Monday, 25 July 2016

RASA 2016 - Could I have gone faster?

Before the race started I was asked how long I thought it would take me to complete the race. My answer, 13.5 days. My actual finishing time was 13.56 days. I'd say that was mission accomplished. But there is more to the story than just those numbers. At one stage it looked likely that I would be able to wrap it up at least one day faster - then the wheels fell off.

The first few days went to plan when I arrived in Rhodes in under 3 days. The next objective was to get beyond Slaapkranz on day 4. A series of thunderstorms put paid to that plan and I had an enjoyable evening in Slaapkranz. The next day just beyond Moodenaarspoort I started wheezing and coughing. A quick call had it diagnosed as a viral lung infection. I asked a simple question and received a "No" in response. The question - "Will this kill me?" While it seemed unlikely to kill me the coughing fits that erupted the moment I lay down made sleeping almost impossible.

My progress slowed to a stagger on the way to Grootdam (which is the halfway point of the race) where the Race Director caught up with me and delivered a bag of prescribed medication. This helped. What didn't help was Theo getting an injury that required the same medication. Freedom riders being selfless souls are quick to share. I might have fared better further down the trail if I had managed to keep the meds to myself but I counted myself fortunate to get any meds in the middle of nowhere and Theo's chance of getting some in the next 500km's was just short of zero.

After leaving Grootdam the focus was on making the cutoff at Cambria. We had to get there between 6am and 2pm if we didn't want to stay over at Kudu Kaya in Cambria. As it turned out we made the cutoff with only 15 minutes to spare. Unfortunately it came at a price.

Once through the gate I had chance to take stock. The focus over the last few days was getting to the gate. Now through the gate I realised that I was in terrible shape. I was running a fever and my chest felt a little tight. Unfortunately we still had to get through the Baviaanskloof reserve before there was any chance of slacking off. Once we had cleared the reserve I hit a serious flat spot. Tim and Theo pushed on ahead of me and got to Damsedrif well ahead of my arrival. The last kilometre to Damsedrif felt impossible. I stopped and looked behind me and could see the police station. It looked close enough to touch. I knew it was 2 kilometres away. I told myself that I only had to cover half that distance. It seemed easy enough, but it took me a couple of minutes to build up the energy to roll the final kilometre.

I sat at the dinning-room table and ate what I could. I asked Hestelle how far the rooms were. She said the cottages were about 200 metres away. Right behind my chair there was a couch. After eyeing the couch for a few seconds while contemplating the challenge of walking 200 metres I asked Hestelle if I could just curl up right there. She waved her magic wand and before I knew it a bed was made up on the couch.

I'm not sure how much sleep I got but I guess it wasn't much - minutes rather than hours. Hestelle commented that I coughed the whole while. She knew because her room was just up the passage.

The trip from Damsedrif to Willowmore, then through to Prince Albert and all the way through to Die Hell was scruffy. It took forever. I lost count of the number of times I lay down next to the road and fell asleep. I effectively lost a day. As mentioned previously, from Die Hell I got my rhythm back and continued my race at a decent pace.

While staggering along I yielded a full day to my competitors and saw a potential 12.5 day 3rd place finish dissolve into a 13.5 6th place finish.

So, if I didn't get sick could I have gone faster? For sure. Can I go back next year and do it faster? I'm not so sure about that!

The weather this year was good, very good. We had one day of rain, mud for and hour and no head winds of any significance. That wasn't everyone's experience but certainly was mine and the experience of those that rode around me.

I'm happy with my ride and happy with my time. Would I have liked to have ridden it without getting sick? Of course. But I don't regret the experience one bit. All the while I enjoyed good health the riding was fairly easy. In some ways, even monotonous.

If the race were to be represented by a drawing, the middle bits where I struggled would be in bright colours while the beginning and end, in the most part, would simply be shaded with a pencil. The bits where I struggled were the times where I had to really think about my race. They were the times when I questioned why I was doing the race at all. They were the times when I had to figure out how to get to the next support station. They weren't days filled with 200 or 300 kilometre riding plans. They were difficult hours spent figuring out how the make the next few kilometres. They were certainly tough but they were every bit a part of the narrative of my 2016 race as were the good days. The tough bits gave the race character. They were the essential texture of the race. We don't do this race because it's easy, we do it because it's hard. I had easy and I certainly had hard. I had a proper Freedom Challenge experience.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Banishing the If-Only's - Racing Without Regrets

Four weeks after finishing the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa I sit at home and watch the sun sink below the horizon. It's the end of another day and I am settling into the evening routine of winding down, making dinner and heading to bed. The sun will rise in the morning and I will go through my usual morning drill. This is the normal pattern of life where our activities are bracketed and divided by the rising and setting of the sun.

As I look back a month to the race I am amazed at how the distinction of day and night was blurred. The only real difference was the temperature - the days were cool and the nights were cold. Beyond that, day and night didn't dictate my activity. I had purpose - to move down the trail in as few days as possible. If that meant climbing under a blanket at 2pm and waking up after sunset and hopping on my bike then that's what happened.

Over the years, having returned home after an event, I find myself reflecting on my race performance pondering how the outcome could have been different if I had made better decisions at key moments. In the comfort of home it's easy to pinpoint strategic errors, wasted time, and moments where I stopped for the day instead of pushing on. None of these things mean that the race was a flop, far from it. In 2011 I pulled out of RASA on day two. On the surface it looked like failure. In practice, it was anything but that. I had achieved enough in those two days to convince myself that, with a little extra conditioning, I could mix it up with the so-called racing snakes.

Since 2011 I have had a different mental approach to racing along the Freedom Trail. I have adopted a trail mantra that plays through my mind when I face a decision that could have a material effect on my progress; "Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny?" Over the last ten years of traipsing down the Trail I have had many moments that I subsequently labelled as soft in the unemotional surrounds of home.

Since, and including, 2011 I have made a point of deliberately banking the reasons for decisions taken while racing. They include details such as weather conditions and physical and mental state. That has made it a lot easier to deal with hiccups.

The soft choices do have one important consequence - you start thinking about the possible outcome if only you had made the tougher choice. For some of us the question arises, "How fast can I actually go?" This was certainly front of mind for me this year when I entered the race.

So how has this year's race stacked up in post-race analysis? There were a few blunders. For most I didn't have to wait for post-race analysis to identify them. I knew at the time, or soon after, that I could have made a better decision. Having said that, I don't believe the mistakes had a material effect on the race outcome. I simply wasted a few minutes here and there. You could argue that the wasted time could have been converted into sleep except that the cough I developed put paid to restorative sleep - I would have just spent more time coughing instead of sleeping.

There were times when it would have been easy to take a softer option rather than step out the door into a cold dark night. In those moments when I caught myself staring longingly at a comfortable bed or cozy fire place I ran the mantra through my head - Will this decision survive post-race scrutiny? The thought of having to try justify a soft option without a compelling reason had me back on my bike and pedalling.

Those who followed my race will know that it wasn't all plain sailing. The middle part of my race was scruffy as I battled with a chest infection that left me trickling down the trail for a couple of days. Did it have an effect on the final result? Without doubt. Could I have made different decisions to get to to the finish faster? I'm not sure I could have. I am satisfied that at the very least I kept moving, albeit at snail pace.

That introduces a What-if. What if I didn't get sick? Could I have gone faster? I'll deal with that in the next post.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Of talking rabbits and interstellar butterflies

A coughing fit woke me. I looked at my watch. I had been tossing in my space bag for nearly 2 hours. I had been following Chris Morris up the Swartberg Pass from Prince Albert. We had left at midnight hoping to get through Gamkaaskloof and Rouxpos onto Anysberg.

The few hours of fitful sleep at Denehof in Prince Albert had done little to reinvigorate me. I had started with a hacking cough 6 days previous and apart from being a nuisance it effectively halved the amount of sleep time I should have been banking. Now almost 11 days into the race I was run down and running a fever. I had been dragging my unresponsive carcass over the landscape for the last 250km's desperate for my "engine" to reignite. I knew it was simply a matter of time before I came back online and I was running out of patience. I had already lost a day and my hopes of a probable 12.5 day finish had evaporated. Now I had to see what I could do to make my original target of 13.5 days.

An upset stomach had me stopping twice on the climb. At one point I saw Chris's lights high above me on the mountain. After my second stop he was nowhere to be seen. About two thirds of the way up the mountain pass I could barely take a dozen steps without the effort causing me to stop to rest. I realised it was a battle I wasn't going to win. I pulled over and dug out a space bag. Wriggling inside I hoped that Chris had the good sense to not wait for me.
I didn't set an alarm and simply pulled the space bag over my head and yielded to the urge to close my eyes.

What followed can best be described as bizarre serious of technicolor hallucinations that included talking rabbits, earthquakes, and interstellar butterflies. Nearly 2 hours later I opened the space bag allowing freezing crisp air to wash over my face. The puddles on the road were iced over and yet I was as warm as fresh toast in my flimsy foil bag. The fact that I was running a fever probably had something to do with it.

I continued my plod into Die Hell having 2 more power naps along the way. Liehann Loots passed me on the final climb reinforcing the fact that I had lost a full days lead on him. I trickled into the support station and had a 5 minute chat with Liehann before he left. His last words as he got on his bike - I'll see you in Anysberg tonight. It had taken me over 10 hours to do a 5 hour ride and the prospect of getting to Anysberg that day seemed improbable. But then a funny thing happened as I sat there enjoying the thin sunshine in the bottom of that strange valley eating lunch and sipping my coffee. My engine ignited. Getting back on my bike I felt the pleasure of legs turning over with ease. I did make Anysberg that night and to be honest it wasn't that hard. Funny things happen when you least expect.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Why would you do FC RASA more than once?

I have just added a forth Race Across South Africa blanket to my Freedom Challenge (FC) collection that also includes four Race to Rhodes whips and two Race to Cradock windmills. I've been asked why anyone would do the FC more than once. I've also encountered people who say they have ticked that box and then they walk away never to be heard from again.

In many ways the FC events are no different to other races - I've done two each of Epic, JoBerg2c, Sani2c, Sabi Experience and a few other one day races. The second time around was to see if I could do better, and I did. But these other events never engaged me so completely as the Freedom Challenge. They were mere exercises in fitness and cold numbers.

The Freedom Challenge community is without equal in mountain biking circles, certainly in this country. The mere sight of a FC fleece creates an instant bond. It matters little if you tore across the country in 11 days or snuck in just inside the 26 day cutoff to reach the finish. The mere fact that you participated and endured says volumes about the person you are.

What makes it so special? Firstly, the route isn't marked and GPS devices are as welcome as Donald Trump at a Mexican Independence Day celebration. While a red line on the maps indicates the intended route, there are numerous options that can be taken while keeping an eye on the Out Of Bounds sections. It creates an interesting dynamic. I have been engaged with this race for ten years and can ride the entire route without maps. Yet, you will still find me and other trail veterans poring over the maps before the race tweaking our lines to either save a minute here and there or to ride lines that, while a little slower, simplify night navigation.

I sat across the table from Liehann Loots in Anysberg during this years race. As we drank our coffee we spoke about what it was we wanted from the race. We, just like many other riders, were after the same experience - to go it alone and put down our best performance to date. Arriving at that point, I believe, is an iterative process. The first time on the trail in 2007 was incredibly hard. I struggled everyday and had to deal with a constant barrage of self doubt and anxiety. Those 3 weeks changed the way I rode my bike. There was something about the total engagement offered by the Freedom Challenge than tarnished the shine of regular events. I was never going to be a contender in a regular race. The FC opened a whole new world of racing where tenacity counted for as much as athletic ability.

Over the years I have refined my approach to endurance events. I have encountered and in some ways learnt to tame the funk that results from extreme sleep deprivation. I have come to understand the ability of the body and mind to bounce back when completely drained. This year we saw the old strategy of veteran Tim James' and myself ride-until-you-drop juxtaposed with the ride-fast-sleep-well of Bruce Hughes and Liehann Loots. A contrast that is certainly going to be examined and added into the mix in the years ahead.

It has been said that the Freedom Challenge is as hard as you want it to be. In many ways that is true. Simply riding from one support station to another every day is still a big ask. No one is forcing you to walk out the door and do a double or ride on into the night. It's a personal choice. The fact that the choice exists makes it attractive. Doing the first day double to Ntsikeni or getting to Rhodes in under 3 days is still a goal that many find attractive and would like to achieve.

So why come back and do the race again? We all want different things. Perhaps it's just about time-out and spending a few weeks in a different space. Perhaps it's about plumbing new depths in your being. Or perhaps, like me, you just want to prove to yourself that you're not past your use-by date.