Having promised to write an update on the Raid Amazones blog within 6 weeks of the first entry I admit I have failed miserably. My only excuse was lack of free time during our final stages of preparation, which involved a lot of admin, last minute training and numerous physiotherapy sessions in an effort to reinforce a knee riddled with osteo-arthritis.
My teammate Anna was no better off. At one point we thought we would have to abandon the trip when she feared a suspected muscle tear. Thankfully it wasn’t quite as serious but it did mean that we were handicapped for trail running.
Our Journey for the Raid Amazones in Vietnam
October the 2nd and finally we were on our way. Some last minute photos of us in our gear were taken at the airport for our sponsors and for Habitat & Humanisme, the charity we were supporting.
We left Lyon in high spirits on a Turkish Airlines flight to Hanoi via Istanbul. The staff at Saint Exupéry were great and managed to get us seats with plenty of leg room so we could grab some sleep on the 16h journey.
We arrived the next day in Hanoi and spent the first 48 hours avoiding getting run over by manic scooters (never seen such organized chaos on two-wheels) Mopeds zig zagged from all directions and there was never a break in the traffic for pedestrians to cross the roads.
The air in the old town is so polluted we decided to purchase face masks like the locals, only removing them to sip our bowls of Pho Bo.
Preparations for the Raid Amazone
By the time we reached Da Nang we had acclimatised to the heat and humidity and were ready for action.
Alexandre Debanne organized the briefing (briefings were held religiously at 7.30pm every evening) and explained that we were going to be challenged in more ways than one.
His words were prophetic. Our hotel room was spacious and contained two double beds. One for each of us I thought. Until the second team walked in. Anna and I would be sharing a bed.
Four women sharing one bathroom with 1 hour max to prepare for each day was effectively quite a challenge. It was a throwback to boarding school.
Everyone in the bathroom at the same time, items of (identical) clothing all over the place, cries of ‘have you seen my hairbrush ?’ or ‘who’s got the mosquitto spray ?’ and general panic as we realized the stuff we needed for the next day was nowhere to be found.
A typical day at the Raid Amazones
A typical day went something like this. Alarm on for 2am (yes you read that correctly). Breakfast at 2.30am, rollcall at 3am. Board the coach at 3.15 for an hour and half journey to the place where the sport challenge would take place.
Then 3 to 5 hours of canoeing or running or biking. Back into the coach. Return to the hotel. A quick shower (if we were lucky) Throw down some lunch. Rollcall at 1.45pm before another 1 or 2 hour journey to the afternoon activity (school visit, cookery classes, treasure hunt or archery).
Return to the hotel for 7pm. Briefing at 7.30pm, dinner, then back to the room to prepare equipment for the following day and lights out at 11pm. (Remembering to put the alarm on for 3am and to insert earplugs).
The next six days passed in a whirlwind. I calculated that I had been able to sleep a total of 9 hours over the entire 5 day event. For the girl who needs her 8h/night beauty sleep, that was indeed my personal challenge.
DAY 1 – experiencing the monsoon in a canoe
The first day was a 15km canoe tour of Phu Ninh lake. There were 150 canoes and it was total mayhem for the first 30 minutes until we managed to put some distance between us and 2 of the other boats who seemed drawn to us like magnets, ramming us in the stern and sending us into a spin.
It was hot and although the sky became overcast we had to constantly sip water from our camelbacks to avoid dehydration. This effectively meant keeping the nozzle in the corner of one’s mouth otherwise we lost time by taking our hands off the paddle!
Being at the rear I was responsible for steering the canoe in the right direction but as a novice I hadn’t at that stage understood that it’s not the brute force we put into rowing but the depth and angle at which we insert the oar in the water that counts. I had also never encountered currents so strong and I was constantly battling to keep a straight line. It was exhausting.
Two hours into the journey we felt the first splatter of rain, our shoulders were aching and the warm shower brought relief from the relentless heat. In the middle of a lake there is no shade.
We made it back to base in 2h50 singing all the rain songs we knew to keep our minds off the fatigue. Although this was a good score there were many teams who had performed much better. The level of competition was higher than we had anticipated.
That afternoon we were sent to a family in the countryside about 80 miles from the hotel to learn how to cook Vietnamese style. It was fascinating to see how some of the more unusual fruit and spices could be transformed into simple but delicious meals.
By briefing time that evening we were totally wiped out but once back in our room sleep didn’t come easily. My mind was racing.
What were the items I’d need to carry with me the following day? Had I put electrolytes in my water? The more I told myself I had to get some rest, the more sleep eluded me. In the end I nodded off about 2am. Just one measily hour before the wake-up call sounded …
DAY 2 – 25 km Run & bike
You don’t particularly feel like eating before 4am but with 25km of running and cycling ahead you need to have fuel to burn. So I forced down porridge oats and fruit.
Anna and I left in separate buses because I had to pick up the bike and cycle to the meeting point. I thought for a moment that we could be one of the first to leave, but elation turned to disappointment as I joined Anna at Que Trung and we were relegated to the back of the queue. Only the best performers get to start early. Our score on the previous day did not rate high enough.
As we got closer to the head of the queue the sun was rising behind a black veil of angry clouds. Then there was a downpour of massive proportions, almost causing the makeshift awning over the refreshment tables to cave in.
The villagers opened their homes to us and invited us to use their toilets. That was really quite something. Our total number must have exceeded the entire village population by a ratio of 1:3!
When we were finally on our way we alternated between cycling and running at 3 minute intervals. We had one bike between us, and the idea is that the cyclist peddles at the speed of the runner. Anna’s knee was still causing trouble so I suggested I run for longer periods giving her more time to relax her leg muscles on the bike.
Our shoes were engorged with water and mud but the squelching sound was rather funny and our good humour was further enhanced by the number of school children shouting and waving as they hung out of the windows of school classrooms along the route. It felt as though we were running the New York marathon being cheered on by so many people shouting “go go go”.
Given that our speed was relatively slow in comparison with the more athletic teams we decided not to stop halfway for refreshments. We had enough water in our camelbacks to keep us going.
By 11 am we had completed the 25km, crossed 4 villages, and greeted umpteen villagers on the way. We felt elated as we passed under the red archway. The positive thing about being one of the last to cross the finish line is that there are more people there to applaud you!
The afternoon was spent visiting a school and playing educational games with 6 year olds in class. The infectious giggles of the children as we tried to mimic animals in a language game re-injected some energy into our tired bodies. That afternoon with the children was one of the highlights of the trip.
Day 3 – running around Hoi An in soggy trainers
Given the extreme rainfall on day 2, the security team decided to cancel the 10km trail run. The rocky slopes were like sheets of glass and the medics feared broken legs if not worse from the steep descents.
This meant we had time to semi-dry our wet shoes and clothing with the hairdryer in the bathroom one by one, and book ourselves in for a therapeutic back massage.
The afternoon was spent on a frenetic treasure hunt in Hoi An working in a team of 6 to find answers to 20 cryptic questions about the history of the town, finding the sources and exact locations of a series of images and entering 3 photographic challenges involving contact with the locals.
Thankfully the Vietnamese are friendly and helpful which enabled us to perform efficiently as we ran through the streets and alleys in yet more driving rain. We had to be back at the bus station by 6pm to avoid elimination.
Day 4 – putting determination to the test
Another early start for transfer to Binh Duong for a 7km trail run followed by 14km of canoeing upriver.
The terrain was flat, passing through rice fields but by the time it was our turn to set off, the sun was high and the heat meant I was drinking constantly from my camelback.
Anna was suffering with her leg so I ran ahead to take photos then waited for her to catch up so that we could walk together past the checkpoints. Unfortunately by the time we arrived at the waterpoint, all the other teams had at least a 15 minute head start on us.
Anna was determined that we would make up the time in the canoe. I was less convinced but I had watched a couple of tutorials on my iPhone as I tossed and turned in bed trying to get to sleep and thought at least I’d give some of the techniques a try.
Unlike the previous race we paddled in silence. Anna just counted the number of strokes before changing sides (1-20 in English, then in Swedish. I really ought to be fluent by now!) and little by little we began to close the distance between us and the other teams.
We passed the team who had set off 20 minutes earlier than us, then 15 more who had slowed down to drink, eat or change position. When the currents became too strong I needed Anna’s help to paddle on the same side for 100m stretches and after what seemed like an eternity we saw the finish line ahead and mustered our last reserves of energy to sprint towards it.
Clambering out of the canoe and pulling it on land we collapsed in each other’s arms, exhausted but proud of our performance.
The afternoon was devoted to archery. Having had 3 lessons at the excellent Arc En Ciel Club in Saint Priest we thought we stood a fighting chance of improving our overall ranking with this event. But that was before 4 days of fatigue and a lot of canoeing!
The bows were totally unfamiliar and all the techniques that I had learned but obviously not mastered, just disappeared with the arrow into thin air. Our scores were spectacularly mediocre and the worst we’d ever recorded.
Day 5 – we become Amazones
Today was a pure trail run across varied terrain with hills and hollows, lots of mud and streams to wade through and beautiful scenery to take in along the way. A 10km fun run that unfortunately we would be walking.
As always we set off at the back of the queue and had time to watch the herons and water buffalo grazing in the rice fields not bothered by anyone wanting to overtake us! From time to time I would run to ease my sense of frustration because the tracks were great for trail running and the temperature was perfect with the sporadic rain showers to cool us down.
When I slowed down, Anna, whose Nordic walk was impressively rapid, would catch me up and we’d point out dragon flies, lily pads and butterflies at every turn.
The steep descent to My Son was challenging for Anna and we found a way to ease her discomfort by working together. She would walk backwards and I would guide her by the shoulders pointing out any imminent obstacles or hollows. Some of the security staff joined us and the atmosphere was jovial as we listened to our team song by Abba!
Arriving at the finish line, Alexandre Debanne announced that we were all now officially Amazones and presented us, one by one, with our medals. The event was now over and all we had left to do was to send news and photos to our sponsors then plan the afterparty on our return to France the following day.
All worth it in the end
Our sponsors and the people who had donated directly to Habitat & Humanisme via the fundraising platform were invited to a cocktail evening at the town hall.
The mayor of the 9th district kindly offered the “salle des mariages” for our reception and the room was decorated in the spirit of Vietnam with a film projection and speeches from the mayor and the team from Habitat & Humanisme.
We were proud to present their president with a cheque for 8400€ which would be used to equip an Escale Solidare in Lyon.
Over the next few weeks we will be inviting our friends and family to lunch at one of the Escales where we will be able to enjoy the company of some of the regulars who benefit from the hearty meals and activities proposed by volunteers.
Maybe we’ll see you too sometime?