Monday, 13 March 2017
It is a non-stop event, so riders are not required to stop every day/night as in other stage races. Riders are required to be self-sufficient and carry all their own personal belongings with them.
There are a couple of people who could take line honours this year. My top picks start on the last two start days of the race - 21st and 22nd March. That's not to say a dark horse from an earlier start batch doesn't raise its head.
If you are not familiar with the race format you might be confused by the concept of 'the last two start days.' Riders are batched in daily start groups of 5-9 riders leaving every day from 15th March through to 22nd March. This to prevent congestion at the overnight support stations. Riders advise the race office of their strategy and riding tjommie preferences when they enter and are batched accordingly. The guys and girls who either self identify as race snakes or have a race pedigree that places them in that category start at the back of the field, hence my suggestion that the winners will most likely come from the last 2 start days.
The ladies top pick would have to be Janine Stewart who is the current woman's record holder at 61 hours 20 mins. She has a race pedigree of note. She's tough, determined, and experienced. She knows what it takes to prevail over that distance. I'm sure she will be looking to pare off at least a handful of hours so we'll pencil her in for 56 hours.
The guys in contention are Antony Avidon, Casper Venter, Charles Mansfield, Jacques Tattersall, and Leon Erasmus. All have race experience and know this section. I have the most experience on this section and although I lack race conditioning I'll tuck myself in at the end of that list as route knowledge and night navigation experience counts for something.
That's what it is and who they are. Now what will it take to win the race?
The key is an executable strategy. The old-bullet strategy of ride until you drop is going to come face to face with the young guns strategy of ride fast, stop and recover, and then ride fast again - the old tortoise and the hare story, except the hares are focussed and the tortoises more determined.
The challenge is the distance involved. It's almost short enough to race non-stop and almost long enough to win using a race-rest-race approach. It's going to be interesting to see who adopts which strategy and then how those strategies play out in a head-to-head contest of the Almosts.
I think the men's winning time will be in the order of 50 to 52 hours. Sub 48 is the holy grail. The current record set by Alex Harris in 2015 is 47 hours 35 mins. You need to beat that if you wish to wrest the chalice from him.
I've crunched all the data and offer the following as a race plan that will get a rider to the finish in 48 hours.
Place name, distance to get there, in and out times, (transit times to the get there from the previous point)
Chesneywold 68km 09:15 - 09:25 (4h15)
Slaapkranz 37km 12:20 - 12:30 (2h55)
Moodenaars 58km 17:30 -17:45 (5h00)
Kranzkop 38 km 19:45 - 20:00 (2h00)
Brosterlea 49km 01:00 - 01:45 (5h00)
Romansfontein 82km 06:45 - 07:30 (5h00)
Hofmeyr 72km 13:30 - 13:45 (6h00)
Elandsberg 33km 16:45 - 17:00 (3h00)
Newlands 51km 20:00 - 21:00 (3h00)
Rockdale 28 km 23:00 (2h00)
Cradock 58km 05:00 (6h00)
That's the plan. All that's needed is someone to deliver.
Friday, 10 March 2017
'When' not 'If'.
If you are familiar with the name Norman Vincent Peale the chances are that you are at least 50 years old. If the name rings no bells you might recognise the title of his seminal book - "The Power of Positive Thinking." Crudely speaking it is about autosuggestion and the benefits of a positive outlook. The important aspect for us is understanding the influence of thought over performance. Too often failure is foreshadowed by negative thinking. I guess we have all seen it happen in a race and we can easily pick out the riders who will not complete a multi-day stage race based on their narrative.
Stop using words like 'if' and replace them with 'when'. It's not that much different to the Assumptive Closing Technique they teach you in sales training. If you're a peddler of goods then you've no excuse for not being a positive pedaller. Rather than, "If I get to Diemersfontein.." say, "When I get to Diemersfontein..", otherwise you are going to 'If' yourself home on an early bus.
Go one step further and visualise yourself riding over the finish line, feel the weight of the precious finishers medal as Alex places it around your neck and then allow your minds eye to look down at the medal and then imagine it has a low single digit number on it.
Adjust your timeframe.
When we're at gym or riding up a steep hill we tell ourselves that we just need to dig in for another 30 to 40 seconds. We reason that we can do anything for 30 seconds. When I ride 947 and I pass the Douglasdale police station I know I just have to give it everything for another 30 or 40 minutes. Hanging in there for those seconds or minutes makes it all worthwhile when the ride is done and we reflect back on our achievements.
When you race The Munga the seconds and minutes matter but not nearly as much as the hours and days. I think in terms of hours when I'm waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon so that I can put my head down and make the best use of the cooler hours. I think in terms of days when I contemplate the overall race. When you've spent the better part of a year obsessing over a race it's easier to think in days and sometimes weeks. At the start of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa last year I adjusted my timeframe to 2 weeks. That's the time I wanted to finish the race in and I constantly reminded myself during the race that all I had to do was dig in and give it everything for just 2 weeks. On The Munga, standing on the start line at midday on Wednesday, my focus was on Saturday lunchtime. That might seem like a long time to ride your bike but whether you are curled up in a bed, or sleeping under a tree, or riding your bike, Saturday lunchtime is going to come around. And when it does I would far rather be slurping on a milkshake in the restaurant at Diemersfontein than pedalling along a hot dusty road with hours and days still ahead. The thought process is this, "No time to go soft now, you've done the training, you know what's needed, you have a race plan, now execute. If you go soft now you will have regrets afterwards. Get on with it!"
I covered the aspect of racing without regrets in a post last year after finishing the Freedom Challenge.
Have a plan.
Before the race I set myself a target and then break that down into the various stages. Once I have a workable plan I go public with it. Nailing my colours to the mast is my way of cementing my resolve. I get it wrong from time to time but I feel obliged to deliver on my plan and it keeps me motivated.
You don't need an audacious plan, but certainly don't stand on the start line hoping to wing it. That's an indication of a scruffy mind. The most important weapon you have is your headspace. Have it ordered so that it serves your ambitions and doesn't detract from them.
Thursday, 9 March 2017
Learn to live with compromises.
It's a simple issue but one that some people struggle with. If your bike shares a bed with you and your partner sleeps in the garage then you are probably one of those people who get edgy every time your bike creaks or the brakes squeal. Get over it. When you are in the middle of the Karoo and you break a spoke, or heaven forbid a fingernail, no one else cares. Least of all the sheep. I've seen people break a derailleur and convert to single-speed. I've seen them riding with pringled wheels and even walking with bikes on their backs. I've even seen someone riding with only front brakes over mountainous terrain. All these people finished the race they were in. If your bike isn't in perfect working order there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. Stick your earphones in, choose some happy music, crank up the volume, and get on with it. Yes, earphones are allowed on The Munga as are aero bars. Do yourself a favour and download an audiobook or two to help while away the hours.
Become your own expert.
When I arrived at Van der Kloof dam this past December I was shattered. Amy McDougall was there and came over and chatted. She could see that I was exhausted. She asked if I was stopping or pushing through. When I told her that I was going to push on her response was, "You know your body." She might be young but she is crammed full of race experience and wisdom.
No one knows my capabilities better than I do and she knew that. She also knew it wasn't her place to suggest otherwise.
I left Van der Kloof and, as expected, I recovered and had an enjoyable ride to the next race village. Don't let other people tell you what to do unless you are not the best expert on yourself. If you aren't, then listen to your body and try understand your headspace under stress and start figuring out what's best for you.
Set new endurance boundaries for yourself and then go out and break them and set new ones. You are so much stronger than you think you are. I'm no stranger to feeling completely shattered. Read this post: http://mikewoolnough.blogspot.co.za/2015/06/welcome-to-cimmerian-caverns.html?m=1
Funny thing about that race is that I went on to win and set a race record in the process.
Then there's this strange story. I heard of one guy who decided to pull out of The Munga and was trying to talk another competitor into quitting as well. Sis! If someone tries to talk a hole in your head immediately strike them from your Christmas card list.
Tuesday, 7 March 2017
Get used to riding on your own. Even if you are planning on riding with someone during the race, get used to riding in your own space. If you need safety in numbers find some riding partners that don't suffer from separation anxiety and ride near each other without the need to be in constant contact. Endurance events are solo events and the chances are that you will spend most of the ride on your own. Even if you plan to ride with someone there are going to be times when you become separated. In fact, you will probably have times where you just need to be on your own. I love riding on my own but it wasn't like that in the early days. When you are on your own you get to ride at your own pace without having to match someone else's speed or stopping schedule.
It goes without saying that you need to get your equipment choices optimised for the race. There is nothing worse than carrying something from the start to the finish only to realise that you didn't need it at all. How do you know what you need? Experience. I have improved in this department over the years but still haven't got it perfect. That said, I would rather take slightly too much gear than too little.
Leave your heart rate monitor at home.
It's a distraction that adds no value to your race. A heart rate monitor is a training tool. It's not that useful for endurance racing. In the short term you have to deal with cardiovascular drift which skews the reading. By days two and three all it will tell you it that you are tired which is consistent with how you feel.
I have had many conversations with people who think they have heart problems because they can't get their heart rates up when they have been riding for days. The funny thing is that no matter how I try and convince them that it's normal they aren't convinced. Most people understand the basic principle that we have a fixed volume of blood in our system and as exercise increases the demand for oxygen and nutrients our heart increases its rate to match the demand. Once you have shredded your legs over a couple of days the muscles simply cannot perform at peak and require fewer nutrients and less oxygen. Therefore, heart rate will naturally decrease. There's nothing wrong with the heart it is simply maintaining an equilibrium between requirement and delivery of oxygen and nutrients. I have watched people pack up and leave a race because they think they have heart issues when there is nothing wrong with them at all. Do yourself a favour, avoid unnecessary headspace scribbling and leave your training tool at home.
Rid yourself of the NEED for anything.
This point might be a bit contentious but hear me out.
If you are one of those people that need XYZ drink on the bike and ABC recovery shake every time you get off the bike, perhaps it's time to think about it rationally. If you really think you can't ride without them then what are you going to do on The Munga? Yes, there is an energy drink and supplement sponsor involved in the race and you can use their products. But here's the point - all you actually NEED in your bottle is a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar. Salt for sweating losses and sugar for energy. Just sugar? Yup. Your muscles can't read labels and sugar is sugar no matter how you dress it up.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you ride with only salt and sugar (although I know people who do), just don't be fussy about what you use and don't have a melt down if you can't find the "right" stuff. By all means fill your bottles at the start with your sugar brand drink of choice and maybe take a few sachets along if you wish but it's not necessary. This is not a 3 or 4 hour race and I can assure you that even if you could carry your race juice of choice you are going to hate it after a few days. In summary, rid yourself of the burden of NEEDING anything and rather settle for what can be found along the way.
Sunday, 26 February 2017
I would like to disclose that I do not get to ride The Munga for free. I pay my way like regular folk. While on the subject of disclosures I should mention that neither I nor my immediate family work for or have shares in Tiger Brands the makers of Oros Orange Squash... my race bottle juice of choice - the race supplement of champions :-)
Back to the real stuff...
Rope in some Race Snakes.
I have some riding buddies who are real powerhouses but are not endurance athletes. I like to organise occasional rides with them so that I get a reality check. It's too easy to assume you are going along at a reasonable pace on training rides when in fact you falling into the trap of LSD pace. As I said in the previous post, if you train slow you race slow. Going out with some short distance race snakes is going to help you stay race pace calibrated. That's not to say that you will race at their pace, rather that you will better understand the pace from which you will dial back to get into a long sustainable effort. Dialling back from low effort = no effort - you may as well stay at home.
Ride like a girl. Or rather, first think and reason like a girl when you enter races. Among my friends the saying "you are riding like a girl" is a compliment. We know many girls who give us guys carrots every time. I have been beaten by girls on both Munga's. There's no shame in that. Rather, there is respect for how tough the ladies are.
Over the two Munga events there has only been one lady who has not managed to finish the race and she is one of the toughest competitors I know. She just had a bad day at the office. On the other hand the number of guys who haven't finished runs into the many dozens. Why?
Guys are essentially a bit dumb and driven by sense dulling testosterone. For some I think the idea of hanging a Munga race board on the wall of their pub at home (or their metaphorical equivalent) sounds like a really cool thing to do so they click on the enter button. After shelling out some Rands they tell their mates and high fives are unleashed and beer caps popped and after a bout of mind dulling inebriation a mate or two decide to join in the fray resulting in a few wide eyed and totally unprepared riders sitting at the first water point on race day wondering what happened. Ladies on the other hand are more inclined to mull over the implications of the commitment. They think through the challenges and make the decision to enter knowing that it is going to be tough, it's going to hurt and tears might be shed but they are determined to finish at all costs.
Lads, if you are going to enter The Munga then stop and reason like a girl. Think about it chaps - bragging rights only apply to finishers.
Make some tough choices.
If I've heard it once I've heard it a hundred times. - "let's take the shortest and quickest route back!"
I understand that the end of a long ride is always the hardest and there is nothing you want to do more than get off the bike and into a soothing shower. Toughness isn't dispensed for free at the local chemist or cement supplier. It's bought at a price and that price is discomfort. No matter how hard, far, or miserable your training ride is, it's always going to be easier than a tough day on The Munga. When you get to that part of your training ride where you decide on the route home choose the hardest and longest option. When you are sitting at home later that evening, after that soothing shower, you will realise that tough choices, if they don't kill you, make you stronger.
If I plan to do a tough ride I map out a gnarly route beforehand and if during the course of the ride I feel like death warmed up I stick with the plan and suffer through it. On race day there are no soft options - get used to it.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
There are any number of reasons why you are reading this post. Maybe you are bored and it's a great time filler, or perhaps you just like reading my musings. It could even be because you are interested in my understanding of what it takes to compete in endurance events. Whatever the reason, welcome.
Endurance racing adaption is poorly understood with little research to back it up. Try googling endurance racing tips and apart from some reasonable advice on Double Century and 24 hour racing (entry level endurance events) you are unlikely to find anything other than a few offering "the top 5 tips to successful endurance cycling." The first three bits of advice are typically; drink, stretch and eat. It's far easier to find a list of 30 things to do to ride a faster Argus or 947.
What follows is my opinion based on years of experimentation, observation, and extensive field testing. As such, it constitutes empirical evidence rather than the trite information you are likely to dredge up on the internet. I will not tell you to "drink one bottle of water an hour" , or tell you that "by the time you feel thirsty it's too late". You certainly won't hear me prattle on about the right gels or carb energy bars to eat while riding - you are more likely to hear me elucidating about the pleasure (and therefore benefit) of poking a jam smeared roosterbrood down my throat sometime between midnight and sunrise or the simple joy of munching on a packet of crisps while seated in the shade of a doringbos.
What you do with this information is entirely up to you. There is no one silver bullet that will make you good at the endurance game. Endurance adaption is a multi stranded bow. Below is an outline of the strands that work together for me.
Most, if not all, good endurance athletes compete in a manner which is consistent with who they are in their day to day existence. They are tough nuggets, who are naturally wired for the task. Even so, they need to condition themselves and have a lot to learn when they first start plying their trade in the endurance arena. If you consider yourself an average Joe without natural endurance toughness there are things you can do to lessen the odds against you. If you, like me, aren't a dyed in the wool endurance athlete don't shy from the challenge because there are very few naturals out there and most of our fellow competitors are in the same boat as us.
In my last post I covered how I go about training which, quite frankly is fairly unimpressive. This post was originally intended to address the mental challenges of endurance racing and how I go about addressing them. However, there are a few things I should have covered in the physical training preparation post but I forgot to put them in. We will begin by looking at those challenges. The physical and mental issues in many of them are well entangled.
Replace your alarm clock with a sundial.
If you are in the habit of waking up at 4 AM and going for a long ride then I hate you because you possess a level of discipline that I don't have. Envy aside, you need to prepare yourself for the heat you are going to encounter on The Munga. It gets quite warm. 45 degrees Celsius warm.
As the Race approaches I keep a bike at the office and make a point of riding in the middle of the day particularly when it is blisteringly hot. There are a number of benefits. Firstly, you simply get used to the idea of riding in the heat and find a rhythm that keeps fatigue and pace in balance. But the biggest benefit is the physiological adaptation that takes place. Physiological Adaption - sounds cool doesn't it! The definition is more impressive: "Physiological Adaptations are internal systematic responses to external stimuli in order to help an organism maintain homeostasis."
I have included the definition so that you understand that while some of the things I do might seem a little weird there is some science behind them.
Among the many benefits of heat acclimatisation is improved thermal regulation and sodium retention which means you are less likely to suffer from cramp and heat stroke. The best part about this adaption is that it only takes a couple of weeks to reach peak adaption. Cautiously combine this with dehydration training (covered in the previous post) and you'll cope with the heat without worrying about dying a lonely death on the side of a deserted Karoo farm road. Here's a link to fill in the details: http://www.sportsci.org/encyc/heataccl/heataccl.html
Go for a ride when your sundial stops working.
In other words, do some training rides after the sun goes down.
Most cyclists have never ridden at night. I have taken many people for their first night ride and the response has always been positive. I love riding at night. It goes without saying that it is very different to riding during the day as your world shrinks to a small circle of light. Most of my night rides are off-road. It helps keep my night navigation skills sharp (for other non-GPS races) and I get used to how the terrain looks under lights. You will soon find the right lighting solution. I always recommend a combination of bar and helmet mounted lights. The bar mounted lights should be brighter than those on your helmet so that you can pick up the detail. Don't take my word for it, get out there and find out for yourself. Better still, if you live in Johannesburg join me for a night ride.
The best time to move during The Munga is during the cool of the night. I love riding at night and have become very adept at it. I'm very ordinary while the sun is up but you'll have to ride like crazy if you want to catch me at night.
Monday, 13 February 2017
As discussed in the previous post I assume you know how to ride and have a race or two under your belt. If time permits keep up your regular habit of going to the gym, doing spin/Cadence/Wattbike sessions, or doing Pilates. These are all good training. Your challenge is how to translate shorter distance racing into non-stop distance.
Endurance adaptation is as much physical as it is mental. We will deal with the physical aspect first.
It seems the go-to tool for most people considering an endurance race is long slow distance (LSD) training. I have earned my distance stripes over the years so LSD training no longer forms any part of my training regime.
I have mixed feelings about promoting LSD as an effective training tool for endurance racing. LSD, in my humble opinion, is how you start your training season after a lengthy lay off - it's low intensity base training. In Gauteng we have great winter weather so we don't go into training hibernation. That being the case the use of LSD is questionable.
I know a number of people who ride endurance events whose staple training is LSD with a bit of hill work tossed in.
Sounds okay doesn't it. But here's my difficulty. If you train to ride slow you are going to race slow. During endurance events I always race slower than I train.
The most I will ride in training is 5 or 6 hours. Notice that I defined my maximum training effort as time and not distance. That's the first adaptation you need to make - distance in training becomes irrelevant, it's all about time in the saddle. In an endurance race most athletes travel at about the same speed. The biggest difference in how many hours they spend moving forward. When training, the terrain will dictate the distance covered in the time set aside.
I get no added benefit from going over 6 hours during a training ride. I simply end up tired and slow and off my bike for a few days while I recover. Fortunately I know I can ride for a long time during a race. In race conditions I'm good for 36 hours and on occasion have stretched that to 42. Knowing that I can do that takes away the necessity to ride like that in training. On race day I back off on my usual training effort which translates into a massive multiplier effect on the number of hours I can pedal before it's time to sleep.
It's a huge advantage knowing that you can ride forever. However, most people don't know their limit. This is one area where limited LSD will help. For a conditioned athlete a long slow ride is primarily mental training - there's little to no physical benefit - but It's comforting to know that you aren't going to collapse at the end of a 12 hour ride. Go and do at least one long ride. You could hop on your bike and go tackle a 12 hour training ride or you could be a little more methodical and avoid the very real risk of overtraining injuries.
Alex Harris (Mr Munga) understands that riding long distances is the experience of the few. With that in mind he has organised Mini Munga training rides. If you need to get your head and body around the concept of doing big rides then you should tag along on these rides. They start out at around 6 hours and over the course of a few months step up until you bang out a 12 hour ride. They are not particularly challenging or fast and are well within the grasp of a Munga entrant. If you are unable to complete a Mini Munga training ride then you need to rethink either your training programme or your decision to enter the race.
Once you know you can in fact ride for an extended period the next imperative is to start working on your effort and speed remembering that you are going to race well below this effort. I focus on riding shorter distances with an average heart rate of 80% of my max HR. My typical training ride is around 3 hours. The 5 to 6 hour rides are used occasionally as a system check - I ride them hard to see what sort of condition I am in. In general I keep my rides short. The vast majority of them on my mountain bike. No magic there, I simply prefer riding on dirt. A solid road bike session would be equally beneficial, particularly for a race like The Munga which is flat and fast. You need to get used to turning your legs over for hours at a time. Closer to the race it's better to do most of your riding on your mountain bike to get used to the set up and condition your arms and neck, particularly if you are planning on using aero bars which I recommend you do.
I would also recommend a couple of shorter non-stop races to test your endurance adaption under real race conditions and start working endurance into your very fabric. The one thing that you cannot train for is sleep deprivation and it's essential that you figure out how to deal with it. These races are an ideal opportunity to do so. The chances are that the first few times it will be hit and miss. Rather get the big kinks out before you get to The Munga. I've been at this game for 10 years and I'm still refining my techniques.
Among my regular races are the Freedom Challenge pair of Race to Cradock (575 km) and the Race to Rhodes (475 km) These are self navigated (without GPS) which make them particularly tough.
A far better starting point is another pair of races that I do - Durban Dash Down and Durban Dash Up by Massive Adventures. They are races staged between Jhb and Dbn over 615 km. They are GPS guided and are long enough to test your resolve and actually short enough to do non-stop. A great opportunity to get used to a little discomfort, learn the techniques of a power-nap next to the road, and deal with the monotony of cycling through the night into the next day when your brain just wants to shut down and sleep. Last year the Down version took me 28 hours and the Up version 36 hours. They are great races on which to cut your endurance teeth. In fact, they are great conditioning races and I will be doing them again this year. The idea of riding from Johannesburg to Durban or Durban to Johannesburg in one effort is captivating. It's a great story to share at parties as most people have driven between those cities and appreciate the distance involved. If that doesn't tickle your fancy then go look at the other offering at www.massiveadventures.co.za
To round out this post I will briefly mention a few other critical training techniques I use which I believe contribute to my ability to punch above my weight in endurance events.
Firstly, I train dehydrated. For rides of 2 hours or less I ride without water. If I can grab a cup of coffee along the way I will head out for a ride of up to 4 hours without water. Most people will shudder at the thought as we have all been indoctrinated by the twin mantra's of "Drink a bottle every hour" and, "By the time you are thirsty it's too late." Go google the subject and these themes ooze out everywhere. New research pours cold water on that advice (pun intended). I started riding without water years ago and subsequently found a study done Down Under that highlighted the benefits of training into a state of dehydration. I had stumbled onto something and it has proven to be a huge plus for me. Here are a couple of articles on this subject:
It would be irresponsible for me to advocate for anyone else to train into a state of dehydration, so the safe approach is to stick with the old advice of telling everyone to stay hydrated. But give it some thought and decide what works for you. It certainly works for me. The key is to only dehydrate during training. During an extended race you cannot deal with a hydration deficit so I make sure I drink enough from the start to match my losses. One of the added benefits is that I never panic about how much water I have left. I know I can go for a few hours before running into trouble. My plan is to always have sufficient water but in the event that something goes wrong, such as leaving Sutherland without filling my bottles in last year's race, I'm able to put it aside and focus on moving forward.
Secondly, I believe in the benefits of Banting, particularly for endurance athletes. I have been Banting for many years and my race performance has improved in leaps and bounds since I cut down on my carbohydrate intake. Once again, the old adages are no longer relevant. The saying of "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is simply not true for me. As a rule I only eat once a day - dinner. I can ride for 4 or 5 hours with nothing more than a cup of unsweetened tea for breakfast. For most people that's very odd as they wouldn't dream of riding that far without breakfast to sustain them through the ride. Banting makes your body efficient at metabolising fat. When you are Banting adapted you aren't dependent on glycogen to fuel your muscles, you have a few weeks supply of muscle fuel stored up as fat. Endurance cycling effort is low enough that your body can metabolise fat at a rate that can match your rate of burn. That said, when racing I put my Banting diet on hold and eat anything that is available or offered. If a chunk of cheese or a huge knob of butter happens to be on offer it is always the food of choice. The most important aspect is that while racing I am never overwhelmed by hungry and therefore am not distracted by the need for food. I simply eat as opportunities arise.
Thirdly, ride without stopping. I mentioned earlier that I stop for coffee during my rides. Apart from the coffee stop I try and move without stopping at all. Maintaining momentum is a key part of endurance racing. If you stop and wait for riding buddies or stop to stretch or eat, or are simply in the habit of putting your foot down every 30 minutes to look around it is going to cost you many hours during the race. Work at being efficient. During the race your transition times are going to become critical. There are 10 official water points and 5 race villages. Assuming you are going to stop and sleep 3 times that leaves 12 transitions that can either work for or against you.
Lastly, know your way around your bike. Some of us are blessed with great mechanical skills and it pays dividends when things go wrong. Experience has taught me that things will go wrong. I know some people who don't know how to plug a puncture, break a chain, or replace and adjust brake pads. I'm not even sure they have the requisite tools to do those tasks. These are essential skills particularly when the distance between some race villages is over 200 kilometres. If you are a mechanical dunce then sacrifice some trail time for some workshop time. Ask your local bike shop or a buddy to teach you the basics of how to keep your bike going while out on the trail.
So nothing amazing about that advise. It's broad brush strokes because I don't think there is a one size fits all approach. Endurance events are fairly new and not particularly well understood. Adventure racers know how to do this stuff and they rise to the top in long distance cycle races simply because they know how to deal with discomfort and that's key because the real challenge of endurance racing takes place between your ears. In the next post I will attempt to unpack the mental challenges as I understand them.
Sunday, 5 February 2017
Interesting... there is a big difference between "how YOU prepare" (as in me) and "how TO prepare" (normal folk) ... this might end up a case of, do as I say and not as I do. Let's start with the second part.
After I get off my bike at the finish line I stay away from my bike for at least a week. Mostly because my backside is sore and also because I just need a break to let my body recover. I suppose I should have a post-race routine that includes stretching, massage and other clever stuff like ice baths and recovery drinks, but, as you are about to discover, I'm both unscientific and unmethodical in my approach to cycling. I simply sloth around and eat whatever I fancy. To entertain myself I put my feet up and start writing my race blog.
It's hard enough getting your head around a race like The Munga. If you have enough head space left to be systematic immediately post-race then I reckon you haven't raced hard enough. You should leave everything out on the trail and finish hollow but happy. If it makes you happy then, by all means, have a massage and drink your fill of recovery shakes. I'm not convinced it serves a useful purpose but what do I know. I'd sooner have a milkshake and a side of fries before falling down on the carpet for a good snooze. I like to keep it simple. I'll touch on the subject of simplicity a bit later.
Right up front I should tell you that it has been said of me that my training is both insufficient (not enough) and inadequate (unstructured) to prepare for any form of racing. My physical race preparation is minimal. I generally ride 2 or 3 times a week with my average training ride being around 55 to 60 km's - go look on Strava.
Ten years ago when I was training for the Epic the general consensus was that you should be training for at least 15 hours a week and I did just that. These days I manage between 6 and 7 hours. I know that's not a lot. However, I rode 11 000 km last year and half of that was in competition riding, the majority of it during endurance races.
After 12 years of riding, and I guess a whole pile of endurance enabling DNA, I know I can turn my legs over for at least 42 hours before I need to sleep. In the early days I would do training rides of 200 km. I found them quite exhausting. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but I don't do that any more. I race a handful of 500+ nonstop races every year so they help keep my legs in endurance shape.
Race preparation includes equipment, body, and mind. I have covered equipment choices in an earlier blog. It was written before I had done my first Munga. With two Munga's under my belt my equipment choices remain the same so I won't cover that again. It was a 3 part post which started here: http://mikewoolnough.blogspot.co.za/2015/11/munga-equipment-choices-part-1.html?m=1
Transitioning to Endurance Distance.
If you're intending to do The Munga then I assume you have done your fair share of one day or multi day stage races. If you are a race virgin then I suggest you bump The Munga down a few notches on your bucket list - it's not the ideal way to get into racing. Marathon distance racing and endurance racing are different animals. I have ridden with marathon distance podium finishers and have watched them fade as the distance ratchets up.
What if you don't yet have any distance in your legs? Well, you have to start somewhere. In the next post we will discuss the options for getting some distance into your legs and head.
Sunday, 29 January 2017
Tragedies like this sadden us. Those of us who ride are shaken to the core. But this was worse as it was close to home. Not only was it just up the road, but I know most of the guys riding in that group including the victim.
The story is carried as 'another cyclist has been killed on our roads' and online forums pour out sympathy for a 'fellow cyclist'. There's nothing wrong with that but to me, and others who knew Andrew Bradford, he was so much more than that.
When you have spent time with a person, when you have ridden with them and shared a joke, things are different. They inflate becoming so much more than just a fellow cyclist or a tragic statistic - they take on texture and become real people who, like us, are sons, husbands, fathers, and friends with a multiplicity of achievements, ambitions, dreams and failures.
I have followed Andrew's exploits over the years as he embarked on one adventure ride after another and have even raced against him. He, like me and a couple of guys he was riding with on Thursday morning, was one of a small group of riders who have ridden the Freedom Challenge.
Our last encounter was during an endurance race last year. When our paths crossed we took time out to chat. In the context of the race we were adversaries, but in our shared passion for riding we were fellow travellers.
What happened on Thursday morning was more than an accident. Andrews life was taken as a direct result of the reckless choice of an individual who, after colliding with him, fled the scene.
I am left with a feeling of profound sadness over Andrew's tragic death. Alex Harris summed up how many of us feel when he wrote wrote: "I am a man of faith and serve a mighty God. A God of miracles and mercy and a God who is a father. But I can't pretend to know why things happen or understand the reason."
I echo the closing words of Alex's post, "The world is short of one less decent human being today. Andrew was an amazing husband and awesome father. A model man and quiet mentor. So sorry friend, but there is no more traffic where you are now. Don't hold back!"
Alex's full post can be read here:
Sunday, 15 January 2017
I swapped the cables around and rode ahead slowly while waiting for the GPS to power up. When it came on and I selected the route it was confused, it had me many miles away. I gave it a few minutes to figure out where I was. Thankfully it got back up to speed just before the first critical turn. From there on it got me to the finish without any further drama.
After traveling 1086 km with just 3 hours sleep I crossed the finish line where family and friends gave me a heroes welcome. I certainly wasn't a hero but they made me feel like one. Alex draped the number 3 medal around my neck and that was that. The race was over.
It had been an incredibly satisfying race. I had set out to finish 10 hours faster than the 85 hours it had taken me in 2015, and here I was at the finish line just inside of 73 hours. I had exceeded my own expectations and I suspect the expectations of a lot of other people who were following the race.
That I had finished 3rd overall and second in the men's race was of less importance. Those statistics are a blunt instrument with which to dissect ones achievement.
People say that even entering a race like The Munga makes you a champion. That's not true. What makes you a champion is starting a race like The Munga and taking yourself to your limit and then a little bit beyond. That being the case, I have to say I was followed to the finish line by a few dozen champions and even a few champions that didn't even make it to the finish. I would count myself least among all The Munga champions.
There were riders who finished in front of and behind me whose personal achievements eclipsed mine. They suffered more and dug deeper. I am a seasoned endurance rider and knew what to expect from the race. Sure, day one was a shocker but there are always days that push you to your limits. The trick is to know how to survive those tough times. I've survived a good number of days that I would never like to repeat and I suspect there will be many tough days ahead in future events.
To all those riders who came away from The Munga with a sense that they had exceeded their own goals and expectations I salute you and extend my deepest respect and congratulations.
The first challenge was to survive the mayhem of Saturday morning traffic in Ceres. After the freedom of scribbling all over wide gravel roads for 1000 km I had to concentrate on keeping to the frayed edge of the road.
Not too soon I was climbing out of town and the traffic thinned out. Up ahead I could see another mountain biker out on his morning ride. At that point the road had widened and there was enough space to ride side by side inside the yellow line. I caught up and we chatted until he reached his destination at Olive Rock.
It was getting hot and the route had flattened out. I didn't mind the heat as much as I did the tedium. The lack of stimulus had me nodding off. Every kilometre became a challenge. I started looking around for somewhere to get a Coke.
At one point, on the approach to the Bainskloof Pass, I stopped to give an oncoming vehicle the right of way over a narrow bridge. As the car came abreast of me it stopped. The driver had obviously stopped earlier and spoken to either Heinrich or Jeannie on his way over the pass as he knew about the race. We traded stories for a few minutes before he moved on. Just before he left he told me I could get something to drink at the Calabash Bush Pub which was just around the corner.
A few minutes later I was walking through the yard of the bush pub trying to figure out where I could order something. There was no obvious entrance. I eventually found someone and they were able to exchange a handful of coins for a cool can of Coke. It transpires that they had suffered a massive fire a few weeks earlier. Fires and thatched roofs don't go well together.
The next job was to tackle the 14 km climb to the top of Bainskloof Pass. The gradient isn't too challenging but I was tired and I knew the reduced speed was going to have me struggling with sleep monsters rather than leg fatigue. And then something weird happened. Instead of nodding off I started seeing things that I knew didn't exist. I could see people in all manner of poses leaning up against the walls of the pass. As I got close they would disappear to be replaced with normal rock formations. It wasn't the first time I had had that experience.
Earlier in the day just before the Race Village at Esselfontein I saw a cowboy sitting on a camel. He was waving his hat at me. I knew it wasn't real but the more I stared at it the more detailed it became - getting closer I could see he wore a checkered shirt. And he was huge. As huge as a tree. As it turned out it was a tree but I didn't know that until I was 20 metres away.
After encountering dozens of 'rock people' I finally reached the top of the pass and was keen to reap the reward of my efforts. That reward came in the form of a 14 km descent into Wellington.
With the added stimulus that came with speed and tight switchbacks the 'rock people' were now a thing of the past. I made good time into Wellington. All I had to do was follow the route as it wiggled through the backstreets and on to Diemersfontein. On The Munga you don't wing it with the Navigation. The rules are clear, you follow the route as supplied. It would be a doddle, or so I thought. With 5 km to go my GPS turned off.
Topping out I got back on my bike and made the best of a good tar road section before picking my way through the vineyards and grasslands to the last Race Village at Esselfontein Farm.
The guys manning the station were full of energy. I guess the station had only just opened with Jeannie and Heinrich having passed through a short while before. Nevertheless, they were in Energiser Bunny mode and had the stove and coffee machine fired up as soon as I walked through the door.
We were sitting around the table chatting when someone said something that at first made no sense to me - "You know you could still win this race?" I guess I had a very obvious 'Huh!' expression my face. They went on to explain that Jeannie had battled with a tyre problem and her and Heinrich had only left the support station a short while before I arrived. I turns out that a 'short while' was more than a handful of minutes and I had already been there for 20 minutes. They also commented that Heinrich was exhausted and that I looked fine. I might have looked fine but my legs and body were very aware of the 1000 kilometres that lay behind. A quick look at the tracking site confirmed that Heinrich was well out of reach so I asked for another cup of coffee and enjoyed their company for a while longer.
I tucked up tight on the aero bars and treated the 40 km as a time trial. I escaped lightly. Later that day the temperature soared and together with a nasty headwind made the going very difficult for those that followed. I was fortunate to get through that section of the race while the Karoo slept.
I was climbing up the Karoopoort Pass as the sun peeped over the horizon. A short while later, approaching the settlement of Matjiesrivier, my phone started beeping which meant I had signal. I dug the phone out of my pocket and called my friend Steve who is an avid race dot-watcher to ask him how far behind the next rider was. He was already on his bike doing CycleLab Club marshal duty so he wasn't near a computer to check the race tracking site. But he told me the last time he looked I had opened a 40 km gap. That was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Since leaving Sutherland I had no idea where anyone was except for Rafeeq who I last saw 40 km out of town. Since then I had been running blind. For the best part of 10 hours I had been riding flat out covering almost 200 km. I had just over 100 km to the finish so I knew that barring a major catastrophe I'd done enough to secure a 3rd place finish.
I sat up and pedalled along at a more sedate pace. Now that the pressure was off I was able to take stock. First thing I noticed was that my backside was really sore. Tucking up in the time trial position for hours at a time is really great for speed but your rump takes a hammering. Riding over on a section of tar I also noticed that the dust had dried my chain out and it was making a dreadful noise. It was time to stop and lubricate. Bum and chain got a liberal dose of their respective grease.
I spent a few minutes standing quietly beside my bike. The landscape had changed dramatically in the last 45 minutes - Karoo scrub had given way to vineyards. And with vineyards come people. After the wide open expanse of the Karoo with the sparse distribution of houses it was odd to see dozens of dwellings clustered together on the valley floor.
A passing car, radio blaring, reminded me that isolation of the last few days was now a thing of the past. The closer I got to the finish the more I would be sharing the road with other vehicles. I had mixed emotions. I wanted the race to be over but the experience of the last few days had become a sort of micro-existence of ride-eat-sleep which had its own comforting rhythm. I had no idea what news was dominating the headlines or which national team was playing who. If there was another Brexit or Van Rooyen weekend special going down I didn't know anything about it and didn't actually care. That was a different world and was of no importance in my world as it existed in that moment
It was nice to have the pressure off and enjoy a quiet few minutes but something was missing. At first I didn't know what it was and then it suddenly dawned on me. I was missing the sound of mountain bike tyres rolling over gravel. That sound had been my constant companion for the better part of 67 hours. It was the sound of progress. The sound of getting closer to the finish.
I could see the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass a few kilometres up ahead. It was going to be a bit of a grind getting up but I knew it was mostly downhill from there to the next Race Village at Esselfontein Farm just outside of Ceres. I hopped back on my bike and pointed it toward the Pass.
Saturday, 14 January 2017
I made my way down the driveway to the farmhouse and found my host's (Host +1 rider who had withdrawn from the race earlier and had made his way down the trail and was roped in for host duty) relaxing around a fire. They were surprised to see me as they expected I would take a lot longer. In no time at all they had a coffee in my hand and a roosterbrood, liberally smeared with delicious jam, stuffed in my mouth.
The setting was idyllic - a cool star studded night with no wind and the inviting crackle of a warming fire. Not for the first time in the race I wished I could put my feet up and enjoy the rich embrace of platteland hospitality.
I lingered longer than planned but riding out of the farm I was still alone in 3rd place without another rider in sight. I picked up where I had left off and pushed hard to make good on my advantage. I had 70 km to the next water point and I was set on going as fast as I could to make the best use of the night hours. I had covered this section in daylight in 2015 when it was unbearably hot. With the sun many hours away from peeping over the horizon I found the cool night to my liking.
Whenever I stopped to open a gate I looked back to see if there were any bike lights behind. So far I couldn't see any. I knew there was a ridge up ahead which, once crossed, would have me heading down to the flat and harshest part of the Tankwa Karoo. It would then be a 40 km pedal to get to the next water point at the Tankwa Padstal. Walking up the ridge I finally caught sight of a pursuing light
on the plain below. They were still a way back, I estimated about 10 km. Too close.
After going through the last gate at the top of the ridge I dropped onto my aero bars and rode like there was no tomorrow. The jeep track wasn't perfectly smooth but I was able to maintain a good pace which I kept up for the better part of two hours. Powering along I had a big smile on my face. This section in the heat of the day had worked me over in 2015. With the night temperature sitting at 20 celsius I ticked the miles off with ease.
Pulling up to the iconic Tankwa Padstal while trying to remember what the arrangements were for nighttime arrival I saw a guy with a flashlight signalling to me from a building adjacent to the shop. I was intrigued, how did he know I was coming? There was no cell phone signal and yet here he was ready and willing to wait on me. A tug on the generator pull start had the coffee machine sputtering away while he dished up some food and prepared me a pancake. On inquiring I was told that Jeannie and Heinrich were almost 2 hours ahead.
I asked him how he knew I was coming and he said he could see my lights. I asked him to show me. He walked outside and pointed into the darkness, "I could see you there", he said. It turns out he saw me coming for the best part of an hour owing to the flat open terrain.
I decided this was the perfect opportunity for a quick power nap as the next 40 kilometres was going to be flat and tedious. I was also expecting dreadful corrugations but the road I had ridden in on looked like it had been upgraded. I hoped the road works extended all the way along that torturous road.
I didn't know how far back the next rider was and as there was no cell phone reception I had no way of finding out, but a 60 minute heads-up would work. I asked to be woken if there were any approaching lights. I put my coffee aside, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and curled up on the floor. In a matter of seconds I was asleep.
Friday, 13 January 2017
I started down the pass on my own. It's an exhilarating 10 km ride dropping over 800 metres off the Karoo plateau. In daylight the views are spectacular. As it was pitch black I had no views to admire. That's not to say my mind was a blank canvas, far from it.
The Munga, like most races, hands out finishers medals. But these are not your common or garden variety that you toss in your "I Did It" box. No, The Munga medals are hand crafted things of beauty. They are Russell Scott masterpieces, spartan in design and individually cast in steel to reflect the genesis of The Munga. It's the kind of medal you want to possess. More than that, they are individually numbered. My first goal was to secure a second medal.
Last time out I got medal number 9 and was really chuffed to finish in the top 10. Looping over the last climb and dropping into the start of the Ouberg Pass, 58 hours into the race, I was placed 3rd. All of a sudden 3 looked like a much better number than 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. If I wanted to snap the elastic attached to Rafeeq, Tim, Sthembiso and Kevin then this was my opportunity. I was fresh and night riding is my playground of choice.
I'm not a great technical rider but you wouldn't have thought so had you watched me thread my down those mountains. It was a real buzz. There is a condition known as Flow or being In The Zone. Per Wikipedia - "It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."
There was no question about it, I was in The Zone.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
At 7:36 PM I had been at the Sutherland Race Village for 2 hours. In that time I had eaten, showered, and managed to get 90 minutes of shut eye. I was feeling great. All that was needed was a quick coffee and I would be on my way to the finish via Race Village 5 in Ceres. I still had 293 km to bang out but in the context of the race it seemed close enough to touch. As I entered the dining area I saw that Tim Deane was getting his gear together. We chatted briefly before he announced that he was heading out. I poured the coffee down my throat, signed the register and followed him out the door.
The race register revealed that the leading pair of Heinrich and Jeannie had left 3 hours ahead of me, and Rafeeq, in third place, had a 22 minute gap. I also noticed that Tim had only arrived a short while before so was treating Sutherland as a quick pit stop. Sthembiso was still in the building and Kevin had arrived short while before and had yet to sign out.
As I rode out of town just behind Tim the cogs in my head started turning. My assessment of the race based on the info on the race register was as follows. Heinrich and Jeannie were going to finish 1 and 2. The next clump of riders vying for third spot were: Rafeeq, Tim, Kevin, Sthembiso and me. The other 4 were all strong riders and every one of them a faster and stronger rider than I was. I would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat if I wanted to beat any of them to the finish.
After giving this some thought my attention was diverted. I suddenly realised that I had left Sutherland with only half a bottle of water. My normal practice is to fill my bottles before I do anything else when arriving at a water point or Race Village - you can make do without food but can't survive without water. When I arrived in Sutherland I figured it would be silly to fill my bottles while it was still hot and I would rather fill them with cold water just before leaving. Being distracted by the presence of Tim it had completely slipped my mind. I wondered what my chances were of finding a reservoir to fill up. The difficulty with that option was that it was getting dark and unless a reservoir fell squarely into the arc of my bike light it was going to be almost impossible to find one.
While mulling over my predicament I saw a bicycle light up ahead. I increased my pace and caught up. It was Rafeeq. In catching up to Rafeeq I noticed that I had pulled an appreciable gap on Tim. I figured that Tim was probably a bit fatigued. In fairness we all were but I probably had the upper hand in that situation having just had a good sleep.
I had caught up to Rafeeq at the top of the gentle climb out of town. I was surprised how quickly I had closed on him. He must have signed the register and then taken his time to head out. Once I had caught up he was spurred into action and had no difficulty in setting a quick pace which I was happy to match as it was putting more distance between me and Tim. We barrelled along tickling off the distance with ease.
I had the race distances stuck on my top tube and worked out that the next water point was only 69 km from Sutherland. Half a bottle of water wasn't a great deal but it was well after sunset and the temperature had fallen significantly. I also knew that the route over those 69 km was predominantly downhill. At the speed we were going it was going to take just over 3 hours to get there. I make a point of doing my training rides with little or no water so wasn't too fazed. I put the water situation out of my mind and focussed on the riding which was fast and exhilarating.
The mountains were delicately outlined in the fading light. It was a beautiful evening and I looked forward to making the most of the clear cool night that lay ahead.
Monday, 9 January 2017
Unlike chess, there are no standard opening moves. If you wish to push the chess analogy, assume that you are playing black. Your opening moves are dictated by white. White in this case is not your competitors but rather the weather. You need to play the game according to the conditions on the day. That is not to say you arrive at the start and wing it. If you are racing it helps to have a strategy. My plan was to arrive at Van Der Kloof dam before midnight but the weather conditions meant that wasn't going to be mine or anyone else's reality. Fifty kilometres into the race and doubled over puking into a garden I knew my priority was simply to get to RV1 with enough gas left in the tank to grab a meal and head off toward the next race village. My time of arrival at RV1 was of little consequence. The conditions were brutal and I knew the whole field was going to be equally affected.
I am of the opinion that you don't need to sleep the first night as it is the freshest you will be for the duration of the race. We knew the days were going to be hot and probably windy. That being the case it makes sense to make the best of the cooler, and hopefully, less windy nights.
In chess the opening phase is considered over and the middlegame commenced once the pieces are developed, the centre is controlled and the King is protected. The middlegame of The Munga commences the moment you step out the door of RV1. By refuelling and moving forward without stopping to sleep you join the ranks of the racers. You can be fairly certain that, no matter how long you took to get to RV1, by moving through you will be in the top 25% of the field.
If you push through after a gruelling 222 km with the intention of banging out a further 170 km before breakfast/brunch, you fall squarely into the "Racing Snake" category. The next trick is to translate "intention" into "reality".
Middlegame is where the excitement and freestyle aspect of the game plays out. Middlegame strategy in chess is complex and involves a mix of tactical manoeuvres that result in piece attrition. Competitor attrition during The Munga is not necessarily the result of direct competitor interplay but it happens and it plays a huge part in the final outcome of the race.
If you want advise on a solid middlegame strategy then make it simply to stay in the game. Don't be one of the riders that goes home early. By all means be aggressive but a thoughtless do or die strategy for a race of that distance and duration will be stacking the odds against yourself. Look at the numbers from this years race - The last finisher was well inside the top 50% of the number of riders that started.
Another way of staying in the game is to ride your own race. Too many riders get caught up in the excitement of the chase, particularly on the first afternoon. It's not a one day race - ride to survive. I am happy once the mania of the start settles down and I am riding on my own at my own pace. It's as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Don't let someone else get inside your head. If your head gets soft, your legs follow.
Middlegame tactics play an important part. The most obvious tactic revolves around when to sleep and for how long. In this regard there are opportunities to play a few mind games with those you are racing against. You don't have to sleep at race villages. Designated water points and a clearing next to the road in the middle of nowhere can do just as well. But don't get caught up in trying to get too cute with the mind games as they can just as well backfire. A comfortable bed is always going to be more refreshing than cuddling up with scorpions and spiders in a ditch. When making tactical decisions let your first thought be, "I must stay in the game".
Chess endgame theory revolves around the movement, exchange, promotion, and dominance of the pieces left in play after transitioning through the middlegame. It is the phase where the game must be carefully controlled to produce the desired outcome.
Arriving in Sutherland, through a combination of tactics and competitor attrition, I found myself in 4th place. With only 293 kilometres between me and the finish line in Diemersfontein the middlegame was over. I needed to eat, shower and bank 90 minutes of sleep before executing my endgame.
Saturday, 7 January 2017
In 2015 I rode into Sutherland in the middle of the night so apart from the brilliant view of the stars overhead and the continuous ribbon of road ahead I saw nothing else. This time, arriving late afternoon, I could see the South African Large Telescope (SALT) building perched on top of the mountains as I rode by on the road below. It's an impressive structure that couldn't be accused of blending into its surrounds. To be fair, it would be hard for anything to blend into that austere landscape.
The irony of the high tech eye on the universe driven by a thirst for knowledge juxtaposed against the setting of the parched Northern Cape Karoo wasn't lost in me. They were odd bedfellows indeed but the perfect viewing sky above Sutherland draws scientists from around the world.
I was drawn to Sutherland for different reasons. Mostly because my GPS route demanded it, and also because I knew the next race village in town held out the promise of food, shower and a bed.
The last few kilometres are an easy downhill into town. That is if you can ride. While freewheeling along I saw Sthembiso up ahead. His bike and him had traded places. He had his bike hoisted onto his shoulders. His wheel had finally collapsed and he was footing it.
While competitors, we were also fellow travellers and it saddened me to to see him reduced to walking along the side of the road. Sthembiso had every reason to be despondent but that's not what I saw. I saw a man who radiated determination. A man who accepted the challenge and was going to overcome.
It wasn't far to town, less than 2 kilometres, but walking comes a very distant second to freewheeling downhill. I arrived in Sutherland a good 20 minutes ahead of him.
Saturday, 31 December 2016
The road kicks up immediately after leaving Fraserburg and you get to test your gears and your headspace -the landscape a stark reminder that you are riding through an arid part of the country. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the next water point at Celeryfontein was a good climb out of Fraserburg but it is actually at a slightly lower altitude.
All the while I was threading my way along farm tracks I had no issues with tiredness. As soon as I hit the Sutherland district road my eyelids got heavy. It was only 7 km to Celeryfontein Farm but it felt like 100 km. I struggled through every one of those 7 km. I knew it was time to grab a power nap. The more I thought about the prospect of sleep the longer It seemed to take to get to the farm.
I arrived at the farm and had a snack. Sthembiso was there and one of his wheels was looking rather rickety - a couple of broken spokes had it resembling a Pringle chip. His next chance of getting access to a bike mechanic was in Sutherland which meant he had to nurse his bike through the next 63 km.
My original plan was to flop onto the lawn and have a quick nap. 30 seconds after arriving at the water point I knew that was a bad option as I was immediately set upon by horse-flies. Fortunately the farmer had a spare bed indoors and I was able to hunker down for 35 minutes without the risk of being sucked dry by the pesky flies.
By the time I returned to the water point tables set up in the shade of some big trees on the lawn outside the farmstead I was in 4th place. Jeannie and Heinrich were still up front with Rafeeq and Sthembiso almost 2 hours behind them. By the time I swallowed a coffee I figured I was nearly 45 minutes adrift of the 4th placed rider. I also knew that Kevin Benkenstein and Tim Deane were close behind. I expected that the leading pair would get to the finish without being challenged for positions 1 and 2. The real tussle was going to be for positions 3 through 7. It was time to get a wiggle on if I didn't want to fall out of contention for a top 7 finish.
The moment I left the oasis of Celeryfontein and got back onto the district road that would take me to Sutherland I knew it wasn't going to be fast and giggly. We had ridden through some hot and dry country but this section took the cake.
A satellite view of this part of the country looks like a sepia-toned image with a distinct lack of vibrant colour. On the ground the same reddish-brown colour dominates the landscape.
To add another layer of despair the road was rough and care had to be taken with the riding line to avoid rocks and rough sections.
Sutherland is about 200 metres higher than Celeryfontein which doesn't sound so bad except for the big drop to a river crossing (dry as a bone) which adds significant altitude metres. And it's lumpy. You end up climbing many hundreds of metres. It's nothing like climbing up through the trees at Sabie or Barberton, there is no pretty. It's a slog through a mountainous desert on a dusty gnarly road.
Monday, 26 December 2016
The morning was unfurling as I got back on my bike and headed off to get some coffee at the next water point. About 10 km short of the farm that was hosting the water point Sthembiso passed me like he was being chased by a pack of hunting dogs. I didn't expect him to pop up at that point. I had heard that Brandon had exited the race and I knew that Kevin, Rafeeq and Tim Deane were close behind but hadn't figured on being caught by Sthembiso. I added him to the riders on my "Ridar".
I caught up and started chatting. That seemed to settle his mania. I told him that I thought he was going at an erratic and unsustainable rate and that he should pace himself carefully. He told me that he was carrying a 30 minute penalty for not signing the register at a Race Village so needed to press ahead as Gerald Cele was close behind.
As we chatted it seemed there was uncertainty over his classification in the race. The previous year the Development category was capped at 26 years of age and I hadn't heard anything to the contrary. But I had been told that Sthembiso was racing in the development category this year even though he was older than 26 and I told him to take it easy and defend his lead. It was his race to lose. We arrived at the water point together and I finally got the coffee I had been obsessing over for the last 4 hours.
I remember passing the farm last year when it wasn't a water point. I stopped and got water from the reservoir next to the road above the farmhouse. The farm yard off to my right at the bottom the hill seemed asleep among the trees. It became just another place to get water from a reservoir lacking any connection with people.
The Race Village and farm stops are real oases. You get more than water and food - you get to meet the people of the Karoo. The isolation you feel while riding through that part of the world is extraordinary. Outside the towns and water points it is likely that you won't see a single person including people in cars. It's that remote. As you roll down the endless dusty roads it's hard to imagine people living there. The land seems desolate and devoid of life. Yet, enter a farmhouse or town and that perception is quickly dispelled. The vibrancy for life that you experience is magic. The pulse of life very real. We were treated like kings being served coffee and snacks with infectious enthusiasm.
Reenergised I left the farm and knocked off the 43 km to Fraserburg in under 2 hours and wasted no time in going into JJ's Kafee as I had done the previous year and bought an Eskimo Pie ice cream. It was every bit as delicious as the one I had last year.
I topped up my water bottles and headed out of town. Sthembiso caught up a few kilometres the other side of town. He didn't hang around and rode ahead. Even so, he must have made a few navigation errors as I caught up to him a short while later. He hadn't stopped for water in Fraserburg and asked how far we had to go to get more water.
One of the race rules for The Munga is that you should have capacity for at least 2.5 litres of water. Sthembiso had lost one of his bottles so was down to a little over 2 litres. It's enough, but you need to make use of every opportunity to fill your bottles. Last year I started with only 3 bottles and lost one along the way. I wasted a lot of time walking across the veld to fill my bottles at reservoirs. This year I had 4 bottles and suffered no losses so managed without a single reservoir top up. It saved a lot of time and anxiety.
It was already mid morning which meant I had been on the go for almost 48 hours. It was hot but that had become my new normal and I gave it no attention. With 400 kilometres to the finish my focus was simply on getting to Sutherland just over 100 km away. I had yet to finish my audiobook so popped the headphones in my ears and spent the next few hours on Mars.
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- Johannesburg, South Africa
- Just an ordinary guy who started riding in 2005 at the age of 45. I started with the ambition of completing the local 94.7 Cycle Challenge (94.7km). This is an annual road cycle race in and around Johanesburg. Some where along the way it become a race and not merely a completion excercise. I clocked a 2h54 in my first attempt only 6 months from my first trundle down the road and back. I was hooked and then discovered the magic of MTB. While my efforts on the road were credible, MTBing humbled me. Having said that, over the last 24 months I have competed in 9 multi-day events. I'm a very middle of the field rider, but I enjoy every minute of it.