My First Trail Run – The WH@N Race Report

Wild Horse @ Night by AdiDwi

Wild Horse @ Night by AdiDwi

I do most of my run training in the late afternoon or at night time, so signing up for Wild Horse at Night (a race at night, as you may have guessed even if you didn’t read my previous post on it) seemed perfect. Except I had all day to get nervous. That bit wasn’t so perfect.

When I get nervous I turn into a psychopathic b*tch.  It’s unfortunate but true; My family suffers immensely.

I am sure there are plenty of you out there who really won’t understand why I might get nervous about a 16.5km trail run.  I know that for many people, this is the equivalent of ‘a walk in the park’ and perhaps a ‘fun event’.  Because the comments I got on the last post mostly used the word fun and even Grandpa said ‘it sounds exciting’ and that’s when I realised I was possibly alone in my fear of this event.

But don’t be too judgmental of my wimpiness – not only was this race the longest distance I’ve ever committed to running in my entire life, it was also my first outing on the trails since I was a schoolkid.

Just turning up at the start line was going to be a win for me.  For some reason, 16.5km seemed like a much more imposing challenge than 14km had.  Two hours of running (the time I expected to finish in) seemed like an almost impossible ask for my old-lady joints.

You may be asking why I even signed up for the event if I felt this way, but trust me when I say that the thought process when signing up for races goes something along the lines of ‘If I pay money to run it then I will deserve to complete it’. Zero logic or forethought is involved.

It got to the point yesterday where I had to tell myself that if I could just make it through to 4pm (when I could finally get changed and head off to Wild Horse Mountain car park, aka the start line) then I would have made it through the worst bit.  Yes, overcoming the nervousness and just turning up actually became a bigger mental challenge than running for two hours through treacherous trails with snakes and rocks in the dark.  Feel free to judge me for that.

First things first, it rained all week.  Well OK, not all week, but it seemed that way to me.  It drizzled at least three times and when I mentioned the impending foolishness I had signed up for to my gym buddies, they sarcastically pointed out that running up and down a mountain would ‘be nice and safe, after all this rain.’

Did I mention that I wound myself up into a nervous wreck?  This did not help matters at all.

On Tuesday (four days before the race) I test-drove all the gear I’d bought the previous weekend. The merino top was probably a little too warm for my liking, but I decided it would be better to be too warm than too cold, particularly if “something happened” on the course causing me to slow down and walk – or even stop and await rescue (insert note of panic here)

The headlamp worked well and I was able to use it as a headband, to keep the hair out of my eyes.  Having never run without a hat before (and not keen to look like a moron running with a baseball cap in the pitch black of night among the other pro runners) I was a bit worried about the hair situation… But the headlight worked well, both as a visual aid and a stylish hair accessory.

Me and the CamelBak

CamelBak roadtest

Running with the CamelBak was not as comfortable as I expected.  Bearing in mind these things are made for strenuous activity (the one we have is actually the same one issued to the American Army, for missions in the desert) I was expecting to barely notice I had a couple of litres of water strapped to my back.  But I noticed.

The tube to drink from flopped about everywhere, worse than my hair does when I am running.  The sloshing noise of the water behind me convinced me that I needed to go to the toilet the whole time.  The arm straps wouldn’t go tight enough to stop the blasted contraption moving around with every step I took – to the point that I started to worry I would rub holes into my new merino top before I even got to the actual race.

I had visions of my armpits and shoulders setting on fire from the friction.

But all in all, the kit worked and I couldn’t bring myself to go and spend more money on gear for what was only a training race.  Instead, I just worried about it quietly for four days.

Aldi catalogue

The five buck belt

Finally on race morning I had to go get my special belt from Aldi for carrying my phone – a mandatory requirement as you may recall. It was too early in the day for me to freak out about my car breaking down and getting stranded far away from the race, thus missing the whole thing – that paranoia set in later on when I went to buy energy gels. Instead I attempted to have a meltdown over the possibility that someone else was going to buy all the belts and there would be none left for me.

I am an idiot, of course; I think I bought the first belt off the racks.  The trip to Aldi went off without a hitch.

The rather complicated course

The rather complicated course

The course had been made available on the race website, and based on the organisers’ (terrifying) explanation of it I decided to print a copy of the map to take with me… Just in case.

16½km Course Directions
Starting at Wildhorse Mountain car park, runners/walkers head south along the marked trail around the base of Wildhorse Mountain before turning sharp left at close to 2km.  Continue on a further 2½km until you reach a right turn and cross Tibrogargan Creek. Continue on a further 500 metres to CheckPoint1 (CP1) and check in.

From here, head west for 2km before turning sharp right, heading north. There’s a sharp switchback on the right about 100 metres from Tibrogargan Creek near the Bruce Highway.  If you reach the Highway you’ve gone too far, don’t panic, it will be well marked.  This turn will take you through the ‘Tunnel of Love’.  It’s sandy, watery and seems long but it’s a mere 2.8km.  You guys will probably wonder what the fuss is about.

Running alongside Tibrogargan Creek, heading east, you’ll arrive at south side of the creek crossing you made earlier.  Turn right (south) and check in at CP1 before making the trip back to the car park and finish.

So at 4pm yesterday – freaked out by the distance, my gear, the course, the weather, just about everything you could think of – I pulled on my clothes and threw a bag full of crap (including the compression bandage for snake bites) into the car.  It was time to go.  I climbed into the passenger seat of the four-wheel drive (more appropriate for a trail run than my little car, apparently) Shane started the engine and we pulled out of the driveway… And half an hour later I wasn’t nervous anymore.

I love a bit of camping and sightseeing of the great outdoors.  The odd mountain climb (if using well-established trails on small mountains) is something Shane and I have done together a few times for fun.  And as we arrived at the line of cars parked along the narrow street leading to the already-full car park at the base of Wild Horse Mountain, the scent of the forest and mud churned up by the recent rains filled my head with happy thoughts.  It was time to get into nature.

And even though I’d temporarily forgotten, the setting sun reminded me that running at night is my thing. I go faster, I feel more positive, and I get to have a beer afterwards!

Dressed in all my specially-bought gear, safe in the knowledge that I had my phone and a bandage like a well-organised and professional trail runner, I was suddenly excited to get out into the darkness – into the wilderness.  I was looking forward to the challenge.

Trail runner

Rearing to go at the base of Wild Horse Mountain

I even embraced the 2 hour time-frame I’d come up with, coming to terms with the beautiful thought that going fast didn’t matter and just getting out there was enough.  In fact I decided that the longer it took me, the better training it would be for my half marathon.

After checking in at the registration tent and receiving my number, Shane and I had about an hour to kill before kick-off.  I got bitten by mosquitoes at the start line for a few minutes so our first task was to return to the car to retrieve some bug spray for my legs and neck.

Next to our car another couple had parked up and were both preparing to do one of the races (there were three options of distance available – 10km, 16.5km and 25.5km)

Very loudly, and with a level of hilarity that I felt was clearly put on for our benefit, our car park neighbours compared the features of their headlamps and shoes.  Then they had an over-acted friendly fight about taking a pre-race picture, whereby they chased each other around the car for a minute.  There was lots of giggling, it was basically canoodling and it really annoyed me.  I stared resolutely in the other direction trying not to encourage it.

They took no notice of my disregard and continued on, possibly around the entire trail run course for all I know.

I’ve moved past my general disgust at the shenanigans now, but readers if you are 1) reading this, 2) a grown-up, and 3) considering playing kiss-chase with your partner around your car in the half-hour before a race where some people might be feeling a bit anxious, give yourself a punch in the face from me.  It is not the time, nor the place to do so.

Trying to avoid looking in the direction of the pillocks next to us (don’t ask me why we didn’t just go and stand elsewhere; I don’t know.  Maybe Shane didn’t notice the problem and I enjoyed focusing my remaining anxiety into being angry) I commenced warming up with about half an hour to go.  It was the first time Shane had hung around while I did this and I think he was very impressed; I’ve got my warm-up down pat to a select 4 exercises that are not too attention-attracting or embarrassing, but just slightly professional enough to look like I know what I am doing.

Following the warm-up and a bit of a debate (conducted quietly without forced mirth or chasing each other around the car, I hasten to add) I removed the merino wool top I’d bought specially for the race, leaving it with Shane in the car. I had a thin compression top underneath that I decided was more than enough cover for the night’s event.  It was about 22 degrees outside (because there was lots of cloud cover from the forecasted rain and because this is winter in Queensland and that is how we roll) and despite my suspicion that I’d be glad of the warm merino if something went wrong during the race, it wasn’t worth over-sweating.  Or risking setting my armpits on fire with the friction from the CamelBak.  Most other runners were wearing singlets and some ladies were even wearing crop tops.

At 15 minutes to go, I downed my energy gel and Shane discovered a little loop on the CamelBak, through which we could thread the drinking tube to stop it flapping around.  I was really excited about this; it seemed to be a sign from the Triathlon Gods that all my worries were fixable.

We made our way to the start area, where I’d say there were about 150 runners and quite a few supporters milling around.  The Run Director gave us a quick explanation of the course and I heard lots of people commenting that ‘oh yes, that’s where we got lost last year’ which made me glad that I had the map.

The runners doing the 25.5km race set off first at exactly 6pm – leaving about half of the crowd behind.  We clapped them on and I struggled to fathom starting a 25.5km run.  After they left, those of us doing the 16.5km course were told to line up on the start line.  I said my goodbyes to Shane, giving him strict instructions about what time to return (he was heading off to go and see a local car show while I trudged around the mountain) and chose a position at the back of the pack.

There were 33 people doing the 16.5km course, so it was a completely different line-up to the City2South race I did two weeks ago, where about 3500 people stood at the 14km start line with me.  There was no fanfare or starter’s gun at Wild Horse at Night – we got a 5 second countdown and then told ‘GO!’

So, go we did.

My experience of running races (in my short, 6-month career) is that I spend the first kilometre overtaking lots of people.  But this race apparently didn’t attract any super-slow runners – or if it did, they were going to do the 10km route.  Because I started at the back of the pack, and that is practically where I stayed for the first 5km.  I focused on the backpack of a gentleman in front of me who appeared to be doing the perfect pace for me and decided to stick with him.

For those of you considering doing a trail run for the first time, I would highly recommend finding someone to follow for the first bit of the race.  I was able to watch where my leader stumbled, tripped or slowed down so that I could adjust my running in response.  I was able to focus on my good form, good breathing and simply moving up the mountain while he concentrated on navigating the course.

There was a surprising amount of navigating to do.  The recent rains had created lots and lots of puddles, particularly in the first 5km.  Some of the puddles stretched across both sides of the trail we were following (which started off being wide enough for a car) and forced us up onto rocky embankments where you had to tiptoe along, grabbing tree trunks and twigs to stop yourself from falling into the water and condemning yourself to running with wet feet for the rest of the way.  At other times the trail narrowed and became a little sandy without warning, meaning your feet were suddenly landing in stuff that moved upon impact, making you very wobbly.

A couple of times the guy I was following had to stop and walk in order to navigate the larger puddles, which was a bit frustrating even though it was only for a couple of seconds.  I reminded myself that my time didn’t matter and that pacing myself and staying dry was more important, but as we commenced a steep climb up a wide section of track to the first Check-in point, my navigator started to slow down a bit and I decided to drop him.

This meant that as I ran past the friendly faces at Check Point and commenced the 6.5km loop described above, I was not following anybody.  In fact, after about 500 metres I was pretty much alone; even my original pacer had disappeared from view when I risked a glance backwards.  I had no one to follow, no one to pace me, no one to observe at treacherous moments.

Part of me embraced this.  It was pretty magical, running with the sound of bugs and bats calling out to me.  There were glimpses of the moonlight through the trees and the first kilometre or so of the trail was nice and firm so I could just enjoy running.  I really liked the way that my new headlamp shone into my hot breath as I exhaled, illuminating the fog of the hot air hitting the cooling night.  I pretended I was a choo-choo train steaming through the night powerfully.

The other part of me, of course, was a bit worried about being all by myself.  I wondered if some of the wild horses would run out and startle me.  When I first moved to Australia the main highway that goes past Wild Horse Mountain often used to close for an hour or so because some of the wild horses (known as brumbies) had accidentally made their way into the traffic.

Whether frightened or enjoying it, I had to keep running and I wasn’t about to stop and wait for my old mate to catch up to me so that I could follow him again.  Instead, I let my ego take over for a while, cheering me on and extolling the (really not very impressive) achievements of passing my pacer and of putting so much distance between us so quickly.  When my ego talks I listen, so I increased my speed a little and ran happily.

I panicked briefly a few times when I couldn’t see any fluorescent tape dangling from the trees ahead.  Our Run Directors had kindly hung pieces of tape at intervals in the trees to reassure us that we were on the right track and to indicate which track to choose when it was confusing.  At key turns, flashing LED lights had been taped to trees to draw attention to arrows underneath, showing a change of direction.

This was all excellent and very reassuring to a lone runner on her first trail run.  Although with it being so dark, sometimes I thought I saw a bit of fluoro tape just ahead, but it would disappear as I ran towards it, only to reappear as I ran right past.  Basically, if my headlamp beam couldn’t reach the tape because of tree trunks or branches, the tape was invisible to me until the line of sight was clear.

The course took me down beside the aforementioned highway for a while, where I enjoyed the idea that the drivers of the cars heading southbound (probably only 100 metres from where I ran) would see my little headlamp bobbing about in the wilderness and wonder what kind of crazy I was to be going for a run in the dark on the mountain all alone.

After a few hundred metres beside the highway, I spotted a red fashing LED light in the distance and saw the shine of headlamps from a couple of runners to my right, heading away behind me.  This must be the switchback, I thought, and the headlamps must belong to runners heading into ‘The Tunnel of Love’ as it was described in the instructions.  I wasn’t sure how far ahead of me the runners were, as their lights looked at least 150 metres away but I hadn’t been able to tell from the map how sharp the switchback really was.  So far, the course had been very easy to follow and having seen the LED, I felt sure I’d find the turn without trouble.

I ran on and the track turned into quite a steep downhill.  Assuming I was about half-way through the course, I decided it was a good time to start taking on some water, so I unhooked the cover from my CamelBak tube and took a couple of mouthfuls.

I don’t know if, in taking on some water, my headlight pointed away from the important turn in the course.  But after a few more minutes of running I realised that I was heading downhill and to the left, when I was expecting to switch back to the right on the same level.

I stopped.  I looked around.  I pointed my headlamp into the distance.  No fluro tape, no runners.

I sprinted back up the hill and pointed my headlamp back up the track.  I could see that much further up, another runner was coming down the track.  I sprinted as hard as I could back towards him or her, trying to beat them to where the stupid switchback was that I had clearly missed.  I found it finally, with lots of fluoro tape and lights taking me through grass and bush (there was literally no track) which I must have missed simply because of some branches or twigs blocking my view at the moment I needed to see it.

Aware of the headlamp I’d spotted further up the track quickly approaching behind me and distraught at the thought of being overtaken, I pushed my little legs over the uneven terrain as fast as they would go.  And suddenly the track turned into deep sand, like the soft white mush you find at the top of the beach.  My feet moved all over the place as I landed every step, I couldn’t pick them up quick enough, I had to dodge a puddle, I caught a branch with my right foot – and suddenly I was flying through the air, landing knee-first into sand and crap.

Embarrassed and very annoyed that the runner behind me might catch up because of yet another mistake, I picked myself up within 0.3 milliseconds and continued running as fast as I could.  I didn’t stop to see whether my knee was alright (it stung a bit but still seemed to work) because I didn’t want whoever was behind me to think I was a pussy who couldn’t handle a little fall.  I just ran as fast as I could.

blood and guts

The battered knee

After about a kilometre of running through the thick, heavy sand I had a peek behind me.  Relieved to see no headlamps, I slowed to a more sustainable pace.  As my breathing steadied I could hear the creek somewhere beside me, which was lovely even though I couldn’t see it.  At various intervals I had to duck and weave under fallen trees or jump over logs that had crashed right into the gully we were running in.  Some frogs and mice jumped and ran out in front of me.  It was exactly what a trail run should be, I think, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Eventually I started to come up on people in front of me, who had clearly decided to walk in the sand.

I may complain about my old-lady joints that are pretty rubbish for running on, but I should really praise my tree trunk muscles more often.  When it comes to hills and running through sand, I can power on almost as well as running on roads.  First, I came across three ladies walking through a very sandy and wet part of track.  Two of the ladies seemed to be together; the third was walking a couple of metres behind on her own.  As I approached, the third lady at the back started to pick up her pace as if to pretend she was in fact running.

Unimpressed by her attempt to show off to me when I’d already seen her walking, and slightly annoyed that she now wanted to get in my way by trying to overtake the two ladies in front at the same time as I did, I pointed out my elbows, paid her no heed and practically stepped onto her toes.  I’ll take this opportunity to point out that at one point on the track I heard a much faster runner coming up behind me and as I saw that the track was about to narrow to one-person width, I stopped and ran on the spot to let the person through.  IE, I did the right thing.  So I think it is fair to expect the same courtesy be extended to me.  If you are a runner who only runs when you think someone is about to overtake you, please give yourself a punch in the face from me also.

Unfortunately, my bitchiness earned me a payback from the Triathlon Gods who were clearly watching. Two metres past the group of ladies, I fell over again, this time without being able to pretend to myself that nobody had seen.  I had a clear audience.

Once again embarrassed but this time only muddy with a slightly twisted ankle, I picked myself back up and ran on as professionally as I could.

After a few hundred more metres, I came across a lone man walking through the sand.  I must admit that the sand was hard work, so I’m not judging the people that walked this section.  In places the sand was about 30 centimetres deep and soft like sugar, which is hard to run in, especially if you want to look professional.  You kind of have to embrace the arms-flailing, legs-akimbo style of running that used to be how I ran everything once upon a time.

I overtook the gentleman, who said ‘well done, you’re doing great’ and I said ‘thank you’.  Then I pushed on, once again alone on the trails and feeling much less embarrassed.

 At this point in the course, I realised that I bloody love trail running.  And I bloody love running at night.  I was having so much fun when I reached the 10km mark, even the pain in my legs seemed more bearable than usual – probably because the soft sand and dirt was kinder on my old lady joints than the bitumen and concrete they’re used to.  And I just find running at night is easier.

I was under no illusion that the final 6.5km would eventually get harder, but I gleefuly jumped over logs and flew down crevices in the mountain, pumping my arms and heaving my lungs in happiness.  If you’re a runner who has never tried a trail run, I highly recommend you get out there.

In preparation for the last 7 or 8 kilometres, I got an energy gel and some more water into me.  It’s not easy to take a gel while you’re running but it kept me occupied for about 500 metres, trying to navigate, run, breathe and suck at the same time.  All good fun.

Eventually I was directed back up the steep hill to the CheckPoint, where I was told by the lovely volunteers that I could turn around the traffic cone they’d placed in the middle of the pathway and go back down the hill to tackle the home stretch.  5km to go, Lauren!  One little parkrun, I told myself.

The return home felt good to start with because I knew vaguely what to expect, so I was confident that I wouldn’t get lost.  Plus, the home stretch was the same for all the race distances, so there were a few more people around.  I wasn’t alone on the way back for more than two minutes at a time, because I’d either come up on some 10km walkers or the 25km runners would come stampeding up behind me and overtake me like they were running 250 metres, not 25000.  Those guys (and one lady) were incredible.

Give me my medal

The medal ceremony at the finish line made the suffering worthwhile

But of course, I was about to start suffering.  Based on the time my watch showed, I thought I might have about 3km to go when I passed one group of walkers who said ‘not far now, keep going!’ but in hindsight I must have still have 3.5km or 4km to go.  But as they said ‘not far to go!’ I thought I had about 18 minutes left and I started a bit of a countdown in my head.  And that feeling as I wore on, that I should surely be close to the finish line by now but not knowing for definite, got quite challenging mentally.  I desperately wanted a sign to tell me how far I had left to run (there was nothing like this on the course) and for not the first time in my life, I wished I had one of those flashy Garmin watches that measures your distance as well as your time.

Just as I was getting myself really wound up and upset, I also found myself alone again.  And it was really bloody dark because the moon had disappeared behind some clouds.  And it started to drizzle.  And I thought, I bloody hate trail running.

In training when you push yourself and it’s hard, you find the mental strength to just go for it.  That does take strength mentally, but it’s different when you’re out in a race for some reason.  There’s more pressure, and you’ve visualised the finish line and how you’re going to feel and what will happen.  There are expectations that you desperately want to live up to.  When it starts to get hard, yes you can dig deep and push on just like you do in training, but the voices in your head are much nastier and harder to deal with.  The mental challenge is definitely different in a race.

I struggled on.  When I allowed myself to look at my watch (not something I let myself do too often) I saw that I was 8 minutes away from having run two hours straight.  Instinctively I knew that 2 hours was the cut off, that it wasn’t going to take me longer than that.  So I made myself believe that I had less than 8 minutes to go and stuck to the plan – the plan of finishing, I guess.

Finally, after what felt more like 80 minutes, I saw some bright lights shining through the foliage up a small hill and to the left.  The race precinct was in view!  I somehow made it to a man standing at the top of the hill, taking our numbers down, and I turned in to the left for a very short final sprint to the finish.

‘1 hour and 57, well done Lauren!’ Somebody announced over the microphone.  I smiled and did a fist pump, but miss-timed it for the photo unfortunately.  A lady came and placed my medal around my neck and then I bent over to check my knee.  It was not too bad and Shane was suitably impressed.

the medal

Wild Horse Medal Bling

The overwhelming feelings today are disbelief, awe and pride that my legs moved non-stop like that for almost two hours straight.  I am pretty impressed with myself.  Even though I’d expected to take that long, I think I had seriously doubted that my legs had the capacity to keep up for two whole hours.  I’ve never run for that long in my life.  It is the first time that I’ve really felt impressed by my own body, by the amazing things it can do when I ask it to do them.

Trail running was a winner for me because the soft mud and sand was so much easier on my crappy joints, so I didn’t suffer like I did with City2South, where I thought my legs would fall off or require amputation by the end.  I will certainly keep an eye out for more trail runs in the future and I kind of wish I’d chosen a half marathon on the trails instead of on the roads.  Actually, hold that thought.  Get me Google!

9 thoughts on “My First Trail Run – The WH@N Race Report

  1. You’ve done it again, left me breathless and amazed at you courage. It’s not just that you ran 16.5ks it’s that it’s again the first time you’ve attempted both the distance and the trail run, and you have added an injury to your poor toe. xxxxxx Fantastic!!

    • Thank you Grandpa, I love your enthusiasm! The toe is slowly recovering – the doctor advised that the only thing to do is strap it to the toe next to it, as it is only a small fracture. Which I didn’t do ? My knee looks far more impressive I think ? I think I might do it for effect at all my races!

  2. Loved reading this! It’s so evocative and I could relate to so much of it, especially that feeling that you’re part of something almost magical. And that respect for your body that it can do amazing things. Well done, you’ve ticked off more challenges. Ready for the next one…

    • Yes I think I am ready for the next one! Although I still keep getting surprised that I really did the race last night. It wasn’t a dream! Glad you liked the race report, sorry it was a bit long ?

  3. Awesome write up crazy tri lady!!
    And an equally awesome effort running that distance, at night in the bush no less!

    That was my first might race and my first trail run in many many years, loved it! A fantastically well run event, got me thinking about heading up to rainbow beach for their next event!

    Hope you grabbed some pumpkin soup after the run? It was amazeballs!!

    • Thanks Sean! I couldn’t face eating anything for about two hours after the race though, unfortunately… Not sure what happened but I felt a bit nauseous so I missed out on the soup ?
      If I hadn’t already signed up for the Sunny Coast Half Marathon then I would definitely do the Rainbow Beach half! I might still end up signing up for the 11km if I can fit it in. I really enjoyed being on the trails too, I am glad it reignited your passion for it ? you were third in your category I saw, that is absolutely fantastic! ?

  4. Well this race report got the ole heart rate up! I felt every bit of it!!!! Whilst sitting on the lounge ?
    Good on you!!!!!!!!! So great that you enjoyed yourself. Hope the leg is ok – you certainly don’t do things by halves!!!

    • Thanks Bec, yes I do love to add a pinch of drama to these things I think! The odd death-defying stunt gives me something to blog about I guess 🙂 I am glad you enjoyed it. My leg is recovering well too!

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