Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Truly Epic, Cape Epic

The last eight days I was witness to the strength of the human spirit.  It was not simply a bike race, although it was one of the most difficult mountain bike stage races in the world.  This race has been billed as the Tour de France of mountain biking.  Professionals from all over the world wear their National Championship and World Championship jerseys alongside up and coming racers, weekend warriors, housewives, couples, friends and men and women old enough to be their grandparents.  This race is the great equalizer of effort and pain.  No one escapes it, the brutal pounding, the heat, and the crashes. 

I came to support the Team Rwanda two-man team of Nathan and Hassan.  I left in awe of many other stories of personal triumph. 

The Cape Epic traverses the mountains and wine lands of the Western Cape of South Africa.  The area is rugged and breathtakingly beautiful.   The race consists of two man teams who must stay within two minutes of each other at all times throughout the race or face time penalties.  They must finish together in the Prologue and all seven stages or face elimination.  Should only one come across the finish line the remaining rider can ride the rest of the race in the “Outkast” jersey but they are no longer allowed to compete and they will not receive a finisher’s medal.  Every day is a time cut off which all teams must make to secure their slot for the next morning’s start.  Miss the time cut off and you can ride the remaining stages but again, no finisher’s medal.  Miss the time cut off twice and you’re going home.

The choice in teammates could mean victory, survival or disappointment and heartache. 

Team is Team.

The Prologue started on Sunday March 17th and Stage 7 ended this past Sunday the 24th.  During that week the cyclists traveled 800kms and spent anywhere from two hours to eleven hours on the bike.  Everyone had their own personal reason for riding, the stories one after another inspired and humbled.

Stage 1 was one of the most difficult stages in Cape Epic history, 103kms with 2,500meters of climbing.  The cut off, 10 hours.   Some riders coming in talked about walking their bikes for hours through unnavigable sand.  We were also crewing for two other teams; one Rafiki was riding with a Scot expat from Kigali (twice his size with an eighth of Kiki’s talent), the other, a 40 something Dutch gentlemen from the UK and a 68 year old man from the US.  At the time we didn’t realize he was the second oldest rider at the Epic (someone beat him by 2 months) and if he finished he would be the oldest finisher in Epic history.   The Masters team made the cutoff at Stage 1 with only an hour to spare.  Another team rolled in long after I left, just minutes after the official cut off.   Their number boards were removed and replaced with a blue number board.  They could ride the stage tomorrow but they would never show up in the finisher’s list.   I wouldn’t know their story until Stage 2. 

Stage 2 was 145kms with 2,350meters of climbing, cut off window, 11 hours.  Nathan and Hassan came in within the top 50.  Kiki and Alastair struggled across the line hours later.  We waited at the finish line for our last team and with a little over an hour to go until the cut off, around the corner they came.  Jock, Miriam and I shrieked with joy.  I had goose bumps.  I knew if he could make it through Stage 2 he definitely had a fighting chance.  As we were taking care of things for our final team at the finish line, we decided to hang around until the cut off.  As the clocked ticked down over 50 teams remained out on the course.  One by one, they straggled in dirty, dusty, bloody and completely spent….and then the clock clicked zero, there were still teams out on the course.  One by one they came across.  And then I saw the team with the blue board, the team who had received the blue board for missing the cutoff the prior day.  The man detached his prosthetic arm with a special made connection for the bike from the handlebar with a pronounced click.  His partner detached his prosthetic foot from his right pedal.  The race organizer walked over to the bikes holding back his emotion and clipped the boards off the bikes, they were finished.  They would not ride Stage 3.  The crowd went eerily quiet and then began clapping.  People shook their hands and congratulated them as they walked out of the race area and over to the bike wash.  I hadn’t realized, Kiki was standing beside me.  He looked at me and said, “Those guys….how can I quit if I hurt?  I have my leg.  I have my arm.”

I walked away with tears in my eyes. 

Every day there were moments, which quickly slapped you with a strong dose of perspective.  There was Cherise Stander, riding with her brother in law, Duane after her husband, Burry Stander, a legend in South African mountain biking was killed by a car in early January of this year.  Adrien rode with Burry.  Burry took 5th at the Olympics in London.  Burry was only 25 years old when he was struck from behind by a car on a training ride along the coast.  How do you do that?  How do you ride a race your husband won twice, his spirit and energy permeating every portion of this ride?  Charles Stander, his father, finished the race in honor of Burry, riding through the cut offs with only minutes to spare and eventually finishing on his own without a partner.

And every day our 68 year old teammate came through the finish line within the time limit, more weary than the prior day but one day closer to reaching his goal.  Day in and day out he took away excuses.  His positive attitude and his gratitude, kindness and generosity brought us to a higher level.

The winning women’s team of Yolande Speedy and Cath Williamson were not even in the pre race “women to watch”.  On Stage 3 they took the lead after the current leaders had a significant mechanical and lost the yellow.  The second to the last day Yolande crashed and broke her collarbone and two ribs.  The last day, the last stage of 54kms she rode, she finished and she won.  A collarbone break is one of the most painful injuries I have ever experienced.  She wasn’t going to let the pain or the injury stop her.  She defied the race doctors and rode and WON.  Cheers to you Yolande!

As I sit in the airport in Kigali waiting for the rest of the team to come in from South Africa I think back over the past three weeks I am so grateful to have walked into Sysco almost four years ago to quit my job.  I have seen more, experienced more, lived more and witnessed events of truly epic proportions on the most personal level.  I have had a front row at the greatest movie ever produced….my life.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Here's the Deal...It's Not Just a Bike

A couple of weeks ago, Kiki and I made the trip to Rwamagana, in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, under the auspices of visiting Adrien's Cycling Academy in his home town.  Our real mission, to retrieve a bike given to a rider who was a potential Team Rwanda member in training.  The rider had been MIA for over a year without returning the bike.  I had gone through all the proper channels, the Club President, the Federation, even going so far to draft a letter for Adrien's Club President (a different club as the rider in question) to deliver to the police to take them along to pick up the bike.  

No luck...stalled...no bike.  I had hit the wall and frankly it was an "F it" moment.  I looked at Kiki that weekend and said, "Let's go get the bike."

Kiki just smiled, he knows me all too well, and said, "Yes, we go."

Janvier aka Kadona (which means little head in Kinyarwanda...you will see how this plays out) has been in and out of Team Rwanda for years.  About 18 months ago, he came to test, again, and was given a bike.  It was a SCOTT aluminum bike, probably eight or nine years old, but in great shape, having been the bike under several other riders.  He rode for a few camps, did the National Championships in 2011 and poof...he was gone.  He never showed up at races, we couldn't get him to come to camp, calls to him went unanswered.  He was gone but worse...the bike was gone with him.  Members of the team would see him from time to time and he would say he was training but we knew differently.  

Over a year ago I told Jock we needed to get the bike.  He said the bike technically belonged to the Club in Kayonza and we would need to get the Club President involved to reallocate the bike.  "Great, let's do it," I said thinking bing, bang, boom a few calls and we're golden.  Yeah....not here.

Calls to the Club President were ineffective.  He continued to state Kadona was training.  When we appealed to him to at least let us get the bike, repair it and return it for another rider, we were told no, Kadona was still a valued team member.

This went back and forth for months.  I think a lot of times people will just think I will forget and move on.  Those are the people who do not know me well.  I bugged Kiki into inquiring about that bike on a regular basis.  

I brought it to the attention of the Federation.  I didn't care that it was a club bike and not Team Rwanda.  We would repair the bike and reallocate it to a new rider in the Kayonza Club.  I wasn't trying to take the bike forever and leave the country with it but it made no sense for someone who would never benefit from the bike to keep it.  Think...honey badger when you visualize my tenacity.

About a month ago the riders were talking and I heard the word, "Kadona" in the mist of a Kinyarwanda conversation.  I looked over, "What?  What about Kadona?"

Kiki said, "Yes, he is in prison."

"Are you kidding me?  Can we get the bike now?  What did he do?"

Of course, you can never get a straight truthful answer from anyone so I went with the story, "Kadona had beaten up someone very badly."

Great....110 pound pin head took down someone in a brawl, nice, now, can I get the bike?

Back and forth back and forth...Jesus people...can we just get the bike?

So, when I mentioned it to Kiki that day, I think he was relieved to here we would go.  

That morning after visiting Adrien's Academy, I looked at Kiki and JB (another Club President) and said, "Great...so, where's the bike, let's go."

JB talks to Kiki, Kiki looks at me and says, "Ok, so we have to go to the prison to speak to Kadona."

"Why would we do that?" becoming more irritated by the second.

"Because, we go, we visit and then he tells his wife to give us the bike," Kiki says.

"And he's going to notify his wife HOW?  He's in jail and this is not America where he can make a collect call."

Kiki looks at JB, JB looks at Kiki...hmmm....never thought of that.

"UGH....OK, we go to the prison, let's get this done!" 

If you've never been to a men's Rwandan prison, I don't recommend it.  The men in orange are your short timers, your men in pink are the long term inmates.  All I'm thinking is genocidaires.

The prison was on the edge of Rwamagana and actually looked quite nice, a pleasant farm setting.  The guard at the gate took all six of our phones, our ID cards and my passport and in we went.  We waited in the office surrounded by groups of men in pink and orange doing their jobs.  At one point I whispered to Kiki, "Do you think some of these men killed people in the genocide?"  Kiki simply nodded.  I thought to myself, how do you go from the kitchens in the largest casinos on the strip in Vegas to a Rwandan prison?  At about that time the large gate opened to show the real prison where the men sleep, it was behind this 30' wall and there it was, tents, and dirt, mud and hundreds if not thousands of prisoners.  The quickest glimpse I never needed to see.

After about an hour, during which I'm still questioning why we're here and why we need to "talk" to Kadona, we find out he's been transferred to another prison.  JB says to Kiki we will go there.  I can understand enough Kinyarwanda and body language to know and I immediately say, "ENOUGH, we're getting the bike and I really don't give a rat's ass how Kadona FEELS about this, he essentially stole the bike, I am not Dr. PHIL!"  

They missed the Dr. Phil/feeling connection but knew it was time to meet the wife.

We drive to Kayonza about 10 minutes further past the prison.  We drove to the center of town and found a single speed taxi driver who knew where she lived and he jumps into the Land Cruiser right in between Kiki and I.  We go back across the Kayonza roundabout and minutes later arrive at the house.  The wife is outside washing clothes with a gaggle of kids around her of varying ages.  I have no idea if they are all hers.  If they are she's been cranking out a kid a year for about four years.

Then starts the Kinyarwanda...Kiki and JB and this woman back and forth, back and forth, then she laughs and rolls her eyes.  Yep, she knows where the bike is and is completely lying when she says she doesn't.  Of course at this point I jump in telling Kiki to translate.  I also tell Kiki I know she's lying.  Kiki knows too.  By this time the crowd is starting to gather.  A muzungu in a Land Cruiser with a couple of Rwandans at a locals house is cause for a "gathering".  I get more and more annoyed with the whole process.  

Then I feel a soft tap on my arm.  I turn around to view a girl of about 12 looking at me holding out her hand saying, "Muzun...AMAFARANGA!"  

Are you kidding me?!  I'm here trying to get my stolen bike back and you're hitting me up for money?  "Girl, you have really bad timing!  Dejende! (GO!)"

At this point I have lost all patience and I said to Kiki, "Here's the deal, she's got two choices.  One, I go to the police now and file a report or two, she gets 20,000RWF ($35USD) to give me the bike NOW!"  Frankly, I was never going to pay to get my own bike back but looking at those desperate kids who were filled with worms, hungry, snot running down their faces, hopefully, if she had some money she would feed her babies.

Bam...she might not have understood a lick of my English but she heard, 20,000 franc.  The tide turned.

Kiki came over to me and said, "No money, we don't give her money."  I told him normally I would never give money but I hoped she would feed her kids.  Kiki relented.

Back in the car with Kiki, JB, single speeder taxi guy to pick up another guy.  Not sure why but on the other side of Kayonza we meet Gehemba.  Lo and behold Kiki and Gehemba go way back to Kiki's racing days long before Team Rwanda.  Super, get in the car!

Back to wife of Kadona...more talking more haggling then Kiki, JB, Gehemba, and wife get in the car to go back to the other side of Kayonza (where we had just come from).  I had stopped questioning logic hours prior.  This was now in the hands and time frame of Rwandans.  All four jump out and go down the row of shops and disappear through an alleyway.  I wait...and wait...and go buy a mountain dew and cookies...and wait...and go get airtime...and wait.

Finally Kiki comes out and comes to the window.  He looks frustrated.

"So Mukeciro...I told them, 'Here's the deal...'" I about busted out laughing but remained composed.  I barely heard all the rest he had to say.  He had used, "Here's the deal..."  Nice....I'm creating a little Mini Me!  Kiki goes on to tell me I can go but he had told them he's not leaving without the bike and will sleep there all night.  I couldn't have been more proud!

Then Club President called and a little more back and forth and finally he tells me if I write a note, sign it and give it to the men, they will release the bike.  I knew it!  I knew the bike was there even though they had lied saying the bike was far away.  I promised him we would fix the bike, he could send some riders to test and we would put one of his new riders on the bike.  Done.

I walked back through the alley with Kiki, wife, JB and Gehemba.  I wrote the note on a piece of scratch paper, signed it, gave them my business card and someone nodded, another man walked over to the door of the enclosed compound and came out with the bike.  

"The bike!" I said quietly..."The bike...."

Kiki grabbed the bike and took it to the Land Cruiser.  I turned to the wife, brought her into one of the shops and handed her 20,000rwf and said, "Feed your babies."  She smiled and said Murakoze (thank you).

After we dropped off Gehemba and headed back to Rwamagana,  JB and Kiki were talking in Kinyarwanda and I kept hearing "Mukeciro and Muzungu" over and over.  Finally I looked at Kiki and said, "I know you're talking about me."

Kiki started laughing.  Apparently, the men were mad they had to turn the bike over to a white woman.  They said it would have been okay if it had been coach who came to get the bike but not me.  NOT a woman!  Kiki then looked at JB and said something in Kinyarwanda.  I asked him what he said.

"I told them they don't know you, you are like dog who is very, very hungry."

I looked at Kiki and said, "Here's the deal....it's not just a bike, it's some kid's future locked away collecting dust in a room in Kayonza.  I can't live with that.  You know we don't have enough bikes.  This bike could be ridden by the next Adrien Niyonshuti.  I couldn't leave without it."

Kiki smiled and said, "I knew we would get the bike....Team is Team."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Millicent's Fear

A couple of weeks ago I went for a ride with a woman who had designated this day, this ride in Rwanda to be taken out on her “Overcome a Fear” list.  We all have those lists, bucket lists, things we want to do, mean to do, doing things which challenge us, cause us angst, wake us up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat things.  Or maybe not all of us, maybe just a few.

Millicent emailed me and said she wanted to go for a ride.  She had challenged her students to do something they feared every day while she was in Rwanda.  She knew if she threw down the gauntlet, she too would have to do the same.  She chose, go for a bicycle ride in Rwanda.  I thought to myself, as an avid cyclist, “Ok…whatever, maybe she’s afraid of the roads, the people, the errant goats, cows, sheep and crazy matatu drivers.  That’s understandable.  There are days I’ve shot my wad of adrenalin 50 meters out the door when yet another person crosses in front of my path without bothering to look both ways.  It’s a significant issue in Rwanda.  Got it!  So, we’ll go for a ride.” 

I knew the ride was going to be slower than the pace I’m used to.  They all are if I’m riding with anyone besides the team.  But, that was fine, I just wanted to get out and ride with Millicent and catch up.

She came by the house on a Monday morning bright and early.  I put her on a road bike and off we went.  Later she told me she had never ridden a road bike.  She could have fooled me from the start.  She got out, started pedaling, albeit slowly, but we were on our way.  I explained to her the obstacles and to assume EVERY human being on the road that morning was going to jump in front of her bicycle.  We were about two miles out on the road to Gisenyi.  This road is primarily one long climb with a few breather plateaus for 18.9 miles.  Yes, I know every inch of this road.  The road dips for about 300 meters, a brief respite before the real climbing begins.  This is when I understood her fear.  It wasn’t the bicycle it was speed.  Speed was her demon.  She kept pumping the brakes and then as we picked up speed (14-15mph) she started to death grip the brakes.  I told her to let go as we were going to start climbing and we needed the inertia to work in our favor.  Really, I’ll take anything I can get on these hills!

At the end of the dip, she started to release the brakes and start pedaling.  The gradient slowly rises and then pops to 6-8% quickly.  She handled it well.  I looked over and saw the fear, the sweat beads forming on her face.  It wasn’t sweat produced from physical exertion it was anxiety forming sweat.  About 4 miles out of town we turned around and started the trek back to Musanze.  Yeah, baby all down hill, my favorite.  Millicent looked like a deer in the headlights.  As she screeched her way down the hill, knuckles turning white, hands cramping holding the brakes I simply looked over and said, “You know Millicent, if you don’t let go of the brakes you’re going to blow up the wheel.”  Ok…they weren’t carbon wheels so probably not, but, if those brake pads were low, they were going to be finished in the next mile and a half.  She eased up, but continued to pump the brakes.  I told her to embrace her inner eight year old girl. 

By the time we made it down the steep part of the hill, she was exhausted.  We started talking about her fear.  I have never been so impressed with anyone really tackling something they knew was going to cause them incredible anxiety and fear.  I told her I too had fears on this hill.  The week before I had ridden with the team returning from a training ride and as we started the hills about 10 miles out I told myself I was not going to get dropped.  Four years ago I NEVER could have gone down these hills with them.  I too death gripped the brakes watching Jock and Max pull away from me on the descent.  But I kept at it and kept at it and when the opportunity presented itself to show the team I had the chops to descend with them I was not going to let any fear get in the way.  I made it all the way to the bottom of the last set of hills on their wheels.  They all looked back to see if Mukeciro was still there.  Top speed that day….46.8mph. 

“Was I scared?” Millicent asked.

“Actually, not really, I was more scared the first year when I was learning how to stay on their wheel.  That day, not so much,”  I replied hoping not to sound flippant.

“You’re not afraid of anything.”

There it is….the biggest misconception about me from most people.

I have been wanting to change the name of my blog and nothing seemed to jump out at me.  As we road back to the house and I told her about my fears I found the new name, A Life of Living Fearlessly.

As I type this blog I am in seat 8D on Rwanda from Kigali to Johannesburg.  Over the last four years I have flown close to 200,000 miles and my biggest fear, FLYING.

I really don’t enjoy anything about flying.  Besides the moronic TSA issues in America, the aggressive passengers in Africa, the mind numbing hours of traveling and layovers, it basically comes down to the actual hours in the plane.  Has flying 200,000 miles improved my condition?  Not really.  I still death grip the seat or the human next to me in turbulence.  I think every little noise on the plane is the engine falling off.  Of course it’s irrational.  I know the safety records of planes vs. cars…however, not sure if those aviation figures factor in African planes, might be closer to equal.  I have a significant fear of flying. 

But….it doesn’t stop me and it won’t.  I used to drink mass quantities of alcohol prior to flying but TSA and age has taken the fun out of that.  Now, I say a prayer, actually I pretty much pray non stop, get on the plane and go.  What are my options?  Not live the life I have traveling the world?  I think I’ll manage the fear.

Many years ago I read a book, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.”  It is actually a bit of a hokey self help book I read to get over my fear of sales, which at the time was my new career.  I don’t remember much about the book other than, simply embrace the fear and do whatever you need to do anyway.  You don’t have to try to wipe out a fear, just acknowledge, focus on the larger picture and manage it. 

I manage flying.  Some trips better than others!  At the end of January I flew from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Mek’ele, a town in northern Ethiopia.  There were several flights a day, some on a Boeing 737-800 the others on a plane with propellers.  For me, my fear prefers jets.  As we were making our approach into Mek’ele I noticed more and more fog as we got closer to the town.  I could see the airport was on a plateau above the town.  I remember seeing cars, houses, donkey carts and then we entered the fog.  Fear management was in overdrive.  I knew we were getting closer to the ground but had no idea where the ground lay.  And then it happened, full throttle straight up, thrown back in my seat.

I looked over at Jock, “What the hell was that?”

“Aborted landing,” he says like it was the coolest plane maneuver he’d seen in a while.

“Probably couldn’t see the ground,” he added.

Really, no shit?  WTF… and a string of other expletives racing through my brain.

The pilot comes on the intercom to let us know we’ll be landing in Axum, a town about 15 minutes from Mek’ele by air.  Nice, we get to try this again.

We eventually did land in Mek’ele safely but still amongst fog even hours later.  Several hours later as Jock and I were having lunch we met an expat and we were talking about the fog and he mentioned how the airport doesn’t run on radar so essentially the pilot was trying to land a Boeing 737-800 on VFR (visually) with no help from the tower and the ceiling was less than 100 meters.  Okie Dokie….very happy to know that now for the next time!  Some things are NOT worth knowing to manage fear.  That landing never would have been attempted in the US.  Again, didn’t need to know that.

I may be spending more time this year in Mek’ele…..lots of fear management on tap.

I fear something every day of my life.  I may not show it to the rest of the world but it is always with me.  Perhaps my lack of vocal admonition about my fear helps me plow through it.  I am not quite sure.  I do things most won’t.  What I do believe is if you keep a bigger picture mentality, the fears are simply minor obstacles to navigate but nothing which would stop you from living the big picture.

I have zero fear when it comes to protection, injustice or anyone coming between the ones I love and me.  If you are abusing a dog or child and will not open the door of the compound gate as I pound on it trying to get you to stop, I will scale the wall and make you stop.  If you endanger one of the riders or myself with your idiotic, asinine moto taxi driving in the National Championship race in Kigali, I will peg you in the head with a Cytomax bottle from 30 feet out, cause you to lose balance and go down so my posse can take you out.  I do not care if there are 25 of your moto taxi buddies running up behind me.  I have zero fear.  

If you take "you" out of the equation it is so much easier to be fearless.  

I still fear rain and mud on the back of a motorbike after my crash in Tanzania resulting in a broken collar bone three years ago.  I have a twinge of nausea and anxiousness every time I'm on the bike and it begins to rain....but I still ride.  The best thing after my accident was being put on the back of the tandem, still wearing my collarbone brace, and screaming down the hills near home at close to 50mph.  Jock knew I was fearful of falling again and simply rode it right out of me over a two week period of tandem riding.  Feel the fear....and do it anyway.

I don't fear death, I cannot living where I do.  You must be okay with knowing a simple car/bike/motorbike accident, a sudden illness, an outbreak of rebel fighting can contribute to your demise in a nano second.  The way I look at it, I will at least die doing what I love which is way more than most people are privileged to live.  

We all have fears, it's simply whether you chose to let the fear (false evidence appearing real) control your life.  I choose to live fearlessly.  

Millicent as you probably have guessed, is not her real name, but it should be....Millicent means "brave strength".  Bravo Millicent for reminding us all how to live outside our fears.