When I was a grad student, one of the most life changing pieces of advice I received was to book a vacation for after our thesis defense. If I passed, I could celebrate on vacation. And if I didn’t, I still was going on a vacation. As a student in industrial design, essentially problem solving, I took it a step further and committed to a surf camp in Costa Rica. Money deposited, I had to train in the school’s flimsy gym which which turned out to be a lifesaver that year for mental and emotional health. There is nothing like a good sweat clear the brain for new creative ideas (proven science) and bring life’s problems from world ending to manageable.
The commitment I’d made to my future self, to show up healthy and strong enough to paddle through the Pacific surf was what kept me steady through the toughest professional year I’d ever experienced.
Almost a decade later, without realizing it, I set up the same lifesaving construct. In what seemed a fit of adventure lust, last September I committed to African Spokes; a pan African cycling expedition, as journalist with the support of organizer Jen Gurecki, founder of Zawadisha and Coalition Snow. Flagrantly ignoring my deep and abiding fear of cycling, instead I focused on the romance of traveling the continent at the right speed and intimacy.
But reality hit in a big way when a client asked for photos of the team cycling with the elephants, thus committing me to the Botswana Leg, the toughest leg of the of the 68 day 7 country expedition. Leg 4 days averaged 90km-214km. Meanwhile I needed to get an actual bicycle before I could start training, or face my fear of riding with cars. I spent the following months alternately thrilled by the huge challenge I had set myself, feeling deeply alive in a way I hadn’t felt in years, and then appalled with the certainty of failure ahead of me, envisioning it in gory detail.
But the focus towards my two weeks on the expedition was an extraordinary gift. Three years before I had ever heard of African Spokes, my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I had instantly gone from the creative adventurous adult daughter, to co-caretaker, daily mourner and constant worrier. I was intertwined with my family of origin in a way I hadn’t been in almost 15 years. With African Spokes, I committed myself to a professional task, an intentionally selfish and healing one which forced me to hold space for myself, I could not abandon my commitments to my future self. I had to train, to plan, to rest my body and become well in my mind for the task ahead. My daily focus moved away from my family and towards a healthier balance. And increasingly towards things which I could in fact impact change upon, largely within myself. And the blossoming gifts only grew as the trip came closer.
Not since competing as a D1 athlete in college had I focused my life so intensely around a physical event; my workouts, diet, sleep, even research all aimed towards prepping me for what was a massive leap physically and professionally. And as an adult it was powerful to see how much more disciplined and mentally tough I had become. I prepared and in doing so expanded as a human in a way I had achingly missed in recent years. Managing complex emotions over the long term towards a singular goal, pacing myself in training and pushing fears out of my mind, became my daily task.
And when all else fails there is nothing more galvanizing than a little fear. At times I felt run down or New England’s winter darkness dulled my focus, provoking me to skip training sessions, but I imagined getting dropped in Zambia (so much new language learned in my supporting studies!) or passing the mega fauna of Africa. How angry my future self would be for not preparing, and I invariably got myself to the gym or on the bike. Excuses would not get me through Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Unfortunately, I manifested this training trick when my chain fell of my bicycle on the first day into Botswana as we climbed a hill past a displeased bull elephant-it never fell off again.
I put in the time and utilized my fantastic network of trainers, cyclists, physical therapists and even African cycling experts I found to tap into teach me and train me, thank god-I crowd sourced what I couldn’t learn first hand. Dear friends to help me frame out my goals and keep things in perspective, professionally and athletically, so I was well set up to succeed. And they helped me remember that while slacking off or giving in to fear were not options, compassion was imperative.
When the day arrived, I found myself unboxing my beloved Specialized Diverge Elite in Livingstone beside the Zambezi River as vervet monkeys made off with my sunscreen. I felt nervous excitement, but also a deep calm with knowledge that I had done all I could. I would not be the best cyclist or the fastest, but I would get the job done, and do my job on top of the riding. And I would be kind to myself because I had held space for this project and now it was time to simply be in it, whatever that looked like.
I rode out of camp that first morning in the cool air that hangs on in the African dawn, a grin on my face, Mosi Ao Tunya’s smoke lifted into the air at our backs. The whole crew rode through the still empty streets of Livingstone with our Savage Wilderness support team bringing up the rear. Our goal was the border crossing at the border crossing between Zambia and Botswana where a ferry would take us across the Zambezi.
And just like that I was consumed by the adventure of camping under the starry African skies, cycling past families of elephants whose trunk were lifted like periscopes, smelling us, trying to determine what we were as we rode by. I rode my first 60 miles, then 94, and then my first Century across the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans of Botswana, heat in the afternoon turning distant cyclists to floating mirages above the road. We gave way to crossing warthogs, impala, wild horses, and other wildlife along the way, guessing hopelessly at the endless array of birds we saw. Long conversations with new best friends passed hours in the saddle under the blazing afternoon sun, the biggest sufferfest hours when butt blisters became unbearable. Sunsets and sunrises in the Kalahari were a wash of colors and then in a flash darkness set in as if the switch had been turned off. And then we began it all again in the morning – so many life changing moments I never would have experienced if I hadn’t had the audacity to risk something well beyond my comfort zone. An adventure with the potential for huge failure because in that there are so many gifts.
Your audacious gifts to yourself will be different than mine, as your challenges are yours, but there are gifts in the great challenges and adventures. Go find yours, and let me know what it is, I’m looking for my next one! And the one after that. I won’t be waiting 10 more years this time, instead two weeks home, I am plotting my next handful.