Thursday, 26 May 2016

Is the Freedom Challenge similar to Fight Club?

What do the Freedom Challenge and turn of the century movie Fight Club have in common? Apart from shared initials, nothing! But the rules of fight club are interesting and might be of interest as they apply to the Freedom Challenge.

The characters in Fight Club are a bunch of bored directionless societal drones who have lost their sense of purpose and make their way to Fight Club in search of meaning which, in time, decays into barefaced anarchy. A Freedom Challenge participant is anything but that. Most are riders who have a very clear sense of who they are and what they would like to achieve. Very few have been duped into pitching up at the start line with no idea of what is about to unfold. I use 'very few' rather than 'no one' because I can think of at least two riders, who, (mis)guided by a keen friend, turned up for the Ride to Rhodes and had their heads scrambled by the time they got to Ntsikeni on day three. Once there, they threw in the towel and haven't been heard of since. I guess they did fulfil at least one of the rules of Fight Club - 8th Rule: If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight. And fight they did. I suspect they are still licking their wounds.

The 7th rule of Fight Club might apply; Fights will go on as long as they have to. The FC rules state the maximum finishing times for the various races; RTR is 8 days and RASA 26 days. Those are extremely generous cut-offs and very few people have either one of those as their ultimate goal. Practicality and ambition have proven to impinge on those limits. I recall one rider who ran out of leave and had to abandon his ambitions of getting to Wellington so he could head back to the office. Others have set tight personal goals that have been dashed against the rocks of bad weather and unrealistic planning resulting in their resolve leaking out on the trail. Rule 7 would serve a rider well when they are standing in a puddle of their own failing resolve.

Rule 6 is ridiculous - no shirts no shoes. Completely impractical, but I am still scarred by the image of Marnitz riding up from the Grootrivier gorge wearing nothing but his riding shoes and a backpack. He would have needed to shed his riding shoes to comply fully with Rule 6.

Rule 5: One fight at a time. Sage advise. Face each challenge as it happens. Fretting about how you are going to get up Lehana while walking up Hela Hela serves no purpose save to drain you of the emotional energy you need to face the task at hand. Each day, and indeed each portion of each day, has it's own unique challenges. Deal with those as you need to. As you conquer an obstacle take time to savour the achievement. After patting yourself on the back you can turn your attention to what needs doing next.

Rule 4: Only 2 guys to a fight. When you start out on your race you need to pack two versions of yourself. Firstly, who you are. Secondly, the person you want to be in a months time as you sit at home or in the office and reflect back on your race. When you are overwhelmed by the events of the race and are ready to call it quits haul out the other guy and think about how you will feel about that decision in a few weeks time. I'm not suggesting that there aren't legitimate reasons to quit, but it's sometimes hard to sift through the fog of pain and doubt to identify a genuine reason that will prevail as a solid reason when you are back at home without your finishers whip or blanket. Quitting spawns a monkey that clings. As the year drags on it taunts. Then it starts talking. It always says the same thing - "We have some unfinished business!"

That leads into Rule 3: If someone says "stop" ... or taps out, the fight is over.
The second guy you packed needs to sleep on the decision before confirming that the fight is indeed over. My experience is that a good nights sleep and perhaps an easy day or two does wonders in restoring flagging resolve. A year is a long time to marinade in a host of what-if's.

Rules one and two of Fight Cub are the same - You do not talk about Fight Club. Clearly there is no direct parallel with the Freedom Challenge. If there was, then I have been breaching those rules for the last ten years. We need to supplant those two rules with two more appropriate rules. So, the first rule of Freedom Challenge is to make sure you make it to the finish and get your Blanket/Whip/Windmill.
The second rule of Freedom Challenge is to MAKE SURE you make it to the finish and get your Blanket/Whip/Windmill.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

If vasbyt, like beer, came in 6 packs, one pack wouldn't be enough to get you through RASA

Vasbyt. Now there's a cool South African word. It has even made its way into the Oxford Dictionary. Alas, it isn't properly defined - bite hard. That's pathetic.

The closest English synonyms I could find were 'perseverance' and 'tenacity'. Close but no cigar - those words aren't visceral enough. The word is simply bigger than the sum of any words you could find to describe it. It's a bit like the Afrikaans word padkos. Also in the Oxford Dictionary - Food taken to eat on a journey. Okay, that's close.

Finishing a Freedom Challenge event takes perseverance. Racing it day after day takes vasbyt - perseverance on steroids if you will. A few years back I had occasion to see real vasbyt in action. It took the forms of Martin Dreyer and Alex Harris. The occasion was a particularly miserable day during the Freedom Challenge in 2012. A whole pile of riders, myself and Trevor Ball among them, had been mauled by persistent rain and clawing mud for a couple of days. One morning, after 4 hours of riding from Moodenaarspoort - a section that normally takes 2 hours - we tied our steeds to the post at Kranskop and called it a day.

Let's rewind a little lest you think we were being wimps.
From the outset Trevor and I had our minds set on getting to Rhodes in 3 days. A tall order indeed, but it was within our grasp. All we needed was a little vasbyt. At the start we popped into the local battle store and picked up a 6 pack of vasbyt, as one does. With a good measure of cunning, perseverance and a liberal sprinkling of vasbyt we managed to pedal into Rhodes inside of 3 days.

Having arrived in Rhodes and met our first objective we realised that we didn't have a plan beyond Rhodes. We trickled down the road to Chesneywold and caught up with much needed sleep. The next day we spent 20 hours slogging through rain and mud. At least 13 hours of that was on foot. We dug deep and exhausted the last of our 6 pack. Arriving at Moodenaarspoort the wrong side of midnight we were broken when we flopped into bed

The next morning, 22nd June 2012, we woke to find it was still raining. We had caught up with another half dozen riders at Moodenaarspoort. We joined them for breakfast and together we headed into the rain. We all got as far as Kranskop before throwing in the towel.

Many hours were spent washing clothes and repairing bicycles. The fireplace was stacked high with logs and then obscured from view with a mass of wet clothing vying for drying warmth.

Long after the sun had given up trying to pierce the leaden sky and dropped below the horizon the front door swung open and a drenched and muddied Martin Dreyer stepped into the room. Most of the other riders had already retired to bed. Martin stripped off layer after layer of sodden clothes. He stood in a puddle of water and glanced toward the fireplace. It was obvious that he wasn't going to be able to dry anything. Unfazed he ate, showered and hopped into a bed. An hour later the door swung open and Alex Harris gave a repeat performance.

These guys are true gladiators. On that particular day, in conditions that had us cowering inside, they had covered a distance that had taken us two days. When I woke up the next morning they were long gone. The conditions were no easier for them than they were for us. The difference was their focus on what needed doing and their unwavering determination to stick to the plan. This was their day four. They kept their focus for the next seven days and shattered the previous race record.

Since 2012 I have been a frequent visitor to the battle store. My regular basket of goods includes a single 6 pack of vasbyt lite - that's sufficient to survive a 2 or 3 day event like the Race to Rhodes or the Race to Cradock. However, rolling over the finish line physically depleted after a couple of days is a far cry from rolling over the finish line in Diemersfontein in the Cape after a couple of weeks.

This year I am looking to pull out all the stops and give the race everything I've got. My goal is to better my previous best time of 15 days 16 hours. Experience has taught me that over the course of the 2300 km's of the race I am going to encounter a number of challenges. Rough weather, mechanical failure, as well as physical and mental condition will all conspire to slow me down. To prevail I am going to need a crate of vasbyt and I reckon I should ask for quarts.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Another year, another race. Race Across South Africa 2016

As the sun heads north and autumn leaves scurry around my yard, my head space is filled with memories of the many yesteryears spent riding the Freedom Trail.

I have ridden the full extent of the trail on 3 previous occasions and taken part in 6 of the shorter events. When my days are done cut me through my core like an aged tree and examine the narrowed growth rings where I spent my winters pedalling across the frozen landscape. 2011 would be a blip as I only lasted a day and a half before forced out by injury. 2013 would show no anomalies as I was merely a spectator. The other rings from 2007 through 2016 would be narrowed and gnarled.
They would bear witness to days and nights spent pitting myself against the elements and facing up to my own shortcomings and doubts. Times of deep personal reflection and discovery - failure and despair interwoven with moments of intense joy and unimaginable achievement. Lean in and look a little closer. The rings might be narrow but they will be full of character. The tough conditions would have wrought rich patterns of growth. It is these dense and dark coloured rings that add to the richness and character of the heartwood that would bear witness to a life not devoid of interest and adventure.

Over the last few weeks as I step out into the cold mornings I am aware of how the sun has yielded to the dulling grip of winter - each day it surrenders a little more. While it might signal the end of summer it sparks in me a renewed sense of excitement - It's Freedom Challenge season.

The frigid morning air against my face combined with the sound of a crowing cockerel carried across from the smallholding opposite puts a smile on my face. Instead of a golf fairway I see the flood plains of the Knira river crisscrossed with cattle paths that lead to Queens Mercy. I am transported to the tiny village of Black Fountain nestled among the mountains. I yearn to be out there.

I have entered the Race Across South Africa 2016 and go in search of my 4th finishers blanket. I only have 4 more weeks of yearning. All too soon I will be threading my way through the forests of Donnybrook and crunching across the frozen landscape of Ntsikeni. Not long now. Not long at all. Another year another dense growth ring.

Last year while racing to Rhodes I tweeted the following. It was true then and it's still true now: "They say that home is where your heart is. My adventure heart is home here on the trail we call Freedom."