Dispatches from Namibia: Attitude over Altitude
There’s not a lot you can do about altitude sickness once you’ve got it. Usually it’s game over. And I had it. Laying on the tarpaulin floor of the medical tent at Checkpoint 2, 100 km into the 370 km of the Desert Dash rigged up to an ECG and oxygen mask, my race was well and truly over.
My heart rate had spiked twice over 220, while I was laying down. The medics were instructing each other not to do anything rash if it went up again, no shocks, even if they thought I was going into cardiac arrest. Awesome.
That night I spent 2 hours on oxygen when I should have been cruising through the Namibian desert on my mountain bike heading toward what could have been a podium finish. I abandoned the race at 105 km with instructions to head to sea level as quickly as possible. Obviously it was my own fault for arriving at altitude in Windhoek only a few days before racing, and that made it even more frustrating.
By the time I woke up the following morning at sea level in Swakopmund, with about 3 hours sleep in the tank, I was already a new woman. The fluid in my lungs which had all but eliminated my ability to breathe was gone, my resting heart rate was down to a more suitable 55 BPM and my legs felt great.
I’d planned over 10 days of rest and recovery post-race, but having a ride cut short, I got back on the bike after only a few of days to catch up on sleep and slowly adjust to altitude – the correct way. I’ve found myself in what is quite possibly the most beautiful and wild land I’ve ever been to, and as luck would have it – I get to make the most of it now.
Namibia is in the middle of its rainy season, which unlike England, means hot. Very hot, and humid. Clouds provide a little relief from the direct sun, but the humidity is off the charts. So all of my riding is happening early in the morning, hopefully finishing a couple hours before the mercury tops off around 40C around 11:30am, and it only gets hotter in the afternoon.
The country is criss-crossed with remote, straight dirt-track roads and my boyfriend’s farm is riddled with jeep and single track, perfect for mountain biking. Thick sand clings to my wheels and sweat runs like a tap down my nose.
I was in pretty decent shape when I left England, but I was carrying a lot of extra winter weight that’s beginning to drop off. I can see shapes returning to my muscles and veins beginning to pop out on my arms and around my knees.
Because of the heat my usual habit of long 4-to-6-hour rides have been chopped in favour of 2-3 hours with a lot more intervals and intensity, and I think I like it. Home by 10am most mornings I’m able to shower, eat and log-on to London-time to work until the heat on the stoop is too oppressive and I have to go inside. I am recovering faster and my muscles are getting stronger, not weaker with consecutive rides. This is definitely one habit that will come home with me.
However, with the heat and rain came the animals and insects. Warthogs, Crocodiles, Eland, Rhinos, Tortoises, Baboons, Chameleons, and snakes – so many snakes.
One day I nearly ran over and got bitten by what looked like a Cape Cobra that was sunning itself in the early morning sun on the dirt road North out of Omaruru. Only an inch away from its head, my rear wheel took the force of its bite as I tore off screaming and swearing. Never take your eyes off the road. Never. The snake stood erect in the road, sand-coloured gills flared out, as I rode away as fast as I could. I think I nailed that QOM.
Altitude sickness was a blessing in disguise. I get to ride even more now – and back at altitude, going to reap the benefits of this adventure for months to come. Unless, that is, I get eaten alive by the wildlife.