Monday, 17 December 2012

I Took A Trek...

Most people thought I was just plain crazy.

It was nearly two years ago, on 14th February 2011, when I finally took off on a 97-mile trek between two major cities across the landscape of one of the most dangerous countries in the world - Nigeria.


Yes, without a doubt. No, folks do not just come at you threatening your life every blessed day, but step out of line and you may live only to tell a very sordid tale of unpleasant experiences. And sometimes, you could be within what you thought to be the safe confines of your own home when they could come for you, knocking down your door and knocking down your life as you know it. After all, it is Nigeria, a country considered to be one of the most dangerous and corrupt in the world.

Naaa, I do not necessarily agree with this point of view. Hey, I stay in this country. Here you are reading my post - you've got to admit that I totally cannot be that ignorant, no? But folks have their opinions, and sometimes, in order to be able to teach them, you got to give them a chance to air those opinions first.

But there are dangers in my home country, make no doubts about it - just like there are dangers in practically every other country of the world! The worst part of these dangers is that many people believe in them and have come to accep them as norm. This - this... state of mind, is the very thing that makes Africa's most populous nation even more dangerous than it really is, because folks tend to react to stuff that may or may not be there, simply because they fear that it may be there.

You then can imagine how insane folks must have thought I was if I told them what I was about to do. The really interesting thing about it was that it did not seem that insane when I concocted the idea. There was going to be three or four of us on the expedition - myself, ex-karate-ka trying to get back in shape after an deblitating and potentially degenerative injury; a fellow martial artist, former boxing coach and fitness extraodinaire; a young protege of mine who had recently made black belt; and a fourth fellow, a young man who had looked up to me for years and was trying to follow in my footsteps... without actually practicing karate. Four men, back-packs hanging from our shoulders, heads covered in face-caps, feet clad in hiking shoes, braving the dangers, overcoming the odds, trudging through the outback - the great outdoors - daring nature and staring exhaustion in the face; sharing drinks at night around a warm fire that kept the creatures away...! It was the stuff that dreams were made of.

Then one by one, every one started to back out. First it was my former training partner who could not make it at the time stipulated, so we had to postpone. Then something else; then another something; and before I knew it, we had been postponing the trek for nearly five months! This was not going to do. Something had to be done. So I made the decision - I would go alone.

Almost a year before then, my back had finally given way after nearly 15 years of a mysterious injury I knew nothing about. I felt the pain for sure: sitting or standing for long periods was always painful; but the 12-some years I had spent studying the martial arts had taught me programs and exercises I could do to manage the pain and discomfort. I still had occasional crises that near-incapacitated me, but all in all I was doing fine.

But by January of 2010, I had not trained with a proper dojo for five years, had been married for two, and I had gained nearly 50 pounds. I trained for and graded into 3rd dan black belt by May of the same year, but I believe the additional stress from training and the added weight were the elements that worked together to become my undoing.

I was lying down on the floor in my living room weeks after the successful grading, when I turned and I felt something shift in my lower back. It was the last time I would lie still and painless for the next five months. Excrutiating is a word I do not use all too often, but it is a term I got familiar with between May and August of 2010. I could not stand for long, I could not sit for long, I could not... I could not do anything for anything longer than a few minutes.

Walking - too painful. Running - impossible after the first couple of steps. Making love - are you kidding me?!

The weight came quickly. I had been able to put it off for years with extreme workouts and exercises, but now I had no defense against it. I have always had heavy bones, and even from the day I signed on with my dojo I knew I was never going to fight in the middleweight category - I was at least light-heavy. The x-rays didn't help; nor did the doctors. I could not afford the MRI at the time, but they did not need them to identify the osteophytes on my lower lumbar vertebrae. Everybody got something like it at some point in their lives, but usually when they are over 60 - I was just going to clock 32 in October of that year.

The worst part is, short of very invasive surgery, there was no curing the situation - even palliative options had their limitations; it could only get worse. Besides no doctor was ever going to perform that kind of surgery and risk leaving me incapacitated with a severed spinal cord or (literally) frayed nerves for life. The best suggestion any of the doctors had was that I should consider putting on a waist belt and keeping it on forever.

I was devastated... but I wasn't going to let the sad news run my life. Of course, I was not going to put on a waist belt, not even if I was still alive at 70. So I did the only other thing I could do - I prayed. It was August now, four months after the pains started. I was desperate, and I had to put some works behind the faith that led me to pray. So I took the first walk.

It was meant to be just a few hours. The drive from Ilorin to Offa took the greater part of one hour, and I reckoned I could trek it in four or five. How wrong could I be?

I set out at about 0400hrs - can't remember the date. I reckoned I could do more than - or at leat up to - half the distance before it was daylight. When daylight struck two hours later, I was still in Ilorin only just approaching the outskirts. I was still upbeat, but was seriously beginning to recaliberate my expectations.

It wasn't just the sweat, and exhaustion is certainly something I can handle after more than 12 years doing karate and with three - yep, that's THREE - black belt gradings under my belt. It was first the frustration of realizing how much further I still had to go when my feet had already begun to blister.

I had started the trek at a run, hoping to cover plenty distance before I got too tired to keep it up. I could only go so fast, no thanks to the pain just above my butt. But after running one hour, I could keep it up no more, so I went back to walking. By the time I got to Ganmo at the outskirts of the city of Ilorin, I had been at it for nearly three hours. Knowing that as much as five times that distance was still left ahead of me, I suddenly realized I might have bitten off a bit - A LOT - more than I could chew. ...but I kept on. hey, quitting is not something I do all too easily either.

Of course I didn't finish it - not that day; not when my expectations had been so high above the reality of the situation. It wasn't that I didn't have the energy to push on, but I was beginning to imagine how much damage I would have done to my body had I completed the trek to Offa that day. I had gorssly underestimated the distances and over estimated my threshold of pain. The blisters on my feet weren't even the worst of them; it was the blisters and bruises on the inside of my thighs that really got me. I should have won tights to keep my thighs from brushing against each other; I should have won lighter shoes, as the heavy trainers I had on were... er, so heavy now that I could barely lift them; I should have won clothes of lighter fabric, because the ones I had on now were drenched and heavy with sweat, doubling the amount of effort required to take the very next step.

There were a lot of things I could and should have done different, and I knew this by the time I finally made to Omupo, 7 hours into the walk. Drained, exhausted, and just looking for some respite. Omupo, in real terms, was only about half the distance; but I had my excuses for quitting at that time, things I still tell myself to date to help me sleep at night: I had a meetin back in Ilorin by 1400hrs. There was simply no way I could get to Offa on time and still make it back to Ilorin (even by bus) in time for the meeting. I had to head back now so that I would have enough time to rest, bathe, and dress up for the appointment.

I sat down by a kiosk on the side of the road at Omupo. I ordered a large bottle of Fanta and a small loaf of bread, and I gulped it down in short minutes. When the next taxi passed heading back toward Ilorin, I was on it. I was told it was only a 20 minute drive. TWENTY MINUTES? I had been walking for 7 hours!!!

I didn't have a lot of time to process it right then because I was asleep in the cab before I knew it. With the added weight I had gained and considering how exhausted I was, I am sure I snored badly. No one woke me, though. I slept all the way through until we were back in town when the gentle rocking of the automobile ceased long enough to send signals to my brain that the taxi was stopping.  could barely walk, but I am - well, was - made of tougher stuff. My feet hurting with blisters and my thighs bleeding from bruises, I found a bike that could take me home from the bus stop, and I was asleep in my own bed 10 minutes later.

Sorry. I forgot to mention the back pain. Yep, that's because it was no longer there! By the time I was done jogging in the morning, say about hour hours into the trek, the pain in my back was completely gone, replaced by the aches and boredom that were soon to define the rest of my day.
I was elated, even though I had failed to do what I set out to do. What I had learnt were the things I had done wrong, which I was not going to do wrong again. I was going to take the trek, and this time, I was not going to stop at Offa, but go all the way to Ile-Ife, three hours drive from Ilorin. Judging from how Omupo, which was only about half the distance to Offa from Ilorin, had taken me about 7 hours to walk, I knew now that Offa was going to be a whole day's trek and there had to be another stop on the way before I finally made it to Ife. That stop was going to be Osogbo, which was another 1 hour's drive from Offa.

Next time, I wasn't going to walk alone either - I would have companions to walk and talk with, share experiences, encourage and help each other, tease, and all what not. It was going to be th stuff that dreams and legends were made of. We were goign to be completely outfitted in the right clothes and the right gear, and we were going to help each other all the way to the end. And this time, I was - we were - all going to train well in preparation for the walk - there would be no breaking down or quitting - we would get to the end.

That was the plan. Too bad life always has a way of kicking you in the face!

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