Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Chugging along to Centocow

Leaving Allendale I knew it was going to be a hard job getting through the first section to Donnybrook. It was still hot and the second half had plenty of climbs. My body reserves were depleted. I was running on empty. Even so, I drew on previous experiences and knew that as evening drew closer and the temperature began to drop I would find the going easier.

Coping when your body is drained requires a different approach. Pinning Ntsikeni - 95km's with 2600 metres of ascent - to the notice board of your mind does nothing but deflate. I broke the sections down into tiny pieces - need to get to the corner fence, the road, up next to the trees, etc.. By snacking on digestible mental fragments I was able to stay focussed and keep despair at arms length.

Janine moved ahead of me without any obvious difficulty. She set a reasonable pace that I tried to match. It didn't come easy. Reaching the tar road just short of town I put my head down and ground out the last kilometre to the filling station shop. It had never felt so hard and far.

My internal furnace was doused and the pilot light threatened to flicker out. I needed to get something into my system to get it going. I grabbed 3 buddy Cokes and a packet of Lays crisps - Noakes diet be damned. One Coke went down the hatch albeit slowly, the second mixed with water in my bottles and the third as an emergency stash in my pack.

I lingered outside the shop trying to finish the crisps. I was just too exhausted to eat. Exhaustion won over and some kids got to finish what I could not.

Back in the saddle we moved toward the forest to take on the forest ride that would eventually empty out on the road just short of Centocow.
As expected the drop in temperature resulted in a inverse reaction in my energy levels. While not effortless, the ride become noticeably easier. Each climb, no matter how slight reminded me just how empty my legs were.

I was constantly aware of the fading light and wanted to be out of the forest before dark. We had been chasing sunset since before sunrise that morning. The drop into Centocow is best done in daylight. We reached the top of the watershed with ten minutes of light in hand. That meant we would do the last ten minutes in the dark, that was fine.

Dropping down we followed the track as it wound through the forest. Eight years ago it was a seldom used jeep track. This year it resembled a highway - a result of recent logging activity. Rounding a hairpin bend I stopped. It didn't feel right. The main track dropped off to the left but I had no recollection of going that way before. Janine and I discussed it and decided to take a lesser track that went straight. We climbed up slowly, desperate to see something familiar. The only thing familiar was that it went uphill. Logging had also changed the look of this track. It opened up onto another logging 'highway'. There was nothing familiar about this road either. Stopping at a junction of two major tracks we stopped. After umming and ahing for a minute I made the decision to drop down left. The direction was okay, the road not. I was used to a small track.

I ticked off the distance in my mind. After about 600 metres we got to a t-junction. That seemed about right. Taking a left I expected to see another track to my right after another 600 metres. On queue it showed up. Ducking right, now in darkness, we followed the track which started to deteriorate. It hadn't been used in a while, was covered with broken branches and we had to contend with little ditches every 100 metres or so. I was starting to doubt my navigation. I could see the lights of the mission station through the trees ahead and comforted myself that we were at least going in the right'ish direction. After a minute or two the track emptied onto the district road near Centocow Mission. We had ridden the perfect line through the forest. More by luck than judgement I must confess.
After cranking out the last few kay's we pulled up outside the intermediate support station of Centocow at 17:58. That left us with just another 6 or 7 hours to Ntsikeni. Too much to contemplate on an empty stomach. Food and something warm was on offer inside. So inside we went.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Welcome to the Cimmerian Caverns.

We talk about the Pain Cave. What few people realise is that it comes as a companion set along with the Cimmerian Caverns. To save you google time; the Cimmerians were a mythical people described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom. The Caverns; a dark, gloomy and deep place. More about that later..

Tim and Andrew were already at Allendale and had not yet left. It seems Andrew had arrived first and was intent on trailing Tim to Centocow as he wasn't certain of the route. So he just hung around waiting. Tim took the opportunity to jump in the pool to cool off after the hot climb out of the Umkomaas valley. I sucked on a toasted sandwich and tried to coax some tea down my throat as I watched those two go about their game. Andrew playing open cards and Tim already in game mode. All rather amusing.

Janine was rustling through her resupply box figuring out what she needed. Being a last minute entrant I had no boxes so I was spared that bother. I had made myself a pot of tea which I expected to drain. As it turned out I didn't even have the energy required to make that effort.
In past years I have moved through Allendale in 10 minutes. This year I was broken. By the time I had drunk a glass of coke, poked the toastie down my throat and managed a cup and a half of tea, 30 minutes had ticked by. Janine later described my appearance as "Shattered! Looking like if he could work up the energy to go shower and then climb in bed, then that's exactly what he would have done."
The mind is a funny thing. I had mentally shuffled into the Cimmerian Caverns - a place beyond pain - but the objective was to make Ntsikeni a further 95 kilometres down the road. I picked up my gear and told Janine I was leaving. 38 minutes after arriving at Allendale I started to explore the depths of those caverns.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Game on. First Objective - get to Allendale

Our ragtag army made its way down to the town hall. Glenn, the race director, said he wasn't going to lead us out of town as he was sure the racing snakes would want to get on with the job as soon as the clock started chiming. At the first knell we were off. 

By the time we had cleared town and were pedalling through the last suburb I was at the front of the pack with Janine tucked in behind me. A solitary light switched across the road a few hundred metres behind.  Entering Bisley Tim caught up with Janine and I and we sped through the farm gates onto the tar and into Baynesfield Estate. By the time we got to the first big climb of the day we had covered the distance from the start faster than any previous start batch. Clearly the lack of training was not yet showing. 

Stopping to shed a layer I was passed by Andrew Barnes who gave me a jolly greeting - clearly he was having fun. Further along I passed Janine similarly engaged. The climb up the watershed to Minerva is something in the order of 10 to 12 km's. I don't really know as I carry neither maps nor narratives. I have even dispensed with a bike computer. I ride from memory and it is liberating not to mention efficient. Some have suggested it's an unfair advantage. It probably is. 13 or 14 trips along that section of the trail gives you a distinct advantage over a rookie. After a solitary ride up through the forests I saw Andrew and Tim about 5 minutes ahead walking up the first of the open grass sections. I eyed a sneak I had contemplated before and decided it would save me 2 or 3 minutes. A tangled rusty old barbed-wire fence made sure the trail gods were appeased with the first blood offering of the ride. They would be similarly appeased on numerous occasions along the route. 

Arriving at the Minerva soup stop I found Tim readying his kit for departure. He told me Andrew had just left. Three minutes later I passed Janine. She was entering the shed as I was leaving. 

It was 09:30 I was moving well. The drop down and through Byrne went easily. As I hit the gravel road beyond Byrne Janine caught up. We rode together down to the Umkomaas river making short work of the descents and rocky portage. By 11:30 we had forded the icy waters of the river and were moving toward our next goal - The Hella Hella. It takes a good 60 to 90 mins to tame that climb. The first steep climb tested my legs. A few minutes in the hamstrings of both legs started cramping. Standing there stuff legged like a scarecrow I was quickly caught and passed by Janine. I have only cramped once before and it was on this same climb in 2012. Perhaps the icy waters of the river crossing have a part to play. This thought crossed my mind briefly. Mulling it over wasn't getting me up the mountain. I plodded on slowly, eventually trying to ride but the cramps quickly resumed. Over the next 10 minutes I was able to ride but had to nurse my legs along to keep the cramps at bay. I guess the cramps cost me at least 15 to 20 minutes up the climb. I passed Janine somewhere along the way and pulled up at Allendale a minute or so ahead of her at 13:50. I made my way to the support cabin and sat down. I had lost time through cramping and had still managed to equal my two previous arrival times at Allendale. Except this time I was spent. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

No it wasn't fun!

After competing in and winning this years Race to Rhodes I have had to contend with people asking "Did you have fun?"
I have caught myself on a few occasions when I have wanted to reply with a flippant "Yes." The true answer is "No it wasn't fun." Taking an untrained body into a 500 km non-stop race in the middle of winter is not a recipe for fun. 
Let me tell you how it was and let you  be the judge of whether it was fun or not.
Pre-race Dinner
Sitting around the table waiting for the race briefing to start I was aware that Tim James and I were by far the oldest people in the room. Having said that, we have been tramping the trail for the longest - we both rode our first RASA in 2007. Marnitz Nienaber (aka Hyena) the most blanketed Freedom Challenge rider was sitting with two strong looking lads who would be accompanying him on his ride to Wellington - Ivor Jones and Stuart Roos. Janine Stewart and Ingrid Avidon, both doing R2R completed the group. Missing was Andrew Barnes who was still making his way to the venue. 
Janine and I had a loose alliance which essentially meant she was planning to ride to Centocow but would tag along with me if I was able to push through to Ntsikeni on the first day. I have met Ingrid before on a  few occasions. She is delightful. To illustrate that I offer the following true story. As we sat around the table someone asked Ingrid if she could fix a puncture. Her answer "Sure..... Well I could wing it!...... Okay, I have watched a YouTube video!" Ingrid announced her intention to push straight through to Ntsikeni. 

Andrew Barnes arrived in due course and entering the room walked straight up and greeted me like a long lost friend. The last time I had seen him face to face was in 2007. This is the nature of this race. Twice more along the route I would bump into faces from past FC races and we would pick up where we left off. 
Marnitz et al were planning to stop at Centocow as was Andrew while the rest were hoping for Ntsikeni which is a strategy often voiced but seldom executed - it's a huge haul and requires a 17 - 19 hour effort. Long enough for a myriad things to go wrong and plenty of time to change ones mind.
The last day is typically reserved for those riding hard, the so called racing snakes. I can tell you that the motley crew assembled around that table did not look that fierce. Only one rider, Ivor, looked like he understood the seriousness of the job in hand. The rest looked resigned to the task ahead. I commented to Janine that Ivor had the look of someone who was a bit awestruck by the race and as a result I believed he would make it to the finish - the trail needs respect. 
I wandered back to my room. Days of vacillation had resulted in me packing everything bike related into a carryall. Unable to delay any further I finally got around to stuffing kit into my backpack. A quick weather check had me tossing in an extra layer as snow was forecast along the route. 
Bike and kit readied I set my alarm for 4:30am and flopped into bed. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

It's time to go play with my friends

Today as I drive down to Pietermaritzburg to register for the Race To Rhodes starting tomorrow I have no illusions about the state of my physical preparedness - or unpreparedness as it stands. I have had five easy rides since finishing the Race To Cradock three months ago. Two of those in the last week. So little riding in fact that I think I saw the last vestige of a cycling tan disappear down the drain when I showered this morning. This pink body is going to put through its paces over the next few days. I cling to the hope that the body will follow where the head and heart lead. 
When on the trail the solitude and feeling of companionship combine in a complex mélange of emotions. You are never alone on the trail. Physically perhaps, but there is a community of followers and fellow riders who follow along and live vicariously through your exploits. 

I remember as a child going out to play with my friends under strict instructions from Mom to be home before it got dark. As eventide approached there was always a heightened sense of enjoyment born of the knowledge that you were pushing boundaries. The fun interspersed with regular glances toward home in the full knowledge that you were out beyond curfew. It all came to an end when you were unceremoniously dragged off home and admonished for not listening. The defence of "but I didn't know it was dark because the street lights were on" falling on deaf ears. 

I really do feel like a kid going out to play with my friends. The trail is our playground and we finally get to stretch the fun out way beyond sunset. Sorry Mom, I am going to be home well after dark. 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Kindred Spirits

This is an excerpt from an interaction with Rory after he completed his Race to Rhodes. He sent a text that simply stated "Glad you understand." I include my response here because I believe we - those of us who have traveled down the trail and those who support us in these endeavours - are united in what Rory summarised in his short but pithy reply " Kindred souls on the trail."
"Glad you understand." Short sentence pregnant with meaning. There are not many people who do understand. Particularly about the Freedom Challenge. They can plot your journey across the country on their monitors and participate in the online banter but they cannot see the journey of our minds and souls. The race is challenging and enriching in a way beyond words. The traversing of the country side is but a side show to the real journey. I guess you are no different to me. In the race I get to spend many hours alone in my head. I get to lay my life out and sort through the clutter. I get to distill the essence of me. And there are times I look at that product and understand the need for change. Over the years the process hasn't changed. I am continually attempting to tweak, tune and rebalance my life. That necessitates some serious soul searching. The trail is the perfect place for that. 
Yes Rory, I do understand. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Bomb Proof Your Race

Over the years very few people have dropped out of the Race to Rhodes. On the other hand there have been a good number of riders on the Race Across South Africa that have pulled out before getting to Rhodes. Amongst them some notable riders who have had fast finishes before or since and a few less notable ones such as this writer.  I didn't even finish day 2. 
There are some good reasons to call it a day and catch the next lift home and some even better reasons why you should rather vasbyt. One reason to hang in there is articulated as 'I have some unfinished business!' Leaving the trail without a previous finisher draping a blanket over your shoulders starts out as a little disappointment that is 'understandable under the circumstances'. By the time you get home you have an invisible companion who at first resembles a cute organ grinders monkey. In the days, weeks and months that follow the cuteness is supplanted by a monkey that weighs you down and needs constant feeding. 
The only way to get it off your back is to wheel your bike back under the clock of the Pietermaritzburg town hall the following year. While that sounds like a good plan consider the following. The first time you enter the race the sacrifices made in time and energy is massive. I am yet to address the sacrifices made by the rider, I am addressing the sacrifices made by the people around the rider - family, friends and work colleagues. Don't make them go through all that for nothing. 
So what's a good reason? Your leg falls off. Maybe a few other reasons. I have experience in this regard. If you have a physical impediment such as a broken leg, torn muscle or other ailment that makes it impossible or dangerous to continue then by all means get Uber up on your phone and hail a taxi. 
If in the other hand you are simply tired and/or morbid, that's a poor excuse. Here is the formula to get through that. The first step takes place months before the start. Brag to everyone within earshot that you are doing the Race Across South Africa and promise your child a finishers blanket. Having to face them afterwards sans blanket is a serious motivator to hang in. Secondly, never give up until you have slept on it. Things seem better the next day. Thirdly, and I have loads of experience in this, understand that your best day on the Freedom Trail is likely to follow a day or two after your worst. When that happens you start to wonder what you were thinking when you wanted to give up. 
To family and friends reading this, if your riding champion calls and indicates that they can't go on. Don't sympathise. Remind them why they started and put the phone down. 
It's flippin' hard out there but home sympathy doesn't help one bit. 
Bad weather sucks but it rarely lasts more than a few days. Ride it out and even consider doing shorter rides each day until it clears. 
Lastly, I do understand that non physical challenges can bring a ride to an end. If you have a few days on the trot where you are hollow and completely joyless then go home. Rather live to fight another day.