COVID-19, Ultra-Marathons & TDA riders
At first, it looked like the COVID-19 pandemic was a sprint and that it would soon be over. Then it looked like a middle-distance run but, soon enough, it became a marathon, actually an ultra-marathon. Our company runs what one would define as ultra-marathon cycling expeditions so, how are we adapting? How is our community of cyclists doing? Did our tours better prepare us and the participants to deal with this stressful situation?
In a recent video, my colleague Shanny interviewed an alumni of several TDA tours, Ruth Storm, who a few years ago skied from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. Ruth explains, that “the hardships and challenges experienced on these adventures teaches you skills that you can use for the rest of your life”. She goes on to explain how these trips help you to put perspective on your own life and what matters and what doesn’t.
The COVID-19 situation we are in cannot be compared to one of our long cycling adventures. Yet, there are similarities. Each day you have a goal but you do not have any idea what awaits you. You know you have to take care of yourself, do what you have to do for the day, but do not know the outcome. You know that each day can bring serious problems and you brace yourself for them.
During COVID times you often face unknown and unpleasant situations as sometimes you do on a tour. You know this marathon has an end, you just do not know when. So you get up each morning and, just as on tour, you get going and ‘cycle’ on with life. And you know that just like on a long trip, it is a mind game. You have to play the long game and be tough.
This is what Ruth Storm is referring to regarding long distance tours. It is those rough times that you remember the most and that help you again and again when you find yourself in rough seas. And you think to yourself, I can deal with this and you move on.
A Really Shitty Day
At least I do. Perhaps the toughest day I ever had on the Tour d’Afrique, one that just about did me in, was the stage leaving Bahir Dar in Ethiopia. Two days prior, just a few kilometres outside of the town, I got a little playful and decided to cycle between two rocks that were blocking the access to a new road under construction. My foot got caught on one of the rocks and I fell with my ribcage landing on the rock. I sat on the ground, in pain and taking shallow breaths. Minutes later, with no one around to help, I got back on the bike and made it to Bahir Dar – and thankfully a rest day.
I went directly to a nearby hotel and rented a room, a bed being easier to get up from then the floor of the tent. Thirty six hours later, my ribs were still hurting. I was leading our group of 30 plus cyclists, accompanied by support vehicles, for about 15 km, to a point where we had to make a left turn onto a dirt road. I was the only person in our group who knew where the turn-off was. As we were getting closer, I experienced terrible cramps and needed badly to relieve myself but I knew the turn off wasn’t very far. We had a long and hard day ahead of us on a rough road and I didn’t want to delay anyone. As soon as we reached the intersection, I pointed the way and ran into the bushes.
Off the riders went, all of them, including the trucks. My affliction turned out to be no ordinary diarrhea. I squatted for half an hour or maybe more in agony. Once done, completely drained, I sat by the road hoping for a ride. Regrettably, the dirt road we were on had almost no traffic. Half an hour later, feeling a little bit better, I decided I might as well start cycling to shorten the distance for the lunch truck, when it came back to look for me. As I rode, bit-by-bit, I felt better and few hours later, by the time the lunch truck showed up, I had decided that I wanted to continue cycling. Soon, however, the sun was beginning to set and there was no sight of our camp.
A military vehicle that was keeping an eye on our group came by and offered me a lift. Erroneously, as it turned out, I was convinced the camp was nearby. After the struggle I had just experienced, it had became a point of pride to finish the day’s ride. Half an hour later, with the sun having set, I found myself struggling up a steep hill, searching for the lights that would indicate our campsite. The military men came back again, this time insisting that there were hyenas around and that it was very dangerous to keep on riding. But even though it was against the tour rules not to ride in the dark, I had become so obsessed with finishing the day on a bike that I just kept on pedalling.
Once I finally reached our camp the day wasn’t over. Angry riders, who were worried not only about losing their tour leader but who were also upset because of what they perceived of a double standard regarding the rules, started taking a piece out of me. After a quick meal, I set up my tent and crawled in. I was tired but the events of the day played themselves in my mind over and over. I had made several errors in judgement but I also felt good about my ability to recover and cycle the distance.
Nowadays, when I am hurting, physically or mentally, I think of that day. I think of sitting by the road, devoid of any energy and praying for a car to come by. I think of the slow long ride all day long and the desire just to be in camp in my sleeping bag. I think of the anger of the cyclists awaiting me. But I also think of the stubborn determination that kept telling me ‘you can do this, you will get there’. And I smile to myself. I venture to say that many of the participants on our tours have similar stories and they too, silently smile when no one is looking. And because of that silent smile, they are capable of dealing with COVID-19 and the many challenges it throws their way.