Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Work to be done

Although my race is over I still have some unfinished business. The Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund is a cause that is very close to my heart. The rural education system in South Africa is in a shocking state.
Earlier this year while enjoying a fun ride through the remote Eastern Cape village of Vuvu I came across a number of children on their way to school. Tagging along behind a group of older children were 2 small kids walking hand in hand. Judging from their size and body language I guessed they were probably in their first year of school. They were barefoot and inadequately dressed against the chilly morning air. They had huge satchels on their backs that had the effect of making them look even more diminutive. As I rode passed I was greeted with enthusiastic waves, broad smiles and cheerful faces. Outwardly I smiled back. Inwardly I was struck with a feeling of deep sadness and have to admit my eyes brimmed with tears. These young people had reached the point in their lives where they were old enough to attend school and enter what is supposed to be a defining part of their lives; an education that could potentially liberate them from the shackles of extreme poverty.
My sadness stemmed from the knowledge that the very system they put their trust in would in all likelihood fail them. As a father who has had the privilege of taking each of my 4 children to "big" school on their first day the chilling reality of bad rural education hit home that cold foggy morning. I knew the system was rotten. Just a month before I had spent a few days interviewing teachers, headmasters, students and even a local chief.
There are a myriad reasons why the school system is faulty. From a faulty syllabus, inadequately trained teachers and teachers who don't care through to parents who have themselves experienced the frustration of substandard education and the failed promise and therefore don't comprehend the real potential of an education over family chores and livestock rearing.

I conducted my interviews in the village of Hebron, situated about 15km's outside the town of Matatiele. 2 weeks before that I had been in New York City. After a day spent walking around the bustling concrete metropolis of NYC where I didn't once hear the warmth of human laughter I concluded that it was "a city with a pulse but no heart beat." Merely 2 weeks later after a day in the impoverished village of Hebron I came to the conclusion that it was "a village with a huge heart but its pulse had been critically slowed by poverty." In the words of the local chief "this is the poorest corner of South Africa, the whole economy of this region is driven by government grants."

Yet in this poverty I found a richness of spirit. Among the wreckage of the rural education system I found hope. There are students with outstanding intellectual ability who in the absence of a nurturing environment will wither on the vine of promise.

Last year through the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund (FCSF) five young people were transplanted out of the typical rural schooling environment and given the opportunity to complete their last three years of high school at Mariazell. This church based school stands out as a centre of educational excellence. Last year they achieved a 96% pass rate for matric.

I visited the school on a Sunday and found a matric physics class in progress. The teachers at this school use the weekends to catch-up on teaching hours to ensure they get through the teaching syllabus.

Through the funding of the FCSF the 5 students selected last year will enjoy 3 years of tuition including boarding, uniform and stationary costs. The current cost per student for the 3 year period is a mere R30 000.00 It is very reasonable compared to comparative costs in the major cities.

Please take the time to go to the following link to see a short video I put together about the formation of the fund, the selection process and hear what one of the recipients fathers had to say. Near the end of the interview is a short segment from one of the scholarship recipients.

I would like to raise at least R100 000.00 this year toward the FCSF. To that end I am committing myself to matching any donations that flow into the Backabuddy account that has been set up in my name. This site can be accessed at I have been labelled a "bleeding heart" by some who think we pay excessive taxes to a government who dish out endless grants. I have looked into the eyes of the young people in the rural areas and I have seen the faint glimmer of hope that all too often is extinguished by indifference and poverty.

Get involved with me and let's make a difference.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Day 2 Ntsikeni to Masakala. On what is supposed to be day 3 of my race I am sitting in the sun pecking out this blog. My left leg is useless and my race is over.

The plan yesterday was to stop briefly in Masakala and push on to the next support station at Mahlaghalonyane which I should have made comfortably by 10pm. Unfortunately after leaving the soup stop at Glen Edward yesterday I realised that it was going to be a problem. My left leg started showing signs of what I think is ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome - also referred to as Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome). Knee also a bit swollen and that is puzzling. If you are not familiar with this injury go google it. The long and the short of it is that it is incredibly painful. I have had it only once before and that was on this race in 2009. This year I thought I had done enough training to prevent a reoccurance. To have it flaring up 6 hours into day 1 was a bit disturbing. 8 weeks back I rode from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes with a full race pack and had no problems. A month ago I raced the 900km joBerg2c without so much of a twinge. All quite bizarre. Might not be Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome at all but it sounds like an impressive injury to have.

Back to my ride yesterday. After leaving Glen Edward I got progressively slower. Jacques, Coen and Gavin were gracious enough to wait for me and even resorted to pushing me. Eventually I was unable to put any weight on my leg so decided it was time to throw in the towel. I made a call and the local chief arranged for transport to fetch me to drive me through to Masakala.
What followed was the scariest car ride of my life. It was dark when the "transport" skidded to a halt beside me. My bike was tossed in the back and off we went. The "transport" was a collection of nuts and bolts masquerading as a bakkie. Every piece of the bakkie was vying for attention as we rattled along the road. It took me a few seconds to realise that the headlights were on. The glow so low that the candle-power scale of luminance is too lofty to assign even 1 CP to what lit the road ahead. I wouldn't ride my bike with lights that bad. Undeterred "Schumie" raced the engine and attacked the road ahead. In spite of the severe pain in my legs I desperately pressed hard against the floor boards as the first tight bend loomed into sight just ahead. Schumie had no intention of slowing and we executed a 4 wheel slide around the corner. All good except for the fact that this is the Eastern Cape and the condition of the roads here are pretty lumpy. It was more like slide/sideways hop combo. The next corner saw us sliding past an oncoming car and nearly taking out a dog sized rabbit which greatly amused the driver and his mate who was wedged in between us. To say I was uncomfortable is an understatement. As I was contemplating my life ending in a car wreck in a remote corner of the Eastern Cape things got worse - the drivers cell phone rang! With a nonchalance that had to be seen to be believed he answered it, spoke briefly, hung up and started pecking away at an SMS. All the while navigating an interesting s-bend at the bottom of a steep hill. At one stage the car stalled on an uphill section. A quick attempt at restarting the engine came to nought as the battery was way passed its use-by-date. The driving tried letting the car roll backwards so he could start the engine and after a few inches it fetched up against something that halted its progress. Undaunted, the driver and friend spilled out the drivers side door to see what the problem was. I had visions of the car suddenly breaking loose and careering out of control down the hill. Fortunately, after a few more minor antics I arrived safely at the overnight stop having suffer no more than 15 minutes of absolute terror.

My race is over and I am disappointed but its ok. This race is amazing. It gives even us ordinary guys an opportunity to go out there and do something interesting, albeit so briefly for me this year.
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Day 1 - Wow!

Day 1. Wow what fun! The press release for the day tells the story:
"Leaving Pietermaritzburg on Sunday morning, current tandem record holder, Mike Woolnough immediately made his intentions clear.  Heading through the Bisley Nature Reserve he rode away from the rest of his starting group.  Despite good weather he was unable to cross the Umkomaas River, swollen with the recent rains and was forced to take a detour.  He climbed with efficiency out of the Hella Hella and arrived at the Allendale support station in the Sisonke District in the early afternoon.  Where those who left Pietermaritzburg before him had stopped, Woolnough pushed on.

By nightfall Woolnough had ridden through the Nxumeni indigenous forest and dropped down to the Umzimkulu River.  He stopped briefly at the historic Centocow Mission before continuing on in darkness to climb the Gxalangene mountain. His progress was slowed when crossing the Ngwangwane River he came to the assistance of a group of three riders who had left Pietermaritzburg a day earlier and who had spent the previous three hours trying to find the route through to the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. 

Woolnough arrived at Ntsikeni after midnight having climbed in excess of 5500 metres and ridden 210 kms over a period of 19hrs and 30 minutes of near continuous cycling.    After a few hours sleep he left Ntsikeni and is now headed across the upper catchment of the Umzimvubu River towards the Maluti Drakensberg mountains.

Woolnough's effort not only puts him well ahead of the rest of the field, but on par with the 2009 record setting pace of current men's record holder, Tim James. "

Sounds quite epic doesn't it? In practice it was just one ordinary guy with his bike who had a whole heap of fun.

My plan was to just get to Centocow with my brother Sean. We started out together and were joined by Stefan. Sean and Stefan fell behind a bit and were only about 200 metres behind me out of Bisley so I wasn't concerned. I thought they would ride together and catch up on the road through to Meyershoek. As it was I was 5 minutes ahead of them at that point.

After leaving Minerva I got word that Sean was 20 minutes behind and cramping. I carried on at a moderate pace and by midday made it to the Hella Hella bridge. I rode for 30 mins to the first switch back and then walked the next 30 mins.

My left knee started aching a bit as I rode off from the bridge and I assumed it might have taken a bit of a beating from climbing over and around the rocks along the river. After 10 minutes the pain was gone and I had no further problems with it.

I thought I could make the first support station at Allendale by 3pm and after a moderately paced ride I rolled in at 1:52pm way ahead of my best prediction. Had a chat, 2 cups of tea and 2 hot dogs before heading off.

The route through the forest to Donnybrooke took just 90 mins and I stopped to buy a coke. I then pedalled into the next section of forest and had a lovely ride descending into Centocow just after dark.

The idea of stopping before 6pm seemed wasteful as the weather was good and I was having fun. A quick bite to eat and I was off. I took it easy walking up the big climbs and just enjoying the cool but not cold evening.

Just after 8pm I saw some lights in the distance that look like LED's and thought it was a bit odd. There is no electricity in that area so any kind of light stands out. As I got closer I saw the lights were on the route I would be taking so I was interested to see what it was. It turned out to be 3 hapless riders who had been wandering around for hours unable to find their way through the forest. In their defence it must be noted that forestry tracks are some of the most difficult bits to navigate, even during daylight. They hooked on and after 30 minutes we had them out of the forest, over the mountain and safely on the district road. One of their party was struggling so faced with the prospect of being up all night I pointed them in the right direction and pushed on.

After an easy ride with a few walking climbs I made it into the Ntsikeni reserve. The last 9 kms is a real bog-snorkle and not much fun. Nevertheless, I arrive at 01:30am quite satisfied with a job well done.

The thing that struck me the most was how easy it actually was. I think the good weather and friendly riding temperatures made it a whole lot easier. Went to bed well pleased.
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Saturday, 11 June 2011

One more big sleep

Game on!. Have arrived in Pietermaritzburg ready to start tomorrow at 6am. We are staying at Aintree Lodge as I have done on 4 previous occasions before starting down the Freedom Trail. News from the guys who started out this morning is that the Umkomaas river is flowing very strong and it's not possible to wade across. This causes a few problems particularly earlier where we have to cross a rocky band close to the river and then we need to ride to the bridge to cross the swollen river. These challenges will add a bit of time on to our riding time tomorrow but shouldn't be a show stopper. Today the first rider to support station 1 got in around 16:20 and the last few souls wandered in just before 8pm. Last guys racked up a 14 hour day. Their route tomorrow will be even harder - ouch! Hopefully we will get to the first support station before 16:00 tomorrow.
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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Rain, rain and more snow

Woke up this morning and turned the telly on just to see a picture that reminded me of why this race is a bad idea! The whole country covered in rain clouds. My attention was drawn those parts of the country where I will be pedalling in a few days - delightful! The words "Heavy rain" and "Very cold" were liberally scattered across the route with a good measure of snow to make it all the more exciting! Charming!
Cold is something you can deal with but any form of precipitation sucks! Rain/snow = Mud = Premature bike failure = much gnashing of teeth and frustration and the possibly an early ticket home.
I can just imagine the weather man or lady marking up the map with the words "Heavy rain" and "Very cold" then getting all wobbly with excitement over the marvellous cut-off low developing over the interior. Never mind the poor sods on bicycles that are desperately trying to make the next support station to thaw out and attempt to regain some composure before trudging out the door to do it all again while the weather mans settles down in front of his fireplace with a steaming cup of Milo excitedly watching the 'perfect storm' unfold on the telly.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

One week. One weak!

7 days from now I travel down to Pietermaritzburg to start the race. The question in my mind now is - have I done enough to adequately prepare? Race preparation has dominated the last 10 months of my life.

On the physical side I have ridden thousands of kilometres, carried my bike up at least a dozen mountains, done a little trail running, played a bit of squash, tried to get hiking fit and lost 10kg's. I had a good joBerg2c (9 day, 900km stage race) just over a month ago.

For trail preparation I have spent 12 days riding sections of the trail, bought a new bike after my trusty ol' steed failed a few times and fine tuned my equipment.

Still, have I done enough? I guess not, could have done more physical preparation. How much is enough for a race where the weather in all likelihood will determine your final result. Mental strength is probably going to be the determining factor of who wins, who does well and who chucks the towel in and heads home early in this years race.

I have no aspirations of winning the race as there is the best line up of podium wannabe's the race has ever seen. My guesstimate has at least 8 riders looking to break the 13 day 15 hour record. All guesswork as very few people are prepared to openly declare their race strategies. My strategy is simply to do the best I can.

For all my preparation, the one thing I am not adequately prepared for is the cold! How do you train for that? Same old problem - hands and feet! I have ventured out in the early mornings recently and when it gets to minus plenty the extremities get sore. I have adapted my equipment choices in an attempt to be more comfortable but realise that unless one adopts a less aggressive race strategy its going to get a little uncomfortable out there this year!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Another year, another race

New Year, Easter and Christmas - the milestones that mark the passing of the year for most folk. For a small band of mountain bikers there is another significant event that indicates another year has rolled around - The Freedom Challenge.

Yesterday while preparing the number boards for this years event I was struck by the number of people who have entered again.

This years field for both the Ride to Rhodes and the Race Across South Africa has swollen to almost 100 riders of which nearly a third have entered before. 100 riders might seem like a small number of entries but it is large for this event. Approximately 50 will start with the intention of getting to Capetown and the balance will face the challenge of traversing what is the hardest yet most beautiful section of the trail over 6 days.

Just over a dozen of this years RASA entrants have previously wrapped a finishers blanket around their tired shoulders at the finish in the Cape. What makes them come back to do it again? As one of those I battle to make sense of the draw that this event has on me, especially as we roll into winter and the nights get colder and I am reminded of the extreme conditions we face during the race. It is a hard race to prepare for and complete. One previous finisher when asked if it was fun replied "If I want to have fun I can go to Sun City for the weekend - this race isn't fun".
So why do it? Because its there? Everest is there and I have no intention of doing that. Last years winner and back-again-this-year Alex Harris has been up Everest amongst other things but that's not for me. For me, a dyed in the wool Ordinary Cyclist, the Race Across South Africa is the hardest physical challenge I have faced. It is an extraordinary race that is within the grasp of the ordinary athlete who has a heart for the challenge.

Lastly, why do it again?
Not everyone wants to ride it again and some are content to ride it once and tick the box. I had coffee with Tim James (current record holder and winner 2008, 2009) last week and we were talking about the race. He is back for his 4th race this year. He summed up his motivation to come back time and time again which is true of many others - "You need to finish this race knowing you have done the very best you possibly can otherwise you have to come back and do this stupid thing again!"

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