Monday, 30 November 2015

Is the Munga really the toughest race on Earth?

If you go online, you will see the Munga billed as the "Toughest race on Earth."  Click on the Race tab and it proclaims, "The Munga is Unsupported."

Now, about the unsupported bit. Apparently there will be mechanics available at the checkpoints and the rules have been changed so that they may be used without incurring any time penalties. There are reasons given but the reasoning is flimsy. In fact, you are able to prebook a bike service at one of the checkpoints.  

"Unsupported" has taken on new meaning. This is certainly not the Freedom Challenge which forms the bulk of my endurance riding experience. 

The presence of masseurs at each checkpoint to give your legs a good rubdown is certainly not an FC feature. With the "fluid" race rules now allowing for mechanics, masseurs and race office supplied recharged power packs and probably a fully stocked pharmacy I am starting to wonder about the stuff I am going to carry. 

Perhaps the focus of this race has shifted away from endurance bike packing to cater for weight weenies who want to do a harder Epic!  Hard to call it "The toughest race on Earth" when it's so over supported. I am not sure what the motivation is behind the softening of the event. Perhaps the changes are to ensure middle and back field "non-racers" have the opportunity to finish. Except it also plays into the hands of the fast riders who can now pack lighter. 

The other side of the coin is attracting people to subsequent editions of the race. In the absence of million dollar prize money, or at least a world class purse it is unlikely that overseas riders will fit it into their schedules.
Domestically there are only a handful of riders who find really hard and unsupported races attractive while there seems to be no lack of appetite for fully serviced stage races such as Epic, Sani2c, Wines to Whales, etc.. That's the reality of the local biking community. 
This year there are less than 50 riders doing the Munga. To grow this race Alex needs to find the sweet point that becomes commercially inviting without stripping out too much of the grit and adventure. Billing it as "The toughest race on Earth" probably worked against them. I am keen to see how that line morphs into something that will resonate with Joe Average.  

Alex himself likes to take on tough challenges. I am not sure he would find the changes to his liking if he was racing. But he isn't racing. He is running the race and there is the economic reality of making the race attractive to both riders and sponsors and to make a profit. This is the inaugural event. I am sure there will be a few more tweaks before the race starts and a whole lot more after the event. 

Getting to the finish line before the 120 hour cutoff will be a big achievement, whether or not you opt for bike services and massages, you still have to pedal your bike all 1090 km's to the end. 

Make no mistake, this is still going to be one extremely difficult event to finish. Pushing an average of  218 km's per day through the heat of the Karoo to get to the next pampering station is still a big ask and there will be casualties. 

Is it the "Toughest race on Earth"? Probably not. But I can assure you that it is probably going to be the toughest race that any competitor in the starting line up for this years race has ever done.

Munga Equipment Choices - Part 3

I will be riding without a back pack. Reasons for that are covered in a previous post — "Riding in the heat". Stuff that normally resides in a back pack needs to be redistributed.

The rules state that each rider must have the ability to carry at least 1.5 litres of water. The suggestion from the race office is to carry 3 litres. That's 3 kg's. Weight weenies are going to need therapy. It's going to get hot and it's going to get windy. To set off into the wind to cover 70 km's to the next water point in the heat with just 2 bottles won't be clever. I rode in 37 degrees Celsius from Durban to Johannesburg 5 weeks ago. I was going through more than 1 litre of water an hour at one stage. 70 km's with a headwind wind could take at least 4 hours. Hydration is key. I have capacity for 2.2 litres on the bike can stuff additional bottles into the saddle pack or back pocket if required.

What else is in the saddle pack? Normal spares; inflator cartridges and inflator, tyre patch kit, inner tube, spare shifter cable, spare derailleur jockey wheel, a few quick links and short piece of chain, a small selection of bolts, a small bottle of tyre sealant. Duct tape and a few cable ties. The last are mandatory. Not race office mandatory. Life mandatory. As the saying goes, with duct tape and cable ties you can fix anything. My best fix over the last few years is a Hope freehub repair where I used cable ties to fabricate pawl springs. The repair held up for hundreds of kilometres.

Additional clothing layers; wind shell, leg warmers, long finger gloves and a base layer. Probably not necessary apart from the wind shell but if rain is forecast they might stay in the pack.

Basic medical supplies including rehydrating solution, strapping plaster and stretch bandage. Also have the race-office-mandatory space blanket.

The top tube bags take odds and ends like chain lube, sunblock, multi tool, snacks, water bottle fizzy tabs, chamois cream and my phone. All fairly lightweight.

Those are standard for most endurance riders and it's what I would normally carry in an unsupported endurance event.

But is it really "Unsupported". We will examine that in the next post — Is the Munga really the toughest race on Earth?

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Munga Equipment Choices - Part 2


Apart from standard 29er MTB setup I am running a dynamo hub which will make me power independent. For those not familiar with dynamo hubs, they are a front wheel hub that has a built in dynamo. As you pedal it produces 6 volts of alternating current (AC) which you use to power an AC light or push through a AC to DC (Direct current) converter which allows you to plug in standard 5 volt DC USB powered devices. 

With this setup there is no need to change batteries or charge devices at the check points. The race organisers are apparently supplying power packs which can be swapped out for charged units at the checkpoints. Not sure why they are going for the soft option, especially since this is supposed to be a tough race and riders should be self sufficient. 

The supplied trackers will be battery operated so we just need to run lights, charge GPS units and keep our phones charged. 

For the technically curious my set up is as follows.

Supernova infinity S dynamo hub which runs a Supernova E3 light. 

I also run the power through a Busch & Müller USB Werk for USB power. 

The USB Werk has a small cache battery but it is insufficient to power a GPS or iPhone effectively, particularly if you can't maintain reasonable speed. I run the power into a bigger cache battery (standard power pack) which I then attach my devices. My power pack has the ability to charge at the same time as it powers devices so I leave it attached to the hub during the day. 

The E3 light runs directly off the dynohub and when you are going at a reasonable pace it is very bright — claimed 650 lumen. 
I can either run my light or charge my battery, but not both. That's where the second light comes into play. The Supernova Airstream is a USB chargeable Li-ion battery light. It can run for 2.5 to 7.5 hours depending on the brightness setting. It can also run at full power (205 lumen) permanently when connected to the hub via the USB Werk or power pack. Apart from being a spare light (I have seen lights fail) it allows me to switch off the E3 and power up my other devices at night should the need arise. 

Night time riding will be a big part of this race so I want to make sure I have all the bases covered. 

I also have a Hope Vision 1 Led headlight (215 lumen). Will need a headlight for fiddling with my packs or bike during the night and to look around as required. I have an extension on my headlight that allows me to put the power pack in a back pocket instead of having that weight on my helmet. 

On the rear I have fitted a standard battery powered red light. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Munga Equipment Choices - Part 1

4 days out from the start of The Munga I have prepped my bike and loaded a selection of kit for the race. As it stands, I am probably 4kg's the wrong side of "this weight might work." I am working with imperfect weather forecast data that sees temperatures ranging from 15 to 38 degrees Celsius. 

First up, the bike. The Munga is primarily a gravel road race, hence Tim's choice of a gravel bike — the yellow one below. 

I have opted for my 2 x 10 Lynskey hard tail with a front suspension fork. Simple choice actually — it's what I have. Suspension fork is critical for me as I have to look after my hands. Last year Sean Badenhorst asked me what part of the body takes the most punishment during an endurance event. I think my reply surprised him — hands! It turned out to be prophetic as a few months later I was off my bike for 3 months nursing a severe case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome brought about by riding the 600 km's between Rhodes and Cradock twice in the space of a few weeks. Sean himself felt discomfort in his hands during the ABSA Cape Epic earlier this year and had his grips doctored to make his hands more comfortable. 

Don't want issues with my hands again. Apart from having a suspension fork (which I run very soft) I have added Ergon Grips which distribute the pressure on my palms over a wider area. I have no issues with my hands since switching to these grips. 

However, the route is likely to see us grinding out many kilometres of rough gravel roads and I imagine it will take a toll on hands. With that in mind, I fitted Tri Bars. I made a few mods which  I covered in a prior post. I didn't mention that I installed the forearm pads backwards. Initially it was a mistake but when I corrected the mistake they were incredibly uncomfortable so I put them back the wrong way and they fit comfortably. I initially installed the Tri Bars to give me options to rest my hands. After riding in a strong wind today I could feel the benefit of hunkering down into the wind. The early forecasts suggest we will be facing significant head winds on the race, so that's an added bonus. 

Using the bars doesn't come without a few challenges. Firstly, body conditioning. Mostly lower back and neck. I have spent many hours over the last week getting used to the setup. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a compromise with my saddle position. If I leave my saddle in its normal position, when dropping onto the bars the front of the saddle digs into parts best left unabused. So I dropped the nose a tad. Now when I sit up the saddle is sloped a little too forward which results in me leaning on the grips. I guess I could have found a more suitable saddle, but it's not a good idea to mess with your perch a few days before a big race. Right now it's a compromise. Can always adjust the saddle to suit once the race in underway.  

To be continued ...

Friday, 27 November 2015

How to Tackle The Munga

The numbers.

CP1 219 (219) 1099m WP's 70, 140

CP2 395 (176) 591m WP's 277, 337

CP3 585 (190) 886m WP's 457, 522

CP4 801 (216) 1306m WP's 657, 728

CP5 1020 (219) 1963m WP's 873, 947

END 1090 (70) 630m WP 1060

1090 km's is a long way and it will take a long time to ride it. I imagine the average speed during large parts of the ride will be 20 km/h or more for some riders. The winning time will probably be somewhere between 55 and 60 hours. That includes time off the bike. Remember, this is a single stage race; once the clock starts it only stops when you cross the finish line.

Support stations are spread far apart, pretty much dotted either side of 200 km's. The distance between water points is something like 60 to 70 km's. For some races 60 to 70 km's is the length of a day's stage and there will be a number of hydration stations positioned along the way.

The race starts at midday and the first stage is 219 km's long. A huge days ride. The front riders are going to take almost 9 hours to get there. That's 9pm. The back markers will be crawling in after midnight. What happens then? The next support station is 176 km's up the road. Do you stuff food down your throat and hop back on your bike or do you catch some shut eye? Imagine yourself 12 hours into a race, the first 6 hours done in blistering heat, eyeing a soft warm comfortable bed with one eye and trying not to look out the door into the darkness beyond with the other. What do you do? Shower and bed or back on the bike to face a 8 to 10 hour trek to the next chance of food and a bed? All of a sudden the bed looks rather inviting. After all a few hours sleep will regenerate you and help you cross the landscape a little faster so it is probably the obvious choice. Or is it?

Apart from a few racing snakes most riders will spend similar times on their bikes. The differentiator is how much time is spent off the bike — How much time spent at water points, check points, pampering (bike and body), and sleep.

Then you need to consider fatigue and the effects of riding tired. Perhaps a few hours sleep will result in increased speed and better mental facility allowing a rider to make up for the time spent regenerating.

At the end of the day I think it comes down to the individual and how they function best. Fatigue and lack of sleep does slow one down. But by how much? If fatigue sucks 5 km/h out of your moving speed, how long will it take to make that up if you stop and sleep for 4 hours. Let's imagine a rider averages 20 km/h when adequately rested and only 15 km/h when fatigued. Riders A + B arrive at a checkpoint together. Rider A pushes through at 15 km/h and Rider B gets 4 hours rest. When B gets going, A is 60 km's ahead. In the 3 hours it takes B to cover the 60 km's at 20 km/h, rider A is still 45 km's ahead. The 4 hour rest translates into 12 hours to catch the rider who didn't stop. That's a long time! And 5 km's faster per hour is a lot faster. The rider who can keep at it the longest without slowing to a crawl might have a serious advantage.

It is going to be interesting to see the different strategies in play. I suspect strategies may well change as the reality of the distances and conditions become evident.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Equipment modifications for Munga

Bike needed a few mods.
As some of you know I got awful carpal tunnel syndrome after the Race to Cradock last year that kept me off my bike for 3 months. Don't want a repeat of that.

So I have added Tri Bars to give my hands more options. First problem. The forearm pads are far too low. Apart from being a strain on my neck and lower back it is going to wreak havoc with my man plumbing. Leaning forward like that for any time is going to make it impossible for me to void my bladder without screaming. I don't want to change my saddle every time I switch between options.

So I hatched a plan and made some spacers that raise the pads up 25mm. What a difference. A lot more comfortable with an added bonus. The pads in the standard setup were at the wrong angle and the one edge dug into my forearm. Now with them raised slightly they are perfectly angled.

Next problem was positioning of my lights. The Tri Bars are in the way and I can't use the lights sideways or upside down as the light beam is shaped for optimum illumination. Obvious solution was to fit the lights between the Tri Bar horns. I found a set of bars ends and modified one which I fitted between the horns. Once sized and tightened it is the perfect light perch.

Will test these mods out this weekend and make sure they work as expected.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Munga nutritional requirements

My race nutrition is not something I think anyone should try emulate. I am guessing that I will be in the minority of one who adopt a no-supplement approach. Apart from the fizzy tabs I add to my water I will make do with whatever is dished up en route. However, there are aspects worth noting.
In the past I have done the whole pre-ride drink, on the bike specific juice mix followed by a recovery shake. Energy bars and gels have been strategically stashed to be available as required. As I, and many others, have discovered, it gets boring very quickly. These days I have few requirements apart from normal food and tea at support stations and plain water (with fizzy tabs) and a padkos style grub to take along on the road. On the Durban Dash I stashed some Race Food nougat and never had a single one. Energy gels got the boot early on in my adventures. The short term benefits (which I never felt) weren't worth the sugar crash that followed.
My recent switch to low carb living had thrown the cat among the pigeons as far as my palate is concerned. Sweet things and me don't mix. I find savoury non-carb snacks more to my liking.
Going into The Munga I have no dietary requirements or preferences. Stick a plate of food in front of me and I will eat it. It's uncomplicated and stress free. It's one less thing to worry about.

Is it a recipe for success? I guess we will find out one way or the other.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Staying hydrated while riding.

How much should you drink while exercising? This is an interesting topic and one that is poorly understood. There is an abundance of poor advise and quackery being dispensed by so-called experts.

Try Googling "How much water should I drink every day". Results are laughable. I found a range from 1.5 - 4 litres per day and the old favourite "drink 8 glasses of water a day". That's for sedentary activity. Now Google "how much should I drink while exercising". Lots of well intentioned is not misguided advice. "Drink 500 ml an hour before exercise and 750 ml an hour while exercising", "Monitor the colour of your urine and adjust your water intake until it is clear or light yellow", "you should weigh the same at the end of a workout as when you started", "Once you are thirsty you are already dehydrated", blah, blah, blah.
I have been to spin classes where halfway through a class they go around and offer fill up people's bottles so they don't succumb to the dangers of dehydration. It's laughable. I can promise you, medical issues aside, a 45 minutes spinning class will not cause you to die of dehydration.

I will let you into a little secret, while riding an endurance event like The Munga you are going to get dehydrated, your urine is going to get straw brown in colour, you are going to feel thirsty and you are likely to lose 2 or 3 kg's of body weight due to dehydration between check points and water stations. That's just what happens. You need to deal with it!

So how do we deal with it? What follows is my advise based on my experience over many years. It works for me.

Get used to the feeling of being thirsty. Too many people latch onto the concept that feeling thirsty means it's too late to counter dehydration so they drink too much too soon and spend the better part of the day worrying about their lack of hydration and hunting down water supplies. The mental aspect of surviving endurance events is as important, if not more so, than physical capability. Your mind can be your best tool or your worst enemy. Mental toughness cannot be overrated. If you allow the feeling of thirst to be an issue you are messing with the one thing that is going to get you through, your head space.

I know I am going to feel thirsty and there might be times when it tastes like I have battery acid in my mouth but I also know through experience that I can survive that condition for an extended period without adverse effect. I regularly train without water as it helps my body adapt to a state of mild dehydration. The body is a fascinating machine and can adapt to a wide range of conditions. But that adaption takes time. If you want to know more about dehydration training go read this article -

Apart from improvements in athletic performance I am used to the feeling of being thirsty and a dry mouth isn't going to send me into a panicked state where I waste energy fixating on where I can get water. That is not to say I am cavalier about my state of hydration. Far from it. While a dehydrating training ride has its benefits it leaves you with a hydration deficit. You cannot race like that. When racing, I start hydrating before I get on the bike and I continue to take small amounts often as I ride. Because I am in a hydration adapted state I sweat less but more importantly it seems my body is stingy about releasing too much sodium. Lower rates of sweat means I can generally keep pace with my hydration losses and I am less likely to suffer from hyponatremia - low blood sodium. The biggest cause of hyponatremia in athletes is consuming too much fluids during events. So get used to feeling a little thirsty, it's less likely to kill you.

As stated in the previous blog I make a point of adding replacement supplements to my bottles.

When I get to a checkpoint the first and last things I do is get something to drink, and lots of it. I don't care for the opinion that tea and coffee don't count and you should stick to water or sports drinks. H2O is H2O and if the form of it makes me happy it is both hydrating me and pampering my all important head space. A good 2 for 1 deal.

It is unlikely that you can over hydrate on The Munga but it makes a lot of sense to adapt your body ahead of time to be able to make do with a lot less hydration. Water points are well spaced and you don't want to be found wanting. Neither do you want to carry 10 litres of water.

Riding in the heat.

As a rule, people don't like riding when it's hot. As a rule, people just don't like it when it's hot, period.
But what is hot? The other day I was queueing in the hardware store and the person in front of me was rather animated in fanning them self with a piece of cardboard in which there intended purchase was sealed. It was obvious to me that they thought it was a sweltering day. I remember this incident because to me it felt just dandy. Not cold and not particularly hot.

Hot and cold are relative. One mans hot is another mans normal. It's to do with conditioning. Gautenger's are unified in declaring Durban unbearably hot in Dec/Jan. People who reside in Durban generally agree that it is hot that time of year but certainly not unbearable. They are adapted to the heat and humidity.

I have become cold tolerant over the last 8 years primarily because my focus has been on riding winter events. The Munga is going to be particularly challenging for me. The Durban Dash at the end of September brought my heat intolerance into sharp focus. When the Mercury crept up to 37 Celsius I felt rather bleak. But I wasn't beaten by it. I had factored the heat into my planning. Firstly, I did away with a backpack. Backpacks are wonderful for winter events. They keep your back warm, reduce the amount of heat lost and make a great backrest when you need a roadside power nap. In summer I figure they are a liability. Extreme heat is hard to cater for. Dealing with the cold is as simple as adding another layer. Okay, not quiet that simple, but thoughtful layering and smart purchases make cold bearable. Extreme heat is challenging. Once you are down to the basics you can't strip off any more in order to cool off. But you can maximise the surface area that can dissipate heat. First to go is the back pack. It covers a big chunk of sweatable area. Besides, do you really want a river of sweat making its way to your chamois?

Sweat is fine. Not only is it fine, it's desirable. Sweating is the body's way of regulating heat. If it's hot and you can't sweat, you overheat, fall off your bike and die. So you need to embrace sweating. Sweat on your riding top evaporates and cools. Sweat in your chamois is just flipping annoying and has no cooling effect.

Another overlooked aspect is sunblock. This subject is as controversial as it gets - does it or doesn't it impede your body's ability to thermoregulate? It's good advise to use sunblock when you get into the sun. However, make a smart choice. If you use a sunblock that makes the sweat drip off you like a leaking tap look around for another type or brand. Sweat works to cool you down when it evaporates off your skin or close contact clothing. When it is dripping off the end of your nose or chin it has lost its effectiveness. Some sunblocks are more greasy than others and it appears that they may prevent the sweat from keeping contact with and evaporating off the skin, instead it gathers as drops and runs off. You want to sweat but don't want to leak out.
Besides, it's not just water you are losing. Apart from water, sweat contains sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and a host of trace elements. These need to be replaced. If you rush out and do a one day race of a few hours and sweat like a pig you might cramp a bit and feel a bit bleak but that's about the end of it. Try that for 20 hours a day for a few days on the trot and feeling bleak is going to be the least of your problems. I add fizzy tabs containing minerals and trace elements to every bottle. They are easy to carry and simple to use. I also carry sachets of rehidrat that I use at support stations to ensure I get more into my system. If you develop any dysfunction with your bodies ability to thermoregulate through sweating you are in trouble. Hydrate properly, sweat properly and replace lots minerals and elements.

Cooling the body down as opportunities arise is not a bad idea. A dip in a reservoir can do wonders in controlling your temperature as can wetting your buff or clothing. I make a point of pouring water over myself as and when I can.

Making sure you drink enough is also a challenge. Drinking too much is as bad, if not worse, than drinking too little. How much is enough? We can examine that in the next post...

Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Munga Ahoy!

What is The Munga?
Don't wish to bore you so go to the website and read all about it. Alex Harris, visionary and race founder eloquently describes the race and the related challenges. If you are too lazy to read through all that I summarise; Stupid race (1000+km unsupported non-stop) at a stupid time (mid summer) through stupid terrain (the Karoo which is a desert) which will appeal to stupid people (like me).

There are two maxim's I refer to often in the running of my business.
The first is "Disappoint your customer as soon as possible."
The second, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly."
Both run counter to popular business culture. But If you take a few minutes to ponder the deeper meaning of both will see that they are in fact quite pithy.

However, as I turn to final preparation for The Munga, I am not about to embrace the inherent wisdom of the second maxim. Rather than arrive at the start line with an attitude of 'get on with it and sort out the challenges as they surface' I intend to draw on 8 years of ultra endurance cycling experience to make sure I have the best possible chance of getting from A-Z with the least amount of drama.

I have a good number of multi-day stage races, such as Epic and JoBerg2c under my belt as do a number of other competitors but I know that races of that nature do not prepare you for something like The Munga. It is a bit like comparing table tennis with lawn tennis. There's a net, a ball and something to hit the ball with, but the skills are not portable except that you have demonstrated good hand-eye coordination which is an essential skill for both. So you have done an Epic. You have shown that you can ride a bike, and you think you know what it means to suffer. In reality, you've merely got the basic skills. You have arrived at the start of the endurance game. Welcome. Place your token on the start square and roll the dice...

What will The Munga be like? Similar to Freedom Challenge and Tour Divide I would think. I haven't done Tour Divide so
my Freedom Challenge experiences inform my choice of strategy and equipment. With a big BUT. Freedom events take place in the cooler months. Munga is middle of summer through the middle of a desert. I always suffer on day one out of Pietermaritzburg when the temperatures in the Umkomaas valley soar to 30 Celsius. Okay, it is the middle of winter so 30 feels hot. Recently I rode the Durban Dash from Durban to Johannesburg. It was unbearably hot - mid to upper 30's. I won't lie, the heat was horrible. At the end I questioned whether The Munga was a good idea bearing in mind that the temperatures through the Karoo in December are likely to be in the early to mid 40's.

Next up I will discuss the challenges of riding in the heat...