Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Munga 2017

The third edition of the Munga came and went and I added a third medal to my Munga collection. My race went well but given my race pedigree over the the last few years my achievement was nothing worth writing about.

If we want a remarkable Munga tale then we need to unwrap the story behind medal number 69. The story behind it is extraordinary.

Laz Mashishi has worked with me for many years. His first bike was a BMX that he used to roll with the the 'bike gang' at school. They would ride around town and from the school to the pool in town. It was normal kid stuff hanging out with buddies. It never crossed his mind that bike riding could be a competitive sport.

Not long after joining the company in 2008 he rooted around in our bike room at work and put together a usable mountain bike that he would ride from time to time.

A bunch of us from work entered the 2009 edition of 94.7 Cycle Challenge and Laz managed to finished in 4h45. He entered again in 2010 and finished in a similar time.

A few years later having upgraded to one of my 29er MTB's he entered again determined to get under 4 hours. In both 2014 and 2015 he missed that target by a few minutes.

Over the last 9 years they were the only races that Laz had ever entered. Even though he had only ever ridden a mountain bike he had never entered an MTB event.

After my 2016 Munga Laz and I spent many hours chatting about the race. The conditions of the 2016 event were brutal and highlighted the importance of mental strength over physical condition. Don't get me wrong, physical condition is important but if it isn't paired with fierce determination then the Munga is likely to slap you down.

Sometimes when going on a country trip to do an installation he would take a bike and spend many hours exploring the area once the job was done. He enjoyed his cycling but didn't have any goals or ambitions. He was an active member of our weekend ride group and would also join in the occasional night ride. It was obvious that he was passionate about riding and I believed he possessed a natural toughness that he had yet to explore.

One day while chatting about the race I looked Laz in the eye and asked if he thought he could finish the Munga. He thought about it for a moment and replied, "I think I can."

When people hear about the Munga and say things like, "I could never do a race like that," I agree with them. When Laz replied, "I think I can," I agreed with him.

It all comes down to this century old pearl of wisdom
"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right."
Henry Ford

To finish a tough race like the Munga you need to lead with your head—your body will follow your headspace.

And so started Laz's preparation for the Munga 2017.

First up he needed a bike. I gave him the choice of my bikes and he settled for my Lynskey.

Next up was a training programme. I felt that I'd be a suitable mentor for preparing Laz mentally for the challenge ahead having done the first 2 Munga's and a load of other endurance events but I'd be a poor example of how to train effectively on the bike—I'm too random in my ride training. For that I turned to my brother Sean who has been a lifelong athlete and understands the science and numbers behind setting up a proper training schedule. He was the perfect match for Laz. Sean met with him on a number of occasions and devised a programme that would get him to the start line in good shape.

The training wasn't plain sailing and there were a few rides where Laz realised that long distance cycling isn't as easy as pedalling for hours at a time. He came to understand that it hurts. Rather than shying away from the discomfort he accepted that it was part and parcel of endurance cycling and pushed himself harder.

Laz took part in every Mini Munga and made some solid riding mates. Many of whom ended up riding with him on the race.

ArcelorMittal came to the party and sponsored his entry into the race where he registered as a Development Rider. If anyone ever qualified as a development rider it was Laz. After all, this was going to be his first mountain bike race.

At the start venue my last words of advice to Laz were, "Forget about where you finish, just make sure you finish."

The rest is history. It wasn't as simple as joining the dots and he had a few challenges along the way but he prevailed. Laz started and finished and got his hands on his own Munga medal.

I had originally planned to wait for him at the finish to celebrate his success with him. In thinking about it I realised that his achievement was all his and had nothing to do with me. I simply opened the stable door and left the running up to him. From my own experiences I've learnt that finishing a race like that is intensely personal. The people that mattered to him at that moment would be the ones he'd spent the last few days riding with. They had shared an amazing experience and I would only be an intrusion in that space. With that in mind I hopped on a plane and headed home.
I did fetch him from the airport when he flew back and had a chance to tell him how chuffed I was for him.

Medal 69 is not mine and I have no claim to it. It belongs to Laz and I am proud to call him friend, fellow competitor and finisher of the Munga.

What started out as a quest to get an inexperienced cyclist to finish one of the toughest events around ended with me standing shoulder to shoulder with a fellow Munga warrior.

Salute my friend.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Durban Dash – Riding into the Sunset

Photograph: Jacques Swart 

I like the idea of riding across large chunks of our country. It's cool when you can push pins into a map and join them with cotton thread to show where you rode. The Knysna to Cape Town versions of the Cape Epic pinned up on the map looked just that — Epic! The new format clover leaf patterns are dead boring. It was the idea of traveling from Knysna to Cape Town on my bike that first piqued my interest in the Epic. It was more than a race, it was an adventure, it was a journey of discovering new parts of our country. 

JoBerg2c ticked the same boxes. By the time I added my Freedom Challenge and Munga rides my ride map looked spectacular. 

And then Durban Dash popped on on the race radar. It traces a cool line between Johannesburg and Durban via the Sterkfontein Dam. The idea of riding from Jozi to Durban is not new. Many clubs organise rides to Durban. Many of them to coincide with Amashova. 
I haven't heard of anyone who rides back to Jo'burg after Amashova. That's actually not that surprising as I'm sure there are many people on the Highveld who wake up some mornings and wish they could skip work and rather drive to Durban. As for Durbanites waking up with a Jo'burg hankering ... nah. 

Durban Dash is so much more than a club ride to Durban. It foregoes the social aspect of multiple overnight stops en route and compresses the effort into one big push. It is essentially a nonstop solo effort. Even if you choose to ride with someone else you spend most of the time in your own headspace. 
It's a tough race that attracts tough people. Tough but nice — there's no space for big egos in a race like this. 

It's a pity there aren't more people entering the event. The lack of uptake will be its downfall, particularly the Up version from Durban to Johannesburg. 

Apart from the challenge of tracing a 615km line between the two cities, it is a great conditioning ride for other big rides like The Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa, The Munga or the sister races from the Massive Adventures stable; Trans Afrika or The 1000 miler -

At 5 AM last Thursday I swung my leg over my bike at Thaba Trails near Mall of the South in Johannesburg South and pointed my bike in the direction of Durban. 
Ahead lay 615km of road, 38km of it over rough dirt roads. My bike of choice  was my road bike complete with skinny wheels. I knew the dirt sections were going to be brutal but figured I could suffer through them for a couple of hours and enjoy the benefit of a faster machine for the balance of the ride.  

The race is a mind game. It's a case of simply ticking off the hours and kilometres. Yes, it does get incredibly boring at times but that is part of the challenge. The dirt road sections were ugly. Particularly the nasty stretch I encountered a few hours after midnight heading out of Mooi River toward Curry's Post. By then I was sore, tired and 22 hours into my ride. The rutted road sent shudders  through every part of my body. 

I finished the race in 29 hours and 15 minutes. While good enough for second place it was way behind Christo van der Heever who pedalled to the finish in 24 hours 43 minutes — an impressive ride. 

There are no prizes on offer in this race and the reward is purely the personal satisfaction you derive from the race. That being the case it was mission accomplished. 

I now have 4 Durban Dash's under my belt — two Up and two Down. 
Why do I keep coming back? I don't know. They are hard races that make me question my sanity and push me to the brink of backing off and settling for an easy ride into the finish. When rattling over gnarly dirt roads the wrong side of midnight or crawling downhill into Mooi River in a freezing fog that reduced visibility to less than 5 metres you have to ask yourself "Why?"

Against reason I keep at it and am surprisingly left with a real sense of accomplishment. Endurance cycling is an odd space shared by few athletes. Ultra Endurance athletes are an even smaller subset. In the ultra endurance world I am merely a dabbler but I understand the sentiments of those who choose to play in that arena. I came across the following excerpt published by the Calgary Herald. It was part of an interview with Craig Stappler ahead of the 2013 version of the Tour Divide.

"Yeah, sometimes I catch myself wondering why do I do this. Why can't I just do normal rides?" he asked, without answering. "Do we all have something wrong with us? Do we have something to prove? I don't know.
"You really get the ego pounded out of you. After 15 days of everything you've got, you're so totally stripped down that you have a kind of openness… It's pushing yourself and challenging yourself. Yes, it's tough, but there are great moments.
"It's all part of the adventure."

I guess the answer lies right there ... It's all part of the adventure.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Race to Cradock 2017

Waking, it took me a second or two to make sense of my surroundings. Ahead, and at the foot of the mountain pass, the lights of Cradock, my objective, twinkled in the predawn darkness. To my right, on the fringes of the bubble of light cast by my bike light, I could see the rock face of the road cutting flashing by. To my left a chasm of darkness. I applied the brakes and brought my bike to a stop. I was too close to the finish to end my race in a crash on the final descent. 

I propped my bike against the rocks, set my alarm for five minutes and sat in the ditch with my back to the rock face. Within seconds I was asleep. 

During a week dominated by the ABSA Cape Epic I rode my bike across the Eastern Cape from Rhodes to Cradock. The Race to Cradock, an event of the Freedom Challenge, could be described as a boutique event. It's niche in that it is very limited in numbers and attracts a particular type of rider. 

If razzmatazz, daily post race massages, cold beers at the Chill-Zone, photographers around each corner, fully functioning water points offering an array of refreshments, nightly gatherings to highlight the performances of the day, prize-giving and daily results posted to see who is edging out who, is your thing, then the Race to Cradock is not for you. 

If you merely want to experience the simple joy of riding your bike or fancy pitting yourself against yourself then perhaps you would feel as at home on the Freedom Trail as I do. 

I had been on the go for nearly 49 hours covering 570 km. In that time I had only banked 25 minutes of roadside sleep. I was only thirty minutes from the finish line and had finally lost the battle against the sleep monsters who had been tormenting me for the last hour.

By the time I opened my eyes the Eastern sky showed the first signs of the advancing dawn. I hopped on my bike and rode the final 15 kilometres into town. 

It had been a good race. I had ridden hard and I ridden long. It was my best performance to date over that section. It was completely satisfying and made me feel alive. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

What will it take to win Race to Cradock 2017?

The Race to Cradock is a 575 km, non-stop, self-navigated mountain bike race starting in Rhodes and ending in Cradock, Eastern Cape. Riders are allowed a maximum of 6 days to complete the ride.
It is a non-stop event, so riders are not required to stop every day/night as in other stage races. Riders are required to be self-sufficient and carry all their own personal belongings with them.

There are a couple of people who could take line honours this year. My top picks start on the last two start days of the race - 21st and 22nd March. That's not to say a dark horse from an earlier start batch doesn't raise its head.

If you are not familiar with the race format you might be confused by the concept of 'the last two start days.' Riders are batched in daily start groups of 5-9 riders leaving every day from 15th March through to 22nd March. This to prevent congestion at the overnight support stations. Riders advise the race office of their strategy and riding tjommie preferences when they enter and are batched accordingly. The guys and girls who either self identify as race snakes or have a race pedigree that places them in that category start at the back of the field, hence my suggestion that the winners will most likely come from the last 2 start days.

The ladies top pick would have to be Janine Stewart who is the current woman's record holder at 61 hours 20 mins. She has a race pedigree of note. She's tough, determined, and experienced. She knows what it takes to prevail over that distance. I'm sure she will be looking to pare off at least a handful of hours so we'll pencil her in for 56 hours.

The guys in contention are Antony Avidon, Casper Venter, Charles Mansfield, Jacques Tattersall, and Leon Erasmus. All have race experience and know this section. I have the most experience on this section and although I lack race conditioning I'll tuck myself in at the end of that list as route knowledge and night navigation experience counts for something.

That's what it is and who they are. Now what will it take to win the race?

The key is an executable strategy. The old-bullet strategy of ride until you drop is going to come face to face with the young guns strategy of ride fast, stop and recover, and then ride fast again - the old tortoise and the hare story, except the hares are focussed and the tortoises more determined.

The challenge is the distance involved. It's almost short enough to race non-stop and almost long enough to win using a race-rest-race approach. It's going to be interesting to see who adopts which strategy and then how those strategies play out in a head-to-head contest of the Almosts.

I think the men's winning time will be in the order of 50 to 52 hours. Sub 48 is the holy grail. The current record set by Alex Harris in 2015 is 47 hours 35 mins. You need to beat that if you wish to wrest the chalice from him.

I've crunched all the data and offer the following as a race plan that will get a rider to the finish in 48 hours.

Place name, distance to get there, in and out times, (transit times to the get there from the previous point)

Rhodes 05:00

Chesneywold 68km 09:15 - 09:25 (4h15)

Slaapkranz 37km 12:20 - 12:30 (2h55)

Moodenaars 58km 17:30 -17:45 (5h00)

Kranzkop 38 km 19:45 - 20:00 (2h00)

Brosterlea 49km 01:00 - 01:45 (5h00)

Romansfontein 82km 06:45 - 07:30 (5h00)

Hofmeyr 72km 13:30 - 13:45 (6h00)

Elandsberg 33km 16:45 - 17:00 (3h00)

Newlands 51km 20:00 - 21:00 (3h00)

Rockdale 28 km 23:00 (2h00)

Cradock 58km 05:00 (6h00)

That's the plan. All that's needed is someone to deliver.

Any takers?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 7 It's a Wrap)

'When' not 'If'.

If you are familiar with the name Norman Vincent Peale the chances are that you are at least 50 years old. If the name rings no bells you might recognise the title of his seminal book - "The Power of Positive Thinking." Crudely speaking it is about autosuggestion    and the benefits of a positive outlook. The important aspect for us is understanding the influence of thought over performance. Too often failure is foreshadowed by negative thinking. I guess we have all seen it happen in a race and we can easily pick out the riders who will not complete a multi-day stage race based on their narrative. 

Stop using words like 'if' and replace them with 'when'. It's not that much different to the Assumptive Closing Technique they teach you in sales training. If you're a peddler of goods then you've no excuse for not being a positive pedaller. Rather than, "If I get to Diemersfontein.." say, "When I get to Diemersfontein..", otherwise you are going to 'If' yourself home on an early bus. 

Go one step further and visualise yourself riding over the finish line, feel the weight of the precious finishers medal as Alex places it around your neck and then allow your minds eye to look down at the medal and then imagine it has a low single digit number on it. 

Adjust your timeframe.

When we're at gym or riding up a steep hill we tell ourselves that we just need to dig in for another 30 to 40 seconds. We reason that we can do anything for 30 seconds. When I ride 947 and I pass the Douglasdale police station I know I just have to give it everything for another 30 or 40 minutes. Hanging in there for those seconds or minutes makes it all worthwhile when the ride is done and we reflect back on our achievements. 

When you race The Munga the seconds and minutes matter but not nearly as much as the hours and days. I think in terms of hours when I'm waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon so that I can put my head down and make the best use of the cooler hours. I think in terms of days when I contemplate the overall race. When you've spent the better part of a year obsessing over a race it's easier to think in days and sometimes weeks. At the start of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa last year I adjusted my timeframe to 2 weeks. That's the time I wanted to finish the race in and I constantly reminded myself during the race that all I had to do was dig in and give it everything for just 2 weeks. On The Munga, standing on the start line at midday on Wednesday, my focus was on Saturday lunchtime. That might seem like a long time to ride your bike but whether you are curled up in a bed, or sleeping under a tree, or riding your bike, Saturday lunchtime is going to come around. And when it does I would far rather be slurping on a milkshake in the restaurant at Diemersfontein than pedalling along a hot dusty road with hours and days still ahead. The thought process is this, "No time to go soft now, you've done the training, you know what's needed, you have a race plan, now execute. If you go soft now you will have regrets afterwards. Get on with it!"

I covered the aspect of racing without regrets in a post last year after finishing the Freedom Challenge.


Have a plan.

Before the race I set myself a target and then break that down into the various stages. Once I have a workable plan I go public with it. Nailing my colours to the mast is my way of cementing my resolve. I get it wrong from time to time but I feel obliged to deliver on my plan and it keeps me motivated.


You don't need an audacious plan, but certainly don't stand on the start line hoping to wing it. That's an indication of a scruffy mind. The most important weapon you have is your headspace. Have it ordered so that it serves your ambitions and doesn't detract from them. 


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 6 Last But One)

Learn to live with compromises. 

It's a simple issue but one that some people struggle with. If your bike shares a bed with you and your partner sleeps in the garage then you are probably one of those people who get edgy every time your bike creaks or the brakes squeal. Get over it. When you are in the middle of the Karoo and you break a spoke, or heaven forbid a fingernail, no one else cares. Least of all the sheep. I've seen people break a derailleur and convert to single-speed. I've seen them riding with pringled wheels and even walking with bikes on their backs. I've even seen someone riding with only front brakes over mountainous terrain. All these people finished the race they were in. If your bike isn't in perfect working order there is nothing to be gained from dwelling on it. Stick your earphones in, choose some happy music, crank up the volume, and get on with it. Yes, earphones are allowed on The Munga as are aero bars. Do yourself a favour and download an audiobook or two to help while away the hours.  

Become your own expert. 

When I arrived at Van der Kloof dam this past December I was shattered. Amy McDougall was there and came over and chatted. She could see that I was exhausted. She asked if I was stopping or pushing through. When I told her that I was going to push on her response was, "You know your body." She might be young but she is crammed full of race experience and wisdom. 

No one knows my capabilities better than I do and she knew that. She also knew it wasn't her place to suggest otherwise. 

I left Van der Kloof and, as expected, I recovered and had an enjoyable ride to the next race village. Don't let other people tell you what to do unless you are not the best expert on yourself. If you aren't, then listen to your body and try understand your headspace under stress and start figuring out what's best for you. 

Set new endurance boundaries for yourself and then go out and break them and set new ones. You are so much stronger than you think you are. I'm no stranger to feeling completely shattered. Read this post:

Funny thing about that race is that I went on to win and set a race record in the process. 

Then there's this strange story. I heard of one guy who decided to pull out of The Munga and was trying to talk another competitor into quitting as well. Sis! If someone tries to talk a hole in your head immediately strike them from your Christmas card list. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 5 More blah blah blah)

Ditch Tonto. 

Get used to riding on your own. Even if you are planning on riding with someone during the race, get used to riding in your own space. If you need safety in numbers find some riding partners that don't suffer from separation anxiety and ride near each other without the need to be in constant contact. Endurance events are solo events and the chances are that you will spend most of the ride on your own. Even if you plan to ride with someone there are going to be times when you become separated. In fact, you will probably have times where you just need to be on your own. I love riding on my own but it wasn't like that in the early days. When you are on your own you get to ride at your own pace without having to match someone else's speed or stopping schedule. 

Uncomplicate Everything.

It goes without saying that you need to get your equipment choices optimised for the race. There is nothing worse than carrying something from the start to the finish only to realise that you didn't need it at all. How do you know what you need? Experience. I have improved in this department over the years but still haven't got it perfect. That said, I would rather take slightly too much gear than too little. 

Leave your heart rate monitor at home. 

It's a distraction that adds no value to your race. A heart rate monitor is a training tool. It's not that useful for endurance racing. In the short term you have to deal with cardiovascular drift which skews the reading. By days two and three all it will tell you it that you are tired which is consistent with how you feel. 

I have had many conversations with people who think they have heart problems because they can't get their heart rates up when they have been riding for days. The funny thing is that no matter how I try and convince them that it's normal they aren't convinced. Most people understand the basic principle that we have a fixed volume of blood in our system and as exercise increases the demand for oxygen and nutrients our heart increases its rate to match the demand. Once you have shredded your legs over a couple of days the muscles simply cannot perform at peak and require fewer nutrients and less oxygen. Therefore, heart rate will naturally decrease. There's nothing wrong with the heart it is simply maintaining an equilibrium between requirement and delivery of oxygen and nutrients. I have watched people pack up and leave a race because they think they have heart issues when there is nothing wrong with them at all. Do yourself a favour, avoid unnecessary headspace scribbling and leave your training tool at home. 

Rid yourself of the NEED for anything. 

This point might be a bit contentious but hear me out.

If you are one of those people that need XYZ drink on the bike and ABC recovery shake every time you get off the bike, perhaps it's time to think about it rationally. If you really think you can't ride without them then what are you going to do on The Munga? Yes, there is an energy drink and supplement sponsor involved in the race and you can use their products. But here's the point - all you actually NEED in your bottle is a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar. Salt for sweating losses and sugar for energy. Just sugar? Yup. Your muscles can't read labels and sugar is sugar no matter how you dress it up. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you ride with only salt and sugar (although I know people who do), just don't be fussy about what you use and don't have a melt down if you can't find the "right" stuff. By all means fill your bottles at the start with your sugar brand drink of choice and maybe take a few sachets along if you wish but it's not necessary. This is not a 3 or 4 hour race and I can assure you that even if you could carry your race juice of choice you are going to hate it after a few days. In summary, rid yourself of the burden of NEEDING anything and rather settle for what can be found along the way. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 4 - More of this and that)

I would like to disclose that I do not get to ride The Munga for free. I pay my way like regular folk. While on the subject of disclosures I should mention that neither I nor my immediate family work for or have shares in Tiger Brands the makers of Oros Orange Squash... my race bottle juice of choice - the race supplement of champions :-)

Back to the real stuff...

Rope in some Race Snakes. 

I have some riding buddies who are real powerhouses but are not endurance athletes. I like to organise occasional rides with them so that I get a reality check. It's too easy to assume you are going along at a reasonable pace on training rides when in fact you falling into the trap of LSD pace. As I said in the previous post, if you train slow you race slow. Going out with some short distance race snakes is going to help you stay race pace calibrated. That's not to say that you will race at their pace, rather that you will better understand the pace from which you will dial back to get into a long sustainable effort. Dialling back from low effort = no effort - you may as well stay at home. 

Ride like a girl. Or rather, first think and reason like a girl when you enter races. Among my friends the saying "you are riding like a girl" is a compliment. We know many girls who give us guys carrots every time. I have been beaten by girls on both Munga's. There's no shame in that. Rather, there is respect for how tough the ladies are. 

Over the two Munga events there has only been one lady who has not managed to finish the race and she is one of the toughest competitors I know. She just had a bad day at the office. On the other hand the number of guys who haven't finished runs into the many dozens. Why?

Guys are essentially a bit dumb and driven by sense dulling testosterone. For some I think the idea of hanging a Munga race board on the wall of their pub at home (or their metaphorical equivalent) sounds like a really cool thing to do so they click on the enter button. After shelling out some Rands they tell their mates and high fives are unleashed and beer caps popped and after a bout of mind dulling inebriation a mate or two decide to join in the fray resulting in a few wide eyed and totally unprepared riders sitting at the first water point on race day wondering what happened. Ladies on the other hand are more inclined to mull over the implications of the commitment. They think through the challenges and make the decision to enter knowing that it is going to be tough, it's going to hurt and tears might be shed but they are determined to finish at all costs. 

Lads, if you are going to enter The Munga then stop and reason like a girl. Think about it chaps - bragging rights only apply to finishers. 

Make some tough choices. 

If I've heard it once I've heard it a hundred times. - "let's take the shortest and quickest route back!"

I understand that the end of a long ride is always the hardest and there is nothing you want to do more than get off the bike and into a soothing shower. Toughness isn't dispensed for free at the local chemist or cement supplier. It's bought at a price and that price is discomfort. No matter how hard, far, or miserable your training ride is, it's always going to be easier than a tough day on The Munga. When you get to that part of your training ride where you decide on the route home choose the hardest and longest option. When you are sitting at home later that evening, after that soothing shower, you will realise that tough choices, if they don't kill you, make you stronger. 

If I plan to do a tough ride I map out a gnarly route beforehand and if during the course of the ride I feel like death warmed up I stick with the plan and suffer through it. On race day there are no soft options - get used to it.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 3 - A bit of this and that)

There are any number of reasons why you are reading this post. Maybe you are bored and it's a great time filler, or perhaps you just like reading my musings. It could even be because you are interested in my understanding of what it takes to compete in endurance events. Whatever the reason, welcome. 

Endurance racing adaption is poorly understood with little research to back it up. Try googling endurance racing tips and apart from some reasonable advice on Double Century and 24 hour racing (entry level endurance events) you are unlikely to find anything other than a few offering "the top 5 tips to successful endurance cycling." The first three bits of advice are typically; drink, stretch and eat. It's far easier to find a list of 30 things to do to ride a faster Argus or 947. 

What follows is my opinion based on years of experimentation, observation, and extensive field testing. As such, it constitutes empirical evidence rather than the trite information you are likely to dredge up on the internet. I will not tell you to "drink one bottle of water an hour" , or tell you that "by the time you feel thirsty it's too late". You certainly won't hear me prattle on about the right gels or carb energy bars to eat while riding - you are more likely to hear me elucidating about the pleasure (and therefore benefit) of poking a jam smeared roosterbrood down my throat sometime between midnight and sunrise or the simple joy of munching on a packet of crisps while seated in the shade of a doringbos. 

What you do with this information is entirely up to you. There is no one silver bullet that will make you good at the endurance game. Endurance adaption is a multi stranded bow. Below is an outline of the strands that work together for me. 

Most, if not all, good endurance athletes compete in a manner which is consistent with who they are in their day to day existence. They are tough nuggets, who are naturally wired for the task. Even so, they need to condition themselves and have a lot to learn when they first start plying their trade in the endurance arena. If you consider yourself an average Joe without natural endurance toughness there are things you can do to lessen the odds against you. If you, like me, aren't a dyed in the wool endurance athlete don't shy from the challenge because there are very few naturals out there and most of our fellow competitors are in the same boat as us. 

In my last post I covered how I go about training which, quite frankly is fairly unimpressive. This post was originally intended to address the mental challenges of endurance racing and how I go about addressing them. However, there are a few things I should have covered in the physical training preparation post but I forgot to put them in. We will begin by looking at those challenges. The physical and mental issues in many of them are well entangled. 

Replace your alarm clock with a sundial. 

If you are in the habit of waking up at 4 AM and going for a long ride then I hate you because you possess a level of discipline that I don't have. Envy aside, you need to prepare yourself for the heat you are going to encounter on The Munga. It gets quite warm. 45 degrees Celsius warm. 

As the Race approaches I keep a bike at the office and make a point of riding in the middle of the day particularly when it is blisteringly hot. There are a number of benefits. Firstly, you simply get used to the idea of riding in the heat and find a rhythm that keeps fatigue and pace in balance. But the biggest benefit is the physiological adaptation that takes place. Physiological Adaption - sounds cool doesn't it! The definition is more impressive: "Physiological Adaptations are internal systematic responses to external stimuli in order to help an organism maintain homeostasis."

I have included the definition so that you understand that while some of the things I do might seem a little weird there is some science behind them. 

Among the many benefits of heat acclimatisation is improved thermal regulation and sodium retention which means you are less likely to suffer from cramp and heat stroke. The best part about this adaption is that it only takes a couple of weeks to reach peak adaption. Cautiously combine this with dehydration training (covered in the previous post) and you'll cope with the heat without worrying about dying a lonely death on the side of a deserted Karoo farm road. Here's a link to fill in the details:

Go for a ride when your sundial stops working.

In other words, do some training rides after the sun goes down.

Most cyclists have never ridden at night. I have taken many people for their first night ride and the response has always been positive. I love riding at night. It goes without saying that it is very different to riding during the day as your world shrinks to a small circle of light. Most of my night rides are off-road. It helps keep my night navigation skills sharp (for other non-GPS races) and I get used to how the terrain looks under lights. You will soon find the right lighting solution. I always recommend a combination of bar and helmet mounted lights. The bar mounted lights should be brighter than those on your helmet so that you can pick up the detail. Don't take my word for it, get out there and find out for yourself. Better still, if you live in Johannesburg join me for a night ride. 

The best time to move during The Munga is during the cool of the night. I love riding at night and have become very adept at it. I'm very ordinary while the sun is up but you'll have to ride like crazy if you want to catch me at night.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 2 - Physical Training)

Now that you've landed on this page we need to get a few things clear. If you are a proper athlete then there is nothing of value to be found in these pages. This blog is intended for people like me - ordinary amateur cyclists who face the challenge of trying to shoehorn training into the regular clutter of life with a view to achieving better than ordinary results. And let's face it, if you can finish The Munga you are certainly well above average.

As discussed in the previous post I assume you know how to ride and have a race or two under your belt. If time permits keep up your regular habit of going to the gym, doing spin/Cadence/Wattbike sessions, or doing Pilates. These are all good training. Your challenge is how to translate shorter distance racing into non-stop distance.

Endurance adaptation is as much physical as it is mental. We will deal with the physical aspect first.

It seems the go-to tool for most people considering an endurance race is long slow distance (LSD) training. I have earned my distance stripes over the years so LSD training no longer forms any part of my training regime.

I have mixed feelings about promoting LSD as an effective training tool for endurance racing. LSD, in my humble opinion, is how you start your training season after a lengthy lay off - it's low intensity base training. In Gauteng we have great winter weather so we don't go into training hibernation. That being the case the use of LSD is questionable.

I know a number of people who ride endurance events whose staple training is LSD with a bit of hill work tossed in.

Sounds okay doesn't it. But here's my difficulty. If you train to ride slow you are going to race slow. During endurance events I always race slower than I train.

The most I will ride in training is 5 or 6 hours. Notice that I defined my maximum training effort as time and not distance. That's the first adaptation you need to make - distance in training becomes irrelevant, it's all about time in the saddle. In an endurance race most athletes travel at about the same speed. The biggest difference in how many hours they spend moving forward. When training, the terrain will dictate the distance covered in the time set aside.

I get no added benefit from going over 6 hours during a training ride. I simply end up tired and slow and off my bike for a few days while I recover. Fortunately I know I can ride for a long time during a race. In race conditions I'm good for 36 hours and on occasion have stretched that to 42. Knowing that I can do that takes away the necessity to ride like that in training. On race day I back off on my usual training effort which translates into a massive multiplier effect on the number of hours I can pedal before it's time to sleep.

It's a huge advantage knowing that you can ride forever. However, most people don't know their limit. This is one area where limited LSD will help. For a conditioned athlete a long slow ride is primarily mental training - there's little to no physical benefit - but It's comforting to know that you aren't going to collapse at the end of a 12 hour ride. Go and do at least one long ride. You could hop on your bike and go tackle a 12 hour training ride or you could be a little more methodical and avoid the very real risk of overtraining injuries.

Alex Harris (Mr Munga) understands that riding long distances is the experience of the few. With that in mind he has organised Mini Munga training rides. If you need to get your head and body around the concept of doing big rides then you should tag along on these rides. They start out at around 6 hours and over the course of a few months step up until you bang out a 12 hour ride. They are not particularly challenging or fast and are well within the grasp of a Munga entrant. If you are unable to complete a Mini Munga training ride then you need to rethink either your training programme or your decision to enter the race.

Once you know you can in fact ride for an extended period the next imperative is to start working on your effort and speed remembering that you are going to race well below this effort. I focus on riding shorter distances with an average heart rate of 80% of my max HR. My typical training ride is around 3 hours. The 5 to 6 hour rides are used occasionally as a system check - I ride them hard to see what sort of condition I am in. In general I keep my rides short. The vast majority of them on my mountain bike. No magic there, I simply prefer riding on dirt. A solid road bike session would be equally beneficial, particularly for a race like The Munga which is flat and fast. You need to get used to turning your legs over for hours at a time. Closer to the race it's better to do most of your riding on your mountain bike to get used to the set up and condition your arms and neck, particularly if you are planning on using aero bars which I recommend you do.

I would also recommend a couple of shorter non-stop races to test your endurance adaption under real race conditions and start working endurance into your very fabric. The one thing that you cannot train for is sleep deprivation and it's essential that you figure out how to deal with it. These races are an ideal opportunity to do so. The chances are that the first few times it will be hit and miss. Rather get the big kinks out before you get to The Munga. I've been at this game for 10 years and I'm still refining my techniques.

Among my regular races are the Freedom Challenge pair of Race to Cradock (575 km) and the Race to Rhodes (475 km) These are self navigated (without GPS) which make them particularly tough.

A far better starting point is another pair of races that I do - Durban Dash Down and Durban Dash Up by Massive Adventures. They are races staged between Jhb and Dbn over 615 km. They are GPS guided and are long enough to test your resolve and actually short enough to do non-stop. A great opportunity to get used to a little discomfort, learn the techniques of a power-nap next to the road, and deal with the monotony of cycling through the night into the next day when your brain just wants to shut down and sleep. Last year the Down version took me 28 hours and the Up version 36 hours. They are great races on which to cut your endurance teeth. In fact, they are great conditioning races and I will be doing them again this year. The idea of riding from Johannesburg to Durban or Durban to Johannesburg in one effort is captivating. It's a great story to share at parties as most people have driven between those cities and appreciate the distance involved. If that doesn't tickle your fancy then go look at the other offering at

To round out this post I will briefly mention a few other critical training techniques I use which I believe contribute to my ability to punch above my weight in endurance events.

Firstly, I train dehydrated. For rides of 2 hours or less I ride without water. If I can grab a cup of coffee along the way I will head out for a ride of up to 4 hours without water. Most people will shudder at the thought as we have all been indoctrinated by the twin mantra's of "Drink a bottle every hour" and, "By the time you are thirsty it's too late." Go google the subject and these themes ooze out everywhere. New research pours cold water on that advice (pun intended). I started riding without water years ago and subsequently found a study done Down Under that highlighted the benefits of training into a state of dehydration. I had stumbled onto something and it has proven to be a huge plus for me. Here are a couple of articles on this subject:

It would be irresponsible for me to advocate for anyone else to train into a state of dehydration, so the safe approach is to stick with the old advice of telling everyone to stay hydrated. But give it some thought and decide what works for you. It certainly works for me. The key is to only dehydrate during training. During an extended race you cannot deal with a hydration deficit so I make sure I drink enough from the start to match my losses. One of the added benefits is that I never panic about how much water I have left. I know I can go for a few hours before running into trouble. My plan is to always have sufficient water but in the event that something goes wrong, such as leaving Sutherland without filling my bottles in last year's race, I'm able to put it aside and focus on moving forward.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of Banting, particularly for endurance athletes. I have been Banting for many years and my race performance has improved in leaps and bounds since I cut down on my carbohydrate intake. Once again, the old adages are no longer relevant. The saying of "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is simply not true for me. As a rule I only eat once a day - dinner. I can ride for 4 or 5 hours with nothing more than a cup of unsweetened tea for breakfast. For most people that's very odd as they wouldn't dream of riding that far without breakfast to sustain them through the ride. Banting makes your body efficient at metabolising fat. When you are Banting adapted you aren't dependent on glycogen to fuel your muscles, you have a few weeks supply of muscle fuel stored up as fat. Endurance cycling effort is low enough that your body can metabolise fat at a rate that can match your rate of burn. That said, when racing I put my Banting diet on hold and eat anything that is available or offered. If a chunk of cheese or a huge knob of butter happens to be on offer it is always the food of choice. The most important aspect is that while racing I am never overwhelmed by hungry and therefore am not distracted by the need for food. I simply eat as opportunities arise.

Thirdly, ride without stopping. I mentioned earlier that I stop for coffee during my rides. Apart from the coffee stop I try and move without stopping at all. Maintaining momentum is a key part of endurance racing. If you stop and wait for riding buddies or stop to stretch or eat, or are simply in the habit of putting your foot down every 30 minutes to look around it is going to cost you many hours during the race. Work at being efficient. During the race your transition times are going to become critical. There are 10 official water points and 5 race villages. Assuming you are going to stop and sleep 3 times that leaves 12 transitions that can either work for or against you.

Lastly, know your way around your bike. Some of us are blessed with great mechanical skills and it pays dividends when things go wrong. Experience has taught me that things will go wrong. I know some people who don't know how to plug a puncture, break a chain, or replace and adjust brake pads. I'm not even sure they have the requisite tools to do those tasks. These are essential skills particularly when the distance between some race villages is over 200 kilometres. If you are a mechanical dunce then sacrifice some trail time for some workshop time. Ask your local bike shop or a buddy to teach you the basics of how to keep your bike going while out on the trail.

So nothing amazing about that advise. It's broad brush strokes because I don't think there is a one size fits all approach. Endurance events are fairly new and not particularly well understood. Adventure racers know how to do this stuff and they rise to the top in long distance cycle races simply because they know how to deal with discomfort and that's key because the real challenge of endurance racing takes place between your ears. In the next post I will attempt to unpack the mental challenges as I understand them.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 1)

A few days ago I received the following message - "Please would you consider posting about how you prepare for something like the Munga? And about what the day or two after look like for you."

Interesting... there is a big difference between "how YOU prepare" (as in me) and "how TO prepare" (normal folk) ... this might end up a case of, do as I say and not as I do. Let's start with the second part.

Post-Race Recovery.
After I get off my bike at the finish line I stay away from my bike for at least a week. Mostly because my backside is sore and also because I just need a break to let my body recover. I suppose I should have a post-race routine that includes stretching, massage and other clever stuff like ice baths and recovery drinks, but, as you are about to discover, I'm both unscientific and unmethodical in my approach to cycling. I simply sloth around and eat whatever I fancy. To entertain myself I put my feet up and start writing my race blog.

It's hard enough getting your head around a race like The Munga. If you have enough head space left to be systematic immediately post-race then I reckon you haven't raced hard enough. You should leave everything out on the trail and finish hollow but happy. If it makes you happy then, by all means, have a massage and drink your fill of recovery shakes. I'm not convinced it serves a useful purpose but what do I know. I'd sooner have a milkshake and a side of fries before falling down on the carpet for a good snooze. I like to keep it simple. I'll touch on the subject of simplicity a bit later.

Race Preparation.
Right up front I should tell you that it has been said of me that my training is both insufficient (not enough) and inadequate (unstructured) to prepare for any form of racing. My physical race preparation is minimal. I generally ride 2 or 3 times a week with my average training ride being around 55 to 60 km's - go look on Strava.

Ten years ago when I was training for the Epic the general consensus was that you should be training for at least 15 hours a week and I did just that. These days I manage between 6 and 7 hours. I know that's not a lot. However, I rode 11 000 km last year and half of that was in competition riding, the majority of it during endurance races.

After 12 years of riding, and I guess a whole pile of endurance enabling DNA, I know I can turn my legs over for at least 42 hours before I need to sleep. In the early days I would do training rides of 200 km. I found them quite exhausting. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but I don't do that any more. I race a handful of 500+ nonstop races every year so they help keep my legs in endurance shape.

Race preparation includes equipment, body, and mind. I have covered equipment choices in an earlier blog. It was written before I had done my first Munga. With two Munga's under my belt my equipment choices remain the same so I won't cover that again. It was a 3 part post which started here:

Transitioning to Endurance Distance.

If you're intending to do The Munga then I assume you have done your fair share of one day or multi day stage races. If you are a race virgin then I suggest you bump The Munga down a few notches on your bucket list - it's not the ideal way to get into racing. Marathon distance racing and endurance racing are different animals. I have ridden with marathon distance podium finishers and have watched them fade as the distance ratchets up.

What if you don't yet have any distance in your legs? Well, you have to start somewhere. In the next post we will discuss the options for getting some distance into your legs and head.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

In memory of Andrew Bradford

Thursday I woke to the news that a cyclist out with friends for an early morning ride had become the latest victim of a hit and run incident. The news updates that unfolded during the day prepared us for the worst. Friday morning the news was bleak, he hadn't made it through the night.

Tragedies like this sadden us. Those of us who ride are shaken to the core. But this was worse as it was close to home. Not only was it just up the road, but I know most of the guys riding in that group including the victim.

The story is carried as 'another cyclist has been killed on our roads' and online forums pour out sympathy for a 'fellow cyclist'. There's nothing wrong with that but to me, and others who knew Andrew Bradford, he was so much more than that.

When you have spent time with a person, when you have ridden with them and shared a joke, things are different. They inflate becoming so much more than just a fellow cyclist or a tragic statistic - they take on texture and become real people who, like us, are sons, husbands, fathers, and friends with a multiplicity of achievements, ambitions, dreams and failures.

I have followed Andrew's exploits over the years as he embarked on one adventure ride after another and have even raced against him. He, like me and a couple of guys he was riding with on Thursday morning, was one of a small group of riders who have ridden the Freedom Challenge.

Our last encounter was during an endurance race last year. When our paths crossed we took time out to chat. In the context of the race we were adversaries, but in our shared passion for riding we were fellow travellers.

What happened on Thursday morning was more than an accident. Andrews life was taken as a direct result of the reckless choice of an individual who, after colliding with him, fled the scene.

I am left with a feeling of profound sadness over Andrew's tragic death. Alex Harris summed up how many of us feel when he wrote: "I am a man of faith and serve a mighty God. A God of miracles and mercy and a God who is a father. But I can't pretend to know why things happen or understand the reason."

I echo the closing words of Alex's post, "The world is short of one less decent human being today. Andrew was an amazing husband and awesome father. A model man and quiet mentor. So sorry friend, but there is no more traffic where you are now. Don't hold back!"

Alex's full post can be read here:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - All Done

Once I had made sure I was good for 3rd place I had dropped out of race mode. In doing so I had also lost my race routine. My usual morning routine includes switching my dynohub charger over from running my light to charging a power bank. When hooking up the flat power bank that had been powering my GPS through the night I would connect a fresh power bank to the GPS to keep it going through the day. Having forgotten to switch the batteries I was now sitting on the wrong side of Wellington with no idea of which way to go.

I swapped the cables around and rode ahead slowly while waiting for the GPS to power up. When it came on and I selected the route it was confused, it had me many miles away. I gave it a few minutes to figure out where I was. Thankfully it got back up to speed just before the first critical turn. From there on it got me to the finish without any further drama.

After traveling 1086 km with just 3 hours sleep I crossed the finish line where family and friends gave me a heroes welcome. I certainly wasn't a hero but they made me feel like one. Alex draped the number 3 medal around my neck and that was that. The race was over.

It had been an incredibly satisfying race. I had set out to finish 10 hours faster than the 85 hours it had taken me in 2015, and here I was at the finish line just inside of 73 hours. I had exceeded my own expectations and I suspect the expectations of a lot of other people who were following the race.

That I had finished 3rd overall and second in the men's race was of less importance. Those statistics are a blunt instrument with which to dissect ones achievement.

People say that even entering a race like The Munga makes you a champion. That's not true. What makes you a champion is starting a race like The Munga and taking yourself to your limit and then a little bit beyond. That being the case, I have to say I was followed to the finish line by a few dozen champions and even a few champions that didn't even make it to the finish. I would count myself least among all The Munga champions.

There were riders who finished in front of and behind me whose personal achievements eclipsed mine. They suffered more and dug deeper. I am a seasoned endurance rider and knew what to expect from the race. Sure, day one was a shocker but there are always days that push you to your limits. The trick is to know how to survive those tough times. I've survived a good number of days that I would never like to repeat and I suspect there will be many tough days ahead in future events.

To all those riders who came away from The Munga with a sense that they had exceeded their own goals and expectations I salute you and extend my deepest respect and congratulations.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Bush Pubs, Rock People and Cowboys on Camels.

I had 72 km to get to the finish at Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Wellington. Apart from a few kilometres of gravel out of Esselfontein the rest of the route was on tar.

The first challenge was to survive the mayhem of Saturday morning traffic in Ceres. After the freedom of scribbling all over wide gravel roads for 1000 km I had to concentrate on keeping to the frayed edge of the road.

Not too soon I was climbing out of town and the traffic thinned out. Up ahead I could see another mountain biker out on his morning ride. At that point the road had widened and there was enough space to ride side by side inside the yellow line. I caught up and we chatted until he reached his destination at Olive Rock.

It was getting hot and the route had flattened out. I didn't mind the heat as much as I did the tedium. The lack of stimulus had me nodding off. Every kilometre became a challenge. I started looking around for somewhere to get a Coke.

At one point, on the approach to the Bainskloof Pass, I stopped to give an oncoming vehicle the right of way over a narrow bridge. As the car came abreast of me it stopped. The driver had obviously stopped earlier and spoken to either Heinrich or Jeannie on his way over the pass as he knew about the race. We traded stories for a few minutes before he moved on. Just before he left he told me I could get something to drink at the Calabash Bush Pub which was just around the corner.

A few minutes later I was walking through the yard of the bush pub trying to figure out where I could order something. There was no obvious entrance. I eventually found someone and they were able to exchange a handful of coins for a cool can of Coke. It transpires that they had suffered a massive fire a few weeks earlier. Fires and thatched roofs don't go well together.

The next job was to tackle the 14 km climb to the top of Bainskloof Pass. The gradient isn't too challenging but I was tired and I knew the reduced speed was going to have me struggling with sleep monsters rather than leg fatigue. And then something weird happened. Instead of nodding off I started seeing things that I knew didn't exist. I could see people in all manner of poses leaning up against the walls of the pass. As I got close they would disappear to be replaced with normal rock formations. It wasn't the first time I had had that experience.

Earlier in the day just before the Race Village at Esselfontein I saw a cowboy sitting on a camel. He was waving his hat at me. I knew it wasn't real but the more I stared at it the more detailed it became - getting closer I could see he wore a checkered shirt. And he was huge. As huge as a tree. As it turned out it was a tree but I didn't know that until I was 20 metres away.

After encountering dozens of 'rock people' I finally reached the top of the pass and was keen to reap the reward of my efforts. That reward came in the form of a 14 km descent into Wellington.

With the added stimulus that came with speed and tight switchbacks the 'rock people' were now a thing of the past. I made good time into Wellington. All I had to do was follow the route as it wiggled through the backstreets and on to Diemersfontein. On The Munga you don't wing it with the Navigation. The rules are clear, you follow the route as supplied. It would be a doddle, or so I thought. With 5 km to go my GPS turned off.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Last Race Village.

The route threaded between the vines of the farm Uitkoms before heading up the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass. It's only 3 km long and although not too challenging I walked the last kilometre. I could have ridden it but I wasn't in a hurry and it would have be a proper grind as the gearing on my bike 1x11 setup was more suited to the flat and fast sections of the Karoo.

Topping out I got back on my bike and made the best of a good tar road section before picking my way through the vineyards and grasslands to the last Race Village at Esselfontein Farm.

The guys manning the station were full of energy. I guess the station had only just opened with Jeannie and Heinrich having passed through a short while before. Nevertheless, they were in Energiser Bunny mode and had the stove and coffee machine fired up as soon as I walked through the door.

We were sitting around the table chatting when someone said something that at first made no sense to me - "You know you could still win this race?" I guess I had a very obvious 'Huh!' expression my face. They went on to explain that Jeannie had battled with a tyre problem and her and Heinrich had only left the support station a short while before I arrived. I turns out that a 'short while' was more than a handful of minutes and I had already been there for 20 minutes. They also commented that Heinrich was exhausted and that I looked fine. I might have looked fine but my legs and body were very aware of the 1000 kilometres that lay behind. A quick look at the tracking site confirmed that Heinrich was well out of reach so I asked for another cup of coffee and enjoyed their company for a while longer.

Racing The Munga 2016 - Leaving the Desert Behind

As a rule, the Karoo doesn't let go without a fight. To escape its clutches I needed to get to the Karoopoort Pass 40 km from the Padstal. This year I was lucky - the road surface had been recently upgraded and was in perfect condition, there was no headwind, and the sun wasn't up yet which meant it was still cool.

I tucked up tight on the aero bars and treated the 40 km as a time trial. I escaped lightly. Later that day the temperature soared and together with a nasty headwind made the going very difficult for those that followed. I was fortunate to get through that section of the race while the Karoo slept.

I was climbing up the Karoopoort Pass as the sun peeped over the horizon. A short while later, approaching the settlement of Matjiesrivier, my phone started beeping which meant I had signal. I dug the phone out of my pocket and called my friend Steve who is an avid race dot-watcher to ask him how far behind the next rider was. He was already on his bike doing CycleLab Club marshal duty so he wasn't near a computer to check the race tracking site. But he told me the last time he looked I had opened a 40 km gap. That was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Since leaving Sutherland I had no idea where anyone was except for Rafeeq who I last saw 40 km out of town. Since then I had been running blind. For the best part of 10 hours I had been riding flat out covering almost 200 km. I had just over 100 km to the finish so I knew that barring a major catastrophe I'd done enough to secure a 3rd place finish.

I sat up and pedalled along at a more sedate pace. Now that the pressure was off I was able to take stock. First thing I noticed was that my backside was really sore. Tucking up in the time trial position for hours at a time is really great for speed but your rump takes a hammering. Riding over on a section of tar I also noticed that the dust had dried my chain out and it was making a dreadful noise. It was time to stop and lubricate. Bum and chain got a liberal dose of their respective grease.

I spent a few minutes standing quietly beside my bike. The landscape had changed dramatically in the last 45 minutes - Karoo scrub had given way to vineyards. And with vineyards come people. After the wide open expanse of the Karoo with the sparse distribution of houses it was odd to see dozens of dwellings clustered together on the valley floor.

A passing car, radio blaring, reminded me that isolation of the last few days was now a thing of the past. The closer I got to the finish the more I would be sharing the road with other vehicles. I had mixed emotions. I wanted the race to be over but the experience of the last few days had become a sort of micro-existence of ride-eat-sleep which had its own comforting rhythm. I had no idea what news was dominating the headlines or which national team was playing who. If there was another Brexit or Van Rooyen weekend special going down I didn't know anything about it and didn't actually care. That was a different world and was of no importance in my world as it existed in that moment

It was nice to have the pressure off and enjoy a quiet few minutes but something was missing. At first I didn't know what it was and then it suddenly dawned on me. I was missing the sound of mountain bike tyres rolling over gravel. That sound had been my constant companion for the better part of 67 hours. It was the sound of progress. The sound of getting closer to the finish.

I could see the Bo-Swaarmoed Pass a few kilometres up ahead. It was going to be a bit of a grind getting up but I knew it was mostly downhill from there to the next Race Village at Esselfontein Farm just outside of Ceres. I hopped back on my bike and pointed it toward the Pass.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Tankwa Karoo Ahoy!

In no time at all the road flattened out signalling the end of the Ouberg Pass. I knew from the previous year that there was a climb to get to the next water point. I was obviously in better shape this year as the race flags planted at the gate of the designated water point came into sight without me being aware of any appreciable ascent.

I made my way down the driveway to the farmhouse and found my host's (Host +1 rider who had withdrawn from the race earlier and had made his way down the trail and was roped in for host duty) relaxing around a fire. They were surprised to see me as they expected I would take a lot longer. In no time at all they had a coffee in my hand and a roosterbrood, liberally smeared with delicious jam, stuffed in my mouth.

The setting was idyllic - a cool star studded night with no wind and the inviting crackle of a warming fire. Not for the first time in the race I wished I could put my feet up and enjoy the rich embrace of platteland hospitality.

I lingered longer than planned but riding out of the farm I was still alone in 3rd place without another rider in sight. I picked up where I had left off and pushed hard to make good on my advantage. I had 70 km to the next water point and I was set on going as fast as I could to make the best use of the night hours. I had covered this section in daylight in 2015 when it was unbearably hot. With the sun many hours away from peeping over the horizon I found the cool night to my liking.

Whenever I stopped to open a gate I looked back to see if there were any bike lights behind. So far I couldn't see any. I knew there was a ridge up ahead which, once crossed, would have me heading down to the flat and harshest part of the Tankwa Karoo. It would then be a 40 km pedal to get to the next water point at the Tankwa Padstal. Walking up the ridge I finally caught sight of a pursuing light
on the plain below. They were still a way back, I estimated about 10 km. Too close.

After going through the last gate at the top of the ridge I dropped onto my aero bars and rode like there was no tomorrow. The jeep track wasn't perfectly smooth but I was able to maintain a good pace which I kept up for the better part of two hours. Powering along I had a big smile on my face. This section in the heat of the day had worked me over in 2015. With the night temperature sitting at 20 celsius I ticked the miles off with ease.

Pulling up to the iconic Tankwa Padstal while trying to remember what the arrangements were for nighttime arrival I saw a guy with a flashlight signalling to me from a building adjacent to the shop. I was intrigued, how did he know I was coming? There was no cell phone signal and yet here he was ready and willing to wait on me. A tug on the generator pull start had the coffee machine sputtering away while he dished up some food and prepared me a pancake. On inquiring I was told that Jeannie and Heinrich were almost 2 hours ahead.

I asked him how he knew I was coming and he said he could see my lights. I asked him to show me. He walked outside and pointed into the darkness, "I could see you there", he said. It turns out he saw me coming for the best part of an hour owing to the flat open terrain.

I decided this was the perfect opportunity for a quick power nap as the next 40 kilometres was going to be flat and tedious. I was also expecting dreadful corrugations but the road I had ridden in on looked like it had been upgraded. I hoped the road works extended all the way along that torturous road.

I didn't know how far back the next rider was and as there was no cell phone reception I had no way of finding out, but a 60 minute heads-up would work. I asked to be woken if there were any approaching lights. I put my coffee aside, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and curled up on the floor. In a matter of seconds I was asleep.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Getting My Flow On

Just short of the Ouberg Pass that would have us plummeting off the Roggeveld Mountains Rafeeq slowed up. He muttered something about being either tired or cold. My advise to him was to stop short of the top as it makes sense to leave a small climb section to warm up on before the descent which was bound to cause chill. I've made the mistake of stopping to rest on a downhill section once before when I was cold. It's not a mistake I am in any hurry to repeat.

I started down the pass on my own. It's an exhilarating 10 km ride dropping over 800 metres off the Karoo plateau. In daylight the views are spectacular. As it was pitch black I had no views to admire. That's not to say my mind was a blank canvas, far from it.

The Munga, like most races, hands out finishers medals. But these are not your common or garden variety that you toss in your "I Did It" box. No, The Munga medals are hand crafted things of beauty. They are Russell Scott masterpieces, spartan in design and individually cast in steel to reflect the genesis of The Munga. It's the kind of medal you want to possess. More than that, they are individually numbered. My first goal was to secure a second medal.

Last time out I got medal number 9 and was really chuffed to finish in the top 10. Looping over the last climb and dropping into the start of the Ouberg Pass, 58 hours into the race, I was placed 3rd. All of a sudden 3 looked like a much better number than 4 or 5 or 6 or 7. If I wanted to snap the elastic attached to Rafeeq, Tim, Sthembiso and Kevin then this was my opportunity. I was fresh and night riding is my playground of choice.

I'm not a great technical rider but you wouldn't have thought so had you watched me thread my down those mountains. It was a real buzz. There is a condition known as Flow or being In The Zone. Per Wikipedia - "It is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."

There was no question about it, I was in The Zone.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Racing The Munga 2016 - Heading Out of Sutherland

At 7:36 PM I had been at the Sutherland Race Village for 2 hours. In that time I had eaten, showered, and managed to get 90 minutes of shut eye. I was feeling great. All that was needed was a quick coffee and I would be on my way to the finish via Race Village 5 in Ceres. I still had 293 km to bang out but in the context of the race it seemed close enough to touch. As I entered the dining area I saw that Tim Deane was getting his gear together. We chatted briefly before he announced that he was heading out. I poured the coffee down my throat, signed the register and followed him out the door. 

The race register revealed that the leading pair of Heinrich and Jeannie had left 3 hours ahead of me, and Rafeeq, in third place, had a 22 minute gap. I also noticed that Tim had only arrived a short while before so was treating Sutherland as a quick pit stop. Sthembiso was still in the building and Kevin had arrived short while before and had yet to sign out. 

As I rode out of town just behind Tim the cogs in my head started turning. My assessment of the race based on the info on the race register was as follows. Heinrich and Jeannie were going to finish 1 and 2. The next clump of riders vying for third spot were: Rafeeq, Tim, Kevin, Sthembiso and me. The other 4 were all strong riders and every one of them a faster and stronger rider than I was. I would have to pull a rabbit out of the hat if I wanted to beat any of them to the finish. 

After giving this some thought my attention was diverted. I suddenly realised that I had left Sutherland with only half a bottle of water. My normal practice is to fill my bottles before I do anything else when arriving at a water point or Race Village - you can make do without food but can't survive without water. When I arrived in Sutherland I figured it would be silly to fill my bottles while it was still hot and I would rather fill them with cold water just before leaving. Being distracted by the presence of Tim it had completely slipped my mind. I wondered what my chances were of finding a reservoir to fill up. The difficulty with that option was that it was getting dark and unless a reservoir fell squarely into the arc of my bike light it was going to be almost impossible to find one. 

While mulling over my predicament I saw a bicycle light up ahead. I increased my pace and caught up. It was Rafeeq. In catching up to Rafeeq I noticed that I had pulled an appreciable gap on Tim. I figured that Tim was probably a bit fatigued. In fairness we all were but I probably had the upper hand in that situation having just had a good sleep. 

I had caught up to Rafeeq at the top of the gentle climb out of town. I was surprised how quickly I had closed on him. He must have signed the register and then taken his time to head out. Once I had caught up he was spurred into action and had no difficulty in setting a quick pace which I was happy to match as it was putting more distance between me and Tim. We barrelled along tickling off the distance with ease. 

I had the race distances stuck on my top tube and worked out that the next water point was only 69 km from Sutherland. Half a bottle of water wasn't a great deal but it was well after sunset and the temperature had fallen significantly. I also knew that the route over those 69 km was predominantly downhill. At the speed we were going it was going to take just over 3 hours to get there. I make a point of doing my training rides with little or no water so wasn't too fazed. I put the water situation out of my mind and focussed on the riding which was fast and exhilarating. 

The mountains were delicately outlined in the fading light. It was a beautiful evening and I looked forward to making the most of the clear cool night that lay ahead.