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Race 8: Three Ring Circus, Wingello

This was to be the last round of the Three Ring Circus, and my first. With the Scott 6+6 getting closer, I thought a double up of racing along with some cold cold camping would help me prepare for my coming goal. I had attempted Wingello before (read it here!) and my head wasn’t in the game that day, but I had a feeling things would go a little better this time.

We arrived early for the night performance, got in a bit of single trail love before the upcoming race. Things felt pretty good (and cold), and when the time came to get ready for the night race I was excited. Twenty two kilometres of mostly singletrack, and in the dark the trail presents an entirely new challenge. Drums broke through the quiet and a couple of awesome volunteers were drumming away an amazing beat at the top of a tough climb. That rhythm definitely made the climb easier. It felt like a quick race, and crossing the finish line I was handed a bowl of delicious and hot soup! Perfect way to warm up, that and the fire pits they had available!

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Not even off the bike and handed hot soup!

Overnight, I have definitely figured out to keep warm, but the camping comfort level is still in progress. The wind howled, many times scaring me awake. I was hopeful that the morning would bring a calmer day, but I was wrong! Another crazy windy day, many people were blown off their bikes and walking some of the more open sections. We got to explore some newly opened sections that were incredibly fun, and the singletrack was much more sheltered from that crazy wind. The three loops had their own personalities. The initial loop of fire trail split us up nicely, even after the self-seeded start. The 27km of the second loop was all sweet singletrack. The last loop was a hard core climbing fire trail, with many riders hopping off to push their bikes. With the 5km to go sign in sight, I decided to push every last bit of energy into it and sped up.

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Warming up by the fire before the start of the Matinee performance.

What an amazing feeling to finish. Over 80kms for the weekend, an amazing atmosphere with Schitznel von Boom and the Grandmaster, heaps and heaps of free stuff from Osprey, fantastic food from the local school, who could want more?! Thanks to Wild Horizons for putting on such a great event, I think I’ll have to hit up the Highland Fling too!

The circus gave me a lot to think about. I’ve been riding a lot of lap based races of late, and this point to point style was a long missed style. It was nice to not feel the constant heat of a faster rider appearing behind me and anxiously searching for a spot where they can pass safely. It was not nice, however, to realise how much more lonely it becomes. It was nice to have space to myself, to enjoy the trails without that pressure, but I also missed the interactions with people as they lap you or you lap them.

I’m starting to realise that the best rides I do are the ones where the interaction with the support crews, the volunteers, the other cyclists is fun. Relaxed, jokes, having fun whilst pushing hard against the clock, those are the best events.

I also realised in this race that I’m getting fitter. For the first time, I was catching people, lots of people, and most of them I caught on the uphills, especially on the final loop. What an great realisation! I have been working hard and it’s hard to tell, hard to measure fitness sometimes. To be able to ride up these hills, to pass people and not have to walk on inclines that would have crippled me in the past, what a great feeling!

I still have a long way to go, it’s a road of constant improvement, but I’ll take the little wins, every single one of them!

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Race 7: Evocities Series 5hr, Dubbo

When I first started mountain biking, I rode clipped in. I felt like that was the proper way to do it, the accepted way to do it, and to ride on flats was to be a n00b. It wasn’t until I started a skills course where it was recommended to ride in flats that I changed over. I am now struggling to return to clipped in riding. I feel so much more freedom and courage to try things in my flats than clipped in. Of course there are big discussions about what is best option and the fastest, with many putting the money on clips. When the winning elite women’s racer tells you that she thinks it’s more hard-core to race in flats, well, I’m happy to take that! For Dubbo, I had planned to ride clipped in. I was being brave, doing my reccy ride clipped in to prepare and workshop anything for the following day. For the first half of the course I felt great, but it was easy. I hit the second half, the rocks, the technical climbs, descents, turns, and I lost all confidence that I could do it. Disappointing.

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Beautiful sunset before the big race

That night I gave myself a break. I have a tendency to be hard on myself, too hard, especially when I feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed that I am still racing on flats. I decided for this race that again I would ride in flats and run the sections I hadn’t been able to ride the day before – it would be quicker than struggling through and I wouldn’t be holding as many people up. I was going to do my best, try what I could on flats and run when I thought it would be best.

I was nervous for the start of the race. I wanted to do well, I wanted to ride hard and put it all out there. Add to that a quick interview for WIN television and I was feeling the nerves!

This race definitely had two personalities. A smooth, flowy and fast start, followed by rocky, pinchy ups and downs. Sixteen kilometers and 400m of climbing each lap, jumps, berms, tight corners, something for everyone.

By taking the pressure off for the race, giving myself that out of running if I had to in those difficult sections, I opened up a new strength. I rode every single bit of that trail, I stopped at nothing, rode most of the A-lines, some of it by simply holding on and trying not to grab too hard on the brakes! This definitely demonstrated that being clipped in puts up a mental barrier for me. Here I was, less than 24 hours later, dominating this course and riding lines that the day before I was shaking at and completely unable to attempt. It is also in part due to the nature of race days I expect, that excitement, adrenaline, pushing yourself and not having as much time to stop and think and ponder the obstacle.

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Now, that’s not to say I did it all perfectly! As the hours wore on, my head and legs got tired. I started making mistakes, especially on my last lap. I was nursing a potential cramp in my left glute that hadn’t quite taken but was threatening to for the last two laps. With less than 3kms to go, I made my biggest mistake. I took a jump wrong and hugged a tree. Apart from some minor bruising, the worst of this tumble was that the cramp seized the opportunity to go full force! I need to figure out what’s going on. It could be related to nutrition or hydration, but I think that it is my bike fit. I suspect that my seat is a fraction too low and I’m not getting proper glute activation. It’s all about trial and error, working out what works and what doesn’t to get your best rides in.

Speaking of trial and error, I want to say something about riding clipped and on flats. We should be able to ride however we feel the most comfortable. There should be no shame in riding in flats. I overtook many riders, men and women, who were clipped in but lacked confidence and stopped at even the most simple of obstacles, including a short smooth, but steep, downhill. The pressure to ride clipped in because it’s more “pro” is very real. The ridicule for not being clipped in is unwarranted. I completely smashed my race because I was confident and capable. I rode the lines that the day before I struggled with because of the clips. I know that I should be able to ride it all clipped in as well, but I am happy to work at my pace to get there, if I even want to. I am working on my ability, my skills, my fitness, and I really like that with flats I am (a very little bit) more daring. We should do what we are comfortable with, work at our pace and find, through trial and error, the set up that works the best for us.

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Dubbo surprised me. I wasn’t expecting the level of technicality compared with the other Evocities events that I’ve competed in, I wasn’t even expecting the rocks. The second half of the race came out of nowhere for me, but all in all, this race was amazing. The trails were safe and well made, and the atmosphere, as usual, was friendly and encouraging. Can’t wait for the next challenge.

I have to thank my incredible cheer squad, and the supportive words that so many of the amazing riders gave, especially my coach. If you haven’t tried a mountain bike race, get on it, everyone is incredibly supportive!

 

Guest Blog 3: Sal Butcher

I lost close to 60kgs to leave a life of obesity and enter one of activity. Before losing weight, I knew I wanted to have kids. Since losing weight, the thought of allowing my body to gain weight, to deliberately put on weight for the health of the life growing within me, terrifies me. I have many fit friends, and I have many amazing mums in my circle. When I look at them I see happiness and love for their kids (most of the time), but I am always curious to ask the more selfish questions, about their bodies, about their selfish goals and wants, because I think it’s not a bad thing for us to have those selfish wants. So I asked. Below are the beautifully raw thoughts of my soon-to-be-mum friend Sal.  

When my beautiful friend Eliza asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece for her blog, I was actually really excited! Then I began to feel a little apprehension as what I’ve experienced may be a little too honest or confronting for some women. Nevertheless, I have always felt that honesty is the best policy and I’m saying, “It’s OK to feel the way you feel!” Whether that is positive or negative, it’s OK!

I’m now 32 weeks pregnant with my first child, I’m turning 30 at the end of this year and my husband and I had been trying for the best part of 2 years before we finally conceived at the end of December last year. Merry Christmas to us!

Before falling pregnant I was the fittest and healthiest11793154_10156000246805045_314940155_n I’ve been in my life. I was running no less than 50km per week, doing strength training four (4) times a week and eating extremely clean. Organic foods where possible, water only, grass fed produce, NO refined sugars and all wholemeal/wholegrain alternatives to the likes of rice, potatoes and bread. Pastry and Pasta fell victims and were completely slashed from the diet.

Now when I say diet, I mean in the true sense of the definition. Not ‘a diet’, my diet. Mentally I was the happiest and most stable I’ve ever felt. I had energy, I was sleeping well, I felt great all round and I looked the best I ever have. I definitely wasn’t lacking confidence. Compare that with how I was say 18 months ago and I was on top of the world!!

When I found out I was pregnant I was so happy! Yes! My body does actually work the way a woman’s body is supposed to! I don’t have something wrong with me. My hips are obviously not too straight to bare children. I’m going to be a mum… God help me… I’m going to be a mum! Up to the point of falling pregnant, I’d always thought ‘I can’t wait to be a mum, I’ll nail it’, but part of me always felt as though the time would never actually present for me so when it did, all that confidence and surety went cart wheeling out the window.

It’s ok though, I’ve gone through all the elation, the self doubt, the fear (Well, the fear is still with me, I have 8 weeks til sh*t gets real!) and now I’m ready. I’m ready to be 100% devoted to a little creation made through the love my husband and I have for one another. The thought of making something half of me and half of him still blows my mind!

What I wasn’t ready for, was the overwhelming feeling of disgust I would feel about my appearance and the physical transformation my body has taken. Every time I look at myself, I just feel disappointment, sadness even. My boobs have grown to the size of watermelons (And unfortunately this is no exaggeration), my face is round, my upper arms and upper legs and butt are all soft and pudgy. If I could have spent this whole pregnancy at home and not had to venture out into the public I would have. And if I had a dollar for every woman that has said to me, “Oh wow, you look amazing! You’re glowing!”… Um, did you see me before I fell pregnant? I looked amazing then! I don’t look or feel amazing now!

11778193_10156000246835045_154787595_nI feel embarrassed even around complete strangers. And the thing is I know how stupid this all sounds! I’m pregnant, I look pregnant, and people are not likely to be judging the way I look right now. I’ve been told that I should be grateful as some women are unable to have children. You know what? I am grateful. Just because I feel completely crappy about myself does not mean I am being ungrateful or acting like a spoilt brat. These are my feelings right or wrong and I’m putting this out there now, shame on the women who are so bloody judgemental! I bet there are many women who feel this way and to be scolded or judged by our peers is horrible.

Some may say that my only focus should be the health and wellbeing of my newborn but I would argue that if I’m happy and healthy, won’t it filter down to my baby? I care for myself as equally as I care for my baby. I don’t see that women should lose their identity upon becoming a mother. I’ll still no doubt have some selfish tendencies and I won’t apologise for it. Mums should never forget how special and important they are in the world.

Thankfully there is always the light at the end of the tunnel. I still own my various pairs of running shoes and have a sound understanding of quality nutrition. I know that once I have my bub and I’m physically capable, my motivation will be ever present to getting back to the lifestyle I’ve been accustomed to. And I intend to do a post baby blog detailing the progress back to the old me!

So I really hope my blog has touched someone for the right reasons. I think it’s important to accept pregnancy for what it is. If you love it, great! If you hate it, that’s great too! Embrace it! I hate being pregnant and I’m ok with that!

Some days your head just isn’t in the game

A week ago, I pulled out of a race.

I wish I could say I had a technical disaster, so I had to stop the race.

I wish I could say that I cramped up badly, so I had to stop the race.

I even wish that I could say that I crashed out, so I had to stop the race.

But I don’t have a “reason” for stopping my race.

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The trails were new, but beautiful. The trail was challenging, but not technical. The morning was cold, but bearable. The atmosphere was upbeat, as always. My legs felt fine, yet I wasn’t feeling it. I have gathered the nickname smiley on my bike, and during every race, and after every race, the smile on my face is impossible to remove. On Sunday, I wasn’t really smiling. I didn’t feel it, my head wasn’t in the race, I just wasn’t connecting with the day, with the feel, with the trails.

I managed a couple of laps. I could have pushed on, I could have made myself continue the laps, and perhaps I should have. Maybe I wouldn’t be feeling as negatively towards myself if I did. But I also ran the risk of completely hating the day. I’ve had a fickle relationship with riding and there are times when I push the enjoyment and training too far and it becomes a chore. So, if I continued to race, despite my feelings, then I may have come out worse off. I didn’t want to hold people up because I wasn’t in the game, I didn’t want to cause an accident or have one because my mind was not focusing on the trail.

I felt embarrassed to finish my race prematurely. I felt a bit like a failure for not pushing on, but I think there is a legitimate reason at times to call a race early, rather than push it and risk a negative outcome. At the end of the day, I love riding and I love racing for the challenge it gives me. I’m there to compete with myself, compete against myself. I’m there to do my best, and if there is a time when I’m not into a ride, when pushing it may end up worse off than better, then I think it’s fair enough to call it.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we aren’t feeling it and pushing through is the best option. The beginning of a ride when the legs feel a bit dead, when that first climb really knocks it out of you, when you aren’t quite feeling the groove and those corners and obstacles are jarring and off line. I am happy to give it a while, get those legs to wake up, that groove to settle in, and it’s all good. Some days, however, that doesn’t happen.

This race was one of those days. I’m not going to beat myself up about that. I’m going to give myself some space to breathe, I’m going to let go and relax, and take the trails when I want them and focus on the flow, on being outdoors, on being fit and capable, and leave the mind games, the blame games, the shame games behind me.

I’ll ride another day.

Hong Kong in two days

Last month I went to Sri Lanka for a friends wedding. Flying to and from Sri Lanka there was a day lay over in Hong Kong each way – arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night. There was no way I wanted to spend around 15 hours sitting in an airport, and I was in another country and I wanted to explore! I did some googling, asked some friends, and made a short list of things I wanted to see. I tried to be conservative, as I wasn’t sure how long things would take, so on the way over, Victoria Peak, on the way back, Tian Tan Buddha, with whatever food and extra sight seeing I could fit in!

Day 1:  Victoria Peak

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Arriving at the airport at 5am, we were already tired after a difficult flight. I had take some drowsy motion sickness tablets to help me sleep on the plane for the first time, but they just made me drowsy and cranky, unable to sleep solidly and unable to wake fully, so arriving at the airport I already wasn’t feeling tops. I found a place to charge my phone and surprise, Hong Kong airport has free wifi! Winner! This meant I was able to find out more details about how to get around Hong Kong, where to go, and it’s all so easy.

We hopped on the airport train over to central station, everything is easy to follow and most things have English as well anyway, making it incredibly easy to get around. With it still being so early in the morning, we walked around the city and headed for a peak at Hong Kong Park, before making our way to the tram line. The tram ride was amazing, it was incredibly steep, and I was amazed at the sheer size of the buildings, hundreds of stories high, accentuating the ridiculous angle of the tram line climbing the mountain. Not a single photo captured this, no matter how hard I tried!

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It was cool at the top, a little humid, but we had a lovely view of the sunrise. We were there so early that nothing was open, so we walked around the mountain, getting more and more wonderful views of the city. I had no idea how green Hong Kong was. All the buildings were nestled into the mountain side, towering into the sky, but still looked like little matchsticks compared to the mountains and the harbour. Someone had mentioned that Hong Kong was 75% green space, and that was beautiful. It was serene standing above the city watching the boats moving up and down the harbour. A great place.IMG_20150508_203250

We headed down to central, caught the ferry across the harbour to Kowloon, walking up and down the waterfront, relaxing in the sun, and perusing the shops for some delicious dumplings and buns. As I am a worry wort about missing planes, we headed back to the airport very very early, allowing time for a few restless naps. I was definitely in love with Hong Kong at that point and very excited to have another day there on the return flight.

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Day 2: Tian Tan Buddha

It was another long day before arriving in Hong Kong on the return journey, barely any sleep on the flight, but I was determined to get out there! Another pause in the airport to charge the phone and search some tips and details for transport. A friend gave me a list of places to try to see, all of which wouldn’t occur in a single day (especially as we had arrived later than expected due to delays), so I chose one option with the potential to see other things if time permitted.

Tian Tan Buddha. Many people had raved about it, and that the gondola ride to the summit was picture perfect. We headed over to the gondola on the bus (what awesome double decker buses!) and my goodness what a line! I had read reviews mentioning lines, but this was intense. Even after buying the ticket, there was a line on the other side of the ticket booth. This made it a little less worthwhile to be honest, not quite worth the cost, and in hindsight we had looked up trails to walk up the mountain and should have done that instead! There were a couple of trails up and if we had of left when we first turned up, we would have well and truly beaten the gondola up the hill!

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That aside, the mountain was covered in a heavy clouds – again, in hindsight we probably could have chosen a better activity for the day than a cloud covered mountain, but it was still worth the experience.

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We couldn’t see the Buddha, at his feet we could only see a giant shadow. This different perspective on the Buddha offered up a unique experience. The mood was eerie, everyone was quiet and great reverence was felt. It was surreal. The Wisdom Path especially touched me. There weren’t many people at the top, at least not at the Wisdom Path, so I was able to walk around the paths alone, connecting with my thoughts. It would have been scenically beautiful in the sunlight, but was even more touching in the mist.

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We headed back, ate some hot corn and weird but delicious cuttlefish dumplings before heading back to the gondola line. I decided I would run down the path, as I would probably get to the bottom before the gondola did, and I was desperate for more time in these gorgeous mountains. I started jogging along the path, a very uneven cemented rock surface, when the skies opened up. It started raining, lots of lightning and thunder, and I suddenly started worrying that I wouldn’t make it back to my plane on time, that I might get lost or take a lot longer than I thought to get to the bottom, my mind was racing! I headed back to the gondola, which had been shut down, and was popped on a bus to the bottom.

As the bus drove down the hill, the clouds moved and finally, from a distance, we saw the Buddha. It’s size was definitely under appreciated in the clouds, but it was towering over the mountains as we drove through some crazy rain to get back to the bottom.

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This little trip took up most of our time. We wanted to get back to the airport, still a bit earlier than required, but we wanted to try to nap. I had some more amazing food on the way back, and a second day in Hong Kong was definitely not enough to satiate me! I will be going back for sure, there is so much more I want to see, to do, and I can’t wait for the next chance to meet Hong Kong again.

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The Royal Coast Track

A 27km coastal hike just south of Sydney. This is generally suggested as a two day hike, and originally that was the plan! Hike in the first day, set up camp, have a nice fire and a chilly night, then wake up early, watch for whales and hike out.

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Best laid plans, huh?

With the camp sites all booked out, probably months in advance, meant there had to be a new strategy. My idea? Let’s do it in one day! Let’s run the 27kms. Piece of cake.

Well, not really.

Such a long run, I had no idea what to pack. I ended up over dressing with a jumper and a thermal too many. I took enough water, but thankfully there are also a couple of spots to refill – good to know for future attempts at the hike. I took heaps and heaps of food, more than I needed, but with an hour wait for the train at the other end and no shops in sight I was more than happy to empty my bag with my lunch.

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I underestimated the difficulty of the track. The first half was easy and familiar, managed to jog for the most of it, apart from the very muddy sections. The second half, phew, that was tough! Steep climbs and ankle rolling descents, had to slow down and pick my steps carefully. I was happy to not be carrying an overnight pack, and I loved the challenge of it. We ended up with around 29kms, after a missed turn off meant taking the long way to the train station, but every km felt worth it. My feet were sore at the end, my ankles tired from the constantly changing surface and bracing the twists, but it was beautiful and rewarding. I highly recommend hiking any part of this trail, especially during whale season (saw 2!). The scenery, the views, change often, constantly having me stop to appreciate the gorgeous area I live in.

I’ve always enjoyed running, ok, well maybe not when I was obese, but I know I longed for it then. Once I started running, started improving, started getting involved in running events, I knew I had found one of the most lovable pastimes around. The ability to get out into nature and let your legs power you through the wilderness is an amazing feeling, and on the plus side, it’s cheap! You can even go barefoot running if you’re interested in that kind of thing! I long for endurance running, for these kinds of distances. Not necessarily as a marathon event or some such, but a wilderness event, an endurance event, getting out and having my body propel me through life. It’s invigorating, it’s incredibly freeing, and I hope that in future I will be able to run more, run faster, run further, run longer. Those aching feet at the end of the run feel rewarding.

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I intend to return, periodically, to see how my fitness is changing, but primarily because it’s just so beautiful! There were two amazing waterholes that would be awesome to swim in during summer, as well as numerous beaches to enjoy.

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Last one!

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Reflecting on my PhD

Most of the posts I have shared thus far are about an active lifestyle and traveling, but there are more things that I want to share.  One thing I have often thought about sharing has been my PhD experience. It’s a tough one to describe but after meeting people who have gone through similar situations it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone, perhaps it’s heartening to you to know you’re not alone. Instead of sharing specific incidents, I want to offer up the things I have learnt from my experience.

I remember moving to Canberra to start my PhD in a respectable lab at a great university, and baby sitting for a family friend the first words from her mouth when I mentioned starting a PhD were “don’t do it.”

Don’t do it.

I didn’t understand why someone would be so negative about undertaking further education. It took less than a year to understand where she was coming from.

Now, my experience is not at all indicative of your potential experience, or your current or past experience, and I wish to share it for those who may be, or who have experienced something similar to me. Don’t let this put you off a PhD, instead use it as a resource to prepare you for the long and sometimes very lonely road ahead.

First step – prepare to be lonely. You become an expert in your research, which means you are the go to guy for all things related to your very specific topic. Sometimes that means that you feel a little lost and out of your depth when things don’t quite work the way you had hoped. My best advice here is networking. Get to know researchers at conferences, within your building, from other institutions, even if it has nothing to do with your specific work. Why? Because sometimes fantastic ideas come most organically when you’re having a casual discussion with the gal from engineering trying to explain your current obstacle and she suggests a simple solution. Sometimes you aren’t that lucky of course, but integrative approaches to your work are the most rewarding. Personally, I learnt this way too late. Partially due to the nature of isolation my lab seemed to foster (all the neighbouring labs moved out into another building but our top dog wasn’t ready to go, leaving us to wander the halls alone), partially due to my stubborn nature of believing I have to prove myself, so I struggled on alone instead of asking for help. Sadly, when I did ask for help in a time of great need, I was shunned by my supervisors. All together, I wish I had of made use of the support that was available to me, if I had of known it was there.

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I am an expert in this species of ant, I know a bit about others, but I know crap loads about just this one.

Second, give up on socialising. Not completely, but you will become withdrawn, you will become unreliable and forgetful. Those closest to you will forgive you, even if they don’t understand, but especially in write up phase, you’ll be falling down a rabbit hole and maintaining relationships becomes hard. Realise that you will get stressed, depressed, you will take it out on those who love you, and though that is something you should be aware of (and they should too), it doesn’t make it ok. I can not apologise enough for the suffering I caused to those closest to me when I was struggling. They, thankfully, have been nothing but patient, understanding, and forgiving. It’s hard to understand what it’s like for a PhD student, unless you’ve been there, but I was lucky enough to have some incredible people who were supportive none the less, who dealt with my tantrums, with my fatigued demands, my unwavering stress and roller coaster emotions. A PhD can make you feel crazy.

Third, choose your supervisors well. And I mean really well. Get to know them, get to know their students especially, get to know people who know them, hear all the gossip, ask lots of questions, and above all else, know that it is ok for you to change supervisor! I didn’t know this! I thought I was stuck when it would have been much better for both my supervisors and I if we have of gone our separate ways before the stress, pressure, conflicting personalities caused irreparable damage.

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I also think other ants are cool too!

Lastly, after reading through all of this, ask yourself, do I need this? Do I want this?

If you want to get into academia, then yes, you need it. If not, well, do you want it? What will a PhD add to your life? What reward does the investment give you? If you have any niggling doubts, if your answer isn’t a strong and definite “yes”, then give it more time! Reassess your plans, try some other options, and if you are still feeling drawn to the PhD, come back.

That’s what I did. I worked as a scientist, but for some reason it was drilled into my head that I wanted that PhD, I needed it, possibly to prove that I was as smart as others thought I was? Possibly because I had always felt the pressure to succeed and this was the expected way to do it? I thought I wanted to get into academia, I thought that I wanted to run my own lab, have my own lectures and classes, my own research and funding. I thought that was what I wanted and to get that it meant I needed the PhD.

In retrospect, no, it’s not quite what I wanted. In my work as a researcher before the PhD I was too sheltered from the academic life. I came to work, I had a stable job (be it for short yearly contracts), I made good money, and I longed for more involvement in academia. I didn’t see the number of grant applications that were put in, I wasn’t privy to the conversations with higher ups placing the pressure on for the number of publications your lab was turning out, I wasn’t aware of the level of competition across research for academic positions, for post doctoral positions, for access to funding, for grants. I had no idea, really, how difficult it is and how unstable it can be, and in reality, I wanted something very different to that. I wanted science, I wanted knowledge, but it wasn’t until I was half way through my PhD that I realised that I didn’t want academia, not this kind of academia, and thus I didn’t need a PhD. I didn’t learn until too late that there were other ways that I could still be in science, still achieve high and challenging goals, and I didn’t need a PhD to get there.

With all this in mind, there are things that shouldn’t stop you.

1. Money – yes it’s expensive and it’s hard, and you’ll be living quite poor for quite a while (woohoo for free lunches at seminars, hit those up!), but money shouldn’t stop anyone from furthering their education. I know that’s easier said than done, but there are a lot of scholarship opportunities around so look, search, put in as many applications as possible for funding, because if you want that PhD, if you need it, money shouldn’t stop you. Your potential supervisor should help here too – if they don’t know of any scholarships, or are unwilling to help you out, look around for a new supervisor. I was earning $4000 a year less than others at my university because my supervisor was “morally” against an extra grant I was eligible for and thus didn’t tell me about it.

2. Impostor syndrome – you didn’t get to where  you are through luck. You are not fooling others into thinking you are smarter than you are and sliding through the cracks somehow. You are smart, you deserve the position (and future ones) just as much as anyone else. Impostor syndrome is especially prevalent amongst high-achieving women, and I am one of them. I know the feeling, I still fight it, but I deserve what I have achieved because I worked hard for it. I am smart, I am competent, and so are you, so don’t let something like that be a reason you stop achieving goals.

3. Feeling out of your depth – this is going to be a recurrent feeling in the PhD, and don’t be afraid of it. It’s a learning curve and some of that is going to be pretty darn steep – but don’t back away of the challenge, don’t think it’s too big, instead find a way to make it manageable! Ask for help or advice from others, seek out those who are willing to help, who are resources you can use, like the higher degree research staff, like the student union, like other researchers and counselors. You will become an expert, you will feel lonely, but that doesn’t for a minute mean you need to do it alone. I wish someone had of told me that.

In conclusion, what the heck do you get out of it?!?!

Strength. I am so much stronger for what I have gone through. To start with I did whatever I was told, I had no real voice and was incredibly submissive – probably why there was no real respect shown to me as a person by my supervisors. By the end of it, I was stronger, I was adamant, I knew what I was and wasn’t capable of, I knew what I would and wouldn’t do to finish my PhD, what I would compromise on and what I wouldn’t, and I had the strength to stand up to those who I had felt intimidated by. This was my PhD after all, it was my work and my decision. They were there to guide and offer advice, but not to control and dictate. It took me longer than I would have liked, but I got there.

Determination. I got it done, and I was determined to get it done and get out. I was close to quitting, so close to quitting, and had to get the head of the department to help me in negotiating terms of my submission as the relationship between my supervisors and I deteriorated. The head of the department didn’t want me to quit, my supervisors didn’t want to let me finish, but 3 and a half years of what felt like emotional hell, I had to get done. I had enough, I knew I had enough. I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, but I knew it didn’t have to be. So, I became determined to get it in, come hell or high water, and the head of the department helped me greatly there. I felt vindicated in this decision when I received minor correction comments for my thesis from 2 reviewers, and nothing but lovely supportive words praising the high quality of my work from my third. I knew I had done enough, and had done well enough to be awarded my PhD, and I had the strength and determination to say so.

A sense of achievement, although it doesn’t feel like an amazing piece of work. You don’t run across that finish line so much as crawl with fingers outstretched hoping that your index finger makes it across. Plus I make sure everything addresses me as Doctor now, I worked hard and deserve that title!

A belief in yourself. What you do for your PhD doesn’t matter. It’s not the be all and end all of your career, it’s the starting point. It’s the hardest part of getting into academia and no one is going to read or care in depth about your very specific topic. You’ll be fortunate to get publications and even more fortunate if anyone has read them apart from a couple of people who need to cite some random note that you found. Keep that in mind though, academia is all about the publication record. Is your work going to be publishable?

Perspective. That was hard. I realised that my mental health mattered a whole damn lot. I realised that my physical health mattered a whole damn lot. I realised that academia wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be. I realised that I’m strong, capable and intelligent, and I can still do whatever it is I want to do.

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Some of the incredible people who were with me until the end. I can’t thank them, and some others, enough.

So what now? I’m working as a Postdoctoral Researcher in a fantastic lab environment, my boss is incredibly supportive and it makes me love science and research, just as I had before. But, once this contract is up, who knows where I will be. I may look into more Postdoctoral positions, as this job has been so rewarding, or I may not. I may take time and change my focus for a while, though I’m pretty sure it’ll always be science. I don’t regret getting the PhD, I just wish I had of been smarter about it. Hindsight. But, I have learnt an incredible amount that I am paying forward into my career and life choices, and I can thank my PhD for that.

 

Race 6: Evocities Series 4hr, Bathurst

It’s a strange position to be in when I approach a race and think to myself, “meh, it’s only 4 hours”. After my 7 hour solo race I’ve been given a bit of perspective, with a 4 hour presenting a different kind of challenge, yet being 3 hours shorter made me feel much more confident for it.

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Last minute gear tweaking after changing the cable over.

I had never ridden the Bathurst course before and when the race director mentioned that the technical sections sneak up on you, he wasn’t wrong. For my first lap I followed a couple of women that I discovered had ridden the course before. It was a great idea as every surprising drop, jump, roll over, bridge, rock section they took with confidence, so I followed. If I had of attempted the course solo, or casually, I probably would have stopped and checked out the drops, wanted to find the line, or felt a bit too intimidated by them to attempt them. After managing the obstacles on the first lap, I was determined to do every obstacle on every lap to really cement my ability and confidence. Even as I was getting tired towards the last couple of laps, I was still able to take the obstacles comfortably. I focused, reminded myself of the advice I’d been given for obstacles at various skills sessions and comfortably completed the course. Bathurst is an amazing course. There is a lot of climbing, including a great section called “mother-in-law” which brought you to an fun downhill section back to the start. The log rolls, bridges, drops, jumps and rocks abounded, and a blackberry switchback that made me ensure I didn’t overshoot a corner! The harder you ride this course, the faster it gets. There is a lot of free speed that you can gain from pumping the track. All in all, a really fun course.

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Pre-race, check out the sparkly new bike!

I rode this race on my new bike, my lovely fancy new bike! It is a dual suspension bike, but to be honest I feel this course would have suited hard tails perfectly. My bike felt like a weapon. I felt quick and I felt confident. I do need to get a little tweaking done to make my bike more comfortable – my back started to ache/cramp in a strange position, possibly because of my dominant forward leg and the slightly different geometry than my hard tail? I took a 10 minute break between my 4th and 5th lap, the last lap for the race, and that really helped my back. This, however, is something I will need to address before the Scott, so I’ll talk to my bike shop and get out on the bike more to work on this.

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I loved every damn lap!

The race had a truly great feel. Everyone was fantastic about passing and being passed, and the wonderful women in the race were all super supportive. I was very priviledged to make it up on to the podium in 5th place along side some truly incredible women, Eliza Kwan, Brooke Rowlands, Sara Mills, and Kate Heynes. I am so impressed by the effort that everyone put in, the volunteers for cheering us on, having everything run smoothly, the first aiders for being there in case things went wrong, and the sponsors, it was a really great event, all the Evocities events thus far have been! Come along to one if you get the chance! IMG_20150531_195447 So, what’s next on the agenda? Well, it’s been at least a month since I trained “seriously”. Heading overseas, lots of rain, I’ve been a bit out of love with training, and instead have been more interested in changing things up, because riding bikes started to feel like a chore. This race brought me back to a position of wanting to ride a whole lot more, but at the same time I really want to keep up the changes. The cold weather and short days don’t make things terribly exciting, but when you want something, there is always a way around it.

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Race 5: Paddy Pallin Adventure Series, Royal National Park

I’ve been hassled by the lovely Leah to get into triathlons. Paddy Pallin’s adventure race of mountain biking, running and kayaking counts as a triathlon, right?

I was super keen on this race, something a little different but right up my alley. I managed to wrangle a friend (B-real) in to join me in the mixed pairs and together we tackled the unknown.

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Before the race!

The layout of the course is kept secret until the day. You have a list of things you need to take, such as pens to mark out your map, safety whistle, a compass, etc, but that’s about it in terms of hints of what you will be doing. B-real stayed the night before, easier to get up and get to the event, and we went through our backpacks, our plans, how much water to take, and goodness did we take a lot of food! Better to be over-prepared though! We both had no idea what to expect.

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Hacking river, our kayaking leg

We arrived, set up our bikes, and headed over to get our maps. Taking a look at the maps I realised that the first run was completely familiar to me from mountain biking through Royal National Park. The bike leg was straight forward and fast, the next run was new and gorgeous. After that, back to the bike, another run, and then into the kayaks for the final leg. I’m glad the kayak leg was last, we ended up soaked from the hips down. Carrying the kayak down to the river for our last leg the photographer commented that I had the only genuine smile he had seen all day. How couldn’t I smile, I was having a ball!

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Planning time!

It was fun to plan the route, though this one was simple and straight forward. I estimated the distances between our check points but being a novice map reader, I didn’t spend much time making myself familiar with the landmarks. This would have been much more helpful in identifying how close we were to a checkpoint, and on the bike legs I didn’t really have a good estimation of the distances we had travelled. We were pretty good at guessing how far we had run, but again, better attention to landmark details and it would have been much smoother and faster.

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If you’ve thought about a Paddy Pallin event but you’ve never tried one, I recommend it. About half of the participants were new to this racing format, so we weren’t alone. On the first run leg, a pair in front looked back and saw we’d just missed a slightly hidden checkpoint and yelled to us where it was. Everyone was like that – maybe not the top 10% of serious racers who are in it to win it, but everyone else was super helpful in finding the checkpoints. A couple of people who had done them before told us to do it at our pace, to take it easy, which we did. We need to work on our kayaking skills, but other than that we just jogged along the trails, cruised on our bikes, and get soaked in the water. Afterwards they put on a meal for you and cake!

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After!

So what’s next? Hopefully I’ve sparked some interest in friends to try more adventure races with me, but in the mean time, more cross training. Riding, running, lifting weights, hitting up races of all sorts and practising my skills. Oh, and eating cake.

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A simply gorgeous day to spend in the wild around Sydney.

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Sun kissed in Sri Lanka

I must start this with an honest statement – Sri Lanka wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. But, my gorgeous friend, Piyankarie, was finally getting married to her long time love and I didn’t want to miss that! She had also sent us all several itinerary ideas to help us out. So, let the whirlwind 9 day holiday begin!

First stop on the agenda was the popular tourist destination of Dambulla. The place I chose to stay was super cheap and simple, and I loved it! It was just a bed, a mozzie net, and a cold water shower, and it was perfect. In the mornings, monkeys surrounded us whilst we ate breakfast on our porch, everyone walking down the secluded lane would smile and wave – the kids were really good at saying “bye”, but didn’t seem to know hello which was very cute.

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(L to R, T to B) check out the sweat shine on those arms; a relaxing cheeky monkey; the view from the top of Sigiriya; village meadows; our park tour guide.

In Dambulla we headed out to Sigiriya, the Lion Rock, the site of a palace and monasteries before being abandoned in the 14th century. The climb up was impressive and a little scary – beautiful gardens and moats lead up to the climb, and metal stair cases lead you up where the rock ones are not being used. At the top you get a fantastic view of the surrounding country side and can walk amongst the ruins, where the king would sit and watch people dance whilst offerings were brought to him. It was incredible and getting to the windy side gave much relief to the sweltering climb. Once back down, we went on a village tour, riding in a bullock cart into the jungle, then onto a kayak to cross the lake before arriving at a little hut with a beautiful woman, her mum and her little baby boy slung in a hammock in the kitchen. The views along the way were incredible and the food they made for us delicious! Curries made from pumpkin, ash banana (similar to bananas but a bit denser), jak fruit (which had a weird meat texture), mango and finally some fried fish. My gosh it was delicious! After lunch, learning how to cut and grate a coconut and keep an eye out for elephants, we walked around a lake, being joined by some other tourists riding an elephant, and then headed on the most amazing park tour I’ve done. Not just because we got to see elephants close up, but because of our incredible guide, he was deaf. This meant that throughout the tour he was very animated and engaging, allowing us to feel like we learnt so much more from the effort required to communicate, the effort he put into us. To get the driver to stop the jeep he would tap the metal with a metal ring, point to whatever it was we should see, pass us his binoculars to see the birds and show us in his book which one it was. We got up close to several elephants, they were everywhere, and even saw a beautiful little 2 week old. They are such majestic creatures and surprisingly a bit smaller than I had realised.

I got sunburnt! Here I am talking about the importance of sun safety and I get burnt. Thankfully it was a small burn on one shoulder and I reapplied my sunscreen, but I put it down to a singlet, very sweaty mountain climbing and the rubbing of my backpack wiping off the sunscreen. Regardless, a good reminder of being sun smart.

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Travelling on to Kandy, a city nestled in the middle of the mountain range, and the views seemed only to get better and better. We toured a spice garden, a batik factory, the botanical gardens, many many waterfalls, and more amazing food. The hotel this night had a very friendly cat that I just couldn’t help but pat. We boarded a train from Kandy to Ella in third class after the others had all sold out. If you read online, everyone goes on about how you have to book first class or the observation deck, that otherwise it’s not going to be a comfortable ride. We went with third, and honestly it was perfectly fine! There was no air conditioning, but there were fans and the windows opened. In fact, it was quite cool up in the mountains that many times we closed to windows because it was too cold. We met a couple of Australians, sitting across from us, that made the journey even more fun, and the gorgeous Sri Lankan man sitting near us who laughed at all the things we did that must have seemed odd, and told us when the best views were coming up. Everyone says not to eat street food, but to be honest, I think if you avoid meat products and be a bit sensible you should be pretty good. So, when the trained pulled up, people lined the sides of the carriages with fresh fruit and some hot delights, which we had to sample.

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(L to R) Kandy botanic gardens; train from Kandy to Ella; hotel on a boulder in the landslide area!

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Breakfast

The mountains were quite cool in the mornings, but they heated up. We drove out of Ella back to Colombo and seeing the farming on the sides of these steep mountains made me giddy. You truly can’t be afraid of heights to work there! Back in Colombo the hotel was a great choice, definitely needed the comforts of air con, mostly because it helped get rid of that feeling of city smog suffocating you! I felt like we got into a routine in the city – early in the mornings we went out running with a lot of locals along the ocean front, back for a shower, then relaxed checking out the town and places to eat before and after the beautiful wedding!

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(L to R) waiting for the bride; the entrance song and dance; tying the knot literally; and heading off on their new life together!

The wedding, what a gorgeous wedding! Piyankarie and Mithun looked amazing, both had moments of tears in their eyes during the traditional ceremony (all in Sinhalese so had no idea what we being said, couldn’t help smile at the obvious jokes though!), and then we all stuffed ourselves with the incredible food before dancing the afternoon away! After covering Piyankarie and Mithun in confetti as they left, we had the best tuk tuk driver experience of the trip! This guy was crazy, telling us that the scars he showed us on his arms were from being shot by the Tamil Tigers during the war, then telling us they went to Australia as refugees, and whilst taking us through random back streets that wasn’t the way we had gone to the wedding, then asked us several times “no chance you are government police?”! Turning the wrong way down one way streets he would just say “naughty tuk tuks” and laugh! He was a hoot! That afternoon we went to a resort with a pool to relax as the sun set on our second last day. The next morning, a last minute run around, touring more of the city and finding a delicious place to eat lunch, then watching the final sunset and squashing coins on the train line before we headed to the airport for a 1am flight. It was sad to leave and not at the same time.

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(L to R, T to B) tuk tuk rides; last sunset; packed trails; maintenance Sri Lanka style.

There were some things about Sri Lanka I didn’t like. I don’t want to paint an incorrect picture of perfection – the pollution in the major cities was pretty bad, especially in Kandy where I think the mountains held it in. The rubbish surprised me, so much litter everywhere you went. There was a bit of begging and harassment, but thankfully not to much and some I was willing to donate to. The worst was at a waterfall where a guy would not leave us alone. He tried to get me to take a rock as a “present”, when I wouldn’t, he put it on top of my phone and I didn’t want to drop it on the ground and let it smash. I probably should have, he then followed us everywhere saying that his daughter was collecting coins for school and we should give her something. We heard later that this was used by others elsewhere. I really hated that. I don’t buy souvenirs no matter where I go, so regardless, I did not want a rock. But, people were friendly, so many smiles, a bit of ripping off but the exchange rate means that it wasn’t something to worry about really.

In the end, there are pros and cons to every place you visit and you take the good with the bad. Sri Lanka was an amazing place. I want to return some day, but there are many places I want to also experience before I head back. I am so grateful that my gorgeous friend Piyankarie got married there, otherwise I don’t believe I would have ever ventured to that tiny island, the size of Tasmania with the population of Australia. It was a life changing experience, I mean that, and hopefully I will be a better person for the things I have learnt.

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Thank you Sri Lanka for an amazing experience