in between. It’s not long before someone has caught up with me and it’s one of the girls I passed very early in the race. I literally stop on the side to let her past only to hear the comment, “come on, you’re faster than me!” Hmm I think, I must’ve really slowed over the last few kms if people are gaining on me.
As I near the 14km mark I learn from a fellow runner that I’m coming 2nd female…. all this time I was coming first and I didn’t know it. I start to wonder if that would have been enough motivation to keep the pedal down. I put this thought out of my head but over the next Km I can tell there’s someone else behind me and after a few glances I recognise Simone Fitzgerald just gliding through the trails with a big smile on her face. While I’m disappointed there’s another girl so close I’m not silly and totally know Simone will catch me in a matter of minutes. She’s an incredible runner and has text book style so she’ll be consistent through to the end. We spend about 5 minutes running within 30 meters of each other but it’s not long before I stop and let her past. She asks if I’m ok and I assure her I am, if not just buggered.
The funny thing about stopping to walk is once you tell yourself it’s ok to walk once you find it easier to justify stopping again and again. It’s a habit I try to avoid in races so I don’t lose focus and give up all together. But the next 3km sees me walk about five times, only for a few meters but it’s a walk of exhaustion. As I near the last few hundred meters of the race I’m relieved and never been happier to see a finish line. It was a tough gig out there but I managed a podium finish coming 3rd female home in a time of 2:08 and a 12min course PB. I fall across the timing mats and turn to wait eagerly for Bec.
Once we’ve composed ourselves, we head back to the car to change. We plan on sticking around for a bit (the beer tent doesn’t open until 11) so get changed and regroup.
Sitting on the grass (straw), we’re getting bitten by who knows what, but aren’t caring. Assessing dusty, filthy legs, and doing a toenail count (10 each – worse for wear, but still intact), we start giggling. Total glucose deprivation will do that to you, and spirits are high by the time protein and carbs on board. We are upright and fairly fresh, and head back to the trailhead to see other runners finish and enjoy food, beer (well one of us did…) and the general atmosphere with friends.
It’s no secret Runphoria love the trails – it’s where our roots are. However in stark contrast to last year’s event, it might seem like this year’s Trailfest half marathon chewed us up a bit and kinda spat us out. But a third place (woohoo for prizes!), and mega course PBs, when all was said and done, we enjoyed the day thoroughly.
Credit to race organisers and ever-enthusuastic volunteers (I wonder how many of them had a voice to speak with the next day) for such a unique and thrilling experience.
We’ll be back next year for bigger and better adventures.