The first, worst trail running guide

I sat on the cold brickwork, wondering if I’d get hemaroids. Flags flapped. Early light streaked across the cobblestones. There was a nip in the air. My stomach made creaking sounds under the weight of a huge banana, and milky tea was expanding four slices of marmalade toast. I felt pregnant. But whatever, in eight minutes time I’d be living the dream, guiding a few teenagers, half a dozen dads, and an unknown quantity of born again women on sweet single track. No doubt a fit young couple, having fornicated their way into the day, would turn up beaming and glossy. Bless em, bless em all, willing to be guided on a variety of corkscrewing, nail bleeding, sometimes gentle trail within Australia’s best summer-time ski resort.  Social media advertised the event as a trail running bloc party, with a meeting place (flappy flag and an A-board), set times (morning and evening for Insta glory), and a hero in tights to guide them. God had turned on the light, and I was as slick as a seal. Playing the role of guide, I’d signed the contratural agreement that stipulate I carry punters on my back if they run out of juice, distil water from undergrowth when they get thirsty, and fix broken legs with saplings. I also bought along some pro add-ons; 50+ sunscreen, marked-down muesli bars and tubes of sugar from the servo. By default, as I never really un-pack my backpack, I also have a large tub of Vasaline (endless possibilities) an inch of toilet paper (an inch of potential), half a roll of duct tape (whatever), iPhone 5 with a cracked screen (selfies, 000) and a small notepad and pen for poetry. My icebreaker merino sports pasta-sauce and personal stains, making me vaguely trustworthy.

I’d reacquainted myself with the intended running loop the night before, farting and burping along on a few road-trip kababs. I grinned like a genuine idiot, marvelling at the spell mountains tend to cast over us. Perhaps a little dumber with the thin air, and a little more footloose knowing that what happens on the mountain, stays on the mountain. I was, after all, about to earn pocket money for running. I actually thought ‘Beau, you’ve made it, you’re really winning at life you kooky bastard’. I imagine it’s much like that warm glow of purpose you’re engulfed with when owning a Porsche, or being a Kardashian. Having worked a regular day at the office, my shortwave interaction with the laptop seeped away as I ironed out my car bent body. Ecophilea worked natively on mind and body, subconscious energy and attention restored with each footfall. Bridled in soft light and skipping along to bird song, my eyes focusing momentarily on tree stumps, rocks and pools of dust. I gained energy by burning it. Road trip kebabs and a bag-full of liquorice was fuelling my transient view of magnificent blue-gray-orange Snowgums. I washed it all down with bellows of damp, minty air. It didn’t feel good to be in the hills, it felt bloody amazing.

The backstory to that moment started several months ago, when an email came through from the ski resorts event manager. ‘Miles’ (people often call me Miles, I think it resonates with Old English heritage. A befitting name, much like Baker who makes Bread or Ramsbottom, who once upon a time shagged sheep) ‘would you mind being our running guide for our first ever guided trail running weekend’? I bounced on my desk-chair (60cm swissball, green, needs air), chuffed. ‘Why, yes, yes I would. Pay me in liquorice and continental breakfasts and I’ll supply you with some long-range legs, a backpack full of haphazard/stolen items, and run like a slightly older deer in torn runners whilst rocking out in tight/stained apparel. Oh, and I’m punctual. I’ll turn up at least eight minutes before each run.

Fast forward to now, there I sat awaiting the hoards, nibbling away at my girlfriend’s drink bottle. ‘Helen’ (scribbled on tatty strapping tape stuck to the side of the flask), was likely having breakfast in bed, eating vegemite on toast and taking purposeful bites on a cut-in-half banana. She’s one of those wonderful people in life that will eat a banana over several sittings. I respect these people immensely. The discipline, slowness, and methodology of segmenting a food item that’s so easily devoured in a single hit. I tend to do it in one swift moment, much like taking in a single gulp of air.

Meanwhile, I’m alone. Goddam alone, one minute before departure; 7.29am. Wistful in my own way, I hope at least the young lovers got a little carried away and burst out of a lodge window any minute. I wait. Nadda. No dads, hipsters, Christians or thespians. Not a single demographic, gender or stereotype. A raven interrupts the humanless conversation in my mind with something like ‘Faaarrrkkkk’. Indeed. Knowing full well I’d eat Helen’s half banana if I returned, I head off to scout run number two.

Eight hours later sees me return to the same meeting spot. The flappy flags flap, and the A board is turned so that people can see that it’s an A board. I wear a new (old) shirt, have a fresh coat of sunscreen, and I’m juiced up on a fresh hand of bananas. Like an overpaid footballer who trains, eats, sleeps, tweets, and oils up for game day, I’m ready to smack a few heads in. Nothing too violent, just action. Having been left at the alter that morning, and forever an opportunist, I’d spent the lunch hours philandering with fellow lodgers, inviting them for a dusk run to the summit. We’d pass through flowery glades I tell them, get punched with views all the way to Tassie, or Antarctica if you’re lucky, and ‘we’d run at your pace; slow, or medium-slow, perhaps even medium-fast on the flats’. You won’t get lost, left behind, or die. I’m a pro running guide, likely the first in Australia, and I met the Queen once. I’m the real deal. It was all very charming.

Sipping on sickly sweet iced tea all day, siphoned into Helen’s water bottle from a fancy urn in the lodge, I was borderline diabetic, ready to run 20, maybe 30, lycra clad urbanites into the ground.

A tumbleweed rolls through and a wolf howls. No one.

And herein lies the set up. Is the world, Australia, or this particular mountain, on a blindingly good weekend of summer weather, ready for a trail running guide? Was it me? Legionnaires hat, freckles? Too much a resemblance to Groundskeeper Willy, ready to flick up the kilt at any stage and burn your eyeballs? Sure. I can buy that. I’ve been called odd before. Yet I saw the marketing campaign; pretty pictures, attractive packages, and all bound to the code of ‘what happens, stays on the mountain’. Even a fling with your cousin doesn’t make it past the ticket box up here, and besides, it’s free! (Both the cousin thing, and this particular guided run event). Like any self-respecting seven-year-old boy who loses a fight to their nemesis in the vicinity of the monkey bars, in front of a girl he likes and plans to marry, I run away.

I reflect, as if rebounding the last of the daylight, deciding on a slow trot around the sunlit, treeless flanks of the resort. After a few slow, almost meaningless kilometres, I cut through a cul-de-sac where a small stand of Snowgum separates an old and new street. Renovations are in full swing on an old Swiss-inspired family lodge. I slowdown even more as I look. Woody and tinny and post war, this gem is the real deal; dinky and in need of fresh paint, but just marvellous. I imagine it has thick carpet and an open fire, and a painting on the wall that’s so bad, it’s great. I fall into step with my legs again, a natural rhythm that for runners is like breathing. I slot into the bush, joining the glorious single track I was supposed to pide-pipper the flock earlier that day. I’m alone with a raising heart rate and the first cling of sweat. Air thickens with the impending eve. Mountain bikers come from somewhere. I stand aside to salute and they thank me by hooting. I almost double back to get Helen, but think better of it, knowing she’d biked to the bottom of the mountain and back today. Besides, I’m in that glorious epoch where I have no idea how long I’ll run for. Instantly, rarely, I’m running without an agenda, hemmed only by nightfall and the prospect of a Helen-sent chopper. I take in the on-off view that flicks between trees, and get to think within the strange world of self, bouncing around ideas with the cadence of footfalls. I think about why no one turned up. A magpie oodles, clearly and beautifully. Entangled is its inseparable duet, two voice boxes delivering the most sophisticated bird song in the world. I’m likely the only human to hear that magpie just then, likely because I could hear it. My attention, after all, was up for grabs. No other footfalls, no huffing, no chatter…A penny drops.

Effervescent iced tea candies the back of my throat.  It brings up the realisation that trail running is likely, perhaps rightfully, a gig for the soloist. Where pace, as seconds, minutes and mountains, are apart for each of us. Lashed with embodied mindlessness in the most indulgent of ways, this internal metronome defines the act. I don’t mean mindlessness to be an empty state. Far from it. Trail running might very well be the fullest part of a runners’ day, living second by second, rock to rock, idea to idea. Where twisted, variable thinking mirrors the felt reality of the senses. To be guided might be safe, and social, but perhaps lost in translation is the need for a personal, internalized monologue, reflecting the imperfect, incidental and personal cadence of each runner. Is the trail running guide, I muse, simply a lycra-wearing hybrid that whisks individuals over dreamy tracks in a long caterpillar line of chatter and comradery? Maybe it should be more visceral, and less social, breaking back to the ancient idea of running for your life amongst trees, spooking tourists (Swedes and Newfoundlanders) with the idea that mega fauna still exists in Australia. If you don’t get a wriggle on, we’d tell them, big teeth from a variety of giant marsupials will eat you.

I break from the bush, back into road-world, shifting the narrative. All of a sudden, my thoughts seem one dimensional, almost boring.  My folding points are instantly less forgiving, and I’m getting dumber as I increase speed- no longer dipping and turning, pushing and driving, my brain rattles around in my skull, hitting the sides. But my heart is happy, having boomed about in my chest for a while, and equally full of fizz for the opportunity to cook up an inside-outside conversation.

NB: This piece first appeared as a feature in Trail Running Magazine, Issue 24 www.trailrunmag.com. I’ve since returned to Mt. Buller as a running guide. People turned up and I was out of breath the entire time, talking. It was fab. Take everything I said with a pinch of salt, of half a banana.

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