When I woke up, it was still fairly warm outside. It hadn’t cooled down as much as the other days. We were up for another hot day.
Most nights since we’d been camping, I needed to get up once to pee, but otherwise slept through rather well. This night was different. My cough had kept me awake, and I had to get up more than once.
Exhausted from a series of tough riding days and without a good night’s sleep, I could feel the strain on my immune system—my body was on decline mode.
“Tired, I couldn’t do another day like today,” I kept replying yesterday whenever people asked me how I was. “Are the roads tomorrow like today?” I had asked Tallis during our riders’ meeting, hoping for a negative answer.—“Yes, same.”—“What’s causing this corrugation?”—“Just trucks going too fast. They try even it out, but then the next crazy driver comes and it’s all the same again.”—“So tomorrow is just as bad as today?”—“Well, it will be shorter.”—“Yes, but only by a few kilometers!” I thought to myself, for the first time afraid of what was still to come.
Today, I only got up at 5am. “Alex, stop looking at your computer,” Rob brought me back to reality two hours later. “Don’t waste precious daylight time.” He had a point. Others, as usually, had already packed up their tents while I was still writing my blog. The reason I’m taking it so easy is that I don’t need the coffee that’s usually ready from 7am, and breakfast time is only at 7.15am. That leaves me plenty of time because I just need a few minutes to pack up my tent—routine makes perfect.
Routine also makes strong, by the way. My bag that initially I struggled to even lift from the ground—I can now casually flip it around my shoulder, and I can even run to the truck while carrying it! Just that today I was in no running mood.
My body had become lethargic. Thus, it also didn’t bother me the slightest bit that breakfast had been served bit earlier than 7.15am the past days, potentially as soon as 7.07am—oh yes, we know our times, and every minute counts! Not today, however, not to me anyway. My body was in lethargy mode. I didn’t feel any rush to get out of camp.
Breakfast, however, did wonders to restore my energy. It’s probably time to fess up to my energy secret: Three big knife-fulls of peanut butter (the equivalent of 3-5 spoonfuls) in my morning oats porridge. I’ve probably been consuming more sugar every single day on this tour than my entire last year! And it’s not just me—oats porridge cum peanut butter (or Nutella or jam) has become everyone’s breakfast staple.
Few minutes into the ride, my muscles started to warm up again. Mark from the US overtook me just like yesterday. “Aren’t you hot?” he shouted in passing.—“Very hot!”—“Why don’t you take off your leggings?”—“Cause they’re supposed to keep me cool, and they protect me if I fall, like yesterday.”—“OK, safe riding!” and off he went.
“If he can go that fast on this dirt road,” I thought to myself, “then why can’t I?” Even though I felt hot already, it was only going to get hotter. Thus, it seemed advisable to cycle as fast as I could in the morning, to minimize my suffering after lunch. And so I pedaled harder.
Rule #6 of the Velominati bible: Free your mind and your legs will follow. As illusive as it may sound, it actually worked! It didn’t take me long to catch up with Mark again, and I seemed entirely capable of maintaining his pace.
“Am I the rabbit?” Mark asked when he realized I was back at his wheel.—“No, you’re the carrot, I’m the rabbit.”—“Or I’m the rabbit, and you’re the fox.”—“Haha, yes. You’re my inspiration. Thanks for motivating me to go faster! And for the tip about the tire pressure. It really worked. I don’t think I could have reached camp yesterday without you!”—“Someone would have told you sooner or later.”
The road turned left and right, straight only acres. Tallis was waiting for us. “Change of directions again?” Mark asked.—“No, it’s just because the water pump is no longer here, so you don’t get confused. . . . You’re making good progress, doing good,” he congratulated us. “And you got the right tires.”
That’s another reason why I’ve been able to make it to camp yesterday in a fairly decent time and why others, equally strong and qualified, didn’t or needed a lot longer. “You got mountain bike racing tires,” Mark commented earlier. I didn’t even know that, but I can definitely highly recommend them—Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus (thanks to Ralph from my bike shop for his expert advise!). Speaking of tires, I can also highly recommend my Schwalbe Marathon Supreme road tires. Other than the colossal nail on day 1, I haven’t had a single puncture yet—another secret of my racing times. It’s not only about muscle strength, the right gear goes a long way too! 🙂
I was in my best performance again, and even went ahead of Mark for a while. Then I dropped my bike on the ground and hid in the dry cornfield for some privacy. That was difficult to get by at our last camp, and my stomach had become quite painful since.
“Keep going,” I shouted as I heard Ed and Mark approach. There was no need to rush for me, so it seemed. Surely, I would quickly catch up with them again. And that’s what I did as soon as I was back on my bike—push the pedals hard in order to catch up with the guys.
Racing across the dirt road, I felt strong and invincible, like a real mountain biker. The sandy and earthy patches no longer made me slip, my body had learnt to intuitively balance out all obstacles. The dirt road was your typical agricultural path with two tracks pushed down hard by the wheels of vehicles, and a raised bit of softer earth in between.
A motorcyclist approached me on my riding lane. I could just have gotten off my bike and let him pass, but time was of the essence again, so I thought. Without slowing down much, I skilfully navigated my bike over to the other lane. At least that was the plan, intuitively, without thinking. And cross the lanes I did. There was only one problem. I did it without my bike! That had remained stuck in the earthy mount in between the lanes.
Before I knew it, I found myself on the ground on all fours once again, or rather flat on my legs, stomach, and elbows. Only this time I had been going faster, and it bloody hurt! How bad was it? Had I broken anything? I didn’t know. My body was still flushed with adrenaline when the motorcyclist stretched out his helping hand. I wasn’t able to react, nor utter a single word. Blank pain. Instinctively, I felt like crying. Rationally, I calmed down and told myself to assess the situation step by step. “Come, I help you up,” the motorcyclist offered again.— I still needed to process. “No, I need to sit,” eventually managed to utter. I wasn’t ready yet to get up.
Slowly, still on my stomach, chest propped up by my elbows, I looked at my hands and peeled the gloves aside. No damage there. Then I checked my elbows. No visible impact. Both my gloves and my arm warmers, that I’m wearing rolled up on my lower arms to cushion the pressure of my handlebar when leaning forward, had softened the impact and protected my skin. That was a good sign.
“Alex, are you OK?” Mark (from the UK) had caught up with me from behind.
I shifted my weight to sit onto my butt. One of my leg coolers was undamaged; the other one was torn at my knee and revealed open skin. However, I was able to move my legs—good sign!
“All good”, I forced a smile onto my face and, eventually, got back up. “Happy Birthday, by the way. I was too slow to congratulate you in the morning.”
“Thanks. No worries. Are you sure you’re OK?” Mark looked concerned. “Shall I call Tallis?”
“No worries, all good. I’ll just clean the wounds and then let Helen look at it at camp.”
“Do you have a first aid kid?”
“Yes, I got everything I need. I just need to clean up. No need to wait, please keep going.”
“Are you sure?”
“OK then. Take care, and see you later.”
This just demonstrates the wonderful camaraderie we have in our group. Mark would go on and win today’s racing stage (well done!), but safety and helping each other always comes first. It also shows that, even though I’m cycling alone most of the time, I’m really never alone. Give it one minute, and the next rider comes along.
Meanwhile, the motorcyclist hadn’t moved. He was probably even more shocked than me about what had just happened. “Don’t worry, all good, it’s my fault,” I told him repeatedly. He stayed back and watched as I peeled down my leg coolers.
I was scratched open all over my shin, and blood was flowing from my knee. However, my leg cooler had gone a long way to minimize the impact. A dozen flies appeared from out of nowhere and busied themselves on my bloody knee.
“Water,” the motorcyclist offered me his supplies.
“It’s OK, I got,” I opened my first aid kid instead. My alcohol wipes turned out to be ludicrously tiny, so I ended up using hand sanitizer instead to disinfect my wounds. It burned like hell. Two plasters were sufficient to cover the bloodiest part on my shin, and I taped a gauze onto my knee. Only once I had peeled my leg cooler back on and gave the motorcyclist my thumbs up and yet another forced smile, he finally moved on, expressing his well wishes and waving me goodbye.
“All good?” Deb and Peter passed by while I got ready to move on.
”All good, just joined the tattoo club.”
“Oh no, but it’s not far to lunch,” Deb and Peter said a few words to cheer me up.
Indeed, it wasn’t far to lunch, perhaps 8km, but it had gotten hotter and my newly tattooed leg felt stiff. Even though I was lucky to not have hurt myself badly in the fall, my energy levels had taken a disproportionate plunge. That mysterious source of energy that my body was able to tap after breakfast had disappeared completely. The 15 minutes that my little incident took out of my riding time seemed like an eternity to me.
My body was a mess. The weight of all the exhaustion of the past riding days all of a sudden pushed heavy onto me. My mind body control started to fail. Every pedal stroke felt heavy.
Finally, I reached the little village where we were supposed to have lunch. People everywhere. As usual, they waved and greeted, kids ran up to me, and teenage boys were trying to attract my attention. I had no energy left to be nice to them. Nor was I able to shout any longer. I had lost my voice. My throat felt dry and sore. Every word uttered had become painful. For the first time, I ignored everyone around me completely and just focused on the road ahead.
“It’s because of those annoying boys that I’ve lost my voice,” I vented my frustration in thoughts, “because I always have to shout at them from afar to make sure they don’t do anything stupid. Why do boys always have to be so misbehaved?” I thought to myself. All of a sudden, the weight of the never-ending effort over the past month of constantly watching out for the boys, feeling threatened by their stupidity and unpredictability, was coming down on me. I felt angry with our male staff and riders who keep referring to naughty kids. It’s not naughty kids. There hasn’t been a single misbehaved girl. It’s naughty boys, for the records!!!
At the same time, I felt sorry for everyone else, all the locals around me. No tourist ever comes to visit them, cares about their existence. Here I am—our group passing through their village probably being a big highlight in their village life—and I don’t even look at them, treat them like non-existent. They all give me this friendly welcome, and I just return my cold shoulder. What must they think of me? Rude, arrogant, unfriendly girl from a rich man’s world?
This was not the kind of person I wanted to be. I was very self-aware of my own behavior, yet entirely unable to change. I just didn’t have the energy left, neither physically nor mentally. My lack of self-control made me feel helpless and sad. By the time I reached the lunch truck, I was close to tears.
Dozens of kids and teenage boys had gathered around the lunch truck. My arrival, of course, didn’t go unnoticed. “Hello! Hello! How are you? How are you?” they insisted to draw my attention.—“Just go away and leave me alone,” I felt like screaming at them.
“Hello Alex, welcome!” Wynand cheerfully greeted me as usual, “how are you today?”
“Ah, it’s not my best day today,” I replied quietly, for lack of energy and voice.
“Why? What happened?”
“Just no energy left,” I uttered, barely audible. “It’s hot.”
“Remember what you told me?” Tallis over-heard our conversation.
“Oh yes, I’m not complaining,” I replied lethargically. Harden the f..k up was the motto that had kept me going that far. There was no need to remind me.
Max gave me a compassionate smile.
I was close to tears. Our crew is really good at assessing our mental and physical states and, in this moment, they all understood it was best to just leave me alone.
“How are you, Alex?” other riders asked, some casually as usual, others having picked up on my changed behavior.
“Just lost my voice,” I explained my abnormal lack of words. “You know, I really try my best to keep a positive mind and enjoy the ride,” I told Bernd in German, “but it’s not always easy.” He listened to me empathetically and tried his best to support me mentally.
“Today, I need some music to cheer me up,” I commented as I pulled out my iPod once I was about to head off again.
“Ohhh,” Phil jumped up from his lunch and gave me a big hug. He made me laugh again, laugh about my self-pity, about the inexplicable sadness that I was trying to suppress.
Browsing through my albums, Bob Marley’s was the first one that seemed acceptable. I plugged in my earphone and turned my back to our group. “Stir It up, little darling, . . .” Tears welled up. I was grateful for my sunglasses hiding my eyes as I navigated my bike through the swarm of boys.
Soon enough, I had left the village and found myself riding alone through open acres again. My tears kept running down my cheeks while Stir It Up looped again and again and again. I didn’t know why I was crying, nor did I have the slightest clue what Bob Marley was actually singing about. To me, it sounded like a song about an unfortunate girl who’s being encouraged to keep fighting. The sexual connotation of the song didn’t register with me at all.
I was thinking about my friend who went out of his way to share all his music with me so I’d have something to listen to while cycling, about the absolutely impeccable support that all our crew members have been giving me all along, and the overwhelming display of friendship and camaraderie by everyone in our group—staff and riders alike—especially today when I most needed it. How did I deserve all of that?
Then I thought of the beautiful, innocent smiles and laughter of my three little nieces. Virtually recalling their faces in front of my eyes cheered me up. And so, eventually, after five loops of Stir It Up, I decided that I had shed enough tears. It was time to stop my self-pity and get my acts back together. What was I crying about anyway? I didn’t even know! A herd of goats crossed my path. Some cute young baby goats made me laugh. I changed my iPod settings from song to album loop.
“Get up, stand up, stand up for your right,” Bob Marley was singing to me now. “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.” That was exactly what I needed to hear. I was determined to enjoy my ride again. And so I did, my mood flipping like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. My energy was low, it felt hotter to me than yesterday (though other riders would disagree), and my progress was slower than ever. But it didn’t bother me any longer. I trusted that eventually, no matter when, I would get to camp. Even though my energy would remain at it’s lowest, on an irreversible path of gradual decline, my mind was on top of it again.
I reached the refresh station, this time manned by Brad and Leo, dropped my bike and collapsed into a chair in the shade. “You are brave for cycling all the way here,” Brad commented.—“What do you mean?”—“Because of all the thorns.”—“Oh, I just wanted to get into the shade quickly,” and I had come to trust that my Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus tires were, indeed, puncture-proof.
Deb and Peter joined us and equally collapsed into chairs in the shade. “I have no need to go to the Ethiopian border,” Peter commented. “Yes, why are we doing this again?” Deb joked.
“I do it because I want to be an inspiration,” I volunteered my own motivation that keeps me going when it gets tough. “If even I, who didn’t know anything about cycling, can go all the way through Africa, that would kind of proof that anyone can do anything.”
“I have no need to inspire anyone,” Deb was more pragmatic and realistic than me.
Paul and Wendy also joined us. They had been riding on the truck. Paul hadn’t been handling the heat well at all yesterday and had given us all a bit of a shock that heat stroke, indeed, was a serious matter. However, he seemed to have recovered somewhat overnight and was his usual cheerful again today. “How are you today, Alex?” Wendy asked.—“Losing my energy, it’s hot.”—“Yes, and the corrugation. It felt terrible just sitting in the truck.”—”Yes, actually, how come you’re here?”—”The truck got stuck in the ditch, this might take a while.” I turned around and, indeed, it didn’t look like our truck, loaded with all our gear, was going anywhere any time soon.
“Well, there’s no rush then to get to camp,” Deb, Peter and I agreed, “there won’t be any soup waiting for us today.” Only after two big bananas, three bottles of water and lots of small talk, I figured there was no need to delay the inevitable any longer.
The remainder of the day went pretty much the same as yesterday, just slower yet with more peace of mind. I went back to my 2km/tree game, and rested without the slightest sense of time under—literally—every single tree along the road (unless it was within less than hundred meters or so from the prior tree).
Underneath one of those trees, to keep entertained while resting, I took a video of myself to show you the real thing, how I look like when I’m not just all energetic and cheerful as you’d seen me so far on this blog. As I spoke into the running camera of my phone, trying to laugh about myself for having cried earlier on, I started to cry all over again. What a mess I was! But that’s all part of the game, the experience. I can’t wait to put together my full Sudan video and show you the raw footage, brutally truthful and unembellished—you’ll get to see it all. 😉
Underneath another tree, playing with my phone once again, I realized that I was receiving data. We’d been offline for two days, so I figured I should let everyone know that I was fine. I updated a cheerful photo to Facebook. Unexpectedly, within seconds, the first likes and comments popped up on my screen. Usually, I’m quite insensitive to whether people like or ignore what I’m doing and thinking. My goal is to be relentlessly me, not to hunt for approvals and meet others’ expectations. Not today, not in this moment. Those almost instant reactions from my Facebook friends gave me a huge mental boost of energy. I was no longer suffering alone in the middle of nowhere in eastern Sudan. No, I felt connected to my friends and the whole world again.
I kept pedaling through the open field. There were no more trees near and far. My kilometer readings didn’t make sense anymore. A school was supposed to come up a kilometer ago, and Rashid village, but there was nothing but dry sorghum plants as far as my eyes could see. Had I missed a turn? I passed a few local women dressed in colorful long dressed, wearing heavy loads on their heads. Despite their hard labor and the scourging sun, they seemed cheerful and entirely at ease with their duty. Don’t ask me what they were doing out there in the middle of nowhere. “Rashid?” I asked them and pointed further down the path.—“Aywa, Rahsid,” they smiled at me.
Ten minutes later, I had reached what must have been Rashid. However, my directions didn’t seem to make any sense. There were dozens of goats, some of them resting in the shade underneath a big tree. I pulled up, and they moved for me.
As I reached for my phone to check my location or call someone for help, Wynand pulled up next to me with his lunch truck. “All good?” he asked.—“Yes. Any idea where we are at according to the directions? Is this the water pump?”—“Don’t know. But there’s a flagging tape over there. Just follow the tape.”—“Oh yes, didn’t see that.”
The road through the village was so bad that I could easily follow the lunch truck. My lucky day—it helped me stay on track. I hadn’t recovered my voice, but I was smiling and waving at the locals again. 🙂
Stage 23: Abeda Village – Rashid (Sudan), 83km
Road & traffic condition:
Same as yesterday: dirt roads, lots of corrugation and sand. Tough riding. Only slow-driving traffic.
Same as yesterday, just hotter in the morning at camp already.
I’m starting to get sick of all the sugar—energy bars, energy drinks, . . . just thinking of it makes me feel sick. We’ve had spaghetti Bolognese and Greek-style salad again for dinner. Even though this is one of my favorites, the Bolognese sauce is too sweet for my liking. It’s been fine so far, but tonight it made me feel sick. “Errol, why do you put sugar into the Bolognese?” I would dare ask him tomorrow, jokingly, trying not to come across as complaining.—“I don’t. I put chutney, but not always.” Here you go—Errol’s Bolognese secret uncovered.
It’s been a long day. Once we finally reached camp, we still had to change our tires back to road tires. By the time of our riders’ meeting and dinner, most of us—including myself—hadn’t even put up our tents yet. I guess the highlight is that we’ve managed to get the three hard days of dirt road behind us, one way or another. Back to tar tomorrow!
“But don’t expect a good road,” Tallis warned, “we’ve had more punctures on that tar road than the last three days on dirt roads, lots of potholes.”—“But it will be easier than today, no?” I asked, afraid that I couldn’t possibly do yet another day like that.—“Depends what you prefer,” Tallis wasn’t willing to make any promises.
My fall was the highlight (or lowlight) of my day. Helen helped me clean my wounds thoroughly at camp, after I had cleaned myself up via yet another donkey bucket shower.
“Sorry, this is going to hurt,” she commented as she rubbed the dirt out of my wounds.
“Thank you,” I clenched my teeth, “there’s no way I could have done this myself.”
“I know, it hurts too much to do this yourself,” she then sprayed disinfectant all over my knee and shin.
“It burns like crazy,” I felt proud for enduring my treatment session stoically.
“Yes, that’s a good sign. It means it works.”
Helen—what would we all be doing without you?! Thank you!!!