Shirin Gerami

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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!
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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.

Riding Waves

I’ve recently had the chance to dip my toes in the sea and actually test out rough open water swimming. Everyone’s given me a lot of hints and pointers on the little tricks I should be aware of, including how to bodysurf on the waves when I’m aiming to get out of the water.

Trust me, easier said than done! The instructions are: when you see a wave forming behind you, start swimming fast. When you’re on the wave, hook your hands on the wave and let it carry you to the shore… I see the others do it and it seems pretty straightforward. But when I have a go, there seem to be two case scenarios at play: either the wave just brushes past me completely ignoring all my frantic efforts to get a ride. It casually makes its way to the shore with me still attempting to swim after it completely out of breath. Or it decides to have a little fun, making me turn, twist and tumble in the water, feeding me as much salt water as humanly possible, leaving me gasping for air, goggles astray and completely disorientated. And then it casually makes its way to the shore without me.

Today, the waves were crisp, big and frequent. On my way back, I decided to give up on the fantasy of catching waves and swim my own way back to shore. Suddenly, there was a rumble, a wave made its way under me – it just connected with me. It swept me up, carried me at top speed towards the shore, and dropped me face first into a pool of foam and sand. In one word: exhilarating! All I could do was whoop with glee and laughter – a laugh so sincerely filled with love and joy for my surroundings. I managed to catch a wave – or rather, a wave managed to catch me! It is such an amazing feeling!

It reminded me of a Japanese film. If my memory serves right it said: life is like a wave. What ever resists it ends up in a wreck. What ever rides with it is taken towards beautiful shores in unrestrained joy.

Overly Balanced?

Year one at university:

I entered university bursting with excitement! So many books, so many amazing people, such an inspiring environment for learning… I had come to university to learn and I wanted to dedicate the entirety of my three years to learn – no faffing about.

Suffice it to say that my yearbook entry read: Favourite time of day: when the library opens; Favourite place: the library. Where to be found when lost: The library… I’ll spare you the rest.

By the end of the year, I felt for the first time, that I actually knew of a thing or two about what was happening around me. I could hold a conversation, enter a debate, write an essay – things that were completely beyond my abilities prior to university. However, I felt I had become a bit too one dimensional, that I was missing out on many other things in life.

That’s not right, I thought to myself. I need to find a balance.

Year two at university:

I plunged into as many extra curricular activities as humanly possibly. My friends described me as a blur, seen whizzing on my bike from one commitment to the other. My tutor once asked: so when do you relax? I relax by changing the type of activity I’m involved in, I said. I relax my brain when doing sports, relax my body when at a meeting, have fun when fundraising for charity, socialise when setting up events for the societies I am part of…

It was wonderful to be involved in so many activities, to be aware of so many different things happening around me, to meet so many different people through all these societies. However, I realised I had been so busy rushing from one activity to another, so busy trying to achieve all that I wanted to achieve, that I had left my friends no time at all. Frankly, my world is nothing without my friends. They are always there for me, but I felt I was never there for them.

That’s not right, I thought to myself. I need to find a balance.

Year three at university:

The most important thing that makes me be who I am, that inspires me to want achieve all I want to achieve are the people around me. I wanted to give back to them, all the love and motivation they had always given me – be there whenever they needed me. So I spent this stage of university prioritising my friends over my studies and extra curricular activities. To be flexible enough to be available whenever someone called, either to share their happiness or give a big energising hug when in need.

By the end of the year, I felt closer to my friends like I had never felt before. This amazing bond, the ability to share the moments and develop such a lovely relationship. It was beautiful. But I no longer felt content with myself. I felt I hadn’t achieved all that I could’ve, hadn’t developed myself as I should’ve.

That’s not right, I thought to myself. I need to find a balance.

And now:

I went to a yoga class. At the very end, and completely out of the blue, the teacher suddenly asked the class a very simple question: What is a balanced life?

I had never thought of asking myself that question before… What is a balanced life?

Honestly, we spend our entire life trying to achieve it, but what is a balanced life?!!!

Cycling in Shiraz

We were travelling across Iran. Trying to balance training, family and travelling, the plan was to run every two days. It was such an amazing plan – it meant that with every new city/village/location that we visited, I’d find a route, put on my running shoes and run to my heart’s content. Early in the morning, as the city/village was starting to wake up, I’d run past beautiful buildings, mosques, palaces, forests, sea, desert (depending on which leg of the journey)… It was a spectacular way to explore each new location, experience their different nature and climate, and witness their unique architecture and way of life.

I have to admit that I was missing my bike quite a lot, though! When we got to Shiraz, I saw a picture of someone on a bike in the place that we were staying, so I enquired a bit further and asked if there were cyclists around and whether I’d be able to borrow/rent a bike and join them? The lady got back to me a little while later saying that I could join the bike ride the following morning, and arranged a meeting point.

The following morning I waited for the cyclists to turn up, excited to be getting back on a bike, and even more so, to get to know and cycle with fellow cyclists. I knew I was in for an adventure… but had absolutely no idea of which variety! Finally a guy appears with a cream jacket, immaculately polished black shoes… and a bike. One bike. Am I going cycling with you, I asked. Yes! He said. I’ll be driving alongside you!

Not exactly what I had envisaged. But I was so looking forward to getting on a bike anyhow! So he bundled me and the bike in his car, and drove me out of the city. As we approached the mountains he said: so, when there’s an uphill I’ll drive you up and when there’s a downhill, you can cycle down. Errr… I would also quite like to cycle uphill, too! I said. You won’t be able to, he said bluntly. After some convincing, I get on his 26” mountain bike, its gears stuck on the highest gear and refusing to shift, the dry chain scraping noisily as it rubbed against the surrounding metal, cranks clicking and giving way with every rotation. There was no complaining after all that convincing! So I worked my way up the mountain reassuring myself it would be fantastic strength training. My cycling buddy in the car would pull up by my side every few minutes and ask: but aren’t you tired?! I’ve brought some tea for when you get tired, don’t you want to stop for tea?

It was a slow, but beautiful cycle. There’s something special about mountains and the barren countryside. I rolled past a couple of very small villages, but apart from that, it was me, the beautiful nature, and my newly found friend who’d by this point wait for me around the bends whilst fiddling on his phone.

As we approached the city, we finally stopped by the roadside for tea. He’d made green tea which had been brewing in his flask all morning with a cinnamon stick and sugar candy – possible one of the best teas I’ve ever had. As the saying goes in Iran: ‘It stuck!’ (i.e. everything about it was just amazing!).

As we drove back into the city, feeling content and energised by the beautiful bike ride, the guy said, frankly, I didn’t know it was possible to cycle uphill, as well. Next time, when I’m out with other cyclists, maybe I should ask them whether they would like to cycle uphill or not.

Sound of sand

I was travelling through the Lut desert with a group of friends a couple of years ago. As we approached the first sand dune, I ran to the top, crossed my hands on my chest and rolled down the dune at top speed. Sand working its way into my clothes, mouth, ears and nose. Before long, the sound of our laughter filled the air as we each rolled down the dunes and ran up for the next turn, trying to roll faster and faster each time.

After a while, a friend – an incredible being that I am so lucky to be able to consider as a friend – summoned me to the top of another dune where he was sitting motionlessly. I climbed up next to him, and he said listen. So I sat attentively and closed my eyes. Slowly, I became aware of the sand that was playfully tapping at my face, slowly, I became aware of the gentle whoosh of the wind as it brought the sand to life. I became aware of the rhythmic pattering of the sand that was whirling in the wind – it was mesmerising. It felt like I had suddenly been welcomed into the world of these tiny particles, a secret world filled with beautiful music, subtlety and energy.

After the hill reps today, I took a detour towards the sea to collect the bits I’d left behind from the morning swim. As I approached, I was greeted with the most beautiful view. As I sat on the cliff top watching a couple jogging with their child in a pram, I decided to revisit what my friend had taught me on top of the sand dune. I looked at the beautiful deep blue of the sea, slowly becoming aware of the unfathomable amount of shades of colours that form its beautiful blue. I became aware of the humming of the waves as they crashed underneath me, the deep blue breaking into a distinct, foamy white before reuniting with the deep blue of the sea.

One side of me wanted to soak in all the beauty surrounding me, the colours, calm and freshness. The other side of me mercilessly questioned what I’ve chosen to do with my life. It reminded me of what one of the sport authorities advised me in Iran, which is very much the echo of my own mindset at times: you could do more useful things with your life. Don’t pursue sports, go further your studies and find a real job.

I sat on the cliff top in a bit of a conflict. One side of me said, isn’t this what life is about? Acknowledging these subtle yet significant beauties that inspire and energise us, filling us with so much peace, joy and love for our surroundings and for life? Allow the love and beauty of life to inspire you. The other side said, what are you doing with your life? Isn’t it time to get a real job and to tick a few boxes of what you ought to have ticked by now? Follow the life that you ought to pursue.

I wonder what this journey and the conflicts that it has created will ultimately teach me. There’s definitely one thing that both sides of me agree with, though: life is a learning curve.