Saturday, September 6, 2014

Southern Highlands Challenge 2014

Most races in their first year of existence are all about building the foundations for their second year. As much as race directors would love to say they enjoyed the experience of organising a new event, it would be only a small percentage that would say it was an pleasurable and successful first year, and I'm not just talking about the dollars and sense (not a typo) of events. I'm talking more about the overall feel, feedback and goodwill that the event generated.

I've been fortunate to be involved in two new events this year where the Race Directors have excelled in these areas; by showing a real understanding of runners' needs, by making and utilising strong community links and by being true to their values of inclusivity and offering value for money.

The Buffalo Stampede is the first event I speak of. It was a true community event; it had the support of the local shops and businesses and local running groups. It had many special touches that the crews and runners would appreciate; from the cowbells to the KOM challenges. But ultimately it was a success because it delivered what it promised; a tough, uncompromising test of endurance. And from this success, the event will grow and become even stronger.

The Southern Highlands Challenge (SHC) is of course the other. For many, but for similar reasons to the Stampede, this race has left a smile on my face which has lasted all week. But why? I guess it's totally a personal thing and not everyone of course will share these reasons, and the easiest way I can describe it is that it touched and 'ticked' so many of my value systems. The easiest way for me to describe it is like this. I love racing. I race because I love the competition so it doesn't take much for me to get revved up for a race. However, the SHC was different. I found myself immersing myself more in the 'culture' of the event more than the racing aspect. I know this may sound a little nuts, but I could have just as easily hung out there in Wingello at the race centre than actually raced. It just had that really cool feel.

I was very fortunate to be the Youth Ambassador for this event, a role I would never take lightly, and thankfully April Palmerlee shared my belief that an active Ambassador is the best type. By profession, I'm a teacher and I feel most at home educating and encouraging children in what ever their pursuit may be. Throw in running and all my passions suddenly come together. This has recently led to the foundation of Trail Kids, a children's trail running initiative that I'm pursuing with my good friend, neighbour and gun trail runner Jo Brischetto.

Race Director, April Palmerlee
On the Saturday night, April had organised for a motivational talk with the children before dinner. I was worried my beard and long locks (both now gone thankfully) would have the kids running for cover. It wasn't to be however, and the kids and I shared a lovely discussion about their goals for the event, the ways which they can become more active in their day to day lives and how they can encourage their friends to put down the technology and get outside and play. I was absolutely blown away by the insight and answers the kids gave to questions. They knew all about 'screen time' and 'childhood obesity'. It was great to have that discussion and build relationships with those children. I've even received some feedback from parents this week whose children have asked to walk to school instead of being driven. Like wow!

So the next day, blurry eyed and sleep deprived from following Tucks's great run at UTMB online, Jo and I drove to the race hub at Wingello. I was immediately blown away by the support of the businesses, both local and afar. There were so many marquees and products to sample and everything from the car parking to the race briefing was seamless. I had entered the half marathon (starting at 8am) as this gave me enough time to get back for the start of the kids 6k at 9:30m. April had promised a pretty easy course, but from looking at the profile I was a little worried that I wouldn't make it back in time!

What happens when you take your
eyes off the trail!
So no wonder when the half marathon was set off by Race Patron John Fahey, I took off like a bull at the gate! I led the field out hard, and even took them down the wrong turn in the first couple of kms. This really did annoy me (although I should be used to it by now with my sense of direction!) and I got that  frustrated feeling that one gets when the lead that you've made has suddenly disintegrated.

I was probably taking for granted the consistent nature of the flat, smooth fire trail, and at about 5km or so into the race I proved that you should never, ever take your eyes off the trail. Rounding a sweeping left turn, I hadn't noticed the shimmering wet mud and I went down and slid in the mud puddle like a competitor in Tough Mudder! I couldn't believe it and I had to laugh or cry about it...I chose to laugh. Only one puddle on the entire course and I found it!

Around the 16km mark my reckless pacing, the hills taken too hard and my Oxfam legs began to give way and soon the long loping tallest trail runner in the history of the world, Alex Rogers took the lead and the win. It was a perfect paced race and I had no answer to his challenge. I wasn't wearing a watch and I began to worry that my time had blown out beyond the 90 minutes I had to make the start of the kids and womens 6k race. Thankfully, as I rounded the last corner, the race clock said 1:25 something. Thank goodness! Even enough time to swap race bibs (not muddy singlet though, I was wearing that with pride!) and give a quick pre race pep talk to the kids.

The Kids farm was a great hit!
And how much fun did I have in the kids race! From running up and down the field, I probably covered 8 or 9kms but it was so encouraging seeing so many mums and children running together, grinding it out, running and walking the entire way and all the time enjoying themselves immensely. There were children laughing, crying and toughing it out. But I'm always blown away by the resilience, perseverance of children and the way they are able to encourage each other.

I had some cool moments with the kids, from boys who challenged me to race them to 6 year old girl just needing a short walk to recover from the hill they may have just taken a little too hard too! It was just great to see them out there enjoying our great sport.

Post race, I was able to chat to many people. Having a big muddy back was a great ice breaker and I shared in the triumphs of whole families; mum, dad and the kids. For me, this will be the lasting impression I take away - it was a true family event.

Well done to April and the committee for all your handwork and volunteers who gave up their day. From the grass roots 1km kids race to the top end competition in the half and ultra, you had all the bases covered. It's difficult to see how this event can be even better next year but something tells me tit will be!

An event for the whole family!