Colin's cycling challenge - fundraising for WVS

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Colin's cycling challenge

Tue 17th Jan 2017

WVS supporter and volunteer Colin McDermott has completed his epic 900km bike ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, here is Colin's story!

Oops I did it again!

It’s become a bit of an on-going joke with my friends back home. I get a crazy idea in my head for some sort of charity challenge, promise my wife Inga I will train properly for it, get caught up in work commitments and before you know it the event has come around and guess who’s not ready? Me!

My intentions this time around were to be fitter and lighter than I have been in a long while, but bike training in Scotland leading up to winter is never the nicest and work was uber busy. My good friend Paul agreed to lend me his turbo trainer for the office so I could work and train at the same time. This was good to a point but nothing beats being out on the open road and clocking up those miles.

The 28th December came and it was time to say goodbye to my family and jump on the flight to Thailand, my rucksacks, my bike and me. It felt strange leaving everyone behind for New Year and also I was missing my wife Inga’s birthday, but the challenge ahead was in place and the WVS dog shelter was waiting for us.

Having volunteered at the dog shelter last year, I knew straight away I wanted to return this January, but this time I wanted to help fundraise rather than just volunteer. Typical me wasn’t going to do this as a simple task and after hours of searching the web came across a guy called Mr Pumpy. He had lots of great cycle route suggestions throughout Asia but here was one in Thailand and as luck had it, he had a route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This sounded perfect, even though the most cycling I had ever really done was on an old mountain bike for 2-3 miles at a time.

So, decision made - I was going to do this on my own! (What the hell was I thinking?!) I was just going to rock up, rucksack on my back and take on this epic journey by myself. I soon realised this was just ridiculous and began to put some feelers out. I’d met Ian who worked at the shelter last year and really hit it off with him. Before too long, he’d agreed he come along as a support driver on his motorbike -  carrying my bags, water supplies, medical kit etc. I then contacted WVS HQ in the UK to let them know what I was doing. They offered huge support promoting what I was doing and before too long I received a message from a guy called Matt. He was a keen cyclist and animal welfare activist and as it turned out we have a few mutual friends already. We now had a team of 3 and were ready to take this beast of a challenge on.

Matt and I spoke at great lengths on the months leading up to the start online, so when we eventually met on the 1st January, I felt like I’d know him for years already. We also had another late addition to the team on the 31st Dec with the shelters caretaker Khun Tree joining us with his truck and replacing Ian’s motorbike. The first seven days of the year in Thailand are known as the 'Seven Deadliest Days' on the road, so having a truck riding behind us was much safer and little did we know then, but a godsend for the entire trip.

So now we’d all met, the dream team of four! Having next to no sleep from being out celebrating New Year the night before, it was time to get an early night as we had a 7am start in the morning.

Getting out of Bangkok was always a concern, but thankfully the 2nd January was a public holiday so traffic was much lighter than usual. Poor Matt landed his first puncture within 2 miles of starting followed by 2 more later in the morning. Matt and Khun Tree got to the bottom of the problem and by late morning we were well on our way out of the city. Sadly I’d not had much of a chance to train in any sort of heat, so by early afternoon I was really struggling with the temperatures. Regular stops by the side of the road to try and cool myself down were badly needed and getting to Ayutthaya seemed a distant possibility. I started to wonder if this challenge was just a step too far, but with great support from all three of the guys, we just broke it into chunks and kept plodding away. We finally reached our first destination by mid-afternoon and after a quick massage and a bite to eat it was time for an early night. I was feeling quite wobbly on my feet, didn’t really feel like eating much and was dreading the next day already.

After a fairly restless night with, four of us crammed into one small room with rats running around behind the walls it was time to get going. I really didn’t feel great, had developed a cold and was suffering badly from heat stroke. Today, however was going to be a fairly easy day as we only had 70km to cycle to Sing Buri. Looking back now, it was probably my toughest day of the whole trip. I simply had no energy and I began to get frustrated, as I knew I was holding Matt back. Even though I warned him on my fitness prior to coming out, I sensed he was still expecting it to be better and this cold was really holding me back.

I think it was probably at this point in the trip that the dynamic changed. Everyone’s attention seemed to turn to me and it all felt like it was about getting me through the challenge. I think it was on the evening of day two that I really started to doubt whether I had this in me. I felt like crap, didn’t want to eat, which I knew I needed to refuel my body and couldn’t bear the thought of getting back on the saddle the following day. We had a 130km ride to Nakon Sawan to face and I felt broken. Did I mention the bruises and chaffing on my backside yet?!

Anyway, determined as ever and with lots of encouragement from the rest of the guys, we broke the day into lots of sections and just ploughed through them one at a time. About 10 miles outside Nakon Sawan we came across another cyclist called Rory. As luck would have it, he owned a series of Pizza restaurants in town and invited us along for dinner that night.

By day four, we were starting to find a rhythm and for the first time I began to feel like I could get through this. Ian and Khun Tree were fantastic and keeping us fuelled with energy drinks, water, snacks and we had the late morning stops for coffee and smoothies. Although these stops were timely and effected, when we arrived at our destination they really gave us a chance to bond as a team. Every single person played their part and what kept us going more than ever was the support from all our friends and family at home through social media and seeing the fundraising levels climbing day by day on our just giving page.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at Matt and myself and notice that we are not typically two people who would normally socialise with each other. We both like different fashions, food, music etc. but strangely the relationship worked. We got to know each other on the road very well and found ourselves opening up things in our lives I haven’t even told some of my closest friends back home about. We had a lot of time to kill on the road and it just felt natural to discuss these things and strangely we had so much in common. I know I have taken away so much from these conversations and I hope he has too. I guess that’s the beauty of travelling and meeting new people. Time and time again I find myself drawn to people so different from my friends back home and see myself forming relationships, I know will last for many years to come.

Day 5, we had a fairly easy day to Sukhothai and it was nice to arrive early afternoon and have some proper time to re-charge. We were staying at the Pai Sukhothai Resort in the centre of the old town and thankfully our hotel had a lovely restaurant. It’s probably the first time I felt able to really get tucked in to some decent food and the fact we had passed the half way point felt amazing.

Day 6 had come around and the whole team were looking forward to this day, as we were stopping off at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary for the night. We had a tough journey to get up to Ban Tuek and by the time we stopped for lunch some 20 miles or so out, a couple of us were starting to get a little cranky, more so me! This was something that I think each of us went through at some point throughout the trip, purely just because we were tired and looking forward to getting to our destination for that day. By the time we arrived at ‘BLES’, everyone was in good spirits again, including one of the elephants who tried and succeeded and pinching all our fruit from the back of the truck. We got ourselves unpacked and guided to our rooms for a freshen up before heading out into the forest for a lovely walk with the dogs and the elephants. It was so relaxing and peaceful and we pitched up someway in to sit and watch the elephants eat from the banana trees and the mahuts cut them down for them.

In the evening, we had a nice bite to eat with all the team, Katherine, David and Molly before heading back to our cabins, where we chilled out on our balcony discussed the trip so far and what still had to come.

On the morning of day 7, we kick started the day with a nice breakfast and another morning walk with the elephants and the dogs. Sadly it was time to get back on the road, but not before an early lunch and some quality time patting the elephants. I thoroughly enjoyed our time at BLES, it was great to see all the fantastic work being done here and I certainly hope I can visit again.

We only had about 80km to cycle this afternoon - we’d changed route slightly from our initial plan, to give ourselves the best possible chance to complete day 8. Our aim was to get to Wiang Chin before dusk but today was going to consist of some hills so we were just going to see how we got on.

Surprisingly today was probably my favourite day. I felt strong hitting the hills and was matching Matt’s pace (although I’m sure he was still holding back lol!) and thoroughly enjoying the downhill parts. We were making good progress, but by around 5.45pm we still had around 20km to go, it was getting dark and we still had to find accommodation. We threw the bikes in the back of the truck and went in the hunt of somewhere to stay. As it turned out Wiang Chin was a pretty small place and the only accommodation we could find was one of these out of town places where a curtain pulled behind your car to keep it hidden and the rooms had mirrors on the ceiling. I think even in Thailand they still call these knocking shops! Although we’d all gotten fairly close this past week or so, this was still a step too far(!) so off we went in the hunt for somewhere else.

Luckily 5 minutes up the road we came across a lovely little place that would just do the trick. All the restaurants were closed so we had to settle for some microwave meals from the 7/11.

Day 8 had arrived and I had been dreading this day throughout the whole trip. We had some monstrous hills to attack today, not to mention over 100km but first we had to drive back to where we finished the day before. Matt and I smashed the first 20km in less than an hour and I was feeling good but soon we started to hit some long, slow inclines and I hit a brick wall. We stopped at a hot spring for a refuel and I really was feeling like crap. I felt like sitting here all day, but that wasn’t going to get us anywhere and there was no way I was quitting at this stage.

So off we went again and after about another 20km the big one came. I tried to keep up with Matt, but after cycling about one third of the way up the mountain, I was throwing up at the side of the road and I knew the legs were not getting me up this one. Traffic was busy and I was just too wobbly on the bike. I told Matt to ride ahead as I knew he was enjoying this part and said I’d get him at the top. As ever Ian and Khun Tree were by our side, Ian took the truck ahead with Matt and Tree joined me in walking up the mountain. The true gentleman that he is, he kept trying to take the bike from me so I had one less thing to push/carry, but I had to do this on my own. It would have been cheating and I just had to get the bike and myself to the top on my own. He stayed a few yards back and ensured the traffic was guided around me on the narrow mountain road. An hour or so later I finally made it to the top but I felt flat. I was really disappointed I hadn’t cycled to the top but in a way, it was actually tougher walking so that kind of compensated in a way.

On the way back down the other side, we pulled in to a nice little restaurant for lunch, refueled and then had one hell of a ride back down the other side. The final overnight stay was in sight and that drove us on until we reached Lampang. This was to be our final evening together and it felt strange, but we treated ourselves to a lovely dinner by the river as we geared ourselves for day 9. I was expecting an easy 100k ride into Chiang Mai, but it was at this point Khun Tree dropped a clanger on me; we had some more mountains to climb on the last day. Mr Pumpy never mentioned these!

The heavens opened during the night and we woke to a very wet Lampang. Poor Matt had left all his cycle gear in the back of the truck overnight, so his shoes, gloves, helmet etc. were soaking, but nothing was getting us down…. It was the home straight!

We rode about 30km out of Lampang and Khun Tree suggested we stop for lunch at the bottom of the mountain. This was a great idea as it gave us all a huge boost of energy to tackle what was coming. We hit the bottom of Doi Khun Tan with vengeance and I was determined I was cycling all the way over this one. I felt pretty good and although slower than Matt, I was finding the energy today to keep going. Perhaps it was because the finishing line was in sight, but I was going for it! I picked up a puncture around half way up but the team rallied together to get it fixed and before long we were climbing the mountain again. The feeling when I got to the top was incredible. Lorry drivers were passing by and tooting their horns as if they were cheering us on and without even thinking I let out a massive roar (Andy Murray Style!) to show my delight. A few have already said they heard it 60km away in Chiang Mai.

I caught up with Matt and we both enjoyed whizzing down the other side, so much so my breaks got a little excited and decided to fail on me. We stopped to tighten them up and off we went again. The heavens opened up again, we got drenched and I got another puncture but nobody cared, we were nearly home!

As we arrived in Lamphun, a fellow cyclist appeared at the side of the road, high fived us and started to cycle with us. I remember saying to Matt, ‘who is this?’ to which he replied ‘I have absolutely no idea!’’ After about 5km we discovered the smiley-faced woman who had joined us was Khun Tree’s wife. This really brightened up my day and it was so lovely she had cycled out to join us for the home straight.

It was a nice steady cycle through some beautiful country roads and the emotion of reaching the shelter was starting to get to me. The guys were teasing me; as I had to put my sunglasses on to hide the tears. Ian was keeping in contact with the shelter, to let them know how far out we were but they were not quite ready for us yet so we stopped about 4km out at one of Ian and I’s favourite Khao Soi restaurants.

We’d pretty much done it, I knew where I was and the finishing line was very much in clear sight. I had to call Inga and my mum and let them know yet I doubt they could understand anything I was saying, as I was a blubbering wreck. Ian and Matt were loving this and I’m sure they even went out their way to film it on the go pro so watch this space! After 30 minutes or so we were given the green light and I led the way with Matt and Tree’s wife (Tee) closely behind side by side.

As we turned into the last corner, Matt and I put our arms around each other and cycled side-by-side to a welcome I will never forget. Both sides of the road were lined with all the staff, students and volunteers and the dogs began to bark to welcome us over the line. Yup, you guessed it I was crying again behind the sunglasses.

There was a massive congratulations banner with pictures of all four of us on our journey and Michel and Katalin whom I’d met last year had created a banner welcome us home with the message made out of notes they have managed to raise for our cause also. After lots of hugs and kisses, a bag of beer arrived, then a wonderful cake each for Matt and I followed by our friend Fon presenting us with a lovely bunch of flowers. It felt so good to be back and I was really just overwhelmed at the journey we have been on, both physically and mentally.

I know the experience I shared with these guys will stay with me forever and for sure I know we will be friends for life. The support each and every one of them gave me was incredible and I will be forever grateful. Matt especially gave up his intended goals to give me the support and encouragement I needed to complete the task in hand and he will never know how much I really appreciated that.

But it doesn’t end there! We’ve already began speaking about creating this as an annual fundraising event for the shelter. There have been many things learnt this time around and certainly a few tweaks to be made here and there but I would strongly advise anyone looking for a life changing experience, a physical challenge, a new way to discover yourself and meet great people to give us some serious though. I will be travelling back to Scotland a new man but certainly not before spending a couple of weeks at the shelter with the dogs, the main reason behind the whole challenge.

We’re still in talks about how best to spend the funds raised but we’ve absolutely smashed out target by over £1200 and all going well we should be able to help complete the new shelter ‘New Hope’ and whatever funds are left after that I am sure will be put to great use. The level of monies raised can go a long way out here so a massive thank you once again to everyone who donated to our cause. You all made this challenge so much more worth while!

To donate to Colin's Just Giving page, please visit the button below.