Background. In August 2014 a couple of us rode our bikes from Pretoria East to Dullstroom to see if we could cycle 300km off-road on a mountain bike, our biggest ever ride at that time. Unknown to us, a few days earlier another group under guidance of Rob van den Berg, had done a similar ride from Cullinan to Tonteldoos (C2T). They went after a whiskey festival, we went for Harries Pancakes. They decided it was worthy of a full blown race and so C2T was born. A 255km/3000m gravel race to the largely unknown village of Tonteldoos, near Dullstroom. So since inception C2T has been on my radar, the format just never appealed to me, nor was it practical from a support perspective. Until 2018 it was compulsory to have a support team that needed to also check in at water points. I did not need this and nor did I feel like having my poor family dash around at night around dodgy roads to find check points. They have followed me into the night in remote parts of our country on many occasions and I did not feel this was necessary. To my delight the rules were changed for 2019 and I could ride unsupported without the need to inconvenience my family support team. Preparations had gone as well as they could, I was comfortable with the distance and I enjoyed riding alone and also so at night. It was race on!
Reader Alert! Fortunately C2T was a rather uneventful race for me but I still feel I have to blog the experience to remind me of this day when I’m at an advanced age :-). In a way it’s a bit of a collection of short stories of what went down in my mind and body on 29 March 2019. Maybe there’s a little something in here to take along on your journey.
Inspiration. The race started at 17h00 on a Friday and we had spent most of the morning at the local hospital for various tests and appointments and by 14h00 I was starting to have visions of, and had made my peace with, a late start. My wife has been my greatest supporter on many an adventure over the years and for various reasons I wanted her to drop me off at the start this time, she is “my team” after all and I wanted her to again have a part in the journey. In my heart I was dedicating this ride to her. We eventually got away and made it to Cullinan just in time.
Fitting in or not. Riding unsupported and knowing roughly what to expect at the water points, I had kitted up with my regular bulky adventure back pack, it belongs more with an adventure race or a Freedom Challenge trip but it was light and with plenty of space for extra food and spares for the night. My “goto” adventure helmet has long fallen out of favor with family and friends but it has served me so well over the years, I feel obliged to use it for out of the ordinary trips. So I stood out a bit from the other 300 riders who looked seriously professional and fast but I’m known for and comfortable looking a bit different. With this in mind, it was a bit odd for me to be introduced over the PA system as one of the “celeb” riders, due to my founding the 7000 member Pembi Facebook group, together with others who are world champions and well known for their sporting achievements. I just kept my head down as if I wasn’t around. Apologies to Rob & Erik but I prefer the low profile ordinary persona, others can have the limelight, I just want to ride my bicycle.
Fast and smart start. I had a soft target of 15 hours in my head, what I would have taken if it had been offered to me beforehand. The winning time the previous year was around 10 hours and I am normally 50% slower than the top dogs. It gave me a 8h00 finish the next morning and my kids were already en route to Dullstroom for a relaxed evening and would pick me up at the finish Saturday morning. From experience I know my own abilities quite well and know how to pace myself optimally so as we left Cullinan I positioned myself a bit mid-pack to avoid being pulled along out of my comfort zone. I allow myself some first hour hype fun around or slightly above threshold heart rate but strictly gear back after that fun hour back to below threshold level. I have done this before, it works for me. It was no different this time and I rather enjoyed the bunch riding till shortly after dark and once we had cleared the first and only single track on the route, I sat back and dialed into my preferred and sustainable pace. From experience I know that the too enthusiastic starters will eventually come back to me and the legitimate fast riders will disappear anyway. In reflection it turned out this way. Soon enough we were at the first water point around 50km where the ever friendly Rocky Chicks were doing duty. It was good to see a few familiar faces. I ride with a tank bag and a zip lock that I top up with my preferred food at the water tables, I don’t enjoy the water point rush much so I follow a grab & go approach and then eat from the zip lock as and when it suits me.
Settling in. Despite the first hour fun, I was still feeling fine and by this time the riders were starting to stretch out a bit, a few red tail lights ahead and a few whites at the rear. It was time to start settling into a rhythm. I knew most of the route off heart as I had been down all of it before so I had my Garmin 810 on minimal display duties, including navigation OFF to try and keep it alive for the anticipated 15 hours. It was handy to have other riders around to follow, albeit with a quick check here and there (have seen people too often go wrong even with GPS). As the rolling hills started, I was slowly gaining on a few riders, it’s really like slow motion, sometimes it takes several kilometers from when I see a light until I eventually catch up. All along I was nibbling from the zip lock and enjoying the unsurprising surprise to feel what was left inside. Marsh mellows, half bananas, fruit cake, dried fruit pieces, droewors, jelly babies … it gets really interesting in there. The next water point came up at around 90km, a quick grab & go again.
“Halfway”. There was one long drag and then a 30km downhill to Loskopdam left to take us to the “halfway stop” at 140km/1200m. I rode with 2 other riders on this stretch and it was good having some company and a few chats. On the dangerous rutted downhill we lost contact, I stuck with a chap who knew the road and safe lines. We eventually got to Loskop around 23h25 (6:25 hours race time). It was around what I had expected would be a sensible effort, riding within my abilities, given the hilly half was still ahead. The Loskop stop was a bit confusing and I fumbled around a bit in the dark trying to work out where to go and where to get the halfway burger and some fresh nutrition. I eventually found the burger and a bottle of water but I couldn’t find any top up snacks. Given that I wanted to repeat my grab & go strategy, I found this a bit frustrating, especially as the next leg to water point 4 was the longest and most challenging of the race. I also had only a single 750ml water bottle and needed a bit extra for this leg. Fortunately I had packed extra food in my back pack and after all the confusion, a quick chain lube and a treat of anti-chafing cream, I was ready to roll. On a previous occasion a couple of us had ridden from Pretoria to Loskop overnight to join an early morning group training ride from Loskop to Tonteldoos and from memory I remember how I struggled to get going after a prolonged stop so was keen to get going before my body and mind had time to cool down. Strava says I spent 10 minutes faffing there, it felt forever! I left at 23h35.
The second “half”. The second “half” of C2T accounts for 120km/1800m of riding. A good effort on fresh legs but now with almost 7 hours of riding in the legs. My 15 hour plan, based on what other 15 hour finishers had done in previous years, comprised a 6.5hr/8.5hr split. I was therefore still roughly on track for 15 hours.
Resetting into fourth gear. Leaving Loskopdam, the next 70km on the route profile shows one long uphill drag made up of several ups and downs. From memory and reminders by previous finishers, there were a couple of long climbs/drags waiting to test the legs and the mind. The first 15km out of Loskop is a sandy, corrugated drag, it feels like it takes forever and it felt like my legs were stuck in third gear, I just couldn’t find my rhythm. I had put on some music for this midnight shift, which I had anticipated would be the hardest stretch of the race mentally and to my surprise the music bothered me more than it provided distraction and entertainment. I was just uncomfortable. So after about an hour of slogging, as the route turned right into the first climb of the leg, I pulled over to try and reset my body and mind. I took off my back pack, relieved my full bodily bladder (good sign), moved food from my back pack to the tank bag and put away the music. A few riders passed me during this time but I wasn’t bothered, I needed to find fourth gear! All of three minutes later I got going again. Somehow this break had done the trick and even as we rode up the first steep climb, I was already feeling better and started catching some riders. In daytime this is a beautiful section tracking the Selons River past bushveld type game farms, at night it gets dark and lonely as riders spread out more and the gaps open up. I had found a good rhythm and was starting to lose sight of the lights behind me and started seeing new red tail lights in the distance, all the while riding within my HR threshold zone and pedaling light gears, this was great for my morale.
Dark and lonely. At one point, for several minutes, I saw no-one ahead or behind and I started wondering if I was still on the correct route. To save GPS I didn’t want to unnecessary use the back light or turn on maps but the penalty for going off route is more severe than losing GPS near the finish, where I knew the roads anyway. Soon enough a route marker popped up to confirm 90km to go. Seeing something familiar and route related in the dark of the night and already less than 100km to go was as good as having a friend shouting encouragement. I love riding at night and was really in my element. In my mind I had worked out 5 big climbs on the second half, the first one was where I took my reset, the second one was a long climb that gets really steep and is probably the hardest of the whole race. I kept on expecting it around the next corner but every time the road tilted up it was a false alarm. Then at one point the route opens up a bit and one sees the red lights ahead rise up above the riding plane. It was a good climb for me, I was still comfortable in fourth gear, caught several riders going up and rode all the way up as some others grabbed the opportunity to push their bikes a bit and get some relief from aching back sides. Near the top I almost rode over a small snake, got a huge fright and pumped the pedals a few times to get clear … I still don’t know if it was alive or dead but it left an imprint in my mind that would make a comeback a bit later. Near the top Heinrich Kemp caught me from behind and we rode together over the crest and down to water point 5. He was feeling a bit nauseous and declined when I produced the remaining chewed half of my Loskop burger from my ziplock. My water bottle also ran out about 30 minutes before the water point but I was well hydrated so no panic. Heinrich is a strong rider and it was good to have some company as we rode quietly along, few words yet great company. Solo ultra rides will understand this.
A clean bottle. We arrived at water point 4 (188km) around 2h30 (race time 9:30). It was great to see some familiar faces and hear familiar voices. Chantal Wooding and Sylvia Du Raan were manning the water point. Both of them had done ultra events and know what to say to tired, dirty riders. My bottle had become sticky and dirty and stuck to my glove every time I used it. Chantal spotted this and offered to clean it for me. Water table volunteers mostly just make sure everything is topped up and play an arm’s length observer role as the headlights appear and disappear. I was overwhelmed that someone actually offered to clean my bottle. Chantal explained afterwards that there was logic behind the cleaning but in that moment it meant a huge amount to me. I guess when your’e grinding your way around a 255km course unsupported you become so reliant on your own ability and means that any intervention or kindness from the outside is amplified. Sylvia has done multiple 36Ones and many other ultra rides so hearing her voice say “Hi Carl” was energizing to the extent that one knows they know exactly what your mind and body feels and is going to feel the next few hours. I enjoyed these little moments, little yet significant for the mind. I completed my grab & go … with a clean bottle this time, and set off for climbs three and four en route to Stoffberg and water point 5.
Snakes in the mist. I knew climb three from before but my friend Wilhelm reminded me before the race of climb four that comes unexpectedly on top of the mountain just as one starts thinking its all downhill to Stoffberg. So I was prepared and rode up the drag directly after the water point cautiously. I could see some lights in the distance but somehow I couldn’t get any closer and it wasn’t long before a fellow rider came past me, we were out of sync. I had interaction with only two other riders on this leg, so no company, like a solo ride. I passed him again on the next downhill, maybe he was being cautious, somewhere he passed me again on a hill and then I passed him again and never saw him again. Our one interaction came as the road was strewn with logs or branches which all looked like snakes to me, every one of them. Trying to make conversation I mentioned this to him the one time we rode alongside for a short bit, he had seen the snake on the big climb as well, affirming it was probably stationary and dead. As I rode up climb four after halfway, the mist appeared. It got so bad I couldn’t see 10 meters ahead of me, so it was cautious going and I had to stop on two occasions to clear my glasses that had become misted up. A light started to creep up from behind and caught up just as we started descending down to Stoffberg, it was Heinrich again, he had taken a bit longer at water point 4 to clear his nausea but was going strong again. We rode into water point 5 Stoffberg (219km) at 4h35 (11:35 race time).
Ahead of schedule. During the “snakes in the mist leg” I started realizing that I may be a bit ahead of my 15 hour schedule so arriving at 4h35 with about 2 hours remaining for the last 35km, I let my family know that I may be a bit head of my estimated 8h00 arrival. Good for me I guess but bad for them, quick out of bed rushed breakfast kind of morning. Why supporters are special! It was getting a bit chilly so on came the arm warmers and after another grab & go, I was off.
Sub-14 is on. The final leg from Stoffberg to Tonteldoos at 37km is a bit of a victory lap. You know you are going to finish unless there is a serious issue and you also get a feel of the ballpark of a potential finishing time. I left water point 5 at 4h40 and realized there was a chance I could even go below 14 hours, never mind 15 hours. A finish time with a “13” in it sounded rather appealing having started with a “15” expectation. After 219km of riding, I was definitely going to give it a go for the last 2 hours!
Korfnek at dawn. A change in nutrition strategy. With only 2 hours of riding remaining, eating solid food, which had been the main stay of my nutrition so far, would be of little help for the last two hours so out came an energy bar and a gel. The first 9km after Stoffberg is a tar road until one turns onto the gravel road that leads to the much dreaded Korfnek pass. I fell in with a two person team for this section, it was nice, smooth & fast but my legs were starting to feel the effort, they felt dead and I had to get out the saddle often to leverage body weight into the pedals, also to provide relief for an aching backside. It was at least nice to have some company. One of the riders, following his partner’s back wheel was fighting the sleep monsters, his wheel flirting with the sharp edge of the tar road, on occasion dropping off and screeching back. I left some space just in case but fortunately all ended well. It wasn’t long before we turned left onto the gravel, the rutted jeep track over rolling hills heading towards Korfnek still in the dark required awake open eyes to avoid an untimely crash. My 2x front derailleur was stuck in big blade and required a shoe to help shift and on some of these steep little bumps I just couldn’t get the change so it was out of the saddle big gear grinds to get over them. The Korfnek section is a 10km/400m uphill grind which tops out with Korfnek pass itself. By this time I had one eye on the clock for the sub-14 and with no idea on how much time I required to get up and over this section I just put my head down and took a “shut up and pedal” approach. By this time dawn was breaking and the horizon with Korfnek ahead started lighting up. It was a beautiful sight in a testing moment. I reached the bottom of Korfnek with a few riders ahead of me which helped to pull me up like virtual elastic, it helped distract from the grind and in the end I felt comfortable riding up and reached the top with the other riders, all of us in good spirit at that moment, knowing it was all downhill into Tonteldoos.
Hello Tonteldoos! It was quite a thrill racing flat out towards the finish at Tonteldoos. I had no idea of position but I knew by then I was going to go sub-14. Having had 15 hours as a soft target, sub-14 was very satisfying. Based on other 15 hour results, I had budgeted 8.5 hours for the last half. I was tracking around 7 hours, way below expectation. We flew into Tonteldoos with one or two supporter vehicles in tow giving us the road, I could still drive the pedals and was feeling great. I eventually crossed the line in 13:45 for a surprising position 25 out of around 300 starters (8th in masters). In truth neither time nor position numbers really matter to me, it only feels good afterwards when you want to compare yourself with others. I ride for myself, to make my family proud and to hopefully inspire others along the way. I ended feeling really good both physically and mentally, my pacing, nutrition and hydration strategy had worked perfectly, my bike had worked a dream, I never had a bonk or a dark mental moment, I had actually enjoyed all of the race without incident and finished fresh without feeling like I was dying. For me this is as good as it gets. It was mission accomplished.
Thank you organizers. Firstly organizers and support crew. Without them us riders won’t have opportunities to measure ourselves again ourselves and make special memories for our life stories. Thank you very much, we appreciate your efforts.
Thank you to my family. They have been at my side for all of my adventures, following me in the middle of the night in the mountains of the Drakensberg with sketchy hand drawn maps, my wife got lost in the Natal midlands looking for me on a remote farm, she once raced through the Karoo to meet me in time in Willowmore, my kids have dropped me off and picked me up in distant places. On this occasion they drove to Dullstroom/Tonteldoos, a 500km round trip just to pick me up. They are part of my team, without them, I would not have a blog full of memories to tell and remember. I enjoy it when they tell their stories of these adventures from their perspective, of times chasing adventure racers around Swaziland, waiting for me in the Drakensberg or trying to stay awake supporting us on ultra ride quests. Hopefully these experiences become part of their life stories and inspire them to chase their dreams and push their personal boundaries, whether in sport, work or family. I am forever grateful for their support which they give without question or expecting a return.
Ronel, Werner, Heide, Erika, Raymond … love julle to the moon and back. Baie dankie! Die een is vir julle!