$100K for literacy in Cambodia

$100K for literacy in Cambodia

Two and a half years ago, I started raising money for Room to Read, an organization I was just getting to know.

(This post was supposed to go out well over a weeks ago, to capitalize on Giving Tuesday, and for most friends of BJR, feigned sarcasm Wednesday and apathy Thursday. Sorry it’s late.)

I’m now training for my third Ironman, and working on the most ambitious fundraising goal of my life. Despite having a kidney transplant over 10 years ago, I’m not slowing down, I’m trying to keep giving back.

15 years ago I would celebrate when I could raise $3,000 for the MS150, a bike ride from Houston to Austin.

Two years ago, through the generousity of friends around the world, we raised over $42,000 for Room to Read Cambodia. In September, I had the chance to see the results. I’m in awe of the impact that we’ve had in such a short time, and I want us all to do more. I’m in awe of Room to Read, not just for what I’ve seen them do locally in Cambodia, but the way their entire organization makes a incredible impact around the world.

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We did this with $12,000. Imagine what we can do with $100,000.

So, in six months (before my race on June 12th), I am raising $100,000 for Room to Read Cambodia. With this, we can build libraries that will open their doors to 1000s of children, we can fund girls’ education programs for 1000s of girls, and we can end the cycle of poverty in Cambodia through education.

Each month there will be contests with prizes (usually chances to humiliate me) for one person who has made a donation (so the earlier you donate, the more chances you have to win, and the more you donate, the higher your chance).

I’ll match the first $25,000 donated. Even better, Room to Read is matching donations through the end of December, so with my matching, a total of 4x your amount will be donated (email me if you need help with the maths on that).

give now

Thanks in advance for your support!

BJR

A trek along the Mekong

A trek along the Mekong

After the incredible day at the library at Andaung Trom Primary School, Khanh and I parted ways with the Room to Read team at Kampong Thom, and climbed in a car with Untac, our guide for the next five days of cycling along the Mekong River in Cambodia.

The next five days were hysterical, magical, simple, and filled with delight.

Ferry going across the Mekong

The first of many ferries

Our route would take us along both sides of the Mekong River, and onto islands in the middle of the Mekong, which is often over 2 km wide. At many points, we’d be throwing our bikes onto a ferry and crossing.

The ferry system along the Mekong, except in Phnom Penh, is not what you think of if you live in Sydney, or Seattle, or any major city with a ferry system. It is often a man and his boat, and sometimes neither, and just a sign with a cell phone number on it.

Before we’d even spun the pedals once, we loaded the bikes on to a ferry to cross onto an island where we’d spend our first night.

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You can fit more on a small wooden boat than you might imagine

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Our first ferry on the 4th day. Horse carts returning from the Phnom Penh markets.

Hungry Ghosts

Our first night’s accommodation was a cabana on stilts in the Arun Mekong Guesthouse, that we reached via cycling in the dark along a narrow path, weaving as motorbikes passed us in both directions. After dinner, Khanh announced that an animal had pooped on our bed, but judging from the size of the poop, it was a small animal. The humidity was high, even though the rainy season had been mild and we hadn’t seen rain yet. With no AC, the fan was keeping us sane, until the generator cut out at 2 AM, when we pulled the mosquito net around us.

At 4 AM, a blaring noise drilled into my brain. It was if someone was pointing a loudspeaker directly at our cabana, and 100 monks were chanting into the mic. That turned out to actually be the case. We told ourselves that it would go away in 30 minutes – we’d heard chanting before and it lasted about that long. 30 minutes later, the chanting stopped.

And then the drumming began. When the drumming stopped, the singing began. With each new wave of booming sound, we broke into laugher. I think I began singing back at some point, a bit delirious from lack of sleep.

When we asked Untac the next morning, he smiled and let us know we had started our trip at the beginning of the 15 day “hungry ghost festival”, and that everywhere in Cambodia, we’d hear this at 4 AM, and then twice more during the day. The festival is about feeding the ghosts of your ancestors and other people to make sure they are well fed in the afterlife and don’t haunt you.

The beauty of the temples and their presence is every village is entrancing, but behind it sits the sad fact that temples outrank schools in the priority of the government.

By the end of the trip we could grunt along with the rhythm of the monks.

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One of the many sources of Hungry Ghost chanting in Cambodia.

The path along the Mekong

  • Day 1: Our route started in Kratie town (in the province of Kratie) on the East bank, starting in the morning from Kaoh Trong island, where we ferried  to the West bank, and rode North to ferry across to Sambor, returning to Kaoh Trong island that afternoon in a tuk-tuk along the East bank.
  • Day 2From Kaoh Trong we cycled to the same ferry crossing to the West bank, but went South to Chhlong, ferrying back to the East bank to reach Chhlong.
  • Day 3: From Chhlong, we rode South to Kampong Cham, ferrying to Koh Tasuy island and then off again to reach the West bank. After lunch, Untac and I averaged 30 kph (on mountain bikes) for about 10-12k, and I managed to survive an addition 6k solo.
  • Day 4: We started by casually riding around islands near Kampong Cham, then hopped in the van to skip some high traffic’d bits of road, and then rode the final 30k along the East bank before taking a full-sized ferry to Phnom Penh.

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Our journey took balance and a sense of adventure

Food along the Mekong

Almost anywhere, you’d find a small store, with the strangest combination of single serving Men’s shampoo packets, assorted plastic items, and you’d wonder how it came to this part of the world. But there was always food – fresh, local, and usually delicious. Normally, I’m not that adventurous of an eater – I know what I like and what I don’t. But in Cambodia I wanted to try more of what locals ate. There were several firsts: balut, tarantula, and then a host of fruits: longans, jackfruit, palm fruits, jujubee and rambutans, along with previous favorites dragonfruit and asian bananas.

No meals were ever indoors, which makes eating so much better. At a restaurant in Chhlong, the owner cooked right in the middle of the restaurant, pulling fresh ingredients from the piles of vegetables and meat around him, sweating and smiling over the wok-like pans and open fire.

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A simple snack (salt, lime, and duck embryos)

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No, it doesn’t crawl into your mouth. You just eat one of the fried ones in the bucket.

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I wonder why we liked this guy so much?

Children

Everywhere we rode, kids yelled “Hello!!” and cackled with laughter if we responded. I answered in Khmer most of the time. On ferries and in towns kids would openly stare, amazed by the foreigners in cycling gear. I would ask them what their name was in Khmer, which would send them into an absolute fit. Either my pronunciation is horrendous, or my comedic timing is exceptional.

On one ferry that never actually left, Untac was talking to local Muslim girls about what language they were speaking. He promised to buy them a book and a pencil if they wrote their language out for him. After we left the ferry, the girls and their little brothers followed us to a small lean-to market stall where a man had a number of activity books. A few other kids caught wind of the transaction, and Untac agreed to give them books as well. Within minutes, the alarm in the village had sounded and kids of every age under 13 were streaming in to the market stall, which barely held 5 of them, but was suddenly flooded with what seemed like 20. Untac handed the merchant a handful of cash and we fled the riot we had spawned.

It’s easy to see the kids – even in their often dirty and simple clothes, living on a small boat, who have so little, but who laugh so loud and smile so easily, to wonder if education is really what they need? Ignorance is supposedly bliss, is it not.

When you see a 9-year-old girl laugh and smile, you don’t see that in 6 years she will be married, in order to provide income for her family. You don’t see that 40 years ago, there was very little laugher, that this was a country filled with orphans from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. Her smile does not reveal that without education, the Khmer people are at the whims of the government and cannot see though the political arguments and propaganda that has sadly been their diet for generations.


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A girl along the Mekong

The Cycling

Khanh had never done anything like this before. I’ve done a solo, month-long tour of Ireland, and a two month tour of New Zeland. I spend a decent amount of time on a road bike. Let’s just say Khanh is now familiar with a mountain bike, clipless pedals, and their delicate and special relationship with gravity, mud, cement, and dirt. She’s incredibly tough – much tougher than I am, and never a word of complaint did escape her lips.

The tour was so well done from start to finish, and our guide is a legend. Originally born in a small village in Cambodia, he was the national barista of the year two years ago in Cambodia, along with being a graduate of the nuclear engineering program in Cambodia, and has cycled through so much of SouthEast Asia and even parts of Australia. Grasshopper Adventures is an amazing cycle-touring company who I’d love to get to ride with again.

A comfortable bench waiting for the ferry

Yeah, this totally looks like a comfortable place to wait for the next ferry

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A bamboo bridge over peaceful waters


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Mind the cows.

Bryan holding bike overhead
The usual BJR-triumphs-over-the-bike pose

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be back in Cambodia, but it will be within two years. I can’t wait.

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A view of the mighty Mekong from one of the few hills in Cambodia

Ironman Busselton Race Report: “Ouch”

Ironman Busselton Race Report: “Ouch”

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Over the last two years, my free time has largely been filled with a singular (maniacal?) goal, and that was finishing my second Ironman. I’m happy with my race and I’m leaving Busselton feeling content about what I did on Sunday, but even happier with what it represents about my life.

Given the fact that I was on crutches in March, unable to run without pain until the last two months, and sick about half of the year, I can’t quite believe it. My finishing time of 11:12 is more than 90 minutes faster than the 12:45 I posted four years ago. I knew I was in better shape, and despite the lies I told myself and others, I would have been disappointed if I didn’t go under 12 hours. Still, there was a nagging concern about how my body would hold together after the last year of trauma.

Now, you’re lucky I’m not feeling prolific – after my first Ironman I wrote an entire post for every leg of the race….5 posts in total. But we’ll try to get it done in two posts.

Pre-race: All systems go

Justus and I arrived in Busselton on Thursday afternoon, and I spent Friday and Saturday doing the usual prep of assembling my bike, driving the bike course, getting something fixed at the bike shop, getting in a practice swim and going for a practice ride. The night before the race, I slept incredibly well. It helps going West for a race, because your body wants to sleep earlier and get up earlier, which it what you need when the race starts at 5:45 AM.

I had a few goals: beat my previous time by at least 45 minutes (i.e. go under 12 hours), not need a “pit stop” so many times (first IM was 6 total stops!!), and not walk on the run.

The Swim: Aquatic Combat in Paradise

Swim Start

I managed to get a decent warm-up in the ocean, and peed while warming up. Check and check!

Despite it being a wide open course, it was more of a melee than I had expected. I ran into a handful of pods of chaos, with swimmers who were opting to stay near others rather than just swim without being pummeled. At one point I was kicked in the goggle, and my calves were actually sore coming in from having so many people slap them. I’ll admit while I am pretty good about not slapping people’s feet and just forging my own way, I do retaliate when someone is just being ridiculous. And there was plenty of retaliation Sunday.

Overall I was swimming well “within myself” and could have gone a lot harder, but I had a game plan and I needed to save everything for the run given how little running I had been able to do over the past six months.

My one major mistake was heading toward the Busselton Jetty instead of the swim exit, and including that I probably tacked on an extra 50-150m over the entire course of the swim with poor navigation.

Overall, Busselton has to be one of the best swim courses in the world, if not the best (I have very limited experience but it’s hard to imagine something better, and a lot of my teammates who have done multiple races confirm it). The water is clear, the perfect temperature, and you have a massive landmark in the Jetty that you can follow. Luckily I breathe on the left side so I could always see the Jetty if I was veering off course.

The Bike: One position, five and 2/3rds hours

Bike TurnaroundMy game plan was based on a specific power level, but the one challenge with my Garmin power-sensing pedals I have is calibration. I don’t think the power readout was correct – it definitely felt low given my level of effort. I wasn’t pushing anything that hard, but the wattage was too low given my speed. Luckily I know what my legs should feel like and kept the effort level where it should be. I felt great after lap 1, and knew that I had enough in the tank to exit the bike ride with something for the run.

The wind came up a bit during the second lap, and my pace dropped a little in the face of a slight wind. The course is beautiful, and the surface is great. It’s just dead flat so you’re in the same position for 5-6 hours. And my man-parts were feeling it much worse than my legs. Time to look at some new saddles…

The course officials seemed to do a decent job of catching people drafting, though one friend got two penalties when in both cases he had been illegally passed.

Near the end of the race, seeing ~5:40 as my bike time, quick maths told me I had a shot at an 11 hour Ironman. I pushed that aside and told myself to follow the plan and not get cocky.

The Run: Suffering and wait… even more suffering

Run through the crowd

My first two ks were supposed to be the slowest of the marathon, but I started off too fast: my body was happy to be off the bike, wanted to move, and I was fighting to hold it back to the correct pace.

The first lap of ~12kfelt good (for all my friends back in the U.S., a marathon is 42k), and I took my first pit stop mid-way through. The second lap also felt great – I was holding pace just fine, but needed a second pit stop, but felt that it would be my last.  It was! 1 goal accomplished.

The third lap, the wheels didn’t just come off, they fell off, caught fire, and disintegrated. All of a sudden, I was dizzy – I couldn’t run straight. My legs got wobbly and I couldn’t concentrate. I began to walk. Confusion dominated the next two minutes trying to decide if I had too much salt, not enough salt, not enough calories, or not enough water. My race hung in the balance of the next two minutes. I had seen enough videos and first hand evidence of people collapsing during races that I knew what could happen. My mind drifted into the negative: I hate walking. I had now failed one of my main three goals, but I put that aside. I tried running again but my legs were jelly and could barely catch each stride I was making, and my balance had completely left me.

Finally I threw back a gel, a salt tablet, and three cups of water, and began to feel a little better. My legs were still wobbly, but my mind was clear. During that time, Scott Miller, a fellow kidney transplant recipient, passed me and said hello. Then Natalie, from my tri-club, came by and said “you can do this, Bryan.” And that’s what got me started.

I began to run again, and ran side by side with Natalie while I felt my system recover, then as I got stronger I picked up the pace. I was back on race pace (and actually way too fast during one section as I went through the crowd, knowing I had just one lap to go). Kyle and Justus were there cheering, and Scott and Sarah were yelling a bit further down the course. At that point, I knew I’d finish, and go under 11:30. 

Looking back, there’s no question it was simple dehydration that caused my near collapse. My nutrition was fine, I just wasn’t feeling thirsty even though I desperately needed the water.

The final 4K were tough, but much easier than my fight with dehydration. I asked my legs for more, and they grudgingly gave me a slightly faster pace, but there were no adrenaline reserves to speak of. I crossed the finish line with scores of muscles in pain, but more happy to be finished. The finish line comes so quickly in the last moments.

After the finish line I found my teammates, I found Scott Miller, and I found Kyle, Justus, Scott, and Sarah. Having them there made the celebration so much sweeter.

What it all means

So, I spent almost a full day in the ocean and racing around roads in Western Australia. What’s the point? Just to prove that I’m as daft as everyone thinks? (Please don’t answer that.) I’ve been training for two years for this – why have I spent ever spare minute pursuing this? Well, several reasons:

Four years ago in Austin, my training partner used his Ironman quest as a way to focus his energy and come back to life after a difficult end to his marriage. I suppose I started my journey the same way, two years ago, using the suffering and focus of training to cleanse my heart and mind of the anger and the hurt from my partner’s callous disregard for our relationship.

Along the way, I found Room to Read; I found a cause I cared about – where I could actually see the difference my donations could make. I met girls who could attend school for a year for the price of a nice dinner in Sydney. I met Kall Khan, who taught me about giving more and more every day.

I came back from injury and illness – a stress reaction in the femoral neck of my left leg a year ago. After seven weeks on crutches I still had months of rehab to undo the damage to the surrounding tendons. Winter brought a three-month intestinal infection. September, October, and November were near perfect, though I managed to contract a nasty lung infection two weeks before the race.

About 25% of the people in my age group did not finish the race – the run was hot and difficult. There’s some extra pride there. Four years ago, one of my coaches, Christie, told me that the journey is much more memorable than the race. And despite the difficulty of the last two years, the journey has been incredible, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Finally, and most important: In two weeks, I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my kidney transplant. I don’t ever cross the finish line alone: my cousin Diane is always with me. I can’t wait to see her in January! She’s both the reason why I’m physically able to run even 5K, and the motivation behind why I love this sport. She was at the finish line at Ironman Arizona four years ago, and the one upside of not having here there is that I didn’t spend 15 minutes after the racing crying and holding on to her.

Coming soon….  The Gratitude Honor Roll.

December Fundraising Contest: BJR becomes your Movie (or Theater) Star

We’re 2/3rds on our way to our goal of raising $25,000 for Room to Read Cambodia.   It’s high time I decided on the December contest, since December is almost over.   At dinner last night with Jill, Kyle, and Sarah, the decision was made.

October’s contest winner, Dan Heller, had BJR dress like a Cambodian woman for a day.

November’s winner, Daniel Stefanic, chose “silver fox” for BJR’s upcoming hair color (any day now).

For December’s contest, your reward will be:

angelinaBJR delivers your favorite 2 minutes from a movie

  1. You pick a 2 minute speech (not multiple characters, it needs to be a speech) from either a movie or a play
  2. BJR memorizes that speech
  3. You pick a place (who to deliver the speech to, or where the speech must be given)
  4. BJR then performs that speech in January
  5. BJR has a friend record the speech to prove it happened

Of course, there are always limits.   You can’t have BJR deliver a threatening speech to the prime minister of Australia.  You can’t pick a women’s restroom as the place.  You can’t pick hate speech, or a language that Bryan doesn’t speak (okay, actually I’ll allow it as long as I understand what I’m saying).  You don’t get to dress me up (if I decide a costume is warranted, then it’s my choice, but set your expectations low).  You can’t go full retard.  You can’t start a land war in Asia.  You can’t handle the truth.

I don’t expect many of you to know many good speeches from plays.  Yes, that’s what I think of you all.  I expect a good portion of you are probably thinking through your favorite Rob Schneider movies.  I’d strongly prefer Chevy Chase or Morgan Freeman.  But then again, it’s not my choice.

Just to get the creativity flowing, imagine having Bryan deliver the Samuel L. Jackson speech from Pulp Fiction in Martin Place (super busy pedestrian area in central Sydney) at Noon.   Now think of something about 100 times better because that’s not that interesting.

Note: anyone who has donated at least $25 to my campaign is eligible to win the drawing.  The more you donate, the higher your odds.  And there’s a lot that’s odd about this.   Get your donation in by December 31st.

Also Note: the photo of Angelina is included purely to distract you.