Sunday, 22 July 2012

Day 15 and beyond - the final push

For the first time since the race began I got up at a civilised time and tucked in to a great breakfast. Once everything was ship shape I went back and had a last cup of tea with our hosts. Even though I still had just over 370 km's to finish I was feeling upbeat. My wife and daughter were due to depart for the States on Wednesday afternoon. I figured that if I finished on Tuesday I could fly back to ORT airport in Johannesburg on Wednesday and meet them there before their flight.
At 6:40 I got on my bike and pedalled off. After 20 minutes or so I realised that the pains of the last few days were in recess and I was able to ride freely. In fact it was enjoyable. The ride from Rouxpos to Anysberg and then on to Montagu is roughly 160 km's but there are no difficult sections, one small climb (20 to 30 minutes) and one downhill that seems to go on forever.
Soon after sun rise it warmed sufficiently for me to take off a layer. While doing that I took a picture of what was one of the last wind pumps I would see in the race. There is something about these things that I enjoy. They are uncomplaining workers who silently go about their business, day and night. I must admit that I have heard a few groaning from time to time. Some have been replaced with electric pumps, a few are broken but most still work.

I arrived at Anysberg and after checking a few doors found the cottage allocated to the race - a whole pile of race tubs qualifies as proof. It was just before 1pm so a perfect time for lunch. Looking in the fridge I found a pot of stew or something masquerading as stew. Wasn't going to find out. Didn't fancy that as I had no idea how long it had been there. Next option was Weet-Bix. Tossed 4 pieces in a bowl, drowned them in milk and covered it all with an unhealthy pile of sugar. It was exactly what I needed. In fact, I had a repeat performance, admittedly with just 3 pieces. With half a box of Weet-Bix and 3 cups of tea in my gut I whipped my steed into action and raced across the plains to Hoek van die Berg. A chilly head wind did little to slow me as I cranked up toward the summit of Ouberg Pass. From there it is a glorious 15 or 17 km descent in to Montagu.
In less than 4 hours I had covered the 76km's from Anysberg to Montagu. It wasn't yet 17:30 so there was no point in stopping. Leaving my bike propped up against the railing by the front door I proceeded to the front desk and was warmly greeted by the person on duty who was expecting me. When they asked if I would like dinner. I said I would be pushing on and asked if I could rather have some Weet-Bix, a pot of tea and a refill for my one empty water bottle.
They were happy to comply.
I went and retrieved my bike from the pavement and parked it in the foyer - with the hotel staffs permission! As I did that I noticed a half dozen or so people standing around in the foyer and they were intrigued with my presence. It turned out they were fellow mountain bikers busy with a mountain biking tour. Apparently they had ridden about 30 km's that day. When they asked how far I had ridden I told them I had done 160 since breakfast. This impressed them, they thought it was an amazing distance for a days ride. When they asked how much further I was going to ride that day it occurred to me that I may as well finish the race and be done with it. "Just over 200km's before I stop" I replied. And there it was, I decided in that instant that I was going to get back on my bike and keep riding until I got to the finish at Diemersfontein.
8 Weet-bix and 2 cups of tea later I was back out on the street heading for Ashton. Shortly after passing through the tunnel I was flagged down by a guy who had stopped his car ahead of me. He greeted me warmly, offered me some tasty morsels and asked if I was doing the Freedom Challenge. He mentioned his Epic partner Justin had done the Freedom Challenge a few years back. As it turns out I know Justin Bouer very well and count him as one of the dear friends I have made as a result of this race. After a few minutes he wished me luck and I was on my way again - what a small world!
Arriving in Ashton I stopped at a petrol station and purchased 2 Red Bulls (poured them in to a water bottle) hoping they would help with the sleep monsters who were sure to come looking for me during the night.
The route out of Ashton to the steel bridge that crosses the Breede river was tricky to navigate the last time we rode though here so this time I paid special attention to what I was doing. It was difficult again! I figured out why, the narrative and the map are wrong. Even so, save for one dog who chased me with the intent on ravaging me I had an easy, fast, uneventful ride to McGregor. It was a beautiful windless night with a full moon in a cloudless sky. It was one of those nights when you feel like you could ride forever.
Arriving at McGregor Country House I found out that fellow rider and friend Gerrit Pretorius was there and I popped my head around the door of his room and had a brief chat before sitting down to a 3 course meal - no Weet-Bix this time.
At 22:30 with a bloated belly I headed off to Kasra a mere 25 kilometres away. After cleanly negotiating the portage through Coeniesrivier I arrived @ Kasra at 1am. It is a really nasty time to arrive anywhere - not for me but for the hosts. Even so they were waiting up for me and topped me up with bread and butternut soup. Thus fortified I headed off to tackle the walk up trappieskraal. Clouds were starting to roll over the mountains ahead and I hoped they wouldn't obscure the moon and ruin my perfect night.
After a long stomp up the mountain I rode around the endless wheat fields before dropping off the mountains. The long descent left me a bit cold so I stopped and made a quick cup of tea. At Kasra they filled one of my bottles with a mixture of water, milk and sugar. I simply heated it up, popped in a tea bag and voila! Climbing up the last nek before the road drops down toward brandvlei the sleep monsters returned. I rode over the nek and halfway down the other side before concluding it would be safer to have a roadside nap - I didn't want to fall off my bike. I was going to keep my Red Bulls for later. I dragged my bike into the bush, set my alarm for 30 minutes and fell asleep. I woke up, set the alarm for another half hour and slept some more.
Hauling my body and bike out of the bushes I noticed how cold it had become. Unaccustomed to road side sleeping I had made the mistake of stopping on a downhill. As I rode off the chill of a fast descent made my teeth chatter so much I expected to see bits of tooth enamel flying out my mouth. Added to that, I was shivering so much that I couldn't hold the bike in a straight line. The absurdity of it made me chuckle which just made the situation all the more absurd. I was desperate to find a steep hill to climb so I could warm up.
The climb up to the road that runs above Brandvlei and through the prison did a good job of warming me and I was able to shed a few layers. I rode on for a few more minutes and noticed a car climbing up the hill behind me. It was Justin Bouer and his family. They were on their way to Mossel Bay and on the off chance of seeing me had taken the route past Brandvlei. Tracking me on their ipad made the job a little easier. From the tar road they had spotted me riding up against the mountain and made a quick detour. A hot mug of coffee and a danish pastry went down well. It was really good to see them. I rode off feeling good. It was a gorgeous wind free morning and I made good time through the prison and on to Trouthaven. I was a bit tired having been on the road for over 24 hours and had to walk the last few climbs. My achilles and shin were starting to hurt again so I was taking it easy.
Arriving at 10:15 I figured I had 45 minutes to eat and have a hot bath to ease the pain in my legs before starting the trek up Stettynskloof. I wanted to be out of the kloof before dark.
My hot bath turned out to be luke warm and did little to lift my spirits or dull the ache in my legs. A notice in the kitchen gave a list of each riders food ration and to my horror it specified "only 2 Weet-Bix per person". Reluctantly I complied and added a pile of other food.
At 11am I started the 60 minute ride to the dam wall where the kloof portage starts. I was tired and was worried the sleep monsters would have their way with me through the kloof. I need not have been concerned about that. Not even sleep monsters dare venture through that inhospitable place! I started walking up the kloof at midday. The gnarly remnants of a footpath made me rethink my new drug free approach and a couple of painkillers were called upon to do their work. I made hard work of an already difficult part of the race. To compound my troubles I got the route through a part called "the rocky scree" completely wrong! I have given at least a dozen people the right advice on how to navigate this section and then I hashed it up. The subsequent thrash through thick entangled undergrowth cost me at least 20 minutes. Surprisingly enough it didn't affect my mental state. Once I realised my mistake I simply picked a line and got on with what I knew was going to be a horrible experience. Once back on track I plodded on toward the big climb that would take me out of the kloof. The second half of the kloof was hard. It is littered with rocks and tortured my aching legs.
I headed back toward the river along the old fire break, crossed the river, wrestled through some ferns and onto the ridge on the far side. Now all I needed to do was clamber up the mountain side and I could bid farewell to the kloof which has tormented just over 100 riders since the inception of the race. It is easier now then it has been over the years due to a recent fire but it still has attitude and the regrowth will make subsequent years more and more difficult.
I took one big tumble on the climb out which necessitated a climb down to retrieve my bike and a further climb down to retrieve my tail light which had broken off. I needed the tail light to ride up the 8 km tar section of Du Toits.
Just before last light I was sitting on the ridge looking down the length of Stettynskloof valley. The mountains that hem it in are massive. The 8 or 9 kilometres from the dam wall had taken me just over 5 hours. I spent 45 minutes fixing stuff that had been "remodelled" on the way through the kloof including my shoes which were totally trashed. I also noticed my bottle of Red Bull had disappeared. That's the one problem with carrying your bike on your back - you don't notice when stuff falls off. When I had finished fixing and packing I looked up and noticed it was completely dark. I had made a mistake. I should have found my way down to the obscure jeep track before I stopped to sort my kit out. After 20 minutes of picking my way down the mountain I found what looked like a jeep track and followed it until it actually looked more like a jeep track and less like a disused foot path. I was on my way to the finish!
I reached the tar road at the bottom of Du Toits Kloof Pass some time around 7:30pm. From there it is an 8 km climb, about 45 minutes,up the pass followed by a fast 35-40 minute ride down the mountain through plantations to the finish.
It took me 2 hours to do the 8 km tar section. The sleep monsters were waiting for me on the tar road and no doubt chuckling about my missing Red Bull. The tar section is a mindless ride and that's the problem. When riding I was weaving from side to side across both lanes. Whenever I saw a car coming I stopped on the side and stood still because I didn't trust myself to stay riding on the side and the risk of hallucinating and wandering in to the path of a moving vehicle was real. I walked long stretches and fought an endless battle. Eventually I looked up and saw the jeep track leading in to the forest. The sleep monsters tired of their games right there and I was wide awake as I wound my way down through the forest toward Diemersfontein. David was waiting at the estate gate which he had unlocked. After greeting him I pedalled around over the dam wall toward the finish line. Having left Rouxpos 39 and a half hours before and covering 377 km's with just an hours sleep next to the road, I got off my bike for the final time. I had finished the 2260km race in 15 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes.
I had a great couple of hours with my race buddies eating pizza, drinking cappuccino's and being wrapped in a finishers blanket before heading off to bed reflecting on the most amazing riding experience of my life. I fell asleep truly happy and content.

7 comments:

Jody Forrester said...

A truly awesome account of an epic race.....overcoming adversity of note. Well done Mike - we are all incredibly proud of the race you put together !!

Santacruzrulz said...

Holy Sh@#*! That was a long day but the reward oh so sweet.
I'm proud to say that I know Mike Woolnough and what's more, I dared to ride with him when he is less insane.

Gerrit said...

I am privileged to count you among my friends. You are certainly no longer an "ordinary cyclist". Well done, and well written. Gerrit

Steve Wright said...

Mike that was awesome journey. I've just read from day 1-15. Your blog was as exciting as it was following you on tracker and twitter. As your son said you're a hero. Well done.

Pierre Venter said...

Mike
My name is Alexander Venter.http://alexanderventer.blogspot.com/
I entered for my firs Freedom Challenge 2013.

Firs of all, i have red your blog and find it super encouraging and motivational. What an awesome experience and you have dealt with both ways (Finishing and not finishing) one super human.

Is their any possibility that i could meet you for some advice and guidelines regarding this challenge?

Thanks in advance.

Pierre Venter said...

Mike
My name is Alexander Venter.http://alexanderventer.blogspot.com/
I entered for my firs Freedom Challenge 2013.

Firs of all, i have red your blog and find it super encouraging and motivational. What an awesome experience and you have dealt with both ways (Finishing and not finishing) one super human.

Is their any possibility that i could meet you for some advice and guidelines regarding this challenge?

Thanks in advance.

Pierre Venter said...

Mike
My name is Alexander Venter.http://alexanderventer.blogspot.com/
I entered for my firs Freedom Challenge 2013.

Firs of all, i have red your blog and find it super encouraging and motivational. What an awesome experience and you have dealt with both ways (Finishing and not finishing) one super human.

Is their any possibility that i could meet you for some advice and guidelines regarding this challenge?

Thanks in advance.