African Cup on African Time
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit the country of Rwanda for the very first time. It comes as no surprise that I was flying in for a race; triathlon is generally the main way I get to travel the world! After my horrific experience in Morocco in early July, I was relying on the race in Rwanda to earn valuable qualification points for Tokyo 2020 – my primary, short-term goal.
Spoiler alert! The race went well; I managed to take the win, and along with it, the maximum points available for Tokyo 2020! Most importantly, I took home an abundance of lessons and memories. Let’s rewind so I can share with you a few of the experiences.
After a 2 hour delayed flight (something that never surprises me when it comes to travel on this continent), we arrived in Kigali
on Wednesday evening at 11:45pm. Even in the darkness of near-midnight, you could feel the city buzzing with its unique stories and people. With a population of 4 million and sitting over 2000m above sea level, Kigali is an incredibly special place and – fun fact – also known as the cleanest capital city in all of Africa!
Wake up call came all too early at 5 am, beginning with yoga flow and followed by a healthy breakfast. The shuttle picked us up at 7 am to meet with the other athletes staying at a different hotel. Although we were meant to leave Kigali at 8 am for the 4 hour drive to Lake Kivu (the host location of the African Cup), we eventually pulled out of the driveway nearly three-and-a-half hours later. Like I said before, we were on ‘Africa time’. If I’ve learned anything from traveling on this continent, it’s that there’s no point in complaining; rather make yourself comfortable and enjoy the ride!
The bus ride was an experience in itself. Our bus driver, to whom we gave the nickname “Nikki”, referring to the legendary formula one driver, Nikki Laude
, was a man for fine margins and very near catastrophic misses. For the majority of Rwandans, the primary mode of transport is either a pedal bike or a small, under-powered scooter, of which there are literally tens of thousands filling the streets. Each driver carries an extra helmet for whoever might feel brave enough to accept the precarious taxi service and hop on as a passenger! Our bus driver Nikki nearly collided with a couple of these guys as he was speeding through the townships and splitting the apex’s left, right and centre but somehow, without incident, we arrived at the hotel around 3:30 pm. After checking in, we all headed to the beach for a little stroll to stretch the legs. It was on this evening that I also met my new Rwandan friend Eddy who would prove to be an absolute trooper over the next couple of days!
On Friday morning, I decided to stick to my usual race-weekend routine and do some sight seeing. Conventionally, many athletes would spend some time ‘warming up the legs’, but I honestly don’t believe any training the day before a race can make any difference to your performance. My motto? The work has been done and you’re better of doing absolutely nothing. For myself, Eddy and our boat captain Yves, we chose to spend the entire morning cruising around the lake.
Eddy was very well informed about the traditions and history in and around his country, which made the trip even more valuable. In a mere four hours, we managed to see and do so much! We visited the geo-thermal power station about 4 km off shore, went to two local fish markets, visited a coffee plantation (for which Rwanda is very well known), hopped on some jet-skis to get the adrenaline pumping and finished by mellowing out in the local hot springs where the water was around 75 degrees Celsius. Locals believe resting in this water is very healthy and tout the practice of bathing in it to heal many diseases. I opted for a nice mud massage, and now, looking back, wonder if maybe it was this little treatment that gave me a competitive advantage for the next day’s race!
After washing off the mud and zen vibes from the morning, it was time for an afternoon of all the usual race day preparations: course familiarisation, registration and elite briefing. Once the ‘admin’ was complete, the legs went up, we feasted on a big dinner and focused on being prepared for the next day’s event.
Although the race was scheduled to start 11 am, well, you’ve guessed it by now! The gun went off at 11:40 am and a swarm of fierce athletes jumped into the lake to begin a competitive 780m swim. I had a decent swim myself, exiting the water in 4th position about 20 seconds shy of the leaders. Due to unexpectedly very foggy goggles, I basically had to swim on the feeling of bubbles alone to guide myself back into T1! From the bike, I managed to close the gap within the 1st lap, then tried all the tricks in the book to make a breakaway. Unfortunately, nothing worked. I held the lead for most of the 20 km, 6 lap bike course, and made sure to keep the pace rich up front. Finally, four of us came together off the bike, and I put in a surge straight out of T2 to defend my place. As I found a comfortable stride, I could hear breathing over my shoulder and knew I wasn’t alone!
It was Matthew Greer of RSA and he quickly took up the pace with a few surges right from the start. We ran together for the first lap and it was pretty clear that it was going to be a 2 horse race from there on in. I was struggling with the heat and humidity, being a heavier guy myself, and the elements were catching up with me early in the game. I decided to stick with my friend then managed to pull off the sprint finish right at the end to take the tape. To say that crossing the finish line in Rwanda was a thrilling moment would be understatement of epic proportions!
The evening of the race hosted a Gala dinner. We didn’t make it to the actual ‘dinner’ portion of the event, since our friend Eddy helped spoil our appetites by taking us to the local beach pub, Tamtam, where we were introduced to the legendary local beer, Turbo Boost. If there’s any advice I can offer a visitor to Rwanda, it’s not to indulge yourself in 15 of them in one night! I’m speaking for a friend, obviously. While the Fédération had paid for the athletes’ drinks initially, I suppose they didn’t expect us to be so ‘thirsty’ post-race. Work hard, play hard right? Thanks to mates Ronaldo and Dylan, I was back at the hotel and tucked in by 9:30 pm.
Sunday morning arrived all too soon and it was time to pack the bike and prepare for the 4 hour trip back to Kigali. Although I felt pretty good after breakfast, I couldn’t vouch for everyone else. Once on the road, Mr Greer once again exceeded expectations and spent half of the trip with his head out the window, decorating poor Nikki’s van with the unappetizing colours of regret.
Back in Kigali with energy to burn, we headed for the biggest market in town, Kimoronko
. Here we purchased some really nice coffee and negotiated deals with the locals on a variety of souvenirs and local fare. We took the compulsory scooter taxi back to the hotel and hit the tar with no rules and nearly dying a thousand deaths (still definitely worth the trip and a must do when in Kigali). We finished the evening at the convention center, indulging in the best coffee and pizza of the entire week.
The following morning, the shuttle was set to pick us up at 5:30 am for airport transfer, but – you’ve guessed it – Africa time!
At least by this point, we had enjoyed our experience in Rwanda so much that no one was grumbling about another delay. A few extra minutes in this beautiful country was nothing to complain about …