When I First Heard Of The Fitz’s Challenge

It was approximately 2013 when I first heard of the Fitz’s Challenge. Back in the days pre kids and running our own business. At the time I remember speaking to some guys I completely looked up to on the bike and had done the 210km version. They said it was the most brutal day on the bike they had ever done. However, when I looked into it I realised that it came with some remarkable opportunities:

“Mentally I Broke The Ride Down Into Sizeable Chunks”

With 2017 being a whirlwind year, I wanted to put in a personal challenge towards the back end of the year so that I had something to motivate me towards. However, it was not until September that I finally entered the race that was scheduled to take place on October 29th. With less than two months to go I knew there was no possible way I was physically going to be in “peak cycling fitness.” Time is the most precious commodity I’ve got and also a huge limiting factor of training. I knew that for this challenge I’d need to strengthen my mind game as well as my body. I set upon getting ready to be uncomfortable, knowing there was no way the entire ride would feel fun or easy. I didn’t have the endless hours of training as an option so I chose to mentally prepare myself ready for the long haul. I got ready to “enjoy the ride.” Mentally I broke the ride down into sizeable chunks and used a time tested and proven theory for me. I divided 255km into baseball innings where the first 8 innings were 28km long, meaning the final 9th inning would be a little shorter. I thought about the big climbs and aid stations as destinations where one leg finished and another started. I did as much of my training as possible either as hill repeats or as indoor trainer sessions. I tried to get used to focussing on that repeat or that interval and not get consumed by the overall task.

Leaving the better half at home with the kids, I made the trek down to Canberra solo. After checking into my Airbnb in Canberra I sought about an amazing dinner of Beef ribs, sweet potato mash and veggies wrapped in prosciutto, thanks to the Manuka Steakhouse. I was in food heaven and couldn’t help but think what better way to prepare. The event is daylight hours only so the official start time was 6:04AM which meant for a 4:30AM wake up (this could hurt later especially driving home after the race). After a coffee and small breakfast a quick drive had me at the start line feeling the butterflies rumble as I knew my body was as ready as it could be, but my mind still needed convincing. The race briefing including the reprimand “this is a challenge not a race or a time trial.”

“If I Thought I Was In For A Flat Ride, I Was Incredibly Mistaken”

As we started it was easy enough to stick with the front peloton. The pace was a very cruisy 30+km/hr and I couldn’t help but wonder how long will this last?
Well after the first few sharp climbs around Uriarra Crossing I realised that it wouldn’t last long. After watching my heart rate climb again and again trying to keep on to the leaders, I let them go and comfortably formed a second group. I spent most of the time from 40k-70k leading this group comfortably averaging 30+km/hr for the first two and a half hours. The first major climb is the notoriously named “Fitz’s Hill.” At 2.5k’s in length and an average gradient of 10% I knew it was going to hurt. Even the gentleman at registration the day before had warned me of “the hill” and he’d only ever gone up it in a car… Maybe because my legs were fresh, this climb felt quite good. I enjoyed the time out of the saddle and the aid station at the top with bananas, water and banana bread certainly helped. The group had split and I spent the next 20k’s riding solo to the first turn around at Rendezvous creek, 91km into the race. If I thought I was in for a flat ride, I was incredibly mistaken. Every bend seemed to be met with another climb! The average speed started to plummet below the magical 30km/hr mark but was still well above my previdctions of 25km/hr. Constantly changing gears, getting out of the saddle keeping the mind on the immediate task was really important. Coming into the turn around the leaders were flying back the other way- they had about 8km on me. There were already some bedraggled faces on some of the other riders busy replenishing their fuel and enjoying the time off the saddle at the aid station. Mentally though I knew this was just the warm up…

“I Slipped Between Both Roos- Only In Australia….”

The lumpiness continued all the way back from Rendezvous creek and then the first of the 4 big left hand turns for the “Extreme” riders really put the pressure on. The first was out to Orroral and the climbs kept coming. I got my first solid cramp in my right quad and although my leg locked for a few seconds I was able to keep spinning and it settled quick enough. It was impossible to not notice how beautiful the country was, truly another side of Canberra I had no idea about. The wind, the sun and the animals were out in full force. Charging back from the Orroral turn around and closing in on a group ahead I couldn’t help but think of a line from Laurie Lawrence, “how lucky are we.” This was especially the moment when flying down a hill from Orroral I saw two kangaroos hopping towards the road. They decided to bounce across right as I was flying past- luckily they were staggered and I slipped between both roos- only in Australia….

Back up Fitz’s hill I’d caught a bunch of riders and slowly but surely worked by way past. The decent on the other side was quick!!! Flying down Fitz’s and shouting encouragement to those still going the other direction and in the shorter races was a blast however, due to the nature of the descent and condition of the roads I was riding my breaks a lot (would love the disc break upgrade…). The next big left turn to Honeysuckle creek was the hardest climb of the day! About 10km in length and just flat out relentless!!! By now my feet were swelling and in pain so I loosened the straps on my shoes. The win here was knowing at the summit I got one beautiful descent, I was almost at the end of my 5th inning and lunch wasn’t too far away. I’d also noticed no one was passing me, instead I was picking up and passing those previously ahead.

Lunch at Tharwa provided some much needed relief- whether it was the food or the people either way I felt like I’d been given a new set of legs. I knew I had one big left hand turn and an 18km climb to go out to Kangaroo Creek. It was by far the longest climb of the day thankfully on the way out I sent past the 180km mark and as a triathlete I couldn’t help but look at my clock and realise I would have just done the hilliest ironman ride of my life in 6:58. The descent from Kangaroo Creek had me grinning like a cheshire cat and by now I felt I was flying!! Less than 60ks to go and one straight shot (or so I thought)….

“I Slightly Misread The Info… I’d Got Off Course…”

Apparently I had slightly misread the info and was surprised to realise that “gravel pit” was not Uriarra Homestead so I’d got off course for no reason and then had another sneaky left hand turn to make for another 6k’s out to the homestead. By now I was completely alone- I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind however, as I closed in on the check point I could see one other rider. A quick orange and quarter of choc muffin I was back in the seat and riding with “Matt” my new best friend for the final 17km. As an ACT local he knew all the hills and was great to ride with. Even the final few kms gave you some more hills with the climb from Uriarra crossing and the lumpy 3 sisters putting the final nail in the quads.

Nutritionally I am stoked as, although I had some flat spots, I was able to keep charging throughout. Having pieces of banana bread, muffins, bananas, watermelon and orange wasn’t originally part of my plan. However, I felt like it when I was in the moment and I wasn’t going to stop to weigh up the calories or macronutrients in my undrunk sports drink and uneaten energy bar versus the real food on hand. Trusting and listening to your gut is essential in life and in racing and it felt great to be as metabolically flexible as I was. I know what I ate was 100% right for me that day and I even had enough energy for the drive home.

Matt graciously let me cross the line ahead of him, I think he felt sorry for my long drive ahead. The total ride time was 9:41 with over 5200 metres of elevation and 253km travelled at an average speed of 26.1km/hr. Fitz’s Challenge is a truly great day out on the bike and if you are looking for a challenge look no further than the amazing crew at Pedal Power. The course was tough, but rewarding and Pedal Power has absolutely brilliant volunteers.

Fitz’s challenge really taught me that the mind is a muscle. You can prepare and train this muscle just like every other. As Chris McCormack says “embracing the suck” is hugely important to genuinely enjoy a great day out on the bike. George S. Patton, U.S. Army General and 1912 Olympian probably said it best “Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired in the morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”

3 Responses

  1. You don’t know how luck you are. If you had kept straight and climbed Cotter Road you may have relaxed too much as you descended past the entrance to Mt Stromlo, thinking that the climbing was done.
    But Opperman Ave stands just before the Dorest Park entrance; a 400m climb after your mind and body have logged out.
    Your 40km detour saved you from that. 🙂

  2. That’s a great time James for such a tough course. Well done and some great commentary of the event.

  3. As an older rider with a few kms behind me, I must say I am jealous. Well done and sounds like a great journey. Hope you made it home safe…

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