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Saikalako; the WHY

It was somewhere in January this year when I got a call from Nienke. ”Hey listen, I have a dream. I want to try to ride the Great Himalayan High Trail through Nepal in a women only expedition, and I’d like your company. Do you want to come?”. “Sure, awesome. When are we going?” I heard myself reply without hesitation to an offer that contains adventure, slightly crazy, type 2 fun, mountains and good company. Ticks all my boxes so yeah, I’m in! Without really realising what I was getting myself into….

Nienke and I at the first stage of the 5-day stage race Rumble in the Jungle in Sri Lanka (June 2018)

This blog is long overdue. I’ve been meaning to write it since January, but I just couldn’t find the words. Even now, less than a week before departure, it is hard to write down everything that goes on in life and within myself. I wanted to blog about my physical preparation, about all the stuff that needs to be arranged before departure, about our sponsors, about….well just about everything. All the fun stuff, the cool stuff, the exciting stuff. But I didn’t, and the reason for that is that it seemed like the first blog should be about the WHY. And to be honest, I just don’t know really.

Soon after my big fat YES to Nienke doubts started to creep in. I hadn’t realised at that moment that I was being a complete selfish ass because going to Nepal has long been a sort of bucket list item for Onno and me together. We had a trip planned end of 2018 but I cancelled it because I couldn’t cope with the continuous travelling last year and I was just so tired. With this being a women only expedition and Onno not being able to take 8 weeks off work he was actively excluded from joining this adventure.

Onno and I on our first ever tourski trip (Jan 2019)

Besides that I wasn’t even sure I’d be capable of an adventure as epic as this one. Unlike Nienke, I’m not a mountainbiker. I’ve never been to the Himalaya. I’ve only once breached the 4000m barrier (at Mauna Kea Hawaii, which is a walk in the park for technical grade). Although undoubtedly madly beautiful, I (still) can’t grasp what it is we’re going to do out there in the Himalaya. What’s the track going to look like? What dangers are we going to face? How steep is it? Can I even ride a bike there with my limited skills? Can I get into shape fast enough to actually enjoy the days or is desperately eyeballing my front wheel while trying to keep going the best I’ll be able to do? In short, I was really worried this adventure would be just a few sizes too big for me….

My doubts resulted in not being able to fully commit to the expedition for a long time. I didn’t have anyone to really talk about how I felt, or at least so I thought. For obvious reasons Onno wasn’t too keen on seeing me leave for Nepal without him, and in between my travels to Holland, France and many other places for work we both failed to speak up how we really felt about this expedition. It kept brewing between the two of us and for months it undermined the strong team we usually are. I also didn’t want to admit to Nienke how I felt. I knew she relied on me and my experience in the mountains and I knew how big this expedition is for her. The last thing I wanted to do was to disappoint her and drop out. Living in Spain and not mastering the language well enough to talk about doubts and feelings there was nobody here to talk to either. Others were mostly extremely enthousiastic about this next epic adventure and didn’t want to hear a word about my doubts: ‘You’re a crazy superwoman, you can do anything! This is the trip of a lifetime and you’ll rock it!!’. It seemed as if the mere fact that I could have doubts about this huge undertaking would somehow clash with their idea of who I am. I knew it should feel excited and energised, but all I felt was insecurity, self-doubt and loneliness.

Walking the dog ‘around the block’ for a little consolation-by-mountain-view (2019)

Before I knew it days turned into weeks into months. Nienke would complain I was unresponsive to her messages and I wasn’t really pulling my weight in the preparation. She was right. All the things I wanted to do for preparation, find sponsors, dive into the route planning etc….It just didn’t happen because deep inside I still didn’t believe I would actually go. My usual reaction to the feelings I had in that period is to withdraw from everyone, gather a shitload of work and use it as an excuse to keep my head down and behave like an ostrich (I really need to work on that, it is a reaction that doesn’t serve me very well!).

The first weekend of June, we had a practice trip planned to Chamonix to test our gear (see https://saikalako.com/a-mini-mountain-expedition-in-the-alps for that story) and that’s where Nienke first found out how I really felt. Knowing me for a couple of years she figured I had just withdrawn a bit because I filled my plate with too much stuff as usual. Job, a new education, a coaching business to the side, building a social life at the castellers and language classes, yeah that was busy. And a nice distraction from having to face what now seemed like a daunting crazy plan for the end of the year. 

MTB loaded for Chamonix! (June 2019)

Hearing my doubts about the expedition was tough for her and we’ve had a few rather confronting conversations about it. Although hard at the time I guess it was necessary. To say that Chamonix was a turning point because of it is an exaggeration…If only it were that easy to just turn your head around! But it was the start of a process. It reminded me that Nienke and I make a great team too. In a very different way than Onno and me, but still a great team. We can laugh together, we can cry together. And because we are both strong willed and opinionated women, we can have fierce discussions and even go hard against each other. But only to both bend later, after a little time to think, and try to convince each other from the opposite point of view than before J. I like that in her, I like that it doesn’t always have to be cheesy and girly and BFF. That’s not life. That’s especially not life out in the mountains. You need to be able to be brutally honest if necessary, and still be best friends. Not an easy feat but we can do that and even though sometimes it scares me a little how direct Nienke can be I know she ALWAYS has my best interest at heart.

Next chapter was the end of my contract in Holland the end of June. Long story short, I ended up being able to choose between a job in Spain and to continue my work in Holland. They both wanted to hire me which sounds like a luxury problem but it caused me a huge amount of stress to make that choice. Eventually I realised this choice represented much more than a choice between two jobs. It was a choice between two lives. Spain on one hand with a steady 40h contract, predetermined holidays and a ‘normal’ life as weekend warrior. Which, to my surprise felt very appealing after three years of stress, travel, insecurity and not knowing what I want. Netherlands on the other hand with a 0-hour contract, obligatory trips back and forth, but with great liberty to travel and pursue dreams as long as I make proper arrangements with my colleagues and projects. In the end I choose adventure and freedom and thus the Netherlands. With a huge thanks to my company Kragten B.V. to put up with me working a lot through Skype and being away so many times!

Sidestep *INSERT SHAMELESS PLUG*:

Universe rewarded that choice by getting me in touch with Henk-Jan Geel who asked me to guide a very awesome female only arctic trip in Sweden next year. There is only one spot open, check out https://arcticadventure.nl/expedities/women-only-arctic-expedition/ if you’re interested or one of the other formats he offers!! *End of plug, blog continues ;-)*

Desperately trying to cool down every chance I get (every training in summer)

An extra complication for me was that I don’t cope with heat very well. During the Spanish summer it turned out to be impossible for me to train properly and consistently for the second year in a row. Whereas Onno is getting stronger and stronger, I feel like I’m only loosing fitness and struggling through every training I do find motivation for. I feel very unfit physically, and lack the mental persistency to push through and keep training if every training turns out to be disappointment and a struggle. Only now in September, about one and a half week before departure, the temperature eases and I seem to be able to go out and actually feel like my legs and body still belong to me even though they can’t handle much load yet. But now I am way too busy with all the little things that still need to be done (minor details, like getting insurance and that kind of stuff) to actually go out and train! The past two weeks I decided that all I can do is accept the fact that I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be physically at the start of this trip. It’s like that, and I can’t do anything to change it anymore. All I can do is hope my body will bounce back when the weight of all daily stress falls off my shoulders like Nienke keeps telling me.

Onno and I managed to settle our differences concering my part in the Saikalako expedition and travelling to Nepal. Before starting Saikalako, I have the luxury to go on a three week hike with Onno to first experience Nepal together just like we always dreamt about. We will hike from Last Resort in Rolwaling over the Tashi Labsta via Namche and a couple more 5000+ passes (Renjo La and Cho La) back to Jiri.

So it seems that somewhere between Chamonix and now, 6 days before departure, I have at least committed to this expedition for real. I have this weird feeling that it is something I have to do, that I need to do. To find peace within myself. Out there, I’ll have two relatively simple tasks every day: ride my bike and not get myself (or Nienke for that matter) killed. It’s a kind of ‘off switch’ that is hard for me to find in daily life but I need it to find answers to the bigger questions of life that I’ve been struggling with for a while now: what makes me happy and where do I want my life to go. The challenge to find out who I am and then accepting myself just the way I turn out to be, with my good sides and my flaws. To learn to make decisions that make ME happy in the first place instead of doing the things I think others would like to see me do.

Lately I do seem to have made some progress in pulling my head out of the ground and reach out for help and support when I need it. Thank you so much for my few but true friends who are there for me when I need it most. For trying to understand me and listen to my doubts and insecurities even when my life is so divergent from yours, so it must be hard to really be empathic towards my feelings.

And above all, a BIG THANK YOU to my loyal sponsors whom I appreciate very very much (even though I may not always be very communicative). For being there when I need you (last minute as always) and for being interested in who I am as a person. For being passionate about sports, not just results. Buddy (Hammer Nutrition), Ronald & Marloes & crew (Fusion World), Seda (Gum-On): without your products and support this expedition would have become a lot harder, maybe even impossible. THANK YOU and see you on the other side ;-).

Great time trailrunning with Buddy and Onno in Chamonix (sept 2018)
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