Over the weekend of 27-28 September 2014, I will be racing in the Scott Australian 24 Hour Mountain Bike Championships. While I have raced in dozens of other mountain bike events this will be the first time I have ridden for 24 hours solo! That’s right! This year my big fundraising challenge is to race on my mountain bike for 24 hours straight!
Why would I ride my bike for 24 hours?
Because I can! One of the most critical aspects to my ongoing recovery with PTSD and depression is cycling. Being physically fit helps me to stay mentally fit and riding with a purpose is especially beneficial.
For me the last 4 years has been an ongoing struggle to stay positive and set attainable goals. It has been very easy to set the bar somewhat low for a lot of my goals in order for me to achieve them. This year I wanted to do something that would set the bar incredibly higher and challenge me physically, mentally, and emotionally.
This race will be the most challenging thing I have done since hanging up my Australian Army uniform.
Why do I ride for Soldier On? During my time in the Australian Army I served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009 after returning from 9 1/2 months in Afghanistan I knew something wasn’t right. I was aggressive to most people, wary of crowds, couldn’t sleep, had sleeping issues and started drinking heavily. Like most Soldiers, I didn’t want to talk about my issues in case I was seen as being weak and God knows there were others that were worse off than me. So I kept quiet and not surprisingly, things got worse. I didn’t want to spend time with other people and I started thinking this world would be better off without me.
After several days of no sleep, heavy drinking and almost wrapping my car around a pole on purpose, I approached and asked the Senior Soldier at my unit for assistance. Instead of the words of encouragement and avenues of support I expected from a person of that rank, I was met with “harden the f*** up and get over it”. In that one moment I felt defeated, I was dismissed by the one person who is solely responsible for the welfare of the Soldiers subordinate to them. If this person wouldn’t help me and I could no longer help myself then what was next?
Luckily for me I posted into a new unit and found the support I so desperately needed from my new workmates. After a while I finally found the courage to tell my family I needed help. Road blocks were set up by another Senior Soldier and my desperation grew greater until I hit rock bottom; I attempted to end my own life. It was only when my life was at its darkest did professional help eventually appear; it was provided by a civilian agency and organised by a very kind Navy doctor.
With only the bare-minimum of support coming from within the ADF I relied heavily on my family and friends for the ongoing support I needed. After having all support services cut off after I left the Army and the near-impossibility to secure an appointment to see a DVA accredited councillor; I started talking about my issues with others and realised that many other Soldiers had been experiencing the same obstacles; especially those that had separated from the ADF.
This is the reason I am so passionate about the provision of mental health care for returned veterans. The system is not yet good enough and so we rely on each other to be open and honest for ongoing support.
Soldier On helps by providing something other support services do not. They provide hope, confidence and a hand up – not a hand out.
Like all good things, this Blog series must also come to an end. For those of you diligent enough to read through the preceding five posts, I give to you, the final part in this series.
It’s difficult to sum up an experience like the Trois Etapes into a short form Blog series. There are many factors that come into play when choosing what to include, what photos to use and how to balance the narrative so that it doesn’t sway too far into what I like to call “too-much-Chad” territory. There were certain events, photos and details that I had to exclude. Not due to any lewd behaviour, but because some members of the team are still serving in ADF and most importantly, it is not my place to tell their stories no matter how inspirational and confronting they may be.
As previously mentioned in Part 1, this was a long journey for me; and now that it’s over I find things have definitely changed for me. I’ve always been brutally honest on this Blog and that is something I set out to do from the start. I chose the name “Blogged Down By Life” for a reason. Many days I wake up and feel like I am bogged down by what my life has become.
I live with what is clearly defined and diagnosed as a mental illness; I live with a form of PTSD and I live with a sometimes debilitating depressive disorder. But despite this I do not suffer from anything. I have made choices in recent years that have defined the person I now am; some were good choices, some were not. It is difficult to find a balance between the two when your outlook of life is immediately tainted with a pessimistic view and defeatist attitude. The highs I experience in life are exhilarating and the lows, well, sometimes the black dog gets the best of me.
During the lead up to the Trois Etapes I experienced many highs and lows; and more often than not I let frustration get the better of me. Dealing with a charity like Soldier On is a unique experience. A small number of dedicated staff, a heavy workload and an increasing number of requests for support, mean that details were often late in being disseminated to the team. Things that often frustrated me were frustrating the staff even more as they were the ones spending hours of their own time trying to fix potentially catastrophic issues. Differing opinions, stubborn people on both sides of the fence and a constant stream of minor issues arising, threatened to derail this massive undertaking before we even left Australia.
Do I wish some-things had occurred differently? The simple answer to that is yes. It was an unfortunate fact that due to so many competing events and the juggling of several prominent people’s schedules that the event launch our trip deserved did not happen. The majority of the promotion for this event was on Soldier On’s Facebook page and my team-mates saturating social media with the details.
I am a more prominent advocate and supporter of Solider On and this is often a slippery path to navigate. Through my early interaction and fundraising I essentially planted the seed that would grow to become Soldier On Cycling; a community of like-minded people and veterans that were using cycling a means to recovery and also to raise awareness for the charity itself. This is something I am extremely proud of and elated to see what the idea has now grown into; different chapters in several different cities and of course the Soldier On cycling kit. But what this meant for me, on a personal level, was that I had quite suddenly became a face and a voice for Soldier On; not something I was prepared for.
This quite suddenly came to a head earlier this year when an older Blog post about my interaction with the RSL went somewhat viral across ADF and veteran aligned social media groups. I received an enormous amount of responses to that post and subsequently many others I had made. The majority were people agreeing and supporting my stance; however the negative comments ranged from differing opinions to abuse to outright death threats. This was my first taste of what my outspoken views on veterans issues would attract.
As the year progressed and Soldier On Cycling promoted and conducted the Remembrance Ride I chose to heavily promote the event on this Blog, my personal social media accounts and in the local and national media; something I do not regret doing. While the Remembrance Ride achieved a great many things, most notably through a heavy saturation in the media; I had been left wondering if Soldier On’s participation in the Trois Etapes achieved the same level of achievement. Over the last few days interacting with various people through social media, both friends and strangers, the overwhelming opinion is that we either didn’t achieve what we set out to do or we simply went on a holiday to France.
Do I agree with this?No. I do believe there were some missed opportunities leading up to the event that were out of our’s and Soldier On’s control which left more than a few people asking what was going on. One point that I do take issue with though; is that the seven of us went to France on a holiday.
Each rider was chosen to participate for various reasons. Either because of their tireless efforts in raising the profile of Soldier On, or by being affected by their service in the ADF; mentally or physically. Like myself, many of the team has a devoted a great deal of their own time and funds to promote Soldier On and the issues younger veterans face on a daily basis.
Did I see the trip to France as a reward for this?No. I honestly saw it as an opportunity to promote Soldier On and Soldier On Cycling to a potential new global audience; and this is something we, as a team managed to do. But, this is something that was not relayed back to our’s and Soldier On’s supporters and critics back in Australia. There is no finger of blame to point for this, it was something that just did not occur.
The most important achievement by the seven of us travelling to France and racing in a cycling Pro-Am was the personal growth that occurred in each of us. I shared personal accounts of survival, loss, hope and desperation with a group of men that I will never forget. I saw men breakdown physically, mentally and emotionally after successfully riding up a mountain. Why? Because this was about breaking down barriers and rebuilding our lives with hope and self-confidence. At some point during the event we all conquered something that was holding us back in our lives. For several of us this was the most physically and mentally demanding thing we had done since taking off the uniform.
My story was not dissimilar from many of the others and since I have returned I have received emails and messages asking me why fundraising money was spent on sending us to France. It should also be remembered that I am not an employee or ambassador for Soldier On. I don’t know the breakdown of the budget for Soldier On; but I do know that the vast majority of the Trois Etapes trip was funded by private sponsorship from Defence industry partners. It should also be noted that both our photographer Matt and driver Bruce paid their own way for the entire trip! Also, each of us that participated spent a large sum of money leading up to and during the event to fund various travelling expenses.
This post was supposed to be a wrap-of our final week in France. Where we as a team made up of young Australian Veterans, toured the Belgium Battlefields of World War One, paid our respects at the graves of long dead Australian servicemen and visited the Menin Gate and saw the tens of thousands of forever young Australian men’s names etched in stone. Instead I wrote a post defending Soldier On, my team-mates and myself. I try to not let the negativity get the best of me, but when I am forced into a corner by dozens of abusive emails and messages I will defend myself and the others.
Thank you to my Wife, daughter, family and friends. Without your support I wouldn’t be here today, let alone have made over the French Pyrenees.
Thank you to my team-mates: Andy, Justin, Shane, Matt, Dan and Adam. Hopefully you all know how much your support and encouragement meant to me.
Thank you to Scott, Bruce, Matt, Jodie, Kate and Jenine – none of this would have happened without your help and tireless efforts in supporting us.
Thank you to Soldier On for their incredible work and support: Pearl, Clare, Dion, Carlie, John, Danielle, Meredith, Anna and especially Tony – (for being a friend, a mentor and being you).
Ride bikes? Follow the Tour de France? Chances are you’ve heard of the Col du Tourmalet.
It is hors catégorie – beyond categorisation; an exceptional climb.
I was quite happy not knowing what HC meant on Strava prior to the final stage of the Trois Etapes. Hearing from my team mates about how tough the 17.2km/1268m climb was; did not instil me with a lot of confidence.
As expected, Day 3 did not begin at the foot of the formidable mountain, it started outside of the hotel in the car park on a somewhat chilly morning. Fatigue had well and truly set in my legs and overall, I felt tired. I fought constant surges of nervous energy and heard Scott Sunderland’s words in my head “nervous energy is wasted energy, you’ll need it on the bike“. So I concentrated on the task ahead.
I broke the final stage into four sections:
1. The Warm-Up – Lourdes to Pouzac – 25.7km/334m
2. The Prep – Pouzac to St-Marie-de-Campan – 14.3km/323m
3. The Climb – St-Marie-de-Campan – Col du Tourmalet – 17.2km/1’268m
4. The Finale – 48.3km/-1’734m
The Warm-Up was surprisingly tough for most of us. The humidity and short, sharp pinch climbs got the body nice and warm and sweaty. The difficulty was short-lived however as we descended into Pouzac. A quick stop for food and water followed before we headed off with a couple of the other teams.
The Prep section was exactly how it sounds. We rode with some of the other teams and postured ourselves for the upcoming climb. This was the time to eat and drink and get the mind ready for the mountain looming ahead of us.
The start of The Climb out of St-Marie-de-Campan was incredibly daunting for me. I made the decision to ride by myself the night before and tried to block out everything else around me. For the first time since January I was sans beard and hoping it wasn’t going to end like the last time I rode without my beard (hint: I crashed, was injured, got stitches and had months of limited feeling in my left arm).
For me, riding Col du Tourmalet was always going to be cathartic experience. I was going to carry some demons on my back up the mountain; and by finishing I was hoping to leave some of them on the top. After the initial disappointment of not riding it days before on my birthday; I was quite content in the knowledge that I would face the mountain for the first time on race day.
The Climb itself was tough and I found myself constantly out of the saddle, taking back a few gears to charge up the mountain; albeit for a fleeting moment.
The majority of the team finished the stage well ahead of me. At La Mongie, 5km from the summit, I was briefly held up by a herd of sheep crossing the road. A quick dismount, the bike on it’s back wheel and some select swearing at the woolly beasts ensured I was able to weave my way through the throng and get back to the business of finishing off the ride.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the climb itself. I focused on not grinding away; instead I focused on maintaining a constant rhythm and getting to the next distance marker. My cadence dropped the closer to the summit I got. I was standing more often, taking gears off the mountain and not giving them back; I was slowly building to a crescendo. This was my chance to push myself past my threshold, through the boundaries and drop some of the demons I had carried up the mountain so far.
After I crossed the finish line, I felt a wave of emotions. I lost my breath and had to take a few minutes to compose myself; but I knew the team hadn’t finished just yet. Adam was powering up the mountain after pacing himself early on; making the best of the individual timing on this stage.
We each took a few moments to talk amongst ourselves and revel in the realisation that after all of the training, all of the riding and numerous setbacks we had, as a team, climbed and conquered Col du Tourmalet.
We didn’t stay on the mountain long. Soon we started the descent down the other side of the mountain. It was time for the Finale. Something that I truly enjoyed. There were many “whoop! whoops!” as I sped (for me) down the winding roads towards Lourdes; all the while thinking to myself “I actually finished!” and smiling.
Day 2 of the Trois Etapes started exactly the same as Day 1, except for the stiff legs and the requirement to become a walking billboard for Rocktape! Thanks to my time in the Army and numerous injuries I no longer have much meniscus in my left knee. Combined with a constantly strained and stretched patellar tendon, previously torn medial ligament and a fractured patella that often dislocates my left knee is somewhat useless when made to work.
Luckily for me, the main issue from Day 1 was in fact an iliotibial band (ITB) strain in my right leg. Even luckier for me was Jenine, the team swanier, who was able to strap my knees and quads so well that almost all discomfort disappeared as soon as I was warmed up on the bike.
Stage 2’s timed section was 75km into the day’s ride, which made for an interesting and extended warm up. We were only about 5km into the ride before Dan suffered a flat and had to swap out his wheel. This short stop was followed up with a couple of quick roadside toilet breaks and food stops. There were a few small climbs and lots of winding roads for us to enjoy on the way back out to the Col du Soulor. A few blind corners equated to a few close calls with cars which just made the ride more interesting and raised the heart-rate.
The timed section began at the small village of Ferrieres, at the foot of Col du Soulor. This time we would attack the mountain from the other side; the more scenic route to be honest. The race format for the day was the fastest six riders of each team completing the 12km section. This meant Adam and myself would lead the team out of Ferrieres at speed and then drop off when we could no longer maintain the pace.
More by my lazing position in the shade than anything else; I was chosen to lead the team out and onto the climb. I was a little nervous about this as I wasn’t the strongest climber in the team and by going flat out I was risking bonking before I had even started the stage proper.
I put this aside and decided to just go for broke from the start. I basically went as fast as the gradient would allow me to go. Almost immediately the rest of the team called out to back off a little, but this was replaced moments later by calls to speed up again. I held onto the front for close to 1.5km before I had to drop off. I watched as the team sped past me and a minute later watched as Adam dropped off from the front as well. By this stage the climb had well and truly started and the rest of the team settled into a slower, albeit, still faster than me, pace for the next 10km up the mountain.
I struggled to keep my heart-rate up as I went further into the climb. Unlike the day before I wasn’t getting passed as often and soon found a good rhythm alternating between sitting in the saddle and standing up for the climb. In my head I had a little mantra each time I stood up and sat back down “I take two gears and ride”/”and the mountain takes them back”.
Eventually I saw the end of the climb at about the 2km to go mark. Up until then I had been enjoying the beautiful vistas around me. By the time the 1km mark appeared I decided to up the pace and sprint towards the line. I won’t lie and say I broke any records; but for me being able to give everything I had to the mountain meant a lot.
When I reached the top of the mountain I learnt team-mate Shane had pushed himself so hard, he had an impromptu nap on the side of the road with the local sheep. Once he was given the once over and was ready to get back on the bike we headed towards to the hotel with a short stop for coffee on the way.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, the journey to get to France was a long one both in distance and in time spent preparing.
But it seemed on the morning of Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes, it had all crept up on me and I was left wondering if I had done enough training or was I going to embarrass myself and the team.
My race preparation was simple: breakfast, shower, get dressed, pack my bag, FaceTime the family and finally downstairs to the bikes.
When all the riders were downstairs, Scott – now race director – gave us the rider’s brief and all the teams headed off for the short ride to the Mayor of Lourdes’ residence in the heart of the city.
We arrived at the Mayor’s residence and signed on for the race. From there we lined up in front of our team car and started the 40km ride to Arrens-Marsous for the start of the first climb and timed section; Col du Soulor.
The first 40km of Stage 1 was relatively easy, but soon we felt the temperature and humidity rising, which was going to make the next 7.4km of climbing somewhat more difficult. The first timed section was based on the first six riders of each team crossing the line. The decision had been made that the team would ride together until the two slowest riders couldn’t keep up and would drop off the pace. For me, I dropped off after about 1.5km but never lost sight of the team while on the climb.
The climb up Soulor was the first real climb that I had done in months and was a very big challenge; both physically and mentally. I set a reasonable pace from the start but stayed below my threshold; something I found difficult to do as the gradient increased steadily the further into the climb I got.
After what seemed like an eternity in the saddle, I crested the top of Soulor and crossed the timing mat. A quick lunch followed with before we rolled down the sweeping decent towards the second timed section of the day; Col de Spandelles.
We reached Eschartes, a tiny village at the base of Col de Spandelles, and prepared for the next section. This time our four fastest riders were to set the team’s time for the stage.
A few minutes after the frontrunners were well and truly into the stage the rest of the riders started the difficult 10.5km climb.
I dreaded this climb but decided to just grind my way up to the top. It was hot, it was steep and the little bugs that kept stinging my back were not helping at all. The climb seemed like it wouldn’t end and every-time I looked up to the summit I could see other riders at various stages on their way to the top.
I had my jersey undone and I was sweating profusely, as I neared the marker signalling the final kilometre I ran out of water and steadied myself for what would be a difficult final few minutes until I crossed the timing mat. When I rounded the final corner and saw our driver Bruce cheering me on I took a moment to zip up my jersey and started a little sprint towards the line.
The 30km ride back to Lourdes incorporated the other side down the Col de Spandelles; a somewhat sketchy road complete with potholes, gravel and hairpins. By the time I arrived back at the hotel I was exhausted but extremely elated that I had completed Stage 1 of the Trois Etapes. After a difficult lead up to the event it was a massive confidence boost to finally have finished the first day of riding.
Sunday, 3 August My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck. After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes. Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.
The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather. This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes. The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival. The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart. Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.
Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.
Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km. There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!
For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.
Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday The plan was simple… Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes. But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t. Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.
Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet. After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.
I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.
Wednesday, 6 August A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.
Thursday, 7 August With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!
We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet. I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!
In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.
My journey to France wasn’t as simple as three planes, two trains, a cab and countless hours spent on a bicycle. My journey to France started on January 6, 2012; my last day as a soldier in the Australian Army. Over the previous decade I had made many friends, shared countless experiences, served on foreign soil, and ultimately returned back home when others did not.
My decision to leave the Army was a culmination of differing opinions on what my career path should have been, the lack of ongoing and adequate support for my mental illness and not wanting to force my future wife to live in the shadow of a Australian Soldier. Having spent my childhood as the quintessential ‘Army Brat’, I could not ask the woman who I would ultimately marry and have a child with, to follow me around Australia and put her own career aside. So I left the one thing that had provided, up until my wedding and daughter’s birth, the most defining moments of my life; both good and bad.
In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform. A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again. And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts. When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.
2013 would see me design and commission a set of Soldier On cycling jerseys and participate in a full calendar of mountain bike events at which I would wear the Soldier On strip. I would assist Soldier On at various veterans events and fundraisers and ultimately become a very vocal advocate and critic of contemporary veterans issues especially veteran suicide; an issue that has directly impacted my life and ongoing recovery living with depression and PTSD.
Throughout earlier 2014 I continued to race and commute wearing the Soldier On colours. For me wearing the Soldier On jersey was a way for the public to see Soldier On was active in the general community and to let other veterans know that they weren’t alone. It was because of my somewhat visible presence across social, print and visual media that I was asked by Soldier On to participate in the 2014 Trois Etapes Pro-Am in France. At first I was apprehensive as it would mean a change from my mountain bike to a road bike and many, many hours training.
First there was the Sydney to Canberra Remembrance Ride commemorating both ANZAC Day and the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Remembrance Driveway along the Hume and Federal highways. This was soon followed by two training camps, one at Thredbo and then followed by the second at Tweed Heads; and a long-term training program to follow. Of course life, work and injuries interfered with what could have been a relatively smooth timeline; but where would the fun be in that?!
Finally on Friday, 1 August 2014, after many months of training, preparation, stressing, emails and waiting… The time came for me to leave Canberra, Australia and travel to Lourdes, France.
I’ll spare you the intricate details of my trip, but rest assured 39 hours of travel is not an enjoyable experience. Why 39 hours? Well, as I mentioned before, there were the flights, the trains and the cab; and of course there was the the 30kg bag containing a bicycle and a very large amount of cycling related equipment and paraphernalia. It is a fact an EVOC cycle bag is just not train, train station or train passenger friendly. Combine this with French people, a language barrier, jet lag and a person with an anxiety disorder and you have recipe for disaster. Luckily nothing bad happened and we arrived at our hotel in the middle of the night.
After much stressing, a bad case of cankles and a long-awaited shower I finally went to bed knowing the next day I would be riding my bicycle in France!