Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Munga Musings - Guest Post 1

The aim of this blog is to entertain, inform and equip people in their understanding of what it takes to survive an endurance MTB event. 

To date I've stuck with my understanding but very little of what I have had to say is original, it's a collection of ideas and techniques that I've gleaned over the years by rubbing shoulders with like minded individuals. As ideas of equipment choice and strategy have percolated down through the years some have endured and others have been filtered out. Even so, it's a dynamic sport in that every year we enhance our understanding of what constitutes the "perfect" ride.

The so-called perfect ride is different things to different people. For some it's simply to finish within the allocated cutoff time. I have to confess that while I understand that approach, and have given people the just-make-sure-you-finish advice I personally don't resonate with that sentiment—probably because at my age I don't have time on my side and the iterative  approach of bag a medal and then go back and try harder next time is a waste of the racing years I have left. 

I came across some musings of a guy who will be racing the Munga for the first time this year. It will also be his first endurance event. He has stated that he wants to do his first Munga as fast as possible knowing that when he finished he has delivered his perfect race without a single wasted minute. That's a big ask for a Munga rookie and I caught my attention.  

As you read his musings it seems that he has left no stone unturned in his quest to go big. His ambitions stop short of a podium finish but he is determined to race hard. He covers many of the topics I was going to give a refresher on and does it far better than I can. I've decided, with his permission, to post his musings here. 

If you want to race the Munga it's full of gems. If you are simply interested in reading Munga related stuff you'll be properly satisfied by his literary prowess. It's good writing and I found myself going back to read it a couple of times. 

Without further ado let's kick off with the first of Carlo Gonzaga's musings.

MyMunga - Carlo Gonzaga 

Munga musings from a novice

Part 1 of [it's too early to tell


"Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success."  Supposedly the text of a recruitment ad placed by Ernst Shackleton when assembling his team for his 1914 South Pole expedition.  Those were the days when ships were made from wood and men from steel…and sheep had no reason to be scared.  

There is a likeness to The Munga.  While not months of pain (the world does move faster in the 2000's) the journey does appear to have its unfair share of hazards – corrugations like the waves of the south seas; enough dirt to fill that big hole in Kimberley; and wind.  Not just any wind – this wind is apparently from hell itself.  Hot and filled with vengeance it follows you around threatening to boil something.   A little like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.   

Last year it rained - in the Karoo.  The days get over 50 degrees (not Fahrenheit, the other one) and when all you've got is a postage stamp sized buff even the Karoo gets cold at night.  You are not assured of finishing:  attrition rates are probably the highest of any race on the continent.  In the 2016 edition the wind claimed the scalps of twenty percent of the field.  Within 100km's – that's the first 100km's.   Terrifying stuff really. 

And, if you finish, you won't find yourself arriving to thunderous applause from crowds on the grandstand.  Nor to refreshing Woolies branded soft drink and a nice cold towel.  Instead, you'll most likely only be greeted by a chap called Alex, standing next to his bakkie, who absolutely will clap you in.  Oh, and you get a medal.  If you happen to be the first soul that Alex claps in, you also get a piece of railway line as a trophy.  

"So, what made you enter?"  This is normally asked with a side order of sarcasm and a hint of a chuckle.  My response of late has simply been that I'm having a mid-life crisis.   People chuckle some more, nod in agreement, and lower my perceived IQ a few points.  

My pedals stopped turning in anger in March 2010 roughly at the same time I crossed the finish line of my first and last Cape Epic mountain bike race.  To be clear, I never raced, I participated.  Role forward eight years and I had just clicked the pay button on internet banking – reference "MungaEntryFee".   At that point the longest I'd ridden my bike in one go was about 120km – which I'm sure was one of the stages in the Epic or the Cape Pioneer.   I'd certainly never found a need to mount a light onto my bicycle, preferringsunlight to light my way.  I'd certainly never had bags of clothing on my bike  the only time clothing has been on my bike was when I hung some over it to dry.  

Roll forward to October and it's a little under two months togo until the sun is directly overhead in Bloemfontein and Alex Harris pats us on the bum and gives us all sorts of good wishes, knowing full well that wishes don't convert into watts.  

By that point I will probably have done about 5600km in nine months of training.  For some perspective, for the three months of December, January and February I totalled 48,5km.   Like a good South African politician, a little knowledge can get you far.  But a lot of knowledge can just make you shit yourself.   To paraphrase US General Rumsfeld (he of Weapons of Mass Destruction fame): "there are known knowns, but there are also unknown unknowns".  As a newbie to endurance cycling and a Munga first timer I can say with a fair amount of precision that I don't know what I don't know, and the more I know what I don't know the more I kakmyself.  

The format

The instructions appear easy to follow:  be at the start in Bloemfontein for a 12pm start on a Wednesday late in November.  Meet you at the finish in the Cape, hopefully before 12pm Monday, but definitely within 1100km.  Make sure your phone is charged and you have at least 2.5 litres of water and a space blanket.  You are also required to have a light "at the start" of the race.  This implies no-one really cares if you do or don't have it at the end or whether you like riding in the darkness or not.  You should have a GPS as the route is not marked, and you must attach the tracking device you are given to yourself.  Very importantly, you must check into, and ideally out of, five specific locations on route.  If you do the math that puts these checkpoints about 200km apart, give or take of few kilometres.  At 15km/h that's thirteen plus hours of riding in addition to a few rest stops.  There are other places to obtain water on route, but that's about it.   There are no stages.  No breaks.  1100km, one-time-shoe-shine.  And that's the beauty (I think) of this race.  You are treated like an adult.  You decide when you stop, whether you sleep or not and whether you give up or not.  

Do not mistake these checkpoints for a 'softening' of the difficulty of the race.  You see, at these points you will be beckoned by the alluring call of a warm shower, a spot to get horizontal and some home cooked food.  You could even charge your phone and have a swim.  There may or may not be a bike mechanic around to help you locate your sense of humour along with your missing seat clamp bolt, for example.   These all appear like 'amenities' but instead they are designed with a Machiavellian sense of humour by Alex to test your fortitude to continue.  Your willpower to continue will be tested five times.   Each time you will have to consciously leave the comfort of the checkpoint and exchange it for the pain and discomfort of the next 24 hours of riding.  Did I mention five times?

Getting from ALPHA to ZULU

Unlike Alice in Wonderlands' yellow brick road the Munga road from the centre of South Africa to the Cape is littered with the aspirations and disappointments of those that started but did not get that final hand clap within the 120-hour time limit.  No doubt many of these folks prepared damn hard.  There is also no doubt that some didn't get past having a little knowledge and thought they had it waxed.  It appears The Munga does not suffer fools lightly.  

Through an abundance of luck, I have ended up meeting and riding with several past participants of The Munga.  In these few posts I will endeavour to share what I've learnt from them to date and pay it forward, so to speak.  I also hope to record my own mid-life crisis ramblings so when I'm old and senile my grandchildren will find evidence of my claims of accomplishing the impossible.    

How hard is hard?

Unless you're Julia Roberts this is the wrong question to ask about The Munga.  On the face of it – just using the stats - The Munga looks eminently doable:  1100km.  At about 7700m ascent and 9200m descent one could argue its actually downhill.   You have 120 hours to do it in.   You would not be laughed at if you were left with a quizzical look on your face wondering what all the fuss was about.   And therein lies the genius of the course and its founder Alex Harris.    


Alex has done some hard stuff.  Summited the highest mountain on each continent.  Led expeditions up both sides of Everest.   Walked across the south pole - dragging a 250kg sled.   He can also cycle a bit, bagging some medals when he decided to try indoor track cycling and broke the record for the Freedom Challenge.  Raced the Tour Divide three times – with his best being an average of 300km a day for 14 days – in a row!   The latter is a 4400km race from Canada to Mexico, across some very big mountains.  

Context matters:   If you ask an Australian about cold weather you should not take them seriously – if however, they tell you it's going to be hot you should listen closely.  Similarly, if Alex says it's hard you should probably start taking notes.  

To get back to Julia's question - consider this:  in the last two years the winner averaged less than 20km/h moving average.  In 2016, the top 10 averaged 17,5km/h.    Those are not the speeds you'd expect from a 'downhill' route.  Clearly, the stats don't tell the whole story.  

Truth is, I haven't figured out what makes it hard.  It appears to be an alchemy of road surface, heat, wind, and lack of support that produces something harder than the sum of its individual difficulties.  If you talk to Alex he knows what that alchemy produces – but he won't tell you.  Like Golum and those damned rings you will have to chase 1100km down the road to find the answer.   I think Alex has figured out through his own experiences that the there is no measure for hardness of the human spirit and this is what I believe he is trying to capture.  It is not about whether the Munga is longer; has more climbing; or has more or less support than other races.   

It is whether you can do it.  

Everyone I have spoken to from top 3 finishers to 'just made the 120hour cut off' don't talk about their time.  To a person they all say the Munga medal is the one they're most proud of.  To a person they say that the experience changed them.  And to a person they all left physically broken.   I am reminded of the Starbucks (the coffee sponsor for this event) mission statement – "to inspire and nurture the human spirit".  The greatest human endeavours arise from inspired moments and The Munga has all the promise to be one of thosemoments. 


Not the typical steed for this event:  3" wide tyres and enough travel to earn you voyager miles.  Its like riding my lounge suite and my rear end thanks me continuously.  With all the equipment choices this is the slimmest you'll see her… more on that in a following post

In addition to the main event, Alex arranges eight 'Mini Mungas' during the year.  These range from six to twelve hour long rides with fellow participants.  It's a great way to increase your options from 20 to 200 and contributes greatly to the move from knowing nothing to knowing enough to kak in your chamois.  This was the longest ride I'd ever done.  After that only had to figure out how to do that seven times in a row by race day.

As part of my mid life crisis I also converted to a low-carb lifestyle in January and fully plan to do the Munga with next-to-no carbs.  Just to make it harder, you see.   Some stories on how riding without the red ambulance (coke) in a future post.

One chap I heard about got such severe saddle sores that he was on antibiotics for a month after the race.  That's like losing a limb.  If you've never had cause to ask how to lube your arse I suspect that, like me, you've never ridden long enough.  The ingredients below are part of a very special recipe, the source of which I cannot disclose, nor the ratios of mixing.  

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