Saturday, 12 December 2015

Racing The Munga - Post race reflections.

This time last week I was wrestling with extreme heat and wind as I crawled my way across the corrugated veins of the Tankwa Karoo. Back in Johannesburg in air conditioned comfort I have had time to mull over the events of the race. However, even after documenting my experiences of the race, I have tried to figure out the construct, genre, and classification of The Munga. It's not your typical race.

It's harder than the Epic. That's my opinion, having done a few Epic's. Harder in that it's a completely different animal. Stage races just don't have 400km days. Or no "days" for that matter.

How does it compare to the Freedom Challenge? Having ridden the Freedom Challenge (FC) a number of times I can say with authority that they are fundamentally different in their DNA. Except I can see a lot of cross over. Someone drawn to either The Munga or the FC will find the other appealing.

I have yet to attempt the Tour Divide but know a few people who have, including Mr Munga (Alex Harris) himself. My sense is that the race DNA is styled after the Tour Divide but genetically modified to suit local conditions and appetite.

To ride the route from Bloemfontein to Wellington 100% self supported is fraught with difficulties. The Great Karoo is a sleepy part of the world. Arriving in some of those towns after 8 pm you are unlikely to find water, food or shelter. It's not like you can pop into the local fuel station to grab a Coke and a sandwich. It was only once we had crossed into the Western Cape (Ceres) where such amenities existed. There simply aren't 24 hour facilities. Added to that, is the huge distances between towns.

The Northern Cape is the largest province in South Africa (30%) but contains less than 2% of the countries population. The harsh terrain has a lot to do with that. It's not the ideal place for riding your bike.

And yet, The Munga was an out-and-out success. Alex has managed to meld a number of disparate bike race elements and create an event that is unique. It's non-stop but I'm not sure it ticks the "unsupported" box in the Tour Divide sense. Nevertheless, the support given is confined to that offered by the race organisers. Without this limited support this event simply could not take place. Certainly not across the Great Karoo. It's a delicate balancing act and I think they got it spot on. I am sure there will be tweaks here and there, but the formula is almost perfect.

This is a race that should have massive appeal. Endurance biking is now no longer the preserve of the avid adventure racer or Freedom Challenge enthusiast. It's the next logical progression from fully serviced stage racing. If you want to step a little outside your comfort zone then The Munga must be on your bucket list.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Racing The Munga - Ceres to Wellington

The guys who welcomed me at Ceres were amazing. In no time at all my devices were on charge and my bike chain cleaned and lubed. I checked the tracking on the Support Station laptop and saw I had a good lead over the next rider and didn't have to worry over pushing through in a hurry.

Amy was busy getting herself ready for the final push. I had a good dinner and chatted to Amy's mom. I met her back in 1981 and hadn't seen her since. She had seen my name on the rider list and wondered if it could have been the same person. Well it was. We caught up with each other's lives as I had dinner. What an amazing coincidence.

With Amy headed out and my batteries charging slowly I took a quick shower and lay down for 30 minutes. As the only rider in the support station I got to watch the support staff going about the business of waiting for the next rider. Apart from the support station lead who did an amazing job of pampering me there were the massage team, bike mechanics as well as the medical team. These guys do an incredible job. When you arrive at a station anytime night or day they are waiting and ready to assist. I have huge respect for them.

At 10 pm I had signed out and had readied my bike. It was a beautiful night. With just 70 km's to the finish I was feeling good. A few of us chatted on for another 10 minutes before I saddled up and left. Apart from a few kilometres of gravel at the start the rest was all tar. There was the small matter of Bainskloof Pass but I knew it wasn't that difficult from the Ceres side. I had camped there many times when I lived in Cape Town and was looking forward to revisiting that special place.

The night was cool, the wind had abated and the tar was smooth and fast. I dropped onto the aero bars and treated this last section as a time trial. After all the riding, including a few grubby efforts, I wanted to finish this race at least feeling like a half decent cyclist.

Powering through the night was a surreal experience. You exist in a light bubble — it becomes everything you are and everything that matters. Getting to the start of the climb I kept up the effort. It was a cool evening but the effort had me soaked in sweat. I felt invincible.

Soon the road flattened and the lights of Wellington shone bright in the valley below. In no time at all the GPS had me wiggling through the suburbs of the town. Popping into the main road I saw the sign for Diemersfontein up ahead. This is a special place in my life. It has been the finish for the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa since 2009. A quick dash up the driveway, a loop around the dam, I found Alex, the number 9 finishers medal in hand, standing next to a small gazebo.

It was 1:30 am Sunday 6th December. 3h20 after leaving Ceres the race for me was over. I had prevailed. I had covered the 1091 km's from Bloemfontein to Wellington in 85 hours 30 minutes.
The finish was as low-key as you can get — two race representatives and the three members of my family. It was apt. This is not a look-at-me race. It's a personal journey.

Racing The Munga - Sutherland to Ceres. Chasing a power outage!

Racing The Munga - Sutherland to Ceres - Part 2

The road eventually started snaking through some hills. The flat barren landscape giving way to the first orchards. The wind, now funnelled between the mountains, gained in intensity. My progress was pitiful. A roadworks truck parked on the side of the road had a water bowser hooked on the back and I was glad to dump the rusty tasting water I had collected at the last windmill and replace it with cool and palatable water.

Once on tar my progress was slightly better but this lasted less than a kilometre. Back on gravel I found myself battling into the wind again. I even stopped and made sure my bike was okay. It was a slight climb but nothing serious. I just couldn't get going. I was tired and needed to have a power nap. There was nowhere to go to ground. It was a Saturday afternoon. Cars, filled to bursting with weekend revellers, zoomed up and down the narrow road. It was clear that I needed to get out of sight if I didn't want to wake up in just my socks sans bike and all my kit.

It must have taken me 15 or 20 minutes to cover 2 or 3 kilometres as I drifted in and out of hallucinations. It was a proper battle. Eventually the road kicked up toward the top of the hill and left the settlement behind. I found a bush, no more than a metre from the road, that was adequate enough to shield me from view. Setting my alarm for 15 minutes I fell into a deep sleep.

A car roared by and woke me up. I looked at my watch. I had overslept by 5 minutes. Checking my alarm I noticed I had set the time wrong. Instead of 17:10 I had set it to 16:10. Thank goodness for the passing car. I walked the rest of the way up the gravel road which led to a good tar road. My GPS battery was down to 7%. My power banks were completely flat. If my GPS ran flat I was going to be in a proper pickle. Time to get a move on.

The wind was still blowing hard but I found the going a lot easier after shaking off the sleep monsters. Erik Vermeulen was along the road taking pictures. He popped up all over the place at all hours of the day or night. I reckon it's easier to ride a bike in this race than be the official photographer. I stopped for a short chat. I asked him how far the next check point was. He didn't know but thought about 30 kilometres. That tallied with my figuring. For once I wished I was wrong. My GPS was down to 5%. I knew that Erik must have a USB charger in the car. What a difference a few minutes of charge would make I thought. I didn't bother asking him if I could use it or expect that he would say yes if I did ask. I would have to sort this out by myself. That's how we roll. A photographer is a hands off fly on the wall. Their sole offering is a smiley face and encouragement as you ride past.

I started obsessing with the GPS situation, and with good cause. The rules are clear. You can't scribble your way down the route. You must follow the designated route. If you go off track you need to rejoin where you left it. Rejoining was an option if it blinked off. I could find somewhere to recharge and go back once I knew where I was.

Up ahead to my right I saw a group of people standing around a braai fire. They were at a community hall and a quick scan revealed power lines ran to the building. I could get a charge here I thought. 5 or 10 minutes would alleviate my current energy crisis. In an attempt to save precious seconds I decided to take a shortcut which meant following a footpath that ran down a steep bank towards the hall. I am not a great technical rider. My technical skills improve as I get more desperate. I was desperate. I dropped the front wheel over the edge and shot down the bank at high speed. This ought to impress the watching crowd, I thought. I didn't see the barbed wire fence until it was too late. Fortunately it was almost flat on the ground. Instead of shedding me like a carrot it merely snagged a pedal and did a fantastic job of bringing my bike to a sudden stop. A marine aviator would have taken heart at the sensation touching down on the deck of an aircraft carrier. My response was a resigned, "Oh well!" My tuck and roll was of Olympian standard. I retrieved my bike and nonchalantly cycled over to the wide eyed crowd. I was half expecting them to be holding up score boards giving me a perfect 10 for execution. As I was they said nothing. They had power but I didn't have a 3 pin to 2 pin adapter. I was down to 3%.

I hopped back on the bike and rode like a man possessed. As I passed the various workshops and cellars I made a note of them. If I needed power I could always come back here and beg for help. The route had me clambering through a pedestrian gate and over two locked gates. The bike was heavy. I was reminded that the bike configuration was fine for The Munga but would be disastrous for the Freedom Challenge. I could have zoomed out on the GPS and got an idea of the routing for the last few kilometres in case it ran flat but It was down to 1% power and didn't want to give it any cause to consume extra power. It was starting to get dark and I turned on my light desperate to catch a glimpse of my goal.

I eventually saw the checkpoint up ahead. Rolling to a stop I looked down at the GPS - 0% power. That was close. Too close. It was 7:27 pm. 1020 km's in the bag with only 70 km to go. The only business of any import was to get my GPS and light charged.

Racing The Munga - Sutherland to Ceres - Tankwa Padstal

Racing The Munga - Sutherland to Ceres. Tankwa Karoo, 45 degrees Celsius

Racing The Munga - Sutherland to Ceres - Part 1

Fed and watered I was shown to my room. I put a power pack on charge, took a quick shower and settled into a 90 minute nap.

Retracing my steps to the front room I gulped down some tea and readied my bike for a ride to the finish. 290 km's would see me to the finish at Diemersfontein. First objective was to get to support station 5 in Ceres. A distance of 219 km's.

I signed out sometime after 2:00 am and headed up the road. The next few hours were filled with wonderful riding. Sunrise found me winding down Oubergpas into the Tankwa Karoo below. To be honest I had never heard of this area before the race and I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing. The tourism literature talks of swirling dust, arid lands and all sorts of critters surviving on the edge. I was about to find out the hard way that the literature is spot on.

I arrived at the first water point and found the cooler boxes lined up by the farm gate. Inside was a real treat. Apart from the normal stuff I found bags of potato crisps. Crisps savoured and water bottles filled I headed out in good spirit. The line I was taking headed toward a ridge of mountains and I had no idea how the route made its way through. It didn't. I got off my bike and clambered up a rocky track that led straight up the face of the ridge. I am no stranger to portaging but have never had to push my bike up a ridge in such hot conditions. I stopped a few time to wring out my buff which had become so saturated that the sweat was dripping down my face and stinging my eyes.

Once over the top I was treated to some of the best riding of the race. Although riding on a jeep track the surface was good and I was able to ride most of it while down on the aero bars. I passed a reservoir but didn't stop as the head wasn't turning and my self imposed rule of only drinking fresh pumped water overrode the urge to stop. The undulating road went on for many kilometres eventually emptying out on a flat plain that offered fast riding down a really good road.

Eventually I sat up and had a proper look around. What I saw amazed me. The whole landscape as far as I could see was devoid of vegetation. It was incredible. I stopped and took a photograph. I also realised that I had less than 200 ml of water and the next official water point was still 30 kilometres away. I saw a reservoir up ahead and rode toward it at a moderate speed keen to preserve as much moisture as I could. The temperature was unbelievably hot and the day was still young. Arriving at the reservoir which looked freshly painted I found it empty. Not only that, it was dysfunctional. The pipes were disconnected and looked as if they hadn't been working for decades. Why paint the darn thing? Disappointed I headed off. Fairly soon I saw a building off to my left. I rode up to the gate and found it padlocked. I didn't fancy riding all the way to the house just to find it abandoned so I carried in up the road. Summiting a small climb I was treated to the sight of... more of the same for as far as I could see. A board on the side of the road indicated 9.0. I guessed I was 9 km's from an intersection. Perhaps something interesting lay there. Rationing myself to a tiny sip of water for every kilometre cycled I arrived at ground 0.0. Nothing. Another road joined it from the right. The next board read 12.0. Now I had 12 kilometres to ride to perhaps find something useful. I now limited my sips to one every 2 kilometres. The road passed through a dry river bed that had a few shrubs dotted along its length. I desperately hoped I would find a wind pump here. Nothing again.

Ahead of me I could see tyres tracks that wandered from side to side. Perhaps they were Amy's I thought. She was the last person to leave the support station ahead of me. A few kilometres short of where I expected to find the next water point I saw some dwellings off to my right. I rode toward them and found a few people sitting in the shade of a building. I asked about water and got a few confused looks. Eventually someone got up and disappeared inside a small dwelling. While I waited outside someone else asked if I wanted cool drink. I did indeed. I expected them to tell me how far it was to the next padstal where I could buy a Coke. Before I knew it I was presented with a 2 litre bottle of Coke. I poured about 200 ml into my bottle and thanked them. Where on earth did they get that I wondered. And how much effort was required to do that? Moved my their generosity I hooked out R20 and thanked them for the Coke. As I did that the first person reappeared with a drinking glass in hand. She then filled it from the tap I was standing next to. If only I had know it was that simple. I asked about the padstal and they pointed it out just up the road.

I pedalled to the padstal and found Amy inside. I topped up my bottles chatting to her as I did so. She was also finding the conditions rather challenging. She headed out while I waited for my pancake. This was the famous Tankwa padstal — Google it. I expected to see Charlise Theron make an appearance at the wheel of a monster truck. It was like a scene out of Mad Max.

I was reliably informed that the temperature outside was 45 degrees Celsius. At least I had a reasonable excuse for feeling sluggish. I ate my pancake and headed off. The condition of the road was the worst of the race. The corrugations were deadly. I figured a donkey rolled into each corrugation would do little to smooth out the riding. I still had 100 km's to get to Ceres and this ugly road did little to cheer me. I soon settled into riding on the right hand side riding uphill and switching to the left again for the descents as this avoided the worst of the corrugations. To add to my misery a number of vehicles bounced along stirring up dust. The road condition improved slightly but this improvement coincided with sleep monsters swarming all over me. It was the middle of the day in an area that had zero plant life to speak of. Where was I going to find a good spot to have a power nap? Soon I found a road side picnic spot. Goodness knows why there was a concrete picnic table in the middle of nowhere but I didn't care. It presented an opportunity to get out of the sun. I propped my bike against the concrete bench and curled myself around the pedestal of the table. The ground was cool to the touch and by scrunching up my legs I was able to get out of the sun. Sleep came easily.

Rested and with improved road conditions I expected the riding to get easier. But I had forgotten about the wind. To cut a miserable story short I crawled along for a few hours sometimes as slow as 10 km/h. I made 2 trips across the veld to get water from windmills and to cool off.

Racing The Munga - Sutherland Night Sky

Racing The Munga - Loxton to Sutherland

I was duly welcomed at the front door and directed to the register which I signed before sitting down to a good plate of food and a cup of tea.

Facing a load shedding crisis due to my failed dynohub I had to think through my strategy carefully. First thing would be to ensure I left he support station with my power banks well charged to ensure I could get through to Sutherland without any issues. The power requirements were firstly to keep my GPS running. My cell phone was a critical component but only because it was my entertainment system and I needed to keep trickling some noise into my head to keep it occupied and to keep the sleep monsters away. As night fell I would need lights. My expected transition between Loxton and Sutherland, given the heat and wind not to mention the 216 km's between them, I estimated at close to 18 hours. I would need at least 5 hours of lights. I was shown to a room, passing Tim Dean in the process. He was in his way out. I plugged in my devices to charge and took a quick bath. Figuring on a charge time of at least 3 hours I set my alarm accordingly. Hopping into bed I pulled the blankets over my head.

The best sleep is when it feels like you didn't. No sooner had I closed my eyes my alarm sounded. It was just after 6am. I had sleep well. I slipped on my now grubby riding kit and make my way to the dining room. A good breakfast washed down with a good coffee. Freedom Challenge friends, Andy Masters and Ben de Lange, had driven through Loxton a few weeks earlier and had scribbled a message in the hotel diary for me. Nice touch!

I signed out at 6:50 am and headed off up the road. I had slept through the best time of day to ride but it was of little consequence. At least my backside wasn't sore for a change and I made good progress. As I rode along I was reminded of the previous morning where I had drafted behind myself for mile after mile. Or at least that's how it felt. With few geographical obstacles the roads often ran in a straight line for as far as you could see. The rising sun cast a shadow next to the road just in front of me. I had a sense of drafting behind another rider which spurred me on. This morning however, the sun was already well on its way to its zenith.

I knew the first formal water point was only 25 km's up the road and I ticked that off in a little over an hour. Pulling into the farm I saw the water table set in the shade of some outbuildings. It was "manned" by a lady who lived in Loxton. She was delightful and in spite of my desire to press on before the heat became oppressive I settled into conversation with her. She had lived in Cape Town and had performed duty as a support crew for some microlight enthusiasts. Doing this she had become familiar with the town of Loxton and found herself traipsing out there most weekends. Eventually she uprooted and settled in the town. She had a good collection of titanium components in her body resulting from a microlight accident years before and is an avid anti-fracking campaigner. Her dress code — a kaftan — suggested she was a bit of a retreaded hippy. As she seemed to find Loxton to her liking I asked if it was comprised of an eclectic mix of people and she admitted the description fit.
I thanked her for driving out and spending 12 hours of her day tending the water station for the race and she said it was a nice way to pass the day and I could tell she truly meant it. Besides, she said, I have my book. The book for those who love detail was For One More Day by Mitch Albom.

Back on the road I could already feel the Great Karoo blast furnace was intent on showing its teeth. The next goal was to get to the town of Fraserburg 65 km's distant. This turned out to be an interesting contest. Fortunately there were a good number of windmills dotted along the road all the way to Fraserburg. I stopped at every one using the opportunity to cool myself off. In due course I arrived in Fraserburg at midday with a single goal in mind. I was desperate for an ice cream. I found one in a little shop. To the ice cream I added a litre of water, a half litre of Coke and a huge bag of salted crisps. Then, just to be on the safe side I inhaled another ice cream.

While I stood outside the shop slurping my second ice cream two of the energetic lads from the night before pulled up at the shop. Except that one of them wasn't looking in show room condition. It would be fair to describe him as totally stuffed. They had left Loxton a short while after me so had taken the same time to cover the distance to Fraserburg. I asked if they stopped at any windmills along the way an was assured that they stopped at every single one. When I saddled up to leave the tired one was sprawled in a tyre flower pot, back against the shop wall, slowly working his way through a tin of bully beef.

A short while after leaving town I saw a sign post for Sutherland — 130 km's. That tallied with the distance I expected. The road was covered in loose gravel and was properly corrugated. The thought of wrestling with that road all the way to Sutherland did not excite me one bit! Fortunately, a few km's later the GPS directed me off the district road on to a farm road.

The trail become far more interesting with a number of technical sections which, together with an audio book I was listening to, kept me occupied for many a kilometre. Water was available at a farmyard I rode through as well as a number of windmills along the way.

Toward evening the route took me back to the district road. With 70 km's of the gradual climb left to get to Sutherland the sleep monsters came calling. I started hallucinating and falling asleep as I rode. On two occasions I ended up in the bush. The first was harmless enough, the second had me falling off and crunching my knee. It's never fun when you nod off and weave all over the place. It's even less appealing when you are riding on a public road with the very chance, albeit slim on the deserted back roads, of getting whacked by passing traffic. Once again I placed my bike down next to the road, set my alarm for 15 minutes and caught 40 winks. So rested I hopped back on my bike and pushed toward Sutherland.

About 30 kilometres I caught up with the 2 lads I had seen in Fraserburg. "Looks like you were having a good snooze," they quipped as I rode by. They were walking at that stage and I assumed the sleep beasties were scratching at their eyes as well. I pressed on and after a while I could see no sign of their lights. I guessed they had gone to ground.

I have heard so much about the night skies in Sutherland that once the climbing was done I stopped and took a few moments to enjoy the spectacle above my head. From that part of the country there are no blank spaces. Every square inch of the sky is pricked with light. Satellites are clearly visible as they traverse the sky. I even saw a shooting star. Then a funny thing happened. I focused on one of the stars of the constellation Orion (Saiph for the detail obsessed) and it began to dance as if it was a laser spot being beamed into the sky. It was weird. I turned my head light on to make sure I wasn't viewing it through a mesh fence of tree leaves and found nothing between myself and the sky. I turned my attention to another star. This one also began to dance. Every star I focused on did the same. But only the star in focus. I guess my eyes had been bobbing along on gravel roads for so long the eye gyros had got a good work over trying to focus on the road ahead.

I climbed back on my bike and rode into town. I didn't see the flags indicating the support station and after riding and extra 2 kilometres through town I did a U-turn and headed back. As I got to the support station I saw the station head sorting out the banner. It seems it had fallen over. Sarah greated me and accompanied me inside where she invited me to sign the rider register. It was 11:35 pm.

Racing The Munga - Britstown to Loxton - Part 2

Two minutes after leaving the water point I stopped and swallowed a pain killer. This is going to be a long ride in from here I mused. The last 70 km's had taken me 7 hours and I still had another 120 km's before my face would feel the softness of a pillow against it for the first time since the race began.

The numbing effect of the painkiller kicked in just as the jeep track from hell emptied onto a better road. The sun dipped closer to the horizon and the head wind dropped off making the going easier. Stopping to go through a farm gate I swapped the cabling around in my bike and got my front light running. During the day I used the dynohub to recharge my power banks. At night the power banks charged my spare light, cell phone and GPS unit while the dynohub was used exclusively for lighting the way.

Rounding a corner and popping over a small rise in the road my front light turned off. This isn't good I thought. I hoped that it was simply a case of the wire connection on the hub coming loose. It was still attached. I started going through the permutations in my head. Firstly, the hub may be broken. That would be the worst case scenario and not one I wanted to entertain just yet. Perhaps it was simply the light that had blown. If that was the case then it wasn't a big deal. I could simply use my spare light and keep it fully charged off the dynohub routed through the AC/DC convertor. It would run continuously in that configuration. I swapped the cabling around and had no luck. The hub wasn't charging the spare light. I then decided to split out the two separate looms to ensure that a fault in one wasn't affecting the other. I probably spent 20 minutes running through all my options only to conclude that the hub wasn't working. I was glad that I had opted to carry both a spare power bank as well as a spare light. Without them it would have been a disaster. I had a headlight but didn't bring spare batteries as it was to be used as a supplementary light and would last on a single set.

I saw rider lights in the distance behind me. Even this deep into the race my competitive nature kicked in. I didn't want anyone catching me so I pushed the dynohub issues to the back of my mind and set off at pace. The road surface was good and the evening cool. Up ahead I saw a red flashing light. Another rider. It was like a red rag to a bull. I dug in and churned away at the pedals riding somewhere between 35 and 40km's per hour. It took me 20 minutes to close the gap, but only because the other rider had pulled to the side and stopped. Seeing me approach they hopped back on their bike. I whizzed passed them doing about 50 km/h and kept the hammer down for the next thirty minutes. My legs were burning from the effort but it was exhilarating. I had regained some momentum and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as possible. Finally the road surface got scratchy and I sat up. Sitting up reminded me that it was time for more pain killers.

Just before 11pm a few kilometres short of the next water point three riders caught up and I followed them into the water point. At that time of night we found a fully functioning water point operating on the front lawn of a farm house. Husband and wife aided by their two daughters enthusiastically served us cappuccino's banana bread, muffins and scones. It was surreal. It was wonderful. I did notice Chris van Zyl's bike propped up against a tree. His race had ended here. Apparently he was nicely tucked up in a bed inside the farm house.

The other three riders were full of vim and vigour unlike myself. They joked around and soon pressed on while I indicated my desire to catnap for 15 minutes in a canvas chair on the front lawn. I was offered a bed and then a couch and declined both. I explained that the canvas chair was just comfortable enough to sleep a bit and equally uncomfortable enough to keep it short. Real comfort is a trap. I still had 60 km's to get to Loxton and was determined to make it there before flopping into a bed. While one of my power banks charged I snoozed in the chair. After 15 minutes I stood up, drained my third cappuccino and got on my bike. I saw a bike light up ahead. It had missed the turn off to the farm house. One of the daughters gave a shrill whistle that would have been the envy of any shepherd working his dog. The rider pressed on. Unperturbed the farmers wife jumped in the bakkie and chased after the rider, never mind that it was almost midnight. I passed first the rider, my mate Philip Kleynhans, and then the bakkie as they threaded their way back to the comfort of the farmhouse.

The first climb had me walking. Not only because I was tired, but because my backside had started to hurt again. I was eventually reduced to riding for a minute or two and then walking for a minute or two. After twenty minutes of this I decided it was a complete waste of time and stopped. I took another pain killer and decided to sleep while I waited for it to take effect.

I placed my bike on the ground and had a good look around. I had seen enough snakes, scorpions and other Jurassic era looking bugs during the night to know this was hostile territory. I didn't fancy waking up to some fiery bite. I set my alarm for 15 minutes and lay on top of my bike. My alarm soon had me back up and riding.

The ride into Loxton proceeded without further drama and at 2:40 am I crossed the threshold of the Loxton support station. The last 190 km's had taken me just over 17 hours. But now, after nearly 39 hours and 585 km's I could finally bath and get some well needed sleep in the comfort of a bed.

Racing the Munga - jeep track from hell

Racing The Munga - Britstown to Loxton - Part 1

The decision to push on from Britstown was simple. It had been programmed in my head from before the race. My standard 'opening' of late during endurance events is to push nonstop for 36 hours. That would take me through to midnight. Therefore I had fourteen and a half hours to cover the 190 km's to Loxton. I had averaged just over 21 km/h from van der Kloof Dam but was aware that that speed wasn't going to be repeated. There wasn't a lot of climbing, but I was tired, it was going to get hot, and the prevailing wind was bound to spring up in the early afternoon. The additional challenge was my backside — it hurt. I had recently switched from bib shorts to baggies and hadn't had time to get used to the new shorts. I had very recently developed allergic contact dermatitis to my normal bib shorts. Over the years, after much trial and much error, I had found a brand that didn't cause my skin to react. For some reason my skin was no longer tolerant. Riding in shorts that cause an allergic rash isn't a lot of fun. As an added precaution I had decided to ride without chamois cream as my skin is also sensitive to a wide range of products. This abundance of caution had kept the dermatitis at bay but did nothing to prevent chafing. And boy did I chafe! To add to my woes I hadn't checked my tyre pressure at the start. I did so now. My back wheel was far too hard. Particularly because I was riding a hard tail and had to deal with an excessive amount of corrugations. I spread some Bactroban and Vaseline on my chamois and deflated my tyre a whole lot.

At 09:25 I signed the register and stepped into the street. It was scorching. A short distance out of town, obeying the arrow on my GPS screen, I left the perfectly smooth tar surface and bumped along a gnarly track that alternated between thick sand and vicious corrugations. It hurt my butt something awful. The very act of lowering my butt into the saddle made me wince. Having run out of options I swallowed a pain killer and rode slowly as I counted down the minutes waiting for it to take effect. Twenty minutes later, pain numbed I was able to ride with more purpose. The veld had thinned out was looking particularly barren. I rode past the Syndicate Dam which had been reduced to a dust bowl by the current drought. There was no water in the dam at all. With the rising heat and slowness of riding earlier I had lost my momentum. That loss of momentum coupled with almost 29 hours without sleep made me drowsy. The drowsiness fed the lack of momentum. It's a vicious cycle.

I noticed my water reserves were getting a little low and kept an eye out for a windmill. Eventually I spied one tucked away some distance in the veld. I propped my bike up against the fence and picked my way carefully across the veld. I had seen too many snakes and gogga's in the last few days to carelessly romp across the land. Reaching the pump I filled my bottles and my belly. Removing my helmet, buff and top I cooled myself down as best I could. Donning my kit I made my way back to my bike. Justice and Philemon pedalled by as I scrambled over the fence. I hopped on my bike and chased them down. For a number of kilometres we rode within a few hundred metres of each other, Philemon the stronger of the three.

Eventually the sleep monsters came calling. I started losing concentration and found myself wandering all over the road. Over the years I have have learnt that sleep is best obeyed when it comes calling otherwise you end up riding slower and slower. The problem during the day is to find shelter from the sun. As far as I could see there wasn't a single tree in sight. Eventually we rode toward a farm entrance that had a brick structure that flanked the gate and cattle grid. I stopped at the gate. Justice rode past and waved that I should carry on with him. I indicated my need for sleep and he rode on.

It was exactly midday and the sun directly overhead threw no shadows from the wall. I circled the entire structure to make sure. Sure enough, not a single square inch of useful shade. I needed to sleep, so hatched a plan. I propped my bike up against the wall and used my windshell as a tarpaulin. One side I tucked over my head and down my back. The other I tied to the handlebars of the bike. Scrunching up under the small square of shade, making sure nothing poked out to get fried, I set my alarm for fifteen minutes and immediately dropped into a deep sleep.

The fifteen minute power nap worked a treat. I jumped back on my bike and pedalled off in the direction of a distant farm house that held the promise of water.

A short while later, sitting in the shade of the lapa adjacent to the farmhouse, I sipped copious amounts of ice cold water and had a lekker kuier with the farmer. But it wasn't getting me any closer to Loxton. Reluctantly, I grabbed my bike and proceeded down the road.

The expected afternoon headwind had started to blow. The route had us off the district road and on to a jeep track that snaked its was through many kilometres of farmland. I guess it would have been a real treat if it wasn't for the wind. And the heat. And the abundant corrugations that served to link up a multitude of sand pits. It was awful. I couldn't get any rhythm going. It didn't help that every kilometre or so you had to open and close a gate.
After a few hours of grinding away into a relentless wind I decided the best course of action would be to go to ground at the next water point. There would be water, snacks and the promise of shade. Rather grab an hours sleep there during the heat of the day and make up for it during the cool of the night. Besides my backside was starting to hurt again.

I eventually arrived at the water point. It was rudimentary. At least there was ample shade below the willows that grew on one side of the reservoir that served as the central feature of the water point. A few woman were in attendance. They sat around on 20 litre oil drums (palm oil, if you care for details) with the cooler boxes at their feet. Almost as if they were guarding them. I asked for and was given a bottle of water. Drinking it I was aware that it wasn't the same quality as I had become accustomed to at the previous stops. It hydrated me but didn't slake my thirst.

I swallowed a muffin and settled down under the willows. My plan was to sleep for 45 minutes. The wind howling through the trees made the prospect unlikely. I lay there watching people moving through the water point. The water mystery was soon solved. Instead of serving the supplied water, it seems the people entrusted to the running of the water point had decided to swap out the good stuff for borehole water. I watched them take the discarded empty bottles (which weren't even the same brand as the ones at the other stations) and refill them from the reservoir before screwing the lids back on and putting them back in the cooler boxes. Borehole water isn't bad. It's just that it doesn't have that crisp flavour us city folk have come to expect. It's probably because of the salts dissolved in the water.

I saw some of the top riders moving through and realised that I hadn't done as badly as I had imagined. While not aware of it, I fell asleep. I put it that way because after the race one of the other riders recalled asking me if I was ready to carry on and got no reply. I just lay there unresponsive. I probably lingered at the water point for and hour and a half during which time I made sure to get two sachets of rehydrate into my system. Filling my bottles with the disappointing borehole water I moved off.

Racing The Munga - Perfect Solitude

Cool early mornings coupled with good road surfaces were were ideal for bleeding off some miles.

Racing The Munga - van der Kloof Dam to Britstown

Britstown, according to the race booklet we were given, lay 176 kilometres away and had only 591 metres of ascent. I expected this section to be fast. The coolness of the night and the absence of wind presenting perfect conditions for bleeding off some distance.

A short distance from the checkpoint I rolled through the gate of the Rolfontein Nature Reserve. A bakkie standing at the gate with its lights on suggested the reserve had been opened especially for the race. The riding through the reserve was spectacular. It was great to be rolling over normal MTB terrain for a change after all the gravel roads we had been riding. There were quite a few climbs which I enjoyed as I knew they were eating into what little climbing I had to do in this stretch. I startled a few buck that bounded off as I rode by. Looking up I saw a bakkie in the distance. As I approached the vehicle I saw a man standing next to a big gate. It was the back end of the reserve. He swung it open and bid me a good night as I rode out. Wow, I thought, is he going to open and close that gate for every rider that chooses to push through from the dam tonight? I knew the answer — yes. I had to marvel at the commitment of the communities who had engaged with the race.

The track led in the direction of distant lights that suggested some form of settlement. The track deteriorated in places and slowed me down. At times like these my dynohub light, dimming with the reduced speed, would prove insufficient and I would supplement it with my headlight. The track eventually thinned into a foot path which made the navigation interesting. I am new to navigation via GPS and was amazed at how simple it actually was. I took a wrong turn and it become immediately obvious that I was off track. Zooming in on the GPS I was able to pick the right route between some houses, around a dump site and back onto a road which led into the small town of Petrusville. If not for the distant sound of barking dogs I might have thought it a ghost town. A kilometre after leaving town the GPS directed me onto a good gravel road. I dropped onto the aero bars, selected a big gear and for the next while enjoyed the gentle pop of tyres rolling over gravel, the kilometres ticking over at a good pace.

The water points that night were unattended but perfectly adequate. They consisted of cooler boxes left out in the open where we could find then. The points themselves marked with flags placed adjacent to the road.

I had been riding alone the whole time and felt completely at ease. It's liberating when you don't have to alter your pace to match anyone else and vary your effort as and when to suit how you feel at any given time. Somewhere along the way I passed a few other riders and inched ahead of them slowly as I focuses on what I needed to do. I had arrived at the previous support in about 30th place and needed to start working my way up the field.

I left the second water point of this section shortly before sunrise determined to make good use of the cool before the sun ruined my party. I had 56 km's left to get to Britstown. The road surface was amazing and dawn brings with it renewed energy. I popped my earphones in and dropped into the aero bars and put some power into the pedals. I had only been on the go for 18 hours so was still well short of my use-by-date. I passed a few riders on this section and was confident that I could in fact push myself up the leader board into a more respectable position. Nearing Britstown the temperature began to ratchet up. We had been lucky to have cool overcast temperatures the afternoon before out of Bloemfontein. Today, the full furry of the Great Karoo was headed our way.

I arrived in Britstown a few minutes before 9am. It had taken me 8 hours 15 minutes to ride through from van der Kloof. It's crucial to maintain momentum in races like this. Once lost, it's hard to get back in the groove. I had done well and made up time lost the previous day. I was back on my self imposed pre-race schedule.

A good number of riders had arrived ahead of me. Very few had signed out so I assumed try were either getting food into them or they had gone to bed. After 18 hours on the go I was tired. The tiredness weighs heavy in the mornings as the days heats up and the glare of the sun stings tired eyes. You feel heavy and a tad nauseous. At least I do. But it's normal, you get used to it.

I signed the register and indicated my desire to push through. Ordering tea and breakfast I flopped down next to Tim Dean. Apart from being a really nice chap he is a seasoned adventure racer. His full English breakfast arrived ahead of mine. He opened a zip lock bag and simply tipped the entire contents of the plate into the bag; eggs and all. Said he didn't feel up to eating at that moment and would eat it later. Tucking the bag into his pocket he wished me a great ride and headed out the door.

My breakfast arrived and I decided against the ziplock treatment choosing rather to poke what I could down my throat with a knife and fork.

Racing The Munga - Rider Support Station Experience

I arrived at the van der Kloof rider support station shortly after midnight. It was the first of 5 such stations. The experience at these support stations took a little getting used to. Not because it was confusing or clunky, rather the opposite. It was slick.

The typical interaction at these stations was as follows. You would be met and greeted by name as you arrived. First up, always, would be an invitation to fill in the rider register. You would log your time of arrival and sign. You would then be asked what your plans were and how they could assist you with those plans. Did your bike need attention, could they at least lube your chain. Do you want to shower or eat first, etc.. Really great. The support station person in charge at most stations had eyes and attention for only the riders — it was clear the riders were the most important people in the room at anytime. If you slept you were directed to a room. They asked what time you were likely to require food when you woke. They would even make the tea and coffee for you. When leaving you would once again be asked politely to fill in the register and they would come outside and see you off.

At the first support station I was accompanied to the register. Indicating my desire to eat and push on I was directed to the refreshment table that had everything I required. When I asked where the bathrooms were I was even accompanied to the door of the bathroom — It simply wasn't good enough to point it out from across the room. We experienced service excellence of the highest standard.

At 00:40, 30 minutes after arriving, I saddled up and left the support station.

Sent from my iPhone

Racing The Munga - Bloemfontein to van der Kloof Dam.

With a minute to go before the start of the race I glanced around at the other forty three riders. Like me, many of them were checking their GPS's or having a quick look at the race summary booklet to check (for the umpteenth time) the distance to the first water point or rider support station. As a nonstop single stage race we had 1076 km's to cover. There were 5 rider support stations en route and another 10 or so water points scattered amongst them. The first objective would be to cover the 219 km's to get to the first rider support station at Van der Kloof Dam which straddles the Free State-Northern Cape boundary. I'd never heard of it before. In fact, I had never heard of any of the places we would be riding through as we made our way through the Northern Cape. Except for Sutherland, but only because it features on weather reports (typically one of the coldest places in winter) and is home to the South African Astronomical Observatory. This was a trip into the big unknown of the Great Karoo.

At midday, under an overcast sky, temperature mercifully cool, we set off. Within a few kilometres we were riding down our first gravel road. The people in front of me snaked all over the road — the first corrugations. Switching across the road looking for the sweet spot would become an all too common experience during the race. Some roads simply didn't have a good riding line and you settled for something just short of awful.

Thirty kilometres into the race, now riding on a farm track, I was on my own. I figured I was just south of the halfway mark in the field and was okay with that. While not the slowest rider in the race I was far from being the fastest. If I wanted to finish in the top ten I would have to ride this race my way. That meant riding as long as possible and sleeping as little as possible. I had a tentative goal of riding as far as the halfway mark at Loxton, 585 km's away, before looking for a bed. However, uncertain of what lay between myself and that goal I was happy to flex whichever way it took to survive this ordeal. A firm strategy set against spongy route knowledge is bound to throw up a few surprises. I set a pace that would serve to keep me ticking over for at least 36 hours.

Less than two hours in I rolled in to the first of many sandpits. It was not unlike the well trampled sand at the top end of a Durban beach. In places there were no ways around the wretched stuff as the track was hemmed in by freshly ploughed lands. Ahead of me I saw Tim Brink pushing his skinny wheeled Gravel Bike through the thick sand and thought wryly that he may well have preferred a fat bike at this stage. In any event, I rode up on the grassy edges where I could and eventually ended up plodding through the sand. Sand cleared, I saddled up, pointed my bike in the direction of the purple line on my GPS screen, and headed off toward water point 1.

Water point 1 consisted of a few tables next to the road. On offer were muffins, energy bars, chocolate bars, soft chewing jellies, bottled water, and Coke. This would become the staple offering at all the water points. While filling my bottles I chatted to Alex. He informed me that the first group had come through this point having averaged 25 km/h. Looking down I could see I had averaged 20 km/h. The lead riders were already 30 minutes ahead of me. I was impressed, but not perturbed.

We were riding through big country — wide open and flat, you could watch your dog run away for a week. The downside is the unobstructed prevailing headwind. Everyday, from 2pm through to 7pm we faced a strong wind that blew in from the West. Every time the road or track turned to meet the wind head on my speed would bleed off by 10 km/h. It didn't help knowing that our journey was a continuous line running SW. The wind was to be a constant foe.

Just before sunset I came across the first of many Puff Adder's. The brute was stretched out across my riding line which forced me to rattle over the corrugations to pass on the other side of the road. I made a mental note to keep a keen eye out while riding as well as doing a proper reconnoitre before settling down to snooze next to the road as and when the need arose.

As day gave way to night I stopped to setup my kit for night riding. Properly rigged, I set off. With the wind abating and temperatures beginning to drop, I was able to get on with the task of ticking off some kays. By this time we had a measure of what to expect. The big kilometres were taken up with gravel roads with occasional farm tracks used to link up these gravel roads. Up ahead I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. It was a safe to assume it was out next water point. Although the ambulance looked a short distance ahead I rode another 15 km's to get there. It had been 100 km's since the last water point. This was another reality we had to get used to — huge distances between water points Fortunately, I had stopped at a farm shop earlier.

Topping off my bottles I stuffed a muffin in my mouth and set off to crank out the last 60 km's to the first support station. Just before midnight I saw the lights of the town up ahead. I rode across the dam wall that spans the Orange River and entered the Northern Cape. The town lay just ahead. An honest climb on a tar road emptied out into town and the first support station. It was 00:11. It had taken me nearly 2 hours more than anticipated. But I hadn't figured on the delaying effect of the head wind. All told, I was pleased with my progress.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Munga - Pre race jitters.

On the morning of the 2nd December while waiting in Bloemfontein for the start of the Munga. I received the following Sms;

Hi Mike, we have never met, I am rider 185, I wish you everything of the best, everything you need is right with you as you stand there now, the rest will be stripped away soon - thats why I believe you have every chance of success, all the best, Charl

Rider 185. You might wonder who it was and why it was worded that way. It was immediately obvious to me that this was a reference to a Freedom Challenge (FC) number. By identifying himself by his FC permanent number he not only established his credentials as a rider, he also established a level of empathy — I knew he truly comprehended the anxiety I felt and the scope of the task ahead. And no, I had not met him but I knew it was Charl van der Spuy. I have had the privilege of making all the FC name and number boards since 2008 so remember most of the names even if I haven't yet had a chance of putting faces to them. This message underlined the incredible bond that exists between FC riders.

The Sms came at a time when I had seen some of the other riders and felt a little intimidated by them. Most of them were a lot younger than me, very lean, and well muscled. I profess to be an "ordinary rider" for no other reason than I see myself as just that — an ordinary guy who lacks any special athletic ability but gets by with stubbornness and tenacity. I think is this aspect of my riding that ordinary, middle of the pack riders connect with. Rider 185 made me realise that apart from family and friends who believed I could finish this race, there were others out there who felt I was capable. It reminded me that I carry many people's aspirations, albeit vicariously, with me as I ride. Rather than a burden, I saw it as a responsibility that would make it harder for me to quit.

Another FC acquaintance is Munga race director Alex Harris. The journey that culminated with me sprawled in a deck chair at Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Wellington a few days ago had its genesis in a coffee shop in Randburg many years before. The conversation started, as many do with Alex, "You know what". Over the next 10 minutes, With much gesticulating, tracing of fingers over table cloths and fervour he spoke of putting together a race down the length of the Sishen-Saldanha railway line. The longest trains in the world (3.78 km's long) haul iron ore over the 861 km line. Therein lay the origins of the race name. Originally conceived as The Iron Monger it transformed into The Munga when the route was changed from Bloemfontein to Wellington. He wanted it to be a huge purse race, winner takes all. As we know, those plans were scuttled at the eleventh hour last year.

So there I sat at race briefing, in a conference room at the Windmill Casino and Hotel in Bloemfontein listening to Alex fill us in on the details of how it was going to play out. With all the i's dotted and t's crossed it was time. I had been sucked along in the vortex of Alex's vision and was pleased to see it take root. This thing was now real.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

It's Munga time.

"Fate whispers to the warrior, 'You cannot withstand this storm.' The warrior whispers back, 'I am the storm.' "     (unknown)

I'll get back to that in a moment. In the mean time I want to contrast two sporting codes. 

First up, American football. This sport typifies the hubris and  aggressive nature of many team sports. It seems team huddles, high fives and aggressive body contact are all part of the brouhaha that teams feed off. On telly we see military-like coaches talking big, "Go out there and grind them into the ground. DO YOU HEAR ME?" Their charges respond in unison, "YES COACH!" before barrelling out the door to take on their foe. It's safe to say the energy and testosterone levels are high. 

Next up, professional golfer. Yesterday, a work colleague who had spent the weekend watching golf, commented that being a pro golfer must be the best job in the world. I was reminded of an incident that took place a dozen or so years back. It was the time of the Nedbank Million Dollar. A friend had occasion to be sitting in a bar at Sun City one night and noticed one of the big-name golfers sitting next to him. They struck up a conversation which led to my friend commenting on how awesome it must be to be a pro travelling the world. The golfer's response wasn't what he expected. "I would rather play a team sport. Golf can be a very lonely. On the course it's everyman for himself. You live and die by your singular effort. Even then, after all is said and done, on any day of a competition, I can often be found sitting alone in a pub talking to strangers. Just like I am doing right now!"

Endurance cyclists will resonate with the sentiments of that pro golfer. But there isn't any melancholy attached to it. It's a space that veteran endurance riders are drawn to - a solitude in which they thrive. But it takes incredible tenacity to push on day after day without faltering. Mr Munga — Alex Harris — understands this all to well. Apart from an extensive CV of world class craziness, he has completed the Tour Divide on two occasions. Below is a picture taken by Alex somewhere along the trail. He isn't in the picture. It's simply a picture of his bike taken in a particular setting that we can but imagine the significance of. This is generally how endurance riders record their exploits. There are no team mates to capture those special moments. 

At least when Alex finished he found someone else to record his finish at Antelope Wells. I am guessing it was someone who worked at the border post. I have even seen a picture taken at the finish taken by the rider himself — his lone bike propped up against the name board. The border post was probably closed. 
It has to be the event with the most low-key finish ever. 

This is the space some of us are going to find ourselves in over the next few days, albeit the Digest version. For 3 or 4 days we are going to marinade in our own thoughts. Some will thrive and others falter. Mind failure is by far the biggest obstacle to completing an event of this nature. 

Back to our quote...

"Fate whispers to the warrior, 'You cannot withstand this storm.' The warrior whispers back, 'I am the storm.' "     (unknown)

Pithiness aside, I want you to focus on the method of the warrior's reply. They "whisper". There is no one to hear their boast. No adulation expected. It is a measured response, thoughtful and internalised. They are determined. 

For those of you who, like me, are about to embark on the inaugural event of the Munga, I hope you are able to steel yourselves against the moments of doubt when you feel you cannot push on. As we say in SA — Vasbyt!