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.


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