Tuesday, 25 December 2012

I Took A Trek... Pt 2

The pain in my back did not come back soon; over the years since then I have only felt it occasionally, in a manner similar to how it had plagued me back in school. I am not ignorant enough to think that the osteophytes that had grown on my L4 and L5 lumbar vertebrae had simply evaporated, but I was determined that they were not going to lower my quality of life or stop me from doing everything I still wanted to achieve in this life.

That's why I decided I was still going to take the long 97-mile trek from Ilorin to Ile-Ife, Nigeria. For starters, it would be another notch on my lapel - and I had quite a few of those already; second, it would help me lose weight in a way that I badly needed to after months of inactivity; third, it would help get me back in shape; and fourthly, I was looking forward to silencing the naysayers, of which there were many.

They thought I was insane; they thought it was impossible; they believed I was exposing myself to untold dangers... but I felt a bit different. I did a lot of thinking, but I could not for the life of me come of up an animal dangerous enough to attack me on the highways. My mind wandered to potential thieves and robbers I might run into on the trek, and I simply found it difficult to imagine. I mean, if they saw a lonely dude on the road, walking with a backpack, what were the odds that they'd think there was anything on me worth robbing?

Then comes the conceited part where most everybody will disagree with me. I did mention in my previous post that I am not a small man. I was gaining weight at the time, but most of my 230 pounds was still hard muscle. I mean, I imagined anyone who ran into me on the road was not likely to think forst of attacking me considering my bulk. Besides, I held a 3-degree black belt in Shito-Ryu Karate - that had to count for something. I can defend myself!

That's one the 'challenges' (I guess) that come with being a martial artist: you kinda lose your fear for stuff. After some interesting experiences in my past, and throwing in my prowess on the tatami, there really weren't a whole lot of stuff that I was afraid of. There was one thing that bothered me a lot, though. It was my concern about well-meaning people. I was not worried about animals wild otherwise from the bushes, and I was not worried about thieves or robbers that could attack me. What bothered me was people who could mistake me for either and then "shoot first, shoot later, and when everybody is dead try to ask a few questions."

Yeah, I love that line by Judi Dench's M, spoken to James Bond 007 in Goldeneye, I believe.

In any case, if there was something that could really harm me on the road, it was something that would do so accidentally. This I would have to be wary of.

I had learnt some things from the previous attempt - the failed one I detailed in "I Took A Trek..." Part 1: I needed to be in better shape if I was going to be walking on the highways for three days! Plus, I seriously could use the company of friends and other dudes who knew about fitness and engaging the wild outback.

I'll keep the real names out, but 'Stilt' was the first person whom I trusted both could and would join me on such a venture. While I coached Karate back in University, he was the school's boxing coach and a regular training partner. he was the reason why - even though I still think karate is superior to boxing - I now know well that boxers are never to be underestimated. Stilt had been out of training for closing on 6 years at the time, a lot longer than me. However, he was not as weight prone as I was so he still looked in excellent shape, and I knew he would love any opportunity to catch up on old times with me over a couple of six-packs of Heineken.

Next, there was this young kid I'll 'Yo' for the purpose of this write up. He wasn't that much younger - maybe just under five years - but this kid looks up to me and had been trying to follow in my footsteps for years, even though he could not cut it in the karate dojo. I had trained with the young fellow several times in the past and he almost always quit before it was over, but he always came. I was looking at this long walk as an opportunity to show him what real commitment and dedication was. Yo was excited about it too.

And then there was 'Tee', an even younger dude whom I had only just encouraged into grading for his first-dan black belt in karate. Tee was all enthusiasm and starry eyes; and when he heard that I was going to take such a trek, he really wanted to be a part of making modern history. He signed up as well.

The strategy was different this time. This time we were going to get prepared by training many weeks up to the event. I dug up an old Navy SEALs training program I had employed back in the day when I was preparing for my first dan black belt grading. That, remarkably, was nearly ten years ago, I realized. How time flew!

I laid out the program for everyone at the respective location via email, and I set out myself to do the training. There were warnings on the chart about pushing too hard or exceeding certain limits that the body could endure all at once, but I was Blanka, karate-ka extraordinaire and ex-coach. I ran nearly 30 miles every week, did 100 push-ups without breaking sweat, squatted 150 times right before frog-jumping nearly 50 meters every morning. I mean, I was Blanka, the dude who could run 20km at one stretch and do it in under two hours. It was no Olympic record, but there weren't too many regular athlethes who could pull that off two days in a row. I had done it repeatedly for a whole week. I was Blanka, undefeated on the tatami and capable of doing as many as 300 sit-ups each morning before breakfast. Now I'm not talking about those funny things Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera did to keep their abs looking desirable; I'm talking the real thing, crunches and all. There simply was no sense to being too cautious on a Navy SEALs beginner program that I had overcome nearly ten years ago... or was there?

Pull-out Method
Seems like there was. I started the training intense-like September 2010, but by October, Stilt called to say he hadn't had the chance to train like he should have been doing. Could we postpone by a month or two?

I carried the others along and they agreed. By November, Stilt hadn't been able to train still, and Yo was having trouble making money - he almost always is; so he needed to couple more weeks to make some change before getting with the program. Tee was still game, but he was beginning to complain for time. He had lost an older sister, he told me. And now he was saddled with taking care of her kids and his own sick father. That did not leave him with a lot of time to work out. Not to mention, he was having baby mama issues, I learnt much later on.

By December, the pain in my leg started. Somewhere on my shin - right leg - it began to bother and then to grow, until it was such a big deal that running became an excrutiating experience. Now this was a problem I had not forseen. I remembered now the warnings on the SEAL training manual about how jogging too hard or too much could result in stress fractures... but, I mean, this was me; and many times throughout all those years, I had overcome challenges like this simply by pushing through the pain.

So I tried to push through the pain, but it only got worse. As the end of the year drew close, I came to a devastating realization: I could not keep this up. I had arrested the weight gain by then, but I hadn't lost a single ounce for all the training. Pain is not something I'm unaccustomed to, but when it persisted, getting only worse, I had no clue what I was meant to do about it. And to make matters worse, none of my willing compatriots seemed any closer to being ready for the trek.

I could not keep this up for much longer.

The second part of the realization was this: if I was going to go on this trek, I was probably going to have to go on my own since none of the others were ready or even getting there.

I was having some baby mama issues of my own too. My wife was suddenly pregnant with our first baby two and a half years into our wedding. She was all of a sudden quite ill a lot of the time, and she was having trouble keeping up with... stuff. I neither had nor encouraged family staying around with me, so I didn't have anyone who was going to be with her for the duration of the trek. But the trek I had to do.

What to do? How to handle the situation? I didn't know; but I knew I was going to handle it.

I was alone now, I knew it; and now the idea to still embark on a three-day walk through a 'dangerous' countryside ALONE was becoming increasingly loco. But I was still intent on doing it. The biggest challenge wasn't the aloneness, though - it was the pregnant wife I would have to leave alone at home. Now that was no longer funny.

I left her, after I was certain that she had everything she could possibly need - sans myself - and knew that she was going to be alright. I had to leave in the middle of the night because even though she had finally agree to let me go, she wanted me to set out at 0500 hours, which in my book was way too late if I was going to beat time and distance. So, I woke up by 0200 hours and was out of the house by 0230.

The Trek

Day 1: Folks ask me how I did it, and the only thing Ican say about it is that I just did. Setting out at the time that I did was worse than insane for most people - it was irresponsibl. But these people weren't seeing the same things I was seeing: they didn't share my vision, they didn't have my training or experience on the road - they didn't know anything about anything, only that they were afraid of something that could happen, even though the odds were that it would not happen.

The trek, which I commenced on 14th February 2011, was pretty much a reenactment of the first experience I had had with it the previous year, only this time I was more prepared. I had water in my back-pack and I stopped to eat at one of the small towns I encountered on the road. When I found myself tired with the rising of the sun, I walked off of the road into the shade of a tree and allowed myself to sleep. Then I got up and kept walking, right after calling the woman I love to tell her I love her and Happy Valentine's, and reaching out to my parents with the love as well.

No, my family essentially had no clue what was going on - they would have gone totally beserk. My mum in particular would have relocated to camp in my home and ensure that I ditched my craziness before I did damage to myself. No, I did not tell them.

I moved faster this time, but thanks to the rests that I allowed myself, I took about the same 7 hours to get to Omupo. By 1300 hours, however, I was finally in Offa. It had taken all of 11 hours!

I had been careful to carry very little cash due to the mild concern about potential robbers on the way, so I stopped at an ATM to withdraw some funds, and then I took a bike to a hotel close to the outskirts of town so that I could leave inconspicuously before dawn.

By the time my back touched the bed, I was aching through every bone and muscle in my body, and the sweat came off of me in droves. I was no longer sure that I wanted to go on ahead with the walk, but I was still resolved - I had to.

Lessons I had learnt that first day were mainly two:
a) Don't walk in the sun. Walking in the sun was a disaster that quickly drained my energy and and willpower and left me nearly giving up only halfway to the objective.
b) Food is overrated. Yep, I found that when I ate I was heavier or slept more. I found that drinking water consistently kept me hydrated and strong enough to take the next step without making me heavier. That I could live with - I would eat only when I called it quits for the day.

Well, at least, that was the plan.

Day 2: The second day, I set out at 0300 hours. I had almost overslept, but the Valentine's Day party in the hotel lobby kept me drifting in and out of wakefulness. As soon as I was conscious of the time, I got up, threw on my clothes, and took off immediately. If I thought my bones and muscles had been aching the day before, that was a joke compared to what I felt now after that stiffness had gotten into my limbs. It was several long minutes of walking before I started to feel the blood flow through them again, but this Day 2 was completely different than Day 1.

I was quickly out of Offa and into the next town already, but visibility was depressingly poor. In addition, the closer I got to the state border, which was only about two hours' trek from my start up point for the day, the marshier the ground became. It was supposed to be a major road, but this one was anything but for all the attention it was getting from the authorities.

I trudged on, but I could hardly see more than a few feet in front of me most of the time. Many times I even found it difficult to see my feet at all - it was so dark. But I kept on. I was no longer certain that I had not taken a wrong turn and would end up someplace else entirely. It was either sheer madness or foolheadedness that made me keep on, but keep on I did.

Presently, I stepped over a railway line and I knew that I was either on or about to cross the state line into Osun State from Kwara. It was still pitch black and visibility was even worse. Now there were no longer occasional lighted buildings that dotted the landscape, it was just darkness on all sides with tall grass standing some of them twice as high as my head.

This was the one time I was most concerned for my safety. Like I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't fear of some animal in the wild, nor was it even the that robbers could attack me lonely as I was; it was that someone - while trying to be a good citizen - could shoot me from the dark, or something, thinking I was a thief. I was suddenly a lot more cautious.

Like Day 1, I again encountered the police well before daylight broke. I had walked past a police vehicle - a Toyota Hilux - parked on the side of the road at Amoyo, 10 minutes worth of walking outside of Ilorin proper on the first day. Shortly after I walked past them, say 15-30 minutes, they drove past me heading in my direction, and again 30 minutes later they drove past me heading in the other direction. Some kind of sentry activity I figured, and just ignored them. It was about 0500-0530 hours Day 1 when this happens. This time it was about 0430 going on 0500 hours when I encountered a lone dude standing and leaning against the hood of a Toyota Hilux. Visibility was too poor for me to make out any features - not even the clothes he wore. I believe he was shocked to see me, and I also believe he was downright frightened, but neither one of us spoke to the other. I can't even be certain if he responded to my nod of  acknowledgment in his direction with a not of his own - there wasn't that much light.

I walked quickly through several small towns and settlements after this - Ijabe... I can't remember all their names. I remember walking through a small town with some serious college-student activity like a party going on. it was as though the party was ending and the drunk kids were trying to figure out how to get home. I recall walking through the little town in which my small cousin/nephew was schooling, and giving the young man a call. I don't remember him picking up, but I do remember that he did not come out to the main road to say hi like I had hoped. Well, it wasn't that lat anymore - the time was pushing 0600 by now and I was beginning to totally love myself for the effort.

At first light, I came through a town whose name I recognized - that was exciting for me. I can't right not recall th town's name, but I recall immediately placing a call to a young lady-friend of mine whom I knew hailed from that part of the world. She had been one of the few who knew I was going to take the trek before I did, and even though she was unable to stop me, she still warned me not to go because it was both dangerous and crazy.

I called her now, and she was excited to learn that I was in her home town now. One hour later, say 0700, I was in the next small town where I finally bought me a bottle of Calypso in the bid to strenghten my resolve and keep the hunger at bay. It worked, I think, but I don't remember much besides the fact that I didn't completely empty the small half-bottle of liquor before I touched base that evening.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. By 0930 hours going on 10, I finally made it to Ikirun. The sun had been slow coming up, but it was out in all it's glory. Remembering my lessons from yesterday, I knew I could not afford to put myself through the torture of walking in the sun on this critical second day of my lone trip. I had someone take me to a hotel, bought a very small amount of bread, showered, ate, and promptly fell asleep.

I made a mistake in the afternoon.

Earlier, I had called a friend of mine staying in Osogbo to let him know that I was coming and I would want to spend the night with him at his place. He said I was welcome and asked after my wife. When I told him she was fine back at home and that I was traveling alone, it piqued his interest and he wonderd how long it would take before I would be in town. Being on a trek, it was impossible to tell so I told him I was trekking and that I would call him when I made it into his city.

But overenthusiastic to continue with my trip now that I was rested, I restlessly set out about one hour too soon. I ran into the sun in a nasty way, and the lord of the skies refused to take any prisoners on this day. It was the most excited moment of the entire trek for me when I crested a hill and saw Osogbo splayed out in front of me like a virgin waiting to be loved.

I screamed at the top of my lungs and immediately placed cell phone calls to as many as would listen.

"Don't let anybody ever tell you it can't be done,"I remember saying clearly. "I did it!" "I'm doing it!" No one could silence me, except the trees that still lingered on either side of the road as we approached to the city. It was relatively short-lived, my excitement, especially since it still took me over one hour to get into the city proper. Finally I called another bike to take me to my friend's location where he had been waiting for me, and we were reunited after nearly two years of not seeing each other.

Silly dude, when he heard about my exploits, he wanted in on it too. That wasn't a bother because I knew he didn't have it in him; it was that he wanted us to walk now to his place because he wanted to feel like he was a part of my escapade. Except that my feet were dead by now and I just needed to be able to put them up!

It took almost one hour to get to my friend's home and I had to wonder how I would get back to the main road when I needed to continue, my friend. He made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that dogs in the region and they would never let me pass by them at my proposed time of 0300 hours. I let him sleep,  but I was up and outdoors by 0315 hours. I braved the dogs - every kind: small or larger. And I was back on the right track out of Ilorin with a whole day's trek yet ahead of me.

Day 3
This time I did not think there was much else left to it, so I took of my shoes and ran barefooted on the tarmac as long as I could manage it. It was still further than I imagined that it was, but this time I was determined not to stop until I had finished the walk - sorta.

Day 3 could easily be the best day of them all, and I was soo looking forward to finishing the trek. I remember the lessons I had gotten on the first day but I wanted to hit town by midday... Fortunately, having been walking from someplace closer to the north and now being nearly all the way south of the country, the vegetational cover was a lot more. When the sun came up today, the cloud cover was significant enough to keep it hidden for a while; and at instances when the rays broke through, the trees protected me.

Long story short, I walked into Ile-Ife at precisely 1200 noon that day, walking into an incredulous reception from another friend.

I got weary quicker than I expected; but I was determined. As daylight approached, I knew I could not remain shoe-less and run the risk of someone thinking me crazy - there's been a lot of that in my story, hasn't there? People thinking me crazy. Told you that from the start, didn't I? There are a lot of people who thought I was crazy for taking the walk, but not only that - they thought I was crazy too for the way I took the walk. I section of the journey that I expected to take three hours lasted almost five; and another section put me in more pain than I had anticipated. Fortunately, I had Michael Jackson, although that only came after I had seen my sister.

Haaa, I forgot to mention I called my sister the night before. She's the youngest of my three sisters, the sixth of seven siblings all by my Mum and Dad. She's a lawyer; I'm #2. She was going to be on her way with a couple of friends and colleagues to Osogbo from Ile-Ife in the morning, and when I told her I was on the trek, she freaked, got excited, and purposed to meet me on the highway on her way out.

By the time they caught up to me, it was pushing 0900 hours and I had just had breakfast at Sekona. I was pushing toward a small village where my dad had started a church some ten-fifteen years back. She got out the car, exclaimed at my protruding tummy - which I attempted to explain away by the hefty breakfast I just had - and gave me a sweet and lovely hug. We planned to meet back in Ife when she got back, and then she got back in the car and shared the inspiring story with her colleagues. Me? I continued to walk... and that was where Mike came in helpful.

I was tired, I knew it; but, well, I was not going to quit at this time. So what I did was plug my phone in my ears and dance-walk to the sounds of "They don't really care about us." Did I say folks on the road thought I was crazy before? You should have seen the looks I got this time. A little over one hour later I walked into the last major... er, settlement before Ile-Ife - Dunno what it's called, Edun-Abon, Ipetu, or Moro. well, my brain wasn't working right anymore. I was creamed now, I certainly wasn't thinking straight and I knew it.
The sun was up now and in the 30 minutes to 1 hour it took to walk from one end to the other, every last ounce of energy in me had been drained. I drank a lot of water, but this time the energy was not coming back. I called a friend in advance to let him know I would be in Ife by midday, but even after the call getting back on my feet was a tall order.

Needless to say, of course I got back on my feet, and of course I pushed forward, faint every step of the way. Grabbed a bottle of soda here and a sachet of water there... I couldn't eat any more - couldn't afford to risk getting even heavier than I was already. My feet were like lead, there were shafts of pain in my calves, and I believe I once mentioned the stress fracture in my shin. By the end of the first day, it was painkillers recommended by my doctor brother all the way in Australia that kept me going, but even those didn't seem to working any longer. I was done. I knew it. But I wasn't going to quit. I was going to finish this.

It was the dot of midday when I crossed the first landmark into Ile-Ife - I had made it, but I was not going to put myself through any more of it. I was still a long ways from where I'd have hoped to reach - the Obafemi Awolowo University gates. That would have taken at least one more hour, but I didn't think I still had that left in me. Not any more.

It was ten full minutes afterward before I came across the first commercial motorbike that did not already have a passenger on the back. I took it. I was at the gates in less than five minutes. I had had one friend meet me there just to say "Yo, crazy dude, you did it!" and a second friend come tell me "Yo, crazy dude, you did it!" and take me home to my parents'.

It was finally over, but the overarching message in the experience rings true with me all the way to this day: Don't let anybody ever tell you that it can't be done!

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