October 17th 2016
UPI board member Neil Singh chronicles some of his experiences on this summer's Trek Malawi trip. After reading, we're sure you'll want to come with us next summer!
This summer, I joined a team of 20 to cycle 500 km across Malawi, to raise money for a tuition free school, and to provide a summer camp experience for 3,000 children and youth in Malawi through UrbanPromise International.
To those seasoned cyclists out there, 500 km (over 6 days) must seem like a walk in the park. But until three months ago, I had ridden a bicycle perhaps 3 or 4 times since my teenage years. Certainly I never envisioned that I could ride 500 km across sub-Saharan Africa, averaging 80 km/day. I was caught in my daily office grind - my sedentary lifestyle; I had stopped running, I turned 50 last year, had put on 30 pounds in the last 5 years, and was not a likely candidate for a trek like this. 500 km of cycling - I could never do that.
But a good friend challenged me to come along on this trip. The underlying fund-raising purpose was one that was near and dear to my heart; but to go from zero to 500 km in less than 3 months was daunting to say the least. So what possessed me to say yes, and to push myself so far out of my comfort zone?
I want to be able to tell you that I did this solely to help the children of Malawi who will be educated at a new school, who will be provided food at summer programs, who will be helped at safe homes for orphans and who will be protected at girl's empowerment programs. Those children were certainly part of my motivation, the heart and key focus of my fundraising efforts.
But, to be honest with you, a great part of my motivation for this trip was for me. I needed a re-boot, a fresh start, and a new beginning - this trip, the training, the challenge offered that to me - if I chose to take it. I had a total of 9 weeks to train. My first time out on the bike, I rode a total of 3 km. The second time, I pushed myself to 6 km. That first week I rode less than 10 km total, but each day, each week, I added distance to each ride. My last 10 days of training, I rode over 250 km, including rides of 40, 50 and 60 km. I discovered areas of the city that I never knew existed, beautiful rides and trails that were now open to me to explore. I met fellow cyclists who freely gave me advice and encouragement. I discovered that there was all sorts of paraphernalia for cycling - shorts, shoes, gloves, bells and whistles! MEC loved me! I began losing weight, and in fact, couldn't get enough to eat - I was always hungry!
As the trek drew near, I began to get nervous, even scared. What had I committed myself to? Yes, I had been training, but was it too little, too late? What if the
conditions were much worse - much hotter, longer and steeper climbs. What if I failed to meet the expectations of my team (most of whom I had never met and would only meet at the airport for the first time)?
Then, I was in Africa, on our first day, meeting my team, and getting fitted for my bike. The first day on the roads was brutal. It was a never-ending climb, the hill that just kept on going. We climbed for hours. I'd never done a hill like that. In hindsight, maybe it wasn't that bad, but it sure felt hard as a first leg. Yet something happened during that first leg, that set the tone for the rest of the trek. The team, which included some very experienced riders and some real beginners, rallied together. Yes, everyone had to climb the hills as individuals, but our experienced riders provided advice and coached us as a team. There were water breaks right when you needed them. We refreshed and recharged, and we kept going. Before you knew it, we'd done the first day, 65 km done.
The pattern repeated. Our strongest riders stepped up and led, they guided those of us who lagged, they encouraged when we needed encouragement. Then, suddenly, we middle of the pack riders began to step up for each other. "Yes, that was a brutal hill. Yes, tomorrow's climb is daunting. But you can do it. We can do it together." We drew encouragement from each other, we shared together, we prayed together, and we worked together. Our favorite verse was "But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
I did not think I could do it. But we not only survived, we thrived. It was a fantastic experience, a life-giving and life-changing experience. We met wonderful people, we spent time with the kids of the ministries, we saw hippos! and we made life-long friendships as we rode together across Africa.
Before this trek, I never thought I could do that. Now, I have gained so much more than I have given. I've lost weight, I feel so much better, and I had an experience with new friends that will be with me for the rest of my life. I expect the ministries in Malawi will remain a life-long focus for me.
Friends, colleagues and family, and my company, all gave me incredible support. I set a goal of raising $20,000 and am just shy of this total ($19,481). I am so grateful for this opportunity. I want to continue to help in any way I can. Every donation helps. Malawi, located in southeast Africa, ranks among the world's most densely populated and least developed countries. Some of the most pressing challenges that Malawi faces are poverty, poor education, a 10.6% HIV/Aids rate, and a massive rate of unemployment. So each time I talk about this trip, I ask you to consider giving. I have learned that to fundraise for a cause you have to (a) believe in the cause, (b) be unafraid to ask people to give, and (c) fulfill the trust that donors place in you.
I leave you with this. If you need a re-boot, or a restart, or a fresh beginning, it's up to you to step out of your comfort zone and grab it. It won't be easy, but it will be rewarding, probably in ways that you can not even envision right now. It's not "I could never do that", it's "yes, you can do that!"