Categories
Uncategorized

Quest 79

Number 79 showed up in my life last year. I have no knowledge of numerology, but the constant appearance of the number got me intrigued…

Gold is the 79th element in the periodic table. I spent three years as a geologist researching it, but never saw any – it was so tiny, in the lattice of the rock, that it was barely visible even with a super high powered microscope. Gold has eluded me most of my life (definitely in bike racing until last year!), and to be honest I would always choose silver as colour over gold. But ‘Project Gold’ took hold of me in the run-up to the Rio Paralympics and gold, at last, came my way ☺ Interestingly, the medal I won in Rio was the 79th medal for GB. I went straight from Rio to the Outer Hebrides for peace and tranquillity, where a ferry ran aground and stranded 79 passengers! I have also coincidentally taken significant journeys by handbike and sit-ski at 79 degrees latitude east (Tibet), west (Patagonia) and north (Greenland). Number 79 has now led to a new project.

As an ex-climber, I often hear about climbers doing the 7 summits – the highest summit on each continent, and so I’ve decided to create an alternative – a significant ride on each. Quest 79 will involve me travelling to 7 continents in 9 significant handbike rides. Nine rides not just 7 because the project will also include two Paralympic Games, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, embodying the ‘Spirit in Motion’ motto of the Paralympics. I obviously can’t guarantee selection for Tokyo, but I can guarantee to be there, doing a ride in some shape or form! The aim is to raise awareness and £79 K for the Spinal Injuries Association, a charity close to my heart who provide fantastic support and services to people whose lives are suddenly and drastically changed by spinal cord injury.

I also hope that other people will simultaneously take on their own Quest 79. I want people to try something new, and in the process discover themselves. Stretching our boundaries and doing something a little out of our comfort zone usually brings great rewards. We just need the courage to begin and perseverance to persist. It doesn’t have to be physical – it could be anything connected to number 79 – with the idea that people find a passion, bring friends and people together and perhaps help others at the same time by raising money for a good cause. I’m calling this ‘finding your inner gold’.


Where will the Quest 79 rides be?
See the Quest 79 link on my website for more info about the planned rides.


What is the next Quest 79 journey?
On the 18th September, we leave for ‘The Express Way’, cycling from Vancouver, Canada along the Pacific Coast to Mexico. It is 3000 kilometres, and we have 40 days, carrying everything to be self-sufficient including camping kit and of course my wheelchair. Coincidentally, allowing for a few rest days, we’ll need to average 79km a day on the trip! My friend Niall Urquhart is coming with me, and he is currently training hard whilst trying to lose 35kg (79lbs !) before the challenge – it will be the first time he has ever been bike-touring beyond short trips in Scotland. He was injured in March and until recently he was feeling so unconfident that he nearly pulled out, but with some patience, rehabilitation, route planning and gradual training things are back on track. We’re feeling a mix of nerves and excitement for the long ride ahead!

Who is coming on the other ‘Ways’ that are part of Quest 79?
Different friends are joining different rides, and most of them are pushing their comfort zones but enjoying the process. Next year for the ‘Spirit in Motion’ way following the River Ganges from it’s source, my friends Christine Graham, Kevin Benstead and Lorna Campbell are coming along. Christine and Lorna haven’t ridden bikes since childhood until very recently, and Kevin just did his first bike sportive event in 2017.

In the autumn of 2019 will be the ‘Continental Way’: a ride from Britain to Spain, and we aim for Spinal Injuries Association members will have the opportunity to join this ride at some point.

What kind of challenges are other people doing with Quest 79?
Michelle O’Connell has just given up driving to work, to walk 79 miles over three weeks, to and from work. She is now in the process of cycling 79 miles, and after that is planning to swim 79!
In October 2017, coinciding with ‘The Express Way’, Catriona Macleod plans to try and run 79 miles during three weeks, then to progressively reduce the time it takes until she gets as close to running 79 miles in a day as possible. She is a busy working mum and hopes her kids will run with her sometimes. Catriona says “Long-distance running is an aspiration, far from a natural talent. I’m recovering from a stress fracture in my leg but I’m continually inspired by others feats of endurance and want to inspire myself – and hopefully my kids – by jumping into my stretch zone.”

In April 2018, coinciding with ‘The Water Way’, Mark Pitcher plans to run his first marathon, and in the process recruit 79 people to commit to donating blood. A child in his family has a rare condition called Myelodysplastic Syndrome, MDS (which coincidentally my mum also had!), a condition for which life expectancy can be greatly extended with frequent blood transfusions.

The Moray Scout group are planning a 79-mile journey through the Great Glen in Scotland, challenging themselves and raising money for the Spinal Injuries Association in the process. An Aberdeenshire scout also informed me that he plans to drum for 79 hours!

And if you are considering taking on a challenge for yourself…
When I was first paralysed it was hard to imagine I could ever learn to sit up in bed without the use of my abdominal muscles or get dressed. The idea of cycling across mountains or winning Paralympic medals was no-where on my radar! Everything in life comes step by step. When we accomplish one small thing that we never imagined possible, then our mind extends to consider what next. I’m intimidated by the prospect of Quest 79 just now, but experience tells me that with belief in self, in the strength of our spirit, in our ability to overcome, and with the kindness of people, many things become possible.

Quest 79 free e-book
I have tried to collate some helpful ideas in a collection of short stories from my adventures and experiences in sport. Each story comes with a positive psychology anecdote that will hopefully help you with your own Quest 79. This is currently at print and will soon be available, also as an e-book thanks to supporting from Awards for All. The e-book is available free of charge but we are asking you to consider a donation, all of which will go to the Spinal Injuries Association fundraising effort and can be made on my website.

A massive thank you to Adidas and BBraun for being principal sponsors of Quest 79, and also to the other companies who are helping with kit and support: Willams F1, Tiso, Alpine Bikes, Endura, Gerald Simmonds, Amba Marketing, Calico UK & Lyon Equipment.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Road to Rio – The Inner Warrior

This weekend was the official British Paralympic Association launch event. With less than 60 days to go until competition starts in Rio, we’re into the final leg of four years of hard work. It’s got me thinking about how I got here and why I do what I do.
My Paralympic focus began in 2008. It seemed a crazy dream to try and get to the 2012 Paralympics in London; little did I expect to be here for another four-year cycle and heading for Rio de Janeiro. Since I began training in 2008, a handbike has become an extension of my body; when it’s missing, I feel like part of me is missing. It seems wrong that a bundle of carbon and aluminium – a material thing – can feel so profoundly part of me. However, since I fell off a cliff whilst rock-climbing and became paralysed from the chest down in 1993, over-sized pieces of equipment have provided me with mobility and the opportunity for adventure, be it a wheelchair, a handbike, a sit-ski, a kayak…
My first ever handbike experience was in a spinal injuries hospital. I tried out a clip-on handbike that fits onto the front of a wheelchair. I hated it. It didn’t support my upper body and I found myself just wobbling around, not able to put any power down, and actually going slower than in my wheelchair. I knew though that I wanted to cycle. I felt sure it offered a ticket to something fun and free, so I had a unique handbike made: a giant Harley of a machine, a tandem, hand-pedalled at the front, leg-pedalled at the back, both riders in a recumbent position. It is a monster of a bike, weighing in at around 30kg, and almost 4 metres long (it’s currently in the Glasgow Museum of Transport!), but it was my freedom machine. In the beginning there were just short rides, on regular roads and lanes, but gradually my imagination took off. With whoever was willing to ride it with me, I pedalled into forests and over mountains, from the Cairngorms of Scotland to the Himalayas of Central Asia, from the Outer Hebrides to the length of New Zealand. The bike opened up a world of adventure. Trundling slowly through wilderness, lugging my wheelchair on its back, it enabled some of the life-changing journeys I had dreamt of.
Hand-cycling wasn’t really a developed sport back then – but in the last twenty years it has exploded (well, relatively …amongst people who can’t walk or ride a regular bike!).
My virgin experience of a racing handbike was at the first-ever European Handcycling Championships in the late 90’s. I turned up on a handbike a local Scottish frame-builder had made for me. It had a shiny red frame with a small ‘Made in Scotland’ sticker on the back, a purple fabric seat and chunky tyres. The other sleek racing cyclists quickly named it the ‘tractor-bike’ and I seemed to be the laughing stock. I was slow in comparison to them and felt kind of foolish, not to mention that I turned up on my own, my bed wherever I could find a space (the train station platform with a sleeping bag and bivvi!), whilst the others were ‘real’ athletes with coaches and masseurs. A lap of the 15km race circuit on one of their bikes was 10 minutes quicker than on my bike. Yes, training counts for a lot, but the right equipment adds a lot too. I was last in all the races and decided perhaps it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t single-minded enough to commit to racing. I wanted fun with friends, time for adventures.
Ten years later, I was stranded on my stomach in bed for a few weeks with a small sore on my bum that I’d acquired on a sea kayak trip in Sweden with a too-hard seat. Pressure sores are the terror of any wheelchair user – the golden rule is to get off it quick until it’s healed. The chunk of bed rest coincided with the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. It also coincided with someone’s throwaway comment.
“I wonder how good you could be at one of these sports if you just concentrated on one thing instead of everything”.
I’ve always considered myself an all-round-have-a-goer, master of nothing. As I watched the handbikers race on the television in Beijing, a spark fired in my neurons.
“I wonder if you focused, if you could get to race your handbike in the London 2012 Paralympics?”
It seemed impossible: any races I’d entered, I’d only ever come last. As in, really last – the organisers were packing up, and in two races there had been no finish line left to cross! But the idea wouldn’t go away, and by chance I had a more racy handbike already on order. I started training more than ever, though I knew nothing about how to train properly. I didn’t own a heart-rate monitor, let alone know about zones, or power, or threshold, or lactate curves. Blissfully ignorant (oh how many things we’d never begin if we knew in advance what they would entail!), I embarked on this project – my ‘Olympic Experiment’ I called it – keeping it quiet because it felt too scary to tell any one: then I might have to commit and step up to the mark.
Over the next few years I discovered that with good tarmac and a racing handbike, I could steadily cruise at 25-30kmph and if feeling edgy enough, I could fly downhill at ridiculous speeds! In a good climate a handbike resembles a sun-bed on wheels; in a wet climate it’s like sitting in a broken shower, water spraying in all directions. Regardless, I rapidly fell in love: freedom, a pumping heart, flowing blood, the elements sculpting me. When we find our passion in life, it leads us. It takes us on a journey, internal and external, to special places.
So, eight years later, six of those as a professional cyclist (my ‘proper’ jobs in offices part of the distant past), one Paralympics and a silver medal gone, Rio beckons, big and exciting. I’m feeling a focus come over me like I’ve never felt before. It’s not a conscious decision – it’s as if my body is preparing me to be in the best form possible, on all levels, so that I can realise the dream I have: of this time up-grading from silver to gold.
It seems though that there is always at least one athlete I compete against who takes on a goddess-like status, who seems to have gladiator strength and power. It’s an easy habit to diminish myself into the ‘underdog’: something I’ve been all too good at in the past. I’ve been a pro at putting myself on a psychological back foot, seeing my competitors as stronger, faster and more capable, side-lining the hard work and effort that I too have put in. This time though, I feel self-trust and confidence like I’ve never experienced before, that perhaps only come with experience, a solid plan, a great team and a lot of hard work. I’m pushing through training sessions that hurt – a lot – where strength of mind is possibly more important than that of body. As the Spartan Up saying goes “Bleed in training so as not to suffer in battle”.
In these final weeks of preparation, I’m exploring that expression to the full. Bleeding in training means more than just pushing yourself constantly. It also means listening hard, so that we know when its time to quit the battle line and withdraw for the next round. Knowing when to say no, when to quit, when to stand up for what the quiet voice inside you is saying is just as important as knowing when to go out there and ‘bleed’. I’ve got quite good at listening, but not always at following through and acting on what I hear. A few weeks ago I felt quite overwhelmed by everything and found myself saying “I just feel like there’s too much pressure”. Yet I didn’t stop, change or cancel anything – I didn’t want to let anyone down. I just kept going, until I discovered another small pressure sore on my backside after a long, long training ride. I was forced to stop.
So I’ve come full circle: from that moment in 2008 when, lying on my tummy with a small pressure sore, I first felt inspired to dream of racing my bike in the Paralympics; to here and now, lying on my tummy again, in enforced recovery before ramping everything up for these final seven weeks into the Rio Paralympic Games. This time I’m chasing my dream not just of racing my bike in the Paralympics, but of winning the race. I’m bringing all of the lessons with me: focusing on the possibility of my own gladiator strength and power instead of on that of others, knowing I’ve been a Spartan this year and bled hard in training (and in resting!), and the importance of my own inner warrior: listening to and acting on the quiet voice inside instead of over-riding what it tells me. Maybe if we all did that, we’d be capable of more than we dare imagine.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Road from Rio – 79 Degrees

Sport is full of extreme contrast: one moment you feel indestructible, the next you are almost weeping; one day you feel amazing, the next you feel wrecked. A few weeks ago I became a Paralympic champion. I felt physically fit and mentally strong. Now I feel exhausted; my body the most broken and tired I can remember, and mentally everything feels discombobulated. My head has been spinning – actually a positive sign, as it means my brain hasn’t settled into the cabbage-like state it was so often in whilst training for the Paralympics. It also seems a good indication that I haven’t sunk into the POD (Post-Olympic Depression) state apparently so common amongst athletes after a major event that has absorbed them for a chunk of time. (Apparently, Michael Phelps struggled for two years after London 2012, with depression and rehabilitation from recreational drug addiction). However, it seems unbelievable that last month I won a gold medal, given that a few mornings ago my arms and shoulders felt so heavy and sore that I struggled to get myself out of bed.
Sport and high performance are usually billed as good things, held in high esteem, presented as something to aspire to. And sport at an elite level may well begin rooted in passion and enjoyment, but at what point does it becomes a form of addiction or obsession? Training hard is a habit that is difficult to break. In these post-Paralympic weeks, the only way I feel able to give myself the rest I need so much is to go away somewhere, without my bike and with no easy access to a gym. If they are anywhere near me, I will surely be tempted.
As I rest up, I reflect on the pros and the cons of my chosen path as an athlete, on the amazing journey it has been so far but also the more challenging aspects.
On the good side, my job is to ride a bike every day. I am an active person and happiest when outside, and it is a privilege to be able to do what I love, and love what I do. Gone are the days when I was chained to a desk for forty hours a week. I get to ‘live my dream’ in so many ways. For the most part, sport keeps me fit and healthy, I get to see the world, and I meet people from so many different countries, cultures and backgrounds. I mean, how good can it get? How can there be any downsides?
Well, I live out of a bag for most of the year. I am nomadic. Last year I spent approximately five months in rented apartments or hotel rooms. Athletes are relentlessly structured in their training but have little structure in the rest of their lives. Socially and in other ways, things have felt somewhat out of balance for a while. I’ve missed weddings and funerals, family occasions and special times with friends. What kind of person does this make me?
I suppose that if we’re going to strive for anything good or surprising in life, then focus is bound to be required and some things will have to be sacrificed. It’s always going to demand hard work, perseverance, pushing through when we’d sometimes rather not. It’s always going to draw blood, sweat and tears alongside moments of passion, excitement and euphoria. How sustainable is it though, if our life is out of balance for too long?
The same two questions are fired at me almost every day right now.
“How does it feel to have won gold?”
“What next?”
These questions trigger an avalanche in me every time, though in truth they are already constantly tumbling through the gullies of my mind. I just don’t have answers to them yet.
How does it feel to have won gold?
That’s the easier one to answer. For a few hours, it felt fantastic. I experienced a cocktail of surprise, relief and happiness; a mission accomplished, a dream achieved. With that successful race, I became the guardian of a gold medal, and that is a special and privileged thing. It carries magical powers. People’s faces light up when they hold it. They want selfies with it. They tell me things they might not otherwise. It’s an honour to experience the magic of the medal at work.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Wild Way

I’ve heard an adventure called ‘a journey with an unknown outcome’. I seem to have an addiction to them; I’ve never been one for too much routine, certainty or predictability in life, hence the attraction of riding a very long gravel road to a dead end in the South American wilderness.
It turns out that National Geographic has pronounced the Carretera Austral one of the top places in the world to ride a bike – but our trip was inspired by party games rather than a magazine of such acclaim. Christmas. 2016 was almost upon us, and with it a rising awareness of the pressure of the year ahead. We were all training hard to be selected for the Rio Paralympics; whether we would make it or not we didn’t know, but either way, we were pretty sure we’d need something to look forward to afterwards. A kind of ‘recovery’ plan, less for the body but more for the mind and spirit.

Our team came together without much effort, the idea hatched around tinsel and fairy lights with friends Steve and Caroline Bate. Team-mate Jaco van Gass was quickly on board too. Steve has no peripheral vision; when he was diagnosed with retinosa pigmentosa four years ago I had half-joked with him “Well never mind, you could qualify to race a tandem for the British Cycling team now.” He’d gone on to do just that and had successfully lined himself up for the Rio Paralympics. Caroline was new to cycle touring but keen to give it a go. Jaco was also new to it, but as part of the Paralympic cycling squad after losing his arm to an explosive device whilst serving in Afghanistan, he would have no shortage of fitness. All of us were focused so much on Rio, that we gave our Patagonian adventure little thought beyond booking our flights.
The Carretera Austral is a Patagonian forest rollercoaster, a smorgasbord of gravel with stretches of blissful asphalt as an occasional reprieve from the bone-rattling terrain. Within hours of starting to ride we were coated in dust and spattered with mud – mixed in with our sun cream and vaseline, this became a grubby exfoliant for the skin and lips. Our days were soon measured in kilometres rather than time. 1,240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed is 3km per hour. Through the worst of the gravel – grade 3, as we decided to call it – it would have been quicker to walk than cycle. Our efforts were lost to the spinning stones, a layer of marbles on sand. We would see no traffic all day, then when we reached a section of grade 3, trucks would come blundering by, sending up plumes of dust like volcanic eruptions, obscuring the real volcanoes and their conical white slopes that peek above the trees, and adding a touch of grit to our mayonnaise wraps.

Does that tempt you to cycle Chile’s Carretera Austral?
It should. Amongst the gravel and the grind are many wonders. Everything is super-sized: trees reach for the clouds, valleys yawn wide and long leaves cast shadows big enough to shelter under. The bumble bees are obese.
After rattling along the Carretera for 370km, we came to the small village of Puyuhuapi, the forest broken by a disarray of colourful timber houses and shops on the edge of a fjord. We filled our stomachs and souls with giant portions of homemade cod and chips, bread and salad. At Manuela’s there is one set menu, to be eaten with a view over the small harbour and the Christmas tree in the village square The warm evening sun was a reminder that we were in the Southern Hemisphere, a little different from the previous Christmas when wrapped up in woolies we had imagined ourselves in Patagonia.
It seemed an age ago, the year absorbed by the intensity of training and racing, the uncertainty of making Paralympic selection, the mental pressure, disappointment for some at not being selected, and the final push for others of us that were. The escape to Patagonia was exactly the tonic we all needed to recuperate. The lack of pressure was palpable, a relief to body and soul, but now I was re-learning how to live without it. I had felt broken after Rio, the months and years of pressure physically embodied, and I had a date for shoulder surgery when I returned home. Watching the sunset over the lake, I thought about how slowly yet quickly we humans adapt to changes in our environment. Like landscapes. In a few years when the asphalt spreads, Puyuhuapi’s character will morph. More people will come. More traffic will pollute. Maybe nature will become less super-sized. The price of development. For now though, Patagonia has something pristine and unique. I could feel it breathing life into me again.
At first it seemed impossibly far to reach Coyhaique, the regional capital, halfway along the Carretera. Two weeks later and having ingested a lot of dust, we were getting close. Our day began in a grassy clearing with the sounds of flapping tents, wind whispering in tall trees, exotic bird-call and the rush of a bulging turquoise river. We had journeyed from a wide rolling valley splashed with lilac lupins and yellow gorse, the occasional peak of a high white summit glistening bright against a flawless blue sky. But any delusions of having arrived in heaven were soon ground away by the joint-labouring climb. It is curious how far 14km can seem when the road goes relentlessly up and your limbs are weary; when a steep gorge flanked with high walls takes away the horizon; when you feel you are cycling in treacle, or its South American equivalent of dulce de leche. (The latter is pure, delicious, liquid sugar sold in kilogram bags, and soon becomes addictive to the hungry cyclist.)
The others were spread up the road ahead of me, a relay team in formation, ready to hop off their bikes and turbo-boost me up the hill. It is not what I had imagined or wanted, this dependency on my friends to manage the steep or slippery hills. But I felt grateful for them and the way we had found to journey together, with our different physical challenges and circus of bikes and trailers. Steve was riding a fat bike, the wide tyres soaking up bumps and potholes and compensating for his limited vision, my wheelchair precariously balanced on a trailer behind him. Jaco had struggled to ride down the first hill we had encountered, the massive weight on his trailer tricky to control with one arm of carbon. Caroline was physically intact, though not so well trained as the rest of us and she too was balancing a full load of panniers along with pots and pans and washing tied to the back. I knew the ride was a challenge for each of us in different ways, even before the unexpected need to shove me up hills that my spinning wheel couldn’t gain traction on.
I have spent years striving to be stronger, faster and more physically able than I am, but my arms will never match the strength of legs. Maybe that has left me feeling lesser at times; perhaps it has also led me to my incessant pedaling. However, I am nonetheless amazed by what my body sustains. I ask a huge amount of it and it rarely fails my will. For the journey of the Carretera Austral, I was asking my arthritic shoulders to pedal me through at least 60 kilometres a day of mountainous, gravelly Patagonian terrain. I reveled at the absence of pain or complaint from them, especially given how bad they had been after an injury I’d acquired just before flying to Rio; I had felt I had no option but to sign up for shoulder surgery on my return home from Chile. But something about this place, the people, the nature, was making my soul dance in a way it hadn’t been able to for a long time. I had felt suffocated by endless months of cities, hotels, treadmills and races in concrete jungles. They had robbed me of something vital. Here, cycling all day through forests and mountains, camping on dusty roadside verges, in gravel lay-bys or (if we were very lucky) small grassy clearings, I felt somehow at peace again.
The rain fell as constantly as the gradient rose, from the moody fjords of Chile towards the yawn of Argentina, but we would turn south before then, to the black spikes and ice-crusted peaks of central Patagonia, deeper into region XI. Coyhaique had been the last significant town along the Carretera, and now it felt like the real adventure was beginning: the wilder half, the tougher half.
There seemed to be many reasons why I should not be continuing, pushing on towards the festival of gravel ahead. I hadn’t been feeling strong or good, and was constantly challenged by one small thing or another: the worry about my shoulder; my bladder and catheter drama; enforced constipation to avoid my new-found dread of shitting in the wilderness; a broken tooth and emergency dental treatment. What was I thinking? Almost 700km of ‘el ripio slipio’ (my Spanglish slang for the gripless dirt road leading south) stirred up a cerebral cocktail of uncertainty, doubt and trepidation. But maybe it was this mix that inebriated me enough to continue, to travel a road that might be hard, to seek beyond the certain predictability of a comfortable life.
My bike wheels flicked the heavy rain like an unruly showerhead, and despite my good waterproof jacket, I felt the drops running across my skin, seeping where they shouldn’t. Each incline forced me to push hard, made me hungry for gears – but there were no more and instead it felt like a gym workout, reps of a bench press. Was this body-building or body-breaking I wondered? Character-building or spirit-crushing?

We needed to stop, to make camp before dark, but ironically, despite being fed by the clouds all day, our drinking water was low. I felt thirsty, hungry and tired. And life seemed distilled to those simple basics. Water. Food. Rest.
“You feeling okay?” I asked my team-mate Jaco.
“Yep, kind of. There’s no choice not to is there?”
There really wasn’t.
But what is harder really? An elemental day on the road dictated by the crucial ingredients of survival? Or a day rich in comfort, choice and the crazy stress of our daily busy-ness? Despite our dry mouths, empty stomachs and weary muscles, there was nowhere else we wanted to be.
The days passed and we adapted to moving ever more slowly. The forest became woven with lakes and rivers; startling glimpses of turquoise luminosity and rushing current, a surprise for the eyes after the kilometres of gravel and endless trees. Coniferous or deciduous, their personalities differed; the forest darker, more mysterious and forboding, the woodland warmer and more hopeful. I preferred it when the trees fell away to meadows and big skies, when rises in the road were crowned by white summits, where horizons expanded all around and I felt things expand within me as well.
On long journeys with hours of riding, there is plenty of time to think. But mostly I don’t. That’s part of the attraction. Hours of emptiness are punctuated only by fleeting thoughts.
What a beautiful valley!
Is that really only 7km we’ve done so far today?
It must be lunchtime soon…
I wonder what it’s like in the UK just now?
Probably cold and dark, since they’re approaching the winter solstice.
At other moments I am transported, time-travelling from Patagonia to another place. My local café: the comfort of a sofa, a hot milky chai, good chat with a friend.
Then a sip of diluted juice in some exotic South American flavour would burst my senses and I’d be back, on the road again, dodging potholes or navigating washboard that would rattle my brain and bones until I had to clutch the brake to make it stop. A brief moment of peace from the rumbling Carretera. A glimpse of my cap in the rear view mirror, its ‘Patagonia Sin Represas’ logo reminding me of the campaign to prevent damming of the pristine rivers and spoiling of the wilderness we were riding through. I felt happy to wear it, for its ethos of protecting the beauty of the place we were in as well as for the shelter it offered from the hot sun. I feared losing it every time a fierce gust of wind grabbed at its peak. But when I tightened the band enough to keep it, a headache would grow under its vice.
So went our routine, and so passed our days on the road. Simplicity is bliss.
Finally we were only 120 km from our destination: Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera. As I lay in the tent, the rain pattering hard and the wind sweeping through the branches high above, it still felt like a thousand kilometres. A mountain pass of mud and gravel climbed immediately from our campsite, and since the previous afternoon not one vehicle had taken it. We were heading to the end of something. The road, the journey, maybe the earth… A place not many people go. Blue sky turned to grey, the temperature was almost negative, the gravel was back to grade 3. I reluctantly peeled the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag away. There was no time to waste – after 20 km there was a ferry to catch. We had allowed ourselves four hours. We would have been faster walking, except I couldn’t. So we began pedalling.
“You should lie on a beach and relax for a month, not ride the Carretera Austral,” my brother had advised me.
I had wondered if he was right, and for a moment I did again on the final day when the end seemed never to come. But lying around just isn’t me. I understood him, as I struggled to imagine how riding 1,240km of largely unpaved road would do me any good when already in a broken state. But somehow, somewhere along the Carretera’s torturous bumps and gravel, a bit of magic had unfolded. My mind had gradually emptied and time had steadily slowed down. Life had been distilled back to basics, had been invigorated by good energy. I hoped the others had had such a positive experience. In our different ways and for varied reasons, it was a journey we had all needed.
On the final day, we lost Jaco. For days, the rumbling road had been aggravating his body– an old shrapnel injury – to the point where his pain was so intense that he had opted to cycle ahead that morning. He needed to stop and lie still as quickly as possible. We missed him during that last long day of cycling in incessant rain. The hours stretched out towards nightfall, and it was 9pm before, finally, we trundled through damp mossy forest into town, and gathered around the signpost that marked our arrival at the end of the road. The rain was heavy, every cell of our bodies was sodden and cold, but we were celebrating. It had indeed been a journey with an unknown outcome, but we’d made it. An adventure. A unique wilderness experience.
I had no need for shoulder surgery anymore. I phoned to cancel it.