Sunday, 23 November 2014

So hard to start a new chapter

The novel wordometer clicks over slowly. I am now just a few keystrokes shy of 36k. 
Every thousand words or so I start a new scene (a chapter or part of a chapter) The first line of every scene is always a mission. Each scene must be afforded the respect it deserves. The reader must be sucked in anew. A great opening line in scene one can make a reader think 'this book might be interesting'. After that the challenge is to dare the reader to put it down. As a writer that is one dare you hope to lose. 
The opening line of subsequent related scenes is but one half of a couplet. We normally associate couplets with poetry but I think it works in this context. I found this origin of the word couplet: "two pieces of iron riveted or hinged together." 
The last line of every scene should be 'riveted' together with the opening line of the next pulling the reader through the temptation to bookmark the page. For example, you could finish a scene as follows; "The events of the day hadn't gone as planned, the full extent of which wouldn't be apparent until he got to Grandma's house."
That wraps up a scene and plants the seed of expectation. The opening line of the next scene at Grandma's house must justify the turning of the page. 
I have no idea what happened at Grandma's house but I certainly know what happened when my main character arrived at the hippies house expecting to have a meeting with his friendly cop. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Riding Through Sand

Writing a novel is a bit like riding a mountain bike through sand. Not the small patches, but rather the long and unavoidable stretches you encounter on remote jeep tracks during races. 
The first time I encountered sand like that was on a race in the Cederberg nine years ago. It ended with me deposited on a bed of ground hugging thorns except they had taken to hugging my backside. 
Such was the misery I decided I would skill up to avoid a reoccurrence. The first thing to do is understand what you did wrong so that you can figure out what to do right. The biggest mistake was trying to hold my line. I tried to force the bike along a given path. The "come hell or high water" approach is doomed to failure in this instance. 
My new method has served me well in the years since then. When I see a sand trap approaching I increase my cadence and then follow the bike. Meaning that I don't dictate the line. I allow the sand to direct the bike any which way it chooses and I go with the flow. Sometime that flow results in me cascading over thorn bushes or  cutting a new path through the veld. Once through I point my bike back in the right direction and get on with the job. 
From time to time as I write my plot hits a sandy patch and it's fun to see where it takes me. 

Writing is easy.

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

Ernest Hemingway

Oh the imagery that quote evokes. I see the writer slumped over a typewriter, wracked with angst. The frenetic tuk-tuk of keys striking parchment in a desperate attempt to find words that will give voice to the story within. Finally, with a flourish, nicotine stained fingers reach forward liberating the sheet from its bonds. Rheumy eyes scour the page. Even as the crumpled ball arcs through the air in search of the dark recesses of the cabin a new gladiator takes guard. 

This NaNoWriMo rookie is almost like that sans the typewriter, angst, rheumy eyes, cigarettes and pile of discarded paper. I also forgot to mention the the lack of the story within. 
The couch is snug as long as there is room for a comfortable cushion and space to put my feet up. The cell phone is a great substitute for a chunky typewriter, or laptop computer for that matter. 
And The Big Bang Theory is a great way of entertaining myself between keystrokes. Not so difficult to be a writer after all. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

NaNoWriMo Day 3 Update

Day 3 of NaNoWriMo finds my main character (MC) in the company of his annoying albeit faithful friend. A rising desperation to locate a character abducted in Chapter 2 has the MC's friend uttering the words "The dog ate it". 

The characters are emerging from the pages as I write. The personalities evolving. A main character who at times takes himself too seriously has a sidekick who is the perfect counterpoint. The MC is on the verge of stumbling into an underworld that shakes his perfect world. 

I have found writing to be an all consuming and exhausting process. The fact that I am writing on my cell phone means I am never far from a keyboard. As the plot emerges in my head it is instantly committed to 'paper'.
Creating things is what I do, but there is a vulnerability in writing that does not exist in other forms of creativity. If I make a contraption that ticks the boxes of form and function I am satisfied. Questions like "but what does it do?" arouse no feeling of disappointment. Appreciation doesn't come easy in a technical knowledge vacuum. But everybody reads. 
Some people claim to write for personal satisfaction but is that really the case? 
Somerset Maugham once commented that a book is incomplete until it has a reader. André Maurois wrote, "He, the writer, has written with the deliberate purpose of revealing the truth about himself and about the world as he sees it. The revelation can have no point unless it reaches those for whom it is intended."
I as a writer should be mindful of my audience and should craft a story that resonates with them. Some will like it and some will think it sucks. 

My quote of the day is also by André Maurois: "We appreciate frankness from those who like us. Frankness from others is called insolence."

Friday, 31 October 2014

Show don't tell

Apparently I am the last wannabe writer on the planet to hear about the maxim "show don't tell". 
It's a real gem. Without it my writing would slip into yawn worthy narrative. 

So, rather than jawing on about what it is lets demonstrate - show rather than tell. 
For example, instead of saying Neil was really tall we can write "Neil folded himself into the drivers seat of his 3 series".

Take this longer albeit simple example. 

   As he opened the barn door he heard a noise coming from inside. Suddenly filled with fear he stood rooted on the spot. Was that Sam or the gunman inside the barn? As he stood there wondering if he should turn and run a chicken rushed out passed him 

We are told he is scared and of what. The fear is resolved because it was just a chicken. 

Instead of simply rewording the passage we need to treat it as a scene. We could rewrite it as follows. 

   The barn door finally yielded to the force of his shoulder. The eerie screech of rusted hinges sending shivers down his spine. 
   Eyes searching the gloomy interior he suddenly took a step back, "Sam, it that you?"
No reply. His ears strained to pick up the sound of movement. Someone is in here he thought, I definitely heard a noise. Nothing but the sound of his heart as it beat like a drum against his ribs. 
   His mind raced. It can't be Sam he reasoned. His mouth suddenly dry he realised the only other person around could at that very second be pointing a gun at him. 
   The realisation turned his feet to lead and any thought of escape thwarted.  
  A flurry of feathers at his feet..... Etc. 

Anyway, that's the general idea. Get the reader to sense - hear, see, smell feel - the story. 

One more big sleep and I am still so thin on skills. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Creating a main Character

Two more big sleeps before the word nerds (yup, that includes me) start banging away on their keyboards in the quest to drop 50000 words on the hard drive in 30 days. 
My goal today is to complete my main characters bio. It will be a comprehensive description covering every aspect of his life. Yes, my MC is a guy. 
In order to bring a character to life in the minds of the reader it is important for the writer to create a character in depth before words inflate their lungs and give them life. It includes, the obvious stuff such as name, age, height, weight, colour of eyes and hair, etc. It could include a date of birth, the fact that he doesn't like carrots, keeps tooth picks in his car, is allergic to cats, only ever wears lace up shoes and  is a fastidious dresser. 
Small details like having 2 sisters, a widowed mother who he visits every second Thursday, enjoys online chess and has his suits dry cleaned every second week add depth. He might not currently be in a relationship but the details of his past relationships should be detailed. How long, why did they end, how were they terminated?
  What is his personality like? Maybe he doesn't suffer fools gladly, perhaps he is long suffering. Is he sensitive or not. Is he opinionated. Does he squeeze the tooth paste tube from the end or the middle. 
While most of this detail will never be revealed in the story it helps the writer to deliver a person who responds in accordance with his world view shaped by past experiences and prejudices. Just like a real person would. 
 We as individuals often reveal different facets of ourselves dependant on the situation we are in. Our boardroom persona may and should differ significantly from the person who dresses up as a clown to entertain his 2 years olds friends at a birthday party. However, no mater what facet is in view, the underlying gem is still the same. Warts and all.
Readers expect their heroes to be consistent. Failure to define and deliver a consistent and believable character will result in the reader disconnecting and interest in the story line drying up. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Write what you know

As I contemplate and plan my first novel I have found the process thoroughly absorbing. While a novel is the goal, I am currently more intrigued by the process as I dip my little toe in the waters of the writers world. I would love to say 'immerse' but, apart from being arrogant, it would do a huge injustice to those people who have spent decades of their lives developing and honing their skills. 
I love the documentaries about the making of movies. The actors talk about their characters in the movie as if they are real people - their inner turmoil, prejudices, passions and key motivators. Actors understand the importance of indwelling a character. 
Successful writers instinctively understand the importance of crafting real characters. Actually, I detect that  there are at least two distinct character development skills at play but more about that in a later blog. 
Right now I want to explore the first rule of writing that most people are familiar with - write what you know. 
Let me say up front that what I say on this blog about writing is merely my first glance interpretation of how the various skills and tools interact. It will probably seem incredibly naive to seasoned writers, like my buddy Fiona Coward who started on this process many years ago. That's okay. I hope that in years to come I myself find it cringeworthy. Some may call it embarrassing. I like to think of it as personal growth. If my perception hasn't moved on it means I am either incredibly perceptive or I am simply as naive as when I started. 
"Write what you know." What does that mean? If you are an engineer should the story be about engineers or orbit around the axis of their experiences? It could, but I believe the injunction encapsulated in those  four simple words has much broader scope. 
Firstly, there is an implication to not write about what you do not know. For example, if I decided to write a plot set in Elizabethan England I would be on a hiding to nowhere. I could Google "Elizabethan England facts" and get a handful of shallow detail that I could weave into the story - cruel punishments for inconsequential 'crimes', wreaths of garlic to keep germs at bay, etc.. However it would lack the attention to detail that would breathe life into the scenes. Furthermore, anyone even remotely familiar with the period would quickly reassign your book  to the section of the library marked 'humour'.
   The thing that consumes most of our time on daily basis does not define what we know. For example, Doug is an engineer. That's not all he knows. He could also be an amateur adventurer, a husband, a father of a member or the PTA. We know a lot more than we think we know. We understand love, fear, hunger and uncertainty, to mention a few. Draw on those experiences and emotions when writing them into your story. 
  Now for a twist. There are those who say the guideline of 'write what you know' is problematic as it builds barriers and limits would-be authors who consider themselves boring. 
I have been surprised at the interest in fantasy. I have no appetite for the genre but apparently it is served up on huge buffet tables with queues of people waiting to select their poison from a surfeit of choice. 
The beauty of fantasy is that the author knows everything about that world and its people's. I imagine however, that it take an enormous amount of skill to build and populate that world in the mind of the reader. Lack of appetite aside, I don't have the skills to attempt that. 
   I am going with a far simpler approach. My story will take place in a contemporary setting - Jo'burg, 2014. I live here and now so I know the setting. That's one hurdle less for me to navigate. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Strawberry Jam and Novel Writing

Fiona Coward put a post on our Weekend Rides Whatsapp Group a month ago asking if anyone had any spare lever-lock keys. I had a whole bunch so offered her a pile. 
We got together and she mentioned they were for her annual NaNoWriMo kickoff. As it was a steampunk theme I offered to make her a whole pile of squared gear thingymajigs. I kind of knew she was invoked in an annual novel writing thing but was short on detail. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal per the website is as follows:

"National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel."

To save you a long story you can go read more about it at  

Fiona asked casually "why don't you do it?" With no Munga in my immediate future I pretty much decided there and then that it would be a good idea to swap my pedals for a pen. 
Is there a novel waiting to burst out of my head? No. Did I have any idea of what I was going to write about?Again, No. 
Often you hear the phrase 'you should write a book about that', but the reality is that many think about it and a tiny few convert that thought into words on a page. 
I thought it would be interesting to temporarily reinvent this blog space and keep a conversation going in parallel with writing a book. 
I am no writer. I have never done any creative writing but I think it could be a whole pile of fun. I have a lot to learn about crafting dialogue, creating and resolving gripping conflict and developing a credible plot populated with believable characters and scenarios. 
Fiona's advise, "don't overthink it, just vomit the words on to the page. You can always edit it afterwards."
This is where the strawberry jam comes into play. Chris Morris always advises people who are feeling nauseous to eat strawberry jam. He assures them it does nothing for the nausea but it sure makes the vomit taste better. I am busying myself scratching through the interwebs trying to learn as much as I can before the vomit process begins. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Munga race postponed until Dec 2015

Press release this morning saying that owing to the key sponsor pulling out the inaugural running of The Munga will be postponed for a year.
It's a tough call for the organisers and I am not sure it is the right one. I would have preferred the race to have gone ahead albeit with a reduced entry fee and a commensurate decrease in the prize money. I believe it could have been rebranded as a Million Rand race and the entry fee reduced substantially. There is a domestic appetite for tough races and the idea of racing the first edition has appeal. They are going to get slaughtered on the social media platforms as already witnessed on The Hub. The fixation on a million dollar race is probably the downfall. It's a huge purse but a purse that is effectively shared by 3 winning teams and one lucky draw. Once you have a handful of true contenders you have to ask how much of a draw card is a lucky draw prize? Is it worth $10k entry fee to stand a chance to win $100k? Very few people will turn their noses up at $100k but to be honest, if you can afford to stump up $10k to enter, $100k is unlikely to change your life and you are certainly not going to enter the race just to have a remote chance of winning a lucky draw.
I can understand the sponsor withdrawing. I have absolutely no knowledge of the who, what or why of the deal but assume that someone was happy to underwrite the prize money after being presented with the entry forecast. After all,the press around the race indicated a cut off at 450 teams. Do the maths and you will see the prize money as well as the logistics and admin around the race would have been well covered even at only half that number of teams.
It's back to the drawing board for the organisers. Sadly for them the echoes of the naysayers will reverberate for a while yet.

Sunday, 12 October 2014


My race partner Sean Badenhorst used the word combination preparation/trepidation to describe his activities and mindset leading up to The Munga. The key word in this combo is "trepidation". It's often paired with fear as in "...with fear and trepidation...". Fear is a synonym for trepidation so pairing those words simply aids to underscore the feeling of disquiet and anxiety. Anxiety ahead of and during a race can be decidedly debilitating. My first Freedom Challenge race was back in 2007. I think I lost about 10 kg's that year, most of it due to anxiety. The Freedom Trail route takes riders into and through some incredibly remote spaces both geographically and mentally. When you don't know what lies yonder you feel like a nervous explorer of old heading over the horizon into an area marked 'hic sunt dracones' 'here are dragons'. Had a very real sense of that during the 2007 Freedom. Somewhere just north of Molteno it started snowing and what at first was a picturesque fairytale setting soon settled into a desperate fight to survive the weather. In hindsight it wasn't so bad but I had absolutely no idea where the trail was headed and what obstacles I would face so the desperation mushroomed in that knowledge vacuum. Foreknowledge of the challenges you will face allows you to mentally prepare. Leading up to this years Race to Rhodes I had mentally ridden the race at least once everyday for the last month. Detailed knowledge of the terrain allowed me to formulate a minute by minute strategy that apart from an unforeseen wind storm worked out almost as planned. 
Heading up to The Munga we know only half a dozen things, start near Bloemfontein, end near Stellenbosch, support stations roughly every 180 km's and water should be available every 60 kms or so. No seconding and outside assistance. That's it. 
Oh, one more thing we thought we knew - the route will be marked. Can confidently say it is highly unlikely as logistically it is impossible to do so. The race route will be GPS guided. 
With all the uncertainty, don't get me wrong, I am not criticising, the mental preparation is limited to the obvious challenges such as how and what will I eat and drink, how long before I stop to sleep etc. 
The physical preparation is all about hardening up on the bike, predominantly time in the saddle. 
Lacking data you tend to speculatively fill in the blanks. I guess we will leave Bloemfontein and head toward Stellenbosch keeping west of the N1. That should route us near De Aar toward the Roggeveld mountains near Sutherland before dropping into the Western Cape and then snake through the Skurweberge mountains near Ceres to Tulbagh and then head south to the finish. All wild speculation! The route will be revealed the day before the race by which time the die will already be well and truly cast. 
Without adequate mental hard points to fix on the challenge is tougher. Fear is amplified. You either succumb to that fear or use it to motivate. As a motivator it is a powerful tool. Sure I have fears. Fear of failing to finish, fear of being the weak link in the partnership. These fears properly harnessed will be the motivation to get out on my bike, get me into a regular stretching and body conditioning regime and get me to push beyond my comfort zones. 

I have heard people say it takes a certain amount of courage to embark on a race like The Munga. It's going to be hard and we are going to hurt and most certainly go to dark places and the prospect of not finishing is a very real threat. For those of us who have experienced the hardship of endurance events these very challenges are what makes our ears prick up and and those desperate words roll uncontrollably from our lips "please pick me"

"Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all." Meg Cabot

Friday, 10 October 2014

Slow progress

This past weekend I rode the 3 day Mankele 3 Towers Race with Gavin George. Firstly let me say what an amazing race. It's tough with 2 standout components - plenty of climbing and some awesome single track sections called "Bush Tunnels". The bush tunnels are essentially dry water courses carved out by storm water. They are thickly bushed with plenty of rocks in the dry river bed. A lot of effort has been made to clear a technical single track through these ravines often for a number of kilometres. Gavin was much stronger than me as expected. It was a bit of a wake up call for me ahead of The Munga. We finished 76/150 in GC and 24/50 in sub vets which is Gavin's age group. I didn't have enough power to scamper up the climbs and that cost us. Need to work on dropping more weight. Sean Badenhorst is in good shape and is a full 10kgs lighter than me. Excess blubber is a poor travel companion on a bike. 
A few days rest and it's back to the training grind. I need to improve both my endurance and speed. I have good plodding endurance but that will not serve well on The Munga as its going to be a flat fast race. Will plan to hook up with Sean for training rides and we can start figuring out how our riding styles are going to mesh. Interestingly enough we have only ever ridden together once and that was a short night ride. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Water affairs

I have started weighing myself before and after my hour long lunch rides to get a sense of how much weigh I lose through sweat and respiration. The figures are rather alarming. Currently I average a weight loss of 800g over an hour. (Water/weight ratios are 1:1 - 1 litre of water weights 1 kg.) For my typical Magaliesburg rides I don't take any form of hydration apart from a mid-ride bullet coffee at the Wimpy. Those rides typically take 3 hours. So my water losses are probably 2.5 litres and I replenish that with 350 ml. That's a deficit of 2.15 litres. Over 3 hours that's all well and good as a glass or two of water and a pot of tea over the next few hours and it's fixed. Also, as noted in a previous link, there are performance benefits to be gained from running a little dehydrated in training. 
Now fast forward to the Karoo in December. Temperatures in the 40's. Hourly hydration losses of ???  I guess a conservative guess would be 1 litre an hour moving at a moderate pace. Over 14 daylight hours that's 14 litres. Then add in the nighttime hours albeit at a lower rate. It's fine to do a 3 hour ride and get slightly dehydrated but over the long haul you will need to retain a good hydration at all times particularly if you intend to cycle 20-22 hours of every day. Research suggests that the max safe oral hydration is 1 litre per hour. Beyond that there is an increased risk of electrolyte imbalance that could lead to hyponatraemia (decreased blood salt levels) in which case you turn into a human sponge and you can absorb plenty of water before you drop down dead. Hyponatraemia is a real risk and this needs to countered through supplemental sodium intake. There are lots of electrolyte replacement options like Rehydrate and the new fizzy pills like High5 and a myriad of other brands that you can pop into your water. Unless informed otherwise it would be safe to assume that you will need to start the race with enough supply to get to the finish as there won't be any at the support stations. Riders in the habit of taking specialised race nutritional supplements would be better served ditching some of that and include more electrolyte additives unless they want to carry everything from the start. Normal food will do the trick from a nutritional standpoint as you pass through support stations but not specifically supplementing electrolytes can lead to disaster. 
Lets make some assumptions starting with an average traveling speed of 15km/h. Water points on The Munga are roughly 60 Km's apart. So you only need water for 4 hours. So the simple maths with my current hydration guesstimate makes the requirement 4 litres. That's a 2 litre Camelbak and 3 bottles. Carrying an extra 4kgs is huge. Endurance race experience has highlighted that my hydration requirements are a lot lower than the average rider so for some it could be upwards of 6 litres. It's logistically challenging. Stronger guys will ride a lot faster and might get through water points every 3 hours. Some will be slower and take 5. Add a headwind and it starts to get interesting. Above 35 Celsius normal sweat functions are impaired. Smart clothing choices that maximise evaporative cooling effects become imperative. It is primarily the electrolytic losses through sweating that needs to be replenished. In a 1 hour spin class you can drip out 3 litres of sweat but it takes a few hours for you body to effectively replace that volume. Go for a hike and you sweat a lot less and can easily keep your hydration in balance. I think it's going to be interesting to figure out the right pace to ride at. That pace will be informed more by establishing a hydration balance than how am I doing on the leader board. 
Anyway, this is all based on my initial measurements. Will continue to study the losses and see if they improve. Will also ride at different intensities and see how that impacts on losses. 

This race format is new and exciting. No one, including the race organisers know how this is actually going to play out. Riding is riding but the extreme endurance and challenging environmental aspects combine to make this one huge science experiment where we are the guinea pigs and the public are the observers. Certainly not going to be boring. 

Training observations

In the last 8 days I have cycled 430 Km's on my MTB over 7 rides. That's 23 hours of riding. On the face of it it's a reasonable amount of training but in context of the upcoming race it's an average effort. What is worrying is how tired I feel.
Last Saturday I rode 200 Km's on a Mini Munga ride with a handful of other Munga entrants. I struggled. If Anne Robinson was around she no doubt would have quipped "You are the weakest link, goodbye!" To add insult to injury she may well have recycled one of her more acerbic but fitting insults, "Who, alas, has delusions of adequacy?"
I am grateful to have a job and while it puts food on the table and pays the bills it makes it challenging to rack up significant saddle hours. To make up those hours I have been riding during my lunch breaks as well as riding at night. The lunch rides are of a short duration, 1 hour, but should slowly get me more heat adapted.
My performance riding at night is in stark contrast to my day time rides. Once the sun goes down and the mercury follows suit I am invigorated and ride a lot faster and harder. Perhaps my cold adaption over the last few years is deeper than I thought. My inability to ride strongly in the heat needs serious attention. Hopefully the ride at Mankeke in a fortnight will help this adaption.
The constant tiredness is also concerning. Over training comes to mind but is that really the case? Exercise gurus will advise you against increasing your training load by more than 10% per week. Going from a single weekend ride of 50 Km's and increasing it slowly in accordance with good sense guidelines can get you all the way up to 156 Km's a week over 3 months - whoop whoop!!
That won't work. The answer, I suggest, it to deliberately over reach without over training. Most people are familiar with the idea of over training but haven't heard of over reaching. Over training in a nut shell is training so hard that performance becomes progressively impeded to the point of requiring weeks if not months of rest to recover. Over reaching by contrast requires one or two days rest to recover. When you are training regularly it's hard to take a day off. The idea of two days without training seems completely insane. Balanced carefully with adequate rest overreaching can help you increase your weekly training hours without pushing you into an overtrained state. For me it means 2 rest days at the end of each week. It seems to work as I have increased my workload a few hundred percent and after a few days rest my small time trial rides show my speeds are increasing. If they were headed south I would need a serious rethink. As I sit here now wishing I could go for a ride I know that being off the bike today is in fact the best form of training possible right now.
By the way, after a 2 day rest following the Mini Munga ride thoughts of Anne Robinsons trenchant criticisms no longer haunted me.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Let The Munga show begin.

The Munga, a non-stop race from Bloemfontein to Stellenbosch approx 1000km, through the Karoo mid summer. Teams of 2. Daily cut offs and US$1 Million in prize money. A race conceived and presented by Alex Harris. The race has its genesis in an obscure corner of Alex Harris's cerebral cortex probably as a result of an overload of intertwined decades long extreme adventuring experiences. Alex is no ordinary adventurer and The Munga will be no ordinary race. I am teamed up with Tread Magazine editor Sean Badenhorst.

A few years ago over a cup off coffee Alex casually mentioned the concept of a race with a big purse that would change the face of endurance riding as we know it. We are both Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa veterans with 3 finishing blankets apiece. Alex has managed 2 wins and a second place while I have managed to roll through the finish in 7th place on my first two attempts and 5th on my last. Alex is gnarly while I am your average mountain biker. One thing we have in common is the experience of suffering on a bike. It just takes a lot more effort on his part to get into the suffer zone.

Having set his sights on a big purse ride he tried and failed to secure consent to race the length of the Sishen-Saldanha Bay iron ore railway line. His plan for The Ironmonger race were scuppered. Undeterred he dropped the "Iron" and morphed the "monger" into "Munga" to create a name that will in time epitomise the ultimate mountain biking vasbyt challenge.

Alex has come up with a race concept that draws on his personal experiences in conventional stage races as well as the Freedom Challenge and Tour Divide. Evident in his race model is the need for serious grit. The off bike pampering that is typical of the well healed or professional multi day stage racer will not be a part of The Munga. Equally, 12 hours a day of slow grinding that will see you finish the Freedom Challenge or Tour Divide will be hopelessly inadequate in Alex's race format.

What makes it tough are the conditions and time constraints. Routing from Bloemfontein to Stellenbosch over 1000 Km's the terrain won't be a serious issue but the heat will certainly present a challenge. The Karoo is a desert and a hot one at that. The race timing will ensure the challenge of desert heat will have full effect. Regular cut offs will force riders to push on relentlessly or face disqualification. The race distance will require riders to complete at least 200 Km's per day. Anything less will be a sub par performance and result in an early bus trip home.
There are many challenges that competitors need to gear up for. Heat and hydration easily come to mind. Riding in the cold requires an extra layer or two. Heat is not about a layer or two less. You need to protect yourself from the suns rays and be able to tolerate the heat. That tolerance only comes from physiological adaption. You need to train in the heat to get used to it.
To be continued....

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Prequel to "The Mountain Roared"

The last 20 hours of the race for me were rather dramatic but it occurred to me that the first part of the race never got a mention so here are the salient details of that first part.
All the riders in our start batch had indicated that Ntsikeni was their ambition for the first stop. Ntsikeni in one effort has only been achieved by 6 or 7 riders in the previous 10 years of the Freedom Trail. It is an impressive achievement covering 205 km's with over 5500 metres of ascent. There are 4 major climbs that take about an hour each to get over. As it turned out I was the only rider to get there inside of 24 hours.
The group charged out of Pietermaritzburg as a tight bunch and pretty much stayed that way with all of them at Minerva around 10 o'clock. Allen Sharp and I were in and out of the stop in less than 5 minutes which put us ahead of the rest of the bunch. We got down to the Umkomaas river and waded across around 11:30. Allen stopped to take his shoes off before crossing while I just waded across as I was. That is where Allen and I parted ways. The climb from the river up Hella Hella was a matter of ride a bit, walk a bit. I arrived at Allendale at 13:50 which is a pretty good time but 20 minutes slower than I would have liked. I was moving okay but not with any real energy. It seemed to me that the LCHF diet I was following didn't deliver during periods of high exertion. At Allendale I decided to get some carbs in the form of Coke. That seemed to give me a bit of extra energy. The day was a little hot for riding hard and I made Donnybrook 15 to 20 minutes slower than I would have liked. There I stopped and got some buddy bottles of Coke and made a weak mixture of 1 part Coke to 3 parts water which I maintained for the balance of the race and it went down well. I also snacked on Woolies soft chewing gums the rest of the way to Rhodes, drip feeding myself on a low dose of carbs. As I headed toward Centocow the temperature dropped slowly which made the riding easier. Close to Centocow the temperature dropped rapidly so I decided to stop there and layer up for the night ahead. It was my original intention to skip Centocow but I figured it would be a good place to have a quick sto as I could sort my gear out and have a hot cup of tea and a peanut butter sandwich while I was at it. The ride out of there went smoothly except for a short while after crossing Boshelweni when I began to feel my eyes getting heavy. I countered this by listening to music from my iPod. In no time at all I was starting the gnarly climb on the track leading to the northern entrance of Ntsikeni. I expected to get my feet wet crossing the boggy part of the track close to the lodge. Fortunately it was so cold that the boggy bits were frozen and I was able to ride over without any difficulty. Arriving shortly before midnight I had a few cups of tea which became a regular habit at each support station and ate lightly which was also a constant. The general thinking is that you need to eat well to fuel up. Although I ate sparingly I ate often as I passed through a number of support stations each day. I also suspect that my fat adaption served well to keep me going. There are 2 route options out of Ntsikeni and I opted for the longer route as I figured it was less complicated and mostly rideable. It turned out to be a good choice as it was much faster compared to the time reported by riders who took the shorter route. A full moon made for a quick easy ride and 2 hours 15 minutes after leaving Ntsikeni Lodge I was rolling along the Politique road well on my way to Glen Edward. Soon after crossing the Swartberg tar road while moving quickly down the dirt road it got so cold that I had to blink my eyes open. Every time I blinked my eyelids would stick together and I would have to make a deliberate effort to open them. This was the coldest
part of the race. It had warmed slightly by the time I arrived at Glen Edward 30 minutes later at 5 am. Charles informed me that it was -10 Celsius.
Interestingly enough there were 2 other lady riders who had arrived an hour before me at the same time that Kevin Davie had left.
I informed Sheila and Charles that I would be pressing on and asked for a blanket so I could catch a few zzzzz's on the couch in front of the fireplace while they prepared me a breakfast of bacon and eggs. After a 10 minute snooze I ate breakfast (with 2 cups if tea) and left at 6 to chase down Kevin. By 7 am I had crossed in to the Transkei. By 8 o'clock my backside was starting to hurt. Not from chaffing but simply from being in the saddle almost non-stop for 26 hours. Compounding the problem was the horrendous condition of the Traneskei roads. I opened my pack looking for Anesthetic cream that I habitually carry but like Old Mother Hubbard I came up bare. The rough roads, tracks and riding over grass lands made it all rather uncomfortable. I arrived at Masakala just outside Matatiele sometime around noon. Kevin had left an hour before me so I hadn't made any ground with him. I decided to have another look through my backpack and hit the jackpot. Without delay the soothing effect of the numbing cream was doing its work. So soothed, I headed off toward Ongeluksnek right into a head wind that made the going a bit tough. I started to feel drowsy again on the long boring stretch of road toward the Knira flood plain. Help arrived in the form of a teenage boy on a bicycle. We struck up a conversation that carried me through the next 30 minutes. By the time he bid me adieu the tiredness had disappeared. I scampered across the Knira flood plain with only one mishap. My front wheel dropped into a huge hole that left my front handlebars level with the ground. I was gently deposited on all fours. Clearing Queens Mercy I rode on to Mparane and climbed up onto the ridge. Soon after last light I walked down the contour path heading to the old Gladstone farmhouse. The conditions had changed somewhat from 6 weeks previous when I had ridden the same way. A whole pile of wattle had been cut and was covering the ground obscuring the track. After riding around all the wattle I emerged on some drag paths that looked unfamiliar. I decided that the path would take me in the general direction I wanted to head so I followed it. Cutting across a grass plain I eventually arrived at a fence that was clearly not the one I had expected to find. Hearing a dog bark in the distance I figured it had to be coming from near the farm so crossed the river by walking over a fallen tree and in no time at all I was back in familiar surroundings. Climbing down off the ridge I cycled into Mariazell which is the school the FC Scholarship Fund enrolls it's students. There was a buzz around the school. I rode up to some students and asked what was going on. They explained that they were merely hanging out and enjoying each other's company. Before long there were at least a dozen students asking me about my ride, two of which happened to be FCSF students. When realizing I was riding alone one student asked "aren't you afraid of riding at night by yourself?" That piqued my interest as they were from the area and I was curious to find out if I was in any real danger. I asked what I had to be afraid of and the answer surprised me. It appears that I had nothing to fear from humans but should keep a sharp look out for ghosts and skeletons. Bidding them goodbye I rode to Ongeluksnek fully expecting to find Kevin there. To my surprise he had not yet arrived. He arrived after I had showered and fallen asleep so I never got to speak to him. I set my alarm for a 3 hour sleep. After 38 hours of riding I expected sleep would come easily but it took me 30 minutes to wind down and finally drift off.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Mountain Roared

So much to say about a few short days. Let's start with yesterday. Arrived at Ongeluksnek just after 8pm having left Pietermaritzburg 38 hours earlier and save for a 10 minute snooze on the couch at Glen Edward I had yet to get some sleep. I chatted to the guys already at the support station while I coaxed down a few jugs of tea and half a dozen vetkoek. The supplied dinner was rather unappetizing and I merely picked at it. After a hot shower I climbed into bed and almost immediately started coughing. It was clear I had started with an infection. After tossing for 30 minutes I fell asleep waking 2.5 hours later. Climbing out of bed I was aware of a strong wind blowing outside. Under the dull light of a paraffin lamp I dressed and packed in the bathroom so as not to disturb the other riders. Breakfast consisted of instant oats and Weetbix which I had in my resupply box. Fed, hydrated and trussed up warm I headed out the door just before 2am. 30 mins in I stripped down as although windy it was a warm wind. I had an easy ride through to Thabatija before climbing down off the ridge and up the drag path to Kabong. Although not yet 4am I had to move aside to allow a team of oxen and the guys driving them to pass. Such is the importance of collecting wattle for firewood. Leaving Kabong I followed the cattle tracks up to Black Fountain. Aided by a full moon I made quick time along the mountain having little trouble in linking up the myriad tracks that wend their way across the ridge. Just as the eastern sky started to glow with the promise of sunrise I picked my way through the rocky ledges down the mountain and rode across to Tinana Mission. Once there I took of few minutes to get some antibiotics out my bag. I was starting to cough up chunks and my throat was getting raw. After scrambling through a few dongas and wadding through a river I was able to enjoy an easy ride toward Setabataba. I got to the start of the Vuvu valley at 9am and as soon as I got onto the first ridge was hit by the first really strong head wind of the day. As I approached the final climb up the cliffs to the Vuvu plateau I got seriously buffeted. Every minute or so I had to stop moving and brace against the wind. Carry a bike was not an option unless you had a buddy with a GoPro who could film a million hit YouTube moment. I used the bike like a Zimmer frame which in hindsight is a good age appropriate skill for me to acquire. Once on the plateau I had to walk most of the last few km's to the school keeping an eye out for flying roof sheeting. Once at the school I was told to put my bike inside the classroom as they were worried the wind would blow it away. As I sat there drinking milky tea and ignoring the greasy scrawny chicken that Vuvu is known for the conditions on Lehana were front of mind. It's generally breezy up the mountain but if we had gale force winds down at Vuvu I could only imagine how bad it was going up Lehanas pass. For readers unfamiliar with Lehanas Pass, it's a mountain trail of some 1000 metres of climbing. Once at the top you ride down to join the Naudesnek road pass which is 2500m above sea level - South Africa's second highest road pass. There is no clearly marked path. To get up you make your way to a ridge and generally follow the ridge line for a few kilometers until reaching the last big nek before contouring around to get to a path that takes you up to the top. I walked large sections of the road to the start of the portage due to the wind which made riding impossible. At one point I got a finger wagging from an old lady when I was riding along and got turned 90 degrees into the ditch by a strong gust. I interpreted it as "ja you flippin tjop, why do you think it's a good idea to ride that thing in these conditions!" The wind at the bottom of the portage required an all out effort to get the bike up the first few contours where the earth just crumbles under foot. What normally takes 30 mins took me 90 mins. As I inched my way up the wind got to the point of flying my bike like a kite. I had to grab both the bars and the saddle and weigh it down as I made a metre or two of progress at a time. At the first nek I ended up being pinned to a bush by my bike. The wind was so strong that I couldn't push off. After a few mins the wind slowed enough that I was able to liberate myself and continue up. My wind cheater was flapping so hard that is was making constant whip cracking sounds and the loose ends of my backpack stung my face as the wind blew mercilessly. The wind was making the flesh on my face flap not unlike pictures you see of people sticking their faces out of windows of fast cars. It stung so much that I rolled into a deeply rutted cattle track and unpacked an additional buff with which to cover my face. At some stages I was pelted with gravel as if someone above me on the ridge was throwing handfuls over me. It was just the wind tearing bits off the mountain. On one grassy slope as strong gusts forced me to sit I was pushed a few metres across the grass. While amusing it was time consuming. As I approached the main nek near the kraal and the cairn I could see the effects of the wind blowing across the grass and shrubs. As I got closer the noise, not unlike a jet engine was deafening. I was getting concerned that I would run out of daylight before getting off the mountain. I had been on it for 3 hours and had only 90 mins of daylight left. It normally takes just under 3 hours to get up. As I started across the rocks between the cairn and kraal the wind won the battle ripping the bike out my grip as I tried to hold it with one hand and keep myself in place by holding on to a rock with the other while seated. I crawled behind a small rock so I could at least sit up and take stock. I never panic when things get interesting. I am far more logical and calmly process options working on a plan forward. It was clear that I was in a situation that went beyond amusement. I was trapped and had to seriously consider my options. First thing was to get my bike back. After many minutes of careful movement I managed to drag my bike closer and wedge the tyres against rocky protrusions that anchored it against the wind. It was clear I had to get out if this spot. The first time I tried getting on my haunches and dragging the bike across the rocks ended badly with the bike once again being unceremoniously ripped from my grasp. A broken saddle and power adapter reinforced the seriousness of my situation. It took me 10 mins to retrieve the bike from lower down the slope dragging it inch by inch back to my hunker down spot. One option was to abandon the bike and get myself to the shelter of a shepherds hut a few hundred metres further down the mountain. I also contemplated dismantling the bike and taking it bit by bike to the cattle kraal a mere 50 metres away. That option had little merit as it was hard enough for me to move forward without the added impediment of bike bits. It was disturbing to be pinned down by a foe whose presence I was all to aware of but could not see. After 30 mins of making no progress I decided on a final all or nothing effort to cross the 50 metres of open ground to the relative safety of the stone kraal. With the realization that daylight was running low every minute I sat there I felt a momentary lessening of the wind Intensity. I grabbed my bike with both hands and keeping low I dragged it over the rocks to the kraal. The effort left me heaving but happy to have escaped the most extreme weather situation of my life. There was still work to be done but I was sure the worst was behind me. With 45 mins of daylight left I battled the wind across the face of the mountain to the path that leads up behind the container that has been placed at the top of the mountain. I thought the wind would ease once I was over the top but that hope was dashed. To add to my woes the temperature was dropping all the time. I needed to change my gloves as my fingers were numb and I needed another later on my body. With the wind howling and no shelter to enable me to go through my back pack I simply became obsessed with getting to the lodge to shelter from the wind and change my gear. By 6pm I had made the safety of the lodge, some 3 hours later than anticipated. I took my gloves off and was hit with excruciating pain consistent with early onset frostbite. It probably wasn't below zero outside but add the windchill of wind gusting in excess of 100km/h and it's cold. I put on some glove inners to stabilize my finger temperature and ease the pain. It was then that I started with the shakes. It was apparent that my core temperature had dropped significantly. I decided to take time to get a few cups of hot stuff down my throat and spend time next to the fireplace to warm up before taking on the last stretch to the finish. While I sat there the wind picked up even more making the fireplace roar accompanied by rattling windows and creaking roof. The prospect of a few more hours of fighting the wind had no appeal. One of the hardest things I had to do in this race was to head out the door and get back on my bike when the sensible option was to hunker down at Tena Head Lodge and wait for the wind to abate. If it hadn't been for all the encouragement and pledges of support for the scholarship fund I may well have called it a day. Just before 7pm I walk out the lodge to face the wind yet again. As the wind allowed I rode down toward Naudesnek. I hoped that as I dropped lower off the mountains the wind would let up. Progress was hindered in places by the wind and I had to take care rounding corners to avoid being spilled. After dropping down the first section the wind lessened to the extent that I no longer worried about staying upright. 2 hours into the ride down from Tena Head I started nodding off, drifting away all the time and battled to keep focus for more than a few seconds. My speed, even on the downhills had slowed to a painful crawl. Going down the numerous switchbacks in that state is just plain dangerous. It is not a place to get injured as the countryside is unpopulated and passing cars rare. Last time I battled these sleep monsters when riding with Trevor in 2012 it cost us a few hours. I decided on a power nap. My phone battery was drained so I had no alarm clock. I carry an emergency kit which includes matches and fuel tablets. I made a teacup size fire and lay down close enough for it to warm my face. With the temperatures below zero it was guaranteed that when the fire went out I would wake up. After 10 or 15 mins the smoke from the now extinguished fire woke me. I jumped back on the bike and fully awake powered into Rhodes arriving at 10:15pm some 64 hours 15 mins since departing PMB. Although a disappointing 3 hours later than my worse case prediction I had arrived in one piece after a harrowing experience in the clutches of the mountain. I am left with a new respect for the trail as well as a reminder of just how frail and vulnerable we are.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Carrot and Stick Challenge

From the previous post it is obvious that dangling a benefit to the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund makes me a soft target. To date over 2 dozen scholars have benefited from the fund in that they are either at the school or have already completed 3 years of study. The current arrangement is not perfect mostly because of the structure of rural schools that have just 3 years of senior secondary school - grades 10 through 12. The students performance had been hampered by a serious lack of foundational learning. It has been a case of
'If something is worth doing it's worth doing badly.' And the efforts so far have served a dire need and have been worthwhile.
It has been recently announced that they will be changing to a 5 year high school as we are familiar with in the cities. That will allow us to select students based on grade 7 performance and push them through 5 years of school and beyond.
It is our earnest hope that even if the Freedom Challenge ceases to exist as a trail or race events the scholarship fund will continue for many years a a legacy of the riders who navigated the trail.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Ordinary Cyclist is Challenged

Chris Morris posted the following challenge

I think Mike is full of crap! All this stuff about strategy, rest, flabby guts, over weight, under trained, etc is all good. But we know that nearly everyone who lines up at Town Hall just before 6am is well ready physically. People of all shapes and sizes, girls and boys, young and old, from fat farmers to racing snakes, have conquered this phenomenal challenge. Some have failed but persevered (some taking 5 times!). Mike is physically ready! What it really takes now is mental fitness! What will focus Mike a bit more is a challenge to play on his mind! He says he's keen to beat his PB of 71 hrs. Mike, my mental challenge to you is as follows: I will give you 75hrs to get to Rhodes and will donate R100 for each of those 75 hrs to the Freedom Trail Scholarship Fund. I will add another R100 for each hour less than 75 hrs. But Mike you must add R250 for each hour over 75 hrs ( rounded up!). What do you say Mike? Are you mentally up for the challenge?

Cecil Murray waded in with the following:

I will add R100 for each hour under 75, and R500 for each hour under 71 hours ... IF Mike coughs up R100 for each hour over 75, and R500 for each hour over 80. No pressure now, boet, just saying I know how tough you are.

And Chris Morris came back with:
This is sounding good but Mike is very quiet! The Scholarship Fund needs about R30k per student. Will we be able to add another student next year??

My initial response:

Response to challenge in 2 parts.
First part - go read my blog entry from 2011

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Underweight and Undertrained

I have tried the strategy of arriving at the start line overweight and undertrained and it has certain advantages but non that matter once the race starts. Hauling a flabby underpowered carcass up countless mountains does little to uncover the merit of this as a sound strategy. So pot-bellied, lethargic wannabe athletes where on earth does this saying come from? It's the antithesis of "don't arrive at the start line overtrained and underweight."
You will be pleased to know that I haven't fallen into either one of those traps. I shall arrive underweight and undertrained. Work and family commitments have assured I didn't overtrain. In previous years I put in as many as 25 hours a week in training. 2011 was the year I trained the hardest and the year I failed miserably at the Freedom Challenge, pulling out toward the end of day 2. This year I have focused on shedding surplus blubber, getting reasonably fit and planning to arrive at the start line without any recently healed or irritating physical niggles.
According to Strava, in the last month I have ridden only 11 times covering 556 km's in 28 hours 34 mins. These read like the riding stats of a typical weekend warrior not someone looking to charge down the trail to the adulation of their many fans. Fortunately there are no fans to disappoint and the charging will be a relative term. I am looking to race myself. Simply trying to see if I can better my 2012 time of 71 hours to Rhodes. I need to stay focused on that one goal and ignore the antics and surge of the riders around me. Clock is ticking slowly. Enough already, I just want to ride my bike down the trail!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The necessity of sleep and rest

While attempting a long period of non stop activity such as the Race to Rhodes one needs to bear in mind the necessity of sleep and rest. Far be it from me to present hard scientific data on this subject. Instead, I draw upon previous experiences on the Freedom Trail.

One cannot under estimate the necessity of both sleep and rest. Firstly, they are not the same thing. The moment you stop exercising you are resting your body and muscle recovery begins. Sleep on the other hand has little to do with muscular recovery and everything to do with cognitive recuperation. I like to think of the relationship between sleep and the brain as a chunk of computer memory that gets loaded up and only sorted and downloaded to the hard drive once you power down the device. Without sleep the available memory fills up and chaos ensues with trying to load more data. My experiences of sleep deprivation have resulted in hallucinations, both visual and auditory. I have seen Energizer Bunnies stalking me during a 24 hour race event. I have seen people walking toward me offering me refreshments while I "mowed the lawn" only to realize that the "person" was in fact an approaching car. I have heard people calling me when I have been alone and many kilometers from anyone else. After a while all your brain wants to do is shut down so it can sort and clear the memory buffer. Eventually you have no control over your wakefulness as parts of your brain cycle down. This results in you falling asleep while riding your bike. It is exacerbated when the lack of sleep coincides with your circadian dips such as 4-5 o'clock in the morning. It is incredibly debilitating. One stretch that should have taken me no more than 3 hours took over 4 with me battling sleep monsters. In hindsight I should have taken a 30 minute power nap which would have resulted in me completing the stretch in less time. The secret is the power naps. When you are battling to stay awake sleep comes quickly. Curling up in a ditch results in near instant deep sleep with the associated cognitive recovery. It's hard to oversleep in a ditch as it is uncomfortable and cold. After 30 minutes you are able to move on with a refreshed mind.
Rest is another matter. The truth is that on a race like this it is a luxury you can't afford. In 2012 I wrote about a rest day of just 160km's. It followed an arduous 270 km, 20 hour day of pain and suffering. By riding slowly and well within myself I was able to recuperate sufficiently to get up the following day and put in a 39 hour effort to cover the last 370 km's to the finish.
To get to Rhodes in under 71 hours I need to factor in the essential requirement of sleep which should total somewhere between 2 and 3 hours as well as the requirement to factor in some "active rest". When and how to fit this in will be the challenge.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The challenge of riding and navigating at night.

Night riding is not everyone's cup of tea. The Joburg chapter of Freedom Challenge Veterans and Friends regularly get together most weeks for 50-60km off road night rides. I guess it's a habit picked up from riding the Freedom Trail where night riding is a requirement even if the strategy is simply to ride one support station at a time. The advise to novice Trailers is to start early in the dark and if things go pear shape at least give yourself the chance to ride out of trouble when the sun comes up rather than end up trying to navigate to a support station after last light. Get it wrong and you sleep rough.
When racing to Rhodes there are a handful of sections that attempted at night pose challenges even for experienced veterans of the trail. The forest section in and out of Donnybrook is always fun as logging activities reshape the landscape and roads. Lots of stories from this section over the years. Getting lost there has been known as the "Donnybrook Maneuver" since 2007 when Glenn Harrison slept rough after heading into a thick mist after dark armed with first generation narratives.
The forest section about 2 hours out of Centocow is also a pearler. I rescued 3 lost riders there 3 years ago. They had started a day ahead if me and by 14 hours into my ride I found them wandering about the forest looking rather forlorn.
And so the stories of the last 10 years go. Lots of lost riders on all sections of the race. So how do you better your chances of success if racing through the night? The simple answer is ride it first instead of raving it as a novice.The current Race Across South Africa record holder made a point of doing the race at a leisurely pace in 2011 before his record ride of 2012.
Experience alone is not the only ingredient. When I ride the route during daylight I always make a point of looking for visual clues that would be visible in the arc of my lights. Mountains and distant forests as landmarks are of no use. I memorize things like trees, rocky outcrops, houses, fences and even the changing soil types under tyre. I make a note of critical distances to decision points as the distance you cover at night seems a whole lot further and faster than it is.
Many sections are left for you to figure out a route to get from A to B.
It is then important to be able to construct an aerial view of the landscape in your head. Even experienced Trailers spend hours looking at Google maps which helps them better understand the task. With this degree of the geography loaded you can mix it up to keep it interesting. A few times over the years I have tried new routes in the dark just for fun and they have worked out just fine but only because I had a good sense of where I was at all times.
Being able to get your bearing by looking at the stars and moon can be a great help. Knowing how to use a compass is invaluable when the skies are obscured.
Lastly, know the risks and be prepared to suffer the consequences if it doesn't go as planned. In 2012 Trevor and I headed up Lehana under a moonless sky knowing we faced an interesting navigational challenge as well as snow higher up. We didn't factor in a gale force wind that forced us lower down the valley than we intended. When I realized we had strayed from the perfect line is was just a case of figuring the best way out. With an understanding of the terrain and fence lines we were able to get out without too much difficulty. It might not have gone as smoothly and we were prepared for an uncomfortable night out if that had been the result.
With all my experience and knowledge does it mean I won't get lost? No, because no one is bigger than the trail.

The Challenges of Navigating the Freedom Trail

In response to a question from Eddie Leggo where he asks "Mike how do you navigate the ride is the route marked or do you follow GPS cords."
Hi Ed. The route is neither marked or GPS navigable. If you want to be disqualified arrive at the start line with a GPS loaded with the route. Freedom Challenge navigation is achieved via maps marked with the route in conjunction with supplied narratives. A compass comes in handy at times, particularly at night when it's overcast or you are unable to determine your bearing by the stars. It's always a bit tricky for novices as the narrative says things like, "a short while after crossing the stream you will see a jeep track heading off into the forest". That "short while" is very loose. At times it could mean 20 metres and at other times it could mean a few kilometers give or take a few kilometers. The narrative also uses terminology unfamiliar to some such as "head up the spur", "make your way up the watershed" or "you will cross several seeps". The prospect of passing a Spur Steak Ranch or happening upon a shed serving fresh chilled water is a thought quickly dealt a hash blow.
Compounding the challenge are narrative descriptions like "after crossing the river you want to make your way onto the spur and head up the watershed to pick up a jeep track on the left hand side of the stand of trees just to the right of the nek." Perfectly clear narrative IF it isn't pitch black. In that case the narrative is useless.
The most common mistake is to navigate from just the narrative as it is too easy to skip a line or even a whole page. Ideally you should be navigating off a combination of maps and narratives. The other challenge is to understand the maps. There is a highlighted path which is sometimes mandatory and at other times indicative. The method of marking the maps has improved. Previously the digital magic marker used to mark the route dropped dashes that looked like a path when often no path actually existed.
Half the challenge of the race is to make sense of the maps and narratives.

LCHF and the Race to Rhodes.

6 months ago I adopted the low carb high fat (LCHF) lifestyle as advocated locally by Tim Noakes. I am keen to see how it plays out on the race. Since switching my eating habits I have shed 14 kg's in weight and reduced my girth by 10 cm's. I have kept records of my rides and the benefits in terms of riding pace are evident. The weight loss is amazing and currently shows no sign of abating. I went for a fasted ride two days back and averaged 30 km/h over almost 75 km's. Would never have tried that before without stuffing something in my face beforehand. It seems there is merit to LCHF.
The real test will be the results of the up and coming race. Fortunately we have a benchmark against which to measure. Two years ago I rode to Rhodes like I was being chased by the Feds and completed that part of the race in 71 hours. I arrived well spent and could not have gone any faster. While I had a few weather related challenges along the way it only added an hour or two to the ride. This year we can see if the performance benefits of LCHF for athletes are as good as claimed. To be fair there isn't a lot of data to be found on serious endurance events beyond Iron Man. From what I have been able to find through "empirical research" (empirical research = advanced search options on Google 😄) it seems that during the Iron Man the LCHF athletes tend to use carbs in the form of Coke and Gels. The argument being that you will run out of energy if you don't add carbs. They also suggest that the intake and consumption of carbs is balanced and doesn't impact negatively on the body's ability to burn fat which is the risk of loading on carbs and triggering excessive insulin release. They report sluggishness if taking carbs immediately before the event and running low on energy during the event if they do not ingest carbs.
For the race I will be in uncharted territory when it comes to optimum race nutrition. I will be taking both fat rich sources of fuel such as salami and nuts as well as carbs in the form of jelly babies and the like. The balance will be interesting particularly over a multi-day non-stop event. The exertion levels won't match those of an Iron Man athlete and perhaps fat fueling can better keep pace with energy expenditure. My dietary preferences have changed so I will be less inclined to reach for a Mars Bar and rather opt for a handful of nuts. I will make a point of eating fatty food as and when it crosses my path and will eat carbs are necessitated by lack of choice or lack of energy. If I can stay off excessive carbs I will as I don't necessarily want to drop out of a ketogenic state. The trick is to find a good balance. Need to bear in mind that LCHF is "low carb" and not "no carb." Carbs are okay as long as they are not excessive to the point of stimulating high insulin loading.
As I said earlier, it's uncharted territory and it's going to be really interesting to see how this balance plays out.

Strategy matters.

Strategy, strategy, strategy. Those are the 3 most important elements of a successful Race to Rhodes. This begs the question - what constitutes success? The answer lies buried in the hearts and minds of each rider. There are those who plan to get to Rhodes in 6 days and enjoy the pleasures of each day smelling the roses as it were, arriving in Rhodes with a sense of true satisfaction. At the other end of the scale is the consummate competitor who wants the bragging rights of fastest person to Rhodes. I use the term "person" not in an attempt at political correctness but because over the years the race has seen its fair share of world class lady athletes who cycled circles around their male competitors.
In between those extremes are riders who have generally completed the Race Across South Africa and relish the idea of coming back and bettering their time to Rhodes. The Race to Rhodes is a microcosm of the longer race. It may even be argued that it is more distilled in the sense that it is the hardest portion of the full race route and the average speed over the ground is much slower than any other section of the race. To gain a proper perspective you must know that the current record time to Rhodes is a smidgen over 9 km/h. 2 years ago Trevor Ball and myself became only the 6th and 7th people to get to Rhodes in under 3 days (72 hours). We snuck in with an hour to spare and averaged 7.11 km/h from the start. On the way to Rhodes we slept twice, each time for 2 hours. While the Holy Grail is Martin Dreyers 56 hour record which will be hard to beat, the challenge is to finish inside of 60 hours. That being the case, I have to somehow shave 11 hours off my time from 2012. Given that we only slept for 4 hours, it means finding time somewhere else. And that's where strategy plays a hand. When to sleep, how long, and when to take the dark on most effectively.

Race to Rhodes! What's that?

How does Race to Rhodes work? That's an interesting question as it is a race like no other. In the inaugural event last year Glenn Harrison was the fastest Race to Rhodes rider but he came third as I recall.
Backing up I step I must explain that the race has 9 or 10 start dates. This year the first batch of 8-10 riders sets off on the 8th June and the process is repeated every day for the next 8 or 9 days. Admittedly I am a bit low on the facts. At least I know my start date - 13th June, I think! Each day there is a mix of riders heading for Rhodes and Cape Town. The person winning the Race to Rhodes is the person who completes the race in the shortest time from when they set off from Pietermaritzburg town hall and arrive in the hamlet of Rhodes. If your start day is early on you could well be done with your ride and be sitting back at home in Joburg as the provisional winner waiting to see if your excitement is justified or short-lived.
There are those who think the Race to Rhodes (R2R) should be a separate event and not include the Race Across South Africa (RASA) entrants. I am happy for all riders to be thrown into the mix. Look at it this way - everyone is racing to Rhodes and then some are continuing on to race to Cape Town.
Back to Glenn winning but coming third. Glenn raced to Rhodes and as such kitted himself out for the 3 days it took him to get there. You can ride with a lot less for 3 days. In theory you could ride with little more than a Camelbak weighing 2 or 3 kg's. A RASA rider is unlikely to get away with under 6 kg's with the average rider toting a pack of 7-9 kg's. If someone laden like that heading to Cape Town can beat me to Rhodes when I am riding with a light weight day pack and throwing everything in to a 3 day effort then by all means give them the credit and bragging rights for getting to Rhodes first. And that's exactly what happened to Glenn. Last year Cape Town bound riders got to Rhodes faster than he did and was was happy enough to concede that he was beaten.

2 weeks to go!

As I sit here gobbling down another Noakes approved greasy breakfast I am aware that in 2 weeks time I will be driving down to Pmb to head down the Freedom Trail for the 11th time. I am excited at the prospect of doing the Race to Rhodes. As a race the Rhodes leg of the Freedom Challenge is as hard as you want it to be. Over the years the banter between riders has been "are you going to Capetown or just to Rhodes". Until last year the stretch to Rhodes was known as the Ride to Rhodes. It was a challenging ride covering 6 days typically with a support vehicle to lug the extra baggage and nightly comforts and often with an experienced bike mounted guide. A few years back Andre Britz and myself talked David into letting us do an unsupported ride to Rhodes that we named The Rough Ride to Rhodes. The only change was no vehicular support and you had to carry your own kit as if you were doing the full race to Capetown.
As I recall we only had 1 or 2 takers. One being Anton Mayberry. Carrying a full race pack certainly changed the complexion of the ride. It was tougher. It was after this ride that we planted the seed of racing to Rhodes Last year was the inaugural Race to Rhodes. It was a low key event but has since gained traction in the minds of previous riders. If memory serves it will be the first time since 2006 where the number of riders going "just" to Rhodes outnumbers the crew heading on to Capetown. The prospect of riding as long and as far as you want each day makes it every bit as challenging as the full race and perhaps harder over the short time as you can ride yourself to exhaustion over a couple of days. Looking forward to it .......

On the road again

After a one year hiatus I am returning to race the Freedom Trail route again. Have been babbling on about it on a Whatsapp group. Will transfer the earlier scribbles into this blog and then post future blogs directly in here.