Thursday, 8 November 2018

Munga Musings - Guest Post 2

This post exposes more of Carlo's OCD underbelly. As you'll see he likes to leave nothing to chance. Even if chance is the only option. 

Let me illustrate. Imagine if at the end of the month your employer flipped a coin that determined if employees got double their salary or nothing. We all know It's random and completely unpredictable. As the coin is flipped for each employee there would be shouts of glee from some and moans of disappointment from others. Carlo I suspect would merely shrug one way or the other. You see, he would have weighed the coin, memorised the image of each side and even looked into the average rotational speed, time aloft and arc trajectory. He would also know that if he chose heads every time the chances of the coin falling in his favour would even out over the course of 12 months and ultimately have no effect on his annual income. Rather than pin his hopes on doubling his salary every month he would simply rearrange his budget to make his life easier. 

Here's part 2. Enjoy. 

Munga musings from a novice - Carlo Gonzaga 

Part 2 of [it's looking like 3, but still not sure]

"I've scienced the sh*t out of this in excel.  I've googled the sh*t out of every possible eventuality.  Google has no answers, science can't figure something this big"  This Facebook post from Alex Vigouroux is typical of how Iand thankfully other Munga "idjuts"as he fondly calls us - feel.  Misery loves company, they say.  

The first reply to his post was from a chap called Kevin Benkenstein. Googling him, it appears he's pretty handy on a bicycle and can ride a bit.  So, he's reply of "Jy moet maar ry" sounds like more good advice – even if it didn't carry specific instruction on how to do this.  That post and that reply probably represent the start and end of how preparation evolves for The Munga.  

As the enormity of the challenge starts to take shape in yourhead, your garage and eventually your lounge, newbies like me find comfort in controlling that which we think we can.  We create spreadsheets of average speeds over 50km sections- for all 1100km.  Then we create pacing scenarios for wind, gradient and heat.  We follow previous routes on google mapshoping we'll discover some new topographical feature that no-one else knows about.  We estimate arrival times at waterpoints with the precision of space shuttle re-entry trajectories.    I've even created a mock route profile which had to be printed over five landscape A4 pages.  It's stuck above my TV, as if memorising the profile will somehow produce more watts.   

If you ask me why I do this I really don't know.  Seriously, I can't honestly answer why I think it will help.  Looking into this world from the outside (like our families do) its understandable why they think we need the same medical attention that Kanye West clearly needs.


There be dragons 

One of the rules of the Munga is that you need a working GPS.  As a first timer scrolling through the rules I breathed a sigh of relief.  "Tick that box," I thought: "don't have to worry about navigation" – This was technically correct but, as I've learnt, practically dislocated from Munga reality.  There are so many benign, seemingly insignificant settings on a Garmin that if you think it's just a case of plugging it in and pedalling, you would be mistaken, and would end up in Cairo instead of Cape Town.  Among newbies this little piece of location wizardry carries analogies from Beelzebub to Archangel Gabriel.   

In the 2017 edition an accomplished endurance rider by the name of Colin Anderson took an eighty-seven-kilometrewrong turn.   87 kilometres.  How is that even possible?  That's almost 10 percent of the entire race distance.  By the time he realised he was off-course and checked his phone he had hundreds of missed calls from friends watching his position on the interweb.  Like an out of bounds golf shot, he had to backtrack and enter the course where he exited it.  Quite amazingly he didn't ceremoniously set his GPS alight and hijack a car to get home, like I would have.  On the contrary, he pushed on finished the race in the top 20.  

Like a hungry lioness circling a buffalo, I circled my GPS for months waiting for a moment of weakness whereupon I would attack the settings menu.   I would have saved myself a lot of time and effort if I had taken Alex's advice sometime in March: "Just follow the dot and make sure it stays on the big green line".   This seems to mean:  Disable all maps on your GPS.  Disable navigation prompts.  Disable auto zoom.  Disable auto recalculate.  Basically, buy the GPS and disable everything.  This sounds counterintuitive and almost a waste of money to have bought the damn thing in the first place.  

Essentially, all you want your GPS to do is show you where you are and where Alex wants you to go.   On the latter requirement Alex sends out a GPS route seven days before the race starts which you need to load onto your Garmin.  Your only job is to make sure you keep the dot (you) on the line(where Alex wants you to go).  

I'll admit to being sceptical of this simplistic approach –you must believe the guys that make GPS's know a thing or two and wouldn't offer all those options if they weren't essential to survival.  However, in the interests of science I tried this disabling-everything approach on a three-day stage event this month.  I am converted.  After all, seeing other roads when you're not allowed to use them feels a little like sending a married man to an establishment of ill repute.   


To sleep or not to sleep

Of the controllable factors influencing overall time – less weight, more aero, time off the bike and sleep - I am convinced (for now that is) that sleep, or the lack of it, is the single biggest influencer of your overall time.    I have deep dived into the theory of rolling resistance; tried to figure out whether weight is more important than wind resistance.  I have researched the effect of gravity on weight across different gradients until my brain physically hurt with the mathematical effort.   The rabbit holes that you find yourself burrowing down into have no end.  I am convinced that such an effort could permanently alter your brain function.  At some point I recall thinking if this is what Hunter S Thompson (he of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" fame) would have felt like when he took much LSD.  

I did an analysis on the moving and stopped times of some 20 Munga participants, including the top ten for the last two years.  (This was off the official tracking website).  The top three last year, which included that Benkenstein chap, (convincing me even more that he's pretty handy on a bike), had a combined stopped time of 10h44.  That's a little under 4 hours per chap.  That's all the stopped time. Pause, reflect on that.  That's the sum of eating, sleeping, bottle filling, charging devices, signing in and out five times, saying please and thank you, and taking a break.  I may need that much time just to pee. 

When I look at the data is the biggest differences between competitors is not their speed, but their time off the bike.  It seems easier to materially improve your ability to function without sleep than it does to materially increase your cycling speed.   

Having never had a need nor desire to miss a night's sleep I had this idea that perhaps I would simply self-combust after 24 hours of no sleep.  If I didn't, I would certainly turn into a pumpkin after 36 hours.  Now I know some you will be thinking "I stayed up for 24 hours when I waited for that MacGregor Mayweather fight".  I am however certain you'll agree that drinking beer with your mates is different to actually pedalling your bicycle for 24 or 36 hours.  If nothing else, you can't carry that much beer on your bicycle.  

I tried my first 'sleep deprivation' exercise in April, I think.  My wife woke we up on the couch at 5am asking if wanted coffee.  Following the clues backwards it looked like I put on the 20-minute count-down timer at 3am and simply never woke up again.  Sleep 1, Gonzaga 0.

Since then I have indeed managed to stay awake for a through-the-night-ride and fortunately did not turn into a fruit of any sort.  I can safely say that if you're doing the Munga you have to experience riding 24 continuous hours.   I accept you may have some difficulty doing this if you live within the arctic circle.  For the rest of us, knowing that you will not self combust at 3am will improve your self-confidence immeasurably.  It certainly did for me.  

In the Munga there are a lot of good reasons to substitute your bed for your saddle:  There is apparently less of that hellish wind at night; it is cooler; and if you want to finish within the 120 hours mark you probably will have done some night riding.  Having now determined that I could, and therefore would, try and ride through the night, another infinite worm hole opened:  where do you sleep; how do you sleep; and how the hell do you wake up?  I regularly get the am and pmsetting wrong on my phone when I set my alarm at night.  I sometimes set the alarm for an entirely different day.  (As an aside, and something which I will investigate further one day, this mistake always happens if I've watched just a few excruciating minutes of that embarrassing realty program 'The Real Housewives of Johannesburg'.  My hypothesis is that small parts of my brain die while watching that manufactured horse manure.)

To get back to the point:  the top 10 strategy when it comes to sleep seems to be something like:  ride until you cannot ride no more.  Look for a place to lie down – Mike Woolnough laughingly refers to this as "nesting".  You may notice that this does not have a pre-requisite of a bed or related accoutrements.  No – this top 10 strategy assumes you'll lie down in the veld.  I've been given advice that if it's cold you can wrap a space blanket around your torso.  I can't help but imagine trying to sleep with a very large packet of Big Korn Bites.  Apparently, it should not be comfortable, or you'll never wake up.  Cold is helpful because it will wake you up and force you to ride to get warm.  Ok then…

I met Mike Woolnough a few weeks ago.   It was his blogs on the Munga that were partly responsible for me signing up in the first place.  Mike is also quite handy on a bike, and is a top 10 finisher in the Munga, bagging medal number 3 in 2016.  Desperate for someone to tell me it will "be alright" or "it's not that hard", I cornered him.  On sleep, he gave the best two bits of advice I believe I will, and now you will, ever get:  First, use a count-down timer as an alarm.  That removes the problem of confusing am and pm, or the day.  Mike doesn't recommend something like Tubular Bells to gently romance you from your sleep.  Instead he prefers anything that will get you to sit bolt upright, scared witless.  The moment you wake up, whether it's six or sixty minutes after you fell asleep, you need to mount your steed and start riding.   For his second piece of advice:  when you put your bike down before you sleep make sure the front wheel is facing the direction you want to travel when you wake up.  When Mike shared this with me there were a few experienced guys around the table smilingly nodding in agreement.  The problem, it seems, is that it is quite common, in the dead of night, when you're hysterically tired and delusional, to get on your bike and simply start riding.  Even if it'back the way you came.   Priceless.    


The light in the dark

Come race day… "Jy moet maar ry" is increasingly looking like the only strategy that matters.  This may seem obvious to you, but it certainly has not been to me.   The day it dawned on me that neither excel, Siri nor google were going to help was when I did my first long ride.  It was also my first ride where I watched the sun set and rise from the (dis)comfort of my saddle.  

We arranged a support vehicle.  We arranged two drivers.  We arranged coke and red bull for them.  I cooked bacon, eggs and low carb sausages; bought all the stock of carb-clever bars from woollies and enough Keto Nutrition stock that I suspect those guys think I am running a grey market for their product.  My bike weighed 23kg with water and all the planned Munga 'necessities'.   I couldn't help but think that my logistics skills would be better suited to moon landing.   

Finally, two us left at 10:15 on a windy Thursday morningWhen the Garmin finally, almost reluctantly, registered 300km, we stopped.  It was 8am the next day.   It really was as simply as this tiny paragraph.  The simplicity of just having to ride was an epiphany for me.  

Don't mistake simplicity for easy:  The wind blew for the first 180km.  From the front, even when the road made a U-turn.  At one point near midnight I recall shouting to Wessell incoherently about why the hell we were having to pedal when the Garmin profile clearly showed we were going downhill.     

planned on recording short video clips on my phone while I was riding to remind me of how much I'd eaten and what I was thinking about this Munga lark in general.   When I reviewed the clips the next day it's clear that between midnight and sunrise (that was after 13 hours of riding) the signal between my brain and fingers resembled the Telkom mobile network.  appears I barely knew how to operate the phone, with cut off clips and incoherent ramblings.  Despite this, I do recall concluding that it appeared I didn't need Siri or excel or google.  It really was just me, my legs and my bike.  If I think back to the advice Alex has shared with me I often wondered if he was 'hiding' something from me for it appeared too simplistic: "what do you need a second bib for?"; "why do you need a camelback" or my favourite: "Just follow the dot on the GPS".  My conclusion for now (I reserve the right to change my opinion until after I finish this race) is that the best endurance riders regard simplicity as the holy grail and have figured out that, to paraphrase that Benkenstein chap, you must just ride your bike.  

What I'm learning is that while someone can offer this learned wisdom, its not the same as learning a shortcut in excel.  You can't shortcut to the shortcut.  You don't simply walk up and open the door with 'simplicity insidesign on it.  Instead it appears to be a passage you must get into, wide at first, with some unexpected turns and a some narrowing on the way before eventually it widens again, and you see the light.  I think the light I see is a Karoo sheep truck coming my way.  

Last, a common insight from past riders is that endurance events, and the Munga in particular, force you back into a sense of "subsistence".   A place where you are entirely responsible for yourself.  I've pondered this over a glass Pinotage or six:  in today's inter-connected world it's easy to justify blaming external factors for what's happening to us.   In so doing we sort off abdicate responsibility for our outcomes.  The Munga is not just the 1100km.  It is the wind; the corrugations; the wrong turns; the heat and even the rain.  When you enter the Munga you are assuming full responsibility for your individual outcome.  There are no teams, no external support and drafting is not allowed for the last 900km.  For most of us then, in the final timesheet of the Munga the only time that matters is our time.  

And there is no "comments" column.  


Seeing this data in black and white was properly sobering.  So I probably had more wine. 

I am nothing if not prepared.  Sugary stuff for the drivers of the support vehicle and low carb food for me.  Just need to figure out how to boil an egg while I'm riding...

Seeing a sunrise is no big deal.  Seeing it after you saw a moonrise is a different story. 

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