36One Race Report

I flew into George the morning of the start. I arrived at 10h00, the race started at 18h00. It worked out well. I had enough time to do registration, put my needed items into the 3 check point boxes, have lunch and catch an afternoon nap before we rode over to the start at Kleinplaas. It was good to bump into many familiar faces, all of them tough as nails, with endurance pedigree and firmly in the hard core category. I was amongst a very special crowd and no-one around me was guaranteed a finish.

I made my riding strategy clear to Willem up front. I knew how to get myself to the finish and I was going to ride my own pace, he had no obligation to stay with me and I felt none to stay with him. We had ridden many ultra rides together and both of us had the ability to reach the finish, Willem had completed 36One before. He is a stronger rider than me but we have always found common ground in pace and companionship over such a long distance is a significant advantage. As it turned out, we rode together all the way to the finish. Yes, we finished :-).

The start was, as expected a fast affair and my heart rate monitor was playing up, showing me at 115% of max HR, it had done so before. I ignored it and settled into a sustainable rhythm. I wasn’t paying very good attention to the times and splits but have the detail, I had decided beforehand to pretty much ride it as it happens no matter what time or distance. I had 4x 6 hour legs in my head and wanted to finish before sunset on Saturday. Very unprecise but it was how I had decided to manage the mental part of the race. We reached CP 1 at 81km just after 10pm which was a reasonable but not very fast pace, our position for this split was in the 250s, around midfield. The first leg up to 81km had a few good hills in but I had spun them out in easy gears to protect my legs. I am also used to riding at night and my lights had been tested many times so had no issues in this regard throughout the race. The locals around Dysselsdorp provided wonderful spectator support late at night to encourage the riders, a few special moments as the race is largely rather isolated and lonely. One girl shouted as we rode past “Vat my naam en vat my saam”, among many other very sharp chirps from others. Biggest incident of the leg was when Willem discovered he had by accident swapped his CP 1 and CP 3 boxes, meaning he had suntan lotion packed for the midnight shift and his cold weather gear was waiting in Calitzdorp, 200km down the route. He had to endure a few very cold sections up to CP 2 at halfway. I felt sorry for him on occasion but he’s a tough nut, never complained once.

So after eating a few boeries, filling up water bottles and adding a wind shell, we were off for the graveyard shift. It was pretty much 100kms of rolling hills, some more steep than others with the only interesting visual stimulants the very bright stars and the red lights of a tower on our right that we somehow never reached. I stuck to my pace albeit very frustrating at times as other groups came past, resisting the temptation to jump onto their wheels was difficult but proved smart in the end. The most difficult part of the race mentally for me was between 100 and 150km. It felt like it was never going to pass and my head was playing all kind of games with me about why riding this far was a really silly idea and stopping at 180km was not a bad idea. My mind playing tough and weak with me. Somehow once we passed 150km and only had 30km to CP2 at 180km these mind games settled and we rode comfortably to halfway. Here I bumped into an old friend Guy Pitman. He is a superb bike rider and we had raced against one another at X-Berg a few years ago (May 2015 on the blogs). Guy is a much better cyclist than me but his sense of adventure probably lured him into this race with very little preparation, hence we shared the same space. It was nice seeing some familiar faces, it brought energy. We did the support station thing and headed off into the night around 4h30, I knew by then that we were going to make it to the finish, it was just a matter of hanging in there and with the sunrise looming, new and free energy was about to engulf us. Our position split for the second leg was around the 170s, we had ridden better than over the first leg, a trend that was to continue.

It wasn’t long till the horizon started coloring, my favorite time of day, it always lifts my spirits. The drag and climb away from halfway keeps one in check even though the spirits are lifted, it was to become a pattern of this race. One is never in control of this race, it humbles you around every corner and after every down hill, you never feel like you have it nailed but yet I remained confident of my ability to see it through. I had great difficulty staying awake the hour around sunrise and gulped down a few cups of coffee and sandwiches at the first water point after halfway, first light had just arrived. It did the trick. The scenery had become visible for the first time since the previous night and it lit up our amazing surroundings, I was in awe of the landscape, it was a combination of moon crater (not that I’ve been there) meets desert meets cowboy movie canyons, rather spectacular yet devastated. It brought new energy and food to feed a tired mind and I embraced its welcome distraction, my mind was in a good place and my body was still comfortable with the pace. Interestingly we had started catching up to other riders and passing them. Before we knew it the much feared climb of Rooiberg was upon us. I settled into a pace that I would in the end maintain all the way to the top, it wasn’t very fast but it left me with usable legs for the remaining 100kms after Rooiberg. The descent down the Calitzdorp side was horrible, the road surface was fine but very rocky and my problem back (bulged disc) does not enjoy rough descents. Quickly the familiar pain in my back made itself felt, it feels like a hot iron poked into my lower back, its excruciating! I groaned my way down to the bottom where Willem was waiting for me. The back pain fortunately goes away soon after the rough shaking stops but it leaves a mental scar every time. I was very happy that was over. We settled into a rolling rhythm through the ostrich infested farm lands and soon rode into CP3 at Calitzdorp. I felt good for the last 80km, I was tired but had something left in the tank and mentally I was fine. We had 80km with 1200m of ascent left, that baffled me a bit as the route was pretty much downhill from 40km to go which meant that the 1200m climbing had to be done over the first 40km of the last leg, I quietly hoped the ascent was incorrect. We took our time a bit at this check point, Willem for the first time looked a bit worn, maybe it was the sight of his warm clothing when he opened his CP1 box at CP3. The food at all the stops are superb but the Ostrich sosaties and pancakes at CP3 were a winner. Soon enough we were on the bikes again and rolled off, extra sunscreen applied, earphones loaded with seventies music and my spare bottle filed with cold water to cool me down. With the bad memory of my 42C day at Race to Willowmore only three weeks earlier still fresh in my memory, I needed to keep myself cool. Our position split for leg 3 was around the 90s, we had ridden a bit faster than most in leg 3. For the record, we off course only knew this afterwards when looking at the results.

We met up with a few riders who we shared the road with for the next 40km, not that we ever spoke a word, we were all too tired but the quiet companionship filled a social and mental hole. Funny dynamic that. I remained a bit nerved about the 1200m ascent that remained as we were only doing some rolling hills and no real big climbs. The road out of Calitzdorp is stunning, it snakes along a river with some spectacular scenery and some very remote little villages, I remembered sections of this from Cape Epic 2006 I think, except this time the drag was uphill. I kept wondering where the ascent was going to be made up until one corner when the road tilts upwards and the eye catches a glimpse of a road way up in the mountain. Its probably around the 300km mark and I guess no-one particularly enjoys the series of steep climbs that follows. There were several of them, they kept coming, one after the other, the one as steep as the next. I had some legs left so enjoyed the challenge of keeping the wheels going but it was a belabored effort. Our little silent group maintained proximity with the elastic snapping every know and then and then restoring itself. At some point, with another climb road showing itself in the distance a marshal with a flag appears like an angel from heaven and directs the route away from the looming climb and onto a road that signals the start of the last 40km, which is tilted mostly downwards. It a huge relief and almost overwhelming. The remaining 40km all of a sudden feels like the last kilometer to ones house on a weekend ride. Off course by this time one knows one will finish the race, the fear of not finishing had settled by this time. It now becomes a matter of getting the last 2 hours of “admin pedaling” done and give the wary body some relief. The road from here to the last water point at 20km to go is very pretty, very fast and much fun as it winds its way through various kloofs and farms and the time passes conveniently quickly.

With about an hour to go  I highlighted to Willem that we could still make a sub-22 hour finish if we rode strongly, not necessarily hard. He had picked this up as well. So we quietly turned the dial up and tightened the chains. I had started feeling nauseousness from around the 310km mark and wasn’t feeling great so suggested we tap down and just ride through to the finish gently and so we started the last 20 km gently. Our best intentions unfortunately didn’t last long, there were 2 riders in the distance who didn’t play to the script, they didn’t allow us to catch them easily and as everyone knows, the race for positions really only starts in the final moments of a race and it was no different. Position 127 was up for grabs and a sub-22 hour was calling. I really don’t understand this dynamic but I have quite frankly given up trying to understand it so I just go with the flow. The flow in this instance had us pick up the pace ever so gently to catch the non-script-adhering riders. As everyone knows catching is just one half of the game, the other half starts once you pass and have to stay ahead. Turning onto the last section of tar leading into Oudtshoorn town I was already riding way too hard for almost 22 hours of effort and Willem took his turn at the front, I couldn’t help at first. In the mean time we had just about secured our gap and at some point i looked down and saw 21:53 on my Garmin, sub-22 was still a possibility. So I went to the front and started pushing the pace up the hill past the lonely tree, we flew past another rider in a flash and before we knew it we were onto the last 2km to the finish, I looked down, 21:57. I got out the saddle and punched! WTF! Who in his right mind punches after 22 hours and 360km of riding? Willem was off my wheel (never happens) so I waited up and then we klapped it again, pretty much sprinting over the finish line with my HR bordering on 90% of max. I looked down and saw 22:00:07, Willem had us just under 22 hours The official results had us at 21:52. Our split position on the final legs was in the 70s. We had rode a sensible pace and whilst frustratingly moderate at times had paid us back dividends on the final leg.

It had been a very hard day out, I had just ridden 361km on my mountain bike in 22 hours with 5100m of ascent over some big mountains and over very rough gravel roads. Its a hard day out by any measure and whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment, I was also very humbled and grateful. Anyone that finishes this race is pretty special. Respect to all!

An unexpected 36One

Two weeks before 36One I told 3 people that the 361km/5100m ascent race just isn’t my kind of thing and I meant what I had said. It had after all only been a week since I had completed Race to Willowmore, a 550km race on the Freedom Trail from Cradock to Willowmore which just feels more like an adventure than a long 361km boring old slog on district roads. I had not ridden my bike for a week and didn’t have much intention to, my body and mind was still in recovery mode. You can tell by this opening that there’s a story brewing and you are right.

On an innocent Saturday evening after a braai with a few mountain biking friends, Willem very innocently asked why I don’t come down for 36One, he had a lift for me and accommodation. I repeated my line “It’s not really my kind of thing”. The next morning I harmlessly browsed the interwebs and came across and available solo entry. One SMS later and it was still available. I checked flights and low and behold there weer flights available at the right time a price to suit my likely schedule. Within a morning all the logistical pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place.

I had done no specific training for the hilly challenges of the tough 361 route but my physical condition was sufficient to get me to the finish. I had done a few 10-15 hour days on the bike recently so my base was solid. My biggest challenge may end up being getting my mind prepared. Riding 361km on gravel roads could be compared to doing 5-6 laps of the Cycle Tour of Cycle Challenge in 24 hours. Its a very long day out. I studied the route as I like to be know what to expect. It was daunting to say the least.

I made the call, pulled the trigger and 36One was a on! I honestly never saw this coming but I knew it was doable and I had 2 weeks to get my head in the game.

36One here we come!

36One Route

Race to Willowmore Day 4

Damsedrif – Willowmore

88km / 1170m ascent / 5 hours

My SMS to Meryl at the Race Office says “Carl in damse 20h50, out 4h00”. My plan to sleep till 5h00 took a turn for the worse when the wooden floors announced the movements of the early risers. I wasn’t going to fall asleep again so I got up and put myself onto auto-pilot. I ate well, again a good sign, got myself a nice cheese and tomato sarmie packed, filled the water bottles and saddled up. Leon and Dave had left just after 3h00 and Ingrid about 15 mins before me.

The hard work on the previous 3 days had left a relatively “short” 88km into Willowmore for the last day. I was in good spirits and had worked out that the 88km was going to take me around 6 hours, 3 blocks of 2 hours each. The first two hours I’ll just enjoy the darkness until the sunrise around 6h00, the next 2 hours I’ll ride with some music, a two hour mix of seventies and eighties hits and the last 2 hours I’ll just enjoy the sights & surrounds of the Nuwekloof Pass as I head for home. Plan sorted.

It wasn’t long before I saw Ingrid’s flashing red light in the distance and as I caught up to her, she promptly turned left down a reasonably prominent road but a decided turnoff. The road from Damse Drift to Willowmore is pretty much straight with not a single turnoff. I called her and we checked the narratives and map to be sure. We continued along the correct straight ahead road and made some small talk before we the distance between us opened up every so gently and eventually her lights disappeared behind me. Now this little dynamic may come across as rather ungentleman like. The Freedom Trail and its races have some unspoken arrangements which follow from the nature of the personalities that venture along the trail. Whilst most enjoy the company of others, most also are very comfortable riding and venturing out solo at odd hours. There is an acceptance that paths will intersect and that group will form for convenience and then will split up in an instant without discussion or deep consideration, feelings of guilt. Ingrid is one tough lady, she has a RASA blanket, has done several of the Freedom Series races solo and has got lost in forests on occasion. Her gentle demeanor and friendly smile hides a lean mean self-sufficient riding machine. She was content to ride at her pace and in her world as much as I was mine.

It wasn’t too long until the dark sky started developing some coloring, first gentle and then increasingly pastel filled color until the sun bursts out and illuminates the world as much as starts heating it up. I love this experience and it always fills me with energy and lifts my spirits. I had planned to find some water along the way but the cooler night temperature meant my water was good to last the way. The morning light was the first light of the Baviaans since we had left the reserve gate the previous evening. I had ridden almost all the way through the Baviaanskloof without seeing any of its beauty. Luckily I had a bit left and the rising light lit up the the Kloof around me with its red rock formations forming a stunning backdrop. I reached the site of a tree house site just as the light came through, we had been the first guests to stay here many years ago. Around the next corner was Makadaat Caves and Info centre, it seemed quiet at 7h00 so I rode past. In the mean time the iPod music was superb, I was singing Alice and Major Tom at the top of my voice, it was like a very enjoyable Saturday morning ride, it was in fact Saturday.

I still had no signal and was ahead of schedule so wanted to let my wife know that I would be in Willowmore around 10h00, a few hours ahead of schedule. They wanted to be at the finish to welcome me but were en route the Langkloof from St Francis. I thought maybe I’ll get a signal at the top of the Nuwekloof Pass, the last sting in the tail of the this riding section before Willowmore. It was around 8h00 cause Alice and Major Tom repeated for the second time in my ears (2 hours from 6h00 when I started the iPod as per my schedule). There’s a lesson in here for myself and other long distance riders. Progress is slow and looking at the odo meter and time can be mentally and emotionally draining. Any distractions for the mind are most welcome and can make long boring stretches a bit more interesting and tolerable.

After a really breathtaking ride through the Nuwekloof Pass I eventually reached the top of a high mountain where I could call my wife and inform her of my estimated arrival time. They were a bit tight for time but were already on the way. I was looking forward to seeing the very underwhelming welcoming party in the street in Willowmore. It would probably be the very recognizable figures of Meryl and Glenn and my wife and her sister, who had kept her company while I was out on my adventure. I was no there yet and after a little picnic of cold water and a cheese sarmie I saddled up for the last 30km. It was an enjoyable ride and Alice and Major Tom had not repeated for a third time yet. For the first time in days the scenery changed from mountains to more Karoo flat land again and presented some very pretty photo opportunities.

In an amazing coincidence I reached the last 3km tar road at the exact moment my wife and her sister cam speeding by towards Willowmore. When I noticed them, I naturally got out the saddle, pumped the pedals and rode like I was time trailing the Tour de France. They raced off the prepare the finish line procedures whilst I could sit up again and slow down to a more responsible riding speed and take in the scenes of Willowmore ahead in the distance. I generally find the final hour before the finish of these ultra rides an emotional period as I take time to reflect on the highs and the lows of the journey and this time it has been no different. During my incredibly hard second day there were times that I did not think I would be able to finish the race but the fear of failure and knowing that it was within my abilities no matter how hard kept me going and from that moment on I never had negative thought again and my riding became more enjoyable. I had made new friends, some amazing and special new memories and I was going to finish. I had been blessed beyond my wildest dreams.
I rode into Willowmore feeling like a champion. I double checked my right turn and rode up to the Willows. In the distance I saw the expected underwhelming reception party, the familiar figures and the finish line of Race to Willowmore. There is no finish setting that would be appropriate and deserving to celebrate the special experience of this race and it ends as low key as it starts and we prefer it this way. The real riding experiences and trail and tribulations are had out on the trail but what makes this reception party special is that these are the people who accompany us in the background as they watch over and support us kilometer for kilometer of our journey. Its a special moment when we see each other again and the hugs, smiles and chirps complete a perfect ending.

Thank you to everyone who made this adventure possible, I have been truly blessed.

Race to Willowmore Day 3

Hadley – Cambria – Damsedrif

130km / 2810m ascent / 18 hours

The alarm went off after 4 hours of sleep at 2h00. It was day 3 of Race to Willowmore. Auto pilot kicked in. I still felt the previous day in my body and I quietly hoped everyone else did as well. I managed to have a healthy breakfast which was a good sign and our group of four were ready to go at 3h00.

We had caught up with the batch that started the day ahead of us and they had left a few minutes before us. I knew a few people in that group from previous races. They were accomplished long distance riders with very good route knowledge so we could all benefit from teaming up. We could see their lights ahead of us but we were not catching them at any rate of speed. The ride from Hadley to the start of the descent to Grootrivierpoort is a surprisingly hilly affair and I was just happy to be able to keep up with the group. My first objective was to be able to stay with the group up to the turn-off into Osseberg jeep track. I had been told to not even think about attempting the Osseberg in the dark so we had timed our 3h00 departure to get to the start of the tricky sections at first light. I had prepared the Osseberg in detail from a navigation perspective and had received a few handy tips from Tim James and Glenn Harrison the day before. If I could get there with the group I thought I would be good struggling along on my own. I am generally solid on the navigation side and trusted myself. The descent down to Grootrivierpoort was a white knuckle affair, its pretty steep and I just hoped my brakes would hold. They did. Phew!

Once at the bottom we caught up with the group containing our old friends. Dawn Bell, Colleen, Doug, Ray and others. Dawn is always a treat, a very strong rider with a wonderful laugh and a never ending conversationalist. They were nice people and I enjoyed sharing space albeit a bit puffy space as we pushed and nudged our bikes up the infamous Grootrivierpoort Pass, an almost 600m ascent. It was way steeper than I had expected and the rough surface made it unrideable in many places. I could never understand why even strong riders took so long to cover this section, I do now. We reached the top of the Osseberg turnoff at 5h45 according to plan. Importantly for me, I was feeling human after the previous day and I had managed to keep up with the group. Our goal was to make it through the Osseberg in 6-7 hours to leave enough time to make the Baviaans gate 14h00 cut-off.

The 600m descent back down to the Grootrivier was a tripple white knuckle affair. The group split up a bit as everyone had different levels of comfort with the technical riding, especially the early sections in the dark. The track is worse for wear and rather rutted as it is not being used on a regular basis any longer. Leon, Dave and I were however able to ride pretty much all of it down to the river, it turned out more ridable than we had expected. The pointers from the evening before paid dividends almost immediately even before we reached the river when I stopped to examine the crossings down below. I could see exactly where we needed to go, it felt like a win! Many riders have struggled to find the first crossing across the Grootrivier. I rode down and whilst the others took a quick break, I found the crossing exactly where the map showed it and where I had expected it. I was on the opposite bank within a minute. The jeep track through the Grootrivierpoort has sadly fallen into disuse and has become mostly overgrown. It however remains a pristine and beautiful section to traverse. It was the only section of the Ride to Wilowmore route where I needed to pull out the maps, the rest was done using narratives only. Our group of Leon, Dave, Ingrid and myself worked together perfectly to pretty much nail this much feared portage in around 5 hours and to the exit onto the Baviaans road at 11h00. The portage had even been enjoyable with some adventure and our spirits had been lifted. We teamed up to get over the last double height gate on the route and rode into Kudu Kaya at Cambria in time for a very welcome lunch with plenty of time to spare to make the Baviaans Gate.

Doug, Dawn and Colleen joined the four of us for the Baviaans section to Damse Drift, 82km further up the Kloof. I was in a happy place, I had managed to keep up with the group after my difficult previous day, we had nailed the Grootrivier reportage and were on schedule. The vibe was good.
The Baviaanskloof from a cycling perspective is better known for the Transbaviaans race that traverses the Kloof from Willowmore towards St Francis, we rode it in the opposite direction, a 180km long uphill drag. The presence of Buffalo and Rhino in the Baviaanskloof requires the groups to start the journey between the 6h00 and 14h00 gate, stay together and be escorted by a vehicle. Johann Rissik, Race Director and multiple RASA finisher, was our escort and patiently followed us whist we huffed, puffed and pushed our way over the big climbs. We stopped on occasion for a coffee treat and at another of these breaks I declared my craving for sardines. To our amazement Johann produced a cooler bag with a tin of sardines, a block of cheese and a tomato. Dave and myself indulged ourselves in this feast. At the finish in Willowmore it came to our attention that this meal had been Johann’s rations for the day. He had spent his day from before sunrise to after sunset escorting 2 batches of riders at walking speed over 50km of road and back, almost 200km of slow difficult driving and we had eaten his padkos. Thank you again Johann, one day I will make this up to you.

The sun was getting lower as we rode through the Baviaanskloof Reserve, all the time looking out for Buffalo, that had been spotted frequently before. It is truly a beautiful place. As the afternoon grew the animals started moving around more and at one point, while riding down a typical lane of overhanging trees, crossing one dry riverbed after the other, a lone Bosbok ran across the road only meters in front of our group. It got a huge fright, tried to turn in its tracks and before it could complete the sliding maneuver, Leon hit it solidly, flying over the handle bars. An almost surreal experience that happened right in front of our eyes. Leon is as tough as nails and apart from a few bruises was good to go. We suspect the Bosbok got the worse of the encounter.

With frequent Kudu, Impala and other wildlife sightings it wasn’t long before we spotted a small group of three Buffalo. They were fortunately about 100m away and we rode on inconspicuously.  After seeing us on our way at the exit gate, about 50km in, Johann turned back to Kudu Kaya he afterwards told us that he encountered Buffalo not 500m from the gate, we had not seen them. The night had set in at this time and we had a further 30km or so to cover to Damse Drift where Hestelle’s legendary hospitality was waiting. The road condition over this section was terrible to say the least, sandy, corrugated and bumpy. It was a hard slog for us all and at 21h00 we arrived at Damse Drift. The day has started at 3h00, a 18 hour riding day.

Hestelle’s hospitality was welcome, surperb and on the mark. She somehow understand exactly what the riders need and does all the thinking. One can kind of just sit back, relax, recover and let the process guide towards a comfy bed. Her young daughters on hand to help with food, washing and see to riders’ needs. We had caught up with the grup that had started 2 days before us. There were 10 of them, We were 17 guests that night. She took it all in her stride.

A special little story from that night that deserves telling. Hestelle informed us that they had just run out of water and the showers and toilets were dry but that she had arranged with the neighbors that we could go shower there and she was to drive us there with her bakkie, a red Baviaans corrugated roads abused Nissan 1400 bakkie. Doug got the front seat cause he had cracked ribs, Leon, Dave and myself jumped on the back. The bakkie is small and low, so its more like we stepped onto the back. Dave sat down, Leon and I sat on the edge of the load bay. Hestelle started the bakkie from the shed without lights and it rolled back, then the motor died. She pushed in the clutch without applying brakes, let it run backwards and dropped the clutch.The bakkie stuttered, took briefly and then died again. Leon grabbed at the paraffin lamp to avoid spilling fuel only to realize it was an LED version and I without consulting we both dropped straight down into the bottom of the load bay. Hestelle performed this maneuver three more times until the engine started, it had rolled back a bit already by then. It was a rude and violent awakening from the peaceful previous 18 hours. We all three instantly burst into loud laugh. It didn’t stop there though. Hestlle is a farmer, she drives bakkies over bad road for a living, bad a quiet roads. So she hit the accelerator and we sped towards the farm gate exiting onto the main Baviaans road, the one we had just come up. She never needed brakes to sow down, she just used the bump at the gate to slightly reduce speed and turned into the road confidently. The same with the turn into the neighbors driveway a few hundred meters up the road. The red Nissan bakkie and Hestelle operating in perfect harmony, the accelerator pedal playing the lead role with the brakes a distant supporting cast. We got ourselves cleaned up and mentally prepared for the return trip which followed a similar script. It was a wonderful little distraction to our tired minds and we relived this episode all over again after the race at Willows when we recounted the special moments of our adventure.

Another Hestelle kudo. She asked if there was washing as her teenage daughter could assist in this regard. A couple of us put our hands up. Whilst we were eating, hydrating and getting ourselves settled I noticed Hestelle hand washing the load in a small tub, she couldn’t find her daughter and just got the job done herself. We left again early the next morning but this short encounter with Hestelle and her ability to get more things done than should be reasonable for such a large group of people left me with a lasting impression. What a wonderful experience and family literally in the middle of nowhere.

Leon and Dave planned to head out at 3h00 to secure a third place finish. After my rough previous day and a better than expected current day, I was content to sleep till 5h00 and then gently ride the last 90km into Willowmore on my own to soak in what had been another special Freedom Trail experience.

I fell asleep before I could spell Buffalo.

Race to Willowmore Day 2

Koedoeskop – Bucklands- Hadley

171km / 1850m ascent / 17 hours

Day 2. We had agreed the previous evening to leave at 4h00 to be able to start the Gwaas Valley traverse just after daybreak around 6h00. The alarm went off at 3h00, we had some breakfast, packed, faffed and got away pretty much on time. It always takes a few kilometers after a long previous day to get the legs and body into rhythm. The four of us were nicely matched and kept a steady pace. The button to open the gate to the Darlington Reserve didn’t work at first, nor at second. It’s a big structure and there is no obvious way to get over or under or around it. Fortunately Dave kept pressing and the gate eventually slid open. Huge relief! Strangely, the same procedure repeated itself at the exit gate. The ride through the reserve was easy going and as always the developing light of the sunrise on the horizon fed our souls, it was a very enjoyable stretch. I had brought enough water to last me to Kleinpoort and when we others stopped at the Darlington Dam wall to fill up, I rode on and into the Gwaas Valley.

I had heard quite a bit about the Gwaas Valley and was a bit nervous about it. Some tricky navigation in the beginning but I had marked it well and the pretty much continuous drag to get out the other side proved more of a challenge than the navigation. There are several gates to get through along this stretch with the biggest test being a double height.gate. I had seen pictures of double gates but this was the first one I had encountered on the Freedom Trail all the way from Pietermaritzburg. I hooked my handle bar and pedal into the top gate, climbed up and swung my bike over, it was more tricky than expected but both bike and I got over with both our grace and our respective bodies intact. The sunrise had brought a rise in temperature, something the Gwaas Valley was famous for. I ran out of water near the farm Goede Hoop towards the end of the valley and found relief on a local farm with the friendly workers showing me to their water tank for a refill. The people along the trail never fail to show kindness and willingness to assist, its about being human, no pretense, no politics, no prejudice, just about being fellow humans. Very precious.
The traverse along the Gwaas Valley had gone fine, its a bit of a drag but quite manageable. The drop through the Sundays River Poort was a thrill from a riding perspective but my bad lower back always prevents me from enjoying rocky technical downhills and it was no different this time (hot iron poke into back kind of pain). From the bottom of the Poort the road rolls over hilly terrain all the way to Kleinpoort. Fortunately the many gates along the way were mostly unlocked, quite a relief when one approaches a double height gate you expect to have to scale and then it swigs open, feels like a win every time! At this time the sun had started making itself felt and my sunscreen spray had stopped working in the morning. I was more desperate for sunscreen than food and water. I texted Meryl at the Race Office and asked if the support station could possibly assist, even offering to take a time penalty just to prevent sunburn. (For context I had spots of skin cancer cut from around the cycling tan line area on my legs earlier this year so I was a bit pedantic about the sun).

I arrived in Kleinpoort at 10h45, a 100km ride since we had left Koedoeskop at 4h00. My first stop was the local shop to try and find sunscreen. They had none so I asked if there was another shop in town that may have some, perhaps a pharmacy. The shopkeeper responded that they were the only shop. So much for that then so I popped around the corner to the famous Kleinpoort Padstal. The pie, cream soda and packet of Mexican Simba chips went down in a flash. I was ahead of schedule so I took my time getting going. Leon, Dave and Ingrid arrived just as I rolled out. The heat was now getting a bit uncomfortable and the mostly even roads leading to Bucklands took some effort and I stopped two or three times to get some into shade and out of the sun.

I rolled into Bucklands at 13h10 with the temperature touching 37C. The heat had become uncomfortable. I estimated that I needed 3 hours to cover the remaining 40km to Hadley so I was still ahead of schedule. I spent some time chatting to the helpful support station hosts who had received my sunscreen call for help from Meryl and had a bottle of sun cream to spare. I decided to catch a quick sleep and then head out at 16h00 to try and avoid the building heat. The exit from Bucklands was divided into three sections of 6km each. The first two of these (12km) required a due West heading into the setting sun with the last 6km being on jeep track running down to the district road. From a navigation perspective I only needed light to get onto the district road and from there it was 20km in the dark with only one turn-off. The other three rolled in and out of Bucklands whilst I caught my nap. I left Bucklands a bit before 16h00 and whilst the navigation proved simple, I soon ran into difficulty with the heat and a pressing head wind. My Polar showed 42C and my body started slowing down. I was overheating and was in trouble. I kept drinking to try and cool my core down and keep myself hydrated but my progressed slowed down dramatically. I ended pushing my bike, needing to stop every now and then to lie in the shade to make the stars go away. My mind closed in completely and I became so self absorbed in my struggle that I missed opportunities along the way to jump into dams or use animal drinking water to cool my core down. My mind was in a very dark place and my body was in serious trouble. I had thoughts of throwing it in at Hadley once I got there but there was no mobile phone signal to even ask for help so there is no option but to keep crawling along. Just as well.

I eventually reached the end of the valley near Tretyre as the sun was setting. It had taken me 2 hours to cover 12 km. I had another 28km left with very little strength left to pedal a bicycle. My water had also run out. Shortly after joining the district road, I came across a woman and her young boy standing next to the road at their gate waiting for her husband. He was a laborer and was en route from the Hadley area on his bicycle. They walked me to their water tank where I filled up my bottle. I headed off into what was by now a pitch dark night expecting to see their man come down the road at any moment. I stopped and walked along until I heard the rattle of his bicycle approaching, he had no light to see his way but this must have been his regular commute and a familiar road. The contrast of me struggling with all the fancy gear and training and him rattling along in his daily routine did not get lost on me. The head wind coming out of Bucklands had made a 180 degree turn and was still a head wind now heading East towards Hadley. With 10km to go to Hadley I managed to get a signal. What followed was a SMS exchange I won’t forget anytime soon.
Carl to Meryl “Really struggling & strong headwind. Walking mostly to Hadley”.

Meryl: “Will you be ok to keep going slowly?”

Carl: “10km to go, Will take me another 1.5 hrs”

Carl 3mins later: “Truth is I’m stuffed but plse don’t tell Ronel. Make that 2hrs for the 10km. (My wife Ronel had become concerned as they had seen my progress slow and me miss my indicated 18h00 estimated time of arrival at Hadley, they had been tracking me all along. I could not emotionally carry the burden of concerned family, it made me feel guilty and I was too absorbed in my own struggle)

It was around 20h00 by now. I had left Bucklands almost 4.5 hours earlier and was still not at Hadley. I continued to struggle along, all the time eating and drinking bits to try and get my body going again. In my mind I was in quitting territory. A few drops of rain fell and I started looking for a shed or some kind of shelter to perhaps catch a bit of a sleep and calm my body and mind down. The group had planned to leave Hadley at 3h00 to try and make the difficult Osseberh jeep track and Baviaans cutoff by 14h00 the next day. I could not see myself in this condition getting little sleep and still keeping up with the group the next day. I stopped and lie down several times to try and recover.

Soon after I started feeling better again and at 20h16 I sent Meryl a SMS again.

Carl: “Riding uphill again going to be ok. 42C through Tretyre killed me. Had to lie in shade severla times to void falling over. Unpleasant but going to finish this day no matter what!” I added a Thumbs Up emoji.

Meryl: “Go carefully. Well done”

After taking 5.5 hours to cover 40km I eventually rolled into Hadley. Bennie, his wife and his mother were still awake. They had been worried and considered coming to look for me with the bakkie, I would have got in and quit the race. I am grateful they didn’t. Bennie is a kind soul and quite the conversationalist, I was just very hungry. Bennie warmed up a very welcome plate of food while I collapsed on the couch watching tennis at after 21h00 with his elderly but chatty mother. It had been a day to both remember and forget. I told Bennie that I was too tired to join the group at 3h00 and wanted to sleep till 5h00 and then make my way through to Cambria where I planned to rest and regather some strength. He felt strongly that I should not attempt the Osseberg on my own if I had not done it before. I was too tired to argue so I just accepted his advice.

He showed me to my room and explained something about the shower. I missed the shower bit and ended up splashing down in cold water as the hot water tap didn’t heat up. His earlier instruction was apparently that the hot and cold taps were reversed. The splash was good enough to get the worst of the dirt off me and I was out before I knew it.

It had been an eventful day. Some very good and memorable bits and a very forgettable end to the day. I had been to a very dark place but had managed to pull through. The next day was going to be challenging in many ways and I had 4 hours sleep to try and recover.

Race to Willowmore Day 1

Cradock – Gegun – Koedoeskop

162km / 2304m ascent / 12 hours

The day started like most days do before the start of any exciting adventure … sleep doesn’t come easy but the 5h00 alarm does. It starts the count down to the 6h00 start. We lined up for the traditional group picture and then at 6h00 the most uneventful start of any race one will ever do … “Off you go, have a good ride”. No-one sprints away, in fact, it’s almost tradition to ride a bit of a neutral zone together and then, without prior agreement, everyone starts settling into their own rhythm and space starts opening up.

RTW Batch 4 Start (Pic Credit. Freedom Challenge Race Office)

First incident occurred after 1km, I had forgotten my mobile phone on the charger and fortunately realized it when we wanted to take the first picture of the day. School boy error quickly rectified by the ever helpful Race Office.
The first 20km out of Cradock is a bit of a mental tester. The road up the Swaershoek Pass meanders very innocently through a beautiful valley until the last 5km to the top when it suddenly tilts upwards at an average gradient of almost 9% to the top of the pass. Soon everyone had settled into their own rhythm to try and get to the top with good legs. I had planned 2 hours for the 850m of ascent but reached the top a bit ahead of schedule. Tim James, 3 times winner of RASA, had reached the top 2 minutes ahead of me and was taking pics to show the breathtaking view from the top. We joined up soon after the top and rode the 44km mostly down sloped stretch to Tollie’s Safaris together. Tim and I have known one another for quite a few years but have never ridden together so it was a special little moment for us both.

We reached Tollie’s just before 9h00, I was already about an hour ahead of my planned schedule and despite making sure I kept my enthusiasm in check, I was worried I had gone too hard with Tim. We filled up with water and started the jeep track climb up Struishoek, it was a proper sweat affair with a few stretches of pushing to get to the top but once on top the road evened out and we could ride comfortably all the way to the top of Struishoek descent. Tim and I worked well as a team alternating gate duties with the navigation being straight forward. The descent down Struishoek was a challenge to say the least. The white painted rocks, a legacy of the helpful farmer not wanting to look for lost souls at night, made navigating down the rocky river bed simple but the loose rocks were a danger begging an injury. It took an hour to get down to the Struishoek farm house but Tim hopped down the rocks like a Klipspringer and had made up more than 10minutes on me by the time I reached the house. A note on the gate invited the riders to a cool box on the patio with the residents being in town. It took great discipline not to finish the packet of Lemon Cream biscuits, an unexpected treat!

The road from Struishoek to Gegun is pretty much flat with traditional Karoo landscape. I took it easy on this stretch to save some energy for the afternoon push through to Koedoeskop and was caught by Mike Potgieter and we rode together into Gegun at 13h52. I had allowed 10 hours and got in at 8 hours, a solid start to the ride.
The stretch from Gegun to Koedoeskop is over several game farms and offers some very enjoyable riding. I wasn’t feeling all that great and pretty much just rolled along, until I was surprised to find Tim and Mike at Karoopoort Farm taking a quick break. Tim wasn’t feeling too great an took it slowly while Mike and I continued through the beautiful Koedoeskop Game Reserve to reach the support station at the lodge at 17h30.

It had been a solid 162km day in 12 hours, a few hours ahead of schedule and I had enough time to recover properly for the big next day through to Hadley. Last minute hosts Richard and Roslynne and the French reserve owners were superb and catered for our every need. Tim and Mike left a bit later for Kleinpoort while Leon, Dave and Ingrid also elected to get some sleep in. The four of us were to ride together quite a bit over the next few days.

Note: The support station had moved from Toekomst to Koedoeskop just days before due the tragic and untimely passing of Phillip Henderson from the farm Toekomst. I had his name written into my notes to be able to greet him in person. May he rest in peace.

Appreciation

I wrote this in June 2014 and it still holds true …

“Family. Adventure is selfish full stop. It takes a very special family to allow one the freedom to pursue our dreams. I have such a family.”

I am told that in 2014 my daughter got a little bit nervous when my tracker dot went missing or stood still for too long and then called “mother” Meryl at the Race Office who knows where everyone is to the nearest meter. I have been riding my bicycle alone for many years in remote places and not being the nervous type, didn’t really think others would be very worried about me either. Then at X-Berg in 2015 my wife and same daughter dropped me in the middle of the night and watched me ride off into the pitch dark Drakensberg. Again I heard afterwards how they shed a quiet tear.

I find myself being irritated with myself in the run up to Race to Rhodes 2016, I am cautious of this race, I know what challenges the trail and the weather hold, my preparation has not been ideal and my nerves are showing. My life the past month has evolved around this race and when my mouth opens its all I talk about. How my family and friends live with this is a testimony to their support, patience and tolerance.

It seems they do care after all about what I do and about my personal and selfish endeavors and despite their own concerns and emotions, are still prepared to give me the space to enjoy this privilege. It makes my appreciation for being allowed to embark on these journeys so much bigger. My 2014 quote is as relevant as ever.

“Family. Adventure is selfish full stop. It takes a very special family to allow one the freedom to pursue our dreams. I have such a family.”