The freedom of the "Most Disgusting Version of Yourself"

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When I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia to join African Spokes, Jen Gurecki gleefully warned that I should be prepared to be “the most disgusting version of myself.” An organizer and veteran of the 70 day trip, riding from Nairobi to Cape Town, she was on to something.

Each morning of Leg 4 started like every other day in camp; shuffling into cycling cloths in the dark, we broke down heavy canvas tent by headlamp, packing up camp while stuffing in calories and water to be ready for first light. When the sun started over the horizon we were off, covering 90km on a short day and up to 214km one special day, aiming to cover as much ground in the early post dawn desert cool as possible to avoid the intense heat to come. And the relentless lack of shade. Leg 4 which crossed a bit of Zambia, all of Botswana and northeastern Namibia had particularly nice tarmac, for Africa.

 Photo Credit : Vince Smith

Photo Credit : Vince Smith

 Photo by Vince Smith

Photo by Vince Smith

Days and miles of road blurred together, bug bites intermingled with scratches from the vicious finger length acacia thorn, huge bruises from the bike seats merged with blisters that cracked open - better not to look. At the most challenging of times, when even sitting on the bike seat was too unbearable and miles were covered alternating butt cheeks or standing every third stroke, we ladies handed around “the Trifecta,” a series of three different ointments to be applied to the seat area when in the most duress. Asking for the Trifecta took on an air of making a statement of ones situation down there, without saying a word. There were a few double chamois days, but no consensus on whether this helped or made things worse.

Greasy bite marks from gear rings stubbornly stuck on legs like tattoos, and laundry not immediately washed upon arrival in camp didn’t dry in time for departure the next day, taking on that lovely au de damp when stuffed back into duffles wet. Hair grew in as nature intended, the dirt on our feet and under nails became permanent. The all-purpose soap turned my hair straw stiff and deodorant went unused, as did my hairbrush. If we smelled, we all smelled together, so we didn’t really notice. Wet wipes were saved for imperatives such as hand washing and bathroom hygiene. We were often bush camping, so keeping the kitchen end of life separate from the other end was imperative, although someone failed to do so in western Botswana, taking down much of the camp with him in a violent and debilitating stomach experience made all the more notable by the continuous need to move camp daily to stay on schedule regardless of how many were sick. We were all the “the most disgusting version of ourselves” together, and energy was channeled toward the things that really mattered. 

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I am fairly new to cycling, but learned quickly that cycling involves its own batch of goos.  My morning rituals became grabbing coffee in the 5am dark then applying 60 SPF aggressively likely to my bike shorts and top to avoid blistering, followed by a generous dollop of chamois cream in and on the shorts. Last before leaving camp I greased my chain, much abused by the Kalahari dust and heavy mileage, something I didn’t know was a part of bike care until my chain fell off the derailleur on a rare hill climb in front of an elephant. Needless to say I became more dedicated to bike maintenance. 

The heat of the day required frequent sunscreen reapplication at each rest stop, usually 40km apart, which created a dirty brown smear of dirt and sweat with the lotion across red angry skin. Near the Tropic of Capricorn, even in the African winter, the sun was fierce and combined with the abrasives coming off some of southern Africa’s best roads the fluorescent pink detailing of my Specialized Diverge faded to a warm salmon color and upwards facing sun into angry and painful sunrashes reminiscent of poison ivy.

One evening I showed James Savage, Director of Savage Wilderness Outfitters, my rash and he cheerily noted that Africa is a place for new experience of all kinds. The raised red welts reached up my legs into personal areas upon which the sun certainly did not shine. This led to a combination of sunscreen so thick it was visible, long sleeve cotton shirts, and a borrowed pair of long mountain bike shorts. It was sweatier, to be sure, but there is clearly a reason most desert people’s cover up. In the almost total absence of trees or shade of any kind, which is almost unimaginable to those of us from North America, you must make your own shade.

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The daily question was misery or humor, and when mileage passed 90 km at 90’F it was a real challenge, but no one likes a whiner, so the wise among us chose to see the comedy of it all. I had to remind myself often that I chose to be there, and somehow this brought back the awesomeness of it all, even if I needed to transport myself back to indoor training in my winter lashed living room in New England, map of Africa on the wall, to recall this at times.

Jen, Roz Groenewoud, Canadian freestyle skier and I celebrated new lows in the “Most Disgusting version of ourselves” daily (for even more see Jen and Roz’s Juicy Bits podcast from Namibia.) And for the first time in I cannot remember when I truly didn’t give a f---.

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I had distinct moments when I thought I ought to make an effort or care, but considered my goals in the day ahead. I would aim for essential hygiene and comfort, and let the rest be whatever nature made it.  With limited hours of daylight, so many of which were spent on the bicycle, and much else spent in physically demanding necessities, life was stripped to clear elements.  Sleep, eat, and drink water-so much water, stay mentally and physically well; these were our entire focus, along with maintaining ones bike and camp.

What we did each day mattered very evidently in mileage covered or not. Can your body complete the tasks of the day, can you support your peers, can you keep a sense of humor under challenging circumstances; these are the essentials.  Embracing the mess that cames with the adventure was simply sensible. And it was eminently clear that neither excuses nor looks would not help us bike the hundreds of miles in the aggressive Kalahari heat.

Through that roughly 1000 mile ride of Leg 4, the challenges of it all, I gained an extraordinary reset, letting go of so many expectations, thoughts and emotions which carried weight. I had never realized how heavy some of these beliefs were as they accumulated over my life, literally heavy in my body, until I chose to ride what seemed impossible distances for me, but only by letting go those expectations. I can recall the levity of it all even now, the powerful moments of realizing I had so much more mileage in me if I let go of so much bullshit, beliefs that weren’t even mine but had snuck in somehow, finally they wafted off my back and over the Makagadikadi Salt Pans. Knowing that I chose to be there, that I rode only for myself and no one else, was absolutely freeing.

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Our days were counted by elephants, warthogs - tails high in retreat, dozens of types of antelope who leapt out of our path, and extraordinary birds and bugs which we could rarely identify. Sleeping bags were checked for scorpions and stars pierced the sky like nothing I have ever seen before. Camping under a Baobab tree, believed to be an old spirit, even when unwell, we were all moved by the power of the place and our privilege to move across it so intimately. We were warned of lions by passing trucks and rest stops signage, but never saw them, something I think we all both regretted and were grateful for. My questions to a guide in Livingston how to behave safely around the African Big Five in case of an encounter was somehow misunderstood and instead resulted in a gory description of how I could die at the foot, claws, fangs, horn or hooves of each animal. Needless to say this was not helpful and I spent portions of my solo cycling time thinking on this. But more than anything our long days in the saddle were spent forging deep friendships as we exchanged stories; silly, inappropriate and distracting to pass monotonous challenging hours between animals under the hot sun.

Unless you have been there, taking on a seemingly insurmountable physical challenge in a vast wild place, embracing your “Most Disgusting Self” you may think this sounds awful. I write this sitting on the porch of a guest farm outside Windhoek, Namibia. The dogs are lying contentedly beside me and the jackals are calling to each other over the darkening scraggly bush that cloaks the rocks and peaks of the Namibian landscape as the African night drops, in seconds it will be as if a light has been turned off.  I have a soft bed with a duvet against the increasingly frigid desert nights, a hot shower for the first time in weeks, and my bottom is slowly mending.  

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Much of the African Spokes crew is off cycling Leg 5 to the south, traversing the famous red and yellow Namibian sand dunes, as tall as mountains, putting in long days with short mileage as they slide up and down the sandy roads graded out of the dunes with heavy use of the Trifecta. In a few weeks on Leg 6 they will complete the full ride 6520 kilometer ride in Cape Town meeting family and friends to celebrate, my time cycling with the crew is done.  And that is the only thing I regret.

But with that big shout of gratitude to Jen, Roz, all the other badass women teaching the love of the most disgusting version of yourself, on the road, and even more so to those keeping the love alive day to day at home. May we love her always.