Most runners have a pre-event ritual. They might spend the 24 hours before the big day with their feet up, studying the course map, eating their body weight in pasta and laying out their “flat me” on their bed.

All sensible activities. And all activities I neglected to do in the lead-up to the Trail Running Association of Queensland’s (TRAQ) Brisbane Trail Marathon.

I spent the two days before the event walking around South Bank and Brisbane city. That was 25km of walking on concrete!!! Not ideal before a trail running event. Hello, twinging butt muscles!

Instead of pasta, I ate my body weight in oversized Smarties and chocolate bullets. I took a cursory glance at the course map. The 2300m in elevation gain barely registered in my chocolate-addled brain.

And instead of laying out my flat me and chilling out in front of the TV, I decided to teach myself origami. BIG MISTAKE. What would probably be a calming activity for any normal person drove my stress levels to 400%. My peacocks looked like road kill. After two hours of screaming at paper, my husband took over and made a perfect crane in 4.5 seconds.

My sleep was punctuated by dreams of angry origami mutants. However, when my alarm went off at 3.50am, I felt calm. I got dressed, scoffed my peanut butter sandwich, bundled my sleepy four-year-old into the car, and my husband drove us from our motel to the start line at Gold Creek Reservoir in the Brisbane suburb of Upper Brookfield.

It was pitch black when we arrived about 5.20am. Stupidly, I neglected to bring my headlamp, but thankfully it was light enough for me to see 6.10am, when the small field of marathoners – about 50 – were finally given the signal to start running.

The start line was adjacent to the dam wall. There was no easing into the run, as the course took us straight up a hill left of the dam. I positioned myself towards the back of the pack and got chatting to another running mum. It was lovely to spend the first couple of kms with her. But, as I was still trying to get my breathing under control, I wished her well and watched her disappear into the bush ahead.

It usually takes me 5km-10km to find my groove, and today was no exception – but I wasn’t worried. It’s taken me a long time to learn that it’s best for me to start events super conservatively. That’s not always easy, as it usually means I’m passed by almost everyone in the early stages of a race. But it also means I almost always finish the second half of my race faster than the first, and it’s a wonderful boost in those later stages to pass other people – often taking them by surprise!

The course took us along some technical, twisty and undulating single track through thick bush, until we reached the historic spillway of Gold Creek Dam. The second-oldest large dam in Queensland, it was the first dam in the world to be built with a cascading spillway.

OK, history lesson over!

At 5km, we ran back through the start/finish line, then to the right of the dam up Gold Creek Road. In the first hour, I’d only covered about 6.5km. Feeling mildly concerned I might not make the seven-hour cut-off, I did the calculations in my head, and estimated that if all went well I’d probably finish in six hours. Still well below seven hours. All I could do was plod along and enjoy the scenery as the course took us up and down, up and down – UP! and DOWN! – through eucalypt woodlands and into the subtropical rainforest of South D’Aguilar National Park.
Ascending Mount Nebo included the ominously named Hell Hole Break, which started around the 15km mark. It was a steep, rocky and technical fire break, but not quite as terrible as I’d imagined. For me, the real “hell hole” of the course would come much later!

By this time, I’d caught up with many people who had passed me earlier on in the race, and I was feeling fine. I kept up my calories and electrolytes with Tailwind, gels and some home-made slice. I was greeted by the brilliant Brisbane Trail Runners crew volunteering at the 21km checkpoint, where I topped up my water and jelly snake supply. Then it was an onward march to the highest part of the course.

For the next 6km, I had a wonderful chat with a lady from Germany. Talking with her as we alternated between running and power hiking made the kilometres fly by. A small snake crossed our path and we started talking about doing an ultra in New Zealand one day – the land of NO SNAKES! We parted ways just before the 27km checkpoint, as she decided to have a munchies break and I felt like pushing ahead.

At 29km, I’d caught up to the lady I’d been talking to in the first few kms of the race. We had a quick chat before I used the downhill sections to gain some traction. During the long, arduous climbs, the sun got hotter and I passed several men, including one who I later found out had chosen this event as his first marathon! Talk about baptism by fire!

My memories of the rest of the race, except for the final 2km, are of punishing uphill and smashing, loose-rock downhill. My toes got a serious pummelling with the steep downhill, and I cried out in pain many times. But the views of the mountains in the distance, the thick bush and bird calls were pleasant distractions and I enjoyed some alone time. That’s what I love about running – it strips life down to such a simple form.

The final big hill was an enormous physical and mental challenge – the true hell hole! Thankfully, the last couple of kilometres were mostly downhill, and I ran them with a huge grin on my face. I was tired, my toes were smashed, but otherwise I felt fantastic – like I could have kept going. And there was the bonus of knowing I was going to well and truly crack six hours.

The final dash across the dam wall was spectacular. I got a real kick out of looking down and seeing the reservoir on one side, and the finish line down the other side. Then, to my surprise, I saw my wonderful husband and daughter on top of the dam wall at the other end, waiting to high five me before I made the final descent to the finish line. That moment meant more to me than the medal handed to me at the end.

I finished in 5 hours, 41 minutes – and, despite screaming quads and toes, did a little jump as I crossed the finish line! Having said that, this was the toughest event I’ve done – more difficult than the Coastal High 50 and Blackall 50 in my book. Thirteen women finished the trail marathon this year, and, happily, I placed sixth. It was a fantastic event with a well-marked course, wonderful volunteers and a lovely, low-key vibe. And the coffee and burger at the end were AWESOME!