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.
Tuesday, 26 May 2015
How Hard - Part 2
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."