The first time I strapped on a backpack, hiking boots and did some serious hiking was about 20 years ago when I set off on a trip to Peru. Although I was sporty, it is fair to say I was quite naive about the physical endurance required to hike at high altitude.
20 kilo heavier than I am today (I am not kidding!) plus a 15kg backpack, I enthusiastically took my heavy load and set off on the Inca Trail, a 4 day hike walking 80km on the ancient Inca path through the Andes mountain range traversing cloud forest, alpine tundra, ancient settlements and Incan ruins, 2 ascents beyond 4200m above sea level to finally arrive at the magical Sun Gate on the Machu Picchu mountain.
It was during the second day, climbing up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4200m, that, for the first time, I reached my body’s physical limits. I was so slow going up, one step after the other. Struggling to stay stable, climbing up through slippery mud and clinging on to the trees for dear life….I was rapidly falling behind to the rest of the group who gazelled up…At one point I just had to sit down and contemplate my fate…I knew I had to carry on, I had to reach the next camping spot, ideally before sunset…in those days there was no support infrastructure at all on the Trail, it was open to hikers but you were pretty much left to your own devices….I had about 6 hours left…my heart was pounding out of my chest and my legs felt heavy and tired…. other hikers were passing by, some greeting me friendly, others cheering me on…I felt like crying feeling sorry for myself…but what good would that do?! I took another swig of water and the last of my snickers’ bar and stood up. That’s when a little voice inside my head appeared..”you can do this”…”you HAVE to do this”…”you are strong and resilient and you get your bloody fat ass up that mountain!”…
Until this day I can still picture me arriving at the camp side…the sun was nearly set… it was almost pitch dark…my fellow hikers were enjoying a lovely hot cup of soup…they looked up and saw me coming down the hill and cheered me on…a sense of relief, joy, achievement, tiredness, gratefulness…all wrapped in one and tears started flowing as I fell into their arms.
Glad to report that I made it to the Sun Gate and got to admire the magical site that is Machu Picchu. I realised that the physical pains probably contributed to the sense of awe I felt when the clouds lifted and revealed the Lost City of the Incas. It is also at that moment I vowed never to go on a beach holiday again!
Since then I have been fortunate enough to explore some of the world’s most amazing locations, hike through the Andes several times and developed a bit of a love/hate affair with volcanoes – the biggest and toughest of all being Mount Kilimanjaro.
Every serious hike or climb up a mountain or volcano not only tests my physical boundaries but also my mental toughness. When your body is telling you to stop and to give up, your mental resolve has to kick in and take over. That’s what I experienced like nothing ever before on the last day of the Kili trek – from Barafu camp at 4681m up to the Uhuru Peak at 5895m. The predicted hiking time to reach the summit is 7 to 8 hours. You set off around 11pm and after some tea and biscuits you shuffle off into the night, ascending through heavy scree towards Stella Point (5739m) on the crater rim and then from there on to the summit.
I was ready: 5 layers of clothing, a couple of hours worth of rock music on my iPod and the mental resolve that I could do this!
Reality kicked in after the first 30mins…just placing one foot in front of the other was hard, breathing was extremely difficult, I had to concentrate on the little torch-light in front of me to keep my balance to ensure I didn’t slide down on the scree…I focussed on the music blasting out through my headphones and just counted my steps…it was going to be a very long night!
One of my friends was in trouble: she was cold and just couldn’t get her body temperature up. With temperatures of -20°C, the risk of hypothermia is very real. Seeing I was steaming hot by this time, I decided to help and give up some of my layers to help her warm up. It seemed like the right thing to do, yet I could not predict that as a consequence, I would lose so much of the built-up heat myself…I quickly began to lose energy just trying to stay warm and felt my body weakening with every step.
Once again I fell behind…I was angry and frustrated…yet determined to continue…then I heard my friend Katrien shout out “It is totally unacceptable and irresponsible to send us up this mountain! I am quitting! I am not having this any longer!” She sat down in a huff and just refused to carry on. I don’t know what possessed me but I told her off there and then. “Shut up! We are going to eat and drink something and then we carry on. WE – you and I – are NOT quitting!”
We did carry on. We also died about a thousand times on that mountain. By the time we reached Stella Point my inner voice had fell silent from all the screaming it had done…”this step is for my mum…this step is for my brother…this one is for me…come on you are strong…you can overcome this…there is no pain…only gain…think about the sense of achievement you will feel when you reach the top…come on….COME ON!!”
You have to dig deep, take your mind to a place deep down that transcends the body, become larger than yourself…and then truly anything is possible.
It’s no coincidence then that this is also the slogan IRONMAN uses – the organisation behind the triathlon of legends: 3.8km of swim – 180km bike ride – 42.2km (full marathon!) of running. Raced in that order, without a break, assistance or support allowed.
It was my husband’s Tim childhood dream to run this race and to be able to say “I am an Ironman”.
Sometime in 2015 we discussed him embarking on his journey. I knew he had the mental resolve to finish this race – hell he even ran a marathon once with a broken foot!! So I had only one ask – non negotiable : you have to prepare well with the support of a coach to ensure you don’t cripple your body.
Ironman Vichy 2016 was going to be his race – the moment of truth. He was so determined (or single minded!) he quit smoking, didn’t touch another drop of alcohol, relished all things veggie and trained like a pro. He made sacrifices and we made sacrifices. Free time, weekends, holidays were all planned with his training in mind. At times I was annoyed with him when yet again I had to explain to the kids that daddy was not home but gone training for a couple of hours and see their disappointed faces.
But I totally get why he was pushing himself so hard, the dream he was pursuing…I too have tasted that utter sense of achievement, be it in different ways, and did not want to deny him of his dream.
A month before D-Day he set off on a bike ride. I recall telling him to take his time and to enjoy it….and then disaster struck. A blind spot – a car out of nowhere – pulling the brakes – thrown over the bike – hitting the shoulder at full force….
Torn shoulder ligaments and emergency surgery were the diagnoses and with it game over, bye-bye IRONMAN dream.
I cannot begin to describe the disappointment and the sadness I felt for him. Tim retreated to his inner cave and stayed there for a couple of weeks…and who could blame him? Our world just fell silent.
But then one day he came back out of his cave and declared he would heal, recover and come back even stronger than before. His resolve, the sheer determination in his eyes, made it clear… he was not gonna mess about! A new race date was chosen – Challenge Venice June 2017. Same gruelling race, same heroic achievement …yet not an Ironman.
Tim started his route to recovery with that unique sense of determination that defines him. Even his surgeon was amazed with the speed at which he was healing and regaining physical strength. It was as if he had wings, guided by something deep within himself, giving him ever more power and courage to persevere. Frankly it was inspiring to see.
Fitter and stronger than ever he finished his first full distance triathlon with a smile on his face within 11h24’02” – an impressive achievement by any standard!
Although him crossing that finish line triggered lots of emotions, his journey was not complete. He decided he had one more mountain to climb – his own very Kili summit to reach. “IRONMAN Vichy August 2017 – your scalp is mine”.
Finishing one full distance triathlon in a given year is heroic; finishing 2 within 2 months of each other is probably MAD or superhuman! But as determined he was to come back stronger after his accident, even more determined he was to get even. 2017 was going to be the year that he would become an IRONMAN.
The training schedule within that 2 month window was tough and relentless. I know he had to dig deep every day to get up and push himself… but his summit was in sight and nothing would stop him. Whenever he set off on a bike ride, I was scared that yet again I would receive a phone call from A&E “your husband has been in an accident”. But I didn’t.
On the 27th of August 2017 my husband, Tim Meiresonne, became an IRONMAN! He finished the race, his legs full of cramps, barely able to walk over the finish line, in 11h51’31”. There goes My Hero….
He then walked back to greet me and was able to finally strike off his last mental note: in front of the full stadium, this time as an IRONMAN, he proposed to me….with the last bit of voice that I had left but with a heart filled with love, pride, admiration and deep respect I shouted “YES!!!!”.
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