Chocolates, flowers, Champagne – that’s the normal list for a woman turning 40. But don’t dare think about buying any of these for Helen Buteux.
Her gift list is a bit less self-indulgent. She’s not interested in the usual sort of presents, but then she’s not your usual person.
Inspired by her impending big birthday, Helen, from Southsea, is busy training for an 868km (540 miles) bike ride from Bangkok to Phuket in Thailand next month – solo and unsupported.
And instead of buying her presents, she’s asking friends and relatives to donate money to services charities instead.
Helen reckons this epic journey, starting on April 21, will take her seven days to complete and en-route she’ll face some pretty tough conditions.
But she says it bears no comparison with what servicemen and women go through on tours of duty around the world.
Living in Portsmouth has meant that Helen has made some good friends within the forces and has seen first-hand that they don’t always have the support they need when they return home.
She says: ‘What I’m doing is nothing compared to when some of the guys come back from Afghanistan and they’ve lost limbs, yet they are out running marathons and cycling. Relative to them and the journey that they have to go through, the training I’m doing is nothing.’
She will be raising money for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Appeal (SSAFA) and Project 65, a relatively new charity supporting members of the armed forces.
Helen will be cycling in temperatures of up to 40 degrees with 75 per cent humidity levels during the monsoon season.
The marketing consultant began training for the ride in January. Since then she has changed her diet and seen a massive difference to her fitness levels.
Talking about all the support she’s received, she says: ‘I’m really lucky, I’ve had people helping me with my nutrition and training plan and I’ve just been on a boot camp in Norfolk to up my fitness. I was given a complementary place.’
Boot camp saw her up at dawn, trudging through mud, pulling tractor tyres across fields and she was pushed in a way she never thought possible.
She explains: ‘Boot camp was really tough but amazing. It really made a difference to my fitness, energy and strength over just a few days. I lost 5lbs in just four days and got amazingly strong. It’s a really tough experience, but it’s fantastic. It changes your mind as well as your body.’
Being fit is not the only challenge Helen faces. The vast difference in culture between here and Thailand means that she will have to get her body used to performing on a completely different diet. She will need to get used to eating lots of rice and noodles.
She’s training for an hour-and-a-half every day and cycles between 320-480km (200-300 miles) per week. But when it’s cold and dark she uses a turbo trainer, a frame that allows her to pedal away in front of the television.
One factor that Helen is very aware of is the difference in heat and humidity between here and Thailand. But she has a plan.
Helen says: ‘I’m looking for somewhere to give me access to a sauna for my last week in the UK so that I can put my bike and turbo trainer in it and do a couple of hours’ training each day in a very hot environment.
‘Anybody that has a big sauna and would be happy to have a girl sit in it on her bike, please get in touch. That’s what I’m missing and it could be critical to my success. When I get out there, even if I can do the mileage, the heat and humidity is going to make it feel like I’m doing twice the distance.’
Her contacts within the forces are coming in handy, too. Over the next seven weeks she will be helped by her friends in the Royal Marines. They will be advising her on her training and making sure she is fully prepared.
She says: ‘You get a lot out of military training in just one hour. They really know how to push your body and to get the most out of it. It’s really good.’
Cycling in a foreign country is not without danger. Statistics show British nationals are more likely to be admitted to hospital when visiting Thailand than any other country. Surely for a woman who is already well-travelled, there is nothing to worry about?
She says: ‘My biggest fear is getting knocked off the bike and being injured, especially if it’s raining and the visibility is poor.
‘On a previous ride in Vietnam, the expectation was that if a vehicle beeped their horn, the cyclist would get off the road quickly. I’m hoping that’s not the case in Thailand.’