As someone who has had direct experience with several alcoholics throughout his life I am no stranger to the Serenity Prayer, as it is something they utilise widely in Alcoholics Anonymous. You’ve no doubt heard it, it goes:
It’s a beautiful little prayer, whether you are religious or not, and one which my brother Dan gave to me printed on a piece of laminated paper some time ago. I shrugged it off as something I had seen and heard before, but it must have seeped into my consciousness, for somehow I have been living it lately.
In addition to a whole range of challenges I have faced of late, I injured myself and have been unable to train lately. This has seen me forgo my chance to run in The North Face 100, The Buffalo Stampede, True Grit Shirt Course Titles and possibly even the True Grit 24 Hour Endure, all of which I have bought tickets for.
While chatting to my friend Rachel this afternoon, I told her about all of the goals I set myself, and shared with you all, earlier this year. It was a pretty full plate, and achieving said goals would have made me feel pretty damn good about myself.
I could rage against the injustice of wasting $1,000 in entry fees, against all the fun I am missing out on and the friends I am missing. I could worry about how my mental health may be affected by not getting as much regular exercise as I am used to. I could worry about the commitments I made back on January 1st this year, and broadcast publicly, but I am not.
In a way, being injured has been a blessing, as I haven’t been focused on my goals so much as I have been on what is most important in my life, my family and friends, my health and my work.
If you’re one of those people who believe that everything happens for a reason, then getting injured has been the reason I needed to focus on what’s important.
Without realising it, I have been living the Serenity Prayer, and please God it will pay off.
Thanks Dan, if not for your humble gift I may not be where I am right now. You’re a damned good brother and I love you mate.
Over the past 9 months I have been a little manic, and I have bitten off more than I can chew. Now it is time to chew like hell.
Right now I can feel that period of mania ending, and the downswing is on the way, but I have a lot of things I need to achieve this year, and so with meditation, exercise and commitments like that which I am making to you now, I WILLget it done. I will not allow depression to sap my vitality, I will work harder to achieve my goals knowing the illness which I am fighting, and I am asking you for your help.
All my illusions of control were pretty rapidly smashed apart when I embarked upon a series of events a few years back, beginning with a ten metre fall from a balcony and mushrooming into the derailing of my career, the loss of my wife and the end of my marriage. You see up until that point in time, I assumed I exercised a fair amount of control over my life. I had a successful career, and was just embarking on an exciting new phase of it. I was happily married with an eight month old son, was about to move back to Sydney with a new job and a family that I loved. Life was good.
Then I fell off that damned balcony.
Having broken seventeen bones and sustained a frontal lobe brain injury in the fall, the wheels fell off. I went through an eighteen month period of mania, unlike anything I had experienced before. This brain injury was the trauma that my genetic predisposition to bipolar needed to really kick my particular brand of crazy (a.k.a. Bipolar II Disorder) into gear.
(N.B. about a year ago I was diagnosed as Bipolar II, a label I don’t like using, but for the purposes of this line of thought and subsequent article, I’m Bipolar II. I’d rather choose to think of myself as someone who is more energetic than most people most of the time, and needs to be mindful of his state of mind to maintain his good health.)
So I was manic, spending money like it is going out of style, sleeping very little, exercising no impulse control and saying anything that popped into my mind without thought for the consequences. The symptoms of a bipolar manic episode combined with those of a frontal lobe brain injury do not make for a human being you would say is operating at ‘maximum efficiency’.
I was sacked three times in as many months, became a stonemason, quit it, and was training the house down to reach a slightly unrealistic goal to win the Death Race in Vermont. An incredibly difficult ultra endurance event. Before I could get to the Death Race, I did The Longest Day, another incredibly difficult ultra endurance event over 25 hours of hell. I suffered adrenal fatigue and went into a period of 9 months of depression, which ended with me checking myself into hospital, as I was so down on life that I was contemplating suicide.
I’ve been better since February this year, as my medication pulled me out of a funk, but looking back I think I can now say I was in a manic episode these past ten months. During this time I have become separated from my wife, and allowed myself a fair amount of self indulgence. Since September I’ve spent money freely, amassed debt, not worked much, drank too much alcohol and not been very focused. Now I have a pile of debt to wade through, a bunch of money that needs raising to get me to Cambodia for a cause I am passionate about, and a life that needs some control exercised around if I am to pull it all off.
Add to these challenges the fact that I feel I am swinging from a manic episode to a depressed one, and there’s work to be done. Medication helps, but if it is going to be, it is up to me. I need to take action.
So as of January 1st I’m off the booze for six months. I’ve already quit smoking and I have big plans for 2015. It is time to get my shit together.
I will raise $50,000 for my ‘Ride to Happiness” with the Black Dog Institute from Cambodia to Vietnam.
I will pay off my debts
I will train hard, run two ultra marathons in respectable times, get a podium finish in a Spartan Race and gain entry to the OCR World Championships
I will complete the second year of my stonemasonry apprenticeship
I will meditate and exercise regularly.
I will work harder on my relationship with my ex-wife
I will be an even better Dad than I already am.
I will also reconnect with my friends, as I have been slack since leaving Sydney.
And this is the first step. I’m sitting at my computer at 4:00am writing this post, making these commitments, and asking you for your help. For in sharing my goals I make myself accountable for them, and would like to ask you all to hold me accountable too. Will you do that for me?
If I could also ask for your help in a few other ways too that would be great. Please stay in touch. Drop me a line occasionally to see how I am going towards my goals, and get in touch if there’s anything I can do to help you reach yours. If you feel so inclined, you could sponsor me for my Cycle to Happiness by clicking this link. (Personally I think it should be called The Cycle to Vitality. If you haven’t seen Andrew Soloman’s TED talk already, check it out here. In it he asserts that the opposite of depression is not happiness, it is vitality, and I couldn’t agree more.)
I’ll be working as a brickies labourer in the New Year, combining an income and physical training in one foul swoop. I’ll also train six days a week in order to achieve my athletic goals and ensure the endorphins keep flowing. I’ll be writing regular blog posts to keep you posted on my progress, so please drop by my site anytime you like for a read.
I know I am putting myself out here with this post, but you only get back what you put out right? I am sending this post out into the world with positive thoughts, a dream of making a difference to those who need it most, and immense faith in the wonder of humankind and community, which will help me achieve some lofty goals in a difficult period in life.
I’ve one last favour to ask you. If ever you’re struggling at all. If you’re lacking motivation. If you’re feeling flat and need someone to talk to. Please call me. We’re all in this together, and while I will endeavour to keep in touch with you all as regularly as possible, I’m only ever a phone call away if you need someone to chew the fat with. I’ll be your friend in need.
Morgan Freeman quotes this line in the classic movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” and it has always resonated with me, though never more than in the past few years.
You see, I had a bad accident a few years ago, resulting in a frontal lobe brain injury. I lost a little bit of my sanity for a couple of years, and went through 18 months of mania followed by 9 months of severe clinical depression. I also lost three jobs, my wife, my vitality and my will to live. Things got so bad that I was seriously contemplating suicide, but the thought of leaving my two sons without a father and a big question mark over how and why he died was too much, so I checked myself into hospital, started taking medication and have been better ever since.
My experience with depression extends beyond my own life. I have lost one of my best high school friends to suicide, our next door neighbour took his own life when his farming debt became too much to handle, and a family friends son shot himself for reasons no one can understand. My father is bipolar, and while the shrinks tried to label me the same, I choose to believe I am a bloke who has more energy and enthusiasm than most people most of the time, and needs to be careful not to burn out and become depressed.
So my current approach to maintaining good mental health is geared towards having an active, healthy lifestyle. I am heavily involved with my children, my ex-wife and my local community. I exercise daily, meditate and do yoga at least every other day, and steer clear of booze and drugs most if not all of the time.
I’m running in ten obstacle races in 2015, two ultra marathons, and I am cycling over 500 kilometres from Vietnam to Cambodia to raise money for the Black Dog Institute. I’m getting busy living, for if I don’t I’ll pretty quickly start to get busy dying.
If you or anyone you know suffers from mental health issues, rather than trying to counsel them on how to change their thinking or mental processing of the issues they face in life, help them to get busy living. Exercise, involvement in their local community, charity work, focusing on the beauty and truth in the world around them rather than the ugliness and lies they create in their own mind is the key to vitality.
For the opposite to depression is not happiness, it is vitality. In order to combat depression, you need to seek out vitality. You need to get busy living.
If you care to support me in raising $50,000 for The Black Dog Institute in my Cycle to Happiness in March 2015, please click on the link below and make whatever donation you feel comfortable with.
You may already be aware that in February of 2012 I had a bad accident, falling ten metres from a balcony and breaking 17 bones, puncturing my lung and kidney, and sustaining a frontal lobe brain injury.
Bones mend, pain subsides and injuries heal, but I wasn’t told I had a brain injury, merely a bruised brain. So I went back to work 5 weeks after the accident. I was sacked after three months at the end of my probation. I went back to my previous employer, and was sacked two months later. At this stage I had discovered that I had a brain injury, and my employer agreed to meet with the specialist I was seeing. After that meeting, they also agreed to take me back on. I was sacked for the third time a month later.
I became a stonemason, and expended huge amounts of energy training every morning and working hard lifting and shaping stone for 8 hours a day. I quit that job when I realised that my boss, an alcoholic and a marijuana addict, was not a great person to be around while I was abstaining, on specialist advice, from all drugs – both legal and illegal.
I returned to a role in recruitment with an organisation that specialised in the For Purpose sector, however, by this time my post brain injury mania had switched to full blown clinical depression. Getting out of bed was a challenge. Getting out of bed and pushing my sons to two separate day care centres in a double pram, then catching a bus to work, then a bus home and picking up the boys to push them home again was a bigger challenge, but I got it done. Despite the anxiety, desperate unhappiness and general malcontent I felt with my life and the situation I was in.
In January of 2014 I confessed to the Directors at the for purpose recruitment firm that I was severely depressed. I was surprised by the compassion, support and genuine care they showed me. They told me to take as much time as I needed to get better.
A few weeks later I had a breakdown, and checked myself into Northside Clinic, a mental health and drug & alcohol rehabilitation hospital in Sydney. They prescribed Lithium, in addition to the Zoloft anti-depressant medication I was taking already, and I got out two weeks later.
Since February 2014 I have been well. I am exercising regularly, eating well, taking my medication and meditating every day.
Then in August my wife told me she no longer loves me and wanted a separation. I agreed, shocked that the woman who had been by my side through the worst two years of my life could feel this way, when things were finally getting better. We had just moved into a new house we bought in Newcastle, I had put in a beautiful vegetable patch, the kids were happy with all the space we now had and life was good.
I’ve been living alone in a bachelor pad in the city, about 15 minutes drive from my wife and children, for three months now. We have been to two marriage counselling sessions and have one more booked today. I assumed we were going to a marriage counsellor to try to get our marriage back together. Imagine my surprise when my wife said her intention was to work out how we could best raise our two boys to be happy and well adjusted while living in separate houses for the rest of our lives.
She must have reiterated at least a dozen times that she doesn’t love me anymore, and never will again. It was like a knife to the heart after two years of savage beatings from life following the accident.
My friends and family were understandably worried. After all, I have been through so much, and when I am now finally getting back on my feet, my wife, the woman I love more than anyone else in the world, has pulled the rug out from under me.
My compelling argument is that we had been in love for seven wonderful years before the accident. We already had one child, and we had a second after the balcony incident. They are gorgeous little boys, who bring us both so much joy, and we are a strong family unit. Obviously not as strong as I thought, nor was my argument compelling enough.
She attests that it is unfair for her to give me any hope that we will get back together, when I could be out finding someone else who is interested in the same things that I am, and who will support me better than she can on my life’s journey in the future.
So what have I learned from all this? What measure of wisdom have I attained from the worst few years of my life? There are several things I now know to be true:
Even if you have been in love and living with someone for seven years, you still don’t really know their true colours. Not until you have to go through a significant trauma together.
Of all the people you call your friends, if you are lucky, 10% of them will be there for you when you are really in need. That’s not in any way derogatory to the other 90%, I mean we all have our challenges in life and are busy trying to get by the best we can. There isn’t always time to check in and offer to help a friend in need.
No matter how many times you have been knocked down, there is strength in you enough to get up again, and again, and again, and again…”our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Even once your heart is broken, it is still possible to find love again. I’m not at that stage yet, but with every passing day I feel like I will, one day, be able to find someone new to love and spend my life with.
Never give up on yourself, or anyone else. Life is too short to live in fear, with bitterness and resentment in your heart. Never fear that your health won’t improve, for it may well do. Even if you are dying, live in the hope of a better life after death, reincarnation, or peaceful oblivion once the end comes. Don’t fear that your friends have abandoned you when you need them most. Don’t hold onto the bitterness and resentment that you may feel when you are lonely and in need of support that just isn’t there. Time heals all wounds, and maybe one day those friends you missed will be even more important than they once were to you. Life is full of surprises.
Family is the most important thing in life. When all around you are losing their heads, turning their backs, judging and pointing the finger at you, you can (usually) rely on your immediate family for support. My wife and I have two beautiful boys, and we will always be their parents. My mum and dad, brothers and sister have been invaluable in helping through the most difficult period of my life. Cherish them. Thank them. Value them. Support them when they need you. They are your rock, your strength, your port in a storm. You can be theirs too.
Money means nothing unless you have people you care about around you. You can’t spend it when you’re dead, and being a millionaire counts for nothing if you have no love in your life.
If you have a family history of mental illness, you need to work extra hard to keep the Black Dog at bay. Exercise daily, meditate, take your prescription medications, avoid alcohol and drugs, live clean and stay vital.
Never give up on becoming a better person. No matter what you have done, been or said in the past, redemption is possible. You can become a better person than you were yesterday, last year or last decade. You need to work at it, but it is always possible.
Without a higher purpose, life’s accomplishments can seem shallow. Find something you are passionate about. Get involved with a community of positive people who wish to make positive changes to the world. Start raising money for charity. Establish a charity. Do a fun run. GET INVOLVED.
Always be true to your values. If you know that family is the most important thing in your life, and you need to forgo an overseas trip (which will make you a million dollars) to spend quality time with them, forgo the trip. If your physical and mental health is important, have the discipline to abstain from alcohol or unhealthy foods for a month or two. If you value your friends, make time for them.
I guess these are all things that people might think, “Well I know that, and I didn’t have to fall off a balcony to work it out,” which is fair enough. However, I feel that I have learned more in the past 3 years than I would have if I hadn’t experienced the initial trauma of the accident and the ongoing trauma of losing jobs, mania, depression, separation and life as a single Dad.
While I’m not about to say I am happy all this happened, I am certain that the positive outcomes – that have resulted from the traumatic life conditions of the past few years – far outweigh the negative ones.
On the blessings front, I have two beautiful sons, an ex-wife whom I still love and have a fantastic, amicable relationship with, my health, a successful business, a great circle of supportive friends and a roof over my head. Plus a 1972 original Fender Stratocaster.
So if you’re struggling with a seemingly insurmountable problem, you have relationship or health issues, you are broke, or you just don’t care any more, think of all the positive reasons you have to go on living. And not just living but never settling for anything less than the life of your dreams.
I’m on my way to achieving a better life than I ever dreamed possible.
If not for the accidental wisdom I have acquired through all this trauma, I may never have seen the light.
You may have already read the last of my posts, which went up last night. I reviewed the True grit and OCRA Inaugural 24 Hour Obstacle Enduro Race. It was a race of superhuman strength, both male and female. It was a race of determination, it was a race of ticker. It was a race of joy.
There’s a sub-phenomenon that is occurring within the phenomenon that is Australian Obstacle Racing. One that you should be aware of, and if you’re not already, you soon will be. This sub-phenomenon is called ‘Getting Chicked.”
A chicking involves a male racer being overtaken by a female racer. It is something which the ladies treasure, and take pride and pleasure in. It is something the men try to avoid at any cost. I’ve even heard of a bloke feigning injury to avoid a chicking he knew was coming to him sooner or later. What a rank amatuer!
Now I’m not going to talk about all the blokes who have been chicked, though I will include one of them in this yarn. That’s me.
I got chicked on the weekend.
I got chicked heaps.
And SHIT am I proud of it.
I am proud when I get chicked because it proves the chicker is awesome, and the chickee needs to train harder. I was lucky to be born a man. Let’s face it. We get better pay, more say on how society is run, we enjoy the lion’s share of the food, the senior roles in government and the corporate world, we are, on average, bigger and stronger (sometimes, not always) and we have to deal with less discrimination, harassment, physical and verbal abuse than the stronger sex does.
That’s right. Stronger.
I’ve witnessed my wife give birth to two children. Naturally. Without drugs. I would have been reaching for the pethidine before we even got to the hospital. I’ve seen my mother support my father through 30 years of illness, and stand strong as the winds of drug addiction, drought, flood and fire have buffeted our family back and forth. And yet still she is strong. It ain’t about how much you can lift, it’s about how much you can take.
The reason I am proud of this series of chickings that occurred over the weekend, a situation most blokes wouldn’t even discuss, is that I admire these chicks so much, and it is an honour to watch them chick me.
Leah Dansie did 10 laps for God’s sake. To look at her in civilian clothes, she is just a 5 foot 10 inch blonde bird. She looks like any other 5 foot ten inch blonde bird who looks after her body. But she ain’t. She did 110 kilometres and 300 obstacles over 24 hours. That is superhuman. She would have chicked me at least three or four times had I have done the event solo.
I don’t actually remember a chick going past me out on course. I only did two laps and I was moving pretty quick, so whatevs. But I got chicked alright. I know for a fact that Andrea Peebles chicked me a couple of times, because we started my second lap together, she watched me run (almost) flat stick into the barbed wire. I had to really dig both heels into the dirt and drop flat on my arse to avoid a serious maiming, but I DO know how to stop this big frame quick…when I need to.
We ran, we laughed, we joked, we ran. I would lose her in the hills or through the water, and then – after a short break yarning to a volunteer – I would put the gas down and, surprisingly, she would be out in front again. “How did I miss her run past me? Is she working with the Spartan Ninja,” I wondered. She knew when I was coming through though, because the way I get through races is to keep talking, to anyone and everyone I pass.
One of the volunteers claimed that I had an excess of energy. So I sang him a war cry from my St. Johns College Days. “Here’s to the man with the Big Red Nose. Hoo, Hah. Hoo, Hoo, Hah!”
So what? I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from other peoples’ energy. That’s why I could keep hitting the gas every time I saw Andrea Peebles, she is possibly the MOST positive person i saw out on the course. And there were plenty of positive people out on the course. I mean you don’t go and run 24 hours and 100kms with a negative frame of mind. It simply isn’t possible.
Speaking of getting chicked, there was team on course named Turbo Super Chicks. You’ll see a photo of them below:
The little pocket rocket on the left is Amanda Steidle, the brains behind www.turbosuperfoods.com . Anyone who has been in the obstacle racing game for a reasonable period of time, and knows anything about nutrition, is on her gear. It’s that good. She runs like the wind, is like a miniature Buddha, sipping on Turbo, and has a ‘finish line scream’ that puts a smile on everyones face.
Next comes Deanna Blegg. World’s Toughest Mudder. Supermum. Adventure Racer Extraordinaire. Survivor. Wise One. Legend.
Then comes Mel Curry’s husband (Do you notice there’s a bloke in the lineup?). Butcher, wholesaler, support crew to the incredible Mel Curry.
She’s the one who is blonde, in the middle. She’s about 34 years old in the shade, completed (maybe?) 8 laps, always had a smile on her face, and impressed the ‘spring chickens’ that make up Turbo Superchicks so much that they have dubbed her their hero. She has also given birth to and raised five children. Yes, 5. FIVE. And she ran 88 kilometres and conquered 240 obstacles. Impressive.
The comes Bronwyn Sparkes, a woman whom I had never met before last weekend, but I had been ‘friends’ with on Facebook for at least two years. She is lovely, she is beautiful, she is fit, she is fantastic. She was crook throughout the Enduro, but she soldiered on. She’s a Superchick, after all.
Then comes Kate Barsby. KB, the weapon. She is about as ocker as you can get in the female line of that species we call Australianus. She’s always calling me ‘champ’ and ‘matey’ and ‘bud’ and talking about how her mouth was as ‘dry as a dead dingoes donger on a dusty day in Darwin,’ when she was nearing the end of her lap. She’s alright, is KB.
And while I was never passed by a Turbo Superchick, I can guarantee that, had we started our laps at the same time, they would, indeed, have passed me. They would have chicked the SHIT out of me. Cause that is what they do. Not just in that they are fast and fit, they are graceful, they are dignified, they are classy.
I think that the definition of being chicked needs to include that, while a chick may overtake you, dominate you physically, and give you a bit of grief about it afterwards, they will never rub salt into the wounds. They will never go too far. They will never be crass, or ungracious, or boastful…as us blokes might have done.
That is why I am so proud to have been chicked. Over and over again.
This past weekend I was privileged to be invited to participate in Australia’s first ever 24 hour obstacle endurance event. It was hosted by True Grit, Military Inspired Obstacle Course Races, and the Obstacle Course Racing Association of Australia, or OCRA. The location was at a place called Dargle Farm, in Lower Portland, which is on the Hawkesbury River in outer Sydney. The farm was maybe 1,000 acres of gorgeous Australian bush, or at least that is roughly the area that was utilised for the race course. It was hilly, at times treacherous, thickly wooded forest and some open plains littered with trees, watercourses, mud, mud and more mud.
The race started at 2pm on Saturday afternoon. A field of maybe 15-20 men and 10-15 women were running solo. They were planning to run as many of the 11 kilometre, 30 obstacle laps as possible, with as little rest as was sensible, over the following 24 hours. There were several each of the two person teams, three person teams and four person teams. Those teams which covered the most laps in the 24 hours would take out the honours of winning 1st, 2nd or 3rd place at the inaugural Australian Obstacle Enduro Championships.
For the first 6 hours of the race I decided to volunteer as a marshall on one of the obstacles. I was assigned obstacle 15, the ‘Jungle Vines’ – a series of ropes that were tied between the thick growing trees of the rainforest at the farthest outpost of the course from the festival area – where the start and finish line were located. And oh what a RAINforest it was. That afternoon and into the evening I would hazard a guess to say we got around 150 millimetres of rain, or six inches in the old measurements.
Jungle Vines was just past the halfway mark, and so it was a great place to view all the different competitors and assess how they were tracking from a fatigue, strength and morale perspective. I arrived on my post at around 3pm, an hour after the race started at 2pm. This was just in time to see the race leader, Lachlan Dansie, of the 2pm wave come through the course.
Lachlan, or Lockie, is arguably the strongest Ultra Endurance Obstacle Course Racer in Australia. That said, I would have loved it if he completed in the whole event. This because Jason Reardon, the eventual winner of the male solo 24 hour race, did just shy of twelve laps, or around 144 kilometres and 360 obstacles in 24 hours. It would have been a battle of epic proportions.
Despite there being 30 obstacles over 11kms – roughly one every 500 metres – to slow you down, Lockie still ran his first lap in just 1 hour and 3 minutes time. At the time he came past me, I was sheltering from the rain under a rock overhang, about 40 feet above among the rocks that towered over the track the competitors were running down. I shouted out, “Looking strong Lockie!” It didn’t scare or surprise him in the least, that a strange voice was emanating from high in the bush above his left shoulder. He just turned casually while still running, and said, “Thanks mate, see you next lap.”
He then did what all good, honest Obstacle Racers do, and went through the Jungle Vines obstacle with ease. It wasn’t a very hard obstacle after all.
The second placed competitor was only maybe three minutes behind Lockie, but rather than doing the honourable, honest thing and go through the ropes, he ran to the left and around them. This shortcut would have subtracted maybe 45 seconds to one minute from his overall lap time.
I’m disappointed to say that the third placed competitor did exactly the same thing, by which stage I had realised that many competitors might take the easy option unless I policed them. After that realisation, no one else took the easy option.
There was one more Dasie out on the course that day. Or at least she used to be a Dansie, before she became a Richardson. Leah Richardson was to eventually take out the Women’s 24 Hour Enduro 1st Place, but when I saw her, she was only on each of her first 4 or 5 laps. It was lap three, when she was first running in the dark, with a busted head lamp, that I spent a small amount of time with Leah. I mentioned that she was moving a lot slower than usual, and I hardly even noticed her until she was right on top of me. The emotion in her voice was raw, and plainly heard. “Oh Alex, I’m having a really shit time. This headlamp doesn’t work, I can’t see a thing, I keep kicking rocks and falling over. I don’t know how I’m going to keep going.”
That was NOT the Leah Richardson I know talking. That was someone who had had the bad fortune to take the wrong headlamp. “Just have my LED LENSER Leah. I’m not using it anyway. I’d prefer to stand in the dark when runners aren’t coming past. I can see better anyway.”
“No, you need it more than I do.” She said.
“What in the Lord’s name are you talking about. You are running. You are competing in the 24 Hour Enduro Race, I’m standing here making sure no one gets injured in the rain. Take the bloody thing!”
“Are you sure?” She says gain. This tells you what kind of person Leah is. She’s more concerned about a volunteer standing still in the dark than she is about her own safety running flat out in the dark. What a champion she is. 10 laps, 110 kilometres and 330 obstacles later she proved just what a champion she truly is.
I happened to be at the finish line when she crossed in victory. She was broken, her body only driven forward by the strength of her character, and the conviction that if she wanted to win, her mind would get her there. And get her there it did.
She fell to the ground once she crossed the timing mat, exclaiming, “THAT is the hardest thing I have ever done. I think I want to cry!”
“Cry then woman!” I shouted at her while laughing. “If ever you have earned the right to cry it is after ten bloody laps!”
Her husband was there, as he had been for the whole 24 hours, supporting her, consoling her, comforting her, ensuring she wasn’t hurt.
Then her incredible character shone through again. “It was just such a tough course. The only thing that kept me going was you, David, and all the volunteers and support in the pit when we finished a lap. It’s just been amazing. I was really doubting my ability to last the 24 hours on the third lap when my headlamp broke. I was tripping over, kicking rocks. And then Alex gave me his headlamp. It actually worked. It was just such an amazing feeling out there. Knowing every single person, competitor or volunteer, had your back. Especially when the going was tough.”
Given the length of the course and the number of competitors out on it at any one time, which was no more than 40 or 50, while I was at obstacle 15 as a volunteer there were long periods of time when I was alone in the bush waiting for the next racer to come through. I used this time to wander up and down the goat track we all ran on, to explore the bush on either side of the track, to sit in silence and listen to the beautiful birdsong all around me, to walk back up onto the ridge and blow smoke rings into the stillness of the evening (when it wasn’t raining) and to marvel at the beauty surrounding me as I was all alone and able to really absorb it. The sights and sounds, the taste of the clean, fresh air, the feel of the rain falling softly on your skin and the paperbark peeling softly off the trees, the smell of eucalyptus in the leaves, of the gentle rain falling, and of solitude. I could live there forever and be happy if I never saw another soul.
I also used this time to build a Blair Witch Project style structure just beside the running track and just before you entered the obstacle. I wish I had my phone with me when I went out there, maybe then I wouldn’t have lost it, and I would have taken some photos. It was a thing of beauty. It was somewhat freaky to begin with, reminiscent of the structures Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey find in True Detective. So to make it a little more welcoming, I added some ferns and colourful flowers to its peak. That did the trick.
I was relieved a few hours after dark when I was thoroughly soaked and so cold I couldn’t feel my feet or my hands, by Michael Aspinall. Mick is another elite Spartan Racer whose friendship has become something I genuinely value. Mick spent the next 13 hours out there, making my short stint of 6 or 7 seem like child’s play.
He also made the much maligned (by me and some of the other other 24 hour enduro competitors who had seen the finished product) decision to pull apart my Blair Witch structure and use the wood and ferns to build a barricade across the easy path around the obstacle. If only he weren’t so lazy – and looking to sleep in his chair under his umbrella through the night. I was awake for the whole time I was volunteering, just telling people they were not allowed to take the easy option. But Mick is so lazy he sometimes can’t be bothered undressing to sleep. So the barricade was a better option for him.
After a long walk out of the bush and a bumpy ride in the Land Rover back to the event area and start/finish line, I spent the next two or three hours in the pit. I tried to get some sleep at around midnight, my first in 42 hours, since I woke up on Thursday morning. That worked for all of 30 minutes.
I spent the following 3 hours around the campfire, getting ready to run and sorting through my gear, which was all over the shop in a tent I shared with my 3 other team mates and another team of 3, Blonde Ambition. Certainly the only way to describe the Pit Area, where all the team competitors had their tents and communal ‘living’ area for the 24 hours endurance of the race, was inspirational. The entrance to our tent was opposite the entrance to Team Turbo Superchicks. Arguably the strongest womens team on course that day, they chose to sleep through the night, and therefore didn’t place overall. One of their members, Amanda Steidle, the brains behind Healthy Mums, an online dieting and health advice service, and Turbo Superfoods, a pre and post race recovery powder, was my guardian angel for the 24 hours of the enduro race.
She loaned me $10 without my even asking her, after she heard me complaining about forgetting to bring cash for food. She loaned me a towel when I couldn’t find mine. She gave me fruit, soup and sausages when I was hungry. She sourced me Turbo when she heard I forgot my unopened bag, which she had delivered Express Post to arrive before I left home for the race.
This is what Obstacle Racing in Australia special. The camaraderie, the care, the compassion and the straight out AWESOMENESS of the people that make up the community. I could list 100 different times I experienced the same kind of love I did from Amanda, but I’ll already write too long an article, so it can wait.
As I was planning to run two laps back to back, I kitted up, got my wetsuit on, warmed up and readied for my first lap in the dark. Our race plan was this. Jonno Will would go out first at 2pm Saturday for one lap, followed by Rowena Murray for one (while the daylight remained), followed by Benny Mulley for two in the dark, Jonno for one, Rowena for one, then me for two (one dark, one light), Benny for one and then, if we had time, one last lap to finish.
By no means was this race plan going to secure us a podium finish, but we were only ever there to have a crack, and no one even cared for a medal. Maybe if we knew there was 2XU vouchers on offer we would have sung a different tune, but what the hey?
Jonno, Benny and Rowena had managed the course with aplomb. By no means was it easy, especially in the dark and under a heavy fog that descended around 2am, but they powered through without complaint, injury (much anyway, Benny busted his knee), or fanfare. They just GOT IT DONE. After all, we are The Battlers, and thats what we do, we battle until the job is done.
When it was my turn to run, I already knew enough of the course from what I had seen volunteering and heard from the other racers that I was as excited as I have ever been before a race. I donned Rowena’s warm little 2XU cap, my LED LENSER head lamp, my flashing strobe at the back , and I was away.
Because of the duration of the race, there wasn’t too much ‘racing’ going on apart from the first lap back at 2pm on Saturday. There was much more camaraderie, chatting to new and old friends, encouraging each other through obstacles and sharing stories of battles won and lost, than there was ‘racing.’ My first lap was a pleasure, even in the dark. From about ten minutes in, at roughly 4:10am, I heard a rooster crowing the dawn. As I was nearing the end of lap one, the sun was rising behind the clouds, bathing the scenery in a blueish light, the surreal look of the air and the bush exacerbated by the mist as it dissipated in the morning heat.
I was pacing another racer at this stage, and if he reads this he will remember me saying, “Of all the places I have been in the world, and all the bush I have seen anywhere else, nothing, and I mean NOTHING beats the beauty of the Australian Bush, especially at sunrise with the Kookaburras laughing.”
We had a laugh at how, every time we slipped on a bit of treacherous ground, or messed up an obstacle and landed on our arse, the ever watchful kookaburras would laugh. Cheeky devils.
Over the 30 obstacles, on the first lap at least, I didn’t feel anything was particularly difficult. There certainly wasn’t a lot of technical difficulty, nor that much physical difficulty. Even ‘ring the bell’ which was technically closed, was up against a rock wall, so you could use your legs to help propel you towards the bell. Unlike other events where the rope is suspended above water, and you need to rely on a leg lock and upper body strength, this one was easy.
There was a slightly more difficult cargo net climb, which had a solid metal bar at the top of a ten foot structure with cargo netting strung between the upper metal bar and side posts. This was the obstacle upon which one of the competitors suffered a possible spinal injury. Luckily, following careful monitoring by the medics and onsite doctor, a helicopter flight to hospital and testing, he was cleared of any significant injury. He shall live to race another day.
Hells yeah he will.
This was also technically closed through the night as a result of, and following, the suspected spinal injury. Understandably. That said, I couldn’t call myself an obstacle racer if I didn’t at least attempt all the obstacles, even in the dark, even if I wasn’t supposed to. I attempted them, overcame them, and was glad of it.
My first lap was completed in roughly an 1.75 hours, or 105 minutes, and my second in 120 minutes. The second lap was a joy. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everything was visible, the volunteers were as chirpy as the birds to emerge from their long, dark, midnight vigils of 13 hours duration, and life was good. Never better. We were racing in God’s Country, with our friends all around and the end in sight.
I spent a lot of time chatting with 24 hour enduro competitors, amazed that they still had a smile on their face and cheerfulness in their voice. One of the female competitors in particular, Andrea Peebles, was as bright as a button. Little did I know that she was in second place overall, and would complete 9 laps before the day was out. She is a kiwi with a ticker of gold and the smile to match. Well done Andrea.
I was finished with my running by about 7:30am, and ready to warm up by the fire. I ate as much food as I could take on and waited for my teammates to finish their next laps. Jonno did his final and third lap, then Benny took off to finish for us, a fitting person to do so, as he was, after all, our fearless leader.
We finished last on the ladder of teams of four, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that we tested our bodies and minds, and they were not found wanting. We tested our strength of character, friendships, camaraderie, compassion, mental fortitude and sense of fun. None of them was found wanting.
While walking along the beachfront of a resort in Fiji, I noticed the same man raking coral each day. The beach was maybe one mile in length, and 30 feet in width between the rock wall that bordered the grounds of the resort, and the high tide mark.
Every morning, there he was. Starting at one end of the beach, raking one meter wide and 30 feet deep of coral off the sand. The coral would be piled up into a small pile, the small pile would be moved to become a bigger pile, and the big pile would be deposited back into the ocean. He worked from around 7am every morning until 3pm in the afternoon.
I introduced myself, saying “Al Brennan,” with a gentle tap on my chest.
“Erami Wanqa,” he replied, thumping himself forcefully on the heart.
I noticed he was missing at least four of his top, front teeth. “You are a boxer?” I asked.
“A leettle. Though when I was a young man, I did MANY bad things.” That was all the reference I ever heard of his checkered past.
While I was trying to think of how I might ask him, tactfully, what made him resolve to reform his bad ways, he simply turned his rake upside down, walked over to the freshly raked sand, which he had just cleaned of coral, and wrote one word in the sand.
Little did I know that enlightenment, in the form of a deep and resounding faith in The Lord, was about to be revealed. In the most unlikely of places.
In Erami Wanqa’s words, in Erami Wanqa’s mind, and in Erami Wanqa’s heart.
Intrigued by this strange, toothless, middle aged Fijian, who was built like a brick shit house, and was doing work as humble as any I had seen before, or after, I asked him to explain.
“J is for Ji-ova. The one God that rrrules above us all. All of those HERE on dis earth, who believe in Ji-ova, shall be saved.”
I is for Imanuli. The second Son of God, who came down from above to walk among those of us on earth, and offer us the SALvation.
“S is for Sitiko. ‘She Who Walks Among Us.’ She walks among us, who walk upon DIS earth, and fills us with the knowledge of Ji-ova’s second coming.
U is for Uluvatu. The RRROCK! The RRROCK shall come down to DIS earth, at the end of or time OUR time, to DIStroy us all, to DIStroy the peoples, and to DIStroy all that we know. The only people, who shall be saved, are those who are under the ground, and who believed when they walked above. For they believe still. Also, those of us who walk above the ground when Uluvatu comes down to DIStroy dis Earth, we shall also be DIStroyed, but we shall then RRRISE up with Sitiko, with Imanuli, and with Ji-ova.”
I couldn’t really muster a response to this prophecy, so I just nodded my head and tried to process the power with which Erami Wanqa had voiced his convictions.
“Do YOU know…Saddam Hussein?” He asked.
“Yes, I know who Saddam is. Or was.” My reply inevitable came.
“Do you know WHY Saddam Hussein was DIStroyed?”
“I think so?” I replied, thinking “He was silly enough to challenge the military might of the worlds number one superpower, The United States of America.”
“Do you know where Saddam Hussein Lives?” Erami asked another probing question.
“Yes, he lived in Iraq.”
“And do you know what is in Iraq?” Erami asked.
“Yes.” I answered rather smugly, “There was a lot of sand, war and different tribes of Muslims trying of kill each other.”
“No.” Was his emphatic response.
“BABYLON!” He cried, waving his chunky finger in my face.
“BABYLON was in Iraq. And it is because Saddam Hussein tried to RRREBUILD Babylon that the Eagle, Te United States of America, DIStroy Iraq, DIStroy Saddam Hussein, and DIStroy his people.”
“And WHEN Uluvatu shall coime down in FURY, to DIStroy the Eagle, he shall also DIStroy this earth, and DIStroy all of the unbelievers!!!”
Enlightenment, in the form of unshakeable faith, shows up in the most unlikely of places.
I was originally planning on writing about melancholy, an emotion I experience with pleasure every time it arrives. I am sitting in The Botanical Gardens on a gorgeous Autumn day, however, and it just doesn’t feel right. So I’m just going to wax lyrical and see where it takes me.
I am feeling particularly lucky of late. Not only am I fortunate to live in such a beautiful city, in a lucky country and be blessed with a beautiful family, but I also enjoy relative prosperity political freedom and the right to express myself how I wish. And despite the recent budget and current government in Australia, I do believe we’ve got it pretty good.
And yet there is another reason I have been doubly blessed, and that is in the most unlikely way. I nearly lost my life a few years ago, and it would be accurate to say that since then things have taken some unexpected turns. I’ve been through possibly the toughest period of my life to date, despite which I am still alive and well, privileged with so many things in life, and about to embark on a new adventure with my family, who are without doubt the most incredible blessing in my life.
It is as a result of the challenges of the past few years that I find myself in a unique and unusual position. I don’t care.
There was a time that I worked really hard, for long hours, and expended huge amounts of emotional and physical effort, in order to fulfill my ambition. I wanted to be a CEO of a listed recruitment company by the time I was 35 years old. I wanted to live in a big, beautiful house, I wanted to drive a flash car and wear a flash watch, but now I don’t care.
I have been blessed with the kind of perspective that often will only arrive after a near death experience. People who survive cancer, or a heart attack, or a serious accident, seem to be struck with an amount of clarity that usually doesn’t occur without a major trauma. Why we require trauma in our lives to realise what is really important I don’t know, and it is a question I will continue to seek the answer to.
It is clarity I possess, and I feel more rich than ever before. Because I have time. I have time to pursue my passion, to spend time with my children, to pay attention to my wife and work out what would make her really happy. I have time to explore different work options, to pursue varied paths, and to be patient while deciding what to do with what remains of this one wild, precious life.