The journey started off with an early flight from Brisbane to Melbourne, where I picked up a hire car and drove 300km north east to the town of Bright, which is situated on the edge of the Victorian Alps.
After finding my accommodation at Elm Lodge, an older style, yet comfortable, apartment – I set about hitting the local supermarket for a few supplies – my usual oats and protein mix for breakfast and as there were limited cooking facilities, I settled for Lean Cuisine and frozen vegetables, carefully checked for a “Product of Australia” guarantee.
I slept well and on Saturday morning, carefully put my bike back together and took myself around Bright, which is lined with elm and pine trees, with apt warnings about the dangers of flying pine cones. The air was crisp, yet I was able to make do with just a wind vest for added warmth. The area is a cyclist’s dream with plenty of paths for recreational cyclists, mountain bikers and road fiends.
At lunch time, I met my friend Deb, who rides with Activ Cycle Coaching in Milton, who had arrived just in time for a spot of lunch at the local Blackbird cafe. After lunch, we hopped into Deb’s 4WD and headed to Fall’s Creek via Mt Beauty. The road up the mountain was winding, and the scenery spectacular as burnt Alpine Ash trees reached their jagged trunks towards a seemingly endless skyline.
We registered at the Falls Creek Slalom Village, treated ourselves to some free physiotherapy, hung around for the rider briefing then made our way back to Bright, realising that we were descending the course that we were riding the next morning. Soon we came to a rise and decided that this must be Tawonga Gap, the first peak. We decided that this little rise wasn’t going to be too bad to ride until we passed Mt Beauty and discovered the real Tawonga Gap. We were both a little bit disappointed that our ‘faux’ hill hadn’t amounted to anything significant and it was down to the local Italian for proscuitto and bocconcini pizza, followed up by an ice-cream from the local parlour. I had decided that I was going to carb load with my favourite and decided that the salty proscuitto would up my sodium levels in the most splendid way.
Sated, we set the alarm for an ungodly hour and awaited our fate.
After gulping down double my usual breakfast and packing the bikes in the 4WD, it was back to Falls Creek for the start of the race. The excited chatter that we indulged in about ‘faux hills’ had been replaced with a quiet sense of enormity about the task that lay ahead. After donning overshoes to keep my toes warm and jettisoning my jacket, I managed to become separated from Deb and found my place at the start line. I placed my ear phones in my ears, knowing that music and the chatter of my mind was what was going to be front and centre of the day.
We were marshalled to the start and away we went as the dawn broke behind the trees and the landscape began to take on an orange glow. It was quite chilly at only 3 degrees but the undershirt and Koiled wind vest did a great job of keeping my body temperature just right. I reached down and settled myself into the drops, listening to the strains of ELO – “I’m Alive”.’
I’m alive – and the world shines for me today
I’m alive – suddenly I am here today
seems like forever (and a day), thought I could never (feel this way)
Is this really me? I’m alive, I’m alive!
I’m alive – and the dawn breaks across the sky
I’m alive – and the sun rises up so high
Lost in another world (far away), never another word (till today)
But what can I say? I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive
Suddenly came the dawn (from the night), suddenly I was born (into light)
How can it be real? I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive
It was to be the first tune of many that were loaded onto my iPod that would suit that particular moment so well. The first thirty or so kilometres of the ride were descending, which would be classed as fairly technical. I knew that due to my ‘one-bung-leg’ that I would lose a lot of time on the climbs, so I made it my mission to take advantage of the skills I have in descending and cornering and use them to my advantage.
Forty kilometres had passed and I was at the base of Tawonga Gap, priming myself for the first climb of the day – a seven kilometre or so effort that was challenging, but very doable. By this stage we were just under ninety minutes into the ride, so decided it was time for my first snack and to take my vest off, all of which was completed on bike as to not waste time. Before I knew it we were heading down the Tawonga descent and on the road to the first food valet at Harrietville.
I had opted not to worry about this rest stop, so I quickly attended to some minor ablutions, refilled my bidons and it was then time to hop back in the saddle to climb up Mt Hotham. Mt Hotham isn’t a particularly aggressive climb at the beginning but the gravelly “dead” road wasn’t helping my cause. Freddy Mercury was screaming at me that all he wanted to do was “Bicycle! Bicycle! Bicycle!’ but I wasn’t so sure. One of my teammates had warned me about two steep “ramps” that were up ahead and a few more kilometres in, I was greeted by “The Meg”, which would be a couple of hundred metres of about a ten percent gradient. I made my peace with Meg in a calm fashion and then felt like after I had left her, that there was more energy in my legs and I picked up the pace a little. Buoyed by the thought of another ramp being like Meg and that whilst it was sharp and steep, it wasn’t long, so I began to feel a little more confident.
I looked over towards the valley, where gum trees were sparsely dotting what appeared to look like a barren windblown mountaintop. I immediately knew that we were heading for that spot – I could make out the clearing where the ski resort sat and knew that the next fifteen kilometres or so weren’t going to be a walk in the park.
With ten kilometres to ride (approximately), I found the second ramp, CRB hill (which I wanted to name CBFd hill – you join the blanks 🙂 ) and I doggedly threw my bike into its smallest gear and started tapping up slowly. The back of my leg started to cramp and I decided to ask God at that point to preserve what I thought was the last of my hamstring (biceps femoris) which is hanging onto my sitz bone by a thread. However, I was to find out in a few days’ time, that I had completed this ride without any hamstring attachment whatsoever. A few kilometres passed and I realised that this hill wasn’t getting any flatter, it was becoming steeper.
Participants around me were beginning to swear in disgust. Some hopped off their bikes and walked. I decided that I would be the first woman to ride up Mt Hotham with one leg and I am very pleased to say that I made it. It is funny what you think of in these situations as the movie/book, “Lord of the Rings” came into my mind.
Pleased that my Hotham nightmare was over, I could hear Sir Ian McKellen playing Gandalf, saying, “The battle for Helm’s Deep is over. Now the battle for Middle Earth begins”.
I interpreted that as, “if I make it up Falls Creek then I will have achieved victory for my own Middle Earth”. Thinking that I was the most hilarious person in the world, I joyously skittled into the Dinner Plain lunch stop an hour ahead of the Lanterne Rouge, filled up my water bottles, swapped kit and gloves, had a quick bite, and set off towards Omeo and Anglers Rest. This was about eighty to ninety kilometres all up and as the route guide had suggested that the terrain was undulating, I felt like I could get through this quite easily before I reached the base of Fall’s Creek.
However, soon my ill placed joy had turned into despair – the road was dead and even as I was descending, the gravelly rough bitumen was slowing me down. A feeling that I could only describe as “mental rot” was beginning to set in. Nothing that was playing on my iPod was inspiring me either and I didn’t want to hear Avril Lavigne complaining about her Ska8er Boi. I decided to console myself with a Diet Coke at the Omeo service station. At this stage I felt close to quitting and wondered what everyone would say if I told them I dropped out.
“Everyone will try and soothe me and rationalise my non- finish to my busted hamstring,” I thought. “They will have believed I gave it my all and that my leg gave out.”
“But is it giving out?” I asked myself. The tactic of trying to motivate myself with shame and embarrassment for not finishing wasn’t working. I was telling myself that I didn’t care what anyone else thought.
But, something wasn’t right. I had to find another way of pushing through. I thought about how I coached my Cycle classes, always encouraging them to give their best effort and that if they had to stop because they had nothing left in the tank, then that would be enough and a reflection of how not giving up on a physical activity was a view into their personal values. In other words, being tenacious in training reflects a tenacious life spirit. I thought about my own personal values – and knew then that I had my “answer” – this ride was about me and was to be a reflection of my personal values. It wasn’t about cut offs or winning, it was about my attitude to digging in and facing the work that was ahead.
I passed the checkpoint at Omeo right at the cut off point and decided that I wasn’t going to stop until I had no more physically to give. That would be the point where I would have done enough. I pushed on towards Angler’s Rest and asked myself the question –
“Have you still got anything left in the tank?”
A quiet but steady voice, one I didn’t recognise as my own, answered back. “I do”.
“Keep going,” I pressed.
Then I struck some good fortune – I finally met another rider who was willing to roll some turns. I will be forever grateful to rider, Al, who allowed me to sit on his wheel. We got some good pace going and it meant that we hit the Falls Creek climb about half an hour before the designated cut off time. I had bought myself some time.
I was at the base of Falls Creek, at the aptly named WTF (what the f..k) corner and decided that it was now or never. WTF corner really did live up to its reputation – a hundred metres or so of nice steep gradient followed by a sharp right hander up to what felt like an insane gradient which really did have me muttering “what the f…k” under what breath I had left.
I meandered up the hill, carefully zig zagging and trying to find the shallowest line when I started to get complaints from my bad leg. It was going to have no more and I was forced to hop off and walk. I got on when I could, did what I could and hopped off again when my leg complained. At this stage I had decided that I would give myself permission to walk if I needed to as my overall health is my biggest concern and I didn’t think that ripping my sole remaining hamstring tendon off the bone was a good game plan.
The goal was to reach the final check point, Trapyard Gap, by 7.00pm. Was I going to make it? I didn’t bother looking at my Garmin. I was just going to close my eyes and hope for the best. Bingo! Into the final rest point at 6.55pm. I dared to look at my Garmin. Fifteen kilometres to go. I was going to conquer the Three Peaks, I really was!
The sun was sliding rapidly underneath the horizon and soon the stars were twinkling and the moon was full. It reminded me of the many stories I had read about the Australian Brumbies and the high Bogong plains in my youth. I approached the Falls Creek resort alongside a lake and as I rode, I could see the shadow of my bike rippling in the water. This was the romantic part of the ride that I had long envisioned, the stars, the moon, the Alpine Ash, the lake – it was surreal.
Soon I was sprinting for the finish line where a bunch of enthusiastic supporters greeted me as if I was the champion of the world. I sat up with both arms in the air as a salute. Yes, I really was the champion of the world!
My time was handed to me – thirteen hours, fourteen minutes – I had missed the time limit by fourteen minutes. However, I didn’t care. I had completed the ride, had given it everything I had, and stayed true to my personal values of always giving your best, no matter what the circumstances. Knowing that I had stayed true to my personal values and that I had practiced what I preach in the most challenging of circumstances is what is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. Now that is the best feeling ever.
Hope you enjoyed my little story. Thanks for reading!