Sonia O’Sullivan: Life at Falls Creek: cooking, cricket and altitude training
Annual ritual for 20 years as we leave the tree and decorations and head for the hills
“I can deal with anything in the confines of the Falls Creek mountain village for our two-week stay.”
It’s that time of year again when I always have trouble knowing what day of the week it is. Too many days feel like weekends, all usual routine goes out the window, and I find myself having to stop and think hard about what day it is.
It goes on for even longer in Australia, as the Christmas holidays run into the school summer holidays, so a few weeks yet before the regular routine returns, and every day finds its purpose again.
There is some normality here in that for the last 20 years, a few days after Christmas, we leave the tree and decorations behind to gather dust and head into the mountains at Falls Creek, about a five-hour drive northeast of Melbourne. It’s an annual excursion where some things never change.
It’s a bit of a nostalgic trip too, especially recalling those first few years I came up here. Even more as it’s now 20 years since my first trip to Falls Creek, my first experience of altitude training, sharing one of the training lodges with other athletes and coping with the different personalities. All the while learning from each other.
It’s a balancing act to get the right mix of personalities under one roof. When you have your own way of doing things, it can be delicate at times to tolerate athletes in the kitchen, all vying for the same pot or utensil, trying to take turns at the cooker, or find space in the fridge and cupboards.
Still it’s all part of the learning experience for athletes to work together and tolerate each other. It’s not just about the training sessions, but the 24/7 lifestyle, when sharing a lodge with people you hardly know outside the training tracks.
The Melbourne Track Club rents out several of these lodges, so there’s always a free bed –specially this year as athletes are coming and going at different times as they prepare for the Commonwealth Games that take place in April up on the Gold Coast.
This is the big championship for Australian athletes this year, at a favourable time too, as it’s just at the end of their regular domestic season. It means a lot of athletes are trying to perfect their preparations right now.
As a result, most of the long mountain running has been completed already in the last few weeks of 2017; just some topping up required over the next few weeks as they prepare for the selection trials in February.
Of the 200 or so athletes up on the mountain, many are junior athletes, learning what it takes to train and live the lifestyle of a professional athlete.
There is a lot of responsibility on individuals to work together, share and look out for each other. It doesn’t take much for tensions to creep in, so these need to be filtered out as quickly as possible to maintain a good dynamic balance at training times.
It’s not just the training runs, but the basic living habits that need to be considered. Elite athletes don’t often get to experience that as much as team sports, and one of the big lessons for young athletes to learn each year is to get along in that team-like environment. It’s certainly not unique to Falls Creek and something that can be easily replicated elsewhere, including Ireland.
By now, Falls Creek has become such a magnet for athletes of all ages and experiences that the locals from Melbourne don’t ever complain about the five hours drive. Not when they meet up with athletes from Queensland, who take two planes and a bus to get here, plus some regulars from Ireland, England and Sweden, all making the trip to the rarefied air of the Australian Alps in near perfect training conditions.
It’s slightly different when you come without the purpose and intensity of an elite athlete. For me, that means stepping back to watch the intricate details that used to be such a big part of my life, a casual observer enjoying the surroundings of the ever-changing mountain sky and air, away from the normal busy life.
Still, even if just exercising for fitness and enjoyment, I like to bring half my Melbourne kitchen so I can continue to play around in the kitchen even with limited supplies. So it took a whole day to pack the car, fill the cool bags with fresh food to last over a week and to keep things interesting.
There are a few more essentials on the packing list that weren’t so important when I was simply focused on training twice a day, as well as doing some gym and recovery sessions. The meals then were bland and time efficient.
Now, it begins with a sharp knife, lemon squeezer, a hand grater, a tea maker, a flask and my own cup. Experience and years of trying to make do in well used kitchens means there are always some missing utensils. At least if you have a few of your own tools you can feel at home quickly and take control of the kitchen.
It reminded me of Annalise Murphy setting sail from Melbourne to Hong Kong this week, as part of her round the world yacht race. I feel like I’m in luxury on the mountain top. I can’t imagine the people, food and tool management in such confined spaces for 6,000 nautical miles, taking just under a month to complete.
When I think of that, I can deal with anything in the confines of the Falls Creek mountain village for our two-week stay.
I am sharing Rainbow Lodge with a coach and three athletes. That dynamic changes daily, with athletes coming and going depending on their schedule and training plans.
The one constant is the steady stream of cricket on the television, non-stop some days: Test cricket, with England trying to salvage something from the Ashes series, which Australia have already won, but still the series continues.
Cricket is the one sport that I just do not get. As much as I try to understand, and ask all the questions, it’s like another language, something I just can’t grasp.
You’d think after spending so much time in Australia for the past 20 years I would have some sense of what’s going on by now. But I haven’t a clue. It’s the one sport when I walk into the room and look at the score I still have to ask who is winning. It just never adds up to me.
It’s a challenge to make sense of it, and I’d rather escape on my bike and ride down the mountain, not thinking about the task of climbing back up, just dinner plans and general tasks filtering through my mind.
Then when I get back and the cricket is still on I have to ask all over again who is winning. Some things will never change.