Shirin Gerami

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TEDx Kish

The topic of the TEDx Kish talk was ‘Tipping point’
What was the point that caused one to do something that was important to them?

For me, it was that night in the Alborz Mountains, the start of a journey to understand gratitude. Gratitude, love or Esq to all the people who paint my life every single day, in their beautiful yet different shades. It is sharing the power of sports and the outdoors, something that has revived me when I most needed it. It is the hope that the next travellers who pass through this hut on earth, they too could experience what has blessed me so much during my stay.

I initially wanted to portray only half the story, the easy tales to tell. But the reality is, this is why I do it. In the hope that no matter how far down our journey takes us in life, we all find a path that will help us climb back up again.

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Racing. Xterra Malaysia

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The bruises are finally disappearing, the bumps and swells are subsiding, and even the vicious mosquito bites are miraculously going away.  I confess it was rather entertaining examining all the new bruises, scratches and swells every night, it was like collecting exquisite graffiti on my body. All that remains of Xterra Malaysia (and the journey to) is the mark where the chainring teeth sunk deep into my calves — and a lifetime of warm memories and unforgettable lessons.

I rocked up to Langkawi, Malaysia four days before the off-road triathlon race. I mean, how hard could it be?! I’d spent a month training on a mountain bike with Jean Pierre, had had a semi-successful attempt on a mountain bike in Iran, (admittedly mostly spent pedalling on tarmac)… And I had given myself a few days to go around the bike course to familiarise myself with it. Surely I was all set and ready for Xterra Malaysia?!

The event organisers had kindly arranged for me to borrow someone’s mountain bike for the race. My beloved Dorothy (my roadie) simply can’t deal with anything but tarmac. I collected the bike first thing in the morning and set off… I put the first kilometre and a half behind me. There were roots, rocks and streams which I cautiously walked over, and thought: it isn’t all that bad.

But then I turned around the corner… I don’t know how long I stood there gaping at what lay ahead, wondering how on earth I’d ever be able to get up that massive hill/mountain! I probably would have just stood there transfixed for an additional few minutes had Ray and Elsa (two of the event organisers) not arrived moments later to check up on the course. Encouraging me to go on, I got back on the bike huffing and puffing my way up parts of it, thighs and lungs on fire, not to mention all the wheelies I was performing due to my lack of mountain biking ability. Sometimes Ray would ride the bike, sometimes I’d walk the bike, sometimes I’d attempt to ride, but would fall over. After what seemed like an eternity I asked Ray, ‘are we even past the halfway mark yet?’ I was actually waiting for him to say, we’re more than three quarters of the way in. ‘This is the 3km mark,’ he said. ‘There’s another 27km to go…’

To my relief, Ray and Elsa finally left me on my own and I managed to ‘roll’ down to a road, coated in mud and blood. Exhausted, and out of food and water, I followed the road back to the hotel. I had covered 5km in 1 hour 45min.

With two days left to the race, I got on the phone to Paula. Paula is an angel of a lady who has by some miracle become a mentor, guide and a wonderful sounding board. ‘I don’t think this is good idea!’ I said. I know I am all the way in Langkawi, and it would be very bad if I didn’t race, but I then proceeded to list a whole lot of excuses – starting from the swim, then bike and then the run – trying to convince her and myself on why I should not take part in the race. ‘Paula, I think I should withdraw.’

Xterra Malaysia

As always, thanks to Paula’s ability to make me see things through a clearer lens, I actually made it to the race start. Granted, the other elites were miles ahead of me before the sound of the gun had even had the chance to disperse in the environment, but I was actually surprised at how I performed. It’s a satisfactory feeling to look back and see the progress made: I raced over obstacles that petrified me two months ago without a second thought. I completed a course that seemed beyond my imagination and capacity a year prior. Let’s face it: I managed to stay on the bike throughout most of the course, something I had been incapable of just a few days before!

After the race, Belinda, one of the pros, radiating her usual beautiful and genuine smile exclaimed: ‘you never stop smiling!’ Next to her, Dimity and Renata were radiating the same contagious smile. ’But it’s because you’re always smiling!’ I said. I was merely (and subconsciously) reflecting the heartfelt smiles and kindness everyone was showering on me. The encouragements, positivity, and the general beautiful attitude of all the amazing superheroes I was so fortunate to meet at the event was truly humbling.

I owe the fact that I ended up racing, as hard as I was trying to convince myself to withdraw, to two things. One, because I have a slightly stubborn streak. But the second, and most important reason is because of the incredible people who manifest themselves in my life. I am only that ordinary girl who manages to land herself into mischief a lot of the time. But it’s all about the untold stories of the incredible support of friends, family, and athletes who have always been my prime motivators to pursue my dreams. It’s their love, inspiration and contagious passion that constantly help me to think positive and to dream big. As two of the wonderful event organisers, Sean Chee and Dave Spence, taught me in words and by their actions: “It’s about appreciating, embracing and immersing ourselves in mother nature… it’s about living more.” I can only hope that at the very least, I could one day show my gratitude to all these wonderful people by passing on what they have bestowed on my life to others.

By now the aches and bruises are long forgotten, but the memories of Xterra will bring a smile to my face for years to come, and its lessons will remain with me for a lifetime. The lesson that I shouldn’t underestimate my mind and body. I should never give up from fear of failure before even trying. That through positive thinking and focus, the unattainable becomes attainable. That I am so fortunate to be able to look up towards such amazing human beings for inspiration. Will I do it again? Now that I’ve taken the first wobbly steps towards completing an Xterra, I would quite like to become more confident, capable and stronger. Far too ambitious, I know!  But I wonder if focus, hard work, and a streak of stubbornness pays off?

Let the universe be your guide…

“The universe will always show us the way if we are willing to see… let the opportunities come to you.”

It was around November last year. The lead up to the Edmonton World Champs and the issues I had encountered with getting permission had rightly or wrongly left me in an emotional tangle, exhausted and doubtful of my decisions. Its not that I didn’t want to continue racing, but the whole admin and logistics side, the incertitude, the not having permission until the last second, and the various challenges were getting far too overwhelmingly stressful. By the end of the race in Edmonton, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to continue, whether I should revert back to my ’normal’ life, if the ’sacrifices’ were worth it… simply put, I felt lost.

I wondered if I could possibly find someone/something that could guide me, mentor me, help me detangle the knot I could feel forming within me. And I searched… I had no idea what I was searching for, but I just prayed and kept on searching. Be it a coach, a friend, spiritual, sporting revelation, person, non-person… I was clueless what I was searching for.

During this internal confusion, I received a message from the BBC. They were starting a new radio programme called The Conversation, a format where two women from different countries and cultures talked about the work and experience which connected them. They wanted me to be on this programme with Anu Vaidyanathan, an Indian triathlete. Considering my tangled state of mind, I had avoided any public media activity for a while. But for some reason, I somehow agreed to participate in one of the episodes.

A week before the recording, the BBC sent me the finalised details of The Conversation. I was informed of the time and place and was sent a brief on the person I was to have a conversation with… but that person was Paula Newby-Fraser. To this date, I still don’t know what came of Anu Vaidyanathan.

And so I entered the BBC studios and on the other side of the world, Paula was sitting in the BBC’s recording studios in South Africa. There was something about her that I loved and connected with immediately. She spoke of her journey, her initial triathlon days in South Africa, her struggles in racing… As the conversation unravelled, it also helped untangle some of the thoughts and questions I had been battling with. From there stemmed the beginnings of a conversation between Paula and I, beyond the BBC programme. Shortly after the interview, she gave me two pieces of advice which I have come to cherish (and which she needs to remind me of every so often): “The universe will always show us the way if we are willing to see… let the opportunities come to you.”

If we are willing to see, the universe and its ways are pretty awesome. What were the chances for Paula to be replaced by Anu? That I accepted to take part in the BBC conversation, despite initially having wanted to not participate. The timing, which was when I was ready to give up on racing. Ironically, for Paula herself to tell me — when I still couldn’t pluck up enough courage to ask her if she would be willing to help and advise me — that I should let the opportunities come to me, to let the universe be my guide.

And since then, and thanks to the advice and sound words of Paula, I can only tell you that I’m back to loving life as an athlete, loving representing Iran in races, loving how the journey is developing, unfolding, and surprising me. And I can’t stop marvelling at how the universe manifests these amazing people and opportunities in front of me at times and in ways that I least expect it… if and when I am willing to see.

Mountain Biking in Iran [an attempt at]

I was to attend TEDx Kish in Iran. In my head, it worked like the perfect plan. It was on my way to Malaysia, and I would be able to spend a week in beautiful Kish, swim in its gorgeous sea, train in its hot and humid conditions and acclimatise for my upcoming race. I saw a cyclist at the conference with a mountain bike. I went up to him to ask if he knew of places where I could rent a bike and/or mtb groups that trained in the area which I could join. Kourosh said he himself is from Tehran but he’ll ask around and let me know.

I spotted Kourosh on the last day as he was driving away in his car. He stopped to tell me that a friend of his has a bike that he’s happy to lend me for the day, and he could take me cycling around Kish. He himself was driving back to Tehran therefore relatively flexible with time. I told him that I’ve been doing some research, Kish is a small coral island, which means that with its flat sandy/coral surface, there is no where to practice my mountain biking skills. It might make more sense to go to Qeshm, a bigger island in the Gulf, which has a more diverse landscape and we might find more suitable terrain for mountain biking there. Did he fancy joining me for a ride in Qeshm instead, and then he can make his way to Tehran from there?

He had another idea… why don’t I join him on his road trip to Tehran? I will have access to his mtb and can ride to my heart’s content. After some debating, I said goodbye to the stunning waters of Kish with its coral reefs and schools of really beautiful fish that danced around me as I swam to and fro in the lady’s beach, and hopped on the ferry with Kourosh and the dozen other lorries and trucks to commence our 1800km ride to Tehran.

Our early morning start was replaced by a leisurely afternoon start, due to the delayed ferry crossing. We stopped at a shop to stock up on food and the salesman gave us two options: the highway that took 3 hours to Shiraz, or scenic route up and through the mountains which took around 7 hours. Scenic route and mountains was decided, I needed a place to mountain bike!

We started off on the flat, camels galore, passing by the dome like shapes indicating the location of subterranean canals found in the desert until we finally reached the mountains. Soon the road sign warnings of camel crossings were replaced by deer crossings. The barren mountains started to loom around us, exposing millions of yearsIMG_7048 worth of bedding planes and sediment surfaces in all their different colours and widths. Each bend in the road would unravel a different pattern, different colours of rocks and soil, different shapes and rhythms, and different shrubs and flora which the goats were feasting upon. There is such intricate detail and extraordinary beauty in something that at first glance appears as void and empty. We stopped by the road side and got the mountain bike out.

I initially took to the mountains, slowly trying to find my confidence in rolling over rocks and uneven ground. However, it didn’t take long to realise that if we hoped to get anywhere near Shiraz by the end of the night, I had to give up the mountains, hit the tarmac and chase behind the car as fast as I could. Every now and again, I’d come across a tiny road side village where the little kids would come laughing and yelling after me, either on their own bikes or running beside me. The women would smile, wave me on and the lads would hit the road on the motorbikes along side me.

I’d find Kourosh behind every bend, keeping a watchful eye and at the same time occupying himself with his camera or in his own world, soaking up the beautiful silence around him. I climbed back in the car when darkness fell, at around 8pm. ‘How much longer do we have until Shiraz?’ I asked. ‘Don’t ask.’ he said. ‘Are we even halfway there yet?’ He chuckled. We still had a good 500km to go, and it takes a long while to put 500km behind us in these narrow, windy roads.

Kourosh entertained me with stories of when he rode his bike from Tehran to Kish – a journey that took him 45 days. He pointed at the places which he’d spent the night, the adventures and people met. After a while, not even Kourosh’s stories could keep me awake, and I nodded off to sleep. 12am, and we were still no where close. We took to desperate measures, and took turns driving whilst the other one slept. We were meant to stay the night at Kourosh’s friend’s, but by the time we rolled into Shiraz, it was 3am. We parked the car by a red salt lake by the side of the road and desperately tried to find a comfortable position to sleep. We woke up 4 hours later with a crooked neck, legs jammed, sticky, smelly and sweaty and not feeling rested at all. We had another 2 days of this ahead of us!

‘Kourosh,’ I said. ‘ This is no training ground for me – let’s drive as fast as we can towards Tehran, get it over with, and then I’ll be able to resume training there.’ He agreed, he knows some great mountain biking locations in TehranIMG_7015 which he can take me to. So we headed out of Shiraz and into a little village in an oasis high up in the mountains. We trekked to the very top where the last building was a tiny little cafe, and to my delight the owner was making the most of the morning breeze and pumping some weights. Excited, I asked if I could make use of his weights? Imagine a girl with a long flowy red and white skirt, flip flops and a ridiculous smile saying that to you in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the desert in Iran. In normal circumstances I would have spared him the heart attack, but I really needed to train! And so whilst breakfast was being prepared I got into my routine of dead lifts and bench presses trying to console myself that I would at least get some training in for the day.

 

Apart from the last day when we hit the mountains of Tehran and I finally managed to get some proper mountain biking in, I have to admit it did not serve my mtb skills much in the end. And the thought of Xterra Malaysia still weighs heavy in my mind. But it was a memorable adventure. Really looking forward to mountain biking next time I’m in Tehran!

Xterra Malaysia

It all started with an email – out of the blue.

“We are pleased to invite you to be part of Xterra Langkawi 2015…”

To which I replied with a little background to myself, adding ‘you realise I am no where near as fast as the pro and that off road triathlons are most certainly not my forte?!’

In fact, it first occurred to me to mountain bike at university. I joined the mtb group, with my hybrid bike and thin wheels. We went deep into the woods of Durham, on top of a huge muddy decent, a very narrow route with all sorts of obstacles, wet leaves and a huge fall to one side. Everyone whizzed down at top speed jumping over the obstacles and looking pretty slick — leaving me behind, terrified. I looked around, found the nearest tarmac road, walked my bike over and scurried home at top speed, drawing the biggest mental red cross over the idea of ever attempting to mountain bike again.

This new year, a friend, in fact one of the instrumental people who got me hooked on road cycling and triathlons, sent me a text: ‘What are you doing for new years?’ With my previous new year plans just fallen through, I asked what exactly was brewing in his mind. ‘Mountain biking!’ he replied. For the lack of anything else to do on new years, I had to accept. And frankly, if there was to be anyone in the world who could help me overcome my mtb phobia, it had to be Will with his never ending patience, good humour and useful tips! And so it was that I finally mountain biked for my first time on the very first day of 2015.

Maybe I should have broken down in detail for the people at Xterra Malaysia simply how incompetent I was at mountain biking… because for some reason they still wanted me to race, and to race as Elite. One would have hoped that at least I would have a grain of sense and reason within me and cordially bow out of the challenge. Alas! I somehow ended up accepting the invitation.
***
I headed out to Portugal, to the loving arms of my friends in Tri Training Harder, who have been helping me with my training this year. Philip sent me to the local bakeshop in search of way to learn mtb skills. Tiko at the bikeshop told me to stick around the bike shop as someone was on his way who might be able to help me. A guy walks in and I vaguely understood he was the guy I needed to talk to. I plunged in immediately: ‘can I please join you guys in your mtb sessions?’ I couldn’t understand the reaction on his face, so I continued. ‘I have a race coming up in just over a month and have no idea how to mtb.’ ‘You want me to teach you how to mtb?’ He asks, even more confused. ‘Yes please!’ I couldn’t let go of this opportunity! Joining a coach/mtb club was my only hope of learning how to mtb. Realising that I’m not backing down, Jean Pierre told me to meet him the following afternoon.

The following day I got on the mountain bike and huffed, puffed and sweated like I’d never done before as I snailed towards the meeting point. Tiko took one look at me, inspected the bike he had rented me and said: ‘the good news is, this bike is so slow and heavy that you’d immediately feel considerably stronger and faster when you get on a proper mountain bike for your race.’ (Tiko, I’m counting this). Jean Pierre finally comes along. ‘So where is the rest of the group?’ I asked. ‘What group?’ asked JP. It was then that I realised that I had cornered a random guy who had walked into the bike shop, thinking he was the mtb coach or club coordinator or something. I had been so insistent that poor Jean Pierre did not have the heart to refuse to take me out on my mtb!

Allow me to explain that the language in common between me and Jean Pierre is French. As my very special friend, Guillaume, will testify, I probably understand 5% of what’s actually being said in French, and guess work the other 95%. And when I’m whizzing down the mountain at top speed, clinging on to my brakes for dear life, not knowing whether to close my eyes in fear and hope for the best, or stay witness to the pure folly of what I had landed myself into… that 95% is not to my advantage. ‘Lache les freins!!!! Lache les freins!!!!’ JP kept shouting. He was probably telling me to slow down, no? And so I slam on the brakes, skid, slip and roll over the rocks and thorns and finally come to a halt, bike to one side and me on the other. I may not have learnt much mtb on the first day, but trust me, my French is better for it. I will never forget that lache les freins means let go of the brakes…!

3 hours later, 2 of which had been in the pitch dark, knackered, bruised and legs shaking with adrenaline or maybe fear, JP finally decides that I have probably had enough for one day. I thank him profusely, highly apologetic that I had actually managed to talk him into taking me mountain biking… but he was happy to take me out again. Usually, I’d be more considerate about burdening other people with my inaptitude, but frankly I have no idea how I’m going to handle Xterra Malaysia. Here was hope and a rare opportunity, I had to accept his incredibly kind and generous offer.

There’s something so extremely beautiful about mountain biking. The way you’re in the heart of nature, away from cars and tarmac… the beautiful wild flowers that paint the landscape, the setting sun, the freshness… it is so incredible. And there’s also the element of seeing myself progress, of having to actively and consciously overcome my fear/phobia of mountain biking. On the third session, JP took me down this steep, bendy descent, full of obstacles. JP stood at the bottom encouraging me on, but I just stood there horrified, my entire body system locked down. I could not bring myself to tackle that slope. In the end, knowing I had to make a move unless I decided to spend the night in the mountains, I half rolled, half scooted my way down to JP. He looked at me and said. ‘you’ve got to give it another attempt.’ I couldn’t let him down. And so I went up again, and this time managed to stay on the bike on my way down. He took another look at me and said, ‘again’. And so I went, this time, with hardly a trace of fear. I am the luckiest girl on earth to have the awesome support of JP! Conquering fear can feel so liberating.

On the last day, a few of JP’s friends joined us, donned in kit that read ‘The Ghost Boys’. That final ride was like a dream: cycling into the sunset, intoxicated by the smell of the lavender fields, smiling from the core of my being, joking and laughing away even though I barely understood what the others were saying in Portuguese, and trying my hardest to chase the others whilst staying on my bike for once. I was tangibly so much more competent than when we first started, it was unbelievable! JP later confessed that he kept on telling the other goes to up the technic level of the course until I finally fell off my bike. HAH!

‘Jean-Pierre’ I said, as we were saying our goodbyes. ‘Give me one year – next time we meet, I’ll keep up with you on a mtb.’

Having said that, I still have no idea how I’m going to deal with Xterra Malaysia – which is just around the corner. If only I had a grain of sense and reason within me!

Racing. WTS Abu Dhabi

Angels – they are everywhere. The world is simply a beautiful place with such amazing people in it, making life truly worth living for love of the people that surround us.

I was looking for a way, any way, to be able to get my clothes to Abu Dhabi in time for the race. I gave every suggestion a try, no matter how far-fetched they seemed, hoping to find a way to get the clothes from the US to the UAE before Saturday.

Thursday morning, I receive a message: I’m in California, Laguna Beach right now, can I help in anyway? What are the chances for this person to be in California when he lives thousands of miles away?! We looked at all sorts of postal options together, but the earliest delivery time we could find was Sunday, day after the race. He then had a moment of serendipity: ‘Emirates! They tend to freight things on their flights.’

With a twelve hour difference between us, he went to sleep whilst I started researching. There was a flight leaving Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon, arriving to Dubai on Friday 19:30. If we could only get the clothes on this flight, I could have them in Abu Dhabi by race morning.

As night fell in Abu Dhabi and California started to wake up, this wonderful person said, ‘don’t worry – I’ll drive down to San Diego now, pick up your clothes, drive them up to LA, give them to Emirates, and that should leave me with enough time to get back to Laguna Beach in time for my meeting.’ ‘But that’s like a 7 hour drive!’ I said. ‘Don’t worry, the car rental people have just upgraded my car, it’s such a beauty – I need an excuse to drive it!’ I know he’s saying that only to make me feel better.

As I was getting ready for bed, he sent me a text to say that all is under control. He’s picked up the clothes from the lady producing them and is making his way up to LA. An hour later, I get a call. ‘Shirin,’ he says. ‘I’m so sorry, Emirates does not have the freight service on flights out of America. I’m driving right now, can you see if you can find other options?’ Unless we could find a passenger on that flight willing to bring the clothes, there was no other way to get them to Abu Dhabi before Saturday morning. Facebook, twitter, internet forums, I tried anything I could think of, but it was now way past midnight in Abu Dhabi and I had to catch some sleep. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll go to the airport anyhow and see if I can find a passenger who’s willing to bring your clothes for you.’

Friday morning, I woke up to find a message: I’m so sorry, I couldn’t find anyone. There was just this one person who was willing, but was on transit, and it being LA, I didn’t want to cause a security scare!

The clothes never made it, but words don’t do what this incredible person went through any justice. To cancel his meeting and drive for 7 hours for me, to stand at an airport and ask people if they would take my clothes for me… so that a girl half way across the globe could participate in a triathlon. I only swim, bike and run, but the real story is that of these incredible, angelic people who support me so generously and unconditionally to enable me to do so.

As for the race, I wasn’t able to race the way I had wanted to. It wasn’t possible without having my clothes. But once again, I am so fortunate that the people at the ITU are so helpful, understanding and encouraging. They enabled me to race in my own little way, so that I could at least assess how the training has paid off, and prepare myself for future races where I hopefully will have my race clothes in time.

Waiting. WTS Abu Dhabi

Some stories don’t seem to change! Feel free to laugh at/with me! So here I am in Abu Dhabi, again all pumped up and looking forward to the race… but as always, there is a slight hiccup. Frankly, after the experience of the past races, it would seem wrong if there wasn’t something going on!

One of the usual hiccups… problem with race clothes. This time, I’ve actually been so fortunate – someone else stepped in and said I’ll take care of them. She’s all the way in San Diego, haven’t even met her yet, but she’s like a distant angel taking the stress and complications of producing the clothes off my back. The time and energy this freed up thus enabling me to focus on training is amazing. It gave a whole new meaning to the joy of training.

I know that there’s this massively determined, driven and energetic lady who I barely know, and she’s doing all she can to get these clothes to me on time. I also know that I am so fortunate and grateful to have her support as this whole covered clothes issue is no easy feat. Furthermore, I know that even when we try our very best, sometimes life and time have a mind and definition of their own.

I don’t know how the clothes are going to look like – its going to be such a beautiful surprise. I don’t know how it would be possible to get the clothes over to Abu Dhabi from San Diego in time for the race on Saturday… but that adds to the surprise. I don’t know how the clothes are going to function in this heat and humidity, but really looking forward to their first test run.

There’s something about the story that has changed though, and that’s me. Two days before Edmonton and I was a sorry wreck crying my eyes out with stress, fatigue and incertitude. Today, with two days before Abu Dhabi, I am as calm and cool as the day after a race, it’s a beautiful state of mind to be in. The biggest lesson Edmonton taught me was that, really, it’s mostly about the journey to the race. The amazing people met, the awesome training done, the growth, the understanding and all that I learnt on my way to the race. This journey has certainly brought me to a better place.

I’m very much looking forward to experiencing the next two days unravel and see how I’ll make it to the start line.