Sunday, 13 April 2014

Uphill running: The most epic race of my life!

Lately things in my life have been pretty hard, kind of like I've been running uphill. Having a broken jaw is not fun. In fact it really sucks. I have these wires on my teeth (I look like 'Jaws' from the old James Bond movies) and my diet is 100% liquid for probably another month. I miss being able to chew on delicious bacon, bite into a big juicy hamburger and gorge myself on crunchy snacks. To be perfectly honest, I have been struggling quite a lot with the trauma of my accident and my new face. When I look in the mirror I see a different face. I know I am still the same person but it is amazing how one's changed appearance impacts the psyche. But I am determined to not let the negativity drag me down. So as I recover I have decided to try and focus on some positives and talk about something I'm pretty good at. And that is running uphill.
Casting my mind back over some of the amazing memories of my running life, one memory in particular jumps out and puts a smile, albeit a very crooked smile on my face.
Back when I was in year 7 (my first year of high school) I was a pretty good little cross country runner. I'd been running with my local athletics club for about a year and frequently came in the top 10 in my age category of local fun runs. I was much shorter than many of the boys I was running against. Also, I arrived pretty late to the puberty party so I was one of the last boys to get hair on my legs and various other places.
After finishing 2nd at my school cross country I was super excited that I would get the opportunity to represent my school at the Zone carnival which was to be held at a local farm, 'Willandra', that had been converted into a rather scenic but gruelling course. It was a 4 km loop that ran over numerous undulating grassy hills with rarely a flat moment on the course. At about the halfway point the course would disappear from the view of spectators behind a massive hill. The 'back hill' was dreaded by many runners. Around 300 metres up a very steep incline that saw most runners break into a walk or even a vomit. At the summit of the hill the runners would reappear on an exposed grassy area  that was visible to the spectators once again. as the course then continued down a very steep decline that would often see 'jelly-legged' runners fall over. Over the years I would run on this course countless times recording some great performances but on the day of the Zone carnival back when I was in year 7 I had one of the greatest moments of my running life.
So the race started like all races between high school boys. Too fast and with everyone trying to prove themselves in the first 200 metres. Everyone wanted to be in1st place at the first sharp right turn where the course narrows down to a goat track of sorts. With about 50 boys in the race I didn't want to finish last. I knew that I had to finish in the top 8 if I wanted to qualify for the Regional cross country. I knew that I was a chance to finish in the top 10 and maybe, just maybe get in the top 8 if I ran well.
About 500 metres into the race I was sitting way back in about 20th place and was already feeling the burn of the of fast start. I've never been a sprinter and have always loathed fast starts.
At around the 1.5km mark I caught a glimpse of the lead group of about 6 or 7 guys. They'd already put about 50 metres on me. I didn't like my chances. But then we hit the 'back hill'.
Almost immediately a few runners near me started walking. Good. I passed them and felt a nice surge of adrenaline in the process. I suddenly felt relaxed yet focused. My heart slowed My breathing slowed. Each breath felt deliberate and powerful. I leaned into the hill and kicked like a mule. I passed two more runners then I could see the leaders less than 25 metres in front of me. I felt light and fast. I cruised past 8th place. Then 7th. 6th. 5th and 4th. The top three were still moving well. But with about 50 metres left in the hill I moved past them and into 1st place. I couldn't believe it... I was winning! I kept going.

As I crested the summit of the 'back hill' in clear first place, I glanced over towards the finish line which was about 500 metres away in a straight line (there was still about 1.7-1.8kms left in the race though). I could hear a dull roar coming from the spectators but there was one spectator who I could hear more clearly than anyone else. My dad. I could hear him screaming in disbelief and excitement. His son was winning! I was excited and scared. Could I hold my lead?
As I came to the steep downhill I glanced over my shoulder and saw a lanky blonde kid loping up behind me at great speed. I ran down the hill as fast as possible but my little legs couldn't do what my brain was asking. Blondie flew past me and moved ahead about 15 metres. I looked over my shoulder and saw two more runners about 30 metres back and gaining fast. Was my moment in the sun over already? I dug deep and decided to stay with Blondie for as long as possible. About 400 metres later we came to a short but very steep incline. I saw my blonde friend look over his shoulder and suddenly start walking. He was pushing his knees down with his hands and had a panicked look on his face. Another adrenaline surge hit me and I flew up the hill and back into the lead. At this point we were much closer to the finish area and the spectators were considerably louder. It was also at this point that I learned Blondie's name. Both of our names were being said over the P.A system and it turned out that we were both called Daniel.
With less than one kilometre to go I was just a few metres back from Blondie. With every flat or downhill he would catch me but the uphills belonged to me. The remainder of the course stretched out before me and there were two more hills. I had to destroy Blondie on the next 2 hills.
The second last hill was again short and sharp. Again Blondie walked and again I moved into the lead. I was tired. I wanted this race to be over. Blondie was crying as I past him yet again and I was pretty sure he wanted this to over as much as me. But sure enough he passed me again on the down hill. As we hit the bottom of the final hill the crowd was at fever pitch. For a brief moment I was worried my father may have a heart attack right there and then because he was going crazy cheering me.
The last hill was not as steep as the others but yet again Blondie walked much of it and I ran all of it. I reached the top of the hill and turned onto the finishing straight about 5 metres ahead of Blondie. It was about 80 metres to the finish and it was a fast downhill finish. I lifted my knees and swung my arms and kicked down the straight with everything I had. I could hear Blondie rasping for air just a couple of steps behind me. My arms and legs felt like they were made of lead and my lungs burned. I'm pretty sure Blondie felt the same if not worse. But I held him. 50 metres to go. 40 metres. 30 metres. My stomach protested at this surge and was preparing to unleash its contents but I didn't listen. Blondie pulled up next to me, his head thrown back sucking in as much oxygen as he could, he looked me in the eye. Tears streamed down his face and he looked beaten. He moved half a step ahead of me. My legs were done. I gritted my teeth and pushed but had nothing left. With only about 10 metres left Blondie moved a few steps ahead and crossed the finish line in first then collapsed into a pile of his own vomit and tears. A moment later I crossed the line. I had finished second and felt like I had won. I sat down to regain my composure and was greeted by lots of pats on the back and hand shakes. My dad raced to greet me and was an emotional wreck. He gave me a huge hug and said that he couldn't believe how well I ran and how proud he was of me. It was probably the greatest father/son moment of my life. Blondie later came and congratulated me on a great race and said that he'd never been pushed so hard. Over the following years Blondie and I would bump into each other numerous times and we always talked fondly about that race.

So there it is. My most epic race. I've run longer and faster races since then but that was the race that taught me how to dig deep inside myself. I still get chills when I think about that moment I took the lead for the first time. Ever since then I've always been seen as a strong hill runner. I draw strength from running uphill.
My next post will include tips and advice on how to run uphill and not to dread the uphills.
Hope you enjoyed my self-indulgent trip down memory lane.
Happy running
Runner Dan