Tuesday, 13 April 2021
Over the last four yearsI have watched the record for Race to Willowmore (RTW) get faster. Each year I analysed the various times and wondered how long it would have taken me.
Men's winners the last four years are:
Tim James (2017), Bruce Hughes (2018), Casper and Casper-John Venter (2019) and Henry Angove and Pieter vd Westhuizen (2020), the last pair also holding the record of 2 days 9 hours and 41 minutes. Freedom sorts are familiar with these names. They're all proper athletes and any attempt to better the current record was going to be a big ask.
Like the other events of the Freedom Trail there are bits you'd rather not do at night. For RTW the tricky part is the Osseberg section mentioned in Part 1, the section we call Mordor. Mordor is positioned immediately before the support station at Kudu Kaya in Cambria.
No one has crushed Mordor at night. Most who attempt a dark passage have either a disappointingly slow time getting through or end up sleeping rough waiting for the sun to illuminate their way out.
Then there's the unique challenge of The Gate. Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency only allow FC cyclists to traverse the Baviaanskloof Reserve if they are accompanied by a support vehicle. The support vehicle is a precaution against the cyclists being confronted by Cape Buffalo which were reintroduced to the area a few years back. Apparently there are loads of them although I've never seen one. The logistics of providing vehicular support isn't easy. To simplify the operation there are only 2 times a day that riders may venture into the reserve - 6am and 1pm. Arrive after 1pm and you get to spend the night in Cambria at Kudu Kaya while you wait for the 6am start time the next day. The Gate is the boomed entrance to the reserve which is about a 20 minute ride from Kudu Kaya. Kudu Kaya is a support station so riders need to sign in and out before heading to The Gate to complete the permit paperwork and start the traverse with the support vehicle.
The duel challenges of Osseberg and The Gate need to be factored into riders plans. The practice over the years, whether doing RTW or the Race Across South Africa (RASA) is to either start your day in Bucklands, the support station immediately before Kudu Kaya, to finish your day in Kudu Kaya, or start your day from Hadley Guest farm, an interim support station situated between Bucklands and Kudu Kaya, to start the Osseberg section at first light in time to get to the 1pm Gate. Either way it makes sense to leave early. Leaving from Hadley shaves almost 4 hours off compared to starting from Bucklands. A 4am start from Hadley should have riders getting to Kudu Kaya in time for the 1pm Gate. That being the case it stands to reason that if you want to start from Bucklands to make the 1pm Gate you'd need to leave by midnight.
The Gate becomes the critical component of putting down a fast time for Race to Willowmore. Pieter and Henry set a new record last year finishing well by riding the final 160km from Kudu Kaya to the finish in Willowmore at a blistering pace. They did however overnight in Kudu Kaya which had them stationary for 14 hours but did mean they started their final charge with fresh legs.
At the start of the race 2020 race I watched with interest as the eager bunch ate up the distance out of Cradock. Even though I've ridden most of the RTW route during RASA the first 30km's out of Cradock are not part of the RASA route so I didn't know how long that would take. The first 20km's are a climb and based on the riders times from RTW 2020 it seems that 1h45 was a fair estimate to get over the top.
Early last year on a morning coffee ride the subject of RTW came up. "Do you think you could ride to Kudu Kaya in time to make the 1pm Gate?" someone asked? Simple question, complex answer. I didn't have a sense of how long the various sections would take on fresh legs. By the time riders get to the RTW route on RASA they have well over 1000km's of accumulated fatigue in their legs. I did the rough maths then subtracted a number of hours for fresh legs and concluded that it was possible. However, it would have to be done nonstop. I figured you'd have to make it to Bucklands by midnight. That's 276km in 18 hours. While it doesn't sound too taxing the first 20 km climb and the 20 km off road section that starts at the farm Grootvlakte culminating in the tortuous down portage of Struishoek would cost many hours. If you kept moving and minimised stoppage time I reckoned Bucklands by midnight and therefore The Gate by 1pm was possible. Tight but possible.
This idea was underpinned as I watched Pieter and Henry roll into Bucklands on queue at midnight. They chose to sleep rather than push on so the question of making the gate for 1pm remained unanswered. At least they had demonstrated that Bucklands by midnight was possible.
It would be a big push to better Pieter and Henry's time into a Bucklands. As Henry in his blunt manner told me, "There's no way you can ride faster than we did." This turned out to be a key comment.
I met Pieter for coffee and we chatted about my basic plan. I told him that could probably shave 14 hours off his time. Pieter was happy to bet against that outcome. 5 coffees were offered as the bet and the deal was sealed.
Pieter and Henry unwittingly became the architects of my race. They'd demonstrated that the first part was doable and then they bet against me. They knew it was possible but boys being boys we goad each other into action.
Thus primed with Pieter's bet and Henry's blunt assertion I crafted a plan based on firm data sprinkled liberally with I'll-show-you.
Thursday, 8 April 2021
Llewellyn Lloyd - Reblex Photography
As I lay on my back in the drainage ditch on the side of the road I became aware of the absolute stillness of the night. The sky above a myriad pinpricks of light. The full moon directly above a majestic heavenly chandelier. I heard sounds close by and popped my head up to see what it was. Over the years I'd had my fair share of nightly visitors in the form of bewildered sheep, curious cows or phlegmatic aardvarks. The flat Karoo that surrounded me was still. There wasn't so much as the the faintest of rustles from the hardened shrubs that extended as far as I could see under the golden wash of moonlight. I lay down and seconds later I heard the sounds again. After another quick look around I realised what they were. The night was as silent as I have ever experienced. In this grand cathedral of the Karoo I could have heard a church mouse tiptoeing down the road, instead what I heard was my own bodily functions—the creak and groan of old plumbing as the toasted sandwich and water I'd consumed earlier wend it's way through my digestive system.
I'd put my body through the wringer. Save for an hour I spent laying on a bed in Cambria waiting for the vehicle escort through the Baviaanskloof Reserve I had been on the move since leaving Cradock 42 hours before. The road ahead had started to blur as the need for sleep wrestled with my desire to get to the finish line in Willowmore less than an hour away. I'd learnt over the years that the simple act of of getting off my bike and simply closing my eyes for 5 or 10 minutes would allow me to shake off the sleep monsters sufficiently to push on without the risk of falling asleep on my bike.
As I lay there the journey of how I came to be laying in a ditch in the Karoo at midnight played through my mind. It started a few years back with the genesis of the Race to Willowmore.
Of all the sections of the Freedom Trail the part that has me tossing in my bed at night is the thought of making my way through the Osseberg. The first time I went through there in 2007 there was an obvious jeep track that ran the length of track all the way into Cambria. The first 10 kilometres that loop over the mountain peaks before dropping dramatically into the river valley are still rideable albeit taxing in places. Once you arrive at the first river crossings the games begin. Over the course of the next 12 kilometres the river needs to be crossed 9 times.
Since 2007 the track has deteriorated to the point that none of the crossings where 4x4 vehicles used to ford the river are obvious like they were the first time I went through. Standing on the bank of the river it's hard to imagine that the track ever existed. After more than 15 years of disuse and one particularly memorable flood the former jeep track is no more than an occasional strip or animal path with fallen trees and new growth making it a battle ground.
The flood year in question is the year that Alex Harris attempted to slip through the Osseberg one night. Intent on easing his way through he faced the horrors of the aftermath of a massive flood. Instead of a few hours he spent the night wrestling his way through. His terse message after getting through was simply, "Last night I stared into Mordor." An obvious reference to the evil place in Middle-earth in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. One informal dictionary has this as a definition for Mordor - 'An area of peril, darkness or evil which people fear to visit or explore.'
Since Alex's comment warriors and dot watchers alike refer to this section as Mordor. It's fitting.
When Race to Willowmore as a separate event was first touted the thought of going through Mordor was all the dissuasion I needed. It's not fun and isn't fun the reason I ride my bike? Why would I subject myself to that? For RASA it's a necessary evil in order to connect the good bits. It can be tolerated in order to clutch the greater prize. But for a ride of a few days? I avoided this race and took my place as a dot watcher. As many people know, dot watching has consequences. One of those consequences was me finding myself on my bike at first light in Cradock at the start of Race to Willowmore 2021. Mordor beckoned. I was keen to engage.
Monday, 21 December 2020
Each December Strava sends its members an email extolling their sporting achievements for the year. It's pretty cool to see the number of kilometres ridden, accumulated vertical ascent, hours in the saddle, etc..
I've got a few thousand kilometres, hundreds of hours in the saddle and a chunk of ascent missing. Most of that for the sections of the Freedom Trail that I rode this year.
If you want to talk about your riding achievements then make it about what you did between pedal strokes and not about the stats. The stats are a blunt measure of achievement. They should be merely an armature upon which to hang your experiences.
I rode something like thirteen thousand kilometres this year. What did that do to shape me?
Pre-Covid lockdown I ventured abroad with my bike for the first time. I experienced a culture far removed from my day to day. When I stopped pedalling in a town in the middle of the arid western region of Morocco I met a shop keeper who didn't speak my language as I didn't speak his. That didn't stop him from inviting me into his home to share dinner with his family. With the use of Google Translate we spent hours trading stories. While that family did not appear to be wealthy by our standards, what I witnessed was a richness that challenged me. There was dignity, respect and hospitality dispersed without effort. Not only to me but to each other.
A few days later I got to share the lunch of two school teachers who didn't hesitate to take a stranger into their home. Over the course of our conversation it became clear that outside of our particular cultures we have so much in common. On a dusty and parched plateau many kilometres from the closest water supply we drank Moroccan mint tea while the issues of Brexit, the USA under Trump and the challenges of the Middle East and how those events ripple across the globe, were the topics of conversation.
Back home in South Africa during the first weeks of lockdown I entered an online race that took 17 uninterrupted hours to complete. My memory of that race wasn't the challenge of riding through the night while ensconced in my spare room staring at avatars scuttling around my screen. After the race was said and done I got a message from another rider. He said although we didn't know each other he was motivated by watching my race and getting back on his bike whenever my avatar caught up to him. His objective was to beat me and beat me he did. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with him after he finished the Munga. The message from him, "I was actually thinking of you on the road. Trying to minimise stopping time..." I wasn't able to do the Munga this year but it seems I was there vicariously at least.
During RASA and Race to Cradock, while intent on doing the best I could I found myself eschewing my normal practice of getting through support stations in as few minutes as possible. It cost me time but that was of little consequence. Once again, it was the time spent between pedal strokes talking to hosts and spending time with fellow racers that added colour, texture and richness to those rides.
And what to say of the countless cups of coffee shared with riding mates when out training or riding for fun. The hours spent on idle chitchat or discussing the tribulations and triumphs of lockdown life. Those hours spend off the bike helped alleviate the challenges.
The cycling Stats for the year look good. I've grown as a person. I'm more appreciative of people not like me. I've received wise council and hopefully dispensed a fair measure of the same. I've made new friends and deepened bonds of friendship and trust. Yes, in spite of the challenges, it's been a good year with the bike.
Tuesday, 17 November 2020
I crested the Schurfteberg just before midnight which means I should have finished around 03h00. The first sign of trouble was as I neared the top of the jeep track. Fog began curling over the crest and coalesced into large drops on my glasses. My glasses are more than a cool looking fashion accessory—I need them to see where I am going. As the fog had only started 100 metres from the top I assumed the same would be true when going down the back end of the mountain. The initial part of the jeep track drops 300 metre over a distance of 3km. It's a stunning descent with a number of sharp switchbacks and is a lot of fun if you've got the skills to race down the mountain. I'm thin on those kind of skills, even on a good day. But at midnight in a blinding fog it became more of a challenge. I tried drying my glasses but within 20 metres I was once again unable to see. When it became clear that the fog was going to persist longer than I had hoped I decided to ride without my glasses which is something I've never done before as my vision without glasses is such that at anything more than a metre I can't distinguish between a catfish and a hedgehog. Trying to steer a cleanish line down the rock strewn jeep track and figure out which way the track swung without popping over a precipice was a tad hair raising. It would have been safer and easier to walk but it's a long way down and time wasn't on my side. The steepest part of the descent ends at a gate which I spotted a few seconds before I would have attempted to chip myself through the wire mesh of the gate. Fortunately enough I was going so slow that if I hadn't managed to brake in time I probably would have gotten away with a collection of interesting bruises. The next 2 kilometres of jeep track is a series of water bars that would make a cool pump track. And like any good pump track it snakes at random intervals. The fog hadn't let up and my usual exhilaration was seriously dampened as was my speed. Talking of dampened, I was soaking wet. Once back on a good farm road I stopped to put my raincoat on. While still hopeful that the fog would dissipate I had to tolerate it for the next 15 kilometres. What is normally an exhilarating 20 kilometre 60 minute fun ride became a 2 hour slog. Having not slept for the duration of the race I had now gone 45 hours without sleep. That's longer than I have ever managed before. I was aware that the longer I shuffled along the bigger the risk of falling asleep on my bike. Eventually the fog thinned sufficiently that I was able to get over the Swaershoek Pass and make my way down the final 20 kilometre descent to the finish.
Chesneywold 08h50-09h05 (09:00)
Slaapkranz 11h47-12h10 (12h00)
Bonthoek farmhouse 15h35 (15:30)
Moodenaarspoort 18h04-18h37 (18h30)
Kranskop 20h38-21h03 (21h30)
Brosterlea 00h35 (01h30)
Romansfontein 06h20-07h11 (07h30)
Hofmeyr 12h26-12h42 (13h30)
Elandsberg 15h10-15h30 (16h30)
Cradock 04h06 (04h00)
Sunday, 25 October 2020
I heaved my bike back onto my shoulders and retraced my steps until I was able to contour under a rocky ledge to the other side of the slope which was dominated by young flexible protea bushes rather than the unyielding hakea. I plodded upward picking my way around the bigger bushes until the slope levelled out and I was clear of the Kloof.
It had taken me ten hours to move the eight kilometres through Stettynskloof. That was many hours more than I had hoped for.
The blisters on my feet throbbed and I was happy to get the bike off my back and sit for a minute or two. One or two minutes became 20 or 30 minutes. I became aware of someone sitting next to me. I looked up, it was Siya Kolisi, the Captain of the South African national rugby side. I'd been having sleep deprivation induced hallucinations on and off for days now so while I was aware that he was a mere figment of my imagination I was glad for his company.
"Come, let's go find the jeep track," I said. I wheeled my bike down the back of the mountain with Siya following a few metres behind. I knew I had to head South West to intercept the jeep track that would lead me out of the valley. Once I had located the track it would take me another 3 hours to get to the finish at the Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Wellington. The mountain was littered with rocks and undergrowth that tangled with my feet and bike. A couple of times I tripped over rocks or stepped into holes that had me tumbling to the ground. It was clear I had reached the limit of my physical endurance and desperately needed to sleep. I had come to the race hoping to finish in under 12.5 days. All I had to do was find the track and I'd be good for a sub-12 day finish.
I had gone a long way down the slope and hadn't yet caught sight of the jeep track. I started weaving across the valley floor in the hope of intercepting the track. Every now and then I would catch sight of what looked like a jeep track only for it to fizzle out after a few metres. This happened several times making me wonder if there were multiple jeep tracks or was I merely imagining that they were there? After all I had Siya trailing along behind me and every bush is sight had turned into either a dancing marionette or a pixie dancing a jig. The line between reality and hallucination had become indecipherable.
I took out my compass and map for the 5th time in 30 mins and was unable to reconcile my instincts with the compass bearing that should get me to the track.
I sat down and took off my backpack. It was a beautiful night. There was a slight breeze and a light overcast sky. It occurred to me that the thing I had been obsessing about for the last 10 days was available right there—a solid nights sleep. If I found the jeep track in the next few minutes I'm not sure I would have been able to make the trip to the finish in the condition I was in. I made up my mind.
"Siya, we're going to bivvy down right here." I unfurled my bivvy bag and without even removing my shoes or helmet I slipped inside and fell fast asleep.
Friday, 9 October 2020
The sleet stings my exposed fingers which is odd as I've lost most of the feeling in my hands. I crouch over the handlebars sheltering the brake lever from the wet as I wind the insulation tape around the twig. It'd be easier if I could get it dry. The effort of getting up the mountain has my inner layers soaked in sweat and then the storm front that pounced on me toward the top of the pass has finished the job.
I've got the stick wedged in tightly and the tape is holding it in place. I twist my head so my helmet light shines in the joint between the brake lever and the body. Sweat runs down my forehead and stings my eyes. I blink my eyes into focus. That looks like it might work. I pump the brake lever. It's spongy but the back brake grips and releases. That'll have to do.
A few hours earlier I was sitting in front of a crackling fire. A shower and the embrace of a duvet just steps away.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" the owner had asked.
Before walking into the the warmth of the guesthouse I'd already made the call to restock and head up Swartberg Pass. I've fallen behind and have to get to Die Hel before sunrise.
I lean on the handlebars and close my eyes for a minute. I'm exhausted and between the howling wind and driving sleet what little energy I've got left is draining fast. The closest shelter is three hours away. Maybe more if this storm doesn't let up.
I've been making my way to Wellington from PIetermaritzburg for the last 10 days but the journey that led me here started 12 years ago
Like many South African cyclists I've done my fair share of MTB multi-day races. Races like the three day Sani2c through to the nine day JoBerg2c. Obviously one's pedigree would be called into question if you hadn't done the ABSA Cape Epic. I'll freely admit to having done a couple of those in the days when you started in Knysna and over the course of seven days threaded your way across to Stellenbosch.
I was and remain a middle of the pack rider. I don't have the speed, strength or technical prowess to propel myself onto the podium. However, when I entered a few 24 hour MTB events I was surprised when I managed to win. It seemed I had the stubbornness that enabled me to keep trucking when my body was tapped out.
When the Freedom Challenge popped up on my radar back in 2007 it immediately piqued my interest and over the next few years transformed my cycling ambitions. Now speed, strength and technical ability were reduced to a subset of the skills required to prevail in events where tenacity, strategy and general toughness were more highly prized. In the case of the Freedom Challenge the ability to self navigate without the use of GPS is the most basic requirement.
The Freedom Challenge which was first staged in 2003 wasn't the first ultra endurance bike event in the world. The Great American Bike Race now known as the Race Across America (RAAM) held its inaugural event in 1982 but it's a road race.
The next significant MTB event was the Tour Divide first staged in 2007. It starts in Canada and finishes 4418 km later at the Mexican Border after traversing the Rocky Mountains.
Over the last decade ultra endurance events have mushroomed. Recent additions to MTB/Gravel bike racing are events like Race to the Rock in Australia which hosts it's 5th annual event this year and the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan is in it's infancy.
Locally we also have The Munga or The Munga MTB to give it its full name. The Munga has been going for 5 years.
These races differ from stage races in that once the clock starts it only stops when you cross the finish line days or weeks later. The tick-tock doesn't stop even while you're sleeping.
What does it take to survive an ultra endurance MTB race? For the sake of this article I'll focus specifically on two local events — The Freedom Challenge and The Munga MTB.
These races while similar are not the same, even though The Munga has its DNA rooted in both the Tour Divide and The Freedom Challenge. The popular South African version of "unsupported" differs from other international events, and that's not a bad thing. If you enter some of the overseas unsupported races you could unwittingly disqualify a fellow rider and possibly yourself by giving them a sip of your water or even by riding with them along the route. The definition of Solo and Unsupported in those races is taken to the extreme. There is sound reasoning behind it. However, here at home we have a strong sense of the Good Samaritan rule where fellow cyclists are able to assist each other along the route even when a race is defined as unsupported. Furthermore, both The Munga and The Freedom Challenge have race office organised check points where food, showers and beds are available as required. Given our geography and the paucity of food and accommodation along the race routes it makes sense to have events loosely described as unsupported apart from Race Office approved and provided support. This being the case these two races don't fit the Bike Packing genre. In short, Bike Packing is when you have to forage for food and accommodation as you go along sometimes having to make camp and cook your own food. That means you need to carry food, a stove, sleeping bag and a tent or bivvy. None of these are required for our local events. You can sleep rough if you like but that's mostly by choice.
Let's deal with the structural differences. The Munga follows a route dictated by GPS routing. The Freedom Challenge on the other hand has a route and at times a route suggestion that's marked on maps and described by narratives. No form of GPS is allowed.
So you're interested in giving one of these events a bash. But which one? There's something about the gravity of each that makes them either more or less attractive based on your race pedigree. I'd recommend both to anyone who asks but practically speaking the self navigation and multi-week fatigue of The Freedom Challenge makes it an obvious extension for Adventure Racers. For Epic type riders the format of The Munga is a stepping stone to new adventure.
If we ignore the navigational differences the skills required to survive and thrive in these races are largely the same.
First up is cycling ability. Obviously you have to know how to ride a bike but you also need to be fit for purpose. Meaning your training should be specific for building the fitness required for ultra endurance events. That is, your training efforts should lean heavily toward the lower zones. Smashing out Neuromuscular or Anaerobic efforts might feel like you're toughening up but it's toughness without purpose. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with professional road cyclists in the start chute. They've been half my age, single digit BMI and have spend countless hours training in the upper zones. When the race starts they lean on their training and are soon out of sight. Almost without exception I catch them in a handful of hours when they are spent. I'm not better than them. I'm just better prepared and tuned for this genre of racing.
Your training efforts should be in and around the Endurance zone otherwise known as the "all day pace".
Without the physiological adaption that takes place in the lower zones your body isn't able to tap into fat reserves. Three or four hours into a race everyone has exhausted their glycogen reserves. Those athletes who can tap into alternative energy reserves are able to keep going.
When I first started these long events I hurt. The sort of hurt that brings you to a halt. I suffered from hand, ITB, Achilles and knee problems. Unfortunately you can't pop along to the local gym and fix these in a few weeks. Putting your body under stress for days and weeks at a time requires that you have deep physical resilience. This takes time. When you understand that there is no shortcut to onboarding this toughness you appreciate the benefit of adopting an incremental approach. If you think you can go from three hour coffee rides to riding forty hours non stop you're going to discover what it's like to breakdown physically. The lesson you want to avoid is how to recover from overuse injury.
Toughness is an innate characteristic. Suffering to achieve a goal is not attractive to everyone. If you've chased someone up a climb until your vision has started blurring you've entered the suffer zone. But short term suffering is not the same as the unremitting fatigue you'll need to endure in a multi-day race. You'll have to be able to resist the urge to stop when every muscle in your body is waving a white flag. Don't confuse this with the genuine need for sleep.
Unlike one day races you are unlikely to be racing ultra endurance races every other weekend. In fact, it's unlikely that's you'll do more than a handful of events every year, probably less. You are going to expose your weak underbelly several times in successive events until you develop "race feel". It takes a long time to make peace with the idea that you can have a five minute timeout in the shade of a doringbos while racing.
The fact that ultra endurance racing is a skill developed over time is underpinned by the correlation of the average age of the competitors. It's not uncommon to see the field packed with over 40's. There are very few youngsters who do well. The young riders who do excel have earned their stripes and have deep respect and understanding of this genre of racing.
Self sufficiency is a vital skill. There is no team car or waterpoint every 20 kilometres. Having loads of kit is one thing. Knowing what kit to take on which event is crucial. For example, if you are going to be climbing over games fences or carrying your bike you'll want your bike to be as light as possible. That means carrying stuff on your back. But if fence climbing and portages aren't part of the route then it makes sense to put your kit on the bike. Fine tuning your equipment for the task comes with experience. You need to take enough to survive the worst but not so much that you carry kit you never need. Gone are the days when you would typically lug around over 10 to 15 kg's of kit. These days it's closer to 5 kg and often less.
It would also behove you to know your way around your bike. There are no bike mechanics or sweep vehicles milling around to help. Even if there are mechanics at support stations they might be 100 kilometres away. At some point something is going to go wrong and you will have to make a plan. That said, you'll need to know what minimum spares and equipment you'll require to get your bike back into working shape. It might mean that cable ties and duct tape become your don't-leave-home-without items rather than energy gels and snack bars. Once you have the right equipment make sure you know how to use it. I've seen people forlornly staring at their chain breaker or inflator wondering how it works. Things go wrong all the time but it doesn't mean your race needs to end. Knowing how to fix a puncture, change a shifter cable, repair a broken chain, swap out a derailleur jockey wheel, change brake pads or convert your rig to a single speed are essential skills. The list of what can go wrong is endless. I've seen some catastrophic failures but I've also witnessed the ingenuity of experienced endurance mountain bikers.
As said earlier, speed and technical ability are not the touchstone skills that ensure success. The mental aspect of endurance racing is what matters the most. It's difficult to distill out the critical aspects but if you've spent time chatting to a good endurance athlete you'll see that although they may come across as laidback they have a good grasp of the skills required. They often don't appreciate just how much they know because they have ingrained those skills into the way they think to the point that it's obvious—to them. Spend time with these athletes and you'll appreciate their breadth of hard earned knowledge.
The question that comes up time and time again is why we suffer through ultra endurance events and then go back and put ourselves through it again and again. I've pondered this question at length and there's no simple answer.
For some, doing an ultra endurance event is a once off on their bucket list—do one and hang the medal on the pegboard in the garage. It's something they perceive as hard and by achieving it they get to underpin their self worth. I get that. After all don't we all want to be our own hero?
For others it's deeper than that. It's the domain of the endurance junkie. It's as much about self challenge as it is about self discovery. Ultra endurance pushes you to the edge. It's about nudging oneself to the limit and beyond. That limit is often imposed on us by our own perceptions. As we break through successive barriers we see ourselves evolve. As we expose layer after layer there are moments of disappointment and failure. We push ourselves to expose and then confront our own demons. Rather than being dissuaded these moments are analysed and plans made to avoid a reoccurrence. It's about riding further, sleeping less and taking on ever tougher challenges in suboptimal conditions. It's a drug. But rather than creating a distorted fantasy it shapes our new reality.
Why keep coming back? Because there's more to give and more to gain.
"A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him, and leaving something of himself upon it." Sir Martin Conway.
We do hard things because they are hard. You come to expect that you'll be stripped bare, shaken up and reassembled. If you get to the point where you are no longer transformed by the experience it's time to look for a new challenge.
While threading through rural villages on the Freedom Challenge I have been asked countless times "Where are you going?" I respond variously depending on my daily or ultimate destination sometimes customising my answer to suit my perception of their geographical understanding. That's the answer of my head. While curled up in a ditch in the Karoo or trudging through a winter storm on Swartberg Pass at midnight my heart's answer would be, "I'm already there."
Tuesday, 6 October 2020
If I said it was a weird year I'm fairly sure there wouldn't be any dissenting opinions.
2020 is a year that will go down as a watershed for the world as we knew it. The rise of authoritarianism across the globe dressed up as concern for the well being of global citizens juxtaposed against the acceleration of the "age of outrage" as I like to call it has left us questioning our stance amidst these tsunamic onslaughts—I'm not sure if that's an actual word but I was reaching for a word that did justice to these particular facets of 2020 life. I'm not suggesting one or the other of these pivotal phenomena is right or wrong but I find myself in the maelstrom of the confluence of these events. My business has suffered and as a consequence the people I employ and care about have suffered. That's a hard pill to swallow. On the outrage front I am continuously reevaluating my privilege and my attitude to others not like me—it's an uncomfortable but necessary evaluation and constant reset.
But, as important as these issues are, this post is not about those events. It's about something far more arbitrary. It's about how the ebb and flow of life has been disrupted. The tidal change of summer slipping into winter. The long nights and short days yielding as warmth and budding trees splash colour over the starkness of winter. It's not that I don't like winter; bizarrely I normally do. Not for the cold that makes me appreciate my electric blanket or the manic scamper that follows the closing of the warm shower tap as towelling off and slipping on of PJ's, dressing gown and slippers happens at a pace that would be the envy of any fire chief. No, it's not necessarily the icy nights and desolate landscapes I miss. It's the adventure that has become synonymous with that time of year that I miss—It's Freedom Challenge season.
For the last 15 years there have been two particular harbingers that Freedom season is approaching. Firstly the autumn winds blow eddies of fallen plane tree leaves around my garden and into my pool. Secondly, the sound of a crowing cockerel can be heard as it carries across from an nearby smallholding. As the first buds appeared on the plane trees this year I was aware that I hadn't heard a cockerel crow this winter. Perhaps I'd missed it as I'd spent more time on my indoor trainer or I hadn't been up early enough and wandered into the garden before work as I used to. Either way, it occurred to me that this was the first time in more than a decade of winters that I hadn't heard the cockerel crow.
With the Race Across South Africa rescheduled for October I gave it a seconds' consideration and then abandoned the idea. It wouldn't be the same race and besides, the weather would be much harder—you can layer up for the cold of winter but what do you do about the heat? I chose to ignore the fact that I race The Munga where the mercury nudges up well into the 40's.
There are myriad reasons why doing the race this year and at this time of year is a bad idea but what to do when your adventure heart yearns for the solitude and magnificence of the mountains and wide open spaces.
FOMO is a strange beast—it thrives in the absence of nurture or attention, it simply shows up unannounced dressed for a good night out. FOMO made me message Chris Fisher when I heard there were a few route changes. After all I like to keep updated on the route and was curious about the changes. At least that's how I initially framed it in my own head. The message was this, "Any chance I can buy a set of maps? Currently a 0.001% chance that I can do the race." From that message it seems clear to me that the idea of me entering the race was so remote that even before the message arrived on his device the idea had been discarded. Chris doesn't understand the statistical insignificance of a 0.001% probability and posted this on our race group, "Mike Woolnough is umming and ahhing about riding Freedom Challenge... who here wants to follow his dot? and WhatsApp antics? lets give him the push he needs !!!".
There were pushes and shoves with a number of people willing me on and while encouraging they didn't nudge the decimal place of the probability enough to the right to make me grasp the nettle. The next morning I popped into the garden just before sunrise and the decimal place of probability shifted 5 places to the right in an instant—I heard a cockerel crow.
Thursday, 5 March 2020
Registration for the race takes place at the Mogador Kasbah Hotel and Spa. That's 5km's from our accommodation. Practically speaking it would have been easier to have stayed at the Mogador but it was only identified as the race start venue after we had booked at Riad Bousskri. Roger tried changing it. He sent an email asking the Riad if they would waive the cancellation fee. Their response was immediate and emphatic—They deducted the full amount for our stay from his credit card. Later he got a message to the effect, "It's low season we need the money".
As it turns out staying close to the Medina proved to be more of an authentic experience than staying at the hotel. The hotel would have been the same as staying in any 3 star hotel or Holiday Inn anywhere in the world. There is nothing uniquely Moroccan about it.
The logistics with registration are challenging. Firstly, we need to get our bike boxes and bags to the Mogador on Friday afternoon. These will then be transferred to the finish venue. The truck doing that transfer, so we are told, will be leaving at 6pm on Friday. The race starts at 9am the following day. We are 5km's away so we can't simply tote our kit over to the the hotel. We can take a taxi but then we need to taxi back as our bikes will be back at the Riad.
We come up with another plan. We organise a taxi. When it arrives we load our baggage and one bike. Another rider, James Dennis, is staying at the same Riad. He goes with the taxi. Roger and I scamper over to the Mogador on our bikes where James is waiting with our stuff.
The ride over goes a lot smoother than our first attempt 2 days ago. It's hair raising riding on the wrong side (for us) trying to merge with the other cars, motorcycles and bicycles. We are getting used to the chaos and have mostly figured out which side we need to yield to when roads merge and how to assert ourselves in the traffic without the risk of getting pancaked.
Registration isn't the slick organisation that we have become accustomed to with our 1000+ entrant races back home. There are only around 190 of us and it's a little slower than we are accustomed to but it's personal and everyone is chilled. The "race office" personnel consist of Nelson Trees the chief instigator, his mum and dad, his girlfriend and a handful of his buddies. I'm starting to develop a feel for this cabal of cyclists who go by the name bike-packers. They are really chilled.
My first assessment of a bike-packer, in this race at least, is someone who rides a gravel bike loaded up with the full range of Apidura bike bags. They probably have at least one tattoo. There's a good chance that the guys have facial hair and a head of hair that is substantially longer than would be acceptable in a Wall Street boardroom.
We move from station to station, registering, getting our individually numbered caps, pick up spot trackers, get our bikes inspected, pick up a brevet card and hand in our bags. That done we only have our bikes and the clothes we are wearing as we have handed in all our other belongings. We need to get back to our accommodation in this kit and return in it the next morning. I don't understand why we couldn't simply hand in our bags before the race start in the morning. Anyway, it is what it is.
Registration done we are milling around waiting for Nelson to give the race briefing. While we wait I can't help noticing how athletic all the other riders look. I'm feeling rather intimidated. There's a guy in front of us who has a muscle that's drooping over his knee cap — I think the muscle is called the Vastis Medialis. I ask Roger if it looks normal. We can't decide. The guy moves his leg and the muscle snaps back into place. Darn, that's one gnarly set of legs. And there are a good number of legs like that scattered about the room. It turns out that droopy muscle guy is an ex pro-cyclist. My puny legs are getting a complex.
Nelson is both eloquent and laidback. He gives us an overview of the race and explains that the cutoff for CP1 has been extended from 7am on Sunday to midday. The reason, he explains, is the route off the mountain is "a bit challenging, even in daylight. So if you decide to sleep short of the last 5 kilometre descent you'll have ample time to make your way down in the morning."
Hmm. That's worth thinking about. CP1 is at 126 km. The race starts at 9am. It'll be dark at 8 pm. That's... 11 hours to do 126 km before dark... 11.5 km/h average. Otherwise sleep over and make it down in the morning. That gives you 27 hours to beat the cutoff. That's an average speed of 4.7km/h. Okay. It seems it's going to be an interesting first day of riding.
Briefing done we pedal back to the Riad. It's going to be an early night. It's not that we need to bank any sleep. It's just that in our part of town it seems the best option for 3 guys dressed in spandex.
Tuesday, 3 March 2020
Ghislain welcomes us and we have the first of many cups of Moroccan tea—black tea infused with fresh mint. By default it's sweetened with many lumps of sugar. Fact: Morocco has the second highest per capita consumption of sugar in Africa. Our own nation, South Africa, comes in first.
Our first priority is to get local currency and SIM cards. Our host makes a line drawing of how to get to the Medina. The Medina is the central hub of Marrakech. The centre piece of the Medina is the Jama El f'na Market. It's an open air market from which radiates a myriad narrow alleyways that make up the bulk of the extensive central market.
Jama El f'na Market square is our quest. We consult Google Maps to get an idea of where we were headed. More a case of figuring out where we are so that we can make it back to our dingy alleyway. We make a point of getting our bearings and sizing our Google app to include the area we are headed toward as we will be out of WiFi reception as soon as we step outside.
We pop through the door and make our way down the alley. It's evening but you wouldn't know it. Marrakech seems to be in the wrong time zone. The sun comes up after 8am and it goes down after 7:30pm. This suits a town that only gets going midmorning and quietens down close to midnight.
I still haven't got used to the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road. That's right, we anglophiles drive on the right side. That is, the left side, which is the right side. It takes getting used to when you have to cross a road or avoid scooters which zip up and down in an endless stream. Occasionally I just stop to methodically figure out in which direction I should be looking.
Our Riad is on the fringe of the Medina so it's not long before we merge with the throngs pulsing through narrow alleys. It's a mix of pedestrians and scooters. The scooters zip through the mob occasionally slowing to a walk to nudge through choke points. There's tolerance on both sides. As for me I'm getting whiplash trying to figure out where the next crazed scooter rider is coming from.
The stalls that line the alleys sell everything imaginable. Not only that, there are many of them that are carbon copies of a stall adjacent to them or even identical to a stall a few hundred metres away. It's far too easy to think you know where you are simply because you recognise a stall or a group of stalls. It doesn't work like that. It's not like being on a merry-go-round where you get used to the constant repetitive pattern. It's more like a train passing thousands of similar looking stalls. It's a blur of colours and smells. We resort to Google Maps on a few occasions to figure out where we are.
The stalls are packed to overflowing. I get that you can overstock with shoes, socks or brass trinkets as you will eventually sell them. There is no sell-by-date. But many of the stalls are selling fruit and vegetables. They're perishable. No one in their right mind is going to stock up on 5 tons of fruit and veggies in the hope of selling a couple of 5kg bags. Obviously there're people buying this stuff.
A familiar fragrance gets my attention. A guy eases through the crowd pushing a cart the size of a dining room table. It's loaded with litchi size strawberries. They look amazing. Not a single blemish. This epitomises my thinking about the volume of perishable goods that change hands on a daily basis. Strawberries won't wait for peak tourist season.
We make it to the central open air market place. It's packed out. Hundreds of brightly illuminated stalls fill the square which I figure is 300 metres x 300 metres. With the help of some tourists who are sitting at a cafe overlooking the square we are able to locate an ATM and a shop that sells SIM cards and airtime. South Africans will be interested in the low cost of data - 5 Gb cost me R76.
Local currency in hand and phones back online our next objective is food. The square is lined with an array of eateries. We settle for Taj'in Darna. I have no idea what to order so just go with the special. Before long an earthenware tajine is placed before me. The lid is lifted and I'm presented with a dish that is as Moroccan as it gets. A tajine is basically a stew of varying combinations of veg and meat slow cooked over coals in the earthenware pot. It's followed up with a pot of Moroccan tea. If I'd have added a Berber omelette to my meal I would have experienced the perfect Moroccan full-house. Omelettes, tagines and mint tea we're going to be the mainstay of my diet for the next few weeks. After paying for the meal and rectifying a "mistake" with our change we head back to our digs.
We return to the Medina the following day to meet with a family friend who has relocated to Marrakech from Cape Town. He runs a coffee roastery. We meet at a rooftop restaurant that is a customer of his. He is a great source of info for our upcoming trip. One bit of advice that sticks in my head is, "Watch out for scorpions, they are deadly."
As we look down from the top floor of the restaurant the Medina below looks like a construction scrap heap. It's hard to believe there's a mass of humanity making its way to and fro along the myriad narrow alleyways beneath that rubble.
Sunday, 1 March 2020
The wing dips as we make our final turn into Marrakech Ménara Airport in Morocco. I've got a window seat and all I can see is an endless expanse of desolate brown. As we descend I see occasional patches of green that look like orchards. Olive trees I guess. Then there're huge expanses of plastic clad structures which I assume are green houses surrounded by barren ground.
The town of Marrakech looms. It's unspectacular. The brown tones of sprawl melt into the featureless landscape. It's flat, dry, brown and completely underwhelming. Is this mystical Marrakech I ask myself? From the air it looks more slum like than mystical. To be fair I'm not well travelled and part of the reason I've come here is to break out from my shackled experience and see and do something different. Well... not exactly do something different—my bike is in the hold and I'm here to do a bicycle race across the Atlas Mountains. I'm probably the worlds worst traveller. I don't like flying and I dislike the unfamiliar even more so I'm really not qualified to judge. But still, I expected a little more from the Marrakech I've heard snippets about over the years.
Disembarking we enter the airport building which is surprisingly modern compared to what I saw from the air. We (I'm travelling with Roger Nicholson who is also racing) collect our bags and go through security. In a city of 1 million people that attracts no less than twice that number of visitors every year you'd think the immigration officials would buy into the value of tourism. Not! While they are as surly as their American counterparts they don't mimic them for diligence. Our bags and bike boxes are shoved through an x-ray machine which seems to be a waste of time because the official manning the device is staring off into the distance in the opposite direction of the the screen he is supposed to be monitoring.
We get outside and find a guy next to a transfer company banner holding a clipboard with Roger's name on it. Cool. Time to load up and get to our accommodation. Lots of foreign language banter between a couple of guys while we are ignored.
The boredom is interrupted by a gendarme who walks over to a smouldering bin into which he pours a bottle of water. There's a heated exchange between the cop and an airport worker that ends with the worker taking the now extinguished bin and placing it with a collection of recycling containers 50 metres away. It seems the entrance door of the airport is not a good place to leave a paper recycling bin.
Eventually we are escorted by a handful of guys to our waiting transport. Lots of hands help load our bikes and bags followed by expectant looks as we are about to drive off. This is our first experience of tipping expectations for unsolicited assistance. Apparently it's rampant in this town. We've just arrived and have no local currency so they get left behind empty handed.
As soon as the first world vestige of the airport building is out of sight we are transported into another world. I expect to see Aladdin zipping past on a flying carpet. The traffic flow is best described as organic rather than structured and systematic. But it works. There are no honking of horns or scurrying to get ahead of the next car. Motor cycles, which number as many as cars, and cyclists are given space and there's a harmonious weaving of traffic at intersections. The road makes its way through the palace grounds and in a few places the traffic is shoehorned through a narrow space in the outer walls. Only one direction of traffic can go at any time and they figure it out without any aggro. Soon we are through the palace grounds and enter, what to my untraveled and unaccustomed eye looks a dodgy part of town. We are on a street with an assortment of little shops packed together. A bakery, a car parts shop, a motor cycle repair shop, a store selling airtime, cigarettes and various food items. All of these stores having no more than 3 metres of shopfront. A few men are clustered together sharing food.
As I'm checking out the dodgy neighbourhood the taxi stops and the driver declares we are near our hotel.
"I can't drive closer, you must walk."
We unload our bike boxes and suitcases and stare down the dingy alley. Bike boxes aren't dainty wheelie bags. They are heavy and take some handling to wheel along. Roger and I head down the alley dragging our bikes and carrying our luggage in search of Riad Bousskri. It should be number 3.
A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house. The term comes from the Arab word 'ryad' (meaning 'garden') but is applied to townhouses built around an inner courtyard or garden with a central fountain or small pool. Many now operate as boutique B&B's.
We head down the narrow alley dodging motorbikes as we go in search of our boutique hotel. Number 3 doesn't appear. We are standing with our stuff staring both ways down the alleyway when we get a gents attention.
"Riad Bousskri?" He asks.
Roger nods. With that the guy grabs one of Roger's bags and heads down a narrower darker alleyway. The houses are built over this alleyway which makes it dark even though the sun is a few hours from setting. 30 metres down the alley the guy stops and points into a gloomy recess. We think it's a doorway. It's too dark to see. After some gesticulating the guy takes out his lighter and strikes the flint. He holds his lighter up to the wall next to a door. A small name plate appears out of the gloom. It seems we have found Riad Bousskri.
Wednesday, 5 February 2020
It's 2am. We've eaten our toasted sandwiches and had coffee awful enough to ward off the most resilient of sleep monsters. The ride out of Vryheid is fast. Before long we are adjacent the rail line that runs from the coal fields in Ermelo to Richards Bay. The first train passes us. It's in a cutting below us and it's dark so we can't see it. I've no idea of how fast it's going or even in which direction. It seems this line is different from the one we followed to Volksrust. The coaches roll past smoothly and they go on and on and on.
By the time the eastern sky shows signs of a new day the landscape starts changing from flat and fast to undulating. The railway line is fairly level thanks to endless bridges and cuttings. Apparently there are 65 bridges and around 14 tunnels between Richards Bay and Vryheid. Obviously we can't ride across the bridges so have to ride down below the bridges and then make our way up above the line when it goes through a cutting and even higher when the line is swallowed by a tunnel.
The route profile shows a gentle glide slope from Vryheid to Richards Bay but the devil is in the detail. The 230 km's from Vryheid to the sea includes a few thousand metres a ascent. All made up of short steep climbs.
We stop for a few minutes as it's getting light. A train comes past. It's then that we get to see just how long the train sets are. 4 electric locomotives pull 200 coaches. They come past so fast that they create enough wind to buffet and chill us even though we are a good 20 metres from the tracks. The line is busy. For the rest of the day we see trains heading to and from Richards Bay at regular intervals. The electric whine of the locomotives can be heard from kilometres away.
We enter a valley where we spend the next hour and some plummeting down rocky descents followed by snail paced climbs. It seems the bridges are spaced every kilometre or less. At one point my chain drops off and ends up wrapped around my crank. I don't have my usual tool bag which went missing between the finish of The Munga and fetching my bike once back in Johannesburg. I don't have any chain links or my chain link remover. Merak and I manage to remove the crankset and untangle the chain and straighten out the twisted links.
A short while later my back tyre is flat. I top up the sealant and pump it up. A while later it's flat. We pump it up again. A few kilometres on and once more it's flat. On closer inspection we find the tyre has a sidewall cut. I normally carry mushroom plugs for sidewall cuts but they were also in the bag that went missing. We try inserting tyre worms which work for a few kilometres before failing. Merak eventually suggests we insert a tube. That means getting all the thorns out the tyre. I don't like that idea as it's going to take forever. I have a basic tube patch kit with rubber cement and patches. We pop the tyre off, dry the inside with my buff, scuff up the tyre with the small square of sandpaper. I squeeze on a good dollop of glue and pluck the largest patch over the hole. We bomb the tyre and the patch holds. We're on our way again.
After countless ups and downs we cross the Mhlahlane river climb up through Mbudle village and drop into Ulundi where we pop into the local Wimpy for breakfast. We're tired and the fun has long since worn off. Merak has an appetite. I don't and just force my food down. We've only got 113km to go but it may as well be 1000km. The incessant climbing has knocked the stuffing out of me and I know there's a lot more to come. We've been going for 28 hours. Any hope of finishing the ride in 36 hours has evaporated. You'd think that 113km's in 8 hours would be a doddle. I guess it would be if you'd had a good nights sleep. We've had a good nights riding. And it's getting hot... and humid.
Without too much enthusiasm I get on my bike and we follow the GPS on a circuitous route out of town. Eventually we are back on the railway service road and the ups and downs are back in play. Surely, we reason, the terrain must flatten out as we get closer to the coast. Wrong!!!
With around 50 km's to go we come across a crew chopping up rail carriages. There was a huge derailment in December 2018. They put it down to sabotage. Apparently the line was cut with a cutting torch and over 50 coaches were derailed. There are countless wheelsets scattered along the line. The crew is using cutting torches to chop up the abandoned carriages. We stop and chat with them. A couple of the guys are from Fourways in Johannesburg. Small world.
We keep trundling along. On the outskirts of Empangeni/Richards Bay we come across kids playing in the road. One of them is riding a bmx bike and takes delight in racing us up a steep hill. He wins easily but not without nearly running over a small tot who is watching the action. A swerve at the last moment and an embarrassing scene is averted. The kids are delighted with their friends victory. We smile politely and creep on up the climb. Soon we are away from the settlement and into a pine forest which empties into the town of Richards Bay. The last 15 kilometres are flat and fast albeit through traffic on main roads.
We make it to the waterfront and head down the water break to the finish at the end. Our families are there but Niven popped down to the bank and has missed our arrival. It's 18:30. Our official riding time is 36h24.
Niven arrives a few minutes after us and is as delighted as we are with our effort.
Shortly after we see Werner Nienaber. He'd been waiting patiently at the end of the wrong water break. Its only when the pictures of our finish are posted on the Whatsapp group that he realises his mistake and he scuttles around to join us. It good to see him.
HeidelBay is a good ride. It's as good if not better than a lot of official races. It crosses an interesting g part of the country and it can be customised to suit your requirements. We did it in a single effort but it could easily be divided into 3 or 4 days with overnight stops. It could even be ridden over a number of weekends starting at different places.
We were lucky in that we got a good weather window in a season where rain is expected somewhere along the route.
We did okay and I'm happy with our time. However...