My thoughts around completing Three Peaks Challenge Falls Creek revolve around cheesy song lyrics. During my many years of teaching RPM/spin classes, I amassed an incredible amount of music with dodgy motivational lyrics that did a surprisingly good job of driving me to that finish line on Sunday. After wrestling with a few mental dogs upon arrival, I put them gently back into the kennel by telling myself that I’d prepared well and all I needed to do was execute my plan. The Three Peaks Falls Creek challenge involves 235km of distance, 4000 plus metres of elevation and three big “peaks” to climb. The ride starts at Falls Creek, takes you to over Tawonga Gap, Mt Hotham and then finally to the mother of all climbs, the back side of Falls Creek.
Thus, at the starting line, my mind was eerily calm and my heart full of gratitude for the friends and family that had supported me to get to this point. The wind was howling and rain was pattering on my jacket. I wondered what the day had in store for me.
Cue cheesy lyrics –
“I’m moving on… to get back to the start.
I’ve taken off my mask of sorrow…
And now I’m stronger than I ever was before.
I’ve trained my heart out,
My goal is inside.
I’ll keep on running (riding) and never look behind.
I’m not alone, my friends surround me.
And they can make me feel like I’m champion of the world”.
[Champions of the World – Get Far]
I wondered if I had made the right choice, electing to start in the final wave. I had estimated my time to complete the event was 11 to 13 hours, however, I was concerned about safety as the first forty kilometres was a winding descent off Falls Creek. How competent were my fellow riders at descending? However, the five minute break between wave starts worked to my advantage as turned out that my strength in descending rocketed to the front of the pack and I was able to enjoy having the stretch of road all to myself, until I had caught the previous bunch. Realising that my descending skills have continued to improve post crash imbued me with a sense of confidence in that first hour of riding. Enjoying thirty kilometres of downhill at an average of 50km/hr was just the adrenalin rush I needed.
Once in Mt Beauty, I quickly took off my rain jacket, chomped on a gel and prepared myself for the seven kilometre climb up Tawonga Gap. It is steep in places, however I felt fresh and reminded myself of my game plan which was to conserve as much energy as I could so that I could tackle the the monster climbs that were to follow. Once off the top, I enjoyed a quick descent towards Harrietville, spying an 11 hour pacer and committing to join an echeloning bunch that were powering towards Mt Hotham. At this stage, there was plenty of cheer and bravado from my fellow riders and the gentleman who was riding next to me, Mr Yellow Jersey (YJ), informed me that we were on 10:40 pace.
After refilling bidons at Harrietville, allowing myself two minutes off the bike (yes, I was timing myself), I followed Mr YJ up the hill towards the base of Hotham. Mt Hotham is a thirty kilometre climb, so the best thing to do was to hunker down and find a good rhythm. It was at this time, my alter ego, “Pierre, Pierre; Wheel Sucker” (needs to be pronounced Pee-air, Pee-air; wheel suck-aaairrrrr for full effect), made an appearance. Mr YJ was making a dash for it up Hotham and I decided that he was going to be a good wheel to sit on. Fifteen kilometres had passed, I had ascended the first steep ramp, “The Meg” and thanks to Mr YJ, I was flying. However I was also beginning to feel a bit tired, and I decided that it was best to conserve energy so I bade goodbye to my yellow jerseyed mate and continued on, until I found the next group of riders whose wheels looked good to ride behind, passing one gentleman who was none too pleased about being “chicked” and in colourful tones, let me know about it! That was a bit surprising as I generally find most male riders friendly and supportive. I took a short five minute break at Hotham Heights, then it was off to tackle “CRB Hill”. This section of road was steep and tough and I was amazed that I had conquered this beast before with only one fully functioning leg. Self compassion flooded through me as I ground my way up the climb, marvelling at the tenacity and courage I had shown two years ago. Having had the experience of climbing Hotham once before, I knew it wasn’t over just yet, the final few kilometres being an agonising nine percent gradient that were extremely challenging. However, I was extremely grateful to have two functioning legs.
As I reached Dinner Plain, I realised that I was still under eleven hour pace. However, a long queue for an unavoidable bathroom stop saw me lose some time. I also purchased a Coke from the local Girl Guides, reapplied sunscreen and jumped back on the bike as quickly as I could to head towards Omeo. I had decided against the provided lunch, a wrap, due to having trouble staying hydrated and chewing. The Coke and a combination of gels and chomps were working well and I hurtled down the descent hoping to catch some riders and form a paceline. Unfortunately, nobody I came across seemed terribly interested, so I decided to bring Pierre out again, choosing the best wheel I could, and then jumping onto the next, every time a stronger rider passed me. It was early afternoon and the crosswinds were beginning to whip up to their predicted 35km/hr. Some of the descents started to become a little bit hairy – but again, that also was amplified by me hitting 80km/hr at one point! As the wind buffeted the bike, I crouched down low, determined to stay as “heavy” as I could. Do I like descending? Hell yeah!
I took three minutes’ break at the Omeo stop and headed off to Anglers Rest with a very nice South African gentleman, Arpad, who had lived in the same suburb as Mr Lucy growing up. Unfortunately we got separated, but that was made up for by meeting Mark from South Australia, who did a tremendous job of pulling us towards Anglers Rest, in what was a horrific head wind. I tried to give Mark some relief by rolling a turn but nobody else in our group would come to the front, which was disappointing. It was a delight to finally see Anglers Rest and the pub, The Blue Duck Inn. I decided that another Coke would be the ticket before heading towards WTF corner, aptly named as you roll around it, look up the hill and think, “what the f…k?”.
“One Coke please.”
I smiled at the lady behind the pub counter, holding out a five dollar note. I waited patiently for my change. When none was forthcoming, she muttered, “your Coke is FIVE dollars”.
Obviously, Coke in these parts is the liquid gold I claim it to be. I thought of a rider in Brisbane who had told me that my Coke consumption during rides was off the Richter scale and laughed. If I could remember who it was, I will tell them that it was the best five dollars that I have ever spent. It was time to head to WTF corner and the back of Falls Creek to ascend the final monster. Luckily I had John Parr’s “St Elmo’s Fire” to listen to along the way which lifted my spirits somewhat. I marvelled at how appropriate the lyrics were for this moment.
“Growin’ up you don’t see the writing on the wall
Passin’ by, movin’ straight ahead you knew it all
But maybe sometime if you feel the pain,
You’ll find you’re all alone everything has changed
Play the game you know you can’t quit until it’s won
Soldier of only you can do what must be done
You know, in some ways you’re a lot like me
You’re just a prisoner, and you’re tryin’ to break free
I can see a new horizon underneath the blazing sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where the future’s lying St. Elmo’s fire
Burning up don’t know just how far that I can go
Soon be home only just a few miles down the road
And I can make it, I know I can
You broke the boy in me, but you won’t break the man..”
Finally, I arrived at WTF corner, having deftly jumped on a few wheels here and there to conserve energy. It was time to stop and take stock, take a few deep breaths and climb this mountain! I emptied my pockets of rubbish and any bits and pieces that were no longer required, donating a few Clif bars to the volunteers at the corner. Gingerly, I began my ascent, knowing that I had to climb ten kilometres at approximately 9-10% gradient before things became manageable. Little did I know the first ramp maxes out at 18.5%! To get through it, I focused on doing 100 metres at a time, leaving behind a trail of human carnage as I passed riders, completely spent, lying on each side of the road. I pretended that I was on the hill, coaching others and gently encouraging myself to press on. I had ridden five kilometres, when the road kicked up again suddenly. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain my effort, so I hopped off and walked for three hundred metres or so. My adductors and hamstrings were cramping badly, however, I quietly told myself that I’d hop back on the bike and ease the cramps out. The short break had given me a second wind and I completed the ten kilometres without any issues at all, feeling desperately sorry for the people I was passing, whose bodies and minds had simply given up the fight. Upon reaching Trapyard Gap, I celebrated with another Coke and then it was time to head that front wheel towards home.
With ten kilometres to go, the field had begun to thin out and my pace had slowed. However, I could hear the whirring of gears behind me. It was a freight train of four gentleman riders who were keen to hit it back to Falls Creek. Again, the old wily racing cyclist in me saw an opportunity to join the peloton and it was with a few hard pedal strokes and quick gear changes that I was on the downtown express train back to Falls Creek. I did have a bit of a mismatch in music though. Having not heard from her in my 2000 track collection, good old Whitney Houston was warbling, “finnndddd yooourrr strength in luuuurvve” as I caned it towards the finish line. Smiling, I thought,”better take out those ear buds and get ready for a victory salute instead!”
I crossed the line in 11:16 and was given an official time of 11:23 – don’t know where the time discrepancy came from but I was thrilled regardless. Mr Lucy was there, waiting for me at the finish line. Time to give him a big high five and then give an obligatory fist pump at the finish line!
In the finish chute, I couldn’t stop smiling, knowing that I had completed the ride well under the cut off time. Achieving the Three Peaks Challenge Falls Creek has given me a sense of closure and has helped close the book on what has been a difficult couple of years, avulsing my hamstrings, having them subsequently repaired; losing a career and gaining a new one. During this preparation, I started to see flickers of my “old” self (within the shell of my new “better” self) returning – the girl that used to give 100% to her training without hesitation. Though, upon reflection, that’s what serious injury can do – make you second guess yourself. However, much easier to realise this with the gift of hindsight!
Before I wrap this adventure up, I want to thank some major participants who starred in this story. Firstly my coach and friend, Liz Hepple, who has been there for me in my darkest moments and who I have shared tears and triumphs with on my way back to fitness. During this time we’ve covered a gamut of topics, from perceived exertion to how to exorcise mental dogs (note, you don’t exorcise them, you train them to behave nicely 🙂 ) Secondly, my main training buddies, Anne and Nicky, who joined me on many a long adventure. I can’t forget mentioning the other Liz Hepple coached athletes, the Hepplettes, who were a continual source of support during my preparation for the event. Also, a big thank you must go to Mr Lucy, and the little Lucys who encouraged me to go for those long training rides and gave me calf massages every time I groaned that I had DOMS. The whole day would not have run as smoothly as it did if it hadn’t been for Mr Lucy helping me stay organised and patiently holding my bike whilst I ducked off to the bathroom for that last “nervous wee”. Not to mention feeding me the best risotto and pancakes in Bright! Finally, thank you to those who read this blog and encouraged me, both online and in person. I hope that it provided some entertainment and a little glimpse into what it takes to prepare for such an event! Hopefully I can write about the next adventure, whatever that entails.
Three Peaks Challenge Falls Creek – it’s a wrap!