By Kat Woods
Today officially marks 3 months since Ben’s shoulder surgery.
It is hard to believe how far he has come in this time. Within 3 months of undergoing surgery, Ben has completed what is thought of as being difficult in a car; the journey to the most northern point of Australia. And all of it on his pushbike.
We left Caboolture on 12th August for the first leg of the journey since Ben’s shoulder surgery on a carefully planned reduced riding schedule. Hopeful but not really sure how he would go. Surprisingly, Ben’s shoulder held up really well and the reduced riding itinerary with extra rest days from Caboolture to Cairns gave him time to adjust and get back into the swing of things gradually. It also meant we were lucky enough to enjoy time in some of the most beautiful places on the QLD coast as well as plan and prepare for the next, somewhat daunting, leg of the journey; the trip up to Cape York.
By the time we reached Cairns after a few weeks on the road, it was all systems go. We had one full day to get all the camping things we would need for the journey up to Cape York in our hired Campers Oz 4WD. We love camping, but we have never camped under these circumstances, and so there was a lot that need to be considered. We were a little apprehensive for what was to come, but we managed to pull everything together and set off for Mount Molloy on 4th September in 30 degree heat, hoping that we had everything we would need. This also marked the start of the return to the regular riding schedule (5 -6 days on the bike with 1 -2 rest days a week), a big turning point for Ben.
The coastal road from Cairns to Port Douglas displays the most incredible scenery. While the road here gives you the opportunity to check out some pretty spectacular views, the leg of the ride from Cairns to Mount Molloy, was not the best place for a road bike. The roads here are super twisty, with little to no shoulder and lots of blind corners. Huge trucks also use these roads so it was all a bit stressful, although Ben seemed to handle it perfectly well (cool, calm and collected as always!)
We arrived at Mount Molloy for the first night of camping and although it didn’t go exactly as planned (we forgot pillows, didn’t bring any warm clothes and chose a camping spot right on the highway), we survived and set off early the next day for Lakeland. Although these were a big couple of days from a kilometre perspective (and were extremely hot), they were also the last two days on sealed roads. We arrived at Lakeland late afternoon and Ben was greeted with clapping and cheering from the owner and residents at Lakeland Holiday Park who kindly put us up for the night (and gave us pillows for the trip – absolute lifesavers!).
When we hit the unsealed roads the next day, although we had an idea of what to expect, it was still a bit of a shock. Bumpy, sandy and with huge dust holes, this terrain was an all-new ball game. Gone were the 150 – 200km days and Ben was now limited to getting through 80 – 100km a day max. We took the Telegraph track (the Old Telegraph Track is for 4WD enthusiasts) and Ben cycled steadily for the next few days, breaking every 25km for a drink and something to eat. We struggled to keep things cool and the car got so hot that our bread went mouldy after a couple of days. We started to go through all our fresh food quickly and supermarkets were pretty much non-existent for the first 5 days so we had to make do with what we had. Baked beans on Jatz anyone?
We had no phone or internet reception so we stayed in contact via walkie talkies and I sat behind Ben in the 4WD going 20 – 30km an hour to make sure other drivers could see him. When the dust picked up, visibility was really bad and Ben couldn’t always stick to the very side of the road, so this was the safest way to travel. We kept ourselves entertained by listening to the comments of other drivers and truckies over the 2-way as they passed by; "check this out!", "you don’t see that every day!", "city slicker!" and "good on ya mate!". The majority were very courteous around Ben, gave him lots of space, warned each other to watch out for him, slowed down when passing by and pretty much everyone waved, gave thumbs up or a friendly toot.
After 5 solid days of Ben slogging it out under these conditions, we finally arrived at a little town called Coen and Ben got his first rest day. At this point we had gone through pretty much all of our fresh food. We were glad we had stocked up on a heap of packaged and canned goods before we left, as the food at the local store was well out of our price range.
After a day off in Coen, Ben pushed through some more heavy days on what was mostly unsealed roads (sporadic bits of bitumen road always resulted in a massive fist pump and a joyful yelp from Ben over the 2 way). At this point in the journey we had become used to being covered in red dust by the end of the day, it gets into absolutely everything. Stopping at Moreton Telegraph Station for the night was an absolute hooray moment, when we rocked up and were confronted with grass! You never realise how much you love grass until you have been camping on dirt for a while. This place also had random wild cows that would come in and eat the mangoes from around the campsite and scared the living day lights out of us when they came for a midnight snack around our tent.
We stayed at Roadhouses along the rest of the way (loved Bramwell Roadhouse Burgers, they even had a veggie one!) but did do one night of real basic camping (no toilets or showers) at Sailors Creek on the Old Telegraph track. This one was a little hard to find and when we got there we found a gaping hole in the ground on the road into it, but we managed to squeeze on in. We had the whole sight to ourselves and cooked tinned spaghetti and scrambled eggs under the stars. Very gourmet!
Sailors Creek was less than 10km from Fruit Bat Falls, a must see if you are passing by. The first and only place we came across where you could safely swim where there were no crocs. The water was crystal clear and refreshing after a long day on the road and doubled up as our shower for the night.
The last day to the most northern point of Australia from Bamaga was a day filled with lots of different emotions. It had taken 11 days of gruelling riding over 1000km for Ben to get to this point, and with only one day off for 11 days of cycling, he was exhausted. The roads also seemed to get worse on the last couple of days (extra bumpy and sandy), so even though it was only 40km from Bamaga to the top, it was a challenging day. After riding the 40km, Ben had to get off his bike and carry it the rest of the way over the rock face to get to the most northern point. It wasn’t an easy walk, especially wearing cycling shoes and carrying his mountain bike. I carried Jase’s ashes under my arm and every camera we own to make sure we could capture this very special moment of the Ride for Jase journey.
On Day 45 of the Ride for Jase, Ben finally reached the most northern point of Australia with Jase in tow.
What an achievement against the odds. The rest of the day and for days afterwards we were on an absolute high. We stayed at Punsand Bay Camp Ground that night and just happened to come across a lot of people who had seen Ben cycling on the way to the top or had met us somewhere along the way. There was so much support from these very genuine people and real compassion for the cause and for Ben’s determination. Ben received lots of cheering and clapping from a family who had seen him on the road on the way and happened to be at the tip when we arrived; a very special moment.
The journey so far has really cemented just how incredible it is to talk to people face to face about why Ben is putting himself through this gruelling challenge. We came across so much support and generosity for the cause along the way. Locals pulling up beside us to find out what Ben is doing on a pushy and to shake his hand. Other travellers touched by their own experiences with mental illness or the loss of someone they love. It really rang home just how significant this cause is, and the huge impact it has had on people from all walks of life. To see the look in people's eyes when Ben shared why he is doing the ride, and then hear them say that they lost their own child, brother, sister or best friend, it really makes you more determined to keep going and to try to make a difference.
Ben still has a long way to go. We have returned to Cairns now to our beloved Lets go Motorhome, and are preparing to get back onto sealed roads (yay!) and continue with the Ride for Jase journey in a couple of days. A total of 4000km done and about another 16,000 to go. After seeing Ben take on Cape York, I know he wont give up and will keep going with this ride in memory of Jase and in support of mental health.
If you or someone close to you needs support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Today is a great day.
I almost feel like my old self again. All of the pain and frustration from 6 weeks ago feels like a distant memory and I am focused on one thing.
Getting back on the bike.
Today, Dr Brosnan gave me the all clear to do just that – to take the first step to conquering the Ride for Jase journey. Words can’t describe how happy I am right now.
While I am elated, I wouldn’t say that this is a complete surprise. I have had first class treatment and rehab on my shoulder, something I am extremely grateful for. The moment I came out of surgery I was very focussed on getting to where I am now. Although its been challenging, I gave myself no other option. I was not going to give up. I have also been very lucky to have had the opportunity to take on my rehab on a full-time basis – I know it’s not often the case and most people aren’t afforded that kind of luxury when managing an injury.
After my initial three and half week recovery period at Scarborough Holiday Village, we made our way down to Cabarita Beach on the north coast of NSW to stay with some friends and begin my rehab in Tweed Heads. During my time here, Jono Freeman from The Athletes Workshop saw me almost every day. At my first session, I could barely move my left arm more than 20 degrees.
While the initial recovery period was painful and frustrating at times mostly because I was limited in what I could do, once I started rehab with Jono, I felt like I was on track and progressed very quickly. I focussed a lot of my mental energy into just getting better. My sessions with Jono consisted of physio to the shoulder area and then take home exercises that were gradually built on as I progressed and improved. Outside of these sessions I tried to stay as active as possible and get as much blood flow to the joint to aid my recovery. I would go for walks, swim regularly and built up to being able to swim 1km (breaststroke only) in the local pool. Eventually I was able to get back on the stationary bike up to 40 mins at a time. Man, it felt good to be able to work up a sweat again. All those endorphins. I had missed them!
So, as you can imagine, I was pretty excited to show Dr Brosnan how far I had come at my appointment today. He was very happy with my progress and said it was incredible to have full range of motion at just 6 weeks post op (great job Jono!). He gave me the ok to start the Ride for Jase again when I feel ready but reinforced that I need to be conscious of how my shoulder feels and listen to my body. At 6 – 8 weeks the joint and scar tissue is still trying to heal. Getting back on the road and being exposed to the bumpiness of riding under these conditions for long hours could aggravate the scar tissue. Dr Brosnan said that if it gets too painful I have to stop as it's a sign that my body is not ready. If this happens, he said I would need to take a break and continue the ride at a later time. If I don’t pay attention to my body and try to push through the pain, it could result in long term chronic pain issues. Well, I definitely won’t get away with that, I know that Kat will be the pain police from now on!
So, what’s the plan now?
I will spend the next 9 days continuing to strengthen my shoulder and will start to do some small rides, just to give myself some time to see how my body feels about being out on the road. If all goes well, we will re-start the Ride for Jase on Saturday 12th August from Caboolture to Noosa, just under 8 weeks post accident.
But what about the weather? This is a valid question we have had a few times now. The ride for Jase was planned and timed specifically for the weather conditions around the country. From a climate perspective, with a two month delay it will be hotter up north than we would have previously encountered, but all in all, the climate should still be ok. Luckily I function better in the heat!
AND, on another very positive note, it looks as though I may not lose my first 1000km from Sydney to Caboolture in my Guinness World Record attempt. Although I have spent more than 14 days off the bike, we looked further into the guidelines and it appears that there are exemptions for injuries. I was pretty devastated when I thought I would lose these kilometres, so I am stoked to think they may be able to be included in my final tally.
While I am very conscious of the dangers of cycling, even more so now, I am not afraid of getting back out on the road. I am just going to take it one day at a time and gradually work my way back into it. I may be a bit rusty at first, but you know what, I am really excited for what’s to come and I can’t wait to share more of this journey with you.
Day 10 of the Ride for Jase. Brisbane to Noosa. Perfect weather. Fantastic conditions, slight tail wind. I was on a roll. Feeling strong and confident. The first 9 days on the bike were good, despite the rain. Everything was going to plan, like clockwork.
And then, out of nowhere, bang! I was hit by a car.
I lay there on the road looking up in to the sky, a thousand thoughts going through my head. Am I injured? Have I broken anything? Can I get up? Will I continue riding today? Something inside me was telling me not to move.
My mate James who was riding with me that day was standing over me. "Are you ok?" James asked in a concerned tone. I was, but I really couldn’t speak much. I let out a gasping “yeah, I’m alright”. I find out later that after performing synchronised front flips over the bonnet of the car which had cut us off, James had actually landed on me as we hit the asphalt. The ambulance arrives and I can only assume that I will not be back on the road again that day. But what about the Guinness World Record attempt for The longest journey by bicycle in a single country? I am not allowed to have more than 14 days in a row off the bike....this is the only thing I could think of in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
A few X-Rays and examinations later and I realise I wont be back on the bike within 14 days. I would need shoulder surgery. It was not what I wanted to hear, but I knew I was lucky. It could have been a lot worse. The staff at Caboolture Hospital had heard all about the Ride for Jase and knew I wanted to get back on the bike asap. They managed to line me up to see orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Brosnan, at Peninsula Private Hospital for the very next day.
This was nothing short of amazing really. Not only was I lucky that Dr Brosnan was able to see me the day after my accident, he is also one of the best orthopaedic surgeons in Brisbane, an expert with this type of surgery. He explained that I had a Grade 5 Acromioclavicular separation - the most severe type of AC joint injury. He was very clear about what needed to be done and explained that surgery was my only option, but reassured me that I should make a full recovery. Dr Brosnan had a sense of certainty about him. I knew I was in good hands and I trusted him immediately. I explained that I wanted to get back on the road asap, so Dr Brosnan arranged to fit in my surgery that afternoon. And on top of that, he believed in what we were doing and wanted to help out. When he said that he would donate the surgery as his contribution to the cause, both Kat and I cried. We just couldn’t believe the generosity shown by a complete stranger. A gesture of absolute kindness that we will remember forever.
A few hours later I was in surgery. All my tendons had been completely torn so my collarbone needed to be cut back and artificial tendons used to hold it back down in position. My new shoulder would be able to take 400kg of weight post-surgery recovery so it would be stronger than ever, but it would be 6 – 12 weeks before I could get back on the bike. Considering how well I had recovered from previous injuries, I mentally took hold of the 6-week mark and decided that I would do everything possible to get back on the bike by then. I had something to work towards.
Dr Brosnan worked his magic and the surgery was an absolute success, but the first week post op was really hard. I was completely out of it. Taking heavy painkillers, sleeping most of the time but waking every 3 hours feeling like I needed to go to the toilet. Kat had to help me get out of bed every time I woke up as I couldn’t move on my own. Even though all this was happening I knew it wouldn’t last long - my body was telling me to rest and let it do its thing. Gradually, I started to improve and progressed to being able to get out of bed on my own, take short walks and even use a knife and fork again after a couple of weeks. Baby steps really.
It’s definitely been challenging both physically and mentally. All the work we put into the ride, all my training, and planning, this has changed things. But there are positives. The accident happened in a place where I had access to fantastic medical services. I have been given time to rest in a place where the sun is shining, the weather is warm and the people are kind and friendly. If anything, the accident has taught us that you can’t control everything in life. Really, there is very little that you can control. It’s about accepting what can’t be changed and doing your best to get back on the right path and move forward. It doesn’t matter how slowly, all that matters is that you are going in the right direction.
I am determined to finish this ride for my brother and for everyone else that has ever struggled with depression. I am taking things slowly and listening to my body, all the while staying focussed on a 6 - 8 week recovery and hopefully, getting back on the bike then. I will be seeing Dr Brosnan again for my second follow up on 2nd August, so this will really be when I find out when I am going to be able to get back on the road.
I have received a lot of messages of support since my accident, thank you to all of you who have reached out. Reading these messages gave me that little bit of strength that I needed, and reminded me that whatever happened, it was going to be ok.
I received a message from one of our supporters saying ‘this setback is such symbolism to how people get a few steps ahead in their mental health and then experience a 'big crash'. Self-care, patience and compassion are the remedies until we can get back on the bike’.
I couldn’t agree more.
I love cycling. It brings me right back into the moment, focused and present. It’s easy to get into a rhythm, in touch with my surroundings. My senses are heightened; a feeling of vulnerability yet complete control of my body and bike, working as one. And the scenery, you notice more on a bike than you do in car. It makes me feel free and more alive than ever.
As much as I love cycling, if someone told me a couple of years ago that I would be spending 6-8 hours a day on a push bike for over 6 months, I would have told them they were kidding.
It’s definitely not the way I envisaged I would travel around Australia. I did everything with my brother. I always imagined that traveling around Australia would be something that we would do together one day too. It’s still hard to deal with losing Jase to suicide. That is never going to go away. Nor would I expect it to. But it has made me more determined to focus my energy into something positive, something that will help other people. Something that will get people talking about their own struggles without feeling ashamed. And why should they be? It is reality. It’s real life. It isn’t perfect, and sometimes it is just so damn hard.
Not long after losing Jase, my wife Kat and I started talking about why Jase got to the point of where he felt there was no way out. We will never know all the answers, but we know that Jase didn’t want to talk about what he was going through. He didn’t want people to know about his struggles. He didn’t want to share his feelings and even if he did, we don’t think he really knew how. He kept these feelings to himself and over time, they grew and they grew. We can’t change what happened and we can’t bring Jase back, but maybe, by doing something to encourage others to talk about their own struggles early, we might be able to save someone else’s loved one.
With this in mind, we gradually started to build what would be the Ride for Jase; a cycling journey around Australia in memory of my brother, in support of mental health and suicide prevention. The ride would be a way to heal from the loss of my brother, all the while showing other people that we aren’t afraid to talk about mental illness. A journey to remind people that it is ok to speak up about what you are going through and ask for help.
Planning the Ride for Jase took us completely out of our comfort zones, we really had no idea what we were doing! It was challenging and at times overwhelming, but we never lost sight of why we were doing it. We copped a lot of rejection, but we didn’t care, it just made us more determined. We kept reminding each other that we were just ‘having a go’. We would make the Ride for Jase happen somehow.
Over time, and with the support from the Black Dog Institute, our sponsors and our family and friends, the Ride or Jase started to become a reality and gradually became bigger than what we could have ever imagined. After 7 months of training, planning, preparation and hard work, June 2017 came around faster than we had anticipated.
We spent the week before the start of the ride living in our sponsored Let’sGo Motorhome in our local caravan park. We thought that the time between finishing work and setting off would be an easy week of pulling together all the final bits and pieces. We couldn’t have been more wrong! There were so many things we had to get organised. Bike services, mechanic courses, riding gear, tubes, tools, coordinating camping spots and event logistics as well as sponsor logo stickers on the camper. We knew that when we got out on the road, moving every day, that there would be very little time to go out and find things we needed.
After a week of late nights and few frantic moments, everything finally came together. On Saturday 10th June, we woke up with a feeling of excitement and anticipation for what we were about to embark on. The clouds finally parted after a week of non-stop rain. I felt Jase in the air, I felt him with me.
We had a great turn out of people. Friends and family. People who heard about the Ride, passers-by who wanted to know what the Ride for Jase was all about. There was certainly a buzz in the air. And then there was the TV crew. We were pretty stoked that Channel 9 wanted us on the Today Show. It was an incredible feeling talking about the Ride for Jase on national TV.
When I got on my bike and cut that lime green ribbon to mark the very start of the Ride for Jase, I was filled with so many emotions. It was surreal. Excitement, nerves, relief that the day was finally here. I was ready. All the months of training, planning, late nights, energy and commitment had finally paid off. With Jase in my heart, surrounded by an incredibly supportive crowd, I jumped on my bike and started what would be a once in a lifetime opportunity make a difference and remember my little brother.
A very special thanks to Rachel Gibbeson, Ali Hiddlestone, Ashley Nicholson (FDC Group), Nati family, Beverly Gibbeson, Dan Coutts, Maggie Gibbeson, Blake Walsh and Michael from Café2U Australia. Your efforts are very much appreciated!
Photos courtesy of Dan Coutts
While a lot of you may know that I lost my brother Jase to suicide, many of you wouldn’t know much about who Jase was as a person. I am sad that some of you didn’t get the chance to meet him. I got 29 years with Jase. That, in itself, is a blessing. For 29 years, I had a little brother and a best mate all rolled into one. He was a bloody good bloke. I know if you had met him that you would have liked him. Everybody liked Jase.
There were 4 of us kids. My two elder sisters, Jase and I. It was a great childhood. I would often hear my aunties and uncles telling my parents that they couldn't believe how well Jase and I got along. Sure, we had our usual brotherly bickering moments but we always looked out for each other. We spent nearly every waking minute together. At times, it felt like we were just in-sync, like twins. This kind of brotherly relationship was all I knew, it was just normal to me. But I always knew that it was the best relationship brothers could have.
We filled our days playing EVERY sport we could think of. Whatever sport just happened to be on TV that month, we were playing it. Tennis and basketball on the water tank, three-hole golf course from tree to tree, soccer, footy, surfing and cricket. Table tennis in the garage, even Olympics on the grass. We were competitive, but we loved it. And when it wasn't sport, we were building something or getting our hands dirty. From treehouses to flying foxes, anything that kept us outside, full of adventure and curiosity.
We shared a bedroom until I moved to Sydney to start a carpentry apprenticeship at 18. This was the first time in our lives that we were apart. As a young adult, this time apart really cemented in my mind just how much Jase meant to me. I missed my little brother. It was only a few years before Jase finished school and followed in my foot-steps to become a carpenter and we were living together again in Sydney.
Life was good! We shared so many young adult experiences, we even got to work together as carpenters. I like to think in the years we were working together that I taught Jase a little bit of Carpentry. But Jase was a master craftsman. He was very good with his hands and extremely talented. He always wanted his work to be perfect and most of the time, it really was.
I always admired Jase's confidence and sporting talent. He was my little brother but when it came to sport, I looked up to him. Basketball is where he really shone, he had an aura about him on the court and a never give up attitude to the game. But he was also a gentleman, always shaking hands at the end of a good battle.
Jase may have been tough on the sporting field, but he always seemed to have a heightened sense of compassion towards other players, especially if there was ever an injury. He seemed to feel their pain. I remember when I broke my leg at soccer and Jase drove me to the hospital. His face appeared to show more pain for me than what I was actually experiencing.
One of Jase’s best attributes was most definitely his sense of humour. He was cheeky, a joker, always ready to have a laugh. He was genuinely a funny guy and people loved that about him. He always knew how to make me laugh. I miss how well he knew me, and how well I knew him. We could be laughing at the same thing, even if nobody else thought was funny. It sometimes felt like we had our own language.
Jase and I never held grudges against each other, we made up quickly if we ever argued and we weren’t afraid to say I love you. We were always in touch even if we were traveling in different countries. We were a part of each other’s lives, no matter how far away we were from each other.
Jase may have looked like a big, strong guy, but he really was a sensitive soul. He genuinely cared about other people. He was incredibly sympathetic to everyone else's struggles. But he found this difficult to express in himself.
I saw Jase go through some very dark times in the 6 months before his passing. But I will always remember him for who he truly was. Before he lost hope, before he felt like there was nothing that could help him. We shared so many wonderful memories and these are the ones I will carry with me.
My time with Jase and his passing has taught me a lot about life. It has taught me that life is short and that you need to make the most of the time you have with the ones you love. While Jase was a caring, gentle man, he wore a smile even when things weren’t going well. Jase has taught me that being a man is not about being tough and pretending things are ok when they are not. Men can cry, men can be vulnerable, men can feel like they have failed. But that’s ok. I wish Jase knew that, I wish he knew that what he was going through was normal and that things would get better.
Jase, you will always be my best mate and a champion in my eyes. I will miss you every day little brother.