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.