I’m looking forward to competing in the Battle Of The Beasts and although I love riding I’m doing this to raise awareness for Soldier On. The sad fact is that wounded soldiers are not looked after well enough by the Australian Defence Force and Australian Government.
Individuals get treatment, but often have to wait ridiculously long periods due to being in isolated areas such as Darwin and Townsville. I’m a staunch advocate for the rights of our younger veterans and have seen and experienced the lack of quality mental health services available to our traumatised men and women in uniform and their families.
In 2009 after returning from 9+months serving in Afghanistan I knew something wasn’t right. I was aggressive to most people, wary of crowds, couldn’t sleep, having nightmares and started drinking heavily. Like most soldiers, I didn’t want to talk about my issues in case I was seen as weak and God knows there were others that were worse off than me. So I kept quiet and 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 asked a 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 fuck up and get over it”. In that one moment I felt defeated, if this person wouldn’t help me and I could no longer help myself then what is next?
Luckily for me I posted to a new unit and found the support I so desperately needed from my new workmates and finally found the courage to tell my family I needed help. Professional help eventually came, but it was provided by a civilian agency provided by a very kind Navy doctor.
This is the reason why I ride for Soldier On, because without support outside of the ADF I shudder to think where I and countless others would be now.
As I crossed the finished line next to my riding buddy Argonut, it felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was a shell of the person who started the gruelling ride a little over 7 hours before. I was exhausted, physically, emotionally and mentality. Like many of the 119 riders that began that morning, I too had under-estimated the Namadgi National Park course.
In mid September I ran into an old friend at work and took some time out for a quick catch up over a coffee. I mentioned in a few weeks I was riding the Kowalski Classic and he told me about a charity called Soldier On that was teamed up with an upcoming mountain bike race… The seed had been planted in my head.
I had left the full-time Army earlier in the year and had begun actively supporting and advocating the rights of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in conjunction with my late Grandfather’s RSL and Legacy. In front of me were two things I had a vested interest in; mountain biking and veteran’s affairs.
I looked up Soldier On and the Beast-Worx Battle Of The Beasts and signed up not only to ride in the event but to raise money for Soldier On. It’s a sad fact that the Australian Government and Australian Defence Force does not do nearly enough for wounded returned servicemen, servicewomen and their families. The ADF has an appalling record for dealing with mental health issues and it’s often left to outside support agencies to seek and provide the help that they so desperately need. And this is exactly what Soldier On aims and succeeds at doing.
So I set out with two things in mind, raise a heap of money for Soldier On and train for this Beast of a ride on Saturday 24 November 2012.
I drove out to Caloola Farm at Namadgi National Park early in morning. I registered for the race, affixed the race plate to my trusty steed and prepared for the race. The event centre was well set up and the riders were getting excited. A comprehensive race brief was delivered and we rolled down to the start line. The inaugural Beast, Jeremy Ross, rolled off the ‘black carpet’ and the race was on. Five minutes later the chasing pack followed and a few minutes after, the remainder of the solo riders started. Argonut and I stayed together pacing ourselves early, after a few kilometres and a few creek crossings the pack started to spread out and groups of evenly matched riders started forming across the track. Everyone on the track was in a good mood; everyone was friendly and even though the morning was rapidly heating up the atmosphere of the event was very fun.
And then came the start of the climbs. I won’t lie; I seriously did not think this course would be as hard as it was. Yes it was almost completely comprised of fire trail, but some of them were so steep and deeply rutted I would have avoided them in a 4X4. We were only approximately 16km in with very wet feet when the sporadic hills were actually faster to walk and push the bike than it was to ride them. “Energy conservation” I kept telling myself as I would un-clip my shoes from my pedals get off the bike and begin the shuffle up another hill.
Argonut and I kept a good rhythm and pace but the climbs, the creek crossings and the increasing heat were beginning to take their toll on most riders. A hill that would normally be tackled with bit of extra effort and some heavy breathing was replaced by a single file of riders walking. My cramps began around the 25km mark, my calves as always, and they were quickly followed by cramps in my quads and triceps. I was hurting but with just under 50km to go I knew I had to push on.
We saw riders starting to fall back and slow right down, we pushed on as best we could but more and more hills stopped being ridden and started being walked. Solo riders and teams were helping each other, although we were all hurting the aim was the same; to finish this race.
At the 33km checkpoint we stopped for some food and refill the water. My other half was there and passed on some words of encouragement. Other volunteers muttered words about the course being “all downhill” from here. Now let’s get one thing straight; it was not downhill, yes there were some downhill sections but after spending the last couple of hours steadily climbing almost 900m I was in no mood to climb anymore.
We pushed on and some things were said about life, mountain bikes and the race. There was a little bit of swearing as we weaved through the next half of the course, relishing the tiny downhill sections and hating the ever present short but steep climbs. I kept telling myself I had been through worse than this, and yes it was very true, but I was younger, a hell of lot more fitter and too be honest in that moment I would rather have been back patrolling in Afghanistan in 40degrees than riding that track. I was starting to make “woo” sounds whenever something annoyed me… There’s another hill “woo”, kangaroos “woo”, I just fell over “woo”. Maybe it was the heat, but to be honest, I was starting to realise like most other riders, we did in fact underestimate the challenge of this race.
But we pushed on and it strangely became easier, I was tired, hurting, but I felt strangely okay. I wasn’t going to let this course beat me. We passed the checkpoint of 58km and met the asphalt. As soon as I saw the hill my legs cramped in response. I rode a little bit of it, but like everyone else around, I too succumbed to the ‘easier’ option of walking my bike. It didn’t seem to end, but eventually it did and there was another checkpoint. Argonut was waiting for me, chatting to the volunteers; if he was hurting he was really good at hiding it. We pushed on and were met with a very tricky and fast downhill section of loose rocks and potential death. And then it appeared. I’m not sure if the Beast-Worx guys named that particular hill, but I sure came up with a few that aren’t fit for publication. For a family friendly named I’ve settled on is “Death Legs”.
I didn’t even attempt to ride any of it. It was heartbreaking, it was demoralising and it was right in front of me taunting me to get to the top. I started walking, and then I would stop and catch my breath and walk some more. I cramped in every muscle in my legs and lower back. Surely this hill would end soon; but step after step I couldn’t see the end. Argonut was in front pushing on, saying words of encouragement to me, they were helping, but my stints of walking became shorter and my stints of rest became longer. Finally we got to the top and we rested for a few minutes, I felt nauseous and was exhausted but I knew we still had 10km to go, and thinking back to the course profile I knew it was in fact almost all downhill from here.
We began the last section of the track to the finish line. Argonut pushed forward in front of me, the steep downhills burned the arms and I’m sure the breaks were glowing red. There were a few short climbs but most of it I was able to roll up with my momentum from the downhills; 29ers just keep rolling I said to myself in my head.
I cramped up around 3km from the end and stopped to stretch. Then we pushed on to the finish. We came down a screaming downhill, across a little creek and could see the farmhouse. Argonut called me up so we could cross the finish line together and suddenly I felt no pain, the legs were fresh and we sprinted to the finish. And after a little over 7 hours the inaugural Battle Of The Beasts was over for me.
I was exhausted and found a nice spot in the shade and lay down. I was spent, I was happy, but there was not a lot left in the tank, so trying my hardest not to throw up seemed like a good idea. Other riders finished and I went and had a cheeky spew and instantly felt a lot better. Around 16:30 the presentations began. Jeremy Ross won the race in an incredible 3 hours and 12 minutes. Awards were given, but most of the recipients had long departed for various and some incredibly more important reasons. I was called out to the front and given a gift voucher for raising $5’637 for Soldier On. Goodbyes were said and we were on our way home for pizza and a goodnights rest. It was a very well run event, made possible by volunteers and the incredible Beast-Worx team.
This morning I woke up feeling a little sore, but surprisingly able to walk with ease, unlike after the Kowalski Classic when I was unable to negotiate stairs for almost a week. I have cleaned the bike, washed the clothes and sorted the photos.
And that ladies and gentlemen was the 2012 Battle Of The Beasts for this rider.