“Just an average guy” endeavours to cycle across Victoria to raise money for two causes close to his heart – this is Miles for Smiles.
Jack Whelan is a builder and carpenter who runs his own small business in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He is 27 years old and can usually be found “playing footy and running around in the mud with a great bunch of friends” in his spare time. As with all of us, COVID-19 disturbed these plans. No football and no gym meant that Jack needed to find another outlet to consume “his extra time and lots of extra energy”.
He decided to purchase a bike. He “fell in love with it”.
This is how Miles for Smiles was born. Instead of just using his riding as a way to keep fit, Jack had bigger plans for his newfound passion. Miles for Smiles intended to see the Melbournian ride an average of 153km a day for two weeks from his home city to Noosa, collecting money for Multiple Sclerosis Limited and ‘Outside The Locker Room’.
Again, coronavirus had other plans. The ride is now set to take place in March next year and will focus on a route based in Victoria. The 14-day trek will begin at Lake Hume and end in Melbourne after passing through many places such as Echuca, Wemen, Lorne and Sorrento.
Both these charities have a personal connection to the self-described “adventurer”.
Foremost, Jack’s family has been directly impacted by multiple sclerosis through his cousin, Robert. The only thing he knew about MS before his cousin’s diagnosis was the ‘MS Readathon’ he had participated in during primary school – something many of us can remember doing. Robert’s case was very aggressive, and Jack learnt more about the disease seeing the compounding effect it was having on his family member. Robert lost his battle only five years after being diagnosed at the age of 33. Because of this devastating loss, Jack made it his mission to honour Robert’s memory if he were to “do something like” Miles for Smiles. He personally felt that “not enough has been done or, more could be done to prevent the way his cousin Robbie deteriorated,” and hopes to find a way to stop that from happening to anybody else.
Jack’s donations will be equally split with ‘Outside The Locker Room’ – another enterprise extremely important to him. After being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder at the age of 21, it has become his objective to raise more awareness about mental health issues and “help other people feel comfortable about opening up about it”. This organisation’s website states that it “provides critical mental health education and welfare support to sporting clubs and schools across Australia”. Now that Jack is in a position where he has his anxiety “under control” and “can use his own story to help other people”, the amateur cyclist wants to normalise conversations about mental health. “A lot of people don’t hesitate to tell people when they’re feeling sick, so I don’t see why when you’re feeling mentally unwell it shouldn’t be any different”, he says.
This event has created a strong community with friends, family, and even strangers contributing and showing their appreciation for Miles for Smiles. Anyone interested in joining in on the action is encouraged to come along at any part of the journey and cheer Jack on.
The lead up to this adventure won’t be easy, but Jack gives us the ultimate insight into the process. Here’s what he said:
Original Ballers: Jack, Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Jack: My name is Jack. I’m a builder/carpenter, and we run our own small business in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I usually spend my time, this time of year, playing footy and running around in the mud with a great bunch of friends, but that wasn’t the case this year. I’m 27 now, so yeah getting on. The mid to late 20s they call it now which is frightening, but this year decided to do something a little bit different.
Original Ballers: Miles for Smiles is such a fantastic idea. Can you explain what exactly this is?
Jack: It originally was going to be a bike ride that we were going to ride from Melbourne to Noosa, and that was going to be 2020 km give or take a few. The idea was to get the average kilometres per day up above 153, which would be more than what they do in the Tour de France. We wanted to make it hard to try and encourage people to get around it a little bit more and take a little more notice of it. Unfortunately with you know all the restrictions, and what we’ve been through as a country but especially in Victoria, we weren’t able to fulfil the trip to Noosa. We were due to leave on the 29th of October originally, now obviously that’s not going to happen at the moment, but we felt that it was important to try still and go ahead with something, and push on with something. Because I keep saying, even though the whole world seems to be on pause, especially us in Victoria – the people you know with poor mental health and the people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, their worlds are definitely not on pause.
Original Ballers: So is this just you by yourself, or have you got a team with you that are all going to be doing this together?
Jack: I’ve had so much help from my good friends and family, and there’s no way we would’ve and the success we had so far in terms of money raised without the help of my friends and family. The aim is to have them come along with us the whole way. We want as many people to be involved as possible. You know it’s a big family-friendly environment. We want everyone to come along. We want everyone to take photos, wear our merchandise and continuously spread the message about both of these organisations. It’s definitely not all about raising money. I think shifting more towards the mental health side of things, the awareness about it is equally as important.
Original Ballers: Of course. Will you have anyone else riding with next to you on the track or is it just going to be you going solo?
Jack: The idea was for me to do the whole ride solo in terms of the whole distance. But the same thing, we’re encouraging everyone. Obviously, it is far more enjoyable to ride in a group, and it’s also easier. I’m definitely going to be calling on a few close friends, or even anyone that wants to reach out and they want to come for a ride for a day with me on one of the legs if they are around the area we are in. I would be more than open to it.
Original Ballers: With your cycling, has this been something you’ve always been passionate about doing, or as you said is it just a hobby you’ve picked up during isolation and now decided to make it an even bigger thing?
Jack: I’d always consider myself as a bit of an adventurer. I’ve done things like climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. We went to Everest Base Camp. I’ve always been one to want to challenge myself as much as I can. At the start of it, I’m like “I can throw it all out there, and it could be a flop”, but at the end of the day if the awareness or the dollars raised goes to one person, I know it’s cliché, but if it gets to one person, how can you argue that any of it wasn’t worth it?
Original Ballers: And it is a great cause, and everything you are doing is so admirable, especially pushing your body to such lengths and really testing yourself. What type of training do you do to prepare yourself for such an event?
Jack: I guess training is predominantly just spending as much time on the bike as possible. I’m certainly not trying to break the land speed record, and I most certainly won’t be riding anywhere near as fast as what the guys on the Tour de France ride.
Original Ballers: And as you said, you’re going to be riding around 2000km in 14 days, how are you feeling for it because it’s coming up pretty soon on November 4th?
Jack: It was going to be the 4th of November, and we’ve actually just recently shifted, so we are now going to slot into a two-week slot in March. Just with the uncertainty around, it’s still hard to know exactly what we’re going to be able to do. March seems like the best time for us – weather-wise and to be able to give everyone a chance to get back into routine and hopefully get back to our normal way of life and have something to really look forward to as well.
Original Ballers: Exactly, that’s completely understandable as well. Especially with everything going on right now, you want to know that you’ve got the date and you can do it then. It’s all going towards a great cause, as you mentioned before. You have chosen two charities, is there a specific reason for this?
Jack: Absolutely, the first one is MS. My cousin was diagnosed at the age of 28, with multiple sclerosis. His name was Robert Burns. I guess I gradually became more familiar with MS throughout his journey. When we saw him, I would see what the disease was doing to him; the symptoms and we saw him deteriorate. Now his specific case of MS was quite aggressive so, diagnosed at 28, he lost his battle with MS at 33. That was really sad and a really hard time for everybody. I guess in honour of that, I always thought if I do something like this, MS is going to be what I’m doing it for. By all means, there is always hope for people out there that have been diagnosed, but at the same time, I still believe that there’s more that we can do.
For mental health. Back in 2015, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I had my first panic attack at the age of 21 and had no idea what it was. I guess the process started after that. Now that I feel like I’m in a position where I’ve got it under control and now I can use my own story to help other people hopefully, and hopefully help other people feel comfortable about opening up to other people about it. Especially because I feel like I would’ve addressed it earlier and sought the right help from the get-go, it might not have spiralled into what it eventually was. That’s why I chose the Locker Room specifically. If they can teach these footy clubs the right ways about speaking about it and managing it, then all of a sudden you haven’t got five or 10 or 20 people that work for Outside The Locker Room spreading the message, you’ve got footy clubs and sporting clubs all over the nation spreading that same message and making these sporting clubs just a really safe, good, happy place to be for people who might be going through something difficult.
Original Ballers: Thank you for sharing all of that. Of course, sorry for the loss of your cousin. It’s great you’re turning something that hasn’t obviously been a great experience, and you’re turning it into a positive and making people aware of it. Especially with MS and mental health, they’re just so important right now. I was reading up on this event, and I was on the donation page. I saw the line that said: “although the whole world (especially Victoria) seems have been put on hold this year, the problems we face as a society and human beings certainly haven’t been put on hold, and seem to have only worsened”. Why do you personally think it’s important to continue this ride?
The challenges we’ve been faced with at Miles for Smiles, by no way in comparison to the challenges of the people with MS and the people with poor mental health face. I think we still can display the same principles to overcome it. It’s all about, I guess for us, overcoming adversity because that’s what life is. Life is one big problem, and it’s a hell lotta fun trying to solve it. Obviously, at other times it’s a lot harder than others. By us pushing on, we wanted to send the right message; although we’ve been faced with challenges, we’re not going to let it get in the way of us spreading our message and raising money.
I guess the other thing is it’s a really feel-good thing to be a part of. I always call it “selfishly being unselfish”. I haven’t spoken to anyone else that said by helping someone else, and they feel worse. You always feel better.
Original Ballers: That’s the best attitude to have towards it. Especially now with COVID, things have been so up in the air and so uncertain, we know you had to change the route you were originally doing to Noosa. Was this a big adjustment you had to make, how did you go about changing the whole course of the cycle?
I just thought when we do get out, and if we do keep it in Victoria, obviously we are going to be taking through a large group of people through these small country towns along the Murray River. We’re going to be filming. We’re going to be sharing on social media. Although it’s not a lot, although it’s not like we’re on prime time TV or anything like that, I guess the group of 20 or so people will be popping into the local supermarket, popping into the cafes, whether we have a feed or a meal at the pub, and also the towns are going to be featured in our video. I just thought to shine some light on them, especially the towns in Victoria who have had such a tough year. We almost forget that … it seems that it was so long ago that a lot of these towns were bushfire affected well at the start of the year.
Original Ballers: So you get this whole tour of Victoria, have you ever actually seen so much of the state before?
Jack: I’ve been to most of the places that we are going to before, but I’m sure a lot of people who are coming along might not have. I’ve never spent it on a bike either. It’s really exciting. We have such a beautiful place here in Victoria, and it might be easy to forget at the moment because we are locked up, and we can’t go out to enjoy what we have to offer. When the city and the state are pumping and up and running, it really is a really special place to be. I guess we want to shine a light on that as much as we can through our ride.
Original Ballers: Is there a particular part you are really excited to ride through?
Jack: I’m really, really excited to ride the Great Ocean Road – very much so. It’s a world-renowned travel destination, so to be able to ride that, you know that really special part of our state on a bike, I think that would be really cool. And then obviously, the mighty Murray River is a super iconic part of our state also. There are some beautiful towns the whole way along there. You know Echuca, Yarrawonga. I’m really looking forward to the whole journey.
Original Ballers: If it ever gets too hard, at least you’ve got the nice scenery to keep you distracted for a little bit. Do you have a celebration or a recovery plan in your mind that you’re going to do once this is all over?
Jack: Not so much recovery, but I’ll definitely be celebrating. Obviously depending on where we are at in terms of restrictions and what we can do in terms of gatherings and celebrations The plan is to ride back into some sort of function where we can hopefully raise some more money and celebrate not only the two weeks we were riding for but also celebrating everyone’s hard work and everyone’s generosity.
Original Ballers: At least an ice-cold bath you might need to sit in for a couple of hours, just to get the body feeling a bit normal again?
Jack: Yes, absolutely. I absolutely will be doing that.
Original Ballers: Other than just donating money, are there other ways people can support the cause even if they can’t come along for the journey?
Jack: Awareness is nearly equally as important because even if they can’t afford to donate some money themselves. If they were to share our page or some of our content, they might share it with someone who maybe can in their own network. I’ve continuously been amazed the whole way along with the people who keep donating. I guess the message we’re getting from them is that they’re really happy to be a part of something that’s spreading a perfect message and like I touched on before, it feels terrific to give when you’re in a position to give.
Outside of the monetary donations, we are selling merchandise as well. We’re selling hats, hoodies, t-shirts, beanies and drink coolers – the stubby holders and they can get in contact about those with us via our Instagram page.
Original Ballers: So well-thought-out and planned. How long will people be able to donate and purchase merchandise?
Jack: I think we’ll keep the campaign open until just after we finish the ride. Probably until up to April. We’ll still be posting lots of stuff and trying to spread the message as much as possible, so there’s plenty of time to donate.
For merchandise, we’ve had to restock a couple of times already, which has been amazing. If the orders keep coming in, we’ll keep restocking and getting it out there. I guess the idea around the merchandise is although it is a way of raising some extra funds, in its own little way it’s also about spreading a message. It might be two years from now, and someone might be wearing the beanie or the t-shirt. A friend of theirs might say “What’s that?” and that will then trigger a conversation about mental health and MS. That’s the hope for the merchandise going forward. It will continue to spread our message well beyond April when we finish up the campaign.
Original Ballers: I’m looking at your hat now, and it’s very trendy, so I’m pretty sure people would want it just even for the look! I was watching your video on your donation page and how you asked people to donate as a birthday present for this year. Have people been following through with this gift?
Jack: Yes, that was a great way to con people into getting me a birthday present. I think off the back of that 50 or 60 people shared the video and it really, really kick-started our campaign. It worked really well. A lot of people have, but who knows what I’ll ask for my next birthday. We’ll have to wait and see.
Original Ballers: Can you describe to me In 3 words how you are feeling for these 14 days of cycling?
Jack: Super, duper, excited.
Original Ballers: Before we wrap up, any last words you’d like to add about Miles for Smiles?
Jack: I’d like to throw out a massive thank you to everyone who has donated so far, everyone who has shared some of our content, who’s bought merchandise and a special thank you to the support crew and our team and my good friends who have helped out in the inner circle. As I said, it’s been a massive collective effort.
On the message behind Miles For Smiles and the two charities, I hope in some way, shape, or form it’s helped someone so far. Obviously, we hope it’s going to help people in the future feel comfortable to open up and speak about their challenges that they’re going through. If it’s normal to talk about, I feel like we should be in a better place going forward. That’s pretty much it from Miles For Smiles.
Original Ballers: I completely agree about your statement saying we need to normalise because these are things that are happening to people we know, or people they know. It’s just something that’s always going to be around so why don’t we start actually talking about it.
Jack: I know Outside The Locker Room’s sort of the main catchphrase is “The stigma stops here”, and although we are getting better about it, there’s always more that we can be doing. There is still a stigma around mental health and not opening up with that sort of macho mentality that “I’ll be fine”. The sooner we get rid of that, the better everyone’s situation will be. If Miles For Smiles can do something to help that come to fruition a little bit earlier, then like I said it’ll all be worth it.
To support Jack and his incredible efforts, you can follow @Milesforsmiles2020 on Instagram, or visit Miles for Smiles.