Saturday, 30 May 2015

Why we ride the Freedom Trail

A few years back the FC promoted the race with the following sentence, "Discover South Africa, discover yourself."
The first half of that is very true, particularly for city dweller sorts like me. I had never ventured into the area known as the Transkei before and had no idea what inland Eastern Cape had to offer or truly understood the vastness of the Karoo. Back in 2007 the paucity of information around the event and conveyed experiences of previous participants made it a big unknown. Geographically speaking the event was spectacular. That initial sense of awe cannot be replicated in subsequent trips along the trail. The majesty of it however remains. 
The second component of the rallying call that refers to discovering yourself is an ongoing process. It is easy to remain composed in familiar surroundings facing the normal day to day grind of life. On the trail your ability to control your day is limited. You are often forced into reactive mode. There are days when the weather is on your side and your navigation is flawless. Then the weather intervenes and holing up until it blows over is not an option. It takes a lot of grit to leave a warm bed and head out into bad weather. It is in those moments that you start to discover what you are made of. You also find out what those around you are made of. I have had many surprises over the years as I have witnessed riders under pressure lose their veneer of politeness to reveal a person who is negative or intolerant. Even some who became abusive. Not all people react this way. Some withdraw deep into themselves and disconnect from the riders around them. We all cope in different ways. And I venture to suggest that we are capable of growing in our ability to handle tough situations. 
In my first race I just hung in everyday not daring to think beyond the next support station. Over the years I have allowed the "what if's" of my post race rumination to slip into my plans. I have watched riders do amazing things and wondered what it would be like to achieve those goals. Their achievements became my goals and those goals became my achievements. Each year I have amazed myself at my own ability to do the things of "giants". 

But why do we keep going back? 
There is no simple answer. When I ask other stalwarts of the Freedom Challenge I get a wry smile or a shrug. We are inextricably drawn back to the trail but are unable to articulate the reason. Why doesn't the Epic have the same draw? There are people who do the Epic every year but I doubt the attraction of that race is as visceral as the Freedom Challenge. 
I suspect it has something to do with the format of the Freedom Challenge. At times it seems a bit deurmekaar with what appears to be hands off management of the event. It is nothing like other formal stage races. There is no daily finishing line or formal daily routine. It's a line on a map and you are at liberty to go as fast or as slow as you like. There are certain out of bounds routes and a whole pile of optional bits and pieces.  

I suspect that the loose order is the attraction. In our daily lives we constantly conform to the various paradigms that direct our lives whether socially or familial. That is not to say these norms are wrong. However, when you are out on the trail you are stripped of the necessity to operate within the boundaries of these rules. There are few rules and no one is looking over your shoulder or directing your every move. You are on your own and the precepts that make us functional social human beings are for the main part put on hold. If you want to wake up at 2 in the morning and jump on your bike and ride off into the night you can. There is no one to stop you. By the same token you may choose to stop for the day after only riding for a few hours. If you fancy a 30 minute siesta under the shade of a tree halfway through the morning you can do just that. And there is no one judging you for it. The world and the events unfolding in it get put on hold. Your existence becomes the here and now. Dare I say it? You become selfish! Your whole world centres around yourself. Choices are made with only your own comfort and safety in mind. 
It's glorious. It's liberating. For a short while you get to do something just for yourself. Communication with the outside world is generally limited to a few minutes on the phone to loved ones and the occasional text message. As you stand on a mountain ridge overlooking a valley below, your life, your very existence is in front of you. And it looks like a single track heading off to the horizon. In that moment life is good, uncomplicated and completely satisfying. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

How Hard - Part 2

If we accept that the extreme nature  of the Freedom Challenge exists on a continuum then it's fair to assume there are levels of difficulty. 
We established in the last post that the baseline is tough. It is challenging  but not as hard as you would expect. On a 21-23 day strategy to Capetown or a 6 day ride to Rhodes a  typical day entails 8 to 12 hours of riding. It isn't anything like your average weekend ride. In truth it's fairly laid back and the pace is anything but frantic. A weekend warrior will find the days a bit long but it is doable. Get yourself into a small group, preferably with someone who has done it before and you are going to have a great experience. The weather becomes your major challenge. It can get bitterly cold, windy, wet and muddy but it all adds to the adventure. 
The groups that ride together form friendships that last years. From a spectator view point these small groups take on interesting "personalities" and we track their progress day to day. Some of them that spring to mind are "The Beetles" made up of John, Paul and George. The "Wine Train" comprising a number of colourful characters, the "Boere Kommando" made up of Carl and Marnitz with added diversity in the form of Boskind. 
I was at Dennehof in Prince Albert one year when Carl, Marnitz and Jaco came through looking every bit like commandos. They wouldn't have looked out of place in a war movie with a Blackhawk helicopter in the background. They looked rugged and were on a serious mission. They had ridden in from Rondavel and after a quick mid morning snack pushed on into Die Hell. I remember being in awe of them. 
What they were doing seemed tough, but was it? 
This past weekend I asked Marnitz about his riding experiences on the Freedom Trail and how hard it has been. The answer might surprise you - "Not hard enough!" I recall one of the reasons that Martin Dryer advanced for wanting to do the Freedom Challenge. He wanted to do something hard and thought the idea of sleeping in the snow on the Swartberg Pass might be really cool. He never got to sleep on the Pass and as I recall he had no snow either. He did have a good dose of mud mind you. I was at Kranskop in 2012 when both Martin and Alex Harris arrived late at night having battled through relentless rain and the gloopiest mud I have experienced in all my years on the trail. They came inside and went about the business of wringing themselves out and prepping their kit for an early morning departure. It seemed like it was just another day at the office for them. It was hard for them but more so physically than mentally. 
I argue that the Freedom Challenge is as hard as you want it to be. For a rookie battling with the stress of route uncertainty and trying to make sense of the narratives and maps it can get a lot harder than they want. People returning to try it again are generally over the anxiety and are able to engage better with the race. Having done the race you sit and home and start wondering how you would do it next time. Most people who have done the race have had a next time. That's the allure of this race. When you are familiar with the format and route you start applying pressure on yourself. In Marnitz's words, "You stop racing other people and you start racing yourself, trying to push yourself harder every time."
It is this self-push that has changed the complexion of the race. Back in my first race of 2007 the prospect of going over Lehana at night was unthinkable. It has now been done by a handful of riders. It's a big achievement but has only been tried by people who knew what they were doing and the risks were calculated. I did it in 2012 when it was so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. It didn't go entirely to plan but we made it out without any drama. It was interesting to say the least but we were never afraid and as such kept our heads and thought our way through. 
Was it tough? No, not for us. I will tell you what is. The lady I sat with at the breakfast table knows how tough the trail can get. She didn't finish the race and she experienced some harrowing sleepouts and faced her demons. She knows what it is like to to so far outside your comfort zone that you need and air ticket to get back. She was crushed but not defeated. I am pleased to see that she is back again this year. I have huge respect for that level of toughness. 
In closing let me recount something she said to me at that breakfast table that struck a cord. "When non Freedom Challenge people hear that I pulled out of the race they say 'shame, you must be so disappointed.' By contrast, when I meet an FC rider they say 'well done, you did so well to get as far as you did.' They have respect for the experience I had."
That's the truth of it. The handful of crazies who crank out the huge miles and finish days and weeks faster than the average rider are seen as the tough nuggets but they aren't. The tough ones are the ones who go somewhere scary in their own head space and are able to hold it together. On the extreme continuum the winners and comfortable 21 day riders are on the near side. The far side is occupied by fear filled rookies.
I didn't race in 2013 and watching the drama unfold I tweeted the following which I think is pertinent to this discussion. "We cheer race leaders because we see and comprehend. The real victory happens in the hearts of the riders who face their demons and triumph."

Sunday, 24 May 2015

How hard is the Freedom Challenge?

If we claim to do extreme riding then we need to examine how hard it really is. My experience of extreme is limited to a handful of stage races including the Epic, JoBerg2c and the Freedom Challenge. I don't consider either the Epic or JoBerg2c to be extreme. That is not to say they are easy. The Freedom Challenge events are not stage races in that once the clock starts it only stops when you cross the finishing line days or weeks later. 
Just as there is a continuum across the spectrum of riding difficulty there is one for the Freedom Challenge. Any event on the Freedom Trail is hard in the sense that there are no easy days. The section from Masakala to Malekghalonyane is the shortest and easiest section of the trail to Rhodes at around 68 km's. This can take anything from 5 to 8 hours. A pair of riders stretched it to 12 hours in 2011. 
In 2007 I rode my second Epic finishing middle of the field and then went on to do my first Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa. I arrived at the first support station at Allendale after dark shell shocked from the experience. As I recall we started at 07:00 that year. Even so it took 11 hours to cover the 100kms. Back then the route was a little easier as we avoided the current gnarly route down the Umkomaas valley. We simply rode down the district road. These days the racing snakes bang out this section, grab a mouthful of food and push on. Even so, it still takes the top riders 7 or 8 hours to cover the distance. It's just a hard race, particularly when you ride out of the predawn hours into the evening darkness every day for 3 weeks. 
I spoke to a rider who had failed to finish last year. Many days had elapsed from the time she had withdrawn from the race and the post race dinner. The morning after the official dinner she sat alone having breakfast looking a little bleak. I joined her and asked her how her ride had been. She was still shattered and hollow about the experience. Her words to me were, "People must stop romanticising this race. They make it sound easy and it isn't." She was right. It is hard. I have finished 3 times and dropped out once. On all three occasions when I have finished there have been moments when I was on the brink of throwing the towel in. I had a hundred good reasons to quit but only one flimsy reason to stick with the race. Pride is such a powerful force. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What Is Extreme?

Rappelling from a helicopter in a combat zone while under fire is extreme. But it is a "don't try this at home" activity. I polled a few individuals to determine their idea of extreme sports and the go to activities were Base Jumping, wing suit flying, skydiving and a handful of adrenaline charged pursuits. I must admit to being a type 1 Why's man when it comes to adrenaline type stuff. For our purposes we will limit the discussion to mountain biking which is typically bereft of that level of rush. 
Extreme is a continuum. At one end the idea of riding a 10 km race seems extreme to the as yet unblooded newbie. Sani2c is hectic the first time and ABSA Epic entrants are viewed as warriors. The Freedom Challenge is a whole new animal. Interestingly the 36One (361 km's non-stop) is a huge race and yet I expect that it is easier than the first 105 km's of the FC for a rookie. Perhaps those who have done both can comment on their experience. On the extreme MTB continuum The Tour Divide probably occupies a big chunk of the tough end. 
I contend that the FC and Tour Divide are bigger challenges because they are tougher mental and physical challenges. It is the aspect of mental toughness that I consider extreme in our events. I have done a few Epics and in my first I suffered to the point of missing dinner one night while I lay alone in my tent in the fetal position alternating between the fear of death and the fear of not dying. I was physically and emotionally drained. But I was devoid of pleasure. Hiking my bike for 11 hours off Black Fountain to Vuvu in FC 2007 was also draining but it came with a real sense of having done something big. It is the exultation derived from beating the odds that can become habit forming. This is the 'more' aspect, the adventure creep. 
Alex Harris relayed an incident of when he came down off Everest and was sitting around base camp with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. As I recall the story, Alex asked Fiennes "What's next?" For most of us Everest would seem to be the pinnacle of extreme achievement but that's probably because we haven't done it and the prospect of doing it seems as intangible as us going to the moon. So Alex and Fiennes sit around chewing the fat with neither one particularly intimidated by the other. We know Alex and that knowledge gives his achievements a human touch that allows us to sense the enormity of what he has done over the years. Fiennes is a tough nugget. In 2000 in a failed bid to get to the North Pole unsupported he got frostbite in his fingers. The surgeons wouldn't remove the necrotic fingertips immediately as they wanted  the underlying tissue to regrow first. Fiennes got tired of the pain and cut the tops off himself with a fretsaw. Something else to add to your adventuring kit list - 1x fretsaw. 
I digress. The point is that once a challenge has been overcome it tends to lose its allure. We will examine the pull the FC and Tour Divide have that keeps people coming back at a later time. 
As Alex and Fiennes sat around it was suggested that walking self supported across the Empty Quarter following as close as possible the route of Thesiger's 1947/8 crossing by camel was the one big challenge that still existed. So Alex went out and did just that. 
Back to ordinary people. Doing the Freedom Challenge in 2007 as a rookie was the toughest thing I have done in my life. And don't think for a second that I lived a pampered existence. I have served in the military and had my share of helicopters and bad guys with guns. 
My first FC was harder than that. The combination of exhaustion, pain and anxiety for 3 weeks is taxing. 
I was asked by someone why I would do it more than once. The answer is encapsulated in 3 words; Faster, Further, Harder. Each time I return it is to do it harder and to do something memorable such as going up Lehana at night or riding non stop for up to 40 hours at a time. Even after my spectacular failure in 2011 I drew from the experience and came back the following year and went harder and finished. 
An example of the creep is day one of the FC. The first time in 2007 I made it to Allendale (105 km's) after dark and stopped for the day. With Glenn on the tandem we arrived with an hour of daylight left and we pushed on to Centocow 45 km's further on. 
In 2009 I pushed harder and arrived in Allendale at 13:50 and got to Centocow at sunset. I then pushed on to achieve a previously unattainable (for me) double to Ntsikeni - 200 km's. 
Last year I arrived at Ntsikeni at 11pm and pushed through to Glen Edward arriving at 5am. A quick snack saw me out the door and pushing on as the 24 hour mark ticked over. 
I guess my next goal on day one will be to cross into the Transkei inside of 24 hours. That's the challenge creep that I impose on myself to keep it interesting. 

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Three Why's Men

When asked why we do extreme stuff I find it comes is three flavours. 
The first is usually followed by a statement. "Why? You do know that it's a lot easier in a car?" There is no adequate response to this "why" save to make a flippant reply and smile dismissively. The asker has no understanding, appreciation or interest in our endeavours. It's simply a shallow form of humour born of a need to exercise ones vocal cords while disengaging their ears and minds. 
The second kind of 'Why' is interested. But more so in understanding what makes us tick. They do not connect viscerally with the activity or have any desire to replicate our experiences. They are keen to gain an intellectual understanding of why someone would subject themselves to what, in their minds, seems amazing, edgy, perhaps even a tad foolhardy, but ultimately jolly interesting. Having sated their curiosity they nod knowingly and over the course of the next week or two they ply their friends with the tales and adventures of an adventure addict they bumped into. 
The third 'why' enquirer is far more incisive. They might not understand the full depth of the how's and why's of extreme pursuits but they are keen to unravel the process with a view perhaps of going down that road themselves. 
I use the word 'process' deliberately because 'extreme' is exactly that. Something you have just completed is oft no longer considered extreme. We will explore the compounding nature of 'more' in the context of extreme in the next instalment. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015


When people hear about the extreme bike adventures we do the responses are varied from "That's so cool", or "You guys are nuts!" through "Why?"
The last response is the shortest to ask but the most difficult to answer. 
As I sit here now trying to manage a riding induced hand ailment that will no doubt result in going under the knife to resolve, the question of "Why" plays on my mind. Why do we do these things?
As cyclists we are no different to other athletes. Mountain biking, apart from other risks such as carpal tunnel syndrome and saddle sores, carries an ever present risk of broken bones. We all fall off our bikes. Often it's funny, at other times there is no humour in it, but it is treated as an acceptable and inevitable risk. We can take steps to mitigate against catastrophic outcomes by lessening the risk. This, to a mountain biker, would be like an aspirant boxer settling for shadow boxing to avoid taking a punch to the face. 
The "Why?" to the basic pursuit of mountain biking is uncomplicated. Certainly a lot less complicated than asking someone why they choose boxing as a past time. Particularly when you finish with "it's healthy exercise and is good for me."

Over the next few weeks in the run up to the Race to Rhodes I want to try unpack the answer/s to the question "Why?"