Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pampered Day of Recovery

Over the last several days of trekking through ankle-deep mud, scaling up and down unforgiving inclines and descents, and fighting off packs of vicious dogs at night, my co-workers have assembled reputations as being real tough guys. Well now it's time to blow the cover off this persona and reveal that even tough guys need a day of pampering. We were all tired, sore, and had been suffering in some form or fashion over the last week. Having our shower and chance to change into clean clothes back in Sapa was nice, but the guys were looking forward to our day in Hanoi even more. We'd been talking about the idea of after completing the race, spending a half-day in Hanoi enjoying the simple pleasures of a visit to a spa.

I was anticipating a nice long body massage, but when we all stepped into the waiting lounge of the spa and were presented with a menu of options; it was only a matter of time before the friendly counter ladies were up-selling their way into our wallets. We had no strength or will to refute them and in all honesty, their packages of treatments sounded so good that we were helpless to refuse. Real tough guys, eh? Cornered by five feet tall little ladies, these brutes were powerless.

Each of our packages consisted of a full 90 minute body massage, facial treatment, foot massage, and then our choice of either a manicure/pedicure combo or a headwash and styling. Leighton, Kim, and I went for the headwash option but we were amazed that Bernd and Tilden were so quick to jump up for the manicure/pedicure option. Something tells me that these two guys were no strangers to this service.

My body massage was good, but I was unsure about what would transpire during my facial treatment, as I had never had one before. There was lots of hot towels involved as well as a special machine that the therapist used to lightly mist hot steam into the pores on my face. There was a series of creames added to my face and then removed, and honestly during one of the hot towel placements over my face, I drifted off to sleep and don't remember anything else. Leighton said he heard me snoring at one point.

After completing the body massage and facial, it was time for the hour-long foot massage. This was heavenly because the staff also served us lunch during this portion of our treatment. The foot massage attempted to work out the 250KMs that the guys had logged with each and every step. There were no discussions of mud, food reserves, or race strategy at this point. We were all enjoying the moment and the sound of silence in the room told me that each person had been mentally transported to a more relaxing and forgiving place. Leighton, Kim, and I then moved to the final stage in our spa visit, which was a headwash and styling. I am not sure what sort of creatures may have dropped out of our scalps after six days on the muddy trail and camping outdoors for close to a week, but needless to say we were all much cleaner, happier, and more presentable after this trip to the spa.

Tilden and Bernd decided to opt out of the headwash and instead dive head long into a manicure and pedicure. It was truly a sight to behold having their large hands attended to by ladies whose own hands were virtually half the size. Tilden and Bernd appeared way too comfortable with the proceedings and we were pretty sure that they must partake in this activity on a fairly regular basis, which gained a lot of ribbing from the rest of us. We settled our bill at the spa and walked over to a nearby cafe for a coffee and snack. Apparently all that spa treatment is hard work and tends to make a fellow hungry.

We reflected briefly on what the last week had been like and what we had seen and accomplished. It had truly been a Life Experience and one none of us will forget. Each of us, rather competing or contributing in other ways, had faced their own form of adversity during the week but each had overcome and had made it to the finish. I am reminded of the words from one of the volunteers for this race who had physically competed in six other endurance races of this nature. He told me that completing these kind of races is only 20% physical and 80% mental. You can train and train you body, but if you don't have mental toughness you won't succeed. He continued by saying something that transcends these kind of races and also applies to achieving success in life in general. "Be cognisant of your goal and keep putting one foot in front of the other"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Stage 5 - The Finish

The sun, which had been hiding from sight virtually the entire race, made its inaugural visit on the 5th and final stage of the race. It was a gorgeous day as the competitors completed the shortest of all the stages (13KM) and made the final push into the town square of Sapa. It was the crowning achievement not only for the competitors who would be completing their 250KM journey, but also for the staff and volunteers who had been such a vital part in making this race not only possible but also memorable. The final day was a celebration for all.

The final day started out with a staggered start, with the fastest and strongest competitors starting in the last wave. This allowed the general field of competitors to finish at roughly close intervals to one another. My co-worker Leighton was actually the first competitor to cross the finish line on the final stage. It was a huge accomplishment for Leighton, not only because it was his first adventure endurance race but also because he was racing on what he found out only later after an MRI exam back in Singapore, was a ripped calf muscle that he had injured on the 3rd stage.

Tilden and Kim crossed the finish line together in a magical moment captured below. For Tilden it brought relief and a sense of accomplishment in proving those who had doubted his fortitude wrong. For Kim, the most experienced member of our team who had previously completed the Sahara race, it was a sense of pride and honor as he unfurled the flag of Okinawa -- the birthplace of his wife.

The Finish Line was a festive spot that had gathered the interest and curiosity of locals and passers-bye. Dancers and music entertained the gathered crowds and huge rounds of cheers and applause met each racer as they marched across the line. Pewter medallions were slung over the necks of each finishing competitor and ice cold cans of coke and beer were available and hastily and cheerily chugged down by parched racers.

What the racers and all of the volunteers and staffers were really craving was the hot showers that awaited everyone after the finish line. The organizers of the race had arranged with a local resort in Sapa, The Victoria, to allow all of us to use their spa facilities in order to have a hot shower and a chance to change into clean clothes. This represented the first time in five days that any of us had been able to take a shower or change out of our clothes. I personally relished my time in the shower as I felt the film and the filth of five days on the trail delightfully come off of me and head down the drain. The simple act of shaving my scraggly beard which had emerged over the course of the race was a pure godsend. Washing my hair, which I had disguised carefully under a baseball cap almost the entire race, felt like a re-birth in many ways.

We all emerged looking a bit more human after the showers and change of clothes. Some jokingly said that they did not recognize many of their fellow competitors because we had all got use to seeing each other at our grubby worst. The sun and the end of the race had brought out our sunny dispositions, but the sun had also revealed the amazingly beautiful town of Sapa as well. The clouds had hidden this tranquil setting from our view the entire race, but on the last day, we were reminded why Sapa was often times called the Swiss Alps of Vietnam.

The race had come to a close and we have been left with an amazing list of memories. I would wager that very few would list the 250KMs as their biggest memory however. For me, it was about getting to know the people: my own teammates outside our traditional work environment, fellow racers and volunteers, and most importantly the local people who had been some of the most gracious and hospitable hosts one could ever hope to imagine. There was also a sense that our presence had left the region a little bit better and brighter than before. Our partnership efforts and the utilization of cutting edge technology to bring the Internet to this rural outpost, as well as the PC donation that would hopefully empower young minds with tools they could use to unlock the wonders of the world faster than ever before were two such programs that I was so very proud of which to be a part. These friendships and memories will surely go down in all of our minds as some of the most unique and special experiences of our lives.

Stage 4 - Connecting Cultures

Today's stage was less about logging additional miles on mud-clogged trails in the quest for drawing that many steps closer to finishing the 250 KM journey, and was instead more about a small rural community celebrating what they have achieved and where they hope to be going next. Stage 4 ended in the town of Ta Van, Vietnam, a small village that is home to 700 people who primarily work amongst the terraced rice paddys of the Sapa Valley. But on this special day, the town swelled in size to several thousand as local ethnic tribes from around the valley (and some funny looking and very muddy foreigners) gathered in Ta Van for one of their biggest festivals of the year. Lastly, it was also the day that Ta Van looked ahead and made a big leap forward by utilizing technology as an investment in the community's future growth and prosperity.

Making your way to the festival grounds required ingenuity, skill, and a bit of balance to traverse the chilly waters of the river, but most found the make-shift bamboo bridge an acceptable choice. Approaching the gathering crowds you could sense the excitement. People chatted away in an array of ethnic dialects, music could be heard off in the distance, and colorful accessories were on full display to commemorate the day. Young families picked out their fortunes from a dazzling palate of colored notes hanging from a tree. Inpromptu markets were springing up to sell special desserts and treats, some of which looked strikingly similar to colored easter eggs.

Ta Van was a sea of color. The ethnic tribes dawn their traditional clothes on most days but everyone was looking their best and brightest for the festival. The most vivid colors were to be seen at the dance competition. Dance Teams from each representative ethnic group, and one from a local village just across the border from neighboring China, was invited to perform.

Bright colored sashes and ornamental flowers accentuated the flowing movements of each of the teams' routines. Some teams incorporated live horns and drums into their performance to the delight of the onlooking crowd. This festival, rich in tradition, pays tribute to the past and celebrates the present. What followed later in the afternoon set the stage for Ta Van's future.

For the last 10 months, the rural and isolated community of Ta Van has been utilizing one of the most advanced technologies currently available. Ta Van is one of the first places in the world to be a pilot site for Wi-MAX technology, which brings broadband Internet connectivity wirelessly without the need for fiber optic cables. To explain Wi-MAX, it is easier to think of it as Wi-Fi on steroids, whereas a person today using Wi-Fi in their local Starbucks can enjoy wireless connectivity within a range of about 300 feet, but with Wi-MAX the coverage area can stretch to several kilometers and is perfect for outlying areas where wire or cable infrastructure is absent or infeasible. In the photo above, you can see a satelite receiver dish, which is pulling down broadband from an orbiting satellite in outer space. That broadband Internet access is then parsed over the entire village of Ta Van via Wi-MAX, so that everyone in the community has continuous access to the Internet at anytime, anywhere, and without wires.

Local villagers of Ta Van are using the Internet to connect them to the rest of the world. The traditional pillars of the community are now connected. The provincial government office now has ways to link more effectively with the capital in Hanoi as well as to the people of Ta Van. The school is connected and teachers are using the web to research and create content to improve and enliven their lesson plans. The healthcare clinic uses the Internet to help research appropriate medications and help with introductory diagnosis, since there is not always a certified doctor on-site. Farmers are using the Web to check on spot prices for their crops and to see upcoming weather forecasts which will help them plan. Guest House operators in Ta Van are using their connectivity to entice tourists to come visit their beautiful village, while access to email, blogs, and photo uploads are attractive features for travelers and help convince these tourists to stay longer in Ta Van, thus helping the local economy.

The next step in Ta Van's evolution in the use of technology to invest in its future took place on this very special day. I was honored to say a few words during the donation of 10 Classmate PCs for the school in Ta Van and was joined by the Mayor of Ta Van and representatives of the major ethnic people that make Ta Van so special. The Mayor and I had met several times over the course of last year and even though he can speak no English and my vocabulary of Vietnamese words is extremely limited, we always have an ability to understand each other. He is a progressive man who strives to give the people of his village a chance to grow. He's been so delighted with how his people have taken to using the Internet and believe that now giving the local children a chance to have their own durable PCs will open up even more opportunities for them. He understands that it is Ta Van's youth that are the future of his town and he was equally grateful and excited by how these systems can be put to positive use by the kids.

The smiles of the children are all beautiful and touch you in so many ways. The racers, volunteers, and media that have been a part of this race over the last several days have all experienced it. These smiles contain the unfiltered and unrestrained joys of the moment, and yet they also act as a window into the aspirations and dreams that all kids must have. Over the course of this endurance event thus far, the racers have taken joy in being able to stay connected to loved ones and family via the Internet; drawing inspiration, motivation, and encouragement from each human interaction that is contained within the digital bits and bites. No one thought they would be able to have this access in the rural outposts of northern-most Vietnam but through technology and partnerships, we've been able to make that happen. It has been a surprise for most to learn that the agriculture-based community of Ta Van also has benefited from having access, and has been doing so for the last 10 months. What has been learned here is that "Being Connected" is not an expectation or privilege solely of citizens of prosperous developed nations, but is rather a basic and intrinsic human desire that is shared amonst every single one of us. Connecting cultures surely enriches us all.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stage 3 - Shorter yet Tougher

Stage 3 was the shortest so far at just over 30 KMs. The race organizers had modified the course layout today after several racers took wrong turns the previous day. There were still incredible inclines but the organizers told all the participants in a pre-stage meeting that some of the most challenging climbs had been taken out. This was actually no small consolation because the revised course was still incredibly challenging and as usual... covered in Sapa's horrendous mud.

Leighton and Kim continued to have strong personal efforts, with Kim reaching base camp first this afternoon. Both racers have seen enough mud to last them a lifetime. Each seemed to cherrish a shorter course that got them back to camp early enough so they could rest during the late afternoon and evening.

Tilden is continuing to prove his doubters wrong and is still in the race after completing the 3rd Stage. He was the second from the last to arrive but his placement is not his concern, rather focusing on finishing is his personal goal. Unfortunately, Tilden's good fortune of having no blisters during the first two stages has evaporated and he arrived into base camp with new blisters on his toes, most likely caused from the severe and muddy declines that places most of his body weight on his toes.

What made this evening so special was that rather than sleeping in tents, as we had done the previous four nights, tonight we are staying as guests of local villagers. Many of the villagers in our small town supplement their farming income by offering Home-Stays to tourists. Tonight all of us are enjoying sleeping in a traditional house on stilts, with four wooden walls, a roof, and most importantly a soft matress to cushion the tender bones of many of the competitors. Day break tends to come early during this race, so most have bunked-in for the night. The next stage will take us to the small village of Ta Van, where they are having one of their largest festivals of the year tomorrow. Should be a nice treat after a hellish run.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stage 2 - Mud Fest

One would think that 105 KMs in the First Stage would be hard enough, but no one truly knew how hard 51 KMs could be during the 2nd Stage when most of that distance was to be spent slogging it through ankle-deep mud. The mud was everywhere and it sapped the strength of the racers as they slipped, slid, and stumbled up and down sheer inclines covered in the thick, sticky, and unforgiving substance. In some portions of the course, racers frustrated by the mud decided if you can beat it, then join it. They would literally sit down on the muddy trail and slide down to the bottom. Many racers use walking poles, which helped, but the mud was relentless and even caused those using poles to stumble and fall. Going down hill was the worst as every step ran the risk of slipping and falling, or worse potentially causing an injury.

Local villagers probably found our distaste and distain for the mud humorous, since they have dealt with it for centuries. The Sapa Valley, where the race takes place, is home to eight different ethnic tribes and many of them have gathered along side the course to witness this most unusual gathering of funny looking foreigners wearing the most outlandish outfits. Some of the more famous tribes are the Black Hmong, the Red Daos, and the Tays. Each ethnic tribe has settled amidst the Sapa Valley at different points in history and in different locations. The life is harsh and filled with intense physical agricultural labor maintaining a seemingly endless labrynth of terraced fields of rice, corn, and other crops. Even though the work is tough, the reward seems to be a blessing to live within one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The children of Sapa Valley seem to be everywhere and their delightful smiles and curiosity are inspiring to all of us. Many of the racers and support staff are greeted with waves and shouts of "hello, hello" from the kids. One of the Racing the Planet staffers took time at one of the race checkpoints to teach a group of young girls how to count to 5 in English. One of their favorite activities is to reluctantly and shyly have their photo taken and then rush towards you to see the result in the camera's preview display. This scene has repeated itself numerous times and always brings laughter and delight.

My co-workers battled the mud and displayed remarkable resolve. Kim, the most experienced on the team, took a stumble and slashed the skin on his leg almost completely off. The medical team at one of the checkpoints applied some liquid stiches to keep things together. Leighton had the best performance on the day for the team and ended up running the last segment of the 51 KM stage. He told me later in Base Camp that the reason he decided to run was that he wanted to hurry up and get to camp before nightfall. The running seemed to loosen up his tender right knee which has been nagging him throughout the race. The final member of the team, Tilden, refused to quit and his resolve has impressed us all. Tilden finally arrived to Base Camp at around 9PM, just over 13 hours after he started the stage.

Racers spent the evening sipping tea and getting warm around the fire in Base Camp and tried their best to scrape the mud from their tired and fatigued bodies. Many were tring to scrub the mud from their memories as well, but in Sapa during this time of year, the mud is always there and waiting. Stage 3 awaits and attitudes have to be adjusted to now concentrate on the challenge ahead, put the pain and frustration of the day behind them, and to rally their energy and mental edge to keep one foot constantly in front of the other.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stage 1 - The Race is On

The 250 KM journey for 51 racers started yesterday morning at 8AM. Racers started the morning huddled around a huge fire for warmth in the chilly mountain air. This first stage would be the most arduous of the race, as it totalled 105 KMs and would have most racers competiting all day and most of the night without rest. Just before the race began, local villagers from Si Ma Cai performed music and dance in what appeared to be a cheerful send-off. The dancers smiled and grabbed the hands of many racers and encouraged them to join in on the fun.

My co-workers, Tilden, Leighton, and Kim joined together for one quick photo before launching into their attack on Stage One. What the team soon encountered was sloppy rain-soaked trails that contained endless patches of mud that acted like glue when racers' feet sank into its depths. Walking poles became almost a necessity in order to gain balance and leverage against the mud. Checkpoints were set up along the way in roughly 15 KM increments and offered racers a quick salvation where they could re-fill water bottles, consult medical staff on-site, and prepare for the next 15K.

I was riding along on the day with NBC Sports, one of America's major sports networks, who is here to capture each day of the competition. During the ride, I had time to chat with the NBC camera-man. I showed him my Flip Video camera and some of the videos I had been capturing. He was genuinely impressed with this pocket technology and thought my footage was good. Always nice to get approval from a professional and I've been trying to watch him closely and learn.

The weather is a constant antagonist in this area and it takes no mercy on anyone. One of the scariest scenes took place at 1AM on the day the race began when a jeep, containing 5 local Vietnamese porters that were assisting with the race, went over a steep bank in heavy and dense fog. They all sustained numerous lascerations and broken ribs and are now recovering in a nearby hospital. This was a painful reminder that Mother Nature is always present and we must do our best to stay on our toes.

My co-workers, along with many of the competitors, pushed on checkpoint after checkpoint clear through the night. Racers used headlamps to illuminate their path in the pitch black night. As if the race was not tough enough, Leighton and Kim encountered 4-legged challenges in the form of angry dogs. The dogs litterally chased the two for over 20 KMs and both sustained bites.

Both Leighton and Kim arrived into Base Camp this morning thoroughly exhausted from their 105 KM journey. Remarkably both looked well besides some tender muscles and blistered feet. Tilden did not arrive until almost 33 hours after he started. His fortitude is truly amazing as he told me privately that he considered quiting at numerous times during the stage. Quiting ended up not happening on this day, and Tilden walked into Base Camp with his patented smile. He was exhausted and sore but his feet were amazingly dry and without blisters -- a real rarity with this group of racers.

The longest stage is now in the history books, and my friends are most importantly still healthy and alive, and they are equally still in the race. 105 KMs are now at their backs, but the next stage is rumored to be extremely technical and challenging. Best of luck to all of the racers as we follow them and cheer them onto the end.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Over Night Train to Lao Cai

I am honored to be a part of Racing the Planet, an extreme endurance race that spans 25oKMs over the course of five days. This year's race takes place throughout the lush terraced rice fields of northern Vietnam. Although I am not competing in the race myself, I am supporting three of my co-workers who are. My main responsibilities will be to document via photos, video, and podcast interviews of how technology is connecting people. Not only will the racers be connected to the Internet via a satelite downlink at each stage in the race but also the rural villagers themselves have enjoyed Internet access for over 10 months, thanks to a pilot program established by my company. It is these stories from the villagers themselves that I look the most forward to capturing.

The first step in preparing for the race was to begin making the journey from Hanoi, Vietnam, via an 8-hour over-night train to Lao Cai, which is in the extreme northern reaches of Vietnam. Lao Cai is so far north that directly across a small river lies the border with China. This northern most province is currently experiencing the coldest winter in over 40 years -- a new challenge for all of us who are taking part in Racing the Planet.

I boarded the train with three fellow volunteers as well as my co-worker Sean. The train compartments were cramped but comfortable and we enjoyed hopping from each others’ cabin to sit down and share stories of travel. Before the train pulled away from the station in Hanoi, Eric was able to purchase a 6-pack of beer from a platform vendor, ensuring that we had some rousingly good stories and also making us sleepy so we could drift off even while the train rocked back and forth.

I'm now looking forward to the start of this race on Monday and getting a chance to meet some truly fascinating individuals both from around the world and here in Vietnam. Stay tuned and check in throughout the race and see how things progress as we Race the Planet.