Gold Coast's players were about to get some bad news.
I knew it, the staff knew it, but the players didn't.
After three-plus hours of slogging through swimming, biking, kayaking and rafting in oppressive Sunshine Coast humidity, there was more to come.
"The good news is I'm super proud of that (what they'd already done)," said high-performance boss Alex Rigby.
"There's probably a bit of bad news though.
"There's a mountain down that way, along the beach, and we're going to meet you on the top of that mountain.
"You're going to learn a lot about yourself in the next little while."
The mountain he referred to was Mount Coolum. Although they could see it, the players had no idea how far away it was, they were just told to run there, and get to the top.
Even though I knew it was coming and was going to jump in and have a run with the boys myself, I had the teeniest bit of sympathy for them with the temperature around 30-degrees and the humidity in excess of 80 per cent.
It was the ultimate curveball.
Gold Coast's five-day pre-season camp was based out of the Twin Waters Resort, about five minutes north of Maroochydore and 10 minutes south of Coolum for those familiar with that part of Queensland.
It's the same resort many teams in the AFL have used over the past decade as pre-season bases, and the same one St Kilda used during the 2020 hub.
The camp was a mix of traditional football training – a match simulation hitout, weights/gym sessions and a skills tune-up – along with some fun activities like surfing, attending a waterpark and having a quiz.
Like many clubs, the SUNS have a rolling challenge through their pre-season, where four teams (of 10 to 12 in each) compete in various challenges, are awarded points, with an ultimate champion team crowned.
The crescendo of this battle would come on the final day of camp – simply referred to as the Teams Challenge.
For this camp, this was game day. Following an early buffet breakfast, that had everything from hot food to cereal to pancakes, coffee and juices, the team assembled in its meeting room at 7am to hear what they were in for.
There were three sections to this adventure race/triathlon – that they knew of.
Firstly, with the guidance of a local expert, each team would have to assemble their own raft and paddle across the resort's lake – about a 650m return trip. Twice. So, each team of 10-12 would split into five or six each and do one return trip each.
Secondly it was swimming and kayaking. Without every bit of detail here, most players either swam around 2km (perhaps 2.6km) and completed 100 push ups or paddled about 8km.
Thirdly, it was on to the bike, where each player would ride around 20km in a relay format.
From start to finish, this took well over three hours, and although the 'Burger Kings', captained by versatile tall Chris Burgess, saluted for victory, the best was yet to come for a playing group that was already exhausted.
Over his four-plus years in the job, Rigby has earned himself a reputation for throwing pre-season curveballs to the players.
On a pre-season camp in Queenstown, New Zealand in 2018, just moments after returning to the team hotel from a four-hour hike in the rain, Rigby summoned the players to the lobby.
Before they even had time to shower, they were off running to nearby Queenstown Hill to conquer a brutal 2.5km climb.
Then there was the time they were told to do three 1km reps, and when they finished the third they were told to go again. And again. And again. And again.
The thinking has been to build mental and physical resilience and to battle through adversity.
So, in some ways, when he announced the group was headed to Mount Coolum, it came as a mild surprise to most, rather than a shock.
Despite the heat, humidity and overall fatigue, I can genuinely say I didn't hear one player groan or drop their head.
Along with two-time Olympic triathlete Courtney Atkinson, who has built a close relationship with the SUNS, Rigby, myself and performance coach David Bailey set off with the players.
The run was 8.5km to the base of the mountain, but not being told that detail, the players just had to figure out pacing for themselves. Half the list took off, and then five minutes later the stronger runners – of which there are many – set off.
As I expected, we took off quickly, cut across some grass and were on to the footpath that would take us north to our destination.
Being a running nerd, I had my GPS watch on and glanced down after two minutes to see I was running just under 4mins/km pace, which, quite frankly, for a 45-year-old who hadn't warmed up, was an effort!
I ran alongside off-season recruit Tom Berry for a minute or so. Having met him quite a few times through covering Brisbane, I said g'day between breaths. Berry was polite and nodded back, but even though it was early in the run, he was focused. He's a power athlete who probably doesn't love endurance like others and was knuckling down for the long haul.
Almost a kilometre in, I felt settled enough to move up to a group with Rigby, Atkinson Lachie Weller, Ben Ainsworth, Sam Flanders and Matt Rowell. They were moving well. Noah Anderson was about 10m ahead, so we tacked on and told him to tuck in behind us. This was the 'Chase Group', with Touk Miller, Brandon Ellis, Elijah Hollands, Nick Holman, Jeremy Sharp and James Tsitas further ahead.
I never spoke about this with Rigby before or during the run, but I felt it was right to lead any players or groups I was with to make it easier for them. As he did too. They had three-plus hours of high intensity efforts under their belts, and we'd come in fresh, so it was only right to offer any help possible, whether that was by taking the lead/setting the pace, grabbing water bottles for them, or just offering encouragement.
With Atkinson moving ahead to be with the leaders – he might be many years removed from his professional triathlon career, but the ease with which he covers the ground is beautiful – our group settled into a rhythm.
There wasn't a lot of talking getting done. Coming up to the 3km mark, we had a dense coverage of trees on our right protecting us from the beach and preventing any breath of breeze from hitting us. To the left we'd cruised through the small town of Mudjimba and were headed for Marcoola.
Anderson was battling, and slid off. He 'yo-yo'd' (dropped off, caught up, dropped off again) for another kilometre before he would face the battle without us the rest of the way.
Like Rigby said at the start, the players would learn a lot about themselves, and dropping from a group and having to go solo in that weather was a real test of fortitude.
Weller dropped, as did Flanders and Ainsworth. Somewhere around the 4-5km mark as we took a left turn to run alongside the main coast road, David Low Way, we started to pick up some carnage from the front group. Tsitas, Sharp and Holman would all come back to us.
Each time we would encourage them to stay on. "Just give me two minutes, 'Freckle' (Holman)," Rigby said. "Then you'll be fine." It was to no avail though. Tsitas cramped, as did Holman. We were still running 4.15min per kilometre at this stage, almost 6km in, and trying to coerce the guys to stay in a group.
Ultimately, Rigby, Bailey and myself would be left with one – Rowell. We entered a 1km stretch (from the 6-7km mark) that I can only compare to an oven. Dense trees on both sides and a little canopy over the top. There was absolutely no wind, the time was well after midday and there wasn't a tap or water bottle in sight. It was gross. My body was heating from the inside out and I'd only been exercising for half an hour.
Rowell was starting to let the odd groan out. Hollands was about 100m ahead, so we focused on him. Now, I knew Rowell was an animal of a competitor, but never quite knew what to make of his running. However, he'd out-grinded (I know that's not a real word) some very, very, high-level athletes and was twisting himself silly to finish this.
We popped out of the oven to see Mount Coolum. I wouldn't say the final kilometre was easy – it wasn't – but seeing the finish line in sight was a relief. Somehow Rowell kept it together and was fourth to the bottom of the mountain, with Miller and Ellis about a minute ahead, and Hollands keeping his 20-30sec gap. The race was done, as it would be too dangerous to race up the mountain with that many bodies under that much fatigue, but it was still a tough hike to the top.
I respected all of those players for embracing the challenge, from Mabior Chol – who I think it's fair to say extremely dislikes endurance activities and was double quad cramping by the top of the mountain – to Miller for his self-proclaimed obsession with improving.
But my enduring memory from the day will be Rowell, someone I always had the utmost respect for, but my admiration found a new level after seeing his ridiculous single-mindedness to complete a task he could have more easily jogged in.
I have no idea how the SUNS will perform on the field this season, but after seeing what I did first-hand, I find it hard to believe that a lack of fitness or lack of resilience will hold them back.