“It was hard, and then it became difficult” After months of training and planning, it was great to finally leave the starting gate. I had said my farewell to Charles and Esther Mulli. I very much appreciated them arranging their schedule to be there for me at the start. It is important for me to keep my cause, Mully Children’s Family, closely linked to my cycling platform. I also very much rely on the prayer support of the hundreds of beneficiaries (rescued children) back in Kenya.
While preparing for RAAM, I was very aware of the challenges I would face: the unfamiliar heat of the desert, long, difficult nights and relentlless climbing. I live and train in the prairies. RAAM claims that to reach Annapolis, riders must climb 170,000. In my estimation, 40% of the total climbing can be found in the first third of the journey. That simply means we need to climb Mount Everest every 2 days (assuming we would start at sea level, not base camp) Closer to home, if you live in a two-storey house, you need to climb the equivalent of walking 13 flights of stairs to the second floor 2000 times a day.
My 8% grade, 4000 ft descent into the Mojave Desert via the Glass Elevator was simply exhilarating. The view was out of this world. I was able to negotiate the hairpin turns safely at about 10km/hour above suggested speeds. After reaching Borrego Springs, the desert heat began to play a big part.
Over time I have learned that the shock to the system of going from 20-25 degrees to 40-50 degrees while putting in a huge physical effort cannot be avoided, but must simply be accepted and managed. I took in a lot of fluids, (2-3 bottles/hour) and stuck with liquid food (Sustained Energy and GoChi juice). I deliberately consumed less calories than I burned. It worked well for the first 30 hours or so. I had chosen, like most other riders, to not take a significant sleep break the first night. Since we were in the leap-frog stage, my support vehicle would sometimes be one km up ahead. No big deal, unless of course you are not sure that you are not going to pass out from the heat. There is no shade. The only refuge from the sun and heat was the back of the van, with air conditioning going at full blast. My crew would pour water over me, I had ice in a refillable pouch hanging down my neck. It all helped, but it took its toll. Other riders dealt with it their own way. We saw one crew holding up a big blanket for shade, while their rider lay on, what looked like a stretcher, also being cooled down with water and ice.
By the early evening of day 2, I began to lose the desire to drink, and of course eat as well. Not good if you need to ride another 4200 km.We reached Salome. A restaurant with ceiling fans provided some cooling. I managed to eat a bit, then took a 90-minute sleep break in the van. After that I was able to eat some more and off we were again. I recall mentioning to my crew that it seemed to be a bit ‘cooler’. The car read 38 degrees. It is all in perspective.
With the worst heat (at least it was a dry heat in the desert) behind us, we were now facing some serious climbing. I recall a man standing on the side of the road. He had a young child in a stroller with him. He used my name as he cheered me on. I found that strange, so I asked him, “Who are you?”. He said, “just a fan of RAAM” Than he added” Welcome to Colorado, home of the real mountains”. His words were somewhat surreal, and I frequently remembered them as I was climbing Wolf Creek Pass, the Continental Divide and highest point on RAAM (10,856 ft). The descent allowed me to reach 92.5 km/hour, my second fastest speed ever on a bike.
I had 1/3 of RAAM behind me. We had successfully avoided a real possibility of a DNF in the desert heat. I can thank my crew for ‘nursing’ me through some difficult times. So what did I learn? Accepting the reality of my situation (severe heat and unrelenting amount of climbing) was the first step of finding a way through it. Even though a DNF would have been an option, and a few riders did, quitting did not enter my mind.
In 2006 when Ruth and I visited MCF, we heard many life stories (told to us by the rescued kids as part of their rehabilitation process). They were difficult to listen to. One story in particular by a young woman named Rebecca (not her real name) has stuck with me. She told us how her alcoholic mother, living off the sex trade for survival, beat her with a machete, (we saw the scars) poured boiling water with pepper onto her private parts, etc. This was part of trying to get this young girl (age 8) to sleep with a man to help earn a living.
When we thought this story could not get any worse, Rebecca took a deep breath and summarized her life thus far in this way: “Up to this point, life was hard, and then it became difficult”, and she went on to tell us the rest of her incredible story. To summarize my first third of RAAM with the phrase: “It was hard, but then it became difficult” is tempting. That however, would be completely disrespectful to children like Rebecca and many others. No matter how difficult some of my endeavours are, they pale in comparison to what many children have to endure. Mully Children’s Family provides thousands of children with an environment where that ‘difficult life’ is being changed to a life full of hope, love and opportunity. What a privilege it is for me to be called by God to be a voice for children like Rebecca. I have simply chosen ultra-marathon cycling, and in this case RAAM, as my platform from which to say: I have heard Rebecca’s story, I have heard her cries, and I will respond with action, not just empty words.
Stay tuned for Part II: Sleep Matters