It’s been my intention to write the last blog about the Canada to Mexico ride for the last…errrr…well, it’s long overdue. Yesterday a journalist asked me “By the way, did you get to Mexico?” The final days were long, hot and sweaty in an unusually hot Californian autumn, but we made it to Mexico on the 29th October, 41 days after leaving Vancouver, 3000km and 38 days of riding. I’ve just calculated that is an average of 79km a day…WEIRD…it wasn’t planned that way to fit with Quest 79, but the mysterious magic of the number seems to have been at work!
The border was an unexpected and moving experience. We followed a dusty trail that became dirt, alongside the imposing grid of the border fence. We’d heard there was a park at the border – Friendship Park. I’m not sure how a park located between double fences is a symbol of friendship, nor how the hundred square metre patch of dirt we found can be called a park. In border-land, the greenest things are the turquoise of the ocean that the fences extend into, and the uniforms of the military guys stationed to intervene with any swimmers or tunnel diggers attempting to cross from Mexico.
A young guy stood at the fence, immersed in its shadows with his head bowed, hands in his pockets, being with his loved one through the dense trellis. My eyes welled, imagining the separation and the tough choices made for dreams of a better life. It’s easy to question why you’d leave family and loved ones when we have more than we need to survive in our ‘western’ world, but then most of us have never experienced real poverty. It felt indulgent to have time and resources to spend 41 days cycling, to a border where I felt like a voyeur of heartbreak.
Later that day, we crossed into Mexico. It was a turnstile gate, impassable in my handbike, so Niall had to persuade US border guards to find their key, accompanied by grumbles of “You don’t want to go to that smelly country”. I found Trumpism shocking throughout the journey, and yes, we really did want to go to Mexico, with all its exotic smells, colour, smiles and kindness. We were waved through the Mexican nationals channel by their border control, with not so much as a glance at our passports. Our short time there was special. After explaining where we’d cycled from, local shopkeepers rallied together and produced a giant Mexican flag as a gift. The border queue back into the US was a different experience – very long and somewhat militant, but a Japanese tourist guide took it upon herself to accelerate our crossing – a little embarrassing, but we passed through in about an hour instead of five!
Whenever I’ve taken a journey, people always ask “What next?” and internally I recoil a little. I want time to reflect and to absorb the experience before thinking about what is next, even when there is a ‘next’! I want time just to be, though it’s not something that comes that easily to me as I have a long engrained default of keeping being busy. It’s maybe a distraction mechanism I adopted to cope with the horror of being paralysed, and one I’ve been trying to unravel ever since.
“Are you going to enter for Tokyo?” the journalist asks me. I laugh, as if you can just choose to enter a Paralympics like it’s your village fun run. I explain the long process of qualification, of points collecting, of the constant need to perform in order to qualify. As I explain, I feel my hangover still lurking, the residual stress I’ve put my body through to get to two Paralympics, to win a gold medal. In the last two years I’ve had two significant operations on large pelvic abcesses, multiple shoulder injuries and pressure sore problems. The evidence tells me my body is objecting to the pressure I’ve put it under. I could keep on pushing, keep on stressing my system, but I’m quite sure it would result in further illness or injury.
What is the price of ’success’? Or more aptly, what is success?! Is it successful to win a gold medal and then be so broken that a fun, independent life is a little lacking? I think not!! These days I am trying to do better at listening to my body. When does it want to play? When is it tired? I think it’s important for us to consider for ourselves ‘What is creating stress? How can I reduce it? What little things can I do each day to create space and recuperation time?’
If I can train and race well, but in a more sustainable way, without emptying myself so much that dis-ease and disease settle in, then I’d love to represent my country in Tokyo. If not, then my health and wellbeing have to come first. Too often, we push ourselves too hard in life, living to the expectations of others or of ourselves, without really considering what we really need.
I find it helps to find a special place or environment where you can break some old habits. I know not everyone has the luxury of a winter out of the UK, but Mallorca is a place that has taught me to stop, to relax, to be. I’m training when I’m here, and often very hard, but I also lie on a sofa for hours on end. I meditate, I lie on the wall by the sea and listen to the gentle swash of waves. I sleep long and lie long, listening to the winter storms battering the building, and the rumbles of thunder so loud and deep I imagine the world is transforming itself. No matter where you are, creating even half an hour of space in a day for yourself is a special thing. Stretch, breathe, write, walk in the garden, connect with yourself and your amazing healing powers…
So “What next?” for me is the Commonwealth Games. Haha! This is my idea of taking it easy, but the fact remains that I love to train. I will be competing in Para-triathlon, the first time a women’s wheelchair category has been at a major games. The Games are only two months away, on the Gold Coast in Australia. I strongly believe I can bring home a medal for Scotland, although little in my current reality seems to suggest it! I’ve had a torn shoulder tendon, a giant hot-water bottle burn preventing swimming and a good long bout of the flu. Training is sporadic, but I hold the belief, and am trying hard to do things differently. Sustainably. Listening. It’s a work in progress but I know it’s the only way forward. If the tap is running fast, we need to keep filling the tank up too!