Sunday, 12 January 2020
It goes without saying that a thirty something year old has a massive physical advantage over someone like myself who is almost sixty. Therein lies the beauty of ultra endurance cycling — it's not all about brawn. I like to think that as your body yields to the ageing process there is a inversely proportional increase in savviness.
I appreciate that if you go to a gun fight you need a gun and the skill to use it. A one day race is analogous to a gun fight. The Munga on the other hand is more of a bar brawl. You have to know how to throw a punch as well as knee someone in the groin. Somewhere along the way knives, broken bottles and guns come in handy. Multi-faceted rampaging will keep you from being the first to be ejected into the street.
30 years ago I might have placed more emphasis on my physical condition going into a race. That's not to say that I didn't get into the best shape I could. I did. However, no matter how hard I train I am never going to be a Kevin Benkenstein or Thinus Redelinghuys. My body simply won't tolerate the training load that they are able to put themselves through. My time to recovery after an intense training effort would take too long and result in sub-optimal condition.
Given that physical condition was not a mainstay I could build my race strategy around I needed to figure out how I could prevail against the younger riders. I was under no illusions - I was never going to beat the best of them. My audacious goal was to finish inside the top 10. That meant I'd have to beat a good number of strong riders.
If I have any super power it's the ability to keep riding with the minimum of sleep. This skill was stashed for the bar fight. But it wasn't enough. Apart from that I planned meticulously mapping out times and distances between water points and race villages. Experience has taught me that even the best-laid plans can and do go awry so I was armed with flexibility. I ended up sleeping well before I'd planned to but given the circumstances it was exactly the right time.
If you are going to be a habitual bar scrapper it won't do if you can only take one punch. The best brawlers can take one to the jaw and shake it off. There were times where all I wanted to do was get off my bike and call it a day. To counter that I had programmed my headspace with a version of Muzak (elevator music) that looped endlessly. The constant refrain was, "Keep moving forward, don't give up."
It might come as a surprise to some but the thought, "This race is stupid, why am I doing it?" is as common among the front of the field as anywhere else. Every long race I do is definitely my last one and at some point every day of every race there are moments when the only rational thing to do is quit. Endurance racing isn't fun. But it's satisfying beyond comprehension. That is, once you've finished... and recovered.
I had a good race. I'd even say I had the perfect race. Conditions were tough but they were expected and I'd prepared for them. The best preparation was experience. I've learnt a lot from my successes and failures in this event over the last 5 years. My failures in particular are rich pickings for improvements. I wanted to be able to come home and have no regrets about decisions made during the race. And that's how it is. My race has survived post-race analysis without criticism being levelled.
Finally, the fight analogy is just that. If there's any battle involved it is the fight against yourself. I'm not alone in wanting to go faster and further or finish higher up. When we stand on the start line it's with the intention of becoming our own hero. There's no malice among riders. We see and understand each other's moments of weakness and inner wrestling. We don't relish others travails. In the greater scheme of things where we finish is irrelevant. Someone asked me if I'd feel the same way about my "perfect race" if I'd placed 15th instead of 4th. It made me think. If 5 or 6 stronger riders had entered or if some of the riders who had entered hadn't been beaten by the elements I might well have finished outside of the top 10. After reflection I'd have to say I did the best I'm capable of which means it was my perfect race.
Sunday, 5 January 2020
"That sounds perfect," I reply.
"All of it?"
"If that's okay?"
He hurries off to whip up an express custom breakfast. I think I just made his day.
The next inquiry is about what I'd like to drink.
"Tea, coffee and Coke will be perfect, thanks." This time there's no query about my broad selection.
By the time I've filled my bottles coffee and Coke are waiting for me.
"Sorry, we don't have tea."
They look genuinely disappointed.
I ask where Sithembiso is and they tell me he's at least an hour behind. Chat turns to the winners. It seems Benky and Thinus settled for a joint win. That's a pity because I'm trying to imagine what a sprint finish would have been like down the precipitous jeep track to the finish. Especially since there's only space for a single bike down the drop off just before the finish.
A plateful of breakfast yumminess is presented. I wolf it down. I've only got 45km to get to the finish at Doolhof. There's sufficient sustenance to fuel my legs and keep a smile on my face.
I sign out and grab my bike. It's a beautiful morning. It's cool with a gentle breeze and apart from the last 2 km drop into Doolhof it's on tar.
A glance at my watch tells me it's 09:20. I wonder if I can get to the finish in under 2 hours. Apart from Sithembiso creeping up behind me there's no particular hurry. It just seems a fun challenge. There is the small matter of getting up the 8km climb of Bainskloof Pass but the road to the start of the pass is mostly flat and fast.
The breakfast has revived me and I'm up and over Mitchell's Pass in no time at all. I'm on the aero bars and moving well. As I get to the approaches of Bainskloof Pass I'm caught by some Wellington based riders who are heading back over the pass. They are following the race and greet me by name. They offer to let me draft behind them but I explain that I'm not allowed to draft and they slip in behind me. As traffic allows one of them rides beside me and we chat. Some of them have done Race To Rhodes and they are familiar with my Blog.
They are strong riders and I'm riding hard so that I don't hold them up. My legs are burning but it feels great to be riding at something akin to race pace. Approaching the top of the climb I see that a sub-2 hour Ceres to Doolhof ride is on the cards. The weariness of the last 3 days has sloughed off. I bid the others adieu and use my aero bars to full effect. The banners indicating the final drop to the finish comes up quickly and I brake hard and head over the lip. I pick my lines carefully as I don't want to crash this close to the end. The final snake like turns make the Garmin ineffective and besides the arrows indicating the route make it superfluous. I'm glad I don't have to keep looking down.
One final drop-off and the Munga Gantry looms. I roll over the finish line and squeeze the brakes. It's 11:18 on Saturday 30th December and one more adventure has come to a close
Saturday, 4 January 2020
Michael and Carol-Ann radiate a gentle air of hospitality and warmth that resonates with me. They are calm but attentive and engaging without being exhausting. We fall into easy conversation and I'm well fed and watered and am ready to move on.
Michael assures me that the road is in good shape. That's both good and bad. The good is that it will be fast and I won't be rattling over corrugations. The bad is that a perfect surface lacks stimulation. The road is wide and smooth. It's also a single hue of beige. It's a moonless night and my world consists of what I see in the bubble of light ahead of me. I may as well tape a piece of beige coloured paper to my glasses for all the visual stimulation I'm going to get. A bad road surface would require that I stayed engaged as I look for a better line and avoid obstacles. But right now I'd settle for boring and fast and take my chances with sleep monsters.
I roll out and the road is indeed in good shape. I get an audio book running and get on with the business of putting the next 45 kilometres of dreary gravel behind me. There's one section of 20 km's that is straight as an arrow. In some ways I'm glad I can't see the drudgery that lays ahead.
I've been going for just over an hour and I see vehicle lights approaching. It's still pitch black so I see them from far off. It gets to within a kilometre of me and it pulls to the side of the road and stops. As I approach I see a person standing next to the car. It's Leon Erasmus. He has done multiple Munga's and after countless hours of dot watching has decided to drive to the Padstal and see real people. I'd posit that he's suffering from FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out—but technically that'd be a flawed assumption as he has already missed out on doing the race. So it must be ROMO—Reality Of Missing Out. I stop briefly and we chat. Nice surprise.
I'm on my way again and counting down the kilometres when I notice some lights just off the road to my left. I guess they're no more than 10 metres from the road. I'm trying to figure out why a farmer would put lights out for his sheep in the middle of nowhere. Very odd. It's a fleeting thought that barely touches sides as it wobbles down my thoughts passageway and staggers out the tradesman's entrance.
It's starting to get light and I see a district road merging from the left. This is the road you would take if you drove from Sutherland rather than weave through the farms on a bike. It's a critical landmark for me. Now I know I'm only a handful of kilometres away from a change of scenery. I'm so excited I punch the air and give out an audible whoop whoop which is not like me. This long straight boring road will soon give way to orchards and vineyards. It also means there's some climbing but that's okay.
As the sky lightens the temperature starts dropping. It's down to 12°C and I stop and put a jacket on. I really don't like the look of the sky. It reminds me of a cold mid-winter Freedom Challenge sky. The thought makes me shiver.
Finally I'm free of the grasp of the Tankwa Karoo as I ride into Matjiesrivier.
There's a long slow grind to the base of Bo-Swaarmoed Pass. The weather still looks uncertain with heavy cloud obscuring the top of the pass. As I get to the bottom of the pass the cloud lifts and I can see the twists and turns I'll have to overcome. I've never managed to ride this pass and am determined that today is the day that I'm going to conquer this beast. I'm 3/4 of the way up and I realise that I'm not in conquering condition. It's not a hard climb but my legs can't cope. My energy reserves are depleted and I'm running on fumes.
As I'm plodding up the pass I take out my phone to catch up on race chatter and see that I'm now 4th. Somehow Sithembiso has fallen behind me. That's weird. There's only one road from the Padstal to Matjiesrivier and I didn't see him. Hmm. Wait... The lights next to the road that I thought were sheep lights... I now have an explanation that makes sense. The next message I see is that Sithembiso has compounded his problems by going the wrong way. Advantage Mike.
2 minutes later I look back and I see 2 cyclists heading up the pass behind me. So much for my 4th place elation. They are too far back to see who they are but I'm guessing one must be Sithembiso and the other... I've no idea. They are pedalling up the climb I've just walked and making it look like they're on an easy Saturday morning ride. As they get closer I notice that they don't have Munga race boards and therefore aren't part of the race. They are in fact a couple out for their Saturday morning ride. We exchange a few words as they pass. They were surprised to see bike tracks when they started up the climb as they seldom see other cyclists out this way.
I'm at the top of the climb and onto the tar road. My sense is that I just need to roll down the road, cut through a farm section and I'll be in Ceres in no time at all. I look down at my Garmin. What!!! I've still got 40km to get to the Race Village in Ceres. That doesn't seem right. It's just down the road. Isn't it? No amount of wishing is going to make it less. I pedal up the first climb on the tar road. I can see the couple ahead of me. They are making it look far too easy. I know it's about 12 km to the turn off and most of that is downhill. Hill conquered I'm zooming along and my Garmin says I must turn left. It's nonsense. I know I don't have to go left this early and carry on. Then it starts squealing telling me I'm off course. I stop. The Garmin is confused but I'm too tired to argue so I play along. I go back and take a random farm road where the Garmin insisted I turn off. I've gone 30 metres and the Garmin tells me I'm off course again. I'm back on the tar and ignoring my Garmin. 100 metres on and it's happy again. Should have trusted my gut.
Soon I'm passing a community hall which means I should turn left in a few hundred metres. The Garmin ignores the turnoff that I've always taken and tells me to carry on. This is weird. I check the Garmin. Yup, I've gone 12 km. But the route on the Garmin clearly says I must carry on down the tar road. And it is down. Steep and fast down. Like a big effort to reverse if its wrong steep. I'm rolling along with one eye on the road and the other on my Garmin. I'm on track in spite of my reservations. Then I remember Alex saying something about a route change before Ceres. I should have paid attention.
At the 18 km mark there's a turnoff onto a gravel road and my Garmin suggests I take it. Still 22km to go. I don't remember wiggling through farms for so many kilometres and I've cut out a huge chunk by going further on tar. I get to the first climb and my legs are hollow. I'm empty. I crawl up the climbs and roll down the other side. I ride around in what seems ever decreasing circles and now I'm on a tar road that I remember. This is the last haul to town. It's flat fast and... not that short. I remember it being short but I've still got 11.5km to the Race Village. The distances on Garmin have been spot on with the distances I have on my cheat sheet so it must be every inch of those 11.5km. I summon a smidgeon of enthusiasm and manage to get my speed up.
Finally I'm through the centre of Ceres and at the race village. The food here is always good. Individually tailored and good. I'm empty, hungry and keen to fuel up for the final push. I head inside to see what's available.
Tuesday, 31 December 2019
Tankwa River Lodge is tucked away in the nicest part of the Tankwa Karoo. There are other parts that are overtly hostile. I'll be visiting those parts shortly. But before I do I get to enjoy the hospitality of WP9. It's a gorgeous evening with a slight breeze that looks like it might assist me in getting to the next water point. If it turns out to be of no help that's okay because at the very least it seems unlikely to be a hinderance.
The ambience is relaxed, mostly because there is no electricity, and I'm efficiently assisted in filling bottles and getting something to eat. A small generator is fired up to make a cup of coffee. I ask about the rider behind me. I'm told that the last time they had an internet connection there wasn't a rider close to me. I mention the lights I saw at the top of the pass and they assure me it was unlikely to be another rider. Even so I'm expecting to see someone roll down the driveway any minute.
In spite of not getting any sleep in Sutherland I feel okay and I'm looking forward to the next section. That's only because I'm going through at night. It's 165km to the next Race Village in Ceres with 115km of that being the most desolate part of the country you're likely to find. There is a water point situated at the Tankwa Padstal which is 70 km away. During the day this section is brutally hot and there's normally a demoralising headwind. But during the hours of darkness you've a better chance of it being cool with little chance of a headwind. Over the years I've tackled it in daylight and at night and it's a proper Jekyll and Hyde. My daytime excursions have been traumatic while my nighttime sorties have been okay apart from rampaging sleep monsters.
Time to head out. In spite of my concerns no other riders have arrived. At the top of the driveway I look back down the trail and there are no lights to be seen. The Tankwa River Lodge is located in the Northern Cape. It's 20 kilometres to the provincial border of the Western Cape. My rear tyre is a bit flat and I make a note to pump it up when I get to the next gate.
The first gate comes up as I leave the district road to start cutting across farmland. I prop my bike against the fence and close the gate. I pop the end of my pump over the tyre valve and seconds later my tyre is completely flat. Now I understand what Martin meant when he said the pump was useless. It seems the one way valve in the pump head isn't doing it's job. After fishing out an inflator cartridge and getting the tyre back to operating pressure I stow the dysfunctional pump and hop back on my steed.
Access to the Western Cape is via a gnarly jeep track that is the hardest climb of the race. It's only 2km and on fresh legs it's a rideable albeit tough pedal. I haven't had fresh legs for days so I ride up about a quarter of the way and push the rest. I'm wearing carbon soled shoes and I'm reminded afresh why I use flexible soled shoes for the Freedom Challenge. These carbon shoes really are rubbish for walking in. Fortunately there's very little walking required on this race and some riders don't walk at all. As I stomp up the track I'm constantly looking back to see if I can see any chasing lights. In spite of being 99% certain of getting a top 10 finish I've started to consider that I might be able to finish well inside the top 10 so the last thing I want to see is a bunch of guys chasing me down. It's a moonless night and there are no lights to be seen, bike or otherwise. I reckon that from up on the mountain I'm able to see a bike light as far away as 10 km's if not more.
Satisfied that I've got a decent gap I mount my bike and pick my way down the rock strewn jeep track. As it flattens out I know I've only got another 45 km to get to the Padstal. From memory I know the track all the way there is in good condition with few climbs or challenging bits. I pop my earphones in, get music playing and drop onto my aero bars. I turn my bike light up a notch and scan ahead constantly on the lookout for sandy patches. At night sand is all but impossible to see. However, I can see the tyre tracks left by the riders ahead of me. Running into a sand trap at speed while crouched over your aero bars can dampen euphoria in the blink of an eye.
It's windless and I'm enjoying the cool night. Having done this section many times I'm able to tick off the various landmarks as they rush through the bubble cast by my bike light.
As I pass a small steel shed I smile at the memory of my time here last year. I got here 10 hours quicker which meant I caught it at its worst. The temps were in the high 40's. I was low on water and what water I had was so hot it was undrinkable. This is where I hatched the plan to cool my bottles with a wet buff which was the precursor to my BottleSox. The wind was blowing something fierce whipping up the sand and stinging my legs, arms and face. It was blowing slightly across and I battled to keep my bike on the track. I was crawling along at around 10 km/h as I drew level with the shed. I saw 2 dogs asleep in the shade of the shed and it looked like the best idea ever. I stopped, propped my bike against the shed and lay down next to the dogs on a pile of what I assume were sheep dropping. It didn't matter what they were because they were comfortable. In no time at all the three of us were fast asleep in the narrow ribbon of shadow cast by the shed. I woke up a while later crisping in the full glare of the sun. My sleeping buddies had abandoned me. I found them in the shade on the other side of the shed. It's then that I knew we'd never be friends. What a difference 10 hours can make. This time I breezed past the shed feeling content which passes for absolute joy in these events.
A distant farm light peeps over the horizon which means I'm getting close to the district road that'll take me to the Tankwa Padstal.
I'm through the last gate and onto the road and a sign indicates that it's only 3 km to the shop. The water point is hosted in the adjacent community hall. As I make my way along the road I notice bright red lights up ahead to my left. I can't figure out what they are or even how far away they are. I know I've still got almost 3km to get to the hall but the lights seem a lot closer. I've no idea what I'm looking at and am further confused when as I pedal they dont appear to get any closer. I've ridden 2.5km from the gate when I see smaller flashing red lights that indicate the turnoff to the water point. Now I can see what the bright red lights are. They are the lights of an ambulance that's parked outside the hall. They've obviously left them on as a beacon for us night stalkers.
Michael and Carol-Ann Jeffrey are once again on duty at WP10. This has to be the toughest water point to look after on the entire route. Firstly it's the last one (Ceres is the last Race Village) and it's located is the harshest place imaginable. Day time temperatures get into the high 40's and it's deep into the night before the temperature in the tin roofed structure drops to anything one could call comfortable. As a consequence you'll find them sitting outside until late at night. The first riders come through around the 48 hour mark and the last limp in approaching the 120 hour race cut-off. They are essentially on duty for 70 hours. There's no time off. In spite of this Michael and Carol-Ann are welcoming and friendly.
As I pull up Michael comes out to meet me and says, "Aren't you cold?" I hadn't even thought about that. I look at my watch and it's just after 2am. That's a good enough reason for it to have cooled down. It's 20°C but compared to the heat we've been through it does feel delightfully nippy.
Sunday, 29 December 2019
I always associate Sutherland with Sarah Atmore who has been the Race Village lead every year. When I arrive I know I'm not going to see her this year because I saw her back in Bloemfontein. This year she's on her bike making her way to the finish via Sutherland. In her place we have Evan and Albert who have maintained the congenial atmosphere I've become accustomed to.
The plan is to get into a bed and bank 90 minutes sleep. I have a cup of tea and then head to a room. I'll eat later. The less stimulation I have now the better. I shower, wash my riding kit, and get on a bed. I set my alarm for 90 minutes and instead of sleeping I toss and turn. Even though sleep doesn't come I'm in no hurry to head back into the wind.
Eventually I get dressed and wander through to the dining area. Martin has arrived and I see him on the massage table. I check the register and see that John hasn't left.
The food is good and goes down easily. I chase that down with tea and then coffee. I'm still aware of the wind outside and put my usual Race Village turn around haste on hold and have another cup of coffee. It's going to be a long night.
If I leave now I'll be in 5th place. I've got John and Martin under my nose and they are both quicker. I've no idea where the others are but assume Dana and Michael are within striking distance. Even if all these guys catch and pass me that'll still allow me to achieve my objective of finishing in the top 10.
The wind is still blowing hard but I figure if I get out an hour ahead of the other two that'll give me a 10 or 12 kilometre lead. The riders still making their way into Sutherland are battling into the wind so will need time to recharge.
I head out of town on a tar road knowing that soon I'll be bumping along the worst corrugations of the entire race. It's not terribly windy but Sutherland is in a wind shadow and I'll be climbing out of that shelter within a few kilometres. As I leave the tar road it's soon obvious that the anticipated bumpy road is indeed in terrible shape.
Corrugations are worse on climbs. Consequently it makes sense to ride up a climb on the right side of the road and then switch back to the left on the downside. That is unless the road is in such poor condition that the cars are adopting this same strategy. Cars also take the inside line on corners in both directions and that is where you find the wave sized corrugations. As you approach a corner you need to get up on the outer high side. The dirt road climbing out of Sutherland snakes as it makes it's way around the mountain and corners are steeply banked. It's a mission trying to keep to the upper side as it switches left and right. In places there is no gap in the monster corrugations so you have to trek across them to gain the upper line. There are sections of edge to edge corrugations where there is no good line.
And then there's the matter of cars. Ideally, when you see them coming you move to the side that'll keep you clear of their dust. Sometimes it's a choice between choking dust or rattling corrugations. It's exhausting and the wind, strengthening as I climb away from town, isn't helping.
I battle on and soon there's more good surface than bad. The sun is kissing the horizon as I drop down the final climb before deviating from the district road and tackling the farm section. The farm section has a couple of stiff climbs but I don't mind as this section is tucked into a valley below the summit of the Ouberg Pass and I'm happy to trade the nagging head wind for a few big efforts.
It's getting dark as I pass the last house on the farm. The lights are on and I see someone moving about inside. It's surreal. That sounds odd but apart from passing vehicles and people at water points and race village there has been a dearth of things with heartbeats—human or animal. I've seen more animal carcasses than live ones and apart from those places mentioned above I can count on one hand the people I have seen in the last 60 hours. Obviously there are people on the farms but I've seen so few out and about. I guess with the drought farming activity is at a low ebb.
Just before I reach the farm gate at the top of the Ouberg Pass I stop to turn my lights on. I look back and see a light. It looks like a bike light but I can't be sure. At a guess I'd say it's 15 minutes away at most. I start down the pass. The wind has abated and it's a pleasant evening. The plains of the Tankwa Karoo lay 1000m below. The next 23 kilometres are all downhill. It starts with a dozen switchbacks where the road is mostly good with occasional rocky and washed out sections. Then it opens up and it's a smooth fast ride.
As the road levels out and I'm about to start the climb up to the next water point at Tankwa River Lodge I see bright lights up ahead. It's a guy on a bike. He pulls up and rides next to me and explains that he's from the lodge. The internet connection at the lodge has gone on the blink so he's ridden back along the route to see if there are riders coming in. I guess from his vantage point he could see me coming a long way off.
We chat as we ride along and soon we are dropping down the driveway at the lodge.
Saturday, 28 December 2019
There are a couple of good climbs with a challenging climb up to the entrance of SALT — Southern African Large Telescope. After that it's a long fast descent into Sutherland on a good tar road so I mentally subtract those 14 km because they are free. So I'm looking at an effort just shy of 50 km. That's doable. Cue Robert Burns, "The best-laid plans of mice and men..."
I check I have all my kit as I don't want a repeat of 2 years back when I left my gloves on the table and had a grumpy ride back to fetch them. Everything is accounted for and either fitted or stowed.
It's warming up but there's a breeze to keep it under control. Unfortunately it's a headwind. This section is where you start racking up vertical gain. The total vertical gain for the race is a smidgen under 6000m and I've done half of that in 745km. The other half is shoehorned into the remaining 335km.
As I get to the top of the first climb I can see the mountains where the telescope is located. They rise up like a fortress taunting me. The landscape between where I am and those mountains is dry as a bone. As dry as the many sheep skeletons I see up against the fences. The road ribbons away across the scorched red earth thinning as it goes until almost imperceptible. It's far and I need to ride every metre of it. And then the fortress awaits.
I crank up one climb after another each time I crest it seems I'm giving away all my vertical gain as I drop into another desolate valley.
It's getting hot and I've already used up 2 of my bottles. As I head through a cutting I notice a windmill off to my right but it far off the road and the terrain would mean complex routing to access it. Below me to my left there's a water trough. I figure the only source of water for the trough must be the windmill and reservoir on the opposite side of the road. I dismount and make my way down to the water trough. Predictably the water is manky but It has a float valve controlling the water level. I push down on the ball and water gushes. Carefully positioning a bottle I half fill it and inspect the contents. There are no tadpoles or nasty bits floating around so I fill both bottles and head back to my bike. That's one less thing to worry about.
Ahead the road rises sharply. Finally I've started the climb that'll take me to the top. Oops, wrong. As I freewheel down the other side there are four things of note. Firstly, off to my right, perched high up on a mountain I see the SALT observatory. Secondly, in the distance is the anticipated gnarly climb. Thirdly I see a cyclist. They are probably no more than 1 to 2 km ahead but they may as well be 10 times that distance because my final observation is that the wind has turned ugly. Very ugly.
I'm reduced to a crawl by the gusting menace. In a race of over 1000 km I'm riding in 150 metre increments. My goal is riding twenty fence posts at a time. I'm trying not to think about how slow I'm moving. In spite of my pathetic pace I'm gaining on the rider ahead.
The rider ahead starts up the final climb 500m ahead of me. I crank up slowly behind them. It's John. Nearing the top I pass him. His reduced pace is a clear indication that he's struggling. No words pass between us. There's nothing I can say to alleviate his struggle. Likewise I'm engaged in my own personal skirmish.
Eventually the gravel road gives way to tar near the entrance to SALT and I'm eagerly anticipating the drop into town. The wind at the top of the climb is worse. It seems we were in the leeward side of the mountain on the climb. As the road angles down I stop pedalling and instead of freewheeling down the mountain I come to a stop. This isn't how it's supposed to go. Instead of a 14km freewheel into town I'm forced to fight for every metre.
Looking behind I see John is dropping further back. I also see a truck coming. Normally I hate traffic but the truck will give me break from the wind albeit briefly. I'll settle for even 5 seconds of shelter from the wind. As the truck rumbles by my speed doubles but I'm still going less than 20 km/h. Within seconds I'm back to single digits.
At least now I'm able to use telephone poles as distance targets rather than fence posts. I've never appreciated before just how far apart telephone poles can be. A few kilometres from town I've lost sufficient altitude that the wind while still strong isn't threatening to push me back up the mountain.
Arriving in town I delay my arrival at the support station by popping into a shop and buying a buddy Coke. I need to reward myself for winning the battle even though I'm feeling more tattered than victorious.
Thursday, 26 December 2019
This section can be either thoroughly enjoyable or soul destroying. I'm here early in the morning and the sun behind me lights the barren landscape in golden hues. It's not as hot as the previous 2 days and I'm feeling upbeat. That translates into a good ride. A few years back I went through this section in late afternoon. It was windy and the sun was in my face. That coupled with the late afternoon heat made it torturous. To make matters worse I also happened to be listening to the audio book The Martian. At that stage of the story Watney was in his modified rover trundling over the desolate surface of the red planet. Looking out over the barren landscape ahead I had a sense of how bleak Watney felt.
If you were to poll the riders on their best and worst sections of the race you'd get widely differing views. Factors such as weather, fatigue, time of day, degree of sleep deprivation and mental state contribute to endless permutations of fun or fret.
A few climbs test the top end of my cassette but they are short and are soon behind me. A large donga halfway across demands I take care where I place my front wheel. I ride through a farm yard and I'm back on a good farm road that leads to another farmhouse where in the shade of a tree the family have placed a cooler box filled with ice cold water. I stop and enjoy the freshness of the water mindful that this family doesn't have to do this for the nameless faceless riders who pass by their house at all hours of day and night. Yet, every year I have ridden this way the cooler box and clean glasses are waiting on the table under the tree. It's a welcome gift.
I make my way through a couple of gates that route me around sheep pens and a few kilometres later I'm back on the district road to Sutherland. I've got 7 km's to get to the WP8 at Celeryfontein. The road is in good condition and it's easy riding. I think about what it would have been like to ride on this road all the way from Fraserburg and I'm not disappointed that I've ridden through the farms. The farm detour has added 8 km's but it has allowed me to feel the pulse of this land. It's not all about roads merely being spokes that connect a myriad small towns. These towns are there because of the farms and families that are dispersed across this landscape. We have the privilege of seeing their homesteads and riding across their farms. We see the evidence of their endeavours to get water to people and livestock by way of windmills, reservoirs, kilometres of pipes and water troughs. It's easy to be trite about the saying "water is life" but when you've experienced the befuddlement and desperation of dehydration with the uncertain prospect of when you're going to get your next mouthful of water you see windmills in a different light.
It's not yet midday when I arrive at WP8. It's not too hot and the threatened wind has yet to show it's face. The water point is set up on the expanse of lawn in front of the cape dutch farmhouse. I chat to the farm manager while I make coffee and sort my bottles out. There's a serenity about Celeryfontein that's hard to explain. It's an emotional oasis.
Wednesday, 25 December 2019
I make my way through the farm and see the new container accommodation that's been built at Saaifontein. Its impressive. Right now it's in darkness as no one has yet made use of the facility. I'm sure it's going to be put to good use over the next few days.
I'm back on the district road and the eastern horizon is showing signs of a new day dawning. I ride along Iooking back occasionally for signs of Martin's light. Even though we are deep into the race and our positions are unlikely to change significantly the thought of bagging the lowest numbered medal possible makes me scamper away from those chasing and dig a little deeper if I see a rider up ahead. I imagine it's ingrained in all of us whether we are front, middle or back of the field riders. The expectation of seeing Martins light spurs me to greater effort. It gives me heightened purpose and makes me unlikely sleep monster quarry.
First objective is to get to Fraserburg. It's neither a race village nor a water point but if you arrive in daylight there is a cafe where you can restock. It comes bang in the middle of RV3 (Loxton) and RV4 (Sutherland). Hopefully JJ's Cafe will be open when I get there because I could do with a bag of salted crisps and an ice cream. The thought of ice cream tumbles around in my head for all 47kms of the straight lumpy road. As I crest each lump I'm hopeful that I will be able to see town. It comes two lumps further than anticipated. The final run into town is a corrugated mess but with my ice cream quest within reach I'm not fazed.
I reach the outskirts of town and it occurs to me that it's still early and JJ's might not be open. I see a lone figure walking in the middle of the road up ahead. Apart from him the place looks deserted. I skip through a stop street without slowing and am promptly chastised by the lone figure. The absurdity of it makes me laugh out loud.
JJ's looms. Ah, the door is open. Disappointment averted. JJ's Cafe—or Jj's Cafe per the sign outside—is not your average suburban neighbourhood convenience store. But it's convenient in that it's on the route through town and in years past riders have banged on the closed door at night and managed to rouse the proprietor. That qualifies as Convenient with a capital C.
The entrance is barely shoulder wide and squeezing through there's no doubt that I'm not in a Woolies Food store and that's okay because there are no queues and I only have eyes for 3 things: Ice cream, salted crisps and Coke. Coke and Almond Magnum ice cream are easy to find. Salted crisps present more of a challenge. Mrs Ball's Chutney or Spring Onion & Cheese flavours are not going to cut it. It's obvious that Salted is best because it's sold out. Well, sold out in the 36g size. A party pack will have to do.
A gent, who may or may not be JJ, is seated behind the counter by the door. He either has a penchant for sitting on small stools or suffers from acrophobia as only his head is visible above the counter. I pay and we make monosyllabic small talk.
"How are you."
"Fine thanks. You?"
Interesting chap. He couldn't be accused of being overtly vivacious or rude. He's right in the middle of that spectrum. It's like he's only there to facilitate efficient transactions. Much like a parking meter.
I squeeze through the door and take up position with my back against the wall of the shop facing the morning sun. The lone guy has left town no doubt affronted by my lack of civility and I have the whole street to myself. That is until Erik turns up. We chat, he snaps away with his camera and leaves town with the remnants of my party pack of crisps.
It's a beautiful morning and the wind has yet to pick up. It is in fact the perfect morning to go for a bike ride and I'm about to do just that.
Tuesday, 24 December 2019
"It's Lemos, like Oros but lemon flavoured," comes the reply.
It's the first time I've heard of Lemos and I'm an instant fan. Who knows, maybe it's not actually that good but it's a lot better than what I have been getting. Although the Oros at the last WP was awesome and Oros is my bike drink of choice. Bottles are filled and placed back on the bike.
A huge plate of food is presented and I dispatch it without mercy. It's a lot easier to eat in the cool of night.
"Do you know the wind is going to pick up later?" asks Ingrid.
"I know it's supposed to pick up a bit but how bad. Better or worse than today?"
"How far down the route?"
"Sutherland and maybe further."
"Then I'm going to ride until I drop."
I need to knock off the 213km to Sutherland before I think about getting into a bed. The hour's sleep I got in the feed shed earlier should see me through. I expect I might have to have the occasional road side power nap between now and when the sun comes up and that's okay.
I check my phone and see that Janine Stewart, who was the front lady, has scratched from the race. She's as tough as nails so she must be in a bad way to scratch. I'm told there are over 30 withdrawals so far. I expect that once the sun comes up there are going to be more bikes that will make the short trip from lodgings to car bike rack.
I sign out and notice that I'm now in 6th position. John left just before I arrived which puts him 34 minutes ahead.
The first section is new and keeps me engaged lowering the risk of nodding off. A few zigs and zags and I'm on the district road that leads to Fraserburg. It's about 95km to Fraserburg with WP7 situated halfway. Navigational challenge = 0/10. Chance of nodding off = 10/10.
I've only gone a few kilometres and I'm struggling to keep my eyes open. My audio book while interesting is no longer having the desired effect. I stop and sit next to the road and close my eyes for 3 minutes. I've no intention of sleeping. I've found sometimes simply by cutting all stimulation for a few minutes I'm able to shake off the need to sleep. I'm up and about and for the next 15km's I'm okay.
I'm still 20 km's from the water point when I start nodding off. I pull off to the right side of the road where there's a clear drainage ditch and sleep for 20 minutes. When I wake up I'm perplexed at the direction my bike is facing. As a rule I always sleep on the left side of the road. I'm standing there assuming I have slept on the left side and my bike is facing backwards. I remind myself that I would have left my bike pointing in the direction I must travel. Then I remember pulling off on the right hand side and the fog lifts. I remount and make my way to the water point.
Think about this. WP7 is hosted in the double garage of the farmhouse at Saaifontein. I've rocked up there at 4am and the farmer and one of his children are awake and ready to help. They don't wake up as I get there. They have anticipated my arrival time and set an alarm—which I delayed by having a power nap—and are up and ready when I arrive. They make coffee and help fill bottles. There's food and the normal energy gels, snack bars and drinks. There are only 5 people ahead of me and their arrival times at this water point have been spread out over 8 hours. The ant trail of riders behind me is already tailing back 300km's. The farmer and his family have been serving riders since sunset, it's now 4 am and they will keep this up for the next 2 days. When's the last time you hopped out of bed at 4 am to sort out a tired, hungry and smelly visitor who'll be gone in 10 mins?
Folk like this and others spread across the length of the route are the heartbeat of this event.
Sunday, 22 December 2019
I wake to the sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel outside the shed. It's Erik. I've been asleep for an hour. I check the temperature and it's still in the 40's. I'm not going anywhere right now. I shift closer to the door where there's some air movement. I've no idea how many people have ridden past while I was sleeping. As I lie there waiting for it to cool off I see Martin, Michael and 1 other as they ride through. None of them stop to get water from the tap. I'm told later that the windmill that refused to help me was gushing water when they got there. There's another reason they might be skipping the tap. As they round the corner by the farmhouse my bike is visible on the right hand side of the driveway and the tap is directly opposite. They are so busy looking my way that they don't see the tap.
It's 17h15. I check the temperature. It's now only 39°C. I've been here for 2 hours. It's time to get moving.
Although it's marginally cooler and the wind, while still blowing, has lost a bit of its venom, the sun is closer to the horizon and reflects harshly off the sparsely vegetated landscape. The next 42km's to WP6 at the farm Pampoenpoort is not particularly challenging nor is it particularly inspiring as it's devoid of landmarks. There are 2 sections across farm roads that empty out on a long straight district road that ends at the junction where the farm is located.
I wind along the jeep track that takes me to a district road that serves as a small link to the next farm track. This next section is tedious. It's into the wind, rough in places, straight as an arrow and mostly uphill. Martin pops up just in front of me. He deviated from the route to get water from a farm house—he obviously didn't see the tap at my farm shed Airbnb. Up ahead I see 2 specks which I assume are riders. Martin and I ride in proximity of each other until we get to the final district road. I stop to rearrange my water bottles and dampen my BottleSox. He wiggles ahead.
One road and 23km to go. Add a gentle gradient, a headwind, a dollop or two of fatigue and bake for 75 minutes. As simple as that I'm in at WP 6 as the sun is setting. Martin arrived there a few minutes ahead of me in the company of Michael and James. I've no idea where James came from and thinking back it must have been him I saw passing me while I was in the shed. I thought he was far ahead.
There's a crowd gathering. Erik and a few others whom I assume are medics are on the front lawn trying to get a photographic drone to cooperate and it doesn't look successful. It's squatting on the lawn winking at them. Apart from the 3 riders who arrived just ahead of me Dana is still here. John who passed me a few kilometres before the abhorrent windmill has already pushed through. I'm glad. He caught up to me while I was negotiating a gate and told me he was going on the charge. We did the fist bump thing and wished each other a good and safe ride. He then scuttled off at a pace I envied.
Pampoenpoort at 524 km is just shy of halfway in the race. It comes at a critical point. In order to prevail in ultra endurance racing you need a quiver stocked with a variety of arrows. In the first few hours of the race all you need is speed. Being hot as it was the next is the ability to cope with the heat. After that it's about managing your nutrition and hydration and then the game changes once you need to deal with sleep deprivation. Pampoenpoort is where sleep or rather the lack of it and how you manage it becomes a critical component of the race.
Michael is busy loading up with tucker while James and Martin are more interested in finding a quiet spot with a mattress. Dana is sitting on the patio watching the guys trying to coax signs of life from the immobile winking drone.
Our hosts are ultra helpful and friendly which gives the place a good buzz. They have Oros orange squash and I waste no time filling my bottles with it. I'm tired of weak lemon flavoured sports drink.
Bottles sorted my thoughts turn to food. Apart from a wide assortment of dinner type food they have Weet-Bix and for the first time in the race I've laid eyes on food that I know is going to slide down my throat without effort. I pop a few bix into a bowl, pour over milk and coat them generously with sugar. They are so good! I brew a coffee and press repeat on another bowl of Weet-Bix. Now fortified I'm ready for the ride into Loxton.
Michael is out the door 5 minutes ahead of me and Dana is busy readying his bike as I leave. With the other 2 looking to nap that means I'm back on the road in 7th place.
It's 71km to the next Race Village and it's predominantly uphill. This section hasn't been kind to me over the years. I've been swarmed by sleep monsters when going through at night and fried by the sun during the day. I've no fond memories of this section and head into it with the enthusiasm of an Australian soldier ordered over the top at the battle Gallipoli.
I'm 8 kilometres out of the water point and I can see a bike light behind me. I'm nodding off and I'm looking for somewhere to lie down. I'm off my bike watching Dana close the gap and zoom past. To his question I reply that I'm okay. I'm watching his rear light recede and decide that I may as well chase after it as it'll give me something to focus on rather than being cocooned in the hypnotic arc of my bike light.
It's working well. I can see his light up ahead and I can also see the arc of light thrown by his front light which means I'm quite close. By focusing on his lights I can anticipate the turn, rise and fall of the road ahead. I'm not tired anymore.
25 kays along the road the wind has picked up and it looks like we're in for a storm. I don't mind at all because the blustery wind is coming over my right shoulder which means it's giving me some assistance. Every now and then it tries to push me off the left side of the road but that's a small price to pay.
The 47km to the tar road before Loxton is knocked off without drama. Well, no drama for me. Dana isn't as lucky. As I get to the tar road he is standing there in agony. His knees are paying the price for his speed. He looks toward the lights of Loxton and asks how long it'll take. I tell him it's at least 45 mins and then a further 15 to get to the Race Village on the other side of town. He looks bemused. I explain that to get to town we can't take the tar road but have to weave through a myriad paths and tracks. He doesn't look impressed. He's out of water so I fill one of his bottles as I've still got 3 full bottles.
With Dana in tow I head through the farm maze that eventually empties into the middle of Loxton. We get on to the road out of town and make our way toward Jakhalsdans Karoo Guesthouse 5 kilometres further on. A kilometre out of town we see a light coming toward us. It's Michael.
"What's up?" I ask.
"Wasn't sure if it's the right way. I don't want to ride 8 kilometres the wrong way and then have to ride back," Michael replies.
He turns and the three of us keep riding. At first Michael is riding strong but soon he starts falling behind. He's battling to stay awake.
We navigate the convoluted approach to the guesthouse and locate the barn tucked away in the farm complex where we are greeted by Ingrid who has been part of the race furniture since the first edition in 2015. We sign the register and Dana and Michael indicate they're in need of a shower and a bed. I'm going to gobble and go.
It's just after midnight so we've been going for 36 hours. At 595 km we are over halfway so it must be all downhill from here.
Saturday, 21 December 2019
The Britstown Race Village is located in the Transkaroo Country Lodge. Our race lead is Philip Kleijnhans who is assisted by Paul Krynauw both of whom have done the Munga and therefore understand our sleep deprivation induced ramblings and indecisiveness. The mechanics are on hand and my bike gets a chain-lube-and-go service.
The first thing I notice as I make my way into the dining room is a grubby looking Michael. He is covered in dust, his riding shirt is torn and there's evidence that he has made a blood offering to the trail gods. It seems he ran out of talent while zooming along crouched over his aero bars. Gravel, sand and corrugations are always keen to take advantage of sleep deprived riders and they snagged a big one this morning. He looks sore but waves it off. Tough competitor.
Philip's enthusiasm cuts through my exhaustion as he makes sure I get whatever I need—he's more keen to get me out the door than I am to leave. What I actually require is an appetite. Hotel staff stand ready to dish up bacon, eggs, sausages, toast and a few other options. It looks heavy and complicated. I settle for coffee, a slice of toast and scrambled eggs. It's all I can manage.
I sit next to John Ntuli and ask him, "Are you a little faster or a lot faster than me?" His immediate response is, "I'm a lot faster."
I nod my head in agreement. Then I say, "Then why are you sitting next to me?" We chat a bit and I tell him he needs to use his speed and move ahead with purpose so he can chase down Sithembiso. John nods. He gets up and heads to the foyer to sign out.
I'm ready to leave and hear Martin ordering tea. Sounds like a good idea. I ask them to double up that order. I head to the little boys room to freshen up my chamois cream and as I'm crossing back through the foyer I come face to face with Paul. He's standing in front of me with keys in his extended hand. "Room 32" he says handing me the keys. I'm not firing on all cylinders so I've no idea what's going on and I'm standing there trying to filter this new information. Fortunately Philip is nearby and interjects, "He doesn't need a room, he's pushing on." Now it's Paul's turn to look perplexed. I guess he's got me and Jean mixed up. The moment passes and I return to the dining room with my butt freshly greased.
There's a pot of tea on the table and Martin has filled his cup. There's no spare cup. I'm too tired to hunt down a cup but Philip once again comes to my rescue. The waitron says she brought 2 cups. It's then that I notice a hotel guest at an adjacent table looking a little sheepish as they sip their coffee.
With my tea dispatched I have no further business so I sign out and hit the road. I do notice that Michael and Jean have opted to sleep and Martin is still busy so just like that I've jumped from 11th place to 8th.
The first few kilometres out of town are on tar. Apart from wanting to get away from the traffic I'm keen to escape the heat radiating off the road surface. The wind is also picking up.
Leaving the tar there's a rocky/sandy/corrugated jeep track that heads over a nek before dropping down to the Smartt Syndicate Dam. It's a dreadful jeep track. In places it's easier to thread through the bush next to the track.
At the top of the climb I realise I haven't made any videos since the race started. I stop in the shade of a thorn tree and retrieve my phone. My phones front facing microphone is broken so I have to use my earphones for audio. I record a short clip and then spend 10 minutes waiting for it to download to Whatsapp. See the clip here https://youtu.b b e/o4GXQN0-eis
While I'm watching the download progress bar limp across the screen Martin rides past, "Cramping again?"
I wobble off after Martin holding my phone in one hand while trying to navigate the wretched jeep track. Eventually it indicates a successful download by which time I've already decided that I'm not making any more videos.
I cross the wall of the dam that's been a dust bowl in every one of the 5 years I've ridden this way. The imagery is bleak. Once you leave Britstown you're in the worst part of the Karoo as far as the drought conditions are concerned. And that stretches almost 600km to just before Ceres in the Western Cape. Everything lacks vibrancy and the landscape is painted in hues of depressive brown. It's hot and my ears are ringing.
I come across Martin who is having ongoing issues with his back tyre since he flatted just before Vanderkloof. "Do you have a bomb?" he asks. I tell him that continuous bombing is going to curdle his tyre sealant and compound his problems. He doesn't have a hand pump so I toss mine to him and tell him he can give it back to me once he catches up. There's no point standing there watching because he is quicker and will catch up in no time.
I make it to the Steenkamps farm which is WP5. There I gobble down countless wedges of watermelon and glug down cup after cup of Fanta, Coke and iced water. I even manage to dispatch 2 muffins. I'm told that Martin and Janine Stewart are about 18 kilometres behind me. Hmm, obviously my pump was as much use as lockjaw. At least Martin has Janine to help out. She knows her way around a bike. I've seen her step up and sort out all manner of bike problems over the years.
We are sitting in the shade of a thatched lapa. Right next to us is a pool/reservoir the size of an large urban garden. It's brimming with ice cold water. Over the years riders have taken the opportunity to plunge in and cool off. I'm tempted but don't want to wet my bib shorts and socks to the extent that I might start chaffing once I'm back on the bike. So we sit there chatting. Me, the Steenkamp family (sans Mr Steenkamp who is distributing feed to his sheep) and John Ntuli.
I think about catching 40 winks on a mattress that's placed on the lawn in the shade of a tree. There's not much space as a medic has already commandeered 90% of the mattress real estate. He is spread eagled and out cold. I rest my head on a disused corner of the mattress and after a few minutes give up any hope of falling asleep. I'm obviously not as exhausted as the medic that I can ignore the heat.
I'm on my bike and ahead of John. I get back to the road as Martin pulls up. He points to his camelback where he has stashed my pump. "It was useless", he says. What can I say? I retrieve the pump and stow it on my bike. "Janine's just behind me," says Martin and rides into the farm. I look back down the road. There's no sign of Janine
I glance at my watch. Exactly midday. It's oppressively hot and I know it's going to get worse over the next few hours. I've been on the go for 24 hours. I think of the conversation I had with Benky at breakfast yesterday—the smack talk about tough conditions suiting us. Well it's time to toughen up. I clip in and head off.
It's a couple of kays along the district road before we head through the farms. I'm not looking forward to the farm section. The track alternates between corrugations, loose gravel and sandpits. And then there's the gates. Gate after gate after gate. There are probably less than a dozen but it feels like a hundred. They break your rhythm and it's a real hassle trying to balance your bike while unlatching and latching gates. The next challenge is that you can see forever. Forever's great if all you want to do is look at it, but the route through the farms takes us across this endless void to a clump of trees appearing as a mere speck on the distant horizon.
The wind has picked up and dust devils mingled with dust clouds swirl across the landscape in a drunken frenzy. The corrugations are worst than previous years. As I get to the farm gate Mr Steenkamp himself exits the farm in his bakkie pulling a massive fodder trailer. The monster corrugations eventually give way to sandpits which tear at my legs.
Eventually I spy 2 windmills. One is directly ahead on my route and the other is off to my right on what used to be the route. My head is throbbing from the heat and sweat is running into my eyes. I'm trying to figure out which of the 2 windmills will give me water and shade. I opt for the one straight ahead even though it's slightly further it's at the end of the farm track section and means I won't have to backtrack. I've stopped there before when it was the location of an official water point so I know there's water and shade. I arrive there and notice that there's no water pulsing out of the pipe into the reservoir. The top of the reservoir is chin height. I look inside. There's about a foot of water and a few million bugs swimming around. I touch the end of the pipe running into the reservoir and it's damp. That means it does work. The windmill is about 30 metres away. I sit in the shade of a pepper tree with my back against the reservoir watching the windmill. Every now and then it starts spinning up then as if exhausted from the effort it promptly stops turning. It's not like the wind's not blowing. It just seems disinterested in my problems.
There're a tangle of pipes coming from the windmill and I play my eyes over them and eventually conclude that the reservoir is the most likely destination for any water it might pump. But there's still no water.
The sun has shifted so I need to move. The ground is hostile. It's not like there are thorns or killer ants and scorpions. It's just... not nice. I try brushing a spot clear and shift over. I've learnt over the years that farm reservoirs offer 3 things: water, shade from adjacent trees, and flies. Lots of flies. It seems flies like water and salt. I'm a convenient salt lick. I wish the windmill would whirl up and deliver water so I can get away from these inconsiderate pests. I'm alternating my gaze from the windmill to the track over the farm. I'm fully expecting to see Martin and Janine heading my way.
I've been here 30 minutes and not a drop of water. I'm down to 2 bottles of water and I've worked out that it's 12km to the next occupied farmhouse which has a tap I can access. I dampen my Bottlesox with the dodgy water from the reservoir. I'm good to go. Only 12km. All flat. No climbing. How hard can that be.
The wind is into my face and it feels like someone has opened a furnace door. I count the distance down in 100m increments. All the while I'm looking for signs of the trees that surround the farmhouse. My Garmin is showing the temperature in the early 50's but it's exaggerating. I'm worried that it's going to overheat and turn off so I rig up a cover with a buff. This keeps direct sunlight off the unit and facilities airflow over the unit. I just need to lift the edge and I can see if I'm on track or not.
Finally I see the trees and before too long I'm gulping down cool water from the farmyard tap. This is an opportune time to bank some sleep. Rather sleep while it's hot and make use of the cooler nights. I'm tired enough now to sleep even though it's hot. I see a shady spot on the lawn but it's on the wrong side of a garden fence. Then I see on open door of a shed that looks like it's the workshop. It's grubby but out of the sun. I see one of the employees and ask him if I can sit inside. Instead he opens up a feed room next door. It's clean and he points to a pile of empty polypropylene feed bags and says I can lay on them. A quick look at my Garmin. It's 47°C in the shed. I fashion a mattress and without bothering to set an alarm I lay down. Before long I'm lights out.
Friday, 20 December 2019
I recall an incident last year when I was riding with someone who self identifies as an average Joe—his pronouns are Slow/Steady. We were doing a time trial and he got off ahead of me. It took 45 minutes of maximal effort to chase him down. As I edged past he was surprised to see that I was huffing and puffing with rivulets of sweat running down my unsmiling face. He said I looked as broken as he felt. Apparently this was a revelation to him. It certainly wasn't to me. Suffering on a bike is what I and many others do all the time. It's seldom giggles and high fives.
What sets these top guys apart is their deep fitness. The acquisitional cost for their fitness is measured in hundreds of hours of training. But don't confuse that with a lack of exhaustion. Fitness after all is not the absence of exhaustion but rather the presence of recovery.
One by one these guys drag themselves to their feet and get back on their bikes and ride off as if they have just started their Saturday morning training ride.
A few start ahead of me and I see their winking tail lights. At this stage of the race I'm no longer surprised as I watch them pull away. Soon I am unable to see their lights. Partly because of the distance and mostly because the eastern horizon has released its hold on the sun.
Martin inches past me. Jean is next and he obviously comes from a decimalised country because he doesn't inch past, he metres past me. Not long after Michael McDermott comes flying past at a rate that defies belief. He is hunched over his aero bars and is mashing his pedals as if he's late for the Black Thursday specials in Britstown.
Jean and Martin's exuberance settles and I'm able to match their pace albeit 400m behind. Michael doesn't ease off and is soon out of sight.
Most of us regroup at the farmhouse that serves as WP4. The stash of goodies are served from a table set up on the farmhouse veranda. It's a fresh morning and the sun hasn't yet turned it's fury on us and the air is eerily still. It seems like a great day to ride a bike except it's only 6am. A peek at the weather App lets me know we're set for a good battle. Among the riders there's no hurry to get moving. I get done and leave first. I'm happy to trickle along knowing that the rest of the platoon will be along shortly.
It's 52km from WP3 to RV2 in Britstown. 30km of that is along a single road. As you start you see a distance board wired to the fence. It says 30.0. 30 kilometres is a long way when you've been on the go for 18 hours. You pedal along and an eventually you see 29.0. This either encourages or depresses you depending on your perception of how far you have ridden. I've spoken to lots of people about this phenomenon and it seems we react the same way. As you see a board coming up you try not look at it. Ideally you are eventually going to look at a board and be really surprised that you are many kilometres further along than you thought. This seldom happens and in spite of your intentions you end up glancing at every board and it's seldom encouraging.
I crest a climb and see 3 riders standing on the road. It's John, Jean and Martin. John tries to flag me down but I ignore him. He's already engaged in conversation with the other 2 so what help will I be. As I go past Martin asks if we are going the right way. "We are definitely going the right way," I reply. I've been up this road 5 times and I know it's the right way. Besides, my Garmin worm urges me forward. I've no idea what's going on with John. I see Jean and Martin remount and ride off leaving John standing there looking perplexed. The others catch up and explain that John got a phone call to tell him he was off course. That wasn't very helpful. John eventually gets back on his bike and pushes on to Britstown.
The four of us arrive in Britstown with only 3 minutes separating us. Martin gets in 2 minutes ahead of me and gets sidetracked. I'm urged to sign in and as I start writing my name in the register Martin arrives and looking over my shoulder says, "I want to be 10th." I understand exactly what he means and abort my line 10 efforts and restart on line 11. One of the best ideas of The Munga is the individualised medals that get presented as you cross the finishing line. Signing in at a race village is in some way a mini version of the final outcome. People want to be first, or in the top 3, or top 10 or 20 or 30 etc. The number matters to just about everyone.
So there we are, a little over 20 hours into the race having covered 403km and Martin is 10th and I'm 11th.
Wednesday, 18 December 2019
I retrieve my bike from the mechanics station and notice that John Ntuli is still hanging around. He's being rather laggy. As I ride off ahead of John I realise I'm rolling out of town in 7th place which is very weird considering how pathetic I feel. I know I won't hold on to that place for long once the guys behind me saddle up but I enjoy the moment. I also know I'm not going to achieve a personal best as I'm already hours behind that ambition. My goal switches to getting a top 10 finish. Even though we are only 1/5th of the way into the race I do the math and know it's going to be a tough ask. I've got John, Thinus, Michael, James and Martin right behind me and they are all faster. I also know that Jack and Mickael aren't far back. It's not looking positive. Even though I'm currently in a skirmish with a dozen other competitors if I stumble there's an army stretching back over a hundred riders who won't hesitate to trample over me.
The route to Britstown takes us through the Rolfontein Nature Reserve just outside town. Once we pop out the other side we thread through the town of Petrusville after which it's flat and hopefully fast to Britstown which is only 180km away. There are 2 official water points along the way. WP3 is an 80km pedal with WP4 a further 46km. There's no point in fixating on the 180km to Britstown. If I'm going to eat this elephant it's going to be one bite at a time. My next mouthful is the 80km to WP3.
I've been riding through the Rolfontein Nature reserve for about 20 minutes and looking back I see a couple of bike lights. The Northern Cape nights are so clear you can see lights from a long way off. They could be 1km away or 10km. I've no idea.
I exit the reserve ahead of the other riders and make my way along the jeep track toward Petrusville. It's cooled off nicely and I'm able to ride comfortably and at a respectable pace. I make a note of how I feel so that when I'm struggling through the heat again tomorrow I can remind myself that darkness will bring relief. Earlier today I thought I'd never find my cycling legs. They're back now and I'm making good progress.
I'm through Petrusville and still ahead. As I turn off the tar on the outskirts of town I see riders just behind. First up is John followed shortly by Thinus and James. They go past so fast I get a reality check. I'm not speeding along. I up my pace to match Thinus and James. John is quickly overhauled and we scamper on for another 15 minutes before I come to my senses. The pace has me in the red. If I don't cool it I'm going to blow a head gasket or pick up an injury. I back off and watch their blinking red lights get away from me. John passes me and I'm now lying 10th.
American novelist Sarah Ban Breathnach may well have had ultra endurance cyclists in mind when she said "Always remember, it's simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren't any dragons." Dragons abound and oftentimes sneak up on you when you least expect. We are not quite 14 hours into the race and we've already been visited by the heat dragon. The next likely dragon is the one that goes by the nom de plume "sleep monsters". The heat dragon left me in tatters. I'm aware that I'm an easy target for his buddy. I retrieve the ziplock bag and munch the roll. I do a quick self assessment and am satisfied that the sleep dragon is not about to ambush me. But it's the one that can have you by the neck before you know what's happening. To be safe I dig out a mini energy drink that has a drop or ten of caffeine in it.
The kays tick over and I start counting down single digits to WP3. Laz who works with me is manning the water point with Braam Nel. For a fleeting moment it occurs to me that I can always pull the brakes on for the last time at the water point and get a lift home with Laz. Before the idea takes root I rip it from my head and toss it in my bad thoughts compost heap. The hours of solitude coupled with ongoing exhaustion and lack of sleep are a veritable breeding ground for negative thoughts. They are best weeded out at inception.
I see flashing red lights up ahead. They let me know I'm approaching the water point. They are affixed to the banners at the gate of the farmhouse where the water point is located. Laz and Braam are in attendance. I'm exhausted and its showing—Laz later tells me that he's never seen me looking so grumpy. I settle into the routine of filling my bottles—2 water and 2 with energy drink. The premixed energy drink is lemon flavoured and very weak. Laz digs out the dry mix and I add more. Bottles stowed on the bike my attention turns to coffee and food. Laz gets the coffee going while I suss out the food. I'm not in the mood for energy bars or gels and settle for a vetkoek. At least I think it's a vetkoek. I'm still not able to eat much. I'm almost too tired to chew.
I flop down into a chair and notice that Jean Biermans, Mike McDermott, John Ntuli and Chris van Zyl are also there. Soon we are joined by Martin. The tough conditions of the race are etched deep on faces illuminated by the dull glow of the lone patio light. Jean is the only one able to muster a smile.
Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Stepping inside I'm greeted by the Race Village Lead. At Vanderkloof it's the ever cheerful Debbie Streeter. She gets me to complete the Race Village Lead Sheet—rider name with time and date in/out. She knows from past experience that I'm pushing on but normally you'd be asked what your intentions are. If you're just passing through you get a meal voucher. If you're staying you get a meal voucher and are assigned a bed. I'm passing through so I just get a voucher.
As always, after signing in, my first task is to sort out my water bottles. There's some premixed sports drink on a table. I fill 2 with this and 2 with plain water. The sports drink is too diluted for my taste so I find the container of dry mix and add another scoop. While I'm at it I add a splash of coke to liven it up. There are electrolyte tablets on the table which I must take to replace losses but I don't like the taste of them when added to my water. I pop one in my mouth and do my rabid dog impression. Once it's finished foaming I flush it down with a swig of water.
The place is well signposted and I follow the arrow that holds the promise of food. I step through a doorway and am met by a room full of cheerful people who liberate my meal voucher and talk me through my food options. I settle for Malva Pudding with ice cream and wash that down with coffee. It's an odd choice for dinner after grinding out 224kms in gruelling conditions but the eyes and head want what they want and I've learnt to go with the flow.
The pudding is sugar dense and should provide adequate fuel for the ride ahead and the ice cream is happy food. Right now I need all the happy I can get. But happy is a weird thing. It's fleeting and serves no useful purpose in endurance races. If it's happy you seek then disappointment is going to be a constant companion. It's far more important to get your head into a mindful state where you focus on what you need to do to keep moving forward.
Sometimes the right thing to do to continue moving forward is to stop. I see from the sign in sheet that both Michael McDermott and Thinus have opted for a sleep at Vanderkloof. They're strong riders and have pushed hard. I'm sure they'll be up and about soon.
I'm directed to a table of padkos. They've got bread, peanut butter and jam. I know peanut butter is among the best energy sources you can get—allegedly Benky gulps it down by the spadeful. He's the lucky one. Unfortunately peanuts and me aren't friends even though I love the taste. I settle for a roll with jam. The happy people even provide a ziplock bag for my booty.
As I sit spooning happiness into my face I see John Ntuli heading back out. He's been here almost 40 mins. Seems a bit long for a race snake. Benky by way of contrast was through in 3 minutes. Marco Martins lingered for 5.
Erik Vermeulen is tucked away in the corner of the room catching up with his race admin. I don't envy him. As weary as I am I'd sooner be pedalling my bike through the night than driving endless hours along the route. Some folk might like the idea of bumping along country roads in the dark ensconced in the embrace of a double cab with Shania Twain reminding you that You're still the one. As for me I'd rather settle for the visceral experience of the wind in my face accompanied by the pop and crunch of MTB tyres on gravel.
Suitably topped up with pudding and coffee I head back to the front desk and sign out. It's 23:32. 9 minute turn around. Not Formula 1 awesome but it's respectable