“To understand me, you’ll have to swallow the world.”
Juxtaposition. Danang, Vietnam.
– Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.
It was the inaugural Vietnam 70.3.
The morning before the race, I sat at a breakfast table with Ironman CEO, Andrew Messick. As a lifelong student of international affairs, I took the opportunity to ask him about the challenges Ironman (and Sunrise Events) faced in pulling off an event of this caliber in Vietnam, a country in early stages of economic development, under single-party Communist rule, and with only the tiniest of triathlon communities. When he noticed my questions were rooted in something deeper than small talk, the conversation shifted to my education and then to my career in strategy consulting.
One by one, the others moved on with their mornings, until only Mr. Messick and I remained in conversation. When we eventually got up from the table, it was his turn to ask a question. “Why do you race pro?”
As I gathered my thoughts, Mr. Messick tried to answer the question for me, “it’s for the free registration, right?”
(As a side note, registration for pros is not free. Qualifying athletes pay a fee of $800 that covers registration for WTC events for the calendar year. And there are no refunds or transfers, even for injury.)
Until his last comment, I had really enjoyed my conversation with Mr. Messick. He has received a lot of negative press for perpetuating gender inequality in sport, but I had pushed that aside and found common ground elsewhere.
(If you know the basics of the Ironman gender equality debate, move on to the next paragraph. If you are interested in learning more about WTC’s institutionalized discrimination of female professional athletes and the context in which I viewed Mr. Messick’s comment, here are a few pieces to get you started: 1) Interview with Chrissie Wellington, Ironman legend; 2) Article from Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine; and 3) Tri Equal’s homepage.)
After injuring my hip in March, I was all smiles to be running again!
I told Mr. Messick that my initial
voyage into triathlon had been motivated by a desire to raise awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation
). I explained that the MMRF’s tireless work to bring blood cancer treatments to market had extended my father’s life and that I use triathlon as a vehicle for giving back
to the organization that has given my family so much. My hope in racing specifically
as a pro though, I explained to Mr. Messick, is to shine a brighter
spotlight on the MMRF than I could do as an amateur, to further elevate
the foundation’s status, and to give more hope
to more cancer fighters.
I am not sure why he asked or what he’ll do with the information or if he’ll remember our conversation at all, but I stopped there. There were so many more reasons, but this wasn’t the venue for a conversation of such magnitude.
Mr. Messick would have had to come with me the following week on my bike trip through rural Vietnam to understand why I race as a pro.
For the same reasons I climbed Half Dome with my dad on my 16th birthday, and taught at a high school that serves five Indian reservations, and lived in a rural Nepali village without running water, and taught sex education in the northern Andes, and backpacked through Central America and Indonesia and Cambodia, and climbed to the top of Borneo’s highest peak, and studied 16 hours a day for 2 years to get my masters degree in foreign service.
That is, to seek a greater understanding of my world, and to use that knowledge to leave it a better place than I found it.
I’m not sure Mr. Messick will ever see this post, but if he does, I hope the pictures and captions that follow convey what Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine, wrote on my rapid rise in the sport: “For (Kendra), triathlon is simply a medium that allows her to live more adventurously, consciously, gratefully.”
And now, my trip through northern Vietnam in pictures and words:
I cycled through this northern Vietnamese village at the end of lunch hour, which the school kids spend at home with family. Three of the kids ran alongside my bike for 2 miles on their way back to school and then invited me into their classroom. And just like that, it felt like Peace Corps again.
I leave the comfort of my borders to gain perspective, to contrast my views, to challenge my preconceived notions. Before I was here, I never stopped to think what the Vietnamese would call the war. In Vietnam, they call it the American War. #howsthatforperspective
The Original Farmers’ Market. Danang.
When I moved from my homestay in town to the race hotel, I took a lesson from the locals. Don’t hire a taxi. Figure out a way to transport it all myself!
She may not look like much, but today the Bumble Beast carried me 60 miles from outside of Hanoi into rural Vietnam. Just the first of a four-day bike trek to the Chinese border, to Sapa, and to adventures I can’t even dream up yet.
Picking up a few bike handling tips from the locals. #harderthanitlooks
Recruiting Young Talent.
I live for the sweet spot of travel, when the people I meet are as fascinated with me as I am with them. I lost track of how many times I found that sweet spot on my cycling adventure through Vietnam.
During a wet and windy morning of cycling, my fingers had gone numb. So you’ll understand why I stopped to try everything this woman was grilling in her shop – eggs, corn, chestnuts, sweet potato, and bamboo sticky rice. And the tea. Oh, the tea.
The little guy really wanted to be in the picture with me. He is H’mong, one of the ethnic minority groups in NW Vietnam. They have preserved their dress, language, and customs. His people farm the terraces down below us.
When I pedaled past this rural soccer field, I saw more than an impeccable pitch. In its manicured surface, I saw a community that had reached the stage of development that allows precious resources to be reallocated to sport. Soccer explains the world, Franklin Foer wrote. And if he’s right, then this field tells a story of Vietnam rising.
Find a way.
Pedaling a heavy bike through the backroads of #vietnam forces a pace slow enough to see and feel what I’d otherwise miss in a car on the highway. And don’t we all need to remember – or to learn for the first time – how life feels in slow motion?
As we cycled through quiet villages, I asked my guide if I might, as an American, encounter hostility or resentment. My guide, like all of his generation, lost aunties and uncles in the war. No, he said without hesitation, that is part of history. We look forward, he said. We don’t live in the past. #wisdom #sportsdiplomacy
This morning I gave my muscles a little pep talk. We’ve been moving forward for a long time now, guys. (A lifetime, really.) Today, we’re going up. Lan Ha Bay.
I wanted to ask her, when it’s all around you everyday, do you still see it? And then I wondered how I’d answer that question in my own backyard. Lan Ha Bay, Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam.
Kayaking into my dreams. Lan Ha Bay.
I was alone. I was five miles from town. I was exploring remote caves used as hospitals during the war. I slipped. There was blood. A young man in an old truck stopped. I didn’t speak his language. He didn’t care. He washed my wound with his drinking water. He held napkins to it. He drove me into town. He bought me this medical kit. After holding myself together for five miles, this gesture melted me into sobs. And he wouldn’t even let me pay him back. #payitforward
In the sauna called #vietnam, I have to drink a full bottle every half hour of my bike ride. Luckily, I can always find a coconut lady with a machete and a smile. #locallysourced #farmtobottle
A massive thanks
to my sponsors:
for my awesome kit, shoes, and speedsuit
Amy’s Kitchen, for my organic, non-GMO, vegetarian fuel
SmartWool, for keeping my feet happy
Nalgene, for optimal hydration in the Vietnamese sauna
Rose Physical Therapy, for getting me across that line
TheMMRF, for giving me the ultimate reason to race
And to these awesome people:
My coach, Tim of QT2
Fred, Princess, Shirley, Bang and everyone at Sunrise Events
Thao, my awesome roomie
Jason, my host
Mr. Ban, the incredible bike guide from Indochina Bike Tours