Taking the scenic route!

Trail running is a funny thing. Distances are not precise like they are in road races. Case in point, last Sunday’s trail race which went from 18k to 19 to 21 before settling at 19.5k. There is always going to be variation – different people will follow different paths while still staying on course, surprise obstacles can crop up, and of course a whole group of people can run the EXACT same route and ALL get different distances on their watches.
(Road runs are not ALWAYS a set distance. Local knowledge is important. Last weekend I went to a parkrun (not mentioning any names!) and managed to make what should have been a 5km run into a 5.2km run. The absence of the turnaround flag was not an issue for most of the runners, who were regulars and knew where the flag was MEANT to be. I found myself on my own, not seeing where the people behind me had turned, looking at my watch and realising I must have gone too far, and seeing the guy behind me turn around. It may have been an omen for the trail run to come that night – we’ll get to that.)

Then, there’s the other way that trail runs become longer (or shorter, but nearly always longer) than expected. Getting lost, or as we like to call it in trail running circles, ‘going exploring’.

One early example of this was during the Summit to Sea social run a few years back. It is a run from the top of Mount Lofty down to Brighton beach, traditionally following the Sea to Summit trail. It is ‘meant’ to be 34km and includes a hill climb at O’Halloran Hill late in the piece (but on the plus side there was a drink station there). Somehow we managed to miss a turn, cut out the OHH climb and drink stop, and cut it back to 32km. I later found out that SA trail running legend Terry Cleary said that the run was “from the Summit to the Sea, doesn’t matter which way you go!” 

It wasn’t a race so it didn’t matter.

I memorably ‘went exploring’ in a large field during the Heysen 105 last year, a mistake I won’t make again. I can’t guarantee I won’t stray from the traditional route at some point, but I won’t make THAT mistake again!

This past weekend I organised a small group to run the last section of Heysen 105, usually around 18km, on Saturday night. This training run is traditionally held at night as the majority of people will finish, if not start, this section in darkness. The fact that the training runs are being held earlier this year meant that daylight saving hasn’t yet started, so instead of starting at dusk, it was already dark by the time we kicked off the run. Partner in crime Kate and I had decided to do the run a week earlier than the scheduled group run, because next weekend is the City-Bay Fun Run and we didn’t really fancy a potentially very late night and long trail run the night before what we hoped to be a fast road run! We put the call out to see if anyone wanted to join and on the night we had 13 other keen runners join us for our little adventure!

We had organised that people would stick together in small groups so no-one would be on their own, and I asked people to message me when they got back, so I would know we hadn’t lost anyone. 

After meeting at the finish and carpooling back to the start, we headed off shortly after 7pm. Ziad, who I am guessing probably knows the trail better than any of us, and is frequently seen at trail races as sweeper, offered to stay at the back. He was running with Laura, who was hard to miss in her hi-viz yellow top and amazing glow-in-the-dark tights! Everyone else settled into their small groups and followed the Heysen trail reflective markers. 

It was super muddy and wet, as Ziad had warned us (he had recently run this section during the day) and we quickly gave up on the idea of trying to find a dry path. There wasn’t one.

I ran with Glen for a while – he had done Heysen several times and he pointed out to me where he had gone astray last year. Once again – once you’ve made a mistake on a particular route, you can be sure you won’t do the same thing again!

I dropped back to run with Kate and James. I had met James 3 weeks earlier at the last Heysen training run and had seen him every weekend since – our 41km Yurrebilla epic training run, and Mt Hayfield the following week. 

Things were going well – we were following the arrows, crossing creeks, running through mud and sand, and we’d got to about 13km, expecting we had about 5km to go, when we ran into Ziad and Laura. Supposedly they were the back of the group! We had somehow taken a 3.5km detour and STILL had 8.5km to go! How had this happened? We were definitely following the Heysen arrows!

Apparently we went wrong twice, but I can only explain one. It was a good lesson to learn. At some point we had followed the wrong arrow and gotten off the Heysen trail. The Heysen arrows are red but we had followed some blue ones. In the dark of course, they all looked the same! By the time we ran into the others we were back on the Heysen alright, but we were going in the opposite direction to what we were supposed to be! So theoretically, if we hadn’t run into them, we could have kept going all the way back to the start of the run! 

(The purple line on the map shows the route we SHOULD have taken – thanks to James for this map!)

So from then on we were very careful to make sure we were following the HEYSEN arrows. (Of course, on race day, there will be a lot of additional markers, and the markers in this section will be reflective.)
I checked my phone from time to time and got text messages from people who had finished and were heading home. We wondered if we might be the last ones back!

The other time when we could potentially have gone very wrong was right near the end when the Heysen marker indicated to go straight ahead, but we actually had to go right, up a road to the campground carpark where the cars were. On race day that will be marked with an arrow. Of course, the race doesn’t finish ON the Heysen trail. If we’d kept going we would have ended up in the Flinders Ranges! (I like to think we would have figured it out well before then!)

By the time we got back we’d done 22km and Ziad and Laura were the only ones yet to come in. They arrived maybe 10 minutes after us, and we could all go home to shower and clean our shoes!

So we did our fair share of exploring, but we learned some valuable lessons which will stand us in good stead on race day in 6 weeks. Plus, I got a blog post out of it!