Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Ultimate Birthday Gift

Day 1 - Early worries
On November 29, at 5:49am, I coasted out of the driveway and onto the road. It had begun, but I was not as serene as I had been at past races. I was worried; as I made my was along the Mount Lindesay Highway towards Beaudesert, my quad was giving me a large amount of grief. Additionally, in general, I felt like trash. After two hours in the saddle, I pulled up at a bus stop and sat down to eat. Then and there, I contemplated dropping out: this trip could ruin my body, and make me unable to race the week after. Then I reminded myself that I had stayed out late the night before, and I was just warming up: from then on, I had very few thoughts of quitting the trip.
Just past Beaudesert, I saw her in the distance. The peaks of Mount Barney were towering silhouettes in the background, but Mount Lindesay to their west was the most interesting - it was shaped like a wedding cake that was leaning to one side. I marvelled at the sight, humbled by their size. The sun was out and the road was flat, allowing me to build some speed as I cruised between hills and arid cow paddocks; the livestock looked gaunt and frail, and hopped away when I approached. After stopping in Rathdowney, I turned onto the bumpy road to the base of Mount Barney, my legs being peppered by the small climb. I had intended to camp in the bush, but when I found a commercial site for $12 per night with showers, taps and a safe place to put my bike, I decided to take the safer/more comfortable option. I ended up having to walk up a 3km stretch of dirt road three times, first to find the camp, then to retrieve my bike from where I had first locked it.
With my tent set up at about 3pm, I sat on the grass looking straight at that beautiful mountain and reflected on the day. The solitude of the place gave me time to think, and I was able to make myself aware of all of the thoughts floating around in my head. One that was really bugging me was about my tick-bite from the week before. I had not cleaned it properly, and there was a rash around it, so I was very afraid that I was going to get blood poisoning. I figured, from past experience, that if it turned septic, I had about six hours to get to antibiotics before something bad would happen. Thinking about it now, I probably would have had closer to ten hours. I went to sleep with this heavy on my mind, but managed to get in a long slumber, if my afternoon nap was counted.

Day 2 - The Risk
I set of walking towards the mountain with rampant feelings of anxiety coming from my gut. Sure, there were a few potentially dangerous elements on the cards today, but they didn't seem to be causing it. I was just anxious for no reason; an annoying condition that I thought would have been eliminated by the peacefulness and solitude of the surroundings. I had intended to take the Southern (Peasants') Ridge up the mountain - definitely the easiest route, but I found the South-East ridge first, and wishing to start upwards as soon as possible while being afraid of overshooting Peasants' (which is mildly impossible), I decided to take it.
At this time, it was raining on and off, and the wind was howling in a similar fashion. I questioned the safety of rock-scrambling under such conditions, but knew that this would be a rare chance to climb a large peak. My route-finding skills were supremely tested, as I tried to find ways around exposed rock faces that became ever more frequent as I climbed. At one point, I found myself on the ridge about five metres wide with a 30 metre drop on either side, climbing up the rock. My fear of heights reared its ugly head, and I started to make contingency plans: if I got stuck or lost, the SES would not start a search until 36-48 hours later. I had told my mum that I was out of phone reception and would not be texting her that night, and I didn't tell anyone at the campsite where I had went. Bad move, if only for the fact that it increased my anxiety.
At one point, I found a tick in my leg, and got pretty livid with it (due to my ridiculous mental state), before calming myself and pulling it out.
After a long while, I reached the top of the East Peak, but I was not jubilant as there was very little view due to the clouds, and I still had to drop into the saddle before climbing 300m to the top of the West peak. As I headed down and found the campsite at the saddle, I had almost talked myself out of hitting the West. But I figured that I did not want to have that regret in my mind which would cause me to return there in the future (yes, I was not too keen on the Mountain at this point). This was my chance and I had to take it. So, I started up the west scaling steeper and steeper rock, through thicker and thicker bush. At one point, I went up a short pitch that I wondered how I would descend, and as I reached the summit, I realised the impossibility of relocating that same route to take down the mountain.
I was right: I had a false start on descending, having to return to the summit to get my bearings and on the second attempt, I nearly headed down the west-side of the mountain into thick forest. A compass would have come in handy.
I went down through rocks and scrub, until I came accross an impossibility. I was on a small dirt ledge, which hung over a sheer face with a drop of 7-10 metres. What I would have to do, is to climb about five metres accross to the other side of the cliff, which seemed more forgiving. I turned around and tried to approach the better part from above, but it too was at the base of a steep drop-off. So I stepped out, onto the cliff, exposing myself to the possible fall. After I had made it a couple of metres accross, I just thought "this is stupid, you're going to fall. There must be another way down”. I climbed up a bit, and eventually managed to find a way through. I had to bumslide down pitches of flat rock, and crash through thick scrub alternately. I got to the saddle, exhausted, but found the South Ridge down with few problems. At this point, the sun had come out, and as I hopped over the rocks of the route doen and walked the final sandy stretch, I realized that it had been worth it. I met an old-timer from Caboolture, and chatted to him about the Glass House Mountains, reproaching the unpreparedness of people who try and climb Mount Beerwah. Oh, the irony.
I got to the campsite, bought ice from its owner and sat down facing the mountain, cooling my knees. I had underestimated the dangers of the mountain, but I came away from her with a lot of route-finding, navigation, and rock-scrambling experience. I also realized that I should buy a compass.
That night, I chilled with a young couple who also went to UQ by their fire, telling stories and appreciating their company.

Day 3 – Gruel
The sky was grey when I left the campsite, early on the third morning. My problem quad was quite upset for the first two hours of cycling, as I tested it with a long climb on a low gradient to make my way into New South Wales. The countryside was a mix of lush, flat English pastures and Papua-New-Guinean-style jungle on the hill-sides; it was a pretty incredible contrast. I crossed the border, and after a rattling descent through the wet, I hit flat ground. I pedaled with a low cadence in a high gear, because I wanted to build some serious speed. Wrong option. When I hit the next set of rolling hills, my quads were out of juice, although the problem one had loosened up. I had to use a lot of mental power to get up and over them, before I pushed the final flat into Kyogle, on a stomach that felt empty. I regrouped with a few almond & hommus wraps on the curbside, before timidly exiting the town. From there, it was more rollers into Lismore. The rain was relentless and driving, but I warmed to it, and loved the idea that some motorists would pass me thinking that I was crazy. On the final flat stretch into this regional centre of Northern NSW, there was a brutal headwind that sapped me and reduced my speed to a pathetic level. I arrived in Lismore almost having talked myself into staying there for the night, but after a break and some encouragement from the woman working the information kiosk, I was ready to hit the final climb of the day. Riding up through the outskirts of the town, I started to feel good in the saddle, riding hard and noticing a certain smoothness in my cycling. I hit the plateau, passing through some beautiful old-timey towns, before dropping into Ballina. Eleven hours and 165km after starting that day, I arrived at a small motel on the outskirts of the beach town. I then had some fried rice and a giant omlette from a chinese restaurant and watched TV, actually feeling comfortable about my laziness for once. I had worked so hard on the bike that day that I believed I had deserved it: it was one of the first times that this had happened since I started training for ultras.

Day 4 – Keeping Going
I got out of bed without complaint. This had been the same for my first two mornings on the road: I had a purpose to fulfill, a simple yet difficult goal to achieve that I had to chip away at. I knew what I had to do to succeed. Maybe contentment is waking up without wishing to sleep in.
I downed ten weet-bix with soy milk and a detergent-grade coffee, and before I knew it I was out the door heading up the coast. I had some intense saddle-rash that really troubled me whenever I got off of the seat and back on, causing me to wonder whether I could really endure it. However, like all such things, my mind molded to it, and it abated. I arrived in Byron Bay after tackling a combination of flat land and rolling hills along coastal marshland, and there I went for a very short swim. Mistake. The saddle-rash was really irritated by the saltwater, and made the next few hours pretty excruciating. I travelled along the backroads, tackling small climbs and taking in the beautiful countryside. I can't say that I was in a deep reverie though, I was constantly checking the systems and thinking about foot. There was a 150m climb at one point, upon which I was graced by the presence of many other cyclists, which really zapped me, and I was almost destroyed as I made my way into Murwillumbah. Stopping to have a lunch of four veggie patties in flat bread, I thought about what still lay ahead on that day. I would have to get to Mount Warning (another 12km away) and then walk to the top and back down (which I had thought would take three hours) before hitting the sack. I calculated that the day would last twelve hours in total because of this, and felt intimidated by the sheer volume.
I followed the signs as I exited Murwillumbah through its Northern suburbs. Eventually, the ones directing me to Mount Warning dwindled, until I found myself on a country road with not a significant mountain to be seen. I checked the map; yep, I had made a wrong turn. Although I probably only lost 90 minutes in total, this event completely demoralized me, and although there would have been time, I decided not to climb Mount Warning on thiat day. I started to calm down as I reached the campsite at its base, but I was still a tiny bit despondent, as I realized I would have about 150km to cycle and plus a mountain the next day. As a result, I set my alarm for 3:30am, but after lying in the soggy tent in my gritty sleeping bag, wearing my only dry garment (a pair of shorts), I surveyed the condition of my body. I would probably wreck myself if I tried to do the whole walk and cycle, so I decided to catch the train to Brisbane from the Gold Coast. This would make tomorrow’s ride a 60km parade, so my alarm went to 4:30. In my fragile mental state, I also started to fear the leeches up on the mountain. There was no logical reason; they could not hurt me and I could get them off easily, but I was nonetheless pretty anxious.
Due to the incredible strain on my hormonal system of long days of exercise, I had quite a bit of trouble sleeping, and probably got in about four or five hours in total.
Day 5 – a New Gear
As a result, when I awoke, I was pretty unenthusiastic about exiting my sleeping bag. Nevertheless, within thirty minutes, I was strolling up the road to where to trail would begin. Due to the monotony of walking up steep tarmac, I was still completely unenthusiastic about the mountain or the ride, two things I would usually love.
The road became steeper and steeper, until the thin but well built trail took over, and I began to hop along the rocks, through intermittent rain. At some point, I felt a twinge in my right glute, which spelt trouble for me as the trail turned into a steep rock scramble. I went slowly, and nursed the leg, but the damage probably wasn’t as severe as I was treating it to be. I got to the top, and had a look towards the coast, which I could just make out through the clouds. Although I couldn't see much, what was visible was spectacular.
Descending was a lot easier physically, but the downhill pounding really played on my mind. I just really wanted it to be over by now, so for the last kilometre-and-a-bit down the trail, I started running. To my pleasant surprise, I did not hear a sound from my glute, which was surely a good sign. Walking down the road was even more trying, but I managed to get my mind off of it by focusing on the incredible Gondwana rainforest, and by singing at the top of my lungs.
Returning to the campsite, I packed up my gear surprisingly quickly, and was on my bike by 10am. The climb had taken five hours instead of three, but despite the fact that I did not really enjoy it (due to fatigue), it felt like it had gone much quicker.
I had decided to wear running shorts for the final cycle, and they seemed to do me a lot of good – the saddle-rash had all but disappeared as I made my way back through Murwillumbah and towards the Border Ranges. I had looked on the map the night before at the squiggly line across the mountains that marked the road. Although it was very near to a 700 metre mountain, I believed that the climb could not go nearly that high.
I made my way out of the valley, through field of sugar-cane and then started climbing. After 500 metres of uphill road, my legs were as good as toasted, and I said that I would soon get off and push my bike. I rounded corner after corner, telling myself that the climb would end at each one’s completion, but it really didn’t. I knew that I would not be able to cycle to the top, but as I got further and further up, I knew that I would not get off of the bike. I ground up and up, until I was moving at a walking pace, exhausted. I could not go on, but I refused to stop. That was the hardest that I have ever worked in my life, the most that I have ever pushed, without exception. And it payed off; as I climbed higher and higher, I became faster and faster – I had found a new gear. I was in pain, but I no longer suffered, and as I crossed the border and began the descent I raised my fist jubilantly. I now properly surveyed the scenery for the first time on the trip; I was surrounded by towering mountains covered in jungle, dispersed between the tranquil mist of the low clouds. It was beautiful and I was content.
I hit the flat going into Currumbin and pedaled like crazy; it was the fastest that I had travelled on the entire trip. I sprinted up the Gold Coast Highway, getting a massive boost from the traffic, despite the fact that the pollution that they emitted was searing my lungs. I made my way inland to Varsity Lakes Railway Station, careening through roundabouts, relishing the bike lane and the smooth road. Arriving there, I sat down and started to rip into a loaf of banana bread, not exhultant, but not depressed, maybe just a little more peaceful.

Reflections
On Sunday, the second day after the adventure had finished, I went out for a two-hour easy ride to round of my weekly mileage of cycling. I reflected on the trip, and came to a realization; I love to suffer purely and needlessly. Those five days had helped me to remember this aspect of my personality, and to accept it.

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