A Crazy Weekend

Race Morning
Race Morning

This weekend was insane! It started off Thursday afternoon as the Russell’s, a HOPAC family, graciously gave me a ride to the Mwenge bus stop where I was supposed to meet a van of cyclists from Dar en route to the Race to Matema mountain bike race in Mbeya. After arriving at Mwenge and waiting around for over two hours, I discovered that the departure was delayed for unknown reasons, and that instead of being at Mwenge as I was previously instructed, I needed to be on the other side of the city, at the race office on the peninsula. So my bicycle box, myself, and one of the organizers loaded up into a taxi and fought the Dar traffic to get to Msasani. We joined a number of other volunteers at the office and continued to wait for the van. By 8 p.m., the van arrived and we began packing for the 17-hour journey. Around 9:30 or so, we left for Mbeya. I was the only “muzungu” (white person) in the van, and Kiswahili was the majority language. If I had ever thought that I was progressing rapidly in my Swahili studies, I soon learned just how much Swahili I did not know!

Over 24 hours later, we arrived at our destination. I missed most of the journey, because of the grand gift I have for sleeping like a baby as soon as I get in a vehicle. (This is also why it is much safer for me to drive vehicles with two wheels–its much harder to fall asleep that way!) I do know that we were stopped by the police numerous times (not unusual for Tanzania), that we got lost on a remote dirt road somewhere south of Mbeya, and that we stopped several times for bathroom / food breaks. Other than that, I was drifting in and out of sleep for most of the journey. When we piled out of the van around 11:30 p.m. Friday evening, I set to reassembling my bicycle to prepare for the race Saturday morning. Outside. In the dark. Some of you may remember my mountain biking accident a few years ago that occurred as a result of not properly checking my brakes before riding. Needless to say, I was nervous about assembling my bike in the dark, but without any other options, I did it, checked the brakes several times, and grabbed some rice and beans before heading to bed for the night.

Five hours later, it was time to get up and prepare for the race. 126 kilometers in the mountains of southern Tanzania. As the sun started to rise above the mountains, I looked up in awe. For someone who lived in northern Indiana and now in Dar es Salaam, the mountains were huge and intimidating. But beautiful and breathtaking.

I gobbled down my Clif Bar (thanks to the Garros who shared with me!), then set off on the pre-ride to “tea” and waiting for the race to start. With tea (African tea, at least what they served in the Mbeya region, is like hot milk and sugar), they also served mandazi (fried dough–like donuts, except not sweet) and boiled potatoes. Knowing my stomach’s difficulty digesting greasy food during exercise, I passed on the mandazi, and stuck with the potatoes and tea as I set about meeting some of my fellow cyclists. I met “Rasta,” several members of the board for the Tanzanian National Cycling Association, a cyclist from Kenya who had raced internationally (Australia, Europe, etc.), the female Tanzanian cycling champion, and others. I was one of three “wazungu” (plural of muzungu) participating, and one of about five females.

Around 9 a.m., about two hours behind schedule, the race started. As we set off down the dirt roads in a large pack (around 38 cyclists altogether), a piki piki (motorcycle) came up behind us and told us to turn back–we had already missed the first turn! Several of us followed his instructions, and in doing so, turned the first 20 kilometers (which was supposed to be the most difficult part of the course) into 40 kilometers on rough, stony, and dust-covered (sometimes inches thick) mountainous dirt roads.

About 25 kilometers into the race, I had recovered from the shock of the cold air on my lungs (and the altitude), and was riding well. The jarring of the stony roads was getting to my wrists on the downhills, but I was holding a good pace and feeling good. Until I was lying on the ground writhing in pain. My tires hit a small patch of loose dirt on the edge of the gravel road, and I wiped out instantly. Both feet were still clipped in (a first for me–every other time I’ve crashed, I’ve managed to get both feet out before landing), my cycling shorts were torn, my almost-new SIDI shoes had a snapped buckle, and I had blood running down my arm. Two other cyclists stopped to help me, as well as two follow-vehicles. A quick assessment of my injuries told me that I had not done any serious damage, despite the pain causing me to scream through my gritted teeth as water was poured over my scrapes. I was instructed to ride in the truck for the remainder of the dirt roads in order to prevent getting too much dust in my open wounds, and when the course turned to tarmac, if I felt okay, to try riding again then.

This particular area of Tanzania is absolutely gorgeous! The towering mountains, with their sharp edges and brilliant green reminded me of the highlands of Papua New Guinea in all their tropical resplendence. At the beginning of the race, I had started my GoPro camera, hoping to catch some film to evidence my ride through the beautiful Mbeya region, but when I went to pause the video after crashing, the small display read “No SD” despite my SD card clearly being inserted into the camera. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I tried, guys!

When we reached the tarmac, I resolved to attempt to ride the rest of the course. When I climbed out of the truck, my leg desperately resisted such resolve. Regardless, I unloaded my bike, slowly mounted, and clipped in. The first few pedal strokes were merely mind over matter. The open wound on my thigh felt like it was tearing and scraping against the remainder of my shorts with each movement, but I soon loosened up and got into the rhythm of riding. Tarmac is my home. Riding through the mountains on smooth pavement (a miracle for Tanzania–this was the smoothest road I’ve seen in the entire country so far!) was so much fun! I only wished that I had my carbon-fiber Specialized Tarmac instead of a fat-tired mountain bike—if I felt like I was flying on the Rockhopper, imagine how fast I could have gone on a road bike! I fell into line behind my rescuer from earlier, an Italian living in Dar es Salaam and working for a non-profit organization in Tanzania as well as volunteering with the Tanzanian National Cycling Organization. He insisted that he was too heavy for me to pull, so he took the brunt of the little bit of wind against us on all the downhills (I had to tuck to keep up with him coasting downhill anyway!) and the straightaways. On the climbs, I passed him every time, but waited at the top–since its more fun riding with people than by yourself. Eventually, after the 20 extra kilometers he had ridden at the beginning, he couldn’t go any farther, so waited for the truck to pick him up. I kept riding until I reached the end of the pavement with about 30 kilometers to go. I went about 1 kilometer on the rough dirt road and dismounted. With the swelling in my elbow and thigh from the crash and the pain in my knee, the vibration from the road was too much. Maybe I could have toughed it out, but I have three different volleyball teams I’m coaching now, and being able to play and coach is more important to me than a cycling race that I was already disqualified for, as I had sat in the truck for about 20 kilometers.

We spent the night at Matema Beach, on the coast of Lake Malawi. The mountains come right down to the edge of the water, making an incredible sunrise the following morning. The plan was to leave before 8 a.m., so I could make it back to Dar es Salaam in time to teach on Monday morning. Of course, they weren’t ready to leave until well after 10:30 a.m. I should have known by this point that nothing in Tanzania runs according to a schedule. Oh well. However, to expedite my trip home, I traded places with another guy who had followed the van up in a smaller car. My bike stayed in the van, and I, and two other Tanzanian guys quickly left the van behind as we spend towards Dar. Our first stop was over 10 hours later, when we stopped somewhere past Iringa for a bite to eat (and to go to the bathroom!). As we finished eating, I was informed that since I have a Tanzanian driver’s license it was my turn to drive. I haven’t driven a car since early June, and even then it was somewhat rare, since I sold my car in early February. I ride bicycles and motorcycles. I don’t drive vehicles with four wheels, especially not on the left side of the road, in the mountains, at night, with the shifter on the left, and the lights and windshield wipers reversed. Yikes!

In reality, the first little bit wasn’t too bad. The little Toyota toy-car certainly drives differently than a motorcycle, Subaru, or large diesel truck where you can both hear and feel the engine to be able to shift gears smoothly, but whatever. It did get really good fuel-mileage (or is it petrol-kiloage?), for whatever that’s worth–a few hundred thousand shillings, I’m sure! It helped that there were lines on the road–because in Tanzania, everyone drives with their high-beams on. All the time. Which means its extremely difficult to see when you are driving towards another vehicle at night. Eventually, however, the lines on the road disappeared and I found it nearly impossible to follow the edge or center line of the road when faced with oncoming traffic. By time we reached the necessary petrol station some 25 kilometers later, I was done. I’ll stick to my motorcycle, thank you.

At 3:00 a.m., we arrived back in Dar. Upon my return home, I peeled my jeans away from the still-seeping wound on my thigh and embarked on the wonderful adventure of disinfecting and cleaning my injuries. Dettol is the disinfectant of choice (and easiest to find here–since it can be used for cleaning anything), but it stings like none other when poured over a wound. By 4:00 a.m., I had showered, bandaged up my wounds to keep them from seeping all over the sheets, unpacked my sweaty cycling clothes, discovered that I had absolutely no food in the house, gathered my papers for school the following day, and set my alarm for two hours later.

Now, its 12:08 a.m. Tuesday morning. I successfully taught all day today (yesterday, now), coached the IST girls volleyball team for the last time (and was thanked by them with a shirt with my new nickname on it– 6-pack!), went grocery shopping, made spaghetti sauce, pizza, and chocolate chip cookies, and, now, wrote a blog post. Oh, and I drank three Red Bulls and two cups of coffee, but that’s beside the point! It has been an insane weekend!

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