This event that I apparently ‘won’ wrapped up almost a week ago. The prospect of writing about my experience has gnawed at me and left me feeling a little overwhelmed; where even to start?! To explain and understand how this event unfolded, I need to go back at least nine months.
On a rainy day in February 2021, I sat in a holiday rental in Robe, SA, and got real with myself. I had been a social worker for almost 20 years, not the warm fuzzy kind either. I had been doing the kind of work that results in almost daily ethical dilemmas. One that requires tough conversations with strangers about unspeakable things and throws an ethical person into turmoil; doing the right thing is seldom clear cut. I realised that after all these years, this work was not cost neutral. There is a genuine personal cost to training yourself to not express normal human emotions in very raw and traumatic situations.
So, in that holiday house in Robe, after months of long bike rides, soul searching, and a psych appointment, I blew out the candles on my 40th birthday cake and decided, finally, with the support of my dear husband, that the personal cost was just too high. I wanted to let myself feel again, a scary prospect after so many years of just getting by and telling myself that everything is just fine.
As soon as I returned from Robe, I took all the leave of absence options available to me and resolved to do the only thing that I felt I could in this state of burnout;
- Lean into any activity that I felt good about;
- Learn something new, anything to remind me that this was still possible and;
- Get some ‘quick wins’ after all these years of dealing with other people’s endemic problems.
In 2020 I discovered that bikepacking was a powerful cocktail for treating anxiety; nature, exercise, and reducing the work of life to eating, sleeping, and pedalling. So, more of that was a high priority. I liked the idea of learning to repair bikes; finding the problem, fixing the problem is a formula rarely helpful or effective in social work. This concept seemed intoxicatingly simple.
There’s a risk in trying new things, especially when you’re at a low point. So over the ensuing months, I walked the tightrope of managing my window of tolerance to set myself up for success. It was a bit of a roller coaster at first. I had to let go of a lot; of caring about other people’s opinions about what I’m doing (er, no, this isn’t a “midlife crisis”), of my professional identity (who am I even without that), of the comfort and security of a well-paid job and the respect of my peers. In short, for a person who spent a lot of time avoiding eye contact with people (after all the peopling of social work), this brave new space left me feeling vulnerable, exposed, and raw.
The cycling side of this plan to unearth the person I hoped was still where I left her 20 years ago started fairly small. I felt so fragile that I didn’t dare overwhelm myself by stepping too far out of my comfort zone. Short trips within South Australia, long day trips on my road bike, I went bike packing on trails that I had ridden before but challenged myself to ride longer days and solo. I went to a Curve flashpacking weekend on the Fleurieu Peninsula; I almost didn’t attend because the thought of feeling so vulnerable amongst so many people seemed almost paralysing. But, aside from a mild panic attack on a dirt road in the company of one dear and supportive friend, I got through the weekend without incident, enjoyed it even.
There’s something to be said for sitting with physical and emotional discomfort on the bike; there’s nowhere to go and no sense in hiding. Mindfulness is a word that has almost lost meaning these days, but in the truest sense that’s what this game is reduced to for me on these adventures. My restless body occupied turning the pedals, my breath deepens, observing my mind and the tricks it plays on me has been transformative. Becoming an expert in oneself takes time and patience.
Fast forward many months; many bike mechanic lessons, lots of trial and error, false starts and new beginnings, big adventures taken solo... the heartache and anxiety have given way to joy and gratitude.
So, back to ‘The Blast.’ I had been offered, then accepted a new job just before this event started. The kind of job that I’m led to believe doesn’t carry the same price tag as the work I used to do. So with my time of riding around and breathing deeply, running short, I made a snap decision to register just a few days before the grand depart. It seemed that this event presented an opportunity to practice a number of the skills on the long shopping list of things that I want to improve on when it comes to bikepacking. I set myself some distance and other goals for the event; at least one day in the 250-300 km range, finishing within four days.
I packed up my wares and drove to Swan Hill. The participants gathered at a local club for dinner the night before the grand depart. It’s intimidating for an introverted middle-aged woman who suffers from imposter syndrome to stroll into such a venue alone. Let alone one that felt oppressively packed with a 90% male cohort, with that serious cyclist look about them. So I awkwardly slipped into the back of the room. Ross Burrage gave me a warm welcome, and I soon made myself at home with a handful of other riders who had also attended solo.
I was immediately impressed by a woman named Kelly, who had been even braver than myself in fronting up to this event. After a lengthy, inspiring, and joyful chat with my new found friend, and as I went to leave, Ross hugged me and pointed me squarely towards the table of serious Middle Aged Men In Lycra. Ross told the men that he had ridden with me before, that I was “fast” and had completed Race to the Rock. The men looked as doubtful as I did at this revelation; “fast” is not a word I would ever use to describe myself as a cyclist.
The morning of the event, I felt calm, positive, and relaxed. Safe in the knowledge that this course was by all accounts not technical, and that I was simply going to run my own show anyway. Those riding the 500 km course set off half an hour earlier than those tackling the 1000 km journey. As my cohort rolled out, the group spread out quickly. My party pace into the headwind placed me squarely towards the back. These placings continued in this way for several hours until I started passing the riders on the 500 km course one by one, with a cheery “hello” as I went by. As the morning progressed, I leap-frogged Michael O’Brien several times, riding together for short periods to chat. Initially, I gave a bit of chase to mix up the morning as I sang along solo. I had not paid attention to the MAProgress tracking for the event and was surprised to find as I rolled into towns, they were littered with riders. I considered that I was inadvertently, either not far off the pace, or perhaps they were taking their time?
My resupply halfway on that first day was short, and this game of being passed and then passing others continued. By the time I reached St Arnaud in the early evening, the town had appeared full of salt-crusted men in various states of fatigue. Michael invited me to join him for dinner and a drink. Being a task focussed kind of gal, I gave thanks but told him that any time spent sitting and drinking was time that I could spend sleeping later.
After my brief stop, I rode out of town with Ross. Ross has a warmth to him that’s almost palpable, his voice soothing, reassuring regardless of the content of the conversation. Ross explained that David Langley, who was ahead, was "an Indi-packer" and "long gone". Ross also said that some "big dogs" were on course, referring to their level of bikepacking experience and expertise. Ross himself was no stranger to ultra-events, having completed the Tour Divide in 2019. As Ross stopped for a break, I continued into the night through Kara Kara National Park, with some apprehension as I had heard it was one of the more difficult sections of the course.
The terrain through the National Park was steep and a little rocky at times, but I made my way through it and beyond. I arrived in Avoca in the early morning hours, having hit my target of 290 km despite the continuing 30 kph headwinds. After some slightly trespassy, comedic, and extremely inefficient goings-on, I managed to put some down pants on over my shorts and hop into my bivy. About 90 minutes later (despite three pairs of merino socks), my cold feet woke me up, so I decided getting moving was the best way to warm up. Besides, the sunrise wasn’t too far away, and it is my favourite kind of company.
I rolled on into the second day happily solo and wondering how long it would take for all those fast, serious-looking men to overtake me. The golden light of morning, the fun of playing DJ for myself, and the reduction of life to eating, drinking, and pedalling were all so welcome and enjoyable. As the day wore on, I began to believe my friend Stephen’s prediction that the “fast kids” (as I called them) would NOT be catching me. I received a message from Stephen as I moved close to Torquay; in his assessment, I was “looking great” and in second place, but I shouldn’t “get comfy” in Torquay as the wind was likely to change. The thought of the headwind beyond Torquay didn’t seem like a fun game to play, so a cheerful chat with a delightful service station attendant and quick resupply had me on my way.
I had scoped out Google maps for some possible options for efficient shelter around the 280 km mark for the day. I found an image of a newly completed toilet block, with an accessible toilet area that looked frankly palatial; enough room for me, Xena (my bike), and the length of my bivy. When I rolled up to the facility several hours later (in the middle of the night), I was amused to find it floodlit and with loud plant equipment hammering away right next door. I joked with my friends on Messenger that I would have a few things to say on Trip Adviser about this alleged “5-star” facility. Nevertheless, I was feeling happy to roll on, so with some enthusiasm and motivating tunes, I moved on to the Bunjils Lookout campsite in the early morning hours.
The Bunjils Lookout campsite resembled a Scouts advertising campaign; cute tiny tents in neat rows, and a well-equipped camp kitchen all set up to feed hungry mouths. Being petite and using a bicycle as my primary source of transport, I felt I could pass for a tween at a push, so I discreetly rolled out my bivy behind their impressive kitchen and set the timer for 90 minutes. I woke up before the alarm and found the mild conditions too good to resist.
On this, the third day I rode in the dark, a little lazily at first, with sunrise usually required to trick my body into thinking it’s more rested than it is. As the morning progressed, I began to feel stronger, brighter and the breathtaking views and variable terrain only buoyed my spirits. I started to take note of the distance between my location and the rider behind me and grew concerned that David Langley’s tracker had not been updated; I hoped he was okay. It appeared that I had left him in Torquay and taken 1st position, but I assumed this was an error. Feeling good and thriving on the trails, I was determined to keep moving; no stopping to chat with dot watchers as they came out towards Daylesford, not stopping for anything except water. Then I received word that David (the rider in 1st) had withdrawn from the race; I was reassured that he was fine. I resolved that it was improbable that I would find myself at the pointy end of any kind of race ever again, so I might as well embrace the experience; “no regrets.”
Kelly (another rider) messaged me, “Go girl! Lots of tech stuff ahead, so I’ve heard. Just don’t sleep”. “Tech stuff” just happens to be my kryptonite. It’s the stuff that keeps me awake at night and makes my anxiety voice spiral. I noted that the rider behind me was (according to MAProgress) riding a mountain bike, and in my mind, this rider must surely be fasssst on those trails. So, “tech stuff” with the daylight fading and with most likely a professional level mountain biker hunting me down…. I’m not going to lie; internally I started to panic.
Utilising the skills, I have practiced over the last six months in managing these spiralling thoughts, (intervene early, don’t let the anxiety voice win, play the 'what if everything goes right' game). I am proud to say that I tackled those trails with confidence and bravery, better than I could ever have imagined. I also basked in that almost oppressive heat as I climbed the unashamed roadie climb of Mount Alexander.
Mentally high-fiving myself, I rolled into Bendigo for what I knew would be my final resupply at a tiny petrol station. I stocked up on any gluten-free snacks available (a disturbing collection of Gatorade and Snickers bars), and joked with the petrol station attendant (I was looking rather homeless by this stage), before rolling on with my lead over the 2nd place rider remarkably intact.
I tried not to pay attention to the simple maths associated with this final day on the trail; I had ridden just shy of 190 km thus far on that particular day, the remaining distance on the course was 244 km. My longest ride on a road bike was just over 320 km in a single day. I created a new rule for myself, I would focus only on what lay ahead and disregard any thoughts I may have about the cumulative distance.
Still feeling good and safe in the knowledge that I had now created a substantial lead over the rider behind me, I relaxed the pace once again. As the night progressed, I dodged what felt like hundreds of rabbits. There was a little surprise sand to remind me to keep my speed in check. My playlist of singable songs continued to keep my mood lifted and mind engaged. The heavy day of climbing that preceded this next phase meant that my dynamo had not been charging my power banks to the extent that would ensure maximum music and navigation for the remainder of the event. Despite caffeine tablets and snickers bars, I felt a little lightheaded. I decided to find a powerpoint and a place to lay down for 20 minutes when I came upon a town.
When I arrived in Pyramid Hill, something about this town in the dead of night raised my social work heckles. I checked the doors at the caravan park amenities blocks, locked! I reluctantly moved on to the public toilets; the inside screamed crime scene with a bit of blood on the floor, litter, and the kind of lighting that would prevent me from injecting caffeine if the need arose. Yet, there was a bench to lay on and that much needed powerpoint. Fast charger for the power bank, a lay down on the bench (helmet on an all), and legs elevated for me. Twenty minutes of charge, and I continued; the light-headedness had dissipated, and I was encouraged to find that daylight was not so far away. Watching the daybreak in tiny increments on the plains is energising. It’s an affirmation that everything is temporary, a reminder to soak it all in and be present. It made me feel small in the best possible way.
The rest of this event continued in this vein, with no pressure or expectation, simply the joy of being outside, alive and healthy. I acknowledged what it had taken for me to get to this point of connection, self-belief and confidence, and teared up just a little. But, at the strong risk of sounding cheesy and disturbingly social work, I didn’t just find the finish line in the peace and quiet of that morning. I also came to realise that I had, in fact, found the way back to myself.
Learn more about April HERE.
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