Thursday, 29 September 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - A Bumpy Start

Soon after leaving the parking lot of the Station Masters Arms I turned onto Old Main Road and start heading along the Comrades Marathon Route. I have never run the Comrades Marathon and am not au fait with the route but I have been told it goes that way. Paul Erasmus, who has run Comrades, pulled up next to me and confirmed that it was in fact the Comrades route. 


We rode along at the front of the group and within minutes encountered the first climb of the day - Botha's Hill. On fresh well trained legs it shouldn't be that hard. My legs were fresh, very fresh. I had been tapering for a couple of weeks. I realised soon into the climb that fresh legs without adequate training don't count for much. My hamstrings quickly settled into a cramp threatening burn and I knew I would have to back off if I didn't want to seize up. Fortunately Paul was happy with the pace I was setting and we rolled along together. The other bike lights were falling further behind every minute. Or so I thought. When I turned around again there was a third rider closing on us. 

  "Don't worry about me." It was Heather. 


As far as I recall there were only three of us riding mountain bikes with standard off-road knobblies - myself, Heather and Dave. Paul was on a Cyclocross bike as were Ted and Kenneth. I'm not quite sure what John and Kevin were riding but they had skinny tyres.  


I had met Heather for the first time the evening before. She took the Botha's Hill climb in her stride and managed to jabber away all the way up. It was evident that she was a very strong rider. I knew from riding with him the previous year that Paul was a strong contender. Heather, Ted and Kevin were newcomers and I didn't know what to expect. 


There I was, not yet ten kays into a race of six hundred, already evaluating the relative strength of the other riders trying to figure out who to keep a close eye on. It's not like I'm a great rider and able to hold off a strong challenge for the lead. Although winning the race was a nice idea, it was more about engaging myself in the race and maintaining momentum. It was also about occupying my mind to stave off the boredom that was bound to occur sometime in the next 34 to 37 hours. 


I had heard that John and Heather had an arrangement to ride together as had Dave and Dawn before Dawn withdrew. So the only "team" I was aware of was John and Heather. After the first climb it seemed the glue had already softened on that arrangement. The three headed through Drummond and started up the climb to Inchanga. Somewhere up the climb I looked behind me and saw that Heather had unhitched and was out of sight. We figured her ride commitment to John had finally overshadowed the fun she was having at the front of the race. 


By the time we got to Cato Ridge the mist was heavy and was starting to soak our clothes. Unlike me Paul wasn't clad in rain gear. He commented on stopping sometime to get his rain coat out. A short while later he called out. I looked back and saw he had stopped. I slowed and turned back. The problem was obvious. Looking back twenty or thirty metres a could see little white patches neatly spaced every two metres terminating at a bigger milk like puddle under his tyre. A big cut across his tyre had the sealant leaking out. Not a great start to his ride. 


I gave him all of ten seconds worth of sympathy before remounting and heading off into the light drizzle. It's an individual race and there wasn't much I could do to help. I needed to maintain momentum and with the drizzle turning to light rain I needed to stay warm. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Off You Go

The race registration venue for the race consists of a table or two on the veranda of The Station Masters Arms in Hillcrest. With Dawn Bell unable to ride due to illness the field was whittled down to just eight competitors. 


Most people were either unsure or cagey about their race strategy. I had at least announced that I was planning on riding nonstop and that I wanted to finish before sunset on Saturday, 37 hours, with my audacious goal being to crack 34 hours. Having opted for my mountain bike, instead of my road steed, 34 hours was going to be tough. 


Race briefing lasted a few minutes. It consisted of Andy Masters handing out race numbers and engaging in some two way prattle with John Loos. To be fair, Andy did say something useful. He told us there was no accommodation available at The Border Post and that the kitchen there closed at 8pm. I knew I wouldn't be there by 8pm and didn't intend stopping so the only 'useful' information he gave us was of no import to me. Race numbers in hand we wandered off. 


With race numbers cable tied to our bikes we trickled back just after 4:30 am the following morning for the 5 am start. Bikes were unloaded from cars, helmets were fitted and lights checked. We wandered around blinding each other with our headlights while Andy did his best to line us up for a start line photograph. He must have managed because after a while he stepped back and announced, "Off you go!" And so we did just that. 

Monday, 26 September 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Getting to the start line.

5 am. Piercing alarm. Right... where is the soldering iron and solder? The right approach would be to get out of bed and look in the toolbox where it was last seen. The wrong approach would be to lay in bed another fifteen minutes trying to figure out an alternative in case the soldering iron was missing.

5:15 am. I go downstairs and plug in the soldering iron which I find in the soldering iron drawer of my toolbox.

5:25 am. Wires are a bit of a mess but I manage to get them back in working order. Or so I thought.
After 20 minutes of spinning my wheel trying to get the dynohub to work I plug in my multimeter and concluded that the wiring is perfect. The AC to DC USB convertor has obviously cooked itself when the wires got tangled and shorted out. Make a mental note to get a new one before The Munga.

5:50 am. What now? Tea!

6:00 am. More tea.

6:10 am. Fit cross tube bags and make sure there is chain lube, butt lube and sun cream and an assortment of tools, inflator cartridges, and general spares.
Other bag is loaded with power banks (2 because the USB charger was toast), earphones, charge cables for phone and GPS. Track down my standby Hope battery torch and fitted fresh batteries. Headlamp batteries seem fine, they should last. Load up 4 spare AA batteries just in case.

7:00 am. Tea.

7:10 am. Dig around in my cycling clothes drawer and take out a selection of riding gear... rain coat missing...

7:30 am. Dumb place to hide a rain coat. What was I thinking putting it there?

7:32 am. Tea.

7:45 am. I know there is something else that needs fixing...

8:00 am. Check the weather app. It is definitely going to be cold and wet. Long fingered gloves and leg warmers needed. Leg warmers are where they should be. Long fingered gloves are more of a challenge. I find one in the race box and the other in the garage.

8:30 am. Should have left 30 minutes ago. Water bottles! That was close. Find two bottles in the fridge already topped up with Oros. Yes, Oros, the sports drink of champions. I put them in the car.
I toss the bike in the car and hope I haven't forgotten anything.

8:45 am. I realise that I might need my Garmin. It's fully charged but no route loaded. I fire up the PC and download the race office suggested route onto the device and put that in the car.

9:00 am. Time to leave to pick up Dave and Dawn Bell. As I exit the complex it occurs to me that I still haven't sorted out the problem with the bike. Still can't remember what it is. Oh well.

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Just do it!

This time last year I did my first Durban Dash event. The race coincided with an oppressive heat wave that resulted in all but two riders pulling out of the race. Paul Erasmus and I pedalled up from Durban crossing the finish line together to jointly win first and last place. First place gets you kudos from your mates. Last place gets the only special award of the race - the coveted Lanterne Rouge. 

 

While it may seem ridiculous to celebrate last place anyone who knows anything about an Andy Masters event knows that completing any of his events is as good as winning. There is no shame in taking home the red lantern. 

 

That was last year. Roll around April this year and the Down version of the Durban Dash beckoned. Dash events are like bookends - unless you have both ends the set is incomplete. The weather office predicted fair weather so I prepped my road bike. There is a section of gravel road leading to the Old Halliwell checkpoint that rain could make impassable. It's only a fifteen kilometre stretch but it can be tricky, even in dry weather. One rider doing the Up last year on a Cyclocross bike fell off 5 times on this section resulting in him having to pull out due to an injury. There's an alternative route but it adds so much distance and time that you may as well ride a mountain bike and take the direct route. The weather office predictions came to pass and I was able to tick off 613 km's in 28 hours and some change. Although fast, it was only good enough for third place. Two guys planned well and executed better, crossing the finish line in just under 24 hours - I want to be like them when I am big. 

 

As race time for the next Up race approached I started thinking about how much faster I could do the Up ride on my road bike. I already had my bookend set and didn't need to do the race again. However, I couldn't shake the idea of riding the Up on a skinny bike. A few mouse clicks later I had officially entered the race. You would think I'd snap into action and start prepping my bike and planning my race. While a good idea, it's just not me. 

 

I squeezed in a few training rides early September and even managed a pair of tar sessions on my road bike. Nothing too demanding. It's always a good idea to get used to the different setup like I do the weekend before any big road race like the 947 Cycle Challenge. 

 

I had already fitted a big range MTB cassette on my road bike for the Down ride. I knew the Up was going to be a bigger challenge. In particular, the climb out of Pietermaritzburg and the climb up Oliviershoek Pass were going to be tough. I hoped the modified gear ratios would suffice. I was prepared to suffer a bit for those 25 kilometres to enjoy the speed benefit the bike gearing would bring over the remainder of the route. A mountain bike, while more comfortable, is not the weapon of choice on a tar road race. It's like entering a donkey in the Durban July. It will probably finish but the photo finish technicians won't be on speed dial.

 

Then the weather changed and the heavens opened. One week before the race the roads around Harrismith were sprinkled with snow and the field for the Hill 2 Hill MTB race in Durban thinned out as people didn't relish the idea of a mud race. Various weather sites agreed that it was going to be cold and wet on the first day of the race. All of a sudden my faithful "donkey" started to look a lot more attractive than my Cervelo "race horse".

 

The Cervelo had developed a creak and I suspected the bottom bracket needed some attention. I also knew there was a niggle or two on my mountain bike. 2 days before the race with the certainty of rain at 100% I abandoned the idea of riding the Cervelo and settled on my mountain bike. Someone said they might have a set of 29er slicks I could use but they couldn't find them and I wasn't about to part with a handful of shillings for new tyres for just one race. I knew I should have be proactive and got my ducks in a row but that never happened until the night before I headed down to Durban

 

The wiring for my dynohub USB charging system got damaged in the last day of The Freedom Challenge and I hadn't got around to fixing it. I also needed new brake pads and there was something else that needed fixing but I couldn't remember what it was. 

The cassette, chain and chain rings were well past their use by date with almost 3500km's of use since last service. I figured they hadn't showed any ill effects so were probably good for at least one more outing. 

The tyres, while adequate for serious off-road use, were a little heavy. I didn't fancy swapping them out for a lighter set which I had as I wasn't sure I had enough sealant to do the job. In truth, I was also being lazy. 

 

Before I tucked into bed I had managed to do very little on my bike. I found my Revelate saddle bag and fitted it to my bike. It should have taken less than a minute to fit but it ended up taking me at least ten minutes as I couldn't remember how it fitted to the saddle. I couldn't find new brake pads so fitted an old set that had a little wear left in them. I figured I would only have to use the brakes through towns if I caught the traffic lights on red. I also found two power banks in my box of race stuff and put them on charge. 

 

I set my alarm for 5am so I would have enough time to find the rest of my kit and attend to my bikes wiring problem and that 'something else' that I couldn't recall. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Durban Dash Up 2016 - Overview

Durban Dash, not your average ride. In a country inundated with more cycle races than weekends in which to host them, a new genre of cycling is starting to take hold - Unsupported Adventure Cycling. You start at point A and self navigate through a number of compulsory check points and finish a point Z. All without without any formal support or race organiser intervention. While not new on the global scene it has finally made its way to South Africa thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of Andy Masters whose stable of races are run under the Massive Adventures brand. www.massiveadventures.co.za The pinnacle offering is Trans Afrika, a race from Beit Bridge to Cape Town via three compulsory check points located in Swaziland, Lesotho, and Prince Albert. The 1000 Miler runs from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The Freestate Dash is a mini version of the 1000 miler and runs from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein while the Trans Karoo picks up on the 1000 miler from Bloemfontein through to Cape Town. The most recent race was the Durban Dash which comes in two variants, namely, the Down and the Up. The Durban Dash Up is a race from Hillcrest in Durban through 3 checkpoints - Old Halliwell Country Inn at Currys Post, The Border Post at the top of Oliviershoek Pass and the Heilbron KFC in the Freestate. The race ends at Thaba Trails in Johannesburg South. Any route is permissible as long as you don't ride on the N3. A suggested route is supplied in .gpx format. The Down race is simply the reverse. The cost of entry is cheap as chips. Granted you need to pay for accommodation and food along the way which makes a nonstop strategy attractive if you are stingy. The race is also short enough that competitive riders are able to ride nonstop. I used the .gpx route as supplied with one small variation that I knew from riding JoBerg2c. I'm not familiar with the tangle of backroads that thread you around the motorway and out of Durban into the midlands so was happy for clear directions. I packed sufficient food in my two ice cream tubs which were available at CP1 and CP2. Fuel station convenience stores kept me hydrated and provided treats like ice creams and crisps. That gives you an overview. I will delve into the events and headspace aspects of the race in following posts.

Monday, 25 July 2016

RASA 2016 - Could I have gone faster?

Before the race started I was asked how long I thought it would take me to complete the race. My answer, 13.5 days. My actual finishing time was 13.56 days. I'd say that was mission accomplished. But there is more to the story than just those numbers. At one stage it looked likely that I would be able to wrap it up at least one day faster - then the wheels fell off.

The first few days went to plan when I arrived in Rhodes in under 3 days. The next objective was to get beyond Slaapkranz on day 4. A series of thunderstorms put paid to that plan and I had an enjoyable evening in Slaapkranz. The next day just beyond Moodenaarspoort I started wheezing and coughing. A quick call had it diagnosed as a viral lung infection. I asked a simple question and received a "No" in response. The question - "Will this kill me?" While it seemed unlikely to kill me the coughing fits that erupted the moment I lay down made sleeping almost impossible.

My progress slowed to a stagger on the way to Grootdam (which is the halfway point of the race) where the Race Director caught up with me and delivered a bag of prescribed medication. This helped. What didn't help was Theo getting an injury that required the same medication. Freedom riders being selfless souls are quick to share. I might have fared better further down the trail if I had managed to keep the meds to myself but I counted myself fortunate to get any meds in the middle of nowhere and Theo's chance of getting some in the next 500km's was just short of zero.

After leaving Grootdam the focus was on making the cutoff at Cambria. We had to get there between 6am and 2pm if we didn't want to stay over at Kudu Kaya in Cambria. As it turned out we made the cutoff with only 15 minutes to spare. Unfortunately it came at a price.

Once through the gate I had chance to take stock. The focus over the last few days was getting to the gate. Now through the gate I realised that I was in terrible shape. I was running a fever and my chest felt a little tight. Unfortunately we still had to get through the Baviaanskloof reserve before there was any chance of slacking off. Once we had cleared the reserve I hit a serious flat spot. Tim and Theo pushed on ahead of me and got to Damsedrif well ahead of my arrival. The last kilometre to Damsedrif felt impossible. I stopped and looked behind me and could see the police station. It looked close enough to touch. I knew it was 2 kilometres away. I told myself that I only had to cover half that distance. It seemed easy enough, but it took me a couple of minutes to build up the energy to roll the final kilometre.

I sat at the dinning-room table and ate what I could. I asked Hestelle how far the rooms were. She said the cottages were about 200 metres away. Right behind my chair there was a couch. After eyeing the couch for a few seconds while contemplating the challenge of walking 200 metres I asked Hestelle if I could just curl up right there. She waved her magic wand and before I knew it a bed was made up on the couch.

I'm not sure how much sleep I got but I guess it wasn't much - minutes rather than hours. Hestelle commented that I coughed the whole while. She knew because her room was just up the passage.

The trip from Damsedrif to Willowmore, then through to Prince Albert and all the way through to Die Hell was scruffy. It took forever. I lost count of the number of times I lay down next to the road and fell asleep. I effectively lost a day. As mentioned previously, from Die Hell I got my rhythm back and continued my race at a decent pace.

While staggering along I yielded a full day to my competitors and saw a potential 12.5 day 3rd place finish dissolve into a 13.5 6th place finish.

So, if I didn't get sick could I have gone faster? For sure. Can I go back next year and do it faster? I'm not so sure about that!

The weather this year was good, very good. We had one day of rain, mud for and hour and no head winds of any significance. That wasn't everyone's experience but certainly was mine and the experience of those that rode around me.

I'm happy with my ride and happy with my time. Would I have liked to have ridden it without getting sick? Of course. But I don't regret the experience one bit. All the while I enjoyed good health the riding was fairly easy. In some ways, even monotonous.

If the race were to be represented by a drawing, the middle bits where I struggled would be in bright colours while the beginning and end, in the most part, would simply be shaded with a pencil. The bits where I struggled were the times where I had to really think about my race. They were the times when I questioned why I was doing the race at all. They were the times when I had to figure out how to get to the next support station. They weren't days filled with 200 or 300 kilometre riding plans. They were difficult hours spent figuring out how the make the next few kilometres. They were certainly tough but they were every bit a part of the narrative of my 2016 race as were the good days. The tough bits gave the race character. They were the essential texture of the race. We don't do this race because it's easy, we do it because it's hard. I had easy and I certainly had hard. I had a proper Freedom Challenge experience.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Banishing the If-Only's - Racing Without Regrets

Four weeks after finishing the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa I sit at home and watch the sun sink below the horizon. It's the end of another day and I am settling into the evening routine of winding down, making dinner and heading to bed. The sun will rise in the morning and I will go through my usual morning drill. This is the normal pattern of life where our activities are bracketed and divided by the rising and setting of the sun.

As I look back a month to the race I am amazed at how the distinction of day and night was blurred. The only real difference was the temperature - the days were cool and the nights were cold. Beyond that, day and night didn't dictate my activity. I had purpose - to move down the trail in as few days as possible. If that meant climbing under a blanket at 2pm and waking up after sunset and hopping on my bike then that's what happened.

Over the years, having returned home after an event, I find myself reflecting on my race performance pondering how the outcome could have been different if I had made better decisions at key moments. In the comfort of home it's easy to pinpoint strategic errors, wasted time, and moments where I stopped for the day instead of pushing on. None of these things mean that the race was a flop, far from it. In 2011 I pulled out of RASA on day two. On the surface it looked like failure. In practice, it was anything but that. I had achieved enough in those two days to convince myself that, with a little extra conditioning, I could mix it up with the so-called racing snakes.

Since 2011 I have had a different mental approach to racing along the Freedom Trail. I have adopted a trail mantra that plays through my mind when I face a decision that could have a material effect on my progress; "Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny?" Over the last ten years of traipsing down the Trail I have had many moments that I subsequently labelled as soft in the unemotional surrounds of home.

Since, and including, 2011 I have made a point of deliberately banking the reasons for decisions taken while racing. They include details such as weather conditions and physical and mental state. That has made it a lot easier to deal with hiccups.

The soft choices do have one important consequence - you start thinking about the possible outcome if only you had made the tougher choice. For some of us the question arises, "How fast can I actually go?" This was certainly front of mind for me this year when I entered the race.

So how has this year's race stacked up in post-race analysis? There were a few blunders. For most I didn't have to wait for post-race analysis to identify them. I knew at the time, or soon after, that I could have made a better decision. Having said that, I don't believe the mistakes had a material effect on the race outcome. I simply wasted a few minutes here and there. You could argue that the wasted time could have been converted into sleep except that the cough I developed put paid to restorative sleep - I would have just spent more time coughing instead of sleeping.

There were times when it would have been easy to take a softer option rather than step out the door into a cold dark night. In those moments when I caught myself staring longingly at a comfortable bed or cozy fire place I ran the mantra through my head - Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny? The thought of having to try justify a soft option without a compelling reason had me back on my bike and pedalling.

Those who followed my race will know that it wasn't all plain sailing. The middle part of my race was scruffy as I battled with a chest infection that left me trickling down the trail for a couple of days. Did it have an effect on the final result? Without doubt. Could I have made different decisions to get to to the finish faster? I'm not sure I could have. I am satisfied that at the very least I kept moving, albeit at snail pace.

That introduces a What-if. What if I didn't get sick? Could I have gone faster? I'll deal with that in the next post.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Of talking rabbits and interstellar butterflies

A coughing fit woke me. I looked at my watch. I had been tossing in my space bag for nearly 2 hours. I had been following Chris Morris up the Swartberg Pass from Prince Albert. We had left at midnight hoping to get through Gamkaaskloof and Rouxpos onto Anysberg.

The few hours of fitful sleep at Denehof in Prince Albert had done little to reinvigorate me. I had started with a hacking cough 6 days previous and apart from being a nuisance it effectively halved the amount of sleep time I should have been banking. Now almost 11 days into the race I was run down and running a fever. I had been dragging my unresponsive carcass over the landscape for the last 250km's desperate for my "engine" to reignite. I knew it was simply a matter of time before I came back online and I was running out of patience. I had already lost a day and my hopes of a probable 12.5 day finish had evaporated. Now I had to see what I could do to make my original target of 13.5 days.

An upset stomach had me stopping twice on the climb. At one point I saw Chris's lights high above me on the mountain. After my second stop he was nowhere to be seen. About two thirds of the way up the mountain pass I could barely take a dozen steps without the effort causing me to stop to rest. I realised it was a battle I wasn't going to win. I pulled over and dug out a space bag. Wriggling inside I hoped that Chris had the good sense to not wait for me.
I didn't set an alarm and simply pulled the space bag over my head and yielded to the urge to close my eyes.

What followed can best be described as bizarre serious of technicolor hallucinations that included talking rabbits, earthquakes, and interstellar butterflies. Nearly 2 hours later I opened the space bag allowing freezing crisp air to wash over my face. The puddles on the road were iced over and yet I was as warm as fresh toast in my flimsy foil bag. The fact that I was running a fever probably had something to do with it.

I continued my plod into Die Hell having 2 more power naps along the way. Liehann Loots passed me on the final climb reinforcing the fact that I had lost a full days lead on him. I trickled into the support station and had a 5 minute chat with Liehann before he left. His last words as he got on his bike - I'll see you in Anysberg tonight. It had taken me over 10 hours to do a 5 hour ride and the prospect of getting to Anysberg that day seemed improbable. But then a funny thing happened as I sat there enjoying the thin sunshine in the bottom of that strange valley eating lunch and sipping my coffee. My engine ignited. Getting back on my bike I felt the pleasure of legs turning over with ease. I did make Anysberg that night and to be honest it wasn't that hard. Funny things happen when you least expect.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Why would you do FC RASA more than once?

I have just added a forth Race Across South Africa blanket to my Freedom Challenge (FC) collection that also includes four Race to Rhodes whips and two Race to Cradock windmills. I've been asked why anyone would do the FC more than once. I've also encountered people who say they have ticked that box and then they walk away never to be heard from again.

In many ways the FC events are no different to other races - I've done two each of Epic, JoBerg2c, Sani2c, Sabi Experience and a few other one day races. The second time around was to see if I could do better, and I did. But these other events never engaged me so completely as the Freedom Challenge. They were mere exercises in fitness and cold numbers.

The Freedom Challenge community is without equal in mountain biking circles, certainly in this country. The mere sight of a FC fleece creates an instant bond. It matters little if you tore across the country in 11 days or snuck in just inside the 26 day cutoff to reach the finish. The mere fact that you participated and endured says volumes about the person you are.

What makes it so special? Firstly, the route isn't marked and GPS devices are as welcome as Donald Trump at a Mexican Independence Day celebration. While a red line on the maps indicates the intended route, there are numerous options that can be taken while keeping an eye on the Out Of Bounds sections. It creates an interesting dynamic. I have been engaged with this race for ten years and can ride the entire route without maps. Yet, you will still find me and other trail veterans poring over the maps before the race tweaking our lines to either save a minute here and there or to ride lines that, while a little slower, simplify night navigation.

I sat across the table from Liehann Loots in Anysberg during this years race. As we drank our coffee we spoke about what it was we wanted from the race. We, just like many other riders, were after the same experience - to go it alone and put down our best performance to date. Arriving at that point, I believe, is an iterative process. The first time on the trail in 2007 was incredibly hard. I struggled everyday and had to deal with a constant barrage of self doubt and anxiety. Those 3 weeks changed the way I rode my bike. There was something about the total engagement offered by the Freedom Challenge than tarnished the shine of regular events. I was never going to be a contender in a regular race. The FC opened a whole new world of racing where tenacity counted for as much as athletic ability.

Over the years I have refined my approach to endurance events. I have encountered and in some ways learnt to tame the funk that results from extreme sleep deprivation. I have come to understand the ability of the body and mind to bounce back when completely drained. This year we saw the old strategy of veteran Tim James' and myself ride-until-you-drop juxtaposed with the ride-fast-sleep-well of Bruce Hughes and Liehann Loots. A contrast that is certainly going to be examined and added into the mix in the years ahead.

It has been said that the Freedom Challenge is as hard as you want it to be. In many ways that is true. Simply riding from one support station to another every day is still a big ask. No one is forcing you to walk out the door and do a double or ride on into the night. It's a personal choice. The fact that the choice exists makes it attractive. Doing the first day double to Ntsikeni or getting to Rhodes in under 3 days is still a goal that many find attractive and would like to achieve.

So why come back and do the race again? We all want different things. Perhaps it's just about time-out and spending a few weeks in a different space. Perhaps it's about plumbing new depths in your being. Or perhaps, like me, you just want to prove to yourself that you're not past your use-by date.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

No One Remembers Who Came Second

No one remembers who came second, third, or forth for that matter. Winning is everything it seems. Too often we have a warped sense of what winning is.

I recall a conversation I had with Alex Harris a few years back when The Munga was just an idea in his head. He was adamant that only first place would get prize money. After all, he said, why celebrate mediocrity? A case of second place being the first loser.

While that might seem harsh it is the standard by which Alex measures himself. He goes into events with the intention of winning. Of being the first finisher over the line. His drive goes beyond that. He wants to beat and set new records. We watch and we applaud but also realise that he, unlike us, is a superb and dedicated athlete.

Martin Dreyer is a similar animal. He also strives to be first. The duel between Martin and Alex on the Freedom Challenge in 2012 had us watching slack-jawed — two world class athletes pushing the envelope and both intent on being first. Martin prevailed that year. Alex, finishing a few hours behind, was still well inside the previous record. Funny that, we do remember who came second that year.

Martin, in his role as mentor at the Change a Life Academy, understands what it means to win even if you are not the first person over the line. There is a different standard beyond the official race result to determine who has won and who has not. He knows the capabilities of his charges. When someone pushes themselves beyond their former limits they have won.

For most of us winning comes in small incremental steps. For the vast majority it never culminates in the top step of the podium, at least not publicly. That's of little consequence. We know when we have given more than our best. It is in those moments that we know what it feels like to win.

What are my goals for the race this year? I want to win. And I hope all the other competitors win too.

Alex Harris stood at the finish line of the inaugural Munga race this past December waiting for the last competitors to finish the race. He wanted more than anything for them to finish before the cutoff. When they crossed the line he shed a tear. They were far from finishing in first place but, in his eyes, they were winners.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Is the Freedom Challenge similar to Fight Club?

What do the Freedom Challenge and turn of the century movie Fight Club have in common? Apart from shared initials, nothing! But the rules of fight club are interesting and might be of interest as they apply to the Freedom Challenge.

The characters in Fight Club are a bunch of bored directionless societal drones who have lost their sense of purpose and make their way to Fight Club in search of meaning which, in time, decays into barefaced anarchy. A Freedom Challenge participant is anything but that. Most are riders who have a very clear sense of who they are and what they would like to achieve. Very few have been duped into pitching up at the start line with no idea of what is about to unfold. I use 'very few' rather than 'no one' because I can think of at least two riders, who, (mis)guided by a keen friend, turned up for the Ride to Rhodes and had their heads scrambled by the time they got to Ntsikeni on day three. Once there, they threw in the towel and haven't been heard of since. I guess they did fulfil at least one of the rules of Fight Club - 8th Rule: If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight. And fight they did. I suspect they are still licking their wounds.

The 7th rule of Fight Club might apply; Fights will go on as long as they have to. The FC rules state the maximum finishing times for the various races; RTR is 8 days and RASA 26 days. Those are extremely generous cut-offs and very few people have either one of those as their ultimate goal. Practicality and ambition have proven to impinge on those limits. I recall one rider who ran out of leave and had to abandon his ambitions of getting to Wellington so he could head back to the office. Others have set tight personal goals that have been dashed against the rocks of bad weather and unrealistic planning resulting in their resolve leaking out on the trail. Rule 7 would serve a rider well when they are standing in a puddle of their own failing resolve.

Rule 6 is ridiculous - no shirts no shoes. Completely impractical, but I am still scarred by the image of Marnitz riding up from the Grootrivier gorge wearing nothing but his riding shoes and a backpack. He would have needed to shed his riding shoes to comply fully with Rule 6.

Rule 5: One fight at a time. Sage advise. Face each challenge as it happens. Fretting about how you are going to get up Lehana while walking up Hela Hela serves no purpose save to drain you of the emotional energy you need to face the task at hand. Each day, and indeed each portion of each day, has it's own unique challenges. Deal with those as you need to. As you conquer an obstacle take time to savour the achievement. After patting yourself on the back you can turn your attention to what needs doing next.

Rule 4: Only 2 guys to a fight. When you start out on your race you need to pack two versions of yourself. Firstly, who you are. Secondly, the person you want to be in a months time as you sit at home or in the office and reflect back on your race. When you are overwhelmed by the events of the race and are ready to call it quits haul out the other guy and think about how you will feel about that decision in a few weeks time. I'm not suggesting that there aren't legitimate reasons to quit, but it's sometimes hard to sift through the fog of pain and doubt to identify a genuine reason that will prevail as a solid reason when you are back at home without your finishers whip or blanket. Quitting spawns a monkey that clings. As the year drags on it taunts. Then it starts talking. It always says the same thing - "We have some unfinished business!"

That leads into Rule 3: If someone says "stop" ... or taps out, the fight is over.
The second guy you packed needs to sleep on the decision before confirming that the fight is indeed over. My experience is that a good nights sleep and perhaps an easy day or two does wonders in restoring flagging resolve. A year is a long time to marinade in a host of what-if's.

Rules one and two of Fight Cub are the same - You do not talk about Fight Club. Clearly there is no direct parallel with the Freedom Challenge. If there was, then I have been breaching those rules for the last ten years. We need to supplant those two rules with two more appropriate rules. So, the first rule of Freedom Challenge is to make sure you make it to the finish and get your Blanket/Whip/Windmill.
The second rule of Freedom Challenge is to MAKE SURE you make it to the finish and get your Blanket/Whip/Windmill.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

If vasbyt, like beer, came in 6 packs, one pack wouldn't be enough to get you through RASA

Vasbyt. Now there's a cool South African word. It has even made its way into the Oxford Dictionary. Alas, it isn't properly defined - bite hard. That's pathetic.

The closest English synonyms I could find were 'perseverance' and 'tenacity'. Close but no cigar - those words aren't visceral enough. The word is simply bigger than the sum of any words you could find to describe it. It's a bit like the Afrikaans word padkos. Also in the Oxford Dictionary - Food taken to eat on a journey. Okay, that's close.

Finishing a Freedom Challenge event takes perseverance. Racing it day after day takes vasbyt - perseverance on steroids if you will. A few years back I had occasion to see real vasbyt in action. It took the forms of Martin Dreyer and Alex Harris. The occasion was a particularly miserable day during the Freedom Challenge in 2012. A whole pile of riders, myself and Trevor Ball among them, had been mauled by persistent rain and clawing mud for a couple of days. One morning, after 4 hours of riding from Moodenaarspoort - a section that normally takes 2 hours - we tied our steeds to the post at Kranskop and called it a day.

Let's rewind a little lest you think we were being wimps.
From the outset Trevor and I had our minds set on getting to Rhodes in 3 days. A tall order indeed, but it was within our grasp. All we needed was a little vasbyt. At the start we popped into the local battle store and picked up a 6 pack of vasbyt, as one does. With a good measure of cunning, perseverance and a liberal sprinkling of vasbyt we managed to pedal into Rhodes inside of 3 days.

Having arrived in Rhodes and met our first objective we realised that we didn't have a plan beyond Rhodes. We trickled down the road to Chesneywold and caught up with much needed sleep. The next day we spent 20 hours slogging through rain and mud. At least 13 hours of that was on foot. We dug deep and exhausted the last of our 6 pack. Arriving at Moodenaarspoort the wrong side of midnight we were broken when we flopped into bed

The next morning, 22nd June 2012, we woke to find it was still raining. We had caught up with another half dozen riders at Moodenaarspoort. We joined them for breakfast and together we headed into the rain. We all got as far as Kranskop before throwing in the towel.

Many hours were spent washing clothes and repairing bicycles. The fireplace was stacked high with logs and then obscured from view with a mass of wet clothing vying for drying warmth.

Long after the sun had given up trying to pierce the leaden sky and dropped below the horizon the front door swung open and a drenched and muddied Martin Dreyer stepped into the room. Most of the other riders had already retired to bed. Martin stripped off layer after layer of sodden clothes. He stood in a puddle of water and glanced toward the fireplace. It was obvious that he wasn't going to be able to dry anything. Unfazed he ate, showered and hopped into a bed. An hour later the door swung open and Alex Harris gave a repeat performance.

These guys are true gladiators. On that particular day, in conditions that had us cowering inside, they had covered a distance that had taken us two days. When I woke up the next morning they were long gone. The conditions were no easier for them than they were for us. The difference was their focus on what needed doing and their unwavering determination to stick to the plan. This was their day four. They kept their focus for the next seven days and shattered the previous race record.

Since 2012 I have been a frequent visitor to the battle store. My regular basket of goods includes a single 6 pack of vasbyt lite - that's sufficient to survive a 2 or 3 day event like the Race to Rhodes or the Race to Cradock. However, rolling over the finish line physically depleted after a couple of days is a far cry from rolling over the finish line in Diemersfontein in the Cape after a couple of weeks.

This year I am looking to pull out all the stops and give the race everything I've got. My goal is to better my previous best time of 15 days 16 hours. Experience has taught me that over the course of the 2300 km's of the race I am going to encounter a number of challenges. Rough weather, mechanical failure, as well as physical and mental condition will all conspire to slow me down. To prevail I am going to need a crate of vasbyt and I reckon I should ask for quarts.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Another year, another race. Race Across South Africa 2016

As the sun heads north and autumn leaves scurry around my yard, my head space is filled with memories of the many yesteryears spent riding the Freedom Trail.

I have ridden the full extent of the trail on 3 previous occasions and taken part in 6 of the shorter events. When my days are done cut me through my core like an aged tree and examine the narrowed growth rings where I spent my winters pedalling across the frozen landscape. 2011 would be a blip as I only lasted a day and a half before forced out by injury. 2013 would show no anomalies as I was merely a spectator. The other rings from 2007 through 2016 would be narrowed and gnarled.
They would bear witness to days and nights spent pitting myself against the elements and facing up to my own shortcomings and doubts. Times of deep personal reflection and discovery - failure and despair interwoven with moments of intense joy and unimaginable achievement. Lean in and look a little closer. The rings might be narrow but they will be full of character. The tough conditions would have wrought rich patterns of growth. It is these dense and dark coloured rings that add to the richness and character of the heartwood that would bear witness to a life not devoid of interest and adventure.

Over the last few weeks as I step out into the cold mornings I am aware of how the sun has yielded to the dulling grip of winter - each day it surrenders a little more. While it might signal the end of summer it sparks in me a renewed sense of excitement - It's Freedom Challenge season.

The frigid morning air against my face combined with the sound of a crowing cockerel carried across from the smallholding opposite puts a smile on my face. Instead of a golf fairway I see the flood plains of the Knira river crisscrossed with cattle paths that lead to Queens Mercy. I am transported to the tiny village of Black Fountain nestled among the mountains. I yearn to be out there.

I have entered the Race Across South Africa 2016 and go in search of my 4th finishers blanket. I only have 4 more weeks of yearning. All too soon I will be threading my way through the forests of Donnybrook and crunching across the frozen landscape of Ntsikeni. Not long now. Not long at all. Another year another dense growth ring.

Last year while racing to Rhodes I tweeted the following. It was true then and it's still true now: "They say that home is where your heart is. My adventure heart is home here on the trail we call Freedom."

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Ordinary Cyclist heads to Durban

The Durban Dash Down is a challenging ride. Even though 614km's, it's short enough in duration to be ridden without stopping to sleep. I finished third having covered the distance in 28h36. My moving time was 26h08. The non moving time could have been slightly less if the cashiers till at the KFC in Huilbron wasn't down. The other lengthy delay was at The Border Post (CP2) where the service from the kitchen was particularly slow. If I knew the food was going to be as bad as it was I could have left 30 minutes earlier. But the time off the bike helped to ease aching muscles and break the tedium.

I was reminded of why I don't like riding a road bike. My neck was in spasm before we got to Huilbron. I guess I'm just not conditioned to the setup. 15 kilometres of poor condition gravel road added to the challenge. That's all I will say about the race. I will leave the details for Dawn's account.

The two guys who won the race put on a superb display. They had planned it carefully, even doing some recce rides. They are both very accomplished riders. I was reminded that I am indeed a very ordinary rider—A title I am very comfortable with.

As much as I enjoy riding my bike I am not a fanatic. You won't find me getting up at 4am to crank out a good training ride before work. Cross-training sounds like an interesting concept but I don't have time and I like the idea of doing strength training but it also requires a chunk of time I don't have.

I'm like a kid in a playground. I'm never going to be the guy who swings the highest or spins the fastest. All the playground equipment needs to be played with. There are those who ignore the roundabout, don't even give the seesaw a glance, and are never found clambering over the jungle gym. For them it's just the swings. As for me, I'm happy to divide my time between all manner of distractions.

The result is that I am ordinary at most of my pursuits. But what I have learnt along the way is the value of tenacity. Take a chunk of that into an endurance race and you'll box above your weight every time.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Rockdale to Cradock

The sun rose as we approached the head of the valley giving us sight of our next challenge. The climb over Schurfteberg looks intimidating. The jeep track that leads from the ruin at De Hoek to the nek seems to wind up the mountain in an endless scribble. Fortunately it is easier than it looks. Even with our state of exhaustion I knew it wouldn't take more than an hour if we walked the whole way. Momentum is the key. About halfway up Casper took a break and I moved ahead of him. By the time I got to the summit he was a few hundred metres behind. That suited me perfectly. He is so much faster on the downhill sections so it made sense for me to keep going. We could regroup at the bottom.

The descent off Schurfteberg is spectacular. The track hugs the mountain for a couple of kilometres before spilling out at the farmhouse gate in the valley below. Casper caught me at the last gate and we rode together toward Jakkalsfontein. That section is flat and fast with a little bump in the middle. Last year we cruised up the bumpy bit motivated by a menacing storm that was on our tail. This year there was no storm to inject that degree of urgency so we ended up walking a few hundred metres.

While walking I turned my phone on and had a look at the race chatter. It seemed that Anthony was close behind and some were speculating as to whether he would beat us to the finish. The one entry that caught my eye was posted by my brother "Looks like we might have a dash for the line between Masper and Anthony."

I hadn't read any of the posts up until then. It seems that Casper and I had been given the collective name of Masper.

Back on our bikes we cruised down to the district road that would take us to Cradock. As we turned north toward the Swaarshoek pass we knew the cruising for the day was over. Firstly, the wind had picked up and was blowing into us. Secondly, some thoughtless official had decided it was a good day to do road maintenance. Ahead of us a grader was turning hard corrugations into spongy gravel.

As the road tipped up the wind increased. Casper and I kept craning our necks to see if there was any sight of Anthony. Eventually Casper told me not to wait for him and that I should go ahead. I dropped my head and pedalled off into the wind which was increasing in intensity all the time. I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was only doing 6 km/h. I reasoned that it was a good 2 km/h faster than walking and I would be really annoyed if Anthony beat me to the finish because I had chosen to walk instead of ride.

The pace was so slow that I started to nod off. I stopped, hooked out my earphones and got some music streaming into my ears. After a while that started losing its effect. Fortunately I received a phone call from a telemarketer. It's the only time in my life where I have wanted to hear their sales pitch in full. At one point they asked if it was convenient to talk. I assured them that the timing was perfect. They then said they could hear I was busy. I assured them that I wasn't. What followed was a twenty minute conversation about all the benefits I would derive from their product. I made a point of extracting all the details I could. Looking back it does seem a little cruel. I can imagine the person on the other side of the line texting their family and telling them they had hooked a live one and that they should go ahead and book that cruise as the commission cheque that month was going to be enormous.

When the conversation switched to closing phase details and confirmation of interest I was near the top of the climb and had to wrap up the conversation quickly so I could focus on the job at hand.

Looking back I couldn't see Casper, who was round a bend and out of sight. More importantly, looking down toward the start of the pass Anthony was nowhere to seen.

All I had to do was ride the 20 kilometres down the Swaerhoek pass into Cradock. The road surface was dry and smooth. I expected it to take me 40 minutes.
I must confess to looking back every now and then to make sure Anthony wasn't catching me. As fast as Anthony is it is unlikely that he could be significantly faster on a good fast downhill. The likelihood of him beating me to Cradock was zero. But stranger things have happened. I want about to sit up and cruise. When my speed dropped I cranked away for all I was worth. My legs were on fire and it felt good.

Once on the final stretch of tar, with Anthony nowhere to be seen, I started to relax. Pedalling up to the finish I was met by Meryl and Glenn. It had been a satisfying couple of days. Alex had beaten me by 4 hours and Casper was a few minutes behind. Someone put a cup of tea in my hand and I settled down on the stoep to wait for Casper who arrived 15 minutes later.

Anthony arrived in due course followed by Fjord and later in the day by a very soggy Janine who had ridden over the pass in a lighting storm. Of our start batch, two had dropped out early, the balance had finished 1 through 6. All inside two and a half days. As expected, it was a tough but satisfying event.

Race to Cradock - Newlands to Rockdale

The first challenge was to cross the Pauls river. After seeing how full the Fish river was we expected it to be flowing a lot stronger than normal. You can imagine our surprise at finding the river completely dry. Obviously the water flowing down the Fish river came from further upstream.

As we reached the district road I noticed that my rear tyre was flat. That was the third time in less than 12 hours. I pumped the tyre and heard air hissing through an unsealed hole. My tyre had run out of sealant. Casper held my bike while I removed the valve core and squirted 50ml of fresh sealant into the tyre. Valve core replaced I pumped the tyre.

I gave the tyre a spin and noticed a huge thorn stuck in the tyre. The accepted convention is to leave the thorns and just ride. But this was a massive thorn. It had pull-me written all over it. One tug and one flat tyre later the wisdom of the accepted convention was reinforced.

Now I had a gaping hole that wouldn't seal and I didn't want the last of my tyre sealant to spurt out. Plugging a tyre is not that difficult. You thread the rubber worm into the appropriate tool and poke it into the hole. But, have you ever tried doing that on a barely inflated tyre? It's nigh impossible. I turned the bike upside down and had Casper stick his finger over the hole while I pumped it up. Once it was hard I was able to insert the plug. With the tyre repaired I started packing things away. I imagine I was less than efficient because by the time I had everything stowed I noticed Casper fast asleep next to my bike.

We were now on the new section of the route. I knew we had to ride 3.6 km's and then turn right and travel another 13 km's before we rejoined the old route. The 3.6 kilometres was easy enough apart from a close shave with a handful of buck who were intent on heading in the opposite direction. They were shoehorned onto the road by game fences on either side of the road and tired quickly of trotting ahead of us. They turned and flashed past us close enough that Casper and I gave each other a man-that-was-close look.

As we approached the 3.6 kilometre mark I kept a careful look out so that we wouldn't miss the turn. That turned out to be a waste of careful. The road ended in an obvious T-junction.

The road ahead was a gradual climb. Not excessively steep, just enough to bore you to sleep. It did just that. We settled in a drainage ditch and had a 15 minute nap. One kilometre later we were nodding off again. The sleep deficit had caught up with us, 15 minutes wasn't going to make a significant difference. We decided it was time to take this sleep thing more serious and dialled in 45 minutes. I think I managed to sleep 44 minutes and 50 seconds of that. When the alarm sounded it felt like we had only been laying in the ditch for 10 seconds.

With sleep banked we were able to get moving. We had an hour or two left before the sun came up and wanted to make the best use of that time. The darkness wasn't as significant as the threat of being overhauled by Anthony, who was probably already on the move. He had mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing the folk at Newlands for breakfast. Being considerate he was unlikely to get there much before sunrise. In spite of having left there a few hours before we weren't that far. It would take a fresh pair of legs no more than an hour to cover the same distance.

I figured Anthony would ride from Newlands to the finish in 6 hours. It was going to take us a few hours more. I hoped he was hungry and the breakfast table laden.

Rockdale is an unoccupied farmhouse about 9 or 10 kilometres up the Garslandskloof road that was available for our use. The thought of a hot cup of tea galvanised me into action and I sped off up the valley ahead of Casper to get the kettle on. I had been told the key could be located near the back door. Well, I couldn't find it. I tried the front door and had a similar Old Mother Hubbard experience. I tried the back door again and came up empty handed. I rode back to the gate as Casper arrived and told him tea was off the menu. I found out later that there are two back doors. Really!!!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Baroda to Newlands

Big trucks passing at speed are intimidating when you have spent two days riding through areas so remote that many hours pass without seeing any vehicles or even people. We rode down the tar keeping an eye out for the rumbling monsters that lumbered passed at regular intervals. As they drew close we slowed down and moved well clear of the road.

The turnoff toward Spekboomberg offered relief from the trucks. We progressed along this dirt track without incident until we had to make our way between the outbuildings and staff housing of a farm. I followed Casper down a road that quickly became a little scratchy. I called him to a stop and after a short consultation doubled back and found the right track that would take us to the entrance of the game reserve.

A sign on the reserve gate warned people entering the reserve to watch out for dangerous animals. I can attest from personal experience that suchlike animals do in fact exist in that reserve. I had an uncomfortable standoff a few years ago in the dead of night. I wasn't looking forward to a repeat performance. My anxiety levels served to keep any thought of sleep at bay. I breathed a sigh of relief when the exit gate closed behind me.

Once through the reserve we had a short section of tar before the last dirt road that would take us to the new support station at Newlands farm. Five minutes short of the support station I started falling asleep. I tried walking a bit to stave off the sleep monsters but to no effect. You would think that you could force yourself to stay awake for just 5 minutes. After all, 5 minutes is nothing. In spite of trying to reason with myself I couldn't move forward. The power nap is the perfect solution for situations like that. But 5 minutes short of a support station - really! The only solution was to flip over and feed the monsters. I gave them a solid 5 minutes at the trough before we got back on our bikes and rode through to the house.

It was 00:50. The first thing we noticed was the array of bikes propped up against the back stoep. It seemed there was quite a contingent snuggled down for the night. The second noticeable event was meeting the support station host. I'm bad with names so I can't remember her name. What I do remember is the fast and friendly service we got. It was efficient and delivered with no fuss. In 15 minutes bottles and bodies were replenished and we were back out on the trail. Try pitching up at a strangers place in the city for 15 minutes the wrong side of midnight and see what the reception is like. The folk who man the support stations along the length of the Freedom Trail are cut from very special cloth.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Elandsberg to Baroda

Before I had completed a single pedal stroke I knew my bike needed attention. The back tyre was flat. Casper unaware of that bolted down the driveway like a kid after an ice cream truck. I pedalled after him and caught him by the farm gate. Before I could say anything he took off like a scalded cat. I shut the gate, inflated the tyre, and followed after him. He was long gone and well out of sight.

The ride from Elandsberg to the Fish River is predominately downhill and therefore fast. After a few kilometres I saw Casper's rear light flashing up ahead. The weird thing is that I couldn't work out how far away he was. It could have been anything from one hundred metres to many kilometres away. The road is long and straight in places and there is no way to get any distance perspective. As it turned out his light was 500m ahead and closing fast. I found him flat out next to his bike. My first thought was that he had been a little too gung-ho and had crashed. That idea did not excite me. As it turned out there was no drama, he was just chilling.

We pedalled along for half an hour before Casper suggested another nap and countered no objection from me. I really thought I was going to get it right this time.

Roadside power naps are very effective if you can fall asleep quickly. I can't, and it's a problem. Casper extracts maximum benefit. It's all well and good to set your alarm for 15 minutes if you can sleep. Laying there staring at the stars only wastes time.

How to power nap. The technique is simple. First, find somewhere out of sight. It would make me very bleak to wake up and find I am one bicycle short of finishing my race. We moved about 10 metres off the road among some bushes. Next, this is very important, place your bike on the ground facing the direction to intend traveling when you wake up. I cannot over stress the importance of this step. Legends of the trail have admitted to going the wrong way after a nap.
Now you need to find a suitable piece of ground. Storm water runoff ditches are best as they tend to have a layer of sand that can be moulded to suit. The slope also makes a nice backrest. If using a backpack then it doubles as a pillow. Once your alarm has been set - usually 15 minutes - simply settle down and enjoy. Hopefully the alarm is a rude interruption which means you managed to nod off. There isn't much to do in a ditch so you waste no time getting back on your bike.

Once again Casper slept and I didn't!

Thirty minutes later we were passing over the fish river. It was running hard. I think we referred to it as restless and menacing. It's the fullest I have ever seen the river. That was a tad troubling as we had to cross the Pauls river a little later and there was no bridge to keep out feet dry. One we reached the tar road we stopped and shared a can of Coke I had in my pack.
We took 10 minutes and lay next to the road and looked up at the sky. Stars peeked out between the patchy shroud of cloud that mantled the heavens. Every few minutes the quiet would be broken by 32 wheelers that rumbled by disturbing the peace of the dark night.

We were exhausted but it was the last thing on our minds. Out in the middle of nowhere we felt the privilege and raw pleasure of crossing that part of the country on our bikes while family and friends far away were tucked up in bed and fast asleep.

Race to Cradock - Elandsberg

We were tired. In the absence of a mirror I had no idea how I looked. If it was anything like Casper, then I needed a shower and a good nights sleep. Unfortunately that would have to wait until the following day.

We had one more checkpoint to go (Newlands) before the finish in Cradock some 130 km's further down the trail. Under normal circumstances it should take 10 hours to finish. But the circumstances were far from normal. Elandsberg is the forth checkpoint of the race. We had covered 440km's since leaving Rhodes the previous morning. So far we had been on the go for 39 hours during which Casper had managed a little shuteye and I had only managed to watch him sleep.

The prospect of heading out into the night didn't have us trenbling with excitement. We snacked a bit and had tea. Casper tucked into another custard. He then sat down on the couch and fell asleep.

I milled about for a while and was interrupted by the arrival of Anthony. I honestly thought he was destined to spend the night on the mountain after he headed up the wrong ridge. As it turned out he got to the top and saw our lights disappearing down the trail below him. He made his way down and was able to find the right track. It had rattled him a little and taken the wind out of his sails. His initial intention was to push through to Newlands which, at his pace, was less than 3 hours away. His unscheduled detours on Elandsberg had cost him a couple of hours. He decided that he would hit the sack and leave early in the morning and have breakfast at Newlands.

Alex was 3 hours ahead, Anthony was going to ground, and Fjord's last known position was in Hofmeyr. We needed to press on if we wanted to secure a second place finish.

We filled our water bottles, donned helmets and gloves and pushed our bikes across the lawn toward the garden gate.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Hofmeyr to Elandsburg

The ride from Hofmeyr to the Elandsberg support station is only 33 kilometres. Most of it is flat and doesn't take more than 3 hours - which is about how long it has taken me to write this account of those 3 hours! The tricky bit is the last 7 or 8 kilometres. The first section of that is best tackled in daylight. With a little over 2 hours of daylight left we headed out of town. The pesky headwind was still at it. The easiest way to get through the early parts of this section is to get your head down, stop thinking, and simply turn the pedals over as quick as you can.

Our 'quick as you can' was no match for Anthony's effort. He caught us quickly, rode alongside for a brief natter, and took off at speed. I focused on the road just ahead and got into a steady rhythm. If there's one chink in Casper's armour it was this - flat road riding, particularly when tired. It is the only time he grumbles about riding. He whinged about it the previous year on the same stretch of road. I wouldn't say he sucks at it, he just doesn't like it. I slowed up and waited for him to catch up. The road ahead was straight as an arrow for a few kilometres. As Casper drew up beside me I looked ahead and couldn't see Anthony. I turned to Casper, "Tell me Anthony has fallen off his bike. There's no way he can be that far ahead."
"He's £&@%#¥ gone!" was Casper's terse reply.
Anthony was indeed gone. That guy can put the hammer down. I figured we had seen the last of him.

I was watching the sun and doing the maths. It was going to be tight. At the very least I wanted to be on the jeep track on the second half of the portage before it got dark. Casper was tired and wasn't having much fun trying to coax more speed out of his bike. I was also tired but the fear of getting stuck on Elandsberg for the second year running was enough to galvanise my legs into action. I got a little tense. My eyes constantly switched between the road, Casper, and the sun.

The sun was touching the horizon as we left the dirt road to find the old wagon trail through the mountains. As tired as I was, I mashed at the pedals forcing the bike through the sandy patches and over the rocks. We had a few kilometres to 'safety' and not a lot of light left.

As I wound my way up the gnarly track I kept looking back to make sure Casper was still in touch. After pushing my bike up a rocky section I heard someone right behind me. It wasn't Casper. It was Anthony. It was rather surprising as I expected him to be through the portage and almost at the next support station. I asked him what went wrong. He was short on details but mentioned that he had gone left at the top instead of right. I had no idea what top he was talking about. He was also aware of the light constraint and pushed on. I was keen to see what line he took across the veld. I knew where to go but want to see if Anthony had a clean line that I could stash in my memory bank in case I had a future need to do the route at night. He assured me that it was straight forward. I wanted to see this straight forward line. Years back it was quite simple to cross the bush and find the jeep track that headed out of the valley. I had come through here years ago at night and had no problems. A few seasons back a series of heavy downpours changed all that. The valley floor is now scarred with dozens of dongas that you need to navigate through and around.

I was now playing piggy in the middle. I had Casper lagging behind and Anthony scampering off ahead of me. I wanted to keep both in sight. The problem being that Anthony showed more determination in getting ahead than exhausted Casper was in keeping up. At one point I could see neither Anthony not Casper.

The critical moment of the portage occurs as you cross a particular fence. If you stand with your back to the fence and look directly south there is a jeep track heading up a ridge just over a kilometre away - it shows as a red scar running up the face of the ridge. All you have to do is get to that scar and the rest is fairly straight forward. As I crossed the fence I looked up and could still see the scar in the failing light. I could also see Anthony picking his was across the veld. What I couldn't see was Casper. In my head I was screaming, "Casper move your backside unless you want to camp out here by yourself all night!" Hopefully my face and demeanour gave none of that away.

When I saw Casper riding down the ridge toward the fence I continued following Anthony. The first part of Anthony's line was no different to the line I normally take. I was keen to see what he did once he got to the first dongas. He disappeared from view as I slowed up to make sure I didn't disappear off Casper's radar. As soon as I was sure Casper had a good bead on me I followed after Anthony only to find him doubling back. He crossed another donga explaining that he was looking for the track. He found what he thought was a track but it wasn't and then he crossed yet another donga and found yet another track. All this time I was zigging and zagging desperately hoping that Casper had me in sight.

The upshot of all he uncertainty is that Casper closed the gap on us. Anthony found what he assured me was the right track and he pedalled off. I followed him for 100 metres before deciding that I would rather go the right way. Anthony was heading toward the wrong ridge. I tried shouting after him but he was already out of range. The scar heading up the correct ridge, now barely visible in the dull light, was a few hundred metres to my right. I got off my bike and walked a straight line across the bush. I shouted back to Casper to follow me. He looked a little perplexed but dutifully walked in my direction.

Once we were on the right track we took a minute to get our night lights sorted out. I couldn't see Anthony anywhere. I set my headlight to strobe and pointed it in the direction I saw Anthony heading. After a couple of minutes I gave up any hope of getting his attention and we set off up the track. I expected he was going to spend a miserable night on the mountain.

The track around Elandsberg mountain has deteriorated over the years. In places it barely looks like a track. Our navigation was spot on and 45 minutes later we arrived at the support station at Elandsberg farm. We were now 12 hours ahead of our time from the previous year. A sub 56 hour finish was still on the cards.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Magdala to Hofmeyr

Sitting in the inadequate shade of a scrawny thorn tree wasn't helping our cause. I was all too aware of the time constraints that faced us. A quick estimate had us at least 5 hours short of the Elandberg portage. Last year we had scribbled around before spending a miserable night in the cold and rain huddled under a bush while waiting for the sun to come up. I wasn't going to risk a repeat performance. Come hell or high water I was going to get through the Elandberg portage before dark. We hadn't been there long before Gavin, in the company of Alex, rolled by. It was all the motivation we needed. We mounted our iron steeds and chased after them.

Alex dwindled in size and was soon out of sight. Casper had no problem closing on Gavin while I struggled to get going. An hour or so later, just before the last house at Vlekpoort we passed Gavin who had stopped next to the road. I didn't stop to chat because it had started to rain. Fortunately the there was a barn a hundred metres ahead. Casper and I wasted no time in getting out of the rain. The drops were massive. The wind intensified driving the rain almost horizontal. In less than 5 minutes it was over. Not only had it stopped raining, the wind had abated. I filled my bottles from a tap behind the house that stood adjacent the barn and headed down the Vlekpoort pass.

The joy a riding without a headwind was short lived. As we bottomed out on the flat Karoo it picked up where it had left off. The next couple of hours were taken up with a mindless grind to Hofmeyr. There was one event that punctuated the tedium. My rear tyre had developed a leak. I pumped it up with a hand pump and it seemed to hold. I carry a CO2 inflator but seldom use it as the gas has an adverse reaction with tyre sealant.

Arriving at the pie shop in Hofmeyr we found the race office - Glenn and Meryl - were having walkabout time. I bought a bottle of Coke, a can of Iron Brew, and ordered a double thick milkshake. I knew the wind was going to be a factor on the long drag to the start of the Elandberg portage. We would need at least 2 hours to cover the distance. We had less than 3 hours of daylight left.

While we rehydrated Anthony rolled up. He said that Fjord was a little way behind. Meryl told us that Janine was also on her way from Romansfontein and was planning on sleeping over in Hofmeyr.

Race to Cradock - Romansfontein to Magdala

On our way out of Romanfontein we bumped into Gavin Robertson. He had started the day ahead of us. Without realising it we had passed him while he was asleep at Brosterlea. I recall seeing another bike but hadn't thought anything of it. He was as surprised to see us as we were him. His reaction was amusing. He said he had just spoken to his wife and told her that if he didn't get a move on he was going to get caught by Mike. As it was, that had happened many hours before.

Generally, the first big challenge out of Romansfontein is the Aasvoelberg portage. It takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to pedal to the start of the climb at Gunstelling farm. However, that morning, heading out of Romansfontein, we got handed a proper headwind that would keep us busy for the next 12 hours. The first hour and some got used up getting to the gate at Gunstelling.

Once at the gate I expected a few kilometres of flowing jeep track that head down toward the farmhouse. Alas, it was not to be. Someone had been playing with big machines. The results suggested that they didn't pass Farm Road Maintenance - 101. The work done on the road could, in Real Estate parlance, be described as a 'Renovators Delight'. Clearly some thought had gone into the remodelling. There were loads of water-bars that would serve to divert water away from the road and prevent erosion. These were huge, and unfinished, and tricky, and ultimately slow to ride. The road between these bumps had been ... I wanted to say 'levelled' but that would be an exaggeration. Let's rather say that a road had been 'torn' down the mountain. Actually, it wasn't that bad. But it was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. The portage up the mountain on the other side of the valley was going to be hard enough without wasting time and energy picking my way down what used to be a wonderful descent.

The sun was nearing its zenith and it was warming up. We had been on the move for over 30 hours and the battle into the headwind hadn't helped. By impeding our progress it stifled stimulation and hastened the onset of tiredness.

On the far side of the valley where the jeep track turned to head up toward Aasvoelberg there were a couple of sheep pens and a water reservoir. We thought we would benefit from a 15 minute break in the shade of the reservoir. Damp ground around reservoirs, I thought, was exactly where snakes and other gogga's would hang out. I gave the ground a thorough scan before sitting. Casper, more of a country boy than me, went down like he had been punched by Mike Tyson. He was out in seconds. The sound of his snoring, carried across the short distance between us, resembled a cat purring.
Before I had a chance to settle I encountered my first gogga. The gogga then called its friends. They arrived in a swarm. Before long I had flies crawling all over me. I guess there isn't a lot to eat in the veld. I was probably the entomological equivalent of a McDonalds soft serve ice cream. I swear I could hear them licking me. It was a long 15 minutes.

The alarm roused Casper and we headed up the mountain. Chunks of it are rideable on fresh legs but, as Don Henley of the Eagles might have sung if he were mountain biker, "we hadn't had that freshness of leg since 19:59" the previous night. We rode a bit and walked a lot. The trick was to keep moving.

Our persistence paid off and quicker than expected we were over the nek and heading down the other side. The descent down the southern slope of Aasvoelberg goes on for many kilometres. If you like fast technical downhill riding, like Casper does, this is the perfect playground. As for me, not so fast, and not so skilled, I gingerly picked my way down the early steep sections while watching Casper get ever smaller as be bombed down the valley ahead. It's a long descent. I'm not sure of the distance but it takes about 30 minutes before you roll onto the district road near Magdala farm. There is no chance of nodding off on that section as the stimulation level is off the charts.

Sadly, the road section at the bottom is dreadfully boring. With a headwind it takes at least an hour of uphill grind before you drop into the Karoo proper. One kilometre of boredom later we were slumped in the shade of a thorn tree. Not ideal, but there wasn't a lot of choice. It was either thorn tree or cactus.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Stormberg to Romansfontein.

The run from Stormberg to Romansfontein went off without any snags. It was a simple matter of pedalling along and watching the miles slide by under the bike. We had been on the go for over 24 hours so were understandably tired. The section through Seekoegat started out well and soon became a bit of a drudge as the jeep track went on forever. I nearly lost Casper at one junction but he noticed me going the opposite direction and decided he would rather keep me company. After passing through a gate I couldn't get my right shoe to cleat in and noticed I had lost a cleat bolt. The under soles were packed solid with mud and grit so I decided it could wait until we got to the support station.

Turning onto the district road that headed to Romansfontein we were riding directly into the sun. Sleepy eyes and sunrises are a bad combination. Even so, we got on with the task, even walking one of the climbs pretending it was to stretch our legs rather than admit it was uncomfortably steep.

12 hours previous we had told the race office that our ETA in Romansfontein would be between 8am and 9am. We rolled up at the farmhouse at 9:12. Fortunately, breakfast was still on offer. Not only was it on offer, the kitchen was primed and set to express mode. We were still riding when Stefanie, hanging out the kitchen door, called across the yard asking us if we wanted fried eggs.

Will and Stefanie, the owners of Romansfontein, have been involved in the race at least as long as I have, probably longer. In my first event in 2007 I took refuge there after a miserable day in the snow. They understand the race and do everything they can to facilitate a rewarding experience. On top of that, it is as homely an environment as you can imagine. Stefanie laughs easily and often. She has a touch about her that makes you homesick. Will is really funny and possesses a sharp wit. He is always keen to help where he can. They understood that as so-called Racing Snakes we would be looking to get through the support station as fast as possible.

Will normally starts our conversations, "Hi Mike, what can I do to help?" No so this time. This time it went something like, "Hi Mike, what happened to Alex?"
My reply was, "Thanks Will. Can we just pretend for a moment that nothing happened to Alex and the reason we are here first is because we are the stronger riders?"
We both laughed as we knew the only reason we were ahead of Alex was because something had obviously gone wrong with his race plan.

While Stefanie put the finishing touches to a scrumptious breakfast Will scratched around in his bike spares box and found a cleat bolt which I hastily fastened to my shoe.

Between filling our water bottles and gobbling breakfast Will filled us in on the race happenings. The communication along the line of support stations is rather impressive. Apart from the tracking system, which is available to everyone, the farmers communicate with each other as well as getting constant feedback from the race office. Tim James it seemed was out of the race. Alex, Anthony and Fjord were hot on our heels and Janine only an hour or two behind them. After 29 hours, covering a distance of just over 300 kilometres, the gap separating the top 6 riders was only a few hours. We thanked Will and Stefanie and reluctantly hopped back on our bikes.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Stormberg.

The Stormberg station used to be a railway junction but the tracks that headed off west toward Steynsburg have been lifted and as far as I can tell the only active track heads north-south. Trains still stop there but only because there is a passing loop. A couple of times I have encountered locomotives purring patiently while waiting for the signal to switch to green. On this morning there were no trains to be seen.

The blockhouse adjacent to the railway line serves as a visual reference when coming off the mountain. There is no path. Once at the foot of the mountain you simply walk or ride across the flat-as-an-ironing-board stretch of veld toward the blockhouse. Both methods require a degree of diligence owing to the manifold burrows that litter the ground. I ride and as a result have staked claim to a few of them over the years.

As you approach the blockhouse you have 2 choices. Simply hop the fence and get onto the road and pedal off. Or, take a moment to appreciate the history of the place. The blockhouse is a remnant of the Second Boer War. Yes, there were two Boer Wars. The first one, sparked by inflated wagon tax lasted 3 months and 3 days from 20 December 1880 - 23 March 1881 and fizzled out after the British lost their appetite for a protracted engagement and, quite frankly, couldn't be bothered.

Then gold happened and the English bothered. The upshot of their new found bother was the Second Boer War which began in 1899. The wily Boers frustrated the English and had them resorting to all manner of tactics. One of their tactics was to built a chain of blockhouses - in excess of 8000 of them! The structures at Stormberg (there is a second and identical blockhouse a few hundred metres away) are remnants of the Robert's style - named after Lord Roberts. They are two storey stone constructions with machine gun platforms in one of the upper corners. You gain entrance through the ground floor. The upper floor was accessed via a ladder but there is no longer any evidence of these ladders. Rifle loop holes are built into the walls of both levels. Apparently these took about 3 months to build and were rather pricey at around £800. The cost of the Robert's blockhouse meant a little over 400 of them were built before they switched to corrugated iron structures which cost only £16 and took only 6 hours to erect.

A 20 minute ride along the race route brings you to site of the Battle of Stormberg at Vegkoppies. In December 1899 Boers from the Orange Free State overran the rail junction at Stormberg. This was a real nuisance for the English who were intent of securing rail access on their advance through the Cape Midlands toward Bloemfontein. A hastily assembled crew of greenhorns set off to relieve the junction. As it turned out it was a bad plan poorly executed. Nearly 700 Englishman were taken prisoner not to mention very lopsided casualty figures - 26 vs 8 in favour of the Boers. A short walk across the veld brings you to a memorial erected at the battle site. A short scramble and you are where the Boers took up position when faced by the advancing English troops.

In the quietness of the country side it is hard to imagine a raging battle that included over 4000 men, hundreds of horses and 15 artillery guns. The names chiselled into the stone memorial a stark reminder of the cost of war.

At Stormberg and Vegkoppies, pause, take time to look around. Then you will realise that you are neck deep in the history that formed this land we call home.

Race to Cradock - Brosterlea to Stormberg.

Not long after leaving Brosterlea the fog dissipated and we were able to trundle along without too much difficulty. We zigged and zagged at the appropriate junctions and were soon skirting around puddles and muddy patches on the jeep track beyond Enerdale farmhouse. I have ridden through there 6 or 7 times at various times of the year and it is always tricky. Where it's not wet it's sandy. Where it isn't sandy or wet it's heavily eroded. But the fun didn't end there. Sunrise was an hour or two away so it was still dark. Casper moved along without too much difficulty. The same could not be said for me.

I use a handlebar mounted light powered by a dynohub. That is supplemented with a helmet mounted head light. The blurb for the dynohub says it generates sufficient power at 15km/h to keep your light shining brightly. Not quite true. I suspect that that may be almost true for a 26 inch wheel. A 29 inch wheel rotates 10% slower. It's not significant but it does mean the light is not quite good enough at slower speeds where it tends to flicker. I have a spare battery powered light for situations just like that. Unfortunately, that light was on the fritz. As I wiggled slowly between interesting bits the inadequate flickering glow switched across my path with every turn of the handlebars making it hard to pick a proper riding line. Turning on my helmet light had the visual effect of flattening out the surface so that I battled to make out water puddles, sand patches, ruts, and dips. I had a torrid time of it. Casper got well ahead. Well, at least until his helmet light stopped working. A change of batteries had no effect and we concluded that water from the fog had infiltrated the gizzards of the light. On a positive note it did slow him down sufficiently that I didn't have to constantly charge after him. About two thirds of the way through that section Casper had sleep monsters tugging at his eyelids. We flopped down next to the road and I had the joy of watching Casper snore gently for 15 minutes. He has the enviable ability to fall asleep at will. I need to be falling off my bike before power naps come easily. Monsters banished we got back to the job at hand.

Arriving at the next farm we rode right past the pig slaughterhouse. The pigs in the holding pen were making an unbelievable racket. It wouldn't have taken much to convince me that 100 pigs had their back legs stuck in bear traps, such was the noise. The farmhouse is no more than 50 metres from the pig pen. Had me wondering how anyone could sleep through that commotion. We topped up our water bottles and quickly pedalled off.

The eastern sky showed the first signs of morning as we made our way toward the top of the Stormberg portage. Stopping to pass through a gate I looked back and saw red lights flashing across the horizon. They all flashed in sync and although hard to tell in the conditions it looked like they stretched out for many kilometres. I had no idea what they were. I thought they might have something to do with wind turbines that have sprung up around Molteno in recent years but I couldn't tell. By the time we got to the top of the ridge I could see that the flashing lights were mounted on power lines that strung out across the horizon, the purpose of which I had no idea. I knew what the power lines were for. But the lights?

We were able to turn our lights off at the top of the ridge and easily located and hopped over a style and portaged off the ridge and across to the blockhouse at Stormberg Station. The sun was up and the prospect of breakfast at Romansfontein looked like it might well turn to brunch if we didn't get a wiggle on.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Brosterlea.

We scuttled inside the cottage at Brosterlea and my first order of business was to get the kettle on. Last year we had arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and the power had been knocked out. It was very bleak. This time, the glare of the room light stung our eye's and it was welcome. Steam curled out the top of the bathroom door where Fjord luxuriated under the hot jets of the shower. It was an altogether different experience. The only similarity was the presence of Anthony. Last year he was snuggled up under a duvet. This time he was preparing himself for bed.

Fjord and Anthony's strategy was to get some shuteye before pressing on. Casper and I were intent on glugging, gobbling, and going. I tossed a plate of food in the microwave and reheated it for Casper who had flopped down against the wall next to the bathroom door. Tea was made and served. Casper only managed a few spoons of food before Fjord, now showered and looking fresh, polished off the balance.
Tea in hand I contemplated my food options. Breakfast Muesli got the nod even though it was only 2 or 3 am.

The room was tiny and any attempt to shift positions necessitated some clumsy choreographed movement. Fed and watered there was little incentive to hang around in the confined space. Once outside Casper became rather animated, not unlike a street performing mime artist. I had no idea what had tickled his fancy. Try imagine the scene. We were standing in near darkness, the only light from a low powered fluorescent lamp. I was busy getting my gloves and helmet on. Casper was bent over double, mouth and eyes wide open, and he was pointing, with much exaggeration, at a bicycle. Ummm... a bicycle I thought, what's so special about that. We all had one. My apparent disinterest only served to spur Casper on. His level of animation ratchet up, his already lanky arm seemed to stretch out an extra few inches and his mouth opened to the point of almost unhinging. Bulging eyes implored me to show some interest. I took a step forward and saw what had him all atwitter. Freedom Challenge race numbers include the riders name. Casper's outstretched arm, thinned to a long pointy finger (think ET without the glowing blobby thing at the end) came to rest a few inches from the name "Alex Harris". Alex, it seemed, had gone to ground. A single pedal stroke from the door of that cottage would have us the race leaders. We briefly speculated on why he would still be there. Mechanicals? Illness? Sleep monsters? We had no idea but found it amusing that we would now be out ahead of him. He told us later that he had been swamped with sleep monsters and had struggled all the way to Brosterlea. The soggy conditions resulting from the fog put paid to any thought of having a power nap. He arrived an hour ahead of us and decided that 2 hours in the sack would be the wise choice.

We didn't categorise our choice as wise or unwise. In fact, we didn't really think about it. All we knew is that we wanted to get to Romansfontein for breakfast. With that objective in mind we bid Anthony and Fjord goodnight and hopped on our bikes and pedalled off into the fog.