Saturday, 25 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 3 - A bit of this and that)

There are any number of reasons why you are reading this post. Maybe you are bored and it's a great time filler, or perhaps you just like reading my musings. It could even be because you are interested in my understanding of what it takes to compete in endurance events. Whatever the reason, welcome. 

Endurance racing adaption is poorly understood with little research to back it up. Try googling endurance racing tips and apart from some reasonable advice on Double Century and 24 hour racing (entry level endurance events) you are unlikely to find anything other than a few offering "the top 5 tips to successful endurance cycling." The first three bits of advice are typically; drink, stretch and eat. It's far easier to find a list of 30 things to do to ride a faster Argus or 947. 

What follows is my opinion based on years of experimentation, observation, and extensive field testing. As such, it constitutes empirical evidence rather than the trite information you are likely to dredge up on the internet. I will not tell you to "drink one bottle of water an hour" , or tell you that "by the time you feel thirsty it's too late". You certainly won't hear me prattle on about the right gels or carb energy bars to eat while riding - you are more likely to hear me elucidating about the pleasure (and therefore benefit) of poking a jam smeared roosterbrood down my throat sometime between midnight and sunrise or the simple joy of munching on a packet of crisps while seated in the shade of a doringbos. 

What you do with this information is entirely up to you. There is no one silver bullet that will make you good at the endurance game. Endurance adaption is a multi stranded bow. Below is an outline of the strands that work together for me. 

Most, if not all, good endurance athletes compete in a manner which is consistent with who they are in their day to day existence. They are tough nuggets, who are naturally wired for the task. Even so, they need to condition themselves and have a lot to learn when they first start plying their trade in the endurance arena. If you consider yourself an average Joe without natural endurance toughness there are things you can do to lessen the odds against you. If you, like me, aren't a dyed in the wool endurance athlete don't shy from the challenge because there are very few naturals out there and most of our fellow competitors are in the same boat as us. 

In my last post I covered how I go about training which, quite frankly is fairly unimpressive. This post was originally intended to address the mental challenges of endurance racing and how I go about addressing them. However, there are a few things I should have covered in the physical training preparation post but I forgot to put them in. We will begin by looking at those challenges. The physical and mental issues in many of them are well entangled. 

Replace your alarm clock with a sundial. 

If you are in the habit of waking up at 4 AM and going for a long ride then I hate you because you possess a level of discipline that I don't have. Envy aside, you need to prepare yourself for the heat you are going to encounter on The Munga. It gets quite warm. 45 degrees Celsius warm. 

As the Race approaches I keep a bike at the office and make a point of riding in the middle of the day particularly when it is blisteringly hot. There are a number of benefits. Firstly, you simply get used to the idea of riding in the heat and find a rhythm that keeps fatigue and pace in balance. But the biggest benefit is the physiological adaptation that takes place. Physiological Adaption - sounds cool doesn't it! The definition is more impressive: "Physiological Adaptations are internal systematic responses to external stimuli in order to help an organism maintain homeostasis."

I have included the definition so that you understand that while some of the things I do might seem a little weird there is some science behind them. 

Among the many benefits of heat acclimatisation is improved thermal regulation and sodium retention which means you are less likely to suffer from cramp and heat stroke. The best part about this adaption is that it only takes a couple of weeks to reach peak adaption. Cautiously combine this with dehydration training (covered in the previous post) and you'll cope with the heat without worrying about dying a lonely death on the side of a deserted Karoo farm road. Here's a link to fill in the details:

Go for a ride when your sundial stops working.

In other words, do some training rides after the sun goes down.

Most cyclists have never ridden at night. I have taken many people for their first night ride and the response has always been positive. I love riding at night. It goes without saying that it is very different to riding during the day as your world shrinks to a small circle of light. Most of my night rides are off-road. It helps keep my night navigation skills sharp (for other non-GPS races) and I get used to how the terrain looks under lights. You will soon find the right lighting solution. I always recommend a combination of bar and helmet mounted lights. The bar mounted lights should be brighter than those on your helmet so that you can pick up the detail. Don't take my word for it, get out there and find out for yourself. Better still, if you live in Johannesburg join me for a night ride. 

The best time to move during The Munga is during the cool of the night. I love riding at night and have become very adept at it. I'm very ordinary while the sun is up but you'll have to ride like crazy if you want to catch me at night.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 2 - Physical Training)

Now that you've landed on this page we need to get a few things clear. If you are a proper athlete then there is nothing of value to be found in these pages. This blog is intended for people like me - ordinary amateur cyclists who face the challenge of trying to shoehorn training into the regular clutter of life with a view to achieving better than ordinary results. And let's face it, if you can finish The Munga you are certainly well above average.

As discussed in the previous post I assume you know how to ride and have a race or two under your belt. If time permits keep up your regular habit of going to the gym, doing spin/Cadence/Wattbike sessions, or doing Pilates. These are all good training. Your challenge is how to translate shorter distance racing into non-stop distance.

Endurance adaptation is as much physical as it is mental. We will deal with the physical aspect first.

It seems the go-to tool for most people considering an endurance race is long slow distance (LSD) training. I have earned my distance stripes over the years so LSD training no longer forms any part of my training regime.

I have mixed feelings about promoting LSD as an effective training tool for endurance racing. LSD, in my humble opinion, is how you start your training season after a lengthy lay off - it's low intensity base training. In Gauteng we have great winter weather so we don't go into training hibernation. That being the case the use of LSD is questionable.

I know a number of people who ride endurance events whose staple training is LSD with a bit of hill work tossed in.

Sounds okay doesn't it. But here's my difficulty. If you train to ride slow you are going to race slow. During endurance events I always race slower than I train.

The most I will ride in training is 5 or 6 hours. Notice that I defined my maximum training effort as time and not distance. That's the first adaptation you need to make - distance in training becomes irrelevant, it's all about time in the saddle. In an endurance race most athletes travel at about the same speed. The biggest difference in how many hours they spend moving forward. When training, the terrain will dictate the distance covered in the time set aside.

I get no added benefit from going over 6 hours during a training ride. I simply end up tired and slow and off my bike for a few days while I recover. Fortunately I know I can ride for a long time during a race. In race conditions I'm good for 36 hours and on occasion have stretched that to 42. Knowing that I can do that takes away the necessity to ride like that in training. On race day I back off on my usual training effort which translates into a massive multiplier effect on the number of hours I can pedal before it's time to sleep.

It's a huge advantage knowing that you can ride forever. However, most people don't know their limit. This is one area where limited LSD will help. For a conditioned athlete a long slow ride is primarily mental training - there's little to no physical benefit - but It's comforting to know that you aren't going to collapse at the end of a 12 hour ride. Go and do at least one long ride. You could hop on your bike and go tackle a 12 hour training ride or you could be a little more methodical and avoid the very real risk of overtraining injuries.

Alex Harris (Mr Munga) understands that riding long distances is the experience of the few. With that in mind he has organised Mini Munga training rides. If you need to get your head and body around the concept of doing big rides then you should tag along on these rides. They start out at around 6 hours and over the course of a few months step up until you bang out a 12 hour ride. They are not particularly challenging or fast and are well within the grasp of a Munga entrant. If you are unable to complete a Mini Munga training ride then you need to rethink either your training programme or your decision to enter the race.

Once you know you can in fact ride for an extended period the next imperative is to start working on your effort and speed remembering that you are going to race well below this effort. I focus on riding shorter distances with an average heart rate of 80% of my max HR. My typical training ride is around 3 hours. The 5 to 6 hour rides are used occasionally as a system check - I ride them hard to see what sort of condition I am in. In general I keep my rides short. The vast majority of them on my mountain bike. No magic there, I simply prefer riding on dirt. A solid road bike session would be equally beneficial, particularly for a race like The Munga which is flat and fast. You need to get used to turning your legs over for hours at a time. Closer to the race it's better to do most of your riding on your mountain bike to get used to the set up and condition your arms and neck, particularly if you are planning on using aero bars which I recommend you do.

I would also recommend a couple of shorter non-stop races to test your endurance adaption under real race conditions and start working endurance into your very fabric. The one thing that you cannot train for is sleep deprivation and it's essential that you figure out how to deal with it. These races are an ideal opportunity to do so. The chances are that the first few times it will be hit and miss. Rather get the big kinks out before you get to The Munga. I've been at this game for 10 years and I'm still refining my techniques.

Among my regular races are the Freedom Challenge pair of Race to Cradock (575 km) and the Race to Rhodes (475 km) These are self navigated (without GPS) which make them particularly tough.

A far better starting point is another pair of races that I do - Durban Dash Down and Durban Dash Up by Massive Adventures. They are races staged between Jhb and Dbn over 615 km. They are GPS guided and are long enough to test your resolve and actually short enough to do non-stop. A great opportunity to get used to a little discomfort, learn the techniques of a power-nap next to the road, and deal with the monotony of cycling through the night into the next day when your brain just wants to shut down and sleep. Last year the Down version took me 28 hours and the Up version 36 hours. They are great races on which to cut your endurance teeth. In fact, they are great conditioning races and I will be doing them again this year. The idea of riding from Johannesburg to Durban or Durban to Johannesburg in one effort is captivating. It's a great story to share at parties as most people have driven between those cities and appreciate the distance involved. If that doesn't tickle your fancy then go look at the other offering at

To round out this post I will briefly mention a few other critical training techniques I use which I believe contribute to my ability to punch above my weight in endurance events.

Firstly, I train dehydrated. For rides of 2 hours or less I ride without water. If I can grab a cup of coffee along the way I will head out for a ride of up to 4 hours without water. Most people will shudder at the thought as we have all been indoctrinated by the twin mantra's of "Drink a bottle every hour" and, "By the time you are thirsty it's too late." Go google the subject and these themes ooze out everywhere. New research pours cold water on that advice (pun intended). I started riding without water years ago and subsequently found a study done Down Under that highlighted the benefits of training into a state of dehydration. I had stumbled onto something and it has proven to be a huge plus for me. Here are a couple of articles on this subject:

It would be irresponsible for me to advocate for anyone else to train into a state of dehydration, so the safe approach is to stick with the old advice of telling everyone to stay hydrated. But give it some thought and decide what works for you. It certainly works for me. The key is to only dehydrate during training. During an extended race you cannot deal with a hydration deficit so I make sure I drink enough from the start to match my losses. One of the added benefits is that I never panic about how much water I have left. I know I can go for a few hours before running into trouble. My plan is to always have sufficient water but in the event that something goes wrong, such as leaving Sutherland without filling my bottles in last year's race, I'm able to put it aside and focus on moving forward.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of Banting, particularly for endurance athletes. I have been Banting for many years and my race performance has improved in leaps and bounds since I cut down on my carbohydrate intake. Once again, the old adages are no longer relevant. The saying of "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is simply not true for me. As a rule I only eat once a day - dinner. I can ride for 4 or 5 hours with nothing more than a cup of unsweetened tea for breakfast. For most people that's very odd as they wouldn't dream of riding that far without breakfast to sustain them through the ride. Banting makes your body efficient at metabolising fat. When you are Banting adapted you aren't dependent on glycogen to fuel your muscles, you have a few weeks supply of muscle fuel stored up as fat. Endurance cycling effort is low enough that your body can metabolise fat at a rate that can match your rate of burn. That said, when racing I put my Banting diet on hold and eat anything that is available or offered. If a chunk of cheese or a huge knob of butter happens to be on offer it is always the food of choice. The most important aspect is that while racing I am never overwhelmed by hungry and therefore am not distracted by the need for food. I simply eat as opportunities arise.

Thirdly, ride without stopping. I mentioned earlier that I stop for coffee during my rides. Apart from the coffee stop I try and move without stopping at all. Maintaining momentum is a key part of endurance racing. If you stop and wait for riding buddies or stop to stretch or eat, or are simply in the habit of putting your foot down every 30 minutes to look around it is going to cost you many hours during the race. Work at being efficient. During the race your transition times are going to become critical. There are 10 official water points and 5 race villages. Assuming you are going to stop and sleep 3 times that leaves 12 transitions that can either work for or against you.

Lastly, know your way around your bike. Some of us are blessed with great mechanical skills and it pays dividends when things go wrong. Experience has taught me that things will go wrong. I know some people who don't know how to plug a puncture, break a chain, or replace and adjust brake pads. I'm not even sure they have the requisite tools to do those tasks. These are essential skills particularly when the distance between some race villages is over 200 kilometres. If you are a mechanical dunce then sacrifice some trail time for some workshop time. Ask your local bike shop or a buddy to teach you the basics of how to keep your bike going while out on the trail.

So nothing amazing about that advise. It's broad brush strokes because I don't think there is a one size fits all approach. Endurance events are fairly new and not particularly well understood. Adventure racers know how to do this stuff and they rise to the top in long distance cycle races simply because they know how to deal with discomfort and that's key because the real challenge of endurance racing takes place between your ears. In the next post I will attempt to unpack the mental challenges as I understand them.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 1)

A few days ago I received the following message - "Please would you consider posting about how you prepare for something like the Munga? And about what the day or two after look like for you."

Interesting... there is a big difference between "how YOU prepare" (as in me) and "how TO prepare" (normal folk) ... this might end up a case of, do as I say and not as I do. Let's start with the second part.

Post-Race Recovery.
After I get off my bike at the finish line I stay away from my bike for at least a week. Mostly because my backside is sore and also because I just need a break to let my body recover. I suppose I should have a post-race routine that includes stretching, massage and other clever stuff like ice baths and recovery drinks, but, as you are about to discover, I'm both unscientific and unmethodical in my approach to cycling. I simply sloth around and eat whatever I fancy. To entertain myself I put my feet up and start writing my race blog.

It's hard enough getting your head around a race like The Munga. If you have enough head space left to be systematic immediately post-race then I reckon you haven't raced hard enough. You should leave everything out on the trail and finish hollow but happy. If it makes you happy then, by all means, have a massage and drink your fill of recovery shakes. I'm not convinced it serves a useful purpose but what do I know. I'd sooner have a milkshake and a side of fries before falling down on the carpet for a good snooze. I like to keep it simple. I'll touch on the subject of simplicity a bit later.

Race Preparation.
Right up front I should tell you that it has been said of me that my training is both insufficient (not enough) and inadequate (unstructured) to prepare for any form of racing. My physical race preparation is minimal. I generally ride 2 or 3 times a week with my average training ride being around 55 to 60 km's - go look on Strava.

Ten years ago when I was training for the Epic the general consensus was that you should be training for at least 15 hours a week and I did just that. These days I manage between 6 and 7 hours. I know that's not a lot. However, I rode 11 000 km last year and half of that was in competition riding, the majority of it during endurance races.

After 12 years of riding, and I guess a whole pile of endurance enabling DNA, I know I can turn my legs over for at least 42 hours before I need to sleep. In the early days I would do training rides of 200 km. I found them quite exhausting. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but I don't do that any more. I race a handful of 500+ nonstop races every year so they help keep my legs in endurance shape.

Race preparation includes equipment, body, and mind. I have covered equipment choices in an earlier blog. It was written before I had done my first Munga. With two Munga's under my belt my equipment choices remain the same so I won't cover that again. It was a 3 part post which started here:

Transitioning to Endurance Distance.

If you're intending to do The Munga then I assume you have done your fair share of one day or multi day stage races. If you are a race virgin then I suggest you bump The Munga down a few notches on your bucket list - it's not the ideal way to get into racing. Marathon distance racing and endurance racing are different animals. I have ridden with marathon distance podium finishers and have watched them fade as the distance ratchets up.

What if you don't yet have any distance in your legs? Well, you have to start somewhere. In the next post we will discuss the options for getting some distance into your legs and head.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

In memory of Andrew Bradford

Thursday I woke to the news that a cyclist out with friends for an early morning ride had become the latest victim of a hit and run incident. The news updates that unfolded during the day prepared us for the worst. Friday morning the news was bleak, he hadn't made it through the night.

Tragedies like this sadden us. Those of us who ride are shaken to the core. But this was worse as it was close to home. Not only was it just up the road, but I know most of the guys riding in that group including the victim.

The story is carried as 'another cyclist has been killed on our roads' and online forums pour out sympathy for a 'fellow cyclist'. There's nothing wrong with that but to me, and others who knew Andrew Bradford, he was so much more than that.

When you have spent time with a person, when you have ridden with them and shared a joke, things are different. They inflate becoming so much more than just a fellow cyclist or a tragic statistic - they take on texture and become real people who, like us, are sons, husbands, fathers, and friends with a multiplicity of achievements, ambitions, dreams and failures.

I have followed Andrew's exploits over the years as he embarked on one adventure ride after another and have even raced against him. He, like me and a couple of guys he was riding with on Thursday morning, was one of a small group of riders who have ridden the Freedom Challenge.

Our last encounter was during an endurance race last year. When our paths crossed we took time out to chat. In the context of the race we were adversaries, but in our shared passion for riding we were fellow travellers.

What happened on Thursday morning was more than an accident. Andrews life was taken as a direct result of the reckless choice of an individual who, after colliding with him, fled the scene.

I am left with a feeling of profound sadness over Andrew's tragic death. Alex Harris summed up how many of us feel when he wrote wrote: "I am a man of faith and serve a mighty God. A God of miracles and mercy and a God who is a father. But I can't pretend to know why things happen or understand the reason."

I echo the closing words of Alex's post, "The world is short of one less decent human being today. Andrew was an amazing husband and awesome father. A model man and quiet mentor. So sorry friend, but there is no more traffic where you are now. Don't hold back!"

Alex's full post can be read here:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - All Done

Once I had made sure I was good for 3rd place I had dropped out of race mode. In doing so I had also lost my race routine. My usual morning routine includes switching my dynohub charger over from running my light to charging a power bank. When hooking up the flat power bank that had been powering my GPS through the night I would connect a fresh power bank to the GPS to keep it going through the day. Having forgotten to switch the batteries I was now sitting on the wrong side of Wellington with no idea of which way to go.

I swapped the cables around and rode ahead slowly while waiting for the GPS to power up. When it came on and I selected the route it was confused, it had me many miles away. I gave it a few minutes to figure out where I was. Thankfully it got back up to speed just before the first critical turn. From there on it got me to the finish without any further drama.

After traveling 1086 km with just 3 hours sleep I crossed the finish line where family and friends gave me a heroes welcome. I certainly wasn't a hero but they made me feel like one. Alex draped the number 3 medal around my neck and that was that. The race was over.

It had been an incredibly satisfying race. I had set out to finish 10 hours faster than the 85 hours it had taken me in 2015, and here I was at the finish line just inside of 73 hours. I had exceeded my own expectations and I suspect the expectations of a lot of other people who were following the race.

That I had finished 3rd overall and second in the men's race was of less importance. Those statistics are a blunt instrument with which to dissect ones achievement.

People say that even entering a race like The Munga makes you a champion. That's not true. What makes you a champion is starting a race like The Munga and taking yourself to your limit and then a little bit beyond. That being the case, I have to say I was followed to the finish line by a few dozen champions and even a few champions that didn't even make it to the finish. I would count myself least among all The Munga champions.

There were riders who finished in front of and behind me whose personal achievements eclipsed mine. They suffered more and dug deeper. I am a seasoned endurance rider and knew what to expect from the race. Sure, day one was a shocker but there are always days that push you to your limits. The trick is to know how to survive those tough times. I've survived a good number of days that I would never like to repeat and I suspect there will be many tough days ahead in future events.

To all those riders who came away from The Munga with a sense that they had exceeded their own goals and expectations I salute you and extend my deepest respect and congratulations.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Bush Pubs, Rock People and Cowboys on Camels.

I had 72 km to get to the finish at Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Wellington. Apart from a few kilometres of gravel out of Esselfontein the rest of the route was on tar.

The first challenge was to survive the mayhem of Saturday morning traffic in Ceres. After the freedom of scribbling all over wide gravel roads for 1000 km I had to concentrate on keeping to the frayed edge of the road.

Not too soon I was climbing out of town and the traffic thinned out. Up ahead I could see another mountain biker out on his morning ride. At that point the road had widened and there was enough space to ride side by side inside the yellow line. I caught up and we chatted until he reached his destination at Olive Rock.

It was getting hot and the route had flattened out. I didn't mind the heat as much as I did the tedium. The lack of stimulus had me nodding off. Every kilometre became a challenge. I started looking around for somewhere to get a Coke.

At one point, on the approach to the Bainskloof Pass, I stopped to give an oncoming vehicle the right of way over a narrow bridge. As the car came abreast of me it stopped. The driver had obviously stopped earlier and spoken to either Heinrich or Jeannie on his way over the pass as he knew about the race. We traded stories for a few minutes before he moved on. Just before he left he told me I could get something to drink at the Calabash Bush Pub which was just around the corner.

A few minutes later I was walking through the yard of the bush pub trying to figure out where I could order something. There was no obvious entrance. I eventually found someone and they were able to exchange a handful of coins for a cool can of Coke. It transpires that they had suffered a massive fire a few weeks earlier. Fires and thatched roofs don't go well together.

The next job was to tackle the 14 km climb to the top of Bainskloof Pass. The gradient isn't too challenging but I was tired and I knew the reduced speed was going to have me struggling with sleep monsters rather than leg fatigue. And then something weird happened. Instead of nodding off I started seeing things that I knew didn't exist. I could see people in all manner of poses leaning up against the walls of the pass. As I got close they would disappear to be replaced with normal rock formations. It wasn't the first time I had had that experience.

Earlier in the day just before the Race Village at Esselfontein I saw a cowboy sitting on a camel. He was waving his hat at me. I knew it wasn't real but the more I stared at it the more detailed it became - getting closer I could see he wore a checkered shirt. And he was huge. As huge as a tree. As it turned out it was a tree but I didn't know that until I was 20 metres away.

After encountering dozens of 'rock people' I finally reached the top of the pass and was keen to reap the reward of my efforts. That reward came in the form of a 14 km descent into Wellington.

With the added stimulus that came with speed and tight switchbacks the 'rock people' were now a thing of the past. I made good time into Wellington. All I had to do was follow the route as it wiggled through the backstreets and on to Diemersfontein. On The Munga you don't wing it with the Navigation. The rules are clear, you follow the route as supplied. It would be a doddle, or so I thought. With 5 km to go my GPS turned off.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Last Race Village.

The route threaded between the vines of the farm Uitkoms before heading up the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass. It's only 3 km long and although not too challenging I walked the last kilometre. I could have ridden it but I wasn't in a hurry and it would have be a proper grind as the gearing on my bike 1x11 setup was more suited to the flat and fast sections of the Karoo.

Topping out I got back on my bike and made the best of a good tar road section before picking my way through the vineyards and grasslands to the last Race Village at Esselfontein Farm.

The guys manning the station were full of energy. I guess the station had only just opened with Jeannie and Heinrich having passed through a short while before. Nevertheless, they were in Energiser Bunny mode and had the stove and coffee machine fired up as soon as I walked through the door.

We were sitting around the table chatting when someone said something that at first made no sense to me - "You know you could still win this race?" I guess I had a very obvious 'Huh!' expression my face. They went on to explain that Jeannie had battled with a tyre problem and her and Heinrich had only left the support station a short while before I arrived. I turns out that a 'short while' was more than a handful of minutes and I had already been there for 20 minutes. They also commented that Heinrich was exhausted and that I looked fine. I might have looked fine but my legs and body were very aware of the 1000 kilometres that lay behind. A quick look at the tracking site confirmed that Heinrich was well out of reach so I asked for another cup of coffee and enjoyed their company for a while longer.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Leaving the Desert Behind

As a rule, the Karoo doesn't let go without a fight. To escape its clutches I needed to get to the Karoopoort Pass 40 km from the Padstal. This year I was lucky - the road surface had been recently upgraded and was in perfect condition, there was no headwind, and the sun wasn't up yet which meant it was still cool.

I tucked up tight on the aero bars and treated the 40 km as a time trial. I escaped lightly. Later that day the temperature soared and together with a nasty headwind made the going very difficult for those that followed. I was fortunate to get through that section of the race while the Karoo slept.

I was climbing up the Karoopoort Pass as the sun peeped over the horizon. A short while later, approaching the settlement of Matjiesrivier, my phone started beeping which meant I had signal. I dug the phone out of my pocket and called my friend Steve who is an avid race dot-watcher to ask him how far behind the next rider was. He was already on his bike doing CycleLab Club marshal duty so he wasn't near a computer to check the race tracking site. But he told me the last time he looked I had opened a 40 km gap. That was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Since leaving Sutherland I had no idea where anyone was except for Rafeeq who I last saw 40 km out of town. Since then I had been running blind. For the best part of 10 hours I had been riding flat out covering almost 200 km. I had just over 100 km to the finish so I knew that barring a major catastrophe I'd done enough to secure a 3rd place finish.

I sat up and pedalled along at a more sedate pace. Now that the pressure was off I was able to take stock. First thing I noticed was that my backside was really sore. Tucking up in the time trial position for hours at a time is really great for speed but your rump takes a hammering. Riding over on a section of tar I also noticed that the dust had dried my chain out and it was making a dreadful noise. It was time to stop and lubricate. Bum and chain got a liberal dose of their respective grease.

I spent a few minutes standing quietly beside my bike. The landscape had changed dramatically in the last 45 minutes - Karoo scrub had given way to vineyards. And with vineyards come people. After the wide open expanse of the Karoo with the sparse distribution of houses it was odd to see dozens of dwellings clustered together on the valley floor.

A passing car, radio blaring, reminded me that isolation of the last few days was now a thing of the past. The closer I got to the finish the more I would be sharing the road with other vehicles. I had mixed emotions. I wanted the race to be over but the experience of the last few days had become a sort of micro-existence of ride-eat-sleep which had its own comforting rhythm. I had no idea what news was dominating the headlines or which national team was playing who. If there was another Brexit or Van Rooyen weekend special going down I didn't know anything about it and didn't actually care. That was a different world and was of no importance in my world as it existed in that moment

It was nice to have the pressure off and enjoy a quiet few minutes but something was missing. At first I didn't know what it was and then it suddenly dawned on me. I was missing the sound of mountain bike tyres rolling over gravel. That sound had been my constant companion for the better part of 67 hours. It was the sound of progress. The sound of getting closer to the finish.

I could see the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass a few kilometres up ahead. It was going to be a bit of a grind getting up but I knew it was mostly downhill from there to the next Race Village at Esselfontein Farm just outside of Ceres. I hopped back on my bike and pointed it toward the Pass.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Tankwa Karoo Ahoy!

In no time at all the road flattened out signalling the end of the Ouberg Pass. I knew from the previous year that there was a climb to get to the next water point. I was obviously in better shape this year as the race flags planted at the gate of the designated water point came into sight without me being aware of any appreciable ascent.

I made my way down the driveway to the farmhouse and found my host's (Host +1 rider who had withdrawn from the race earlier and had made his way down the trail and was roped in for host duty) relaxing around a fire. They were surprised to see me as they expected I would take a lot longer. In no time at all they had a coffee in my hand and a roosterbrood, liberally smeared with delicious jam, stuffed in my mouth.

The setting was idyllic - a cool star studded night with no wind and the inviting crackle of a warming fire. Not for the first time in the race I wished I could put my feet up and enjoy the rich embrace of platteland hospitality.

I lingered longer than planned but riding out of the farm I was still alone in 3rd place without another rider in sight. I picked up where I had left off and pushed hard to make good on my advantage. I had 70 km to the next water point and I was set on going as fast as I could to make the best use of the night hours. I had covered this section in daylight in 2015 when it was unbearably hot. With the sun many hours away from peeping over the horizon I found the cool night to my liking.

Whenever I stopped to open a gate I looked back to see if there were any bike lights behind. So far I couldn't see any. I knew there was a ridge up ahead which, once crossed, would have me heading down to the flat and harshest part of the Tankwa Karoo. It would then be a 40 km pedal to get to the next water point at the Tankwa Padstal. Walking up the ridge I finally caught sight of a pursuing light
on the plain below. They were still a way back, I estimated about 10 km. Too close.

After going through the last gate at the top of the ridge I dropped onto my aero bars and rode like there was no tomorrow. The jeep track wasn't perfectly smooth but I was able to maintain a good pace which I kept up for the better part of two hours. Powering along I had a big smile on my face. This section in the heat of the day had worked me over in 2015. With the night temperature sitting at 20 celsius I ticked the miles off with ease.

Pulling up to the iconic Tankwa Padstal while trying to remember what the arrangements were for nighttime arrival I saw a guy with a flashlight signalling to me from a building adjacent to the shop. I was intrigued, how did he know I was coming? There was no cell phone signal and yet here he was ready and willing to wait on me. A tug on the generator pull start had the coffee machine sputtering away while he dished up some food and prepared me a pancake. On inquiring I was told that Jeannie and Heinrich were almost 2 hours ahead.

I asked him how he knew I was coming and he said he could see my lights. I asked him to show me. He walked outside and pointed into the darkness, "I could see you there", he said. It turns out he saw me coming for the best part of an hour owing to the flat open terrain.

I decided this was the perfect opportunity for a quick power nap as the next 40 kilometres was going to be flat and tedious. I was also expecting dreadful corrugations but the road I had ridden in on looked like it had been upgraded. I hoped the road works extended all the way along that torturous road.

I didn't know how far back the next rider was and as there was no cell phone reception I had no way of finding out, but a 60 minute heads-up would work. I asked to be woken if there were any approaching lights. I put my coffee aside, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and curled up on the floor. In a matter of seconds I was asleep.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Getting My Flow On

Just short of the Ouberg Pass that would have us plummeting off the Roggeveld Mountains Rafeeq slowed up. He muttered something about being either tired or cold. My advise to him was to stop short of the top as it makes sense to leave a small climb section to warm up on before the descent which was bound to cause chill. I've made the mistake of stopping to rest on a downhill section once before when I was cold. It's not a mistake I am in any hurry to repeat.

I started down the pass on my own. It's an exhilarating 10 km ride dropping over 800 metres off the Karoo plateau. In daylight the views are spectacular. As it was pitch black I had no views to admire. That's not to say my mind was a blank canvas, far from it.

The Munga, like most races, hands out finishers medals. But these are not your common or garden variety that you toss in your "I Did It" box. No, The Munga medals are hand crafted things of beauty. They are Russell Scott masterpieces, spartan in design and individually cast in steel to reflect the genesis of The Munga. It's the kind of medal you want to possess. More than that, they are individually numbered. My first goal was to secure a second medal.

Last time out I got medal number 9 and was really chuffed to finish in the top 10. Looping over the last climb and dropping into the start of the Ouberg Pass, 58 hours into the race, I was placed 3rd. All of a sudden 3 looked like a much better number than 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. If I wanted to snap the elastic attached to Rafeeq, Tim, Sthembiso and Kevin then this was my opportunity. I was fresh and night riding is my playground of choice.

I'm not a great technical rider but you wouldn't have thought so had you watched me thread my down those mountains. It was a real buzz. There is a condition known as Flow or being In The Zone. Per Wikipedia - "It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."

There was no question about it, I was in The Zone.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Heading Out of Sutherland

At 7:36 PM I had been at the Sutherland Race Village for 2 hours. In that time I had eaten, showered, and managed to get 90 minutes of shut eye. I was feeling great. All that was needed was a quick coffee and I would be on my way to the finish via Race Village 5 in Ceres. I still had 293 km to bang out but in the context of the race it seemed close enough to touch. As I entered the dining area I saw that Tim Deane was getting his gear together. We chatted briefly before he announced that he was heading out. I poured the coffee down my throat, signed the register and followed him out the door. 

The race register revealed that the leading pair of Heinrich and Jeannie had left 3 hours ahead of me, and Rafeeq, in third place, had a 22 minute gap. I also noticed that Tim had only arrived a short while before so was treating Sutherland as a quick pit stop. Sthembiso was still in the building and Kevin had arrived short while before and had yet to sign out. 

As I rode out of town just behind Tim the cogs in my head started turning. My assessment of the race based on the info on the race register was as follows. Heinrich and Jeannie were going to finish 1 and 2. The next clump of riders vying for third spot were: Rafeeq, Tim, Kevin, Sthembiso and me. The other 4 were all strong riders and every one of them a faster and stronger rider than I was. I would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat if I wanted to beat any of them to the finish. 

After giving this some thought my attention was diverted. I suddenly realised that I had left Sutherland with only half a bottle of water. My normal practice is to fill my bottles before I do anything else when arriving at a water point or Race Village - you can make do without food but can't survive without water. When I arrived in Sutherland I figured it would be silly to fill my bottles while it was still hot and I would rather fill them with cold water just before leaving. Being distracted by the presence of Tim it had completely slipped my mind. I wondered what my chances were of finding a reservoir to fill up. The difficulty with that option was that it was getting dark and unless a reservoir fell squarely into the arc of my bike light it was going to be almost impossible to find one. 

While mulling over my predicament I saw a bicycle light up ahead. I increased my pace and caught up. It was Rafeeq. In catching up to Rafeeq I noticed that I had pulled an appreciable gap on Tim. I figured that Tim was probably a bit fatigued. In fairness we all were but I probably had the upper hand in that situation having just had a good sleep. 

I had caught up to Rafeeq at the top of the gentle climb out of town. I was surprised how quickly I had closed on him. He must have signed the register and then taken his time to head out. Once I had caught up he was spurred into action and had no difficulty in setting a quick pace which I was happy to match as it was putting more distance between me and Tim. We barrelled along tickling off the distance with ease. 

I had the race distances stuck on my top tube and worked out that the next water point was only 69 km from Sutherland. Half a bottle of water wasn't a great deal but it was well after sunset and the temperature had fallen significantly. I also knew that the route over those 69 km was predominantly downhill. At the speed we were going it was going to take just over 3 hours to get there. I make a point of doing my training rides with little or no water so wasn't too fazed. I put the water situation out of my mind and focussed on the riding which was fast and exhilarating. 

The mountains were delicately outlined in the fading light. It was a beautiful evening and I looked forward to making the most of the clear cool night that lay ahead. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Of Chess and Endurance Racing

There are three phases to a game of chess, the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. The same can be said of racing The Munga. The opening phase is critical in developing your race plan. Your family and friends may want to high-five you for being the first to arrive at Race Village 1 (RV1) but it's not as important as ensuring you are in the game for the long haul.

Unlike chess, there are no standard opening moves. If you wish to push the chess analogy, assume that you are playing black. Your opening moves are dictated by white. White in this case is not your competitors but rather the weather. You need to play the game according to the conditions on the day. That is not to say you arrive at the start and wing it. If you are racing it helps to have a strategy. My plan was to arrive at Van Der Kloof dam before midnight but the weather conditions meant that wasn't going to be mine or anyone else's reality. Fifty kilometres into the race and doubled over puking into a garden I knew my priority was simply to get to RV1 with enough gas left in the tank to grab a meal and head off toward the next race village. My time of arrival at RV1 was of little consequence. The conditions were brutal and I knew the whole field was going to be equally affected.

I am of the opinion that you don't need to sleep the first night as it is the freshest you will be for the duration of the race. We knew the days were going to be hot and probably windy. That being the case it makes sense to make the best of the cooler, and hopefully, less windy nights.

In chess the opening phase is considered over and the middlegame commenced once the pieces are developed, the centre is controlled and the King is protected. The middlegame of The Munga commences the moment you step out the door of RV1. By refuelling and moving forward without stopping to sleep you join the ranks of the racers. You can be fairly certain that, no matter how long you took to get to RV1, by moving through you will be in the top 25% of the field.

If you push through after a gruelling 222 km with the intention of banging out a further 170 km before breakfast/brunch, you fall squarely into the "Racing Snake" category. The next trick is to translate "intention" into "reality".

Middlegame is where the excitement and freestyle aspect of the game plays out. Middlegame strategy in chess is complex and involves a mix of tactical manoeuvres that result in piece attrition. Competitor attrition during The Munga is not necessarily the result of direct competitor interplay but it happens and it plays a huge part in the final outcome of the race.

If you want advise on a solid middlegame strategy then make it simply to stay in the game. Don't be one of the riders that goes home early. By all means be aggressive but a thoughtless do or die strategy for a race of that distance and duration will be stacking the odds against yourself. Look at the numbers from this years race - The last finisher was well inside the top 50% of the number of riders that started.

Another way of staying in the game is to ride your own race. Too many riders get caught up in the excitement of the chase, particularly on the first afternoon. It's not a one day race - ride to survive. I am happy once the mania of the start settles down and I am riding on my own at my own pace. It's as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Don't let someone else get inside your head. If your head gets soft, your legs follow.

Middlegame tactics play an important part. The most obvious tactic revolves around when to sleep and for how long. In this regard there are opportunities to play a few mind games with those you are racing against. You don't have to sleep at race villages. Designated water points and a clearing next to the road in the middle of nowhere can do just as well. But don't get caught up in trying to get too cute with the mind games as they can just as well backfire. A comfortable bed is always going to be more refreshing than cuddling up with scorpions and spiders in a ditch. When making tactical decisions let your first thought be, "I must stay in the game".

Chess endgame theory revolves around the movement, exchange, promotion, and dominance of the pieces left in play after transitioning through the middlegame. It is the phase where the game must be carefully controlled to produce the desired outcome.

Arriving in Sutherland, through a combination of tactics and competitor attrition, I found myself in 4th place. With only 293 kilometres between me and the finish line in Diemersfontein the middlegame was over. I needed to eat, shower and bank 90 minutes of sleep before executing my endgame.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - I get to see SALT and a Good Measure of Grit.

As I got closer to Sutherland the dirt road eventually gave way to a paved surface which made the riding easier, although still with a good measure of climbing. I guess the road services the South African Astronomical Observatory outside of town.

In 2015 I rode into Sutherland in the middle of the night so apart from the brilliant view of the stars overhead and the continuous ribbon of road ahead I saw nothing else. This time, arriving late afternoon, I could see the South African Large Telescope (SALT) building perched on top of the mountains as I rode by on the road below. It's an impressive structure that couldn't be accused of blending into its surrounds. To be fair, it would be hard for anything to blend into that austere landscape.

The irony of the high tech eye on the universe driven by a thirst for knowledge juxtaposed against the setting of the parched Northern Cape Karoo wasn't lost in me. They were odd bedfellows indeed but the perfect viewing sky above Sutherland draws scientists from around the world.

I was drawn to Sutherland for different reasons. Mostly because my GPS route demanded it, and also because I knew the next race village in town held out the promise of food, shower and a bed.

The last few kilometres are an easy downhill into town. That is if you can ride. While freewheeling along I saw Sthembiso up ahead. His bike and him had traded places. He had his bike hoisted onto his shoulders. His wheel had finally collapsed and he was footing it.

While competitors, we were also fellow travellers and it saddened me to to see him reduced to walking along the side of the road. Sthembiso had every reason to be despondent but that's not what I saw. I saw a man who radiated determination. A man who accepted the challenge and was going to overcome.

It wasn't far to town, less than 2 kilometres, but walking comes a very distant second to freewheeling downhill. I arrived in Sutherland a good 20 minutes ahead of him.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Roller Coaster Time... But It's No Fun Park

The bumpy part of The Munga starts as you leave Fraserburg. Apart from a 60 km section of road that flanks the Tankwa Padstal it was going to be a bit lumpy for the balance of the 400 km ride into Diemersfontein.

The road kicks up immediately after leaving Fraserburg and you get to test your gears and your headspace -the landscape a stark reminder that you are riding through an arid part of the country. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the next water point at Celeryfontein was a good climb out of Fraserburg but it is actually at a slightly lower altitude.

All the while I was threading my way along farm tracks I had no issues with tiredness. As soon as I hit the Sutherland district road my eyelids got heavy. It was only 7 km to Celeryfontein Farm but it felt like 100 km. I struggled through every one of those 7 km. I knew it was time to grab a power nap. The more I thought about the prospect of sleep the longer It seemed to take to get to the farm.

I arrived at the farm and had a snack. Sthembiso was there and one of his wheels was looking rather rickety - a couple of broken spokes had it resembling a Pringle chip. His next chance of getting access to a bike mechanic was in Sutherland which meant he had to nurse his bike through the next 63 km.

My original plan was to flop onto the lawn and have a quick nap. 30 seconds after arriving at the water point I knew that was a bad option as I was immediately set upon by horse-flies. Fortunately the farmer had a spare bed indoors and I was able to hunker down for 35 minutes without the risk of being sucked dry by the pesky flies.

By the time I returned to the water point tables set up in the shade of some big trees on the lawn outside the farmstead I was in 4th place. Jeannie and Heinrich were still up front with Rafeeq and Sthembiso almost 2 hours behind them. By the time I swallowed a coffee I figured I was nearly 45 minutes adrift of the 4th placed rider. I also knew that Kevin Benkenstein and Tim Deane were close behind. I expected that the leading pair would get to the finish without being challenged for positions 1 and 2. The real tussle was going to be for positions 3 through 7. It was time to get a wiggle on if I didn't want to fall out of contention for a top 7 finish.

The moment I left the oasis of Celeryfontein and got back onto the district road that would take me to Sutherland I knew it wasn't going to be fast and giggly. We had ridden through some hot and dry country but this section took the cake.

A satellite view of this part of the country looks like a sepia-toned image with a distinct lack of vibrant colour. On the ground the same reddish-brown colour dominates the landscape.

To add another layer of despair the road was rough and care had to be taken with the riding line to avoid rocks and rough sections.

Sutherland is about 200 metres higher than Celeryfontein which doesn't sound so bad except for the big drop to a river crossing (dry as a bone) which adds significant altitude metres. And it's lumpy. You end up climbing many hundreds of metres. It's nothing like climbing up through the trees at Sabie or Barberton, there is no pretty. It's a slog through a mountainous desert on a dusty gnarly road.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - The Quest for Coffee and Eskimo Pie

After my alarm went off I lay in the ditch for another 5 minutes savouring the simplicity of my life as it existed in that moment - It was me and my bike with no purpose other than pedalling it down the route. All I needed was something to drink every now and then, a morsel or two of food each day and a little sleep from time to time.

The morning was unfurling as I got back on my bike and headed off to get some coffee at the next water point. About 10 km short of the farm that was hosting the water point Sthembiso passed me like he was being chased by a pack of hunting dogs. I didn't expect him to pop up at that point. I had heard that Brandon had exited the race and I knew that Kevin, Rafeeq and Tim Deane were close behind but hadn't figured on being caught by Sthembiso. I added him to the riders on my "Ridar".

I caught up and started chatting. That seemed to settle his mania. I told him that I thought he was going at an erratic and unsustainable rate and that he should pace himself carefully. He told me that he was carrying a 30 minute penalty for not signing the register at a Race Village so needed to press ahead as Gerald Cele was close behind.

As we chatted it seemed there was uncertainty over his classification in the race. The previous year the Development category was capped at 26 years of age and I hadn't heard anything to the contrary. But I had been told that Sthembiso was racing in the development category this year even though he was older than 26 and I told him to take it easy and defend his lead. It was his race to lose. We arrived at the water point together and I finally got the coffee I had been obsessing over for the last 4 hours.

I remember passing the farm last year when it wasn't a water point. I stopped and got water from the reservoir next to the road above the farmhouse. The farm yard off to my right at the bottom the hill seemed asleep among the trees. It became just another place to get water from a reservoir lacking any connection with people.

The Race Village and farm stops are real oases. You get more than water and food - you get to meet the people of the Karoo. The isolation you feel while riding through that part of the world is extraordinary. Outside the towns and water points it is likely that you won't see a single person including people in cars. It's that remote. As you roll down the endless dusty roads it's hard to imagine people living there. The land seems desolate and devoid of life. Yet, enter a farmhouse or town and that perception is quickly dispelled. The vibrancy for life that you experience is magic. The pulse of life very real. We were treated like kings being served coffee and snacks with infectious enthusiasm.

Reenergised I left the farm and knocked off the 43 km to Fraserburg in under 2 hours and wasted no time in going into JJ's Kafee as I had done the previous year and bought an Eskimo Pie ice cream. It was every bit as delicious as the one I had last year.

I topped up my water bottles and headed out of town. Sthembiso caught up a few kilometres the other side of town. He didn't hang around and rode ahead. Even so, he must have made a few navigation errors as I caught up to him a short while later. He hadn't stopped for water in Fraserburg and asked how far we had to go to get more water.

One of the race rules for The Munga is that you should have capacity for at least 2.5 litres of water. Sthembiso had lost one of his bottles so was down to a little over 2 litres. It's enough, but you need to make use of every opportunity to fill your bottles. Last year I started with only 3 bottles and lost one along the way. I wasted a lot of time walking across the veld to fill my bottles at reservoirs. This year I had 4 bottles and suffered no losses so managed without a single reservoir top up. It saved a lot of time and anxiety.

It was already mid morning which meant I had been on the go for almost 48 hours. It was hot but that had become my new normal and I gave it no attention. With 400 kilometres to the finish my focus was simply on getting to Sutherland just over 100 km away. I had yet to finish my audiobook so popped the headphones in my ears and spent the next few hours on Mars.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Loxton ...or Not

Arriving in Loxton we signed in at 02h34 - two hours after Vaughn Roux and an hour and a half after Heinrich Visser and Jeannie Dreyer who arrived together. The most obvious thing in the race register was the entry "-SCRATCHED-" next to Vaughn Roux's name. Although it's a race it's never nice to see someone pull out of the event. Vaughn is a tough competitor and had captured our attention as he blitzed ahead of the field. It seemed like there was no stopping him. He had experienced hand issues during Freedom Challenge earlier in the year and it had returned to plague him again. All endurance riders experience hand issues, mostly in the form of numbness, but not as bad as Vaughn. To make matters worse he is a surgeon and his hands are the tools of his trade.

Heinrich and Jeannie had yet to sign out so that put Rafeeq and I in the same place as the race leaders. All that separated us at that moment was 90 minutes of sleep.

The plan was to eat, shower and grab a quick nap. Eating and showering went to plan. Sleep was another matter. We had indicated our intention of taking a short nap and were directed to a disused building that had a shower and then a couple of huge rooms with mattresses and blankets tossed on the floor. Perfect, I thought. Unfortunately my room was next to the bathroom and the geyser made a loud noise as it reheated. I contemplated turning it off so that I could sleep. After 20 minutes it reached operating temperature and quietened down.

That's when I heard the mosquitoes. There were hundreds of them. I turned my light on and saw them buzzing all around with a few more squadrons congregating on the wall above me. As much as I tried I couldn't ignore them. I even tried pulling a blanket over my head and made a point of burying my good ear in the pillow. Partial deafness it seems is no defence against the irritating whine of a mosquito let alone a flight of them.

After 20 minutes, with sleep out of the question, I got dressed and went in search of coffee only to be told that instant coffee was my only option. The one extravagance of The Munga is the availability of great coffee. Most Race Villages and water points had espresso machines and I had become fussy. Instant coffee checked no boxes for me. I knew the next water point would have good coffee and was happy to wait until I got there. I signed out at 04:14 and headed into the night.

I had been in Loxton for an hour and 40 minutes and all I managed to do was eat and have a shower. I had wasted more than an hour. Heinrich and Jeannie had left only 50 minutes ahead of me.

I rode 10 kilometres out of town and with sleep beckoning lay in a ditch next to the road. I set my alarm for 20 minutes and lay back. It was peaceful. Perfectly peaceful, not a single mosquito in my vicinity. Sleep came quickly.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - On a Dark Desert Highway.

After leaving Pampoenpoort Rafeeq and I rode alongside each other and chatted. We weren't solving the worlds problems or devising a strategy to save the rhino or win the race - just small talk about this and that.

60 km is a long way to ride considering how far we had ridden and how little sleep we had had. 50 km of the remaining distance to Loxton was on the same nondescript district road made even more monotonous by riding it at night with the glow of our headlights defining the boundaries of our "world". When the chit chat ran out I resorted to listening to music.

I have an eclectic mix of music on my phone. Some recent and some nostalgic spanning some four decades. Over the years some of the music on my phone has taken on special significance in relation to my riding.

A Freedom Challenge favourite is Beautiful Dawn by James Blunt. Those racing hard are always out and about hours before the first hint of light traces the outline of the eastern skyline. Barring inclement weather the waking of the eastern sky is a harbinger of a warm sun that will both see off the iciness of the night and chase away the wee hour sleep monsters. The lyrics in that context make interesting reading:

"Beautiful dawn - I'm just chasing time again.
Thought I would die a lonely man, in endless night.
But now I'm high; running wild among all the stars above.
Beautiful dawn - melt with the stars again.
Do you remember the day when my journey began?"

Another song that now has a strong Freedom Challenge connotation was playing as I crossed over the Schurfteberg on the Race to Craddock earlier this year. I Wish It Would Rain Down by Phil Collins, was playing as the heavens opened and soaked me to the bone. It was an amusing coincidence and I am reminded of that thunderstorm every time I have heard that song since the race.

A new song connection was made as we rode into Loxton - Hotel California. Some of the lyrics had me smiling:
"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair."
"Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering light. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night.",
"We are all just prisoners here of our own device",
"You can check out any time you like but you can never leave".

As the lights of Loxton beckoned we were directed off a good tar road and routed through a farm that presented the scratchiest part of the race. We stopped a couple of times to reconcile the GPS directions with the featureless veld that lay ahead. Obeying the GPS we forged ahead slowly scanning the bush with our headlamps until a jeep track, or rather the remnant of what might have been a jeep track, appeared in front of us. We scribbled through the bush, over dry river beds, along fences, around buildings, through a farm yard around a dam or two and eventually emptied out on a tar road a few hundred metres from the appointed Race Village at Die Rooi Granaat in the middle of town.

Arriving 6 minutes faster than the previous year I had finally managed to make up the time lost on day one. I was just over halfway through the race. My ambition to finish 10 hours faster than the previous year was going to be challenging.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Onward to Pumpkin Fritters at Pampoenpoort

The route out of WP5 had us winding along farm tracks. By the time I had stopped to open and close a handful of gates it was dark. Looking back I could see the lights of the riders behind me. That's not to say they were particularly close. The Karoo is big country. The air is clear and the landscape in places so flat you can see forever. Out there you get to appreciate the fullness of the platteland saying; "The land is so flat you can watch your dog run away for a week!"

I pressed on eventually reaching the district road that would take me to the next water point at the farm Pampoenspoort and then on to the third race village in Loxton. I dropped onto the aero bars and got into a good rhythm. On the good surface the kilometres got ticked off in good time. But there's the rub of it. A good road with zero navigational challenges equals good speed but it's less likely to engage you mentally. No mental stimulation leads to sleepiness. After a handful of kilometres I could feel that I was getting drowsy.

I looked behind to see if anyone was close. If I could ride with someone to chat to it would help keep me alert. I couldn't see any lights. I slowed down and got back to listening to my audiobook. That was good for about 15 minutes before I started nodding off. Looking back I could now see a few lights. I decided to keep moving forward at a moderate speed and wait for the riders to catch up. I pedalled along steadily and was eventually caught, not by Tim or Brandon as expected but by Rafeeq Safodien. He was flying. We fell into a good pace and although we didn't chat much it was good to have someone around. In no time at all we were at the Pampoenspoort water point.

It was after 11 pm and the water point was in full swing, never mind that we were only the third and forth rider to pass through. Mother and daughters got the espresso machine hissing away and pointed us in the direction of some food which included pumpkin fritters. I wolfed down at least half a dozen pumpkin delights before it occurred to me that it was a little excessive if not greedy. I was assured that there were plenty to go around.

By the time Rafeeq and I left the farmhouse the riders behind hadn't yet made an appearance. We had 60 km to get to the next race village and set off intent on banging that out as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Water Point to Water Point.

Skirting the Smartt Syndicate Dam I was 420 km into the race. I felt okay even though the temperature had once again ticked into the 40's. I wasn't hammering along as I had resolved to survive the heat of the day and make good use of the cooler nights.

It served no useful purpose to remind myself that I had 670 km to go. My thoughts were fixed on the next water point. That would become my approach for the duration of the race - one water point at a time.

The next water point was in fact an unofficial one at a farm. The owners, the Steenkamps, are enthusiastic about the race and supplied ice cold water to all the riders and made a point of filling their massive pool/reservoir so riders could cool off. I knew it wasn't that far beyond the dust bowl dam and pressed on eager to get my full of cold water. I arrived at the farm and was greeted by name - they were watching the race tracker on their iPad. More than that, they remembered that I had done the race the previous year. I found Brandon stretched out and fast asleep under the thatched afdak.

I too could have parked off under their lapa all afternoon but knew it wouldn't serve to get me any closer to Wellington. I needed to keep my momentum.

The next section through to water point 5 (WP5) brutalised me last year. I called it the "jeep track from hell". A year ago the 70 km from Britstown to WP5 took 7 hours and arriving there I lay on the grass for another 90 minutes. Fortunately I was on a better frame of mind this year and I had a pleasant ride through to WP5.

They had a selection of sandwiches on offer as well as an espresso machine. I gobbled a couple of sandwiches and poured 2 strong coffees down my gullet. Brandon arrived a short while later and as I was leaving Tim Deane pedalled in. I was waiting for Tim to make an appearance. He is serious competitor and I had him tipped for a top finish. The aspect of Tim that exceeds his toughness is his niceness. He is a really lekker guy. He had pipped me to the finish post on the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa earlier in the year so I knew I had to put in a massive effort if I wanted to stay ahead of him. To be honest, I expected that I would finish behind him as he has an impressive adventure racing pedigree so a race like The Munga is right up his alley.

I scuttled off with about an hour of daylight left very much aware that I had both Brandon and Tim on my tail. Up ahead Vaughn Roux was about 30 minutes ahead of Heinrich Visser and Jeannie Dreyer. That put me in 4th place about 90 minutes adrift of that pair with two racing snakes on my tail.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Taking a Trip to Mars

Last year it took me forever to ride from Britstown to Loxton. It's a 190 km stretch and I think it took me almost 17 hours. I seem to recall that there were 3 or 4 power naps in the mix. If I wanted to shave 10 hours off my overall race time from last year then nailing this section was pivotal. Particularly since I had yet to make up the deficit from day one and was leaving Britstown a few hours later than the previous year.

The 30 minute nap I had just had stood me in good stead. I had also downloaded an audiobook and it was about to step up and do duty. My book of choice was The Martian. It ticked 3 important boxes. Firstly, the story line was technically interesting and peppered with enough humour to keep me engaged and hopefully awake. Secondly, the narrators voice was lively - dull and boring is tasty candy for eyelid tuggers. Lastly, it was over 10 hours long.

The Martian was an excellent choice of book. Particularly in terms of solitude and the landscape I was riding over. I felt like I was part of the story. Talking of solitude, apart from Erik Vermeulen in his Pajero the only other vehicle I saw in that entire stretch (apart from my fellow competitors) was the motorised bicycle of a guy who was on fence inspection duty.

In addition to the audiobook I also had many hours of music stored on my phone which would be called upon from time to time.

I rode out of Britstown on the tar for a few kilometres before the route had me riding up a sandy jeep track. It wasn't fun but I knew it wouldn't go on for more than a few kilometres. It was the perfect time to get into my audiobook.

Ahead lay the Smartt Syndicate Dam. Most people refer to the dam simply as the Syndicate Dam but I like the full description with the Smartt prefix. I simply enjoy the irony of the name. The original Dam was built over 100 years ago with grand plans for it to support 1800 hectares of irrigation. Their idea was to grow wheat and lucerne to support the establishment of a breeding centre for sheep, goats and horses. In practice it peaked at less than 300 hectares given the unreliability of the water flow of the Ongers river.

Today it's a red dust bowl - there isn't a single drop of water in the dam. The surrounding landscape is barren and drier than Bill Murray's humour. Even if you close your eyes into a narrow slit and turn your imagination on full-blast it's impossible to imagine green fields of lucerne and wheat swaying in the wind. It was much easier to imagine I was piloting a Mars rover over the surface of a dusty rocky strewn planet.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Taking Stock.

I arrived in Britstown to the care of Renato Sabbioni the Race Village lead. He handed me a couple of ice cold flavoured milks and ordered me a Coke on ice. It was my intention to fill my bottles, grab some food and head out again. The milk and Coke disappeared in no time at all.

I found Brandon Stewart in the quad readying himself to hit the road was looking spick and span. With him looking so clean I became aware of how grubby I looked. The dust of the last 24 hours had amalgamated with the sunblock on my arms, legs and face leaving me looking like I had been well basted with a dark brown marinade. All that needed doing was to pop me in the oven. The oven was ready and waiting. The sun was nearing its zenith and the mercury was already ticking toward 40 degrees. Another hot afternoon lay ahead.

Brandon gave me directions to the hotel pool which seemed the method of choice to both cool down and clean off. The water was so cold it sent my back muscles into spasm.

I returned to the quad and noticed that Kevin Benkenstein's bike was still there. I was pleased that I had managed to reel him in. The breakfast buffet was still operating so I grabbed a plate of scrambled eggs, a couple of rashers of bacon and added a slice of toast for good measure. I also ordered a pot of tea to round out my breakfast order.

No sooner had I sat down I realised that my eyes were bigger than my belly. I struggled to poke food down my throat. I think I managed a quarter rasher of bacon, two flakes of scrambled eggs and a corner of toast. I was 391 km into the race and I still couldn't stomach a decent meal. To add to my woes I started feeling nauseous. That probably had something to do with the Coke and milk mix slopping around in my belly. I asked for a room and flopped onto a bed for quick nap.

As I waited for sleep I did the maths. Before the race I had made a list of the riders who I was sure would beat me. My list had had 12 names. That being the case I was hoping that I could at least finish 13th. As I lay on the bed I realised I was well within the top 10, thanks in part to a number of race contenders pulling out of the race due to heat stress or injury.

After a 30 minute sleep I no longer felt nauseous. I filled my bottles, drank my now cold tea, lathered myself with sunblock and headed out. But not before I had checked to see that Kevin's bike was still propped against the wall in the quad. This was a race after all and I was pleased to be in the mix.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Crossing Paths

As I lay there I became aware of a vehicle approaching. I saw the glare of lights and the rumble of tyres on gravel and thought it was a car. Within seconds I became aware of the unmistakable thrum and pop of mountain bike tyres moving over hard gravel. A silhouetted figure crouched low behind a bright LED light whizzed past. I didn't know who it was but was keen to catch up and ride along with them. The early hours of the morning are the perfect time to have company. The small talk helps while away the hours and keeps the sleep monsters at bay.

I caught up quickly and introduced myself. My riding companion did the same. I had finally made the acquaintance of someone I knew by reputation only. Firstly as an outstanding cyclist and more recently in relation to his name appearing on the list of doping cases on the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport website. That was a few years ago and his ban had since expired. Still, there are critics who persist in turning the hate-churn handle.

I wasted no time in bringing up the matter of his ban. His answers were forthright and, in my opinion, honest. People fascinate me and I find myself asking all manner of questions. As we rode through the morning we chatted about his introduction to mountain biking, marriage and kids and the new life he is forging for himself since moving on from being a professional cyclist.

The Munga falls squarely into the genre of ultra-distance cycling. These long events, while requiring you to turn your legs over endlessly, also push you into an interesting mental space. While you keep tabs on your competitors you also keep checking and rechecking your own motivation for being on a bike. In this regard you bring your life experiences into the race. It gives it context and purpose and hopefully the motivation to press through your moments of doubt. Read through Kevin Benkenstein's race account you'll see how he leaned heavily on his past -

As the day wore on and we approached the second Race Village at Britstown I fell back and was left to ride into town on my own.

The nature of the race is that you pass some riders and some pass you. Occasionally you get to ride together. The company is always great even if you don't actually say anything. At the very least the other riders give you a gauge to measure your pace and progress.

The hours spent riding together into Britstown that morning left me with the impression of a man who, like me, enjoys riding his bike. Just like me he has a wife and kids, holds down a job and faces the same challenges of providing for his family. The person who rode off ahead of me was more than a tarnished reputation. He was a flesh and blood man riding his bike just like I was. He was a man whose company I enjoyed, albeit briefly, and would be happy to sit around the table and share a meal with. The history that trailed behind him had no place in that desert. It was of no import. We were just two guys pedalling our bikes in the harshest of conditions in the hope of making it to the finish in Wellington.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - Getting into Race Mode

My best guess was aardvark. Under a clear sky without a breath of wind it was dead quiet save for the snorting and snuffling coming from the bushes close by.

It was almost 4 a.m. After a day of being buffeted by a merciless wind it was good to lay back in the roadside ditch and enjoy the Karoo night. I had left the first race village 90 minutes before. Behind me I had left the bulk of the race field. There were only 6 riders ahead of me and there were a handful that were sure to follow. But at that moment I was completely alone. There were no lights, bike or otherwise, visible in any direction. I had doused my lights and lay back drinking in the peacefulness and solitude of the night. The race proper had begun.

It might seem odd to think that I was already 250 kilometres into the race and yet felt like the race had just started. Without doubt my legs and body knew I had been riding hard for the last 16 hours, but that had been with and around other riders. The first objective for every rider was to cover the 222 km to Van der Kloof Dam. For a handful of riders that was not their reality. A handful more never ventured beyond the dam.

The Munga is a hard race. It is set at the hottest time of the year through an inhospitable part of the country. Don't misunderstand that last statement, the landscape is brutal, the people on the other hand are friendly and helpful beyond belief. To traverse 1086 km inside of 120 hours might not look too difficult on paper. In practice it is unbelievably hard. It is not the sort of race where you bang out an 8 hour effort and then put your feet up and share a few beers with your mates before tucking up for 8 hours of sleep. The clock is always running, even while you sleep. To make the cutoff you need to focus on keeping your momentum. That means moving through race villages efficiently. Efficiently means forgoing your regular dose of socialising and sleep. It's a luxury the race format does not afford you.

This year the race leaders arrived at the dam well after midnight. Last year the first rider was in by 10 p.m. I myself had hoped to be out of the race village by midnight. As it turned out I only arrived at 01h50 and left at 02:14. I was already more than 2 hours behind my self imposed schedule. Even so, I needed 5 minutes to unwind and start thinking about the task ahead.

The aardvark was close but I didn't want to turn my light on lest I disturbed it. I was content to lay there looking up at the stars while it scratched around.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Racing The Munga 2016 - A Friend in Need.

I left the first water point on my own. Ahead I could see a pair of riders battling into the wind. The race rules prohibited drafting except for the first 222 km section up to Van der Kloof Dam. Most riders were taking advantage of the rule exemption and were toiling into the wind in small bunches where possible. I tried to close the gap and hook on to a back wheel. Half way across the gap my left leg cramped. I managed to ease the cramp without stopping but in easing off I lost ground on the pair ahead. After 10 minutes I slowly increased pace aware that a knotting cramp was a mere muscle twitch away. The battle of cramp verses pace was to go on for the next 5 hours. 

The next opportunity for water was at a farm shop at 96 km and I was counting down the distance kilometre by kilometre. I couldn't bear to think beyond that. The second official water point was at 170 km and the thought of riding that distance in the heat was simply depressing. 

I figured I was well into the back half of the field. Every now and then I would pass a rider sitting in the shade of a tree. A few people rolled by me as I took a couple of breaks. At the top of a climb I saw an ambulance on the side of the road. I could see the medics mingling with 3 riders, one of whom I knew well. 

Philip Kleijnhans, seeing me go passed yelled out to me, "What are you doing back here? I really thought you could finish in the top five."

Before long Philip was on his bike and riding alongside me. I explained how I was battling with cramps and he told me that his knee inflammation had returned and he thought it highly unlikely that he would manage to finish. With that he pulled in front of me and started powering into the headwind. I tucked in behind him and we made good progress. Every now and then I would sit up to ease a cramp and Philip would slow up and wait for me. 

A particularly bad cramp had me far back. The farm shop was only a few kilometres away so Philip rode ahead. I caught up with him just short of the shop after he had taken a dip in a reservoir to cool off. I bought a Coke and 4 bottles of water. Philip waited outside while I filled my bottles. It was just after sunset. I turned my lights on and headed up the road. The next water point was 74 km away. It was still hot and it was going to hard work. Once again Philip took up a lead position and hammered into the night. I sat on his tail happy for the help. At no stage was there any suggestion that I should take my place at the front. 

10 kilometres short of the water point, after pulling me for 75 km, Philip was hurting. He told me to go ahead. I put my head down and made good progress passing a number of riders on the way. Philip had helped me through a particularly hard section of the race and I am grateful for that help. What I hadn't realise was the full extent of the assistance. It would become apparent once I arrived at Van der Kloof Dam. Signing in to the race village at 01h50 I was surprised to see that there were only 9 riders ahead of me.