We did it! Bucket list item achieved! After 167 hours, team thisABILITY finished our first Adventure Racing World Championship!
This is what it was like from my (Andrea’s) wordy perspective.
Like all expedition races, it takes me some time to process. It takes time to come back to the real world. It takes time to sort through the memories and pick out the highs and the lows and to solidify the lessons learned. In that way, this race was no different. But this time, I felt like the lessons for me were quite unexpected.
Whether it is a result of my inner child limiting my beliefs or my current self reminding me that I am not young and I am no stranger to needing help, I usually go into a race thinking I may end up being the weak link at least some of the time. In fact, it usually motivates my training. My personal goal for all of the races I’ve ever done is to not be the slowest teammate all of the time. I am also pretty hard on myself when I am holding the team back. Such was the case in Expedition Africa for the majority of the bike leg when I couldn’t keep up and I let myself get in a physical hole that took a long time and a lot of help to climb out of. So, the lesson of that race was to ask for help and accept help sooner rather than later and as gracefully as possible.
And… side note… probably to nobody’s surprise, I have difficulty asking for help and accepting help outside of racing, too. Having a child with Down syndrome, you’d think that I would have already learned that by now, but nope… still learning it. And, at the risk of sharing TMI; Perhaps my marriage would have lasted if I had learned to ask for help earlier and to realize I don’t have to do it all myself. I still have to remind myself that I am not solely responsible for how my kids “turn out”. I know it takes a village, yet I am constantly needing to relearn that both in life and in racing.
So, all that to say, I was mentally prepared in this race to need help, but I was also training specifically to avoid needing help. I started training with more weight in my pack and I also changed up some key gear to improve my biking specifically. I replaced my old bike with a lighter bike and I switched to wearing flats and using Power Grips. I added Skratch as one of my staples for maintaining my nutrition as well. And, it worked! I felt stronger during this race than any previous race. Instead of re-learning to accept help, I was able to offer help. I carried a lot of extra weight, I did some navigating, I lead the way, and I talked… a lot. I tried to do and say all of the things I would have wanted to hear when I was on the receiving end. I’m ideally suited for this role since I’ve received so much help in the past.
At one point, I was helping in every way I could think of and I was still feeling frustrated. I knew our push for the full course was out of reach and I was letting the pace get to me, but I was smack dab in the middle of a huge bucket list item and I couldn’t allow the frustration to ruin the experience. What came to mind was the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the knowledge to know the difference.
And, since talking was one technique to making the hike-a-bikes seem less grueling, I shared some thoughts with my teammates that were bubbling up. It’s interesting to see where your mind goes when everything is stripped away…
My dad died of cancer when he was my same age, 50. I now realize how young that was. He had his larynx removed and lived with cancer for 13 years prior to his passing. He had a blanket that was given to him that he kept with him while he was at the hospice with the serenity prayer on it. He went through many rounds of chemo and other therapies and I can only imagine the things he tried to change that he inevitably had to make peace with. Things that were much more far-reaching than the outcome of a race.
I still have the blanket and when my son, Trey, was born with Down syndrome 21 years ago, that blanket hung over the top of the rocking chair, always there to comfort me and sometimes even taunt me. In those early years, I tried desperately to change Trey. I would take him to different therapies, often 3 times a week and one that was a 45 minute drive away. I was determined to make him the smartest, most capable person with Down syndrome in the universe. Well, guess what? My efforts were futile, and I was often overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and guilt… until… I let it go. I realized there are just some things that cannot be changed. Acceptance crept in little by little.
Acceptance can be the mother of complacency though. So, I still work very hard to determine what I have control over and what I don’t. I think it has paid off so far. Trey is thriving at his job folding towels at a hotel for hours on end. He loves it. He loves the routine, loves having an identity outside of the family, and I think he feels valued. It is probably the last thing I would have wanted for him 21 years ago, but I’m so happy for him now.
Ok, so back to the race. I had the same feeling of needing to find peace with reality. There were things that were out of my control, a teammate had debilitating blisters, we had a major bike mechanical, and another teammate was a less experienced mountain biker. As a result, we were moving much slower than we had hoped. Acceptance was key to enjoying the experience as was the constant questioning of what I could do to help. In the end, we made it to finish celebrating our unity as a team and our ability to overcome everything that came our way. We did it! None of us could have done it alone and all of us contributed to crossing that finish line!
We went up and over what seemed like every mountain in Paraguay including the highest point at 2,762 feet. To say it was steep is an understatement. Every assent and descent seemed to be inviting us to slip on either mud or loose dirt. We grabbed tree trunks and used our hiking poles and resorted to all sorts of awkward positions to keep from falling. We decided that there was not a single switch back in all of Paraguay. We trekked through pouring rain and gale force winds, through a rocky creek bed in a narrow valley, through head high grass and flat, boggy swamps. We crossed many rivers including one that was only knee deep for the front teams but had become swollen after the rain. For us, it became a serious undertaking as we nervously swam across the brown, fast-flowing water.
We paddled through the night on the winding “caca” river. We lovingly named it that because it was a brown, smelly, winding waterway that we were told not to even filter water from. The dead cow on the bank indicated the reason. We tipped out once in this river at one of the few rapids. Luckily Amanda and Lewis were able to catch the paddle Chip let go of as he held the boat in place on the rocks, barefoot. We hopped back on with no further incident but suffice to say that Chip put his shoes back on. The river had some redeeming qualities though. There were countless beaches that were perfect for a break. At one such beach, we pulled out and Amanda made a fire, both for the novelty and for the warmth. We had a surreal sunrise dance party before we set off again. We danced around the remains of the fire as Pearl Jam played on our speaker and we belted out, “I’m still alive!”
After missing the paddle cutoff, we biked and biked and biked. One of the biggest obstacles we faced was the breakdown that occurred very early on the first bike leg. Luis’ cassette disengaged from the wheel which made the pedals useless. We towed, coasted and hiked that bike all the way to the next TA where we were lucky enough that the bike mechanic had the parts to fix it. Back on our way, we encountered all sorts of terrain, rocky single track, muddy dirt roads, unexpected pockets of sand and some cobblestone roads. Amanda won the award for most falls, but also the award for most improved. She didn’t give up and stayed in the fight until the end. There was one particularly challenging hike-a-bike towards the end that had us carrying our bikes up a steep boulder scramble. Wow, we did that!
We slept in all sorts of places ranging from a 10 min safety stop to a 3 hour recovery sleep, probably 12 or so hours total over the 7 days. We slept in the grass, on the trail, on a stoop and we even once slept at a local’s very small home where we were treated like kings. We were given a feast of kabobs, bread and yucca, and then the owner brought out mattresses so we could sleep comfortably on their small, covered patio where their laundry had hung to dry. It was the best sleep of the race and a time none of us will forget.
We had another memorable stop that made us appreciate having the midpack mentality. Thanks to Luis’ translation, we were told by a store owner that there was a renowned cheese shop up ahead. Procole did not disappoint! (https://www.facebook.com/procolepy ) We were welcomed by the owner and served not one, not two, but three platters of cheeses made on their beautiful property. The sun set while we were enjoying coffee and indoor seating. Ironically, Luis and the owner had acquaintances in common. It’s a small world!
After packing the bikes away in boxes, the race ended with a foot stage. With no time to get any additional points, the navigation was easy and we walked it in while chatting with another team. They added a little bit of pep to our step and made the cobblestones more bearable. We crossed the line proud of our accomplishment and our teamwork. All in all, it was one of the most fun races I’ve ever done. We laughed so much and made so many great memories!
I’ll close with one of the funniest moments I’ve ever had in a race. At one point during the monster trek, we were climbing up a steep boulder scramble and I turned to look back at Luis and Amanda and I said, “EBT!” They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “What?” I yelled even more loudly and confidently, “EBT!” Shortly after I said it, I realized I had not said the acronym that I meant to say that Luis is so fond of: ETS which means ‘embrace the suck’. I had said a far more familiar acronym in my daily life as an accountant. While I was meaning to say, ‘embrace the suck’, I said ‘electronic bank transfer’. We joked about that over and over throughout the race. That’s about as nerdy as it gets and it’s another lesson AR has taught me: You can’t escape yourself. Wherever you go, there you are!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading this and following the team! We really appreciate all of the encouragement! Thanks to Luis for being so determined and adaptable! Thanks to Amanda for toughing it out! And, thanks to Chip for your optimism and never say die attitude! Thanks to the race directors and organization for creating such a great opportunity! Thanks to ARWS for maintaining such a top-notch race series! We can’t wait for the next one!