Monday, August 22, 2011

Reflections on Germany & London

Why do we travel? For a number of reasons, one of which is to search for happiness.

Are we happy after our travels?
Sometimes we are, sometimes we're not. Sometimes we're elated at new experiences, sometimes we despair at bad encounters. Sometimes we find the joy contagious, sometimes we find the gloom a threat.

Why else do we travel? To see what's outside our box.

Do we see what we think we're missing? Sometimes.

Sometimes we're enlightened, sometimes we're disillusioned. Sometimes we're grateful for our good fortune, sometimes we envy the better well-being of others.

Why did I travel this time round? To race in IM in Germany and to reconnect with my sister in London.

And what have I learned from this trip? Lots. Below are some brief observations:

Every city has its beauty and flaws. London has its historical charm, but generally appears dark and grey with its old brick buildings and grimy streets. Munich, on the other hand, is covered with vast green farm land, trees, shrubs and the occasional flock of sheep grazing. The countryside of Munich is breathtakingly beautiful, and inspires afresh each time.

Yet, in every place, it ain't so much the physical manifestation of the geography & architecture that attract, but its people and culture that beckon a deep longing and etch a memory deeper than mere images in well-taken photographs.

I've spent too short a time, yet imprinted too deep a memory in both places, simply because of the people I've connected with, many of whom are strangers that turned into friends.

In somewhat a chronological order of my meeting them, here are the wonderful encounters I've had:

(1) A group of middle-aged cyclists from France, touring Germany on mountain bikes and heavy pannier bags. Cyclists in Europe are a dime and a dozen, but this group of French cyclists made an impression because they had very kind and friendly faces - in fact, if I may be permitted to say this without being stoned - I didn't find the Germans too friendly (at least not those I came across), so when a group of men and women in cycling attire and hardy bikes in the middle of a small German city (Regensburg) smiled at me, I smiled back and got a conversation going. In fact, I like them so much we took a photo together and I have one of the men as a friend on Facebook. Ah, the power of social media - connecting people across the globe. Simply awesome.

(2) An Israeli triathlete who has raced in Israman Eilat, ranked among one of the toughest long distance triathlons races, and IM Austria, before attempting his third in IM Regensburg. He did well - clocking just 12 hours in Regensburg.

(3) A French chef with a cheerful disposition who runs an all-day breakfast cafe in Regensburg with his long time friend, a lovely Spanish lady. A special mention of my chef friend, Marc Legras - he cheered me up when I walked into his cafe after completing my 3.8k swim and 180k bike ride, but disqualified from completing my 42k run, totally down and shattered - he sat down at my table with my husband and I, looked me in the eye and said: "It is better to lose a well fought battle than to win an easy one." An ardent rugby player and coach, Marc has an amazingly good heart - he runs a program that takes in children with attention deficit disorder and once a week, provides an outlet for these kids to channel their abundant energy by playing rugby and make some good friends in their team mates.

(4) A group of middle-aged German cyclists who handed me the news sports coverage of IM Regensburg (upon learning of my participation in the race) and posed for my camera on the train platform in Munich.

(5) An elderly woman sitting in an outdoor cafe all by herself at Tegernsee, a lake 46km southwest of Munich. I couldn't help but notice how alone she was, so I turned to her and gestured for her to come join us at our table. Despite her conversing only in German and we in English, we spent a lovely afternoon enjoying coffee, beer and cakes, relying on Google Translator to keep our conversation understandable. Marianne Behn is without kin - her husband has passed away and she has no children. Formerly a waitress, she is now retired and travels to vacation spots on the outskirts of Munich by train and bus. But that's as far as the travelling she has done - she has never flew on a plane before. I wished there and then I could put her on a plane and fly her to a destination of her desire - maybe Singapore, as she has never heard of Singapore until she met us.

(6) An Iraqi marine captain, Saud, on his way home after his job assignment across the Arabian Gulf, whom Jason and I conversed at length with while in transit in Dubai. His first hand account of the messy situation in Iraq and neighbouring Middle Eastern countries are sobering and a reminder to cherish the good and security we have in Singapore.

(7) Most of all, I'm missing the extreme kindness my Sis extended to Jason and I during our stay in her apartment in London - her extravagant hospitality and going the countless extra miles out of her way to ensure we are comfortable in every way. A special mention of thanks too to my brother-in-law who took leave, drove for hours and miles to fetch us from the airport, and forked an expensive city tour in our honor. I don't think I've felt more privileged than having an elder Sis who loves me this much. Indeed, there's no place like home, and no love like that of loved ones. I'm glad I focused my energy and attention at cherishing every single moment with my Sis and her family during our visit, and wish to be reunited sometime in the near future.

What more can I say? I’m just plain thankful for this amazing season in my life where I’ve had the ultimate privilege of preparing for a very tough race in Regensburg, and though I didn’t fare as well as I set my heart and soul to, I gained a lot more from the defeat than an easy victory; I’ve had the richest privilege of visiting Germany and partake of its splendid scenes, people and food and above all, I’ve had the most intimate, quality, bonding time with my dear family in London - I learn what it’s like to give, and give some more, because children make it all worthwhile.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Regensburg 7 Aug 2011

While riots broke out in London on 7 Aug, the chilly wind, relentless rain and steep bike climbs, plus my initial slow swim, wrecked an awfully painful riot within my system in Regensburg.

I was thoroughly ill prepared for all that lay ahead of me as I stood at the starting line that cold Sunday morning. I was anticipating a 1.45 swim, as I felt strong and good in the water, but came to shore at 2.07.

Onto the bike, I was wrecked physically and mentally by the furiously cold wind and merciless rain; even more so, the steep bike climbs between 10-30k burnt my muscles and killed a little of my spirit with each slow ascend.

No, this wasn't what I envisioned my inaugural IM race to be.

Thus, despite being officially disqualified from continuing the race at the halfway mark of the bike leg at 90k (I missed the cut off time by 10 minutes) I refused to concede defeat and rode the remaining 90k unaided, without any supporters or aid stations along the long, rolling, hilly and lonely course. All I had were tears and the pouring rain for company as I struggled to keep myself going mentally, hoping to make it back to Transition 2 and perhaps my persistence could move the referee to allow me to carry on with my marathon.

The remaining 90k was an intense battle between the discouraged heart that wanted time and again to give up, raise a thumb and hitch a ride from passing vehicles, and a relentless mind that wanted to keep pedaling to Transition 2. The emotional me lost pieces of my heart out there on the bike course.

Unaided and running low on water supply (thankfully I had sufficient energy bars with me), I had to stop strangers on two occasions and asked for water to refill my bottle.

At 150k, with only 30k to go, I was stopped by 2 policemen on motorbikes. My violation - riding despite being officially ruled out of the race. I was asked my name and where I'm from. After some time, I was permitted to go, but not without first being warned that I was out of the race and would not be able to carry on with the run after the bike. I nodded and pedaled off. If I had carried even a flicker of hope of being able to run despite the cut off time, the policemen sealed my fate with an absolute No.

Finally, after having swum 2 hours and rode 8.5 hours, I rolled into Transition 2, surrendered my timing chip and proceeded slowly to collect my belongings.

I would have given anything to run 42k, but realized my disqualification from running doesn't make me a loser; it gave me perspective to learn and grow.

This defeat has taught me more than if it had been an easy day. It was a really tough day, but that didn't kill me. Instead, it toughened me and made me wanna come back stronger to conquer what defeated me once.

But more than that, it taught me that IronMan is not everything... love is. I chanced upon my husband at the finishing line (amongst thousands of people and with no prior arrangement on time), he gave me a hug and I cried in his arms. His love and assurance are steadfast. And with his full support, I'm setting my sight on the next race in the coming months.

So, finally, here's a great big thank you - to all of you - my family, friends, fellow triathletes, training buddies - I thought of you while I was riding, tearing and shivering in the cold. Your encouragement and believe in me kept me going on the course in Regensburg, and will continue to bring me to the finish line in my next race.

3 cheers to my Lord, family, my husband and to all of you - hip hip hooray! ;)