Epic cycle ride undertaken by unfit, overweight, not middled aged lady

I visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in 2002. One of the things that really struck me about the countries was the indefatigable people, the welcome extended to visitors and the simple joy taken in small pleasures. But, having visited the Museum of the American War in Ho Chi Minh City, seen the 'Danger UXB' signs in Laos and read the good news headline in a paper in Cambodia: ' Deaths from UXBs down to 3 this month. Only 40 maimed.' I was acutely aware of the toll still being taken on the population.

Over the years I have pondered the munitions still there and this year I have finally decided to get off my bottom and do something. So I have, somewhat impetuously and with little regard for my physical fitness, cycling ability or dodgy left knee decided to join the MAG cycle ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Ankor Wat. I will be doing this the first week or so in Feb 2011 and it does involve a couple of days of over 100km in 30 degree heat. Having signed up I have been told that neither a rickshaw nor an electric bikes are options and that doing the distance on my own pedals is expected.

Donation link is further down on the right - I have paid for my own flights and contributed enough to cover living expenses so all money raised from sponsorship will go to MAG.

This is my blog of my progress to get on the road and when I am there - assuming I will be capable of rational thought after a day of unaccustomed exercise.

Monday, 21 February 2011

De-mining demonstration

Ready to try and demine
Friday dawned clear and we were set for a de-mining talk in the hotel gardens along with each of us attempting to find a 'mine'. Local MAG staff explained that there are various methods of de-mining: the two most commonly in use were sniffer dogs; where there are large areas with a low density of mines and hand detection for smaller areas with a high density of mines. Apparently the dogs are great for clearing large areas as they are quicker than the hand detection but if the density is too high they cannot be used as they don't know where to start and will just run around the entire area.

Using the equipment

Well I wasn't that good with the metal detector so I suspect my days of finding Roman treasure troves will be limited but with a bit of help from the local staff I eventually managed to discover the MAG badge that had been hidden in the grass. The equipment itself is heavy and hot, the helmet is quite claustrophobic so I really admired the people who do this day in day out especially when I found out that half the armour from the vest was missing as they had been 'kind' and not inserted the various ceramic plates that protect vital organs.
Frank 'I am German and I will be talking about the War'
Washing instructions for the Kevlar....
Following on from the demining exhibition Frank (local MAG co-ordinator) demonstrated the various munitions found within Cambodia. Basically this amounts to bombs from the Vietnam War that litter the East side of the country and mines from the Khmer Rouge retreat from the Vietnamese that are mostly concentrated in the West side of the country. He explained that MAG try and target the places that will do the most good ie prime agricultural land/roads etc and also run training programmes with local people. The latter are essential as Cambodia is a poor country (many people have to survive on around $1US per day)  where the scrap metal from a munition can supply valuable income so there has been some issues with people actually going out to find mines/armaments to sell. He also explained that the group who are most affected by mines in Cambodia are teenage boys as they tend to be curious without a high sense of danger.

Frank did also explain 'thinking' behind a lot of the devices which I found a bit chilling but logical: eg anti personnel mines are designed to cripple/maim rather than kill because an injured soldier will slow down a company more than a dead one and Claymores (mines that have a trigger on them) will take out a range of around 50-100 yards worth of people in around a 120 degree arc and they have the direction of them clearly printed on the front (although this didn't stop some friendly fire incidents). I think the two things that really hit me was the information that it will take a further 20 or so years to remove all the armaments from this section of SE Asia (assuming that current levels of funding continue) and that there has been a doubling of incidents involving anti tank mines over the last year which MAG cannot currently explain but did mean that the death toll increased significantly.

The hotel pick up hubby -how did they know what I call him?
Following on from the demonstration we had a free afternoon so I collapsed by the pool and waited for hubby to arrive who was very glad to see me all in one piece and breathing. The poor devil was rushed into changing within half an hour after landing so we could go out for a celebratory dinner with the team. Just for context on the value of money here; we went to one of the best restaurants in Siem Reap and because Hubs had not done the challenge obviously we paid for his three course meal; which was lovely food, plenty of it and cost $10US per head.

And that they say is that. I will be posting the radio clip some time this week (so excited that we made it on for a contribution of 33 seconds or so to my allotted 15 mins of fame). I am really glad that I took this challenge on and now the aches and pains are behind me can look back on it with joy. My photos are loaded onto Flickr and the link is down the right hand side of the page; but as you can see from the pictures, and hopefully my blog, the thing that most struck me was the children in Cambodia. They made all of the training, the struggle through the peddling and the general pain worthwhile but I wish that I could do more.


Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Day Five..... This is The End,

Woke up determined to cross the finish line at Ankor Wat on my own pedals. Feeling much better and actually wanted some breakfast although couldn't really face the noodle soup option so had a cereal bar.
More happy campers

Still had various ailments: heartburn was killing me and my left hand was really bad so I downed the Naproxen with a paracetamol and codeine chaser for good measure then asked Dr G for heartburn and vomit meds just before the morning ride. There is then a slightly more delicate matter, those of you who are squeamish or anyone who works with me skip to the next paragraph. When riding a bike gents get sore bottoms, ladies get, well, sore errr lady parts. As of this morning mine were on fire and not in a good way. Decided that the only way that I could get the clothing on would be to go commando, slathered an extra 1/2 inch or so of sudocreme padding on the gel inner of my cycling shorts and gingerly put them on.... much better than previously although I didn't think that this vital part of my anatomy would ever be the same again... 

Rubber Tapping
Following the slight overuse of meds the morning ride all went surprisingly well and I realised that I had finally acclimatised after 4 days of cycling. It was quite a revelation not to feel dizzy/ nausea all the time. One thing that has surprised me is that during all the cycling I have not had any problems with my legs;  I have been stretching at every break (well all those where I was not sat with my head between my knees) and the training that I have done seems to have been about right for the distances (>80kms per day) that we have been doing.... it's just been the heat that has done me in.
  Post lunch idyll
The after lunch ride was a real treat; we did about 18kms off road through villages, trees and fields including around an Ankor era Wat. This was exactly the type of riding I had been hoping for even though it is a bit more hard going than the tarmac'd road; although the advantage of a gravel/sand surface is that the heat is not reflected as much and it was a far cooler ride. After a further 10 kms we stopped for a 'pre finish' break and I cycled in, lost my back wheel to the sand and ended up on my side. No major damage although bit of a bruise on my right calf... and to my pride. 

Blew up balloons and decorated the bikes then cycled through the rush hour traffic of Siem Reap in convoy; with a bus at the front and back with hazards. About 50 yards from the finish line my
Hello to Jason Isaacs!
balloon burst and I realised that I must have some really bad karma coming in on this one.... Crossing the finish line was a real buzz and after champers, congratulations and a lot of very sweaty hugs we all said 'Hello to Jason Isaacs' even tho' only one other person in the group was aware of the good Dr K's broadcast :-)
Got to the hotel and there was some problem with the rooms. As Paul was coming out on Friday I had my own room and this seemed to be causing some problem so I nipped into the loo while they sorted it out. Tried to come back out of the loo to find the handle wouldn't turn... it took 3 MAG/Actionchallenge people, 1 swiss army knife and a multipurpose bike tool to release me from my final prison. Bad Karma? more like Doooooooomed.
Celebratory dinner and I had my first alcohol since Blightly - thank the lord for G and T.... I was complemented several time on how well my complexion had healed now we were out of the heat but I did come clean and admit that I was wearing 1/2 an inch of slap :-)

Bonus Wat on the way
One thing I haven't mentioned is the mix of people who have done the ride, mostly because a blog is me, me and of course me. The 30 or so riders ranged from the director of a childrens charity, CEO of a large retailer to students and social workers. Motivation ranged from others who had been out and seen the many landmine amputees in Cambodia (anti-personnel mines  are designed to maim not kill since an injured soldier takes more looking after than a dead one) to a couple who do one of these per year. Cycling ability ranged from those who regularly do 70 miles plus, including a chap who had cycled across Oz (2,500 miles in 31 days) to those who had not been on a bike in 20 years. One of the latter has discovered a love of cycling and is already planning to do Sri Lanka next year. I think that the one who really stood out to me was the quiet, self effacing bloke of about 24 who had been struck by information on mines and decided to do this despite never having had a passport before even for a day trip to France.
Me with the team (Rith is stood up in the MAG T shirt)
There will be a short wrap up blog for the de-mining demo etc but I may not write this up until I get back to the UK as I am really struggling with photos etc and formatting on the IT over here. So - final bit after the ride - I didn't manage the whole 480kms and sat out for about 46kms or so due to heat stroke ..... I am hoping that this doesn't mean that people will be expecting a discount on donations and/or money back. I could not have done this without the support of many people, you do all know who you are but I want to single out Paulie who has worried, texted and lost most of his remaining hair over the past week not only looking after me but passing on info to everyone else as well. He has also admitted that when he said goodbye to me at Heathrow he did think he might never see me again.

What have I learnt from the ride is:

a. If I do it again I will come out a week early to acclimatise
b. A gel saddle and cycling shorts are your only friend

Finally and most importantly:

c. I am just not built to do this sort of thing and baking cakes/selling stuff is more my forte so I am never, ever, ever, ever doing this again and if I mention it please get me committed :-)

 TTFN and thanks again for all the support


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Day Four... I love the smell of napalm in the morning

A local cyclist
Monks watching the  mad MAG cyclists
Day 4 dawned and I felt better as I had a really good nights sleep. Still not hungry but not feeling sick despite the mishap the night before. Podged down to brekkie and managed to eat about a third of an omelette so was quite proud of myself. Filled the camelbak with SIS and headed onto the road.....
After the first kilometre started to get heartburn... this steadily increased until my chest was really painful; at which point, complete hypochondriac that I am, I decided that the chest pain and numb left arm/hand meant I was having a heart attack. After thinking about this a bit realised just how daft I was being and cycled on until we got to around the 14 km mark, at which point I had to stop. As I had dropped back through the field of riders Sophie, the Actionchallenge lass who herded up the stragglers caught up with me and stopped. The poor lass had to stand there while I burped, and I am not talking ladylike little secretions but about 20 full blooded, thunderclaps that any teenage boy would boast of. 
Managed to get back with the programme and the ever patient Dr Geoff came to cycle with me and chivvy me along. Cycling next to Dr G can prove hazardous since he hasn't mastered the art of removing his feet from his SD clips and there is a 10% chance that he will, albeit slowly and quite gracefully, topple through ninety degrees any time he stops. Having not really eaten for a day and a half and feeling pretty rough I was not at my best and the poor bloke wore quite a lot of misery as he tried to get me to the first stop. Ran off to a corner when we got there as was still having the eruption problem, which wasn't relieving the heartburn but I was living in hope, and I didn't want to be nicknamed burping betty!

Biked until lunch (about 55kms) which
No clammering, just patiently waiting
was planned to be a long one since we would be meeting some children and donating various things to them and their school. Rith had explained that most of the schools in Cambodia are free but that the children must have a uniform, notepad and pencil and many could not afford this small quantity of stuff therefore might not attend. For the 'donation ceremony' all of the children were lined up in front of us, they performed a song routine then we passed amongst them to hand out the goodies. I had mixed feelings about handing things out directly to the children rather than giving everything to the teachers to distribute but I was also glad that we did as it gave an opportunity to see how the children really behave. Many of the children
were obviously from dire poverty, but all of them stood in their allotted position and waited for one of the large Europeans to hand something to them personally. Not one of them tried to take something that was being handed to another child and there was no pushing or shoving or anything else. There were 120 children lined up in about 16 rows and they all stood and waited patiently. Some of the MAG group had brought sweets and I watched as one child, obviously not familiar with this type of thing, bit through the waxed paper wrapper on the chewy lolly he had been given then went back for more. I think that this was one of the highlights of my trip although I feel that I do need to do more on this one. MAG does work on the poverty since by clearing agricultural land so it can be farmed they increase the amount that can be earned and they target their work at areas that really need the help but I think I would also like to do something directly with one or more of the schools that we passed.    

I got a lolly too!

I got a lolly!


Anyhow, after a long rest at the temple/school complex we set off. I managed about 100 yards before I vomited up the 6 spoons of rice I had eaten at lunch time. Dr G hove into view and gave me some strange pill that you hold under your lip to stop you feeling sick and after a drink and 10 mins or so I cycled off again. After about another 100 yards had to pull over again to be sick again. Dr G gave me a bit of a stern talking to and I ended up on the bus. Sat on the bus for the rest of the 30kms, scratching my heat rash and feeling like I had let everyone down. 

But, after a shower and rest in the hotel got dressed for dinner and even tried to do something with the bright red moustach where my upper lip used to be (thick heat rash/eczema). Then a Halleluia moment;  I felt a tiny bit hungry, let me hear a Halleluia at the back there and for dinner I ate 1/2 a bowl of Tom Yum soup, half a bowl of rice, some prawns and a spring roll then got back to the room and had a cereal bar for pudding... yea. The whole not eating thing had been freaking me out as it is so not normal for me, but I finally felt vaguely human


Sunday, 6 February 2011

Day Three - and there is a swimming pool!

Out in the field
Day 3 started about 2am; one of the problems of taking on about 1.5 litres of water per hour for about 8 hours during the day then loading up on more water during the evening is that you need to get up to use the loo on a frequent basis during the night. This, coupled with the agony that used to be my wrist and hands meant that after about 5 hours of tossing and turning I finally achieved full consciousness at around 2am. As anyone who has woken up at this time unable to sleep will know, this is not normally a joyful experience. Started worrying about the 100+kms that I needed to pedal today and by about 330 am was having a full blown teenage type attack of the miseries. As the cock crowed at 4am I made Morrisey look full of Prozac and I had just about decided to sneak out with my stuff and get a cab to the nearest bit of civilisation when I slipped into a doze that lasted until about 530am. The sun was up and things looked brighter; after a shower, chicken noodle soup brekkie and with a new, higher handle barred bike under my bot I decided it was do or die time - 111km or bust....

A few of the children cheering us on
Cycling through Cambodia is hot, sticky, sweaty and hard but the thing that makes it a joy are the people. Every child in the vicinity comes to wave at you along the road and shout hello, mothers bring their babies to view the large, lycra clad Europeans cycling past and this really does spur you on. We were passing through small villages and towns with lots of agriculture along the way; while the hotel in Kompong Cham had not been particularly lovely it had been the only hotel in town!

Just a word too about how the rides felt; the morning ride until about 0900 - 1000 was generally a bit hot but not too unbearable, but by 10ish the heat had built up in the blacktop and the air takes on a soupy quality. On every day I found the leg after lunch the worst as while I had had a rest it was like pedaling in a sauna with the only relief being to pedal faster to get more wind of passing in a vain attempt to cool down.
Anyhow, back to the day. We set out from Neak Lung after a short bus ride. Had a bit of a brain wave about my hands and downed prescription strength Naproxen which I have for other pain but is an anti inflammatory and pain killer.  The first leg was what is now known as 15 'Cambodian kms. In Cambodia the km ceases to be an absolute measurement and 15 Cambodian kms can be anything from 15 to 20 European style kms. I found the first leg a bit difficult and knew I needed to eat at the first stop even though I wasn't feeling particularly hungry. Spurred myself through the last 4 kms of the leg with the fantasy of eating a few salty, greasy crisps and I almost managed to make myself want them. Then disaster struck; the crisps were 'pringle' type ones and I checked the ingredients which included wheat. Most people will know that under normal circumstances I can cope with the minor inconvenience of symptoms from small quantities of wheat but given the slightly basic facilities and distance between same plus the stresses being put on my body I had determined that it would be best to be strictly wheat free during the ride. 

So, at the stop, I found that the only thing that I could eat would be fruit. Fruit involves peeling, my thumbs, while not getting worse were not really functional at this point and fruit denuding was strictly beyond my capabilities. Made my plight known to the marvelous Rith who had one of the drivers scanning every bit of food to see if I could eat it... I wish I had got a picture of Vanda reading the ingredients on the chocolate chip cookie box to see if they had wheat in them.....  
Hertford Co of Archers buff goes on holiday to Cambodia

But I had the majic SIS 'hydration energy sachet' things to add to my water which had proved brilliant so far so I dumped one of these in my camelbak and cycled off. By the second break I really needed to eat as I could feel that I was sugar crashing between sips of drink, although was still not feeling particularly hungry. Arrived and Vanda proudly presented me with several packets of pistachios. This was lovely and I managed to crack open about 10 but was close to tears with the pain from my left thumb. I think this is where things started to go really wrong as I know that I need complex carbs since sugar sends me on a high/low rapid up/ down but I was so focused on my hands that I ignored the needs of my body. The naproxen was taking the edge off the pain but I was saving the further two doses for the afternoon and evening. 

Wow - that's me!
By lunch I had lost all will and inclination to eat. As a founder member of the National Organisation for the Super Hungry (N.O.S.H.) this was a new experience for me. I tried to force some rice down but only managed a few spoonfuls. Raided the bus for reinforcements of the SIS sachets and thought that if I took them every break (I had been having one sachet every other break with just water the other time) I should be able to make it. Now the SIS sachets are specially formulated to keep you going in the heat and aid recovery time. I didn't look to closely at the ingredient list since after it started: glucose, fructose, sucrose.... I thought I didn't need to know any more! You can feel your teeth rotting in your head as you are drinking it though.

Looking at the photos is more interesting than having them taken
But the SIS sachets worked. I stayed on the bike and managed to cycle for the
whole day except for the last 1km.... which had a hill and by that point I decided I was just getting on the bus for the final leg. While I was exhausted I gave a happy  'woo hoo' since I had managed to complete the day I was most fearing! Then a real joyful moment:  I glimpsed heaven in the hotel grounds... a pool. Got up to the room and just stripped into my cossie then headed for the water - absolute total and utter bliss.
Back upstairs I realised just how empty I felt and ate a pre dinner cereal bar as an appetiser then changed clothes ready for dinner and went down. Then the coup de grace: just as we were getting on the coach to go to dinner a wave of nausea hit. I quickly made my apologies to Ian (Adventure Challenge leader) and ran upstairs to be sick. Spent the next hour or so 'talking to god on the great white telephone', drank some water then crashed out until the next morning.  

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Day 2...... Spicy Girl!

Vietnam... it's a bridge :-)
Apologies to all who were expecting a full day by day blog over the last week or so but had serious internet issues from the second day of the cycle ride onwards. I have decided to supplement the brief accounts posted by long suffering hubby from the frantic text messages between us with a full account which I will post day by over the next week. So, with apologies for the spoilers on the ending, back to Day 2 of the cycle ride.......

Rubber plantation - Vietnam

Caidai temple (after a few drinks :-)  struggling to load photos)
Got up quite early on the second day of the ride feeling reasonable which was a bit of a relief after the massive fail of the day before. This would be our last day in Vietnam so I was determined to enjoy it (and take lots of photos). Due to the heat between 1100 and 1500 we were scheduled to undertake most of the cycling in the morning on 15km legs between breaks with a 10km before lunch then 10km legs after lunch. This was set to be the standard format of every day with a lunch around 1130/12 to around 1300/1400 dependent on the total distance we were to cycle. 

To try and avoid a second onset of heat stroke decided not to wear my buff in my customary alice band style and resorted to what I believe is referred to as the sporty wee willie winkie look. This has the advantage of keeping my hair up, my head covered and most importantly allows all the massive amount of 'lady glow' to be soaked up by the buff. All I can say is that I think the buff has done a sterling job soaking up at least my body weight in water and I cannot imagine how bad it would have been without it.

This morning started having problems with my hands about 5kms into the ride; basically I am having to lean far further forward and lower than I would on my bike which is set up as a 'sit up and beg' this means I am putting more weight on my hands. This was being exacerbated by the fact that my saddle had been put on tilting forward which meant that I was having to push my bottom up the seat using my hands. I suspect that the Vietnamese cyclists had not realised that as ladies have a bit less padding at the front you generally have the seat parallel to the ground. By the first rest break the fingers in both hands had severe pins and needles,  I had no feelings in my palms and my wrist felt like they were on fire. Established at this stop that nothing could be done about the height of the handlebars but at least the struggle had been registered for the set up on the Cambodian bike (we would change bikes at the border). 

Around 10 am I was peddling along merrily, beetroot faced and with the start of eczema coming up on my upper lip when I was sexually harassed by a Vietnamese chap on a moped - he yelled 'you are very spicy girl' which made me laugh and wonder how terrible someone would need to look in order to not be a 'spicy girl'

Short photo stop at the Caodai Temple then onto the border arriving about 1030 ish. Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia the difference between the countries was highlighted by the architecture.... on the Vietnamese side there was a concrete communist monlithic and on the Cambodia flaming stupas. That is not all that was different between the two countries - we left the Vietnamese side easily and entered onto our first attempt at entering Cambodia, all queueing  up in terribly British style (allowing for our token Colonial from Oz and a German) at one of the five booths handling people coming in. We all had e-visas for Cambodia and this proved to be a bit of a mistake; once we had got through the initial crossing which handled 'traditional' visas we then all formed an orderly queue in front of the single e-visa desk to be checked on the single computer. Which took a little time. Once the first few had been checked we all thought that they would be able to enter Cambodia, but no. Rith (our Cambodian lead cyclist and one of the chaps who had manhandled me onto a veranda the previous day) swung into action. Our passports were all collected in and we walked out of the side door on the Cambodian side, round to the side we had just come from and hung around in no mans land waiting for our passports to come back. Which they did one by one over the next 40 mins or so and we got into the country eventually.

Our first Cambodian lunch was about 50m from the border and boy was it good but I had little appetite so just forced a little down. Over lunch I realised that while most of my hands had recovered my left thumb had swollen to about double size and no longer possessed the ability to bend. As I had a fantastic nights sleep the night before my brain was firing on all cyclindars and after a bit of a think realised that this was probably due to my thumb ring cutting off circulation. Congratulated myself on my Sherlock abilities and after a 10 minute soaping I managed to get the ring off....

Tending the Fields

Got the new bike and managed to get them to put the seat on properly. Hoped that this would do the trick as the handlebars still could not be adjusted and got on. Sadly I was wrong, not having to prop my bot on the seat helped but by the next break my wrists were on fire and my hands were swollen, my left one so badly that I daren't take off my cycling glove since I knew it would not go back on. Iced up my hand as well as I could and spoke to the marvelous Rith who promised to see what could be done. By the last break of the day Rith had a solution; he would give me a larger frame bike which would have the higher handlebars but by this point things were so painful that I couldn't cope with making any changes. Asked Rith to sort this out for the following morning. 

Buffalo cart - Vietnam
Got in that evening to Kompong Cham feeling that I had achieved something since I had stayed the distance, but was worried about Day 3 as we would be doing around 111kms and I knew that I was really going to struggle with this. Decided to enjoy the evening anyway so went on a wander around the town in a fruitless search for the internet then off to dinner; this was a bit of a fail since as soon as the food arrived I felt a huge wave of nausea so I left the table and took myself off to my room failing asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

It's the last day

As I write this it's early in the morning on Thursday in the UK. I got a text message overnight from Vicky, who was en route to the start point for the final days cycling. She is determined to do the last day, and has had breakfast though says she has some heart burn and the doctor has given her some medicine.

I am packing my case this morning and doing the last minute stuff at home, including collecting various ointments to soothe parts of her that I probably shouldn't mention here. Then I'll be off to the airport and that'll most likely be it from me here. Assuming we can sort things out at the destination hotel, the next account should be from my very brave wife, of whom I am incredibly proud.

Back on the Bus

I got a text from Vicky this morning:

Done about 55km this morning, but doc has retired me to the bus after a spot of vomiting... apparently heading for heat stroke again.

As far as I know today is the second "big push" days (100km or so). Given that she managed to do the 100 yesterday, I think she's doing well but there must be a lesson to learn here about heat stroke and overdoing it at the beginning. Though I'm a fine one to talk sat here in my dressing gown at home sipping tea and relaxing...